Immortals, a sunken city and Stonehenge: books read

ARCHER AND ARMSTRONG: Wrath of the Eternal Warrior by Fred van Lente and Clayton Henry is a good follow-up to V1; even though it’s a crossover with Valiant’s Eternal Warrior series, I didn’t actually realize that so I’d say it worked well. Gilad, the Eternal Warrior, wants to kill Armstrong over the events of the first book, so Armstrong and Archer must stay one step ahead of him, locate the world’s new Geomancer, and prevent the Sect’s latest scheme. Great fun, though I was amused that one super-assassin tosses off in passing that he’s JFK’s real killer — I’ve mentioned in Screen Enemies of the American Way how the Dallas shooting has become a kind of proof that a given fictional assassin or killer is a big deal, and this is a textbook example (my friend Ross pointed out the same throwaway detail is used in the anime/manga Golgo 13).

JOE GOLEM, OCCULT DETECTIVE: The Rat Catcher and the Sunken Dead is a non-Hellboyverse story by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, Dave Stewart and Patric Reynolds. Set in an alt.timeline where New York is half underwater, the protagonists are Simon Church, an aging occult investigator, and his grumpy legman Joe Golem — who as flashbacks show is a real golem, but with enough blood on his hands Church has blotted the truth out with amnesia drugs. The two multi-part stories in this volume are fun, though it lacks the magic touch of Hellboy.

STONEHENGE: The Story of a Sacred Landscape by Francis Pryor argues that far from being built according to some master design, Stonehenge was cobbled together over centuries: the site was sacred for so long that people kept adding and adjusting it (Pryor speculates the bluestones in the circle were added to give a more human scale the bigger stones lacked) while other features were eroded with time, or ruined with bad attempts at redesign. This was interesting but I’d picked it up under the impression it would be about the modern world’s long efforts to interpret Stonehenge, so I was a little disappointed.

#SFWApro. Public domain photo by Daveahem on wikimedia commons;  all rights to cover image remain with current holder.

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Terrorists and pirates: This week’s viewing.

While I know next to nothing about Germany’s Red Army Faction, the based-on-truth THE BAADER-MEINHOFF COMPLEX (2008) felts very familiar as these radicals and their attitudes towards authority, free love, anarchism, world-wide revolution and nonviolent activism (not fans of it) are different only in the details from the Weather Underground and other American groups of that era. They were, however, much more successful and professional, lasting for more than a decade when most radical groups in the U.S. fell apart fast. Interesting, but at 2.5 hours without a real dramatic arc, it’s too long (I don’t know if an arc could be found without bending the truth). “Urban guerrillas work in the space between the state and the masses.”
THE BLACK PIRATE (1926) proves my point that The Sea Hawk needed a Douglas Fairbanks to add some star power: this Technicolor swashbuckler has Fairbanks in all his laughing, acrobatic glory, and it makes all the difference in the world. Fairbanks plays a nobleman whose father dies when pirates capture their ship. Fairbanks swears vengeance and begins his revenge scheme by joining the band, capturing a ship single-handed to prove his bona fides (the kind of thing that if a female lead did it would lead to complaints she’s a Mary Sue) and then finding his plans derailed by the need to protect a captured princess (Billie Dove, though Fairbanks’ wife Mary Pickford replaces her in the final scene) from the scurvy dogs. Shows why Fairbanks was a superstar in his day, and it holds up well. “Gather round me, all ye who love gold!”#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders.

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Juggling, insomnia and a wendigo! Okay, I was kidding about the wendigo

Another rather disorderly but quite productive week. So that’s a win, I think. And my post title gives me an excuse to post one of Herb Trimpe’s Hulk covers, which is another win (Trimpe and Sal Buscema are very much “my” Hulk artists).

The disorder started around midnight Saturday when Trixie woke up, needing to go to the bathroom. I took her out, but an hour later she needed to go again. After that I just settled with her onto the couch downstairs. She was fine with that, but her constant quivering from her tummy upsets made it impossible to sleep. While I’m used to insomnia I’d had some bad nights earlier in the week and this one was just a bridge too far. I was so wiped out Saturday that everything I’d planned to do got either postponed to Sunday (planning some stuff, cleaning) or dropped (going to the movies). I wound up taking a nap that was close to three hours, which is way long for me.

On the plus side, Trixie’s tummy settled down and she went back to normal. However her bad leg definitely felt worse after doing all that extra squatting and relieving herself. But she’s been improving steadily, I think; as I said this morning, I hope she’ll escape needing surgery. Even if not, better a happy, contented puppy in recovery than a miserable sad, diarrhea-ridden puppy.

Now, the juggling; I’ve been practicing juggling for years, based on a couple of how-to books. I’ve known for a while I was never going to get any better without help, so I took a one hour class Monday at Triangle Circus Arts.My teacher was very helpful. She pointed out the mistakes in the way I was doing things and showed me some basic steps I wasn’t taking. It was a huge quantum leap in my understanding of what I was doing, and a modest leap in my performance. But even when I wasn’t doing it right, at least I could spot what I was doing wrong. I’ll keep practicing at home, then next month I’ll go back again.

But the thing is, I normally practice five minutes at a time. Juggling for a solid hour really exhausted my arms and left me wiped out for the rest of the day. Coupled with Trixie’s appointment slicing the morning in two, I got nothing done. However my insomnia was still running so I wound up making up the time at the cost of sleep. Not exactly a win, but …

And as for the writing?

I finished chapter four of Undead Sexist Cliches. I’ve gone light on a couple of sections, such as whether or not a pay gap between women and men exists (yes) and is partly due to sexism (yes), and told everyone to read some of the posts in footnotes if they want to get into serious number crunching. Still it’s in much better order, with all footnotes added.

I got one more chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer. After the trip to Stardian City I’m not quite sure where it goes to get to the big superhero/supervillain confrontation (not the climax but a big turning point) but my gut’s lead me well so far; hopefully that will continue.

I redrafted and slightly shortened Death is Like a Box of Chocolates based on last week’s critique from the writers’ group. It’s improved, but I think the ending may still need work. I’ll give it another look next week, then off to another beta reader. If she thinks it works, I’ll have it finished next month.

I worked some on finishing this month’s first draft (as yet untitled), but I didn’t get very far. And other than knowing it’s a riff on Sleeping Beauty, I have no idea what kleptomaniac Mary “Stealer” Holt has to deal with. But it’s a first draft, I can always change the answer later. I hope to finish it this month, but I won’t bet on it.

That’s a satisfactory amount of work. Next week, hopefully, I can accomplish work and sleep.

#SFWApro. Rights to cover image remain with current holder.


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It was just like what Goldfinger did to James Bond, sort of!

So due to Trixie’s ongoing knee injury, the vet recommended laser treatment. Not surgery, they use a laser wand and this apparently stimulates the healing some. I was initially skeptical but reading online convinced us it was legit and hey, she’s our little girl, so …

Couldn’t actually get a shot during the treatment itself — as we have to wear special glasses, I was afraid it might glitch the camera in my phone.

It does seem to perk her up a lot, although that may be just time and rest. After Monday’s laser session she actually wore herself out getting petted by a little girl who lives near us. Tuesday she was back limping, but Wednesday she was much better again. I keep hoping we can avoid surgery: better for her, at least in the short-term, and better for us (monitoring her recovery would be difficult).

So not much like Goldfinger after all.In other news, it was pouring rain Tuesday and so I set Wisp’s breakfast inside the French doors.

As rain doesn’t usually deter her, I was surprised that she didn’t want to leave and wound up staying for half-an-hour. If I didn’t worry she’d get up to mischief, I’d have just gotten up and left her, but I’m not sure how well that will work. I need to learn, though. As I’ve said before, she may be ready to be an indoor/outdoor cat sooner than we’re prepared for her.

#SFWApro. All rights to poster remain with current holder, photos are mine.

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They were just a product of their time …

February 11, Tuesday, was the anniversary of when a group of Quakers petitioned Congress to end slavery. As Fred Clark says at the link, “Congress opted to ignore that. You’ve probably been told at several points that we mustn’t judge Congress for doing so because, after all, they were ‘men of their time.’ But the Quakers were people of their time too. And so were all the people who were enslaved in 1790. Sufficient moral evidence was readily available for anyone who wasn’t working ferociously hard to ignore it. Still is.”

This is important to keep in mind. We’re often told that we shouldn’t judge people for doing what was acceptable by the standards of their era. It’s been applied to everything from slavery to religious intolerance to Isaac Asimov aggressively fondling women to doctors who made nuclear experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs. The standards were different. If we’d been them, we’d have done the same things. Do we think we’ll do any better when judged by the standards of 230 years in the future or even 50?

I understand the logic of this argument, but it’s implicitly inviting us to judge the past and the standards of the past from the view of the oppressor. Not the view of the slaves or abolitionists. Not the female fans Asimov groped or the secretaries he chased around a desk; I suppose it’s possible he was oblivious to their discomfort, but I don’t buy that at all (as witness he almost never groped women who had any status in the SF world, only those who were safely subordinate). Not the people who brought up this behavior at the time, as abolitionists did. Some slave-owners saw the light and converted; others could have chosen to do so. The Catholic Church at its peak faced plenty of people who challenged its power and its opposition to religious freedom; the church leadership could have conceived that intolerance wasn’t the way to go.

After all, today we still have people who advocate for slavery or insist it really, really was good for blacks (unsurprisingly when they talk about shiftless people who need to shape up and work hard, they never mean unemployed white people). Marital rape was legally not rape in the U.S. until the 1970s, and wasn’t outlawed in every state until 1993. There are still people who think religious freedom is bad, just as long as their faith gets to decide what the rules are. I’m less troubled by someone in the future frowning over my views than the people arguing that bigotry and intolerance in the early 21st century were just the way it was — you couldn’t expect people to know any better could you?

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Titles and beginnings: Doc Savage in Colors for Murder, Fire and Ice and Three Times a Corpse

For writing Doc Savage (or anything else), Lester Dent’s all-purpose plot outline says to start the story with either an unusual murder method; a normal method but bizarre circumstances; an unusual McGuffin; or a different setting. By 1946, he was definitely not hewing to that approach, but he does know how to hook readers with a striking opening, even if the story doesn’t stay at that level.

Dent and his occasional ghost writers also tried coming up with good titles, many of which, like all three novels I read this month, got changed by his editors. Sometimes these were minor: The Crime Annihilist became The Annihilist. Sometimes they missed the boat: Crew of Skeletons became Brand of the Werewolf, but Dent’s title makes much more sense. Now, as to this month’s reading —

COLORS FOR MURDER was originally titled Jonah Had a Whale which, while a little whimsical, made more sense, as you’ll see. The opening is great: Della Nelson has just seen her brother seized by bad guys who’ve warned her to stay silent. She’s terrified. The crooks recommend a vacation to Cuba, paid for by her brother; just stay out of the way and everything will be fine.

It won’t. Della knows that. And for confirmation, when the stewardess hands her some aspirin, a jerk passenger snatches them for himself — and dies, poisoned. The killer, South, is displeased but rationalizes that fat people suck, so the overweight dead guy had it coming; justifying his murders is a quirk with him, but not one that plays any role in the rest of the book. And the rest of the book, is unfortunately, dull. The scheme involves Arthur Pogany, a whaling enthusiast who it turns out has found a treatment to make whales generate extra ambergris, potentially making him a fortune. The four captive whales have been painted different colors so he can tell which ones he’s treated on a given day (the treatment of whales would not go over well today, I suspect). South’s group want to kill Pogany and take his discovery.

The only really good moment after the opening is the end, when it turns out Pogany’s a fraud. His treatment doesn’t work but he thought South was a rich mark he could swindle easily. Oops.

A curious detail is that Dent avoids any actual description of Doc, as if he wants to leave the usual awed descriptions of Doc’s physique behind with the gadgets and the supervillains.

FIRE AND ICE is the first story in four years by Dent’s ghost-writer, William Bogart, whose own title, Deuces Wild, was slightly more interesting. Nothing else in this story is. Bogart begins with travel-brochure writing about the Alaskan wilderness before getting to the action, Doc rescuing Patience, a beautiful woman with plane problems (Doc’s up there looking at possible tourist flights for one of the airlines he owns). Doc puts her up in a nearby town, but she’s attacked by a sniper in the night. Fortunately Doc’s swapped rooms with her. They eventually head back to New York to figure out what’s really going on.

It turns out Patience’s twin sister, nicknamed “Impatience,” has discovered a ring smuggling Nazi war criminals into the U.S. (a popular postwar plot in fiction, which is ironic given the government actively recruited useful Nazis to its service). Impatience reported this to the FBI, narrowly escaping death. Patience hoped to draw the crooks’ fire by posing as her sister, then figured the crooks would back off once she joined forces with Doc. They didn’t.

It’s a dull, routine thriller, not up to Dent’s post-war stuff and the villains are surprisingly inefficient. Their attacks on Patience aren’t above the level of what a gang of juvenile delinquents could manage. There is one joke, when a pilot tells a friend “I’ll see you in Gotham, Alfred” — Superman jokes in the previous couple of stories, now Batman.

THREE TIMES A CORPSE is the pick of this month’s reading, and easily the best title, even though Dent’s Sea Snare makes more sense. It starts with Doc on vacation in Miami, where a couple of engaging low-lifes, Sam and Petey, have accepted a commission to play a practical joke on Doc. The joke takes the form of a gun set up to detonate and fire a shot into the table where Doc’s eating dinner across the street (in an odd detail, part of the Rube Goldberg mechanism is a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People used as part of the trigger device). The idea is that this will lead Doc on a wild goose chase to Montana, and out of the clutches of the sexy gambler Lucky, who supposedly has her hooks in him.

The gun goes off as its supposed to, but Sam’s snooping about when Doc has his meals tipped off the restaurateur that something’s fishy so Sam and Petey wind up in Doc’s clutches. The local police are fans of Doc (not something we see a lot in this period) and are happy to play games to get the truth out of the guys. The truth leads them to Lucky, a stunning redhead whose name refers to her uncanny gambling luck: if she plays the slots they pay out, ditto any other game she plays. In a nice touch, she only recognizes Doc’s name because she uses his cousin Pat’s line of high-priced beauty products.

This is not, of course, the first time Doc’s vacation has been ruined by someone causing trouble, but he’s actually happy about it, accepting that a nice, relaxing vacation doesn’t suit him as well as a bit of danger. Doc, Ham, Monk investigate who’s trying to get him out of Miami, accompanied by the cops, Lucky and the low-lifes. The title comes when one of the bad guys gets murdered apparently three different ways before he can talk: poisoned cigarette, needle fired into his heart, another fired into his brain.

The McGuffin is dull, a shipload of beryllium that sank offshore and (as so often during this period), now has two gangs of crooks hunting for it. But up to that point, the story is engaging enough I can forgive the bland McGuffin.

#SFWApro. First two covers by Emery Clarke, third by Charles J. Ravel. Rights to all images remain with current holders.

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So yesterday’s double post—

Was because I mistakenly scheduled the post on strong female leads for Monday instead of today. So instead, here’s a cover by Bob Brown —And one by Bernard Sachs. #SFWApro. All rights to covers remains with current holders.

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I am not shocked that Trump was not convicted

There was never any chance the Republicans were going to stand up and show a spine. I’m surprised, pleasantly, that Mitt Romney did. It’s frustrating nonetheless. These guys are millionaires; some are billionaires. They could retire from public office and live comfortably for the rest of their life. But they’d sooner stay in office and support President Shit-Gibbon.

Sherrod Brown: “For the stay-in-office-at-all-cost representatives and senators, fear is the motivator. They are afraid that Mr. Trump might give them a nickname like “Low Energy Jeb” and “Lyin’ Ted,” or that he might tweet about their disloyalty. Or — worst of all — that he might come to their state to campaign against them in the Republican primary.”

As Brown mentions briefly, one bad side effect of this is that Trump now knows there’s nothing he can do that his party will object to. If he wants to pull another quid pro quo, there’s nothing to stop him. Or punish everyone who testifies against him. On the possible plus side, he’s a bully and he’s mean and a Trump who thinks he can get away with anything could end up alienating voters.

Meanwhile Fox News broadcast a mug shot of a shoplifting subject they’d “confused” with a photo of Lindsay Graham’s Democratic opponent. The talking heads MSNBC are horrified that Sanders and Warren are criticizing billionaires — don’t they know America is better because of the 1 percent (as noted at the link, a lot of people in the media may loathe Trump but his policies don’t freak them out as much as criticizing the wealthy).

And bigoted lying alleged sexual harasser and theocrat Roy Moore is running for office again.

This will be a long, ugly election year.

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Strong female leads, once more

Director/writer/actor Brit Marling wrote a recent NYT op-ed declaring how fed up she is with strong female characters. (hat tip to The Mary Sue). Specifically that as an female actor, her choices were protagonist’s lover, protagonist’s parent or female butt-kicker. While that widened the options some, it didn’t widen them much, and the strong female template was extremely limited: “I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power … a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.” And that by emphasizing masculine traits, they make it difficult “for us to imagine femininity itself — empathy, vulnerability, listening — as strong.”

I agree with Marling that it’s good to have a wide range of female protagonists. And that empathy and compassion should be acknowledged as strengths. But arguing that they are essentially feminine, or implying that a real female character has to have them, and that rationality, ambition and physical prowess are “masculine” — there we part company.

Certainly rationality is often coded as masculine, empathy and vulnerability as feminine. But I know women who are physicists, IT geeks, chemists, doctors, nurses and accountants all of which call for a lot of rationality. Showing women onscreen with “focused rationality” doesn’t read to me as “male in a woman’s body” it means getting away from stereotype and portraying what some women are like. Ditto for physical prowess and ambition; I’ve known women with those traits too. Marling feels that when she was ambitious as an investment banker and cared little for who got hurt by her financial movies, she “buried my feminine intelligence alive in order to survive.”

Female characters being just men with boobs is a criticism I’ve heard back since the 1970s (it may go back further). It’s one you can find on both the right and the left. There are right-wingers who believe female action heroes just aren’t realistic; I’ve read feminist critiques to the same effect (no real woman would ever choose violence to resolve a problem!). The logic frequently comes across just as much mired in stereotype as the kind of writing of women Marling critiques. I know women who practice a variety of martial arts, and women have been boxing since the 1700s, but these examples often don’t sway anyone. I’ve seen arguments lthat women who watch strippers/are ambitious in business/like physical combat are, as Marling says, burying their real femininity and adopting male standards. If they could find their true authentic selves, they wouldn’t do any of that stuff. Which effectively eliminates all counter-examples: they’re women trying to be men instead of women QED.

And the empathic woman can become a stereotype or a plot device: the nurturer who puts the hero back together, the one who shows compassion and mercy when the man wants to be ruthless. Though it’s clear that’s not the kind of role Marling wants to see more of.

I don’t really have a brilliant conclusion to take from all this. All we can do is write the characters, get female beta-readers (assuming “we” in this context is non-female), improve based on feedback and keep trying to do better.

#SFWApro. All rights to cover image remain with current holder.


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Women who fly and men who wander: books and graphic novels

SUPERGIRL: Being Super by Mariko Tamaki and Joelle Jones is an out-of-continuity retelling of Supergirl’s origin because we so need more retellings of origins. That said, I’d be down for a good retelling (Supergirl’s isn’t as overdone as Wonder Woman’s) but this is what I think of as spectacularly okay: not actually bad, but a completely unremarkable execution. Kara Danvers hides from everyone but her parents that she has superpowers, even her two best friends; however it turns out someone knows about her and is plotting Evil Experiments for the greater good. Admittedly, as I’ve mentioned before, teenage life isn’t much of a hook for me, but even allowing for that this wasn’t terribly interesting — Kara’s just a generically broody, insecure teen.

I was much more engaged by THE JET SEX: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon by Victoria Vantoch. When airlines began making passenger travel a thing (initially it was mostly cargo) they started with airline stewards, then switched over to stewardesses in the belief they’d be less likely to unionize (incorrect, as it turned out). Stewardesses soon proved to be a potent marketing image, variously presented over the decades as the typical girl next door (in reality they were mostly college students which for the 1930s and 1940s meant they weren’t typical at all), then as glamorous, globe-trotting career woman, followed by the sexist, sexpot “I’m Cheryl — fly me.” ads of the 1970s. Alongside this we got the Cold War as Americans held up their stewardesses as sexy modern women compared to the soulless unattractive Soviet flight attendants; Russia, by contrast, held up their women as liberated working women in contrast to the er, flighty Americans.

And the women’s view?  Despite the airlines ruthless and restrictive rules for the women (to keep their jobs they had to meet weight requirements, age requirements, beauty requirements and stay single), the flight attendants themselves loved the work: travel all over the world and a chance to fly back when flying was thrilling as hell (while the airline played them as just marking time until they started a family, a lot of the woman wanted their gig to be a lifetime career). Most interesting.

I’m not much of a Rick Remender fan and BLACK SCIENCE: How to Fall Forever by Remender and Matteo Scalera doesn’t change that. This amounts to Sliders fanfic as a scientist’s attempt at piercing the multiverse leaves him and his team jumping from unpleasant world to unpleasant world searching for a way home. Only with more backstabbing because this is the kind of Serious Work where everyone’s scheming and rotten. I picked up two volumes of this at the library, but I’m putting V2 back.

John Claude Bemis’ story of wandering adventuring battling the soulless forces of the will-destroying Gog and Magog wraps up in THE WHITE CITY: Clockwork Dark #3: Ray and his fellow Ramblers must cross the country to recover his father from the twilight realm of the Gloaming, then reach the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair where Gog’s Machine will begin reducing humans to soulless drones in its service. While this kind of conflict is hardly new (the Machine is just Kirby’s Anti-Life Equation) it still works here (though Kirby’s take is more effective, as below).

#SFWApro. Cover by John Hubbard, illustration from Airliners International; splash page by Jack Kirby. All rights to both remain with current holder.

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