Monday, June 27, 2011

Ann Lolter

So I was just glancing at the bestseller list on the back of the local rag today, and I saw a new book by that Ann Coulter thing you used to hear so much about but who had not crossed my mind for god knows how long before I saw this book on the list. It's called Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America. Naturally, it appears to consist of the usual wingnut madlibs. When I saw it, I couldn't avoid a li'l fit of giggling; I mean, sure sure, dehumanizing opponents, bad, all that stuff, but the extremely literal interpretation of the "each title must use a scarier word than previous title" mandate is just plain funny, and the sheer absurdity of it (seriously--how can anyone possibly interview her with a straight face?) really accentuates the desperation to stay relevant--pushing fifty, not gonna be able to rely on the alleged good looks forever (this is the first one where she doesn't appear, in ludicrous attire, on the cover). Where can she possibly go from here? Given that all her titles are already basically schoolyard taunts, I'm thinking something along the lines of Dick Shit: Fuck Cock Liberal Poop would be a winner. Actually, a more realistic option--at least once she realizes that she's never again gonna be remotely relevant or acceptable in mainstream discourse and decides to just suck out whatever last bone marrow she can--would be racist, misogynist, and/or queerphobic slurs (you may recall her referring to Arabs as "ragheads" and calling John Edwards a "faggot," which really turned out to be pretty much the opposite of his problem, but never mind--she certainly doesn't). I don't doubt that she'd be willing to stoop that low, but I do question whether any publisher that wants to be thought of as even slightly respectable would be willing to go there. Heck, maybe the "poorly-mimeographed leaflets stapled to telephone poles" medium is her best bet.

Another thing I really like is that I only happened to stumble across this title by happenstance. Otherwise, I still wouldn't know about it--and checking wikipedia, I see that I hadn't heard of the last two either. I don't know if you remember this, but Coulter was quite the hot topic back when Slander and Treason came out--there was enraged sputtering everywhere, and many long, detailed page-by-page refutations of her lies. But now...nothin'. Her attempts to rile up the proles become less effective by the year I mean, the book still is a bestseller--due no doubt to bulk buying and bottom-feeding right-wing rags pawning off free copies to subscribers--but the fact remains: nobody cares. Not that plenty of unpleasant people haven't risen, dung-covered-phoenix-like, to take her place, but I do find her increased marginalization highly satisfying.

Still…I also feel a certain measure of horrified empathetic pity. Crazy, cynical, or both--who knows? But I just picture her in her twilight years, friendless, alone, and forgotten, confronted with the sum total of her contribution to the world: a dozen odd books that use lies to make people she doesn't know hate other people she doesn't know. What a devastating moment of self-awareness that would be. 'Course, maybe she'll never have it, and she'll go to her grave entirely content with her lot in life. Either way, seeing a human soul destroyed like that--however complicit she was in that destruction--is a terrible thing.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Yay New York

I tend to be a little cynical about certain things, as you may have noticed; I cannot help but feel on some level that, as society is collapsing around us in all sorts of ways, gay marriage A. is such an inevitability, ultimately; and B. so totally fails to concretely address any of the problems that are going to make the world much, much worse in coming years; that it's not worth getting that excited about. But fuckin' eh, so many of our problems stem from us being utter horrible, hateful assholes to one another that I'm not gonna claim not to feel a certain frisson of excitement at anything that brings a little more love and happiness into the world, even if it's just nibbling at the margins. And, obviously, it's not really fair or, indeed, non-offensive for a lame straight guy like me to be dismissing major civil rights gains for people who are not me. So congrats, New York. And suck it, California--you need to get your act together.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Duck Comics: "The Starstruck Duck"

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Soon to be a major motion picture, I fervently hope!

Here is a sample sentence that OSX's dictionary widget gives for the word "bodacious:" "Those bodacious dudes have an excellent time playing games with death." Man, those guys sound awesome. I just hope, after they're done playing games with death, they give a small, expressionless nod and slightly adjust their sunglasses (which they're wearing inside at night, obviously). Really, if they did that, I'm tempted to say they could be almost as cool as Albert Wesker himself, if such a thing be possible. The mind reels.

Duck Comics: "The Mascot Mystery"

Monday, June 13, 2011

Pixar Rankings!

Hey, now that I've seen every Pixar film, let's rank them from best to worst, shall we? Does it say something about me that I have so much more to say about the ones at the bottom of the list? It sure does!

1. Up. Nuff said, really.

2. Toy Story 3. Has it EVER happened before that the third move in a series is also the best? Really immaculate with the most terrifying climax EVER in a kids' movie and that ending GOSH.

3. WALL-E. Man, when I first saw Wall-E, I thought it would be impossible to top, but here we are, which is kind of mind-boggling. It's true what everyone says: it loses a bit of momentum when it goes into space, but really not THAT much, and that first part is REALLY incredible. And the closing credits, man oh man.

4. Ratatouille. Really awesome stuff, but this is the first one in which I can detect a distinct flaw, to wit: if we're buying into the whole "anyone can cook" thing, how is it that, to all appearances, the main guy really CAN'T, ultimately? That's just weird.

5. The Incredibles. …but not as weird as the awful ending where it's apparently A-OKAY for the kid compete in races as long as he holds back and doesn't come in FIRST. Some people seem to think this is meant as an implicit critique. Not really buyin' that. But otherwise, it's a great film.

6. Toy Story. That's right, the first one. I think there's something to be said for simplicity, and this is totally fun and charming, even if a little rough around the edges.

7. A Bug's Life. I like this way more than I thought I would. The villain is great, and although the circus-bugs are played a bit too broadly for my taste, I got used to them quickly enough. And then it was all good.

8. Toy Story 2. I know a lot of people would think it odd to see this placed so far down. Don't get me wrong; I like it a lot, and "When Somebody Loved Me" is a really effective tear-jerker, but I feel there was a bit too much not-that-amusing dicking around, like the whole toy store segment and the nonsense with the generic Buzz Lightyear and Zod figures. And seriously, people, the toys driving an actual, real-world car? Hmph.

9. Cars. I didn't really expect to like Cars, but I have to admit: I liked Cars. No two ways about it. However, there's no denying that the world is really, really bizarre and not necessarily in a GOOD way; also, the character designs are, let's face it, kind of creepy. Plus, what with the upcoming sequel (which I'll be highly skeptical about until I see) and this made-for-TV Planes spin-off, it's looking like this could spell the end of Pixar's reign of awesome. Let's hope not.

10. Monsters Inc. Out of all the movies on this list, it's been the longest since I've seen this one, so I'm probably not the best judge, but I remember being seriously underwhelmed: this is the sort of thing that the much-fêted Pixar is doing? Really? More specifically, I found the whole monster-world economy too cute by half, frankly, and Billy Crystal gah. I probably would have liked it more had I been younger when I saw it, but Pixar films are meant to bridge such divides. Very much not hotly anticipating the sequel.

11. Finding Nemo. Yeah, I know this is gonna look like willful contrarianism, but I can't help it: this is the only Pixar movie that I just flat-out dislike. No, I'm not saying it's without merit (he magnanimously conceded), but the whole thing is pitched so, so broadly, and the extremely-allegedly-comic-relief sidekick fish with short-term memory problems is just non-stop horrifically, unbearably irritating, and she is all over the movie. Also, the idea of sharks in an AA analogue to learn to stop eating fish? What the hell are they supposed to eat, then? C'mon. There's suspension of disbelief, and then there's just stupidity. Though I'll grant you it would've been funny if they'd pledged to only devour humans instead. Perhaps the whole father-son thing should have resonated, but it just…didn't. I'm surprised that--checking wikipedia--it's only a hundred minutes, because it feels fucking endless.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Mouse Comics: "Mickey Mouse vs. Kat Nipp"

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The intersection of Disney comics and American naturalism

Hey, are you aware that Volume One of Fantagraphics' reprinting of Floyd Gottfredson's Mickey Mouse comic strip is out now? NOW NOW NOW! This is an extremely momentous occasion, as anyone familiar with Disney comics knows. Even if you're not, I'd recommend picking it. Maybe you will be! And it's totally uncensored; the second continuity includes the semi-infamous "Mickey attempts suicide" sequence.

Anyway, I was reading through the first story, "Mickey Mouse in Death Valley," and I came across THIS:

Look familiar? Yup--aside from the fact that (obviously) no one dies, it's pretty much exactly the ending to Frank Norris's McTeague, down to the fact that both take place in Death Valley. There is no way this can be a coincidence. A very cool little homage.

Frank Herbert, Dune (1965)

So here's the plot of Dune: there's this kid, Paul, who is the son of a duke and his concubine. He's way awesomer than everyone else, 'cause that's just the way it is. In the beginning, he has to take a super-hardcore test (the "gom jabbar") where he puts his hand in this thing that simulates huge amounts of pain, and if he takes it out, the test taker uses super-deadly poison to KILL HIM DEAD, and the absurdity of this is never acknowledged nor, quite obviously, recognized by the author. Anyway, for reasons that remain murky, pa's being transferred to this here desert planet that produces a rare condiment/drug that is super-duper hard to farm and important (but which seemingly everyone always pours all over their food), replacing the comically evil baron who is currently running things, and in addition to engaging in general killing-people-and-being-mean-type evil, is also fat and gay, so you just KNOW he's up to no good. But alas, the duke is betrayed and killed, and Paul and his ma are abandoned on the planet to die, on the ever-popular "we won't kill them ourselves--we'll just leave them where they're SURE to die bwahaha!" gambit. It will shock you to learn that their death does not occur (due, again, to Paul's just-'cause awesomeness). Instead, they team up with the nomadic desert natives, of whom Paul quickly becomes leader, 'cause what have I been TELLING you about him? There's also a LOT of politics, both from good and bad guys, none of which has the remotest relationship to the thrust of the action, such as it is. Oh, and speaking of pointless things, it is revealed to us, just as a sort of casual aside, that the evil baron is in fact Paul's grandfather. This has no effect on anything; I suppose Herbert just thought it would be kinda dramatic to stick it in there and just let it kind of dangle. Spoiler: it isn't. At any rate, the good guys beat the bad guys in a mostly-off-stage coup. The baron is killed via the same poison as in the aforementioned test, and the previously-asserted idea that the poison works absolutely instantaneously is contradicted, as he clearly lasts a good five-ten seconds. And then the good guys engage in a somewhat appalling bit of realpolitik that apparently isn't meant to make us hate them. THE END.

I'm afraid the above description doesn't do the book justice, however--it's terrible in many ways that aren't directly plot-related. What it comes down to is this: Herbert is not a good writer. He has one good idea that would be really neat if he were a better writer (the desert planet itself and its ecosystems), and one idea that's potent enough that even HE can't screw it up TOO badly ("stillsuits," which preserve and reprocess all of one's water for reuse, really driving home how waterless the planet is), but he is simply incapable of presenting this world in an evocative or compelling way. He can't write action, either: you will note that the big upheavals in the book (the baron's coup, the baron's defeat) take place almost entirely off-page. "Tell don't show, and don't even TELL if you can possibly avoid it" appears to be Herbert's motto. Everything is incredibly vague and murky. We have these here desert nomads, but aside from them, there's no way to tell what life is even like on the planet ("Arrakis"). Are there towns? How do they work? How do the desert animals to which the book alludes function in a near-waterless environment? If Herbert knows, he ain't sayin.' But I'm pretty sure he doesn't know. And forget about the larger setting in which the book allegedly takes place: if the central planet is hazy, the universe might as well not exist for all that it's fleshed out. Oh, and also forget about the characters. Herbert appears to take great pride in depicting all this machiavellian scheming, but he sure doesn't show much interest in depicting characters who behave even slightly like real people or to whom the reader can relate in any way.

There's one scene in the novel that I thought was effective: it's when the ecologist has been left in the desert to die, and while doing so, he hallucinates a conversation with his father. Not that it wouldn't have been MORE effective in the hands of a better writer, but you really have to take what you can get with a book like this.

If this were just any bad, hacky fantasy novel (it's about as much "science fiction" as Star Wars is), then none of this would be here or there. But, as the cover notes, it is "the bestselling SF [sic] adventure of all time!" The inside cover copy confidently declares it "undoubtedly the grandest epic in science fiction." As you may have guessed, I have my doubts.

(It also won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, incidentally--just in case you were inclined to believe that those awards were indicators of quality).

It's just one of those things: how can you possibly rationalize the fact that jillions of otherwise intelligent people are so taken with a book that is quite clearly fucking terrible? It's a question that was hashed out--to no clear conclusion--in comments to Adam Roberts' reading of the Wheel of Time. But I'm gonna go the easy route, and just categorically state--and a dear friend of mine is a fan, so I say this with love in my heart--y'all are out of your frackin' minds.

In all seriousness, I'm pretty sure I know at least one (misguided) reason that people have for liking the book, and that is summed up by Arthur C. Clarke's comment on the back to the effect that he "know[s] of nothing comparable to it except The Lord of the Rings." Now, I'm no big LotR fan, but I know a grotesque injustice to Tolkien when I see one. I know why people make the comparison: it's because Herbert makes a big show of having all this supplementary information about his universe, as though it's something super spectacularly deep with years and years and years of accreted history and culture. There are appendices. But the thing is: none of this ever builds to anything meaningful. To give Tolkien his due, Middle Earth feels like a real place because he spent endless years obsessively building an organic world grounded in European mythology and folklore (and because, as enamored of his work as I'm not, he's a far better stylist than Herbert could ever hope to be, and thus is capable of actually depicting this world). Whereas while Herbert may have made a substantial time investment, his universe never feels like anything other than a bunch of crap inelegantly thrown together. It has a vaguely Middle Eastern theme (except when it doesn't), but it never feels real or comes to life in any meaningful way.

Take, for instance, the names that Herbert gives his characters. Tolkien's work was rooted in real linguistics, so his names generally feel plausible and well-situated within the world. There's a post or five to be written about the principles by which fantasy authors come up with names, but one that you should probably avoid is the "ungainly mixture of real names, vaguely plausible made-up names, and output from the random syllable generator" strategy. Otherwise, there is a very real danger that you might end up with names like "Paul Muad'Dib," "Thufir Hawat," "Gurney Halleck," "Duncan Idaho," "Wellington Yueh," "Gaius Helen Mohiam," and "Feyd-Rautha Rabban;" things that sound like the random gibberish that appears in the "from" fields of spam emails. The arbitrary nature of these names is not a purely aesthetic problem; it's hard enough to visualize--let alone feel anything about--these characters in the first place; when you're constantly stumbling over their ridiculous, opaque names, it becomes all the harder.

Or, hey, take this list of alleged syncretic religions:

The so-called ancient teachings--including those preserved by the Zensunni Wanderers from the first, second, and third Islamic movements; the Navachristianity of Chusuk, the Buddislamic Variants of the types dominant at Lankiveil and Sikun, the Blend Books of the Mahayana Lankavatara, the Zen Hekiganshu of III Delta Pavonis, the Tawrah and Talmudic Zabur surviving on Salusa Secundus, the pervasive Obeah Ritual, the Muadh Quran with its pure Ilm and Fiqh preserved among the pundi rice farmers of Caladan, the Hindu outcroppings found all through the universe in little pockets of insulated pyons, and finally, the Butlerian Jihad.

Gosh…can I write the bestselling SF adventure of all time if I mash together religious signifiers in absurd ways and toss in some alleged names of planets? I guess we're supposed to imagine that all this is the result of painstaking world-building, and that Herbert actually has very detailed ideas of what all these things are, but in fact it reads like what it quite obviously is: a bunch of thrown-together crap signifying nothing.

And it's not as if Herbert spent any more time than that thinking about things that are more central to the novel. Take the aforementioned "gom jabbar" (does it make SENSE to be constantly murdering people 'cause they failed this dopey test? And doesn't the death penalty actually provide a much greater incentive not to fail, thus making it a less accurate measure of one's real-world pain-withstanding abilities?). Or take that there "Butlerian Jihad." It may not be Herbert's fault that the name these days conjures up images of Judith Butler beheading fools who refuse to accept the instability of gender, but it certainly wouldn't be a felicitous name in any case. According to the "helpful" appendix, it is "the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C.* Bible as 'Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.'" No, there's no explanation for why this event should have occurred; this lack is apparently, once again, meant to convey depth: Herbert could explain it if he wanted to! But he DOESN'T want to! But yeah: there are indeed no computers used in the novel, so presumably this "jihad" was entirely successful. Meaning that we have an entire spacefaring empire…without computers of any sort. Uh…yeah. There's some talk of pilots using the drug ("spice") to see slightly into the future and therefore (I infer) not NEEDING computers, but something this dubious probably wouldn't be convincing in any case, and certainly not when presented only in a few tossed-off remarks.

*"Orange Catholic." Don't even get me started. I keep wanting to read the 'C' as a 'G,' making it the "Original Gangsta Bible," which you have to admit would be way better.

And how 'bout the planet Arrakis itself? Since the spice comes from nowhere else, and it's necessary for space-flight, this is THE planet to control if you want political power. And yet…for, apparently, thousands of years, nobody was able to figure this out; hence, its fluctuating rule by a loose assortment of random nobles. Given the obsessive, tedious way that Herbert harps on political machinations that have nothing to do with the plot, you would think this would have occurred to him. But…not so much, as it turns out. Just in case you thought this was all a measure of, you know, authorial intelligence.

The first fifty or so pages I was thinking: huh. I really don't like this book. At page one-fifty or so, I was thinking: well, it may not be GOOD, but I'm sorta engaged; defeat and exile are always compelling, regardless of authorial skill, and I want to see what happens. At page two hundred or slightly further: huh--nothing interesting's gonna happen, is it? Soon after: WOW is this novel breathtakingly bad. Then: But I am still going to fucking well FINISH it, so I can write an excessively long and vicious blog post on the subject. Mission accomplished!

Let me conclude by quoting this bit from a funeral ceremony, which, as far as I can tell, is meant entirely to be taken straight:

"Jamis carried thirty-three liters and seven and three-thirty-seconds drachms of the tribe's water," Chani said. "I bless it now in the presence of a Sayyadina. Ekkeri-akairi, this is the water, fillissin-follasy of Paul-Muad'Dib! Kivi a-kavi, never the more, nakalas! Nakelas! to be measured and counted, ukair-an! by the heartbeats jan-jan-jan of our friend…Jamis.

Am I on Candid Camera here, or what? How can you people possibly take this remotely seriously?