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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Getting Reborn With Mark Millar

What happens when you die? Where does your spirit go? Is death the end of one journey, and the beginning of another? Or is this life all that there is? These are questions that everyone wonders about, and even the most scientific of authors, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, have wrestled with.

In his current series Reborn, comic writer Mark Millar addresses these issues. Through his eyes, we follow Bonnie, an old woman eking out her final moments of life in a hospital. When she dies, she reawakens in a fantasy land brimming with fairies, mythic monsters, and yes, even the occasional dragon. Bonnie discovers that she is no longer feeble and suffering from cancer. Instead she is young and energetic. Her youthful body is far stronger than in her former life, she clad in armor, and she wields a sword. Amid a battle, she reunites with her father, her dog, and begins a search for her husband, who journeyed to this fantastic land before her.

Not all who populate this realm live as soldiers. Some settle down and have families, while others enslave the weak and perpetuate their evil schemes. Still, the fact that monsters and evildoers inhabit this realm means that those who seek to live by the sweat of their brow, and in harmony with others, must occasionally band together to protect themselves, their families, and their villages. It may be the afterlife, but that doesn't mean that Bonnie has reached Heaven. This is a world like our own, in which evil exists alongside good, and often fights for supremacy.

Bonnie isn't just another new resident of this fantastic land. People see her as a great hero who has long been prophesied to rescue them once and for all from the forces of evil. While Bonnie never refuses to help others, she isn't interested in building an army and launching an all-out assault on evildoers. Her first priority is more personal: she wishes to find other members of her family on Earth. So she travels this new world with her father and a pet from her childhood, the latter a dog that, like she and her father, is far larger and stronger than he was on Earth. 

Issue 5 of Reborn was my favorite thus far, featuring some major revelations about her husband, and leading to the final confrontation in Issue 6. But it was also bittersweet, as only one issue remains in the current series. From all accounts, the series is selling well, so depending on what occurs in the final issue, it's possible that Millar will write a sequel series sometime in the future. He's done that before, with series like Kick-Ass and Jupiter's Legacy

Interestingly enough, a hardcover novelization by Sarah Lotz is due to hit bookstores later this year, so those who missed the comics will have a choice of purchasing all six issues in one volume, or purchasing a prose adaptation. Many of his stories also get adapted for the big screen, so there's always a potential movie version to hope for. Still, that's far and away, while Reborn is pulsing with vitality, and available to read now. 

In many ways, Reborn seems like an interesting series for Mark Millar to write, as he's a devout Catholic. Reading Reborn seems a little surreal when Millar posts on Facebook and Twitter about attending Mass more often during Lent, and giving up things during this holy season of the Christian calendar. But Reborn is all in good fun. At its core, the story reminds us that Life, in whatever form, is always a battle between good and evil. Just like Bonnie's, our lives should be quests in which we fight for what is right, aid those in need, and strive for the people and things that matter to us. 

Even if that means we too must battle the occasional dragon.

Dragon Dave

Monday, March 27, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop Vs Downton Abbey

The formal splendor of an earlier era
in the Victoria And Albert Museum in London, England

While I don't know as much about his life as I would like, Scarlet And Hyssop seems like a rather brave novel for E. F. Benson to write, given how well connected he was with anyone-who-was-anyone in English society back then. His father's high standing in the Church of England granted him entry to the rich and powerful, but if he incurred someone's wrath, that could have made his writing career more difficult. The fact that it is a challenging novel to read, with largely unlikable characters, makes it all the more surprising he would write it. Stories that require understanding a key, or the contemplation of an underlying symbol to really enjoy a story, do not always sell well. Stories that require a second reading to gain a fuller understanding of the author's intent do not always age well. While writers such as G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald, and Charles Williams have not been forgotten, they can hardly claim a place in our hearts like Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, or J. R. R. Tolkien. 

Perhaps it was a mistake for E. F. Benson to write this novel. His long bibliography, and the sheer range of his writing, suggest that he really loved every type of literary genre. When a writer does not concentrate on one or two genres, but spreads his net wide, it is inevitable that he will not always succeed at everything he attempts. While some reviewers loved it, critical assessment of Scarlet And Hyssop largely tends to be negative. As I mentioned, I found it a challenging novel to read. Still, as my post-reading realization demonstrates, there was more going on in the story than could be initially grasped on the surface level. This left me with a desire to read the novel again. With my better knowledge of the characters, and the goal Benson was striving toward, I'm sure it would be a richer experience. 

It goes without saying that, if I felt the novel was an utter failure, I would not even contemplate a second attempt.

When the TV series Downton Abbey premiered on TV, I took an immediate dislike to it. Although the characters inhabited a world similar to those described by writers such as E. F. Benson, I found little to interest me in their petty schemes and jealousies. Similarly, when I first watched the movie Gosford Park, I had just as much difficulty in appreciating it. Here was a story about a murder among the rich in a country house of the nobility. But instead of allowing me to follow a police investigation that led to the capture of the murderer, screenwriter Julian Fellows forced me to wade through portraits of largely unlikable characters. The murderer even gets away with the crime at the end of the movie!

Recently I watched the movie again, and found it intriguing enough to view a second time with commentary with screenwriter Julian Fellows. This actor, writer and producer, the creator of Downton Abbey, is a modern English Baron, and a peer in the House of Lords. As such, he divides his time between telling stories to the populace and contributing to the government of Britain. He has made his name by writing about the types of people he grew up with, both among the rich and titled, as well as the lowly servants. What might seem to us an incomprehensible social structure is something he understands. On the commentary for Gosford Park he said something that stuck with me. He said that the sense he got, from the relatives and people he knew, was that the high and mighty eventually decided to abolish their complicated systems of etiquette, and relax their highly formalized way of life, simply because they found it too tiresome to perpetuate it. In other words, the system grew over time, until it became to unwieldy that those at the top, the ones who theoretically benefitted most from it, finally gave up on it and opted for a simpler way of life.

Don't get me wrong. I still dislike Downton Abbey. Even after watching it again, I'm still not wild about Gosford Park. But the similarities between those stories and Scarlet And Hyssop suggest that E. F. Benson was writing a story along similar lines to those historical stories being told today by writers such as Julian Fellows. The major difference is Benson was pointing out the dangers of perpetuating certain aspects of English society while they were occurring, while Fellows is looking backward to teach us lessons from the past. Given the interest in--and apparent hunger for--TV series such as Downton AbbeyScarlet And Hyssop represents an opportunity to immerse oneself in the glamorous and stratified society of an earlier era. If the ritualistic nature of that bygone era intrigues you, and the type of characters who lived and worked within it fascinate you, then perhaps you might find Scarlet And Hyssop an interesting and entertaining novel.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson

This year got off to a slow start reading-wise, but included some highly interesting novels. Along with other places, the books I read in January transported me to England, Scotland, and Africa. While it is impossible for me to share with you all the fascinating discoveries I made on those journeys, I thought I would give you a little taste of them. The first novel I completed, and the focus of this post, was Scarlet And Hyssop by E. F. Benson.

Scarlet And Hyssop hails from Benson's early literary career. Published in 1902, it comes just nine years after his first novel brought him instant literary success, and is his twelfth published book of long-form fiction. By this time he had also published a collection of short stories, a nonfiction book, and would in the same year coauthor a book on physical fitness. So this represents Benson well into his early literary career, still eighteen years away from the publication of the first of the Mapp & Lucia novels, for which he is best remembered.

Police ride through Hyde Park
in London, England

Scarlet And Hyssop is a melodrama about life among the rich and powerful. Centered largely in London, most of the scenes take place in the houses of the characters. You'll meet interesting people of that time: a government worker being groomed for a Cabinet post, a wife who came from obscurity to steer her husband into the Admiralty, and a woman who throws extravagant parties for dozens of people. You'll attend these balls and gatherings. You will ride along on horseback, or sit beside them in their carriages, as they take their regular exercise and outings in Hyde Park. Most of all you'll get an insider view to the morality of the period, in which people marry for position, and look for love in other places. 

At first I thought Scarlet And Hyssop must refer to some of the characters in the novel. After meeting none so named, I researched the terms after finishing the novel. Scarlet and Hyssop are items used by the ancient Jews in their purification rituals. This put into focus scattered references by the characters to pollution in society. It also underlined the actions of one character who, when faced with the truth of her existence, decided to follow a higher line, no matter the personal cost in financial and societal terms. 

There are lots of reasons to underestimate, and even dislike this novel. I found it difficult to get to know the characters, as many of them have similar-sounding names. Also, the story relies more on dialogue than on action. This is not a simple story, such as Benson's first novel Dodo, A Detail of the Day, which focuses on a young woman who marries for money and position, and the young man who refuses to give her up. It does not focus upon the details of a financial scam, such as in Mammon and Co. It is not a coming-of-age story like The Babe, B.A., or the portrait of an aspiring artist wrestling with following his passion versus appeasing public taste, as in Limitations. Instead, Scarlet And Hyssop is more nuanced, and demands greater attention that such easy-reading novels.

Scarlet And Hyssop focuses on a society that has lost its way. Most of the characters are bland, and their lives uninteresting, because E. F. Benson is pointing out how form and etiquette have blinded the aristocracy to what life should really be about. Most of the characters don't really think through why they are pursuing such (largely) pointless schemes. They simply perform the roles expected of them, or fall into patterns of life because they are easy. Thank goodness none of us could be excused of such excesses, or blindly falling into traps, or being taught not to care about what really matters, in today's more enlightened society.

I'll discuss Scarlet And Hyssop more, and compare it to the popular TV and film creations of screenwriter and English Lord Julian Fellows, in my next post.

Dragon Dave

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Cache of Doctor Who Treasure

Recently, my wife returned from travel with a few special gifts. I say a few, but count them: there's eighteen Doctor Who novelizations, one of which contains two stories. Of the novels, there were five books retelling six first Doctor stories, and three novelizations from the second Doctor era. This is notable, as during this time period, the BBC had a policy of erasing expensive video tape after the show's initial airing (and perhaps one repeat), so they could reuse it to record other programs. Five of the six first Doctor stories exist only as reconstructions, combining photographic images with audio tracks that fans recorded off their TV sets at home. Two of the three second Doctor stories are also missing, and only exist as reconstructions. So reading the books will help me visualize those stories better.

I've already started reading Galaxy Four, the first book following the order in which the stories were filmed. It's an odd story, in which the Doctor and his companions land on a planet inhabited by two visiting races. These are visitors from other planets, and both crash landed on this planet. One race is represented by a woman and her cloned companions. Despite her beauty, she feels only distain for others. Her companions seem to feel little emotion excepting fear of their mistress. The stratified society she represents reminds the Doctor of that old fool Plato, who he met on a trip to ancient Greece. Apparently, he tried to tell Plato that he could not found a perfect society, or Republic, based on slavery. Like many the Doctor meets, Plato decided to reject the Doctor's advice.

The other book pictured is a novelization of "The Tenth Planet." It's notable for the final story featuring the first Doctor, and the first appearance of the Cybermen. These Cybermen were crude by comparison with the Cybermen the Doctor encountered on successive occasions, as the race improves the design of their mechanical bodies. Interestingly, recent news reports have hinted that the latest Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, will encounter Cybermen of this original design later this season. That should prove interesting to watch.

The first Doctor Who story I ever saw was "The Genesis of the Daleks." As an early teen in America, I found it difficult to relate to the TV series. The fourth Doctor seemed an utterly incomprehensible figure, and the cliffhanger endings were just plain weird. After seeing "Star Wars" in the cinema, I was looking for more Sci-Fi in that vein. Shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica I could relate to better. Still, I watched the stories from the first season of the fourth Doctor, and read novelizations of other Doctor Who stories, and respected the long tradition of Doctor Who. Years later, after my wife and I married, I became a fan of the show via the third Doctor, a character I could admire and relate to. I love those fourth Doctor stories now, and especially "The Genesis of the Daleks." It'll be interesting to read the novelization, and compare it with the original recording. 

Two other novelizations I'm especially looking forward to reading are Logopolis and Frontios, both by Christopher H. Bidmead. Logopolis takes place on a planet populated by mathematicians who can change the structure of the universe by manipulating mathematical calculations. The TV version of "Frontios," a fifth Doctor story, features actress Lesley Dunlop, who would go on to play Zoe Callendar in a favorite British comedy May To December. "Frontios" transports us to a ravaged world, in which the Doctor attempts to make piece between the Human colonists and a race of giant, intelligent insects. I always felt that this story could have benefitted from a big screen treatment. It would have been great to have seen the devastated landscape on a vast scale, and the war being waged with the best special effects wizards in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see how the book compares with my vision for everything I imagine that story could have been.

Additionally, Christopher H. Bidmead read and commented on a blog entry I wrote about the Doctor Who story "State Of Decay." He wanted to give me his recollection of the dispute between himself, as Script Editor, and the writer of the story, Terrance Dicks. The fact that he would respond to something I wrote is another reason I want to read these two stories.

In closing, I must add that there's a part of me that asks "Why do you need all these novelizations? After all, you've got the TV versions to watch, or at least the reconstructions." But reading is a different experience from watching, and often novelists add scenes deleted from the TV programs, relate the scenes differently, or add additional detail to give you a fuller understanding of the characters and the world(s) on which they live. I look forward to immersing myself in the written versions of these Doctor Who stories, and coming away with an enhanced appreciation for the TV series I love.

Dragon Dave

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Gregory Benford, Allen Steele, and Lois McMaster Bujold on Cryonics

Here's my latest entry from 2011 Reading Recollections:

Lois McMaster Bujold's novel Cryoburn, in an odd way, reminds me of Gregory Benford and Allen Steele. Gregory Benford, as a scientist and science fiction writer, is a real believer in Cryonics. When he dies, he has apparently planned to have his body cryogenically frozen, in the hopes that in the decades (or more likely, the centuries) to come, medical expertise will allow him to be brought back to life. 

In Allen Steele's novel A King of Infinite Space, the protagonist awakes in the future. His aging body has been replaced with a young one, but all his carefully laid financial plans have gone wrong. He is now a slave, the property of the person who bought him as a commodity. 

In Bujold's novel, her popular character Miles Vorkosigan investigates a cryonics corporation. He discovers that bodies have been preserved using cut-rate fluids, materials, and other processes. In the process, many of the bodies have degraded so that the people can never be resurrected. 

Cryogenics offers us hope of another life, or potentially everlasting life in our mortal bodies. Cryoburn reminds us that while the emerging field of Cryogenics holds great potential, the potential of something going wrong during the physical process of preservation, storage, and reincarnation is highly probable, given the long span of time involved, and the all-too-Human natures of those charged with caring for our delicate bodies. 

Still, like the ancient Egyptians with their mummification techniques and their pyramids, we live, and die, in hope.

Dragon Dave