Thursday, July 28, 2011

Martian Mash-ups

What with a (new) film of John Carter of Mars scheduled for early next year and me having had a recent touch of Edgar Rice Burroughs then it's time to recycle his collaborations with Frank Herbert which I previously discussed on another site in 2008:

Muab'dib of the Apes - After his parents are killed, Muab'dib is brought up by desert apes and leads them on a jihad to reclaim his birthright as Lord Atreides.

A Princess of Dune - I'm a bit hazy on this one, but don't confuse it with the film and book The Princess Bride of Dune.

As might be expected everyone remembered The Princess Bride of Dune, especially Paul Duncanson:

"Hello. My name is Paul Muad'Dib Atreides. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

To which I had to respond:

And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Crime Fighting Teen Detectives

Teen detectives are great protagonists. Teens are curious, unhampered by pre-formed opinions, clearsighted, close to their education and mentors. Sometimes they are troubled, often ignored by adults, but they are idealists who believe in and seek out truth, justice and the American way happy endings. But what if you had the wrong sort of teens - the slackers, the drinkers and smokers, the ones who'd rather sit around calling each other dude?

Kate Beaton is a Canadian cartoonist best know for history comics and Canadian comics. But she's also tackled this important question. Her Mystery Solving Teens have "taken on" several cases. I've failed to tell you before because, well, you know, I should maybe write a blogpost about every comic on the web I like? It doesn't say "Webcomic Review" at the top of the page or anything. But I've been broken out of my apathy by the introduction of a new character, Vanessa the Girl Reporter. Being part of the Mystery-Solving-Teen-verse her self published "newspaper" is called "The Shit Talker" and - look just read the whole series okay? Work Warning: there's some swearing because, you know, they're those sort of Teens, right? Anyway if your work is cool with you looking at webcomics, I don't see why they should get uptight about a bit of profanity but then that's why I'm not your boss.

The Docks Mystery.
The Ghost in the Library.
The Snow Mystery.
The Principal's Office.
Boy Detectives, Girl Reporter. (Be sure to check out the sketches below this one).

Some other Kate Beaton stuff I like: A bunch of comics, Charlie and the Turnip Factory, Sexy Batman. Or maybe just read her whole site! It's not like you were going to get any work done today.

For actual mystery solving non-teen* comics, may I suggest John Allison's Bad Machinery.

* They're tweens. I cringe writing that word.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Weekend before last I was on the train reading Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds, which the back cover describes as "a snarling, drooling, crazy-eyed mongrel of a book, equal parts steampunk, western, planetary romance and far-future SF"[1]. It begins in Spearpoint, the last city on Earth, an atmosphere-piercing spire. Then on page 106 our protagonist Quillon has a look at a map:
The other side of the map was not much of an improvement, but at least he recognised more of the landmarks. Soul’s Rest was the largest community anywhere on Earth, with the exception of Spearpoint, and that really was halfway around the world. It lay far to the west, beyond the Daughters, the three mountains punched in a sloping line with the regularity of bullet holes, beyond even the Mother Goddess, the tallest of all mountains, so tall and wide that from its footslopes it no longer seemed a mountain, but merely a gentle steepening of the ground. It lay west of the shrunken waters of the Long Gash and the Old Sea - marked in black on the map, although he had a suspicion that the waters had retreated even further since the map was drawn.

I recognise this terrain and it's not Earth. It also casts light on this later description of a character - "In his thirties, certainly - perhaps even his forties, but with the vigour of a man a third his age." - and some other passages.

Which of course leads me to wonder, when did I become so familiar with the distinctive features of another planet that I can pick them out from a brief description, the day after a quite savage stag night?

[1] This could describe my journey home, except replacing "far-future SF" with "near-future SF" and "book" with "rail journey".

Monday, July 18, 2011

Conversation of the Stag Weekend

Me: Do you want a paracetamol?
Stan: No thanks.
Me: Go on! All the cool kids are taking them!

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Last Thing I Have To Say About Harry Potter

Here's my brief summary of the Harry Potter series for those of you who've forgotten.

Harry Potter and the Stone Philosopher

Harry discovers a talking statue of Wittgenstein. Harry is unable to understand what it says.

Harry Potter and the Secret of Chambers

Harry thinks Statue of Wittgenstein is telling him information about a suite of rooms. Eventually he gets them assigned to him and discovers a secret!

Harry Potter and the Ass Cabana Prison

Following the events in Secret, Harry is sent to a tropical island and is made a guard at a traditionally built jail for donkeys. There he uncovers more secrets and engineers a daring jailbreak!

Harry Potter and the Fire of Goblets

Clues from Statue of Wittgenstein, the Chamber and the Magic Donkey has lead Harry to the obvious conclusion; he must gather lots of wooden beakers and burn them, before Voldemort gets his hands on them!

Harry Potter and the Phoenix of Order

Rising from the flames, the Phoenix of Order has put Voldemort to flight. But regrouping, they are more dangerous than ever. The Phoenix leaves some cryptic clues to Harry's next quest!

Harry Potter and the Prince Half-Blood

Thanks to the Phoenix of Order, Harry and his friends have corrected the imbalance in magic and restored it to it's true power. It is still at risk, unless the lost heir to magic royalty can be found. Can they find the last prince before Voldemort?

Harry Potter and the Hallowed Death

Harry is the True Heir, the King Who Was Promised. But he is also the Sacrifice Who Goes Willingly; as king, he must be willing to lay down his life for his people. Will he do it? Or will Voldemort steal his death, make Harry immortal breaking the compact and destroy the line of kings forever?

Conversation of the Day

Mum: We're just waiting on You-Know-Who.
Me: I don't know who. Is it Voldemort?
Mum: Yes!
Me: No it isn't. He's fictional. And as the last film comes out today he's definitely dead.
Mum: Oh.
Me: Oh, right, spoilers.

I should note that Mum is not a fan.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

I Read Books: Tarzan of the Apes

I am not in love with origin stories. When you introduce me to your hero I want you to tell me something worth hearing. It should be the most interesting, the most awesome, the most important, maybe the most horrible or the funniest thing that happened to them. It should be their best[1] story. If not why are you wasting my time? "Wait a minute" you say. "I need to tell you where my hero comes from to make the story worth hearing!" Sometimes this is true. But sometimes you begin at the beginning for the sake of beginning at the beginning. YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME.

Tarzan of the Apes is the first Tarzan novel, and is, of course, his origin story. You know this story, of how Lord and Lady Greystoke are marooned on the coast of Africa, they die and their son is brought up by anthropoid apes, how he becomes the most fearsome killer in the jungle and then saves a group of Americans[2] and is introduced to civilisation. So why am I wasting your time with this review?

Mostly because this is not quite the origin story you know. Tarzan, as it turns out is a superhero[3]. After some experimentation, his standard method of lion-killing involves a noose and a hunting knife[4], but at one point he gets one in a wrestling hold and unable to let it go, for obvious reasons, breaks it's neck. He can also swing through the trees, (from branch to branch rather than pendulum-like on vines as in films) with a full grown man over his shoulder. His athleticism is not the most extraordinary thing however.

Brought up by ape-men, he learns their language. When he discovers his parents' cabin, he then teaches himself to read and write English from the illustrated dictionary and other children's primers and books. This despite being unable speak English. Having the shyness of a wild beast, he rescues various Americans and Europeans, but as he cannot understand them leaves them notes[5]. This makes them think there are two men in the forest; one the silent "Forest Lord" and Tarzan of the Apes, a literate but invisible man.

Eventually they are rescued by a French cruiser and leave, while Tarzan is caring for a French Officer who has been injured by a local tribe. This officer teaches Tarzan to speak, although he teaches him French. They return to civilisation, leading eventually to Tarzan rescuing Jane, his love[6], first from a forest fire in Wisconsin, then from marrying a man who her father owes a debt of honour. Jane, scared by her feelings, then decides to marry William Clayton, Lord Greystoke. At this moment evidence arrives proving Tarzan is the son of John Clayton, which makes William Clayton his cousin and Tarzan Lord Greystoke. And so Tarzan...

Says nothing and tells no one and the book ends.

Tarzan's life as a beast is fascinating. He has no introspection, and exists in the moment and hardly knows what he is doing, let alone why. The other characters are less interesting. The comic relief comes from Professor Archimedes Q Porter (Jane's father) who is an absent minded professor and Esmeralda (Jane's servant/companion) a "Negress" who weighs 280 pounds, is sure they'll all be killed[7], speaks in slang and "hilariously" mispronounces words. It is not very funny. The mutineers and blacks who provide the villains are mostly undistinguished, and are the scum of the earth and savage cannibals respectively.

Jane Porter, the love interest is not entirely passive - when left behind by the men and a lioness tries to invade the cabin she tries to shoot it, and then decides to shoot Esmeralda and herself - but mostly exists to be rescued and loved. D'Arnot, the Frenchman who Tarzan rescues and then teaches Tarzan to be civilised, is little more developed.

If the novel has a moral it is an old fashioned one - breeding will out. Tarzan is tempted to eat a (black) man he kills, but doesn't because he is the son of an English Lord. Jane is kidnapped by an ape and will suffer a fate "a thousand times worse than death" and is rescued by Tarzan who is then overwhelmed by feelings he "barely understood". He then builds a bower for her and, to assuage her fears gives her his knife and sleeps outside as a guard with the chivalry of an English Lord.

So it is old-fashioned, and exciting, and has many bad characters, and a really good character who is almost characterless, and is full of incident, and tells us that the status quo is good and true, and we have a hero who is undefeatable, who gives away the only things he wants. This is not a great novel, but it is a good one, and an entertaining one, and an interesting one. It is not a waste of my time.

Read This: If you want to read an old-fashioned tale of adventure with the original character who popularised the tension between savagery and civilisation.
Don't read this: If casual racism, sexism and classism offends you, or you have no interest in ape-men and rescues and all that.
More Tarzanry on Night of the Hats - in which I criticise one passage in The Beasts of Tarzan, the third novel in the series.

[1] Or most filmic if you are making a film.
[2] And an English lord.
[3] He is referred to as a "Forest God" and the captain of the French cruiser uses the term "super-man" to describe him. Clearly a fan of Nietzsche.
[4] Which he stabs into the (savage) breast a dozen time. This is his standard method of dispatching dangerous animals. Frankly most of the time he ought to cut their throat; one or two slashes ought to do it.
[5] Signed Tarzan of the Apes. He can't speak English and doesn't know what it sounds like, but still manages to spell his name (meaning "White-skin" in Ape language). This is the not mere impossibility of other events in the novel, but a logical paradox.
[6] And not coincidentally the first white woman he has ever seen. Mere days before meeting her Tarzan takes to wearing a breechcloth, because it's fine to be nude for the first 20 years of your life as long a white woman doesn't see your tackle.
[7] They've been marooned by mutineers on the uninhabited coast of West Africa. It is not unreasonable to be afraid.

Friday, July 01, 2011

I Read Books: Signal Catastrophe

Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat From Kabul, 1842 by Patrick Macrory, 1966

1. This is the 1967 History Book Club edition. The same book was published in the United States under the title Retreat from Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842. Due to some confusion on this issue, my brother managed to order both the edition I'm reviewing and the 2002 American edition. As the newer one is smaller and lighter being in paperback, that's the one he took with him, leaving this one to me.

2. This was sent by Rothwell and Dunworth Ltd, Antiquarian Booksellers. I can say that these people know how to pack books. No shove it in a jiffy bag for them. The book was placed in a paper bag which was folded tightly around it and taped shut. Then a well fitting cardboard form was folded around it and again taped. Finally it was wrapped and sealed. The old fashioned compliments slip was a nice touch, and is currently holding out well as a bookmark.

3. George MacDonald Fraser referenced this in his novel Flashman which covered most of the events of this history. He was very complimentary. However I can't find the wording as someone has half-inched my copy.

4. Written in 1966, it's in clear modern language and is easy to follow. However it feels very old school as a history. We're well into Great Man theory of history (or, in this case, Great Pillock) territory. Concentrating almost entirely on written sources we get a good view of the upper ranks of the Army of the Indus, but the view from ground level is minimal. It's also anglocentric as most of the records consulted were in English.

This is not entirely a bad thing - it's about the British Retreat From Kabul rather than a broader history, so it should emphasise the British point of view. Some Afghan sources are referenced, and, indeed, Macrory notes that historians asking Afghans about the war got stories that matched up well with the historical record. However there was the interesting tendency to mix up incidents from the First Anglo-Afghan War with events from the Second and even the Third. A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book.

5. Who is to blame? Like everyone else, this book blames Elphinstone. He was too old, too tired and too ill and so made bad decisions, no decisions and changed his decisions from bad to appalling depending on whoever spoke to him last. Elphinstone apparently tried to refuse the command, but not hard enough. 19th century ideas of honour, reputation and patronage did not allow him to resign because to do so would have marked him as a coward and simultaneously destroyed any influence he might have had.

That said, a 21st century professional army would probably have retired Elphinstone rather than send him to Kabul. If by some mischance he did end up in command there, he would have been relieved before the disaster was complete. Of course part of that is because of modern communications. Until reliable telegraphy became widespread commanders in the field had an immense amount of authority and discretion. For this reason it was impossible for officers junior to Elphinstone to alleviate the situation and, as he had been appointed by the Governor-General, he was independent of the civilian authority of Macnaghten.

Several factors leading to the British position becoming untenable came into being before Elphinstone took over; the decision to garrison the army outside the city in cantonment; the poor positioning and design of the cantonments; the storage of supplies and ammunition outside the cantonments. Nevertheless Elphinstone made no attempt to improve the situation. His second-in-command Brigadier Shelton was unhelpful and uninterested in Elphinstone's problems; his aggressive and straightforward suggestions would probably not have improved the situation, but frankly any decision would have been better than Elphinstone's dithering.

6. The British response to the massacre was pretty brutal, but in the end they retreated from Afghanistan. By this time, it had become clear that the country was not about to become a Russian puppet state, so there was no longer any reason to remain. This happy state of affairs continued until the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War.

7. I enjoyed it. It is, of course, a tragedy, although not a classical one. Elphinstone is not brought down by his pride or his strengths, but by his illness, his lack of grasp on the situation, his indecisiveness and his appalling choices of who to put his trust in. And he brings down the whole army with him, which brings down vengeance onto the whole Afghan nation. The worst of it is that, as Pollock proved when he forced the Khyber pass in the aftermath, even after the decision to leave the cantonments is made, a swift and decisive march to Jallabad might just have made it. Instead they started late, stopped early, waited for escorts from the Afghans - the list of errors goes on and on.

8. Read this book: If you want to know about the British retreat from Kabul in a light and, if you'll forgive the word, entertaining manner.
Don't read this book: If you have no interest in the topic or prefer your history to concentrate on ground level foot soldiers.
Note: In Signal Catastrophe, the name of the book, signal is not a verb, but an adjective, meaning serious or extraordinary.