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Archive for August, 2009

Edward Whittemore – Sinai Tapestry, Conan (game), Clark Ashton Smith – Tales of Zothique

Posted by Mike on August 26, 2009

Edward Whittemore’s Quin’s Shanghai Circus is a stone classic in my book, one of the tightest, most profound books I’ve ever read. It’s rare in that it not only has a totally compelling plot and middle but the opening sequence is amazing (hooked almost instantly) and the ending is truly one of the most cosmic, deeply and emotionally affecting conclusions to a book. And I hate endings usually, I rarely find any book’s finale so perfect. So it was with some trepidation that I started Sinai Tapestry, which is the first of a quartet and also the first of Whittemore’s last five books. Which is why it has been a couple years since I read Quin’s, I’m almost afraid to run out of Whittemore.

Unsurprisingly Sinai Tapestry isn’t as good or as whole of a book as Quin’s, but I’ll suggest that’s partially because it doesn’t have a comparable ending to its beginning and middle, in fact I’d say that the last 30 or 40 pages wasn’t nearly as strong as the rest of the book, which indeed was on par with his first book. Whittemore’s one of the most cosmic, evocative writers I can think of, he manages to evoke so much energy and mysticism with only a smattering of words, as if he’s a master of the duality of complexity and simplicity, each revolving round and round as one elucidates the other. He’s also a master of creating almost extraordinarily large characters, memorable people who arise out of bizarre conditions and excruciating pasts. In Sinai Tapestry you meet a gigantic deaf man who’s a product of a bizarre and wealthy English heritage who becomes a botanist. Another is a monk whose discovery of a vastly different original bible (an alternate Codex Sinaiticus) causes him to go to extreme ends to forge a different document and bury the original whose discovery would otherwise change the world, which causes him to go completely insane. And an Irish freedom fighter who takes on the English army by himself before he’s almost tracked down, leaving to Israel disguised as a nun, later befriending an old man wearing the mask of a Crusader who claims to have lived for millenia, defending Jerusalem from all its usurpers. These people and the generations after, are woven together in a tapestry that at its heart shows great compassion, not only in the aftermath of short and sweet romances that fall apart to the suffering of all, but in their greater ideals, to see a city and region riven by centuries of war finally heal itself. There seems to be an almost unwritten idea that there is little difference between the idea of an overall guiding hand causing synchronicities and the randomness of humanity as it struggles with its animal/divine dualistic nature and this is where Whittemore always succeeds greatly, his people not only are larger than life in many ways but they’re real human beings at heart.

Overall, the climax is different yet similar to the massive tragedy at the heart of Quin’s Shanghai Circus, but while that book wraps up its entirely with one of the best, most cosmic climaxes in literature, Sinai Tapestry seems a bit more rushed, and overall somewhat unfinished. But fortunately there are three more books to come with characters in this book crossing over into the next. And from what I’ve read, the second, Jerusalem Poker, appears to be the pinnacle of his work, so I can hardly wait, even if I still have that urge to stretch Whittemore’s five books as long as I can.

Conan, the XBox 360 game, at least to me seems a bit closer to the original Robert E. Howard milieu and character than the movies although I still think they’re going too much brute and too little finesse with the use of Ron Perlman as voice, who seems particularly unenthusiastic in his voice acting during this story. In Howard’s original mythos, you’re always reminded that while Conan is barbarian, he’s also instinctively intelligent in a way that later incarnations never seem to get quite right.

But of course this is an Xbox 360 hack and slash game for the most part, although it does provide some puzzles to solve, most of which are pretty easy with a bit of thought. You’re third person and are given the option of two weapon, weapon and shield and two handed weapon styles of fighting, all of which have role playing like improvement scales, which come in a bewildering variety of button pushing sequences, many of which were often difficult for an aging guy like me to remember (not to mention I got through almost the entire game without even using parry very often). Once you get the hang of the controls, it turns out to be a lot of fun as you fend of hordes of enemies, punctuated with level ending boss fights, of which these are both the most fun and frustrating parts of the games.

First up in the frustrating category, however, are the jump sequences. I found that for most of the precarious jumps, your leaping point was actually graphically a millimeter after the precipice you were jumping from, playing havoc with timing and causing me, in parts, to spend dozens of times just trying to get through a sequence. Second, in the climaxes of many of the boss fights, you spend a lot of time trying to hack the boss up in the right manner only to be sent into a sequence of split second, multi four-button pushes that were easily missed, only to be knocked apart and sent back to fighting the boss. These were particularly frustrating in the latter stages of the game. Perhaps slightly less frustrating was these button pushes show up during some pretty breathtaking cut scene like sequences that I would have enjoyed getting a better look at, in fact the great joy of the boss battles where that they were multipart and epic with all kinds of gigantic moves that were a lot of fun to witness. And I’ll give it to the game, only rarely were the save sequences or restarts inconvenient, which is nice as repeating long difficult segments are one of the most irritating parts of most poorly realized games.

Graphics were pretty great overall and certainly they brought to life Cimmeria and, later, Stygia in equal measure, with scenarios from pirate isles, to a very cool fight with a giant squid like creature on board a ship, to lost cities and big temples. For a game that was really cheap when I ended up buying it (the benefits of getting an Xbox 360 3 years after it was originally released is you can lay back and wait for $55 games to drop into the $10-$20 range) I found this a good buy with the challenges all in the reasonable category. I felt even with difficult boss fights that repeats helped to learn better strategy; in the end only the button presses, which I finally got right of course, were a pain. But yes, this is definitely early 20th century, misogynist sort of fantasy as one gets bonus points from rescuing robot-like topless maidens, but hey at least that’s true to Howard, right?

And remotely in the same sort of feel is Clark Ashton Smith’s Tales of Zothique. I kind of started reading this collection of stories because the fourth volume of collected Smith stories from Night Shade was due out and not only that but late (I just barely held back from posting a diatribe on this company’s rather poor customer service and communication here) and I was ready for another Smith fix after reading Necronomicon Press’s Hyperborea collection years ago. Zothique’s often considered his best cycle and it’s easy to see why. Smith brings a poetic beauty to what is a dark and horrible dying earth milieu where corrupt kings and necromancers conjure up dreadful and pandimensional evils. Each one of his stories bespeaks of the doom of the protagonists, often common soldiers or unwary lovers deigning to rescue their beloved drawn into the vast, uncaring netherworld of uncaring royalty who live lavish and greedy lives and who snuff out lives at barely a whim. In other stories the royalty also gets their penance by crossing their own or other powerful sorcerers. The spectre of early Lord Dunsany reigns pretty heavy over this milieu in both its cosmic size and epic nature, but Dunsany was never so brutal and chilling and despite the Hyperborea cycle having much more overtly in common with Lovecraft’s Cthulhy mythos, this too is riddled with eldritch horror, black curses and an uncaring cosmos. While I think the typical criticisms applied to Lovecraft also apply to Smith, such as cipher characters and an overreliance on drippy adjectives, at the same length so much fantasy today could use such a sense of depth and poetic description, as well as creepiness, as much as we can do without primitive racial stereotypes. But overall I think this is the well, at least in part, where great writers like Jack Vance, not to mention video game designers like those who worked on Conan, got their amazing visual evocativeness from.

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The Listening Log I

Posted by Mike on August 12, 2009

Here’s a rough list of blurbs of things I’ve been finding cool over the last so many years in a sort of random, rambling, haphazard fashion… After the cut Read the rest of this entry »

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Brooks Hansen – The Chess Garden, Paul Di Filippo – Lost Pages, Torchwood – Children of Earth

Posted by Mike on August 3, 2009

I mentioned I had finished Brooks Hansen’s The Chess Garden a week or so ago. It’s a book I probably started a year or two ago, before I had a several month period lull where I wasn’t reading too much as I got a new TV and Xbox 360 and had to take time to absorb them into a multitasking personal regime, which I’ve managed to more or less (and I’ve spent the last month reintegrating my music hobby back in with all of these).

Anyway I mention this because it didn’t take me that long based on anything about the book. Quite to the contrary the book is a masterpiece, just a singularly accomplished novel (or perhaps mosaic novel). First of all the book is basically “straight” fiction, except that maybe 3/4 of it reads like a fantasy in the vein of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. This 3/4 is broken up into 12 letters which are sent home by the protagonist, a Dutch doctor who lived in the late 19th/early 20th century, from South Africa where the doctor went at the twilight of his life. The letters (and the fictional stories within in) are basically to his wife and his community and they are basically about his journey to and within an island called the Antipodes, somewhere in the southern hemisphere, which is populated by chess and other game pieces. Interspersed within these letters, which are read to the community he ended up in the United States (which was where he and his wife lived and set up the Chess Garden, a place which became sort of the central meeting place of the community both while he lived there and after he had left) is the man’s biography which recounts in a much drier fashion the man’s youth, how he met his wife, his work in Germany and subsequent difficulties and then onto what is a spiritual change of some sort that almost acts as the center of the novel and sort of shines a light on the entire book.

This would be basically his subtly handled conversion to Swedenborgian Christianity, a type of mysticism even fairly unique from, say, Rosicrucianism and other forms of Christian mysticism. I’m not blowing a plot point by saying this so much as it’s handled in a third person voice and discussed as a matter of theory, but what it does is make one muse on all the letters that have been recounted so far in terms of whether they are an allegory of this philosophy. And perhaps it’s done to keep one guessing as the philosophy itself is played fairly subtly until one absolutely profound recounting towards the end of the book which happens before the doctor leaves for South Africa during a conversation with a man researching mysticism. In it, perhaps, it brings thought to a religion that in many ways and hands has grown utterly static and mired in doctrine and rules over the years and shows why the Bible isn’t the enemy of mysticism it’s often perceived to be by more fundamentalist types, but that it actually can be read in profoundly different ways.

The Doctor’s journey in the Antipodes, while brimming with invention and creativity rarely seen in fantasy, also deals with heady philosophical concepts. As the Doctor learns during his travels, all concepts hold within themselves an original and perfect conception of each one, a reification that’s dealt with as the Doctor discovers that no matter what object exists, there’s a perfect version of it that a mysterious group of people (or chessmen rather) is trying to destroy. The theory early on is that if such an object is destroyed, then everybody forgets the purpose of said object and Hansen describes inventively a few of these objects with bizarre names, whose purpose is long forgotten. Looking back it almost seems to be if the author is drawing attention to the idea that perhaps there are philosophical and spiritual truths that have also been long forgotten due to the works of those trying to eliminate them. Of course the resolution of this thread is brough to a climax in a recounting of the mythical history of the Antipodes later in the book, in a powerful trilogy of stories that could easily have existed as fairy tales of their own. In fact that can be said for many of the episodes here and why the book is dense and rich, there are perhaps 15 episodes in this book that could have existed as nearly perfect short stories. It does seem to make the historical biographical work of the doctor seem rather staid in comparison, but the full story loses many layers of depth without it, because it is within this recounting that you learn of the tragedy and suffering behind the man’s life and how he eventually moves on to surpass this. The theme of the idea of giving of one’s self and the idea that the extreme of this is selfishness is also encountered and it is within the polar aspects of so much spiritual theory that the sublimity of the tale really comes out, that true spirituality and life aren’t necessarily the end point but the journey itself.

And like all truly profound and deep works, the book has you musing long after the final pages. I’m currently reading (and almost finished with Edward Whittemore’s Sinai Tapestry) and both of these works have really made me think over what the term “cosmic” really means. Both books, without having to spell anything out, evoke a sense of vastness, of a web that ties everything together while leaving the human viewpoint almost bereft of any true understanding of the larger picture. They intertwine a simple human viewpoint with the idea of the synchronicity or guiding hand which seems to dole out great suffering and simple forgiveness, while intimating that perhaps something vast and ancient shares space with the temporal and finite. And in both books they filled my soul with a sweet ache, an idea of a sense of greater purpose with the realization that it’s something one can only experience out of the corner of one’s consciousness.

While, the stories in Paul di Filippo’s Lost Pages aren’t (perhaps by nature) quite up to the profound worlds of Hansen and Whittemore, they too deal with cosmic things if only by the nature of playfully rearranging the histories of famous figures from science fiction writers to public personalities. All of these stories show a deft touch and vast intellect that ties together everything from historical events to the subtle personalities of well known individuals. In one story a young (post Empire of the Sun) J G Ballard hitches a ride in a plane flown by a pair of famous pilots in a world where a plague has wiped out most of the Western world. In another, a soldier in an alternate history learns in a bar of a history that never was and a third world war averted. And in another three science fiction writers who took different paths in a new timeline, come together to stop an alien threat only to find in the end that they become newly reborn in manner hilariously similar to their known work here. And really because so many of these stories are obscure and in fact almost insular on so many levels, I felt like I missed some of the most subtle cleverness. Overall it doesn’t seem so much like a book for SF readers, but one for SF writers whose research has given them insight into the way worlds collide and how personalities often treated with fondness would have reacted to the very weirdness they often imagined.

Torchwood: Childen of Earth, a miniseries that basically acts as the third season of the show, aired a few weeks ago in Britain and a couple weeks ago here, but due to Comcast’s inability or lack of desire to pick up BBC America in HD in Sacramento, I decided to forego transmission and pick up the Blu-Ray as it was released the very Tuesday after. Torchwood’s an adult Doctor Who offshoot that kind of plays like the X-Files meets Angel in the Who universe and while I’ve found it entertaining for two seasons, I’ve never thought it great until this miniseries. Quite frankly this was probably one of the most harrowing and intense 5 hours of television I’ve seen in years and perhaps some of the best TV I’ve seen since maybe the fourth season of the Wire or the initial season of Breaking Bad. And it is so because like these shows it’s unflinching in its set up and repercussions. Basically this extraterrestrial organization, already depleted at this point due to the outcome of previous seasons is witness to a series of events where the children of the entire world stop all at once and start recanting creepily “We are coming.” And so the latest alien invasion is afoot, the Doctor is nowhere to be found, and not only that but the British secret service sees fit to eliminate Torchwood due to a historical event the ageless and deathless Captain Jack Harkness was not only witness to but complicit in, that is, the previous arrival of the same aliens. The repercussions are brutal as the team is splintered and left to exist on their own strengths as the shadow government moves to encounter the alien threat on its own terms. The further revealing of the aliens, why they’re there, the secrets behind the original encounter and the horrible consequences the government takes to stand off this alien threat are met boldly and unlike the previous series or virtually any other television. The climax and ending of the miniseries are so tragic and morally ambiguous you’re left thinking about it long after it ends (and one of these tragic conclusions is very reminiscent of the end of The Shield). What really blew me away in the end was the acting of the whole cast and in particular John Barrowman, who I never thought had this type of talent within him based on his previous work, but this was truly virtuoso, as was the entire cast including all the guests. Perhaps the critics of Russell T Davies who often held he couldn’t write anything dark might finally relent now. And overall, like all really good TV, it already makes me want to play it again, although I think I’ll wait until I’ve got the psychic strength to go through that again.

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