The Golden Age

Haha, this is nuts. I had no idea mental illness played such a part in the development of science fiction:

In 1950 Horace (H.L.) Gold launched the last of the Golden Age pulps, Galaxy Science Fiction, with the deliberate intention of de-emphasizing technology and concentrating on serious sociological and psychological stories. Unfortunately Gold also suffered from severe agoraphobia, and many writers quickly realized that they could sell to Galaxy by writing fiction that catered to Gold’s illness, hence the large number of “domed city,” “underground city,” and “the whole world is just one big city” stories that dominated printed science fiction well into the 1970s.

Do the Mario

Turns out Salman Rushdie stayed in and played Mario when he was in hiding after that fatwa thing:

Apparently when there was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie—when religious fanatics wanted to kill him because of a book he had written—he was in hiding, and he had nothing to do but play Super Mario Bros., and so he was just playing Super Mario Bros. all day long. And he later wrote two kids books, Haroun and the Sea of Stories and Luka and the Fire of Life, which are inspired by Super Mario Bros., the second one apparently moreso than the first. But it involves people punching objects and having coins come out and that kind of thing. It’s very explicitly inspired by Super Mario Bros.

Genius at work

As I mentioned, I read The Count of Monte Cristo for that anime podcast I’m in. The novel was so long – 1200 pages – that I kind of had to take a break from reading for a while after. I don’t really have an analysis of the book so much as some scattered musings.

First of all, let me just mention that if anyone wants to read the unabridged English translation then I recommend the Penguin Classics Robin Buss version over the free Project Gutenberg ebook. It turns out that Project Gutenberg uses the first and original translation from back in the 19th century and so feels rather stiff and creaky. The Buss translation is from 1996 and it feels a lot more natural. The book was meant to be a sensationalist page turner when it was originally published and it’s the Buss version that made the story flow that way for me.

Overall I liked the novel but it’s clear that Dumas was being paid by the line. The story could have been a lot shorter and it’s striking how much of The Count of Monte Cristo isn’t actually about the count of Monte Cristo. That, and the story is full of garrulous characters and lengthy descriptions of people and places. Thankfully the book never goes full George R.R. Martin, though.

I find it interesting how short the chapters are, since most are only around ten or so pages. This is unlike a lot of modern novels, but it actually reminds me of the short instalments that are normal in really long fanfiction. This is an apt comparison since both this story and long fanfics are or were both released serially in sequential instalments.

The story itself is very cosmopolitan in outlook. Dumas shows off how au courant he is with contemporary theatre and literature, as besides the expected references to French texts, Dumas casually drops references to Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, Byron, and 1001 Nights. I wonder, was Dumas the Bourbon Restoration version of a movie nerd today making a film that drops allusions and references to a smorgasbord of modern pop culture?

Also, I did some very rough back of the envelope calculations to figure out how much the treasure at Monte Cristo was worth. I had to find out the exchange rate for livres to British pounds since the historical currency converter I use doesn’t have French currency. It turns out the exchange rate varied from place to place and the only one I could easily find was for Dover. I then had to convert the pounds to present money. With those caveats in mind and accounting for inflation, the count’s treasure amounts to $5 million US in 2015. It’s a decent number though not exactly fuck you money. Still, the economy was smaller back then and that fortune formed a greater percentage of the total amount of money floating around at the time.

As an amusing side note, the book mentions twice that Italian cuisine is the worst in the world, and it phrases it in a way that seems like a widely-held opinion. I wonder, would Dumas have been referring to Italian cooking as we think of it today? If so, what specifically did Dumas and his contemporaries have against it? Maybe it’s all the tomato sauces and the unfamiliar mouth-feel of pasta.

Finally, let me end in remarking that the novel contains more scenes than I expected of men trying to blow their brains out.

Where have you been?

Well, seems I’m doing a podcast now with a bunch of other peeps. PodCastle in the Sky compares anime with a non-anime cultural work. The first episode compares the adaptation Gankutsuou to the original work The Count of Monte Cristo. We’re kind of pop culture nerds so we mention a lot of other stuff like The Battle of Algiers, Isaac Asimov, Law & Order, and Boyz n the Hood. Check it out if you’re interested.

The master of lying

I asked around a bit. Do you remember this book the protagonist of Your Lie in April was reading in the fifth episode?

Hero gets slapped, book goes flying

I’d mistaken it for The Little Prince, but my informants tell me that it’s actually Usotsuki no tensai (The Genius Liar) by Ulf Stark. It doesn’t appear to have ever had an English translation, so I’m not certain what the thematic significance of the book is, but the title suggests that the book was deliberately chosen to convey, well, something. I’ll do some more digging and see if I can find out more.

Tittle at titles

What the hell is up with anime lately, anyway? The titles are basically a descriptive sentence containing a plot synopsis. I realize this isn’t really a trend from within anime, but because a lot of anime are light novel adaptations. The trend is therefore merely carried over from light novels themselves. Sample titles:

  • There’s no way my little sister is this cute
  • My youth romantic comedy is wrong as I expected
  • I couldn’t become a hero, so I reluctantly decided to get a job
  • My girlfriend and my childhood friend fight too much

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. What if Star Wars had used the same naming convention? “I went into space and kissed my long-lost sister”?

It also seems that the crappier series are the ones that try to squeeze the entire premise into the title. The ones that pander to a ready-made audience of otaku, I mean (implied incest, flat female characters, harems, etcetera). In fact, this article states that the inherent crappiness and ephemerality of light novels – which are, quite frankly, a dime a dozen in Japan – necessitates squeezing the premise into the title to catch the eyes of bookstore customers who are confronted by shelves of stories so unoriginal that the customers can barely summon the energy to read the plot synopsis on the back of the book.

Fortunately, an insider states in the article that he believes that the trend will burn out soon. New light novels will need another way to distinguish themselves from the pack. Yay for cyclical trends in fashion?

The names of fantasy

Just for the hell of it, I’m going to list as many names as I can remember from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon fantasy series:

  • Garion
  • Belgarath
  • Poledra
  • Polgara
  • Durnik
  • Torak
  • Riva
  • Sendaria
  • Ce’Nedra
  • Silk
  • Zandramas
  • Mallorea
  • Angarak
  • Tol’Nedra
  • Ulgo
  • Eriond
  • Barak
  • Mandorallen
  • Vo Mimbre

God and my right

Many faux-medieval fantasy stories willfully ignore the overarching influence of the Church on European society. Knights were specifically said to be soldiers of Christendom and Christianity permeated every level of society, from the beggars who depended on handouts from the charitable orders to kings who had to be wary of excommunication. Medieval economics was also shaped by the Church, for it was considered impious for Chistians to charge interest on loans, which left moneylending as a Jewish profession. All these things and more made medieval Europe the way it was.

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron avoids this ahistorical presentation. It’s essentially set in a parallel universe Middle Ages where magic exists. Sorcerers require a license from the Church to practise magic, dragons rule over large parts of the land, and the forces of Satan threaten humanity everyday.

The world, you see, is divided in a war between God and Satan. However, the forces of Satan are actually just the forces of Nature fighting back against human encroachment. Having legitimate grievances, though, does not preclude moral excess, and the intelligent creatures of the wild massacre entire villages in their fight.

The author is a re-enactor and a history freak, which shows in the level of detail he displays in his fictionalized medieval England. Fencing masters teach moves for fighting monsters, rebellious peasants bide their time in the shadows, and despite the state of total war people come to accommodations with their supposed adversaries.

Anyway, I liked the book. Read it if you want more history in your fantasy.

Plato, Buddha, and Jesus walk into a bar . . .

I’m reading 10 Billion Days and 100 Billion Nights, a classic of Japanese science fiction by Ryu Mitsuse. It’s excellent. It’s one of those books that have so many big ideas, and happily it’s also one of those books that manages to do justice by those ideas.

Briefly, it’s about the universe, from the formation of the solar system to the heat death at the end of existence. In between, humans search for the cause of suffering and the solution to it. Humans like Plato, like the Buddha, like Jesus. They journey together and fight each other to find the righteous path and the better world of our dreams.

When reading this book I sometimes find myself agog at its breadth, its erudition, its cleverness, and its confidence. For example, when he is introduced, it’s revealed that Plato’s obsession with Atlantis is not some metaphor for the ideal state but a literal quest for antediluvian demigods. On the way he ends up debating philosophy with either a time traveller or an alien. This sounds very hokey in a postmodern reflexively ironic “pirates versus ninjas” mishmash, but somehow it’s earnestly un-ridiculous in context.

The book does presuppose a familiarity with the original texts it’s riffing on. You don’t need a degree in comparative theology, but knowing what Buddhist cosmological writings sound like helps in appreciating how deliciously inventive Buddha’s conversation with Brahma is, for instance. And having an ear for techno-babble does help, as well as some basic astronomy, though I understand the science in the book is out of date by now – not unexpected, for science has marched on since the book’s publication in the 60s.

Anyway, read it. I’m seriously enjoying this book. In a word, it’s mind-blowing.

Ships that sank

I don’t have a good track record in shipping, which in this context means the romantic pairing you favour in a given work of fiction. My tastes don’t seem to align with the majority, as this list of failed non-canonical ships should attest.

  • Zutara (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
  • Harry/Luna (Harry Potter)
  • Haruto/Rukino (Valvrave the Liberator)
  • Akihito/Mitsuki (Beyond the Boundary)

For comparison, Ships that Sailed:

  • Ranma/Akane (Ranma 1/2)
  • Edward/Winry (Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood)

I still think those failed ships were more narratively interesting than the ones that happened in canon. Ah well, such is life.