Friday, December 30, 2011

Popular Culture as Art as Culture as Art as Culture



There has to be a beginning for things. The first parody was of something known. Parody and Satire exist to spoof, mock or make points by understanding the subject well. If you don't know where something comes from, or don't know what is being parodied, the parody has failed.

American Gothic by Grant Wood is an American icon. We see it for how staid and solid and boring life can be, at the same time wondering why people devote a lifetime to the work... And it is because it is a life, not a job.

Here are a number of uses of American Gothic:











In each case something was being said by posing the characters in such a way. To mock the civility of the original, to parody the setting using popular stars, to pose characters in such a way as to say, here is our version of American Gothic.

(The bottom piece is mine, and I was tempted to make it a political comment, but preferred to just show the juxtapositions of modernity and the past with Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

End of the Year, People gone, New paths begin

Thank you for reading this blog, for this year and past years. Even if you have only stopped in once or twice, I appreciate the time you've taken to read the content of this blog. There have been a number of people who have posted here and are no longer posting, we've friends here even die, R.I.P. Alan Coil, so with it being the end of the year I am just going to remark briefly about life, and passings.

Many people die every single year, and 2011 was of course no different. Some people dying are celebrities, famous, talented, creative, smart, others lived their lives in obscurity and a lack of fame, but lived every bit as good lives as the wealthy or famous, the talented or elite. We are all given a life, whatever else that comes with, and some of us are lucky, blessed, able, and others are not.

The two people who I mourned the most in passing were Amy Winehouse and Elizabeth Taylor. In the case of Amy Winehouse, some people believe that she dug her own grave, with various disorders and addictions. But most people I know who said that haven't an ounce of the vast ocean of talent Amy Winehouse had. I can't judge her for his mistakes, for her addictions... I can only listen to her music, and be amazed by the lush of her voice. I think creative forces in people sometimes work their way out in addictions, and self abuse. Amy Winehouse had great talent, but great sorrow. I miss what she'd have done if she'd lived.

Elizabeth Taylor lived an incredibly full life, she was famous, wealthy, beautiful, bright, and she took an effort, when seeing her male friends dying of mysterious disease to go forward and make A.I.D.S. research and awareness her top priority. Yeah, she was rich and famous and it didn't hurt her and she didn't give up a life of leisure, but she took the lives she loved and made them into a memory bracelet and took that to the US Congress and spoke there. I loved her, both as an actress, and passionate human being.

Obviously there are tragedies that mark this page, many die by their own deeds, addictions, foolishness, and for that we should be angry. We should mourn them for our loss, and wish they'd made better decisions, so that they'd still be here.




Along with the cherished and mourned, there are people who earned the scorn of humanity by their terrorist agendas, their cruel ways, and their choices to harm others. The world has a name for these people...




ASSHOLES.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dune: Part 9: Nexus

Okay, we're in the home stretch, gang! Four more chapters to go! Paul has cemented his leadership of the Fremen tribes and has publicly declared himself as rightful ruler of Arrakis. He's been re-united with his friend and one of his father's most trusted advisers. Off-stage, the situation in the Harkonnen-held cities are reaching a crisis as the Baron puts more pressure on his nephew Rabban and Rabban responds by further oppressing the people. Now the Emperor himself has decided to take a personal interest in Arrakis. And everything is about to collide with the great-great grandmother of all sandstorms.

Chani has been summoned from the camps in the south to the northern camp where Paul and his fighters have made their base. But Paul does not meet her; instead his mother, Jessica engages her in annoying chit-chat. It takes a bit of social pleasantries and exposition for Jessica to admit that Paul wasn't the one who summoned her. Paul has been in a coma for the past three weeks.

Jessica can sense that he is still alive, but the signs are so slight that only her Bene Gesserit training, (and perhaps her rapport with her son) can detect them. She fears that he has been poisoned by enemies, but despite her own heightened awareness, she cannot detect any trace of poison within him. She needs Chani's help.

Chani guesses the truth: that Paul has taken some of the raw, unconverted Water of Life; the concentrated essence of the spice-drug produced by a drowned sandworm used to give Reverend Mothers their enhanced perceptions. Why didn't Jessica realize this herself? Perhaps as his lover and companion, Chani was closer to Paul than his mother could be. I think Paul probably shared more about his concerns and apprehensions regarding his prescience with Chani than he did with his mother.

Paul awakens from his trance a transformed man. He is most definitely the Kwisatz Haderach, the one who can be many places at once which the B.G. has spent so many generations trying to produce. He enters a mental rapport with his mother and has her take him to that place within which the Reverend Mother Mohiam spoke of back when he underwent the Gom Jabbar, the place in human memory where women cannot go. And here, once again, we get a little of Herbert's ideas on the nature of and differences between Men and Women.

"There is in each of us an ancient force that takes and an ancient force that gives. A man finds little difficulty facing that place with himself where the taking force dwells, but it's almost impossible for him to see into the giving force without changing into something other than man. For a woman, the situation is reversed."
...

"And you, my son," Jessica asked, "are you one who gives or one who takes?"

"I'm at the fulcrum," he said. "I cannot give without taking and I cannot take without [taking]."


Paul has seen many things in his psychic journeys; not just the future, but the present. All of his enemies have converged on Arrakis: the Baron Harkonnen; the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV; the Emperor's Truthsayer, Reverend Mother Mohiam; Feyd-Rautha, the Baron's nephew and heir; and representatives of the Spacing Guild, which uses the spice to calculate courses through hyperspace. The Guild's spice use gives them enough prescience to know that something big is coming up and it scares the heck out of them.

There are two different ways of looking at the idea of Changing the Future. One is the idea that You Can't Fight Fate; that no matter how you try to alter a pre-destined future, events will force you to keep your Appointment in Samara. The other is the Butterfly Effect idea; that small changes will multiply as they propagate through time and the butterfly flapping it's wings in the Amazon indirectly causes a hurricane off the Carolinas, or the time travelling hunter treading on another butterfly in the Mesozoic Era results in a future where Sarah Palin is president.

For much of Dune, Herbert seems to lean towards the former theory, as we see Paul struggling to avoid the jihad his visions show him. But he also describes nexus points where lines of probability converge and anything might happen. One of these is coming up, and it's a big one. Paul has decided that there is a tide in the affairs of men -- even on planets with no oceans -- and that the time has come to seize it.

Paul gathers his forces to plan an attack on Arrakeen, where the Emperor has landed with several legions of Sardaukar. A humongous sandstorm is approaching, and Paul plans to use atomic weapons to blast a hole in the Shield Wall, a large geological feature that shelters Arrakeen and the other communities of the northern basin from the storms. Use of atomics is prohibited by the Great Convention that all the noble families adhere to, but Paul takes this step because (A) he is technically using them against a geological feature and not people, and (B) nobody is going to want to destroy Arrakis (the normal punishment for violating the Great Convention) because it is the source of spice. And so Paul nukes the Shield Wall and leads his army into the city, riding on giant worms! How's that for epic?

But even as Paul's forces strike, he receives a message from Sietch Tabr, where the women and children are being kept. An Imperial raiding party has attacked the sanctuary, carrying off Paul's sister Alia, and killing his infant son.

The Emperor has set up a huge pavilion to house himself, his five legions of Sardaukar, and his smaller legion of courtiers and hangers-on. He has come to Arrakis to see first-hand what a mess the Harkonnens have made of the planet, and to rub the Baron's nose in it. The Baron is here, cringing and grovelling for a change. He pleads that he knows nothing of any intrigue going on here, and that as far as he knows the Fremen are an insignificant rabble. The Emperor knows better; and as Exhibit A brings forth Alia.

"Unfortunately," the Emperor said, "I only sent in five troop carriers with a light attack force to pick up prisoners for questioning. We barely got away with three prisoners and one carrier. Mind you, Baron, my Sardaukar were almost overwhelmed by a force composed mostly of women, children, and old men. This child here was in command of one of the attacking groups... Mark that, my dear Baron: Sardaukar forced to retreat in confusion from women and children and old men!"


For once, the Baron has absolutely no control over the situation he's in. "Make him afraid some more, Shaddam," Alia giggles. It's kind of cute, in a twisted way, to see the Emperor browbeating the cowering Baron while dandling the precocious toddler Alia on his knee.

The Reverend Mother does not find Alia cute. "That child is an abomination! ...She's in my mind, She's like the ones before me, the ones who gave me my memories. She stands in my mind! She cannot be there, but she is!"

It is now that the attack occurs. Paul's forces quickly overwhelm the Emperor's defenses and the Imperial ships disabled. In the confusion, Alia runs to the Baron and stabs him with a poisoned needle. "I'm sorry, Grandfather," she says; "You've met the Atreides gom jabbar." The Emperor and his entourage retreat into the safety of his ship.

Once again, Paul occupies the palace in Arrakeen where his father had once taken residence. "This place is a symbol. Rabban lived here. By occupying this place I seal my victory for all to understand." But his victory is a bitter one. He has lost his son, and as he looks around him he see that he has lost more: Stilgar, who he once regarded as an ally and a friend, now looks on him with awe and reverence; and Paul feels even more keenly his isolation from the rest of his world.

The Emperor and his court are brought before him. Paul wishes to negotiate with his enemies. Among the entourage, Paul sees a familiar face: his old tutor Thufir Hawat. He has had a vision of the Emperor commanding Hawat to "kill this upstart duke." Paul acts boldly, with the bravura his father once spoke of, and offers the old mentat a choice that has nothing to do with logic and data. "...in payment for your years of service to my family you may now ask anything you wish of me. Anything at all. Do you need my life now, Thufir? It is yours." He offers himself to the old assassin.

This is Thufir's crowning moment of awesome. He is near death anyway, dying of the Baron's residual poison. He turns to face the Emperor in defiance: "See, Majesty? ... Did you think that I who've given my life to service of the Atreides woud give them less now?"

Paul next turns his attention to the Guildsmen who are present and informs them that they are to take orders from him. The Spacing Guild has long been used to being the ones who give orders, due to their monopoly on space travel; but to navigate through space, they need the spice, and Paul informs them that unless they submit to his authority, he will destroy all the spice on the planet. He can do it too; the Fremen knowledge of the Arrakis ecology has given him a method that will set off a chain reaction through the planet's ecosystem. "He who can destroy a thing has the real control of it." This is the possible future that terrifies the Guild. They submit.

The Reverend Mother Mohiam now sees that Paul is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach, and he rubs her nose in it too. All their labor to produce him and they will get no benefit for he will never serve their purposes. Even Jessica has turned her back on her old order.

Then comes the actual negotiation. "Majesty, we both now the way out of our difficulty," Paul says. The Emperor has no male heirs, but several marriageable daughters. This was how the Bene Gesserit intended it, but they didn't foresee this possibility. The Emperor does not like the idea of passing on his throne to desert upstart.

Chani also feels uncomfortable about the situation. After all, Paul has never actually married her. This sort of arranged political marriage is exactly what Jessica had been hoping for him. Paul reassures her. "Leave? You'll never again leave my side... That which binds us cannot be loosed. Now watch these matters closely for I wish to seen this room later through your wisdom." Paul regards her not only as a lover and a soul-mate, but also for her perception and her understanding.

But there's one last loose end to be accounted for before the marriage business: the matter of the Vendetta. Feyd is among the Emperor's group and he demands a duel. Paul has never seen Feyd in any of his prophetic visions; once again, he is entering a blind spot. He could easily leave Feyd for Gurney or one of his lieutenants to kill, but honor -- both Atreides and Fremen -- demands that he does it himself. He has ceased trying to fight his destiny; he throws himself into his fate with grim abandon.

The duel has echos of Feyd's earlier fight on his birthday; once again, there is a poisoned blade and dirty tricks; once again one of the combatants has been primed with a trigger phrase that can end the fight, although Paul refuses this advantage. Paul kills Feyd and ends the feud between their houses.

The Emperor tries one last gambit. He signals his friend, Count Fenring, to finish Paul off as he is tired from the fight. Paul recognizes Fenring as another of the B.G.'s genetic experiments, one who also might have been the Kwisatz Haderach. A moment of silent understanding at their strange, shared brotherhood passes between the two men. Fenring refuses his emperor's command.

By this time, the Emperor's daughter, Princess Irulan, (yes, that Princess Irulan), is getting antsy. She keeps tugging at his sleeve and saying Pleeeeze Daddy, won't you let me be a bargaining chip? In exchange for the Imperial throne, Paul will allow Shaddam to keep his throne on Salusus Secundus, promising to make the prison planet "a garden world, full of gentle things." The Emperor gets the point.

Jessica has come to regret her molding and shaping of her son and has overcome her hostility towards Chani. A bit earlier, (and now I can't find the spot), she told Paul to forget about marriageability to another noble house and to wed his desert girl if it made him happy. Now she once again warns him not to make the same mistake she and Leto made. Paul understands. He has decided his course and what must be done to accomplish it; but he also assures Chani again that she is the only one he will love:

"I swear to you now... that you'll need no title. That woman over there will be my wife and you but a concubine because this is a political thing and we must weld peace out of this moment, enlist the Great Houses of the Landsraad. We must obey the forms. Yet that princess shall have no more of me than my name. No child of mine nor touch nor softness of glance, nor instant of desire."

Jessica underscores the truth of this: "...that princess will have the name, yet she'll live as less than a concubine... While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine -- history will call us wives."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Presenting: The Widow

A mixture of darkness and hope, The Widow has created a sound that is unique, moving, and disturbing. I recommend their music, for the sound, the lyrics, and the emotional power of the truths they present.

“Through Lust and Tragedy We Become” by the Widow

From: IA, United States
Genre:
Rock, Ambient , Screamo

The Widow formed in the spring of 2009 and quickly began writing. After over a year of writing the band began recording their debut album "Through Lust And Tragedy We Become" in May of 2010. They recorded from May of '10 to April of 2011 in Dan Bartlett's basement. Their record was mixed at Radiostar Studio's in Weed, CA by Rich Veltrop. The record was released June 4th of 2011.

"Through Lust And Tragedy We Become" is a mixture of synth driven chorus' and melodic screamo.





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The Widow
Photo by Dave Poyzer



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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dune: Part 8: Wormrider

In our last Machievellian episode, we got to enjoy some of the intrigues going on among Those Wacky Harkonnens; and Jessica underwent the ritual transforming her into a Reverend Mother. Now we are hurtling towards the end game, the Nexus where possible futures come together. Will Paul be able to prevent the Jihad?


In the past two years, Paul Atreides has undergone many rites of passage: formal tests, like the Gom Jabbar; life thresholds, like the death of his father; deadly challenges, like his duel with Jamis.

Now, he crouches among the sand dunes waiting for another rite of passage. Although he has been accepted into the Fremen tribe, and is respected as a skilled fighter and war leader, and revered by many as the Lisan Al-Gib, the "Voice from Beyond" of prophecy; he cannot be considered a full Fremen until he has Ridden a Worm.

(And no, the gay implications of that line did not occur to me until I typed it just now.)

As he waits, he thinks back on some of his experiences among the Fremen of Stilgar's tribe. He is joined now to Liet's daughter Chani, and have had a son together, Leto II. Jessica still balks at the idea of Chani being her son's wife though; she worries that his being married to a "desert girl" might hurt any future political ambitons. Paul has a sister now too: Alia, concieved shortly before his father's death, and altered into something not quite normal by the Waters of Life ritual their mother partook of while Alia was in her womb. Sometimes Paul has difficulty keeping track which of his memories have actually happened and which are future events. Prescience can be a pain sometimes. Especially when there are things it doesn't show you. Like how this day is going to go.

Meanwhile, back at the stiech, Jessica awaits word of her son's test and deals with more immediate concerns. The women of the Fremen communtiy are becoming more and more freaked out by the unearthly child, Alia. Thanks to her pre-natal exposure to the Waters of Life and her involuntary participation in the mental joining of that ritual, Alia was born with not just the memories of an adult, but the memories of every Reverend Mother of the tribe going back to who-knows-when. Preccocious does not begin to describe her. And some of the Fremen whisper that she is a demon.

Jessica has a talk about this with Alia and Harah, the wife of Jamis who Paul kept as a servant and who has become somthing of a nanny to the infant Alia. They agree that Harah will speak for Alia and explain her to the others. "I will tell them the truth... I will tell them that Alia only pretends to be a little girl, that she has never been a little girl." Alia shares with her mother and with Harah how the experience of her awakening seemed from her point of view.

But Harah and Jessica anticipate another problem as well. As Paul has gained status in the tribe, some of the younger warriors have been wondering when he was going to challenge Stilgar for the tribe's leadership. The traditional way to do this, of course, is with a duel to the death. The leadership question has been postponed so far because until today Paul wasn't a sandrider and a full-fledged Fremen. If Paul survives this test, he won't be able to put off the question any longer.

Paul does pass the test; he successfully calls, catches and mounts a sandworm. The description of how one actually does this to a creature large enough to swallow the Sydney Opera House is neatly and plausibly described. By Fremen tradition, the first time Sandrider always gets to choose where the gang goes that day. Paul wants to go to the southern settlements where the Fremen's secret ecological experiments have been taking place and where the women and children have been moved for safety. Stilgar wants Paul to lead the men on another raid against the Harkonnens. This disagreement threatens to flare into an argument, when a smuggler's aircraft appears on the horizon.

For years, smugglers have been doing illegal hit-and-run mining operations behind the backs of the ruling authorities. With the Harkonnens increasing their patrols, the smugglers have been forced to move into Fremen territory. Paul has the Fremen set up a trap to ambush the smugglers and discovers that they are being led by his old friend Gurney Halleck. The reunion is a happy one, but not without some tensions. For one thing, the Fremen managed to kill half of the smuggler's crew before Paul and Gurney put a stop to the fighting; for another, there are Sadaukar infiltrators in the crew hoping to find and kill Muad'Dib, (they don't); and more imporantly, Stilgar needs convincing that Gurney is reliable.

Paul decides to have things out with Stilgar over the leadership question. "Do you think I wish to cut off my right arm?" he asks; "Do you think I want to deprive myself or the tribe of your wisdom and strength?" The traditional way of transitioning power within the tribe needs to bow to the necessity of the moment. Stilgar accepts the wisdom of this, but now the tribe needs to be convinced as well.

Paul, Stilgar and Jessica arrange for a little political theater to persuade the rest of the tribe. Paul makes his case and formally claims himself the rightful ruler of Arrakis. He accepts Stilgar's fealty, meaning that Stilgar remains leader of the tribe without anybody losing face, and Paul becomes Duke, (something he technically was already; but no one was recognizing it).

It's just when he thinks he has everything taken care of when he comes in on Gurney trying to kill his mother.

Gurney still thinks that Jessica was the one who betrayed Duke Leto and the desire for revenge has been the one thing keeping him going these past couple years among the smugglers. Paul is able to talk him down and persuade him of his mother's innocence; but it is a tense moment. "You speak of pride in my father's friendship! Didn't you learn the difference between Harkonnen and Atreides so that you could smell a Harkonnen trick by the stink they left on it? Didn't you learn that Atreides loyalty is bought with love while the Harkonnen coin is hate? Couldn't you see through to the very nature of this betrayal?"

Overwhlemed by what he has almost done, Gurney begs Paul to kill him. "Must I go through this with every man I need?" Paul grumbles. Jessica makes peace. "You thought you were doing a thing for Leto... and for this I honor you... Let us think of this as a misunderstanding among old friends. It's over and we can be thankful we'll never again have that sort of misunderstanding between us." Later on in the series, we find that Jessica and Gurney have become lovers. Reading this scene, we are not surprised.

Paul has one more rite of passage to undergo. He has forseen none of the crises that have occurred today. He needs a clearer vision of the future. He decides to take the Waters of Life; the Truthsayer's drug that the Reverend Mother spoke of way back in the first chapter, that no male has taken and survived.

NEXT: At Death's Door; the Emperor comes to Arrakis; the Atreides Gom Jabbar; and the title fight we've all been waiting for, Paul vs. Feyd! The Nexus is coming!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dune: Part 7: Meanwhile on Giedi Prime/The Waters of Life

As last we saw, Paul and Jessica have been accepted into Stilgar's Fremen tribe. Now let's check in on what's going on with those wacky Harkonnens!

It's the birthday of young Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen, the Baron's nephew and heir presumptive, and he is celebrating in the traditional Harkonnen fashion: by killing something. One of Feyd's hobbies is participating in gladiatorial combat -- all carefully arranged, of course, to eliminate any actual risk to himself. But this time the slave he is to fight has not been drugged as is usual, and comes very close to killing Feyd by seizing the na-Baron's poisoned dagger and stabbing him with it. Good thing Feyd took the precaution of poisoning the other blade, the one traditionally left untainted, instead. And the mental conditioning which caused the slave to go limp when Feyd uttered a trigger word helped too.

The whole thing was set up by Hawat, who is now the Baron's mentat, but who is also advising Feyd for his own purposes. By vanquishing a deadly opponent despite apparent treachery, and by his magnanimous treatment of his dead foe, Feyd has won a good deal of popularity. He also has given future enemies whom he might want to intimidate something to think about. And, most immediately, he has discredited the Harkonnen slavemaster who will take the blame, giving Feyd the opportunity to place his own candidate in the position.

Here we see Feyd at his best. He does have some good qualities. Besides being handsome and athletic, he has courage and skill. He is capable of cultivating the brauvara Duke Leto spoke of in an earlier chapter. Count Fenring and his wife, observing the combat, note his potential and lament how he could have turned out if raised, say, under the Atreides code rather the Harkonnens. In many ways, Feyd is an analogue to Paul; his story runs parallel to Paul's and in fact the Bene Gesserit. originally intended that Lady Jessica bear a daughter so that she could be married to the young Harkonnen. It didn't work out that way.

Count and Lady Fenring are I think the most interesting minor characters in Dune. The Count is a close friend of the Emperor, and serves as the Emperor's eyes and ears as well as being his hatchet man. A killer with the manners of a rabbit, is how the Baron describes him, and the Count's foppish, insinuating manners mask a stiletto-keen mind. But what I find most interesting about him is the relationship he has with his wife, Lady Margot Fenring. We had mention of her in an earlier chapter where Jessica recieved a letter from her. The Count and his Lady were formerly the Emperor's unofficial representatives on Arrakis during the Harkonnen's rule and they resided in the palace Duke Leto chose for his own. Like Jessica, Lady Fenring is a Bene Gesserit.

But although the Count and his Lady are essentially agents working for different patrons, (the Emperor and the B.G., respectively), they work together as partners; respecting each other's work and even comparing notes.

The Count is visiting the Baron to tie up some of the loose ends of the Arrakis situation. The Emperor is not at all happy with the way some of the things ended up. As the two exchange pleasantly veiled threats, the Baron off-handedly mentions that he is considering using Arrakis as a prison planet, similar to what the Emperor has done on the planet Salsus Secondus. The Baron is puzzled as to why the Count seems so interested in this. The reader, however, will recall Duke Leto's theory that the Emperor used the harsh conditions on his prison planet to train his elite Sardaukar troops and that the conditions on Arrakis might have done the same to the Fremen. And we have seen that the Fremen are as good or better than the Sardaukar in battle. The Sardaukar really hate the Fremen.

Lady Fenring's mission is to investigate Feyd and to ensure that the B.G. doesn't lose his genetic material. She won't find it difficult to seduce him; Feyd is a horny adolescent, after all. He shares the Harkonnen self-centered hedonism, and has already expressed an unseemly interest in Lady Fenring. While she's at it, she'll perform a little discreet Bene Gesserit mental programming on him while he's having his fun with her. After all, you never can tell when something like this might come in handy. No wonder the Baron is so paranoid about the B.G.'s.

We return then to Stilgar's tribe in Sietch Tabr. The Sardaukar patrols have been coming too close to the sietch, and so preparations are being made to relocate. Paul is introduced to something else he has inherited from Jamis: the man's wife, Harah. Although Paul does not wish to marry her, the woman -- and her two sons -- are his responsibility. Through Harah we get to see a few glimpses of the Fremen's home life.

The Fremen's impending move has precipitated matters for Jessica as well. The tribe's priestess, their Reverend Mother, is too old to make a long journey, and so Jessica has been asked to take over as Reverend Mother right away. She is apprehensive about this, but she sees it an a necessary step to cement her place in the Fremen community.

From here, the chapter gets psychedelic. The ritual involves partaking of the "Waters of Life", secretions of a small sandworm that has been drowned, that takes the consciousness-expanding qualities of the spice and cranks it up to Eleven. It is one of the awareness drugs the Bene Gesserit uses to produce its own Reverned Mothers. It is also, Jessica realizes too late, a deadly poison; but by ingesting it she also gains the ability to psychically alter the drugs chemical structure to make it harmless.

She also makes mental contact with the tribe's old Reverend Mother, who chides her for the risk she has taken. Jessica is pregnant; something only she and Paul know; and the drug will have an unknown effect on the unborn child. That's too late to be helped now; the Reverend Mother is dying and in her death transfers all her memories into Jessica's mind; including the memories of all the Reverend Mothers of the tribe before her for who knows how many generations. Jessica is now the living repository of the tribe's experiences.

And so is her still-embryonic daughter. Jessica must reach out to her as well and try to cushion the unbelievably brutal shock of all those lives downloaded into that yet unformed mind. This will have consequences.

Fast forward.

Two years have passed. Feyd is no longer the bratty adolescent showing off in the arena; he's now a bratty adult who's getting tired of waiting for his uncle to kick the bucket. And so he's taken matters into his own hand.

The Baron has just avoided an assassination attempt by Feyd. The impetuous youth arranged to have a poisoned needle hidden on the body of the latest boy-toy sent to his uncle's bedroom. It might have worked too if Hawat hadn't warned the Baron of the plot. The Baron has some stern words for his nephew. He has big plans for Feyd -- bigger even than his plan to have Feyd replace his brother Rabban as governor of Arrakis -- and he certainly doesn't want Feyd to muck things up. Through a skillful blend of promises and threats, he brings Feyd around to a sullen acceptance of the situation... for now.

Feyd realizes that Hawat has been playing him and his uncle against each other. He warns his uncle of the mentat's danger, but the Baron believes he has Hawat under control. He thinks that by focusing Hawat's energies against the Emperor, the mentat won't be plotting against him. And he believes that the residual poison makes Hawat dependent on him, rendering him harmless.

"In a way, it's like the arena," Feyd muses. "Feints within feints within feints." That theme of plans within plans is repeated often in the series.

In the next chapter, Hawat has a meeting with the Baron to discuss the Arrakis situation, which the Baron thinks is under control. The Baron has always dismissed the Fremen as being merely a handful of desert scum, not worthy even of contempt. Hawat knows better. He patiently lays out the evidence in front of the Baron of the Fremen's numbers, of their deadly fighting ability as evidenced by statistics of battle casualties, and of his conclusion that the Fremen are equal to or better than the Emperor's elite Sadaurkar.

Here is where the Baron sheepishly admits mentioning to Count Fenring something about making Arrakis a second Salusa Secundus. Hawat loses his temper. As a mentat, he lives by information, and this small piece of information changes everything. The Emperor would have assumed, from the Baron's remark, that Harkonnen was trying to build an elite fighting force against him and has had two years now to take counter-measures. Hawat immediately takes command of the situation and begins devising counter-counter-measures.

Here, in these Harkonnen chapters, we finally see Hawat in his element. In the earlier chapters, he seemed impotent; out-maneuvered by the Harkonnen plots and blinded by his mistaken suspicions of Jessica; but here we get a glimpse of the old plot-meister at work. In the past two years under the Baron's service he has been making himself indispensable. If he is dependent upon the Baron for the antidote to the residual poison, the Baron has become dependent upon him as well. Hawat and the Baron each knows that he is being used by the other; but the Baron's grasp on the situation is not nearly as good as he thinks it is.

NEXT TIME: Paul catches a worm; we meet his creepy baby sister; and we're re-united with an old friend, whom Paul might have to kill.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

DECEMBER 7, 70 YEARS AGO

In the ongoing attempt here to link media with real life events, and apply that, December 7, 2011 is a 70th anniversary of an event, Pearl Harbor, that forever changed America. Changed not for the lives lost or ships sunk, but for the future of how the USA would act upon the world stage.

Watch a movie, read a book, I've linked a poem, but remember the event, and then apply how many ways the world as a whole change by the US becoming involved in world affairs, instead of sheltering itself in isolation.

A POEM ABOUT PEARL HARBOR





Wednesday, November 23, 2011

RIP Anne McCaffrey: 4/1/26 11/21/2011

Anne McCaffrey was a prolific and well able writer. She wrote books that allowed the mind of the reader to soar. And she will be missed.



(Book covers by artist Michael Whelan)






Bibliography (source NNDB)

Restoree (1967)
Dragonflight (1968)
Decision at Doona (1969)
The Ship Who Sang (1969)
Dragonquest (1971)
To Ride Pegasus (1973)
Dragonsong (1976)
Dragonsinger (1977)
Get Off the Unicorn (1977)
White Dragon (1978)
Dinosaur Planet (1979)
Dragondrums (1979)
Crystal Singer (1982)
Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern (1983)
Dinosaur Planet Survivors (1984)
Killashandra (1985)
Nerilka's Story (1986)
Dragonsdawn (1988)
Dragonlover's Guide to Pern (1989)
Renegades of Pern (1989)
The Death of Sleep (1990)
Pegasus in Flight (1990)
The Rowan (1990)
Sassinak (1990)
All the Weyrs of Pern (1991)
Generation Warriors (1991)
Crisis on Doona (1992)
Crystal Line (1992)
Damia (1992)
PartnerShip (1992)
The Ship Who Searched (1992)
The Chronicles of Pern: 1st Fall (1993)
The City Who Fought (1993)
Damia's Children (1993)
The Planet Pirates (1993)
Powers That Be (1993)
The Dolphins of Pern (1994)
The Dolphins' Bell (1994)
A Dragon-Lover's Treasury of the Fantastic (1994)
The Girl Who Heard Dragons (1994)
Lyon's Pride (1994)
Power Lines (1994)
The Ship Who Won (1994)
Treaty at Doona (1994)
An Exchange Of Gifts (1995)
Freedom's Landing (1995)
Power Play (1995)
Black Horses for the King (1996)
Dragonseye (1996)
No One Noticed the Cat (1996)
Space Opera (1996)
A Diversity of Dragons (1997)
Freedom's Choice (1997)
Queen of the Unicorns (1997)
The Unicorn Girl (1997)
Acorna's Quest (1998)
Freedom's Challenge (1998)
If Wishes Were Horses (1998)
Acorna's People (1999)
The Masterharper of Pern (1999)
Nimisha's Ship (1999)
The Tower and the Hive (1999)
Acorna's World (2000)
Pegasus in Space (2000)
The Skies of Pern (2001)
Acorna's Search (2002)
Freedom's Ransom (2002)
A Gift of Dragons (2002)
Acorna's Rebels (2003)
Brain Ships (2003)
Dragon's Kin (2003)
The Mystery of Ireta: Dinosaur Planet & Dinosaur Planet Survivors (2003)
On Dragonwings (2003)
The Ship Who Saved the Worlds (2003)
Acorna's Triumph (2004)
The City and The Ship (2004)
Doona (2004)
Changelings (2005)
First Warning (2005)
Maelstrom (2006)
Second Wave (2006)
Dragon Harper (2007)
Dragon's Fire (2007)
Third Watch (2007)
Deluge (2008)
Catalyst (2010)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Dune: Part 6: Initiation Rituals

In our last reading, Paul and Jessica continued their flight into the desert as both their friends and foes regrouped after the catastrophe at Arrakeen.

Kynes is in a bad situation. He gave shelter to Paul and Jessica as they fled the Harkonnens and was captured. Since he is an Imperial Agent on the planet, the Harkonnens do not dare kill him outright; so they have left him out in the desert without a stillsuit to let the elements finish him off. But he has spent his entire life surviving in the desert and he is not dead yet.

As he struggles to hang onto life, grasping for hopes of rescue, he hears his father lecturing him on ecology. Re-reading the book this time around, something occurred to me that I had overlooked before. I had always assumed that his father's appearance was a hallucination; but perhaps it wasn't. The spice has awareness-enhancing properties, and later on in the book and the sequels we learn that Paul and his sister (whom we haven't met yet) and the Fremen's own Reverend Mothers have the ability to access ancestral lives. Kynes is lying directly on top of a pre-spice mass, the strange biological fermentation process that produces the spice melange. Perhaps this concentration of spice is enhancing his own latent abilities, whatever they might be, allowing him to hear his dead father's memories. Perhaps.

His father chides him for getting involved with the boy, and warns him that a Hero could be the worst thing that could happen to his people. This is an important theme in the book; the dark undercurrent to the surface adventure plot of the Special One seeking his Rightful Place. In then end, Kynes' efforts to stay alive come to nothing. The spice mass blows and he is engulfed by the desert, just as he has been sucked into the tragedy of the House Atreides.

Paul and Jessica have been searching for Fremen. Well, now the Fremen have found them; led by Stilgar, the Fremen leader of Stiech Tabr whom we met in an earlier chapter. Kynes has sent orders to the Fremen to look for the Atreides fugitives and aid them. Stilgar is willing to save Paul, who may be the Lisan Al-Gib, the Mahdi promised by prophecy, and who in any case is young enough to train in the Fremen ways. But what of his mother? Yes, she might be the Reverend Mother also mentioned in prophecy, but what if she isn't? What good is she?

She's good enough to kick butt, that's what she's good for. "I am the mother of the boy... In part, his strength which you admire is a product of my training." And she goes on to prove it by disarming Stilgar and grabbing him in a judo hold. This impresses him; the Fremen are unpracticed in what they call "the weirding way", the advance techniques of unarmed combat that the Bene Gesserit know. He agrees to let her and Paul live if she'll teach his fighters the weirding way.

During the confrontation, Paul encounters a familiar face: Chani, the daughter of Kynes, whom he has seen in his earliest prescient dreams; ("Tell me of your homeworld, Usul...")

Paul and Jessica are taken to Stiech Tabr, the refuge of Stilgar's tribe; but their new position in the tribe has not quite been established. Stilgar and Jessica feel each other out about this. The obvious thing to do would be for Stilgar to marry Jessica; but both reject this option, each for his and her own reasons. The Fremen suggests an alternative: that Jessica take over for their tribe's own "Reverend Mother" who is old and may die soon. The B.G.'s Missionaria Protectiva, the program of seeding planets with legends to make them more open to the Bene Gesserit, has succeeded on Arrakis so well that the Fremen have adopted B.G. titles and rituals for their own religion.

But there are still problems. Jamis, one of Stilgar's men, was embarrassed by Paul in the earlier confrontation and bears a grudge. He demands that they prove themselves by combat. Under Fremen custom, Jessica cannot fight for herself; she must be championed by another. Stilgar tries to put a stop to it, but Jamis accuses him of being bewitched by Jessica. The only way to resolve this to everyone's satisfaction will be to let Jamis fight Paul.

The fight is done in the open, without stillsuits, with crysknives, the sacred Fremen weapon carved from a sandworm's tooth. Although Paul is well-trained in fighting, he is accustomed to using personal force shields which block fast attacks. He is quick on the defense, but his habits make him slow in striking, which makes it look to the Fremen like he is toying with Jamis. Also, Paul does not immediately realize that this is a fight to the death; that quarter will be neither given, nor accepted. Adding to his uncertainty, his prescient visions have not shown him this fight; although he has seen a possible future in which he lies dead of a knife wound.

He defeats Jamis and kills him; thus cementing his and his mother's place in the Fremen community. Stilgar recognizes him as a man and gives him the name Usul, meaning the base of the pillar, as his private name to be used by the Stietch Tabr community. (Hm. It just occured to me: "the base" is also the translation of "Al-Qaeda". Interesting) Stilgar also tells Paul to choose a Fremen name of his own, to be his public name. Paul asks what the little desert mouse is called, which he had observed earlier. "We call that one muad'dib," Stilgar says.

Once again, Paul feels destiny tightening around him as he remembers his visions of fanatical legions waging war under the Atreides banner shouting the name "Muad'Dib". "Could I be known among you as Paul-Muad'Dib?" he asks. He hopes this will alter the future somewhat; but he suspects it won't help.

Afterwards, a funeral is held for Jamis. As part of the ritual, the man's fellow tribesmen step forward to claim friendship with Jamis and take one of his possessions. Paul realizes that he too, is expected to take part in the custom.

Slowly, Paul got to his feet.

A sigh passsed around the circle.

Paul felt the diminishement of his self as he advanced into the center of the circle. It was as though he lost a fragment of himself and sought it here. He bent over the mound of belongings, lifted out the baliset. A string twanged softly as it struck against something in the pile.

"I was a friend of Jamis," Paul whispered.

He felt tears burning his eyes, forced more volume into his voice. "Jamis taught me... that ... when you kill ... you pay for it. I wish I'd known Jamis better."

The Fremen are awed by this. "He gives moisture to the dead!" And they gather around to touch his face as if his tears were something sacred.

After the ceremony, Paul learns that as part of Fremen custom, he is entitled to the water recovered from Jamis' corpse. The actual water itself will be stored in the Stietch's reservoir, of course, but Paul is given water counters, tokens which represent his share of the communal wealth. This frankly creeps Paul out, but his mother impresses on him that it is better to abide by the custom than to refuse. Unsure what to do with the water counters, he asks Chani to hold them for him; and when Chani blushes and the Fremen around him chuckle, he realizes that under Fremen custom he's just proposed to her. Stilgar reminds Chani that Paul is still unfamiliar with their ways and advises her to hold his tokens without commitment for the time being.

But after the rituals are over, Paul and Chani sit together getting to know each other. Paul plays a song for her on the baliset he has acquired. A romantic ballad.

Jessica does not like where this is heading.

NEXT: Feyd celebrates his birthday in the Harkonnen fashion, by killing something. Paul inherits something else from Jamis. Jessica takes the Waters of Life and disregards the warning label about "do not take this while pregnant".

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Author R. A. Salvatore Interviewed



Chatting with Fantasy Author R.A. SALVATORE

In 2006 I had the great fortune of interviewing author R.A. Salvatore, as a fantasy fan it was a dream to interview one of the big names in the field of writing fantasy stories. And now, 5 years later I am writing some myself... I present here for your enjoyment, an interview from 5 years ago...



How did you move from role playing great characters to writing them?

This is a common misconception. I didn’t.

Sure, I began playing D&D just before I started writing but mostly it was a creative outlet for me. DM’ing a game was writing for me at that time. Drizzt, Wulfgar, Bruenor, Cattie-brie and Regis didn’t start out as game characters; in fact, I’ve never played them once in any game. Well I tried playing Drizzt once (and this was back before there were many dark elves as PC’s). My DM killed him horribly in the first encounter and everyone around the table told me to play a real character!

The only novel character who started ina game was Oliver Deburrows, the highway halfling from the Crimson Shadow trilogy. Oliver is a combination of Inego Montoya from “The Princess Bride” and the little French guy on the wall in “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”. I wanted to see if I could make him annoying enough. After a few weeks he died horribly (a common theme) and at that moment I knew he had to go into the book, because everyone stood up and cheered.



Do you still play? If so what do you play?

I still play D&D (1st edition, mostly, sometimes 2nd or 3rd) on Sunday nights, with pretty much the same gang who have together for more than a decade. Now, though, my two sons join in every once in a while, when they manage to get home from college. Also, once a week, several friends and I get together online for Everquest, or World of Warcraft.

You have a BS in Communications and BA in English, how do the both of them intermingle in your writing success?

The most important part of the BS in Communications was that that particular program allowed me to take literature class for all my electives, and even a few for the majors course of study. The most important thing for a beginning writer to do is read. You don’t how to tell a story by having some frustrated-writer creative writing professor tell you. You learn by reading those who did it best.

It’s funny, but of my college courses, the ones that helped me the most in my career, other than the literature course are the math classes. I keep a spreadsheet of al my books, tracking trends and sales, and of course, keeping track of the publishers and their payment schedules.

What fantasy authors did you read prior to entering the field? Who do you read now?


Tolkien, of course. Fritz Lieber, Michael Moorcock, Terry Brooks and Stephen Donaldson still rank among my favorites, and all for very different reasons. I love Lieber's characterizations, and the pace of his many Fafhred and Mouser novellas. Donaldson was the first to show me the wider boundaries of fantasy, as in the story of Thomas...

CRYSTAL SHARD was among the few books I have collected and widely shared with other fantasy fans. I wonder at what point did you realize the tremendous success you had with the books and what it felt like to know that.

Have I? Seriously, none of this has ever sunken in, and given my thick head, it never will. (I hope). I’m just telling stories, and thankfully, some people seem to be garnering enjoyment from them. That’s all I can hope for. I’m having fun, doing what I love to do, and, they pay me for it. Hard to complain, so I won’t.

I’m still surprised whenever someone shares a personal story about one of my books. I’m still thrilled every time that someone was turned on to reading through one of my books. I’m still stunned and giggle like a little kid when I see my books in other languages. It’s like watching it all happen as if it I was a reporter covering my own career. I don’t know how else to explain it.

In the cast of the series of Icewind Dale you manage to, rather quickly, create a sense of camaraderie and even love and friendship. How much of that came via knowing the characters through role playing, and how much was original creation?

Well, see above. It really had nothing to do with role-playing, unless, perhaps, my love of gaming clued me into the feelings of connectedness that makes a shared adventure thrilling. At one of those many conversations writer and editors share we sit down and try to unravel the truth of the world, (usually in a bar about the time the staff starts washing dishes and opening the broom closet), my editor commented that she thought the driving factor in the success of the Drizzt books was I had created a party of characters with whom the readers wanted to upon an adventure. People read Drizzt and the gang because they wanted to be part of that gang. They wanted to be in the Icingdeath’s lair with Drizzt and Wulfgar, or stand on the line besides Bruenor Battlehammer against the swarm of charging barbarians.

There’s probably some truth in that theory. I know that I wanted to go along with the nine to destroy the One Ring at Mount Doom in Mordor. I know that pulling a job in Lankhmar beside the Mouser ranks high on my list of things “to do”.

Creating this type of a group comes as naturally to me as putting together a softball team for the local league. I’ve always surrounded myself with people I know I can count upon, and, who know they can count on me. When I am writing, these characters become as real as living friends. These are characters I interact with whenever I join them on an adventure. I know, I’m crazy, but don’t tell the authorities to lock me away until I’ve paid for college for my three kids okay?



Drizzt is becoming a literary charter, worthy of entering the greater pantheon of Conan and the like. If there is one quality about him you think is vital to his popularity is it his morality in the face of evil, the appeal as that of an outsider, or his sword skills? Which specifically would you choose if you could pick just one?

People ask me if I’m Drizzt. No, I’m not. Drizzt is who I wish I had the courage to be. We live in a world where too many people think that the hero is the guy with the biggest sword, but in truth, the hero is the hero is the guy with the biggest heart. The hero is the guy who sticks to the path of his moral compass when easier roads present themselves to the side. The hero is the guy who always looks at the world in terms of common good, and community, and loyalty. Drizzt is a hero in the classic sense, before we got hijacked by villains disguised as heroes, who wield the biggest guns and kill with abandon. That’s not being a hero. Being a hero is living a life with purpose, and leaving the world around you a little bit better than when you discovered it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dune: Part 5: Into the Desert

In last week's reading, the Harkonnens struck; Yueh double-crossed the Baron; Duke Leto died in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the Baron and Paul and Jessica escaped into the desert. Part I of the novel ended with Paul experiencing cascading visions of the future, including the realization that he himself has Harkonnen blood.

Before we go any further in the plot, I wanted to touch a bit on the Baron Harkonnen's ... orientation. He Likes Little Boys. What's more, he has squick-inducing thoughts about Paul Atreides as well. And for that matter, his attitude towards his own nephew Feyd occasionally is not exactly avuncular either. Herbert seems to use the Baron's homosexuality; along with his corpulence, hedonism and dependence on anti-gravity units to even walk; as marks of the Baron's decadent depravity.

So, is Frank Herbert a homophobe? I don't like to think so. I like Dune, and I've enjoyed much of Herbert's writings. The Baron is the only gay character to appear in the novel (unless we count the Count Fenring, but his case is far from explicit); and I can't think of any gay characters in the other Dune novels off-hand; so I can't really say how Herbert portrays homosexuals in general.

He reminds me a little of a bit of conversation from a comic book. Wally West, the Flash, was chatting with a friend of his, the reformed villain Pied Piper. Wally asked him about the Joker: "You used to hang around with a lot of super-villains. Is it true that the Joker's gay?" The Piper explains that he didn't exactly hang around with the Joker -- nobody does -- but that as far as he could tell, the only person the Joker was in love with was himself. I think the Baron is like that too. He is intimate only with slave boys, those whom he has complete dominance and control over. And he hates and is terrified of the B.G.s who could have power over him if he let them. He did once, in his youth, when he unknowingly sired Jessica, and perhaps that frightened him.

Then again, perhaps Herbert is just borrowing the trope of the Decadent Roman, like the Emperor Nero or the Peter Ustinov character from Spartacus and doesn't mean him to be any deeper than that.

But back to the story.

Paul and Jessica are in the desert, waiting for the return of Duncan Idaho. They are still on the run, but Paul's deluge of insight in the previous chapter has changed him. Now he seems to be taking charge of the situation. As they pack up their tent and proceed on, they see signs of Harkonnen pursuit: aircraft strafing the desert with lasguns, bringing to mind the cryptic message Leto received: "A column of smoke by day, a pillar of fire by night."

Thufir Hawat has managed to escape the disaster at Arakeen with a handful of men and have joined up with some Fremen. At least they are trying to. Hawat discovers his logical mentat mind stymied by the fact that he doesn't understand the Fremen and their ways. He and the leader of the Fremen go around and around speaking at cross-purposes until finally he can find common ground where they can communicate. Hawat is startled to learn that the Fremen were able to not only hold their own, but actually kick butt against the Sardaukar, the Emperor's own elite shock troops currently on loan to the Harkonnens. But just as Hawat and the Fremen reach their understanding, the Saudakar make another attack and capture Thufir.

Paul and Jessica meet up with Duncan. Wait, I thought he was dead. I guess he wasn't. Then who was the unnamed Atreides who died under torture by the Harkonnens? I'm confused. The whole chronology of these chapters really could have been better organized.

But Duncan Idaho arrives with Kynes, who takes them to one of the Imperial Ecological Testing Stations that Leto had initially coveted. We discover that Kynes is actually Liet, the mysterious leader whom the Fremen defer to. This is fleshed out considerably in the Appendix: The Ecology of Dune, which describes how Kynes' father first came up with a visionary plan to terraform the planet into something more habitable; how he recruited the Fremen to make the plan work; and how Kynes' plan became a holy mission for the Fremen. Kynes realizes that by aiding the Atreides, he is putting this plan in jeapordy; but when pressed for a decision, he aids them anyway.

Also in this chapter Paul outlines his long-range plan. Immediately, of course, he wants to stay alive, but also to gain evidence of the Sardaukar involvement in his father's fall. If he can prove that the Emperor was personally invovled in destroying a Great House, then the other nobles will band against him. Paul plans to use the threat of this revelation as leverage against the Emperor.

But first he has to stay alive. The Harkonnens attack the station. Duncan is killed; (really, this time) and Jessica and Paul once more have to flee. They take an ornithopter and fly into the deep desert, right into the mother of all sandstorms.

"They are dead, Baron," one of his flunkies tells him. After all, No One Could Possibly Survive That. The Baron is not so sure, and is not happy about the entire situation. Paul is a troublesome loose end, and the death of Piter has forced him to alter his plans. The only good news he receives is the capture of Hawat. He sees that the Atreides mentat can be useful to him. Hawat still blames Jessica for the treason against Leto. The Baron thinks that by controlling the information Hawat has, he can persuade the mentat to work for him. And just to be safe, he orders that Hawat be secretly given a special poison which will kill him unless he takes a special antidote which will be administered in his food. That way, if Hawat becomes dangerous, the Baron can kill him at any time simply by withdrawing the antidote.

The Baron also has a chat with his other nephew, Rabban. Rabban was the former governor of Arrakis, before the Atreides briefly took over. Now the Baron is giving him the planet back. He only requires that Rabban squeeze. The plot against the Atreides has cost the Harkonnen an enormous amount; roughly equivalent to the planet's total spice production for fifty years. He demands that Rabban start paying it back and quickly. Of course, this is part of his greater plan to make the current governor so hated on Arrakis that when the Baron eventually replaces him with Feyd, the younger nephew will be worshipped as a hero.

Rabban is not portrayed as being particularly intelligent. "A muscle-minded tank-brain" is how his uncle describes him. But in his conversation, we do see some glimpses that he may not be as dense as the Baron thinks. He tries to warn his uncle that the Fremen might not be so inconsequential after all. But a glimpse is all we get. Rabban is just a pawn in this game, and a brutal one at that.

The Baron is right to worry about loose ends. Paul and Jessica have indeed survived their flight into he sandstorm; although their aircraft was damaged and they are forced to make an emergency landing in the desert. They continue on foot, taking advantage of rocky outcroppings whenever possible to avoid the sandworms.

While descending a cliff face, Jessica becomes buried in an avalanche of sand. Using B.G. techniques to slow her respiration, she is able to stay alive until Paul can rescue her; but now much of their gear is buried under tons of sand so fine that digging in it is like trying to shovel water. Here we get a very old-school SF touch. Paul uses a nearby patch of spice, combined with the acidic battery pack from a piece of equipment to create a stabilizing foam to hold the sand while he digs down to the gear. This MacGuyver-ish touch used to be common in the old "Hard SF" stories.

Gurney Halleck has also escaped the Harkonnen attack, and along with about seventy men has fallen in with a group of smugglers, led by Esmar Tuek, the son of the smuggler we met at the dinner party. Gurney is itching for vengeance against the Harkonnens, but Tuek is a practical man and counsels patience. Halleck ultimately agrees and throws in his lot with Tuek's smugglers.

In the final chapter of the reading, Paul and Jessica make a desperate trek for the safety of a region of cliffs. They have to cross the sands carefully, trying to avoid making the kinds of regular, artificial sounds that might attract a sandworm's curiousity. They accidentally hit a patch of drum sand, gravel that has been compacted and amplifies the sound of footsteps. Now they must run, and barely reach safety before a worm comes up from the sands after them. They find themselves in a rocky grotto used by the Fremen as a refuge; and soon discover that they are not alone...

NEXT: Paul and Jessica have found the Fremen! But will the Fremen help them, or kill them? Paul sees a knife wound in his future; but will it come to pass? Plus: Kynes goes out with a bang!

Monday, November 14, 2011

A NOTE ABOUT SPORT AS ENTERTAINMENT



Dear NBA owners and players,

There are many forms of entertainment fans can enjoy. Your sport is one of many. If you choose not to have a season, many will watch and spend their money elsewhere. Feel free to come back, but don't expect a celebration or that fans will be waiting for you. You'll have to earn your way back. There is a recession, and many people don't have money for games anyway. So thank you for allowing people to make better and easier choices with their entertainment dollars.

Yours,
Not entirely sincerely
Not really a fan

TOP SHELF HAS GONE DIGITAL!



CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Special occasions


According to some new research spoilers may be beneficial to enjoyment of a story. That’s good to know, as Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, spoils its own conclusion within its first five minutes. Melancholia is, in part, the story of the end of the world. This is telegraphed in the grand, apocalyptic opening sequence, which culminates with a rather large planet slamming into our woe betide world.

Thereafter we go back to the beginning of the tale, and witness (in irritating hand-held camera, for the most part) the ultimately disastrous wedding reception of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Michael (Alexander Skarsgard). Justine battles with depression, which frustrates those trying to support her. This is compounded by other challenges, such as eccentric parents who aren’t past the feuding stage of their break-up, and a venal boss pressuring Justine for the perfect ad campaign tagline. Ultimately, Michael leaves Justine, and the special day ends up memorable for all the wrong reasons. (Well, it would be memorable, except it gets rather overtaken in the scheme of things by the end of the world.) 

In the second half, set some days after the events of the reception, Justine falls even further into depression, and her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tries to nurse her back to sanity at the mansion estate of her mega-wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland). In the background to all this is the predicted “flyby” of the newly discovered rogue planet Melancholia. Despite John’s reassurances, Justine (like the audience) knows that this won’t end well.

Armed with her complacent fatalism, Justine becomes measured and collected as the rest of the family become increasingly fraught. Justine’s transition in the second half from exhausted depressive, dependent on her sister, to the calm, assured head of the family is an oddly believable character arc.

It was no surprise to read that the initial idea for Melancholia came from a therapist’s suggestion to von Trier that people with melancholia are better able to handle extreme situations. Regardless of whether that theory is correct or just psychobabble, von Trier’s film makes for a compelling fictional example.

There were plenty of comparisons between Melancholia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life after they both debuted at Cannes this year. Both were anticipated films by noted ‘art house’ filmmakers, and both featured fairly gritty day to day realism interrupted by celestial affairs. One film featured the beginning of life on earth, the other the end of the world. Malick’s film won the Palme d’Or, but Melancholia is the more interesting cinema.

Melancholia has some impressive imagery, especially during the opening montage. Surreal images such as this one are more evocative than most of the cosmic flourishes from Tree of Life. It is also more engaging, and surprisingly funny. You don’t have to be the misanthrope that von Trier is to appreciate his cynical humour

A stylistic misstep, however, was the hand-held camera work that was used in most of the interior scenes. Lars Von Trier considers it lends some verisimilitude to the domestic aspects of the story. It actually does the opposite. A similar approach was used in Dancer in the Dark, where von Trier used hand-held for the “real world” parts in contrast to the slicker fantasy musical sequences. As a friend commented after that film, the sustained hand-held camera work only draws attention to the film making process, and von Trier has even less justification for the long periods of shaky camera in Melancholia

As mentioned earlier, the issue of plot revelation is something von Trier has considered. “It was the same thing with ’Titanic’, he says ... you just know: aw, something with an iceberg will probably turn up. And it is my thesis that most films are like that, really. In a James Bond movie we expect the hero to survive. It can get exciting nonetheless. And some things may be thrilling precisely because we know what’s going to happen, but not how they will happen.”

He has a point, but obviously there are some films which, upon first viewing, achieve greater suspense because they play on the audience’s uncertainty about what will happen. Whether this would have been the better approach with Melancholia is an interesting question. Von Trier thought that leaving the audience in suspense over the issue of the world ending would be a distraction.

On the other hand, as some critics of the film have pointed out, it can be more difficult to care about the characters if we know from the outset that they will be killed. More importantly, it is that small, nagging doubt in the back of the viewers mind over the duration of a story that creates the kind of suspense that can draw the audience further in to the narrative, rather than distract from it.

If there’s one thing Lars von Trier understands perfectly, it is ritual. In publicity for the film, he told Nils Thorsen : “If there’s some value beyond the rituals, that’s fine. The ritual is like a film. There has to be something in the film. And then the film’s plot is the ritual that leads us to what’s inside. And if there’s something inside and beyond, I can relate to the ritual. But if the rituals are empty, that is: if it’s no longer fun to get Christmas presents or see the joy of the kids, then the whole ritual about dragging a tree inside the living room becomes empty.”

Melancholia is heavy on ritual, with the wedding reception being the backdrop in the first half. In the second, Claire even tries to ritualise the end of the world, wanting to “do this properly” by being in the right place, with the right wine and music – an approach mocked by Justine. Nevertheless, in the final moments, they do end up acting out a kind of ritual; in a continuation of the games they played earlier, Justine comforts Claire’s son by making a special ‘cave’ to hide in. Rituals are essentially childish, so acknowledging them as an extension of play is actually the more mature approach.

So why would von Trier, a confessed self-satisfied filmmaker, have doubts about his latest film? He has acknowledged fears that the film is too close to a Hollywood-style. He has worried that it could be viewed superficially, as if the film was too slickly made to allow for ambiguity or getting “lost in the cracks”.

"I am afraid that it has turned out too 'nice’. I like the romance in it. Pathos. But that’s alarmingly close to nice."

That’s the dilemma von Trier faces when making cinema about the end of the world: will he be thought of as being too nice?

As a filmmaker, von Trier is bold and skilful, but seems concerned not just with being true to himself artistically, but on being seen to be so. Maybe his attachment to the faux-naturalism of the shaky-cam, and his reluctance at having an accessible story trait like suspense, comes from the same place as his fretting over being too nice. It’s a partly contrived outsider position. The T-shirt version would be: “I hope you realise I don’t care what you think.”

This attitude leads to otherwise uncompromising artists worrying about how they are being perceived, which does not necessarily lead to better art. Melancholia is an excellent film that may have relatively wide appeal. Hopefully, von Trier’s therapist will tell him that’s okay.