Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I've previously bemoaned the dearth of Vernor Vinge titles in my library.  I was recently complaining about this to a co-worker, who was kind enough to give me a little reality check, pointing out that I could buy a perfectly good used copy in, say, Borderlands for $10 or less, then sell it back when I was done reading, for a whopping total of a couple of bucks.  It's true: my thrifty instincts often blind me to the reality that we live in a world where one can purchase goods with money.

He took pity on me, and lent me two Vinge titles from his own library.  I first tackled the shorter of the two, Marooned in Realtime.  After I got several chapters into it, I realized that it was a sequel to the short story "The Ungoverned," which I had just recently finished when reading through Vinge's collected works.  I also learned that a Vinge sequel is very different from the sort of sequels one might usually expect.


Namely, how many sequels start fifty million years after the previous story?

Marooned in Realtime is a really fascinating work.  The key technological gimmick is something called a "Bobble."  A Bobble is essentially a stasis field.  When a bobble is activated, everything within its radius freezes in time, while outside, time progresses as usual.  So, to someone inside the bobble, it will feel as though an instant has passed, while on the outside, anywhere from several minutes to a megayear may have passed. 

This allows for one-way time travel: you can bobble into the future, but not return to the past.  That leads to some really cool and exciting story options.  Traveling is always a risk, since you always leap forward into the unknown, and can never travel back into the past.  There's a huge social element, since you're leaving behind those you didn't bobble with. 

I like bobbling for a lot of reasons, but high on my list is that it feels like hard sci-fi.  He never goes into the details of exactly how bobbling is supposed to work, but it does seem at least theoretically possible, based on what we know today about space and time.  Einstein has shown that time is relative, not a constant, and so it is possible for two people to age at different rates; you could get an effect similar to bobbling by sending someone on a very fast space ship (which also happens within this book).  And, by restricting himself to one-way time-travel, Vinge neatly avoids the entire temporal paradox problem; you can't keep your parents from meeting one another.  It's very much an example of building a story around the world, instead of twisting the world to fit your story.

While bobbling is the main feature, it isn't the only technological advance.  Actually, the timeline is kind of funny - Vinge wrote this book in the 80's, and anticipated a rapid approach towards the Singularity within our lifetime, so to break up the flow a little he invented a massive biological warfare catastrophe to take place in 1997 which wiped out the majority of mankind.  Still, the survivors recovered enough in the next 100 years to create the Longevity Breakthrough, which allows humans (with the proper medical equipment) to remain practically immortal, and even reverse aging and redesign their bodies.  Again, while we certainly can't do this now, it does seem to be theoretically possible once our science has advanced far enough.  He also foresees something like today's always-connected, always-on Internet: the "low techs" have trouble using it, but more advanced travelers can tap in to the collective knowledge of all mankind and personal records at any time and from any place that they want.  The only difference is that they use visors instead of mobile phones to do it.

What else... there are Autons, personal floating robots who observe and protect particular charges.  And "clean" nuclear bombs, which are used as propulsion devices instead of weapons.  And lots of other, smaller things.

The technology is the most interesting part of the story, but the characters are good as well.  The main character, W W Brierson, returns from The Ungoverned in a somewhat familiar role.  There he was a protector, using his wits to affect the outcome of a pending war; here he is a detective, tracking down the perpetrator of a crime.  It's a different kind of intelligence, and makes for a great device on which to build the story.

There's a surprisingly large, varied, and rich cast of supporting characters, most of whom are also suspects in Brierson's investigation.  They are roughly divided into low-techs, who bobbled out in the 21st century, and high-techs, who bobbled out in the 22nd century.  Shortly after the last high-techs left, SOMETHING happened that eliminated the entire human race from Planet Earth and her colonies.  Each of the high-techs have their own theory about what happened.  Some think it was an alien invasion; others believe it was the Second Coming of Christ; others think it was a violent self-destruction; others think that the Singularity occurred, and all mankind transcended the planet.  The characters aren't just those theories, though.  With such a large cast Vinge can't devote too much time to any one person, but he does manage to provide an appropriate stamp of personality on every person, making them shy, or imperious, or cold, or fanatical, or conflicted. 

Vinge keeps the theme from The Ungoverned going here.  The old Planet Earth had largely evolved beyond governments, settling into a system of private contracts and self-selected affinity groups.  However, in the post-Singularity future, about one-third of the surviving people follow the Republic of New Mexico, while another third represents the Peace Authority.  A subplot of the book deals with the struggle for power between these groups, while the remaining unaligned people watch with a fair amount of bemusement. 

Even though Brierson gets the most space by far, I actually thought he was the weakest character.  He's interesting, but not really very consistent.  Vinge writes about how he's popular and everyone likes him, but we never see that; other than two Indian brothers, we never really see anyone who seems to like him or treat him with respect.  Similarly, he goes through nearly the whole novel as the cool, self-controlled detective, but he loses control and goes a bit nuts at two points in the story.  Vinge tries to work this in to his description of Brierson, but I found it hard to buy.  Rather than make him into a more complex and interesting character, it just feels really jarring and inauthentic.

That said, it IS a great story.  The mystery format works wonderfully, giving Vinge tons of time to lay out his ideas while still allowing us to feel like the whodunit is progressing.  It ends on a very satisfying, almost comically cliche note, with all the suspects gathered in one room for the denouncement by the detective.

Now, for the "What This Reminded Me Of" run-down:

The book I found myself most often thinking of was "The Door Into Summer" by Robert Heinlein.  This is mainly because both books feature one-way time-travel, which people undertake for similar reasons.  TDiS time-travel is done by cryogenics, and only affects a single person rather than a field, but it's really the same ideas.  That said, TDiS is incredibly optimistic, with a very rosy view of the future.  Vinge is big-picture optimistic - he sees the march towards the Singularity as inevitable and exciting - but in the short run, the people who bobbled out of his world encountered a future far worse than that in Heinlein.

There are also a few similarities with Hyperion, mainly in the way they acknowledge both relative and absolute time.  In Marooned in Realtime, a character's life might span seventy million years, but he might only be aware for 200 of those.  A bobble of a thousand years might be trivial, while 100 years in realtime could be fatal.  In Hyperion, the same kind of schism is at play, although there it is tied more directly to relativity.  One person might live their entire life on one planet in seventy years.  Another person might be born at the same time, leave when they were 20, travel around the universe visiting other planets for 10 years, and then return to that planet; they will be aged 30, but someone with the same birth date might have turned 60.  That leads to awkward social skew.  That said, MiR's longevity breakthrough keeps that from being such an issue, as age differences can be smoothed out, and people live effectively endless lives.


Vinge stays sharp in this book, and I'm glad to see that Rainbow's End isn't the only good novel that he wrote.  It will be most attractive to people who want to play with Vinge's ideas, but it's also quite satisfying purely on the basis of its plot.  One of these days, I'll need to read about the Peacewar and find out how this saga began.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ghosts Outside the Machine

... so anyways, the second book I picked up from work is Ghost World.  I've become a fan of Dan Clowes thanks to his work in The New Yorker and McSweeney's, but I think I first encountered him through the movie adaptation of Ghost World.  It was interesting to pick up this book after I had already encountered his art and this story in separate mediums, and finally see them come together.


The comic is quite a bit different from the movie.  The characters are similar, but it's much more episodic, as I suppose befits a collection of comics.  The movie includes most of the elements in the book, and stretches out some of them to create longer plot threads.  For example, here the Steve Buscemi character is only in the one scene where they first lure him to the diner; in the movie, he becomes a major character and plays a significant role through the rest of the story.

That more extended scope in the movie allows it to feel much more awkward than the book.  I think that's totally intentional, by the way... much of the humor and power of the movie comes from the extremely slow-burn way that it approaches unhealthy relationships.  The relationships are just as screwed-up in the book, but it's punchier and doesn't weigh you down as much.

Both book and movie can be perfectly summed up with one word: "ennui."  Or maybe angst, but I'm sticking with ennui.  It's a direct look at the lives of late teenagers, on the cusp of adulthood, who feel deeply alienated from their surroundings, and have elevated their disconnection to a sacred art.

I never really fit into this mode, but it's one that I recognize well.  In retrospect, it feels like the 1990's (my own teenage decade) were the years when it was cool not to care, cool to embrace bad art, when irony reigned supreme.  It's impossible to fight irony, so whenever an ironist meets someone sincere, the ironist always wins; if you don't take anything seriously, you don't need to ever change your position.

I think the pendulum has swung the other way.  It sounds like today's youth, while still not convinced that institutions (government, schools, religion) can improve the world, still want to take personal action to change things for the better.  So you get community organizers instead of civil servants, blogs instead of peer-reviewed journals, encounter groups instead of church.  Personally, I think it's good when people connect with their world in a sincere way, challenging the things that seem bad and working to increase the amount of good.


Anyways.  Ghost World feels like a really apt bit of social history to me now, rather than a piercing look at real life.  I believe it, but I believe it happened, not that it happens, at least not quite this way, at the age shown here.

But, what is timeless is the theme that crops up towards the end: the unsettling feeling one gets when contemplating the lurch into adulthood.  These characters are fully sexually mature and intelligent, but they are still treated like children, and act like children too.  Each girl is frightened of what the future holds, and seems reluctant to leave behind her childhood.  That's a feeling I recognize well: it's really hard to identify as an adult until you've been faking it for a few years.


Yay Clowes!  I need to pass on the question "Which is better, book or movie."  They're really different beasts, in spite of the shared characters and similar emotions.  Both are good, and worth checking out.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


You know that nice feeling you get when you clean up a room, or your whole home?  It just looks so... tidy.  More spacious.  More comfortable.  You can find everything again.  You can relax and enjoy yourself.  You lose that nagging feeling that told you to clean it up in the first place.

Personally, I've had a nagging voice telling me to clean up my MP3 collection for, oh, maybe about six years now.  Like most people, I've gradually accumulated these files over a long period of time.  They were ripped on multiple computers, using different software, different bitrates, different storage.  In the early days, my rippers didn't attach ID3 tags; this wasn't a problem while I navigated music by folders, but was a huge pain once I started using iTunes.  Even the naming convention was messed up.  For years, I stubbornly insisted on using my preferred format of "Artist Name-- Album Name-- Song Name.mp3".  Eventually, I gave in and switched to the predominant format of "Artist Name - Song Name.mp3".  But, once I started ripping things with iTunes, I had to accept its default format of "Track# Song Name.mp3", with the artist and album given in the folder hierarchy.

It was a mess.  Over the years I developed a couple of Perl scripts to help manage some basic things (standardize capitalization, remove parentheses, etc.), but the best I could do was apply a bit of furniture polish when the floor was littered in old newspapers.

This Saturday, I finally cleaned it all up.  It took a grand total of about 2 hours, of which about 15 minutes was spent in front of the keyboard.  15 gigabytes of music are finally in a format I can live with.  Isn't technology grand?

I was lucky enough to get a head start thanks to my corporate overlords.  My company is owned by Gracenote, and they've developed a cool tool in-house called the Gracenote Media Manager.  It uses their MusicID technology to look up a song based on the music.  What's cool about this tool is, you can set it to scan all the music in a particular directory and have it fill out all the ID3 tags with what it finds.

In my case, most of my music is kept on a media PC that I keep attached to my home entertainment system - this is the same box that I use for DVR and video watching.  It runs Ubuntu, but has a Samba share drive that points to the folder with [almost] all my music.  The exception: discs that I have ripped within the past year or two (there aren't very many - I've grown depressingly less adventurous in my musical exploration lately) are on my main PC's hard drive, organized into iTunes folders; of course, iTunes purchases are here as well (as are some Amazon freebies and Bleep buys).

Now, all the modern stuff already was tagged properly, so I ignored that to start.  I ran GMM on the media box's drive.  This took a while, but for the most part it was really smooth.  It keeps several queues that allow you to track what it's doing: some songs that it has already identified, others that still need to be checked, some that need resolution (multiple possible matches), and a rejects bin for things that it didn't recognize.  The last two items for me were, fortunately, rather small.  I'm a wee bit obsessed about R.E.M. and Radiohead, and they couldn't identify some of the more obscure tracks.  (My favorite example: an R.E.M. fan club Christmas L.P.  I had played this on a borrowed record player, done line in to a Creative Audigy audio card, did a raw capture of the WAVE, then transcoded to MP3.  That was one of my finest moments.  Apparently, Gracenote doesn't have that album.  Yes!)

After it was done, I went through the most time-consuming part of manually identifying the tracks that they couldn't detect.  There were... maybe 80 or so, altogether?  In most cases they try to make guesses based on the words in the file name if all else fails, so you can scroll through a list of, say, 20 or so possible matches, and manually choose the one you want or reject the suggestions.  One regret - I really wish they had a manual option for cases where you wanted to override it.  I was shocked at some of the stuff in here, things that I hadn't listened to in over a decade... old RPG game music that I had downloaded from fan sites on the Internet; weird live covers of unpopular sings; one or two pieces of filk.  Honestly, I ended up deleting half of what they couldn't detect.  (Second feature wish: a "Locate This File" button on the resolver screen.)

Once that whole process was done, I saved out all the results.  Now, I still had messed-up filenames and folders, but at least I had the right ID3 tags.

For my next step, I modified iTunes configuration.  I turned on the option to have it organize my music, and also selected the option to copy imported music into the music folder.  Then, I pointed it at my Samba share and hit "Import Folder".  I had both machines plugged in to Ethernet at the time, fortunately.  It didn't take terribly long for everything to get copied across the wire.

I next verified that iTunes had imported it correctly.  I spot-checked a few random songs, and found that everything looked good: nothing was missing, all the file names had been corrected, and they were placed into their proper artist and album folders, based on the ID3 tags from GMM.  I then deleted the 15 gigs of old, badly organized data on the media box.

Finally, I switched the media folder within iTunes so that, instead of pointing at a location on my local drive, it pointed at the Samba share.  This copied all the data back across the wire, keeping its proper internal structure.  So far, so good.  In retrospect, I might have been able to do this all in one step instead of copying forward and back, but this did give me a nice way of consolidating the media files that had previously been stored on two separate computers.

Now, almost everything is perfect.  I only have a few very minor remaining niggles.

First of all, somewhere along the way a few of my albums got duplicated, or in some cases, triplicated: each song in the album will have 2 or 3 copies in their folder (with a "1" or a "2" tacked on to the filename).  I strongly suspect that this is because, in the old days, I used to manually write M3U files to manage my playlists; I think that when iTunes grinds over these, it imports the files separately.  It's a little annoying that iTunes doesn't detect and automatically remove duplicates; I can see why, say, you might want to have a song that appears in both an artist album and on a soundtrack, but not why you'd ever have multiple copies of a song within a given album.  Anyways, this is a very minor annoyance (it only happened to a few albums), and easily corrected (I just delete the superfluous albums when I see them).

A second thing is that I would like to separate my storage.  iTunes now keeps a "media folder" that holds everything iTunes: podcasts, music, movies, television, etc.  In my case, I want to keep music on my media box, but my podcasts and everything else on my PC.  It isn't a huge problem to go over the network, but it's really dumb to do this for podcasts, since they're downloaded onto my PC and copied from there to my iPhone.  To be fair, though, I have dedicated 0 seconds to figuring out how to resolve this.  There may be a clean way to break this out within iTunes, or maybe I can set up a slick nested network share or something for the podcasts folder.

Anyways, that's that!  The whole process ended up being WAY faster and easier than I had expected, and I only regret that I didn't do it a year ago.  Finally I can access all my music, and do it just as easily whether it's within iTunes or through my stereo speakers.  Hooray for good tooling, standard technologies, and virtual filesystems!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Um, I guess that I'm on a Neil Gaiman comics kick now?  Again?

Marvel 1602 was written in the early 2000's, and is an oddity in the best sense of the word.  It isn't typical Gaiman, and it isn't typical Marvel, and it's definitely not what you would expect from a union of the two.  It's a rip-snorting adventure, with a great sense of humor and a great sense of mystery, but largely eschewing both the Gaiman Mythos and the Marvel Mythology.  I really dug it.


So, here's the basic idea: it's England in 1602 AD.  Many characters from the Marvel Universe are represented as Elizabethan doppelgangers.  There's a single, coherent, relatively tight plot that carries through eight issues of beautifully illustrated comics.  It's pretty Marvel-ish in that a lot of the plot focuses on friendships, encounters, and teams coming together and/or fighting each other.

A few cool bits include:

* Carlos Javier, the Xavier equivalent.  There are no mechanized wheelchairs in the 17th century, so people carry him in their arms.  He plays a similar role to his present self, taking in "witchbreed" outsiders who have unhuman talents.
* Matthew, a blind Irish minstrel.  Turns out that he has really, really good hearing, and amazing acrobatic skills.  Daredevil, anyone?
* Count Otto von Doom.  I'm sorry, but that's an even better name than Doctor Doom.  He's the principate of a Bavarian province, and cunningly weaves a web of influence over all Europe.  And, y'know, he has flying vulture creature assassins.
* Peter Parquagh.  An Elizabethan nerd.  He is almost bitten by a spider a half-dozen times throughout the book, finally succumbing towards the very end.
* etc., etc.

For the most part, I loved this.  It's a huge cast of characters, easily several dozen; the X-Men by themselves contribute a good number, and they're just a piece of it.  I did find myself occasionally bemoaning my own lack of culture.  Since I don't read superhero comics, then if there isn't a movie about it, I don't know it.  Nicholas Fury is one of the most major characters; he seems cool, but I have no idea who he is.  Ditto Stephen Strange.  And The Watcher.  I don't think this is necessarily bad - I still thoroughly enjoyed myself - but I'm sure that I missed out on some fun inside jokes.

The writing is generally really strong, especially after the first two issues.  There are a few sections that made me groan, like Gaiman was just trying way too hard.  One of the worst is in Matthew's introduction, where he says something like, "Well, if the devil is one who dares, then you may call me a devil indeed!"  Yes.  You're DareDevil.  We get it.  He eventually settles down, and then it's just good.  Character tend to speak in their own voices, for better or worse.  Cyclops is as much of a whiny bastard here as he is in every other medium where I've encountered him.  Magneto (The Grand Inquisitor) is solemn, clever, menacing.  DareDevil and... the leader of the Fantastic Four (I told you, I'm uneducated!) generally get the best lines.  There's pathos, and humor, and melodrama, and a bit of anger.  It's appropriately Marvel-y in that you feel attached even to many of the villains, and hold out hope that some bad guys might become good guys.

Gaiman's rich sense of history is well on display here - he doesn't spend a ton of time on it, but all the stuff about Elizabeth's fading reign, James' ascension, religious tensions, the Inquisition, the Papal States, the Germanic States, the Great Game, and the microscopic spec that is English settlement in America, all feel real.  That is, he doesn't dwell on background, but what background shows seems authentic.

What's largely missing is Gaiman's most distinctive characteristic, his sense of mythology.  There are a couple of things that he taps here, most notably a plot thread regarding the Templar treasure from Solomon's Temple, but even that ends up having a direct correlation to the Marvel universe.  I'm not complaining about the missing mythos... he's great at it, but it doesn't need to be applied to all stories, and this one is probably better without it.


Just so we're clear, 1602 isn't seminal in the way that Sandman is seminal.  That said. it's a lot more pure fun to read than any given Sandman issue.  There's nothing wrong with well-crafted entertainment, and Gaiman proves that he can be a great entertainer.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


I don't think I've mentioned it here recently, but I really like my work.  Not only because of what I do, and the people I work with, but the environment itself is very stimulating.  Among the many things I love about my office is the preponderance of comic book: we keep an enormous supply in our bathrooms (too much information!), and I've been able to, for example, work my way through the entire run of Transmetropolitan in little 4-page chunks.

I just recently discovered a secondary trove: on the same bookshelf where we keep some of our reference books (PHP, Java Servlets, Java ME, etc.) are a bunch of comics that I hadn't noticed before.  And I was delighted to see that, along with some titles I didn't recognize, were two that I have wanted to read for a while but haven't been able to track down.  One is Ghost World.  The other is Violent Cases.

Violent Cases was Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's first collaboration.  It's a wonderful little tale, just over 40 pages long.  It takes the form of a reminiscing monologue, told by a man in the present (judging from his dress, probably the contemporary 1980's), recounting memories of events from his childhood (England in the 1960's), which focus on tales he hears about gangsters (from Chicago in the 1920's).

The story itself is really nice - it doesn't have the mythos or the sweep of Gaiman's later work, but it's quite compelling, with a shot of ambiguity that keeps things intriguing.  However, I have to say that McKean's artwork steals the show here.  It's just as weird and compelling as the seminal covers he did for Sandman, and displays some of the same instincts - a lot of collage, a lot of shadowy shapes.  However, where his covers are mainly impressionistic, here he carries the story.

Basically, what he does is draw the scenes as they would appear in the mind's eye, and not as they occurred.  It's a little hard to describe without pictures, but I'll do my best.  To start with, there's great variation in detail; the things that a four-year-old boy would be most likely to notice are sketched in great detail, while other objects are only hinted at with rougher lines and shading.  So, for example, we get a really detailed rendering of an outstretched hand, but the face behind the hand is shown all in shadow.

Even better, he plays with memory in the art.  A major character in the story is an osteopath.  The narrator confesses that he doesn't remember what the osteopath looked like; he has his own vague idea of what he looked like, while his father has a more detailed memory that does not line up with the narrator's own.  So the osteopath's form shifts around as the narrator tries to decide what he looks like.

Other touches are just gorgeous or brilliant.  The osteopath is described as having a nose like an eagle, and the next panel displays an incredibly well rendered diagram of an eagle's beak, superimposed over a dictionary opened to the definition of "England".  In another, the osteopath mentions a scene where a man is carrying a baseball bat.  When he realizes that the boy doesn't recognize the word, he describes it as "Like a cricket bat, but smaller and heavier."  And, for the remainder of the scene, the men are carrying things that look like cricket bats... only smaller.  It's a subtle touch, not played too obviously for the joke, but certainly made me smile.

The biggest problem with Violent Cases is that it's over too soon.  On the other hand, I can't imagine how you could make it longer.  Its power comes from its limited scope: a fragment of memories, artfully presented and pondered, attempting to reclaim something from the past.

What A Philip

I didn't like "In Milton Lumky Territory."  I suppose it's partly my own fault.  These days, I virtually never read the back cover or inside jacket for books that I'm about to read; they inevitably give away things that I'd rather keep as surprises, and for many of my favorite authors, they actually get important things wrong.  So, when I saw this book at the library, I focused on the fact that it was written by Philip K. Dick and figured that was enough for me.

I think this might be the first Dick story that I've actually read.  Like everyone else in America, I'm familiar with his stories because of their ubiquitous translation into movies.  (My favorite is probably still Blade Runner, with A Scanner Darkly close behind.)  From what I understand, most of the adaptations have come from short stories of his.  This is the perfect source for a really talented director like Ridley Scott or Richard Linklater, since it gives them a cool plot to play around with, and also enough freedom to make appropriate additions to grow out the story to make it fit the scope of a major movie.  That's a much better approach than the typical novel adaptation in Hollywood, which is all about simplifying and cutting down the more complex source material.

What I'm saying (in a very round-about way) is that In Milton Lumky Territory isn't sci-fi - it's a realist novel.  That isn't necessarily bad, even though it wasn't what I expected.  However, on the whole it was a thoroughly disappointing book. 

I should have taken as a warning the Author's Note at the very beginning.  It's quite brief, and says something like, "This is actually a very funny novel, and a good one, too."  That "actually" ought to have tipped me off... if the author is responding defensively before you've read the first sentence, he knows something's up.  Even with that note in my mind, I didn't think the story was at all funny.  It didn't seem to be trying to be funny, either... maybe it was just being too subtle, but I rarely have trouble detecting subtle humor.  And I didn't think it was all that good.  Oh, from a technical perspective it's just fine - no writing errors, the dialog was fine, and there aren't major unexplained holes in the plot.  But it's pretty boring, and often pointless, and features characters who aren't very remarkable, and on the whole it was a waste of time to read.


Some of this might have been deliberate, perhaps?  Is it ever valid to write a bad book if you want to make a realistic portrayal of a dull subject?  The story is set in the 1950's, and features a commercial buyer who falls in love and decides to work in a typewriter shop.  The book is utterly focused on the feel and pace of 1950's America: small towns that are being encroached upon by national marketers; the federal highway system opening up new freedom of movement for everyone; the relatively insular lives of rural folk, and so on.  So if the point was to communicate how boring the 1950's were by writing a boring book... well, mission accomplished.

I found myself often thinking of The Man Who Wasn't There, and then wishing I was watching that movie instead of reading this book.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Billy Bob Thornton is a barber who dreams of opening a drycleaning business; Bruce is a wholesaler who dreams of managing a typewriter shop.  Both are set in the 1950's.  Both look at the attitudes of people in small towns.  However, TMWWT is an interesting movie, where things actually happen, with a character who you genuinely like (or at least are interested in)... it sets the stage with dullness, but the dullness isn't an end within itself, but rather a springboard for some really thoughtful and shocking developments.

The only time that there's any real energy in this book is when Milton Lumky is on the stage.  He shows up for the first time around page 90, and has a total of maybe 25 pages throughout the whole book.  Unlike the other characters, he's at least interesting - he's got a world-weariness about him that he displays acerbically, a weird blend of camaraderie and depression.  He's always a minor supporting character, not someone who you can root for, but at least he livens things up a little.

I get the awful suspicion that Dick started writing this book based on the name alone.  I can just imagine him going, "Milton Lumky.  That's a great name.  I wonder what a character named Milton Lumky would be like?  Hmmm... I bet I could write a story about him!"  His Milton Lumky is as Milton Lumky as you can get; I can't think of a better representation of that character name than what Dick comes up with.  That's nowhere near enough to carry this story.


I'm definitely not going to give up on Dick, but I'll be much more careful before the next time I pick up one of his books, and will definitely go for his science fiction next time.  After I wrapped up the book (it's just over 200 pages, but feels much longer), I finally read the supporting promotional material.  It would have saved me some grief - the best praise they come up with is something like, "Arguably Dick's best realist novel, apart from [some other title]."  Just how many realist novels did he write?  It would be pretty funny if it was just two.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Vernor Vinge seems to be a very highly regarded sci-fi author, but for some bizarre reason, the San Jose library doesn't carry any of his novels, and so I haven't been able to follow up on my excellent experience with his novel "Rainbow's End."  That book was the first hard sci-fi that I'd read in ages, and it was a really thrilling experience that reminded me what I used to love about sci-fi: the way it can turn on parts of your brain, activating modes of thought and prompting you to consider how the world could change, how you could change, what really lies beneath our everyday reality. 

While the library doesn't have his novels (I'm particularly curious about "A Fire Upon the Deep"), it does carry a collection of his short stories, which I finally got around to checking out.  It's great stuff, and shows an impressive range.  Everything in here counts as science fiction of some sort, but no two stories are really alike; they range from adventure tales, to fairly sentimental character studies, to cleverly plotted puzzle stories, to thrillers.

I hadn't realized just how long Vernor has been active for.  He wrote his first stories while he was still a teenager in the 1960's.  He's currently a professor, so he isn't a full-time author, which I'm sure limits his output somewhat.  That arrangement is probably a really good thing, though... it keeps him active in the real world (well, as real as an academic in San Diego can experience), away from the solipsistic temptations of professional writers.


Things got off to a great start with "Bookworm, Run!"  After all, it's about an ape!  How could I possibly withhold my approval from Monkey-related shenanigans?  The concepts are interesting, but were probably more revolutionary in the 1960's: networks of computers, vast stores of electronic government data that could be instantly and remotely accessed, augmenting a biological brain with digital data.  All that plus comical Russian spies... neat!

A couple of the stories feel a bit more like fantasy, but sooner or later betray their sci-fi leanings.  One features a high-tech "peddler" who arrives on a low-tech world.  There's the obligatory Asimovian rumination about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic.  However, the peddler takes a young (and violent) man in under his wing, and gradually the youngster begins to understand the nature of technology.  Another pseudo-fantasy was one of my favorite stories here, "The Barbarian Princess."  This story was about a sci-fi/fantasy magazine (!) on an alien world (!!) which sails a ship among a large number of archipelagos, collecting new stories and selling issues with tales from other writers (!!!).  This is also a relatively low-tech world; the telescope has only recently been invented, and there's no form of communication faster than the ship.  There's a really good reason for the tech, though: metal is extraordinarily rare.  A tribe offers to pay "a few coppers" for issues of the latest magazine; this would be a pittance in a fantasy world, but it's extremely lucrative here.  The lack of metal (and petroleum) has hampered progress, and some of my favorite parts are when the characters daydream about what it must be like to live on a planet with abundant supplies of metal.

Some of the most science-fiction-y stories prominently feature aliens, and Vinge gets some good mileage out of playing around with stereotypes about these creatures.  In one case, he inverts our common Foundation-esque view of aliens (wise, advanced, experienced) and comes up with a race of incredibly impatient, short, and violent creatures.  (This story also features a Noir style, which is pulled off masterfully well.)

Vinge switches up his writing style as much as he varies his subjects.  The aforementioned alien story is told in the first person; most of his stories are told in third person, with varying levels of omniscience; and a particularly entertaining one is an advertisement in Scientific American, aimed at recruiting one particular reader to join a shady biotech firm.  He doesn't do anything earthshatteringly literary with perspective, but he uses it well to tell his stories... he isn't a Kilgore Trout sort of sci-fi author who has great ideas but no skill.


As far as I can tell, this collection includes every short story Vinge has published, which is cool.  It's a shorter collection than I would have expected for someone who has been writing as long as he has; but, again, he's been doing other things with his life, including writing novels that my library inexplicably omits.  What he has here is great; even his earliest stuff is fun to read, and he stays strong throughout.  The very last story here, "Fast Times at Fairmont High," was the kernel for "Rainbow's End," which lends a nicely circular feel to my experiences with this author.  Anyways.  This is a great collection for any sci-fi fan, or anyone who wants to be a fan, or was one once and wants to remember why they enjoyed it so much.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


I'm probably the only one here who likes Comcast.

To be fair, I haven't been with them long.  The dew is still on the rose, I'm still paying the promotional rate, etc.  Still, it feels like a huge breath of fresh air compared to before, and so far I'm very pleased with what I've gotten.

So, some background:
When I first moved to California, I had two choices for Internet.  One was DSL through AT&T, the other was billed as "T1 Internet" through a local Bay Area company called Space Age.  I was thrilled at the idea of getting a T1 connection, and the price seemed reasonable, so I sprang for it.

Well... it turns out that this is a T1 to the property, not a T1 to the unit.  Speeds were decent, but far from remarkable, and actually seemed go get worse as the years continued (though part of this might have just been my increasing expectations).  Even stuff like watching Hulu wasn't as smooth as I would have expected.

The other really annoying thing about Space Age was that they don't give out public IP addresses; when I'd previously had service through SBC DSL and RoadRunner cable, I was able to run my own Apache web server, SVN repository, SSH server, and other useful geeky things.  I use Linux on my public-facing servers and lock them down pretty strongly, and... I dunno, it's just really useful to have.  So, it was super annoying to not have access to this from a more expensive provider.  I went back and forth with them for a while shortly after signing up before I gave up.

I was periodically tempted to switch, but always ended up staying.  The first big reason is that I hate AT&T.  Historically, SBC has been my least favorite company and AT&T my second-least-favorite, so when they merged it was as if Osama bin Laden and Kim Jong Il had formed an alliance.  The second, more positive reason was that Space Age had phenomenal customer service.  When you called, you got the one particular guy who did everything.  He'd come out to the property to fix stuff, and always knew what was going on.  When things went wrong (and they periodically did - we sometimes lost Internet access for upwards of a week), he would leave long, detailed explanations of what the situation was, what to expect, what we could do, etc.  Infinitely better than the standard, anonymous incompetence that I've come to expect from larger service companies.

More recently, my options expanded.  When U-verse came, I realized that I could get drastically faster speeds at a slightly lower price point, or equivalent speeds at a drastically lower price, than I did with Space Age.  I might have signed up, except that (1) I still hate AT&T; (2) it's tremendously complicated to get just Internet access without phone and TV service; and (3) they charge about $150 in "setup" fees.

Then, Comcast came.  They drilled and installed some new jacks.  A bit later, I got a flyer encouraging me to sign up with them.  It offered special promotional fares which had expired the previous week.  Since I'm not sure how long I'll be around here, I decided it would be more complicated than it would be worth to switch, so I stuck with Space Age.

And then, I couldn't.  I walked home one day and found a notice taped to my door, simply stating that as of the following Friday, I would have no more Internet access.  Aaaaaaaaaaaa!

I frantically jumped online.  Losing the Internet wouldn't just be an annoyance; it would keep me from being able to work.  I quickly re-researched my options, found that Comcast still looked better than AT&T, and pulled the trigger.

A few things did worry me about Comcast.  They let you pick a stand-along Internet option, but the language on their web site indicated that the pricing was only available in connection with cable television, and I couldn't see anything that said what the monthly price would be if I got it alone.  Also, I couldn't complete the order online, but would need to do one of those bizarre chat IM things to finish it.  So that was annoying, but still way better than, you know, actually calling someone, so I went ahead with it.

It ended up being one of the smoothest transactions I've had in a while.  I got the advertised price, even without any add-ons.  I was delighted that they didn't even try to upsell me (except for one bogus warranty thing, but there was no pressure even there).  Everything was pleasant and comfortable, and I got my service appointment scheduled.

There was some question at the time about whether I'd be leaving on a business trip to the East Coast that weekend or not.  I jotted down a 1-800 number they had for scheduling stuff, just in case I needed to leave.  I was a bit worried about that - the earliest appointment available to me had been about 10 days out, and if I missed my scheduled day, I would hate to lose access for another 10 days.  It all ended up being moot, as I was in town and available.

My time range was 1pm-3pm.  I got a call from the technician a little after 10am asking if I was available to do it then.  I was all like, "Yeah!"  At the time I was making an almond-pear slump, and liked the idea of wrapping everything up in the morning so I could take my standard hike that afternoon.

They arrived, and after a little initial confusion (the apartments in my complex are not very logically numbered), they got to work.  They did some magic outside that I didn't see, then came inside.  I had bought a Motorola cable modem from eBay so I wouldn't need to lease anything, and had already connected it to the computer.  I had thought that they would connect to the new outlets that had been drilled a few months earlier, but we eventually found that the signal was coming in through the old Space Age outlet.  Strange!  They installed the Comcast software, and we spent several minutes typing in character recognition challenges and clicking through disclosures.  At the end, they opened up the speed test web site, and I saw that we were at a blazing 21Mbps (above my paid "maximum" of 15Mbps).  W00t!  It hasn't been as fast since then, but every time that I ping it it is drastically faster than the old Space Age connection.  Upload speeds are very constant at right around 3Mbps.  I can smoothly watch Hulu, grab new Ubuntu ISOs, and generally geek out.

And, the price seems pretty good.  My younger brother has tempted me with tales of a mythical Chicago cable company that sells good Internet access for just $9.99 a month.  Comcast definitely isn't that, but still... with Space Age I was paying $39.99/month.  In my 6 month intro period I'll be paying half that.  Once that's done it shoots up to $42.99... three bucks more than before, but things are SO much faster that I don't mind.

Plus, I finally am a first-class citizen on the Internet again!  My services aren't currently running - there wasn't any point in keeping most of them up during the interregnum - but I can ping my box from the outside and pull up my default Apache page again.  That'll be great.  I actually have had to occasionally pay for hosting services on some personal projects in the last 5 years that I totally could have hosted myself if only I could connect home.  Mmmm, it feels good to be real again.

So, that's that.  I don't have illusions; after the first time that my connection inexplicably breaks, or I find I'm being throttled for no reason, or I am mis-billed, I'm sure I'll join the ranks of Comcast-haters.  Until that happens, though, I'll cheerfully be a lonely voice proclaiming that they're offering me a good service and I'm happy to have them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010



My younger brother, Pat, is an Actor.  That's a capital A - he's performed on a variety of stages in the Chicago theater scene, playing a broad range of roles and building up his dramatic career.  He's also an awesome guy, and since half a continent separates us, I don't get to see him nearly as often as I would like.

Late last year, he told me about this nifty, crazy project he was working on - a group of actors were going to try and adapt The Ring Cycle for the stage.  In their initial test run, he played Alberich the villainous dwarf, among other roles.  The operas are vast, sprawling things, with a much larger number of characters than available actors, so everyone got to play many roles.

The play was picked up, the roles were re-jiggered, and Pat was cast in the main show.  It would combine all 4 operas.  In most productions, each individual opera takes about 4 hours to perform (depending on the speed of the conductor), so there were about 16 hours of source material.  That's with singing, though.  The Ring Cycle's theatrical adaptation kept all of the original story and plot, updated the language, set it in English rather than Italian, and managed to whittle the running time down to a lean six hours.

I thought it sounded amazing.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this was a Really Big Deal.  If I lived in Chicago I'd go to see all of Pat's plays; as it is I only get to see a few, but I knew that this would be worth making a special trip.  I coordinated with the rest of my family to figure out when the best time would be to visit, then made arrangements to do it.

I have never heard any of the operas, and had no prior experience of The Ring Cycle.  Pretty much all of my knowledge about the opera comes from second-source commentary describing how The Ring Cycle is similar to and different from The Lord of the Rings.  That, and the random bits and pieces that one picks up from pop culture: Valkyries, Germanic gods, dwarfs.  It felt cool to step into such an epic work with so much history and have such a blank slate.

The performance was, in a word, stunning.  For starters, it did an amazing job at capturing a lot of the grandeur that one would expect from an opera, even though we were in a fairly small space and they didn't have the Metropolitan Opera's budget to work with.  They didn't have elaborate painted backgrounds, crowds of extras, giant mechanical mystical creatures.  Instead, they cleverly used simple techniques to convey the magical setting of the play - this required a bit more active participation on the part of the viewer, but we all readily gave it, and the overall result was much more effective than would have been produced with painted props.

At the very start of the play, we are introduced to the Rhinemaidens.  Now, ALL of the actors in this play were great, but the three ladies who played the Rhinemaidens and, later, the birds, were astonishing: not only actors, but also acrobats and singers as well.  Large rolls of blue fabric descended from the ceiling, and the maidens "swam" up and down them, seeming to move horizontally as well as vertically.  When Alberich crept onstage, they teased and toyed with him; one would hang upside down and stretch a hand out toward him, only to pull herself up and out of the way when he lunged.  It was pretty incredible three-dimensional staging.

The Giants are also particularly well done.  Two broad-shouldered gentlemen play Fafner and... the other one, whose name currently escapes me.  When they come on stage, they pull out some lights that project their shadows onto the walls.  Thereafter, the other actors interact with the shadows, who loom giant-sized above them.  That was a neat trick.  Even besides the shadows, though, the actors are great at moving and acting like giants.  Every motion they make seems to have a great weight behind it, and you constantly get an impression of barely restrained power.

A similar technique is used to great effect in "Siegfried" with the dragon.  Several actors bring the dragon to life, with two operating its enormous head and several others operating its tail.  Siegried leaps and runs from one end of the stage to the other, with his shadow doing battle with the much larger shadow of the dragon.  Awesome stuff, and I'm impressed by all the pieces that The Building Stage needed to put together in order to pull this off.

There was almost no singing in the production, but the three ladies did sing a little about the Rhinegold.  For music, they had a cool little live band on stage, tucked away in a sort of mini orchestra pit towards the back.  They generally did the transitions between scenes, only occasionally providing cues to the current action.  I later learned that the drummer had written the adaptation, which is pretty amazing.  Since I'm not familiar with the original operas, I probably didn't pick up on most of the adaptations, but it was pretty hard to miss the theme for Flight of the Valkyries.  It was cool and chilling to hear, a slower and almost meditative rumination on electric guitar.

I was delighted to find that the plot, which certainly complex, was eminently follow-able in this medium.  It's hard to keep all the characters and plotlines and feuds in your head at the same time, but I never felt lost; for any particular thing which is happening onstage, you can easily work backwards to connect it with what we've seen before.  The plot, incidentally, is pretty amazing.  It's also really bleak.  Throughout the first two acts/operas, not a single character is really likeable.  The gods are arrogant and haughty; Alberich is avaricious and power-mad; the Rhinemaidens are teases; the giants are dull and greedy; Siegmund is hot-tempered (not to mention incestuous); and so on. 

I pretty quickly worked out that German gods are more or less the same as Norse gods.  I found myself thinking often of American Gods, which actually serves as a useful crutch for a few of the major characters.  Wotan was clearly Odin, down to the spear.  Loge was Loki, and making that connection helped me understand that character much more.  It's a bit of a shame that Loge only appears in the first part.  He's such an interesting character, and he ends his last scene with a teasing comment about his plots for the future.  I suspect that the original audience, steeped in the mythology, would have recognized Loge's fated participation in Ragnarok (or whatever they call it in Germany) and seen his hand behind the later events of the opera, even if he does not appear in flesh to move it along.

Oh, costumes!  They were a bit odd at first, but once I got it I loved them.  The dress is more or less modern, not medieval, and is highly class-conscious.  The gods are all dressed up in preppy clothes: stylish slacks, attractive haircuts for the women, expensive-looking shirts for the gents.  When Donner (who I think might be Thor?) carries his hammer, it sometimes feels like a Lacrosse stick.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nibelheim (dwarfs) are blue-collar, wearing heavy aprons, with matted hair and heavy boots.  And Loge - as one of the gods, he is expensively dressed, but as the trickster half-mortal outsider, he doesn't adapt the fashions of his fully-immortal counterparts; he has a cool hat, and colorful trousers, and a bearing all his own, at once confident and wary.  (This is as good a point as any to mention that Loge is actually played by a woman, which is yet another bit of brilliant casting.)

We finally get some more sympathetic characters in the third act.  Well, actually a bit before then: Brunhilde shows up near the end of the second act, and earns our respect by defying Wotan in order to help save the gods from destruction.  She is roundly punished.  The third act brings back Brunhilde, and more immediately introduces us to Siegfried, the unquestioned hero of the piece.  It's all very Germanic: he knows no fear, is a tireless warrior, perhaps not the brightest guy around but making up for it with his unwavering enthusiasm.  He slays the dragon, wins the girl, and takes the Ring while remaining free of its curse; what more could a guy want?

Okay, so the Ring: I was actually surprised by just how similar Wagner's description of The Ring is to that of Tolkien.  I'd somehow been under the impression that The Rhinegold Ring was more of a good object that was being fought over, while The One Ring was an object of pure evil.  Actually, the Rhinegold ring is cursed, and drives people in much the same way as Sauron's ring.  Alberich and Hogan and... the other dwarf whose name I forget all come across as pretty Gollum-like in their obsession with reclaiming the ring.  (One of the only bits of the play that I didn't really care for was a "conversation" between Alberich and Hogan in the fourth act which seemed to have been lifted from Gollum's schizophrenic soliloquy in the movie version of The Two Towers.)  Although, now that I think about it, the dwarfs want the Rhinegold ring because it will give them unlimited power over the world.  In Lord of the Rings, someone like Gandalf or Aragon might have been able to use The One Ring for their own power, but almost anyone else would have simply come under the power of Sauron and become his slave.  Alberich with his ring would have been a terror; Gollum with his ring would still be pathetic.

All that said, the overall feel that one gets about The Ring is quite similar in both works.  It's something both desirable and feared, it promises wealth and power while carrying incredible danger, most people lust after it while a few wise people shun it, and only the very unusual (Tom Bombadil who cares not for The Ring, or Siegfried who knows no fear and knows not what the Ring promises) are free from its pull.


Even the very end resolution is very similar.  Gollum grabs The Ring and falls into the flames.  Hogan grabs The Ring and falls into the Rhine.


So, uh, Tolkien is a hack?  Nope.  Lord of the Rings was a point far long on his lifelong quest to create an English mythology.  As a child he fell in love with the Northern mythos, from the Norse and the Germans, and was sad that the English had nothing equivalent.  He didn't set out to make a copy, but was heavily influenced by the feel of that mythology.  I'm a little surprised at how similar The Ring stuff is, but it isn't exactly the same, and you can make a really strong case that Tolkien's Catholic values subvert the pagan values in The Ring Cycle.

Wow, that was a digression.  Back to the play:

Each of the individual four acts was around 70 minutes long.  The Building Stage offered a 10 minute intermission between acts 1 and 2, and between acts 3 and 4.  In between acts 2 and 3 was a forty-five-minute dinner break.  We came prepared!  I attended with my parents and sister, and we brought along a delicious spinach salad, a chicken fruit pasta salad, excellent rosemary bread.  We were envied by all.  For the piece de resistance, we feasted on homemade pecan pie.  It was delightful.  It was also great to chat a little with the actors, who passed through the stage and greeted people.  By now I've met a few of Pat's associates from other plays, so it was really cool to recognize people and chat with them.

This is going to sound trite, but in terms of overall dramatic movement, The Ring Cycle is the exact opposite of a romantic comedy.  Most rom-coms follow this general pattern: up, up, down, up.  Boy meets girl, they build a relationship, some problem happens that drives them apart, then they resolve the problem and end the movie better than ever.  The Ring Cycle is down, down, up, down.  After the third act, the curse of The Ring catches up to people, Wotan's scheming falls apart, Alberich wreaks vengeance from beyond the grave.  There's a lot of shouting and crying.  Fortunately, the very, very end of the play ends on an upbeat note, or at least as upbeat as you can expect from a Germanic story.

In the days since seeing the play, I find that I'm regularly replaying it in my head, unpacking the scenes, remembering little flourishes that struck me as especially neat, even retracing the plot in my head to assure myself that I have everything straight.  It's incredibly rich source material, and I can see why the operas have endured for over a century.  Sadly, the play doesn't have that much longer of a run left, which is doubly unfortunate since they are now selling out their shows and people increasingly want to see it.  I'm delighted that I got a chance to experience it, and proud of the whole crew for pulling off this audacious performance.


Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Poor Tom's A-Cold

Shakespeare wrote four Great Tragedies.  Two of them are very widely performed and known in the popular culture: Hamlet and Macbeth.  A third, Othello, isn't quite as widespread, and carries a particular set of baggage, but still gets quite a bit more exposure than the average Shakespeare play.  The final one, King Lear, falls far behind the others.  It gets performed, to be sure, but it doesn't get anywhere near the number of, say, Hollywood adaptations as Hamlet and Macbeth have.

There's a good reason for that: Lear is an incredibly bleak play.  Of course, we all expect bleakness from the Great Tragedies, but there's a particular viciousness and sadism in Lear that limits its appeal in this age of uplifting endings.

All the more reason for "Fool"!  I haven't read any of Christopher Moore's other books, but this is one great novel, and he pulls off the incredibly challenging job of writing a comic novel adaptation of Lear.  It isn't pure comedy - you can't keep Gloucester's torture in a totally happy book - but it is biting, and witty, and overall is surprisingly enjoyable.

Fool is narrated by the hero, who in this telling is Lear's Fool.  Fools are in many of the Bard's plays, but Lear's Fool is probably the most well-known and sympathetic.  When people talk about how Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are modern-day jesters who speaks truth to power, they're thinking about this character's archetype.  The Fool is the only person who really sees what's happening, and who can warn the King about his mistakes without being punished for it.

There are a LOT of differences between the play and the novel, and one of the biggest is that here the Fool isn't just a commentator, but an actual actor in the play's events.  He is downright Machiavellian, a far better schemer than Regan or Edmund, and his actions set mind-bogglingly-large events into motion.  He's also granted a backstory and a personal journey of sorts, fleshing him out to a three-dimensional character instead of an archetype.

I really dig making the Fool a schemer.  I'm a bit more ambivalent on the backstory.  It's cool, and it works, but... I dunno.  I can't claim that it isn't epic, but it isn't timeless in the way that Lear itself is.  It's more like a really clever plot that hangs together well but doesn't illuminate anything outside itself.  Which is totally fine - this is a comic novel, after all, and I wouldn't expect to receive eternal truths from it.

Oh, and the wordplay!  Amazing!  Virtually all the dialog is in modern English, although I suspect that some of the lines are lifted or adapted from the play's text.  It's every bit as bawdy as the Bard, but using modern R-rated language instead of archaic swearing from Elizabethan England.  I suspect that our reaction to this language is closer to the original audience's reaction to the original words.  It's funny and shocking and clever.  Moore is at his very best when the Fool is verbally bantering with someone.  Actually, "Banter" isn't the right word, since the Fool totally dominates such exchanges; only Cordelia and Regan can come close to matching his wits.

There's a cool afterword to the book in which Moore talks about writing it.  It's fascinating to get insight into making a book like this.  He points out that the timeline of the original play is really hard to pin down; the historic King Leir probably lived around 600 BC, long before any of the cities in the play (Gloucester, Kent, etc.) were founded; there's a weird mixture of Roman and Celtic and Christian components to the tale.  At one point in the original play, Moore writes, Shakespeare himself acknowledges how screwed up the timeline is when a character says something like, "This is the prophecy written by Merlin, even though he will be born after I die."  It's as though Shakespeare is throwing up his hands and saying, "I don't know when the play is set, either!  Wheeee!"  Moore took that as his license to do what he wanted to, and he keeps the same sort of mixed-up timeline as the original without worrying about whether it makes sense.  This almost entirely works, except for one really bizarre two-page digression on the two popes - rather than the historic Pope and Antipope, this is a conflict between the Discount Pope and the Retail Pope.  It's pretty confusing, and while I like the idea of dueling Popes, it has nothing in the slightest to do with anything else and totally breaks the rhythm of the chapter.  That's an anomaly, though... for the most part, Moore takes license with the timeframe in the service of doing other interesting stuff or establishing atmosphere.

This is the first book of Moore's that I've read, and it sounds like it might be pretty different from his other stuff.... I'm sure I'll check out something else from him at some point, though I'm not in an enormous rush to do so.  In the meantime, blow, wind!  Rage, rain!  Get-Ready!  The World is Coming to an End!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I think I need to lay off the "macabre comic book with sinister spiritual overtones" jag I've been on.  It's messing with my head.

On the plus side, I can report that, yes, From Hell really IS that good.   It's breathtakingly ambitious, incredibly broad in scope, laying out Victorian London in all its filth and glamor.  Like many of my favorite works, it first focuses on getting the world right - making it real, ensuring we understand its rules and how it works, feeling the rhythm of the ordinary - before we plunge into the plot proper and experience Jack the Ripper's killings.


I'm definitely not an expert in JTR mythology, but it does feel like it's often presented as a mystery: the purpose of a JTR movie or book is to chase down the mysterious individual who perpetrated those crimes.  From Hell inverts that.  After a brief prologue, the very first thing we see is the man who will become Jack, as a small boy.

Only, we don't really see him.  There are so many amazing techniques in this book that I can't start to list them all, but one of the earliest is its presentation of Gull.  Through the entire chapter, we don't see him, and yet he is present in nearly every scene.  Generally we are seeing from his perspective, literally looking through his eyes, Halloween-style.  We see all the moments that the adults miss.  We see the son playing with his dead father's face, giggling softly as the eyes open and shut.  We see him finding an animal in the grasses, and cheerfully tearing it apart to expose its innards.  With this as background, we see Gull steadily advance into the upper tiers of Victorian society, and bear the uneasy knowledge that the grown man likely holds the same morals as that young boy.

At the very end of the chapter, we finally see Gull himself.  And, when we at last can connect a shape to those words, those thoughts, those actions, we find it to be perfectly ordinary.  He's an Englishman, distinguished-looking, calm.  Perfectly ordinary.  Which, of course, makes it all the creepier.

The murders themselves take a long time to start.  The wait is not a boring one.  I made the mistake of reading From Hell right before bed, and blame it for some poor sleep over the last few weeks.  There's one incredibly long chapter that features Gull and his coachman driving around London and looking at historical sites.  Sounds dry, doesn't it?  But there's an amazing diabolical energy behind that tour which pulses on every page.  I felt my mouth growing dry as their sinister touring reached its conclusion.  Gull is firmly in control, laying forth his erudite knowledge, the connections between points on the map and points in time, describing the gods of Britain, the gods of Atlantis, the God of Christianity.  Netley, who doesn't seem to be a particularly pious of virtuous man, is driven, panting, to the limits of human endurance, by nothing more than Gull's words and some creepy architecture.

(Very rough analogy: think of the Winkie's Diner scene from Mulholland Drive.  Nothing but talk, and yet, mind-blowingly frightening.)

Of course, this is all a huge testament to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's talent.  Preacher frightens with buckets of blood.  From Hell has buckets of blood, but it doesn't need them - you're awash in horror before the knife is ever drawn.

There's lots of other stuff I could mention, but I wanted to hit on Gull's visions.  I thought this was an absolutely amazing idea.  Gull has a minor stroke, and has a vision while his brain is under stress.  This vision seems to propel him; he would have carried out his mission regardless, but that vision leads him to be Jack the Ripper and not just Jack the Causer of Accidental Death.  Later, he starts to have more visions as he continues his murders, and they grow longer and more elaborate, seemingly in response to the increasing violence of his crimes.

So, with visions, we are naturally led to consider a Macbeth-like query: are those visions "real," in the sense that they actually are communication from some force outside of nature?  Or are they illusions, brought on by physiological processes in our brain, and ascribed significance when they actually represent nothing more but randomly firing neurons?

Here, they opt for the first answer, and - this is the cool part - they completely take away the possibility of the second answer.  Suppose that Gull's visions had been of, I don't know, a secret conversation in the Royal Palace, or a war in Egypt.  He and we might take those visions as being "real", but we could still argue for him having invented them.  Similarly, if he had had further visions of Jubelah, we would recognize their content as spiritual, but still not be able to say whether they refer to actual spiritual objects or not.

However, they give Gull extremely lucid visions of life in the 20th century.  Which is brilliant.  Gull doesn't understand what he's seeing - he knows that they're otherworldly, that he's being granted insight into something that his contemporaries cannot see, but has no framework for processing television sets, fax machines, computers, spandex.  It's a mystery to him.  But not to us.  Moore and Campbell place the reader in the position of confirming Gull's visions.  Within the context of the work, we know that there's no way Gull could have this knowledge, and no way he could have accurately imagined it, and so we are forced to acknowledge that some supernatural force is at work.

Like I said: Creepy!


Messes with my head, but in a very memorable way.  From Hell fully deserves its reputation at the top of the comics heap.  Any work of its scope and detail would inspire awe on its own, but it builds on top of its densely created world and creates one of the most amazing horror stories that I've read.  If that sort of thing appeals to you, read it.  If not, keep your distance!