Ray Bradbury

June 9, 2012

Ray Bradbury died at 91 this week.  Seems like he was eternal.

I read a lot of his stories as a kid, and I have revisited some of them since.  I am no fan of Sci-Fi, believing that most of it consists of plots with a single idea, more or less intriguing and clever, worked out with a style that is usually unremarkable, at best.  Bradbury’s writing rarely got above its pulp origins, which is to say it was crude, heavy-handed, often hokey, and calculated to produce a single effect.  Sort of like Poe, without the inspired weirdness.

But Bradbury had imagination, and at his best, his stories got a hook into you with their strangeness and sometimes eerie familiarity with real life.  He was, as well, a pop-poet of the Cold War nightmare of nuclear annihilation, something that seemed very near and real for thirty or forty years, back then.

I can’t remember the name of one story that has stayed with me:  a tale of men living on a planet where the nights are very short, and the sun shines with an intensity that kills in minutes those who don’t seek the shade in time.  People live in cliff side caves, but off in the distance, a metallic object can be seen glinting.  The humans have short lives, moving through birth, maturity, and death in months, as do all life forms on the hostile planet.  We realize that these are descendants of space travellers who crashed on the planet ages ago, and who have evolved in accord with the stresses of the environment.  The ship, with its complete protection from the rays of the killing sun, is just too far away to reach at a sprint in the time available before the sun rises to its deadly noon.  Until one determined fellow comes along, who just can’t shake his curiosity…

Doggone it!

May 29, 2011

I don’t think it’s a joke:  the Nazis believed all sorts of outlandish things.  Now it comes out (why now?) that they had a project to train dogs to speak and perform military tasks.  They wanted to create an army of Nazi dogs!

In 1998, I read The Lives of the Monster Dogs, a novel that takes place in Manhattan in 2008 when a bunch of walking, talking dogs, with Prussian accents, become celebrities.  They escaped from a remote town founded by a Prussian officer hoping to do exactly what the Nazis wanted to do.  I guess the author, Kirstin Bakis, scooped the news long ago.

And on the topic of talking dogs, Jim Thompson’s novel, The Golden Gizmo, a macabrely comic tale, features a deadly Doberman that talks and sings along with hymns.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

March 15, 2011

and Love the Bomb!  Also known as Dr. Strangelove.

That’s Hannah Dundee gazing at Fat Man, one of the A-bombs dropped on Japan.   Hannah inhabits Xenozoic Tales, comic book adventure series written and drawn by Mark Schultz, who carries on the tradition of Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), E.R. Borroughs (Tarzan) and other old-fashioned comic-pulp storytellers.  The macho hero is Jack Terenc, a shaman of sorts who tries to keep civilization in balance with nature so that The Great Cataclysm is not repeated.  Meanwhile, he and Hannah have multiple adventures in a world that mixes dinosaurs and nitro-fueled 1950s Cadillacs. 

It’s fun, and more clever than it may sound to you.  The back-cover image at top is a perfect example of the mélange of styles and influences in the artwork:  fashion photography; cheesecake; academic life studies; art deco; Hollywood movies;  Decadent/Symbolist art; adventure comics; Gothic horror… some call it kitsch.

And while we are musing over Japan, atomic desolation, meltdowns, and general human evil, you may enjoy this riff on bombs, bombing, and movies.  You can follow all the links – have fun.

Here’s the front cover:

My kind of Orlando

February 22, 2011

click for summary of poem

From “Taking Liberties,” a review of David R. Slavitt’s new translation of Orlando Furioso, by David B. Hart in Commonweal. 137.13 (July 16, 2010)

During the high Middle Ages, poems written on the “Matter of France”–that is, tales of the paladins of Charlemagne and of Count Roland (or Orlando) in particular–were among Europe’s most beloved literary entertainments… once the Carolingian theme had been stated [The Song of Roland], the variations that followed…departed ever further from the original story’s stern simplicity, and came to incorporate ever more fabulous elements: impossible feats, mythical beasts, magical objects, and superhuman foes.

In the end, the whole tradition culminated in the three great Orlando “romances” of the Italian Renaissance: Luigi Pulci’s Morgante (1478-83), Matteo Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (finished 1486, published 1494), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516-32). These are, without question, among the wildest fictions in European literature. They are “epics,” perhaps, but are every bit as defiant of the classical unities (not only of time and place, but of tone and texture) as the dramas of England and Spain’s Golden Age theaters. Their stories spill across the entire known world, to say nothing of faerie, hell, and the moon. They recount sieges, military engagements, and single combat, but also tell of giants, sprites, sorcerers, sea monsters, magic gardens, and hidden kingdoms. They lurch convulsively–though somehow quite nimbly–from the hilarious to the tragic to the mystical.

Once upon a time, moreover, they were widely read … Now, however, they gather dust in those shadowy galleries where the Western canon’s most rarely visited monuments are kept. This is a pity. Modern readers may not have much patience for long verse narratives, but these works are anything but forbidding; they can be enjoyed by anyone with an imagination and a sense of humor. Yet Pulci and Boiardo are scarcely remembered today outside Italy. Only Ariosto lingers on in the consciousness of educated persons, and then generally only as an important name.

. . .  Exactly what [Orlando Furioso] is about is difficult to pin down, but this hardly matters. The narrative takes up the various stories begun in the Innamorato, but left unfinished at the time of Boiardo’s death: the infatuation of Orlando with the beautiful sorceress Angelica, daughter of the King of Cathay, and Orlando’s pursuit of her across Europe and into the Far East; the siege of Paris by the Moors; the adventures of Ruggiero, mythical founder of the House of Este (of which both Boiardo and Ariosto were clients); the rampages of the evil Moorish King of Sarza, Rodomonte; and a number of other plot lines. The principal pleasure of the poem as a whole lies in the ingenuity with which Ariosto weaves the tales together in ever more outlandish and intricate complications–and then manages to resolve them all in a single moment of dramatic finality.

click to enlarge

Monty Python? -click for source

Fantasy Land

Blind Shear Ram!

June 22, 2010

Ever since reading the NYTimes article on the details of the BP blowout, the phrase, blind shear ram, has been reverberating inside my head!  I love the sound of it.  So powerful, macho-mechanical, almost apocalyptic!  The last resort…that failed!  The failsafe mechanism.  We must…ac-ti-vate…the blind-shear-RAM!!

The last time I heard a word like this in the news was probably when MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue among the nuclear wargame crowd.  Or perhaps it was in 1980, during the summer transit strike in New York City when the term Gridlock, with all of its ominous and terrifying connotations of complete urban dysfunction, made its way into public consciousness.  (I was told at the time by a former classmate, that a magazine of critical theory had devoted an entire issue to the term!  If anyone has a citation, send it please!)

Bind shear ram.  I just realized what other association was lurking there.  I read a novel by Stanislaw Lem many years ago, Fiasco!  Is that appropriate, or what!  In the beginning of the story, a mining engineer is working on Venus, sitting in the top of a gigantic robotic ‘man’ hundreds of feet high.  He gets stuck, is going to die, so he activates the last resort safety mechanism.  His body is rammed into a cylinder and immediately supercooled to preserve him for a future time when they may have figured out how to unfreeze him without turning him to mush.

Memory does funny things.


Shelly’s Last Man

January 23, 2008


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly was the daughter of the woman who wrote the first major works in support of equal rights for women. She was a member of “The Elect,” the self-styled group of romantic exiles from philistine England, including her doomed husband, Percy Shelly, and Byron. She wrote what could be called the Ur-novel of science fiction, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. I recently found that she wrote another novel, the ancestor of all those end-of-the-world scenarios we see so much of these days, The Last Man. Think of “The Omega Man,” “The Road,” “On the Beach,” multiple episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Outer Limits” – she started the ball rolling.

Well, hers wasn’t absolutely the first apocalyptic fantasy: that appears to be Omegarus and Syderia by Jean Baptiste Francois Xa De Grainville, written in 1805, but it is pretty close. It’s a strange novel, filled with overblown romantic prose, describing the sublimest horror imaginable – the end of the human race, destroyed by plague. The book takes place in 2092, and the first half of it is a political drama, a roman a clef with a Shellyian and Byronic character bookending the narrator, Lionel Verney. This first part is extremely tedious at times, not the least because the nature of society and technology in 2092 is presented as nearly the same as 1822, except that England has eliminated its monarchy and become a contentious republic. Then the plague starts spreading.

It takes a couple of years, but the entire globe is depopulated. Nature, the soothing mother of the Romantic creed is now the indifferent slayer of the multitudes. Man’s reason (and the Enlightenment) are for naught: libraries go moldering as dogs roam their aisles, Rome is a deserted stage set for the “last drama,” and the Swiss Alps, where the last 1500 people go to seek respite from the plague, are an archetypal environment of the sublime in which    the miserable demise of humanity’s remnant can be run out. Nothing matters, all is nullity.

Some try to avoid the crushing weight of this conclusion by following a false prophet, a man who declares that those who believe in him shall not die (those who do die are secretly disposed of to keep up the ruse) and who wages war on the other survivors who will not subscribe to his unreason. The straggling remainder of humanity moves about, housing itself in abandoned palaces, eating the stores of food in the cities, while the climate, even the stars, seem to be going haywire, with enormous sea surges reports of strange events in the sky.

If you have an interest in romantic literature, the history of science fiction, or want to see how a critical mind dealt with her disillusionment about ideas, politics, and nature, not to mention trying to work out her grief at losing her husband and several of her children (can we even imagine the regularity of infant and child mortality with which people then had to deal?), you may enjoy this book.

Tekeli li

January 3, 2008

Reproduction of this image is prohibited, or at least that is the title of the painting by Magritte shown here. I guess I have involved myself in the sort of vicious logical cycle that he loved so much, and that he painted, by simply showing it here. Or buying it in a book, or on a postcard. Another one along the lines of “This is not a pipe.” A college friend of mine remarked of this painting, “What a nightmare – looking into a mirror and not being able to see your face!” Another interdiction.

The book on the mantle, by the way, is Poe’s “Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym”. That story dealt with unmentionables and things unseen and never seen – the ghastly horrors of the antarctic regions. Pym ends up there on a doomed sailing ship by way of shipwreck, psychopaths, and cannibalism. On expedition into the inland regions of the south, he meets his end, we think, at the hands of vicious natives. All chant, shout, and speak with horror the syllables, “Tekeli li!” What does it mean?

H. P. Lovecraft knew what it meant, or so he claimed. I’d always thought that he wrote junk-fantasy, and so avoided him. Recently, I corrected that error and found him to be a worthy follower, and a worshipper, of E. A. Poe. His story, “The Mountains of Madness” is an over-the-top recounting of an expedition to the south gone awry that connects with the fantastical notions of Arthur Pym – the sounds of “tekeli li” hover ominously throughout this story of the discovery of a vast polar civilization that pre-dates the rise of advanced lifeforms on the other continents. (They appear to have been of the shape of huge cucumbers, tremendously intelligent, and, as in other Lovecraft stories of aliens and ancient civilizations, have “blood” that is sticky, green, and foul smelling.)

The mere sight of the remains of the the huge urban settlements built by these creatures, with the realization that they are millions of years older than the oldest human city, and the eventual discovery that some of the inhabitants yet live, drives some of the explorers positively mad.   Lovecraft repeatedly mentions paintings by Nicholas Roerich (an early 20th century mystic and pacifist) to describe the appearance of the urban remains.


The Tunnel

January 19, 2005

[Note:  January 13, 2014 Why does this post get more SPAM than any other, by FAR?!]

Made in 1935, my father, born in 1924, started telling me about this movie when I was about ten (1967) and so the message rolls down the generations. The film is about a mammoth undertaking to build a transportation tunnel from New York to London. The special effects are stunning and remarkably realistic. The tunnel boring machine used in the film looks identical to the ones that were actually used to dig the Dover-Calais tunnel under the English Channel.  My knowledge of the movie was imparted by frequent pantomimes by my father, imitating the contortions of the workers as they struggled to slip out a closing emergency door sealing off a compartment during a cave in. Any watcher of WWII submarine movies will know the drill: a few guys get out, one just barely slips through as the water rises in the flooding room, and the last is left banging on the door in anguish, dying a miserable death. Mon pere was fond of enacting this using the automatic garage door as a stand-in for the tunnel bulkhead.

After hearing and seeing this about 100 times, naturally I lost interest. What a surprise, when one night, in a fit of insomnia, I turned on the TV at about 3am in the morning, and found myself watching a very weird, compelling sci-fi film. It was Transatlantic Tunnel, but my father had left out the strange subtext of sex and politics. As I recall, from my foggy viewing, the wife of the chief engineer, an icy Dietrich figure, suffers from hysterical blindness brought on by anxiety over the fate of her husband as he works in the dangerous undersea construction site. The workers, too, have their anxieties, and at one point, rebel, refusing to go down into the pit. The chief, in a speech worthy of Il Duce, shames them with their cowardice, urges them on with imagery of moral uplift and dreams of glory. The men, lumpen mass, are inspired by the great leader, and go back to work.

Believe it or not, it’s because of stuff like this that I became an engineer.