Monday, May 25, 2015

Zilla the Impaler

Here is a watercolor sketch of my recurrent character Zilla, one-time cupbearer of Vaustus the Enochite. It's 3.5" by 5" on Arches hot-pressed. I listened to a number of Clark Ashton Smith stories while drawing and painting it, including "Vulthoom," "The Weaver in the Vault," "The Tale of Satampra Zeiros," and "The Abominations of Yondo."

In other news, author Davide Mana of Karavansara fame has read and enjoyed Dragonfly. Read his review here. Rather than quoting from it, I think I'll just ask you to go read it yourself, because it's all very good. We obviously have very similar tastes in fantastic literature (he mentions Smith, Eddison, Hodgson, Peake, and Wolfe), so I take it as a great compliment that he enjoyed Dragonfly so much.

Incidentally, the one flaw he mentions is the lack of an e-book, a fault that has now been remedied. Go get it!

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dragonfly on Kindle

Being an incorrigible luddite, I've never owned or used an e-book reader of any variety. But I've read articles, you know? It's my understanding that, unlike print books, e-books don't "smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land." Also, people tell me that readers are terrible for pressing flowers and autumn leaves.

Nevertheless, it's come to my attention that some would appreciate the availability of Dragonfly as an e-book. And who am I to argue with potential patrons? Therefore, behold: Dragonfly is now available on Kindle. Price is $2.99, which is the lowest they'll let me charge. Get it here.

Incidentally, if you've already purchased the print edition from Amazon, you should be able to get the Kindle version for free through the MatchBook program.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On Whiteness

I'm currently working on an adventure story tentatively titled "Salt and Sorcery." I'm liking it very much, but the amount of liking I have for a particular story seems to have little to do with its publishability, so who knows if it will ever see the light of day. It's title is merely descriptive, because it's about (1) salt, and (2) sorcery, both interesting subjects in their own right.

Now, salt, as everyone knows, is white, so I here leave the reader with the tail-end of Melville's meditation on the terror of whiteness in Moby-Dick, Chapter 42, "The Whiteness of the Whale," which inspires my story (and also my character Zilla, who comes into my writing from time to time):
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink? And when we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues – every stately or lovely emblazoning – the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge – pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
The Sea of Ice, Caspar David Friederich

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dragonfly Reviewed

Distracted as I've been this week by my own personal grading apocalypse (I'm a college professor), I've neglected to point readers to this Black Gate review of Dragonfly by Fletcher Vredenburgh of Swords & Sorcery fame.
Dragonfly is the first of a planned tetralogy. In this day of calculated, mass-marketed, trend-following books, here is a self-published adventure, practically handcrafted, with cover, map, and interior art all done by Ordoñez himself. It tells of a young prince let loose in a world of steam engines, complacent aristocrats, and tunnel-dwelling workers, and a social order on the verge of being overthrown. Ordoñez' style hearkens back to the likes of A. E. van Vogt and Jack Vance, as well as Edgar Rice Burroughs. Heck, as you can see from the cover, Dragonfly would look right at home on a shelf full of volumes from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. [...]
Every chapter, nearly every page, is filled with such wondrous images. Ordoñez may mock himself by naming his publishing company Hythloday (talker of nonsense) House, but if nonsense, it's of a sort that will draw me back again and again. There's a degree of creativity and depth of thoughtfulness present here that is absent in most run-of-the-mill fantasy. 
If you have any taste for fantasy that doesn't simply mimic the fashions of the day you will find Dragonfly worth your attention. Fantasy gives the writer license to create things that do not just look like our world in fancy dress or with pointed ears. Ordoñez has embraced the opportunity to create a thrilling, mysterious adventure that stands out from the packs of grimdark books and Tolkien-clones. 
You should read it.
As an aside, let me say I'm glad someone got my little Hythloday joke. Raphael Hythloday is of course the narrator of More's Utopia, possibly named for the angel Raphael in the Book of Tobit, an interesting deuterocanonical text that inspires some of my demonology.

So, anyway, have you bought my book yet? If so, I thank you on behalf of my muse, and sincerely hope you enjoy it. If not, why not?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The light fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a time of chaos, ruined dreams, this wasted land. But most of all, I remember the road warrior, the man we called Max. 
The Road Warrior
It seems so rare these days to see something truly new. Paradoxically, despite the fact that it resurrects an old franchise, that's exactly what we have in Mad Max: Fury Road. It brings back all I love about the first two installments, but with a strange and thought-provoking twist. It takes risks.

I've read not a single review, because I wanted my mind to be untainted by what people are saying. Some of the talk leading up to Fury Road makes it out to be a mindless action movie. Don't believe it. People say that about The Road Warrior, too. An action movie it may be, but mindless it's not. Yes, it's light on dialogue, but in movies it's possible, you know, to make actions speak. I'll try not to mention any spoilers in what follows, but I'm going to talk about various elements of the film, so you might want to go see it before reading, lest I taint your mind.

So, what's Fury Road all about, you ask? I'll tell you. It's about femininity. The whole thing, from beginning to end, is an exploration of what it means to be a woman, in all its biological messiness. I know, crazy, right? But there it is. Where The Road Warrior has a tanker full of sand (oops, spoiler alert), Fury Road has a tanker full of breast milk. Really. Max washes his bloody face in it. The pallid War Pups and War Boys slurp up bottles fresh from sedentary chattel slaves who, corpulent as prehistoric Venus figurines, sit in a row to be perpetually pumped like so many cows. (Late in the movie they play a singularly symbolic role.) This ownership of women is what drives the plot, for, whereas Beyond Thunderdome centers around a band of lost children, Fury Road follows the fortunes of a bevy of pregnant girls – cult leader Immortan Joe's Five Wives – escaping from slavery as breeders. Breast milk and water and blood – Max is branded as a universal donor – enter the plot again and again.

Themes of fertility aren't new to the series, of course. The Wasteland in which The Road Warrior takes place is freighted with its full mythological weight. But the concern there is more with male virility. Max enters the compound as a living source of potency, instantly drawing the inhabitants into his orbit and displacing Pappagallo (Daddy Rooster), who later in the film is injured close by the groin, reminiscent of the Fisher King. The other males in the compound are a gallery of failures – senile, crippled, conniving. The Warrior Woman and Big Rebecca have had to step up as fighters and leaders. On the other hand, the vermin besieging the compound correspond to a kind of male S&M nightmare (or fantasy, depending on your predilections), with Wez and his "armor bearer" the Golden Youth, the Lord Humungus (whose head looks like a giant pulsating testicle), Toady (who lives up to his name), and so forth. It also probes anxieties related to fatherhood. Max, whose infant son died in the first installment, is presented as a kind of "deadbeat dad" to the Feral Kid, underscored by the streak of white hair they share.

Fertility is the focus of Fury Road as well, but here the emphasis is more on bearing than begetting. We're presented with two extremes – a people in which women are treated as objects, and a people in which women are the only members. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads the girls from the former to the latter, only to find it a poisonous mud flat. Her Green Place has become another wasteland, and the last remaining seeds are preserved like relics by the surviving women with nothing to make them grow.

Tom Hardy makes an excellent Max – sometimes I forgot I wasn't watching Mel – but Max isn't the main protagonist. He's a main protagonist. He shares the spotlight with Furiosa, and is often overshadowed by her. I'm not sure yet if this is altogether successful, because the viewer's interest ends up being divided. I'll have to watch it a few times to really be able to judge. It is a Mad Max movie, you know, and that means that Max has to have enough to do. A related sore point is the fact that Max's legendary black V8 Interceptor is shown in all its glory for only a brief while – it was cruel, terribly cruel, to have it play so small a role!

Anyway, I think this division of interest between two protagonists is intentional, an attempt to forge one character out of two. In The Road Warrior, an Australian bobtail, or "two-headed" skink, sits in the foreground at one point, and I've always taken this as a reference to the role of the tanker as a decoy. Well, Fury Road opens with an actual two-headed lizard, a visual reference, perhaps, to the two-headed character of Max and Imperator Furiosa. The title, too, might be seen as a marriage of Furiosa and the Road Warrior.

Throughout Fury Road it's the women who inspire the men to act. At the beginning, Max is presented as a scavenger, a survivor, a blood bag. Shockingly (to me at least, an old Mad Max fan), he's compared visually with Johnny the Boy at one point, with the Defiant and Broken Victims at another. The first time his actions go beyond self-interest, it's because he's doesn't want to see Furiosa's strength and devotion go to waste. And the War Boy Nux who goes along for the ride, unwillingly at first, grows into a man through the ministrations of one of the girls. That's not to say the women are accessories. They hold their own, and then some. But in survival situations it's usually men who bear the brunt of the fighting, by biological necessity. Here we see that their strength is nothing without their sexual complements.

Blah blah blah. Did I mention that Fury Road has awesome stunts? My God, it has awesome stunts. Filmed in front of a green screen it was not. Imagine the chase scene at the end of The Road Warrior on steroids, roaring through canyons, mudflats, dune fields, salt flats, and a titanic dust storm, and that's this movie in a nutshell. (Apart from all the fertility stuff.) It's raw, and grimy, and bloody. For the space of two hours, you inhabit it. The bad guys are more delightfully bizarre than ever before, but Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, a.k.a. Toecutter) takes the cake.

On top of all that, it's one of the most visually beautiful movies I've seen in a while. The desert is a kind of poetry in George Miller's hands. He's a painter working with a palette of red and brown and blue. I'm so glad we got the chance to see what he's really capable of here.

Cf. this post, which has links to various thoughts on the topic of Max and his relatives.

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me that the Mad Max series might be seen as chronicling the abdication of men and the assumption by women of their traditional roles. In the first installment we enter a world in which the ideal of masculine heroism is starting to ring hollow, the line between law enforcer and lawless nomad is becoming blurred, and women and children are left defenseless. In The Road Warrior, we see that these women and children have stepped up to compensate for their absent or ineffectual husband- and father-figures. Next, the founder and ruler of Bartertown in Beyond Thunderdome is a woman (Aunty Entity, played by Tina Turner), while the lost "feral children" have begun to form their own society.

Put in that context, Fury Road seems to rehash some of these themes while forming the next logical step in their development. The women rebel on their own account from their subjection but in the end the sexes are able to come to a mutual understanding on their new and more equal footing. Significantly, the next installment is to be titled Furiosa. Perhaps it will continue this arc.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mad Max Returns

I am so pumped about the opening of Mad Max: Fury Road later this week. There, I just had to get that off my chest.

The first two installments – Mad Max and The Road Warrior – are a couple of my favorite movies; the latter I've seen so many times I have it memorized. (Not that that's difficult!) Beyond Thunderdome I pass over in icy silence.

What has me so pumped is that Fury Road is directed by George Miller, the auteur to whom we own the original trilogy. Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, an amusing choice to me, as Christopher Nolan's take on Bane reminded me so much of The Lord Humungus. However, this enthusiastic post is prompted by my discovery that Fury Road also stars Hugh Keays-Byrne, the actor who played Toecutter in Mad Max. The trailers I've seen are starkly beautiful and recreate what I love about the visuals of The Road Warrior.

In the meantime, here's a few thoughts I've had on Mad Max in the past:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Willa Cather on the Art of Fiction

One of my favorite literary authors is Willa Cather. I like her more than anything else for her sensitivity to the land as a living, vital force shaping the destinies of her characters rather than a mere backdrop for action. She's also a person I admire as having found her own way through life. After a youth marked by a certain amount of what must have seemed eccentric behavior to her fellow townsmen (conducting scientific experiments, adopting men's clothing and a masculine nickname, etc.), she set out to become a physician and subsequently became a writer, yet retained a deep respect for and understanding of the milieu that had produced her, whereas a lesser person would merely have shaken the dust from her feet.

A few years ago I made a detour whilst traveling through Nebraska to visit Red Cloud, her hometown and the setting of many of her novels. As I've mentioned before, there's nothing quite like visiting the place that most influenced an artist you admire.

On the Divide, near Red Cloud, Nebraska.
We took the tour of her childhood home and visited all the salient landmarks, including the drug store (where she performed dissections), the opera house (where she performed in plays), and so forth, guided by the kindly old ladies at the visitors' center. Being great admirers of Death Comes for the Archbishop (which happens to be set in the Santa Fe area), we made the mistake of mentioning it to said ladies, only to have it hastily brushed aside, despite their glowing praise of works set in the Red Cloud area. Amusing.

On right edge of the window you can see the drug store.
Anyway, what brought this post on is my discovery of the following short essay, offered for your inspiration (emphasis mine):

On the Art of Fiction 

One is sometimes asked about the "obstacles" that confront young writers who are trying to do good work. I should say the greatest obstacles that writers today have to get over, are the dazzling journalistic successes of twenty years ago, stories that surprised and delighted by their sharp photographic detail and that were really nothing more than lively pieces of reporting. The whole aim of that school of writing was novelty—never a very important thing in art. They gave us, altogether, poor standards—taught us to multiply our ideas instead of to condense them. They tried to make a story out of every theme that occurred to them and to get returns on every situation that suggested itself. They got returns, of a kind. But their work, when one looks back on it, now that the novelty upon which they counted so much is gone, is journalistic and thin. The especial merit of a good reportorial story is that it shall be intensely interesting and pertinent today and shall have lost its point by tomorrow. 
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole—so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, "The Sower," the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable. All the discarded sketches that went before made the picture what it finally became, and the process was all the time one of simplifying, of sacrificing many conceptions good in themselves for one that was better and more universal. 
Any first rate novel or story must have in it the strength of a dozen fairly good stories that have been sacrificed to it. A good workman can't be a cheap workman; he can't be stingy about wasting material, and he cannot compromise. Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand—a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods—or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. The courage to go on without compromise does not come to a writer all at once—nor, for that matter, does the ability. Both are phases of natural development. In the beginning the artist, like his public, is wedded to old forms, old ideals, and his vision is blurred by the memory of old delights he would like to recapture.
Courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Happy Star Wars Day...Chumps!

I was never a fan of Voyager, but Mr. Tuvok here does an excellent job of trolling the Star Wars fanbase. His many malapropisms are the perfect payback to all those people who think Star Track is a thing.

If you're bored, check out my solution to this Star Trek logic puzzle (and subsequent victory dance), which I had to amend recently, thanks to a pesky reader who detected a lacuna. (Ha ha, I'm speaking facetiously, of course: among the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy is Instructing the Ignorant, which naturally includes Correcting the Wrong. I just hope I'm not in for any more mercy, as it makes me all sweaty and insecure to have my errors pointed out.)

*     *     *

After writing this rather frivolous post, I find that the actress Grace Lee Whitney, a.k.a. Yeoman Rand, has passed away. When I was a boy I thought she was just about the prettiest actress on TV...after Nichelle Nichols. She played a good strong character, as seen in episodes like "Charlie X" and "The Enemy Within," which also unfortunately reflect some of the attitudes toward female professionals at the time. But I guess that's been true of just about every incarnation of Star Trek since. Anyway, requiescat in pace, Grace Lee Whitney. Thank you for struggling to overcome your personal demons and serving as an inspiration to others.