My Tender, Transgender Heart

I finished The Judging Eye last night. However, in an effort to demonstrate that no, really, this is not The Bakker Blog, I’ll hold off on reviewing it, at least for the moment. (… Also, I don’t have a review ready.) Instead, a few thoughts on Better Than Chocolate, a little Canadian indie flick from 1999 that a friend, the lovely and talented Harukami, once recommended to me. Which I finally saw last night.

The two descriptors that come to m ind are “ham-handed” and “charming”. It centres around the romance between two young women, a university drop-out who works at a bookstore and sings at a club, and a drifter with a tricked-out hippy van who pays her way drawing portraits. There’re various dramatic and amusing subplots involving their friends, and all sorts of awkward hijinx involving the drop-out’s mother.

The mother is a hideous, unrealistic caricature, ignorant about LBGT life not because it would be genuinely in-character, nor because it’s especially funny, but because the movie, despite being a charming romantic comedy, also feels it needs to make every standard dramatic point about LBGT controversy that every other movie with gay principals that came out before 2005 or so felt they needed to make.

That said. The movie is utterly charming, and the romance between the two leads is genuinely adorable.

Also, this song is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Review: UNIVERSAL WAR ONE, VOLUME 1, by Denis Bajram

A few months back, I bought the first issue of Universal War One, originally published by Soleil Productions back in 1998, now republished in English by Marvel Comics. At the time, the phrase that came to mind over and over was I wish I could write like this.

Weeks later, on another trip to my local comic shop, I found issue 3. Issue 3 appeared to be the final issue of a planned miniseries. Alas! Issue 2 was nowhere to be found. Rather than spoil myself while missing the middle, I passed on issue 3, and sat down to wait for the trade.

As it turns out, instead of a trade paperback, we got a hardcover. And my opinion hasn’t changed – any aspiring writer should be proud to write like this.

The hardcover does indeed collect issues 1-3, a complete arc with room for more story, all written and illustrated by Denis Bajram. Unless I’m misunderstanding the Soleil Productions site and the French edition of Wikipedia, the complete series is 6 issues. I dearly hope we get the rest in translation as well.

The story is classic military sci-fi, and, for comics at least, surprisingly hard sci-fi. Against a background of rising political and military tension between the government of Earth and the corporate-owned colonies that dot our solar system, we have a small unit of space-fighters, known as Purgatory Squadron, investigating a great black wall in space, just past Saturn. One ship sends a probe into the wall, on a tether, and its crew suddenly find themselves fighting to keep from getting yanked in as well.

What turns out to be behind the wall is utterly fascinating. Not a device I’ve never seen before, granted, but cleverly presented. Also fascinating is the drama of Purgatory Squadron’s pilots’ personal problems, and there are twists later on in that aspect of story that had me beaming with delight.

One thing that impressed me was the pacing. If this story were being told by an American comic book writer, it would be a twelve-issue maxi-series. As presented, it feels fast-paced, but never rushed. Part of this effect is, I think, facilitated by the art, which uses a half-page panel where Marvel or DC might use a full two-page spread. The art is detailed and lush enough that this more compressed layout doesn’t seem to rob the book of visual scope.

Each issue is separated into multiple chapters, and there’s so much story packed into each issue that those chapter divisions actually feel justified.

Each chapter is headed by a few verses from a modified Genesis. Chapter 2’s is, for example:

God said, “Let there be Force
in the midst of Energy, and let it
divide Energy from Energy,
and it was so.
God made Force that divided
Energy from above
from Energy
from below.
God called Energy from
below “Matter.”
And there was evening
and there was morning.
And it was the second day.

These verses don’t ultimately seem to illustrate anything important about the story or the setting one way or the other, but I found them delightful anyway.

The book gets a touch bogged down toward the end, a the characters’ explanation of the main sci-fi phenomena in the story get bogged down in the sort of philosophical-sounding-but-actually-incoherent rambling that soaks a lot of anime climaxes, but even with that minor blemish, Universal War One, volume 1 is a delight from beginning to end.

Review: NEUROPATH, R. Scott Bakker

As I mentioned in another post, R. Scott Bakker is an author I adore and fear. He has a very distinctive style and outlook, informed, I’ve no doubt, by his geekish background (he’s a confessed RP’er and Tolkien fanboy), his Hobbesian worldview, and his education in philosophy. When I read his The Prince of Nothing high-fantasy trilogy, I was blown away by his merciless insight into human thought and motivation. Moreover, I was blown away by his ability to reverse the usual author trend of using a novel as a soapbox for a position, and instead use that position to enrich the novel.

With Neuropath he’s less successful in that latter respect. Rather than using his positions on the human mind and heart to make the characters do interesting things, he uses the characters to spout his positions on the human mind and heart.

Neuropath is, on the surface, a detective-thriller, a cat-and-mouse game between hunter and killer. The hunters are an FBI team and a divorced psychologist named Thomas Bible. The killer is a psychopath who sends the FBI videos of people who’s brains he’s mucked about with surgically, with the apparent intention of showing that humans are nothing more than programmable machines. The killer may also be Thomas’s old college buddy, Neil Cassidy.

This “humans are programmable machines” idea forms part of what Thomas and Neil both call “the Argument”, which goes on to claim that consciousness experiences decisions, rather than making them, and that the self is an illusion. The Argument is the real heart of this novel. A lot of your enjoyment of this book will depend on how interesting you find the Argument, because it’s rehearsed repeatedly – whether ad nauseum is a matter of taste.

I did find the Argument interesting, though I had a few quibbles with it. I think Bakker jumped from “free will is an illusion” to “the self is an illusion” too easily. I can give Bakker his straw-man opponents – every novelist uses them – but Thomas’s dismissal of counter-arguments to the Argument because they’re “difficult to express” and “require rehearsal, training” (page 185, in my edition) is unworth of Bakker and of us. Those properties are also true of science’s counter-arguments to a lot of the claims of Creationists, and I doubt Bakker would dismiss those counter-arguments on those grounds.

For me, the most interesting parts of this novel ended up being the atrocities commited by the killer. That’s awful to say, I know, but Bakker’s really good at it – good at making a scene at once clinically fascinating and utterly squicky. There are a few other pleasures – Thomas’s neighbour Mia is an utter delight in every scene, and I almost read him as some subconscious desire of Bakker’s for genuine heroic sentiment, desperately clawing its way to the top of this pile of cynicism.

I don’t find Bakker comes across as being as much master of his form here as he does in his fantasy work. There, his writing felt like the work of a great jazz master, who knew every one of music’s rules, and knew exactly what he was doing when he followed them and when he broke them. Here, it feels to me like he read Michael Connelly’s The Poet, and maybe the Hannibal Lector novels, then jumped up and said “That’s it! I am now prepared to write… a detective thriller!” (Dramatic “Eureka!” finger optional.)

I think the book would be improved by a relatively faithful film adaptation. I think the constant wallowing in the Argument wouldn’t be quite so obnoxious, that even if it were all kept in (and I’m not saying it should be), there would be things present in scenes besides the argument. A book can have whole scenes that are nothing but dialogue (and this book does), but in a movie you’ve still got the actors’ performances, the cinematography, and so on. On the other hand, verbal repetition becomes a lot more glaring on film than in text – I actually got sick of the word “Troy” in Troy.

Is Neuropath a good read? Maybe. It’s truly terrifying in places, and he creates some brilliantly memorable scenes. But the soapbox casts a long shadow.

Le Morte d’Arthur, Book 1, Chapter 1

How Uther Pendragon sent for the duke of Cornwall and Igraine his wife, and of their departing suddenly again.

In this chapter: Uther Pendragon, King of England, summons his old enemy, the Cornish Duke of Tintagil, to his court. Uther makes advances on Tintagil’s wife, and they leave in a huff. They ignore further summonses, and Uther marches to Cornwall with his army, to fetch them (read: her) by force. Tintagil sticks his wife in one castle, and holes himself up in another.

In this book, the Arthur cycle’s shift in focus away from the defense of Romano-Celtic Britain from Germanic invaders, and toward an ahistoric parable of courtly virtue, is complete. Uther is given as King of England, not Britain. And a quick perusal of the table of contents shows that Malory left out the Saxons.

We get the first instance of one of may favourite Malory phrases on the first page – “All so soon as King Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth.” In this chapter we also get the first use of the archaic verb “hight”, and the construction “the which”, both of which I love – “[A]non he went and furnished and garnished two strong castles of his, of the which the one hight Tintagil, and the other castle hight Terrabil.”

The details of this chapter are more or less the same as in past versions, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britannia, which is the baseline most medieval Arthurian writers worked from. However, Malory pulls a trick he’ll pull a number of times in the book – character fission! Or, in this case, location fission – whereas most versions centre this incident around Tintagel Castle, with both the Duke and Igraine holed up there, Malory’s invented a second location, where the Duke sticks Igraine.

This is yet another version of the story where the Duke doesn’t have a name. Geoffrey gave his name as Gorlois; I don’t think I’ve seen that or any other name for him in any other version.

Uther’s depicted as a man of more passion than reason, which is in line with other versions. Uther meets Igraine once prior to the armed conflict, during which she gets pissed at him for trying to damage her honour. Nonetheless, he’s so smitten with her he actually falls ill while besieging Castle Terrabil, claiming “I am sick for anger and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole.” Also, he seems to cheerfully bring his inner council in on his passion-spurred war:

“Then they advised the king ot send for the duke and his wife by a great charge; and if he will not come at your summons, then may ye do your best, and have ye cause to make mighty war upon him. So that was done, and the messengers had their answers; and that was this shortly, that neither he nor his wife would not come at him.”

Uther’s right hand, Sir Ulfius, goes looking for Merlin, to try to help remedy the King’s distress, and “Ulfius departed, and by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar’s array.” The disguised-as-a-beggar schtick is one of Merlin’s favourite routines, and we’ll see it again.

Next installment: How Uther Pendragon made war on the duke of Cornwall, and how by the mean of Merlin he lay by the duchess and gat Arthur.

The French Book

I was going to make a post about Bernard Cornwell‘s Arthurian series, the Warlord Chronicles – which are indeed worthy of major reccing. I was going to talk about all the Arthurian texts I’ve read, from “Culhwch and Olwen“, up through Geoffrey and Malory to Tennyson and White, and mention how, despite all the classics, Cornwell’s is my favourite Arthur telling.

Which it totally is, and you should totally read it. But I digress.

I started leafing through Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. Started remembering it – remembering the sheer, unadulterated crack.

So I think I’m going to recap it here, or at least attempt to. We’ll see how concentrated the crack actually is, and how much is my memory exaggerating. I’ll start at a chapter a week, posting on Sundays, and see how it goes.

My copy of the Morte is based on William Caxton’s printing, rather than the Winchester Manuscript. The spellings are largely modernized – “king” rather than “kynge”, and so on. It doesn’t go so far as to add quotation marks, though. A potentially-different edition can be read at the invaluable Internet Sacred Text Archive.

Let’s see how it goes.

Would you like the controls?

This is not a review. Not yet.

Given a hint of an excuse, I’ll talk your ear off about Canadian fantasy author R. Scott Bakker. He has four novels out, with a fifth expected later this month.

His first three are a fantasy trilogy, The Prince of Nothing, comprising The Darkness that Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought.

These books thrill me and terrify me. I find Bakker’s language in them to be a delight, his characters at once exciting and realistic (his Cnaiur urs Skiotha is the most fascinating implementation of the Conan-the-Barbarian archetype I’ve ever seen), and his insights into how humans operate utterly staggering. More than once I’ve described this trilogy as Lord of the Rings as written by Frank Herbert.

While these three books aren’t true genre horror, they have some terrifying, disturbing elements in them. They also have human tragedies of unutterable cruelty. Indeed, it’s these human tragedies that give me pause when I get the urge to re-read the trilogy.

The next book in this series, The Judging Eye, is due out on the 20th. I fully expect that I will, though with great trepidation, buy it when it comes out.

It’s with equally great trepidation that, yesterday, I began his fourth novel, Neuropath. I’m at page 93 of 300.

The book isn’t part of Bakker’s fantasy setting. It’s set in modern-day New York, with some mostly-unnecessary near-future touches. It’s a to-catch-a-psychopath story, in the mold of Thomas Harris or Michael Connelly, especially the latter. And, unlike with The Prince of Nothing, overt horror seems to be one of Bakker’s premises, rather than merely one of his tools.

Let me back up a little here. The sorts of movies that really scare me are the ones that show something truly gruesome and awful early on, to establish just how far out their limits are. That way, whenever they subsequently threaten to show us something disturbing, we believe they’ll actually carry through with their threat. Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects comes to mind.

The Prince of Nothing established, for me, Bakker’s lack of limits. Neuropath is one long threat to exercise that lack, especially given the overt change of genre. I’m finding that this is harming the reading experience for me. Rather than relaxing into his wonderful, musical prose (less musical here than in his fantasy, granted), I find myself building defenses against it. I brace against each sentence, knowing it stands a reasonable chance of conveying what’s about to become the worst image I’ve ever imagined, whatever that may be. I feel like I’m rushing through a museum, doing my best to get from one end to the other without really seeing any of the exhibits. It makes the reading experience adversarial – me trying to fend off the author, rather than letting him in.

There are reading experiences that are supposed to be adversarial, that are meant as a struggle between the reader and the author. Mystery is a prime example – the author strives to fool you, and you strive to outwit the author. But the struggle of a mystery aids the immersion – you dive in, scooping up every detail you can find, so that you don’t miss anything. Here, the struggle breaks the immersion by forcing me to brace myself against the blow of each detail.

This adversarial experience is even usually one of the pleasures of reading horror. The evil, the monster, the dragon, already more terrible in horror (and thus more satisfying in its defeat, if it has one), presents the hero with a challenge, but also presents me with a challenge – the challenge of braving the next page. Again, normally this is one of the pleasures of reading horror, but Bakker plays rough, and without padding. Rather than letting the disturbing imagery wash over me, letting me vicariously immerse myself in the struggle with the darkness, I find myself shying away from it. It’s hard to properly enjoy a book when your mind holds it at arm’s length.