Archive for September, 2010
Here is a link to Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s blog where he has Part One of an interesting essay on alternate history.
By the way, if you haven’t read his novels, you are missing some good stuff.
And, there’s a planet almost like earth! Right next door –okay, well give or take a few thousand light-years.
Possibly my shortest post ever.
Syfy has the latest incarnation of the “Stargate” series, Stargate Universe. This incoherent casserole of a show has a spaceship that looks like an Art Nouveau lapel pin, magic rocks and an incomprehensible plot. They showed a marathon earlier this week, leading up to the first episode of Season Two. I watched a few eps. It didn’t help.
The Stargate Project found an old spaceship with the keys in it, and decided to take it out for a spin. When I was growing up this was called joy-riding and you got in trouble for it, but I guess we’re more liberal in the future. Oh, sorry, no—Wikipedia says they got attacked by bad aliens on their secret other planetary base and had to escape in the old spaceship. Well, that’s very different.
There was a senator aboard and he died. Excuse me, don’t those people have staff? Who lets their senator wander unattended around the ancient artifact space ship? Anyway, the guys on the ship can’t drive it and can’t get back to earth because they have to do something difficult/impossible with the stargate that’s on the ship. They have to wait until the ship stops to refuel itself (it nibbles on stars, the second coolest thing about the show,) in order to do the magic mumbo-jumbo on the stargate and leap home. Maybe. I think.
So who’s on the ship? There are two teams; the Stern Military and the Spunky Civilians. Stern Military includes a leader, the Thoughtful Colonel Everett Young, a guy named Matthew who is very buff but seems like he might be mean, and a great-looking dark-skinned guy who is very buff but seems like he might be mean, too. There is a doctor named Tamara on the Stern Military team. Playing for the Spunky Civilians: designated Pretty Girl Chloe, the dead senator’s daughter; Irreverent Geek Eli; Grumpy (and kinda crazy) Genius Rush, and some other guy with big dark eyes and black hair who stands around next to Rush and looks worried. Then there’s a character named Camille, who started off Military—at least she was in desert camo—but now seems to be playing for Team Civilian.
This could be suspenseful. Where is the ship going? How will they survive? How will they get home? The folks back on earth are out of radio range, let alone cell phone range, but not to worry! They have magic rocks that allow crew from the ship to swap bodies with folks on earth, a clever, bewildering plot device that mitigates any sense of urgency. Somehow, when you can pop home any time—admittedly into another body—things just don’t seem so bad. The rock-trips do get awkward, though. Matthew, hiding out in the body of some other guy, nearly blew his cover when he found out that his high school girlfriend never did have that abortion, and he was the father of a nine-year-old boy. And Camille must be driving her loyal lover, Sharon, completely crazy showing up in a different body, including a quadriplegic spinal cord accident victim, each visit. There has to be some etiquette about the rock-trips. For example, on the other end of Camille’s swap with the paralyzed woman, is a character who wants to have sex with Rush (she had a major Rush-crush back in graduate school). This will be her one chance to have sex . . . but Camille, when she’s driving that body, prefers women. Is it rude to have sex with a man in Camille’s body, behind her back, so to speak? See, it’s an etiquette thing.
Adding complexity, which we really didn’t need, is the Tough Guy, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, who is/is not a traitor and at the end of Season One is/is not dead. Take your pick.
The ship stops at planets with stargates, I guess. Since they hadn’t really finished exploring the ship, you would think they would have plenty of potential storyline, but somehow we still get the hallucinating-your-deepest-desire-or-fear episode, the bad-aliens-attack-and-we-must-use-untried-ancient-technology episode, and the someone-has-to-go-outside-and-get-back-before-the-radiation-flare episode. Please note that I didn’t even watch all of those; I could tell by catching the first five minutes or the last five. Then some bad guys invade the ship, I guess through the ship’s own unguarded stargate. End Season One.
The real issue is that they have to match up nine chevrons on the stargate ring. I know, it does sound like a casino game. The way to do this is mathematical, but one hour a week of Eli hunched over his iPad, hollering, “More Red Bull! Okay, maybe it’s the square root of six over the sum of the square of—Gah! That just blows up the ship!” would get boring. And this show desperately does not want to be boring.
It wants to be “dark and gritty,” and is achieves darkness. Would it kill them to turn on some lights? If “gritty” means everyone except the Irreverent Geek and the Pretty Girl are cynical and venial without redeeming nobility, they’ve achieved that too. They have the prettiest starship I’ve seen in a while,and it refuels by sipping energy off stars like a galactic butterfly in a meadow of flowers, but the rest–I don’t think I can commit to this one.
Music! Lillian and I met at Aroma roasters at a little after 10:30 am, and we saw a group of people, wearing red, carrying musical instruments out in the back parking lot. We followed our curiosity out there and watched them warm up. There were five or six originally, and as they played, more poured out of Aroma’s. Several more came around the corner as the drums banged, the saxophone warbled, and the sousaphones hooted, wild, strange and klezmer-like. There were more than 20 by the time they finished. Later they danced over the bridge across the tracks, and played in front of the grandstand, before the races got started.
A rock and roll band played on the 6th Street side of the tracks. On the Railroad Square side they also had some musical performers but I couldn’t get close enough to hear them. An authentically ragged group of players sat on the corner of Fourth and Davis (?) playing Celtic reels and drinking songs.
Two people my age or a little older stood next to me near the drawbridge over the train tracks, remarking on the costumes. “It’s like the Renaissance Faire,” the woman said, “Isn’t it? Only the costumes aren’t right. They’re later.”
“They’re Victorian,” the man with her said.
“Then what’s steampunk about them?”
“It’s Victorian,” he said, “but like what HG Wells did it.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Wasn’t he a writer?”
The photo ops that got away:
The Hindu deities, their skin painted blue and green; silky, embroidered costumes, and custom parasols.
The front of “Locust Motive,” with its translucent, gleaming green head, wings and carapace.
The guy in full Victorian drag—top hat, waistcoat, tails and gray trousers, talking on his iPhone.
One of the jewelry booths had artistically distressed watch-works mounted as pendants or broaches. They look like the real deal; like maybe the vendor (Somebody’s Daughter) hunted down old watches and carefully disassembled them and soldered the pieces into jewelry form. They are beautiful, whimsical pieces.
I reached out to lift one of the lockets from the cloth stand. Then I snatched my hand back and blew on my fingertips.
“Oh, yeah,” the vendor said, “they are sitting in direct sunlight.”
Saw several young women in brown leather pants, white shirts, brown jackets (mostly tied around their waists) faux rifles slung across their backs, two with brown hair in a braid. Could be a general “steampunk” costume, but I kept thinking of Briar Wilkes Blue.
“That’s the point,” Lillian said.
Sonoma County’s Third Annual Handcar Regatta was packed with wonders, and packed with Victorians, alt-history Victorians, belly-dancers, mesmerists and their lovely assistants, women cloaked from crown to toe-tip in diaphanous draperies, dance hall girls, Hindu deities, zombies, and time-travel-refugees from the 1930s, 1950s, 1970s and 2000s. I’m going to guess that the original handcar regatta energy has been absorbed, colonized if you will, by the steampunk sensibility. Nothing evokes the sense of a steampunk like people in costumes powering a handcar down a railroad track; railroad, the totem of the industrial revolution, at least in America.
The space for the event ran from 3rd Street to 6th, and from the railroad tracks to the freeway overpass, which seems like a fitting metaphor.
The handcars demonstrated many things; artistic skill and vision, humor, speed, engineering originality and prowess. I watched the first heat with amazement as these gizmos hurtled—well, some hurtled, some kind of drifted—down the railroad tracks, in Santa Rosa’s aptly named Railroad Square.
I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite. I loved the Tahitian Flyer, the rowing-machine handcar powered by a team of two guys who are on the Berkeley rowing crew, because it was an elegant match of machine with skill. I loved Jack on the Tracks for its strangeness and the one with wings because it had wings. I loved the red and black one that bent in the middle like a book, because the motive-power was such a riddle. I liked “Locust Motive” for the pun and because the kids from CHOPS, the teen center, put it together. I liked the ones with the bicycles, the treadmill, and the pirate ship, and who doesn’t love a handcar made out of an ale-keg? I really liked the one with the propeller. Or maybe it wasn’t a propeller, just a whirly-thing. I liked it. I’ve left some out, only because I can’t remember them all.
Then there were the costumes. And the booths. And the elephant (motorized). And the sectional art contraption that worked like a Victorian party card, only eight feet tall; heads on the top panel, torsos in the middle, legs and feet (or something) on the bottom panel, mounted on a vertical cylinder. Each set of panels rotated. Mix ‘em up! Fun for hours. There were many booths with faux-Victoriana and gorgeously realistic costumes. You could buy goggles (because if you don’t have studs and goggles, is it really steampunk?). You could buy jewelry made of old watches. There was a lot of leatherwork, lots of feather hairpieces, not as much original art as I might have expected. It isn’t the Dickens Faire, although I think some of the folks there aired out their Dickens Fair clothes for the occasion.
According to various thermometers, it was either 99 degrees or 101 degrees. I stayed hydrated, but even so, I was starting to wilt. By “wilt” I mean have tingling in my fingers and black and red spots in front of my eyes. I walked, slowly, in the shade, up to Aroma Roasters, and bought an iced beverage that was called, depending what board you looked at, a Raspberry Splash or a Raspberry Sweet and Sour. It was quite refreshing until I hit the raspberry-cough-syrup layer at the bottom. It took much swirling and rattling of ice cubes, and melting of same, to make the final swallows palatable.
And I lost track of Lillian. We split up to get pictures of the races from different angles. About an hour later I realized I didn’t have her cell phone number, and we hadn’t set a place to meet. (Apparently she realized this about the same time.) I stood a couple of places where I thought I might see her, but I had not anticipated the size of the crowds. Today’s paper said over 10,000 attended. I think at any given moment they were all standing between Lillian and me.
As it turned out, this had a good result, because Lillian got pictures of things I didn’t even see, including the wonderful and arcane zucchini races. Between the two of us I think we have a comprehensive photo catalogue of the event.
Note to self, though; charge cell phone before leaving, get friend’s cell phone number when splitting up, and set up a rendezvous. After all, that’s what a savvy steampunk heroine would do.
A Madness of Angels, Kate Griffin/Orbit Fantasy, 2009
“Life is magic.”
“And the dragon of broken and disobeyed signs was, in the end, an urban creature, summoned out of the city itself; and the city’s dragon, the lord of the city’s gates, did so very much like to lead, and to be obeyed, and have its own rules that could, it was rumored, stop the king or queen entering the city, if it felt that Londoners didn’t need them inside their walls. Hunger had told me the key himself; time, law, humility; a recognition that in the eyes of the city, we were nothing, and the dragon was the lord.”
A Madness of Angels
I think maybe I love this book. It’s a mature love, too, not just a crush, because I can see the faults in the thing and I love it anyway. It’s a hard book to write about without spoiling the fun for everyone, so I will focus on why I love it.
I love Griffin’s view of magic. Reviewers compare the book to Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and those comparisons are apt. This is a book, first and foremost, about London, a magical London that is as close to our London as the next bus kiosk, the Tube or that pigeon waddling toward you looking for a handout. Matthew Swift was a sorcerer, able to harness the magic of the city in a holistic, intuitive way. Two years ago, Matthew was murdered. Now he’s back, and he’s not sure why. And he’s different. I don’t want to give away too much, but here’s one tidbit. Matthew used to have puppy-dog-brown eyes. Now they’re blue.
Griffin imagines magic as a current of power, fed by the energy of living things, all living things. Countrysides have their magic, the traditional elf-and-fey-folk magic of British folklore, but cities, especially old cities, are magical stockpiles. Matthew is an urban magician, dealing with the dazzling, churning, seductive and overwhelming power of London. Many sorcerers, we are told, succumb to the pulse of the city and become half-mad vagrants and wanderers, unable to tell if they are a human or a rat, or a crow, or the 9:15 train. And cities, like the ocean, like forests and caves, create their own mythology and their own pantheon of new gods– the Beggar King, the Bag Lady, the Midnight Mayor and even the Last Train on the Circle Line. This is where Griffin is the most like Gaiman.
Griffin’s definition of “life” is fluid. Is light alive? Is music? Is fire? Is electricity? A thing with a purpose, when that purpose has been honored by thousands of people, can become an object of power for a sorcerer. One of the most charming things about Matthew is his respect for things; locks, trains and doors that have assumed power because of the integrity of their purpose. He also knows when to bring the metaphysical brass knuckles.
Before Matthew can figure out what who brought him back, he has to face down a powerful enemy who is threatening all of London’s sorcerers. Matthew assembles a most unlikely group of allies. These are plausible characters from all walks of magical life, including the narrow-minded, viciously anti-magic Order. They don’t like each other, they don’t trust each other, but they will work together, because they are all being threatened.
Griffin’s dialogue is crisp, perfectly timed, laugh-out-loud funny. Her descriptions are vivid, exquisite, gory, grotesque, poignant, sweet and quirky. I said this was a mature love, and that I saw the book’s flaws, and I will mention one now. She has a writing tic that forces her characters to “hiss” bits of dialogue, even bits that have no sibilants at all. “ ‘Go away,’ he hissed.” I began to develop an allergic reaction to the verb. At the end of the book, when a character actually “hissed, almost like a snake,” which would have been a great description, it just made me annoyed. “Said” works fine, Kate. Trust me. Better yet, trust yourself.
For reasons I can’t go into, voice is very important in this book, and Griffin manages this with the grace of a champion surfer on a twenty-foot wave.
This is a long, well-plotted book, except for one loose end that is an annoying as getting that scrap of dental floss caught in your back teeth. The characters are convincing and memorable, the action sequences suspenseful, but what I take away from the book is Matthew’s—and Griffin’s—love for the magical soul of London.
“And then comes the final test, the infallible touchstone of the seventh-rate: Ichor. It oozes out of severed tentacles, it beslimes tessellated pavements, bespatters bejeweled courtiers, and bores the bejesus out of everybody.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare; McElderry Books, 2010
Cassandra Clare stumbles straight out of the gate in Clockwork. In the opening sentence. . . “ichor;” one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s perfect tests for bad fantasy.
Can Clare recover? Basically, yes.
This is Clare’s second series about the Shadowhunters, human-angel hybrids who hunt down demons and other evil creatures, protecting mundane humanity. The Mortal Instruments series was set in contemporary New York. Clockwork Angel is sent in London in the late 1870s, and is the first book of the Infernal Devices trilogy. Clare’s young adult audience will feel right at home here. The book is advertized as a “prequel,” and many of the last names, such as Herondale, will be familiar. A couple of characters from the Mortal Instruments turn up, reminding us that they are magical and thus long-lived.
Tess Gray, the young American who comes to London to find her brother and is immediately kidnapped by evildoers, is a smart and physically courageous heroine. She has magical powers of her own, but there is some confusion as to whether she is demon, part demon or something else entirely. Tess is an educated young woman who has read Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare. In a nice homage, Clare names another character Charlotte Branwell, a nod to Charlotte Bronte, a best-selling author of the Victorian times. (Bronte’s brother was named Branwell.) Surprisingly, Tess never comments to herself on this strange coincidence.
The configuration of young Shadowhunters mirrors the first three books; two young men and a woman. The love interest is another tortured bad-boy, which is a shame, since the sidekick character Jem is far more interesting. Clare always makes the girl Shadowhunter adversarial with her human main character, and Jessamine is no exception. The most interesting characters in the book are Henry and Sophie. Several of the human attendants are lightly sketched in, as if they don’t really matter, and it soon becomes clear why.
Clare’s action sequences are vividly drawn. She renders London with a good blend of sensuous detail. Tess and Will often quote poetry to each other, and Tess compares situations around her to classic Victorian novels, like Jane Eyre, which encourages the curious reader to seek these books out for pleasure, not merely for classroom assignments. The plot is predictable, and things that are revealed as if they are surprises are not surprising at all, but the book maintains tension, and the jeopardy, faced first by Tess and later by her brother Nate, is convincing and dramatic.
The hardback edition benefits from an exquisite cover, and the clockwork angel itself—yes, there is one—is a delightful mystery that still has not been solved by the book’s end. Fans of the Mortal Instruments series will be pleased, and the almost-steampunk setting may draw in an even bigger audience. Perhaps some of them will look up the word ichor and realize that it probably isn’t the slime, goop or gunk that shoots out of the exploding demon in the book’s first sentence.
For years philosophers, political opportunists, mathematicians and scientists have wondered what we would reap from chaos. Based on the photograph, the answer is definitive; tomatoes, artichokes and flowers.
The Gualala farmers’ market is a tiny little market, but Gualala is a tiny little town with a population of fewer than 300. I probably saw ten percent of the townspeople there.
The seven or eight vendors present had zuccini, squash, tomatoes, live plants, berries and some apples. One woman was selling honey. I was surprised by the tomatoes, but I guess if you live up on the ridge, above the fog line, you probably have enough sun to grow them.
In the center of the loose circle of vendors sat circular plastic table with two folding chairs, where you could sit and eat your apple and drink a cup of coffee, except that you had to have brought the coffee with you.
One vendor had a number of berries, including blackberries, and rows of paper cups two-thirds filled with huckleberries. I’d never heard of a huckleberry farm so I asked her if she grew them.
“Nope,” she said. “Picked ‘em. Went out in the woods.”
Huckleberries, in California at least, seem to grow in forest areas, damp areas. I remember picking them when we could go camping when I was a kid. One time when we camped in Hende Woods, my mother and I went out determined to pick a whole bunch. I think there was a vague plan for a cobbler when we got home. I ate about a third of the berries while we were picking them, and as I recall, we polished off the rest right out of the bowl while we sat around the campfire that night. They are like tiny, sweet blueberries, with a slightly sharper flavor.
The woman next to me said, “Picked them. That’s very labor intensive.”
The vendor nodded. “And very hand-stainy.”
See this show.
Heidi Endemann is an artist of great technical ability and a powerful vision. Her work connects with us on several levels.
Endemann’s years in the advertizing industry planning honed her picture-making ability. Her work is realistic; nothing is suggested, hinted or evoked. Instead each necessary detail is in place; whether it’s depicting a chubby-cheeked toddler, a tiger, a death’s head or a famous cartoon character. Her colors are vivid and look deliberately pretty; pretty and glossy, in the sense of a glossy magazine. She uses this deliberate prettiness to tell a story, and story you walk away from intrigued, thoughtful and emotionally moved.
In the lobby of the Gualala Arts Center, Endemann has several large pieces from the series of hers I like the best. Maybe I just like it because I’m a sap and it seems to be the most hopeful, somehow, of her work. The series depicts a chimpanzee or some other, perhaps idealized, primate; and a blond, cherubic human baby. In one picture, the chimpanzee is handing the baby a toy—the blue globe of the world. In another, hung on the landing above the stairs, the ape stands, arms upraised, and the baby, riding on her shoulders, has his arms upraised as well. Both are grinning, and a golden spinning world dangles above them like a Christmas tree ornament.
Also in the lobby is a powerful political statement about global warming called “Homo Sapiens,” and an installation titled “Irreplaceable.” “Irreplaceable” is made up of several panels of butterflies, done in glorious color, each with its Latin name printed in script underneath it. At first glance the piece seems bright and pretty, but something is not right. The wings of some of the insects seem tattered, except they are not tattered, they are burning. As you look closer you see a grinning deaths’ head painted into the body of each butterfly. Each butterfly’s wings are being singed away.
And then there are the babies, the healthy sturdy boys with their innocent faces and their skin marked, like a birthmark or tattoos, with various logos and trademarks. One, with the chimpanzee, is called “Nascar Baby.” The others tend to have only babies in the frame; as if claims have been staked before we’re even born by the multi-national conglomerates who make their profits by turning us from citizens into consumers. Even the natural world, represented by the collared leopard and cheetah, has not escaped this fate.
I’d say Heidi Endemann has a definite point of view.
The most elaborate installation in the show is “The Icarus Project; I and II.” Again, rectangular panels are hung together, looking like a quilt, almost, on opposite walls of the gallery. The theme in each panel is wings on fire. Icarus II, backgrounded in shades of rust and red, looks almost unfinished, while Icarus I has those bright children’s-book colors. At first glance, the panels look identical, except for the colors, but they are not. Endemann is playing with the theme here. I cannot begin to articulate what she is telling us. Is it about hubris, about balance? About innocence and faith? Just variations of “wings on fire?” It’s more than that—so much more.
The show hangs until October 3, at the Gualala Center for the Arts. I have not begun to do it justice here. Go see it.