Friday morning art

Art by Brillhart. At first I thought it was Powers.

Art by Hullings. I like the intensity of it.

Leo and Diane Dillon did the next one.

Here’s one by Don Maitz

And one by James Meese from the early fifties. I find it interesting that pre-Sputnik, pre-ICBM, just the idea of a rocket taking off was good enough for a cover. I’m also tickled the engineer’s holding a slide rule, once a symbol of engineering know-how, now forgotten.

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Real witch hunts (and other political links)

Investigating Donald Trump’s alleged crimes and collusion with Russia is not a witch hunt. It’s an investigation.

This is a witch hunt. Seventy-something Brit Sabine McNeill became convinced that a couple of preschoolers’ baseless charges about Satanic ritual abuse were the real deal. She organized a massive campaign of harassment targeting the kids, their parents, the school district and a church, accusing them of murder, torture and cannibalism. She’s now facing nine years of jail. Slacktivist looks at the possible motivations.

Donald Trump is being investigated by normal legal means. Even if he’s completely innocent (which I do not believe) that doesn’t amount to a witch hunt. What McNeill did was outside legal means; it went way beyond legitimate means of civil protest. She’s closer to the guy who showed up at the “Pizzagate” pizzeria packing a gun.

Witch hunts have killed hundreds of people over the centuries; the 1990s “satanic panic” put innocent people in jail on trumped-up charges and nonexistent evidence (even though it was within the legal system, it pretty much fit the “witch hunt” bill). Witch hunts have done worse than any witches or Satanists that we know about.

In other linking news:

For the rich, deviance from social norms is nearly consequence-free

When we talk about putting ourselves in slave-holders’ shoes, do we risk forgetting about the slaves?

Florida legislator Dennis Baxley wants to require schools to teach the controversy about evolution. I doubt he means questions like “how significant is genetic drift in isolated populations?” And Fla. Secretary of State Michael Ertel stepped down after an old video surfaced showing him in blackface, mocking Katrina victims.

Over in South Carolina, a religious private agency that handles foster care placements for the state got the green light from the feds to discriminate and only place with Protestants. Who cares that there’s a shortage of parents willing to take kids? After all, the agency’s head says “ot’s not a judgment or an exclusion” so obviously they’re not bigoted at all.

By similar logic, bullshit artist David Barton claims a nondiscrimination ordinance in San Diego criminalizes Christianity. But that’s nothing compared to Rick Wiles’ reveal that the Russia investigation (the one that’s not a witch hunt) is a British plot to reconquer America!!!! As Fred Clark says of McNeill and similar delusional types, this comes off more as wilful delusion than political paranoia — it’s just so exciting, like we’re living in a Bond film or something (I’m referring here to Wiles’ audience, not the liar himself).

And for other people, it’s all about the grift. Sometimes it’s hard for me to grasp that’s all there is — not politics, not some radical agenda, just self-interest. But yeah, it happens.

Illinois is finding several hundred more abusive priests than the Catholic Church acknowledges.

All of last year’s extremist killings in the US were by right-wing extremists.

ICE detained a US-born Latino Marine, even though he had his passport on him.

 

 

 

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Bill Maher vs. fluff!

Bill Maher does not like comic books.

A couple of years ago, he declared a culture which loves superheroes naturally leads to President Trump. Last year after Stan Lee’s death, he reported the point and told comics fans to just grow up. He hasn’t changed.

As The Mary Sue points out, loving comics is no more juvenile than, say, obsessing over sports or playing fantasy football. But more than that, who cares if it’s juvenile? As C.S. Lewis once put it, part of being an adult is learning not to care that people think your idea of fun is childish.

For the most part superhero comics are fluff (though that doesn’t stop them making political points). But I like reading fluff. If I want gritty realism, I can read the headlines or browse many excellent nonfiction books about the darker side of our past. When I read fiction I want to enjoy myself. That doesn’t necessarily mean fluff, but it frequently does. So what?

The resistance to fluff runs deep in some people. The late Joanna Russ once wrote a column comparing people who read escapist fiction to drug addicts. Lots of comics, like long stretches of X-Men have embraced the view that life is dark, dark, dark and full of suffering thereby proving they’re mature and sophisticated. Happiness, as Ursula LeGuin once put it, is seen as something shallow. Or as Carlie Simon said, “it’s hip to be miserable/when you’re young and intellectual.”

And some people need a break from the real world way more than I do. They’re battling depression, their parent has cancer, they’re about to be homeless, they work with terminally ill babies. As Preston Sturges said in Sullivan’s Travels, sometimes laughing at a movie is all people have. Mystery author Cindy Brown makes the same point.

So here’s to everyone who writes fluffy, upbeat books and stories that make me, or you, or someone else feel better for a while. I’m glad there’s other kinds of fiction, but joy is more important than Maher seems to think.

Two more thoughts, once from screenwriter Richard Curtis: “I’m sometimes puzzled by the fact that when I write films about people falling in love they are critically taken to be sentimental and unrealistic. Yet, four million people in London are in love tonight and today, all around the world, hundreds of thousands of people will fall in love.”

And author KJ Charles on why she likes fluff:  “I want and need to read about a world where a woman can get emotional support from a man who respects her, or a queer couple can have a happy ever after, and I know everything will work out absolutely fine. More than that: Sometimes I want stories where those things go without saying. I want books where a woman’s problems in the workplace don’t include misogyny or sexual harassment. Where the big obstacle to the gay romance isn’t homophobic relatives but the need to find the stolen diamonds. Where the trans spaceship captain’s gender is an aspect of the character, not the plot. Where black women wear the best floofy dresses to Regency balls; where the bad guy’s aim is to steal the family estate rather than rape; where women and POC and LGBT+ people and all the intersections thereof can exist without being harassed, bullied or hurt for their identity just like white cishet male characters can all the goddamned time.”

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CL Moore and my love of pulp

Rereading THE BEST OF C.L. MOORE reminded me how good a writer she is. And like Leigh Brackett’s Sword of Rhiannon, it also reminded me how much I love a certain kind of pulp SF.

The book collects an excellent list of stories including her first story Shambleau, (I wish I’d been that good when I started) starring space adventurer Northwest Smith, and the sequel Black Thirst; the first Jirel of Joiry story, Black God’s Kiss; and several stand-alones including the very good love story Bright Illusion, the frustrating alternate futures yarn Greater Than Gods, her classic Vintage Season (way better than I remembered it) and my least favorite, No Woman Born. This story of a famous actor/singer/dancer transplanted into a metal body has some great ideas about what makes us human but they’re dealt with mostly in drawing-room SF style, with the characters sitting around and talking about them. And the emphasis on Deidre as some freak who can’t possibly feel human any more feels uncomfortably close to disability cliches.

Greater Than Gods has a great concept: a scientist deciding between marriage to another scientist and a socialite receives simultaneous cross-time messages from his descendants in both timelines. One is a sweet, wonderful young woman in a timeline where humanity has gone full Eloi; another is an idealistic young man in a militaristic totalitarian state. And it’s the scientist’s choice of partner that will bring one or the other future into existence … so out of the blue, he proposes to his assistant, guaranteeing a middle path. That made no sense on first reading, nor now.

But then we get Black God’s Kiss which sends Jirel, ruler of the province of Joiry, into Hell to get revenge on the man who conquered her kingdom. Moore’s Hell is both weird and creepy, like one scene where a herd of blind horses rushes by Jirel and one of them suddenly rears up and screams out a woman’s name, then rushes on. That stuck in my head for years (the ending of the story, though, is, as they say, problematic).

Black Thirst is the one that captures what appeals to me about some of the old stories (and I emphasize it’s a matter of appeal, not a claim they’re somehow better than modern stuff). On Venus, a woman named Vaudir leads Smith into the fortress of the Minga, a race of stunningly beautiful courtesans bred for centuries under the fortress’ hereditary leader, the Alendar. Vaudir wants Smith to kill her master, but that, of course, is tougher than it sounds. He’s (there’s never been more than one Alendar) the human form of some prehuman ooze creatures dwelling below the fortress. The Alendar captures them and his telepathic attack reveals his ancient racial secrets to Vaudir, leaving her traumatized. He reveals that beauty is a kind of energy, and his people feed on it, hence breeding the Minga (why they sell some of them isn’t explained, but I don’t think that’s a huge issue). Taking Smith and Vaudir deeper into the fortress he shows Smith women whose beauty is so heightened it’s almost beyond human comprehension.

While I generally prefer my magic to be magic, not science, this kind of thing is an exception. It’s fantasy in all but name, and the concepts no longer feel very scientific (I don’t know if they ever did): prehuman races, psychic abilities (another story refers to the energy of our brains leaving impressions on our homes), the beauty force — for me it hits the sweet spot between science and sorcery. It stirs me more than when people use contemporary tech as magic (“I turned that man into a frog by using nanotech to rebuild his body at the molecular level!”).

I’ll be reading more Moore and Brackett this year. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it all just as much.

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The shut down is over, so I’m feeling cheerful

Yes, I know it’s only a three week funding extension for the government. I’m hopeful that whatever Trump’s next move is, he’s not going to try this again after such a resounding defeat. So while I don’t indulge in schadenfreude a lot, I’ll gloat at the misery some right-wingers are experiencing (after all, he wants us to be miserable).

Not that I think them suffering is a good reason to do anything. I really loathe the “Hey, Trump’s triggering the libs!” excuse for supporting him. Even though some supporters want Trump to hurt other people, I support a government that helps those creeps too.But if doing something good like the Democrats staring Trump down to reopen the government or supporting higher taxes on the rich upsets them too, I do get a little buzz out of it.

Pundit Kurt Schlichter declared a couple of weeks ago that nobody beats Trump. At the link he settles for well, Trump’s not defeated yet!

Kevin “hang women who get abortions” Williamson freaks out that we might return to mid-20th century levels of taxation on the rich. And they’re all freaking out over Alexandria Ocasia-Cortez.

Roger Stone, busted! If it’s true, as alleged, that he threatened someone’s dog, I hope he gets the chair. More details on the arrest here.

Jonah Goldberg explains Trump’s ideology is good, it’s his character that’s screwing things up.

Some disgruntled defenders of able-bodied masculinity claim Bird Box is a direct attack on white able-bodied men.

“Firefighter prophet” Mark Taylor explains away the Democratic gains in November as a Trump sting operation.

And racist Republican Rep. Steven King (“”White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?”) has actually suffered criticism and penalties within his party. And while I agree with this post that it’s mostly a CYA maneuver, it’s still a good thing. Showing language like that crosses some the line is better than implying it’s all cool.

 

 

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Superheroes, teachers and a one-eyed preacher: books read

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER: If You Have Ghosts by George Kambadais and Jamie S. Rich introduces us to actor Miranda Turner AKA the Cat — except that was actually the identity of her sister Lindy (modeled on Harvey Comics’ Black Cat superhero, whose secret identity was Linda Turner) before she was murdered. Can Miranda take over the role without superpowers? And who was responsible for Lindy’s death? Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like we’ll get a volume two, as this was fun; however it works as a character arc (Miranda goes from reluctant hero to real hero) so if it has to stand alone, I can live with it.

HOLDING WONDER was Zenna Henderson’s follow-up collection to Anything Box, with a great many stories about teachers, whetherdealing with magical revenge (“The Believing Kind,”), telepathic students (“Sharing Time”), the apocalypse (“Three-Cornered and Secure.”) or murder (“You Know What, Teacher?” which is a straight suspense story). While it has more funny stories than the first collection, some of them are very dark; curiously, at least half the collection apparently wasn’t published before (so did she write them because the published ones weren’t long enough for a book, or what?).

THE BLACK KHAN: The Khorasan Archives Book Two by Ausma Zehanat Khan is competent, but it didn’t grab me at all. It might be my general lack of enthusiasm for epic fantasy, or that I expected more action and less intrigue and power struggles. Or just that, as editors say, it didn’t suit my needs at this time. Either way the story of various faction (including the Black Khan) intriguing over the looming threat of a religious zealot army and feuding over the mystical power known as the Claim didn’t work for me.

One thing Khan is really awful at (though I don’t think it’s why I didn’t like the book) is names. “The One Eyed Preacher” just doesn’t sound like a name (he’s the leader of the evil army) and calling his army The Talisman makes no sense (maybe it means something completely different in the book’s setting, but I’m reading it in our setting).

#SFWApro. Cover by George Kambadais, all rights remain with current holders.

 

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London: ground zero for the apocalypse! Movies viewed

QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (1967) was the third film adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s TV scientist Quatermass; happily where the first two films starred a very miscast Brian Donlevy as the tart-tongued, crotchety rocket expert, this cast Andrew Keir, a much better choice. Just as Quatermass is feuding with the Army officer (Julian Glover) appointed to militarize space research, they’re both distracted by a strange unexploded bomb found in the London Underground. Only it turns out to be a rocket, and the long-dead occupants weren’t human … and they wield a power that may not be dead yet. This is a first-rate film, though with a couple of flaws (yes, Quatermass is brilliant, but I can’t see how he figures out so much about Martian society); the cast includes James Donald as another scientist and Barbara Shelley as his assistant. Originally released in the US as Five Million Years to Earth. “So that’s your big theory — that we owe our human condition to the intervention of insects?”

THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE (1961) has burned-out, divorced reporter Edward Judd trying to get the government to explain why the weather has been so freaky lately. As the government becomes more and more cagey while the weather gets freakier and freakier, he begins to suspect something big’s going on, and starts returning to life — but surely science reporter Leo McKern can’t be right that twin nuclear blasts have disrupted the Earth’s rotation … can he? This is a first-rate newspaper movie (as I’ve mentioned before they manage to get the perfect balance of SF and real world elements) which might double-bill well with All the President’s Men for another pair of reporters cracking government secrets. However Judd’s pursuit of government office girl Janet Munro is really pushy by today’s standards. “What is the nutation of the Earth?”

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) is the new Coen Brothers film (direct to Netflix which says a lot about streaming’s clout), a Western anthology film in which a singing cowboy meets a rival, a hanged man learns he doesn’t get a do-over and stagecoach passengers debate ethics. Unfortunately this felt like A Serious Man in that the point is mostly “life is shit and then you die” (and without the absurd humor that infects the similarly pessimistic Burn After Reading) which isn’t that good a point. In the singing cowboy yarn, for instance, it shows him effortlessly defeating every foe (while singing) until he goes up against a gunfighter who kills him. That’s pretty feeble. “I challenge your credentials, madam, for assessing human worth.”

THE NIGHT LIFE OF THE GODS (1935) is based on one of Thorne Smith’s novels (he’s best known now as the author of Topper) in which an eccentric scientist uses a stone-to-flesh (and vice versa) ray to animate statues of the Olympians and introduce them to modern life. This movie version stars Alan Mowbray as the inventor but devotes most of its screen time to his obnoxious screwball family rather than the Olympians running wild — and that’s just a hallucination (unusually the film telegraphs this in advance instead of revealing it later). Amusing enough though. “But I came here to be alone — that’s what being a fugitive means!”

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My plan was perfect! How could I have failed?

Ever since Wisp settled onto our porch, Trixie has been increasingly fascinated. Some evenings when Wisp is out there, Trixie will sit by the door sniffing for her.  When the blinds are open, Trixie watches, as you can see.

The past week or so, though, she and Plushie have gotten more frantic. Trixie claws at the door and sticks her nose under the blinds to get a better look. Plushie barks loudly from the couch. Almost as if they imagine Wisp is—

Tuesday morning it just reached fever point. It was freezing cold so they didn’t get much of a morning walk. They then channeled all that energy into barking their heads off. It was … distracting. And that was on top of being very sleep-deprived (even by my standards). Plus the bug TYG brought back from her travels was now in me, leading to hacking and sore throat and worries my voice was fading.

The long and short of it is that while I had a good Monday, Tuesday fell apart. I got some Leaf writing done, that was it. Otherwise it was sleep, or hacking, or dogs, or doing some budget-crunching that needed doing (not during work, but I did it anyway). As I thought we might have some emergency expenses, the paying stuff was a high priority.

Wednesday I was worried my throat might be worse than it appeared, so I hit the urgent care in the morning. I was fine, but by the time I got back I was again, too distracted to focus. More Leaf!

Thursday I took the car in to get a recurring issue looked at. I took my computer but I didn’t get much done before starting on the paperwork for a loaner. Because like Scotland Yard in an old mystery, they are baffled (the VW dealer’s service people are really good so I take that as a sign the problem is challenging, not that they’ve screwed up). I came home in a loaner and mostly collapsed into extra naps.

Today I just threw in the towel and did more Leaf. As it turns out, we may not need the extra money, but still, it’s nice to have.

Not getting anything else done? Not so nice. I know sometimes it can’t be helped, but this was an exceptionally poor week.  I even skipped writers’ group because I was so tired and I hate skipping group.

Oh well, next week will almost certainly be better.

I did send Southern Discomfort out to three more agents. No One Can Slay Her came back with some positive comments (it’s always nice to be told “remember us for your next story” but not as nice as being accepted) and went out again. I started several other projects, but got nowhere.

But the weekend’s here. I can collapse, watch movies, finish the budgeting, etc., etc. And start over next week with renewed vigor and make up for what lost time I can.

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Chocolate!

Specifically a chocolate zucchini cake with semisweet chocolate chips for the topping. I made it for last weekend’s vegan potluck from a recipe in The Good Breakfast Book, but replacing the carob powder with cocoa.

Very chocolatey and most satisfactory. I had barely a handful of crumbs to take home, which is always flattering.

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The First Law of Evil Magic

Brandon Sanderson’s first law of magic (which I’ve blogged about before) is that “An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.” Lately I’ve been wondering if that works the opposite way: does the ability to make the conflict unsolvable require the reader to understand magic? Like a horror story where the magic is all evil, and all on the bad guys’ side?

I’m inclined to say yes. It doesn’t have to be hard magic (Sanderson’s term for a system of magic with clearly defined rules) but it does have to have internal logic. Though neither readers nor the protagonist may understand the logic until the protagonist gets it in the neck.

For example there was an episode of an anthology series on VH-1 some years ago in which the devil (Roger Daltrey) traps the protagonist into playing a magic guitar. The strings cut his fingers, the blood forms the notes but if he survives to the end of the song he gets to keep the guitar. Only when he reaches the end, it’s some musical symbol that says “go back to the beginning and repeat.” He’s doomed.

That story was definitely soft magic. We have no idea what rules bind Lucifer, other than being obligated to honor the letter of whatever pact he makes (a staple of any “deal with the devil” story). If the protagonist won and Satan killed him anyway, that would make sort-of sense (he’s the Devil, after all) but dramatically it falls flat.

Or consider a movie from 2009, Drag Me To Hell. Protagonist refuses an old woman a loan; woman places curse on protagonist that threatens to destroy her life. We eventually learn some of the rules by which the curse can be broken because that gives the protagonist her endgame: follow the rules, save herself. It doesn’t work but providing the rules provides the suspense.

For a story where magic has no rules, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life. Billy Mumy (above) plays a little kid with the reality warping power of the Infinity Gauntlet. He wishes it, it happens. Why no, a small child having that power doesn’t end well for anyone around him, how did you guess?

We get no explanation how Mumy got his power or how it works. But for the purpose of this story, that’s okay. We know going on that he has absolute power, so again, we have a clear understanding of the rules.

Victoria Feistner’s excellent Melanie in the Underworld in Love, Time, Space, Magic (the anthology with my short story Leave the World to Darkness) seems like an exception. It involves an Orpheus-like quest to free someone from the netherworld, but even though Melanie follows the rules, she loses. That works because the story ultimately isn’t about freeing her lover, it’s about accepting that he’s gone and dealing with the loss. All of which is foreshadowed early in the story so it doesn’t come out of the blue.

So I guess Sanderson’s law applies here too.

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