|Piers Anthony, Jan. 1, 2011. Photo by Jane McConnell.|
Mayhem was a month of non-writing as I caught up on reading and viewing. Those who don't like reviews of books or movies can skip these paragraphs and move on down to my random opinionations. Much of what I read and view triggers memories of my own experiences; I have a hearty cynicism about the endemic corruption of our supposedly fair minded world.
I read The Whistleblower by Kathryn Bolkovac with Cari Lynn. Kathryn was an American policewoman who answered an ad and became a rent-a-cop hired by DynCorp for work in Bosnia. She wanted to do some good in the world and the pay was good. Little did she know. She was assigned as a human rights investigator focusing on the “white slave” traffic: women and girls age 12 and up tricked into leaving home for supposedly good jobs as waitress, nanny, dancer, and, yes, prostitution, only to find themselves handcuffed, blindfolded, and smuggled into a foreign country as forced whores. Those who protested were beaten or starved. Those who went to the police were likely to be returned to the brutal traffickers. Kathy honestly tried to help them, and thus ran afoul of the system wherein the male authorities were using the girls themselves; reform would mess that up. She fought hard, until she was fired for made-up transgressions. She sued and won, but was blacklisted thereafter, and the corrupt system continued largely unchanged. I found this painful reading, not just because of the wrongs done the girls and Kathy, but because of the similarities to what I have encountered in rather different venues when I tried to do the right thing in college, the US Army, and as a professional writer. In each case I was the one who suffered rather than the wrongdoers, and the systems didn't change, though I trust each one felt the impact of my just case and none are eager to talk about it today. It is why I remain damned ornery, now that I have resources I lacked at the time. But about trafficked girls: why is it so persistent? Obviously because there is big money to be made from serving the illicit sex market, as criminals are happy to do. Reform won't come until the laws and standards are changed. There is obviously a steady market for sex, and it will be served legally or illegally. Prostitution should be legalized, and civilized standards enforced so that no one is abducted, brutalized, or tricked into the abyss. So there are those who don't like women selling their bodies so they can make a living; those folk don't have to patronize that business. Let's face it: some folk don't like to see writers writing for money, either, but I as a writer for money see it differently. Yes, some call commercial writers whores. Those who don't like that don't have to read my books. But the sex traffic may be more insidious. I understand that storytelling is the second oldest profession, second to selling sex. Men just naturally seem to want more of it than women do, so the ladies of the evening fill that void. But why is there so strong a market for girls down to age 12 or even younger? For children? That bothers me almost as much as the evident corruption does. As I see it, the law is unrealistic about age, so that a girl with a full-blown body is considered a child if she is a week shy of 18 and the boy who loves her is considered a child molester. But what about the girl who is twelve or younger and looks it? Evidently there are men who really are sexually turned on by children, as the child porn market suggests. That makes me wince.
I read Far Future Fembot Bill's Story, by D B Story, published by eXcessica. This is a big novel in size and concept. As I read it I kept thinking of my own Metal Maiden. Both feature a young man discovering a female humanoid robot made for sex, who then becomes conscious and eventually ruler of the known human civilization. In both novels robots are people, though not necessarily recognized as such, in the latest kind of racism. Details in the center narrative differ considerably, however. In this one, Bill sees the sad little fembot propped in the window of a second hand store. She had evidently known she was being turned off, maybe forever, maybe to be junked for parts. She's an obsolete Anna model. He considers her a kindred spirit. As he passes each day he starts talking to her. Until one day she's missing from the window. He hurries into the store, alarmed—and winds up taking a job there, to earn ownership of Anna. They wind up having sex—she is after all made for that purpose—but it's also love. In time he gets her upgraded, takes over the store, and starts working on the rights of robots. It feels as if this book is one third history/story, one third romance/sex, and one third society/politics; it does get solidly lecture-some in places, and I figured the author had read Heinlein and might be a libertarian. The story takes us eventually into the far future, with Bill living and dying several times, only to be reincarnated farther down the line, remembering his prior lives, and reconnecting with his beloved Anna. The sex starts timid but in due course becomes eye-opening, as one of Anna's upgrades provides her with a penis and one of Bill's incarnations is female. There are too many plot wrinkles to cover here, but here's one example: in a future society each person is limited to one child, so a couple can have two. Then at age 15 each child must go to a foster family, and to another at 16, and a third at 17, with other children coming into the original family to take their places. This has a generally broadening effect on family outlooks. Then the last child to spend a year with Bill's family—actually at that point it's Billie, the female incarnation—is a seventeen year old fembot, Tami-7. The robots are being integrated into the human society. Because of her perfect memory and programmed nature, Tami becomes the family historian and a unifying figure. She also has a secret crush on Bill, when she meets him in a later male incarnation. I was touched by the whole Tami aspect. In fact I like this novel, and recommend it to others, with a caution about being prepared to skim through long sex scenes if that turns you off, or extended socioeconomic dialogue. The story is worth your while as a broadening experience, especially if you like conscious humanoid robots, as I do.
I read Alouette's Path by Andrew Jonathan Fine. This is the third and concluding section of the trilogy Alouette's Wings, the prior two sections being Alouette's Song and Alouette's Dream, reviewed here in 2014 and 2015. This one is a short novel or novella length piece, wrapping up the ends from the prior two books, which have been re-edited for overall unity. I did not reread the prior ones, being backlogged on books, and just started in on the third. Alas, my senescent memory is not great, and it was as if I were starting a new novel, with only flashes of the prior ones being evoked. The names of the characters have become largely unfamiliar to me. I recommend that regular readers be more sensible and read the whole trilogy to avoid confusion. Regardless, this does wrap up myriad plot threads, interspersed by surprises, and concludes with a happy if unusual marriage. This is what I call Jewish science fiction, meaning no aspersion, and the related discussion seems authentic to me. There is also a fair amount of sex, including one fairly graphic virtual sex incident. If real virtual sex turns out to be like this, there will be nothing like it short of ideal physical contact, and it may be preferable to ordinary physical sex. So I recommend this not as a story in itself, but as the competent conclusion to the larger narrative. The appeal may be mainly to readers in the upper range of intelligence or taste; there's no shallow bravado here.
I watched Star Wars The Force Awakens. It is typical Star Wars, with good guys struggling against the odds, bad guys out to destroy them, and continuous cliffhanger action. You can't believe any of it, but it's fun to watch as fantasy. A cute little robot who is a colored ball with a headpiece floating on top has a portion of a key map that both sides need so the chase is on. It joins Rey, a lady scavenger, who then teams up with the good guys and, to contract this a fair amount, then develops the Force herself and prevails. There are phenomenal scenes of stars and planetary landscapes throughout; it's a visual treat. I note the art with which Rey, at first bundled up, gradually shows more of her appealing body. And of course the good guys who are lost or dead turn out in the end to have recovered, and all is well. For now.
I watched The Martian, wherein a storm threatens and the ship has to take off suddenly, leaving behind a crewman they think is dead. But he survives his injury and makes it to the pressured shelter. But he has only a month's supply of food. So he decides to grow his own, being a botanist. To do that he has to make water, literally, chemically combining things. He is one resourceful man. He drives their vehicle to places where old equipment was left and cobbles things together. Meanwhile back on Earth they spy the evidence of his activity and realize he's alive. They will make a rescue mission if they can get it through a balky congress. If only that were humor! Meanwhile they establish communication of a sort: he puts alphabet letters on signs on posts in a circle, and the camera controlled by Earth points to them to spell out messages. Remember, it takes many minutes for each transmission; this is a slow process. He can after all make it, if nothing goes wrong. So of course something does go wrong: an accident wipes out his plants. They must scramble to move up the rescue mission. Which goes wrong. Now they have to make a perilous gamble, risking 5 astronauts to save one. To slingshot around Earth and return to Mars instead of landing on Earth. They give it to the original crew to decide, and they vote yes. The rescue rendezvous in space is dramatic. The scenes of the bleak Mars terrain are beautiful in their desolation; it's a red desert, but with fabulous mountains and craters. The women in it have roles but seem largely decorative, though there is a lady captain who figures in more significantly toward the end. The blurb on the back says it is one of the year's best films. I have to agree.
I watched Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes. It was not at all what I expected. They tried a new drug on chimpanzees, and it makes some of them geniuses. There is trouble, and they are euthanized (in English: killed), but a baby chimp survives and is taken home by a doctor. He is Caesar, who grows up in eight years as a family pet, but much smarter than any ape or human. The doctor also tries treating his mentally ailing father with the drug, and it cures him and makes him smarter, until his body develops resistance and he reverts. So the doctor develops a new drag variant. But meanwhile Caesar gets taken in by animal control and caged with wild chimps. It's an ugly experience, and the guards can be brutal. But he gets more of the drug and leads a smart ape revolt. There is a mass escape. They terrorize the city, then head into the forest. They will make their own society. This is a hard-hitting animal rights movie.
I watched All the King's Men. I read the book about 50 years ago and hardly remember the details other than the general mood of political corruption, so this is a solid refresher. Reporter Jack Burden tells it as it is, and gets fired from the newspaper; governor Willie Stark hires him. Stark is a plain talking hard drinking womanizing populist reformer representing the common man. Now he has power, and power tends to corrupt. That's what makes this realistic and ugly. I believe the story is inspired by the career of the infamous Huey Long. A prominent retired Judge supports the impeachment of Stark; Jack is assigned the job of finding dirt on the judge to bring him down. He hates that, because the judge has been like a father to him, but he does the job. I thought it was an incidental theme, but it is larger in the movie. He gets the dirt and confronts the judge—who then commits suicide. Then Jack learns that the Judge is his real father. Then the movie spins into concluding mayhem I don't at all remember from the book. So it's exciting, but maybe not valid as a political parallel.
I read Interspecies, a structured anthology of four pieces edited by Ally Bishop, published by Kosa Press www.kosapress.com. The stories fit into a particular framework of interstellar interaction with a time-line extending from two million years before the first alien contact on Earth by the inlari, a humanoid species with horns and special powers, to 62 years after. The setting is New Zealand and Australia, where live the survivors of a war that ravaged the rest of the planet, making it uninhabitable. Even in this limited venue things are not easy; the inlari generally have the upper hand, sometimes cooperating with the human natives, even occasionally interbreeding with them, but more often raiding or enslaving them. Some on either side seek peace and unity, with doubtful success. The stories take place around forty to fifty years thereafter, showing the interactions of the humans and aliens, which remind me strongly of the relations between the conquering white man and the native populations of Australia, Africa, and America. The first is “The Memoriam” by M J Kelley, where Kene is selected at age 9 as a potential recipient for the Memoriam, a powerful mythic figure who stores the species memories of the past two million years. This is the knowledge that can save humanity, vitally important. But assimilating these memories is literally painful and takes years; it is not a joyful task. Worse, there is some office politicking that gets the prior Memoriam murdered, and the wrong one usurps his position. Kene must fight his own kind, escaping with the girl Alta in a buried lifeboat almost the size of the mountain so that the memories and thus the human culture will not be forfeited. As it points out, memory is identity; without it you have nothing. I found the exploration mind-stretching, no pun intended. “Underground Intelligence” by Elaine Chao, follows the girl An-ting, active in the resistance against the aliens, who discovers her purpose in life: to be a bridge between the cultures. She contacts an alien intellectual who helps her, and the resistance also succeeds in freeing a human leader from captivity, so it's essentially positive but no sure thing. “Transmission Interrupted” by Dana Leipold has the alien girl Quinette fall in love with a young human man, which is of course forbidden; the master class does not socialize in that manner with the slave class. When things go wrong and he gets killed and she is faced with an arranged marriage to one of her own kind, she kills herself. “Babylon's Song” by Woelf Dietrtich sees Samantha Babylon, a human child, abruptly and brutally orphaned by the aliens. She and her little sister are enslaved. Samantha is lucky enough to get a kindhearted alien master who treats her well, but several years later he gets in trouble himself, probably on a bogus charge. He helps Samantha escape, but by now she is one bitter girl, understandably. Obviously there will be no peace between the species anytime soon. These are generally hard-hitting stories about a grim future world, with little optimism. I presume more will be done with this framework in other volumes, as the larger story is unfinished. Regardless, it is thoughtful reading.
I read End Game by Frank Brady, covering the life of Bobby Fischer, one time chess champion of the world. This is fascinating reading; he was a man of contradictions, and I will touch only on scattered aspects. Bobby grew up in poverty, but had an IQ of 180; he was a genius, and possibly the finest chess player who ever lived. But genius can be paired with insanity, and yes, Bobby could have been slightly mad. My guess is in between; he may have suffered from a form of autism known as the Asperger's syndrome. That's a condition I have been uncomfortably aware of because it runs in my family, and I can't be quite certain I have entirely escaped it myself. I like to think I am merely at the fringe of that particular abyss, critics to the contrary notwithstanding. At any rate, Bobby won the respect of chess masters at an early age, becoming the youngest American to make a number of marks in the game. He became the American junior champion, then the straight champion, and finally the world champion, but his course was anything but straightforward. Then, championship in hand, he declined to defend it, and lost it by forfeit without being defeated. The man he won it from, Boris Spassky, later became one of his closest friends. But as he aged, Bobby soured increasingly on the world and life, becoming a rabid hater of Jews despite having Jewish ancestry himself, and his loud bigotry alienated him from many former friends. So why didn't he defend his title? He didn't like the terms of the match, such as the amount of money he would get from it. Later he got in trouble with the US government when he insisted on playing a chess match in banned Yugoslavia, and could not return to America lest he be arrested and imprisoned. If there's one thing that matched him in self righteous idiocy, it's the American government. His relationships with women apart from his mother and sister were often problematical; he had some good female friends, motherly types, but for romance all he wanted young pretty blue-eyed blondes who played chess. A seventeen year old chess fan, a Hungarian girl, developed an acquaintance with him, and actually was instrumental in changing his life by arranging a multimillion dollar rematch with Spassky that lifted him from poverty to wealth. He liked her personally too, and wanted to marry her, but her interest in him was not romantic, as she made quite clear when she got pregnant by someone else. Later yet he did marry a Japanese woman close to his own age, and that belated sensible choice seems to have been an ideal union. He distrusted doctors, and though he ate carefully and exercised, when there was a health problem his avoidance of doctors and medicine led finally to his death in Iceland at age 64. Yes, he lived one year for every square on the chessboard. I suspect that we shall not see his like again.
I read City by Clifford Simak. This was one of the salient novels of my early career, and I valued my paperback copy—which somewhere along the way disappeared, as books do in the course of a lifetime. So I was glad to get Open Road's electronic edition on a sale. I remembered only two items in it: how mankind discovered that Jupiter was a paradise, once you translated into Jovian form, and emigrated there immediately, leaving very few behind on Earth. And how the peaceful Dogs, having a problem with ants, refused the violence of poisoning them, so gave up the world to them. All else had faded out, except my memory of the book's profound impact on my mind. How could such a great book have faded out so completely in only a bit over 60 years? It was a mystery I was eager to resolve. Here is the thing: I read it circa 1953 just about the time I discovered that I wanted to be a writer, and it showed me how a coherent book could be made from a collection of stories. I had read many novels, but the challenge of writing one myself was daunting, as I saw myself as a natural story writer more than a novelist. Indeed, I was not satisfied that I could do it until I wrote my fifth novel Macroscope, 190,000 words. Thereafter I no longer worried about length. My first novel, The Unstilled World, about 95,000 words, never published (because it was not good enough), was patterned after City, starting in the present day and jumping story by story into the far future. There's no other similarity, but it shows the impact. So why couldn't I remember Simak's narrative? I hoped rereading it would clarify the matter. It starts with the collapse of the city, circa 1990, as nuclear power and hydroponics provide energy and food for everyone. In the second story—these were published in ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION magazine in the 1940s—the first humanoid robot appears—yes my own novel had one—serving the Webster family. In the third tale, the first friendly dog appears, and after that it's mostly robots, talking dogs, and space and alternate universe travel. There's a lot of nostalgic pondering, not a lot of action. The dogs get modified to be more intelligent and able to talk, the robots advance so as to be better able to serve man, there are mutant men and feral robots—that is, ones who run off to make their own society—and ants that develop technology and slowly progress to take over the world. The last story is 12,000 years or more after the first. Had I read it new today I doubt it would have impressed me as more than an average science fiction novel, stylistically mundane. So why did it wow me back then? I remain largely at a loss; I just don't know. It is worthwhile, without question, just not spectacular in either action or romance, and its no-government philosophy I suspect would be a disaster in practice. I conjecture that I was wowed by the sheer perspective, the wonder of the vision of the world or worlds and mankind as seen thousands of years later. I do recommend it as an example of the science fiction of the 1950s when I came on the scene as a reader.
I watched the Discover video Mars: The Red Planet. The planet is only half the diameter of Earth, but Olympus Mons, the size of the state of Missouri, rises 15 miles, dwarfing anything known on Earth. There's a chasm the size of the United States. No oxygen in the atmosphere; it's all carbon dioxide. No water today, but there was in the past, and tons of carbon dioxide ice remain on the polar caps—and maybe beneath it is some regular water ice. They found carbon, evidence of possible life in the past. Possible, but far from certain. The rovers Spirit and Opportunity were sent to Mars to explore and gather data. Phoenix will do more. Is there, or has there ever been, life on Mars? On two adjacent planets in our system? If so, then maybe there is life throughout the universe, as it could be happening naturally all over.
I watched DOCTOR WHO—The Doctors Revisited. Everything changes from Doctor to Doctor, but the traveling phone booth called the Tardis is always there. The Ninth Doctor returned in 2005 with Rose Tyler, a cute girl. This Doctor saves the world by abolishing the homicidal mechanical Daleks, which resemble oversized thimbles who exist to exterminate all else, and the Time Lords, and feels guilt for that. Then an episode where they are forced to play the game of The Weakest Link, where the losers are promptly vaporized. The Doctor and a girl called Lynda rush to rescue Rose but arrive too late and she is vaporized. That annoys the Doctor. Then it turns out the it's a transporter beam, not a vaporizer; Rose is still alive, far away. So he rescues her after all, and sends her home so she will be safe. But she rebels, naughty girl, and figures out how to return and assume ultimate power, saving the Doctor. Then the Tenth Doctor, starting with the half hour discussion to set the sequence. Donna Noble, no-nonsense companion, busty brunette. The Daleks have conquered and the Doctor can't be found. So the Subwave Network that the Daleks can't detect gets active, organizing the defense. But then the Daleks do detect them and start exterminating. It's one wild adventure involving 27 planets, the Reality Bomb, and the dissolving of all matter. Somehow they finally do manage to abolish the Daleks and save the world. And bid a sad parting to Rose Tyler. And Donna Noble. The Doctor must move on. Then the Eleventh Doctor, with companion Amy, a pretty brunette, who may or may not be pregnant. First he gets shot to death, then an earlier self returns. Then he gets caught trespassing in American President Nixon's Oval Office in 1969. All the president's men are surprised to see the Tardis there. Then an alien monster appears as they go on to Cape Kennedy. Did I mention that this program can get wild? Then it gets weird. You have to see it to disbelieve it. On to Area 51, Nevada. Glen Canyon, Arizona. The monsters are everywhere; America had been occupied for some time, but the natives don't seem to know it. The monsters are The Silence; they can't be remembered. The Apollo 11 is about to lift off for the moon. Doctor Who reassures Nixon that he will be remembered. And a little girl is dying, but she can fix that.
I watched another batch of Inspector Morse mysteries, this time using the ear plugs, which enabled me to make out the dialogue better so I could follow the stories. Starting this time with #28 Twilight of the Gods. A man turns up murdered in a boat on the river. Then a woman, a leading opera singer, is shot during a university parade, in an attempted murder. Morse is amazed. “But this isn't America; guns aren't that easy to--” I love that; everyone knows that America is gun nut paradise. She is hardly the only prima donna in Oxford, male or female; interviews are difficult. A young's woman's apartment is ransacked and a key letter stolen. There must be a connection. It seems the singer was interested in young men, complicating her private situation; her husband had not been much interested in sex. But was she really the target? Meanwhile the reporters are swarming, a nuisance to the investigation. The answer ties in with a Nazi concentration camp in Lithuania; the male victim was the son of a vicious guard and torturer; the woman was an accident. So the Oxford setting was coincidental. Only Morse could have figured it out. Fortunately the singer finally recovers. Then The Way Through the Woods, wherein a dog digs up a human skull in a lovely forest. It is of a woman, they conclude, Karen Anderson, whose body was never found. Just her head, now. They know who did it; he confessed. Except that he confessed on his deathbed to four murders, and she would have been the fifth. Morse, alone, is bothered by that. Then a man gets killed, a gardener on the estate. The pathologist is a woman who looks for an “Inspector Mouse.” Hmm. Then they find Karen's bones—only they turn out to be from a man. Oops. Morse gets taken off the case, replaced by a brutish rival, Sergeant Johnson, and quarrels with his assistant, Sergeant Lewis, who thinks he's completely wrong. Morse seems to be pretty much out of it. But of course he is the only one who is on the right track. Lewis, following a lead, discovers Karen Anderson, not dead after all, but a killer. She'd been molested from age ten and now was fighting back her way. Until she gets killed in a confrontation with Morse and Lewis. Ironies abound. Then The Daughters of Cain. A man is killed, a brutish man is a suspect, and there is an escort service with several sexy young women. Also a schoolteacher who uses her wiles to get a young man to do her mysterious bidding. Another body turns up in the river: the brute, who had been supplying drugs to students. And another man is knifed in the back by a museum exhibit blade borrowed for the occasion. And a joyriding kid wrecks the car and winds up in the hospital. So who did what to whom? Call them the daughters of Cain; they did what was required to rid themselves of a tyrant. No jury would convict them. What can Morse or Lewis do? Except regretfully shut up. Justice is not always as it seems. Then Death is Now My Neighbor, where a young woman is doing her hair at breakfast and suddenly gets shot to death through the window. Anyone could have done it. Then a high administrator makes an indecent proposal to a lovely young wife: indulge his passion, and her husband will be granted his dream position. She's outraged, yet knows her husband's success depends on this. So she obliges him. Then he tells her that her husband won't get the position anyway. She's sold herself for nothing. When she tells her husband, he becomes violent; she falls down the stairway and is killed. While the bad man who caused it gets away with it. Until Morse threatens to publicize the details unless the man departs Oxford immediately. Thus justice is served, in devious fashion. Apart from a couple of solved murders. And we learn at last Morse's first name: Endeavor. Because the women he likes insists on knowing it first. We also learn that Morse had a Quaker background. I like that; my family, all except me, is Quaker. Then The Wench is Dead, where Morse collapses at a public function and winds up in the hospital. The doctor calls him Horse; everybody gets his name wrong. He's a difficult patient; aren't we all. A lady doctor writer brings him her book about a century and a half old murder of a woman; now his imagination puts him in that scene, and he suspects that they executed the wrong men. So the main story is that ancient mystery, come back to life. Morse is assisted in this investigation by a sharp young man who develops a romance with the helpful librarian. Together they investigate the details as the mystery grows. Things don't mesh. Was the dead woman really Joanna Franks? There was life insurance, 300 pounds. Was she raped and murdered, or was she leading the boatmen on, carousing with them, setting them up for being framed? So Joanna and her husband Donovan, who was a famous illusionist, took the money and disappeared together. Mystery solved, but not in time to save the innocent boatmen, alas. Morse recovers; he needs to cut back on alcohol and maybe retire, but he's too oink headed to do such things voluntarily. And the last of the episodes, The Remorseful Day. A woman admits a man for a tryst—and gets bloodily murdered. A man's body is found in the dump. It's an old case that Morse had been removed from, so naturally it wasn't handled right. They find money; was someone being blackmailed? Morse continues to have seizures of pain, becoming more frequent. Another body turns up in a the trunk of a car. Is there any connection between the cases? And a workman's long ladder crashes down, killing him, in the fall, as a runner passes by. Hmm. The young runner confesses to doing it, because he thinks the man had killed his mother a year back. Then Morse collapses while on the investigation. He's back in the hospital, the coronary care unit. It's serious; he dies. Lewis wraps up the case. Then The Making of Morse, featuring the actor, John Thaw, and others, discussing the role, and illustrating with spot scenes. It says that it has been viewed by over 750 million folk across the world. Colin, Dexter, the author of the novels on which the series is based, also comments; he gave Morse some of his own qualities, such as appreciation for classical music and not suffering fools gladly. The actor had tried different things, then asked himself what could he do, and concluded that acting was it. That evidently worked out. They agree that Morse is fundamentally lonely. But they agree that the series had to end, because it was getting hard to come up with more original material. Then The Story of Morse, starting with the question whether a series without car chases or women jumping into bed with men would attract much of an audience. They concluded that it could, if John Thaw acted the role. They were right. The author of the books always appears in the episodes, not as an actor, just seen in passing, the way Hitchcock appeared in his movies. Then at last the series finishes, and some of the actors were in mourning. It concludes with Inspector Morse's Oxford, with discussion as it shows the classic architecture, the statuary, the tree-lined avenues, winding alleys, the waterways, the parks, the pubs, the bookshops, a museum, mentions the famous writers who frequented it such as Tolkien, Lewis, Carroll, and of course the University. All the marvelous things that I never picked up on when I was on the scene. I was a bit young, born there in 1934, but I think we spent more time in London with the grandparents before leaving for Spain and then America when I was four, never to return. World War Two and my father's trumped up arrest and banishment by the new Spanish dictatorship interfered. Maybe some day I'll visit. So I feel the nostalgia without much of a basis. Here is an oddity: when Morse collapsed, on the way to dying, three of their cameras died in quick succession. The tragedy must have been too much for them. There were a couple of following series, one featuring inspector Lewis, the other a younger Morse as Endeavor. I could get them, but I think I have had enough of Oxford for now.
I watched one of my dollar movies, Suddenly, a restored 1954 black/white effort. Back in my day, which was about this time, movies were compelling experiences. 60 years later this one seems, well, dated, with somewhat wooden dialogue and unimpressive photography, but it has a story. Frank Sinatra in a non-singing role stars as a professional assassin out to kill the president. He and his minions take over a house that overlooks the tracks where the president's train will pass. When it stops, they will shoot him with a rifle from a window; three seconds is the window of opportunity. Meanwhile they're are holding the residents hostage: kid, attractive young mother, grandpa, plus a couple others. Then things start going wrong. The hostages manage to mess up the assassination, and the train does not stop, having gotten a whiff of the danger, so the president survives. It's actually okay as a movie, certainly worth the price.
I watched another dollar movie, The Terror, 1963. A French officer, Andre, gets stranded with his horse on the Baltic coast in 1806. A beautiful young woman kisses him and leads him to an obscure castle, whose proprietor says that woman was his wife Ilsa, dead for 20 years. She tries to lead Andre into quicksand, so her motives are questionable. She was unfaithful to her husband the baron and he killed her. Now she's a ghost that only Andre and the baron can see. And the old woman who conjured her, a witch, who has her own agenda. And the surly servant man. Something is definitely going on. Andre departs the castle, but the servant Gustav urges him to wait. Then the servant is attacked and blinded by the falcon, and falls to his death. Andre finds Ilsa at the crypt. But then she vanishes. Meanwhile the baron is up to something. He goes to the crypt and says he will join Ilsa soon. She appears and tells him to take his own life so they can be together forever. And there is the conspiracy: to make the baron kill himself. Except that he isn't really the baron; he's the boyfriend Ilsa cheated with, emulating the baron. There is mayhem, and Andre rescues Ilsa, who is free at last. And she rapidly ages and dies, of course; now her spirit can move on. Never trust a ghost.
I watched The Stranger, 1946 black/white. I don't remember when, but I believe I saw this one before, maybe on TV. A Nazi war criminal flees to New England, marries, and settles down. Then someone recognizes him, so he kills that man and buries him in the forest. Then a dog digs at the grave site, so he kills the dog. The mystery slowly unwinds. The woman, caught in the middle, is torn. It ends in mayhem, of course, with the bad guy dead.
I watched a collection of five ghost movies I got for four dollars, or about eighty cents per. The first is The Ghost, dating from 1963, set in 1910. The picture is a bit fuzzy, the sound is vague, and the acting insincere, maybe as befits a ghost story. A young woman conspires with her lover to kill her evil husband. Then husband's ghost returns for vengeance. She hears things, sees him, shoots him, but there seems to have been nothing there. Then blood drips on her from the ceiling. Boyfriend sees a man hanging. She hears music. The chandelier is swinging. Things are getting knocked over. Husband's favorite snuffbox oozes blood. Laughter sounds. Husbands' voice says that what she wants is under the coffin. So she goes to the cellar, tips the coffin off its support, and there is a chest. In it is a skull. Did boyfriend get there first? He says he's innocent, but she knifes him and burns the body. While the servant surreptitiously watches. Then it turns out that he is alive, having faked his death. He kills the servant and frames the wife for that murder. Then accidentally takes poison and dies. Everybody loses.
Dominique is Dead, from 1979. A nasty man plays mind games on his wife, driving her to suicide. Now he experiences some of the same effects she did. Is her ghost after him? He sees her walking the halls. He has her coffin dug up at night, and it is empty. So he has it formally dug up again by day with witnesses—and she's there. Then something attacks him in the office. This is definitely suspicious. His date of death appears on his reserved gravestone next to hers: their anniversary. Her piano plays itself. She walks toward him in the hall, and bullets do not faze her. Finally she comes after him and he leaps to his death. But the effects continue. It was devised by the younger generation, which then has a falling out, and there is more death.
A Name for Evil, 1970. A married couple tires of the sterile city existence and decides to start a new life in an isolated mansion in the woods that he has inherited. It's in bad condition. He'll work on it. But there's a problem: it's haunted, and the ghosts don't want them there. At first the wife is wary, but soon she gets into it and keeps finding new things about the house. But the spooks are not pleased. They seem to like the wife, but have no use for the man. He spies a white horse, rides it bareback, gets dumped at a dance where he meets a girl. The dancers strip nude, then exit to the forest, where he has sex with the girl. He returns to the mansion, where it seems someone else has been with his wife, who thought it was him, and she says that he was brutal. He goes back to the girl and makes love to her in the river. Then back to his wife, who castrates him and he kills her. The demons of the mansion have struck to eliminate the intrusion. Not your ordinary ghost story, and I doubt it makes sense, but my favorite of this bunch, maybe because of the bare breasts.
House on Haunted Hill, 1958. Vincent Price gives several people he mostly doesn't like $10,000 (a lot of money 50 years ago) each to spend a night at his mansion on on the haunted hill. He and his fourth wife don't get along; it seems she once tried to poison him, and he'd get rid of her if he found a pretext. Seven people have been murdered here. No electricity; they must use candles for light. The pool is acid, dissolving everything except the bones. Doors tend to mysteriously lock. Spooks appear and disappear before being verified. All the visitors are given pistols to protect themselves. The host's wife is hanged, only her death is faked. The girl Nora is being spooked, driven to kill somebody. The doctor is obviously in on a conspiracy to kill the host, so he can have the host's wife. Sure enough, Nora shoots the host, thinking he's attacking her. The doctor dumps him into the acid. Wife looks there, and his skeleton rises up out of it and chases her into it. Now she's really dead. And we see that host is working the lines the make the skeleton a walking marionette. He wasn't shot, the gun had blanks. So he turned the tables on his wife.
Nightmare Castle, 1965. A mad doctor catches his wife having an affair, so he tortures and kills both wife and lover. But she has anticipated him, and signed her fortune to her mad sister. So he marries the sister. Then he wants to be rid of the sister, too. He will use her blood to reanimate his female associate, who it seems has lived a long time. But it turns out that his prior wife is not quite dead, and she comes after him. I'm nut sure how much sense it makes even on its own terms.
I watched I Spit on Your Grave, a truly savage horror, perhaps the most brutal movie I've seen. A lovely young woman, Jennifer, rents an isolated cabin to write her latest novel. Soon it gets spooky as she seems to hear things. She runs in the forest for exercise; is she being watched? She accidentally drops her cell phone in the toilet, putting it out of commission; there goes her helpline. Meanwhile the local lowlifes are watching her. Soon they break in and proceed to ugly bullying while they film it, making her drink liquor, bare her teeth as if smiling, and suck on a pistol as if it's a penis. She manages to break away and reach the sheriff—who then torments her the same way, as the others return; he's in on it. They hold her down and force their simple minded member, Mathew, to rape her. Then they brutalize her some more, and the sheriff sodomizes her and another man demands fellatio. They are completely without conscience, apart from Matthew. She drops into the water and disappears; they can't find her to kill her. Then comes a call from her family: they haven't seen her in over a month. Then the incriminating tape they thought had been destroyed gets stolen. A dead bird appears on a porch, similar to the one on her perch before they worked her over. And another bird. And a sandal. A tape is delivered, surely an incriminating copy. They are being stalked. Then she starts brutalizing them, starting with Matthew: she knows he is sorry for his part in her debasement, but it's not good enough, and she chokes him unconscious. Then the others, catching one in a bear trap, knocking him out with a bat, tying him up, making another smile for the camera, as they did with her. One she ties to a tree with fishhooks holding his eyes open, smearing his face with attractant and letting the birds peck the eyes out. Another she ties face down over a tub of water, and dunks his face the way they did her, a kind of waterboarding. She adds lye to the water so that his face burns as he tires and it inevitably drops back down. The next one she traps, ties his naked body and uses pliers to pull out his teeth one by one. She makes him suck on a pistol, as he did her, then uses metal clippers to castrate him. There is no forgiveness in her. Then she phones the sheriff, the ringleader. He's a family man whose wife and daughter know nothing of his evil. She catches him and sets him up with a rifle at his anus: how does he like being an ass man now? She jams it in violently, repeatedly, raping him with the gun, then sets it up with a string so that unconscious Matthew inadvertently pulls the trigger as he recovers consciousness, killing the sheriff with a bullet up his ass. So only Matthew, the relatively innocent one, survives, but hardly happy. She gives them no more mercy than they gave her. Not fun watching, but one can appreciate the justice. It is not explained how she escaped in the water, as they were watching closely, or how she sustained herself anonymously for a month. Maybe she was an expert swimmer and wilderness forager. Is there a message? Maybe not to mess with a writer, though we never actually see her writing. I watched the supplementary features, which I don't always do, and learned that this is a remake of a cult favorite. Cultists evidently have devious tastes. It must have been difficult for the actors, especially the actress, considering the brutal nudity. Do I recommend it to others? Yes, if you have a strong stomach for ugly stories and vicious vengeance. And yes, if you like flashes of shapely nudity and simulated sex. As for me—I'm not attracted to viciousness or rape, but the movie does push one of my buttons: a person getting seriously wronged, and the victim being blamed or killed, and then the score being settled. As I say freely and often, when I protested getting cheated by a favored publisher about 45 years ago I got balled out, blacklisted and badmouthed, even by a writer's organization that should have stood up for its wronged member, for legality, and fairness; and my career suffered as they tried to wash me out my dream profession of writing, killing my career. Just as Jennifer gets abused and goes to the sheriff—who then joins the abusers, and they finally try to kill her. But she comes back with a serious score to settle. As I came back, thanks to persistence and a surprising stroke of luck. I never got a settlement against the wrongdoers, who it seems remain satisfied today with their attitudes, just as the movie's men were, but I think I did better as a writer than any of them did, and some suffered indirectly for their actions, and that's a kind of vengeance. My success despite them got me even, though I think they deserve worse. So I relate to Jennifer, and not just because she's a writer; there's a fundamental principle at stake: justice. So few folk seem to truly value it in practice, regardless what they say. But Jennifer did take her vengeance too far; she could have hurt them a bit but let them live, their criminality exposed to shame them. The sheriff especially would have had a hard time when his family viewed the film of what he did. Instead she showed that she was more vicious than they, thus not so innocent a victim. That's a line I never cared to cross. It is a mistake to be governed by the ethics of the wrongdoers, even in retaliation, and I retained my honor just as they retained their dishonor.
I don't watch much TV, catching scenes peripherally in passing. I note that the Kelly and Michael show changed as he found a better position and was suddenly gone. Ain't that just like a man, tiring of one woman and moving on to the next. I understand that they are now privately badmouthing each other. It's too bad.
I have written a number of novella length pieces, ranging from about 28,000 words to 35,000, but had some trouble placing them. I regard myself as a natural short and intermediate length writer; I did novels because that was what I could sell, and I still do one 100,000 word Xanth a year, but my heart is mainly in the shorter pieces. Some have a problem because they have erotic elements without being straight erotica; publishers tend to want either no sex or all sex, while I prefer stories with good values including sex. So I shopped about and found homes for a number. Open Road is doing some, and smaller presses are doing others. Such as eXcessica, who has just published two: Captive, about Dane, 18, a rich but shiftless young man who gets abducted and held for ransom. His captor in an isolated shack is Clare, 25, a shapely former prostitute. There's no electricity and nothing to do, and it gets so hot they remove their clothing, and then get interested in sex, discovering that each has been abused in childhood so that now neither can make it with normal sex. But they can make it with each other, understanding their sexual taste in a way no one else will, and fall in love. Then Dane gets rescued and Clare becomes the captive—until Dane gives his folks the word: let him marry her, and he'll devote himself to the company welfare for the rest of his life. Leave her in prison, and he will never participate further in the family or the family business. They, seeing their feckless son abruptly become a man, knowing that Clare is the cause of it, accede, and she joins the family and the company. That pays off remarkably for all parties. But what counts is the story behind the story: the nature of the sex, which is graphic, and the relationships within the family, which are dynamic. I like this one very well, and hope my adult readers do too. It is exactly what I mean when I say “good values including sex.” Then in their more innocent line, Fido, they have published Noah's Brick, wherein eleven year old Noah discovers an odd brick that has three holes on one side and four holes on the other side, all holes going straight through. How is this possible? He is determined to find out. It turns out to be an alien artifact, and other children have found similar items, such as Si, an abused girl who has understandable trouble trusting boys. But she slowly comes to trust Noah as they discover an alien space station with remarkable technology, hidden in a tree, protected from the depredations of the regular world, and realize that they just may be able to save the world by stocking it with different species of animals, making it “Noah's Ark.” It's a juvenile, but I hope readers of any age will like it and its environmental theme. I will describe others similarly as they are published. By year's end there should be Neris (siren spelled backwards), Pira (short for Piranha, her name), Soul of the Cell (it's some cell!), The Twitter Collection (the stories done line by line as tweets before), Hair Power (you haven't seen hair like this; she wears it in lieu of clothing), and the Xanth novel Isis Orb (that's the Goddess Isis, not the terrorist state). All of them were written for love and have their merits. I'm doing what I love, exercising my imagination, and love sharing it with my readers. I expect to be back writing soon, and there will be more to publish.
As usual I have a pile of clippings to trigger further opinionations. A company called Beyond Meat is selling burgers with real sizzle. They look and taste the same as meat burgers, and have the same nutrition, while being much better for the health of the world because of all the dead cows they don't require in their genesis. In fact an article in NEW SCIENTIST says we're sucking our world dry as we use up the diminishing supply of fresh water; about 90% of our global water footprint relates to food. A third of that relates to the production of feed for the animals we consume. Eating meat is the elephant in the room: folk don't want to talk about the damage it is doing the environment. Well, as a vegetarian, I'm talking about it. There are alternatives, you cadaver consumers; you don't have to eat that elephant.
Newspaper article titled “No, you can't speed read.” Tell me something I didn't already know! I was a slow reader from the beginning, taking three years to make it through first grade because of reading trouble. When my daughter was diagnosed dyslexic I got a notion what my problem might have been, as her symptoms were similar to mine, but in my day dyslexia didn't exist, only stupid students. I still read slowly, but understand what I read, and try to write in a manner others can understand. Once I took a speed reading course; that's what satisfied me that it was mostly illusion. One example: they had small pieces to read, followed by self graded tests for comprehension. I had a problem. Finally I took the piece and the answer key to the teacher and showed her that they didn't match: the key listed the wrong answers, as a direct comparison with the text showed. She took that key out, as there was another that was correct. But how was it that I was the first even to notice the error? The speed readers had gotten perfect scores for years—using the wrong answer key. It took a slow reader to spot that. So I'm staying slow.
People have a problem avoiding obesity; as a general rule the older they are the more they weigh. That's not the case with me; I maintain my college weight. I'm tempted to say it's because I have rare discipline, but that's not necessarily the answer. I do have discipline; it's one of the qualities that enable me to be a self-employed writer. I need no boss watching over my shoulder. But that doesn't enable me to run as fast as I used to, or have the sexual energy I used to, or to see or hear as well, or to look as young as when I actually was young. So it seems more likely that I simply have a more cooperative body weight chemistry than the average, and a little discipline goes a long way. An article points out that when they tracked the winners of the Biggest Loser contest they found that few kept the weight off; they pack the pounds back on, some even coming to weigh more than before the contest. A study of 14 contestants showed that only one managed to stay slim after six years. How come? It seems that the body fights to regain that weight, running more efficiently, so that eating the same amount as before now leads to weight gain, and the effect lasts for years. You have to actively keep it off by eating less and exercising more, as I do. When I was young I ate more than anybody else I knew, but now I eat less, no longer being a growing boy. If I still ate the way I used to, I'd be lost under a mountain of fat. So some discipline does help. I keep in mind that my father, lean all his life, got hooked by the Atkins died of fat, and when he died he weighed too much to stand alone. My genetic pattern surely would do the same, if I let it.
Nobody gets out of this life alive; we all must die sometime, preferably in a manner of our choosing. But the medical establishment fights to prevent any such choice; we are supposed to live as long as the money exists to sustain us, even if we are in pain or in a coma. They imprisoned Dr. Kevorkian for assisting folk to die painlessly by choice. This is an outrage; how can the same folk who insist that government stay out of private business turn around and interfere in the most private business of all? But hypocrisy to the contrary notwithstanding, this article by Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson, a hospice specialist, points out that there is a way: when you are ready to go, simply stop eating and drinking. Hunger pangs will ease soon enough and the body will methodically shut down. The surprise is that I understand it's a relatively pleasant way to go. In a few weeks you drift into a coma you won't emerge from. But if you should be physically uncomfortable, take pain medication, whatever you need, and don't worry about addiction. How can you be addicted when you're dead? If you can do without food but dread thirst, okay, then drink water; the end will merely take longer. I remember Scott Nearing, once a famous radically political neighbor in Vermont circa 1945, who had the same birthday I did, 51 years earlier. When I went to buy maple sugar from him for my birthday, he said “Mine too.” We got along; he was a good neighbor. He lived to the age of 100, decided enough was enough, and stopped eating. If I live to that age I may do the same.
Interesting question in the Ask Marilyn column: “What is the reason we are here?” She answers that if you are religious, that's why: God wills it. But if you don't believe in a god, as I don't, you have a problem, as I do. Having a reason implies having a purpose; you were put here, and whatever put you here may be called God. So an agnostic like me, that is an unbeliever who doesn't condemn others' beliefs, has to settle for assuming that we got here through some natural process. No other reason. Or as I put it in an author's note: life has meaning only if we live for meaning. That's what I try to do. No power assigned me, I just decided to do it on my own. A religious person might say that God put me here and spared me the knowledge of that placement, lest I foolishly try to resist His will. Since I regard God as a made-up concept, that translates to nothing put me here but nature or maybe imagination. I love imagination; if that accounts for me, so be it.
Item titled “Creativity by computer” reminds us that the Turing Test, wherein a machine tries to fool a person about being a person itself, is a hard test to win, though in my fiction it's done all the time, my robots being superior. Now there may be another test: can they make an algorithm that generates human quality art? Sonnets, dance music, short stories? Good enough to fool a panel of human judges? Could the next Shakespeare be a machine? That makes me uneasy. Chess masters pooh-poohed the idea of a machine beating them in chess, until it happened; masters in the game of go scorned machine go, until it happened. I hesitate to say it can't happen to creative writing. Could a machine write a Xanth novel that readers like better than mine? Maybe if those readers are machines themselves. I think I'll be safely dead before it happens, but I'm not quite sure. There was a story someone else wrote about a robot that assisted a comedian, sponsored by Star Gazers cigarettes. Then the robot went wrong and started cracking jokes itself: “Know why they call them Star Gazers? One puff and you're flat on your back!” Beautiful! But would robot writers be as cheap to get as impoverished human authors? That may be our salvation.
Columnists as a general rule don't seem to like Donald Trump much. One article is titled “Fascism begins like this” suggesting that the unleashing of popular passions would lead not to greater democracy but to a tyrant, as happened in the French Revolution and others since then. Maybe Paul Krugman gets at the essence, pointing out that Democrats try to make good on their promises—witness Obamacare—while Republicans for decades have been playing bait and switch, appealing to the base desires of their base during the campaign but once in office serving only the interests of the one percent, such as with tax cuts for the rich. Now their voters, not noted for their smarts, are finally noticing and are rebelling, and Trump is the result. It doesn't matter that his policies are largely incoherent; the point is the revolt of the masses against a status quo that continually shafts them. They'd rather have anarchy than a continuation of a government that screws the 99%. If the ship of state sinks, well, it will take down the 1% too. That will bring equality at last. I'm technically in the 1%, but I can see it. I'm hoping for reform without disaster, unrealistic as that may be.
Noah Feldman has a column titled “Is God A Pasta Monster? That's A Legal Question.” What is religion? he asks, and we don't yet have a concrete legal answer. What about Pastafarianism, whose defining ideas are expressed in the book The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. If there is an intelligent life-creation force, isn't it just as likely that it's a flying spaghetti monster as a beatific, omnipotent God? This religion promises a holiday every Friday and it performs marriages. New Zealand recognizes it as a religion of a sort. It may have been born as a parody, but it is developing key rituals describing a religion. Yes, it shows that intelligent design is silly, but that organized religions are also silly. We've seen it happen before, with the Mormons and Scientology, where oddball ideas take root as religions. Until the Supreme Court of America and the courts of other lands rule definitively, Spaghetti seems as valid as the next religion. Of course I am tempted to ask who made the essential spaghetti and who gave it wings? Maybe the answers will offer a clue as to the nature of ultimate reality. (When I was in college, a student asked that of a three year old child, and she said “Lollipops.” He pondered, discussed it with others, and concluded that she was right. That is the nature of ultimate reality. Now you know.) Meanwhile NEW SCIENTIST says that the great moralizing religions, which are relatively recent in human history, dating from about 2,500 years ago, are doomed to ebb away. We don't need religion to know right from wrong. Yes; looking at the atrocities performed in the name of religion—consider ISIS—I suspect we'd be better off without it.
SCIENCE NEWS has yet another article about guns and gun control, with a chart showing that the United States is truly the land of gun violence. Yes, there are assaults by other means, but if you take away the firearm assaults, the US becomes similar to elsewhere in the world, instead of two to three times as bad. There's little question that the ready availability of guns in the US makes it significantly more dangerous. The states with more restrictive gun laws suffer fewer deaths. Thus restrictive New York has 4.2 gun deaths per 100,000 people, while less restrictive Louisiana has 18.9. One irony is that there is effective gun control in the US, so we know it works and does not lead to the confiscation of guns. A newspaper article by Alan Berlow details how The National Firearms Act was passed in 1934 and mandates the registration of all owners of machine guns, short barreled rifles, silencers, and other weapons deemed highly dangerous at the time. It created a national database of those gun owners with mug shots and fingerprints, and a detailed description of each weapon purchased, including the serial number. Purchasers have to pass an FBI background check and be approved by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and pay a $200 tax. Stolen weapons must be reported to the ATF immediately. So how has that worked out, in 80 years? There have been no problems and no reckless confiscations. The fact is, registration fosters responsibility, and folk who register weapons rarely commit crimes. What the National Rifle Association seems to want is completely irresponsible gun ownership. That's a danger to us all. But remember that guns are not the only danger; cars, fires, and accidents take out similar numbers, I suspect, and of course illness is huge. I fear them all.
Next time I hope to have a far briefer column, as I return to writing. You will surely be relieved.
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