Friday, February 26, 2010

Preacher Man

Okay, we have a new champion: I'm pretty sure that "Preacher: Gone to Texas" is the goriest comic book I've ever read.

It's well-drawn, for sure.  The artist is a seriously talented guy.  Those images, though... I frequently found myself cringing at particularly violent, bloody scenes.  Some of the violence is nice traditional blam-blam stuff, but frequently gunshots end with the victim missing major sections of their body, which have traveled a fair distance before landing.

The characters are kind of ugly too, though I enjoyed that part.  No superheroes here with improbably smooth and clean looks.  Faces are haggard, wrinkled by too much exposure to the sun (or pale from too little of it); painted fingernails wrap around limp cigarettes; the woman in particular looks a bit tired, a bit desperate, and while she's way more attractive than any of the guys, she's also a far cry from the nearly-perfect female figures that often fill comic books.


The story is fairly action-heavy, but there's a really significant plot in there as well.  That plot is fairly blasphemous - not as much as, say, the Golden Compass trilogy, but more so than religion in Sandman.  It's an interesting idea, which builds on some more or less traditional aspects (choirs of angels, the struggle between Heaven and Hell, etc.), but plays with them in a wholly unconventional way, one that's more "Dogma" than dogma.

The surprises are nicely paced and spread out.  The vampire thing was set up a bit too obviously, but it doesn't really matter.  Genesis got a bit of a nice built-up before we figured out what was happening.  The Saint of Killers had plenty of opportunity to become a menacing force before its climactic confrontation.

The whole Voice of God thing... on the one hand, it's really cool, such an incredibly unbalanced power that it breaks all convention.  On the other hand, its mere presence kills all sort of tension from the story.  Almost as soon as it's introduced, Ennis needs to start coming up with excuses for why he can't actually use it in any given situation.


There are a lot of directions that the story can take from here.  Honestly, some of them were a bit too obviously laid out.  "The preacher has a GRANDMOTHER!  He is apparently SCARED of her!  WHAT COULD THIS MEAN?!?!"  I think I need to take a little while to get my stomach back under control.  I won't be shocked if I continue the series, though.  It's definitely not my favorite comic, but it does have a weird character to it, a kind of repulsive attractiveness.  While it's not exactly my favorite thing, I have to admire the demented talent that went in to this.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


As I've made my way through the Discworld reading order, I occasionally stumble across barriers. Sometimes it's a short story in a collection that I can't seem to track down. One of the longest-standing obstacles for me has been a story in the Rincewind saga named "Eric". Or "Faust." It depends on who you ask.

Technically, the book is available for a mere $7.99 as a cheap paperback. Just a little research, though, revealed that this was a bastardized version. The original promised a richly illustrated story, while the mass market paperback cut out all that and reduced it to the bare story. I dislike watering anything down, especially my fantasy, and resolved to seek out the pure version.

This proved more troublesome than I would have thought. For a few months I hit up Ebay, but prices for this (used) book hovered around $300, even higher for signed copies. Yikes! I was about to give up and resign myself to the cheapie, when a whim drove me over to, thinking that perhaps Pratchett's home country, home to his most loyal fans, might still be producing the richer version. It was not, but does have an active second-hand market, similar to the "buy used" section of, and holy cow, was it ever active. Ebay would typically just have about two copies of the real deal available, but there were well over a dozen on display here. The prices ranged widely, to well over 100 pounds for the signed copies, but I could get good-condition used copies for a rather reasonable sum. Feeling elated, I grabbed two from different sellers, reasoning that at least one of them must be presentable.

Fortunately, both arrived smoothly and in great condition. It was yet another excellent shopping experience from the Amazon empire, and I'm glad to see that their UK operation is just as sharp as the US version.

I smiled as I first looked at the cover, which is titled "FAUST" in type, then "FAUST" is struck out and the name "ERIC" scrawled to its side. The cover illustration is gorgeous. The book was illustrated by Josh Kirby, who, I learned, drew the covers for most of the early Discworld books. Sadly, for some reason the American publishers didn't want to use his work, so we didn't get to see any of it over here. It's a good style, proudly fantastical, but slightly more cartoony than, say, the Brothers Hildebrandt. His scenes are extremely busy, filled with an amazing number and variety of creatures; the first impression is one of being overwhelmed, and only later, when you start to focus on individual sections of the drawing, do you realize that each individual portion is well-rendered and interesting. Quite a few of these gorgeous paintings fill the book, and for each one I found myself bouncing back and forth between trying to take in the entire scene and walking through all the detail work.

The story itself is quite good, albeit a little brief. Even with the illustrations the book is just around 100 pages. It's more or less a typical Rincewind story, and after you've read a few you'll know what that means: Rincewind is summoned by powers beyond his control, told do do something, then spends the remainder of the novel trying to run away while inadvertently fulfilling his summoned purpose. All good fun.


After reading it, I'm even less surprised that you can't easily find a copy of the book here in the states. As you may or may not be able to guess from the title, the book has a lot to do with demons and hell, two topics that America may find a little less amusing than England. We've come a long way from book-burnings and such here, but still, I can easily imagine some people having a problem with a cartoony-looking collection of devils romping around a fiery subterranean cavern. In a children's book. Just sayin.'


Faust/Eric is essential for the Discworld completists; for those of you just tasting the series or following a particular thread (Guards, Witches, etc.), you can pass without feeling guilty. If anyone does want a read, just let me know and I'll gladly lend you my copy. I'm glad I found the English connection, but there's no reason why we ALL should pay for trans-Atlantic shipping.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Fall of the Reich

As you all can see, I'm reading a lot these days.  Often times I pick up books that I've only just heard about.  Other times I continue along the promising path of an author or series.  Occasionally I am reminded of something that I've meant to read for a while, and finally have the opportunity to do so.

"Wilhelm Reich in Hell" falls into the last category.  I've been meaning to read this since perhaps 1997 or 1998.  Every once in a while I remember that it exists and look around for it, but the book is notoriously difficult to find.  It shows up in the records of many libraries, but tends to have been missing for many years.  It's never on the shelves of bookstores.  This seems weirdly appropriate, given the subject matter.  As Robert Anton Wilson explains in his opening, he first heard about Wilhelm Reich when he learned that the U. S. government had arrested him and burned all his books.  That flagrant act of censorship, of course, only served to heighten curiosity about this man and his ideas, and resulted in two things.  One is a vibrant and insular community of Reichians, who are described in the introduction to this work.  The other is "Wilhelm Reich in Hell" itself, and, more generally, Robert Wilson's lifelong quest against all forms of censorship, thought policing, and totalitarianism.

WRiH is a play, first performed in Dublin (or possibly London, the text isn't very clear on this matter) around 1985.  The book contains the full text of the play, but first it has two forwards and a lengthy Introduction.

The Forwards are fascinating and a little bit creepy.  One is written by a scientist, the other by a psychiatrist; both are credentialed, but seem to operate on the fringes of their disciplines, and both are just a little bit too insistent on how you should take them seriously.  They both have serious axes to grind, and spent most of their respective forwards complaining about how they've been wronged by organizations.  They both not-too-subtly plug their own books too, and I'm left without the slightest desire to check them out.

The Introduction, in contrast, is great: it's a typically Wilsonian piece, sprawling, filled with digressions, simultaneously very explicit while also seeking to maintain a sense of mystery.  It's a put-on, but he's up-front about it being a put-on.  Over the course of some forty pages, he gives background to the story of Reich, explains the technical aspects of his theories, details the opposition Reich faced throughout his life, and also manages to give a thorough and rewarding explanation of RAW's favorite topic, reality tunnels. 

The play itself is everything I'd hoped it would be: bizarre, intelligent, funny.  Wilson has written this in a very tightly proscribed style, describing the costumes, props, beats, inflections, and so on.  I don't read a lot of plays, so I have no idea how common this is... I'm more used to the Shakespearean model, where the script only contains the dialog and the broadest stage directions, and the director is responsible for most decisions about how to present the play.  In my case, Wilson's style really helped, since it enabled me to visualize a performance that I will never get to see.  The result is fully phantasmagoric.  Acrobats leap around the stage and among the audience, hustling the viewers into the lobby for intermission; the Marquis de Sade (who, Wilson helpfully notes, should be played by someone "short, preferably a midget") struts across the stage, rationally arguing the case against Reich; Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, the American Medical Association, and more all enter as witnesses in the trial or as hallucinations.  It is... well, it's a lot like a Robert Anton Wilson novel, but presented as a play.  Neat!

As a side note, I've often noticed that it's a lot harder to be truly revolutionary in the theater than in the novel.  I noticed this a while ago when I read "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" by Kurt Vonnegut.  Kurt was a radical writer who did a lot to subvert the novel, and even his minor works have a fresh and exciting feel to them.  He did the same sort of stuff in Wanda June as he did in his books, but it didn't feel nearly as ground-breaking.  I wondered at the time why this was, and supposed that theater has simply been ahead of the novel when it comes to experimentation and the avant-garde.  It was really radical in a novel when, say, Muriel Spark directly addressed the reader and made it clear that they were reading a novel within the text of the novel itself; but it's much less original when a play presents a play within a play, or when a character directly speaks to the audience.  Both of those have been happening since at least Shakespeare, after all.  Anyways!  All that to say, Wilson's inventiveness here is fun and enjoyable, but doesn't feel as radical as his books.

Throughout the course of the Introduction and the text of the play, I think I finally have a decent grasp of Reich's ideas.  I'll set them down here while I still have them straight.  Before I begin, I should echo Wilson's caveats: Reich's ideas probably aren't totally correct.  They contain some useful stuff and some non-useful stuff.  Still, even if his ideas were entirely wrong, they should not have been annihilated.

Now, then:

Animals are amoral.  We don't consider a dolphin's actions as "good" or "evil."  Animals are simply acting, doing what they do; those actions may be helpful or harmful to other animals, but it doesn't make sense to apply moral labels to it.

Man is an animal.  In the natural state, there is no such thing as "good" or "evil."  These are labels that we have invented and applied to ourselves and our actions.

And how are they applied?  Reich's most interesting idea is what he calls the "Emotional Plague."  At some point in human history, we invented guilt.  Young children are taught that some of their thoughts and actions are bad.  They are told to repress their feelings.  Over time, they build up "emotional armor": they constantly deny themselves, refusing to feel what they should not.  This creates a constant tension that we don't even notice because it's with us all the time.  This tension wrecks us in small ways and large ways.  We don't breathe properly.  Our muscles ache.  We get ulcers.  We get insomnia.  We become neurotic. 

Most controversially, Reich saw the Emotional Plague as something that affected both the individual and society, and both the mind and the body.  It was not only the source of mental illness, but also cancer, and rape, and war.  As a species, we are so maddened by the Plague that we lash out at anything that threatens us.  We dump all our repressed emotions into the socially sanctioned outlets of war, or the forbidden outlets of crime. 

The Emotional Plague is, in Reich's view, a real, biological disease.  It has become part of the human condition.  It is passed from the mother to the child; any human who grows up, grows up in society, and absorbs the Plague from their very first days.  The Plague is self-replicating, since everyone who is infected with it will inflict it on others, and eventually pass it along to their own offspring.

So, with that background, you can probably see why Dr. Reich was controversial.  He was kicked out of Nazi Germany for being a Communist and a Jew.  He was kicked out of Sweden for his sex studies.  He was kicked out of the Communist Party for his insistence on the importance of the individual condition.  He was stripped of his psychiatry license for his insistence on the importance of the collective condition.  He was hounded by the AMA, scientists, CSICOP, and, eventually, the U. S. Marshalls.  He was thrown into jail for contempt of court, where he died, and all his books were burned.

So, to the crux of the matter: was Reich right?  Probably not.  Should he have been persecuted as he was?  Wilson answers, absolutely not.  He objects on the general moral libertarian grounds that we all should be able to express our ideas, scientists should be able to conduct research, theories should be published; he also objects on the legal grounds that the First Amendment makes no provisions for censorship at all.

Even if a theory is wrong, there might be something worth saving from it.  The only way we can know is if we debate it openly, allow the arguments for and against it to be be aired, empirically test it, and so on.  Censorship closes that door.  It arrests our progress.  Without considering new ideas, things won't ever get better.

Those who have read Wilson's other books like the Schrodinger's Cat Trilogy (or, even more, Prometheus Rising) will appreciate why he would so passionately defend someone's right to hold an unusual viewpoint.  Wilson's Introduction returns to his idea of reality tunnels.  Every one of us grows up with a set of ideas about the world.  We apply those ideas to what we experience in order to make sense of it.  It is possible that two people, viewing the exact same scene, will come to opposite conclusions based on their own mindset.  Some people, when they see a cop arresting a young black man, will think, "Phew!  Another criminal off the streets!"  Others will think, "That racist cop is harassing a man because of the color of his skin."  Either person may be fully convinced of their own position.  The Wilsonian goal is to recognize your own reality tunnel, realize that others exist, and rise above it to acknowledge your own limitations and the validity of other perspectives.

He makes a great analogy to physics in his Introduction.  He points out that there are two major systems in modern physics: general relativity and quantum mechanics.  These are incompatible systems, each with a separate set of rules.  Still, physicists don't argue about which one is right or which one is wrong.  They recognize that quantum is more useful for some situations, and relativity is better for others, and happily go with what works.  In the future, there may be another system that works even better, at which point they will (hopefully) discard the old and switch to the new.

More intriguingly, there are two ways of viewing the workings inside an atom.  One is to see it as a particle, the other is to see it as a wave.  These viewpoints aren't just incompatible, they're actively contradictory: both cannot be true.  Yet, once again, we don't argue about whether the Wave is True or the Particle is False.  We see each as useful, and take the one that seems best suited to our needs.

Wilson wants us to apply this to our own experiences as well.  There are a plethora of models we can apply to the world: the religious model, the historical model, the scientific model, the social model... there are an infinite number of choices.  Most people grow up with one model and go through life applying it to everything.  This makes their lives rigid and narrow; they can't see the much broader range of possibilities.  It also leads to conflict, as people argue with each other over ultimately pointless things... each looks at the same data, each is fully convinced that their interpretation is right, and fundamentally cannot understand why the other person could possibly come to the wrong conclusion.  By learning to experiment with other models, by consciously deciding to see the world through someone else's eyes, by questioning our own prejudices and exploring alternatives, we can lead richer lives, build deeper relationships with others, and reduce conflict, both as individuals and as societies.

When I first encountered Wilson's metaphysics, I embraced them.  Reading this play was a great opportunity for me to reflect back on them and re-evaluate my opinions.  My political philosophy has changed radically since I first read Illuminatus!, from capital-L Libertarian to my present liberal Democrat tendencies.  I haven't felt like my underlying morals have changed, though, just the way I apply them to the world... essentially, the libertarian model has become less useful as a way to describe a world of with Enron, Worldcom, and Bernie Madoff.  The liberal Democrat reality-mask seems to explain what I see better, so that's the one I wear most often.  Still, I sometimes switch it with something else.  I find that many of my friends find it simply incomprehensible that someone would vote Republican, and think that such a vote indicates that a person is ignorant or racist.  I disagree with the vote, but don't find it helpful to dismiss people like that.  Switching to, say, the Traditional Midwesterner mindset helps me understand the reasons for a vote, which in turn opens up the opportunity for synthesis... bringing the valuable ideas from one perspective out of a morass and into a conversation.

Wow, that was a tangent.

What I MEANT to say was: when I read this today, the thing I immediately found myself thinking about was climate change.  Backing up, the main point of this tale is of a renegade scientist who pushes unpopular opinions, and is unfairly sanctioned by his peers.  The message we are supposed to take from it is that Reich should have been able to speak clearly, without censorship.  More broadly, no speech should ever be repressed.  Any research should be examined and debated.  We should accept the ideas that are most useful, but always recognize that they are not absolute and better explanations may come along later.

Now, in today's context, the most controversial scientific debate taking place is over climate change.  We have a situation where a strong majority of scientists hold to an orthodox view, that human activity is driving an unprecedented shift in our climate; at the same time, a large number of non-scientists and a small (but not empty) set of scientists propose alternate theories, ranging from the idea that there is no climate change, to the idea that it is happening but is minor, to the idea that it is happening but not because of human activity, to the idea that it is happening and is beneficial.

Hopefully, the analogies with Reich's situation are clear.  What should we do when confronted with a minority voice?

What makes me uncomfortable about this is recognizing my different reactions to the two situations.  I don't totally buy in to Reich's ideas, but I still would say that he should have been free to promulgate his ideas.  When it comes to climate change... I definitely don't advocate censorship, but I'm much less tolerant towards the diverging theories than I am towards Reich's.

I think there are a couple of factors at play here.  First of all, climate change is an uncomfortable topic in general for me.  Wilson briefly touches on the reason why here when he talks about the explosion of knowledge in recent human history.  Termed "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler, the problem is that the amount of knowledge available to us is growing FAR more rapidly than our ability to absorb it.  A few thousand years ago, pretty much everyone knew that same stuff as everyone else in their community.  A few hundred years ago, some people might have more specialized knowledge (a blacksmith would know more about smithing, a farmer would know which seasons to plant), but a large portion of knowledge was shared among all people, and the number of specializations were relatively minor.  Today, though, there's an unfathomable number of sub-disciplines, trades, and techniques floating around.  I'm a programmer, and am considered by some to be a good one, but if you throw me in front of an Objective C compiler or an IIS server, I'll be flailing around like someone fresh out of college.  Even though I've basically dedicated my life to the study of software development, I've only mastered a handful of tools.  When it comes to the rest of the world, I only know a decent amount about the handful of topics that most interest me (20th-21st century literature, strange films, Weird Al Yankovich songs, hiking in the San Francisco Bay Area, etc.), and virtually nothing about others (soap operas, Polynesian art, why the sky is blue, etc.).  I think I'm fairly intelligent, but the number of things I don't know vastly exceeds the number of things I do know, and that gap is constantly increasing.

Now, one definite weak spot of mine is science.  My last biology class was in 7th grade, and these days my only exposure to science comes from articles in The New Yorker (which tend more towards psychology than the physical sciences) and in major newspapers (which tend to gloss over the nitty-gritty details).  That's why I feel so uncomfortable when it comes to climate change: I don't have the personal background in science to analyze raw data myself and make bold, definitive statements about what it means.  I rely on the testimony of experts, and if what they're saying sounds reasonable, then I'm inclined to believe it.  I don't think this is necessarily bad, but, as Wilson would surely remind me, it does show that I'm engaging in groupthink and upholding the status quo.

My problem is, I don't feel like I have a lot of options here.  I would need to dedicate my life to climatology to make first-hand judgments about the topic, and I can't (really, don't want to) do that.  So, I can evaluate and judge, but cannot analyze.

So, that's kind of a problem that I have on the climatology side.  The other problem I have is on the Wilsonian side.  Namely, what's the best way to react to that minority.  Wilson would say, "Keep the debate going."  Let the deniers publish, let them argue and debate, keep them in the discussion.  In theory, I agree with this.  In practice, I feel like the last 15 years of news media has taken a really nasty turn towards a pseudo-Wilsonian relativism that has done real harm to our society.  Instead of real reporting, increasingly all of our news takes the form of, "Here's a press release that says A.  Here's canned responses from the opposition that say Not A.  Now you have a fair and balanced picture of the debate."  So, is A true or not?  Who knows!  Who cares!  Our media has punted on any responsibility to actually dig and find the truth of the matter, and as a result we just get a lot of noise and no new knowledge.

So, it pisses me off when, say, the media starts reporting on made-up controversies.  "Was Obama REALLY born in America?  Or, over forty years ago, did his mother undertake a bizarre journey to ensure her child was not born in America, and cover her tracks so well with the expectation that one day her progeny would grow up to become President?  Here's a birther saying why the certificate is forged.  Here's the State of Hawaii saying it's genuine.  Which position is right?  You decide!"  That, in turn, enables kooks everywhere to fulminate against the vast plot to destroy America. 

My instincts are still fundamentally libertarian.  I tend to believe that the best antidote to bad speech is more speech.  But it feels like we have passed the point where a person could reasonably track all the major stories of the day.  The sheer volume of information is overwhelming.  Wilson thinks that this is a harbinger for the next stage in human evolution; he may be right.  In the meantime, it's very painful.  Especially living in a democratic society like we do, we're responsible for making decisions, and most of us simply don't have the energy, time, and intelligence to make the correct decisions.  In this situation, entertaining all possible alternative theories isn't an enriching way of expanding our worldview.  It's adding noise that obscures the signal.  It paralyzes us.  It places us in our present situation, endlessly arguing, never coming to consensus, unable to ever agree on even fundamental issues.

For a lot of things, I don't think I'd really mind that much if the extra ideas meant that we kept on debating.  Even, say, really loony ideas like the Flat Earthers or Pastafarians.  The more the merrier, you know?  But other arguments have a time limit on them.  I don't really want to debate whether or not the kitchen is on fire: when I see the smoke, I'll start to run.  I don't want to debate whether California is in a drought: we need to start conserving water now so we don't run out by the time we're done arguing.  I fundamentally don't mind if people argue over whose model of climate change is more accurate, but I do fear that if our arguing today keeps us from acting, then it will be too late and our situation will grow far more painful than it needs to be.

Wilson does kind of allude to this whole situation.  At one point in his introduction he says something like, "As the great [someone's name here] once said, 'If at first you don't succeed, try again.  If that doesn't succeed, then give up.  No sense in being a damn fool about it.'  Switching to alternate reality tunnels can be a wonderful experience.  However, sometimes you'll open a door, and realize that there's nobody behind it but Flat Earthers and child abusers.  When that happens, quickly and quietly close the door, and move on to the next one."  There's a difference between saying "Considering alternate viewpoints is a healthy exercise" and saying "All alternate viewpoints are equally valid."  Wilson wants us to be discriminating and thoughtful about what we experience.  Still, he ultimately leaves every choice up to the individual.  I increasingly feel like, as a society, we would be better served if more people wore useful reality masks and we discarded some of the more dangerous ones.

Okay, that probably doesn't make sense to anyone else out there, but at least it helped me organize my thoughts somewhat.

Where were we?  Wilhelm Reich in Hell!

It's kind of funny to read this play in 2010.  On top of everything else, it also has grown quite dated.  I found myself having fun with the text, imagining how I would update some of its contemporary references if I were to stage it today.  The IRA is relatively quiet; the most obvious replacement would be Al Quaeda, though they are probably less sympathetic than the IRA was, so maybe something like the Basque separatists would work better.  He describes giant portraits of Stalin and Margaret Thatcher, labeled with "MOMMY AND DADDY ARE WATCHING."  I think it would make sense to replace Stalin with Saddam Hussein; Hussein is more recent, more people alive have a memory of a time when he was a source of fear, and he even still has a mustache.  I kind of would like to put Hillary Clinton on the other one, but that isn't very fair... she doesn't have anywhere near the fascist tendencies that Thatcher did.  I don't think we have a good equivalent for the Thatcher role today, certainly not a female world leader (though Mayor Bloomberg wouldn't be a bad choice for general Big Brother-ish unease).

Hm, what else.  Marilyn Monroe would still totally work, but we could replace her with a more contemporary starlet... I was thinking Aaliyah or Selena, who both capture the fame and tragedy and beauty and loss, but neither of them really has the same broad cultural scope that Marilyn did.  I love the touch of a newscaster reading a tragedy from the day of the performance; in that sense, the contemporary aspect is built into the show. 

Even if it's a little dated, the fundamental story is timeless.  Much like 1984 or Brave New World, the message to beware of tyranny will never be out of date.  Wilson maintains his great tradition of provoking thought, shocking our sensibilities, and challenging our assumptions.  It took me too long to pick up this book; I'm glad that I finally did.  Who knows, maybe this will motivate me to actually finish Prometheus Rising one of these days!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Slow Ride

"Seeing through the Fog" may be the best guidebook to San Francisco ever written.  Its secret: it doesn't rely on a professional reviewer.  Instead, it consists of dozens of mini-articles written by local high school students.  Each is told in the student's own voice, on whatever subject they feel like discussing.  This does include, for example, a chapter on cable cars (written by the daughter of a gripman) and on Alcatraz, but the majority of the book is devoted to topics like the best burritos, underground graffiti art, why the Sunset is so boring, doggie haute couture... all sorts of stuff.

The book is a project of 826 Valencia, McSweeney's non-profit publishing arm devoted to youth advancement.  The student authors come from a huge variety of racial and financial backgrounds, with pretty much everyone represented: Black, White, Hispanic, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indian, etc.  They even manage to snag several native San Franciscans, which is very rare, and one fourth-generation resident, which is unheard of.  Some came to this country to seek asylum and see the city through the critically proud eyes of an outsider; others grew up here.  In one section that I violently disagreed with, the author tries to convince you that Sacramento is a much better city than San Francisco.  Still, it's the fact that you get such a variety of perspectives that makes this book great.  You have chapters that moan about all the tourists in Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf, but also chapters that take those places seriously and describe what's worth seeking out there.  A significant minority of the book is devoted to the Sunset, which is one of the largest residential neighborhoods in the city but isn't even included on many tourist maps.  Reading all of these chapters helps you get an idea of the place: quiet, cold, foggy, peaceful, inexpensive.  You may love or hate it, just like the writers love or hate it, and since each section is written in the author's own voice, you can get a better idea for how to respond to their suggestions.

(That said, one nice and minor improvement would have been to cross-reference the chapters.  I'm thinking of one section that gave encouraging rah-rah prose about how great the theater district and City Hall are.  The architecture is nice, but anyone who's been here knows that you do not want to be walking around that part of town, especially after dark.  The book is designed for browsing and flipping and exploring, so the occasional warning would be good.)

The book is brilliantly and loosely structured into three broad categories.  The first is highly personal, giving the students' subjective stories about the city; the second is more proscriptive, aimed at visitors, and focuses on areas that a tourist might want to see; the third is directed more at locals, and helps point peoples' attention towards some of the more esoteric or out-of-the-way features of the city.  In practice, there is a ton of overlap between these.  All three sections include advice on good places to eat; I'd conservatively estimate that more than half of all the sections include at least some restaurant recommendations.  Still, the tone is a bit different... the first section might be more likely to describe the types of food that would would find in the city, while the second section would describe the best dining choices in a particular neighborhood and the third... well, okay, the third will do the same as the second, but more likely in a place you haven't been before.

I've definitely picked up a ton of stuff from this book that I'll have to try out.  I love the city and have been spending a lot of time here, but have only really explored a small fraction of what's available (mainly downtown, SOMA, and the Mission, with jaunts out to Chinatown, North Beach, Pacific Heights, the Richmond, the Inner Sunset, and Potrero Hill; also Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Golden Gate Bridge, and Crissy Field).  With this to guide me, I have a lot more promising areas to explore: the Russian district, Bernal Heights, Glen Canyon Park, and various other scattered locations.  I've also learned about new ice cream that I must try, like Bi-Rite Creamery, and restaurants, like Taqueria Cancun

One should keep in mind that this book was written by high-school students, and so their tastes and desires may not match those of older people.  They explicitly and cheerfully explain that they aren't allowed into nightclubs or bars, so those locations are totally missing from the guide.  I also get the feeling that some of the things that might be wonderful for a group of 17-year-olds might be less interesting for a solo 29-year-old; Seniore's Pizza may get more mentions than any other restaurant, but I'm less excited about visiting that than I am for other places.  Again, though, what's great about this book is that it wears is prejudice on its sleeve: unlike a more professional travel guide, where you're left guessing why a reviewer picked one place and not another, here you get a real sense for everyone's tastes.

So, yeah: phenomenal book, both for visitors and wannabe residents like me.  I'm not sure how long it will be around for, and it may get more out of date as time goes on; most notably, Muni fare has now increased to $2 from the $1.50 it was when the book was published.  It would be great if 826 Valencia periodically revisted this concept, say every four years with a fresh class.  Each guide would be totally different, provide more up-to-date thoughts on the City, and the collection would eventually form a kind of oral history of life here, focused on the mundane reality of everyday life more so than the landscape features.  In any case, they're off to a great start.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Toys in the Attic

Sigh... another one bites the dust.  At least Dollhouse had the chance to go out in a classy manner.

I think that by this point I have a somewhat Pavlovian response when it comes to a Joss Whedon creation.  "Oh no, it will get canceled!  Oh no, it got canceled!  You bastards!"  I need to force myself to get some perspective: Yes, Dollhouse was a great show.  No, it wasn't as good as Firefly.  Yes, it's one of the best things on television.  No, it isn't the best thing on television.  Yes, the show's cancellation is a blow.  No, it isn't a disaster.  At least we got two good seasons, a ton of twists, some memorably characters, a denouement... life could be a lot worse.


* Favorite character: Topher, hands down.  He was amusing from the beginning, and just got more and more awesome as the show came along.  Who could have predicted his acting in the last four episodes?  He's a phenomenal character, even if it wasn't for his in-your-face nerdiness that made me identify with him.
* Favorite alum from Whedonland: Alan Tudyk.  I still giggle at the memory of his reveal.  Close second: Summer Glau.
* Favorite doll: I think that Victor was the best actor of the lot.  All of them pull off an amazing range (Sierra somewhat less so than the rest, but she makes up for it by being smokin'), but Victor is tops.  For favorite overall, though, I've got to go with Echo.
* Favorite setting: Hm... maybe Topher's den o' fun.  Oh, wait, new answer: The Attic.
* Favorite guest actor (non-Whedonland division): Patton Oswalt.
* Favorite villain: Alpha.
* Favorite imprint: Topher, as imprinted on Victor.
* Favorite episode: Gosh, hard to tell, though it's definitely from the second season.  Probably the one where they rescue Echo from D.C.
* Favorite trend: Battlestar Galactica veterans landing guest gigs.
* Favorite tech: The Attic.


I can't shake the feeling that Whedon pulled the whole Boyd thing out of his ass.  It was a surprise, but mainly because it made no damn sense.  I mean... just why, exactly, would he disguise himself as the security chief?  More to the point: why would he present himself as a low-level handler, expose himself to danger on a recurring basis, and work his way up to being a subordinate?

They try to explain it by saying that he means to be close to Caroline, to.... consume her precious bodily fluids, I guess?  Again, it just doesn't make sense.  He supposedly runs the most powerful multinational corporation in the world.  You don't get there without picking up the ability to delegate to people.

Who knows... I'm genuinely curious if Whedon had planned this from the beginning, or had just come up with it.  Even if it was in the original plan, he hadn't gotten around to laying the proper groundwork for it.  Which I can't necessarily blame him for... if he'd had two more seasons to plant clues and explain things, then maybe it would have been a totally awesome revelation, a la Season 4 of Angel, and not feel like a cop-out.

I thought that was the one really weak point in the whole show, which is pretty impressive.  There are other things that I can complain about, but they mainly come down to me whining, "More!"  I would have loved to get some context for Alpha's role in the final episode; there have to be some great stories there.  I'd like to have seen more of the machinations within the corporation.


This too had passed.  At least we got to wrap this one up.  As insanely rushed as the last few episodes felt, Whedon did (on the whole) a phenomenal job of satisfying our hunger for resolution.  And, while it does leave us wanting more... well, that's the essence of great storytelling, isn't it?  One of these days he'll learn his lesson and start making shows for cable instead of for network television.  Until then, I'll grab the gems as I can.