Friday, August 31, 2012


by Bram Stoker
Published in 1897

The third of my assigned readings from Professor Eric Rabkin's course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, the Modern World is Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Stoker didn't invent the idea of vampires, but he codified the trope and most of our modern images of vampires are ultimately descended from Stoker's version of the vampire myth.

The story begins with English solicitor Jonathan Harker traveling to Transylvania to meet with the elderly nobleman Count Dracula to discuss property in London which Dracula wishes to purchase. Dracula turns out to be immaculately polite, the very model of old-timely European gentility, eager to learn more about England and English ways, and (as the reader no doubt expected), utterly, alarmingly creepy. In the end, Harker barely escapes from Dracula's castle alive, his wits shattered.

Meanwhile back in England, Dr. Seward operates a lunatic asylum next door to the property where Dracula is about to take up residence. He is in love with Lucy Westenra, a young lady who is nevertheless engaged and then married to one Arthur Holmwood. Lucy is also best friends with Jonathan Harker's fiancee Mina Murray. (Dracula takes place in a very small universe and coincidences abound.) Lucy becomes deathly ill (Dracula is slowly consuming her, as readers know but not Arthur or Dr. Seward), and Dr. Seward is forced to call upon his mentor from continental Europe, Van Helsing, who speaks fractured English but immediately diagnoses poor Lucy's problem.

There's also an American from Texas, Quincey Morris, who is an excellent example of what British people in the 1890s thought Texans sounded like. He rounds out the team of vampire hunters. Although the novel doesn't really have a clear paramount protagonist, Mina Murray is an early deconstruction of 'useless woman' tropes; when the men are reluctant to involve her because she's a fragile female, things take a turn for the worse; when she's given the same respect as other members of the team, they make progress in their chase against Dracula.

I was surprised at how many recognizable modern-day vampire tropes appeared in Dracula. I was expecting a reading experience more like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Most modern-day Frankenstein tropes did not emerge until long after Mary Shelley's lifetime, and even a reader who is aware that Frankenstein is the name of the scientist (not the monster) is usually surprised to learn that in Shelley's novel Frankenstein is not a crazy old man but an over-eager young medical student, and while the monster really is an eight-foot-tall abomination, he can speak quite fluently and is arguably the most eloquent character in the novel.

In contrast, the title character in Bram Stoker's Dracula is very close to his modern-day popular image. The main differences are that this Dracula can walk about outside while the sun is shining (he just can't access any of his special vampire powers) and while a wooden stake can indeed kill him, a steel spike will do just as well. Also, he has a big, intimidating mustache, which generally didn't survive adaptations to other media. Otherwise, the original version of the character is almost identical to his modern image, right down to his grasp of English (he is explicitly described as speaking impeccable English but with a very foreign intonation). The novel invented the idea that vampires can't cross running water, a limitation that makes no sense but does prove very useful to force the plot to keep on the track Stoker has in mind.

In the novel, Dracula has three sexy vampire wives who try to seduce Jonathan Harker and are eventually slain by Van Helsing prior to the final battle with Dracula himself. As Professor Rabkin touched upon in his lectures, before Stoker came along, vampires were seen primarily as female monsters, and Stoker is singe-handedly responsible for the fact that male vampires aren't necessarily perceived as gender-benders today.

As a final odd factoid, Dr Seward may be the earliest character in literature to keep a journal in audio recording form. For what it's worth.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The World, Politics, and Me

Dear People of Politics, USA:

Democrats: Most of you are perfectly well aware that when Mitt Romney said 'Corporations are people', he did not mean 'a corporation is a kind of human being'.

Republicans: Most of you are perfectly well aware that when Barack Obama said 'You didn't build that', he did not mean 'Americans are incapable of doing anything constructive without Big Brother's help'.

Oh, you'll claim that you're sure he really meant it that way. Maybe you won't recant even under the threat of thumbscrews and waterboarding. You're too emotionally invested in making fun of The Other Side to admit that you're deliberately misunderstanding Big Ol' Stupidhead here. But you are. Deep down, you know you are.

That's because there is no way reality could admit the existence of the person you're making Big Ol' Stupidhead out to be. Even a plutocrat who wears a top hat and a monocle and uses employees as footstools knows that a corporation is not a kind of person. Even a tyrant who wants all people to work for the federal government knows that people can build things. These are not things that, deep down, people who have a functioning theory of mind believe Romney or Obama meant.

I do not say this lightly. It grates on me when some opinion-mongering person assumes they know what other people are thinking, like they never got the 'other people have their own minds' memo back in early childhood cognitive development. I'm well aware I'm treading perilously close to that ground. That's why I said 'most of you' rather than 'every last one of you'.

OK, now I'm a nerd at a sporting event pointing out that the taunts fans shout at the other side aren't literally true. Why did I bring this up?

I've got a very pragmatic view of politics. I don't gasp with horror when I see a politician say something that I'm pretty sure he knows perfectly well is untrue. I don't even become perplexed when I see a crowd applaud a statement that I suspect most of them don't really and truly believe.

But I am very naive in one way. I'm a little too attached to the actual world. If well-known politician Dumbpants McGee, who I don't like, gives an impromptu talk without a teleprompter and says something that can be hilariously misunderstood, I'll laugh along with everyone else. But every time Dumbpants McGee's stupid comment is repeated afterwards, I'm going to think, 'You do realize that wasn't really what he meant, right?' I might not say it out loud, but I'll think it.

Please, people of politics, be more understanding and tolerant of people like me. If we say, 'But Senator Dumbpants didn't mean to say that; it's clear if you look at the full context', maybe we're not secret supporters of Dumbpants McGee. Maybe, in fact, we hate him as much as you do. Maybe we're just clinging a little too tightly to the actual world.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Feast for Crows

A Feast for Crows
by George R. R. Martin
Published in 2004
Published by Bantam Books
ISBN: 978-0-553-58202-4

Spoiler Space:

A Feast for Crows, book 4, is the least popular of the five published books of A Song of Ice and Fire.

I didn't personally think it was all that terrible. It was somewhat slow-moving. It had the pace of the first half of A Storm of Swords without the plot acceleration of the second half of that book. But Martin's a decent enough writer that I could live with that. I enjoyed what the book gave me.

But I'm honest enough to admit that a key factor in my enjoyment of A Feast for Crows is that I read it in the year 2012, and I know I can move on and read A Dance with Dragons more or less immediately afterwards. That's important because A Feast for Crows is mostly setup, with very little payoff.

The Dorne and Iron Islands sections of A Feast for Crows -- basically, all the sections with 'new' viewpoint characters, with chapter headings that read as titles rather than names -- exist solely to set up the events of books 5, 6, and 7.  Remove the promise of later books from the equation, and the Dorne and Iron Islands bits become exercises for the reader to wonder, Why am I reading this again?

Additionally, there's the fact that in terms of world-shaking events, nothing much happens in A Feast for Crows. And unfortunately if you're the sort who enjoys watching GRRM kill off major characters, Aemon Targaryen is about the most important person who you'll get to see die.

A Feast for Crows is full of scheming and plotting and killing of minor characters. It's full of King's Landing politics, the Lannister twins, and character development (more so for Jaime than Cersei).  It's got Brienne wandering through central Westeros looking for Sansa and slaughtering bad guys, in sequences that strike some readers as pointless but become much more interesting if you assume GRRM is sneaking in events and information which will turn out to be important later. A Feast for Crows is definitely important in the overall scheme of things, but it's as short on truly world-shaking events as the first half of A Storm of Swords. The payoff is going to come later.

Now imagine you're a Song of Ice and Fire fan who reads A Feast for Crows in 2004. You're left impatient for payoff. You want GRRM to give you more, and you're heartened that he promises that book 5 is coming next year. And then you're left waiting, year after year.

I know, I know. GRRM is not our bitch. (See here for the historical origins of the mantra.) But it's not hard to see where the fan belief came from that A Feast for Crows is where GRRM began to go off the rails, and how this belief might bear no relation to the book's actual quality or lack thereof.

I didn't begin reading Song of Ice and Fire until book 5 was already a reality, all published in paperback and easy to acquire. So I have no particular reason to dislike A Feast for Crows. Yes, the book has few universe-shaking events, and the Major Character Death Count is relatively light. But it's all about setup, about introducing new players and moving others into position. A Dance with Dragons, the beginning of the three-novel-long finish that'll (presumably) bring all these plot threads to fruition, has been published and is sitting on the table in front of me as I write this, so I'm willing to cut A Feast for Crows some slack. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

In the Miso Soup

In the Miso Soup
by Ryu Murakami
English translation by Ralph McCarthy
Published in 1997
Published by Yomiuri Shimbunsha
ISBN: 4-7700-2957-8

Kenji works in Tokyo as a guide for foreign men who want to sample the city's sex industry. Two days before New Year's Eve, he is hired by Frank, an American who gives Kenji the creeps. Frank is a man whose countenance and behavior seem 'off' in a myriad of ways. He can't seem to talk about his background without contradicting himself, and every so often Kenji sees something in his face that could be suppressed psychotic rage. On the day Kenji meets Frank, the news reports that the mutilated body of a teenage girl who'd been into 'compensated dating' has been found. Kenji can't help but suspect his new client.

He has good reason to. Before long, Kenji is fearing for his life and trying to put on a friendly face to avoid becoming his client's next murder victim.

Ryu Murakami is definitely not to be confused with the unrelated Haruki Murakami. In the Miso Soup is a psychological thriller whose main target is Japanese society, a culture that Murakami criticizes for driving people to such loneliness that they willingly participate in the pseudo-sex industry.

This is the world of compensated dating, in which women go on dates with older men for money; these dates might end with sex but don't necessarily have to. This is a world where lonely businessmen will wait in cafes for the chance to chat with a teenage girl; sometimes the girl isn't so much in it for the money as for the social interaction, because she's as lonely as the businessman. From Frank's perspective, there's dignity in a woman who turns to actual prostitution to support her family, but for people addicted to the tragic farce that is the psuedo-sex industry, there is no dignity, whether they are male or female, worker or client.

From Frank's hideous, disturbed perspective, he is only doing the world a favor. Murakami's not saying in his book that Frank's actions are justified, and he's definitely not glorifying him or people like him. Frank's function from a literary perspective is to point out the hypocrisy of a society in which these institutions are some people's closest thing to real social interaction. He does so in an absolutely brutal manner, but it drives the message home.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Storm of Swords

A Storm of Swords
by George R. R. Martin
Published in 2001
Published by Bantam Spectra
ISBN: 0-553-57342-X

I saw someone describe the overall structure of A Song of Ice and Fire thusly: books 1-3 are a self-contained trilogy with a downer ending, book 4 is intermission, and books 5-7 are a second trilogy.

Spoilers for the downer Book 3 below.

And I wouldn't expect anything but a downer ending from George R. R. Martin. I feel bad for my wife, though. Recently we were watching the final episode of Season 2 of the TV show, and as Bran, Rickon, Osha, and Hodor were grimly trudging away from the smoldering ruin of Winterfell, my wife said, 'PLEASE tell me this story gets a bit less bleak in Book 3.' And I had to reply, in all truthfulness, 'Nope.'

Everyone we care about had a horrific time of it in Book 3. By the book's end, Arya's been stripped of whatever innocence she may have had, Sansa's in a terribly uncomfortable situation, Tyrion's an outlaw, Bran's left behind everything to venture into parts unknown, and the Stark family and all who followed them have been smashed. Alone of all the first-tier protagonists in Westeros, Jon Snow ends the book in a much better position than where he started, but only after going through experiences that are probably enough to give him PTSD for the rest of his life. (And then there's Daenerys, but her story is still independent of everything else that's going on.)

GRRM demonstrates the rising seriousness and bleakness with a deliberate echo. In both book 1 and in book 3 Tyrion finds himself falsely accused of murder by people who would really rather just see him dead regardless of what the truth actually is. Both times, he protests that he's being framed, and then gives a confession-that's-not-really-one, and subsequently requests trial by combat to prove his innocence.

In book 1, when Tyrion is on trial in the Vale for the murder of Jon Arryn, we readers never believe Tyrion is actually in danger of losing his life. On the TV show especially, the whole plotline is played more for laughs than anything else (particularly Tyrion's ridiculous 'confession'). And there's never any doubt about whether Bronn (Tyrion 's champion) or Ser Vardis (The Other Guy) is going to win the trial by combat.

In book 3, Tyrion is on trial for killing Joffrey, and the situation is darker in every way. Not only has GRRM made it clear to us by this point that he's not above killing first-tier major characters like Tyrion, but the trial comes at the culmination of a book that's been a steadily growing pile of despair. Tyrion's 'confession ' in book 1 was amusing; in book 3 it's bitter.  And even when it looked like Tyrion's champion, Oberyn Martell, was going to kill Gregor Clegane in the trial by combat, I never really believed that Tyrion was going to win his freedom the same way twice.

Before I read book 3, I saw an online commenter say that GRRM's great achievement as a writer was fooling readers into thinking Tyrion Lannister was basically a good person. I never thought Tyrion was untarnished moral perfection, but he didn't fully cross the line in my head that separates 'ruthless but well-meaning' from 'morally twisted' until he quite unnecessarily murdered Shae on his way out of Kings Landing. I understand Tyrion's motivation, and I think GRRM has done a masterful job with his character. But Tyrion is steadily moving towards actually being the evil, twisted creature everyone takes him for. (I wonder how unspoiled TV audiences are going to react to Shae's eventual death; she's had a lot of screen time and is more of a well-developed character on the TV show than in the books.)

That said, I neither want nor expect my characters to show any sort of unvarnished moral perfection, especially not in this hideous universe that I would never want to live in. So I totally must call out a blatant trick that GRRM uses that became very apparent to me here. In the article 6 Tricks Movies Use to Make Sure You Root for the Right Guy, C. Corville suggests, 'Make Then American, Even When They're Not'. In other words, give your protagonist inexplicably 'modern' ideas about liberty and freedom in stories that take place hundreds of years ago:

Likewise, in Braveheart, Mel Gibson tells the local aristocracy: "You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom!" 2010's Robin Hood featured a Robin fighting for an imaginary version of Magna Carta that guaranteed democracy and equal rights. 

In 2004's King Arthur, set in fifth-century Britain, Clive Owen leads native Woads in their fight against invading Saxon hordes. But for Clive, this isn't just about warring tribes, it's about an idea: freedom. "All men are free, equal, and each man has a right to choose his own destiny!" he says. Throughout the film, he tells serfs, Roman conscripts and anyone who will listen that they are all free and equal by virtue of birth.

I'm sorry, but that's Daenerys Targaryen right there. As of the end of Book 3, GRRM has still never given us a convincing reason for her to be so fair and broad-minded, considering she's been raised her whole life to believe she's better than everyone else. A realistic person with Daenerys's upbringing wouldn't have objected to the Dothraki practice of raping women that they'd captured; she would have considered those women so far below her station that she wouldn't have had any empathy for them at all. And it's never really explained why Daenerys finds slavery so abhorrent -- we know that it's frowned upon in Westerosi culture, but we haven't seen much evidence that Daenerys got her dislike of slavery from the warped and incomplete Westerosi education she received. Besides, Daenerys seems supremely goal-oriented; one would expect her to at least seriously consider whether acquiring a massive slave army might be the most effective way to conquer Westeros.

Compare her to, say Catelyn Stark. GRRM generally portrays Catelyn positively but there's no doubt she's got an odious streak of classist bigotry in her. Not to mention her lifelong coldness toward Jon Snow -- we understand why she treats him as she does, but that doesn't make it right. In her morals and attitudes, Catelyn is a natural product of her culture. Daenerys, by contrast, is an alien dropped in from above.

Overall, though, any gripes I might make are minor compared to the splendid immensity of what GRRM has accomplished here. He finishes the original Song of Ice and Fire trilogy very strongly -- and it is a cohesive trilogy, with a genuine ending, just not one that would satisfy most readers if the story were never taken up again.

But already in Book 3, GRRM's spreading himself rather thin with the number of viewpoint characters. (I got the impression that after the book's first third he ran out of useful things for Davos to do.) This would, of course, cause major problems for him as he continued the series.

I'll just say that I'm happy I finished A Storm of Swords in 2012, rather than when it first came out. It would have been quite unfortunate for it to be 2001 and for me to be anxiously waiting for Book 4 to appear so I could find out whatever happened to Tyrion and Bran.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Alice Books

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass
by Lewis Carroll
Originally published in 1865 (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and 1871 (Through the Looking-Glass)

The second reading in Professor Eric Rabkin's Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World class on Coursera is Lewis Carroll's two Alice stories, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I read both of them about a decade ago. I re-read them for Professor Rabkin's class. (They'll likely be the only books I re-read; I unfortunately don't see myself having the time to read Shelley's Frankenstein, Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles or Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness for a second time while the course is underway.)

Everybody knows these books in abridged form. And they survive abridgment better than most, because there's hardly anything like a story in the original books. There is nothing remotely resembling a plot or character development to get in the way of gleeful Victorian surrealism. I fondly remember playing a computer game as a kid, Cosmic Osmo and the Worlds Beyond the Mackerel, in which you explore a universe which is an unceasing parade of nonsense and things which are absurd for no reason. Lewis Carroll delivered a very similar feeling well over a hundred years earlier.

What I didn't remember from reading these books a decade ago was the sheer level of punning, by which I mean punning that seeks to pick language apart at its most fundamental level. I vaguely remember amusing myself as a child by making up dialogue like this:

A: Are you Brendan?
B: No, but my name is.

But such linguistic meta-meta-tomfoolery has found a home in Lewis Carroll's writing. In Through the Looking-Glass, the White Knight introduces us to the song A-sitting On a Gate, which is called Ways and Means. The song's name, which is called Haddock's Eyes, is The Aged Aged Man. (On Wikipedia, the song is under 'Haddock's Eyes'. I am sure there is a very logical and well-thought-out explanation for why that title was chosen instead of the other three choices.)

As any 19th-century literature enthusiast will tell you, the Alice books strike us as absurd for no reason because much of the cultural context has been forgotten. The books are full of parodies of cultural flotsam and jetsam which nobody recognizes anymore. (This is especially true of the poetry, most of which is mockery of specific stodgy old poems that children had to learn by heart back then. Nowadays they're only remembered for being mocked by Lewis Carroll.)

Additionally, the author was a mathematician first and foremost, and most of the insane logic in the books is actually his snide commentary on the debates raging among mathematicians of the day. What I'd like to hunt down and read is mathematician Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice, a guide to all that's to be found in the books. I like Professor Eric Rabkin's lectures, but he can't cover everything, and he chooses to focus primarily on issues of imagery and structure (although he does talk a good deal about Lewis Carroll / Charles Dodgson's math career, which I appreciate).

I'm not sure I would put the Alice books into the genre of speculative fiction, the way it makes sense to define the genre today. To me, a work in the speculative fiction genre, whether it's fantasy, science fiction, or alternate history, creates a fictional world that makes sense on its own terms (or is intended to, in the case of authors who happen to be inept world-builders). This means you can take the point of view of a native of the world, and from that standpoint the world's day-to-day happenings make sense.

I don't think that's possible for the chaos-lands of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass World.  Lewis Carroll did not make it a high priority to make it seem that the March Hare and the Red Queen led any kind of day-to-day existence when Alice wasn't there to witness them. And that's fine. You can't fault the Alice books for not being good high fantasy. That would be like faulting a tasty Middle Eastern hummus dish for not being a good example of traditional Japanese cuisine. Genres are different, and that's OK.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

From Far Formosa

From Far Formosa
by George MacKay
Published in 1896
Published by Oliphant Anderson and Ferrier
ISBN (SMC Publishing reprint): 957-638-072-3

George MacKay was a Canadian Presbyterian missionary who arrived in Formosa at the end of 1871 and lived in Tamsui for the next several decades. He became known among the locals for his proselytizing and for his skill at extracting teeth -- and grateful locals who had been suffering the pain of a horribly rotten tooth would naturally be ready to give MacKay's religious teachings a chance once the tooth was out!

MacKay is still well-remembered in these parts. He never managed to turn Formosa into a piously Protestant land, but MacKay Memorial Hospital is one of the better-regarded hospitals in Taipei, and MacKay is probably the best-known Westerner to have lived in Formosa in the 1800s. He learned to speak Taiwanese quite fluently (it's not clear in the book if he ever learned much Mandarin, although it wouldn't have been terribly useful to him in 19th-century Formosa anyway) and locals generally came to respect him for all he did. Eventually.

He describes the city of Bang-Kah (modern-day Wanhua, Taipei) as a den of sin, and quite unwelcome to the missionary and his first few converts; through sheer bloody-minded persistence, he managed to get the locals accustomed to his bible-preaching presence, and as the years passed, the locals grew to actually like him, which he is rather proud of. (He does not say, however, that he has managed to clean up the city's sinfulness.)

His 1895 book From Far Formosa is a quite interesting vintage look at Formosa through Western eyes. (The name Taiwan didn't become common in English-speaking circles until long after MacKay's death; he does mention the word Taiwan, but as a 'this is what Chinese people call Formosa' factoid.) Everything is told through MacKay's idiosyncratic viewpoint. There's a lot of talk of God and how Jesus is greater than Buddha in this book, but one shouldn't expect anything different; after all, MacKay's reason for coming to Taiwan was to spread the Gospel, not to snack on fried tofu and oyster omelets.

For me, the most striking thing about MacKay's style is that, even as he writes lovingly and in detail of his first few converts to Christianity, he barely mentions the local woman he married, or the children he had with her. He lets his personal feelings shine through where religion is concerned, but his family is clearly considered irrelevant.

That said, although I'm no devout Christian myself, I was genuinely touched by MacKay's sense of service in the duty of Christendom. I can fully understand the attraction of doing one's duty in the service of a good cause, and that's something MacKay describes very well.

As an educated Victorian, MacKay spends a couple of chapters describing the flora, fauna, and geologic history of Formosa in some detail (and yes, he's perfectly capable of writing about science without mixing religion into it). I'm rather fond of his dry 19th-century writing style as he enumerates the local animals and plants. Of the cat, he writes, 'similar in appearance and nature to the Western house-cat', which is a decent description of our own Zhao Cai, who is entirely of Formosan feline descent.

Of mangoes, he writes, 'Nothing can be said in praise of this fruit as it is found in North Formosa. It has the taste of turpentine.' When in season, mangoes in present-day Taipei are quite good; presumably we're benefiting from the modern-day transportation infrastructure which brings us a supply of mangoes grown in better climates.

Overall, MacKay's book is a fascinating look at 19th-century Formosa. Even if you're not enthralled by Christianity, MacKay covers a lot of other ground which is of interest. He describes his experiences in the 1884-85 war with France (which included heavy French bombardment of Tamsui; most Westerners living here now probably have no idea the war ever took place). He speculates on the ethnicity and origin of Formosan aborigines, and although his conclusions do not match the modern consensus, his observations are still a fascinating glimpse of 19th-century anthropology. And as I said, the Victorian writing style agreed with me. I devoured the book in a few days.