Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years On

So it's five years later, it still sucks and we're all gonna die and everything's changed. Forget the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, forget the mistakes and calumnies of the Bush adminstration and the childish statements of the Democratic candidates. Forget that Bush was didn't pay attention to Islamic terrorism for the eight months he was in office or that Clinton, Bush pere and Reagan didn't do all that much over the preceeding 20 years even while hundreds of Americans were murdered by Hezbollah, Libya and Al Quaeda. Forget the right wing wingnuts and left wing moonbats. Forget all the crap that makes you and me partisans for whatever side we prefer to be on (but let's admit we are where we are by choice and not reasoned argument). Forget all the peripheral crap that we give voice to on a daily basis and remember what happened.

Remember that almost three thousand people were murdered by a handful of men driven by a deep rage and religious zealousness. Remember that we are faced with an homicidal enemy driven by non-negotiable positions and a hatred of the West and the Jews that is boundless and unappeasable. We are indeed in the midst of a clash of civilizations and we need to figure out what to do because we clearly haven't.

When four planes were hijacked on a beautiful late summer morning the US had only done one thing truly wrong. We hadn't taken the murderous hatred of the facet of Islam represented by Al Quaeda seriously. For that failure thousands died.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"The Shadow of the Torturer" - Gene Wolfe

After years of dillydallying I've just finished the first volume of Gene Wolfe's "Urth of the New Sun" tetraology. I remember trying to read it back when it came out in 1980 but found it too stylized for my adolescent taste. Now, however, I get to wear big boy pants and I can read adult books. And this time I liked it a whole bunch and breezed through it in a few days.

"The Shadow of the Torturer" is the first volume of the recollections of journeyman torturer Severian as he travels the environs of a earth so deep in the future that the sun is turning red, food and resources are scarce, and glaciers are moving north from the south pole.

Much of the atmosphere of Wolfe's book is derived from Clark Ashton Smith's tales of a red sunned Earth (his, unfortunately unavailable, Zothique stories) and Jack Vance's Dying Earth" stories and novels. Both series portray an incredibly ancient Earth with little real knowledge of the past and presents deeply immobilized by ritual and that lack of historical understanding.

There is a clear parting of ways, though, after Wolfe's Urth is created. Smith and Vance's stories are both arch, cynical and tend to be peopled entirely by rogues and mountebanks. Wolfe is going for something else and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.

Severian presents himself as someone possessing a perfect memory as he begins his memoirs but also someone capable of lying. He is also writing with the advantage of hindsight but appears unwilling to reveal too much before he deems it appropriate.

Severian is a journeyman of the torturers' guild who is exiled to become a small town headsman after he sneaks a knife into a noble woman being tortured to death. The first volume details Severian's adventures and the insights he makes as he begins his trip to his new home. There are traveling players, duels with poisonous flowers and secret notes and lost religious artifacts.

Wolfe's prose is dense at times and demands close reading to maintain a piture of what's occurring at a given time. It's also beautiful at times and combined with his general inventiveness provides a heady, often drunk inducing vision of a world slowly, and with juggernaut like implacablity, winding down to its absolute end. Can't wait to finish the second volume, "The Claw of the Concilliator".

Saturday, September 09, 2006

"Three Days to Never" - Tim Powers

"Three Days to Never" is Tim Powers' lastest book and as usual portrays a supernatural world underlying our mundane one. This time we meet Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Mossad agents and a collection of disturbing conspirators.

Powers' last few books ("Declare", "Earthquake Weather" and "Expiration Date") dealt with huge canvases; The fate of the West, Noah's flood, the Second World War. This time he confines his action to a handful of people, several of them family, and few locations in California. "Three Days to Never" is more akin in feel to one of Powers' compatriot James Blaylock's California books ("Winter Tides", "Rainy Season", etc.). It's not a bad thing but it did take me a few pages (or more) to change my perspective of what I guess I've come to expect from his books.

There's time travel, stolen concrete footprints, cryptic videos and remote viewing. All is presented in a matter of fact way and seems utterly reasonable as explained by Powers. That's one of his strongest talents. Whereas Blaylock, Leiber and Bradbury present their stories like dreams, Powers gives us the seemingly plausible mechanics behind all the missing and oddball bits of history and makes them real. Like in most of his books, he takes real, though unexplainable or unclear, true historic events and personages and builds a dizzying story around them.
It is a little confusing this time around. I remember the first time I heard about Powers was a review of "The Anubis Gates" in "Whispers" back in 1984. The critic liked the book but felt it was too complicated at times and often not easy to follow. He was content to go along for the ride but he did caution to reader.
So I didn't seek the book out. Then a friend lent it to me and I was hooked. What satisfied me particularly was that it was really complicated. It's a great book that's held up to several re-readings but never that complicated.
With "Three Days to Never" Powers finally got me. There are several moments that left me shaking my head and turning back the pages for re-reads. It's the time travel, the crazy shifts of perspective and alien things that haven't been explained yet. But it's also, I hate to say, Powers' writing. It's not as sharp as it needs to be and that's disappointing.
In the end, though, seek out the book. Aside from Powers' usual display of ingenuity and plotting razzle dazzle there is a sometimes touching examination of father-daughter love of several different varieties. Often Powers' characters have to bear the salvation of humanity on their shoulders. This time the scope's much more manageable and intimate.

Comics, comics and more comics

So a few months ago I was exposed to the joys of download whole decades long series of comics via bit torrents. Yee ha!!!!

I found all (ALL) the Batman and Detective Comics from issues 1 up till June 2006. Utterly amazing. I could never find or afford these sorts of collections and they simply aren't available.

Along the way I discovered Jeph Loeb's Batman books. Written as direct sequels to Miller and Mazzuchelli's "Batman: Year One","The Long Halloween", "Dark Victory" and "Catwoman:When In Rome" are great, fan boy friendly books. They play with all the tropes of the character and his rogues gallery in fun and intriguing ways. Very fun.

I also read "Astro City" which I ultimately enjoyed most of, "Arkham Asylum" which I most assuredly liked none of, and a few other things of varying quality. Loeb's Superman books are pretty decent but his Daredevil and Spiderman books were so-so.

I never really read superhero comics as a kid. I pretty much stuck to DC's horror (I got most of them) and war comics (working on "Our Fighting Forces") which weren't episodic and it didn't matter if I missed an issue or two. When I did get around to reading them in high school the prices spiked and I sort gave up on them.

Over the past decade or two when I did look at what was coming out I was pretty much left cold. I can't help it but I want my heroes to be heroes and not miserable psychopaths. Rereading "Watchmen" leaves me cold (aside from all its lack of originality {which I ain't going into again}).

So now I'm pillaging the past and tracking down the handful of things worth reading now. Heck, the animated Justic League is head and shoulders above pretty much any superhero book I've seen in the past decade. Oh, well, and so it goes.