Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Y: The Last Volume

Having Tuna Fish, Veggies and Dip, and Cottage Cheese for lunch this week.

I just finished reading the last volume of Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughn. I wish I had time to go back and read all of it. This series is my third favorite comic book of all time. For reference, the first two are Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Watchman. If you were ever interested in comic books, you should make time to pick up the volumes of Y: The Last Man at your local library or comic book shop. Especially if you were ever interested in gender. You can get the first issue for free here.

An action packed but still thoughtful look at the way men and women relate, the conceit of Y: The Last Man is that all men in the world die at the same time. Except for one. Oh, and his monkey. Then things get crazy.

This weekend, I got to spend some good times with good friends. Two of the folks in my game got married: Kim and Chris. This is the second wedding in my current gaming group this year. A third follows next year. But this is the first time two members of my game have gotten married. I am a love God! J/K. They did it all themselves.

The wedding was very pretty, with candles and cheesecake (the cheese and um, cake kind. Not the pin up calendar kind. You knew what I meant, right?). I got to talk to my buds and my buds' buds. I met a very nice young man with tattoos from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And dice! That's right... they are both so hard core they had Chessex make dice as wedding favors. Too cool.

{Picture here}

Also: What I want for Christmas

Not Really. Got too many Tchatkes already. But damn, those look cool.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Light of Other Days - A review

The Light of Other Days by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter

Spoilers be found ahead.

"Many true-story versions of historic events - the Cuba missile crises, Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Euro - while of interest to aficionados, have turned out to be muddled, confusing, and complex. It is dismaying to realize that even those supposedly at the centers of power generally know little and understand less of what is going on around them."

"And worse than that, the truth generally turns out to be boring."

-Clarke and Baxter, The Light of Other Days

The Light of Other Days isn't boring. It's a big think piece of science fiction that takes the concept of "truth" and runs it through the science fictional wringer by postulating one small technological advance.

What if someone invented a machine that allowed you to see anywhere, anytime, with almost no hope of blocking it?

Hiram Patterson, ruthless industrialist, has managed to produce just such a machine. The WormCam passes information through tiny holes in the space time continuum. What does this mean? It means no more satellites or radio waves or fiber optic cables. No more information conduits to be blocked. No more cameras or bugs or wiretaps, either. Want to get the real scoop on cheating by wives or beating by cops? Poke a hole through space-time and look and listen to your heart's content. Walls or distance or cryptography or protections from electronic surveillance mean nothing to the WormCam.

In fact, because you're poking holes in space and time, you can even look back in history, so that you can watch past indiscretions, too. Uncover political cover-ups. See for sure if there was a crash at Roswell. Or a Moses.

The science behind the WormCam is fun. Hiram uses buckyballs and squeezed vacuum to generate anti matter to stabilize the wormholes. It's fun-er if you know some physics, but quantum science is so reminiscent of eighteenth century pseudo-science anyway that it comes off as charmingly pulpy. And hell, buckyball is just a fun word.

On the whole, the WormCam technology seems realistic, with appropriate flaws. For instance, you can't send information back in time through a wormhole because the feedback will collapse the hole. And what you see is limited to what the WormCam operator looks for.

Also, WormCam technology seems to evolve rationally. At first, wormholes can't transmit sound or see in the dark. Eventually they can do much more!

What does any of this technology have to do with truth? There's the obvious: people can't hide from their actions for long. The WormCams can look anywhere, at any time.

To a certain extent, The Light of Other Days is about the benefits of transparency (a social philosophy that believes openness to be more beneficial than secrecy in the long run). Why commit a crime or lie a lie if it can be uncovered so easily?

Not even Hiram can hide from the WormCam's exposure of his own unethical activities. For instance, dosing his favorite son with mind control drugs so that he won't succumb to the religious impulses of his "older brother." Or that the favorite son is, in fact, a clone of Hiram.

And if history was transparent? It's written down. It's in the record. How wrong could history possibly be? Well, the implications are staggering.

In the Clarke/Baxter history of the world, there are no supernatural events. No Roswell. No ghosts or UFO abductions to be found anywhere by looking back in time. Many heroes are struck down or revealed to be amalgamations of historical figures. Robin Hood was a figure from a ballad; the legend of Moses constructed from the lives of several Israeli patriarchs from that age.

Despite it's skeptic tendencies, The Light of Other Days is hardly anti-religious. The authors do mention, frequently, the shortcomings of religious culture: the violence and the mythologization of history. On the other hand, several of the main characters are deeply religious and struggle with the implications that history has for their religious beliefs and organizations. I think this is the strongest possible testament to their morality.

To digress.

Can you imagine what a relief it would be to separate historical truth from wishful thinking? No more jerk-off hate mongers claiming that the Holocaust was a hoax. No more mindless nattering about the government covering up UFO crashes.

There is the icky possibility that these myths could be revealed as truths... but given the wealth of evidence about the Holocaust, and the dearth of information about Roswell, I tend to doubt it. Call me practical.

The flip side of this is that, as thinly documented as any of the conspiracy theories are, people still manage to "keep the faith". So an extra dose or reality probably wouldn't phase any sizable community of believers.

Digression fini.

Besides rampant mythologization of fact, history in general is a mess.

"The WormCam, after all, does not deliver its history lessons in the form of verbal summaries or neat animated maps. Nor does it have much to say of glory or honor. Rather, it simply shows us human beings, one at a time - very often starving or suffering or dying at the hands of others."

Seeing the horrible things your ancestors did first hand is uncomfortable. You can distance yourself from the sheer awfulness of history when it is consigned to books, but when Clarke and Baxter's characters see it in front of them, they empathize with the victims of old crimes as much as they do with new ones. History is much more complex, and more personal, than the history books make it out to be.

"Greatness no longer matters. We see now that each human being who dies is the center of a universe: a unique spark of hope and despair, hate and love, going alone into the greater darkness. It is as if the WormCam has brought a new democracy to the viewing of history..."

"Now, what matters most is my story-or my lover's, or my parent's, or my ancestor's, who dies in the most mundane, meaningless of deaths in the mud of Stalingrad or Passchendaele or Gettysburg, or simply in some unforgiving field, broken by a life of drudgery."

Playing out in the background of The Light of Other Days are the disasters of the future: the ecology is finally collapsing from many years of human abuse, and a giant comet from outside the solar system that may once have been a moon of Neptune is going to hit the earth (in five hundred years). The comet, Wormwood, is named after the doomsday moon from the Book of Revelations.

These background events aren't necessary to fuel the illusion of a living future. Instead, I think they actually serve to put a cap on history, of sorts. The comet puts doomsday at a comfortable reserve, providing an end to human history as the whole human race use the WormCams look back through the entirety of history like a massive family photo album. The comet and failing environment remind them that all the effort and suffering could be for nothing if they don't get cracking. It highlights the fragility of our ecosystem on earth, the preciousness of striving (though some might say the hopelessness of striving).

The prose in Light of Other Days is smooth, and although the characters are not drawn with finesse (everybody is pretty much what they seem to be), they are likable and thwart stereotypes. The plot meanders through the effects of super transparency and "history shock" on all the main characters: Hiram, his sons, and people connected to them, and is often sidetracked by digressions on the nature of history or culture, some of which I quote above. It was these faux-scholarly digressions on the tenuous connections between history and reality that made the novel most entertaining for me.

All in all, The Light of Better Days is an intellectually exciting read. The only explosions are conceptual, and the action comes from following a culture racing to keep up with technology driven cultural change. If you want submarine rescues or car chases, you can read Tom Clancy or watch TV. But if you want to see deeply into history, you can do it in The Light of Other Days.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I was hopped up on B12 Wednesday night, so I decided to check out a local bar called Cruisers. It has a lousy website, and a theme that I am not interested in: it's supposed to cater to the classic car crowd. However, it turned out to be a servicable dive bar.

They had a truly awful band playing in one half of the club. I should probably be greatful that I came in halfway through their set. But, if they have one bad band, they might have good bands. It was poorly lit, smokey, tackily decorated, and drink prices were reasonable. The crowd was fairly middle-working class, but I can people watch anywhere.

I miss dive bars. I spent alot of my yound adulthood in dive bars around Detroit, Ann Arbor, and New York City, listening to bands try to get better or get noticed. I smoked a little, drank a little, watched a lot of people, horsed around with my friends, had great conversations. Dive bars are not pick up bars. They are places to soak in the textures of the world.

It was a good place to be in the world. I will probably return, hoping to catch a good band this time.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Driving myself to blog. Any writing is good writing.

It occurs to me that the best blogs are largely consistent to a field or subject. So people who are narrowly specialized, or people who have a bunch of time to read would be best at that sort of thing. Unpublished/writers part time writers not so much, largely because the time that we could be reading, we spend writing. Catch 22.

So I sometimes think about giving the blog up, so that I don't worry about updating it and have more time to write. Other stuff.

But then there are months like these when my dream head is in a Sargasso and I am not writing much, when it seems like a blog would be a better, more informal venue to write in.


I sometimes think, and have said as much in these posts, that I would like to some autobiographical writing. But I'm not sure I have the guts to be that open. I mean, I'm not hiding murders or anything, but, you know, it's personal. I have thought of starting another blog, one specific to autobiography, and dating with entries with the approximate times/dates of the events. If I did that anonymously, I could be as open as I wish.

Getting by on a half a nights sleep, and I will be going to a bachelor's party (albeit a low key sounding bachelor's party) tonight. Woke up with nightmares. It's one of my recurring nightmares. I've had recurring nightmares of various strips my whole life. So this is the nightmare: There's this site that if you visit it, you start getting visits from people reminding you to visit it. This time, the people were stocky goth kids with prosthetic arms, and I had to chase them away from the house. Not especially scary, but still had me up checking my daughter's room.

When you become a parent, that's the first thing you check after you have a nightmare. Parenthood makes everyone superstitious.

Jesus and the Lost Goddess - a review

Jesus and the Lost Goddess by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy.

While I was hauling this book around work with me on my lunch hour, one of my coworkers commented that the title seemed engineered to appeal to a particular kind of trendy new age holism. Not having finished the book, I agreed, because for the most part, the book reads like a pop-religion or pop-psychology screed along the lines of "You can feel good if you just DO THIS!"

I picked it up as a sort of exercise in background, trying to dig up information about Gnostic cults in history and in historical practice. Jesus and the Lost Goddess actually has very little in it about either. Mostly, it concentrates on the beliefs of the ancient Gnostics, and I get the impression that even this information has become, in the authors' hands, a highly synthesized blend of several Gnostic traditions.

Before reading Jesus and the Lost Goddess, I read a very rigorous (and kinda hard to plow through) history of Gnosticism titled A History of Gnosticism, by Giovanni Filoramo, so I couldn't help comparing the two. In contrast, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is sort of lacking in meticulousness even with its extensive footnotes. It reads with an ideological slant, and indeed the authors freely admit that they're arguing for you to think about religion and Christianity in a different way.

Freke and Gandy begin in a gushy way, extolling the virtues which the mystically oriented Gnostic Christians possessed over the rigid hierarchical church that followed. I distrusted it automatically, because it played to my least civilized atheistic prejudices about organized religion.

I also distrusted it because the authors stated that they were uniquely qualified to write this book, being mystics in addition to academics. This intimates, of course, that anybody who isn't a mystic couldn't understand the subject matter as well as they do, or to go even further, that anyone who doesn't believe just doesn't "get it". I've always thought the argument that spiritual feelings are unique to the believer to be a dodge used to explain away lack of precision.

Lastly, they use the word "whilst" a lot. I mean, a lot. As trifling as that sounds, it really grated on my nerves. It sounded precious to me, as if the authors were trying to achieve a sense of authenticity through outdated language usage.

Around page ten or so, though, the author's academic training finally started to kick in, and provided me with some interesting points that kept me reading.

The first thing that really drew me into the text was their definition of trends within religious traditions as Gnostic vs. Literalist. I think by "Gnostic" they mean "Mystic", but they used the word Gnostic because they were connecting their entire premise to the practice of Gnosticism, a brand of Christianity that was pronounced heretical early in church history. Specifically, Gnostics tend to view their religious training as allegorical, and seek points of commonality with other faiths, whereas literalists believe their religion's mythology is historical truth, which leads them into conflict with nonbelievers.

The next points that interested me were their support of the non-historicality of Jesus and their discussion of the non-literalness of Christian myth. I had never actually read any scholarship to support this particular (and widely shared) prejudice of mine: that Jesus sounds very like a lot of his contemporary pagan mythical figures in the particulars of his story (or his history, as it were). It was interesting to see their concise and convincing (if not exhaustive) look at the subject in this way.

The main point of this text is that all myths - Pagan, Christian, and Jewish - are at their root teaching tools that describe the nature of reality to us, and that Pagan philosophers and radical Jewish theologians created a Jesus myth by combining aspects of the myths of Joshua, Mithras, Ra, Dionysius, Orpheus, and other dying-and-resurrecting godmen that suited their social goals. Later, this very successful Jesus myth was co-opted as historical truth by the new Christian (and once Jewish) literalists, who suppressed (sometimes violently) dissenting versions of the myth as heresy.

"For Plato the Demiurge is not a negative figure," say Gandy and Freke, "but the original Christians pointedly distanced themselves from Jewish Literalism by deliberately portraying the demiurge Jehovah as an ignorant deity under the higher authority of Christ and Achamoth." pg 153

The authors draw connections between thematic elements, plotlines, and the language in various versions of the Jesus myth and the myths of the previously mentioned Godmen. Put in the context of the sophisticated Pagan philosophy of the times, which eschewed literal interpretations of myth, and a cosmopolitan trading culture that extended beyond the Mediterranean, trading and commingling ideas, their hypothesis doesn't seem out of the question. In fact, in their footnotes, they note that it isn't even original, having existed in one form or another for a couple of hundred years.

To me, the nature of Jesus' reality is a moot point. Six of one, half-dozen of another. The definition of who the real Christians are, the cool hippie Christians who use Jesus as a teaching tool or the square, institutional-man Christian who insist on his historical reality, reminds me of the familiar doctrinal squabbling between the Protestants and Catholics about who the bestest Christian is.

Who had the best intentions? Well, it will never be known at this point, because the hippy Christians lost out and the power structure that evolved created the history we have. Why did the hippy Christians lose out? Maybe because while Gnosis is good soul food, most people would rather have a full belly, and a working power structure is better at achieving that end than a feel good philosophy. Maybe it was because they drove themselves to ideological extinction by splitting philosophical hairs.

But that's editorializing.

Would the Gnostics have built a better Christianity, as Freke and Gandy seem to think? Who knows? I'm not convinced, as oddly convincing as their distilled argument here is. But then, I'm a skeptic.

But, after reading both books on the Gnostics, I found their worldview curiously enticing, I think because it is so structured when talking about things that we rarely have a handle on. Freke and Gandy portray them as unabashedly positive:

"Time is the evolving cosmos, which is 'ever laboring to bring about the ideal, planning to lead all to an unending sate of excellence." - Plotinus, pg 137.

"Love is what happens when we connect deeply with another sentient being because love is the way we experience the mysterious paradox of being the One appearing to be many. Love is the mystery aware of the mystery..." - Freke and Gandy, pg 182.

As interesting as their historical and philosophical arguments are, Jesus and the Lost Goddess is ultimately another polemic about the best way to be religious. The essential message is "Be eclectic and intelligent and undogmatic, like the Gnostics, and then everybody will be kinder to each other because their natural goodness will naturally rise to the surface."

The authors recommend no ethics or behavior in particular (although various Gnostic cults recommended many particular things, often conflicting). They bring a don't-worry-be-happy sort of gospel that I regularly employ merely to keep myself sane.

But I don't misunderstand my coping mechanisms as either scientifically or academically based.

In the long run, insisting that God wants us to "not worry and be happy" just seems like a new literalism. A kinder, gentler literalism, stressing cooperation between competing religious traditions - but ultimately a literalism because it ignores the very fact that some people just need old-time religion to get by. Some people need routine and structure and hard and fast rules. As long as we're being tolerant, I suppose we need to be tolerant of them, too.

The Gnostics' (and the authors') utopian message in the end leaves me cold - because if anything, uncovering utopian hippies in the ancient Middle East simply proves that the utopian urge is as old as civilization. Yet it's never succeeded in creating the perfect Star Trek world where no one fights and nobody goes hungry, because utopias ignore the animal nature of human beings. One of the stress points of this kind of Utopianism is that nature is a good thing, but not if it's red in tooth and claw. Which is how nature, including humanity, really, really is. Especially when backed into a corner. Should I be comforted that everybody, in their heart of hearts, means well, if I am a casualty of war?

Although I share the authors' distrust of fundamentalist religion, and even felt strangely nourished by their shrewish diatribes against the doctrinaire and the humorless, I think examining how different religions negotiate their interrelationships is a more worthwhile strategy for peacemaking than insisting on yet another modus operandi for belief.

I am ultimately grateful, however, that the authors have given me permission to feel reverence for mythology, to treat it as serious business in the same way I try to learn from literature or history, no matter how tongue-in-cheek the story is, or how insane the reality. I have often thought it curious that as much as I distrust religion and its institutions (and, sometimes, it practitioners), I find no real fault with the New Testament. I loved Jesus Christ Superstar! It's nice to be able to feel like I am able to claim a use for the story without having to claim the baggage that comes with its history.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The last couple of weekends, I seem to have finally got time to take care of life and writing chores. It seems like the first half of the years as been about playing catchup to writing chores, between finishing my book, looking at Ruby's, and joining a new writer's group.

But the last couple of weeks have been fun. I got to have lunch with a very new friend, saw Hellboy 2 and Batman 2, both of which were solid fun.

Last weekend, we had dinner at Chuck E. Cheese's. Surprisingly, when I was talking to a friend, she said it was expensive. But I thought it was a good value: games, Pizza, drinks, for around $20. Taking three people to a movie with snacks would have run at least fifty.

I've been having long conversations with myself about getting my life to do more of what I want it to, lately. I'm too old to be fucking around. I think I decided I needed to start cooking again. I might try to take some classes in September, stupid adult ed stuff, but something that will allow me to be able to think creatively about food.

Today, I am making a pasta salad for lunches this week. I fried a couple of chicken breasts, cut them up. I'm making penne, steaming green beans, and cutting up pitted Kalamata olives. The last part, after the pasta cools, will be the crumbled goat cheese. I'm going to test a small portion with Baslamic Vinaigrette. This was inspired by a pasta salad my mom bought at Costco. Tasty and light. I hope.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ethel and Ernest - a review

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Let's get one thing straight. Ethel and Ernest is a comic book. Like Barefoot Gen is a comic book about the aftermath of Hiroshima, using pictures to heighten the impact of words. Like Maus is a comic book about a concentration camp survivor that uses funny animals as a metaphor to emphasize the moral distinction between the Jews and the Nazis. Like Batman is a comic book about a guy who dresses up like a bat and kicks the high holy crap out of muggers and clowns.

Like Barefoot Gen and Maus, Ethel and Ernest showcases no spandex, contains not a single batarang or ray gun. Not that this is necessarily a recommendation. I happen to have a giddy adoration of spandex, batarangs, and ray guns.

Ethel and Ernest
is a comic book. It's also a luminescent illustrated biography of Raymond Briggs's parents, from their first chance encounter in the twenties until their death in the seventies. In Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs fuses his family photo album, anecdotes passed between generations, and the narrative of a turbulent century.

Comic book literati call this genre the Graphic Novel, as if that legitimizes to American audiences the practice of illustrating chunks of text and dialog. Sort of as if Dr. Seuss had written The Old Man and the Sea.

Graphic novels are more akin to epic poems that use pictures to fine tune and add dimension to the stories they support. Like the Book of Kells. Or the Gutenberg Bible. Comic books are logovisual. Words and pictures function in unison to create a single idea. While our head interprets the words, our heart interprets the pictures.

Mr. Briggs' simple, texturally rich illustrations and vivid, lush backgrounds have the uncanny ability to isolate a moment of time, while still letting it move within the frame, making each comic panel achingly temporal. There is a liquid, holographic quality to such preserved moments. They transcend the rigidity of photographs and abrogate the pushy rush of text to press on to the next description.

Ethel and Ernest is a triumph of hybridization, bringing past moments alive, complete with their attendant humor and tragedy. Using history as a backdrop, Ethel and Ernest defines its subjects by how they react to the world, intertwining history and humanity until they are indistinguishable.

"This bloke, Adolf Hitler." Ernest begins a conversation. "It says they're publishing his book over here. Mein Kamph, it's called. All the profits are going to the Red Cross."

"Oh, that's nice of him." Ethel replies.

After they struggle to bear their single child, with the certain knowledge that there won't be more, Et and Ern must struggle again with the knowledge that they must send Ray away from a London under siege in order to protect him.

"One and a half million children are to be evacuated," their boxy old radio states.

"They're not taking ours away!" Exclaims Ethel.

"'Course they are!" Ernest rebuts.

"Oh, no they're not! Over my dead body!"

"It will be over his dead body then! Is that what you want!"

That argument makes the jagged speech balloons of their shouts, and the reds and yellows that make up the pallet of their complexions, into flames that foreshadow the bombing of London by the Nazi's.

Ethel and Ernest
is filled with logovisual hieroglyphs that float the dialog past, each picture a word that describes the accumulation of a life. The garden that they fill with flowers and bomb shelters and pear trees. The Valentine's Day cards Ernest makes Ethel. The shards of their bombed out home. The crouched imp of a telephone that appears sometime in the fifties.

The last pages are hollow with loneliness. Of course. Where else do lives end, but death? In the stark white of hospitals. In the dingy shadows cast by middle of the night phone calls. Through a combination of text and color and line, Ethel and Ernest manages to place you in the great depression, in a London being mercilessly shelled by the Nazi's. Finally, it will bring you into the heart of a son who has lost his parents, which is a place as real as any orphanage.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

Declare - A review

Declare, by Tim Powers

Tim Powers is a big, fat tease.

What I really mean is that Tim Powers is an intriguingly opaque writer who uses a wealth of historical detail to obscure the fact that his fantasy novels are richly over the top.

Powers sets fantastical stories in historical venues, making his novels a sort of history a-go-go. This makes for an immensely refreshing take on fantasy. There are, at the very least, no anemic Gandolph seemalikes. In addition, fitting historical fact to a folkloric/fantastic framework fires curiosity in a most satisfying way. You begin to wonder: how much of this is true? It's an enjoyable puzzle.

His newest novel, Declare, is a rich tapestry of crossed genres, mixing the convolutions of the spy novel, the cover story and double cross, with the odd angles, the pacifications and perambulations, of middle eastern folklore. It's about Gilgamish and Genies and Immortality and Spies and Communism and The Berlin Wall and Baptism and Foxes with Ghosts in them. In describing his supernatural ecosystem, Powers even finds a way to make The Soviet Union even creepier than it actually was.

It's hard to talk about one of Powers' books without describing his entire Oeuvre. He always dabbles in eccentric concepts: The Drawing of the Dark is about a magic beer that safeguards western civilization. Last Call is about Las Vegas gamblers competing to be the Fisher King of America. On Stranger Tides is about Pirates seeking out the Fountain of Youth.

His books mine the elaborate network of superstitions people navigate their lives by: the nervous ticks of gamblers, the trademark personality quirks of pirates, the double blinds of spies. He layers them onto a supernatural pseudo-physics that takes you for a wild ride, mostly because it sounds almost possible in a really bent kind of fashion.

Tim Powers doesn't give you everything up front. The quirks of his supernatural creatures, ghosts and elementals, vampires and djinn, sort of unwind as a novel goes on. By the end, you'll feel you know enough to become a sort of latter day Solomon/Van Helsing.

What he gives you until he gets to that point is a rich background of character and history to set his flights of fancy in.

For instance, Kim Philby, the antagonist of Declare, was a real person. He spied for the British between 1940 and 1963, though it was revealed towards the end of his career (when he defected to the USSR) that he had been counterspying for the Soviets the entire time.

Declare paints an interesting emotional portrait of this non-fictional individual and exploits the most curious parts of his real life. Powers' after word is tantalizing, revealing that Philby did indeed own a fox that smoked cigars and drank whiskey, and which he mourned in a drunken stupor for three days after it was murdered in cold blood. After reading Declare, you might be drawn to read the many biographies and histories written about Philby the spy.

Andrew Hale, the protagonist, just seems real, carrying a decades-long unrequited lust for a fellow spy that he met as a communist in Paris. Tim Powers has masterfully executed a portrait of a man whose emotions are closed off and hampered by his conflicting loyalties. Declare is mostly Hale's story, and at some point it becomes clear that the title refers to Andrew Hale's overarching decisions: He must decide between, and declare his intentions towards, his emotional loyalties, his spiritual loyalties, and his patriotic loyalties.

Though used the most sparingly of any character in the novel, Elena Teresa Ceniza-Bendiga, Hale's romantic declare-ee, is maybe more intriguing because of this. Hale falls in love with her as a British Mole in the Soviet Secret Service infiltrating Nazi occupied Paris, even though she declares herself a "bride of communism."

Her evolution from a communist following her parents murder by the right wing in Spain, to her rebirth as a Catholic after she finds out exactly what kind of supernatural master she is serving in the Soviet Union, becomes the pivot around which antagonist and protagonist turn. Superficially she is their romantic involvement. More specifically she becomes an illustration of the perils and rewards of faith. Philby and Hale's fascination with her crystallizes Philby's cynical opportunism and undoes Hale's near-bovine absolutism.

Declare is powerful reading, pun intended. It is easily one of his more ambitious, complex, and engaging novels, one of a long chain of curiously evocative historical fantasies. Tim Powers understands how to roll out a mystery carefully, and the travails of his quietly passionate characters leave pieces of themselves behind in the reader. The immense scope of Declare, encompassing both history and wonder, human frailty and otherworldly immensity, will interest everyone who cares about the human spirit.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

So... fourth of July was a sublime exercise in the beauty of chaos. Host had a truckload of fireworks, neighbors down the street brought a bunch of them. Some of these were footlong bricks of one firework.

Half the fun of fireworks is the packaging. The ones Host brought back had great art: cracked out Vallejo style dragon centaur chicks in chainmail bikinis with spastic, half literate product names like "Revenge of Godness."


Host was lighting them off even before dark. I got to see a firework tumbling a hundred feet in the air before it let off tracers of smoke. The officer from down the street brought out a couple of M-80's. The dialog involved there was great.

Host stuck the quarter sticks of dynamite into a watermelon. The noise so thrilled Poppy that she was screaming "Thank you!" from the porch.

A plumber neighbor brought over a blowtorch, so we started lighting sparklers, which the girls had a lot of nerve wracking fun with. Not for them... they weren't paying too much attention. It was nerve wracking for me.

We watched for an hour and a half as he lit them off. Some of them were truly awesome, covering the parts of the sky I could see with crackling golden webs of stars.

Enough good energy to kick start my writing and exercise habits again next week.

Food was excellent. Company was excellent. Good day to be alive.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Our own adventure!

Last night, while I was working the desk, the sky put on a show. Lightning sheeted, rain bucketed down thick as mist, the lights flickered. It was a frankly creepy display, for one because the thunder rumbled nearly constantly for an hour or so, sounding just like the description the bowling angels Rip Van Winkle. And I suspect wrangling patrons in a lightless Portage District Library would be less than fun. Very Apocalyptic feeling. Everything cleared up after an hour or so, but I got home to find a muggy, candle lit house. The power had gone out. It stayed out the next morning.

Calling from work, the power company said that we would be off the grid until late Saturday. So I worked through the morning, asked my staff and boss if I could leave early (Vicki had been hollering at me about my leave accrual topping out anyway), walked home, cleaned out the fridge while Ruby packed, and took off to the east coast of Michigan, to hang out with the 'rents. Who had air conditioning and hot water.

We are refugees, Nomads in search of electricity. It all feels strangely invigorating.

Will be here through the fourth, then I go back to work on the fifth. Power will still be out, probably. So... I guess I will have to console myself by going out on the town. Shame, that.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

I now understand the definition of "luck."

Luck is when you leave your bag at a friends house for a month.

Then, you carry the bag around with you for another couple of weeks after you have retrieved it, without properly cleaning it out.

Then you discover a bag of carrots that you had left in it, sort of simmering in a yellowish green slime, STILL SEALED.

That, my friends, is luck.

On other fronts:

I don't know how many gamers actually read the site. I believe the email this is based on has gone to the other two. But this is my two cents on the 4.0 thing.

I have at least one friend who really dislikes the game, and I understand all his reasons. They mostly center around the character classes, and how modular and generic the skills seem to be.

I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons 4.0 for about two weeks now: my friend Chris is running Keep on the Shadowfell, and I am running some short adventures for a few kids I know through the library. I also played in some demos at my game store.

I'm having fun. I've played about 13 hours of the game. I find the system to be pretty elegant, and I feel like there is a large difference between the classes despite a decreased dependence on BAB.

I also think cooperative play is radically increased by increasing the scope of individual class roles. This is largely because you can depend on every player to be able to add to the combat every round.

In the games I played in, my group stopped and planned our approach to each combat. We figured out which players would take which tasks. All the classes have a distinct footprint. The Cleric and Paladin act as tanks and offers minor buffs, the wizard and rogue offering ranged back up and area attacks.

Our roles weren't much different than they would have been in 3.5: my paladin and the cleric went in first, and the rogue and wizard stood behind them and shot. But I did feel like I had a choice of things to do. Instead of hitting each opponent in turn with my optimized weapon, I had to think about whether I used Holy Strike or Valiant Strike (I used Valiant Strike when I was surrounded, and Holy Strike one on one). My wife's wizard never ran out of stuff to do, but had choices each combat.

I'm finding the kids I'm running on Tuesdays are reacting pretty much the same way.

At the end of the day, it's a game. It's a set of numbers and assumptions with a skin on it. I would like to try running Celestial Wastelands in d20 again, maybe use d20 for another modern era game. I will read Pathfinder when I have a moment. But for FRPG, I will probably stick with 4.0 for awhile. 3.5 was so widgety, involving so many steps for preparation, especially high level, that I couldn't cope with it anymore.

I've of course heard the comparisons to Warcraft: DND 4.0 is somehow soul-less because the similarities to roles, and the slimmed down choices, are similar to a CRPG (specifically a MMRPG).

As an aside, playing 6-8 hours of Warcraft a week for the past two months or so (Yes, way too much), it's not the "system" that's the problem with Warcraft. The problem with Warcraft is that there's a computer running it. It's a grindy, number crunching system with limited personality behind it. I like the look, and I like playing a simple game with my wife or daughter, but I don't like it so much when I play on my own. If 4.0 were run by a machine, it would be just as sucktastic as Warcraft. But then again, 3.5 was, too, when you get right down to it. I played Baldur's Gate once. Would I play it again? Nah. But with a person running it, especially a person a hard-rockin' cool as me or my friend Chris, 4.0 is kind of cool.

edit: 7/3

One of my preferred bloggers notes that he is not fond of 4.0 for reasons my friend would appreciate.

I was interested in this quote:

With earlier MU's if I ran out of spells it forced me to come up with lots of on-the-fly shenanigans to beat the baddies. To understand the brave new world of 4e imagine a magic missile crushing the darkness, forever.

I laud the sentiment, and I've had alot of fun extemporizing when my character is in resource poor situations. But I know that I've had GM's who can't make that fun, and make sure that unoptimal choices are punished. I've had players who feel like they are being punished if the GM puts them in an unoptimal situation. So I wonder if most players see much difference between various methods of eliminating options: limited spell choice versus no spells at all sometimes.

It's six of one. The GM makes the system, not the other way around. Running out of spells can't be the only way to encourage players to extemporize.