Monday, June 28, 2010


Imagine a world kinda like Alice in Wonderland, where a seemingly innocent choice (say, following a rabbit down a hole) leads you into a very bizarre and chaotic world, where things are not what they seem and events do not make much sense, yet follow a sort of twisted, otherworldly logic.

That sums up much of the writing style of famed Japanese author, 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki), but only in the barest sense. Murakami's writing never seems to get old for me. Steeped in the mysteries and complexities of Japanese culture, myth, and symbolism, unpacking one of his novels can be both fascinatingly rewarding and mindbogglingly challenging.

Published in 1982 as a sequel to 1973年のピンボール (Pinball, 1973), 羊をめぐる冒険 (A Wild Sheep Chase) is the third and final installment of his Trilogy of the Rat. Since I didn't read the previous two works, I know I am missing out on something, here. Nevertheless, A Wild Sheep Chase, like all of Murakami's novels, stands on its own.

The book opens with a funeral, or rather, the reminiscence of a funeral by the main character. When the flashback ceases, the nameless protagonist is finalizing the divorce from his wife. The protagonist is as bland as his namelessness would suggest, except for his acerbic wit and his deliberate desire to lead a boring, dull, uneventful life. In almost every way, he represents the average, cog-in-the-machine, working-stiff salaryman of Japanese society, except for his cynicism. It is this cynicism which evokes Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and we can very nearly see Murakami's protagonist played by Humphrey Bogart in our minds (despite the fact that the novel takes place in early 1980s Japan).

Murakami fetishizes names in many of his books, and it is incredible that this entire novel is comprised of nameless characters. They are given descriptive epithets ("my girlfriend," or "the chauffeur," or "the Rat") but the only character that is ever named is the very ancient and very decrepit cat that the protagonist owns, and he is given a name in a very peculiar conversation by a complete stranger. The discussion invokes such concepts of identity and individuality, and how a name defines a person.

And an astute reader, one who is paying attention, will see little red flags go up throughout the conversation, reminding him or her that none of the characters has actually been given any name. Not until this cat. And never again.

This is just one example of the complexity of Murakami's work. The story is a detective tale in which our nameless protagonist must scour all of Hokkaido to find a sheep that does not, indeed cannot, exist, or forfeit everything. Throughout the book, we see him return to his hometown only to find it is completely transformed, and where the seashore once stood, there is a landfill full of housing developments and nothing is as it had once been. The theme of loss is prevalent throughout the book, repeating itself over and over again. The nameless hero is free with nothing to lose, but that freedom is also a prison, because nothing really matters to him in the end. Loss is thus tinged with irony, because abandonment results in freedom, but the result is unfamiliarity. Change is liberating, but that liberation often results in being cast adrift in circumstances that are beyond our understanding.

There are two stories that Murakami writes. The first one is the surface story, in which all sorts of crazy things transpire, much like in a David Lynch film. It is about as surreal as Blue Velvet, but not as much as
ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), which is more comparable to Lost Highway. But beneath that surface story is a deeper one. This one is told entirely through symbols, and believe me, everything that Murakami weaves into this story has meaning. Murakami's penchant for realism, in which he describes cooking, drinking, music, and cigarettes, is tempered by the deep symbolic and metaphysical nature of his narratives. Cats feature prominently in his stories, so an astute reader should ask, "Why is this ancient, decrepit cat the only person in this entire story who receives a real, actual name?" Water also features prominently in East Asian symbolism and in Murakami's work, demanding the reader to pay attention to how the sea was pushed back by a landfill, which in turn was covered with residential development in the protagonist's hometown. The entire time you are reading this book, you should be asking yourself, "What is Murakami trying to say with this?"

There are a million possibilities. And our answers, as Americans, will undoubtedly be worlds different from Japanese readers. The cultural divide will give both the Japanese and American readers vastly different perspectives on such a deep and symbolically loaded work. And I think that is part of the magic and appeal of Murakami.

A Wild Sheep Chase showcases the author's love for (and knowledge of) Western popular fiction of the 20th century. Alfred Birnbaum's translation more than adequately conveys the cynicism and ambivalence that masks the main character's deep sense of loneliness. Though I've not read the original Japanese myself (my reading skill is not quite up to snuff), I've read that Murakami's writing style is so heavily influenced by American prose fiction (especially of the hardboiled detective genre) that it is easily rendered into English. The tone of the book, being a sort of metaphysical and symbolic detective-story, and the dry wit of the main character, display the author's love for irreverent American writing.

When it comes to storytelling, Murakami is quite adept. The short, quickly-read chapters speedily sweep the reader along, while constantly layering on symbolism that can be either overlooked or deeply contemplated without ruining the experience. Some have criticized his characters as bland cardboard cut-outs, but I believe that is a result of a deep misunderstanding of Murakami's purpose. While some have called A Wild Sheep Chase a fable or a myth, I would never regard it as such. Murakami uses the surreal to underscore what is wrong with reality. He is very much the critic, and everything he puts in his books is a comment on Japanese society and culture. The namelessness and blandness of many of the characters is part-and-parcel with Murakami's critique on Japanese uniformity and work-a-day lifestyle. Indeed, the protagonist's life prior to the beginning of his adventure is very much a prison--he goes to work, comes home, eats, sleeps, and repeats the process, simply passing time. The pointlessness of his existence demands the reader to ask if the man is simply waiting for death. Instead, Murakami delivers a Campbellian call to adventure, and the hero leaves to discover just how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

I don't want to discuss the novel in any greater detail, seeing as I've already spoiled a few surprises. As one of Murakami's earliest works (originally published in 1982, and his third novel), it lacks the refinement of
海辺のカフカ (Kafka on the Shore) and the complexity and power of ねじまき鳥クロニクル (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). But it is interesting to catch a glimpse of the author's early work, and by comparing it to his later writings, it is easy to see how he has grown and perfected his ability to create a story and characters, as well as his ability to deepen and broaden his rabbit-holes. This is probably a good introductory novel to Murakami's style. The symbolism isn't laid on as thick, and is not as convoluted and overwhelmingly complex as Kafka or Wind-Up Bird. The surreality of events won't leave the uninitiated reader confused, only curious. Thus, I would probably recommend this novel, alongside ノルウェイの森 (Norwegian Wood) to the novice Murakami-reader.

羊をめぐる冒険 (A Wild Sheep Chase) by 村上春樹 (Murakami Haruki)
Style: B+
Substance: B+
Overall: B+

Thursday, June 24, 2010


File:Sword of shannara hardcover.jpg

It's caught a great deal of flack for its parallels with Tolkien, but Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara came at a vital time in the growth and development of the fantasy genre, and played a vital role because of that. Published in 1977 (the same year as the release of Star Wars), Terry Brooks' debut novel broke from the mainstream of fantasy writing of the day by crystallizing Tolkien as the ideal model of fantasy fiction in the minds of many authors in the following decade.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. (They also say something similar about parody.) And Brooks' work is a most certain imitation of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. But in a sense, that is its strength.

Just peruse the wikipedia entry for The Sword of Shannara, and you'll find a plethora of scathing criticism lambasting it for the close similarities between the two fantasy works. Very few wikipedia articles on fantasy novels have such comprehensive descriptions of reactions to a work. If you read the rest of the entry, you realize that Brooks wasn't necessarily a bad writer for "ripping off" Tolkien. Indeed, he was only 23 when he started writing, and didn't finish it until he was 30. Brooks had begun penning the novel in 1967, at the height of mid-century Tolkien fandom. It was during this time that Peter S. Beagle reports "Frodo Lives!" being scrawled in spray-paint on subway walls.
The Lord of the Rings had emerged in the popular awareness as an artifact of American counter-culture. The Sword of Shannara was a product of Brooks' literary interests and the times he inhabited, and as a result it mimicked them.

What concerns most critics and reviewers, I believe, is the fact that The Sword of Shannara
sold so well for being an imitation, and was deliberately packaged by the Del Reys into a successor to Tolkien. An article from the Cimmerian quotes an essay by Douglas A. Anderson[1], a Tolkien scholar:

These two people deserve a large share of the credit —or the blame —for what happened afterwards to fantasy.

Both of the del Reys were decidedly old-fashioned in their tastes, and when Judy-Lynn del Rey, soon after taking over at Ballantine, was accused of trying to set science fiction back thirty years, she didn’t deny it. Similarly, Lester del Rey, at a convention in early 1975, attempted to define what he wanted as a fantasy editor. He was asked: would he publish a latter-day ernest Bramah (author of the Kai Lung stories, which had been republished in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series). “No, absolutely not,” he replied. What about Dunsany? “I would tell him that he didn’t need all that fancy style to tell a good story.” Basically, del Rey wanted plot and little else. The critic Darrell Schweitzer has described him as “purely a pulp editor, who saw fiction as product,” who “had no artistic pretensions at all” and who represented “that Depression-era, writer-as-working-stiff attitude at its very worst.”

The del Reys took the view that fantasy, long a very small portion of overall fiction sales, could be a real mainstream success if packaged and promoted properly. Two authors were pulled out of the slush pile to prove their theory. The first was Terry Brooks, who had submitted a slavish imitation of The Lord of the Rings under the title The Sword of Shannara. Published in April of 1977, the del Reys added some hyperbole to the cover some hyperbole of a kind that is now so commonplace as to be meaningless: “For all those who have been looking for something to read since The Lord of the Rings.

"For all those who have been looking for something to read since The Lord of the Rings" is a phrase that cannot be underemphasized, and is essentially the key to Brooks' success. None of his following novels have generated even close to this amount of criticism, despite being rather hit-or-miss (The Elfstones of Shannara being rather less derivative and containing the seeds of a better story, especially when compared to The Wishsong of Shannara, which is strangely post-modern in that it rips-off of The Sword of Shannara).

The general appeal of the book is the fact that it is an imitation of Tolkien. Prior to this publication, readers of fantasy had Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp, Fritz Lieber, Poul Anderson, Michael Moorcock, Anne McCaffrey, Roger Zelazny, and reprints of Lovecraft, Tolkien, and R. E. Howard (under de Camp and Carter's edits and pastiches). Tolkien's work had possessed a number of elements that all of the other writers' stories and novels did not.

First, their descriptiveness was much more terse, often pulpy (especially Moorcock and Zelazny), whereas Tolkien was verbose, complete, and evocative. This is partially due to the nature of many of their publications. Most of these authors' works were serialized in magazines, where space was at a premium. Fantasy was rarely published in novel or paperback form compared to today, and as a result, the writers became accustomed to tense, tight prose packed with a great deal of meaning in as few words as possible. Tolkien had license to explore his setting in much more immediate and minute detail. In addition, Tolkien was, like it or not, an heir to a literary legacy that includes (and is undoubtedly influenced by) Dickens, and that should say enough in itself.

Second, the stories more often than not include heroic characters that are not cut from the common cloth. Zelazny's Amberites are almost immortal for their abilities to heal and their skill at fighting, for example. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are adventuring scoundrels. Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné needs no elaboration, his reputation inevitably preceeds him so. Tolkien had more common characters pulled into events far beyond their own little worlds.

Third, they lacked the sense of a perilous quest against a driving, all-encompassing darkness. The threats to the characters in many of these novels was often much more immediate and personal. The characters of much fantasy during the 1960s and 1970s were arrayed against demons and demigods, but rarely against cosmic forces of darkness that sought to engulf reality. Those forces may have existed, but they were as far beyond the capabilities of the heroes to combat as the heroes themselves were beneath these powers' notice.

Fourth, they were often contained in volumes of 250 pages or less, which means that the plot had to move at a rapid pace, and could only include a limited amount of events and development. Tolkiens novels stretched for hundreds of pages per volume, resulting in a lengthy epic. In addition, they are accompanied by more than a hundred pages of appendices, containing the history of Middle-Earth, characters, stories, maps, language notes, and time lines. This added a sense of depth and realism to Tolkien's setting and characters. The length enabled Tolkien to develop personalities and plots to a much greater complexity than many other fantasy authors.

These four characteristics that were present in Tolkien were, by-and-large, not to be found in the works of many of those other authors. On the other hand, Brooks managed to infuse The Sword of Shannara with these Tolkienesque elements that slaked the public's thirst. Despite the disparagement of sword-&-sorcery afictionados, the Del Rey line revitalized fantasy through publishing The Sword of Shannara.

Though Terry Brooks is not an incredibly imaginative and dynamic author, I feel fantasy owes him a debt of gratitude. Alongside Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, epic high fantasy re-emerged, and made a great deal of other things possible. In truth, fantasy was being strangled by the pulpish scrawlings of Moorcock, Zelazny, Lieber and others who tried to continue the legacy of R.E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and C.A. Smith. This, by no means, disparages their contribution or their skill as writers--I deeply enjoy the pulpy styles. However, if theirs was the only influence on fantasy after Tolkien, I feel that we would have been shortchanged as time wore on.

The immediate successors of Brooks and Donaldson, however, do not get the same degree of appreciation. The 1980s saw David Eddings' very derivative works (see Places to Go, People to Be for an interesting and informative look at Eddings that is much more objective than I am). Much of the TSR novels based on Dungeons & Dragons gaming worlds were lackluster at best (with the exception of some gems, such as Weis & Hickman's Dragonlance Legends or Jeff Grubb & Kate Novak's
Azure Bonds), but to describe D&D's role in fantasy is an entire essay in itself (both in its origins and its impact). (See also, Grognardia for a hyperbolic look at Dragonlance). Thankfully, Raymond E. Feist managed to get Magician published, opening the door for his magnificent Riftwar Saga, especially A Darkness at Sethanon, a novel full of the fruits of a fertile imagination. Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan entered the fray in the early 1990s, each beginning sagas that would drag on eternally and inaugurating an entirely new reason to gripe about developments in fantasy.

Ironically, the appeal for such writing lies in the inability for the reader to accept an ending. Thus, Brooks succeeded as a Tolkien replacement. The populace did not want The Lord of the Rings to end, and so they found they could read it again in the form of The Sword of Shannara. The desire is to have the same type of story repeated to them ad infinitum. This explains the tremendous success of Donaldson, Brooks, Eddings, and Jordan, while more original writers as Feist and Tad Williams would only come to enjoy great (not tremendous) or mediocre success.

Fortunately, that era seems to have receded, and now Tolkien-derivative works seem to be rarer these days. In their place are works that are often darker, more realistic, with a deeper base in historical reality and politics. The influence of the pulps is more pronounced in the newer fantasy as well. R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing, Glen Cook's
Black Company, and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire are more subtle, political, and morally ambiguous than much of the same stuff Brooks, Eddings, et. al. had produced, and Martin has admitted that he owes a deep debt to Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn for demonstrating that fantasy could be more than "kid's stuff."

As books go, I have fond memories of
The Sword of Shannara. It remains one of Brooks' better works, honestly. A few years back, I tried to reread The First King of Shannara and found it an impossible task. The book was horrendous. The pacing was a disaster and the plot felt as if it was held together by string and Scotch® tape. Upon returning to The Sword of Shannara, I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of those weaknesses weren't present. Brooks' prose was tighter, the plot much better paced, and the development of the characters and story drew in the reader. It succeeds as an imitation because Brooks understood what he and readers wanted in a successor to Tolkien. There is deep themes of friendship and perseverance against impossible odds, struggles for thrones, noble kingdoms of men that are threatened by massive armies of evil, strange locations, different races, and thousands of years of history. When Brooks info-dumps in the early chapters of the novel, it's actually quite interesting. We get the feeling that we are sharing deep secrets and forgotten lore.

There are reasons that
The Sword of Shannara was such a success, regardless of how you may despise it. The simple fact is, it was a replacement for The Lord of the Rings. The fans of Tolkien had not wanted those tales to end. Terry Brooks enabled them to experience similar emotions through his own work. And through The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks helped to spur a movement away from short, pulpy fantasy novels. Writers invested themselves more deeply in epic tales. Unfortunately, much of this resulted in more imitations (David Eddings' The Belgariad for example) or rampant word-bloat (Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind). However, it also catalyzed more recent, mature, and intelligent fantasy writing that has emerged in the past decade. Like it or not, we owe Brooks a debt of gratitude for opening doors.

  • ^" Anderson, Douglas A. "The Mainstreaming of Fantasy and the Legacy of The Lord of the Rings." The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004: Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder. Wayne G. Hammond, Christina Schulls, ed. pp. 301-316.
  • Wednesday, June 23, 2010

    Appendix N, Nostalgia, and Contemporary Fantasy

    Nearly every single gaming-related blog has a little bit to say about Gary Gygax's "Appendix N," a list of inspirational reading for players and Dungeon Masters found in the Dungeon Master's Guide for first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So, I'll probably be making reference to "Appendix N" as time goes on, much like many of those other blogs do. This isn't necessarily to copy them--it's actually kind of a necessity. "Appendix N" is the bibliography for Dungeons & Dragons as listed by Gygax himself. (What I'd give for an "Appendix N" written by Dave Arneson!)

    Minus the introductory text, the reading list is as follows:

    Bellairs, John. THE FACE IN THE FROST
    Brackett, Leigh.
    Brown, Fredric.
    Burroughs, Edgar Rice. "Pellucidar" Series; Mars Series; Venus Series
    Carter, Lin. "World's End'' Series
    de Camp, L. Sprague. LEST DARKNESS FALL; FALLIBLE FIEND; etal.
    de Camp & Pratt. "Harold Shea" Series; CARNELIAN CUBE
    Derleth, August.
    Dunsany, Lord.
    Farmer, P. J. "The World of the Tiers" Series; etal.
    Fox, Gardner. "Kothar" Series; "Kyrik" Series; et of.
    Howard, R. E. "Conan" Series
    Lanier, Sterling. HIEROS JOURNEY
    Leiber, Fritz. "Fafhrd &Gray Mouser" Series; et of.
    Lovecraft, H. P.
    Moorcock, Michael. STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon"
    Norton, Andre.
    Offutt, Andrew J., editor SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS Ill.
    Pratt, Fletcher, BLUE STAR; etaf.
    Saberhagen, Fred. CHANGELING EARTH; etal.
    Tolkien, J. R. R. THE HOBBIT; "Ring Trilogy"
    Weinbaum, Stanley.
    Wellman, Manly Wade.
    Williamson, Jack.
    Zelazny, Roger. JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" Series; et of.
    MIRAGE; et of.
    Series (esp. the first three books)

    The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL, and A. Merritt; but all of the above authors, as well as many not listed, certainly helped to shape the form of the game. For this reason, and for the hours of reading enjoyment, I heartily recommend the works of these fine authors to you.

    I've read a few of these, particularly some Zelazny, Moorcock, Howard, de Camp, Anderson, Vance, and Tolkien, to name just a few. When asked if he'd change anything, or add new media, Gygax generally responded with a "no," barring the addition of one or two new publications that have emerged since the late 1970s/early 1980s.

    This is significant because it indicates that Gygax's vision of Dungeons & Dragons, and perhaps role-playing in general, evolved very little after his initial co-creation of the role-playing hobby with Dave Arneson. However, I found his comment a bit disturbing.

    Essentially, Gygax all but completely ignores the emergence of "high fantasy." While this, in-and-of itself isn't surprising, because he often under-reported the influence of Tolkien on D&D, it shows a bit of closed-mindedness toward different developments in the genre of fantasy fiction. One of the major themes one cannot help but notice throughout Gygax's "Appendix N" is that not a single book in the list breaks the 250-300 page mark (with the exception of Tolkien's works). In other words, the books tend to be short, exhibit a tight economy of prose, develop quickly through rapid pacing, and are of limited scope. Indeed, some of the authors penned only short stories and novellas, never full-length novels. Gygax seemed to eschew the sort of world-shattering conflicts that were the hallmark of post-Tolkien high fantasy that emerged during the very late 1970s and became quite vogue in the 1980s.

    That post-Tolkien fantasy is rife with problems, I'll admit--the greatest of which being their tendency toward overt imitation. Nevertheless, there are quite a few writers that Gygax has completely overlooked which could easily provide inspiration for a great many gamers and Dungeon Masters. A number of authors have produced some fantastic work in the past 15-20 years that deserves to be noted, but seems to have been completely ignored by many in the gaming community (particularly the "old school" community) in favor of many "Appendix N" books.

    These include (but are not limited to) Steven Erikson, Ian Cameron Esselmont, R. Scott Bakker, Dan Simmons, and Tad Williams. During the 1980s, Raymond E. Feist emerged with incredible books, like his two-volume Magician and the ultra-imaginative A Darkness at Sethanon, but it appears he had almost no impact on Gygaxian roleplaying. Why is this the case?

    Well, first, it is apparent that Erikson's/Esselmont's and Feist's worlds may not have an impact on roleplaying because they, themselves, originated as roleplayed settings. Nevertheless, they still deserve notice because of the magnitude of imagination that went into the creations of their worlds and the atmosphere of adventure, magic, and wonder that surrounds everything that takes place within those settings. Erikson, Esselmont, and Feist inspire me to roleplay far more than Zelazny or Moorcock. I think these authors took a lot of what inspired Gygax, and indeed took roleplaying itself, and developed it further. Like it or not, roleplaying has actually impacted fantasy literature, and I am not talking about Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I'm talking about how fantasy literature and roleplaying are part of a continuum--changes in one can, should, and do impact developments within the other. It's a living and breathing system.

    Fantasy writing is not, and should not be, stagnant, but should develop and change with the times. Nostalgia is great. I remember playing old school Rules Cyclopedia D&D with friends in middle school. The books we read had a massive impact on our gaming. The creation of self-contained worlds that made perfect sense wasn't as cool as having random characters and creatures from all of the different and disparate fantasy novels you've read make guest appearances. We weren't old enough to demand logic and continuity from our gaming worlds yet. As we got older, though, we started to expect settings to behave more rationally, and a bit of the magic slipped out of our play.

    I still look back at those days as an awkward pre-teen playing in whimsical, Wonderland-esque games where our characters could have an ale or two at the same table as Conan, Raistlin, Elric, and Gandalf. But I wouldn't want to really play in that sort of game anymore. Nostalgia isn't now. It is a longing for things past and gone.

    I think that a lot of the old school renaissance is fueled by nostalgia. In itself, I don't think it is destructive at all. I have serious problems myself with where roleplaying has gone. And I may sound a bit hypocritical when I criticize the impact of video games on table-top roleplaying when I applaud the relationship between roleplaying and fantasy literature. But I think that, in it's desire to return to the original roots, old school gamers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in terms of fantasy fiction. There's too much of a focus on "Appendix N" and not enough of a focus on more recent sources of inspiration that can enhance and enrich one's role-playing experience.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2010

    Historical Thoughts for Today: The Crusades and Critical Thinking

    As I'm currently reading through John Haldon's Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, I couldn't help but stumble across this relatively new history of the Crusades by Lin Claster entitled Sacred Violence. Now, I've read and found quite revealing a few books on the Crusades. They are an especially embarrassing episode in the history of Western Christendom due to the savagery and barbarism of the European warriors in the Holy Land. The very title of Claster's book, Sacred Violence, is itself, extremely loaded and purposely chosen to get attention, especially from prominent left-wing academic strongholds. What is often forgotten is the truths of pre-modern warfare. We tend to view the world from a very different perspective from pre-modern cultures, and while it is quite the vogue for postmodern moral relativism to be the lens through which contemporary academics examine numerous non-Western, pre-industrial, and developing societies, that lens is all-too-often abandoned when those same academics critique their own past. The reality of the situation is that Crusaders behaved no differently than they would have behaved in battle against another Christian opponent. In a chapter on the chevauchée, John Lynn's Battle: A History of Combat and Culture describes the brutal realities of medieval warfare juxtaposed against the ideal forms of Christian combat (i.e. the tourney). He cites numerous examples of violence against civilians, something explicitly opposed by the clergy. These factors are often forgotten when writing from the standpoint of a political agenda, as so many vogue historians are wont to do. The History Channel is constantly airing programs about the Crusades which remind us that the Europeans massacred so many innocents when they captured Jerusalem that the "blood ran up to their knees" in the streets. The realities of ancient and medieval war are often gruesome, especially when a city or other fortified strategic site resists and must be besieged for an extended time. Social stratification and culture had just as much an impact on the Crusaders' violent temperaments as their religion (perhaps moreso), but the years of training to be a knight and the social and cultural rights, privileges, and responsibilities that go with it are often forgotten when a modern historian is excoriating how "Christians" were slaughtering civilians in the streets of Jerusalem. It is often forgotten that under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates, the Muslims had experienced over a century of constant expansion and religiously-motivated conquest. The conquered peoples were often given the choice of slavery or conversion if they were pagan. If they were Zoroastrian, Jewish, or Christian, they were usually encouraged to remain dhimmi, which, in effect, made them persecuted populations within their own lands. The dhimmi were often discouraged from conversion because they provided an important tax source, as well as served to foster social stratification and a sense of privilege for Muslim citizens. Author and blogger R. Scott Bakker, on his Three Pound Brain site, brings up an important topic in examining the humanities and the ability to think critically. According to Martha Nussbaum in her recent Globe and Mail interview, the humanities provide the tools of critical thinking. But the tools she enumerates–logic, systematic knowledge, imagination–are also the tools of rationalization, and make no mistake, our penchant for rationalization is the great foe. ...In fact, the place you’re most likely to find critical thinking is the sciences, not the humanities. The sciences train you to suspend your commitment to your conclusions pending evidence, whereas the humanities train you cook up evidence for conclusions you have already committed to–usually because they ‘feel right.’ Where the sciences train us to swim against our cognitive instincts, the humanities train us how to more effectively indulge and exploit them–how to win arguments rather than how to get things right. Bakker is absolutely correct here. Far too often we discover that the humanities is a place where almost all of the criticism is biased. The Crusades are a fantastic example--the idea of objective standpoints are all well and good, but the reality is that everyone's research and exposition results in lengthy opinions with well-researched (i.e. selected) back-up information and sophisticated rationalizations. For example, would a truly neutral and realistic viewpoint of the Crusades result in a very negative assessment of Islam or Christianity? Then, regardless of the assessment's results, the fact that people of faith would be offended results in the assessment's characterization as biased and bigoted. Science, as a discipline, is to be unbiased and absolutely neutral, but the scientists themselves are not always so. The result is the process of debate and argument within the scientific community. Views are challenged, and above-all, facts should be pursued. A fine example of this in the humanities, actually, would be the intense debates between philologists, historians, and linguists regarding the identification of a civilization known in Bronze Age Hittite documents as Ahhiyawa. A century ago, initial translators were elated, thinking they'd discovered evidence of Homeric Greeks in the historical record (i.e. Achaeans -- Ἀχαιοί). There was a sudden and powerful backlash attempting to disprove the connection. Skeptics saw the connection as far-fetched. The debate slept for decades, only to be revived in books and academic journals in the late 1970s, thriving in the 1980s, and resolving in the 1990s. Most historians are in favor of identifying Ahhiyawa with a Bronze Age Mycenaean Greek kingdom (or group of kingdoms). This is seen as the most likely reality, a conclusion reached by debate and critical examination of the arguments and texts. As the decades wore on, parties started out absolutely neutral and were swayed in one direction or the other by the arguments for and against the identification, and then brought their own assessments to the table. The problem with this sort of debate is that it doesn't always refine fact out of opinion. In fact, you can't really refine fact out of opinion at all. You can only make educated guesses. And that's the result. We have no factual evidence that the Mycenaean Greeks can be identified with the men of Ahhiyawa, just a darn good guess. And that guess is subject to human error in a way that science should not be. In other words, we have no precise measurements. No systems of experimentation or control. And all of our debates are regulated by the skill of our debaters. Adeptness of argument isn't necessarily determined by logic, but also by rhetoric, or worse, sophistry. Thus, can we ever approach a realistic assessments of the Crusades, or any other event in human history for that matter? One that is fully factual? Unfortunately, no. But, interestingly enough, I think that is one of the greatest strengths of both historical study and the humanities in general. Because, truth be told, perhaps Michel Foucault was correct when he said that all historians and philosophers write are fictions. In some ways that is a debilitating weakness. In others, it is a strength. Science seeks to minimize the human element. The humanities are named for their subject matter and enveloped wholly in them.

    Megadeth, Metallica, and Heavy Metal in the '90s

    On BLABBERMOUTH.NET, they ran footage of the "Big Four" photo call (pic above ganked from aforementioned site). Apparently, Megadeth, Metallica, Anthrax, and Slayer are playing together for the first time in history in a special tour that is being recorded and will be shown in theaters.

    This prompted some thoughts on the quality of the music during the 1980s when compared to the 1990s. Now, anyone who knows me well also knows that I have a great deal of nostalgia when it comes to the 1990s. I was a teenager during much of that decade, and fell in love with the music scene, the video games, the films, and the アニメ (anime) of the time.

    However, I would argue that it is this very trait of nostalgia that leads most fans of heavy metal and thrash bands to look at the 1980s as a sort of "golden age" of the genres. Certainly the atmosphere was different than in the 1990s. Especially with heavy metal, the atmosphere was often glamorous and showy. Thrash metal often eschewed the glamor and showmanship in exchange for a more sinister, angsty mood.

    But I'd argue that thrash metal actually peaked in the 1990s, not in the 1980s. The reasons for this are primarily to be found in the relationship between Megadeth and Metallica during the 1980s. Dave Mustaine was replaced overnight by Kirk Hammett as guitarist for Metallica (much to Mustaine's surprise and anger). Mustaine's comments in interviews expressed anger toward Hammett, saying that the latter became famous by "ripping [sic] off every lead break I'd [Mustaine] played."

    Regardless of your own feelings, and the bitterness that festered between Mustaine/Megadeth and Metallica for well over a decade, Mustaine was correct. Just listen to Kill 'Em All (1983) and compare it to Killing is My Business... and Business is Good! (1985) and compare the two sounds. Kill 'Em All is, in my opinion, the weakest of all the Metallica albums (and this includes St. Anger) because it is so heavily dependent on Mustaine, who is no longer there. Indeed, for the next five or six years.

    The stylistic similarities between Metallica and Megadeth throughout the 1980s are more than just genre-related. They're very much evidence of the strength of Mustaine's guitarwork and his impact on Metallica's sound. Thus, despite releasing some incredibly sturdy albums, such as Ride the Lightning (1984) and Master of Puppets (1986), they still come off as Megadeth-lite. In contrast, Megadeth's early albums seem obsessed with a desire to out-metal Metallica, resulting in cacophonic thrashing, degenerating all to often into hi-tempo noise, albeit very skillfully played hi-tempo noise. While there are a few gems hidden among the dross throughout Peace Sells... But Whose Buying? (1986) (such as "The Conjuring") his Mustaine's over-reliance on speed and the chaotic flurry of aggression cripples a lot of the music. There's little or no melody to the songs, just an insistent pulsing, sinister lyrics, and angry vocals. The otherwise fantastic beginning of "Good Mourning/Black Friday" is ruined by the sudden tempo-change, and although by the end of the song, the new sound has grown on the listener, that original, sublime expression of pain and grief that poured forth from Mustaine's guitar sounds as if it were replaced by adolescent noise in comparison. The flurry of noise works during guitar solos, such as the incredible sounds Mustaine generates at the end of "My Last Words," but the lack of a distinctive melody detracts from the rest of the song.

    Granted, these albums are very representative of the overall sound of 1980s thrash metal. The focus is far more on the aggressiveness of speed, raw sound, the insistently pulsing rhythm. It is thrash metal in adolescence. It hasn't yet grown enough to fill its shoes properly, in my opinion. Slayer especially exemplifies this genre sound, and a very representative song of their style would probably be "Raining Blood" off of Reign in Blood (1986). What set apart thrash was the general pessimism and overwhelming darkness of the music. While lots of other metal bands had up-beat and up-tempo music, Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer (in particular) often focused on negative material, played almost entirely in minor keys, and had a melancholy tone at best in their music. If you like fast tempo, aggressiveness, but not the oppressiveness and sinister rhythms, perhaps Mötley Crüe or another heavy metal/glam metal band would be more suitable.

    But it is not until the late 1980s that Megadeth and Metallica (and thrash in general) started to shed their adolescence, and also one-another's influence over their music. Megadeth's So Far, So Good... So What? (1988), Rust in Peace (1990) and Metallica's ...And Justice for All (1988) show some definite signs of departure from their previous styles. While many Metallica fans see Master of Puppets and ...And Justice for All to have been the band's finest albums, I am of the opinion that Metallica solidifies their style on their self-titled album (1991), also known as The Black Album.

    We heard the precursors to this liberated sound on ...And Justice for All with songs like "One" and "Harvester of Sorrow." The Black Album was the moment that Metallica shed Dave Mustaine forever, and truly became their own band. They had also forsaken the chaotic hammering rhythms and began to focus more on melodies. Metallica has always been a far more melodic band than most other metal groups. They kept their aggressive, insistent edge and sinister lyric content, showcased in songs like "Of Wolf and Man" and "Enter Sandman," but also explored much more variety in sound and content with "Nothing Else Matters" (quite possibly one of the best songs they've ever done).

    In comparison, Megadeth finally achieves that sublime musical freedom with Countdown to Extinction (1992) and Youthanasia (1994). The inclusion of guitar virtuoso Marty Friedman had an incredibly formative effect on Megadeth, as well as Mustaine's conversion to Christianity and kicking of his drug habit. The irony of all of this is that Christianity has played a role in defining and reforming a thrash metal band's music.

    Hardcore fans will often consider the developments in the 1990s as evidence of these groups "getting old" or "losing their edge." I'd consider it to be much more of an evolution of sound. The bands do grow older, and while this often results in a group losing touch with what made them great in the beginning (such as the Rolling Stones, who started great and then just got old), Megadeth didn't reach that point, and Metallica (in my opinion) didn't until the very late 1990s. If a band continually produces "more of the same," their fanbase will gradually grow bored with the sound. Evolution is natural. Metallica is not the same group of people that it was back in 1982. Thirty years have passed, and they are now much older and very different than they had been. The same goes for Dave Mustaine and Megadeth. One cannot expect them to create the same sounds that they had thirty years past.

    That in mind, the sounds of the 1980s for Megadeth and Metallica were heavily influenced by one-another. This influence, I believe, is a limitation. In addition, their reliance upon the "thrashy" style also inhibited their ability to produce truly excellent and meaningful music. As I've grown older, I've discovered that I enjoy the thrashy sounds of the 1980s less and less, and instead prefer the melodies of the 1990s more and more. Some may argue that albums like Load (1996) and Cryptic Writings (1997) were far too commercial. I would argue that their commerciality is due to their ability to appeal to a mainstream. There is very little that inherently makes a song like "Looking Down the Cross" (Megadeth, Killing Is My Business... And Business is Good, 1985) better than "Almost Honest" (Megadeth, Cryptic Writings, 1997). Indeed, "Almost Honest" is much more approachable. The tempo is slower, less aggressive. "Looking Down the Cross" is frantically paced; Mustaine's lyrics are delivered with a fevered freneticism that is overwhelmed by the hammering guitar and drums, making them nigh-incomprehensible despite their aggressiveness. All-in-all, when you compare the two styles, what defined these "thrash bands" of the 1980s was that they were mostly "thrash" and little else. While that sound made a name for them, they eventually grew out of the limitations of that singular style. It played a powerful influence on their later sounds, as can be heard in "The Killing Road" (Megadeth, Youthanasia, 1994) or "Enter Sandman" (Metallica, Metallica, 1992), two songs that come closest in my mind to achieving the Platonic ideal for their respective bands' sounds.

    In other words, Megadeth and Metallica are best defined and represented by one song each recorded in 1990s. These songs display the ripe fruit of their musical development, and are, in many ways, superior to much of what comes before them. These songs exemplify the bands' musical styles, free of limitations both external (such as Mustaine's influence over Metallica) and internal (the natural hindrances of overly-thrashy, cacophonic sounds). They are the adult, refined form. While degradation and decay may set in at a later date, the sounds that these two bands produced during the 1990s was the culmination of their entire careers and the full flowering of their talent and abilities.

    Friday, June 18, 2010

    Transforming Robots, Space-War, and Love: The Importance of 超時空要塞マクロス as a Science-Fiction Epic

    When I was eight years old, I watched Robotech a syndicated animated series that ran somewhere before Transformers and G.I. Joe in the after-school time slots. It was never incredibly popular with the other kids at school, who were far in favor of the other two programs. However, as a first- and second-grader, I was enthralled by the lack of formulaic plot lines, the focus on character development, and the advancing story-arcs. Except for a few double-episodes of the to-be-continued variety, Transformers and G.I. Joe generally refrained from story-arcs and plot developments that spanned more than a single episode during the early-to-mid 1980s.

    I had never known Robotech was actually a Japanese animated program until perhaps late middle-school or early high school. I had watched shows like Tranzor Z, Star Blazers, and Voltron with my Dad (who had been in his very early 20s) before I was of school-age, and had developed an affinity for the animation style (probably because I associated it with quality time spent with my father). Thus, when I finally encountered Robotech, the combination of animation style with dynamic, sympathetic characters and an evolving story forever endeared me to Japanese animation long before I even knew what it was. I would go on to discover novelizations and comic prints of the franchise, but I never truly recaptured that feeling of love for a story that I had felt as a kid. That changed once I had reached college and started collecting アニメ (anime) as a young adult.

    It was in late high school that I discovered that the Robotech series was actually three distinct Japanese anime, licensed to Harmony Gold and produced by Carl Macek as a single storyline. The dialogue had been edited in order to tie the three stories together and to soften some of the more mature themes for an audience that would undoubtedly be primarily comprised of young children (as I had been at the time). The need for the three separate (but similar) shows was simply due to syndication regulations in the United States requiring a minimum number of episodes for a series. While some refer to Macek's adaptation as a massacre of the original (hence the term "Macekre" to refer to a butchered anime dub), the work done wasn't all that bad. The voice acting was actually of a higher standard than what was common in cartoons of the era, but later anime fans would pillory him for his plot deviations/inventions and "dumbing-down" of the storyline and dialogue.

    This is all peripheral, however, to what I actually wish to discuss, which is, essentially the first "season" of Robotech, or rather, the original Japanese science-fiction anime series, 超時空要塞マクロス (Chōjikū Yōsai Makurosu), English title: Super Dimension Fortress Macross.

    Macross is one of the finest science-fiction television programs ever broadcast, and I say this with absolute, utter confidence. It combines all of the best elements of science-fiction--advanced technology, space travel, interplanetary conflict, and the human response. It is futuristic fable, a parable for a beleaguered world on the brink of nuclear holocaust (it was originally aired 1982-3 in Japan, during the height of the Cold War) written by people with a memory of atomic disaster brought about by warmongering, bearing a message of love and understanding.

    And it's not cheesy about it. In fact, despite how dated the music sounds and how poorly certain episodes were animated (more on that later), Macross still holds up, over a quarter-century later. Indeed, it holds up so well that it has spawned numerous spin-offs, sequels, and prequels; while each is good, all are inferior in some manner to the original series in that all fail to combine the threads of science-fiction parable that the original had done so well.

    In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.
    --tagline for Warhammer 40,000

    The series opens with the crashing of an alien spaceship on a remote west Pacific island. Over the course of the next decade, the united Earth government reconstructs the ship into the SDF-1 (Super Dimension Fortress-1), or Macross. On the day it is scheduled to be launched, a race of aliens called Zentraedi discover the ship and identify it as belonging to an enemy force, known only as the Supervision Army. They launch an attack, localized on the fortress, forcing it to launch in order to draw the enemy away from the Earth.

    This is all handled surprisingly well over the course of several episodes. The pacing is not frenetic, but measured. The Zentraedi are admirable villains because they do not blindly attack. Instead they engage calculatingly. The vast distances in space are taken into account as the Zentraedi first bombard the orbital defense platforms of the Earth, then target South Ataria Island and the Macross. This serves to establish them as both a cunning, intelligent foe, and a foe that possesses technology and space-combat experience far superior to that of the Earth.

    The opening is a complete reversal of most standard post-Gundam mech-anime tropes. The main character, 一条 輝 (Ichijyo Hikaru), is an experienced air-show pilot, but is unready to deal with the realities of air-combat. Nor is he prepared to pilot a transforming mech. This all occurs minutes after his fateful first encounter with 鈴明美 (Lynn Minmei/Minmay), a young Chinese teenager who wants to become a singing star.

    Hikaru provides a sympathetic character with whom the audience can relate. Compare this to Amro from Mobile Suit Gundam, who simply "knows" how to pilot his mech instinctively, or indeed, even Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, who destroys a massive Trade Federation battleship single-handedly. Hikaru is not blessed with some psychic "sixth sense" or spiritual power. The ability to become a hero is simply a matter of his willpower. Your average American viewer can easily bridge the gap between his and Japanese cultures to understand and connect with Hikaru far more easily than he could with Anakin Skywalker or Amro.

    The long sequence of events reflects a more realistic pacing. The Zentraedi think strategically about their attacks against the Earth defenses. For example, they begin their attack on the island by bombarding the city surrounding the Macross. Then, they launch an aerial assault that is actually a diversion--the actual assault on the island is carried out by a series of amphibious landing-craft tasked to capture the vessel on the ground. The writers of the series establish the variable mechs as capable of street warfare as well as aerial combat, and introduce the viewer to the variety of weapons both forces have at their disposal. The characters are defined prior to the opening of hostilities--each with his own personal conflicts and issues.

    For example, we find that Hikaru feels tension with his former role-model Roy Fokker for the latter's role as a combat pilot during the U.N. unification wars. Captain Gloval (I prefer the Robotech spelling to the "official" spelling, "Global") is introduced as frustrated with politicians and eager to get his ship into space. 早瀬 未沙 (Hayase Misa) and Claudia LaSalle are depicted as having a tight friendship despite different attitudes toward romantic involvements. These characters' lives are literally derailed by the sudden Zentraedi attack on Earth. The military characters perform their duties, shunting aside their personal feelings. Hikaru and Minmei have much more difficulty, seeing as they are civilians.

    As the show develops, it closely follows the difficulties Hikaru experiences with his relationship to Minmei. Eventually, he joins the military, which gives him much more direction and purpose. However, as Minmei's career as a pop star begins to take off, Hikaru's path and hers begin to diverge, and he gradually finds himself drawn to Misa, despite their original dislike of one another.

    It is the character interaction that keeps the show moving and infuses every single combat sequence with meaning. Unlike Transformers or G.I. Joe, whose characters are static from episode-to-episode, the characters of Super Dimension Fortress Macross change over time. They are not constant, they grow. They have (and had) lives outside of the war against the Zentraedi. This endears them to the viewer, and also heightens the tension during combat sequences. We care whether they die or survive. Indeed, as the series progresses, we even begin to understand the Zentraedi mindset and start to sympathize with them as well. A number of brilliant combat-sequences have definitive character impact, such as Hikaru's rescue of Misa on Mars, or the climactic battle against Boddole Zer's fleet above the Earth.

    The entire premise of the show is not simply the Misa-Hikaru-Minmei romance triangle set against the backdrop of an interplanetary war. The very theme of love being one of the most powerful forces that a human (or Zentraedi) can possibly experience is central to the story. Many may make the mistake that music is what bridges the gap between the species--music is simply the vehicle. What strikes the Zentraedi first, before music even begins to do its work on Breetai's fleet, is a simple kiss. This is important--it is the first thing that shocks them. Before this they are simply puzzled by their human adversaries. However, upon witnessing the kiss, they are irrevocably changed. They are made aware that there are things buried deep down inside of them of which they are unaware. Music is simply the agency by which these emotions are drawn out. The Zentraedi are obviously confused and upset by these unfamiliar longings that the chain of command and corps camaraderie cannot fulfill.

    To understand what 河森 正治 (Shōji Kawamori), the series creator, is trying to say with this series, one must pay careful attention to the pivotal battle against Boddole Zer's fleet--a battle precipitated by a full-scale bombardment of the planet Earth.

    Now, I love orbital bombardments. I have never seen one done on the scale I've always desired. But this came close. Millions of capital ships open up and blast the entire surface of the Earth in a glorious scene of devastation and holocaust.

    This scene was written and designed by the Japanese with a distinct message in mind. It essentially shows over 90% of the Earth's inhabitants destroyed and the ecosystem severely damaged by the assault. You would be wrong to think lingering memories of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren't in the minds of the writers when the series was being developed. And this orbital bombardment scene gets to the heart of what Kawamori is expressing through this series. But this is not an allegory to the Second World War. Kawamori draws upon the Japanese experience of the Second World War to inform and shape the tragedy and loss that the characters experience throughout Macross.

    The Zentraedi who wantonly obliterate much of the Earth's surface are fighting from blind ignorance, but when they begin to understand their own emotions, they begin to understand their enemies, the humans, and gradually lose their desire to fight. The show is not blatantly pacifist, either. The characters who fight do so because surrender is not an option--they fight because they may be threatened with extinction. The stakes are too high to simply roll over. There is a deep distrust of military brass and politicians alike throughout the series. But all of this is eclipsed by the core message that Macross is struggling to convey to its audience.

    From the technical standpoint, the show was plagued with inconsistent animation styles. This is because a number of different animation studios were contracted to work on the series, and at some points episodes had to be produced on a very tight schedule, resulting in low quality animation for some of the (tragically) best-scripted and pivotal episodes in the story (such as most of Episode 11, "First Contact", and the ridiculous "fencing" knife-fight of Episode 25, "Virgin Road"). This would clash with superbly animated combat sequences in other episodes (such as Episode 18, "Pineapple Salad", or Episode 27, "Love Drifts Away").

    In some cases, this cheapens the overall realism of the series, whose story appeared to take great pains to present itself as believable and not simply a laser-blasting rampage with giant-robots riding rockets (I'm thinking of specific scenes from Mobile Suit Gundam that were just so ridiculous they were downright stupid). But these instances are few and far-between, and in some cases they aren't devastating to the storyline.

    The message isn't so trite as "war is bad." No kidding, war is bad. But Macross juxtaposes love and war against one-another. They are part of the same continuum. What makes Macross so beautiful is that the flaws of the characters, their mistakes, shortsightedness, and misunderstandings do get in the way of love sometimes. And although Minmei can be said to get her just desserts in the end, we can't help but feel sorry for her regardless.

    The viewer will not easily find many of the later common anime archetypes and character tropes--aside from Minmei, none of the characters are teenagers, and Minmei certainly does not pilot a giant mech. The show is largely bereft of angst--the characters suffer, certainly, and have inner turmoil, but it rarely descends to melodrama. Instead, the story is mature, sophisticated, and moves forward.

    I've seen and read a great many science-fiction stories. Very few of them manage to capture the human dimension as well as Super Dimension Fortress Macross does. Science-fiction has always been an exploration of human interaction with technological advancement and the new and heretofore impossible situations such advancement makes possible. However, most are much stronger on the technology and impossible situations and much weaker on the human element. Like much of the very best science fiction (Babylon 5 and Firefly in particular spring to mind) Super Dimension Fortress Macross is strong on the human element. Thus, such themes as love and war are powerfully portrayed.

    Introduction: "Salvete!"

    It makes sense to introduce this particular blog to potential readers, so I'd like to describe my general purpose for having it.

    This is not a personal blog, but a public one. This is a blog that is tied directly to my particular interests, and I will treat it as a kind of editorial column. The name "The Caffeinated Symposium" was chosen to invoke images of coffee-shop discussions of the sort I enjoyed in college and graduate school.

    "The Caffeinated Symposium" will contain my opinions on a wide variety of subjects. These will likely include (but are by no means limited to) history and historiography, the classics, literature, science-fiction and fantasy, the pulps, television and movies, politics, Japanese language and popular culture, comic books, video/computer games, and role-playing games. If you've an interest in any of these topics, then I hope you will follow The Caffeinated Symposium and comment regularly.

    Perhaps a brief introduction for myself is in order. I am Dave Cesarano, MA in History from the University of Delaware. I currently teach English abroad. I'm something of a cantankerous cynic, professional pessimist, and a sentimental romantic with a passion for history and literature. My guilty pleasure is indulging in fantasies, whether they have dragons or time-machines, superheroes or Greek heroes. I like to think about things, analyzing and critiquing everything from politics and history to last-night's movie rental.

    I agree wholeheartedly with C.S. Lewis regarding adulthood:

    Critics who treat adult as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. --"On Three Ways of Writing for Children," 1952

    Although many may turn up their noses at the pulps, comic books, Japanese animation, and science-fiction/fantasy, contending that they are nerdy and immature, I consider the dismissal of these vital and vibrant aspects of popular culture to be far more childish and ignorant. There is no reason that a 65-year-old literature professor at Yale cannot or should not enjoy Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, nor a history graduate student find pleasure in watching Cowboy Bebop.

    With this preamble, I'd like to inaugurate this blog, and state it's mission most simply as an exploration of topics as many and varied as science-fiction, fantasy, literature, the classics, popular culture, history, and politics.