Monday, June 30, 2008

my tarot collection

Those of you that know me well understand that I am a strict materialist with little patience for new age mysticism. Nevertheless, I can appreciate the intricate and often sensuous trappings of religious and spiritual belief, and feel that it is foolish to ignore human faith in the otherworldy. As a child, I was particularly drawn to fortune-telling. At first, I suspect this had to do with my burgeoning interest in astronomy - as I memorized more of the constellations, I began to wonder why so many adults infused them with deeper meaning. My mother is a Sagittarius, for example. For many years, I assumed that this meant that on the day she was born, the constellation Sagittarius was prominent in the sky (of the northern hemisphere?). But consider this from Wikipedia:

"The majority of Western astrologers base their work on the tropical zodiac which divides the sky into twelve equal segments of 30 degrees each, beginning with the first point of Aries, the point where the line of the earth's celestial equator and the ecliptic (the Sun's path through the sky) meet at the northern hemisphere spring equinox. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the slow changing of the way Earth rotates in space, the zodiacal signs in this system bear no relation to the constellations of the same name but stay aligned to the months and seasons."

I can understand why ancient peoples imbued meaning into the movement of heavenly objects. The notion of a universe ticking away without a divine Watchmaker is modern and non-intuitive. Babylonians mapped the heavens and could predict the occurrence of eclipses. But they also believed those events were dictated by supernatural forces and the machinations of higher deities, and used that information to forecast the fortunes of country and king.

Modern astrology, however, falls solidly in the camp of "nonsense that I can make fun of." I mean, let's be clear about this. Astrology prescribes that the location of the earth, relative to the sun, on the day that you're born somehow impacts your genetic makeup, which in turn determines aspects of your personality. Perhaps if scientists discover someday that gravitational force can affect mutation rates (in non-random ways), then I'll buy into this system. Good luck with that.

Then there's palmistry, which I have a little more patience for - probably because people seem to take it less seriously. I own, in fact, a particularly good book on the topic. And I can confirm that it is indeed, a decent way to make initial physical contact with a cute girl (don't tell Aili I said that... oh, wait). Plus, it is amusing to tell people that they're destined to live a short but passionate life and see them nod vigorously - as if anyone wanted to live a long, tedious existence.

But above all else, I love the tarot reading. When I was still in junior high, my mother bought me my first tarot deck and asked me to learn how to read her future. I was intrigued. My mother was not speaking tongue-in-cheek. The cards were interesting and each image was heavily imbued with symbolic meaning. As I practiced on my mother, my high school girlfriend, and later, some of my college roommates, I eventually saw tarot in a different light. It was not about future-prediction - it was fundamentally about story-telling. The cards are laid out in a specific temporal pattern, the images identify characters and major plot twists, and it's simply your role to link the revealed narrative to what you know about the person sitting in front of you. Place them at the heart of the adventure. Regardless of what you say, as long as the story is interesting and relevant - and it will be, since tarot symbolism is universal and archetypal - your querent will be satisfied.

Over the years, I've picked up a number of tarot decks for my small collection. I no longer do readings, I guess I just don't find the process interesting anymore - but I take great pleasure in looking at the artwork and interpreting the symbolism. Here are my four favorite tarot decks that I currently own:

Tarot of Marseille (Spanish version)

(The Fool, The Sun, Death)

My most traditional deck. The original Marseille tarot decks first appeared in the 17th century, and various artisans within France, Spain, Italy, and Germany began to print their own regional version. Each card was originally printed from a woodcut, and the cards were later colored either by hand or the use of stencils. There are 22 Major Arcana cards (attributed to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet), and 56 Minor Arcana (40 "pips" and 16 "courts") in the traditional suits of Swords, Coins, Cups, and Batons. The examples from my deck above show some interesting details. The Fool is the only major arcana left unnumbered (and note the dog nipping at him, representing the call of the "real world"). Death (#13) is unnamed. The Sun is a joyful card that you hope to see in any reading. I picked up this deck during my first visit to Spain.

The Thoth Tarot (Crowley & Harris)

(Lust, The Tower)

Every tarot collector has a copy of this one, and for good reason. Harris' artwork is unique and evocative. Closer inspection of The Tower, for example, reveals a cubist approach that is meant to evoke feelings of chaos and ruin. Crowley referred to this deck as The Book of Thoth, and also wrote a book of that title as an interpretive guide (which you can read, in its entirety, here - thank you google books!). Several of its Major Arcana deviated from the traditional Rider-Waite script:

Rider-Waite/Thoth equivalent

I: The Magician/The Magus
II: The High Priestess/The Priestess
VIII: Strength/Adjustment
XI: Justice/Lust
X: Wheel of Fortune/Fortune
XIV: Temperance/Art
XX: Judgement/The Æon
XXI: The World/The Universe

The substitution of Lust for Justice is particularly notable. I have never actually used this deck for reading, as the symbolism and imagery are a little too esoteric for my taste. If you want a feel for how the deck works, visit this site for a sample "reading" (although you'll have to do all the narrative processing).

Tarot of the 1001 Nights (Léon Carré)

(The Magician, The Devil, The Sun)

The newest addition to my collection, Aili bought this for me as a Christmas present. Leon Carre originally painted these exquisite miniatures for an edition of Sir Richard Burton's late nineteenth century translation of the 1001 Nights that was published in twelve volumes in the late 1920s. The artwork is correspondingly intricate and detailed (click on the image for a larger version) and each card is worth extensive examination. The Devil as Djinn is wonderful. Compare The Sun card here, showing a rising sun over a beautiful port town, with the Marseille one above.

The New Orleans Voodoo Tarot (Louis Martinez)

(click for larger image)

My favorite deck. Absolutely breath-taking art and symbolism. Composed of 22 Major Arcana (+ a wild card), 40 spirits (instead of pips), and 16 temples (instead of court cards), organized into four elemental suits of fire, water, air, and earth. This deck came with a detailed book that provides a symbolic explanation for each card; however, use of this deck for actual readings is rather unwieldy. Pictured here are the following cards:

Les Barons (The Barons): th
e wild card; the guedeh barons; voodoo spirits of death; suave, debonair, live happy and live well, for even the most rich and talented, or the most poor and resourceful people are not spared the ultimate universal experience of death

Hounsis: shows a woman providing a spirit entrance to the safe abode of a govi, an earthen vessel used to house “loa,” or spirits of the dead

Damballah Wedo: the Great Serpent, hanging from the branches of the Sacred Tree; the falling eggs represent the potential for action

Yemaya: as she gives birth, she fills the sea

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

perdido street station & animal welfare

It's bad form to opine about something you haven't fully experienced yet, such as an unfinished book. But Perdido Street Station is a provocative work of fiction and I'm beginning to suspect it offers layers of analysis beneath its steampunk veneer. Written by China Miéville, a rising star in the competitive world of fantasy/sci-fi literature, it offers up an intriguing cast of characters living in a deep, unique setting.

New Crobuzon is a steaming, dirty city, in which various humanoid species live and work amidst Victorian-era technology. Science and "magic" intertwine in complex and sometimes disturbing ways - as in the Remade: re-constructed criminals whose punishment is to have certain body parts added or altered (a woman who shakes her baby to death because of its crying has the baby's arms attached to her face). To some, the Remade are a symbol of the corruption and fascism of the ruling elite. There is a subtle current of socio-political commentary in Perdido Street Station, which never seems to detract from the continually evolving plot. Lately, I've been getting the feeling that one of the many issues Mieville is interested in exploring is animal welfare.

Without throwing too many spoilers out, the plot centers around a renegade scientist, Isaac, who takes on a difficult contract with a mysterious garuda. The garuda are basically bird-men - they have humanoid bodies, avian heads, and large wings - who live in a proud, nomadic desert society. Yagharek is an exiled garuda who has sawed off his own wings as a form of self-punishment. The reasons behind this are vague and yet to be determined. But he comes to Isaac hoping to regain the ability to fly, without which he has lived in a world devoid of meaning or joy.

As a scientist, Isaac is fascinated by the project and his first step is to study the biomechanics of flight by collecting samples. He sends out word to the New Crobuzon underworld that he's paying for any animal capable of flight, and pretty soon his entire laboratory is full of live specimens. Here's how chapter 11 begins, and while it provides a realistic description of a scientist at work, it also seems to offer a subtle critique:

"A pigeon hung cruciform on an X of darkwood on Isaac's desk. Its head bobbed frantically from side to side, but despite its terror, it could only emit a bathetic cooing. Its wings were pinned with thin nails driven through the right spaces between splayed feathers and bent hard down to pinion the wingtip. The pigeon's legs were tied to the lower quarters of the little cross. The wood beneath it was spattered with the dirty white and grey of birdshit. It spasmed and tried to shake its wings, but it was held. Isaac loomed over it brandishing a magnifying glass and a long pen. 'Stop fucking about, you vermin,' he muttered, and prodded the bird's shoulders with the tip of the pen. He gazed through his lens at the infinitesimal shoulders that passed through the tiny bones and muscles. He scribbled without looking at the paper beneath him."

Later, one of his colleagues sacrifices the bird with a twist of the neck. Is there an irony here? Death to a pigeon (or butterfly, or hawk), in pursuit of flight for a (humanoid) garuda? Does this irony pervade all of our own animal experimentation? Why is the life and well-being of a human worth more than the life and well-being of a non-human? As a scientist who works with rats, I'm sensitive to these kinds of questions. One's work can often be justified through its utilitarian value: a cure for cancer is worth the lives of many mice. But is Isaac's work, meant to help a single flightless garuda, worth the suffering and death of dozens of non-sentient animals? To his credit, Mieville never flaunts these issues in your face; he lets you discover and explore them on your own.

Here's a later scene, depicting a slaughterhouse in the slums of New Crobuzon. It is vivid and disgusting, and perhaps meant as another subtle critique:

"Again and again the massive, terrified pigs dropped from the alley in a flailing organic mess, legs folded in unnatural angles against their guts, again and again they were cut open and bled dry on ancient wooden stands. Tongues and flaps of ragged skin dangled, dripping. The channels cut into the abattoir floor burst their banks as a swamp of dirty blood lapped against buckets of giblets and bleached, boiled cows' heads."

Nothing new to those familiar with what goes on daily in American slaughterhouses, but rare to see in a work of fantasy. One begins to wonder if there is deeper meaning to these scenes, especially since New Crobuzon is depicted as a bustling, cosmopolitan city with a diseased soul. The disease is often expressed in explicit terms, and Mieville seems to derive pleasure from inducing disagreeable sensations within his reader as a means of infusing his city with life. I have been fascinated by this book since getting past the 1st chapter, and I'll be sure to let you know my final thoughts and opinions.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

zombie miniatures

I've never gotten into miniatures, but I understand the impulse. There's the collecting-addiction thing, there's the small-version-of-something- big thing, there's the painting-hobby thing, and there's the let's-play- with-them thing. Miniatures hold a special place in the ubergeek gaming world, and some of the big names include: Warhammer 40,000 (old school), Mageknight, and HeroClix (new school).

Once you get your mini's, you've first got to paint them...
Then you make some terrain...
Then you play...
Of course, some people go overboard - but isn't that the whole point of a hobby?

There are also non-gamers who purchase & paint miniatures just to collect them. A few weeks ago, I was surfing the web for all-things-zombie and encountered this fun site reviewing dozens of zombie miniatures. Here are some sample pics, and I assume all these mini's were lovingly painted by the blog-author:

(classic, headless/armless/legless zombies)

(note the fine surface detail in these; muscle & bone)

(minis for all your zombie needs -
incl. if you want to model
MJ's Thriller video!)

Sunday, June 15, 2008


A regular visitor to my playlist is the 4-piece band, Clinic. Hailing from Liverpool, they're been delivering dark indie melodies since 1997 and recently released their 4th full-length album, Do It! I discovered them in 2002 when their album Walking with Thee came out. This, incidentally, was the same year that Interpol released Turn on the Bright Lights, and together these 2 albums dominated much of my musical consciousness for a period of time.

People call these bands post-punk, and I guess I've never really known what that means. But then again, I also never really paid much attention to Joy Division, who is the theoretical progenitor of this movement. But I'm looking forward to seeing the movie, Control, so maybe I'll learn something about the historical tradition here.


01 Harmony
02 The Equaliser
03 Welcome
04 Walking with Thee
05 Pet Eunuch
06 Mr. Moonlight
07 Come Into Our Room
08 The Vulture
09 The Bridge
10 Sunlight Bathes Our Home
11 For the Wars

I hate to use hackneyed words like "brooding", "haunting", ""hypnotic", etc. but that's the sound and feel of Clinic. It's like they're recording in a giant cavern beneath the earth. I almost never understand what their lyrics are... and no wonder. Here are some, from one of my favorite tracks, Cement Mixer:

petey was the fetid son of pauline up on milk
commie ma the 2nd czar would do do for the filth
oh we know you come and go but see see sickened us
we need scores shit teeny bores that bark bark bark in crufts

be bark i know noone nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn no (x3)

joely saw the pinky core of neutered hippy homes
binky watched the babble pox and slithered off to moan
oh we know you come and go but see see what's become
peter's cold has taken hold and he bark bark bark in crufts
(repeat chorus)

so sue the shoe is slipping you don't dither from behind
may the moke our 7th bloke is peeking out the blinds
oh we know you come and go but see see what's become
peter's gone and left your mum to bark bark bark in crufts
(repeat chorus x2)

Seriously. Here's a video of them singing this one. I haven't personally seen them live, but apparently they're into wearing surgical masks while they perform (Clinic, get it?). Whatever floats your boat.

Give them a try if you like whiny along the lines of Velvet Underground, Interpol, Radiohead, and Arcade Fire.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

kid's art goes to japan

I see a lot of kid's drawings as I make my way into the field of art therapy. Never before have I seen anyone try to interpret it as literally as does Yeondoo Jung, in a series of photographs titled Wonderland. These are so elaborate, Japanese, and entertaining:

I also suggest that you look at the magazine Fruits, which monthly publishes the photos of Shoichi Aoki. These are pictures, taken from 1997 on, of incredible D.I.Y. fashion on the streets of Harajuku, Japan. Phaidon press published two collections of these photos, also titled Fruits. I gave a copy to PS a few years ago, and we looked through it over and over again. It prompted a resurgence in creative dressing in our circle of friends at the time.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


How's this for a boardgame concept: you play Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) in the golden age of piracy, sailing around the Caribbean and Far East, looting merchant ships, sacking Spanish ports, torturing hostages, and praying that you can retire with a nasty reputation before scurvy, British warships, or a governor's hangman cuts your career short. Pretty ideal, right? Well, welcome to Blackbeard: the Golden Age of Piracy - a remake of a classic Avalon Hill boardgame from 1991.

I've been waiting eagerly for this new edition to come out and got a copy last month. One big reason I was excited to try it is that Blackbeard has a reputation for being a strong solitaire game. That's a relative rarity in the boardgame market, as you might well imagine. I'm pleased to say that after having run through half a dozen solo adventures now and gotten a firm grasp of the complex rules, Blackbeard is everything I hoped it would be. While you're playing, you really get a sense of the world these men (and women) lived in, and the stories seem to write themselves.

The game has been criticized, perhaps fairly, for having a complex, obtuse, and periodically contradictory set of rules. However, I've never minded big rulebooks - often, that's a sign that a game has a lot to offer. Plus, you just need to remember that if you don't know how something is supposed to be played, you make up a house rule. This is particularly easy if you're playing solitaire. But rather than try and explain the rule system of Blackbeard to you in this post (which would be an exercise in futility), I'll give you a taste of my most recent game via a short session report.

You play on a world map appropriate to the time period (late 17th, early 18th century):

Note that while the map primarily focuses on the Caribbean, the eastern seaboard of the British colonies is also represented, as well as parts of Central & South America, the Gold Coast, West Africa, and India. Merchant ships dot the map and are your prime source of income. In Blackbeard, the world is your oyster.

In this game, I'm playing Edward Teach, although you have the option of playing 22 different historic pirates, including Stede Bonnet, Samuel Bellamy, and of course, John Rackham. As you can see, each pirate is distinguished by various attributes, such as initiative, leadership, cruelty, and cunning. Teach is one of the stronger pirates in the game, and I like how you can give yourself a tougher solitaire challenge by picking a less able privateer (Thomas Tew, for instance). Teach will begin the game with a small but fast Sloop.

Your goal is to earn Victory Points by 1) acquiring loot and converting it to Net Worth, 2) achieving Notoriety. But of course, you have competition. In a solitaire game, you play against 3 other pirates who are trying to achieve 100 Victory Points before you get 130. Sounds unfair? It is. But welcome to Blackbeard. My competitors for this game will be: Edward England, Christopher Condent, and Edward Low.

I start the game in the Indian Ocean, where the merchant ships are rare but the payoffs are exceptional.
There's a Dutch merchant ship in the area, but I need to corner it first. To do so, you roll a die (1d6), add your Pirate Ability (4), and if the result if 7 or higher, you successfully locate the merchant. However, my opponents play an "Anti-Pirate" card first, hoping to interfere with my efforts. There are strict rules for this in solitaire play so that you don't have to worry about the psychological trauma of trying to play against yourself strategically - most of the actions are predetermined. I draw a card randomly and unfortunately it's a Warship.

Turns out this damn merchant is protected by cannon. I can try to run away, but that would mean that the merchant ship and all that valuable loot would escape. I draw a Warship counter and it's a relatively weak one (4 attack strength); my chances of winning in combat are good. We roll the dice (1d6 + Crew Rating + ship Combat Strength) and Teach sends the Warship to Davy Jones' Locker. I get 4 notoriety points for this, which is equivalent to 8 VP's. Engaging in combat with the Warship damages my sloop (-1 combat strength) and one crew member is killed.

Now, I can continue to look for the merchant ship. I roll the die and fail. Twice. This merchant is just too fast for me and I have to give up until next turn. This brief summary of my first turn gives you a taste of Blackbeard's flavor and also its die-roll/chart/counter/card mechanics.

My competitors have a more successful 1st turn: a couple of them loot merchant ships, although their booty is minimal. Low is focusing on the Caribbean, Condent on the Atlantic coast, and England is roaming the Gold Coast.

(merchant ships - with differing values)

My second turn runs more smoothly. I corner the merchant ship, flip a counter and reveal a value-3 Brigantine. Another roll of the die (and consultation of a chart) tells me that this ship is carrying 2500 doubloons - a fantastic haul! My crew also discovers a Dutch governor's daughter on board, who we have the option of torturing for information, or ransoming for hostage. Her value as a hostage far outweighs what we'd get out of her through torture, so I keep her on board for now. Last, but not least, I decide to convert this merchant ship into my new pirate rig. My combat strength rises to 7 (from 4) but my speed is reduced to 1 (from 3). The crew rejoices because of our upgraded status and Loyalty increases +1.

Good thing too, because my opponents play a "Mutiny Conspiracy" card against me just as I'm moving my crew over to their new digs. I imagine (in a role-playing way) that this means my first-mate decides he's going to take this opportunity to try and take over as captain. I roll 2d6, and pray that it will be lower than my Crew Loyalty (8). I roll a 10. Uh oh. A mutiny is the last thing I need right now. I mean, does this look like a good time...

I think not. This is when Cunning comes into play. I use one of Teach's expendable Cunning points to re-roll the 2d6. This is Blackbeard's way of trying to ameliorate the significant luck factor. This time I roll a 5 and I'm safe. Blackbeard has put down the mutiny and we now have a more fearsome ship.

Turn 3 arrives and my opponents are primarily dealing with "Debauchery and Revelry". Every time they loot a ship, their crew demands it. I can also play this card against my opponents when they enter a port, effectively causing them to lose a turn. The upside of D&R is that your Crew Loyalty increases. So if you're worried about being hit by a mutiny, sail into a Pirate Port (like Tortuga) and let your crew run wild for a turn.

I decide to sail for the nearest Dutch port to try and ransom my valuable hostage. But then tragedy strikes: my opponents play a "Scurvy" card on me. Getting hit by scurvy has a number of implications: 1) every hostage you have on board immediately dies (there goes my governor's daughter), 2) one crew member is killed, 3) crew loyalty goes down by 1 for every turn that you carry scurvy. To get rid of it, you need to sail into the nearest friendly port. I sail to Bombay, get rid of my scurvy, and convert the 2500 doubloons of loot I have into Net Worth at a 1:1 ratio (due to the presence of a pro-pirate governor). But right now I really need to get some more crew members, as I've lost 1 to combat and 1 to scurvy. The best way to do this is to sail for a Pirate Port, and there's one in Madagascar (Isle Ste. Marie) to the south.

While I'm in port, a "Storm at Sea" hits the African coast and almost sinks Edward England. I play "Wear & Tear" on him as an anti-pirate card to make things even worse. Low, however, has been raping Spanish merchant ships and torturing hostages for significant Notoriety points. On my next turn, I draw a couple more cards and decide to refit my ship with some "Heavy Guns" while I'm in port. These add 2 more to my combat strength, so now I'm ready for anything.

Low uses his turn to successfully attack the Spanish port of San Juan (Boricua!) for a few gold coins and more valuable notoriety. He's nearly ready to retire, and if he did he would cash in a hefty 32 victory points for my opponents: 1/3 of what they need to win. And all I've done is loot one Dutch ship full of spices, suppress a mutiny, and almost die from scurvy.

I finally get a free turn (no anti-pirate actions to speak of) and make it to Madagascar. I hire some new crew and to celebrate, declare a session of Debauchery and Revelry. My crew loyalty increases by 3 and the recent attempt at mutiny is a distant memory. My plan at this point is to sail for the Caribbean where the merchant ships are aplenty, and use my heavy guns to begin sacking valuable ports, like Havana and Port O'Spain. Even if my opponents send a King's Commissioner after me (a bounty hunter for pirates), my chances of defeating it in combat are decent. Confidence is high.

Low takes his turn and draws a random event card. It's a "Disease Outbreak". As you can see, it strikes a random port on the board, and there are dozens of options. I roll the dice and - you guessed it - it comes up Madagascar. Blackbeard and his entire crew die, probably while recovering from the nastiest hangover ever. The game is, brutally, over.

To be sure, this represented a short session - but still one that was enormously fun to play. Blackbeard is both a game and a historical simulation. The designer (Richard Berg) has attempted to make it as realistic as possible and a true piratical role-playing experience. I have to admit, it feels like it, and I've found myself reading up on various pirates and their ships because of this game. I'm not sure if I would ever play it with other people, because for one, it would take forever to explain. Secondly, much of the strategy of the game comes down to how best to fuck with your opponents: playing Scurvy when they're far from port, or calling up a Warship just when they've been hit by a Storm at Sea. This kind of backstabbing gameplay will only appeal to certain hardcore gamers - but probably the type that would be attracted to a game on pirates.

Blackbeard is truly a unique boardgame experience, and for that I can heartily recommend it to those of you who are obsessed with pirates (and who isn't?) and are willing to put a little effort into mastering the intricacies of play.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

indiana jones nemeses

Just so you don't get the impression that Aili and I only blog about stuff we really like... A couple nights ago, we saw the new Indiana Jones movie and agreed that it was a lackluster, tedious affair. Now, Aili's not a huge fan of the action/adventure flick anyways - but I grew up on Indiana Jones and absolutely loved it. Raiders of the Lost Ark came out in 1981 when I was 8 years old, and it thrilled my imagination. The Temple of Doom was a decent story, except for 'Willie' Scott's annoyingly useless female character (admittedly, she had a hard act to follow with Marion Ravenwood). And The Last Crusade seemed a strong end to the series, mediated largely by the on-screen synergy of Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

But now we get this hollow, CGI-heavy bit of rubbish mucking up the whole mystique of one of my childhood heroes. Thanks for ruining things again, Lucas/Spielberg. Rather than bore you with all the aspects of this movie that were disappointing, I'll just concentrate on the primary villain: Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett.

At first, it seems like a match made in heaven. Blanchett is an excellent actress, and having her play a Russian agent in the post-WWII Cold War seems like it will provide Indy with a complex and intriguing opponent. But, no. All one gets is a fake accent and some yawn-inducing sword play. Where's the hate? I want to despise, or at least admire, my protagonist's opponents. For comparison's sake - just to make this point clear - consider the following nemeses from the earlier Jones' escapades:

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Dr. Rene Belloq & Major Toht. Belloq is the quintessential villain you love to hate. Always a step behind Indy, stealing his glory at the last moment and then dumping him into a pit of vipers. Arrogant, brilliant, and, of course, French.

Do I need to even say anything about Toht? This guy gave me nightmares when I was a kid, and he barely even does anything in the movie. But, oh, how satisfying is it when they open the Ark and his face melts?

Temple of Doom

Mola Ram. Ummm... this guy would pull your heart out and hold it beating in front of your face while you died. Plus, he enslaved children to mine for Sankara Stones. Yeah, I'd say he's pretty evil.

The Last Crusade
Dr. Elsa Schneider, an Austrian art professor who covets the grail and seduces both Indiana and his father to acquire information. Beautiful and deceitful, playing to one of Indiana's few weaknesses. She dies because her greed refuses to allow her to give up the grail.

I don't really want to be another one of those haters that wishes Lucas would just leave things from my childhood alone... but I really wish he would leave things from my childhood alone.

Monday, June 2, 2008

the demon princes

The internet is a wonderful thing. Perhaps you're reading a blog entry by your favorite current game designer, and perhaps he offhand mentions how several of his ideas were inspired by old-school science fiction writer, Jack Vance. Well, you've got a keyboard in front of you, so you link to Amazon, read some reviews, and a couple days later there's a 5-volume set of retro sci-fi in your greedy, instant-gratified hands.

The Demon Princes is a series of novellas (150-200 pages apiece) written by Jack Vance between 1964 and 1981. Briefly, the plot centers around a protagonist known as Kirth Gersen: an intragalactic explorer, a good guy, an assassin, a man of many talents, an all-around bad ass. Kirth has dedicated his life to seeking and slaying the five so-called "demon princes," regarded to be the most dangerous and notorious galactic criminals alive - responsible for planetary genocides, kidnapping, torture, terrorism, and rampant evil-doing. More importantly, Kirth has a personal vendetta with these men: together, they were responsible for killing and enslaving his entire childhood village while he watched from a safe distance along with his grandfather.

His grandfather convinces him to dedicate the remainder of life seeking revenge for this heinous crime. We meet Kirth as an adult, his many years of training complete, ready to begin his daunting task. Each novella traces Kirth's path as he investigates, discovers, and eventually kills one demon prince. Don't worry that I just gave away a big plot point - the joy of these books doesn't come from wondering whether Kirth will assassinate his target, but rather watching him get closer and closer to these exotic human devils.

And while Kirth is an engaging and likable character, to be sure, it is the demon princes themselves that make these books magical. They are brilliant, mad, creative, insecure, allusive and delusional. And perhaps not surprisingly, the path to each lies along their own personal obsession. Attel Mattelgate, the villain of volume 1, is a Star King - a species both superior to and envious of Homo sapiens, to which they owe their existence. Girth leads him to his doom by tempting him with a new planetary eden - a paradise in the midst of the universe, where he could father a new race to eventually outshine the humans he so despises. The villain of volume 3,Viole Falushe, was perhaps my favorite. Spurned by a lovely girl in his youth, he created a palace of love in which he studies and explores various facets of love, lust, and seduction, alternatively sublime and depraved. And so on.

In each story, Kirth must first learn about his enemy, discover their passion and their weakness, and conjure a way to exploit it. It is this combination of psychological treatise (of the criminal mind) plus space-adventure that makes The Demon Princes one of the most entertaining pieces of fiction I've read this year.

But if that was the end of it, it'd just be another trashy piece of sci-fi, easily consumed and readily forgotten. What elevates The Demon Princes to, dare I say, literary heights is the brilliant prose and technique of Vance. He is a master storyteller. Consider this passage from The Palace of Love, in which Vance describes the odd people who reside in Viole Falushe's palace precincts only to provide guests with romantic entertainment:

"The servants, as Viole Falushe had implied, were acquiescent and possessed of great physical charm. The folk in white, even more beautiful than the underservants, were innocent and willful as children. Some were cordial, some were perverse and impudent; all were unpredictable. It seemed as if their sole ambition was to evoke love, to tantalize, to fill the mind with longing, and they became depressed only when guests found the underservants preferable to themselves. They showed no awareness of the worlds of the universe, and only small curiosity, though their minds were active and their moods mercurial. They thought only of love, and the various aspects of fulfillment. As Viole Falushe had hinted, infatuation too intense might lead to tragedy; of this danger the people in white were gravely aware, but made small effort to avoid..." (The Palace of Love)

First and foremost, Vance is known as an "adventure" writer. His plots move fast and he uses a skillful hand to paint fantastical action sequences on alien landscapes. Here is Kirth attempting to capture the first demon prince, Hildemar Dasce:

"Out from one of the tents charged Hildemar Dasce. Gersen saw him with savage delight. He wore loose white pantaloons and no more. His torso, stained a faded purple, was ribbed with muscle. He stared up with lidless eyes, the blue cheeks blooming from the vermilion face. Dasce marched acrosss the crater floor...Gersen followed close behind. At the base of the slope, a sound, a vibration, alarmed Dasce. Once more he turned to look up-slope - directly at the figure leaping down on him. Gersen laughed to see the loose pale mouth open in startlement, and the he struck. Dasce toppled, rolled, bounded to his feet, started to run awkwardly for the airlock; Gersen fired at the back of one of the rangy thighs. Dasce fell." (The Star King)

Vance creates an entire universe in this series, albeit with recognizable characteristics like our own planet Earth. As such, he runs the risk of alienating his reader by making them work too hard to understand this new, starkly different place. On the other hand, you don't want to create a "Milky Way-lite," where life seems oddly similar to that on 20th century earth (Star Trek, anyone?). Lucas dealt with this problem in Star Wars (of which I am an admitted fanboy) by tapping into grand mythological constructs and Jungian archetypes and using an epic narrative structure with Greek historical roots.

Vance's solution is to begin each chapter with a selection of prose taken from a work published within this fictional universe. Many of these selections are non-fiction, such as anthropological and religious texts. These delightful tidbits provide the patient reader with interesting planetary factoids (geography, principle economic factors, etc.) and cultural details (colonization history, religious fractionization, etc.). This allows Vance to concentrate on his plot, without breaking action to explain particular species or eccentric cultural practices, once the chapter formally begins. I found this to be a more elegant solution than, say, Orson Scott Card's approach in the Ender's Game series, in which the anthropology and politics are heavy-handed and distracting.

Here is part of a description of the Darsh - one of the more entertaining peoples in the Vance universe:

"Whoever wishes to experience human opacity need only attempt jocular intercourse with a Darsh woman. Men and women espouse each other for economic accommodation, nothing else. Procreation is accomplished by a far more adventurous process during nocturnal promenades across the desert, especially when Mirassou-shine is in the sky. The system is simple in outline but complicated in detail. Both men and women aggressively seek out young sexual partners. The men waylay girls barely adolescent; women seize upon boys not much older. To lure the boys out into the desert, the women ruthlessly send out the pubescent girls and so it goes. The system has permutations unnecessary now to explore." (The Face)

There is a vast world here, and throughout the course of these 5 novellas, you get the sense that Vance has only skimmed the surface. That should be considered a mark of his success in bringing this universe alive and bridging that sometimes frightening/silly/absurd gap between sci-fi writer and reader. If I have a criticism of these works, it is this: there is never a denouement. Each novella abruptly ends with Kirth assassinating his target. One is left to ponder the consequences of these actions, of how the universe responds to these truly galactic events. For example, given that the Demon Princes have formed a loose consortium, would not the assassination of one alert the others to potential danger? Would not the events of one book affect the outcome within another?

I suspect this has to do with Vance's desire to have each of these books stand on its own, such that a reader could enter at any point and not feel overly disconcerted. There are carry-overs within the narrative; for example, in The Killing Machine Kirth becomes a very wealthy man (through a fascinating case of counterfeiting) and he uses this wealth to great extent in the later volumes. However, Vance seems to take pleasure in closing the book on each story as soon as the demon lies dead. Each of the volumes sees Kirth become moderately infatuated with a female character (nearly always divine, distant, and in distress) and he usually consummates the relationship - but once the story's over, no more girlie. It's sort of like watching a James Bond flick.

But really, if you want some quality summer reading and you don't mind the periodic science-fiction cliche, look no farther than Jack Vance's The Demon Princes. Over these past few months, they have regularly invaded my dreams with their dangling ear-lobes, skinless faces, and twisted eloquence. And that's a good thing, trust me.