Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lord of Light part 1: Back From Nirvana

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the maha- and -atman , however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.
Published in the midst of the Psychadelic Era, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light is an epic tale that dances on the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is not as trippy, perhaps, as his Amber series; but it creates an unusual world, immersed in Eastern mysticism and Hindu Mythology.

It has been fifty years since the soul of the Boddhisatva ascended to Nirvana. Still, his followers and his friends pray for his return. A group of his saffron-robed followers are staying in a monastary of Ratri, goddess of the Night, tucked away at the foot of a mountain.
It was in the days of the rains that their prayers went up, not from the fingering of knotted prayer cords or the spinning of prayer wheels, but from the great pray-machine in the monastary of Ratri, the goddess of the Night.The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.
From the very beginning, we get this mixture of myth and tech; the language is that of legend and mythology, but details pop up which tell us we are seeing a science fiction story through a mythological veil.

The story is actually set on an alien planet, that was colonized long ago, (how long? The text is vague and rather inconsistant about that point), by settlers from Old Uratha. Somehow -- and once again, the story is vague about how this came to be -- some members of the original crew gained powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. At first, they used these powers to set about taming the wild and dangerous planet. Those were wild and exciting times full of adventures which have long since passed into myth. Over time, however, those with powers set themselves over the colonists without them, and adopted the titles and personnae of gods selected from the Hindu pantheon. The gods kept all the technology for themselves, most particularly the mind-transfer technology which allowed them to transfer their consciousness into cloned bodies, becoming in effect a technological version of reincarnation.

One of their number, Sam, also known as Kalkin and the Binder, (and nearly a dozen other names; sometimes it's hard to keep them straight), turned against the gods, and to fight them, revived the teachings of an ancient philosopher of Old Uratha, taking on the role of the Buddha. But the gods defeated him, and imprisoned him by transmitting his soul into the great magnetic belt surrounding the planet.

Lord Yama is the god of Death and was once the artificer of the gods; creator of incredible wonders of technology. He was also Sam's implacable enemy, until circumstances brought them both to the same side. Now he has built a device, hidden in Ratri's monastery, to draw Sam's atman back to the human world.

He is aided by Ratri, who had aided Sam in his earlier campaign and had been punished by the other gods; she is only permitted to reincarnate into old, weak bodies which are incapable of manifesting her full powers. She can raise her Aspect -- that is, take on a physical form of power, in her case that of an incredibly beautiful woman -- but only for short periods; and her ability to wield her Attributes -- that is, her powers -- is greatly diminished. She risks the further displeasure of Heaven by helping Yama because she knows Sam is their only hope of defeating them.

Tak is another friend of Sam's who has faced the displeasure of the gods. Formerly the Chief Archivist of Heaven, he has been punished to ever walk the earth in the form of an ape. He is shrewd and observant; and even his friends tend to underestimate him.

After sending up many kilowatts of prayer through the great metal lotus he constructed on the monastery's roof, Yama has finally succeeded. He has captured Sam's atman, dragging it by electro-magnetic force out of Nirvana, and transferred it to the body prepared to house it. At first, Sam seems confused and disoriented. He is not happy to have returned to physical existance. "Why could you not have left me as I was, in the sea of being?" he asks.

"Because a world has need of your humility, your piety, your great teaching and your Machiavellian scheming," Yama replies.

Although Sam's body is in good physical condition, Yama worries about the state of his mind. His half century in Nirvana has changed him. Tak observes Sam sitting and looking at a seed, and notices that he is squinting at it. That is not the way he once taught one should regard nature. "He does not meditate, seeking with in the object that which leads to the release of the subject," Tak says. That is the way to Enlightenment. Now Sam seeks to do the reverse. "He tries once more to wrap himself within the fabric of Maya, the illusion of the world."

Yama and his friends resolve to wean him away from asceticism by providing him with physical stimulation; good food, "a courtesan or three", and long walks in the outdoors. And it seems to be working. But still Yama worries, because he fear the gods may have noticed his experiments and may investigate. And because now Sam has taken to going off on his own.

One day, Tak follows Sam on one of his rambles and comes across Sam conferring with a hideous monster and surrounded by what look like living thunderbolts. Sam and the monster are playing dice.
Afterwards, Yama explains to Tak that what he saw was not actually a demon; and here is one of my favorite passages; the one that in my opinion tips the novel into the Science Fiction side rather than fantasy:
"If by 'demon' you mean a malefic, supernatural creature, possessed of great powers, life span and the ability to temporarily assume any shape -- then the answer is no. This is the generally accepted definition, but it is untrue in one respect. ... It is not a supernatural creature."
Tak does not see what difference this makes, but Yama continues:
"Ah, but it makes a great deal of difference, you see. It is the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, between science and fantasy -- it is a matter of essence. The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom, and the unknown. Some do bow int that final direction . Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable."
Yama goes on to explain that the Rakshasa were the original natives of the planet, creatures of pure energy. They once had corporeal forms like humans. "Their quest for personal immortality, however, led them along a different path from that which Man followed." Sam was the one who defeated the Rakshasa, using his power of electromagnetic manipulation to bind their energy-forms into magnetic bottles. Much later, though, he released some as part of his campaign against Heaven. Now, Sam was going off to gamble with them, putting his own body up as stakes. "It must have been the only way he could call upon his life-will, to bind him again to his task," Yama muses; "by placing himself in jeopardy, by casting his very existence with each roll of the dice."

The next day, a stranger calling himself Aram arrives at the monastary. He claims to have taken a vow of poverty and begs leave to stay the night. The beggar seems very knowledgable on the subject of philosophy, and intensely curious about the saffron-robed followers of the Buddha who are also staying at Ratri's monastary. He asks the monks if some new teacher has arisen or perhaps some old one returned, whom he might learn from.

Yama confronts the traveler. "Why do you spell your name backward, Lord of Illusion, when all your words and actions herald it before you?" The itinerant beggar is actually Mara, god of Illusion. The two gods engage in battle. Mara changes his form, several times; ultimately taking on the shape of Kali, the goddess of death and Yama's former lover; but in the end, Yama breaks the Dreamer's neck.
This makes their situation even more urgent. The battle took place in front of witnesses and and half the monastary saw a god murdered by another one. The gods possess technology to scan minds and replay memories, which is used by the Lords of Karma to judge which souls are worthy of reincarnation. It is only a matter of time before Heaven learns what happened.
It's up to Sam to persuade the monks that what they saw was different than what actually happened. It's a difficult task, and one Sam is reluctant to perform. His time at One with the Universe has made him less comfortable with sophistry than in past lives.

"Who asked you to lie about anything?" Yama says. "Quote them the Sermon on the Mount, if you want. Or something from the Popul Voh, or the Iliad. I don't care what you say. Just stir them a bit, soothe them a little. That's all I ask."

So Sam preaches a sermon to the assembled monks; one which encourages them to doubt their own witness of Yama's battle. He also plants the seeds of a new dualism: Beauty vs. Ugliness. "It is difficult to stir rebellion among those to whom all things are good," he explains to Yama. "If such a one does not choose to believe in good or evil, perhaps then beauty and ugliness can be made to serve him as well."

As Sam and his friends leave the monastary, they see the Thunder Chariot, a fighter jet designed by Yama for the god Shiva, passing overhead. Sam's war against the gods is entering a new phase. They board a ship bound for Khaipur, where Ratri owns another establishment; less holy than the monastery, but no less venerable; which they can use as a base.

Sailing down the river, Sam contemplates his past lives...

NEXT:  Chapter 2; Sam's reminiscences begin. Siddhartha comes to town to buy a new body; but the world has changed. He chats with an old friend, a new deity, and makes the decision to challenge Heaven.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


A review of the Wellington Film Society’s screenings from March to April 2012

About a third of the way into this year’s Wellington Film Society schedule, and the selection almost seems themed, like some group art exhibition at the public gallery. The tone has been fairly dark, and the themes are frequently to do with consequences of your actions. There were three classic American noir films, where people getting what’s coming to them is often a feature. Nicolas Roeg’s bleak outback adventure Walkabout displays results of societal pressures of many kinds, and the two European films, The Skin I Live In and The Consequences of Love feature plenty of, well, consequences. In order of screening, here are the Film Society’s 2012 offerings from March and April, with my brief comments.

[Sans comments for two: I missed Wake In Fright, and I will review The Consequences of Love in a post of its own.]

The Skin I live In (La piel que habito)  Spain 2011
Antonio Banderas plays a brilliant plastic surgeon haunted by his past. Many of his achievements are a result of the experiments he conducts on Vera (Elena Anaya), a mysterious, beautiful woman held captive in his mansion.

By many accounts, Pedro Almodovar’s previous film, Broken Embraces, was a disappointment. I haven’t seen it, but if that’s right, he’s well and truly back on track with this gorgeous, kitschy yet unsettling surgical horror film. Almodovar’s usual concerns are on display again here, and his melodramatic and slightly surreal style is both immersive and sometimes a tad daft. The explanation for these proceedings is suitably deranged, and delivered not as a ‘gotcha’ twist at the end, but revealed like the unfurling of a bandage through the story’s middle act, allowing the audience to dwell on the events and the madness.

Mildred Pierce  USA 1945
Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford, in an excellent “comeback” performance) runs from a beach-front house after shots are fired and her estranged husband is murdered. Flashback shows how Mildred came to be in this position, after leaving her previous cheating husband and trying to raise her daughters on her own. (Based on the novel by James Cain.)

Underrated film noir that stands up to contemporary viewing better than the next two examples. While it has an essentially conservative outlook, the social anxieties of the time are nicely laid bare. It features an effectively contemptuous performance from Ann Blyth as Veda – one of the most grating spoiled brats ever put to the screen.

Wake In Fright  Australia 1971

I didn’t see this one, but it sounds pretty good.

The Postman Always Rings Twice  USA 1946
A drifter (John Garfield) arrives at diner owned by a genial, older man and his beautiful wife (Lana Turner). They fall in love and together they plot the murder of the husband.

Another good film noir based on a James M. Cain novel, although this one doesn’t hold up as well to modern viewing as Mildred Pierce. (It’s still better than the 1981 remake.) There’s a vulnerability to both leads, and a precariousness to their criminal plotting, that lends the movie an odd kind of authenticity. Despite that, there are also a few ‘Why did they do that? Why don’t they just do this?’ moments. It features good performances all round, especially from Turner and Hume Cronyn, whose devious defence lawyer may be my favourite part of the movie. There’s a good, thorough commentary from Nick Davis here.

The Asphalt Jungle  USA 1950
A criminal genius gets out of prison and plans one last heist. He gathers together the necessary team (safe cracker, tough guy, money man, driver), and everything goes according to plan. Except, not quite.

A very influential, archetypal crime caper movie, The Asphalt Jungle is probably a must watch for cineasts. So I’m glad that they played it, although it did have a slight sensation of being a chore. It’s got an effective atmosphere, and the untangling of the heist is nicely understated. It’s once again conservative in outlook, but engenders a degree of sympathy with the characters. However, it seems at times even more preachy than the other noirs shown so far. Relatedly, perhaps, it feels the most dated.

Walkabout  Australia 1971
After their father has a breakdown, a teenage girl and her younger brother are left stranded in the Australian outback. They eventually meet and receive assistance from an aboriginal boy on his ‘walkabout’ (a rite of passage where he spends some time separated from his tribe).

Walkabout is a fascinating, often misunderstood, slightly naive coming of age adventure. Jenny Agutter (most recently seen as a SHIELD council member in The Avengers) gives a strong performance, nicely balancing stoicism and vulnerability. The film seems to suggest mostly a strong element of cultural incommensurability, but also a hint of shared humanity, or at least parallels in, for example, matters confronting those “coming of age”.

This nuanced portrayal is to its credit, but it juggles its themes clumsily at times, coming across a bit ANTH 101. For example, in the first meeting between Agutter’s character and the aborigine (David Gulpilil) sees her trying thick-headedly to ask for water: “Water!  ... You must understand ‘water’!” she repeats to the uncomprehending aborigine. Then her brother mimes a drinking action and gets the point across. Agutter’s character wasn’t portrayed as ignorant or dim-witted in most of the film, but we’re supposed to believe that she thinks he simply must understand “water”, and it wouldn’t occur to her to mime the act of drinking.

Roger Ebert says the film is about “The mystery of communication”, and that’s true to a point. But ham-fisted scenes like this one make it almost feel didactic, rather than mysterious. And some of the stylistic editing just seems pretentious.

But mostly I agree with Ebert. Walkabout is mostly a nuanced film about culture and communication. Like The Consequences of Love, it’s able to say a lot without having characters that speak a lot. Walkabout is for the most part poetic, subtle, visually strong, and not a simplistic “noble savage good; modern life hollow” tale that some think.

The Consequences of Love (Le conseguenze dell'amore)  Italy 2004
Titta lives in a Hotel in Lugano, Switzerland. He’s been there almost ten years, spending his days drinking alone, occasionally playing cards, and waiting for a mysterious delivery, which in turn triggers a dash to the bank. Ten years of living an inscrutable life, one day he decides to offer a barmaid a smile.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson


Eureka Productions is pleased to announce the revised 2nd edition of Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson, the ninth volume in the Graphic Classics® series of comics adaptations of great literature.

The long-out-of-print volume returns with 54 new pages. New to this edition is "Treasure Island" adapted by Alex Burrows and Scott Lincoln. Returning are "Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in a unique two-part adaptation by Simon Gane and Michael Slack, and "The Bottle Imp" by Lance Tooks. Plus a collection of short "Verses and Fables" illustrated by Hunt Emerson, Roger Langridge, Maxon Crumb and ten more great artists.

Now twenty-two volumes and growing, the Graphic Classics series presents great fiction in comics and illustration for contemporary readers ages twelve to adult. Each volume features the works of the world’s greatest authors, illustrated by some of the best artists working today in the fields of comics, illustration and fine arts. 

Graphic Classics print editions are sold in bookstores, comics shops, or direct from the publisher at Libraries and schools can order from Diamond Book Distributors, Baker & Taylor, Ingram, Follett or other distributors. 

The Graphic Classics series is also now available for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices from both iVerse Media ( and Ave! Comics ( Digital versions are also available for viewing on any computer from the Ave! site.

Reviews of the Graphic Classics series:

“Innovative visual entrées to great writers and their legacies.”
— Stephanie Zvirin, Booklist

“A splendidly inventive series.”
— Malcolm Jones, Newsweek

“So imaginative, evocative, and compelling in their execution that they leave readers with no choice but to crave more.”
— Michael Dooley, Imprint

(2nd edition)
Edited by Tom Pomplun
Published May 2012, Eureka Productions
Distributed by Diamond Book Distributors
(ISBN 978-0-9825630-3-8)
144 pgs, 7 x 10", paperback, b&w, color covers, $12.95(US)


The Graphic Classics series:
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.G. WELLS  (978-0-9746648-3-5)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: H.P. LOVECRAFT  (978-0-9746648-9-7)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: JACK LONDON  (978-0-9746648-8-0)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: BRAM STOKER  (978-0-9787919-1-9)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: MARK TWAIN  (978-0-9787919-2-6)
HORROR CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Ten  (978-0-9746648-1-1)
GRAPHIC CLASSICS: O. HENRY  (978-0-9746648-2-8)
ADVENTURE CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twelve  (978-0-9746648-4-2)
GOTHIC CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Fourteen  (978-0-9787919-0-2)
FANTASY CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Fifteen  (978-0-9787919-3-3)
SCIENCE FICTION CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Seventeen  (978-0-9787919-7-1)
CHRISTMAS CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Nineteen (978-0-9825630-1-4)
WESTERN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume Twenty (978-0-9787919-9-5)
EDGAR ALLAN POE'S TALES OF MYSTERY: Graphic Classics Volume 21 (978-0-9825630-2-1)
AFRICAN-AMERICAN CLASSICS: Graphic Classics Volume 22 (978-0-9825630-4-5)

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Okay, so I’m being facetious with that title, but it’s better than the daft full title that Marvel has given the superhero mash-up: Marvel’s The Avengers (or the even clunkier Marvel Avengers Assemble in the UK).
I’ll come back to the crassness of the official title in another post. I want to address the content of the film here first (and gush like a fanboy, just a little).

The Avengers is the multi-superhero epic that should have been made already, but somehow hasn’t been. Despite their overtly fantastical nature, superhero movies are usually not particularly good at being epic. They tend to be, in a sense, fairly intimate, with only a few of the more grandiose climaxes breaking out of an otherwise quite restricted mise-en-scène.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, particularly the first one, have an epic feel about them. But to achieve that he’s gone for a kind of earnest approach that precludes the overt fantasy of superhuman abilities. Fantastic Four 2 may be the closest attempt at a real ‘epic’ story from the comics on which it’s based, but unfortunately it was poorly done.

The requirements for getting this right are simple: multiple characters with different origins (i.e. not just a team with a unified origin like Fantastic Four), at least some of whom had manifestly superhuman abilities; a sense of massively high stakes; a climactic fight that feels like a genuine battle. We don’t want our superhero epic to be some psychological crime drama – we want a war movie.

Scripter/director Joss Whedon delivers. The Avengers is stunning, glorious fun.  No one who is a fan of fantasy action movies could seriously deny how good this is as an action spectacle. The special effects are for the most part very good, and put to excellent use by Whedon and his team. (The tracking shot through the midst of the final battle is superb.) The finale is a genuinely great battle scene, and is as good as anything that Steven Spielberg could have put together.

The Avengers is at least as funny as fans would expect of a Whedon script, and all the other things the mostly positive reviews are repeating are accurate: the acting is good to excellent, everyone gets a reasonable amount of screen time, and, crucially, character interactions are done very well. I even liked Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Tom Hiddleston as Loki; they are on another level in The Avengers from their previous screen outings (in Iron Man 2 and Thor respectively).

Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of Dr Bruce Banner is entirely engaging. Whedon and Ruffalo immediately create a character I wanted to see more of, right from his introduction with Black Widow asking him to “come in”. His relationship with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) feels unforced and is refreshingly not based principally on witty comebacks. For example, their exchange about the differences between the other Avengers “suiting up” and Banner/Hulk losing control. Banner has no suit, and is exposed, like an open nerve.

Ruffalo pulls off this sincere response to Stark’s flippancy, and a nicely uncomfortable image is left.

The overall plot is nothing to write home about. It’s basically the story told on the cover of The Avengers comic #1: a team of powerful, but not unstoppable, individuals gather together to fight a threat no individual hero could deal with alone. As Time Out's reviewer noted, the plot is basically just a coat-hanger for Whedon to build his character arcs and action sequences. But The Avengers was always likely to be limited by the need to be an origin story of sorts (the origin of the team, rather than the individual characters), and the storytelling itself is very good; the way the character arcs were moved forward and entwined was done very well.

The alien army was an adequate, if not very innovative way to get Loki the reinforcements he needed to ultimately be a threat. But the real fault of the movie is its lack of attention to its own themes. (One of which Patrick Samuel touched on here.) They are not given sufficient fleshing out, perhaps leaving the movie in the 'summer blockbuster' category, albeit a superior example. For a change, I would like to have seen a movie be more pretentious.

One misguided criticism levelled by a number of critics is that the “Tesseract” (as it’s called in the movies) is a MacGuffin. It is, surely, an obvious analogy for nuclear energy, with its potential for sustainable power on the one hand, and enormous destructive capacity on the other. (In the comics, the “Tesseract” is called the Cosmic Cube, and is little more than a geometrical version of a genie in a bottle.)

Interestingly, the approach S.H.E.I.L.D and its director, Samual L. Jackson’s Nick Fury takes to the situation is that we (America/the World) are the underdog . S.H.E.I.L.D understand that humanity is not alone in the universe, and that we are, as Fury puts it, laughably outgunned by many of the alien threats we just didn’t know existed.

Therefore, S.H.E.I.L.D. want to use the Tesseract to power Weapons of Even-More Mass Destruction. Fury prefers to use the exceptional individuals of the ‘Avengers Initiative’ as Persons of Mass Destruction, to send a message to our potential interstellar threats. Either way, the position of Earth in The Avengers isn’t that of a hegemonic power like the USA, but that of a smaller, fearful state trying to find a way to punch above its weight. In the universe of The Avengers, we’re North Korea. We’re Iran.

Again, this interesting thematic territory is overridden by Whedon’s desire to focus on character interaction and action set pieces. But hey, they are interesting character interactions and impressive set pieces. By Hollywood blockbuster standards, The Avengers is an astonishing achievement. I just wonder if the open nerve could have been pinched a bit harder.