Tag Archives: classics

WWJAT: What Would Jane Austen Think?

4 May

I was intrigued when Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame announced last month that he was writing/producing a youtube series based on that most popular of all public domain novels: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen.

It’s an interesting idea — setting the story in the modern day, changing some names around (from Mr. Bingley to Bing Lee the med student), and making Elizabeth Bennett a communications student vlogging about her life (and, of course, the marriage schemes of her Southern Belle mother).

It’s not like we haven’t seen plenty of adaptations.  The movies, the fanfiction-esque spin-off series of books, the zombie apocalypse version by the author of soon-to-be-film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (clearly, some of these adaptations have been truer to the book than others).

About this “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries,” however, I have mixed feelings.

The youtube series is cleverly written and entertaining.  The actress who plays our heroine is gives us a great sense of the original Elizabeth Bennett’s rebellious (and occasionally sullen) streak; Lydia’s s preening flirt (a coquette, as Austen would have said); and Jane is sickly sweet.  In terms of characterization, all is well with the world.

Nevertheless, Jane Austen’s novel wasn’t chick lit or paperback romance.  The emphasis on marriage, expectations of women in 19th-century England, and class dynamics in a stratified, straight-laced society made Pride and Prejudice a pointed social commentary.  As of the latest episode, I’m not sure that Hank Green’s version has that yet.

Still, it’s worth the watch: check it out on youtube and decide for yourselves whether anything has been lost in translation.  I’d love to hear what y’all think (and I say that completely non-sarcastically).


Walden: Escape to Zombie Mountain (a horror novel somebody really needs to write)

11 Oct

So, I was sitting in English class today, poring over Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalist classic Walden, when I had a brilliant idea.  It was the kind of brilliant idea that comes without warning, a bolt of electricity shocking the torpid mind of a college senior in a freshman English class at 8 am on a Tuesday.  That kind of idea.  You know what I mean.  And the idea was this:

Somebody needs to turn Walden into a horror-fantasy novel along the lines of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Think about it for a minute.

Genius, right?

He's halfway to zombiehood already. Look at those circles under the eyes.

Walden, for those of you whose minds and imaginations also occasionally drifted off during your 8 am English courses, is a book (nonfiction) about a man who lives in almost perfect solitude in the woods for two years, communing with nature, building rickety shelters for himself, and all around disappointing the parents who put him through Harvard.

But take this 19th-century intellectual, Henry David Thoreau, place him in a post-apocalyptic landscape of roving bands of hungry zombies, and you’ll never look at Transcendentalism the same way again (“I went to the woods to live free of the undead,” or something like that).

I can see Thoreau escaping his little Northeastern town, overrun by hungry corpses, and hiding out at Walden Pond for his survival.  But, being Thoreau, and feeling all at one with nature in his hermit-like life, he finds himself realizing that the zombies have it right: They suck all the juices and marrow out of life like real men (literally).  The following is an actual quote from the real Walden:

I think that I love society as much as most, and am ready enough to fasten myself like a bloodsucker for the time to any full-blooded man that comes in my way.

Thoreau naturally grabs his buddies Emerson and Whitman, and joins the zombie hordes just long enough to get brutally dismembered and die screaming.  But they lived, you know?  They followed their own Truth.  They didn’t conform to the conventions of a society that told them to run from the undead parasites taking over the world.  That’s the path to a life of quiet desperation.

Anyway, I think Walden‘s in the public domain, so: somebody get on this.*

* 50% of royalties to me, goes without saying, amiright?

One Throne to Rule Them All

20 Jul

This month, TIME magazine christened novelist George R. R. Martin, author of the epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” the “American Tolkien for a jaded age.” Possibly, it’s the two Rs for middle initials; possibly, it’s the grandiloquent series title; possibly, it’s the fact that both write in the fantasy genre with a cult following dissecting every word and chapter. Personally, I think it’s a facile comparison. Call me a blasphemer, but George R. R. Martin’s Seven Kingdoms wipe the floor with Middle Earth, and here’s why.

Read my original column on the Crimson White website, campus news for the University of Alabama

The Tolkien universe has long been the standard against which readers and critics compare any fantasy work. The more mediocre sword-and-sorcery writers think that vomiting dwarves, elves, dark lords and half-baked mythologies onto a computer monitor makes a bestseller – Eru knows there are enough of those on the market. Plots are predictable: an evil menace, a chosen one destined to save the world, a malevolent piece of magical jewelry and a final battle between good and evil (I think I unintentionally described Harry Potter here). It’s boring, plain and simple. The sheer quantity of this kind of hack fantasy drove me into the arms of science fiction long ago, but George R. R. Martin has gradually pulled me back.

“A Song of Ice and Fire,” which begins with “A Game of Thrones,” has no hobbits or orphan boys on a quest to save the world. We have one dwarf, but he doesn’t go around swigging ale and swinging axes – he’s just a man with achondroplasia, and if he drinks a little much, it’s probably because his father tries to get him killed in battle. His sister, the queen, wants him dead too (along with a long list of other powerful people), and his only weapon is the ability to create really smart, funny dialogue. Tyrion might be the most likeable character in the book (he’s my favorite, at least) – and he also happens to be a member of the superficially villainous Lannister family.

Unlike Tolkien, Martin gives us no clear-cut good versus evil. Instead, we get a five-sided civil war (six or seven, counting all the madness across the Narrow Sea) in a world peopled by people best described as anti-heroes, or maybe just human beings. Instead of epic quests, Martin delivers realpolitik and plotlines as complex as his characters. Oh, and by the way, in this fantasy universe, women actually do stuff. And I don’t mean the token Eowyn, or elf princess Arwen who (movies to the contrary) actually spent her time sewing Aragorn a battle standard. For real. For three books.

Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh on J. R. R. After all, even the new HBO series “Game of Thrones” cast Sean Bean, alias Boromir, as this season’s lead (and I say this season because, spoiler alert, Sean Bean’s character kind of has an unpleasant encounter with a sword and his neck). Which brings me to another point: the bloody-minded George R. R. Martin will kill, maim, torture or torment any of his characters. No one is safe. Plot twists might leave you crying or leaving profane notes in the virtual margins of your Kindle, but they keep you guessing, and originality is the holy grail of fantasy novels.

There’s only one downside as I see it: fans probably have another five years to wait before book six comes out. Of course, with five books at 1,200 pages each, new readers might just take five years to catch up. I highly encourage it.


You might also like… “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan; “The Worm Ouroboros” by E. R. Edison; “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch; “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?

8 Jun

Let’s drive some traffic to the good ol’ University of Alabama campus newspaper.  Today, my first-ever print column was published in the Crimson White.  Soon, Tuscaloosa will be the science fiction consumption capital of the world, American Studies profs will be teaching classes on Atlas Shrugged, and everyone will be reading off of Kindles.

It’s nice to be a tastemaker.

Click for the full column: "Ayn Rand wrote science fiction?"

Macabre, monstrous, gruesome and ghastly Gormenghast: Why aren’t we reading it in the States?

16 Apr

After three years living in Tuscaloosa, I’m beginning to despair that I’m the only person in the state of Alabama who’s read anything by Mervyn Peake.  If I get that Lifestyles columnist gig on the campus paper, the first thing I’m doing is plugging Titus Groan and Gormenghast like crazy.  Mervyn Peake is the grandfather of steampunk, the dedicatee of Perdido Street Station, and the forerunner of PKD’s psychological madness.  In sum:

Why aren’t we reading him in the States?

I realize this is an indie speculative fiction blog, but Mervyn Peake is so little-known in this dear city (and state… and country) of mine that I’m going to give him a well-deserved blog post–for in truth, he deserves a blog of his own.  One that deals in Literature with a capital L.

So, a little background:

Mervyn Peake was a brilliant, badass English artist, illustrator, poet, and writer–today, he’s best-known for his Titus books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone, and, in a few short months, the posthumous Titus Awakes).  He was the child of medical missionaries in China, a soldier in WWII, a war artist, an author and, tragically, a victim of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’m no fan of C.S. Lewis in general (he reminds me of a smug, Modernist Thomas More), but I can agree with him on this: “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.”

Mystical-sounding?  Definitely.  But it’s about as good a description of Mervyn Peake’s writing as anyone could give.  Peake’s poetry and the Gormenghast books are less about plot, shall I say?, than effect.  It’s often categorized as fantasy, but Peake doesn’t write about elves or magic.  His writing is surrealist, gothic, and something of a social comedy.  And threading through the themes of stagnant tradition and freedom and oppression, there’s that element of madness.  Gormenghast is grotesque, gory, ghastly, mystical, lyrical, monstrous, mind-bending, and inarticulably beautiful.  His characters are strange, sympathetic, and Machiavellian by turn, and he names them with Dickensian flair (Steerpike, Flay, Fuchia and Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan).

I had Titus Groan on my bookshelf since I was eight.  Didn’t pick it up until I was eighteen, of course, but that’s another story.  This story, in fact (hey, you clicked on the link; you get the self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical book reviews):

A very long time ago, my dear beloved mother took me to a used book store.  I wandered around the disorderly stacks of books, sneezing, because unlike many people who love the smell of musty old books (the same people, I might add, who sniff haughtily and turn away when they see my Kindle 2 with the Dharma Initiative decal) stale, yellowing paper just makes my eyes water.  Unless it’s part of a 19th-century historical manuscript collection–then it’s cool.  Anyway–

Seriously--wouldnt this give you nightmares when you were eight?

I came to a straight-backed wooden chair piled with books.  Sliding down the side was a book with a brightly-colored cover, Titus Groan.  My mother was at the check-out, so I grabbed the book, ran back to her, and smiled, as always quite pleased with myself, when she purchased it without a second glance as the clerk bagged up her nth copy of Jane Eyre.  For better or worse, she let me read whatever I wanted from the moment I could.

Of course, when we got home and I looked more closely at the cover, I was a little disturbed.  And the title was a bit frightening too.  So I hid it at the back of the bookshelf and trained my eyes to slide over it every time I looked up there.

Ten years later, college freshman me was packing boxes to ship to the University of Alabama, surreptitiously taking books from the family cache and slipping them into my suitcase with the justification that having read them more than my sisters, they were “mine.”  But Titus Groan really was mine, and I read it my first semester, and praised Palgolak that serendipity had led me to the best series I’d ever (and still have ever) read.

The book shortly fell apart, and is currently held together with scotch tape.  My copy was thirty years old when I got it, and I’ve never worried about breaking spines.

Neither was Steerpike… but that’s another story too.  And how about, instead of me boring you, you read it yourself?  This has the Scattering’s eternal seal of approval.

Here’s the link to Titus Groan on Amazon

Whoooosh! It’s the Flash-Sideways (Retro Sci-Fi Review #2)

4 Feb

There was a group on Facebook–back in the heady days of the LOST fandom–devoted to celebrating that uniquely onomatopoeic sound transferring the viewers’ perspective from one reality to its alternate version made: “Whoosh!! It’s the Flash-Sideways!”  I joined the group, as any self-respecting fan would, and accepted my sister Kate the Lostie’s congratulations: I had the gift of prophecy.

At the end of season 5, Kate and I tried (with little success) to tally up the events of the past five years (though we’d only been watching “live” for one at that point) and make some predictions.  Oh, the ABC LOST forums could handle the complicated issues of metaphysics, or the correct moniker for Smokey/Smocke/Flocke/MiB, but we had something more important to consider: if seasons 1 through 3 had flashbacks, and seasons 4 and 5 flash-forwards, what would season 6 have?  Where else in time could our castaways go?

For once, I got it right: sideways.  But I couldn’t take all the credit–SF writer Murray Leinster (alias Will F. Jenkins) was taking the counterfactual to popular fiction in 1934.  Of course, he preferred “sidewise” (oh, those crazy old grammarians).  I read his short story “Sidewise in Time” in an anthology of SF’s golden oldies in 1998–I was eight, and it’s remained one of my favorites of all time.  Meaning one and one-fifth decades.  So very long.

In any case, here’s why:

Professor Minott taught mathematics at what was rather impolitely termed a “jerkwater” college by his haughtier colleagues.  He was desperately in love (well, as much as a really creepy obsession can be called love) with Maida Haynes, daughter of a teacher of the romance languages (here’s to irony folks).  He was a nobody, but he brought a gun to class at 8 am on June 5th, and because it was 8 am, after all, and his students were probably still half-asleep and falling even more deeply asleep at the thought of studying math, Minott brought that gun to bear on his helpless students before any of those chivalrous senior college boys (Blake, for instance, his rival for Maida’s affection) could squeak out a protest.

And when the world is ending and someone pulls a gun on you, you’re going to gather your books, saddle up some horses, and strike off into the mysterious primeval woods that popped up on the interstate overnight.


Something weird’s happening all over the world–some nauseating shift of time and space that’s leaving the earth pockmarked with pockets of alternate reality.  Counterfactual history, if you will, drawn from the parallel realities in which the Confederate States of America (unhappy birthday today, by the way, CSA) won the war; or Romans conquered the Americas; or mammals reproduce by parthanogenesis.  The daily press is boggled, the common people are just plain astonished, a farmer’s wife is even pleased when a prehistoric reptile swallows her boorish husband whole, and a stammering high school boy finally has the opportunity to use his Latin.  But as we know from Fringe, when multiple universes collide, bad things happen.

Professor Minott of the jerkwater college seems to be the only person who knows what’s going on.  He’s been plotting and planning for months–his talents wasted with undergrads, but quite indisposable when it comes to matters of (multiple) universal destruction.  When he brings a pistol to class on June 5th, it’s because he’s already decided what he’s going to do: kidnap a select group of moderately intelligent students, search out a place where the flash sidewise has brought the Vikings to Virginia, and from there, take over the alternate world with his advanced knowledge of science and technology.  And Curriculum Vitae aside, Minott probably has a good chance of doing exactly that.

His problem is Maida Haynes, who just doesn’t recognize what a visionary the crazy math teacher really is.  Insert a power struggle with Blake, an attack by Roman slavers, a dying airplane pilot, and another girl named Lucy who really would like to be Professor Minott’s queen, and you come out with Murray Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time.”

There are used copies of the anthology, Before the Golden Age, as well as collections of Leinster’s SF shorts, on Amazon–I just wish it were out of copyright so someone could write an expanded novelisation, or a television pilot.  A lot of the speculation of even relatively recent science fiction is laughable today, but this story from 1934 has held up pretty darn well.  Alternate realities are in (see LOST, Fringe, FlashForward, etc.), and even the casual SF reader knows something about the Many Worlds Theory.

Throw in some quantum mechanics, and this rettro science fiction story could be a hit.

As a side note, Uchronia, the alternate history list, annually awards a prize for the best “allohistorical” fiction of the year (and has done so since 1995): The Sidewise Award for Alternate History (guess what it’s named for).  The 2006 winner was Charles Stross’s The Family Trade (Merchant Princes Series), which I’m halfway through and loving.  2010 isn’t up yet, but the 2009 winnet was Robert Conroy’s 1942: A Novel.

The Aliens Speak French (Event: Fantastic Planet and Chronopolis at UCLA)

14 Dec

Monday night, I went with my sister Charlie (aspiring artist) and my friend Doug (aspiring Jew) to a screening of classic French sci-fi animation at UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater.  As Charlie says—using a word generally reserved for Pink Floyd and that bizarre children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth—it was trippy.

The theater itself set the tone: lines of light decorated the walls and ceiling surrounding the screen, making it look for all the world like we were traveling at warp speed on the USS Enterprise.  The playbill told us to expect the double feature to feature “chilling allegories,” Borges-esque phantasmagorics, enigmatic storylines filled with a “surreal taxonomy.”  We should’ve guessed what would happen next, but Charlie and I were just three days out of Tuscaloosa—how could we have known the horror of a theater suddenly filling with hipsters?  A surreal taxonomy indeed.

As determinedly bad haircuts and ironic screen print t-shirts enveloped us, Charlie, Doug, and I struggled for breath under the crushing weight of existential angst.  Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the show started.

First was La planete sauvage, or “Fantastic Planet,” a 72-minute hand-drawn animation from 1973.  Here’s the basic story:

Somewhere out in the distant reaches of space, there is the planet of the Traags, a blue-skinned, fish-faced race of giants who keep as pets strange aliens from the planet Terra.  These Oms (read hommes, the French word for men) are variously collared and coddled by Traag children, or, when they escape and form communities in the wild, eradicated with poison like vermin.  They breed so quickly, after all.  The Traags don’t breed at all on their planet, as far as the Oms can tell.  They spend most of their time in Meditation, out-of-body experiences.

For all their seeming spiritual enlightenment and advanced technology, however, the Traags engage on a de-Oming campaign even after they find evidence that the Oms have advanced intelligence.  The only solution, obviously, is for the Om to manufacture a rocket and fly on up to the Strange Planet, the Traags’ world’s moon that the Oms pray to.

At this point in the movie, both Doug and I independently developed the theory that the Strange Planet was going to be Earth, and that the Oms’ colonization of it would be our human origin story.

Didn’t happen.

When the Oms touched down on La planete sauvage, they didn’t find the Garden of Eden.  They found a bunch of headless giant stone statues doing a sex dance.  For real.  I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.  Apparently, this was how the Traags bred, by projecting their consciousnesses into the statues and making little blue babies by… waltzing with marble statues.  Hey, to each his own.

So the Oms knew the big secret of the Traag, and they did what any oppressed people would do if placed in the same opportunity: they shattered the statues with really high-pitched sonic blasts.  Threatened with the destruction of their entire race, the Traags stopped massacring Oms.  Oh frabjous day!  But there was no real reconciliation or peaceful coexistence—the Oms got themselves an artificial moon to live on, and everything worked out.

The end.

I don’t know about you, but the whole premise was incredibly dark.  Every time I look at my cat now, I wonder if she’s self-aware and plotting the destruction of humankind with feline co-conspirators.  Beyond that—Fantastic Planet say something disturbing not only about human nature: that we have to be pushed to the very brink before being forced to get along.  It was mutually-assured destruction for the Oms and the Traags if either got out of line.  Cold War allegory, much?

This semester, it was a running joke in my “War in American Culture” class that I interpreted everything we read as commentary on the dark tendencies of human nature.  But really—with this storyline, the French title’s English cognate is just as appropriate as the translation: it’s a seriously Savage Planet.

But oms are oms—they adapted.  It was a friggin’ weird landscape, with giant crystals growing over trees and tentacled birds cackling as they killed furry little animals for fun.  The people were reduced to living in completely primitive communities out in the wild, reverting to leadership by a chief wizard and decision-making by combat to the death (if I were the wizard, it would be rock-paper-scissors all the way).  But when given the opportunity to learn, steal, and utilize Traag technology, they took it.  They were determined, and adaptable, flexible and unsinkable.  It’s what people have been like since the beginning of human history.  Om pride ftw!

Most interesting of all to me, though, was how the film succeeded in 71 minutes in what I’ve been failing at for years—converting my sister into a sci-fi-natic (yeah, I went there).  Just a couple minutes in, Charlie leaned over and whispered to me, Do you like this? I gave a noncommittal shrug and locked my face into what I’ve been told is my default expression: what Doug termed “The Morales Disdainful Snarl.”  Charlie beamed.  I love it! she said.  Oh, and when we got home, she tried to find the soundtrack online, then started reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion.  Who knew.

Charlie loved Chronopolis too.  I was just frustrated.  It was the weirdest friggin’ thing I’ve seen in my entire life.  And I’ve seen a community theater production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat.  There were Egyptian statues doing stop-motion claymation stuff and some spindly little rock-climber doing some folk dance with a sentient orange ball on a tight rope.

(see 10:00)

And even that’s too coherent an explanation.  The program said Chronopolis (1982) is about an alien city of immortal beings who manufacture moments of time, but it could be another Cold War metaphor for all I could tell.  Not even the hipsters knew (or pretended to know) what was going on—half the forty-odd person crowd left before the end of Chronopolis.  It was some seriously weird shit.  I won the DARE essay award for my school in 6th grade, but even I could sympathize with Doug when he muttered that he really regretted not getting high before watching this.

All I know is the French are friggin weird.

Ayn Rand wrote science fiction? (book review: Anthem)

3 Jul

Ayn Rand’s name was everywhere a couple months ago, when Tea Partiers started brandishing “Who is John Galt?” signs to protest increasing government intervention in the economy.  It’s a reference to her magnum opus, Atlas Shugged, the 1,200 page economic epic of railroads, utopia, and a collapsing welfare state.  Add some of the passionate sex scenes Rand’s (in)famous for (see: The Fountainhead), and you’ve got a bestseller.

Interestingly, in the midst of our own economic downward spiral and government bailout fad, 2009 was Atlas Shrugged’s best year in sales—ever—which is pretty impressive considering it was published in 1957.  Right now, it’s #1 in Literature/Classics on Amazon.  Or in other words, Dagny Taggart just pwned Elizabeth Bennet.

But a decade before Atlas Shrugged hit the shelves, Ayn Rand wasn’t writing charged political thrillers or 60-page radio speeches.  She was writing science fiction.

De-individuation is the most horrible future novelists and television producers have given us.  We recognize that.  We hate Big Brother and we hate the Borg.  We want them destroyed!  Nobody, after all, likes a Hive Mind.

Anthem (1946) tackles this dystopian nightmare in an elegant 75 pages, three years before Orwell and decades before Star Trek.

Equality 7-2521 is a man struggling against a completely collectivized society—to the point that the word “I” has disappeared completely from the vocabulary (which makes the first-person narrative… plural, and unique).  Anthem is the story of the discovery of his individuality—and an anthem (see what I did there?) to the value and power of the human mind, human creativity, and, well, the human.

It’s classic Ayn Rand philosophy in a short, highly readable format that’ll stick with you.  For Ayn Rand newbies, it’s a great introduction to her ideas (take it from last year’s Ayn Rand Institute intern).  For veteran readers of her more famous fiction and nonfiction, Anthem shows a different, more innovative side to her writing that might be refreshing after spending a month or two (or three… four…) on Atlas Shrugged.

Verdict? A one-afternoon read, and well worth the time.  Makes me wonder what the genre would be like if she had kept writing science fiction… somewhere in the multiverse, Ayn Rand’s having drinks with Isaac Asimov.  I’m sure of it.

Anthem can be downloaded wirelessly and completely free at Amazon.