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

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


My Junior high school library had a copy of Starship Troopers on the shelf. I never read it. I had read some of the Heinlein juveniles, and I think I assumedTroopers was another. I had also read a paperback copy of The Puppet Masters, which was one of my first forays into genuinely adult SF and of course I loved it. But I loved monsters more than military, and so Troopersnever caught my attention although I loved that first quote, "Come one, you apes. You want to live forever?"

Soon I quit reading science fiction in general and I got the word that Heinlein was the bully pulpit for the military establishment. Boo. Hiss. So I was was surprised that the novel was not nearly so jingoistic as I expected. I think it would have defeated me, however, in seventh grade. Despite the good action and cool bugs, that middle section of officer training school would have done me in.

A couple of reviews I read emphasized that the novel should not be confused with what the reviewers obviously considered the vastly inferior Paul Verhoeven 1997 film version. These reviewers must be the true believers. I loved the movie when I first saw it and thoroughly enjoyed it watching it again after reading the novel the other day. Verhoeven passes Heinlein's text through the deconstructionsit mill. (Did Michel Foucault get a consulting credit?) I've already said the novel did not strike me as the jingoistic broadside I anticipated, but what fun to see these minor celebrities giving their severely limited all to this high-gloss parody of everything Heinlein must have held dear. There is a rumor that the actors, few of whom were the sharpest pencils in the studio box, had no idea they were being made fun of. I think that like most young actors with few credits to their names they were more interested in their paychecks than in the socio-political implications of their characters. 

Book and film should absolutely be absorbed as a single experience. Probably the book should be read first, just so you do not have to picture Casper Van Diehm in the leading role until the last possible moment.

Friday, August 17, 2012


For an author of zombie novels, Joe McKinney has an unbeatable backstory. For the past twenty years or so, he has been a policeman in San Antonio, Texas, serving as a homicide detective, then in the office of emergency preparedness, and now overseeing the 911 division. It's not that San Antonio has been especially prone to zombie attacks during that time, but cops have seen a lot of the worst parts of human nature. McKinney's protagonists, who tend to be cops themselves, cannot possibly be prepared for the horrific situations they encounter, but they handle themselves cooly and professionally -- at least for as long as such a response is possible. If I found myself in a zombie-infested quagmire, I would want to stay close to one of McKinney's main characters, unless he proved to be one of the immoral bastards the author also throws into the mix.

McKinney's Dead World series consists of Dead City, Apocalypse of the Damned, and Flesh Eaters. In September, 2012, this trilogy will be joined by Mutated. McKinney's titles let you know what you are getting. His initial trilogy has an interesting chronology. Dead City (2006) takes place in San Antonio during the night that the infection plaguing a storm-ravaged Houston first makes its way north. There are those inevitable early police reports: "We got a part getting out of hand down on the east side."Apocalypse (2010) returns to Houston, a month or so after the city has been quarantined. Only if you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that quarantine is going to hold. The novel follows a band of escapees heading north to a settlement that promises protection for the zombie hordes. Again, unless you have never watched a horror movie in your life, you know how well that is going to work out.

The problem endemic to zombie fiction, on which the floodgates have now officially been opened, is that we have, after all, seen all this before. George Romero created Night of the Living Dead in 1968. To some extent, all zombie films and fiction are a gloss on the Romero original. (I am not countingiearlier zombie works that based themselves on Haitian and voodoo motifs.) Something brings the dead back to life. The deadly, extraterrestrial rays of forty years ago have been for the most part updated to hemorrhagic viruses. The infection spreads by bites or bodily fluids, victims crave human flesh, and there is no cure. The only real question that each author and filmmaker must decide is whether to create fast or slow zombies. I am in the slow zombie camp myself, but I admire McKinney's solution. He allows for relative mobility based on the age and health of the victim.

McKinney' prose has the no-nonsense, laconic rhythm that fits well with his police officer protagonists. The stories are predictable, but the secret here is to make each moment believable and to pace the gross outs with realistic depictions of what it is going to take for each character to live through the next hour. McKinney's novels were getting noticed by those who give horror writing awards early on, and in 2011 he won a Bram Stocker Award for Flesh Eaters. And that third outing is definitely where he came into his own as a writer. Dead City was just like a zombie movie, except it too five hours to read instead of ninety minutes to watch. Apocalypse succeeded in opening up the story, but the climax came directly from accounts of the Jonestown Massacre, only with zombies instead of federal agents on hand for the tragic conclusion.

Flesh Eaters goes back to Houston and the series of storms that not only destroy the city but through chemical spills and god knows what else sets in motion the infections that will change life on earth forever. Again, this is a zombie story, and so we know basically what is going to happen. But for the first time, McKinney creates morally complex characters capable of both courage and betrayal in the face of the unthinkable horrors they confront.

I am not going to become a fan of zombie fiction. The only other example I have read was the well-received novel Feed by Mira Grant and I absolutely hated it. But come September, I feel certain that will be searching out McKinney's latest, even though with the title Mutated I am pretty damn sure I now at least three fourths of what is going to happen. "Good God, they're organizing!"

Read my reviews of McKinney's novels on Worlds Without End

Dead City
Apocalypse of the Damned
Flesh Eaters

Feed by Mira Grant

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

MANGA MANIA: GYO VOL 2 by Junjji Ito

At the end of volume 1, the hordes of dead fish marching onto land with their tiny mechanical legs had spread from Okinawa to the coast of Japan. Tadashi's girlfriend Kaori had become infected by the gaseous excretions from the mobile dead fish, his uncle Koyanagi was doing what he could to help, and Tadishi himself passed out in a vat of what appeared to be minnows mixed with the occasional squid. Just the typical goings on for an Ito manga. 

Tadashi comes to in a hospital and discovers that Japan along with the rest of the world is now overrun by the fish. A nurse tells him most people are becoming accustomed to the smell, but I find that hard to believe. Tadashi makes it across a Tokyo now under marshall law to his uncle's house. Uncle Kovanagi turns out not be so trustworthy after all, but what do you expect from a character drawn to look like Charles Manson. For the next hundred pages, Ito keeps upping the ante on weirdness and repulsiveness, OK, maybe none of it makes much sense, and scenes become somewhat repetitive and arbitrary, but Ito paints a convincingly nightmarish picture of what happens when fish with mechanical legs take over the land. He even creates a circus where infected humans are forced to perform for an audience of one.

Gyo has been made into an animated film. I missed the screening when it played a festival here in Dallas. Reports from those who both stayed up past midnight to watch it and made it all the way through were most enthusiastic.


Saturday, August 11, 2012


Fritz Leiber looking very
much the Grand Master
The universe is at war. Leiber's short novel is set, on one level, in the later part of the 20th century, but it seems that war has been going of forever. Here is how Greta Forzane, our narrator, states things.

This war is the Change War, a war of time travelers -- in fact, our private name for being in the war is being on the Big Time. Our soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion years or more from now. A long, killing business, believe me.

Greta is an entertainer at The Place, a self-enclosed environment outside space and time. Solders fresh from battle follow the change winds and arrive for medical assistance and some R&R. Picture a USO with freer alcohol and relaxed sexual attitudes. Advanced technology provides state-of-the art medical treatment and sex partners to suit every fancy. If a visiting soldier does not take to one of the on-staff entertainers, or if his alien anatomy causes complications, he can always choose from the hundreds of ghost girls kept folded into envelopes in the storage area. (It would slow things down at this point to attempt an explanation of ghost girls.)

Life at the Place doesn't seem all that bad, although it could get a bit boring since it goes on more or less forever. But those who run the place see old friends returning from battle on a regular basis, and they stay occupied with own intrigues and affairs. They have only to wait for their maintainer, the device that keeps the Place intact outside of space and time, to start flashing its blue lights. That's the sign that the change door is about to open and new arrivals or possibly old friends will come crashing through. 

Fritz Leiber came from a theatrical family. He father, Fritz, Sr, was a successful Shakespearean actor at a time that touring companies specializing in the bard could make stars of their lead actors with national audiences. WIth his success he started his own company, and when the Depression killed the touring theater business he relocated to Hollywood and had a moderately successful career as a character actor. Although Fritz. Jr., for the sake of his education, was raised by aunts and uncles in Chicago, he knew the theatrical world and spent time in the theater and in Hollywood himself. He was fully aware of the show business connotations of The Big Time when he titled his novel, and it is a story saturated with theatricality. At times it reads as much like a play as a novel. And as a play it is a real crowd pleaser. 

Where to start? Greta describes The Place, a kind of platform surrounded by a gray void, as a stage set out of Diaghilev. Leiber's father was known for innovative, modernist settings that replaced the creaky Victorian trappings common to Shakespearean productions with the latest innovations in bare stages and quick scene changes. (He had also figured out that the latter were cheaper and easier to move around the country.) In the novel, the Change Door, through which outsiders enter, is invisible until it operates and disappears until needed again. The main set includes a bar, which gets continuous use, a piano, some furniture, and doors leading off to medical and storage facilities. Reading the novel, I could picture the stage diagram in the back of a the yellow, Samuel French editions we used in high school productions.

Leiber peoples his novels with types. This is not surprising for genre fiction, but they are distinctly theatrical stock characters. There is a wild west element to the Place, with the female entertainers brainy counterparts to saloon girls. Doc, in classic Western form, is a drunk. Sid, who runs the place, was plucked from the short time -- that's where you and I live -- during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth. His jumbled Elizabethan dialect makes him sound somewhat like a mediocre Shakespearean actor. New people arrive, they hear him speak, and before they can ask the inevitable question he preempts them with the answer, "Yes, I knew him." 

The Change War itself is fought between the Spiders and the Snakes, intergalactic forces that sound strangely like the gangs from West Side Story.
Soldiers come from every period of earth's history and can also include furry lunar octopi from a billion years in the past and Venusian satyrs from an equally distant future. On of Greta's favorites is an ex SS officer. Anger over minutiae such as Nazism becomes beside the point when shifting patterns of power played out over millennia are involved. He is accompanied this trip by young Bruce, a British soldier from the trenches of WW I who has opted for this form of immortality over dying at Passchendaele. He is a poet of the Rupert Brooke school, and the author of verses that led Lilly, the newest entertainer at the Place, to enter the Red Cross. They are our ingenues, and Greta cannot help but comment on their corny dialogue. 

Since this is a play, there must be surprise entrances. The Change Door bursts open with little warning, and Kadrys, a Cretan warrior woman from the fourth century BC explodes onto the scene. Due to the vicissitudes of the Change War, Crete and not Greece dominates the ancient world. Her recitation of a disastrous battle she has barely escaped could come from a lost play by Aeschylus.

Leiber peppers his dialogue and exposition with theatrical phrases. Characters are accused of scene stealing, and when Bruce makes his impassioned plea for a reconsideration of war itself -- his Mark Antony moment -- Greta is aware that his is "stagewise," i.e., playing to the audience. Greta has her own moment of stage fright, and she wonders if she is writing her own private hell into the script. 

There is a plot to all this, and Leiber knows that nothing moves a plot along like a ticking bomb. He lets it play out in three distinct acts with a dennoument. At the end, the soldiers are donning the appropriate costumes for a return to ancient Egypt, where they need to plant an atomic bomb. Before they leave, they gather as a group and sing what I think is a reworded version of "The Wiffenpoof Song," although I had trouble making it scan. The point is they are real troopers to the end. Just as the entertainers who stay behind are real troupers themselves. That's one pun Leiber leaves unstated.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


akabon -- "red book"; an early form of manga named for its red covers

benshi -- live narrators who accompanied silent films

butai -- a miniature stage

chibi -- little or super deformed characters for comedic effect

denki kamishibai -- "electric paper theater," i.e., television

genbaku no ko -- children of the bomb

gesaku -- playful stories

hentai -- sexually perverted subject matter

kamishibai -- street theater using painted illustrations

kawaii -- cute

kyokan -- a group spirit formed by listening to kamishibai

maido -- French maid outfits

mukashi mukashi -- a long, long time ago

pika-don -- the atomic bomb

rori-kon -- Lolita-style

tanuki -- badger spirit

tokko -- thought police

yaoi -- a popular genre of homoerotic comics

yamato damashii -- the spirit of Japan

waraie -- giggle pix

Selected from the glossary to Manga Kamishibai, The Art of Japanese Paper Theater
by Eric P. Nash
Abrams Comic Arts, 2009