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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Mary Ruefle Lectures (essays on poetry)

28 Short Lectures:

Lectures I Will Never Give (includes Q & A):

Opening lectures from Madness, Rack, and Honey

Kangaroo Beach

On Fear: 
Our positive capability.

I Remember, I Remember:
On the handsome roofers, attentive cows, and sudden tears of youth.

On Erasure: Visual and Textual

On Imagination  (includes Q & A):

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Outerscope I (Episode 12 - 16)

Episode 12:

The kids discover oranges with sparkly hair who speak like they're tough 1940s Hollywood gangsters. They have the secret to happiness. The youngest Outerscope kids don't trust the oranges so they plan to stand guard by the ship while the others go to find out about the secret to happiness. The promise to take the kids to the Yun-yun theater.

The set-up could shortened and less repetitious.

# 13

The Yun-yun theater stars none other than stinky... onions. They seem to be the butt of their own jokes. Clearly, the secret to happiness is laughing at someone else's expense. If you didn't get this, they reinforce it with a direct explanation. The oranges (or tree treats) subjugate the Yun-yuns and force them to tell jokes about themselves, so that oranges feel beautiful and powerful. No subtelty here.

# 14

The older kids thought the show was funny until they see Yun-yuns coerced to put on a show.


The Outerscope kids want to turn the tables and make fun of the Tree Treats instead. The Outerscope kids play on the vanity of Tree Treats to make them pretend to be Yun-yuns and plan to put on a better show.


The Yunyuns boo and laugh although some Yunyuns don't care for the turned tables. Meanwhile, the Tree Treats have learned their lesson about making fun of Yunyuns. They discover that either way is wrong. Celebration!


If you didn't get the moral of the story the first time, they expound it again as they travel to another planet.

They hit a bouncy object but it is too dark to tell what they hit. Eleanor decides to go on a space walk without a space suit and has lots of fun. They have to talk her into investigating. What looked like a keyhole from the spaceship turns out to be...

a keyhole! Eleanor swims through space to look for a doorknob.

Am I exaggerating by calling this a science fantasy? They've dropped the ball on wondering to what extent if any they are living in reality.

To be continued...

It strikes me that these episodes are way to short to convey much. Due to their brevity, they had to make certain aspects redundant. If you could recut them to eliminate the pedantic aspects and redundancy they might retain some of the fondness and mystery of the brief glimpses I had as a child. I do like the "To be continued..." but maybe right before an episode where one ends on this kind of mysterious wonder. But until these get trimmed, they are rather tedious. I wonder how many episodes a kid would sit through. Certainly most adults might accidentally lose the disc before getting to the end.

Friday, December 29, 2017

"Hunter Lake" by Gene Wolfe

First appeared in Gordon Van Gelder's F&SF. Reprinted by Stephen Jones. 
Mother (Susan) and daughter (Ettie) search for Hunter Lake, which is said to be haunted--whether because Native Americans tortured or were tortured is left unclear (see below). They travel down a scant trail to find their guide. They don't find him, but they do find the lake.

Their guide doesn't appear, but the water begins to rise. They've heard creepy stories about the lake being the hunter (although a hunter was also said to have found the lake), so Ettie runs, losing a loafer. The mother at first thinks it is a tidal phenomenon but catches her daughter's fear and flees behind her, with the lake in pursuit.

Tides can be a little creepy. (See video.) However, they can't chase someone dashing up a hillside. And this is a lake, not an ocean, which has a lot more water. Tides redistribute earth's water due to the gravitational pull of the moon. So water from other parts of the ocean are piling up on the near and far side of where the moon is.

They find a cabin that Susan initially takes as their own, but it is white clapboard, not log. Susan takes stuffing the cracks with clothes while Ettie decides to wake up from her dream.

It turns out Henrietta (Ettie?) has a daughter, Joan, who knows that her grandmother died from fluid in her lungs.

Some of the strangenesses of the tale:

  1. It was all a dream: Ettie/Henrietta wakes up. This is supposed to be a big narrative no-no. But it creates a somewhat interesting scenario. Ettie recognizes this is a dream early on. However, most of the logic seems fairly straight-forward except for the lake. That Ettie recognizes this is a dream but Susan does not, seems like it should be important. However, it is hard to say what exactly that means. Does Susan have a flawed personality that Ettie does not? The text doesn't really support a strong case although maybe Ettie has a stronger dose of reality. But isn't it Ettie that creates the fear of the lake in the first place?
  2. Dual POV: This allows us to inhabit both consciousnesses--Susan and Ettie. This is possible through the dream. Is it necessary? It does allow us to examine and compare each POV. Clearly, Ettie's is the preferred perspective since she is the survivor. Yet Susan seems to be the cooler and more reasoning head. Somehow she never see this is a dream. Should Ettie have stuck around to convince Susan to wake up? Or maybe it is only Ettie's dream, so that only she can wake up. If the latter, why pick a Dual POV? Maybe it is just for contrivance to create an old-fashioned flavor.
  3. Present-day dream leaps into the future: The main body of the story feels contemporary to its writing, discussing internet and rabbit-ear TV being outdated. But what we thought was the present day becomes a dream of a distant past--presumably at least twenty years into the future where Henrietta has a daughter of her own. Henrietta is rather old-fashioned name to begin with. By 1970, it had fallen out of the top 1000. (By 1956, the top 500; its heyday seeming to be from the 1900s through the 1920s.) So even the name juxtaposed against the internet makes the story have a dreamlike or asynchronous reality.
  4. Is this supernatural or science fiction?: One might assume this is a tale of horror/fantasy, but it was included in Wolfe's science fiction collection. Was he just toying with us? Or is the lake a reality, an alien visitor? If so, how did Ettie manage to survive? Why did it select to kill Susan and not Ettie?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Gene Wolfe's Mathoms from the Time Closet: Robot's Story, Against the Lafayette Escadrille, Loco Parentis

First appeared in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions. "Against the Lafayette Escadrille" was up for Nebula award. Reprinted by Algis Budrys, Charles G. Waugh, Martin Harry Greenberg, Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer. 

"Robot's Story": Robot escapes one fate in order to tell a story that mirrors the predicament he fled.

"Against the Lafayette Escadrille": A man builds as near a replica of the Fokker triplane as he can. When he flies, he spies an unusual hot-air balloon.

"Loco Parentis": Told in dialogue format, the story-play treats parents who aren't sure about the humanity of the children they are rearing.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, “Anything that Hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a mathom." In other words, it would seem that Wolfe did not initially value these pieces. He liked enough that he submitted them but never reprinted the two that weren't award-nominated. Two involve changes of perspective while the centerpiece, the award-nominee, evokes an emotional mood. Yet I suspect it derives some of its power being proximity to the other examinations of time.

"Robot's Story": Syntactically, the story is strange. There are two outsides, it says, but one is more sheltered than the other. This suggests at least two things. 1) One is always on the outside with these people. 2) It is as cold outside as with these people.

In the next paragraph, the sentence constructions open with three sets of "The kids are": 1) "the older ones" (which is multiply strange: A) that the younger ones are generally called kids and B) that we don't know exactly what a "one" is); 2) "the younger ones" (while this makes more sense--we expect the younger ones to be kids--we've already been pushed off balance, and if the older and younger ones are kids, what's left? Moreover, are they older or younger in comparison to what? Each other? the narrator? Robot?); 3) "Robot" which is strange because we expect the plural subject to be linked to singular noun. But not always. Perhaps, if we were to cut the Gordian knot, the construction makes all of them equivalent or the same person or persons. Or maybe everyone is a kid, compared to the narrator. However, the narrative doesn't create certainties.

What is clear is that the narrator considers Robot to be a living, young man or "kid" of nineteen, perhaps of this age. Robot considers himself to be a machine of five years from the future. The narrator likes Robot. He is the most useful (fixes plumbing), the least hostile, and interesting compared to the other kids.  The narrator says that Robot can be depressed, which wouldn't fit most of our ideas of what a robot is. However, this may be explained by Robot's sentence "I don't know how good I was made." This could be bad grammar, indicating poor craftsmanship that allowed poor grammar and possible depression (after all, only the narrator says the kid is depressed). Or maybe he is grammatically correct and means that he doesn't know how much good is inside him. Since he works for the others, we can suspect he was made with a lot of good.

Robot has a fondness for the 13th century B.C. This may allude to the story of the fourteen young men and women who were fed to the Minotaur until Theseus arrived. In other words, he may have a fondness for stories about the sacrifice of young people, which he seems to be a victim as well.

Robot says he is programmed to tell stories and waits to be told that he can, which the narrator seems to accept by saying the magic words that allow Robot to talk about a human man from a single-man scout ship (Robot compares these ships to sperm) who serves a woman who would only accept his company if he did all the work. So the man agrees. She stays young, which he doesn't mind since he gets to look at her. However, she leaves him as soon as another "fool" or scout-ship comes along.

When Robot finishes, the kids make Robot go out and get marijuana for them. The narrator says he thought about giving Robot his coat, but waits too long. They all fall sleep while they wait for Robot's return. Robot, then, is doing exactly what his story said. Perhaps he knows or does not yet know. He says he served "an ugly woman" from the 33rd century, only to serve these "ugly" people from (presumably) the present or near future. The narrator seems to have kindness lurking within him but doesn't act on it.

"Against the Lafayette Escadrille": This story seem fairly simple. A (then) present-day man builds a WWI airplane replica, flies, and falls for a woman from the American Civil War, having seen her in a hot-air balloon made out of dresses. He keeps taking the plane up to find her again but cannot.

Complicating the story is figuring out the story's timeline and the idea of "dope." When is he from? When is she from? Perhaps this would have been easier if read when the story came out. The story says that men from WWI walked around with canes, which people may have seen in the sixties and seventies, so it may have been contemporary. However, the narrator says he tried...
"to convey with my wave that none of the men of my command would ever be allowed to harm her; that we had at first thought that her craft might be a French or Italian observation balloon, but that for the future she need fear no gun in the service of the Kaiser's Flugzeugmeisterei." 
Suddenly, he is convinced his replica is the real thing and that he commands planes in a WWI Germany (despite having been in the U.S. earlier, or at least having ordered parts from around the U.S.). If he is hallucinating (and the title also suggests this--or maybe he hallucinated building a replica although that seems less likely), is she even really from the Civil War? If she were from the Civil War, could she learn all he was trying to say from a wave?

When we compare these two stories, side by side, it is hard not to read into the term dope. Here, the term refers to material used to tighten a plane's covering, making planes air-tight and weatherproof. The previous story ends on marijuana. The narrator here distinguishes between flammable and inflammable types of dope.

Also in both, we have protagonists unmoored from their time. They seem confused about when they belong. As Wolfe writes in the first story, "This... was to prevent his whenabouts... becoming known." Later, that same narrator interjects in the middle of the Robot's tale, "(I wondered if the 'grass' in the story was an unconscious reflection of the kids' obsession with marijuana; or if for Robot as for Whitman it represented the obliterations of time.)"

Apparently, the two ideas are tied together.

Curiously, the story appeared in an anthology called Space Dogfights, although it doesn't take place in space or have a dogfight in it. It also appeared in a major time-traveling anthology although there may or may not be any time-traveling in it.

"Loco Parentis": The final tale twists the idea of who is real, who fake. The parents wonder if the children they are rearing are apes or machines, but it turns out the parents may be the unreal ones. Or maybe both.

The title refers to the legal Latin phrase "In Loco Parentis" which refers to "in the place of a parent" where either an educational institution acts on the kid's behalf (positively or negatively) or a kid is raised by non-biological parents. "Loco" also means crazy, so crazy parents.

The crazy stuff regarding time here is how fast the kids grow. What sounds like a conversation about whom a kid can play with (pre-teen) switches to whom a kid can date (mid to late teens), and the kid strikes out on his own. The kid returns saying they aren't his parents and maybe they are the ones who are apes or machines. However, the story doesn't end there. The parents don't mourn but immediately coo over a new child who is eating a banana, suggesting that maybe all of them are a little crazy, a little animal, a little machine.

Time is distorted for the characters in all of the stories. I have tried to read the group title not as a dismissal of the stories but as blanket for all three stories and haven't yet come up with a satisfactory tool to do so.

What it does seem to capture as a group is the unmooring of a generation, not only from time, but also from who they are as people, from each other, and from previous generations. The stories may not be well served parted from each other.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Westworld (1973 movie)

The Western grew up with the film industry up until the mid 1970s. Some claim Robert Altman's 1971 McCabe & Mrs. Miller killed the Western. The long-running The Virginian did end that year. But the steady diet of Old West movies continued to appear. In 1973, the year Bonanza died (two years before the end of Gunsmoke), Michael Crichton's Westworld appeared.

Westworld opens with an advertisement for the Delos amusement park, Westworld. For a thousand dollars a day, you can visit an amusement park where you can live out various pasts (Old West, Rome, and Medieval Europe). An announcer interviews attendees as they disembark from a plane.

We are presented our protagonists, John Blane [James Brolin] who is a veteran of the park and Peter Martin [Richard Benjamin] who is giddy as a child at the prospect of shooting guns, drinking booze, barroom brawling, and visiting prostitutes.

Meanwhile, behind the computers and monitors, scientists and programmers adjust settings to ensure the vacationers are having a good time. However, glitches are appearing in the system, machines and robots malfunctioning in small ways. One scientist suggests it's like a contagion spreading through the system. (First hint at a computer virus?). John gets bit by a rattlesnake even though that isn't supposed to happen.

Commentary with Spoilers:
After a night of drinking and brawling John and Peter stumble out of the saloon, hungover, to encounter Yul Brenner's robot character, whom Peter has killed twice already. When John tries to kill the robot, he is shot and killed instead, and Peter flees. The robot, with recently heightened senses, pursues. After Peter ducks into the Delos laboratories and the robot follows, he uses acid to blind the robot. The robot apparently still has hearing and infrared sensors, but medieval torches confuse his detection of Peter, which Peter discovers and uses to his advantage.

Crichton spends a great deal of time developing the science behind the piece. Could the story have been developed without introducing the behind-the-scenes looks? Possibly. It is a story of science gone awry, but it is also a story of the triumph of science over its failures. This almost feels like overkill. But a few critical moments do require it: 1) The revelation of the robot virus (and that the robots have left human-operated computer control), 2) the revelation of how to maim the robot and 3) the denouement where Peter destroys the murdering cowboy bot.

According to Brian Tallerico at Vulture, Crichton is said to have thought the tale preached against corporate greed since the scientists choose to keep the simulations running despite evidence that things were falling apart. Maybe that appears, but more of the film develops the idea behind John Blane's comment, "It's authentic, the way it really was." Sort of. It's more of what the movies told us what the Old West was. Crichton himself said that he threw in the cliches--taunts and gun fights, dallies with prostitutes, prison escape, and a barroom fight. The cliches exist without the support of a narrative, which makes them stand out as bald Western cliches.

We have two ways to view these cliches: A) a critique of the Western genre, B) a critique of the idea we can visit the Old West through movies (or vacations to where famous events took place) as it was more dangerous than we imagine. It is hard to lean toward one interpretation or the other. Reinforcing option A is Yul Brenner, who reprises his Magnificent Seven character--at least down to the costume, if not the character. The Western hero from a classic Western becomes the villain in science fictional world. Meanwhile, reinforcing B, the movie ends with an voice-over echo about this being a vacation.

My main problem with the film is that it doesn't develop narratives for the vacationers. This probably keeps the film simple and from growing too long. Also, if it is a critique of the Western genre, the cliches would not stand out as starkly. The ending, too, is not as strong as it might have been. Perhaps this idea could have been supported elsewhere in the story to make it truly potent.

My hypothesis about what killed the popularity of the Old West: its survivors. People who might have been alive during the frontier days were aging and dying off. People probably felt a tangible if vicarious connection to the West through those who had lived it. But they would have been dying off. We have a connection to our parents and grandparents, but after that our interest dwindles.

For some, the Western still hasn't died. They might have known someone from that era, plus it was a childhood staple of their recommended daily allowance. They like the simple and clear morality, a tough land that repays hard work, the breaking and restoration of law and order.

For some, they still live in the West. They ranch, they farm, they hunt, they work the land, they ride horses and drive cattle. They still feel a kinship for America's past.

For others, who believe the Old West only represents exploitation, they've been cheering each death knell. However, the Western does keep rearing its head after each proclamation of its death.