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The Raven, when it came out, was getting a lot of bad press. And it deserves almost all of that bad press. The movie is an incoherent mess, a lackluster bit of nonsense where Edgar Allen Poe solves an unimaginative series of murders based, kind of, on his stories. The only good thing you’re likely to have heard about it is that Edgar Allen Poe has a pet raccoon for absolutely no reason. Everything else you’ve heard about it is most likely “It’s really boring. Except the raccoon.” For really obvious reasons, everyone loves the raccoon.

I did not find The Raven especially boring. I found it hilarious. The plot is rambling, with all these pretentions to complexity when it’s just a Serial Killing Stalker With a Crush. The bad guy’s ultimate goal? To force Edgar Allen Poe to write more stories. Now, in some contexts, that’s a really interesting plotline. In the context of Edgar Allen Poe’s last days alive? That’s just hilariously stupid and self-evidently ridiculous.

The characters are all invented from whole cloth. Poe’s girlfriend. Her father. The serial killer. And most invented and least original of all, the gruff police inspector. Worst and best of all, none of these characters are realized in the least. Poe’s girlfriend is a prop for the plot to advance. Her saving grace resides in her efforts to escape her captor, which are the nearest thing to actually gripping moments in the film. She scrabbles against her coffin until her captor thinks she’s given up…  and then starts digging through the dirt with her corset boning. Though she’s not realized as a character, the writers made token efforts to give her some agency, which felt gratifying on a sad, sad level.

Poe’s girlfriend’s father is even more poorly executed. He loathes Poe because…..  Poe is loathable? He is constantly threatening to shoot Poe for pursuing his precious daughter. Then the daughter gets kidnapped by Poe’s serial killer, and he blames Poe. 3 scenes later, he has forgiven Poe for absolutely no reason. He gives Poe his horse to get away to try to rescue his daughter. There is no motivation, no touching moment, which leads to this forgiveness. Just one minute, her father blames Poe. The next, Poe is his hero.

The movie is so vastly enjoyable in its awfulness. John Cusack is apparently fully aware of how ridiculous the premise is. His acting is the only acting that’s not awful – It is still High School level, as everyone else’s is, but it’s enjoyable. John Cusack put some amount of thought into the role – He spends the whole movie being ridiculous. Consider the Raccoon Cuddling scene, in which he grabs his pet raccoon, holds it for about ten seconds as it struggles against him, and then tosses it to the ground, where he tosses it a freaking human heart.  Cusack seems to know that the premise of the movie is patently ridiculous, and that the movie is taking itself far too seriously. Yet he gives Poe a bright eyed melancholy, and a penchant for cuddling raccoons. Also memorable is the scene in which he runs around a church, to get in the back door to confront the killer, and leaps over a stone. When the police force comes around the same direction, they ignore the stone completely and run straight to the door. The stone was not in Poe’s path at all, yet Cusack chose to leap over it.

The dialogue is so trite, so clichéd, and so absolutely out of period that it’s hilarious. There are – I am not shitting you – two different occasions on which the growling police inspector says that the mayor is demanding results on this case. He says that the mayor is demanding results from Edgar Allen Poe. In 1849. The movie was clearly conceived as a buddy cop film in which Batman and a Raccoon solve murders, but the writers realized that they only had two pages of watchable script, so they threw in Edgar Allen Poe.

This movie should not have been made. The script is weak, the acting weaker, and the premise is beyond ridiculous. A ridiculous premise can be strong; I am looking forward to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Poe happens to appear in the book by the way. But a ridiculous idea cannot take itself seriously without becoming entirely the wrong kind of ridiculous. For quality, I give this movie 1 out of 5 waffles. And that’s without syrup.  For entertainment, I give it 5 out of 5 waffles, and one of them chocolate chip. That’s the Raccoon Waffle.

(Maybe I should rethink this Waffle Rating system.)

I’m trying to pull together a proper post, and have been cor a couple weeks. Life and energy levels keep getting in the way. I know no one is exactly following this blog with bated breath, but I wanted to pop in and let you know about the new iconic food of the Derivative Waffle House:

Fractal Pancakes.




Within a week I’ll finally put up my review of The Raven. Did you know that Edgar Allen Poe has a raccoon in it?

For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I conducted a little experiment earlier today. I made some Earl Grey Tea, and then put espresso in it. Here is the record of that experiment:




Alright, here we go: The Earlspresso Grey Experiment of 2012. Mark your future history books folks!


Question: Will Earl Grey Tea taste good if you add Espresso to it?


Hypotheses: 1) Yes it fucking will – Me 2) No it fucking won’t – Sam


Method: 1) Start water boiling 2) Start Espresso Brewing 3) Mix hot water and Tea Bag 4) Hope timing is good to put the Espresso In


Step 1 Initiated at 12:01 PM MST, Step 2 delayed by fact that Espresso machine is held in an inconvenient place upon the counter


Step 2 further delayed by fact that Experimenter has no idea how to Tamp on his home espresso machine; Cocktail Shaker used as stopgap


Step 1 Complete; Step 2 Properly Initiated at 12:07 PM MST; Step 3 (Pouring hot water over tea bag) Initiated after Mug Deliberation @ 12:09


12:11 PM MST: Problems with espresso machine encountered WHY IS THERE WATER COMING OUT OF ITS EVERY ORIFICE


12:13 PM Tea is done steeping; Espresso Machine is being weirder, but has stopped spewing water everywhere


12:15 PM MST: More Espresso than i had meant to make has been made. I forgot to empty it of water after steaming milk some days ago….


Forgotten Note: 12:13 PM Earl Grey came out tasty.


12:17 PM: Espresso finished brewing. Is passable. Is weak and Bitter, but passable.


12:18 PM MST: Espresso and Earl Grey finally mixed. No catastrophic results. Stirred with stainless steel tablespoon.


12:19 PM MST: Experimenter prepares to attempt first sip of this strange brew


12:19 PM MST: Odor of Strange Brew is delightful; Bergamot and Espresso would be good mix for perfume


12:20 PM MST: Earlspresso Grey tastes like…. Well just like if you mixed espresso and earl grey. Bitter aftertaste of burnt bergamot.


12:22 PM MST third sip sparks strange awareness of body


12:23 PM MST: Continued experiment delayed by laundry being done in the dryer, Scientist will BRB


12:25 PM: Scientist hears dull roar coming from outside on his way to the laundry room


12:28 PM MST Subject feels motion of air without a breeze; shows signs of fear of the North and dissociation of self with self


12:29 PM MST “Hey, this is actually delicious. What if we infused coffee with Salvia Dinorum?”


12:30 PM MST Subject experiences burning in belly, Goes down to Miami Kill Roosevelt!


((Subject responds to query about the flavor)) I think if I had made the espresso better, let the tea steep a little longer, and used fresher beans, it would be v. tasty!


12:30 PM MST: Subject receives DM from self, warning of “they are coming they are coming they are coming.” Subject deletes DM


12:32 PM MST: Subject suspects he can fly. Scientist shuts balcony door.


12:34 PM MST Strange Brew is half gone. Subject suspects the flow of time has slowed around him. Asks whether scientist can make more.


12:36 PM MST scientist rejoins self as subject, decides not to make more just this minute, to disappointment of all 3


12:37 PM MST Subject/Scientist/Self recognizes that the Earlspresso Grey has turned him into a Trinity, begins founding new religion


12:38 PM MST Subject wants to scrub the left side of his tongue because oh my GOD it is carrying an awful flavor right now ugh


12:39 PM MST Subject sees the holes in the sky, sends self DM warning “they are coming they are coming they are coming”


12:41 PM MST With only two sips of concoction to go, Subject has neither phased ENTIRELY out of reality nor vomited.


12:44 PM MST Subject feels dizzy, as if left brain and right brain are slightly out of tmpemroal cnys


sksa tcejbus, lasrever “I ma ohw ? ” emit fo stceffe eht gnicneirepxe TSM MP 64:21


12:47 PM MST: Subject downs final/first sip of foul noitop and snaps otni normal state of disreality, only occasionally gnivom backwards


12:49 PM MST with the Earlspresso yerG fully absorbgni into his system, tcejbus must depart for the bank


1:01 pm mst, subject discovers he has been punching everyone on the way to the bank, stops for a bagel


1:04 pm mst, subject realizes that he has punched nothing but his own demons, enjoys bagel


1:09 pm mst, subject wonders why bagel is punching him, recognizes it as a talking hot dog and one of his demons


1:13 pm mst subject enters bank struggling with bagel, wonders why his teller is hieronymous bosch


3:33 pm mst subject insists that there is no escape


2:27 pm mst worms, oh my god, worms


1:25 pm mst subject ceases remembering the future, dr. Memory, wonders where bagel went


1:21 pm mst subject remembers the future, gives bagel to Uhclem



1:33 PM MST subject discovers missed connection on craigslist from the end of time, stamped “4:00 PM MST today”, flags it as spam


1:38 PM Subject feels the foul concoction leaving his system, discovers that he still has bagel, which is not a demon or a hot dog, whew


Conclusion: NEVER AGAIN. Or, rather, maybe tomorrow.

                Shortly after I made the recently mentioned decision to read every book that I could get my hands on for less than $2, I went on a shopping spree with a good friend of mine. She was specifically looking for some classic fantasy stuff – Conan and Elric, in particular. We went to every used bookstore in town, and I just looked around while she dug deep. I grabbed books I knew to be by writers who I didn’t like but did enjoy – Andre Norton being the prime example – and lifted the cover to check the current price. $2, take, $1, take, $8, put back on the shelf.


                Partway through this process, I saw a book with a title intriguing enough that I had to pull it off the shelf. The back cover had it in my “buy” pile before I had even looked at the penciled in price. The book was guaranteed to be so ridiculous that, whether it was awful or not, whether it was expensive of cheap, I absolutely had to own and read it.


                This book was Heroes in Hell.


                Heroes in Hell is set in a version of the Christian underworld which is essentially the real world, but infinitely worse; where the dead of all time periods come at completely unpredictable relative times, with seemingly infinite ways and opportunities to die, but few (or none) of them permanent. The plot Heroes in Hell vaguely traces a revolution against Satan led by Che Guevara, who, by Satan’s estimation, seems to get off on failed revolutions. In the process of telling this story, the novel explores this Hell and the politics of its denizens. Caesar is a leader of the damned, living a relatively comfortable life with Hatshepsut, Cleopatra, Dante, and Machiavelli. Dante claims to be trying to recreate his Divine Comedy, so that he can find out what he wrote that got him damned. Ernest Hemmingway is a heavy drinker who loves to fight – as ever. Napoleon is living in an approximation of Suburbia, closely studying the laws of Hell to find a loophole out, when he is forced to take his new neighbor The Duke of Wellington into his home. That Napoleon/Wellington story is probably the high point of this volume, as a highly surreal rendition of The Odd Couple. In Hell.


                And here’s the thing. All of this absurdity is really well written. The book, despite its ridiculous, befuddling concept, manages to take itself seriously, without taking itself too seriously. The prose is solid, the dialogue believable; nothing is ever too heavy handed, and the world of its Hell is clearly terrible, an intolerable place, but not in a traditional Boschian way. I don’t want to spoil too much of the story for you; Machiavelli’s role is brilliant, but much of the brilliance lies in reading how it develops.


                Read this book. You will probably be able to find it for around 2 dollars anyway.  It’s the first in a series, and I intend to go find out the rest of them soon.

I’m sure that many of you hate Will Ferrell. This is an opinion that, while I do not share, I respect. Historically, his comedy has been loud, boorish, and idiotic. Stranger Than Fiction proved that he can play other roles; the humor in that movie was dark and off-beat,  with some traditional rom-com aspects and none of his usual wide-eyed shouting and self-importance humor. Did he shout something quotable about glass cases of emotion, or Santa, in that movie? Not to my recollection.   Casa de Mi Padre is does not quite reach the same heights of maturity as Stranger than Fiction, but it does not go all the way back to Ferrell’s iconic shouting idiocy. The movie is certainly wacky, but it avoids the dubious distinction of “screwball”.

In essence, Casa de Mi Padre is a spoof of Mexican soap operas. But it seems more to be drawn from traditional spoofs of Mexican soap operas than from the soaps themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it makes the film accessible to an audience who does not really watch those telenovellas. The plot is intentionally over-simplistic and semi-coherent. Will Ferrell plays Armando Alvarez, a man who stands to inherit his father’s ranch – the titular Casa. He is, however, kind of stupid. Not in an overbearing way like Ferrell so often is; He is no Ron Burgundy or Buddy The Elf. He is simply not that bright; the classic simple farmhand with a Will Ferrell flair.  The absolute high point of the movie is the song that he and his friends, whose names I never caught, sing about it, “Yo No Se”. The song is about how little they know, with a chorus consisting of the line delightfully translated as “for I am a simple ranchero”.

Armando’s brother, the beloved prodigal son, comes home, involved in the drug business, with a fiancée who immediately falls in love with Armando. The plot goes from there, intentionally and inherently predictable. The characters are all lifted straight out of The Archetype Directory, because that is the point. The Simple Ranchero; the Drug Mogul who loves his family; The Wilting Beauty With A Dark Past; The Father Who Loves The Prodigal Son; The Needlessly Evil Villains. These tropes are well executed, well integrated, and serve as they should: to give the gags a context.

The purpose and hook of the movie are not the plot or characters: the movie is a delivery method for gags. And what gags! The Cigarette Bits which flow throughout the movie are the best. I do not want to spoil any of them, because describing them would robt hem of their strength. Armando’s consistent and mostly unremarked failure to roll a cigarette is the simplest and longest running of the gags. The dialogue about selling drugs to Americans which culminates in calling Americans “shit-eating crazy monster babies” is possibly the hardest I have laughed in a movie theatre in a long while, though I haven’t been to many movies in a long while.

While I am one of these wretches who does consistently like Will Ferrell – to my great shame, I even enjoyed Blades of Glory, though Will Arnett and Amy Poehler were what carried the flick – I do not think that this biased why I and my movie-going companion laughed throughout the entire movie. It was the writing and the gags – sight gags, plot gags, and filmic gags –  which carry the movie. Will Ferrell is simply the ideal vessel for these gags, with his ability to be understatedly overstated. The subtleties of the film are its greatest strengths; Mannequins appear in lieu of actual characters at completely random intervals, with no attention called to this fact. Sets vary wildly and inconsistently between shot-on-location and shot-in-front-of-matte-paintings-or-green-screens.

Don’t see it if you dislike gratuitous, obviously fake violence. The blood is almost clear and obviously fake, but it is abundant. Seriously, just – just go give this movie your money. Er, well, go ahead and wait for the DVD or Blu-Ray or the Netflix Instant Streaming. It’s not really important to see it on the big screen.

Also I should warn you that there is an extended scene where we see Will Ferrell’s ass. It is a better ass than I would have expected, but it is still not especially not Will Ferrell’s ass. The scene is a (beginning-of) sex scene between Ferrell and Genesis Rodriguez, who I do not mind telling you I did enjoy seeing the ass of. This is also the funniest sex scene in a movie since the Puppet Sex in Team America: World Police.

So, on Saturday, March 10th, I discovered that the old Science Fiction show The Starlost had been re-made into a new Hulu series, titled Ark. Knowing that Ellison, the father of Starlost, had hated the show and wanted it to be entirely different, I was pretty excited.


Wikipedia lied to me. To say Ark is based on The Starlost is about the same as saying Tron is based on Gulliver’s Travels. Sure, there’s a little similarity – Both Tron and Gulliver’s Travels are about a man exploring worlds they aren’t from, populated by creatures with completely separate ways of living than their familiar world; but one is about computer programs engaging in a revolution against a totalitarian master program, and the other one is Tron. You may know by now that I have not read Gulliver’s Travels.


Ark takes place on a space ship carrying humans who don’t know that they are on a spaceship at the start of action. The similarities end there. These humans come from at least 2 different periods of human history (probably more, but there are a total of five or six characters in the show, with three never appearing on the ship and one not speaking English), and wake up from some form of long term sleep-storage. They discover that on Earth, they are officially dead. They find a number of actually dead people on the ship, and there are bombs in some parts of the walls. And that is about the extent of what we learn about what’s going on over the course of the ~55 minute web series.


I’m actually not bothered by this lack of completion; it’s fairly well executed, the show leaving us befuddled and confused. It was obviously meant to continue into a second season, which never materialized. A significant portion of me really does want a whole lot more; there is a lot of potential in the plot. But I just can’t get past the fact that it has absolutely NO connection to what Wikipedia claimed it is a remake of. There are not pocket worlds on this space ship, so far as presented! There is no Planet-Saving reason for these characters to have been loaded onto the same space ship, so far as presented. Perhaps had there been a second season, things would have been explained. As it is? It feels like it wants to be simultaneously The 4400, Riverworld, and LOST. No one knows what’s happening! At the end, the MYSTERIOUS VOICE says “everyone’s here”, implying “the entire human race” (which was not suggested at all by what had happened so far)! And mysterious, seemingly senseless abduction! And it’s in SPACE.


 I like all three of those shows. And, in fact, I would LOVE the place where all three of those met.  What a powerhouse of a fiction that would be. If it were executed well.


 I don’t hate this show altogether. Like I said, I’m mostly angry about watching it under false pretenses (screw you, Wikipedia), so I’m biased against it. It’s fairly well paced, once you get past the first episode, which is just drab, obvious, ‘what the hell is going on” set up. Only one of the actors, the male lead, is terrible. And gosh is he terrible. He is unconvincing, with delivery that is forcibly “loose”. His dialogue is agonizing too. He’s from the 50’s, and he constantly calls the female lead “babe”. It’s just annoying. Even if it’s period appropriate, which I’m not sure of, it would be incredibly annoying. The rest of the dialogue isn’t great, but at least isn’t agonized.  And the mystery and tension is pretty well executed and established.


The show’s biggest saving grace is the set design. It’s stunning as hell. It’s not just decrepit spaceship like it could have been; there is apparent thought put into the structure of things. In the last scene of the series, we get a pan of the ship. It’s magnificent. It kind of resembles a jelly fish tree flying through space. Uh, or something.


Don’t bother if you’re expecting to see The Starlost executed well. Do if you are not at all upset about The Starlost being butchered by everyone who didn’t know what was going on, and would like some decent, poorly acted, and incomplete sci-fi.


Er, so don’t bother, most likely.

So, a long while back, over a year ago, I got a copy of a godawful book for free. This book was called Low Red Moon and it was a cheapo Twilight rip-off. Girl falls in love with Werewolf who may have killed her parents, but it turns out that he’s a prosecuted minority and – okay, that sounds a hell of a lot better than the book actually was.


In any case, reading this awful book gave me an idea for a blog. I would find books for less than $2, and read them, and review them. Every book that I got for free or almost no money, I would devour, and pick apart, and mock, in the hopes of getting Internets Famous, or at least of making someone laugh. (This would, of course, exclude books that I got for free because they were gifts, or ARCs. Low Red Moon was a copy that was damaged out by my place of employment, partly because they hadn’t ordered it, and partly because no one wanted to buy it.) So I went out to used bookstores and raided their discount racks for anything under $2. I found a couple of truly bewildering treasures – I still have to read the double novel by none other than Ed Wood. But much to my chagrin, I found that many of the books I got were actually…  Good.


Phoenix Without Ashes by Harlan Ellison and Edward Bryant is a brilliant book. The book is in fairly good condition. There are notes scribbled in a lot of the margins – illegible, inane notes, which, when readable, are only stating “this is what happen son this page.” But the cover is intact; the words are all readable.  The cover price is 95 cents, and I got it for a dollar. I feel like I should have had to pay more for it. Price variance over time is weird.


Phoenix Without Ashes was written by Edward Bryant, based on the pilot of the same name for a television show called The Starlost. The Starlost was meant to be a sprawling television series headed by Harlan Ellison. But between the network executives’ meddling and a writer’s guild strike, the project fell to pieces. The book opens with a vitriol and bile filled essay by Ellison about the whole experience, which is at least on par with the novel itself in entertainment/interest value.


The basic idea behind The Starlost was defined as the “enclosed universe”. It was about this huge spaceship with all of these individual bubble-worlds populated by particular cultures and sub-cultures. It was an ark, carrying the cultures away from a doomed Earth. They had communication with each other, up until some point 500 years before the story starts, when a disaster separated them, leading them all to, over the generations, forget that they had once been a space-faring civilization who lived on an actual planet.  The pocket worlds each think that they are the entirety of the world (though, with so many of them, I’m sure a number would have known the truth). The ship is also doomed to destruction in 5 years.  The show would have been about the efforts of those who accidentally came upon the truth to save the ship. They would have made contact with other pocket worlds, tried to convince them of the truth, and explored the ship.


Since the show only produced one reportedly terrible season, all we really have to go on of this original vision is this solitary book. (And, apparently, a graphic novel of the same name and plot released last March by IDW). And let me tell you, the show should have been amazing. It should have been LOST, except in space, and with actual plot-destinations in mind throughout the whole thing. It should have been the perfect sci-fi series. As soon as I had finished reading the book – whose prose is excellent, but overall unremarkable – I wanted to know so much more about the universe. When I found out that there were no more books in the series, I actually considered finding the television show, just to have a taste of the world Ellison had built. I’ll doubtless buy the graphic novel soon enough.  I want to know more about these characters. What side did Garth end up on? What were the other Enclosed Worlds on the ark? Where was the plot going to end up?


It’s not fair that such a brilliant concept got cut down the way it did. I had a little rant about how desperately I wanted more of The Starlost, but when looking for the links to populate this post with, I discovered something beautiful. Something killer. Ark, a 9-episode web remake on Hulu. Tears, guys. I have tears. The Starlost rose from its ashes, to produce a Phoenix.


I’ll watch it tomorrow.

A while back, a friend asked everyone for lists of 5 books they should read. I kind of went a little overboard in making my choices and explaining them, and ended up with a list of the 5 books which had the biggest impact on making me who I am. This is basically the same list, though with a lot more explanation. It also took me about 3 months to write, so, ugh, dopey.   Spoilers follow, but I probably got a lot of details wrong. I only returned to the texts and Wikipedia articles to find names and such; In the process, I discovered that I got quite a few things wrong about some of them. I didn’t bother to fix those errors, because I feel like they reflect me best!

So in any case, here’s the short form list for those curious who don’t want to risk spoilers:

The Plague by Albert Camus

Nausea by Sartre

At Swim-Two Birds by Flann o’Brien

Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson

Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett


Read More »

I’m taking a “break” from my “three positive posts in a row” “effort” to ask help for something very important to me. (It’s not a negative post, maybe it counts, but that doesn’t really matter.)

My dear friend Gileonnen has a cat in ill health. He ate a sewing thread which has really messed up his digestion, so much so that he needs surgery to get his intestines fixed up.  This surgery, and other veterinary fees, are costing one-sixth of Gil’s annual income.  So Gil’s running a drive: Commissions for Art and Fiction.  Even though I doubt anyone reading this blog doesn’t know Gil, just because of the places that I link to this blog, I’m using this platform to campaign for help for little Kolya anyway.

This is a young cat.  It’s not one of those “My cat is twenty three and has no bones, but behind that look of agony in his eyes you can tell he loves being alive and eating twenty liver pills a day!” cases. This isn’t Angela from The Office’s Sprinkles.  This is a cat Gil has had for only a matter of months, and was young of some sort at the time. Obviously, though, he’s as dumb as any other cat – eating a sewing thread is not a wise course of action, kitties.  Please start to learn these things!

Since my own 19-year-old childhood cat (Steinbeck) was put down just last weekend, this is very (semi-irrationally) important to me.  I would attempt to join in the fundraising drive personally, but unlike Gil, I have no (proven) marketable skills.  So all I can do is urge everyone I can to commission a piece at Gil’s Tumblr.  As soon as I get my next paycheck (I would now but poor planning has left me low-on-bling) I’m putting my money where my keyboard is.

Remember: Commission Really Freaking Good Art or Fiction! Do it now! For a kitty!


MAJOR EDIT: There is now a writerly Charity Auction going down!  Bid on stuff or offer stuff up for bidding! DO IT! (If you can.)

I noticed today that, of the four things on my blog, 3 of them are fairly negative and the fourth I can’t remember at all.  Oh, right, it was “Cthulu: The Calling” or whatever. I wish that had been more memorable.  Sad day.  I think that’s because I think negativity is funny, and I am occasionally afraid to say anything unless I can hope someone, somewhere, will find it funny.  I actually don’t hate any of the things I reviewed – well, okay, I do hate Space: 1999¸ but in that special way where I actually love it.

To fix that, my next three “reviews” will be (mostly) positive! So to kick that off – I like Clifford D. Simak and I wrote a lot of words about that. A lot. Seriously, 3 people who will read this, so many words.  I just keep adding to them.  I cannot stop.  It is a disease.


I just [er, about, two weeks ago] finished reading City, by Clifford D. Simak, and I really enjoyed it.  Even though it took me at least a month to read.  And then another two weeks to finish “reviewing” I’ve been busy, shut up! Spoilers follow, but it’s fairly old, and only occasionally depends on suspense, so you should be okay.

City spans at least 12,000 years, chronicling the advancement and disappearance of humanity, and the development of its replacements: the dogs.  It follows, primarily, a family of the last name Webster.  The Websters are leaders among men, who initially lead the drive to remove Cities in favor of a global community; who lead humanity into space; who help humanity far along its path, and then occasionally hinder that path.  They constantly develop new technologies, teach dogs to speak, help discover that there is a paradise on Jupiter (and almost rob humanity of that paradise), and are just all around people. It’s pretty impressive, the way that Simak was able to generate this amazing, successful, and important family without making them perfect. One of them, a brain surgeon in the third or fourth story, sets both humanity and the Martians back by thousands of years.  Not because he was evil, or anything, or a coward.  Not because he was afraid to visit Mars, but because he developed a violent form of agoraphobia and couldn’t leave his own home.  (Whether phobias can develop without a trauma, of course, may be left to Simak’s literary devices.)


            City’s strongest point is its framing narrative.  City is structured as an academic collection of a myth cycle, produced, reproduced, and beloved by dogs. The “editor” compares varying interpretations of the myth cycle of the Websters and men, trying to summarize the debate over whether or not men had ever been real. Varying scholars that he “cites” argue that the lack of Doggish touches in the first stories suggest a non-Doggish origin, but the lack of any evidence of men’s existence beyond the myth cycle is used by other scholars to argue against this point. It’s a beautiful little reproduction and extrapolation of pre-history scholarship and a wonderful reflection on our understanding of our world’s history, and, most importantly, a great approach to telling the story.  I love academically based narratives, and would like more of them. (Any recommendations? The Third Policeman comes to mind, and I think I’ll have to read The Dalkey Archives next. Oh, Flann O’Brien <3)

Narratively, it does have one major weakness.  The first few stories depend heavily that old “as you know…” form, which is very grating most of the time. Because I had a suspicion that this book was going to be really good, it having been recommended by my dad, I went ahead and paced on through. I suppose that it can be forgiven by the fact that these stories are supposed to be myths, passed down only as dogs could remember them, but it also takes a second hit from that. If they have that much “as you know…” information, it’s kind of hard to believe that they only read these stories as myths.

City also has a few portions which may or may not be good, depending on how you look at it. In one story, an entire Martian civilization is introduced, which never appears outside of that story except for its one named member. That’s the story which introduces Juwainism, and is the other one that I’ve mentioned directly — where agoraphobia ruins a chance for Earth and Mars to shoot forward into the universe.  Juwain is a Martian philosopher who comes up with a way of thinking which would propel both races “a hundred thousand years in the space of two generations.” (Later, we find out that this philosophy is a semi-psychic ability to sense what others feel, saving it from the MacGuffin pile.)  Juwain dies, causing the incompletion of his philosophy for the next 3 or four stories, until the mutants suss out what he was trying to get at.

Juwainism exemplifies one of the primary themes of the book.  City is largely an examination of competing modes of thinking and competing natures, and how those modes and natures can be co-operative and additive rather than in competition. The Martians, in their one appearance, are philosophers, all of them subject to a certain version of fatalism which means that they haven’t even thought of the concept of medicine or seeking escape from disease. When the humans reach Mars, with their knowledge of medicine, it shoots the Martians forward. It’s suggested that the contact with the Martians also did wonders for humanity, but I don’t recall what advances these philosophers brought being specified beyond “new ways of thinking are neat!” There is a recurring subset of humanity called Mutants, long-lived super-geniuses who shun the company of other men and even of other mutants. They cleanse humanity from the planet by using Juwainism to make them realize that the residents of Jupiter live in a paradise of sensation. It’s cool, trust me.  Dogs, without men to guide them, are peaceful and investigative, where they had been subservient to men and constantly striving to be more like them.  Robots, without men to guide them, just explore and expand – except for Jenkins the Robot, who still does what the Websters would have wanted, by taking care of and encouraging the dogs.  Other animals gain intelligence, and have their own fairly predictable quirks.  Squirrels are jittery and act rashly and quickly; a wolf we meet is kind of snide and self-important/reliant, but doesn’t shun company or assistance.

The Science of the Sci-Fi is intriguing itself, although it tends to be glossed over in Simak’s poorest dialogue. Time does not flow the way we think it does; each moment continues on, changing.  There is no past, only other worlds – other moments which could almost be said to be a step behind us. A great concept, though I have heard it in other places, I think. Dogs have a psychic ability to sense “cobblies”, things in those other moment-worlds.  The only part which really fell short for me in this aspect is Juwainism. A philosophy that directly causes you to understand why other people feel the way they do, and directly.  While it’s a great concept, it just strikes me as poor terminology to call it a philosophy. It’s more of a developed psychic ability which, perhaps, could develop from a philosophy.  But Simak seems to insist on this ability as being the philosophy itself. While it is the Martian version of Philosophy (described in text as a variety of science), it still seems like poor terminology.

City’s the only thing I’ve read by Simak, so I don’t know if this is a common thread to his work, but it doesn’t really have a strong female presence. There are two significant female characters; one is a secretary, whose only purpose is to chastise her employer, and one is an ex-wife, serving only as a foil to her ex-husband. Both only serve as foils for the male main characters. There are one or two with lines in the 7th tale, but they only giggle (of course, all “men” are giggling dunces by this point of the story). Even all of the animal characters are the male of the species, and all the robots are masculine in the small aspect of a robot’s gender resemblance. “Humanity” is always referred to as “men” or “man,” which is certainly not his fault – except that I don’t recall him using the term “humanity” or “humans” to much effect.  It says a lot about the whole issue that I didn’t notice the lack of female characters until I sat down to write this review.  I was trying to think of more things to say about the book [which was really necessary, look at all these words], and only then did I think of women. I didn’t even notice it, because it just seemed like the default. And that’s terrible.

My favorite touch was right at the very conclusion, and was very clever and understated, easy to miss, and perhaps even just my imagination: Jenkins asks Jon Webster how the humans used to take care of ants.  Jon Webster says that men would put out poison, sweetened with sugar, in order to kill the ants. But it would be slow poison, which they would take back to the hive, killing the entire colony. This is exactly how Joe uses Juwainism to get rid of humanity; Jupiter is sweet, pleasing, and the risk is completely unrecognizable to them until they’re gone.

For some reason, google searches for “Juwainism” primarily produce ads for Viagra. What’s up with that?