Sunday, August 28, 2011

What to the Ev Comics: "The Comic Book Crooks"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

M. John Harrison, Viriconium (2005)

This omnibus actually consists of four books: the novels The Pastel City (1971), A Storm of Wings (1980), and In Viriconium (1982); and the short-story collection Viriconium Nights. If you think I read it entirely because of China Miéville's recommendation, allow me to present you with a symbolic--and entirely worthless in literal terms--prize.

Miéville's blurb here--that Harrison's failure to win a Nobel Prize demonstrates the bankruptcy--bankruptcy, I say!--of the literary establishment--seems a tad hyperbolic to me. I mean really now, if the failure of Borges to win hadn't already demonstrated that, ain't nothin' gonna. Still, these are some pretty darned impressive pieces of work.

The Pastel City is actually a fairly straightforward thing. I can easily describe the plot, and this description might well put you to sleep: the king is dead, and his insurgent niece is rising up against his daughter, the rightful queen; therefore, the only option is for surviving members of the king's élite force to get the band back together and show everyone what's what. And that is about that. Still, even here you can see Harrison's descriptive skill, and there's a sense of pervasive entropy--that the world is winding down--throughout that gives the novel more resonance than it might have. This isn't exactly like Miéville, but the influence on the latter author is obvious: there's a strong sense of ancient, mysterious worlds lurking here, the difference being that in Miéville you don't get the impression that they're necessarily unknowable, whereas here that's the whole point. There are deliberately-unanswered questions about what this world is, exactly; from the use of occasional phrases in foreign languages, as well as the odd familiar name, we are given to believe that it has something to do with the "real" world, but nothing is made clear.

A Storm of Wings is fairly unproblematic as a sequel to The Pastel City, eighty years later--that is, there's nothing in the book that contradicts the previous volume, as far as I can see--but wow, is it ever a lot weirder. This time, it's not really clear what the "quest" is per se--weird things keep happening, often involving insect imagery, and some characters--most of them haunted by an inability to remember or conceptualize the past, in one way or another--go north. And some of them come back. Things happen. There's only so much I can say without moving into spoiler territory, but this is really fascinatingly bizarre stuff. The only real criticism I might have is that the ending…well, it kinda explains things. In a weird way, no doubt, but I think the book was more effective leaving this shit completely inexplicable.

What made Harrison return to this world (if you want to call it that) with such a vengeance after a nine-year hiatus? And, more to the point, did he have In Viriconium in mind while writing A Storm of Wings? Because this is where he reaches escape velocity: you cannot even begin to reconcile this with the previous novels; it's its own, really indescribable thing. "Surrealist" might be the (admittedly fairly obvious) word you would go with. Here's, well, here's basically what happens: there's a portrait painter, Ashlyme, who is obsessed with an artist named Audsley King who is supposedly the greatest in her age; unfortunately, she is living in the "low city," a place currently suffering a "plague," of sorts, which seems to be more a sort of existential lassitude than anything else. He's obsessed with the idea that he has to get her out of there before she succumbs, but she won't go. Meanwhile, there are these two guys called the Barley Brothers messing around the city; they don't seem to do much of anything beyond childish pranks and sundry petty larcenies, but they are nonetheless felt in some vague way to be demiurges of a sort. And there's an insane dwarf called "The Grand Cairo" who is supposedly working for the Barley Brothers in some unspecified capacity and who gets Ashlyme, unwillingly, involved in his…stuff. That's about all I can say, really; it's clearly a novel to some extent about artistic responsibility and integrity; in his introduction to the book, Neil Gaiman perceptively notes that, looked at in a certain way, you can see it as a rewrite of The Pastel City, but basically, I've never read a fantasy novel like this, and that's a damn good thing: Harrison casually flits away from the imaginatively-stultified mire that is contemporary fantasy. Real literary stuff.

Viriconium Nights, a collection of seven short stories, is basically more of the same, and goes even further towards making damn well sure that nobody try to construct all this as one coherent "world:" characters from past novels appear in different and contradictory roles, and even the name of the city is inconsistent; in this story it's "Urconium," in that one "Virik." Naturally, it's a heterogenous bunch; some, like "The Lamia & Lord Cromis" and the (almost-)title story, are comparatively straightforward (note that "comparatively" is doing a LOT of work in that sentence); some, like "Strange Great Sins" and "The Dancer from the Dance" are more abstruse, and "The Luck in the Head" is seriously the most inexplicable fucking thing I have ever read in my entire life. It ends with "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium," which breaks down the barrier between that world and this once and for all; I realize the phrase "quietly devastating" is a little hackneyed, but I know no better descriptor for it.

So yeah, this book is absolutely recommended, for itself and also to remind you what fantasy can be like when it's unfettered by banal, restrictive ideas about elves and orcs.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Update to Below

No, they don't literally pledge to stab you in the throat, not while campaigning, at least; they use gauzy words and phrases about "freedumb" and "Making America Great Again.™" If you want to know what they're going to do, you have to look at their actual, written platforms or what they've done in the past, or at least pay attention to the literal meanings of their words, and who has time to do that? Certainly not the media! 'Course, this same media is more than happy to also wage pitched class warfare when called for, so we're going in circles here. Really, it seems like the only logical answer is that a good percentage of Americans are cryogenically frozen most of the year, only thawed out come November, a concentrated blast of campaign commercials featuring American flags and candidates with hard hats on talking to construction workers* piped into their brains, hustled off to the voting booths, and stuck back into deepfreeze. Seriously: nothing else makes sense.

*"You fool! This footage shows the senator talking to the Village People! Now we'll have to reshoot the entire ad!"

Once there was class war but not any longer, 'cause baby we are all bourgeois now...

So there is this Daily Show clip (part one, part two) that does a good job of taking apart all the bullshit right-wing rhetoric we hear about the importance of simultaneous deficit reduction and tax cuts for the rich. Not that it should be any sort of revelation to anyone that alleged concern about the deficit is invariably just a smokescreen for the real agenda--slashing any program that helps the non-rich and funneling that money to our porcine plutocrats--but it's still nice to see it crystalized. It's funny, too, though it's admittedly a little hard to laugh through the blinding rage.

It seems I don't pay enough attention to wingnut rhetoric, though, because some of the clips actually managed to shock me. As far as the bits with pundits and politicians sobbing about how cruelly private-jet-owners are oppressed by anyone suggesting they could live with higher marginal tax rates (I can't decide whether these are crocodile tears or the real thing, nor which would be worse), well, no surprises there, I guess. The shamelessness might at some point have seemed shocking, but we're well beyond that. No, what really got me was the naked, seething contempt in which the poor (or the "poor," as the fux news graphic puts it, with their fancy refrigerators 'n' microwaves 'n' everything!) are held by these people. Have I ever seen the unspeakably ugly face of genuine class warfare exposed more fully and willingly? Sometimes it's hard to keep track of these things, but I'm inclined to say not. When that…creature…snarls, "it is all…out…WAR on the productive class of our society for the benefit of the moocher class?" The fact that people can un-self-consciously say such things in public--and the fact that their profound, white-supremacist-level indecency is not universally acknowledged by the public at large--is horrifying in the purest sense of the word. If the goal is to funnel all the money possible to the richest in society, and fucking over everyone else is just a side effect--that would be understandable, if still evil. And maybe that's all it was at one time--but now, as we see all-too-vividly, indifference has metastasized into something much more malignant. Indicative of a vestige of shame, no doubt--ie, if we admitted to ourselves that poor people are people too, we'd feel bad about what we're advocating, so let's comfort ourselves by refashioning them all as contemptible, worthless parasites. Oddly enough, this may actually be a case in which more sociopathy would be preferable, so we could at least avoid the sickening rhetoric--though that could be a "be careful what you wish for" thing: if these guys are this bad when they're not literally serial killers, imagine what they would agitate for if they were.

Residual shame or not, though, these are still bad people who deserve to have bad things happen to them. Instead of mewling piteously about it, they should be thanking whatever evil, twisted gods they believe in that 63.7% of poor people have satellite or cable TV--otherwise, without such idle amusements to keep the masses distracted and complacent, they'd be hanging from lampposts. 'Course, I'm more merciful than that. I think a blunt, karmic lesson in empathy would be in order: let these overpaid fux news motherfuckers subsist on minimum wage for a couple three years. Oh, and during this time, let's have them contract life-threatening diseases that are easy but very expensive to treat (I ain't THAT merciful). Should be relaxing--give 'em a chance to just kick back and "mooch" for a while. I mean Good lord. "Productive class?" "Moocher class?" Just so we're clear: minimum-wage dishwashers="moocher class." Fux news bloviators and Paris Hilton="productive class." People really think like that. They really, really do. You know how you sometimes think "Hollingsworth Hound" in Ruben Bolling's recurring "Lucky Ducky" strips is a bit of a caricature, and nobody would literally be like that? Well, joke's on you! I'm sure people like our "moocher class" fellow would read them and be absolutely infuriated by the way Lucky Ducky always gets all the breaks.

(As always, let's have an extra-big fuck-you-very-much to that infamous, child-murderer-idolizing sociopath Ayn Rand for making this sort of thing respectable--and also, incidentally, for making the word "moocher"--one of the goofiest words on record--a part of "serious" discourse. It would be like if in the debate over healthcare, people kept talking about what to do about "boo-boos." This is a sobering, cautionary object lesson as to what happens when you let crazy Russians write in English (Nabokov notwithstanding).)

The eternal question remains: how the heck did we GET to this state? You would think that a party that tells huge swaths of Americans to their face that it holds them in utter contempt and wants to hurt them as much as possible would, I dunno, not win elections? But that doesn't seem to be happening, does it? It's certainly a multifarious problem. The following are all factors:

1. The Democrats fail to offer a meaningful alternative (in spite of which, "I REFUSE to vote for the guy who's merely going to beat me unconscious and leave me for dead! I DEMAND the full BTK-killer treatment!" seems like an odd thing to say).
2. The media relentlessly frames issues in damaging ways (though given that the media is playing a big PART in telling poor people how much they suck ass...).
3. There's always someone doing worse than you, giving you someone of your own to look down on, and fostering the illusion that it's not you that your party hates; it is, eternally, those other people.
4. Gays!
5. Baby-killers!
6. Mooslims!
7. Mah guns!
8. Élitists like me who look down on people just because they repeatedly vote for politicians who pledge to stab them in the throat!

Of course, if people were rational, four through eight would immediately vanish, and three wouldn't play much of a part. It really makes you wonder: are we as a species just so fundamentally broken that tribal signifiers always win out over everything? A frightening thought. The arch of the universe bends towards justice they say, but I'm not sure "they" were familiar with America c. 2011.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Duck Comics: "Bird-Bothered Hero"

China Miéville, Looking for Jake (2005)

And now, short stories, previously published in various venues, along with four new ones. One of the latter, "Jack," is set in Bas-Lag, and I don't think it's overly cynical to suggest that this was written specifically to increase the book's marketability. Not that it's a bad story: as you would immediately guess if you've read the novels, it's about the remade outlaw/folk hero Jack Half-a-Prayer, who plays a small role in Perdido Street Station and who is further explicated in Iron Council. It's not bad, with an interesting li'l revelation in the end that forces a reëvaluation of the whole, but it's not exactly essential or groundbreaking, either.

And that's how I'd describe most of these stories. There seems to be a basic problem here, which is that Miéville is fundamentally a maximalist, and his best novels gain their power through a heavy accretion of detail. The short story doesn't seem his ideal format. Not to say that "Reports of Certain Events in London" and "Familiar" aren't clever and cool in their own right, but I don't feel like they're very likely to have you bellowing HOLY SHIT!

What else can I say? "Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopedia" is a nicely Borgesian treatment of a fantasy disease. "Go Between" is a fairly effective existential thing where the protagonist anonymously receives various mysterious items to deliver hither and yon, and starts to wonder whether these are having a positive, negative, or non-existent impact in the world. "Details" has a suitably creepy premise, though I can't help feeling it's not as effective as it could've been. Oh, and there's a little novella (previous published as its own thing, "The Tain" (nothing to do with the Irish epic poem), which has an interesting concept and makes you feel kind of guilty about looking in mirrors, though it doesn't, in the end, seem to amount to a great deal.

The best story here, rather easily I think, is "'Tis the Season," about a dystopian future in which Christmas and all its assorted trappings are trademarked by corporations, and you need a license to engage in seasonal festivities. It's uproariously funny, and surprisingly hopeful and upbeat for something you'd describe as dystopian; a refreshing change from Miéville's usual (justifiably) pessimistic depictions of government/corporate oppression. Real Christmas spirit!

Anyway, there are others. None of them are painful to read, though a few are pretty bland. And some of them are pretty decent. Not a major release by any stretch, though.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Duck Comics: Epic Duckfail

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Bet you can't wait to vote for President Kill instead.

Me: Man, FUCK Obama. Fuck him for agreeing with the Insane Clown Party about the necessity for "austerity," and fuck him for agreeing to cuts that are going to hurt and kill actual people in order to indulge his narcissistic delusion that he can reason with the ICP (fuck him for other stuff too, like extending our Middle Eastern wars, but let's try to stay focused for now). Maybe he can get them to vote for him in 2012, if they're so goddamn reasonable.

You: I agree with you that Obama is pretty awful, but if you're under the impression that the ICP candidate wouldn't be way the fuck worse, then you, my friend, are the insanely delusional one.

Me: You're right, and I'm not under that impression at all. President Bachmann would make the living envy the dead. But imagine being forced to choose between voting for one of two serial killers, only the one serial killer promises you he's going to serial-kill twenty percent fewer people, assuming he can get the real psychopaths to agree to a compromise. That's basically what we're dealing with here. Remember that bizarre would-be meme where wingnuts kept waving around this picture of Obama photoshopped as the Joker from The Dark Knight? Dimwitted though they are, they were bloody well right, though I don't imagine they thought it was because he was kowtowing to them excessively.

You: Look, man, I'm not arguing with you, and yeah, it really, really sucks to forced to make such a shitty choice, but the fact is, you're dancing around the central point, which is that it is a choice, with real consequences. No matter how colorful the similes get, that fact doesn't change.

Me: Yes, again, you're right. Here's my thing, though. I have accepted the fact that ain't nobody going to make any serious, meaningful steps towards putting my Marxist wet dreams into practice. I know this! But--although our current system is never going to be ideal--I've also accepted that within it, things can be better or they can be worse. And I would prefer better, even if that makes the aforementioned wet dreams even more remote. So let's say Obama is only making things a tiny, incremental bit better. Not ideal, but I'm voting for him, no question! Fuck, say he's not making anything better, but he's firmly preventing things from getting worse. I'm still there, most likely! But that's not what we're getting, is it? Yeah, we have the odd no-shit inevitability like DADT repeal, but as far as the larger economic issues go? All we can expect under Obama is for things to get worse somewhat more slowly. This country is an alcoholic, and until it hits rock bottom, it ain't gonna change. So why drag it out? Let's just get this bullshit over with.

You: I notice you failed to define what "rock bottom" entails. Not to get all Godwin-y on you, but…

Me: No, it's a fair point.

You: Is social democracy "worth" a Holocaust? I realize I'm being extreme here, but since we're speaking in murky hypotheticals, we can't ignore the possible negative outcomes. Maybe something good will come--with only a modicum of suffering--from the American Empire's final downfall. I can't say I like the odds, though.

Me: So it's "vote for Obama so that we can avert complete social meltdown for slightly longer, maybe." Very inspiring.

You: Hey, I'm not saying it's a good situation. In fact, it's an unbelievably terrible situation, but granted that we have no choice but to live in it, what can you do? Besides, who knows? It's not inconceivable that, in the meantime, some sort of genuinely progressive and effective politics will emerge from somewhere and save us from out idiot selves, and no, there's no need for us to rehearse all the many, many reasons why that's wildly unlikely--but Pandora's Box has been well and truly opened, and that Hope sitting there may not look like much, but it's all we've got.

Me: How about booze? We've also got some of that.

You: Yeah, that might be better.