Monday, February 26, 2007

Late to the party

I'm something of a James Tiptree, Jr., fan. I first got ahold of some of Tiptree's stories back in my high school years, when I was voraciously reading anything and everything I could afford from the Science Fiction Book Club. My home town was too small to support a bookstore for more than a few days, and the library's science fiction and fantasy section was limited, to say the least. So when I plowed into something like "The Women Men Don't See" or "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," well, I didn't rightly know what to make of it. They certainly weren't classic Asimov or Clarke. They stayed with me, though, and eventually I learned about the whole Alice Sheldon subterfuge with her masculine alter-ego and CIA background. When I ran across her magnificent collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (Arkham House edition) at Adventures in Crime & Space's late, lamented brick-and-mortar location, there wasn't two seconds' worth of hesitation before I made it mine.


For all that, I don't know if I can honestly claim Tiptree as an influence on my writing with a clear conscience. I've written a grand total of one story that might tenuously be considered Tiptree-esque, and the jury's still very much out on whether that was time well spent or a failure of catastrophic proportions (at least until it's published at HelixSF a few months down the line). That's not much of a surprise, though, since our life experiences are almost entirely dissimilar. She was the pretty, only child of affluent, globe-trotting parents, making her first African safari before the age of 10. I was the adopted eldest child of an ag teacher in the middle of rural, farm-belt Texas. The closest I came to duplicating Alice Sheldon's African safaris was visiting the Lubbock prairie dog town in 1979. It wasn't until 1988 that I even ventured past the boundaries of my home state with a liquor-infused jaunt across the Rio Grande to Matamoros. That trip proved to be quite harrowing indeed--particularly when some acquaintances of mine thought it'd be fun to take an unguarded taxi for a joyride--but it doesn't quite compare.


Such are the feelings of inadequacy I'm experiencing as I read Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. This is the book the internet was all abuzz over six months or so back. In my defense, I've never been an early adopter. Be that as it may, the book is as engaging and lively as popular sentiment would have it. Alice Sheldon did indeed lead a life worthy of Hemmingway--moreso, even, as Papa didn't have to contend with society's gender bias and sexual restrictions as did Sheldon. There are women before and since who have faced down these artificial barriers and made a name for themselves in a "man's world"--SF author Elizabeth Moon is one who comes to mind--but that doesn't diminish the significance of what Sheldon accomplished with her life during the era she lived in. To serve honorably during World War II only to be rewarded with open hostility from the general populace (not to mention the military itself) is... well, Vietnam is a parallel that's trotted out far too often for my comfort, but it does make one question our country's collective sanity, even when we're on the sides of the angels.

It also makes me question where I get off pretending to be a writer, when I haven't lived my life to the extent of those I admire. As a member of the oddly-named Generation X, I've been thankfully spared a defining (and psyche-scarring) major war, particularly when you consider the fact that Gulf War I turned out to be somewhat less dramatic than the opening weekend of deer season. There's been nothing of the nationwide hardship and self-sacrifice that were hallmarks of armed conflict throughout most of the 20th Century. These days, we wage war with comfort of the Stateside populace first and foremost on the federal government's agenda, with tax cuts galore as the cost of the war spirals. Such quaint notions as war bonds are left to the dust bin of history as we listen to daily podcasts from Kurdistan or read the latest blogs from Baghdad. These are my generation's defining moments--is it any wonder why Xers are a cynical, disillusioned bunch?

But as I read the Tiptree bio further, I see a glimmer of hope. In 1948 Sheldon and her husband Ting bought a chicken hatchery, and for several years made their living via poultry. Well, what do you know? I raised chickens growing up. Not a lot, mind you, but I gathered my share of eggs, battled thieving snakes and kept a eye out for chicken hawks, raccoons and other predatory types. At last, I've found a connection, something to hang my hat (if not my career) on! It may be tenuous and insubstantial, but at least it's something we share.

Unless you count the name thing. Sheldon wrote under a male pseudonym, and I--even though it's my real name--write under one that implies a gender of somewhat less masculine attributes than those I am rumored to posses. As an adult, I'm able to view the gender assumptions and confusion of people who only know me by my name as a curious and interesting phenomenon. I've had readers write me after reading my fiction, discussing some "obvious" point which, to them, was based solely on the notion that I am a woman. I greet these occasional letters with great fascination, because on a very real level the gender of an author may enhance or undermine the credibility of any particular story.

In any event, being an adult male with a feminine name beats the hell out of growing up as the slow fat kid with a girl's name. I take great solace in the fact that The Bionic Woman has long since left the broadcast airwaves. I assure you, friends and neighbors, the years of 1976-1978 were not good ones for me. Is that pop culture trauma Tiptree worthy? Not in the least. But it's the best I've got, so it'll have to do.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Warporn Eucharist

The February 19 issue of The New Yorker has a great article by Jane Mayer on the impact of the television War on Terror fantasy "24" on real-world public policy. Jack Bauer's imaginary L.A.-based domestic covert ops wing of the CIA, it turns out, is housed on the ground floor of a refurbished pencil factory in the San Fernando Valley, where America's enemies are interrogated every Monday night for the entertainment of prime time zombies like yours truly. The article notes that American TV now feeds us one hundred instances of torture a year, versus four before 9/11.

"The show's villains usually inflict the most gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged on a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and is harboring secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show's credo, 'Everyone breaks eventually.'"

The article catalogues Agent Bauer's menu of techniques for immediate revelation, from brutish stab wounds to mock live video executions of a prisoner's family members. It then recounts the efforts of actual military interrogators to persuade the producers and writers to imbue the show with a more realistic portrayal of government agents conducting their interrogations in accordance with the law, citing their concerns that 24's representations of intelligence collection are distorting the public's view of reality, and influencing public opinion in an unhealthy way. Quoting a December 2006 report of the Intelligence Science Board:

"Prime-time television increasingly offers up plot lines involving the incineration of metropolitan Los Angeles by an atomic weapon or its depopulation by an aerosol nerve toxin. The characters do not have time to reflect upon, much less to utilize, what real professionals know to be the 'science and art' of 'educing information.' They want results. Now. The public thinks the same way. They want, and rightly expect, precisely the same kind of 'protection' that only a skilled intelligence professional can provide. Unfortunately, they have no idea how such a person is supposed to act in 'real life.'"

Recall a prior generation of L.A.-based Watchmen enduring a stressed out Zeitgeist: the Jack Webb police procedurals Dragnet and Adam-12, in which lonely sentinels of law and order exhaustedly administered Miranda due process to murderers, car thieves, pill popping moms, and spoiled Bourgeois hippies. Alas, Jack Bauer's lineage is more Bud White than Joe Friday – Judge Dredd with a Blackberry.

The intriguing allure of this brutalist cultural thread is compounded when Mayer name-checks some of the Washington notables who are big fans of 24: Karl Rove, Tony Snow, Laura Ingraham, Clarence Thomas, ex-Justice Department torture analyst John Yoo, Mary Cheney, Lynne Cheney ("an extreme '24' fan"), and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Justice Thomas' wife Virginia organized a Heritage Foundation symposium on the show, at which Secretary Chertoff praised the ethical credibility of the show's real-time bet-the-world utilitarianism: "Frankly, it reflects real life."

9/11 happened to a culture that had long before obliterated the barriers between consensus reality and the narrative delusions of technicolor media dreams. Consider the disturbing number of lawyers practicing today who were lured by "what's your movie" aspirations to realize their own inner Arnie Becker and Ally McBeal. Is it any surprise that our neoconservative sentinels and their dark dauphines enjoy spending their down time inside an action movie funhouse mirror of their day jobs? Celebrating situational nihilism as the dutiful resignation of the protective pater familias (the unappreciated Vietnam Vet meme never dies). How long before they start making cameo appearances? Or one of the taciturn mutual fund commercial terror-fighters gets recruited to head some bogus White House task force?

Skeptical that a pulp action TV serial could have a bona fide impact on public policy and its practitioners? Consider this intriguing lecture held last night at the University of Texas' Harry Ransom Center:

"Daniel Posnansky, retired faculty member of Harvard University, presents the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Lecture "Arthur Conan Doyle on America: British-American Foreign Policy in the New Millennium" on Thursday, February 22, at 7 p.m. at the Harry Ransom Center.

"Posnansky will discuss the ways in which Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes influenced American foreign policy for decades after Doyle’s death, and continue to do so. He will bring samples of original materials from his personal collection, including letters of Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt, that quote Holmes and discuss his strategies for pressing foreign concerns."

Any preference for Chertoff channeling Bauer versus FDR channeling Holmes?

Of course, Jack Bauer's raw and unlawful interrogation techniques are tame compared to the thinly disguised warporn at your local cineplex and Blockbuster outlet. Every few weeks brings a new torture-based shock thriller to amuse America's teens. Saw I-III, in which abductees are compelled to maim themselves to survive. Hostel, which envisions an underground torture club of paying tormentors and kidnapped victims in some corner of Slovakia that didn't make the latest "Let's Go." Turistas, The Descent, etc....these are not your brother's Reservoir Dogs.

When a colleague at the day job last fall said her weekend plans as a suburban mom included hosting her daughter's 12th birthday party at a showing of Saw III, my incredulity was compounded by further investigations at the parental film guide Dig the accidentally Ballardian, clinical catalog of the film's suburban Abu Ghraib, invisible literature for an age of terror:

VIOLENCE/GORE 10 - A man is screwed into an apparatus that we are told will twist his limbs: We see screws through his hands and feet and a metal ring around his head, the machinery begins to twist (we hear popping and cracking and tearing and see blood spurting), the man screams in agony, each limbs is twisted, and we see bones protruding through the twisted skin; then his head is twisted and we see the stretched skin on his neck and we hear a loud crunch when his neck breaks.

► We see a man with chains attached to him by rings that pierce his skin, his lip and Achilles tendons: we see him pull the rings out one by one, while he screams and blood flows, and he tries to reach for a bomb to de-activate it, but it explodes leaving him in pieces.

► An explosive device is detonated and blows a woman's head off (we see the blood and matter that remains above her shoulders).

► A man uses what looks like a toilet tank cover and pounds it down on his foot repeatedly crushing his ankle and foot (the man screams with every blow and we hear cracking and popping); he then snaps the ankle bone (we see the bone pushing through the skin and the foot is very bloody) in order to be able to slip out of a shackle that holds him attached to a pipe.

► A man uses a power saw to cut another man's throat (blood spurts and we see the man gag and spurt). A man shoots a woman in the throat (blood spurts and pours), she falls to the floor, and she gags and dies. A man is shot in the side of the head (we see part of his head and face blown off and blood spurts from the additional resulting neck wound).

► A woman wakes up from being unconscious, with a heavy metal ring around her neck, and an apparatus attached to her ribs (we see bloody hooks attached to her sides and blood drips on the floor); she reaches into a container of acid to retrieve a key that will free her (her hand is eaten away by the acid and the liquid turns bloody), her time runs out and the apparatus that she is attached to rips her rib cage apart (we see her fall limp and see bloody tissue flapping around).

► A medical procedure is performed on a man's head and we see the entire procedure: the scalp is cut and folded back, the skull is drilled into, a saw is used to cut a piece out (blood sprays on the surgeon's face) and the brain is exposed (we hear squishing, cracking, the whirring of a saw and drill and there is a lot of blood).

► A man with a very bloody foot wound drags himself through a dark hallway (we see his foot flopping around), he beats a woman with a metal pipe, she kicks him in the bad foot and he falls to the floor, he bites her on the leg, punches her and slams her head into a wall (we see her bloody head and face), and she spits in his face, kicks him and leaves.

► In a flashback to a sequence from the first "Saw" a woman locked into a head apparatus must cut a key out of a man's stomach in order to save herself, and she does so.

► A man injects himself with a drug that reduces his heart rate, his head is covered with blood and he lies down in a pool of blood on the floor (presumably it is animal blood, not his own).

► A nude woman hangs from her hands, which are chained to a metal frame, and she is sprayed with water periodically; the room she is in is a large freezer, and she is eventually completely encased in ice.

► A woman shoots a woman in the back, blood sprays on a plastic sheet, and she falls into a man's arms (we see blood on her clothes).

► A woman wraps a plastic bag around a man's head, he flails trying to get away, and he hits his head on a toilet (we hear the crack and see blood in the bag); he flails for a little bit longer and then falls dead.

► Armed police break into a room and are shocked by what they find: We see a room with very bloody body parts strewn around and bits of internal organs and tissue on the floor. A man shines a flashlight around a dark room and sees a dead man lying next to a severed foot (the man has blood on his face and the foot is covered with blood).

► A woman squeezes the blade of a saw and cuts her hand (we see blood pouring onto the floor and on her hand). A woman cuts herself on the leg with a large knife (we hear squishing and see old scars from previous cuts). A man struggles to reach a key, his cheek becomes frozen to a bar and when he pulls away from the bar the skin tears off (he screams and we see a bloody patch).

► A young boy is brought into an emergency room on a stretcher and has a bloody head wound and a bloody wound on his side (ER staff examine and stabilize him).

► A woman places an explosive collar around another woman's neck and explains what she needs to do to be set free. A woman locked in a locker room is attacked by someone wearing a pig mask, and she wakes up tied into a chair and struggles to get free.

► A man is chained around the neck to the bottom of a large vat, many decayed pig carcasses with wriggling maggots are dropped into a crusher, they are liquefied, the man in the vat is sprayed with the liquid and it begins to fill up (he is freed before he drowns). A man finds himself trapped inside a wooden crate, and he pounds on the crate until it falls from its perch and breaks apart on the floor below (he ends up with a bloody gash on his head).

► A woman attacks a man and incapacitates him (we see her knock him to the floor, then straddle him and we see him unconscious later). A woman shoots her gun through a closet door, reaches in to find something and is grabbed from behind and incapacitated.

► We see several disjointed sequences of a boy dying after having been struck by a car (there's no blood, and he is lying motionless on the pavement).

►  A man lying on the floor and chained to a pipe in a dark room struggles to reach a gun and then a flashlight. We see a young girl locked in a room.

► A woman with a knife threatens another woman. We hear a man screaming that he is going to kill someone. A man yells at a woman and she appears frightened. A husband and wife argue.

► We hear that a man has an inoperable brain tumor. A man finds a tricycle and a doll lying on the floor in a dark hallway and he remembers his son's fatal accident.

► A man has a seizure; he vomits, begins to thrash violently and spits blood. A man vomits (we see goo and hear him gag).

Roll over, Walt Disney. Time to turn on CNN for the latest beheading video. The news is a snuff film, and so is the matinee.

Postulate: When your nation is unleashing mayhem with remote control bombs on the other side of the planet and gurgling waterboards in the windowless buildings where no one can hear you scream, even though the resulting real-world carnage never appears on your dinnertime news feed or coffeetime front page, you know it's out there. It lurks in your subconscious, and needs to be processed. Pop culture provides a sugar-coated safety valve. Acted out in a waking dream, one where your filmic alter egos are both the victims and the perpetrators. In the gated cortex of the American mind, the motion lights flicker on after midnight, illuminating the lurking predators 'R us. Grab some buttered popcorn and a 48 ounce Diet Coke.

When the mainstream media mainlines warporn, one wonders what kinds of deeper moral crises this already-savage century is incubating in the minds of the world's adolescents. The imminent rise of the next generation will tell us whether this dark carnival of cathode ray mayhem is a prefatory Dionysian revel of 'obscene enjoyment,' or a more grounded ethical percolation designed to perform cultural C.P.R. on exhausted Christian aspirations for utopian love.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

All that is gold does not glitter--but these fries sure do!

One aspect of literary history which is I think underappreciated by both fans and critics is the degree of influence which the fast food industry had on J.R.R. Tolkien. (Big man for fast food, was Tolkien. Many's the time his students saw him tucking a half-consumed Wimpy burger into his robes to snack on during his lectures).

The McDonalds Brothers

Back in 1948 a pair of Irish restauranteurs, Dick and Mac McDonald, opened a streamlined version of their carhop drive-in, the McDonald Brothers Burger Bar Drive-In. The brothers had discovered that most of their sales were of hamburgers and decided to do away with most other items on their menu. And, influenced by Henry Ford's assembly line processes, the brothers stressed efficiency in food preparation, delivery, and architectural layout. This new restaurant was an enormous financial success, but for various reasons the brothers were not successful in selling franchises, and by 1953 only 21 franchises had been sold, and only 10 of those became operating units.

Enter the Dark Lord, Ray Kroc.

His Unholy Darkess, Ray Kroc

At this time Kroc was selling Multimixer milkshake makers to various fast food franchises, but he saw the potential of the brothers' operation and signed an agreement with them to sell the brothers' franchises nationwide. (Rather than get into the lexigraphic Cannae that is "how do you spell the possessive of McDonald's?" I'm just going to refer to the franchise as "M."). At this time, selling a franchise merely meant ceding territory to a local owner in exchange for a large up-front fee. But Kroc wanted more control than that. He insisted on total control, selling individual store franchises rather than territorial franchises (thus controlling the number of stores one licensee could have) but also requiring licensee conformity to operating standards, equipment, menus, recipes, prices, trademarks, and architectural designs. Kroc hired the sinister Harry Sonneborn and with him designed the McDonald's Franchise Realty Corporation, which would purchase land for individual M. franchises and then rent the land to the licensee, which allowed M. to make money from rental agreements and to evict licensees if they violated the franchise agreement.

Kroc began selling franchises, and after a series of disagreements with the McDonald brothers bought them out. The corporate culture of M. changed, from the brothers' insistence on efficiency to Kroc's...well, as usual, Patrick O'Brian's Stephen Maturin put it best, although he was describing Jack Aubrey's mother-in-law: "a deeply stupid, griping, illiberal, avid, tenacious, pinchfist lickpenny." (Among other charming habits, Kroc would spring surprise inspections on M. franchises, and if there was, for example, ketchup or mustard spilled on a counter, Kroc would insist on the ketchup or mustard being scooped back into a container for re-use). Kroc also targeted suburban America, a change from previous fast food restaurants' inner-city-oriented business plans. By 1963 Kroc was selling a million burgers a day.

I needn't tell you about M.'s history with anti-union activities, environmental destruction, lobbying the government against increasing minimum wages and worker benefits, denying health benefits to workers, laying waste to the environment, undue influence on potato farmers, contributing to the Boss Hogging of the American citizen, and general McDonaldization of the world, do I? I don't need to tell you what it means when a major corporation chooses a clown to be its spokesman, do I?

The natural objection is that the evils I blame M. for actually come from the fast food industry itself. But to a large degree M. is the fast food industry. It remains the leader in sales among fast food restaurants by an enormous amount, and has been for years. Its sales are increasing at a greater rate than its competitors. Of course, M. doesn't really have to worry about competitors. Of the top ten fast food franchises in terms of sales, M. is #1--and its sales are more than the sales of #2 through #5 combined.

Why? Partly because Dark Lord Kroc's current state is likely something like this:

Futurama Nixon

or even this.

But more than that, it's because too many of those who should M.'s competitors are fatally, even spiritually, compromised. It can't be the food--have you actually tasted a M. Extruded Food Product recently? Even a White Castle Slider is preferable. (I do not say that lightly). No, it can't be the food. The answer must lie somewhere else.

Burger King is #2 on the fast food franchise sales list. One would think it was M.'s greatest threat. Certainly the number of Burger King commercials would seem to imply so. And yet in 2006 M.'s sales were almost four times those of Burger King. Why? Partly as karmic punishment for the way that Burger King bullied poor Wimpy and destroyed a good solid British company. But, really, Burger King never had a chance against M. Burger King began as the "Insta-Burger King," back in 1953, founded by Keith Cramer. Cramer got the idea for Insta-Burger King by visiting M.; later, he bought the very first milkshake maker for the new fast food franchise from...wait for it...Ray Kroc himself, in what can only be described as a gift of a poisoned chalice. Likewise, Jack-in-the-Box (#5 on the sales list), begun in 1950 in San Diego, got its first milkshake makers from Multimixer, Kroc's company.

Taco Bell (#3 on the sales list) began in San Bernardino, California, home to the first M. Taco Bell's founder, Glen Bell, was inspired by M. to open his own chain.

Wendy's is #4 on the sales list, and is the only franchise whose sales are significantly increasing (over 33% from 2000-2006). Wendy's is actually one of the two most dangerous franchises to M. See, back in 1952 Harland Sanders (an honorary "Kentucky Colonel") founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (#8 on the sales list) without any inspiration from M. or links to Ray Kroc. (Which, naturally, is a threat to M. KFC is independent of M., and we all know how evil empires feel about independent rivals, don't we?) Sanders had to sell KFC in 1964, but soon afterwards helped his protegé, Dave Thomas, establish his own chain, Wendy's. Now, there was some unpleasantness between Sanders and KFC later in Sanders' life, and Thomas was always very loyal to Sanders, but both KFC and Wendy's have, surely, put aside whatever rivalry and hurt feelings they have in their war with M. After all, there is a lineage there.

Colonel Sanders Dave Thomas

Why are these two a threat to M.? Because fast food is now a global business, not just one limited to American borders. M. is certainly working on the global level; the largest M. in the world is in Tiananmen Square (on the corner where that nameless hero stopped the tank in 1989), and the second largest is near Red Square in Moscow (which, like M.'s presence in Tiananmen Square, is a symbolic statement so obvious as to not need limning or explication). The truth is that, like the major tobacco players, M. gets the majority of its income from foreign (that is, non-American) sources: 34.6% from Europe, 34% from the United States, 6.5% from Latin America, and 13.8% from "Asia/Pacific, the Middle East & Africa." (6.6% comes from "other regions"). M. needs the global customer more than it needs the American customer.

Wendy's owns Tim Horton's, which does twice as much business in Canada as M. And KFC...well, it was the first fast food chain in Japan, is the most-recognized foreign brand in China, and now has more restaurants outside the U.S. KFC and Wendy's are far behind M. in sales, but on the international stage both are a legitimate threat to M., especially in China, where KFC has an unofficial corporate policy of opening a KFC franchise within 500 yards of every new M. franchise.

As mentioned, Jack-in-the-Box is #5 on the sales list. The franchises after that, KFC excepted, are non-starters in the eyes of M., minor entities like Chick-Fil-A, Hardee's, Sonic, and Long John Silver, which cumulatively sell less than a quarter of M.'s annual business. And yet, even among the second and third tier of fast food franchises, the taint of Dark Lord Kroc can be found. Carl's Jr., founded by Carl Karcher in 1956 after a visit to the M.'s mothership in San Bernardino. Dairy Queen, which resolved its financing and corporate structure problems in 1948 by forming the Dairy Queen National Trade Association; an attendee at the first meeting of the association? Ray Kroc, who was selling his Multimixers to numerous Dairy Queen franchises. Hardee's, who began by modeling not only its serving processes but the very architecture of its buildings on M.'s. And White Castle, whose recipes are based duplicating the taste of the wastewater that builds up in the dumpsters behind M.

As you can see, the claw marks of Dark Lord Kroc are everywhere across the industry. So what's the link to Tolkien?

Where do you think Tolkien got the idea of Sauron offering the cursed rings to men and dwarfs? Kroc selling milkshake makers to his tools rivals, and allowing him to visit M. locations to derive inspiration for their own efforts.

Take a look at the Eye of Sauron, which, if you remember, was "rimmed with fire, but was itself glazed, yellow as a cat's, watchful and intent, and the black slit of its pupil opened on a pit, a window into nothing."

eye of sauron

Take a look at the clown.

the clown

Rimmed with fire, glazed, black slits, a window into nothing...remind you of anything?

What are the Golden Arches except Twin Towers? The Lavic Lake volcanic field, including Pisgah Crater, is only 50-odd miles from San Bernardino, and what are those but the obvious inspiration for the landscape of Mordor?

Put another way, have you considered what happens when you take the Golden Arches and bring their ends together? You get this:

The One Ring

(Nice fries, though. Tasty).

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Dragon's Tail and Celestial Scales




It ought to be warmer than this in the belly of a dragon.

I'm in an airplane that was a primary military trainer in China before being restored, owned, and flown in Texas by Gene and Eileen Stansbery. The aircraft is painted gray, with a red and yellow dragon as nose art, and is nicknamed DragonLady. Today Eileen is the pilot and I'm the Gal in Back (GIB) on a recreational run from Friendswood to Rockport for Sunday lunch. That's 150 miles one way. An hour or so by air. Winter air.

Airplanes fly well in cold, dense air. DragonLady sounds and feels like a happy airplane. Eileen, in the front seat, is having all kinds of fun flying and navigating. There's only one little hitch as far as the GIB is concerned: IT'S COLD BACK HERE!

Eileen sits just aft of DragonLady's pounding radial heart – the engine – where it's significantly warmer than in the back seat where I am. There no cabin heat. There are drafts, most notably through the canopy. It's a World War II warbird-style, sectioned canopy, it doesn't seal tight, and a gap dumps air from the outside onto my knees. Those military instructors who sat here in Chinese winters had to be a hardy breed, is all I can say. At an altitude of 6500', the outside air temperature is a degree or two below freezing. My pen is barely scratching words in my notebook. I think the ink is gelid.

But what a view. It's what they call severe clear, which only happens here when a cold front has shoved the warm murky coastal air offshore. The Texas coast curves from one horizon to the other off the left wing. That's the graceful arc you see on a map of the state, but from aloft, it's a vast streak of sandy, gray and brown barrier island between the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico and the slatier blue of long shallow bays. Everything is irregular, swirled and mottled, except for the watery slash of the Intracoastal Waterway and the abandoned air base on Matagorda Island: a triangular pattern of wide lines blurred around the edges where nature is reclaiming the asphalt.

COLDCOLDCOLD! You'd think windproof pants over jeans, and a windbreaker over a fleece vest over a heavy flannel shirt over a waffle-weave shirt would be just a bit warmer. Feeling like a well-padded popsicle as we descend to Aransas County Airport, I notice flocks of RV's on sandy strips and points beside the water. Those are the snowbirds – the people who migrate here from up north every year.

Parked at the airport, DragonLady cuts a splendid figure,being bigger than the Cessnas and Pipers and having tall landing gear and wings with a dihedral lilt. DragonLady basks in the winter sun. I, however, feel cold-soaked all the way through a cab ride with Eileen to a restaurant and a wait for a table. But our wait is rewarded with a table in front of a sun-soaked window. Ahhh! Warmth! And a view of a harbor full of shrimp boats and a porpoise. Eileen is in the best of moods. Pilots usually are, on a good flying day. Happily, it's quite contagious. After a seafood feast and a walk – to interesting old Fulton Mansion, then on down the road a ways, and back – I'm comfortably thawed out. But it's time to go home.

Coldcoldcold-! The canopy seems even draftier than before, but still compensates with a great view. Looking straight back, there's the tail against clouds in the western sky. It is an excellent tail – gleaming gray with red highlights and a couple of sturdy antennas, a conventional airplane tail with a horizontal stabilizer below the vertical stabilizer. The tail constantly shifts position relative to the sky behind it. Even in stable air, the airplane's fuselage has some up and down and side to side motion, and the front end is relatively massive, so the motions show up as slight movement of the tail against the sky.

This airplane is a great example of beating swords into ploughshares. Or would that be swords into propellers? The canopy originally trained military pilots to look all around for enemy aircraft. Now DragonLady is all about fun. On a cross-country flight, the canopy shows a grand procession of clouds. Up ahead, there's a patch of altocumulus "mackerel sky." Within five minutes it's overhead and the scales look puffy and widely spaced. Five minutes later it's astern, but there's more scaly mackerel sky over the airplane's nose.

Although we'll make it home before sunset, the light across coastal Texas is long and golden. Mist covers an area just inland from the coastline. Not a thick homogenous white blanket: the mist shows ripples and dapples, echoing subtle unevenness in the very flat landscape. DragonLady's official name, by the way, written in Chinese characters on the right wing, is a propitious phrase that translates as Mount the Clouds and Ride the Mist.

Flying into home territory, Eileen is more and more relaxed and pleased. She chuckles at a bit of radio talk from some other pilots also returning from Sunday outings. When we reach the Houston area, there's a shining cloud low behind us in the west. I think it's mackerel sky from earlier, but now close to the horizon and compacted by distance. The cloud shows a striated patch of iridescent light: a sundog beside the low sun. Cold and all, it's been a very good day for the view from an even-tempered metal dragon.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Weekend cinema

I went to see a highly anticipated fantasy at the movies this weekend, one that was adapted from the printed page and has won over many fans over the years. No, I'm not talking about the Nick Cage turn as Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider. I'm talking about Bridge to Terabithia.

First off, Disney should fire their marketing department. Every single last one of 'em. There is simply no excuse for the brazen attempt to position Terabithia as some modern-day version of The Chronicles of Narnia. That's not what the book is, and that's not what this film is. Were it a Sci Fi Channel movie, then sure. I could see them butchering it in that way. But that's not what we have here. Amazingly, what Terabithia is is that rare example of a film that stays surprisingly close to the source material.


While there are definite fantasy elements at play here, that's not what the movie is about. Terabithia is a make-believe reality conjured by two social misfits--played by Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb--as an escape from various unpleasantries of their daily lives. The glimpses of the fantasy land of Terabithia are occasional and fleeting, showing up front and center only when the protagonists put their minds to work. Both adolescent actors are genera veterans, with Hutcherson playing the older brother in the underrated Zathura and Robb playing Violet Beauregarde in the Tim Burton Willy Wonka remake. Robert Patrick's also on hand as Hutcherson's hard-working but emotionally distant father (and if you have to ask Patrick's genre credentials, I pity you) and Zooey Deschanel makes up for her participation in the wretched Hitchhiker's Guide flick with a more nuanced turn here as a music teacher who hasn't had the idealism snuffed out of her yet. All in all, the performances of the main characters are quite strong but I've gradually come to the conclusion that Robb was miscast in her role. Robb, you see, is so cute and radiating charisma that its well-nigh impossible to believe she really has so much trouble making friends. It's a performance that recalls the scene-stealing of a young Natalie Portman in the obscure Beautiful Girls--a comparison which bodes well for the young Miss Robb's future career.

What surprised me more than anything was how unrelentingly sad the film was, at least through the second half of the movie. Director Gabor Csupo almost blows the deal early on with an unrelenting parade of ham-fisted cruelty and class struggle, his depiction of which is laid on so thick it becomes laughable. Shortly after Robb's character arrives, though, Csupo seems to gain confidence and the film smooths out considerably, the character interactions settling down to a far more plausible and authentic level. The change is so dramatic I'm left wondering if Csupo was struggling to show Hutcherson's imagination at work, how he perceived events as opposed to the actuality of them. But if this was the director's intent, the approach stumbles badly. Beyond a few interludes of joyful friendship, there's a melancholy undercurrent to this one, something that's very much unexpected in a "children's film." If you've read the book, you know the Big Thing that happens near the end. Yeah, that does indeed make it into the movie--hard to believe as that may be. Even if you know what's coming, you expect the filmmakers to dodge the bullet at the last moment, or failing that, to tack on a happy ending by coopting the "anything is possible" fantasy of Terabithia. To their credit, the filmmakers don't shy away from any of it, which gives this mere children's film a very mature presence, indeed.

For the record, both of my daughters--aged 8 and 6--loved it. Loved it despite the lack of non-stop fantasy adventure. Despite the unpleasant places the story takes them. Loved it despite the lack of non-stop slapstick humor which permeates most of the Disney Channel sitcoms they gravitate towards. Sure, they were troubled by the sad events, but not enough to diminish their enjoyment of the film overall. Does this mean my kids are made of sterner stuff that I thought, or that they've become desensitized by the popular media? Nope. I just think they have good taste, and look forward to enjoying progressively more sophisticated films with them in the future.

Friday, February 16, 2007

If this is the post-apocalyptic wasteland, where is Mel Gibson?

About half way through The Road, Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic father-and-son odyssey through a ravaged American South ubiquitously praised by the mainstream book review crowd, I decided that I need to hold out for the Hollywood movie version. Which, I desperately hope, will be a musical comedy. Because what this book is missing is some ebullient, old school show tunes. Either that, or the dramatic appearance of Yul Brynner's avenger from The Ultimate Warrior, or maybe Charlton Heston in his Mustang from The Omega Man, ready to kick some cannibal ass and put the narrative back on the path I have so permanently internalized since my Cold War youth, waiting expectantly for my own Boy and his Dog future.

The Road is the greyest book I have ever read. Grey skies, grey snow, grey-faced people camouflaged by grey blankets to hide from the predatory grey souls prowling the wastelands for sustenance. A father and son roaming alone in a world of irrevocably dead nature, devoid of hope, miserable death foretold from the first paragraph — "like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world."

If you happen to be the father of a boy around the same age as the boy in the story, every one of the 250-word vignettes that make up the 241 pages is a kick in the heart, a brutalization of one's readerly empathy. What an astonishing experimental conquest of mainstream publishing's commercial paradigm: all of the powers of this American master of post-minimalist Border Realism employed in a sustained, sensorily rich exploration of literally all of the darkest manifestations of human nature. So dark that even those of who pride ourselves on our hardened cynicism about such matters find it hard to stomach more than a few pages at a time. For such light prose to be able to burden the reader with such leaden moral gravity and empathic suffering. And to be a bestseller.

As you subject yourself to this persistent narrative bludgeoning and pass the half way mark, the thing finally lightens up as McCarthy's andelope prose style flirts with self-parody and leads to the revelation that The Road marks a strange new intersection of pop culture and high culture: the first literary realist zombie novel.

As a mainstream grand master rather than a genre hack, Mr. McCarthy can be forgiven for not knowing that the whole secret of a great post-apocalyptic story is to play to white male fantasies of dominion, as in, the catastrophe will be fun because I will survive and it will all be *mine*? Brian Aldiss' cosy catastrophe:

"Story in which horrific events are overwhelming the entirety of human civilization, but the action concentrates on a small group of tidy, middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon protagonists. The essence of the cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off."

The colonial (American and Australian) manifestation of this genre fused with lone cowboy fantasies to produce a more rugged variation featuring solitary antiheroes loaded up with unwired cyberpunked artifacts of civilization roaming the trackless wastes, as they uncover the truths of human nature hidden in plain sight, their hardened hearts compelled to help the weaker but nobler survivors take baby steps back toward some sort of civilization. Mad Max 2 (The Road Warrior) is probably the masterpiece of this genre, its "last of the V-8 interceptors" kinesis so powerful that it reaches across the decades to inspire high-speed reenactments.

Most are earnest social science fictions with a lot of chewed scenery, the genre bookended with the early 1970s Charlton Heston variations in Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man (with Soylent Green a more urban dystopic variation), and the post-Reagan Kevin Costner epics The Postman and Waterworld. In between, a motherlode of B-movies that revel in the inevitable chaos of the collapse of civilization and the depopulation of the earth, many of them one step beyond Roger Corman territory, like The Ultimate Warrior (see a shirtless Yul Brynner cut off his own hand to save the last packet of seeds rather than the heroine!) and Damnation Alley (see Jan-Michael Vincent motorcycle jump over the giant mutant scorpion like some post-apocalyptic cross between Spicoli and Evel Knievel!). As Kim Newman notes in his ultimate Baedeker, Apocalypse Movies, it's no accident that the only novels of so many great SF writers to be adapted for film are post-apocalyptic.

The fantasy was so persistent in the mid- to late Cold War period, people invented games to explore it more deeply. Most notably, the RPG Gamma World, a D&D-style scenario in which one's character got to roam a post-apocalyptic America scavenging the ruins of civilization and having a swell time doing it. Often with really cool radioactive mutations. I recall the profound satisfaction I obtained as an adolescent mapping out, Game Master style, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the city I grew up in, and envisioning my mutant avatar's exploration of the abandoned shopping malls and high-rises of my imagination.

Alas, as the Hurricane Katrina disaster showed, typical mass catastrophes aren't so cozy for the victims, and upper middle class professionals loading the kids in the Volvo and heading to the Four Seasons Houston don't really qualify as Hestonian lone heroes. Watching the news coverage in 2005, as the disaster movie expectations dissipated while the grim scene of abandonment and Hobbesian disorder played out, you could almost hear the gears grinding in the establishment meme machine. (I am still waiting for the installment of Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans, with the cheat code that turns your 'Cuda into a swamp boat.)

The private yearning of all of these narratives is some vestige of community (and even love) to crack through the despair like a tiny beam of light on a cloudy day. But what happens to the literature of apocalypse when it feels like the apocalypse is actually happening? More grim tales of putatively realist imminent Hells, devoid of hope, like The Road? Dude, tell Jan-Michael to pass the spliff and pull over for some Cheetos.

(p.s. -- for a *grey* novel that's actually *fun* to read, try Jon Armstrong's amazing Grey, just out from the superstars at Night Shade Books. Back to back eyeball stomping -- Franny and Zooey in Mirrorshades, like a postcyberpunk Bret Easton Ellis.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Germane? Go back to Germania!

Ah, the goal of any writers' blog. A back-and-forth between participants.

I had my say last week about popular literature of the 1930s. Chris Nakashima-Brown responded (entertainingly of course) with a survey of men's adventure magazines of the 1940s and 1950s. Chris said that they feel "more germane to these times" than what he (accurately) called the "marginal fantastics" I described.

His post deserves a response. So, Dear Reader, hypocrite lecteur, mon sembable, mon frère, let me describe a story to you:

Western soldiers are sent into an Islamic city in the Near East as part of an occupying force. They aren't given enough weapons or adequate supplies. Their political leadership is corrupt and their military leadership is incompetent. The soldiers are ordered to prop up a local ruler who is hated by the majority of the population on religious grounds. The occupation goes bad, and the soldiers are subjected to vicious street-to-street fighting which their training has not prepared them for. After successive defeats and numerous deaths the soldiers are forced to leave the city in disgrace.

The place? Kabul, Afghanistan. The time? The late 1870s. The story?

“English Jack Amongst the Afghans; or, The British Flag—Touch It Who Dare!”, which appeared as a serial in Boys of England from Nov. 1878 to May 1879 and was published as a fix-up circa 1890.

Chris' post got me to thinking about which popular literature I'm familiar with would be germane to current readers, or at least more germane than my beloved gunfighting gorilla and zombie sheriff. And while I could write about the kinds of pulps which appeared in the European countries in various wartimes--France and Germany 1914-1918, Spain 1936-1939, China 1937, Germany 1939-1941--I think the penny dreadful is actually more apposite. Specifically, the war story penny dreadful, or "war dreadful."

slashing lt.

The penny dreadful (which for the purposes of this piece encompasses things like the penny blood and what A.A. Milne called the "ha'penny dreadfuller") was the pulp magazine of the 19th century: stories hastily written for low wages and printed on cheap paper for mass consumption. The penny dreadful gave the world Sweeney Todd and the criminally underrated Varney the Vampire, but at least as many penny dreadfuls were published with the intent of teaching morals and edifying the young as were published to titillate or horrify. And a number of them were written to whip up patriotic fervor and to tell stories of Britons at war.


One thing commonly forgotten about Victorian England is that it was never, really, at peace. As Byron Farwell puts it in Queen Victoria's Little Wars, "there was not a single year in Queen Victoria's long reign in which somewhere in the world her soldiers were not fighting for her and for her empire. From 1837 to 1901, in Asia, Africa, Arabia and elsewhere, British troops were engaged in almost constant combat. It was the price of empire, of world leadership, and of national pride...."

The popular literature of the time--the penny dreadfuls--reflected this.


But the modern reader who reads enough war dreadfuls published over the breadth of Victoria's reign discovers an interesting phenomenon. War dreadfuls published in the 1840s and 1850s, up through the middle of the Crimean War, are more or less uncomplicatedly patriotic, jingoistic (before the word was invented, of course) and assured of the eventual triumph of manly British soldiers and sailors over dastardly, uncivilized, dark-skinned peoples, no matter how large their numbers and how small those of the British.

But from the 1860s onward the war dreadfuls changed. I think it's not a stretch to say that the news reports of the Crimean War and the stories of the veterans--the war was a clusterfudge of military and supply incompetence--were the largest cause of this. There remained war dreadfuls who told the old-style, pre-Crimea war story. But a large number of war dreadfuls became the Victorian version of Vietnam War novels.

"English Jack" is a prime example of this. It was a reaction to the Second Anglo-Afghan War, begun after the troops had left for Afghanistan but before any action took place. "English Jack" is actually not a forecast of the War, but rather is a retelling of the First Anglo-Afghan War and the disastrous retreat to Gandomak.

The reason "English Jack" would be germane to modern readers is that the first third of it, the war dreadful section (the remaining two thirds are adventures-in-India and larking-about-Afghanistan), is a horror story. The British leader, General Elphinstone, is an incompetent drunk. The British troops are outnumbered and outgunned. They know full well that their political leaders, back home, have sent them on an impossible mission. The local leader, "Shah Soojah" (a.k.a. Shuja Shah Durrani) is, in the words of one of the British characters, "a voluptuary, a wine-bibber, and almost a driveling dotard as well, maintained on his throne against the will of the entire nation by foreign bayonets." When the fighting begins it is hand-to-hand, house-to-house, street-to-street, with the Afghans using tactics the British don't know how to handle. British civilians and troops are beheaded and tortured. During the retreat to Gandomak the civilians know that the Afghan troops are closing in and, the narrator laconically informs us, "'Despatch us! Kill us! For God’s sake shoot or bayonet us!' The poor Englishman cried. And in more than one instance the request was complied with."

The war dreadful section of "English Jack" is tense reading. The author, who is not known (but shows signs of intimate knowledge of the Afghans and the landscape of Kabul), imbues it with a palpable sense of desperation. The reader is always aware that the lead characters are constantly in danger, horribly outnumbered, and not as well-equipped as the enemy. There aren't explicit descriptions of heads paraded on pikes or British women being raped, but there are many references to them, in language obvious to contemporary readers and clear even to modern readers. The British troops know how dire their own situation is and are afraid and even resigned to their own deaths. And the retreat to Gandomak is harrowing, with every one of the heroes struck down in the battle of the Khyber Pass. (They are only knocked unconscious, rather than killed, a clear cheat on the writer's part).

And "English Jack" is only one of a number of war dreadfuls I read with similar subtexts--and I only read a fraction of what's out there.

Germane? Yes. Prescient, even.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

From the Sublime to Something Else

Many are the joys of working in a library at a university with an excellent music school. You meet the most interesting music. This month I discovered a sublimely beautiful CD of Irish songs. It's Caoineadh na Maighdine/The Virgin's Lament: Irish music ranging from a pagan keen – a lament for the dead – to Latin plainchant and medieval Passion ballads to a traditional Christmas carol; variously sung in Gaelic, Latin and English by soprano Noirin Ni Riain and the Benedictine monks of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick. Noirin Ni Riain sounds more like an angel than anything on the mortal side of hammered dulcimers. The singing of the monks is beautiful in a very different way. One voice has a slight rough edge that makes his song sound incredibly real.

The good Benedictine brothers' involvement in a CD containing pagan musical elements, particularly a keen, comes as a bit of a surprise. My quick research indicates that the Roman Catholic Church at one time outlawed the keens of Ireland. On the other hand, the Roman Church does sometimes change its mind, eventually (see: Galileo) and does sometimes tolerate the envelope of the permissible being pushed (see: Fr. Andrew Greeley, who's not only still frocked but doing brisk business from his Website.)

Then this week I heard about a CD performed by the Brotherhood of St. Gregory Choir. This CD is Gregorian chant (how wonderful) settings of modern music (how remarkable.)

To be exact, it's Gregorian chant settings of songs of Elvis Presley (!!)

Yet doesn't seem to be parody. As far as I can find out, the Brotherhood of St. Gregory is an Episcopalian religious community – one with a really good Gregorian choir. I don't know what Gregorian Chant Elvis sounds like. Someone has it checked out. As soon as I catch it back in the library, I've got to hear this one. Among the tunes soberly detailed in the CD's bibliographic record are Heartbreak Hotel, Stuck On You, Love Me Tender, and Can't Help Falling in Love.

And on that note, Happy Valentine's Day.

Where have you gone, Neil Armstrong?

At Ballardian, Simon Sellars has a great examination of the Lisa Nowak story in the context of J. G. Ballard's Cape Canaveral grounded astronaut stories. Quoting from a footnote in The Atrocity Exhibition:

“Little information has been released about the psychological effects of space travel, both on the astronauts and the the public at large. Over the years NASA spokesmen have even denied that the astronauts dream at all during their space flights. But it is clear from the subsequently troubled careers of many of the astronauts (Armstrong, probably the only man for whom the 20th century will be remembered 50,000 years from now, refuses to discuss the moon-landing) that they suffered severe psychological damage.”

Check it out, then go devour some of those amazing stories if you haven't already.

Monday, February 12, 2007

I'm Robert Heinlein

Yeah, right. Go tell me another one.

I am:
Robert A. Heinlein
Beginning with technological action stories and progressing to epics with religious overtones, this take-no-prisoners writer racked up some huge sales numbers.

Which science fiction writer are you?

What is it exactly about the interwebs that compels people to code up a seemingly endless stream of these stunningly arbitrary surveys? For that matter, why do we continue to fill them out even though we know they'll be wildly inaccurate at best? The poll above gives readers the various options of being--aside from Heinlein--Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Ayn Rand, Ursula K LeGuin... and none of the justifications given for each selection are particularly convincing. I don't write like Heinlein any more than I write like LeGuin, but that doesn't mean I don't greatly admire and enjoy their writing. So with that in mind, I present to you my own anti-survey. There are no questions to answer--just a list of the contributors to No Fear of the Future and flimsy justification for their being included on this list. You simply pick out the one you like best and post it on your own blog with a link back here, plain and simple. Everyone wins!

Which No Fear of the Future writer are you?

You are...

Zoran Živković Your European origins are both stylish and mysterious. Were you not a writer, you'd certainly be a jet-setting international jewel thief. As it is, your Eastern European magical realism is the toast of the literary set, even though many of your fans haven't been able to find most of your work. When they do make it into U.S. bookstores, your works are always shelved in the "European Fiction" or "Translastions" sections, since those are safely removed from the genre ghetto.

Jess Nevins Your knowledge base is enormous--there is nothing genre-related, be it 18th century pulps, Silver Age comics or modern dance interpretations of Joanna Russ' The Female Man--that you can't discuss in dissertation-level detail. You actually view the nickname "Brainiac" as an insult, as the Coluans have misfired with that honorific so many times you consider it tainted.

Alexis Glynn Latner Despite your reputation as a purveyor of Hard SF, you do not have rivets protruding from your head. However, rivets do make up the keys on your keyboard at home. Most of your writing is short form, but you do write the occasional novel in hopes of striking it rich so you can cash it all in on a fleet of solar-powered sailplanes.

Stephen Dedman You have better hair than anyone else on this list. There are rumors that your hair is the Sampson-like source of your creative output, but that's just jealousy talking. In reality, all the disturbing stories about vampire children and deadly Asian mythological creatures come from your endless globetrotting and absorption of myriad cultures you encounter. In fact, because of your travels you could be a suave international jewel thief. The only thing stopping you, however, is your Australian origin. Seriously, name one famous Australian jewel thief.

Chris Nakashima-Brown A guerrilla avant-pop social commentator, you discourage people from describing your wit as "drier than the Sahara" to protest the growing environmental exploitation of the African continent by international conglomerates with little regard to the socio-political instability that threatens the livelihood of small-scale plantain farmers. Bloggers really, really like you.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke You try to develop ideas that are beyond the grasp of your feeble skills and understanding. Your plotting is weak. Your characterization is non-existent. You aren't funny. You do, however, have some skill at crafting alcoholic beverages. Have you considered a job in Hollywood?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Post-Dramatic Stress Syndrome

One can't debate the Master Encyclopedist regarding the inherent imaginative wonder of the marginal fantastics of the 1930s. But in the gap between Six-Gun Gorilla and C.S.I. lies a grittier pulp territory that to me feels more germane to these times: the genre of Men's Adventure.

No doubt, rediscovering the inventory of forgotten 1930s heroes has the wondrous qualities of a naturally occurring Borgesian miscellany, spinning our eyeballs with its wacky intersections of earnest G-Man action and unbounded juvenile imagination. But the reconfigured manifestation of American pulp that incubated during World War II persists as a vivid, if subtextual, presence in contemporary life. You can see it on the news every night, lurking behind the taciturn visages of the grey-haired postmodern Winston Churchill simulacra that stream geopolitical platitudes from their Beltway podia, every work subtly laced with a view of reality framed by a weaning on stories told by men who'd seen war firsthand. You can bet young Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney internalized their fair share of black and white war stories.

As the dust settled from WWII, mainstream narratives of adventure were repurposed to work out the collective experience of a world at war. You can see the germ of the thing in William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), in which three demobilized servicemen return to their archetypal Midwestern hometown. Shell-shocked war hero Dana Andrews is back to the zero state he left as a drug store soda jerk, gentle high school quarterback Harold Russell returns to his adorable fiancee with hooks for hands, and crypto-bourgeois banker Fredric March is back at the loan desk with a heightened penchant for the hard stuff and an un-businesslike disinclination to turn down fellow vets' requests for credit. A seminal cultural meta-theme for the next twenty years is introduced, as the unspoken savagery of the experience of combat infiltrates the vanilla milkshake social myths of American culture. In its wake, the subtext of every film becomes film noir.

If you look for the indirect influence of WWII in the fictive American media of the late 40s through the mid-60s, it's near ubiquitous, lurking in eyes of the adult male characters in every sitcom and sci-fi B. They have seen things you will never see.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell brilliantly elucidated the extent to which the English experience of World War I shaped the twentieth century. In the biographical Wartime, he explored similar things in the American experience of WWII, without the same wider revelatory insights. Maybe because his focus on mainstream cultural product missed the real action?

In contemporary popular culture, few Americans have escaped the repetitive hammering of Greatest Generation myths by the tag team of Steven Spielberg and Stephen F. Ambrose. D-Day, the Good War...we get it. All these Tom Hanks heroics are really a propagandistic sideshow to the real action -- the darker low-budget cultural artifacts that revel in the hidden but imminent world of human barbarity.

Sweat, blood, poontang, torture, and war with nature. The real recipe for all-American fun in the age of Empire.

The genre has been well documented recently by Adam Parfrey in "It's a Man's World" and Max Allan Collins et al in Taschen's "Men's Adventure Magazines." The men's adventure mags married the elements of 1930s pulps -- "mutant Chinks and Japs, vicious enemies of America, spear-chucking, head-collecting savages and damsels in distress saved at the last second by heroic white men" -- with "true story" threads concerning real-world barbarity and violence, albeit often embellished or invented. "The sweats" were produced by creators of "the armpit school," who developed such richly developed sub-genres as the "animal nibbler," "Sintown epics," "prison breakouts," "ingenious G.I. manufactured contraptions," "revenge trackdown," "death treks," and the sadistic "leg shacklers" with their overt sex tortures, "Nazi/Jap/Commie/Cuban style."

Every man a putative Conan, struggling to prevail to live the next day in a savage world of craven human barbarity, sadistic civilizations, and predatory nature waiting for its opportunity to reassert itself. Welcome to the American century (1941-20??), can I get you a drink?

Though consigned to the back racks, these characters and their narratives showed up all over the place in the mainstream media, with the colors a bit more subdued. While the men's adventure mags petered out after the Summer of Love, their archetypes fought their way across the screen in a dozen Charlton Heston apocalypses and their myriad kin, and informed the demeanor of a hundred cathode ray 70s lawmen. The cultural impact of enlisting a large chunk of a society's male population to fight imperial wars has serious legs. And when those soldiers are reintroduced to the society as civilians, the cynical revelations of their experiences spread through the culture, notwithstanding the taciturn emotional reservation of that Great Uncle who doesn't want to talk about the War.

After Nam, the American Ronin take on a more addled aspect -- the Bruce Dern visage of the vet as hallucinatory sniper. Maybe because, in a more liberal media culture, they no longer have lurid underground media to slake their forbidden thirst to explore their experiences of The Horror, these stone-eyed antiheroes work it out on our soundstage alter egos, the civilians walking the streets transformed into the Gooks of their waking nightmares. Hollywood product from 1975 to 1985 had no better explanation for outbursts of random violence than: "Vietnam Flashback." David Morrell's Rambo had a healthy dose of "weasels ripped my flesh," and the Sylvester Stallone version practically mainlined the stuff. To say nothing of Chuck Norris' Bo Gritz routine, Soldier of Fortune magazine's mujahideen travelogues, and all the other P.O.W./M.I.A. adventures that populated the 80s. (And in a parallel realm, the urban street reveals the stories of a generation of African-Americans devastated by the drug wars.)

Fast forward to the present. As discussed last week on NPR's "On the Media," the myths of returning soldiers being spit on by protesters are back, spooling up the meme for its latest re-configuration. Falluja flashback? Other signs are there, like, the underground site where returnees from the front lines of the War on Terror gain admittance by swapping their most horrific photos of wartime atrocities and the occasional z-grade amateur porn, complete with captions that make look like a Disney idea of daring. Bring on the warporn.

One expects we needn't wait long for the GWOT-Vet archetype to emerge in the mass media. His base prototype is already swirling around out there in the narrative ether like Deadman, waiting for new shells to appropriate. What will the thousand-mile stare of the antihero back from the front look like channeled through YouTube?

(Note: The 1977 Newsweek cover and Poseidon Adventure poster are both illustrations by Mort Künstler -- can you tell which of the men's adventure covers are his?)

Friday, February 9, 2007

1947 v. 1933

Hey, Jess: I don't know about Gil Grissom , but I think this guy could handle your apes, no matter how well-armed.

Check back later for a more detailed discussion of the memic persistence of the Men's Adventure pulps and weird heroes possessed by the ghosts of World War II.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Back in my day, we had *really* fantastic stories.

In many ways this is the Golden Age of popular culture, if only because so much of our popcult past is now available. When clips of Sapphire and Steel and fan-made trailers for Quatermass episodes are accessible at the click of a mouse, and when formerly unfindable rarities (and that’s putting it nicely) like Anthony Skene’s Monsieur Zenith the Albino and George Brewer’s The Witch of Ravensworth can be easily and affordably purchased, what else can we call this era?

And yet, and yet.

It can be (and has been) argued that the war between the geeks and the mundanes is over, that we’ve won, that science fiction (and more generally, the fantastic) has conquered the mainstream. And certainly the most popular television shows--American Idol, Grey’s Anatomy, the various CSI iterations, and of course Heroes–have science fictional elements to them. But with the sole exception of the much-beloved (and rightly so) Hiro Nakamura, the science fiction and fantastic available now is, for the most part, of the grim, serious, and ultimately dreary variety.

Which is why–and I’m not saying Kristine Kathryn Rusch is right, because she’s not–-the Aughts are not the best years for lovers of the science fictional and the fantastic. No, that title goes to the 1930s, which were in fact the greatest decade in the history of popular culture.

Don’t believe me?

The 1930s gave us the following:

In The Startler, Ray Mon Hai, the white South Seas Tarzan-alike, who fought evil while riding on the back of Gooloo, his intelligent pet shark.

On the radio show Nemesis, Inc, a female private detective who took her marching orders, via a filter microphone, from her dead father, in a Charlie-in-Charlie's Angels arrangement. (Only it didn't, y'know, suck).

In Spain, a "pulp americano" treated readers to the sheriff of an Arizona town fighting the forces of Fu Manchu, capturing what appears to have been Captain Nemo's Nautilus (while clad in ten gallon hat and chaps), and then, after being killed, rising from the grave to continue fighting crime, this time letting his Chinese assistant take the lead.

In the heldromans, the German version of the pulps, several authors, working for a variety of publishers, decided to create a shared pulp world (and what's more, seem not to have told their publishers about it), so that, throughout most of the decade (until the Nazis put the boot on the neck of the industry), you could demonstrate, via published crossovers, that everyone from Captain Mors, Der Luftpirat to Sun Koh, the Nazi Doc Savage, existed in the same world.

In Lisbon, Reinaldo Ferreira, the Lester Dent of Portuguese pulps, wrote a series of stories about a Portuguese aviator who went a.w.o.l. from the Spanish Foreign Legion so he could fight for Abd el Krim and the Rif rebels. The aviator was aided by his 16-year-old Japanese copilot, who was also the aviator's lover. Later, the aviator fought the international crime syndicate, "Trust Z," the Trust's diabolical leader, Dr. Xavier Montanha, and Montanha's gorilla assassins.

Graphic Arts, of Minneapolis, gave us the pulp Vice-Squad Detective, which can be fairly described (it's how I described it for McFarland) as a "Spicy weird menace mystery pulp," which surely is a good example of the axiom that too much is too much, but way too much is just enough.

In Argosy, Will McMorrow described the adventures of Terry Kilroe, industrial efficiency expert, whose job is curing sick businesses: "his is the job of the expert diagnostician, the trouble-shooter, the minute-man, called in to combat waste and carelessness and crooked dealing and the vagaries of human nature. He does not think in digits."

And, most gloriously, the single greatest achievement of humanity:

A baby gorilla is caught in Africa and brought to the United States. In Colorado the baby gorilla is sold to Johnson, a prospector. Johnson is a kind man and treats the gorilla well, naming him "O'Neil" and feeding and raising him. O’Neil grows up to love Johnson. Johnson teaches O’Neil how to dig, fetch firewood, haul up buckets of water, cook, clean, and load and fire a revolver. Unfortunately, Johnson is murdered for what he knows about "the great motherlode." When O’Neil finds Johnson’s body, he swears revenge. O’Neil straps on a bandolier and two six-shooters and begins tracking the murderers across a hundred miles of Colorado mountains and badlands. He picks them off one by one, meanwhile discovering a talent for holding up stagecoaches and using them to chase fleeing gunmen. The death of Johnson is ultimately avenged by O'Neil, better known as...Six-Gun Gorilla!

Now, be honest. Which would you rather watch and read: the ritual humiliation that is American Idol, the celebration of bad writing, bad acting, and appallingly unlikable characters that is Grey's Anatomy, and the fetishistic investigation porn of CSI, or stories about chimpanzees enforcing the law on the streets of London, zombie sheriffs, and dead men telling their daughters about what their next case is going to be?

Thought so.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the superiority of the 1930s.

(Information on all of these characters and 4500+ more will be found in my Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes, due out in Fall 2008 from MonkeyBrain Books).