The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review

One time I mentioned on the site that I wondered what a combination of science fiction and fantasy would be like.  TomD, whose opinions on matters political, photographic and literary are always enlightening, immediately volunteered two examples, The Majipoor Cycle and the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.  I have previously reviewed the Majipoor books.  Here I will address D.O.D.O. and just to get it out of the way the acronym stands for Department of Diachronic Operatives, a government issue time travel story.

Neal Stephenson wrote this book with Nicole Galland.  I’ve heard of Stephenson but never read him before.  I’d never heard of Galland before this book.  So, the book finally got to the top of the pile and I just finished it on Thursday past.  The first thing I can say is that this is a hybrid creation.  The outline of the story is a time-travel science fiction story of the giant government project category.  On that framework is a story that combines historical fiction, fantasy and a satiric contemporary novel about day to day life in a government bureaucracy.  The other fact about the story is that most of it is a first-person narrative by a modern female character.  And this particular character is a college teaching assistant with expertise in linguistics.  And I am intimately familiar with this subspecies.  And I’m not greatly sympathetic to its idiosyncrasies.  Also, the story takes place in Cambridge, MA.  And I am also intimately familiar with the habits and foibles of the people who live there.  And I am also not greatly sympathetic to their idiosyncrasies either.  So, this starts me out in the wrong place as a reader and reviewer.

Moving on from there, the story ingeniously constructs a scenario where the present-day American military becomes worried about losing a global arms race in magic.  Military intelligence has somehow detected anomalies in the present that lead them to believe that someone has figured out how to travel back in time.  And based on a thorough computerized analysis of historical documents, they believe the method involves witchcraft.  And since witchcraft doesn’t seem to exist anymore, they need to figure out how to revive it.  And reviving it hinges on manipulating quantum states of matter and invokes Schrodinger’s Cat who literally shows up in the story (the cat, not the Schrodinger).

From there we meet a Japanese scientist/Mayflower descendant, husband/wife team, which is a category that believe it or not, I’m also personally familiar with.  He’s a quantum physicist who has been investigating the mechanism that the story needs to restore magic and she is the descendant of a burned Salem witch.  Mix in a surviving one hundred and eighty-year-old Hungarian witch, a dashing young army lieutenant colonel, a plucky and annoying female linguist (these last two being the love interests in the story) and assorted scientists, generals, computer geeks and bureaucrats both academic and military and you have the cast that becomes project D.O.D.O.  Once they succeed, we add into the stew, witches from colonial Massachusetts, Elizabethan London, thirteenth century Constantinople and various times and places in medieval northern Europe.  And the non-witch historical characters include Byzantine emperors and empresses, Varangian guards, Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Burbage and a raiding party of Vikings in a Walmart.

The text is a collection of Victorian era journal entries, Elizabethan era letters, some medieval vellum codices, U.S. military documents and a copious collection of e-mail messages from a variety of bureaucratic organizations.  The story is in several voices modern and antique but as mentioned above is primarily the journal of the young woman linguist who is the protagonist and the focal point of several of the original plot elements.

Despite my obvious lack of sympathy for the protagonist and several other of the main characters, the story works on its own terms.  The characters are self-consistent and wherever I am competent to compare them to their real-life exemplars highly accurate.  Because of the details of the time travel mechanism, the action is of necessity episodic and sometimes repetitive.  This situation is written pretty well and only results in a little slowness in the action at the beginning of the book.  Toward the end the pacing picks up quite a bit and the book ends by resolving the latest crisis but the finish requires that there will be sequels.

My opinion on the book is that if you are like me and rather dislike bureaucrats and modern women then you will have limited sympathy for the protagonist and several of the main characters.  There is a good amount of swashbuckling action by the military officer who is a main character and likable.  The story line is extremely clever as a science fiction plot.  So, I recommend it as a story with the proviso that men of my generation will be tempted occasionally to toss the book at the wall when modern New England feminist empowerment rears its ugly head.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – A Movie Review

Terry Gilliam is best known as a member of the comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  But he also had a second career as a motion picture writer/director.  His best-known movie was Brazil, about a dystopic future where the all-powerful security state reaches an absurdist level of control.

But the movie that I am interested in here is a less well known but sunnier exercise.  The movie opens up within a walled town besieged by the Turks at a time that is identified as being in the 18th Century, The Age of Reason, Wednesday.  A small acting company is putting on a comical play of the legendary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, when in the middle of the first act the real Baron Munchausen interrupts the play to refute the slanders, he claims are being made against himself.  The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson who is in attendance in the audience and is the military governor of the town and a staunch proponent of the Age of Reason, takes offense at the Baron’s aspersions against reason and logic and threatens to throw the Baron and the whole acting troupe over the wall to the Turk.  The Baron claims he is the cause of the Turkish assault on the town and spends the rest of the movie assembling his legendary comrades to save the town from both the Turk and the Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson.  The Sultan and Jackson, behind the scenes are actually on excellent terms and take turns winning battles in order to keep the war going on forever.

Some very excellent actors are included in the cast including Jonathan Pryce as Horatio Jackson, Robin Williams as the King of the Moon and Eric Idle as Desmond and Berthold.  The reason Idle has two characters to play is another conceit of the movie.  The play actors of which Idle is one look exactly like the Baron’s actual comrades and so the movie actors play both parts.  Robin Williams as mentioned, is King of the Moon and his characterization has a split personality.  When the King’s head is detached from his body, he has a light, zany, Italian-accented voice an impish personality.  But when the head and body are joined Williams takes on the voice and personality of what could most easily be described as an angrier version of Benito Mussolini.

The English actor John Neville plays the Baron and smaller parts are distributed to well-known actors like Oliver Reed and Uma Thurman who portray the gods Vulcan and Venus respectively.  Even Sting (of Police singing fame) has a cameo as the “Heroic Officer.”

The plot, such as it is, has the Baron sailing to the Moon, falling into Mount Vesuvius to meet Vulcan and Venus and being swallowed by a giant sea monster, all performed as part of his search for his servants.  Along the way he flirts with Queens, goddesses and even a few commoners.  At all times he somehow has long stem roses to hand out and he invariably compares the beauty of each women to Catherine the Great “whose hand in marriage I once had the honor to decline.”  On one occasion he makes the remark to three women at once.  When an auditor of this exchange challenges him that they couldn’t all remind him of Catherine the Great, the Baron petulantly replied, “Why not? Bits here and bits there!”

The movie is obviously a hymn to fantasy and whimsy and the final showdown has the Baron conquer not only reason and reality but even old age and death itself.  It’s an utterly ridiculous movie that is full of fantastic visual effects and fairy tale imagery.  It probably will not appeal to all tastes.  I highly recommend it to those who can enjoy elaborate nonsense.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 7 – The Lesser Works and A Final Verdict

Re-posted from October 2017

The follow-on episodes to each of the primary monster movies vary in quality but the one given is that anything with a title that begins with “Abbott and Costello Meet …” isn’t going to be scary.  It could be funny, but definitely not scary.

Sort of in a class by itself is the first sequel to Frankenstein, “The Bride of Frankenstein.”  This movie has a lot of interesting things going on.  The actors who portrayed Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster in the first film reprise their roles here (Colin Clive and Boris Karloff).  The script is leavened with a little humor.  Some scenes add some human interest to the Monster’s otherwise predictable behavior of grabbing people and things and tossing them about.  One of the best known of these is the Blind Man Scene.  The Monster escapes from his enemies.  He’s been shot and is on the run.  He wanders into the cottage of a blind man who welcomes him and treats him with kindness.  The Monster is sheltered and his wounds treated.  The blind man teaches him to speak and introduces him to bread and wine and even the pleasure of a good cigar.  And he learns what music is and he calls the Blind Man friend.  Of course, inevitably, reality strikes back and a couple of hunters show up at the Blind Man’s cottage and tell the blind man he’s living with a monster.  And somehow, they manage to burn down the cottage before fleeing from the Monster.

Standouts performances in the movie are Dr. Praetorius and Minnie, Elizabeth Frankenstein’s Housekeeper.  Dr. Praetorius is a competing mad scientist who has also dabbled in the creation of human life and wants to convince Dr. Frankenstein to create a woman.  Minnie is an almost Shakespearean character who combines the qualities of busybody and wise fool with the ability shriek like an air raid siren.

 

The Monster meets Dr. Praetorius while he is selecting body parts for the Monster’s bride in the catacombs beneath the graveyard.  The Dr. offers him wine and a cigar and they become quite chummy.  So much so that the Monster becomes Praetorius’ henchman in a plan to kidnap Elizabeth to force Dr. Frankenstein to complete the Bride project.

 

Appended to the story is a foreword that portrays Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and the Frankenstein authoress (his wife Mary) discussing the story on a stormy night and segueing to the creation of a mate for the Monster.  Interestingly, they cast the same actress, Elsa Lanchester, to play both Mary and the Monster’s mate.

 

The final scene where we see the meeting between the Monster and his prospective bride the atmosphere is bizarre and overwrought to say the least.  Suffice it to say that Monster love does not conquer all.  The spurned monster decides to blow up the laboratory taking himself, Dr. Praetorius and the Bride “to kingdom come.”  But interestingly, he decides to spare Dr. and Mrs Frankenstein.  So, once again, the producers decided that a non-literary happy ending was the way to go.  Assuming that they realized they would need descendants of Dr. Frankenstein to allow for further sequels I guess you could say this decision was at least monetarily warranted.  Artistically, maybe not.  It is pretty much acknowledged that the quality of the Frankenstein sequels after the “The Bride” falls off almost asymptotically.  The next installment “The Son of Frankenstein” has a few good moments that mostly don’t involve the Monster but otherwise is mediocre.  After that the rest of the series is almost unwatchable.

 

And unwatchable is how I would describe the rest of the sequels and reboots that fill out the Universal Classic Monster movies.  The later installments of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and Mummy series are very poor indeed.  The Mummy series was not continued after the original film but instead rebooted with the new Mummy character identified as Kharis played by our old friend the Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr.  In these later movies, the Mummy is never given any personality but mutely wanders through each of the movies of this series wrapped in his bandages and chasing ponderously after the protagonists who are murdered one by one for possessing the Scroll of Thoth (or whatever they called it in the later series).  I think in the last of the series I remember he is somehow or other running around the bayous of Louisiana hunting the scroll and its owners.  In the last scene, he is seen plodding into the swamp until he is lost to sight under the muddy water, apparently ending his undead life far from the deserts of Egypt as a soggy meal for alligators and crawfish.  A fitting end.

 

So, what’s the verdict?  Is the Universal Classic Monster series a worthwhile cinematic collection or an embalmed thing that is only noteworthy as a museum piece to be fussed over by academics and fanatics?  I vote worthwhile.  Granted the movies are antique and the audience surely won’t be scared in the same way your great grandparents were.  But the movies still provide the fantasy experience that they originally were designed for.  In the same way, a nursery rhyme can still charm children who have never seen lambs and cows and ducks except on a screen so these movies give an archetypal experience of the dark fantasy world they are meant to represent.  Dracula is the evil seducer of young innocents.  Frankenstein’s Monster is the raging step-child of God.  The Mummy is a Promethean character punished forever for attempting to preempt the prerogatives of the gods.  Each of these movies is an outdated but enjoyable attempt to entertain an audience with a passion play of what happens when humans are juxtaposed with the darker side of the fantastic.  And because of the gap in time since they were made I think that the best audience for enjoying these films are kids.  I’d say 9 to 11 is about the optimal age group for maximum effect.  That age is old enough not to be scared by the images but not old enough to be jaded by modern movie magic.  And come to think of it, I think that’s how old I was when I thought these movies were great fun.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 6 – The Invisible Man

Re-posted from October 2017

The Invisible Man, to be pedantically precise, is not a monster movie but a science fiction story.  H.G. Wells’ tale of a scientist who develops a technique to render the human body (his own) invisible is not really monstrous in a physical sense but because the technique drives the inventor insane we are back in the neighborhood of the Mad Scientist.  And since Dr. Frankenstein is then brought to mind we can shoehorn this science fiction story into the genre.  Claude Rains (the Wolfman’s father from an earlier chapter of this review) is the Invisible Man.  Or rather Claude Rains voice is the star of the movie, since until the very last scene we can’t see his face.  But it’s a very good voice.  And since often we can’t exactly tell what he’s doing he spends a fair amount of time telegraphing his actions to help us guess what his actions are that the other characters are pantomiming around.  And he’s an active fellow.  He kills a few people with his bare (invisible) hands.  He bludgeons some others and he goes in for some mass murder via railway sabotage.  He ends up a rather unsavory fellow.  But somehow there remains a somewhat sympathetic core to the character.  Based on the people who still try to help him he must have been a good man before his descent into madness.  Therefore, we can look at him as a victim of his own scientific curiosity.

All that aside, it’s a fun movie.  The scientific intelligence, megalomania and irritable persona of the Invisible Man is juxtaposed against the plodding mediocrity, skeptical common sense and parochial outlook of the English villagers and local constables who are dumbfounded and unbelieving as to the true cause of the strange goings on.  Whenever they declare the inexplicable events a hoax the Invisible Man steps in and gives them a painful (and sometimes fatal) object lesson in his reality.

In the thick of these goings on is my favorite supporting character Una O’Connor as the Innkeeper’s wife.  She is a wonderfully shrewish landlady whose suspicious and unkind treatment of the Invisible Man throws him off the deep end.  She possesses the most remarkable shrieking scream ever recorded on film.  She is a national treasure of sorts.  And as a tie-in she plays Dr. Frankenstein’s housekeeper in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” another movie where she chews up the scenery and shrieks a blue streak.

Of course, by the end of the movie and after murdering so many innocent people, the Invisible Man has lost almost all of the audience’s sympathy so that it seems just that he should pay the price for his crimes.  But he is allowed the touching death scene where he regains his humanity and seemingly his sanity.

So, to reiterate, this is not a monster movie but there is a Mad Scientist and several of our old friends from earlier Universal Monster Movies do show up.  It’s basically a tour de force for Claude Rains (or rather his voice). I give it my seal of approval.  Good stuff.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 3 – Frankenstein

Re-posted from October 2017

If Dracula is the King of Monsters, monster royalty as it were, then Frankenstein is the People’s Monster, the Monster of the Proletariat.  Everything about him is working class.  He is outsized and strong to make him an able worker.  His clothing is a workman’s suit.  He is dull, brutish, inarticulate and ugly.  He recognizes beauty and strives after it but is rejected by the beautiful people and chased away.  He is the ultimate step-son.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein’s creation as the ultimate act of human hubris, to pretend to be God.  And the Monster punishes Dr. Frankenstein for putting him through Hell.

Okay, so that’s the meta-story, now let’s talk about the movie.

Universal released Frankenstein in 1931.  The cast is mostly contract character actors who appeared in most of the B-movies at Universal.  Even Dr. Frankenstein was played by a minor star Colin Clive.  And of course, the real star, the Monster is an anonymous question mark (?) in the opening credits.  Boris Karloff made his name with this movie.  And as opposed to Bela Lugosi’s eternal submergence into the part of Dracula, Karloff prospered as the go to monster player at Universal.

The story follows Dr. Frankenstein, first as he creates the Monster and later as the Monster attempts to destroy him.  During this we meet the doctor’s fiancée and his aged father “The Baron.”  And, of course, there is his lab assistant and part time grave robber Fritz.  The hunch-backed sadist (played by Dwight Frye, the same actor who was Renfield in Dracula by the way) is the archetype for every Igor act-alike henchman in every monster movie that ever followed.  And there are all those other memorable characters, the Burgomaster, little Maria the girl drowned in the pond, Maria’s father and of course Doctor Waldman played by Edward Van Sloan.  If you read the previous post in this series you may remember Van Sloan as the brilliant Dr. Van Helsing the scientist and vampire hunter.  In this movie unfortunately, he’s not quite as successful at monster eradication.  In perhaps the most inept example of obsessive compulsive behavior ever filmed, we witness Dr. Waldman bungle the job of monster euthanasia.  In the preceding scene the Monster, tired of being tormented by Fritz, hangs the hunch-back with a length of chain.  Drs. Waldman and Frankenstein immediately suss out the necessity of subduing the Monster before he carries forward this new policy of interpersonal simplification on them.  Working together they barely manage to tranquilize the Monster with a hypodermic before he could finish throttling Dr. Frankenstein with his bare hands.

Dr. Frankenstein, now convinced that his creature is too dangerous to live wants to put him down himself but his father and his fiancée arrive in time to interrupt the program.  Dr. Waldman convinces him to leave and assures him that the deed will be performed without delay.  So far so good, capable older scientist and biologist will dispatch the Monster with a good swift stroke to the carotid or the aorta or whatever, right?  Wrong.  We are about to witness film history.

The next scene opens on Dr. Waldman in operating room garb standing over the Monster lying on an operating table, seemingly unconscious.  Dr. Waldman fiddles with some scalpels, checks the Monster’s vitals and turns aside to make an entry in his journal!  I can’t recall the exact words but the paraphrase is something like, “sedation is becoming less and less effective, I must quickly euthanize him before he regains consciousness.”  Of course, as soon as he finishes this diary entry and turns back to the job at hand, the Monster awakes and breaks the good doctor’s neck.  What the hell!  I mean, come on!  Forget medical school, how did this guy get through middle school without a body guard?  Instead of putting him in charge of monster execution he should have been assigned to spittoon polishing back at the baronial estate of Papa Frankenstein.  What a loser.

Well, the story proceeds with the monster going on a killing spree that inexplicably leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s location.  The Monster arrives just in time to disrupt the wedding and harass but for some unknown reason not kill the doctor’s fiancée.  Roused by this threat to his planned for wedded bliss, Dr. Frankenstein joins the village mob and follows the Monster’s trail back to the obligatory windmill.  Here the tables turn and the Monster kicks his creator’s butt and tosses him off the top of the windmill.  One of the windmill’s vanes breaks his fall and he is transported back to the manor.  The incensed mob sets fire to the mill and the last we see of the Monster he is trapped under a falling beam and surrounded by flame.

Miraculously the doctor makes a complete recovery and in the last scene the household staff are drinking a toast with the Baron to “a Son of the House of Frankenstein.”  Looking at sequels as children, this toast seems to have been amply fulfilled.

So, what’s my conclusion?  It’s incredible fun.  With so many semi-comical characters it’s hard not to take the movie for what it’s meant to be a wild fantasy.  And in that guise, it succeeds.  It even somehow cobbles together a happy ending which completely ignores the actual ending of the book.  The fact that the main characters are obviously British but are supposed to be a German noble family is inexplicable.  The fact that there are no legal or personal repercussions from the Doctor’s creation murdering so many friends and neighbors is equally unexplained.  But taken as a fairy tale it works.  Silly, yes.  Enjoyable, sure.  See it if you haven’t already.

Universal Classic Monster Movies – An OCF Classic Movie Review – Part 2 – Dracula

Re-posted from October 2017

 

Dracula is the King of Monsters.  He is obviously royalty.  He has all the trappings.  His castle, his formal evening attire, even his diction and good manners.  He is called Count Dracula in the Universal film but his legend descends from a real prince.  Vlad III (the Impaler) was ruler of Wallachia in present day Romania.  He was called Dracul (Dragon) for his defense of Christians against the Turks but his cruelty against just about anyone he came in contact with was legendary.  The legend of the vampire (nosferatu) is central European in origin and goes back very far into the imagination of primitive people huddling in the dimly lit hovels and fearing the long winter nights for all the real and imagined terrors that lurked right at their doorsteps.

Bram Stoker took this legacy and created a gothic novel that followed the conventions of his time and populated it with upper class British characters right down to the damsel in distress and the square jawed leading man ready to save her from a fate literally worse than death.  It cried out for a stage adaption and of course it got it.  And then some.  Several productions were launched and in 1927 a company opened the play in the United States.  And interestingly enough three of the lead male parts reprised their roles in the Universal film, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Edward van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward.

Let’s now look at the film.  What are its chief characteristics?  It’s an early talkie.  The sound is not perfect.  Whether an artifact of the age of the prints used or of the original production there is considerable background noise.  The sets for the most part are the studio versions of city streets and upper class drawing rooms.  The sets used for the village and castle in Transylvania are unconvincing but highly evocative.  My one pet peeve with Castle Dracula is that while showing all the creatures crawling around in the cellar we are given a good look at some armadillos.  These are New World creatures and what they would be doing in central Europe is very hard to imagine.  The set for Carfax Abbey is equally entertaining and in fact is probably built on the set for Castle Dracula used earlier.

With respect to the actors, they are exaggeratedly and understandably stagey.  After all, most of them were stage actors.  They exaggerate their words and gestures to such an extent that sometimes it appears to a modern audience as parody.  This is probably the result of both the stage and silent film legacy of most of the cast.  Probably the most entertaining performance is given by the Cockney Orderly who watches over the madman Renfield.  He is an exaggerated lower-class everyman who adds comic relief and a really terrible accent to the film.

And finally the special effects.  At one point, Renfield looks out the window of the stage coach he is travelling in to Castle Dracula and sees a bat flying above the horses.  It is hard to minimize how laughably pathetic it looks to anyone used to the magic that CGI can perform today.  I think the strings are actually visible, but maybe it was just my scornful imagination.  There is at least one more bat flyby in the film and it doesn’t improve over the first.  ‘Nuff said.

Okay, now I’ve run down everything about the film.  It sounds like a hot steaming mess.

 

Well, it is and it isn’t.  All that I’ve said is true.  But it still remains an entertaining experience.  It is a time capsule of what our great grandparents looked on as theater.  The British basis of what was considered civilized and urbane is on display.  And you can see the tension between reason and science on the one hand and the instinctual and irrational forces at work in the universe.  And it’s interesting to note how young women are the weak point in the rational structure being undermined by the powers of darkness.  Really the story isn’t that different from our own morality tales about the dissolution of the world of light into the abyss.  It’s only different in that it has a happy ending.  Today the forces of darkness would win and we would cheer them because of how cool they dress.  And the characters get to mouth some very entertaining lines.  In one exchange between the main protagonists Dracula declares in his best Transylvanian English, “You are wise for one who has not lived even one lifetime, Van Helsing.”  For me that’s worth the price of admittance right there.

Valentine Pontifex – Volume Three of the Majipoor Cycle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction-Fantasy  Book Review

This review is for both the final volume and also an overall review of the series.  I got started reading this series a while ago because of an on-line discussion I had on Orion’s Cold Fire (OCF) with Tom about whether there were any stories that could be considered science fiction and also fantasy.  Tom pointed to the Majipoor Cycle and piqued my curiosity enough that I picked up the books.  For the curious my reviews of the two earlier volumes are here and here.  If you don’t want any spoilers then put this aside until you’ve read those reviews (and possibly the books) and then decide if you want to risk this review.  Otherwise here we go.

The Majipoor books have been a fairly unique experience.  They combine a relatively straight forward adventure tale with a world-building framework that tries to encapsulate approximately ten thousand years of the colonization of a new world by a number of cooperating intelligent alien species.  And Silverberg is an idiosyncratic writer with a style that came of age in the 1960s.  This combines to create a very complex and sometimes meandering tale.

In the third book, Valentine Pontifex, the eponymous protagonist of the first book, Lord Valentine, is re-established as the principal ruler of Majipoor and is preparing for a triumphal tour of the far-flung cities of his realm when premonitions of disaster begin intruding on his mind.  In Majipoor dreams are regarded as legitimate warnings from the reigning spiritual powers, the King of Dreams and the Lady of the Isle.  Under this cloud Valentine and his friends and advisors begin the ill-fated Processional and unsurprisingly a long series of disasters occur.  Valentine identifies these cataclysms with a karmic reaction to the original conquest of Majipoor and attempts to expiate this original sin through diplomacy and love.  The tension between his actions and the situation on the ground makes up the action of the story.

Valentine Pontifex is, as I mentioned, a very complicated and meandering story line.  There are close to a dozen threads weaving through the book with their own characters, locations and subplots, some more important to the main narrative and some less so.  And Silverberg provides a veritable Tolkienian plethora of Majipoorian names.  There is a veritable blizzard of names; names of cities, regions, rivers, forests, animals, trees, fruit, cereal crops, food dishes, wines, medicines and people.  Also Valentine’s character is of a contemplative and judicious nature so that he agonizes a good deal about the conflicting needs of the various parties involved.  Luckily some of the other characters are less conflicted and help to push the action forward.

Another aspect of the story and the Majipoor series in general is the metaphorical nature of the story.  To my mind, Majipoor is a metaphor for the English colonization of the United States.  The aboriginal inhabitants of Majipoor, the Shapeshifters, defeated and relegated to life on an inhospitable reservation, are a stand in for the Native Americans.  The other species brought to Majipoor by the humans equate to the other nationalities and races that have immigrated to the United States.  To be honest, I am not a big fan of this kind of representation.  All too often this kind of metaphorical story telling is just a chance to bash this country and curry favor with the social justice apparatchiks.  And Valentine does have a certain amount of the Jimmy Carter syndrome in his make-up.  There is even a subplot that involves humans hunting and harvesting an intelligent water dwelling species that is the equivalent of whales.

Looking at all these detrimental story elements, you would be unsurprised if I gave Valentine Pontifex and the Majipoor cycle in general a failing grade.  I’m going to instead provide an opinion that combines warning with guarded approval.

My first statement will be the warning.  Majipoor is not for those who are looking for fast-paced adventure and classic fantasy ala Middle Earth.  It is not that.  And if you absolutely are not in the mood to hear about the rights of the dispossessed aborigines skip this story.  And lastly, if you have a very strong aversion to human/lizard-man romances then absolutely skip the second volume Majipoor Chronicles.  As mentioned in my review of that book, this was a weakness of Silverberg living through the Crazy Years of the 1960s.  For them sex was something they had to inject into any scenario.

So those are all the reasons to skip Majipoor.  Now, here’s the guarded approval.  Silverberg has created a genuinely interesting universe.  His characters are engaging and genuinely recognizable humans (even the non-humans).  The story, for the most part, works within its boundaries and despite some pacing problems gets to the finish line intact.  For someone interested in a fusion of science fiction and fantasy the Majipoor books are a quirky read.  Let’s say it’s for the hard-core sf&f connoisseur.

Avengers: Infinity War – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Review

Spoiler alert.  If you don’t want to know how this movie ends don’t read this.  But just know that I don’t recommend this movie.

Last week was a birthday party for one of my grandsons.  I was talking to my two older grandsons (13 and 10 years old) and told them I’d seen a commercial for The Incredibles Part 2.  They told me it was already out so I told them I’d take them to see it Saturday. (May 19th).  Well I checked the theater listings on Friday and it turns out The Incredibles doesn’t start playing until June.  Not wanting to disappoint the kids I asked them if there was anything else out they wanted to see.  Well, they said The Avengers.  I’d brought them to see the first two and they were pretty good.  But I’d heard that the third one (Civil War) was starting to get lefty preachy so I skipped it.  So, I went to Infinity War with some trepidation.  And I had good cause.

This movie is a hot mess.  They threw everything and the kitchen sink into it.  There’s all the Avenger characters, then they added in the Guardians of the Galaxy crew for good measure.  Then there was someone called Doctor Strange and some stray characters with him.  He seemed to be some kind of imitation Dr. Who – Time Lord character.  Then they threw in the Black Panther characters.  And just in case there was anyone who wanted more, they threw in Spiderman.  All these various characters are working together to defeat Thanos.  He’s collecting the Infinity Stones and if he gets all six of them he’ll be able to perform his plan which is to kill half of all the intelligent beings in the Universe.  There’s all kinds of battles and fights and at the end Thanos wins and his power kills half of the world.  You see half of the Avengers and the other super heroes evaporating into dust.

Now, what the hell kind of Super Hero movie is that to bring kids to?  The good guys lose and half of everyone in the world dies.  Of course, in the next movie they’ll bring them all back to life but what a depressing stupid mess!  Thanks Marvel.  Well I sure hope they don’t ruin the Incredibles too.  Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the only movies worth watching are from a generation ago.  I’m going to start making a list of the movies that we watched as kids and renting or buying them so the grandkids have stuff worth watching.

Monster Hunter Siege by Larry Correia – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series has been a fun experience for me.  His stories feature heroic monster hunters battling the unalloyed evil of the world’s varied monster population.  The Shacklefords and their associates have turned wholesale slaughter of the undead into a lucrative enterprise but one that has taken its toll on the family.  Included in this attrition are three recent victims who have been turned respectively, into a werewolf and two master vampires.  But what makes it a pleasure is that none of the monsters and none of the hunters ever seem tempted to wax poetic on the need to increase the world quotient of social justice.  The diversity of the characters is measured in species of monsters dispatched or the variety of allied supernatural creatures such as trailer-park dwelling elves, death-metal loving orcs and gangsta gnomes who get featured in a story.  Correia never once discusses the need to ascertain the correct gender fluid pronouns of any zombies before blowing their heads off with a rocket propelled grenade.  So, the books are very much action oriented.  Shooting monsters is their forte.

But I am happy to relate that Larry’s storytelling abilities are definitely becoming more nuanced.  In Siege one of the highlights of the book is a sustained dialog between the protagonist (Owen Pitt) and his nemesis.  In this scene Correia gives the devil his due.  In fact, I think his evil character may actually seal the show.  Of course, there is still plenty of combat and monsters being blown up.  And Larry further clarifies the mythology of his universe.  So never fear, there’s plenty of explosions to warm the heart of all Monster Hunter fans.  But Larry is definitely steering the series into a more complicated plot.  Larry has shown that he is not averse to killing off some of his characters.  And some of that goes on in Siege.  But what is also clarified is that he is braiding at least five separate strands of supernatural intervention and even some of the “good guys” may not get along together.  So, we shouldn’t expect any imminent resolution of the larger threat that has been growing in the background.  If anything, the details at the end of Siege further complicate the future for Owen and his family.  But that’s alright.  Larry seems in control of his material and expanding the scope of the story to epic proportions.

So, if you are already a Monster Hunter fan then the good news is that Siege is a very worthy successor to the series.  And if you are new to the series then rest assured that your investment will pay off with an already good number of sequels to satisfy your monster killing quota and with every indication that Larry will continue to expand the Monster Hunter saga into an urban fantasy franchise comparable in size and quality to Jim Butcher’s Dresden files.  The only shortcoming to the story is that the only mention of Agent Franks is retrospective to the previous book.  We’ll have to wait for the next book to see his smiling face.

Majipoor Chronicles by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction Review

Previously I reviewed the first book of this series Lord Valentine’s Castle.  And since I liked that volume I went ahead and bought the other two volumes.  Majipoor Chronicles is constructed as a bridge between the first and third volumes and also serves to fill in as much of the backstory of Majipoor as it can.  One of the minor characters from the first book uses a machine that can record and replay the experiences of a person’s life so that another can virtually relive them as if it were his own life unfolding.  Using this plot device, we are served up a series of short stories varying between twenty and fifty pages in length.  Themes and characters vary.  Some are personal accounts of ordinary people living through the history of this planet.  All the primary characters are humans but the stories sometimes are primarily concerning human/non-human interaction.  Some of the stories involve characters who are major historical figures in the Majipoor world.  And some of the stories shed a light on the unusual place that dreams play in Majipoor life.  And finally, the last story is directly about the hero of the first book, Lord Valentine.

My first comment on the book is that it absolutely cannot be read with first reading Lord Valentine’s Castle.  Without first walking through Majipoor with Valentine on his journey of discovery I think the details and logic of Majipoor life would seem random and confusing.  Without some grounding in the structure of their ruling system and the relations between the sentient species some of the stories would be especially confusing.

The second thing that I want to discuss is the vintage of these books.  They were written at the end of the nineteen seventies and into the nineteen eighties.  During that period science fiction authors were heavily invested in introducing sex as a major component of their stories.  Silverberg was no exception.  So, in addition to normal sexual matters he highlights the oddity of the male protagonist who experiences these mind recordings experiencing sex from the point of view of one of his female subjects.  And in one story at an all woman’s school the fact that two of the women were in an intimate setting has one character wondering if it was an attempted sexual advance.  I think the character more or less says the “Seinfeldian” line, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  And later on, there is a sex scene involving a woman and two brothers.  Of course, by today’s standards these are extremely tame but at the time these were boundary testing.  The more bizarre sexual situation involves two human characters in separate stories that engage in sex with non-humans.  In fact, the really odd one has a young woman actually initiating sex with an unemotional, fairly uninterested but polite lizard man who the female character is nursing back to health from a leg injury.  This one was a bit much for me.  I have to admit that my tolerance human woman / lizard man sex is extremely limited.  So that facet of the stories is not entirely to my satisfaction.  As far as his description of normal male female sexuality I thought that was fairly done.  And of course, the adult nature of the books would exclude recommending them to very young people.

Putting aside this second point, which is restricted to a small part of the overall book, I enjoyed the writing and I found several of the stories very original.  Silverberg has a fertile imagination and writes his characters in an interesting and sympathetic manner.  I especially liked the stories that advanced the historical knowledge of Majipoor.  My favorite was the war story, “The Time of the Burning.”  It directly addresses the human colonization of Majipoor and the impact this had on the aboriginal population.  But overall I see Majipoor Chronicles as an interlude between Lord Valentine’s Castle and Valentine Pontifex, the third book of the series.  It’s merely a snack between the main courses.  If you’re reading the series then you must read it because there are a few plot points that would be missed with out it but overall it is more of a background enhancer for the Majipoor world building effort.  Now on to Valentine Pontifex!

 

Valentine Pontifex – Volume Three of the Majipoor Cycle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction-Fantasy Book Review