Mickey Rooney vs. Dennis Hopper

I ... I could have sworn "Blue Velvet" was the sequel to "National Velvet"

Man, I remember watching Blue Velvet late one night on tv. I knew nothing at all about it beforehand besides the fact that it was showing on Showcase, the art film channel. I think I was still in high school at the time. I still don’t get it.

Alternate prehistory

I just finished reading Stone Spring by Stephen Baxter. It’s an alternate prehistory novel set in 7300 BC in the former land bridge that connected Britain to the continent, before the water from the melting glaciers raised sea levels and turned perfidious Albion into an island nation. Against this backdrop of climactic change occurs the story of the Etxelur people and how they come to build great dikes to keep out the sea and thereby changed the face of the earth itself. The book is first and foremost a novel, so the story focuses mainly on the relationships and petty struggles between the various individuals and factions and not on the admittedly dry and boring geological details.

After a small tsunami wipes out half of her tribe, Ana organizes her people and their neighbours into a labour force that works on the dikes during the abundance of the summer. Her obsession with preventing the sea from claiming more lives and land eventually leads her to buy stone and slaves from another tribe.

Essentially, this part of Stone Spring depicts the hydraulic theory of state formation in action, which proposes that states formed because people needed to organize themselves in order to build and maintain complex irrigation systems, otherwise they’d have starved to death.

I didn’t like this part of the book because it felt unrealistic from an anthropological point of view.

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Appallingly bad story ideas

I have great ideas. I think I do, anyway, but I’ve never gotten around to actually putting those ideas into action. For many years, I’ve had various ideas for stories fermenting in the back of my head, and I’ve even got a few notes I’ve written out here and there. However, I’ve never actually tried to write those stories down.

Until now. Seriously, I thought to myself, why the hell shouldn’t I try to write these stories? Why shouldn’t I try to publish these stories? There’s a lot of unreadable crap out there that somehow got published, so at worst I’ll just be adding another drop of literary horridness into the ocean of mediocrity that surrounds the rare islands of genius which make reading such a pleasure. And I might get paid for doing so!

As part of my quest for joining the creative industry, I’ve started looking at venues for short story publishing. Specifically, I was looking at the submission guidelines for the Strange Horizons sci fi magazine when I came across their list of Stories We’ve Seen Too Often. All of these story types sound incredibly bad, but the situation turns from amusing into horrifying when you remember that all of these stories keep getting submitted.

Still, while some of these stories are simply uncreative (honestly, a story about a writer having difficulty writing?) while others are merely clichéd, some stories are actively detestable, particularly the ones that are heavily misogynist in plot. If you can get past that, though, then it can be kind of fun to spend some time being reminded that there are worse writers out there than you. Some favourites:

A "surprise" twist ending occurs. (Note that we do like endings that we didn’t expect, as long as they derive naturally from character action. But note, too, that we’ve seen a lot of twist endings, and we find most of them to be pretty predictable, even the ones not on this list.)

  1. The characters’ actions are described in a way meant to fool the reader into thinking they’re humans, but in the end it turns out they’re not humans, as would have been obvious to anyone looking at them.
  2. Creatures are described as "vermin" or "pests" or "monsters," but in the end it turns out they’re humans.
  3. The author conceals some essential piece of information from the reader that would be obvious if the reader were present at the scene, and then suddenly reveals that information at the end of the story. (This can be done well, but rarely is.)
  4. Person is floating in a formless void; in the end, they’re born . . .

Story is based in whole or part on a D&D game or world.

  1. A party of D&D characters (usually including a fighter, a magic-user, and a thief, one of whom is a half-elf and one a dwarf) enters a dungeon (or the wilderness, or a town, or a tavern) and fights monsters (usually including orcs).
  2. Story is the origin story of a D&D character, culminating in their hooking up with a party of adventurers.
  3. A group of real-world humans who like roleplaying find themselves transported to D&D world . . .

Strange and mysterious things keep happening. And keep happening. And keep happening. For over half the story. Relentlessly. Without even a hint of explanation . . .

Evil people hook the protagonist on an addictive substance and then start raising the price, ruining the protagonist’s life . . .

Twee little fairies with wings fly around being twee.

Man, suddenly I feel like ten times more confident in my writing abilities. Thanks, Strange Horizons!

Guardian of the Sacred Spirit

Discovering an exceptional but lesser-known work of fiction for oneself is one of life’s smaller pleasures, one made no less enjoyable for being such an ordinary experience. The story of Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of the Sacred Spirit) itself feels rather small and ordinary; instead of covering an epic struggle between good and evil, at its heart it’s about the depths of maternal love and how far a person can go to protect a loved one. The melancholy nature of the song in the video captures well the feeling of the show, much better than the opening song, in fact, which I found rather insipid in an inoffensive pop song way.

Seirei no Moribito is based on the first book of a Japanese fantasy series and it covers the story of Balsa, a female bodyguard, who is tasked with protecting a prince from his father’s own assassins. There are many things to like about the series, not least of which are the lush backgrounds as can be seen in the video. Generally speaking, it’s a lot more realistic than other anime that deals with swords and the supernatural. You won’t find arcs of blood stylishly spraying into the air or fighters shouting out the names of their attacks; rather, all of the fighting is firmly rooted in real-world martial arts.

Unusually for the genre, the anime does not deal with the samurai-and-ninjas feudal era which first springs to mind when one mentions “Japan” and “swords”. Instead, the series is set in a fantasy world based on Heian-era Japan, which is to say, Japan before the samurai. Japan was governed more like Imperial China, with the Japanese emperors wielding direct political power as the sons of Heaven. This is the opposite situation of the later feudal era, where the emperor was largely a figurehead.

It’s interesting to note that the hydraulic theory of state formation posits that states formed in early China because a centralized power was needed to organize the necessary resources that allowed complex irrigation systems to nourish rice paddies. Ancient Japan, of course, consciously modeled itself on China, and the fact that both countries relied on rice as the central staple food in their diets certainly helped keep their systems of government in sync for a while. Certainly a bunch of squabbling feudal lords couldn’t have organized things half so well.

Of course, one must then ask why feudalism arose in Japan if central organization was so necessary to keep a country of rice eaters alive. There are of course the political and historically-contingent reasons for why the strong Japanese state broke down (short story: a combination of screw-ups and bad luck for several Japanese emperors). Improvements in military technology and the resulting change in recruitment practices also gave greater power to regional leaders, and I suspect developments in agriculture also helped. A separate military class rose to challenge the power of the imperial government, a civil war happened, and slowly but surely the samurai were the new rulers of Japan.

Admittedly, all this is going rather far afield from the original topic of the anime series. What can I say, I have a certain fascination for states and state formation. Anyway, to return to Seirei no Moribito: I liked it. If you like serious anime, please try it out. Not that I hate the funny (Ranma 1/2 remains one of my favourite shows, period), but Moribito definitely deserves a larger audience, which I hope this blog post might in some small way help to provide.

The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya

I watched The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya last night. Word on the street was that the movie was a good addition to the Haruhi Suzumiya series, and I really must concur. I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get into the series until a few months ago, since apparently the last new content was from 2007. That must have been a long three years for the fans.

The Haruhi Suzumiya series reminds me a lot of The Time Traveler’s Wife – not in terms of plot or even aesthetics, but rather in the way both use science fiction in the service of the story. They’re not like too many other science fiction stories, where the writers are too busy geeking out over the ray guns to bother about the characters or the plot. Rather, the fantastic elements in both stories exist to drive forward the fundamental relationships at the heart of their respective plots – in Haruhi Suzumiya’s case, it’s about a misanthropic girl learning to appreciate the mundane and a misanthropic guy learning to appreciate the fantastic (with that term encompassing time travelers, psychics, and aliens). However, both Time Traveler’s Wife and Haruhi Suzumiya aren’t just regular stories with science fiction stuff thrown in, they would be fundamentally different without being science fiction.

I like Haruhi Suzumiya. It’s always got such interesting ideas.

Doppelgangered

I’m currently having a marathon of Legend of the Legendary Heroes while roasting a pork shoulder in the oven (and yes, the title of the anime sounds dumb). In the course of my viewing I spied a certain Miran Froaude:

The resemblance to Mai is uncanny

What an uncanny resemblance to Mai from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Mai from Avatar

Two differences:

  1. Miran doesn’t have the odango pigtail buns hairstyle and,
  2. Has a penis.

I’m just guessing on the last part, it’s not like ze whips out the block and tackle for the audience to have a gander. But damn, “Miran Froaude”? The name sounds stupid, just like a lot of made-up Japanese names from sci-fi and fantasy. Then again, I’ve come up against some pretty dumb names in English fiction as well.

Never Look Back (rec)

Just found this fanfic, Never Look Back. It’s a crossover between Neil Gaiman’s short story A Study in Emerald (full version, PDF) and Sherlock, the BBC tv series which sets the Sherlock Holmes stories in modern Britain. A Study in Emerald is itself a crossover fanfiction between the classic Sherlock Holmes series and H.P. Lovecraft. So basically the fanfic updates Gaiman’s story to the modern world. Read it. It are good.

Seriously, I’m not into slash but I’ll make an exception for the fic (that, and the slash parts are easily skippable). I’m green with envy at the prose.

Alias being adapted for TV?

Variety reports that the comic book Alias is being adapted for TV (by the screenwriter of the Twilight movie, it seems). The comic is about a washout retired superhero working as a private detective in New York. It was part of Marvel’s Max line of comic books, which were specifically geared for adult readers, so lots of sex and cursing were involved. Part of the fun was seeing stuff like the main character vomiting on Thor’s boots while muttering “Fuck, shit” over and over. In fact, Jessica Jones’ back story is that she was Peter Parker’s contemporary in high school. The idea of a foul-mouthed teenaged girl running around off panel in the 60’s Spider-Man comics is definitely amusing. It’s probably going to be a more-adult version of The Tick, showing what the comic book world is like when the supers aren’t fighting cosmic evil.

Still, it’s early days yet. Who’s to say that the writer will be able to make a good adaptation, or that it won’t be changed greatly by the studio during the development process? At the very least, they can’t keep the title, otherwise the show will be confused for the Jennifer Garner show of the same name, so for now it’s being named “AKA Jessica Jones”. Anyway, here’s hoping something good comes out of the whole thing.

That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)

Lil Meyer dressed in black pointing her gun at the camera while standing in the stairwell of a decrepit apartment building

Seriously, that was it? I can’t believe I watched all 23 episodes of Ergo Proxy and by the end I was still waiting for the story to start. “Underwhelmed” would be the best word to describe my feelings.

All right, that’s unfair. The series was pretty interesting in the beginning and had great potential at successfully combining philosophical ruminations with narrative cohesion, like The Matrix. By the end, though, it turned into a mishmash of disjointed plot points pasted together with pretty visuals. Which isn’t to say that it was bad, exactly, but how could they have spent so much money on the visual effects and still not manage to make a satisfying climax for the story? Remember the structure of the three act play, people: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, and Denouement. Yes, those four parts fit into three acts.

Anyway, in case you’re still reading and have no idea what I’m talking about, Ergo Proxy is a Japanese cartoon show, or anime, that delves into themes of continuity, memory, and the meaning of life while depicting its story with a cyberpunk-inflected aesthetics.

Continue reading “That was it? (Ergo Proxy: A commentary)”