You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


In the desert of the land of Egypt a holy hermit, once upon a time, met a monstrously shaped beast; for it had the shape of a man from the navel upwards and from their downward the form of a goat, with two horns standing up on its head. The hermit asked him, in God's name, what he was; and the beast answered and said, "I am a mortal creature as God made me, and in the desert I dwell, and I go about seeking my suffrance. Therefore I pray you, hermit, to pray to God for me, that He who came from Heaven to earth for the salvation of man's soul, and who was born of maiden, and suffered bitter Passion, through whom we all live and have our being, may have mercy upon me." The head of that beast, with the horns, is still kept in Alexandria as a marvelous thing.

From   The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Penguin Edition

Sunday, May 27, 2012


Richard Matheson has an impressive seventy-nine credits on the Internet Movie Database. Some of these are writing credits, but most fall into the subcategory of "original story by." In a way this is even more impressive than screenplay credits. Since the 1950's, Matheson has written nearly eighty short stories and novels that disturb us.

There is a lot of "I didn't know he wrote that" material here. He wrote "Duel," the story of a driver pursued by a deadly 18 wheeled tractor trailor. It became a classic made-for-tv movie by Stephen Spielberg and also had the unique distinction of causing a copy of Playboy magazine to circulate my dorm with the recommendation, "You really need to read this story." When Karen Black spent thirty minutes back in 1975 chased around her apartment by an African fetish doll wielding a butcher knife, that experience came to us courtesy of Matheson. (The short story is called "Prey.") One of the earliest moments of pure terror experienced by people my age was on the Twilight Zone episode where a man we did not know at the time was William Shatner discovered a gremlin on the  wing of a passenger plane. ("Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.") OK, when you see it now the gremlin looks like a sour-pussed, geriatric Teletubby, but I remember suffering the torments of hell waiting for Bill to take one more look out the window. Today you are likely to be more horrified by the fact that he has a gun in his luggage.

OK, it was scary at the time

At this year's Bram Stoker Awards, Matheson's I am Legend was named the greatest vampire novel of the 20th century. First published in 1954, it still reads as an innovative tale of one man facing the nightly, tiresome, and dangerous visitations of neighbors turned into vampires by a combination of dust from nuclear testing and the dormant bacteria it activates. Today we might quibble over whether these are zombies or vampires, but I am Legend plays out what is almost always Matheson's theme: One man -- or Karen Black -- alone, facing a crisis that defies reason but that can only be fought by reason. 

I am Legend has been filmed three times in versions ranging from interesting to the absolutely abominable The Omega Man (1971) This starred Charlton Heston at his most unpleasant. Matheson's greatest novel, The Shrinking Man, became under Jack Arnold's direction one the greatest SF films of the 1950's, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957.) (Director Bert I. Gordon released The Amazing Colossal Man that year. Extra adjectives were in vogue.) In the film, Guy Madison plays Scott Carey, a man who, after exposure to a combination of fallout and insecticides, begins to shrink 1/7th of an inch a day. The movie traverses a relentless straight line to one of the most beautiful, existential moments of 1950's American film. In Matheson's novel we get the prologue featuring the infection, then move straight to Carey's final days stuck in his own basement fighting off a black widow spider, a flooding hot water heater, and the fact that in five days he will cease to have any physical presence on earth. Flashback sequences, most of them covered in the movie, chronicle his deteriorating marriage, his humiliating celebrity, and the excruciating moment when his wife buys him a dollhouse to live in. It will protect him from the cat. (Note to wife: Get rid of the cat.)

I have not read everything by Matheson that has been filmed, and he also worked on original screenplays. He wrote The House of Usher, the first Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. He also worked on the screenplay for the very much worth taking another look at Jaws III 3D (1981). I swear it is a lot of fun. His novel Stir of Echoes I have not read, but it made into a nifty horror film in 1999. He has both the novel and screenplay credit on the ponderous Legend of Hell House (1973). I am not sure of the publication history here, but the "novel" I tried to read could easily have been a novelization of the screenplay. The film is portentous and silly. The book is simply bad. 

So here's to Richard Matheson, and his much deserved Bram Stoker Award. And go rent Jaws III 3D.

In a world of monotonous horror, there can be no salvation in wild dreaming. --Richard Matheson, I am Legend

I reviewed two Matheson novels on Worlds Without End

I am Legend

The Shrinking Man

Saturday, May 26, 2012


The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service formed a group to deliver the corpses of suicide victims collected in Aokigahara Forest on the slopes of Mt. Fuji. This is, in fact, one of the most popular suicide locations in Japan.

Here is a short film on the topic.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Volume Six is a bit bland for this series.

Past volumes have included such explosive episodes of Japanese history as the biological weapons devision of WW II and the Nanking massacre. This go round, the topical issue is the privatization of the postal service initiated in 2007 by outgoing prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. This causes a not particularly interesting development in the delivery service's business model.

Things get back in gear when Numata moves into an apartment with a suspiciously low rent. It turns out to be the scene of not one but two crimes. This narrative is interrupted by a gaiden. Gaiden are side stories that may have information eventually relevant to the main narrative or serve as historical side pieces. This one takes place in the Meiji period, concerns the serial killings of prostitutes, and uses a motif I first encountered on the TV series Thriller when I was in elementary school.

Spectacularly lurid images enliven the text, but less often than usual. The notes, of Disject Membra.  are entertaining and exhaustive as ever although even here the English language editors allow themselves a small vacation.  The topic concerns an early 20th century academic debate over the nature of Japan's prehistoric inhabitants. After stating the barest outline of the controversy, the note ends

...actually there were other differences as well, but unusually for Disjecta Membra, we are not going to get into it.

In this series, every life has a second act

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I am inclined to quote extensively from Lord's novel in this review. Her opening paragraph establishes a voice that will do a great sorting out of her potential readers.

A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscious with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.

Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town or Erria...

Her narrator speaks to the reader with the omniscience and wit of Henry Fielding translated into the imagery and diction of a oral teller of folk tales. And notice that the complaint has come from a "rival" and not a "friend." The narrator who is willing to jump onto a half-trained horse does not hesitate to defend her position, and she states absolutely that all her tales are drawn from life before embarking on a story that will involve talking spiders, tricksters, psychic communication, and djombi, undying beings that mess constantly, for good or ill, in the concerns of humans.

That first talking spider could be the next challenge for many readers. I am no fan of full blown magic realism, novels hundreds of pages long with butterflies flocking from a character's ears or tropical snowfalls following the death of someone's great grandmother. (I think I concocted both those incidents on the spot here.) But Lord's short novel stays true to the spirit of folk tales where spider's absolutely hang out in bars and contract with shady characters for less than reputable services. Where a band of dissident djombi pass the Chaos Stick onto Paama, Lord's heroine who is a runaway wife, excellent cook, and brave but never foolishly so.

Lord lives in Barbados, but she bases the early scenes of her novel on a Sengalese folk tale, and the geography throughout the book is more African than Caribbean in scale. Paama has left her absurd, gluttonous husband Asinge and returned to her parents house. After two years Ansige follows her, craving her cooking which is the only thing that comes close to satisfying his abnormal appetite. When most of his servants, disgusted by his childish and distasteful habits, abandon him, he unfortunately enlists the aid of a trickster who will see to it that all his behavior in his wife's family's village will humiliate him and shame him back to his home.

This preamble is a way of certain djombi to study Paama's behavior and decide that she is in fact worthy of maintaining the Chaos Stick they have stolen from the indigo lord who has controlled it for -- well, it's hard to say for how long when dealing with eternal beings who also time travel. The indigo lord, disguised as a traveling merchant, finds Paama and her family and at the end of an elaborate dinner carries her into his world, which is her world minus the boundaries of space and time. The indigo lord is a magnificent creation. He is arrogant and seductive, apparently unfazed by the fate of lovers in plague-stricken city and dryly witty about a marauding army destroyed by a flood after an unprovoked attack on a innocent city. Surveying the carnage, he says, "I might have gotten a little carried away." He is angered and hurt that the Chaos Stick, his reason for existing, has been taken from him. I am not clear on how irresponsibly he might have wielded it but he is clearly devastated and also outraged that he cannot simply snatch it back. Getting it back will entail negotiations with Paama, who is neither a fool nor a coward. There are lessons to be learned on both sides, and the narrator states at one point that she is opposed to those who think stories should not have morals.

This is a story about the responsible use of power even given the overwhelming influence of chance of human life -- a big theme that fits neatly within this 200 page tale as it ever could in a political novel several times the length. While Lord's characters, both undying and human, learn to question every aspect of their realities, she is confidently riding her half-trained horse, never losing the track of her story while keeping an eye on her readers. In one scene a character talks to a village storyteller about his profession. His answer could be Lord once again stating her goals and narrative technique.

"I am a storyteller. I travel to collect stories, and I return to tell the stories of one place to the people of another. That is the important part of the trade. You must never tell people their own stories. They have no interest in them, or they think they can tell them better themselves. Give them a stranger's life, and they are content."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


Le Guin, possibly from around 1970
Rocannon's World was Ursula K. LeGuin's first published novel and is the first of her novels I have read. I've always thought that if I read Le Guin I would read The Left Hand of Darkness, since it was the big prize winner and the one everyone read back in the 1970's, during the years after it first appeared and Le Guin's reputation was on the rise. But I was not reading SF at that time, so I had only minimal interest, and, even worse, the novel always came with the dreaded recommendation, "No, even if you don't like science fiction you are going to love this book." So I never read anything and only now, with both a renewed interest in SF and a self-directed tour through those writers who have earned Grand Master Status from the Science Fiction Writers of America, am I discovering the pleasures of her prose and storytelling.

Having decided to dive in, I headed straight for Left Hand but saw that it was the fifth novel in something called The Hainish Cycle. I like to start at the beginning, and in the Le Guin omnibus edition I got from the library,Rocannon's World was a tempting ninety pages long. I didn't know until after I finished and enjoyed it that in fact there are two chronologies to the Hainish Cycle, the order written and the order in which the stories are occur. I could have started anywhere, since in some cases a millennium passes between narratives, but I still like the idea to seeing how Le Guin's writing and sense of her future world develops in the real time of her composition.

Ninety pages, but since I was reading a bargain omnibus edition they were longish pages. Rocannon is still a short novel, only 144 pages in its PB editions. But in those few pages, and in her first novel, Le Guin creates an small-scale epic, both a classic quest tale and a story that spans several generations.

On the planet Fomalhaut II, as the advanced space lords refer to the novel's locale, the culture is medieval and, unusual for all the inhabited worlds they investigate, there are multiple HILF's, HIghly Intelligent Life Forms. In the prologue, Semley, child of an ancient family wedded to the Lord of Hallam, endures the fallen estate of her family -- good name but short of wealth. In a culture where display of wealth assures rank she sets out to retrieve a magnificent jewel that has somehow left the family treasure and been traded back to the Clay People who mined it. Within the first dozen pages, Semley has left her home, recruited the aid of the charming Kirien people and journeyed to the altogether less engaging caves of the Clay People. That this journey is made on large flying cats is likely to be the first narrative hurdle for readers who like their SF harder than softer. The hints of hard SF occur when the Clay People enter the action. Grungy and unappealing as they are, they live in underground cavern's equipped with electric light and railways.

When Star Lords investigate new planets with multiple HILF's they chose a species most likely to accept the technological head starts that will prepare them to join the League of all Worlds. The Clay People have won out on Fomalhaut II. They even have a space ship, into which they bundle Semley for transport to the planet where her jewel now rests in a museum of interplanetary artifacts. There she catches the eye of Rocannon, an anthropologist employed by the League, and he easily arranges for the return of the jewel. (This was written in 1966, and I wonder when the controversies over the return of imperialist plunder from European museums began to take shape.)

Upon return to Fomalhaut II, Semley understands the consequences of her journey. In Le Guin's universe, FTL travel is only possible in unmanned spacecraft. Although Semley feels her trip has taken no more than a year, she returns to a home where her husband and mother-in-law have been dead for a decade and her children are grown. Her courageous and adventurous journey has secured her nothing more than a long, solitary life.

That took me almost as long to tell as it does Le Guin, but it sets up the story of Rocannon's establishment decades later of a base of Formalhaut II. We learn of this base only as it is destroyed, along with Rocannon's survey team and all the work they have done. The universe is in a constant state of war preparedness, but this attack seems to have been sabotage, the first signs of divisions within The League of All Planets. Rocannon, unable to communicate with his own people, learns from satellite surveys that the enemy has established a base in the still unexplored Southern Continent. He puts together his own plucky crew of various species and it is back onto the flying cats.

This is a quest adventure, that without Rocannon's, or more properly, Le Guin's eye for anthropological detail and interesting world building, would slide into adventure fantasy of a most ordinary sort. But the swiftness of her writing, the predicaments she creates for her believable multi-species characters, and also her willingness to kill off so many protagonists kept me wrapped up in a narrative that seemed much larger than its ninety pages. Before his departure, an aging Semley gives Rocannon her precious jewel, should he need it along the way. And so this absurd, medieval artifact remains as crucial to the story as the special body suit Rocannon has on hand that although it makes him appear naked allows him to survive fire and torture.

When men like Rocannon join the star service, they know they are abandoning anything resembling a normal life of family or human contact. They may age slowly and inexorably as they poke about the universe, but centuries will pass on earth. Although contacts with home can be accomplished with a device capable of instantaneous communication across 120 light years, they have volunteered to become exiles in the name of science. It's the respect Le Guin feels for their choices and the fundamental loneliness of their existence that give the novel its emotional depth. And I liked the flying cats.

Cool Flying Cat

Sunday, May 20, 2012


I cannot imagine anyone not taking a liking to Jack Williamson. I am talking here of Jack Williamson the man, not necessarily the SF writer. Born in 1908, he wrote both before during and after the Golden Age, but the bulk of the work is from a period that increasingly requires either a historical curiosity on the part of the reader or a fondness for retro motifs and styles. I base my opinion on Jack Williamson as a person on his engaging memoir Wonder's Child, first published in 1984. (Williamson died in 2006)

In many ways, Wonder's Child is a workmanlike memoir -- then I did this, then we went, etc. But its down-to-earthness is a supple counterpoint to a man who began publishing fantastic fiction when he was 20 years old. Like all fans who became writers in his day, Williamson discovered SF as a boy in magazines kept on the newstands of the local drug or candy store. He was hooked from the start, and his memoir's title says clearly why. It was the wonder of it all. The possibilities of space flight and the seemingly miraculous future science held in the offing.

We think of many mid-twentieth-century American writers as "children of the Great Depression," but Williams was in his late twenties when the world economy tumbled. His family was by no means wealthy. His father was unsuccessful in both farming and small business, but they always got by. And Jack was receiving periodic checks in from the pulps to the tune of $100 to $500 dollars. This was very good if sporadic money, and he and his brother and the sf writer Edward Hamilton often used these paydays as the excuse for a road trip. These trips lasted till the money ran out and often involved working or bumming their way back to New Mexico. Jack spent some time in college, again until the money ran out, and when he found himself depressed during the Great Depression he relocated to Topeka, Kansas, to undergo psychoanalysis at the Menninger Clinic. He had great respect for one of the doctors he worked with there, but this episode came to end when he could no longer afford the $5 per hour sessions.

Possibly of historical interest only

After some training, he became a meteorologist for the Navy during WW II. He was in the South Pacific for only a brief period before Hiroshima ended the Pacific War. When he returned to the U.S. he felt alienated from the emerging SF scene. The wonder was gone and a darker mood of political speculation, apocalyptic scenarios, and social satire had taken its place.

...the bomb, I think, was the overriding reason. The long black shadow of the mushroom cloud had fallen over all of us in science fiction. Sooner, I think, than it touched most people, because we understood it earlier. It put a dark stop to the age of wonder as I had known it. Science, before, had been revealing total truth, or seeming to, and unlocking splendid power. Suddenly now the truth had become too terrible to tell, the power too much for us to handle.

Williamson continued to write for the next fifty years, but reading his memoir you see him constantly aware of his marginalization in the SF community despite the accolades that begin to come his way. He finally marries, settles down in New Mexico, and returns to college as an forty-two-year-old undergraduate at Eastern New Mexico State University in Portales. He graduates and remains on the faculty there until his retirement. Perhaps one his greatest legacies is the ongoing annual science fiction conference held there in his honor. A photograph from the 2002 conference pictures hims surrounded by the likes of Connie Willis, George R. R. Martin, and Fred Swannick. He never lost his interest in and appreciation of new developments in the science fiction genre.

The final chapters of the memoir recount world travels with his wife and the inevitable shrinking number of acquaintances. The current edition of Wonder's Child is not helped by an addendum written just before his death and incorporated into the text posthumously. It is repetitive and poorly edited. But this memoir, with it laconic, ambling style, is the most engaging look at the past century of science fiction I have encountered.

I have reviewed two Jack Williamson Books at the website Worlds Without End

Darker Than You Think

The Legion of Space

Sunday, May 6, 2012


Phyllis as a young woman practicing her trademark shit-eating grin
When I was in the book business I loved dealing with Prometheus Books. They were a tiny company the first time we bought overstocks from them, but they were the publishing branch of the secular humanist movement. I guess I should have changed fonts for the last statement. It should be written in the thick, drippy letters used to advertise horror films. Yes, Secular Humanism, the bete noir of the Christian right, the band of radicals, poison dripping from the mouths, determined to make people think rather than blindly follow superstitions ranging from UFO abductions to creationism to the divinity of Christ.
Over the years they developed different imprints, one of which, Pyr, is devoted to science fiction. They even give the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction, an award that goes to both current publications and classics as disparate as Atlas Shrugged and Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes.
Now they intend to infect the minds of American youth with sf aimed at the YA market. This is your chance to win free copies of their first books. Read them now before their presence in school libraries is challenged by some dried-up old bitch like Phyllis Schlafly and her minions of right-thinking Americans.

Wow, I really got into writing this.

Here's the link to the free book contest

Worlds Without End

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


It's deja vu all over again in Volume 10. 

Volume 9 ended with the death of Reiko Tamura, and we start here with several textless pages of Shin and policemen in the park, exchanging meaningful and enigmatic glances. Then its time for Shin to go back to high school, and for the police to enlist the aid of psycho-killer Urokami in detecting aliens.

There is an elaborate police sting at city hall that has already taken place many volumes back. (I get these from the library, so I don't have back issues handy for fact checking.) It could be with Tokyo Pop taking over publication of the series, they have established a different timeline. And Shin wows his track coach with his parasyte-assisted running abilities, something he has already done many volumes back.

I'm ready for this whole thing to be over.

Gee, he doesn't look dangerous.