Old Power, New Power

We’re watching bits of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on TNT today (right now it’s Peter Jackson’s Helm’s Deep, as J.D. calls it), and I’m reminded of something that always seems a little odd to me about fantasy stories.

A basic element of fantasy seems to be a tendency to look to the past: In the past, there were great wonders (and great terrors), creatures with fantastic powers, but over time those creatures and powers have gone away or fallen by the wayside, and the remnants of those powers are known only to a select few. Often there’s a tacit understanding that even these, too, shall pass.

The Lord of the Rings (both the novel and the films) is rooted in this notion, the passing of the ages of greatness and the rise of mortal men. Tim Powers’ terrific novel The Anubis Gates also uses this as a fundamental principle of the plot. And a panoply of fantasy stories in between are full of quests for lost powers, or filled with characters who know of forgotten lore. But how often does fantasy depict the creation of great powers in what is presented as “the modern day”? Surely there are some, but they’re the exception, aren’t they?

What I find interesting about this is that this is very much at odds with our observation of how the world works: Technology and power increases over time, not decreases. While the ancients built pyramids and great walls, what’s remarkable about their accomplishments is not that they achieved them, but that they achieved them given the tools they had at hand.

Science fiction embraces the notion of improving technology, of course: Charles Stross’ Accelerando is merely an extreme example of this philosophy, but science fiction assumes that we, humans, are the creators of great wonders, and not that we’re simply trying to rediscover or recapture glories of ages past. Where science fiction does portray great dead powers, it’s more with an air of those powers having simply had a head start on humanity, not that we won’t get there eventually (or that we’re going backwards).

I suppose fantasy is rooted in myth and religion, which were shaped in days when humanity was trying to figure out how things came to be that not only it couldn’t understand, but it has precious few frameworks for trying to understand them. So it seemed like the world was shaped by great old powers which had faded into history. Whereas science fiction developed in the industrial age, when our frameworks for understanding the world had developed to the point that we could shape it and use it.

I think this is a fundamental difference between the two genres. I don’t know if it’s a major slice of why I prefer SF to fantasy, but I do read fantasy stories and think things like, “Why can’t humans figure out how to live as long as elves? Or create magical wonders like those that once existed? Why must magic fade into the past?”

Does this bother other readers of fantasy, I wonder?

It’s Beginning to Look a Little Like Christmas

Okay, presents are mostly bought and sent, cards are mostly sent, lights are up outside the house… what’s missing?

Well, a tree, for one thing. Due to our Disnyeland trip we didn’t go look for a tree until today, and what we found were mostly overpriced and a little skraggly. So we’re thinking we might not have a tree this year. I like having a tree, but with less time to enjoy it, it might not be worth it this year. On the plus side, no trying to keep the cats from drinking the water out of the tree stand!

Debbi asked where we would put the presents. I started giggling, and said, “Where else? Under the papasan!”

We had a little mishap with presents from Amazon: I opened up a box and found a couple of gifts addressed to “Rachel”. Turns out that gifts for someone else were put in a box sent to me, and checking with my family, the UPS tracking number matched one sent to my Dad. So we exchanged some communications with Amazon, and it sounds like they’re going to be sending the right items to me this week. If all goes as they said, then I can’t ask much fairer than that.

I’ll leave you with a link to this twisted Christmas classic: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fish-Men”.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Tim Powers: Three Days to Never

Review of the novel Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.

Tim Powers’ works can be a little hit-or-miss, and I found his previous novel, Declare, to be rather slow going. Happily, Three Days to Never is a shorter, more fast-paced book for which it seems like Powers has more fully mastered some of the tools he was working with in Declare, such as the spy jargon.

The book takes place in 1987, and revolves around English professor Frank Marrity and his 12-year-old daughter Daphne. Peripherally it also involves his sister Moira, his mysterious father Derek, his grandmother Lisa, and his even more mysterious great-grandfather. Frank receives a message from Lisa that she’s destroying the shed in the back of her house, but when he and Daphne arrive the shed is intact, albeit filled with gas fumes. Daphne purloins a videotape from the shed and watches it later in the day, where it throws her into a trance, and causes the VCR to burn up with the tape in it.

The tape, it turns out, is special, as was Lisa, who turns up dead hundreds of miles away. Two different groups are hunting a secret which Lisa has kept hidden since before World War II: A deep cover cell of Israeli Mossad agents, led by a man named Lepidopt, who has premonitions that he’ll never experience certain things again. And also a cell of Vespers, a supernatural cult which includes a blind woman named Charlotte who can see through other peoples’ eyes. The secret everyone is hunting is a device which involved both Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. The device is not strictly a MacGuffin, because it has a special power which is very much relevant to the story’s plot.

Much of the book revolves around the love that Frank and Daphne have for each other; it’s unusual to see a strong familial father-daughter bond in fiction, it seems to me. Now, they do have a rather unusual – nay, supernatural – link, which plays into the story, but it’s still touching to see. A lot of Three Days is wrapped up in family: Frank’s relationship to his family, Lepidopt’s feelings for his wife and son and how his sense of duty keeps him in America, Charlotte being a woman without a family, who hates herself for her blindness and desperately wants to find a way to change who she is, but who’s stuck in her depressing little cult cell because she has nowhere else to turn. The book’s climax hinges on characters making decisions because they figure out how to do the right thing for themselves and those they care about, or they wilfully continue to do the wrong thing because they don’t care about anyone else.

And on top of all of this, Frank gets some disturbing information about his life which forces him to set his priorities in order.

As usual, Powers put his characters through all kinds of hell: Blindness, a maimed hand, emergency throat surgery, and all that sort of fun stuff. Sometimes his penchant for physical brutality seems eiither comical or disgusting, but it doesn’t go to either extreme here, because the stakes are high enough and the events seem to flow naturally from the plot’s situations.

And it’s chock-full of the neat ideas which often seemed to be absent in Declare: Frank and Daphne’s special connection, the strange videotape, the secret Lisa was hiding, another secret which can erase people from history, and a variety of lesser magics as well as the spy stuff that the Mossad agents and Vesper members practice reflexively. Lepidopt’s premonitions that he’ll never do certain things again after he does them is quite creepy, and Charlotte’s depression and he use of her remote sight are both starkly portrayed. Although none of the characterizations are particularly deep, they’re varied and vivid and help keep the book engaging.

The book’s climax is satisfying enough, although having spent most of the book expecting one of the characters to employ the secret Lisa was keeping, the way it’s used is unexpected and a little disappointing; the history of the secret was in some ways more satisfying. And the story could perhaps have used slightly more denouement.

Still, it’s a good return-to-form for Powers. Not quite as good as Last Call, but one of his better books.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 13 December 2006.

It’s taken a long, long time – nearly 20 years – but the Marvel Masterworks hardcover reprints of The Avengers have finally gotten to the good stuff: The volume reprints #51-58 and Annual #2 (as well as X-Men #45, which was part of a crossover story), from way back in 1968 (the year before I was born!). Written by Roy Thomas and pencilled by John Buscema, this set is perhaps best-known for the two issues that introduced The Vision, but to me this volume is important as it contains maybe my favoritest Avengers story every: In #56 the team went back in time to witness the death of Captain America’s partner Bucky, and when they returned to the present – in Annual #2 – they found that time had been changed, and that the original Avengers team had conquered the world and eliminated all the other superpowers people. The likes of Captain America, the Black Panther and Hawkeye had to take on Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk to save the world. Even today, this is great stuff in the superhero genre. (The annual is actually drawn by Don Heck, who – although not a favorite of mine – does some of his best work in it.)

Somehow I missed the second issue of Athena Voltaire, a 1930s-era Indiana Jones-type adventure yarn with a female protagonist. I’ll need to ask my comics shop to order it for me.

The Goon, by Eric Powell, is a weird concoction, part hard-boiled pulp fiction, and part gruesome horror yarn, but mostly it’s all played for humor. The Goon is the head of a local crime mob, and his main opposition is a mob of zombies led by a mysterious evil priest. The Goon is not exactly a good guy (and his sidekick Frankie is always looking out for number one), but sometimes he does the right thing, and sometimes even for the right reason. There’s a lot of blood, gore, and off-color humor, but y’know, I enjoy all that stuff if it’s pulled off well. This isn’t classic comics material, but it’s a fun read, and Powell is a crack artist, reminding me in a roundabout way of both Will Eisner and Mark Schultz. It may not be to your taste, but if you enjoy humor that’s on the sick side, then you’ll like this one.

Sick Day

I’m home sick today. I’ve had a cold building for a couple of days, and this morning I decided it was better to stay home and take it easy.

It’s days like this that I really appreciate my house. It’s not big or elegant, but I can lie on the couch and watch TV and read. It’s a short walk to the kitchen or the downstairs bathroom, and I can look out the back door onto my patio, which may be a mess of leaves and branches right now, but it’s still a nice little outdoors. It’s a cozy way to rest up.

So I felt crummy this morning (when I called Debbi she said I sounded awful!), but a bowl of chicken soup and two mugs of tea (and four hours) later, I’m feeling better. Less congested. Getting tired of coughing, though.

I don’t take sick days very often. Mostly I’m pretty healthy, and it seems like when I do get sick it’s right when there’s a big deadline at work or something else interesting going on that I don’t want to miss. So yeah, I can be a contributor to “presenteeism”. I’m trying to get better about that. Usually I get sick in the spring or fall when the weather changes (either direction). I think it’s unusual that I get sick in December like this, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, here I sit!

I forgot to mention a couple of fun things that went on at work this week:

Monday, in addition to getting my car fixed (which was not so much fun, other than the outcome), my extended team went out for bowling as a fun activity. Honestly, it’s been probably 15 years – maybe more – since I last bowled. I think when I’ve bowled before it was either candlepin or duckpin bowling, with a smaller ball, but this time it was ten-pin bowling, with larger, heavier balls with the finger grips in the middle.

It was an odd experience, since I clearly know squat about bowling, and it’s strange to play a game or sport for which I have no expectations at all for myself. Of course, none of us were all that great, as our bowling scores ran anywhere from 50 to 150 during the day. I think I bowled between 100 and 110 all three games. I figured out how to be a little more consistent during the day, but didn’t show much improvement after the first half of the first game. But it was fun! In addition to enjoying my job, I like my cow-orkers, and even if I don’t hang out with many of them very often, I do enjoy it when I do.

Then yesterday there was a “family dinner night” for the software organization, so Debbi left work a little early and joined me for a Christmas-style dinner in the cafeteria. The food was good, the desserts were terrific, and we had a good time chatting with some other Apple people and their families.

It’s not all fun-n-games, though, and I have a bunch of stuff to do before the holiday break. I was getting pretty well focused yesterday so I was a bit bummed about staying home today rather than staying on that roll, but it’s important to get healthy, and hopefully I can pick up tomorrow where I left off.

This Week’s Haul

Comics I bought the week of 6 December 2006.

Okay, really last week’s comics, but still!

  • 52 #31 of 52 (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #1 (DC)
  • NewUniversal #1 (Marvel)
  • Robotika HC (Archaia)
  • New Tales of Old Palomar #1 (Fantagraphics)
  • The All-Star Companion volume 2 (TwoMorrows)

An interesting haul this week, starting with a brutal issue of 52 featuring the last days of Captain Comet – the old one, anyway – and a threat that frightens even the Guardians of the Universe. 52 mainly suffers from meandering all over the place, with still no sign of a coherent story yet, but some bits are quite good. This issue is one of those bits.

Another decade, another revival of the Justice Society of America. Nothing’s quite equalled the 1970s run of All-Star Comics, although Roy Thomas’ All-Star Squadron in the 1980s was very good at times. On the other hand, the recent JSA series won plaudits from critics for its strong characterization, which baffled me since I thought the plotting meandered around without really going anywhere, and the characterization was nonexistent. This new series starts out on a better foot: Writer Geoff Johns is not the superstar that DC seems to think he is (he’s no James Robinson, for instance), but he’s pretty good, and he introduces a number of interesting threads, including several rather messed-up characters such as the new Starman, the revamped Damage, and the overexuberant (I presume) young Red Tornado. Dale Eaglesham’s layouts are good, and he has a good sense of form and motion, but as Johanna Carlson points out, his handling of anatomy is pretty iffy. I also think Art Thibert is not a good match as Eaglesham’s inker. Anyway, it has promise. We’ll see.

(I’m an old JSA fan dating back to that 70s series, so I’m willing to check out new series starring the team, but I also have fairly high standards for them.)

NewUniversal is Warren Ellis’ relaunch of Marvel’s ill-conceived and ill-fated New Universe from the 1980s. A White Event grants several ordinary people superpowers, and changing the world. The original titles had very small ambitions and failed largely because of that. Ellis is probably better-suited to squeezing better stories out of the concepts, and Salvador Larroca is a fine artist, so I’m optimistic that this’ll be a good one.

Robotika collects Alex Sheikman’s series about a far-future world populated by cyborgs in which a mute samurai quests for an invention his mistress desires, and then acts as a bodyguard for some travellers and learns something about himself. Sheikman’s art is pretty nifty, like a cleaner version of Jae Lee. His writing leaves a lot to be desired, though. First, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Second, he tends to break sentences awkwardly between several thought balloons. Third, one of his characters speaks in sentences written vertically, which is so hard to read it’s not really worth it. Besides all that, I think Sheikman was more interested in creating a cool-looking samurai story, while I was hoping to read a cutting-edge posthumanist science fiction graphic novel, and Robotika just doesn’t measure up to authors like Charles Stross and Alastair Reynolds.

New Tales of Old Palomar is a new magazine-sized series by Gilbert Hernandez, revisiting his fictional Mexican city during the heyday of the original Love and Rockets series. I enjoyed the early run of the Palomar stories the best, and going back to those days is a lot of fun. The story is almost a trifle, but it’s nice to visit old friends.

The All-Star Companion volume two adds more information that didn’t fit in volume one, including an index of All-Star Squadron. The first volume is fun reading for fans of the Justice Society, but this one is definitely too much of a good thing; although the art is pretty, I think this is more than I needed to know. Apparently there will be a volume three, but I think I’ll pass.

Wow, I had a lot to write about this week. I bet next week is lighter!


I ended up taking my car to Sears this morning. The jumper pack I borrowed from Michel worked great – no problems at all! Sears replaced the battery easily enough, and the car does feel like it starts a little more easily now. I guess the old one was really shot.

I forgot that my car radio has a lock code so that if it loses power – such as being stolen – then you have to enter the code to get it working again. Of course, this also holds when you replace the car battery. Fortunately I file all my car records in a folder, so it was easy enough to find to get the radio working again.

I’m going to miss Sears when it leaves town next year.

Return to Disneyland

This past weekend was time for our annual trip to Disneyland. It’s “annual” in the sense that Debbi and her friends really love Disneyland and the Disney characters, but while I enjoy the rides I don’t enjoy them so much to go more than once an year, whereas they, well, do. So I guess it’s really my “annual” trip to Disneyland.

Anyway. If you’re new to reading about this whole thing in my journal, you can find last year’s accounts and links to earlier ones here.

This year’s trip didn’t start off auspiciously. Debbi and I went to dinner Wednesday night, and when we came out of the restaurant I turned the key to my car and – well, the lights on the dash come on, sort of, and the starter clicked, and not much else happened.

Yes, my car’s battery had died.

The AAA guy who came to jump my car said I should have my battery framed, since it was the original battery from 1999, and he says most people are lucky to get 5 years out of a battery like this, not 7. Fortunately, we always rent a minivan or something for these multi-person trips to Disneyland, so my car could just sit in the garage until Monday. Which it was destined to do, since it got home without a hitch, but as soon as I turned off the engine it refused to start again. The battery’s so dead it won’t even work the door locks with the remote clicker.

We were scheduled to meet Lisa and Michel to get the aforementioned minivan at the airport, but of course we were late, since we drove home to drop off my car and switch to Debbi’s. It turns out it wouldn’t have been much faster had my car worked properly since there was a hitch in picking up the van, so by the time we got there everything had just gotten smoothed out.

All-in-all, we ended up not getting home until around 9:30, which meant we were up until close to midnight packing and otherwise getting ready. A bit of a pain since Lisa and Michel picked us up at 8 am on Thursday morning. Fortunately the rest of our long weekend was pretty smooth. By leaving early, we managed to avoid the worst of the traffic in LA.

Disneyland was pretty good this time around, although usually we’re there on Sunday and Monday, and it seems that the park is just insanely full on Saturday. Sheeesh! I think we were a little disappointed that we weren’t able to ride some of the major rides as much as we usually do because of the long lines.

On the bright side, we did get to ride the big roller coaster in California Adventure several times, which ain’t bad since it’s probably my favorite ride in the whole park. I also got in a good zinger on the Jungle Cruise, for which the “guides” are known for their bad puns. It went something like this:

Guide: This… is a boat. Spelled B… O… uh… T… E.

(Objections from a few patrons.)

Guide: Well, how do you smell “tote”?

(A little confused muttering.)

Guide: T-O-T-E. So if you replaced the ‘T’ with a ‘B’, then you have ‘boat’!”

Me: Or you have “tobe”.

Guide: No… uh…. yes, you do.

It’s good to be a smartass.

We got a little rain Friday night, and a bunch of rain Saturday night (right while we were sitting down to dinner, naturally), but otherwise the weather was warm and mostly sunny. Thanks to that, I even was able to ride the Grizzy River Run – one of my favorites – even though everyone else in our party-of-six wimped out! (Lisa’s friend Yvonne and her boyfriend Wender were also with us.) I managed to avoid getting soaked, even though a woman on my raft had a big wave come right up over her lap and purse!

(I guess we missed a whole bunch of rain that got dumped on the Bay Area over the weekend, too.)

Debbi and Lisa push themselves pretty hard to have as much fun as possible at the park while we’re there, and my feet just give out after a certain number of hours. I went back to the hotel a little early on Friday night, and happened to stumble across a concert called Celtic Woman on PBS, which featured some orchestral arrangements of celtic music and a few contemporary songs, sung by a quintet of ladies (and one fiddler) backed by orchestra and a small chorus. It was pretty neat. I might need to buy their CD, seeing as I’m a sucker for:

  1. Celtic music;
  2. Lush orchestral arrangements, and
  3. Lovely female vocals (as opposed to lovely female vocalists, whom I appreciate as much as the next guy, but whose appeal doesn’t come through in an audio medium).

Debbi enjoyed it too, as we watched some of it when re-run on Saturday night. It turns out she has a fondness for productions like that, which I hadn’t known!

So now we’re home, and we picked up Chinese take-out for dinner, I finished reading Tim Powers’ new novel (review coming soon!), and I made a fire so we could have a lazy and warm evening at home. Mission accomplished, I say!

Tomorrow I get to find out if Michel’s car-jumper works, and I’ll find some place to get my battery replaced. I figure if the dealer can’t take me, I’ll either go to Sears, or to a repair place a few blocks away (or maybe I’ll try the last place first). It’s just a battery (I hope), so I bet it doesn’t matter much.

Wish me luck!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books purchased the week of 29 November 2006.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #46
  • 52 #30 of 52 (DC)
  • Castle Waiting #3 (Fantagraphics)
  • George Perez: Storyteller HC (Dynamic Forces)

One nifty thing about comics today is the wealth of books studying the careers of the great artists, and even better, they often present rare or previously-unpublished work by those artists. A few years back, TwoMorrows printed Modern Masters: George Perez, and now Dynamic Forces has printed George Perez: Storyteller. (I don’t know whether this is the same as this book The Art of George Perez listed on Amazon. The author is the same, but the cover is different.)

I haven’t done more than thumb through this book, but it looks like a pretty nice package: A lot of information about Perez’ early career at Marvel, and his work for publishers like Malibu and Crossgen (both now defunct). Perez is maybe the best artist working in comics today, and certainly on the shortlist for the best ever, so I’m happy for almost any chance to see some more of his work.

Pretty light week otherwise.