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Piers and daughter unload boxes July 2014
Dismember 2014

I watched Noah, based on the biblical story, with mixed emotions. It's well done and compelling, with serious human values, but it's hardly true to its origin. It's weird for me, an agnostic, to protest a story for not being authentically biblical, but there it is. There are the Watchers, which are sort of rock robots created on the Second Day, a wild fantasy notion. There's a magic seed that sprouts a whole forest in seconds. Noah is a complicated man who concludes that the animals should be saved, but not the human folk; better that they die out. The Bible never said that! This alienates his sons, understandably. Anthony Hopkins has a role as Methuselah, whose main preoccupation seems to be to find a berry to eat; that's a waste of both actor and role. In the end Noah has a change of heart and decides to let his grandchildren live. The question of forming a viable human community with only one or two breed-able woman available is not addressed. So it's nonsense, but fun to watch.

I watched The History Boys, about eight young British men wanting to get into top universities like Oxford or Cambridge. I was born in Oxford, of parents who both graduated there, so you'd think I'd be fascinated, but it was never part of my personal scene; I was the stupid part of the family. The instructors do their best to stimulate the boys to be original and provocative so as to attract favorable attention from the admitting officers, and there's constant clever dialogue with numerous literary references to poets like Auden, who was I believe gay, and there is a homosexual current running through this narrative. In the end they do get into their choices, but their professor dies in an accident, so the mood is mixed. Not my type of movie, but well done and I suspect authentic.

I watched War of the Worlds, the remake featuring Tom Cruise. This is a thriller throughout. The divorced father is to have his teen son and ten year old daughter for the weekend, when a weird storm comes, with frequent lightning strikes in the same place. Then the pavement buckles, and cracks radiate out, bringing down buildings; then huge three-legged robots emerge, the Tripods, and start laying things waste. The man and children flee, but the robots are everywhere, and it's a constant chase. The robots are crewed by aliens who drink human blood, sucking it up through hundreds of feet long straws. In the end, as all seems lost, the aliens start dying: they are not acclimatized to the local pathogens, which kill them. They're that high-tech and don't know about local bugs? Man and children survive. That's it, but it's compellingly done.

I watched National Treasure, a movie about a scavenger hunt for huge treasure that the protagonist's grandfather tells him about, a story passed down from grandfather to grandson to great great grandson. It seems that a vital clue is hidden on the back of the original Declaration of Independence, so they have to steal that so they can evoke the invisible ink and go on. Along the way they pick up a pretty girl who is one of the guardians of the Declaration, and gradually a romance develops. It's wild and fun nonsense with scary moments and a happy ending.

I watched three of a quartet of movies I bought for $10. The fourth was Alexander, which I have seen. The first was Any Given Sunday, about pro football, a subject which I can take or leave. But this is gritty and well done, rated R for things like language and nudity, and it does have those. At one point the young, pretty, lady team owner walks into the men's locker room to congratulate the players on a victory, and we see her talking to a frontally nude man. I gather that such things occur. The restricted elements are not emphasized, just part of an authentic presentation. I like that. The coach is in danger of getting fired, and a third string quarterback has to step in, and they work together to pull the team out of a hole and make the playoffs. There are ugly tradeoffs in the effort to win at any cost, and some people do get thrown under the wheels. It's taut and tight throughout and I enjoyed it. Then Natural Born Killers, sheer ugliness and violence, yet with some art. Girl starts dancing to music at an eatery, and there's a flash of a scorpion in the desert. Good hint; when a man tries to join her she beats him up, and when the proprietor tries to intervene, her boyfriend kills him. It part of their pattern, traveling and killing just for the hell of it. They finally get arrested and sent to prison, but after a year break out with wholesale violence, and at the end are free to resume their deadly traveling. Not fun to watch, yet it was intriguing. And Heaven and Earth, the Vietnamese war told from the perspective of a Vietnamese girl. Her people had to fight the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, and the Americans, when all they wanted was to be left alone. It's brutal, as Ly gets tortured by both sides and raped, and blamed when she gets pregnant. She scrapes along, selling trinkets, cigarettes, marijuana, her body, until an American soldier courts her and wins her and takes her and her sons to America. That's an amazing new world for her, with its affluence and freedom. But her husband, torn by delayed stress syndrome, commits suicide. She survives that too, and years later returns to Vietnam to visit her family, learning how rough it was on them. This is one compelling, ugly story, based on a true one. That was a nasty situation, and America hardly improved it.

Then there was Anaconda, from a set of four Water Monster movies. A boat is looking for a lost tribe to do a feature on, but get sidetracked and besieged by giant anacondas that swallow people whole and keep coming for more, unlike real snakes. Another was She Creature, about a lovely, telepathic, captive mermaid that sideshow promoters want to put on display. But she manages to mentally steer them to a region of fantasy monsters instead, where everyone except one sympathetic woman gets killed. My sympathy is with the captive; they should have set her free in the sea, and no one would have died. I mean, what's a poor mermaid to do? Black Water, inspired by true events: three friends get stranded in an Australian mangrove swamp, besieged by a man-eating crocodile, who gets them one by one. But the last woman recovers a pistol and shoots the croc as it attacks her, then paddles the boat downriver to civilization. Simple but realistic, intensely believable, best of this bunch. Red Water, this time a freshwater bull shark snagging people in the Louisiana River. Actually the shark is only one element in a story of general mayhem as bad buys take over the boat. In the end the good guys do win out.

I read Erotic Comics by Tim Pilcher. My wife gave me this book for my birthday six years ago, and I put it on my shelf to read—and over the years I have found that the books I mean to read next can get lost in the welter of other things to do. I'm 15 years past retirement age; when does my life ease up? But this one turned out to be worth it, regardless. It's a graphic history, in both senses: graphic means pictures, and also pretty damned explicit. The comics range from mere suggestion to thorough depiction of obnoxious sex. Of greater interest to me are the incidental details of the lives of the artists. One is Robert Crumb, whose marriage broke up and a new woman, Aline Kominsky, another erotic artist, come into his life—and was chased off the commune by his former wife wielding a shotgun. But she persisted, and married him, and wrote the foreword for this book, with a cartoon parodying their relationship. There was Dan DeCarlo, who went on a Caribbean cruise with his wife Josie. She had a cat costume for it, which gave him the inspiration for a new comic, Josie and the Pussycats. That was made into a movie, and he fought for recognition and remuneration for creating the characters. He had been with the company 40 years, but they abruptly fired him. Which is the way publishers are; I know exactly how it is. Remember, I'm one who got blacklisted for six years for demanding that my publisher honor its contract and give me a correct accounting. This sort of shit is routine in this business. Anyway, it was good to get the background on some familiar comics, like Little Anne Fanny, Sally Forth (the earlier erotic comic, not the contemporary comic strip) and Barbarella. The industry was dominated by men, until the women, tired of being shut out, formed their own companies, like Wimmen's Comix and Tits and Clits. Some of the paintings are quite realistic, for all that few if any real women ever had similar proportions. It's all here, along with page after page of luscious bare girls. My kind of book, as my wife knew.

I read What Do You Care What Other People Think? by and about the genius physicist Richard F Feynman. I read the prior companion volume back in 2001 and finally got around to this one, discovered on my to-be-read-soon shelf. Feynman was a character, a Nobel prize winner but also a fallible human. Here we learn of his first love, the prettiest girl in his class that all the boys went after; Feynman was more of a wallflower, but evidently she saw something in him, because she married him. And died young of tuberculosis. He couldn’t even kiss her, for fear of catching the disease. Later he remarried, but there isn't much on his second wife. From his mother he learned “that the highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.” He was an avowed atheist, and quite human: when introduced to Belgian (I think; details are not clear) royalty he was happy to talk with the queen, because she was pretty. She was less impressed with him. He was one of those assigned to the investigation of the disaster of the Challenger, the one that exploded in 1986 because of the failure of the O-rings. It was a complicated investigation, because rockets are complicated, and the government bureaucracy wasn't eager to admit error; he concluded that NASA was too set in its thinking and tended to figure that if something worked once, it was okay for the future. He was disgusted: “Try playing Russian Roulette that way: you pull the trigger and the gun doesn't go off, so it must be safe to pull the trigger again...” What they had missed was that the O-rings were less resilient when cold, so failed in freezing weather. They had worked fine in warm weather, so were accepted as safe. (I had a simpler explanation: I think it was Stephen King's The Tommykockers that had a chapter on the incompetence of the Dallas police after the assassination of President Kennedy, all the mischief their stupidity did subsequently around the world. I said that he missed a good one, the Inspector who went to NASA and became an inspector of O-rings.) His concluding essay, actually a talk he gave about 25 years before his death, stressed the importance of an open mind. The way to new accomplishments is not to do things the way they've always been done, but to have doubt, and explore its ramifications. He was an original thinker, through and through, and I admire that. He died in 1988 of cancer after a ten year struggle with it.

I read The Secret of Sinharat by Leigh Brackett, a short 1964 novel. Brackett was famous in her time, said to be a woman who wrote like a man, and it was true. That was a compliment. Today there's a good deal more muscle and sex in the works of female writers, but then not so much. So how does it read by today's standards? I was curious. It is well enough written, with some nice evocative description. Protagonist Stark goes on a mission to prevent a war of conquest, and gets stuck in a sandstorm with lovely Berild. They barely survive, as she manages to locate desperately needed water. She turns out to be one of the fabled Ramas, who in ancient times could send their minds to fresh younger bodies, so continue forever. That's the Secret: how to send those minds. This is worse than Stark imagined. But he manages to foil the plot and survive himself, barely. It's a good story.

I read People of the Talisman, by Leigh Brackett, in the same volume. Again, well written, with evocative touches, though I was surprised by the number of uncorrected typos; proofreading would have helped. This time Stark's friend dies, and Stark decides to complete his mission of returning a talisman the friend had stolen to its rightful place. That turns out to be no easy task, because raiders attack the city and the talisman is needed to defend it. The talisman turns out to be a translation device so that humans and aliens can talk to each other, but the aliens care nothing for humans. In the end Stark and the enemy warrior maiden who leads the raiders have to fight off the aliens, becoming allies. That could become intriguing, but this is vintage pulp fiction of the 1960s and a kiss onstage is about the limit. Still, it's a good story, not limited to formula.

I read The Armor of God by Diego Valenzuela. This is science fiction about a time when humanity has been confined to a few domed cities, maybe only one, by alien monsters that range the world beyond and may once have been human. Ezra, age 18, is from a talented family, but he shows little promise until a blood test indicates that he is qualified for a very special program: to animate a 50 foot tall alien robot that can fight the monsters. The match has to be right or it won't work. This made me think of the movie Pacific Rim, but it's a different kind of robot and a different story. He enters a training program with three others, all better qualified than he is, and gradually learns what he needs to to control his particular robot. But there are signs that those alien machines are to an extent self-willed, and can take over the minds of those who animate them. Indeed, Ezra goes on a killing spree as the spirit of the robot infuses him. This business is dangerous in more than one way. The students and teachers have issues of their own, complicating it further, and more than one gets brutally killed. Hints of romance get twisted; Ezra may or may not have a girlfriend hereafter. At the end of the volume the alarmed city is going to close down the project; Ezra and the others barely get away in their robots as mayhem among humans proceeds. Volume Two will be The Unfinished World, and it promises to be mind stretching, because there are significant mysteries remaining. Such as who made the giant robots, and why were they left for human beings to find? Are those robots really dead, as they seem to have awareness and emotions. Do the monsters really derive from infected human beings? And will Ezra be able to get together romantically with one of the girls he likes, assuming that any of them survive? This story has power, and leaves me interested in the sequel. I suspect that this is an author to watch.

I watched Serenity. It was a disappointment. I found it full of jumpy sequences, pointlessly extended fistfights, and a confusing story line. It was as if the director had too much money and not enough storytelling sense. Maybe Firefly fans are familiar with the background and characters already, so are able to follow it more readily. There is a story, of a telepathic 17 year old girl who spends most of her time looking like a helpless waif, and some of her time athletically fighting men. Each side wants her, presumably to use her mental power to spy out enemy secrets. Neither side is noble; they have few decent limits. I also get tired of slender girls throwing men about despite lacking muscle; it simply lacks realism. It could have been a great movie, with more proportion and concern for the ordinary viewer. I think of the tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. A wasted opportunity.

NoRemember was mainly a Chore month, where I continued to sort old folders, read old magazines, and catch up on whatever other incidentals have accumulated for years. Such as the videos. VCR cassettes have been pretty much replaced by DVD and Blu-Ray discs, and my old player broke down years ago, replaced by a new one, so I can't play VCRs any more. But they filled my shelves, while the DVDs sat piled on the floor. Okay, now the cassettes are boxed and the DVDs are shelved. The process evoked some fond memories: Basic Instinct, where Sharon Stone crosses her legs in one of the sexiest sequences ever shown in traditional theaters. Coincidentally, when I was looking for the Florida State vs. Boston College football game on TV, searching for the right channel, I happened to hit a movie channel with that very sequence playing. Wow! Does God play panties with the universe? Not that she was wearing any. Blazing Saddles, with the infamous farting sequence. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which I had gotten because I was intrigued by the song. It featured an amazing roster of stars for a western: James Stewart, John Wayne, Lee Marvin, and was a pretty good movie overall. Candy, maybe the most notorious of movies, though not all that sexy compared to today's offerings. 1 Night in Paris, featuring Paris Hilton's forbidden footage, mainly her boyfriend doing cunnilingus on her so all you see is his head; the supplementary sex sequences with other girls are actually much more graphic. But it was quite notorious in its day. Sigh; it's sad to see them and a hundred others relegated to indefinite storage. However, I now have my DVDs readily accessible, and can watch whatever I want more conveniently. Except that I am now writing the novella Brick, and when I'm writing little else gets done, so viewing is slowing to very little. Sigh, again.

There was an odd and disturbing incident that came to light in this month. I was told that when I was Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in Nashville, 1987, a longtime fan approached me as I was walking somewhere—it was one hell of a rushed schedule for me, chronically blocked by crowds—and told me that he had named his son after me, at least his middle name, Piers. The report was that I never broke my stride. “Why would you want to do that?” I asked, and moved on. Chagrined, he went home and I think never read my books again. So how did I learn of this, 27 years later? From his son with the name, who was curious why his father would give him that name but never speak of me. Ouch! I have no memory of such an incident, and it's not the way I treat my fans. It's more like that way that vicious stories claimed, starting with reports that I was an ogre at conventions—before I ever even attended a convention. So that lie was obvious, the motive behind it less so, and not the only one. Some of the mischief dates from when I got blacklisted for demanding a correct accounting from my cheating publisher; the lies were spread to blacken the accuser and vindicate the cheater, a standard tactic. But I actually was at Nashville, so he could have met me. Yet I wonder if he did. One of the more mischievous pranks at conventions is impersonation of known authors. Did someone impersonate me and treat my fans like shit? I can't be sure, though it seems doubtful that someone could get away with doing it to the guest of honor, surely a recognizable figure. Or could it have been that it was me, and I thought he was joking, so responded humorously? I can't rule that out. The whole thing has an ugly odor, and I wish I knew the truth. I deplore the way some authors treat their fans, and it is emphatically not my way, as I trust readers of this column can see.

One thing that turned up in my cleanup: a humorous Holiday card from the Mattingly/Cogswell Clan in 2009, showing them standing before a columned house, he lighting his cigar with burning paper money, she with a low decolletage, holding her crowned cat. Inside is the larger picture: the mansion is on fire, Santa's sleigh is crashing through buildings of the background city, and the moon is about to smack into the Earth. Fortunately it turned out to be an exaggeration, I can say from my 2014 perspective: Santa survived.

Suppose you have a happy marriage, then one day you realize that your spouse has been replaced by a doppelganger, someone who looks and sounds and acts the same, but is actually an imposter? You try to tell others, but everyone else is fooled, and thinks you're losing your mind. What has happened to your spouse? Is he/she the captive of some terrible enemy who is methodically taking over people, like the Stepford Wives? How can you ignore the sinister substitution, when the welfare of your beloved is threatened? Yet you know that if you persist, you will wind up institutionalized as crazy. This, for you, could be a subdivision of Hell. Well, it happens. Article in THE WEEK describes the Capgras syndrome, where damage to the frontal cortex messes up interpretive feedback and the processing of emotions. Your spouse is legitimate; only your perception is flawed. But since it's your brain, you have absolute conviction. So there's a reasonable explanation. Assuming your doctor isn't one of THEM, feeding you a spurious account so you won't make a fuss while aliens quietly take over the world. Okay, let's toss out a story notion someone else can write up and make a fortune from, titled “Substitute.” One day you realize your wife has been replaced, and no one else will believe it. But you're smart: you know a scientist with a device that can absolutely identify someone. Bring him in to test your wife. But she doesn't want to be tested, which is understandable; why let her nature be revealed? So you put her in a situation where she has to do it, by volunteering to be tested yourself first. So you are tested—and it turns out that you are the fake. Of course she's not the woman you knew; you never touched her before this day. You knew something was wrong, but didn't realize the source of the knowledge.

NEW SCIENTIST has an article titled “Are Some People Doomed To Obesity?” This explores a number of common beliefs and judges which are True, which are Myth and which are Maybe. I'm interested because though I myself have maintained my proper lean weight, others in my family have not. For example, my father was lean through most of his life, but in the end was too heavy to stand when he died. My mother might have lived another decade had she kept the weight off. So the beliefs: Skinny people have higher metabolisms? Myth. Middle age spread is inevitable? Maybe; but you can control it if you try hard enough. Thin people digest less food? Myth. Dieting permanently reduces your metabolic rate? Myth. You continue to burn calories after exercising? True. Eat fat to burn more fat? Myth. Some foods are actively slimming? Maybe. I note that it never says that you can eat a pill to make you safely thin. We're still waiting for that to come on the market.

But about food: we can't keep increasing our population without eventually running out of food. This isn't a social matter, it's physics. I suspect that the world will turn vegetarian when the crunch comes, because that can multiply the effective food supply ten or twenty fold. But there are other notions. THE WEEK has an article on eating bugs. It seems it is far more efficient to grow bugs to eat than to grow cows to eat. It doesn't have to be stomach turning; dry out the bugs, grind them into high protein flour; who will know the difference? I'm a vegetarian because I don't like hurting animals; it's a moral matter, not an ugh factor. Bugs maybe would be different. If you ground roaches, bedbugs, or mosquitoes into flour I suspect I'd eat it. Actually, all of us probably are already eating it, because of lax standards of food processing, that lets bugs in the grain. Of course my ideal would be a step farther: farm algae or fungi or viruses for food, rendering it into visual, feel, taste, and nutritive similarities to existing foods. There might be enough there to feed us for several more centuries. Of course we're making other global problems too, like pollution, habitat destruction, and warming, so that may become academic. But the day may come when cows don't have to campaign for folk to eat more chicken, and the chickens won't have to hide.

Say, the Rosetta Mission's Philae landed on Comet 67P, after a decade's travel. Sure, it bounced and messed up its solar receptors, but it's still a remarkable accomplishment, and we'll have a wonderful mess of information coming. The thing about a comet is that it has existed untouched for maybe four and a half billion years, and represents the kind of stuff that originally formed our planet, pristine, before plate tectonics, oxygen pollution, and hungry bugs messed it up. Now maybe we can get a glimpse of our world's virgin birth.

I received an interesting notice: there is an exhibition called “The Last Book,” running from December 13th through February 7th. It consists of large color photographs by Dutch photographer Reinier Gerritsen in conjunction with the recent publication of his monograph by Aperture. Several years ago he set about recording people reading on the subways of New York, in what he thought was becoming the extinction of the printed book. In one of these images he recorded someone reading my novel On A Pale Horse. Any fans of mine who are interested can go see the show. The website is http://saulgallery.com/artists/reinier-gerritsen/the-last-book.

Our Xanth Character Database has been updated by Doug Harter, who has been shaping it into a more accurate, presentable whole. It now goes through Xanth # 39 Five Portraits.

Feminists beware: the long-time comic book heroine Wonder Woman, bold and shapely feminist role model and sex object, was written by a man, William Moulton Marston, a Harvard educated research physiologist who dreamed her up in 1941. A new book, The Secret History Of Wonder Woman, by Jill Lepore, reveals that the man was the co-inventor of the lie detector but also a serial liar himself. He said women were superior to men, supported equal rights, and described Wonder Woman as an exemplar of the new type of woman who should rule the world. But he didn't bother with that nonsense at home. He told his wife that she could stay only if she accepted that his former student Olive Byrne was moving in with them, and he would be sleeping with both of them. Sadie Marston bit the bullet and consented, and the two women continued to cohabit for decades after Marston's death in 1947. I guess they had equal rights to him. So much for the image. Actually I was not a regular reader of Wonder Woman, but the little I saw seemed interesting, and she was indeed sexy.

Newspaper feature on college rape charges says that only about five percent of women who are raped report it to the police, because it's another hassle and they won't be believed, and nothing will be done anyway. The rapists almost always get away with their crimes. It seems that a small number of men commit serial rapes; if we could get rid of them, campuses would be much safer. My sympathy is with the victims, partly because I raised two daughters and attuned to their situations; partly because the way victims are treated is similar to the way I was treated when I complained about being cheated by a publisher, as mentioned above: I got punished while the publisher got praised. This smells to high heaven, but it is what generally happens. However the article does make a point: when there is drinking at a party, consensual sex can be seen as non-consensual the sober morning after. The boundaries become fuzzy, and girls should indeed by wary of alcohol. So there's no one size fits all answer.

There is also the developing story about comedian Bill Cosby, now accused of sexual abuses by 18 women. Should we now trash his record as an actor? And the football players who abuse women: banish them from football? The law is proving to be haphazard, and justice seems unlikely. Which in turn reminds me of a conversation I had in 1966 with writer Keith Laumer. I said I was uneasy about selling stories to a leading science fiction magazine when it was apparent that its editor was a covert racist. Laumer said that I should deal with the editor in his capacity as editor, not his private opinions. I pondered and concluded that he was right; I can't remake others to my own preferences in areas that are not my business. So I say let the football players play football, and if they commit crimes in civilian life, prosecute them for those crimes. Appreciate Cosby as the phenomenal talent he is, and prosecute any crimes he has committed in his private life.

And the Ferguson case, where a white cop shot to death an unarmed black teen, is not being indicted, and riots are ensuing. The details are complicated, with a question whether the teen attacked the policeman and whether firing a dozen bullets was called for. More disturbing is the covertly racist background, with white police it seems routinely harassing blacks and never getting punished for it, while a black who tries to fight back is soon in prison or dead; no wonder there is rage. The same kind I feel when publishers routinely bully writers and never get called to account. I am prepared to destroy a publisher who tries that shit with me now. But my situation is different from that of a black or a typical writer; I now have monetary and legal resources to do the job. What about those who don't have what they need to retaliate? Must they give up much hope of justice? I don't have a comfortable answer. But maybe omnipresent video cameras will help.

I attended the 1987 World Fantasy Convention, as mentioned above. Now they have made a phenomenal six volume anthology of their participants; administrative, writers, and artists. It's dedicated to the co-founder Kirby McCauley, my former agent. There must be three thousand pages of highly varied stories, eye-catching paintings, and photographs, concluding with a gallery of Virgil Finlay art. My short zombie story “The Courting” is in it, in volume 1 because the A names are there, and is perhaps the least of its offerings. They have photo features for each convention except a few; for some reason they skip 1987, which was mine. I'm not sure how this is being marketed, but keep your eye out for Unconventional Fantasy, the 40th WFC Anniversary Project for World Fantasy Convention 2014.

I asked whether readers were satisfied with the long columns, which I would prefer to have shorter. The response was 100% favorable for long ones. All five of them. Then on Column editing day came one more, saying that shorter columns would be in order. Well, it's nice to know I have six readers. Until next month--

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