Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Heresy in the Penny Press!

Who among us (certainly who in the extended community represented here at Stevereads) could help but feel his blood run cold upon seeing the cover of the latest Newsweek?

There is imp-faced Jeff Bezos, founder of amazon.com, holding up his latest assault on book-reading discrimination, a paperback-sized gadget called the Kindle. And the accompanying headline? 'Books aren't dead (they're just going digital).' The story is called 'The Future of Reading' by Steven Levy, and its interior subtitle goes like this: 'Amazon's Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind's most divine creations: the book itself.'

We here at Stevereads realize that such things are more often than not added by copy-writers, but even so: it's rare to have an article-writer's status as a whore so openly announced before the piece has even started. And what follows amounts to little more than a five-page advertisement for the Kindle, which represents the next generation in electronic reading devices designed to supplant the humble book as the means by which readers read.

But even before we get to the piece itself, we're objecting: Bezos hasn't built a better bookstore - he's designed a better book catalogue. You can only find there what's presented to you, or what others have found before you. There are no quiet nooks at amazon.com where you can take yourself away and give a not-quite-randomly chosen half-dozen books equal crack at winning the honor of being the one you take home. Nowhere on amazon.com will you find any book not connected to the one you came in seeking. And needless to say, nowhere on amazon.com will you find anything equivalent to the amiable, challenging, guiding expertise of professional book-clerks. Your barren alternative online is little better than the baying of the mob. This is not a better bookstore - this is no bookstore at all but an electronic shopping-hub. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not confuse our terms.

And none of this changes the fact that the Kindle, or something like it, may very well represent the death of the book as we've known it these five hundred years.

It fits neatly in the hand. It runs for 30 hours on one battery-charge. Its font-size can be changed according to the ocular shortcomings of the reader. Electronic marginalia can be made. Thousands of volumes can be kept on the one gizmo. It costs $400 right this moment, but it'll cost $50 by the time this post is made public. It could very well catch on in a way its previous electronic brethren have not.

The reason it will, if it will, is simple: the American public has seldom been stupider than it is today. More than half of them never pick up a book in adult life; a full third of them couldn't actually read it if they did. These numbers grow worse every year, and they spell the doom of the American Republic even if nothing else changes (since America is incomparably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, that doom will come from within, through despotism, rather than from without, through barbarian invasions). The members of the moneyed classes who still tell themselves they're 'book people' will sign up for a Kindle for one (non-bookish) reason and one (non-bookish) reason only: through it, the latest James Patterson bestseller will cost you $9, not $25.

Yep, that's right: The latest James Patterson thriller, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (he's got to be the only writer alive whose career will end the instant he runs out of childrens nursery rhymes)(and the irony that such a simplistic writer would utilize such rhymes is surely unintended), the latest oh-so-serious ghost-written campaign autobiography, A Promise to Promise, the hit self-empowerment tract, You! You're the Best! Go for It! - if you want to (so to speak) read any of these, you can download them instantaneously for less than half the price it would cost you to buy them at your local Barnes & Noble the day before you take your flight to Bangladesh to bilk the brown natives out of some huge amount of money they didn't know they had a right to. In short, since you yourself are evil, why in Hell shouldn't you buy your 'books' in as evil a manner as possible? And now, why shouldn't you read them in such a manner, busily, on the go, angrily, eminently distractable (the Kindle allows for in-breaks for the latest headlines from Google News, or Perezhilton.com, or the latest footage of a cat masturbating himself on Youtube - because, as we all know, reading can be so fucking boring after the first, like, fifteen pages or so), and most of all conveniently? Convenient because you haven't actually picked up a book in fifteen, twenty years - you learn everything you need to learn (although that word should be accompanied by quotes, since you aren't in fact interested in anything that doesn't directly affect your wallet) from an LED screen. And more importantly - most importantly for this particular debate, and in terms of humanity in general - through an LED screen whose use is paid for by a not-at-all disinterested mercantile third party. In other words, in the pristine new world Bezos promises, the 'books' are being 'provided' by the corporations that stand to profit most from the distribution of their wares. Of bookselling itself, the actual task of putting the right book in the hands of the right person, Levy's article is silent.

Instead, we get lots of quotes from Bezos (Levy has the effrontery to characterize Bezos as one of the aforementioned 'book people'), things like "Books are the last bastion of analog," and "This isn't a device, it's a service." Bezos seems incapable of opening his mouth without a soulless irony spewing out, as when he says of books "Why do I love these physical objects? Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?" It's like if Phil Sheridan had rhapsodized about the glories of Indian culture while his soldiers were destroying village after village.

But Bezos can be ignored, despite the enormity of the evil he's doing; his motivation is plain and simple greed (a word that never occurs in Levy's piece), and so he is contemptible but dismissible. But either his device will catch on or the next one will, and the changes it will unleash are not to be underestimated. The entire world changed when the printing press became practicable - changed in ways that even now, six hundred years later, we perhaps do not fully understand. If there's to be a second such revolution, the effects will be no less profound.

Levy takes stabs at various of these changes (inevitably, he paints pictures of deserted bookstores, "lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting - and jarring - post-Gutenberg era"), but he stresses one above all others: that widespread electronic reading and publishing will change what reading and especially writing are. As Levy gleefully puts it, company's coming.

Books will no longer be complete when their author writes them. They'll no longer be complete when their author wrangles with a good editor to get them in finished shape. No, in the brave new world whose threshold we cross, every reader will have the potential to change what they read, because the whole process will be electronically open. Writers will post their thoughts on each chapter as they're writing it, and readers with knowledge - or even opinions - on the subject matter of that chapter will be able to chime in and perhaps change the final product. And that 'final' isn't final either - authors will have the ability to go back into their books and change anything they like, forever fine-tuning and tinkering, like Leonardo Da Vinci carting the Mona Lisa around with him for years, never fulfilling his contract, never selling it, changing it by minuscule changes whenever the whim struck him.

Levy writes about this new era of transparency with the exuberant enthusiasm any whore feels for the john who's paying the day's way. He's talked to people, you see:

"Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public. Readers, of course, are already enjoying a more prominent role in the literary community, taking star turns in blogs, online forums and Amazon reviews. This will only increase in the era of connected reading devices. 'Book clubs could meet inside of a book,' says Bob Stein, a pioneer of digital media who now heads the Institute for the Future of the Book, a foundation-funded organization based in his Brooklyn, N.Y. town house. Eventually, the idea goes, the community becomes part of the process itself."

We speak for ourselves here (although we know without asking that Beepy whole-heartedly agrees), but we speak it nonetheless: the very idea of this is awful, just awful. We want no truck with writers so feckless they need the rabble's aid in their endeavors - what would Flannery O'Connor have said? Or Jane Austen? Or Tacitus? Writers absent themselves from felicity a while - that's exactly what we want writers to do. Levy writes as though the 11,000-year-old divide between writers and readers were one more pathetic artificial analog construct, to be swept away in the face of the Top Ten objections Anne-Marie of Elksbone Michigan has to Anna ("We almost have the same name! LOL!") Karenina's death.

This is the essential flaw of the whore's article, just as it's the essential flaw of the alleged book-lover Jeff Bezos' new gizmo. Music is an arrangement of notes in sequence - it can survive transmutation into any medium that can produce the physical sounds of which it's composed. Visual images - be they pictures, movies, or what have you - require lightwaves and receptive eyeballs and that's all ... they don't require pigment, or canvas, or cathode rays. They might have required those things to come into being in the first place, but not afterwards: the Mona Lisa doesn't need you to buy a trip to France.

Likewise reading - marks on a contrast of whiteness can be conveyed in any number of media and count as reading. Website people read, if this is what constitutes reading;; even wretched bloggers (surely the lowest of the low - we here at Stevereads have nothing but a kind of amused pity for them) read, if this is all that's required.

Seeing images, yes. Hearing music, yes. And reading text, yes. But not viewing paintings, for which of course there can be no digital counterpart, nor either experiencing live music, for which electronic media can offer no succor. And especially not reading books - reading, yes, but not reading books. Because it's no more possible to say 'Books aren't dead - they're just going digital' than it is it say 'Bodies aren't dead - they just not alive!'

Reading, yes, but not reading books. For all that the satanic Bezos gets wrong, there's one thing he gets right: he says the essential thing about books is they disappear. And so they do: they are our essential companions, silent, self-sufficient, always ready. We roll over them in bed, we scribble all over them (sometimes in successive chronological order, as we reread both the book and our old comments), we stick things in between their leaves, we invest them with histories - where we found each volume, what we paid for it, who was with us at the time maybe - and when we're done with all that, we pass them on, just as we take them, eagerly, hand to hand. The ones we keep with us comfort us with their familiar, silent serried ranks on our shelves - a totally impractical use of space, true, but how bare, how uninhabitable the room would be without them! They aren't storing the data of their contents - they are inextricably bound up in it. A $500 satellite-dependent liquid-screen 30-hour-lifespan handheld device locked into the stock of an internet booksite ... it's not only laughable to think such a thing could be a 'better' book, it's vaguely obnoxious to do so.

Which isn't to say this new Kindle gizmo or something like it won't succeed in supplanting the book - but when it happens, it won't be because books failed the ongoing march of technology ... it'll be because the reading public failed books. Not all the reading public, naturally - not the real readers, who'll always know themselves and each other - but the huge cresting tide of page-turning idiots who've always made sure Tom Clancy outsold Gilbert Sorrentino. Unlike in all past eras, that majority of non-reading readers now has the power shutter bookstores and eradicate the very idea of a backlist.

We here at Stevereads urge everyone reading these words to fight this usurpation of the few by the many. Don't let the Kindle - or anything like it - start a bonfire of the vanities. This thing is not the future of books - it's the killing of them. It and its exponents must be forcibly rejected, mowed under like crabgrass, in favor of a future in which there are still bound and printed books. That we write in. That we lodge $1 bills in. That we write our hearts into. That we then ill-advisedly lend to the unreturning unworthy. We live in our books, and we should fight all attempts at eviction.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Oxford Book of English Verse

Our book today is the venerable Oxford Book of English Verse in the second edition helmed by the mighty Helen Gardner.

In John Mortimer's short story "Rumpole and the Golden Thread," the main character Horace Rumpole opines that when time and tide have washed away all remnants of the England he knows, three things will still survive: the British Breakfast, the presumption of innocence, and ... the Oxford Book of English Verse. In this as in so many things (like never pleading guilty, or the salubrious qualities of Chateau Thames Embankment), we here at Stevereads find ourselves in complete agreement with that lovable Old Bailey hack.

Or rather, almost complete. Rumpole's allegiance is, after all, to the first edition of the Oxford Book produced in 1900 through the herculean efforts of Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here we must admit a small apostasy: good as the Quiller-Couch volume is, it's nevertheless a quaintly Victorian conception, more a response to Palgrave's Treasury than to anything alive in the world of poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Even Quiller-Couch's revision of his own seminal work is more grudging than great-hearted.

No, it's enough to say he planted the seed and guarded its first sapling growth. Helen Gardner it is who brings it to perfection. Her volume, in turn, can never be bettered - when the time comes, it will need to be broken apart and entirely remade.

Botanical metaphors seem inevitable in describing a work of this much beauty and variety. An old Arab saying has it that a book is a garden you can carry i your satchel. If this is so, then the Oxford Book of English Verse represents the opulent parks and walkways of Versailles. Four pillars hold aloft the grand edifice of English letters - the novels of Jane Austen, the plays of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and this indispensable volume.

Like those other pillars, it's really many volumes, as many volumes as there are readers who find it. The lovestruck mooncalf will find heartfelt outpouring aplenty. The melancholy brooder will find his surfeit of sighs. And the jeering satirist will find knives to make him smile. Gardner's range is far greater than Quiller-Couch's, and she is much more willing than he was to cut chunks of great verse from longer works. There is everything here, and all an appreciative reader can really do is flip pages and share their favorites. We here at Stevereads are no different in this, and we will leave you today with a few selections.

The first is from Henry King (1592-1669), written in one dash of self-pity the morning after he learned one of the best-kept secrets in the world:

Sic Vita

Like to the falling of a star,
Or as the flights of eagles are,
Or like the fresh spring's gaudy hue,
Or silver drops of morning dew,
Or like a wind that chafes the flood,
Or bubbles which on water stood:
Ever such is man whose borrowed light
Is straight called in, and paid to night.

The wind blows out the bubble dies;
The spring entombed in autumn dies;
The dew dries up, the star is shot;
The flight is past: and man forgot.

And here's the great John Dryden, waxing at his most pithy, as he always did when his heart was hurting:

Farewell, Ungrateful Traitor

Farewell, ungrateful traitor,
Farewell, my perjured swain,
Let never injured creature
Believe a man again.
The pleasure of possessing
Surpasses all expressing,
But 'tis too short a blessing,
And love too long a pain.

'Tis easy to deceive us
In pity of your pain,
But when we love you leave us
To rail at you in vain.
Before we have descried it
There is no bliss beside it,
But she that once has tried it
Will never love again.

The passion you pretended
Was only to obtain,
But when the charm is ended
The charmer you disdain.
Your love by ours we measure
Till we have lost our treasure
But dying is a pleasure,
When living is a pain.

And we'll end on a hopeful note, one of the most hopeful notes ever struck by a poet and one of our most loved pieces of verse (even though we don't believe a word of what it promises), by Christina Rossetti:

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Thanksgiving indeed!

Just the other day we were strapping on the old feed bag at Captain Jack's Hungry Shack with our good friend Waldo when he made a comment that we found interesting. Since this virtually never happens with Waldo, we thought we'd share it. He was face-down in a bucket of peach cobbler when suddenly he looked up and, dribbling crumbs, said: "You know, it's been a long time since you reminded your readers that you are, in fact, a stone cold super-hottie."

We were forced to admit that he was right (also a rarity where Waldo is concerned), and after brooding on the subject for a while, we decided to do something about it. Rushing to the back of our estate grounds (we're spending the Thanksgiving weekend at the retreat at Montauk Point), we instructed one of our 'houseguests' to take a digital snapshot :

After all, it's Thanksgiving! And now you all have something for which to be truly grateful. No need to thank us.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Our book today is The Collected Stries of Eudora Welty.

We here at Stevereads vividly recall our one and only meeting with Miss Welty – we were visiting the Mississippi desk of Stevereads and were in the middle of a long and typically contentious phone call with Robert Penn Warren when Miss Welty stopped by the office on an impromptu social call. She was a bit of a homebody, so this was unexpected and went unreported by the staff. We wrapped up our phone call (as usual, we met Warren’s price in the end) and stalked into the bullpen, only to find Miss Welty waiting patiently, seated with both hands folded over her purse.

Stunned at finding one of the greatest prose stylists in the world sitting unattended in our newsroom, we thundered for an explanation. A startled intern stammeringly reported that they’d all mistaken Miss Welty for the nighttime cleaning lady and consequently paid her no mind.

She chortled at this and positively prohibited the mass-firings that sprang immediately to our vengeful mind, and in retrospect the mistake seems illustrative

Many years have passed. We shuttered the Mississippi desk (the graft was excessive even by our standards), and Miss Welty died. But her luminous, amazing stories live on, a gift to each new generation as long as reading endures.

The illustrative part comes from the fact that these are humble stories, narrowly focussed, full of small and precisely rendered details – unassuming stories, just as their author could be so unassuming.

‘The things everybody does every day,’ is how it’s phrased in one story, and although this is not technically the case (otherwise there would be no cause for writing of it), most of the stories manage to make it feel that way. The secret lies in how thoroughly Welty knows her characters. Every person who walks through these pages can be seen and heard by the reader. This is a rare talent in a writer, one not possessed by titans who possessed many larger gifts in abundance.

She is, in other words, the Miss Marple of American letters, seeing the world and knowing it straight down to the bottom by knowing in absolute detail the goings on of her own Southern version of the village of St. Mary Mead. She might as well be writing in her own voice when she has one character exclaim:

“Randall, when are you going back to your precious wife? You forgive her, now you hear? That’s no way to do, bear grudges. Your mother never bore your father a single grudge in her life, and he made her life right hard. I tell you, how do you suppose he made her life? She don’t bear him a grudge. We’re all human on earth. Where’s little old Woodrow this morning, late to work or you done something to him? I still think of him as a boy in knee britches and Buster Brown bob, riding that pony, that extravagant pony, cost a hundred dollars. Woodrow: a little common but so smart. Felix Spights never overcharged a customer, and Miss Billy Texas amounted to a good deal before she got like she is now, and Missie could always play the piano better than average; Little Sister too young to tell yet. Ah, I’m a woman that’s been clear around the world in my rocking chair, and I tell you we all get surprises now and then.”

In fact, it’s the local immediacy of her prose that’s fooled many a critic into using the word ‘gentle’ to describe her stories (in “Music from Spain,” for instance, he main character in the story’s opening paragraph reaches across the breakfast table and slaps his wife across the face; in the late story “The Demonstrators,” a young girl is stabbed in the chest with an icepick), but the mistake is understandable anyway, because even Welty’s savageries are drawn with such care and sympathy that they feel if not gentle at least empathetic.

Be it horror or tension, satire or morality play, her ability to evoke all aspects of a scene is unmatched by an American author (and we here at Stevereads have learned through bitter experience that no lady author takes kindly to being called ‘America’s Trollope’). Sixty different little authorial decisions are being made in a passage like the following, and all of them correctly:

“Screams surrounded the house. The little MacLain children and their nurse had gotten away from old Miss Lizzie, their grandmother, and come to play in the Rainey yard. Gradually other children, Loomis and Maloney, attracted by the magnetic MacLains, played there too, all drunk with the attractions of an untried place, and a place sinister for the day. The little Mayhews, every time they were gathered up and brought away from these into the house, cried. Blue jays were scolding the whole morning over the roof, and logging trucks thundered by shaking their chains and threatening the clean curtains.”

And of course there’s the thing everyone even vaguely acquainted with Miss Welty’s fiction will be looking for, waiting for. And we can faithfully report what you all suspected anyway: even among the incalculable richesses of this bursting story collection, the gem-perfect comic masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.” stands out.

If any of you know Miss Welty, you most likely know her from this one story, and that’s just as well, for though it cannot show you the whole range of what our author can do, it can at least show you that she’s capable of making something that’s flawless, which is impressive enough in its own right.

The story is impossible to summarize (but, we suspect, easy to google – hinthint), but it hardly matters, since any random slice of it conveys the barely-controlled lunacy of its goings-on – and perhaps provokes out-loud laughter in the process. Herewith a random slice, because no mention of Miss Welty would be complete without it:

“So the first thing Stella-Rondo did at the table was turn Papa-Daddy against me.
‘Papa-Daddy,’ she says. He was trying to cut up his meat. ‘Papa-Daddy!’ I was taken completely by surprise. Papa-Daddy is about a million years old and’s got this long-long beard. ‘Papa-Daddy, Sister says she fails to understand why you don’t cut off your beard.’
So Papa-Daddy l-a-y-s down his knife and fork! He’s real rich. Mama says he is, he says he isn’t. So he says, ‘Have I heard correctly? You don’t understand why I don’t cut off my beard?’
‘Why,’ I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, of course I understand, why I did not say any such a thing, the idea!’
He says, ‘Hussy!’
I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, you know I wouldn’t any more want you to cut off your beard than the man in the moon. It was the farthest thing from my mind! Stella-Rondo sat there and made that up while she was eating breast of chicken.’
But he says, ‘So the postmistress fails to understand why I don’t cut off my beard. Which job I got you through my influence with the government. ‘Birds nest’- is that what you call it?’
Not that it isn’t the next to smallest P.O. in the entire state of Mississippi.”

There’s no parsing this kind of genius, so we’ll leave it as is and end with our strongest possible recommendation here at Stevereads: find this book, this wondrous collection – find it and read it and then periodically reread it throughout your lives.

It’s in this way that Miss Welty is with us forever. It’s not ideal – much, much better would be her living and breathing down south, turning in wise, impeccable story after story every other month to the Atlantic Monthly. These stories would be national treasures and cautionary tales, scaring and instructing all the age’s lazy and stupid practitioners into silence, until they better learn the craft she so unassumingly adorned.

We miss you, Miss Welty. But we – and everybody else – at least get to consult with you every time we need a gust of pure, sweet air.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Price of Glory

Our book today is The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne, his pithy and magnificent history of the 1916 battle of Verdun.

Horne is alive to the horrible uniqueness of his subject, and his rolling prose is equal to the task of describing what he calls “the grimmest battle in all that grim war”:

Certainly it was the longest battle of all time, and during the ten months it lasted nearly three-quarters of the French Army were drawn through it. Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known.

It began in the mind of German General Falkenhayn, who conceived a plan at the end of 1915 to shake the war out of the shape it was in; in short, he did exactly what commanding generals are supposed to do: he conceived a plan to create victory. The difference was something that would become more obvious in the second World War but that was nevertheless visible even in the tender year of 1915: Falkenhayn was a commanding general, yes, but he was a German commanding general, and therefore evil. So instead of devising a military plan to hoist his country out of a stagnant military situation, he came up with a two-pronged attack designed to do what German military commanders always want to do: destroy dreams and prey on the innocent.

The preying on the innocent part came in the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare, since ‘warfare’ in this case meant U-boats sinking every non-German vessel they could find, regardless of combat status. The dream-crushing came in Falkenhayn’s choice of where to strike in his renewed Western offensive – not any of the strategically superior choices along the French line, but the fortress of Verdun, chosen specifically because the French had from time immemorial considered it impregnable. That this consideration might be TRUE didn’t forestay Falkenhayn for an instant – it was the dream he wished to crush. And so was the debacle of Verdun born – the worst and most eroding of all Pyrrhic victories.

That it WAS a French victory is often forgotten, as in a sense it should be – Verdun should always stand as a stark epitome of the sheer waste of war, regardless of who’s winning and who’s losing. Two sides dug in and sullenly hammered at each other for week after week, month after month, gaining no ground and losing none, winning nothing and losing nothing but life after life in the trenches and on the field.

Horne was born in 1925 and consequently has no personal axe to grind with the Great War. He approaches his subject with a caustic but practiced balance. For him, quite rightly, Verdun is functions not merely as a symbol of all the worst fallacies of World War I but also of wars in general. He cites valor where he finds it, and he’s quick to shine a light on idiocy. His entire book is quotable (although modern American readers will find the fact that he doesn’t translate his French quotes a bit halting), but it’s in his mini-character sketches that he excels. Here, for instance, is a bit of his portrait of Marshal Petain:

Those long years in junior command had given him an intimacy with the poilu denied to most of the other French chiefs, and because of his low rank in 1914 he knew – unlike Haig and Joffre - very well what wounded men looked, like. In his rapid rise to stardom he still retained a measure of the paternalism of the good C.O. He knew how much apparently little things mattered to the fighting soldier. Neglect of them could throw him into a searing rage; as when he discovered that a rest camp for troops out of the line had been placed within the sound of the guns. ‘What an idiot!’ cried Petain, on learning at Verdun that a battalion commander, having received the order of alert just as the rations arrived, had ordered his men to depart forthwith on empty stomachs; ‘He doesn’t deserve to be a corporal.’

Horne’s subject is just about as depressing as one can be, but his wonderful book at least gives us a superb example of military history at its finest. Verdun was a victory, yes, but as Winston Churchill remarked, it was a victory bought at such a price as to be all but indistinguishable from defeat. Horne follows his subject straight through to its grim conclusion and then follows his main actors down the post-war years of their various rises and falls. His book is hugely worth reading and should be mandatory for all American military commanders – too many of whom seem to share the lunatic belief quoted by one of Horne’s sources: that in war, the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death Star

Our book today is “Death Star” by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, and as anybody can guess from its title, its subject is the building, operation, and eventual fate of the gigantic doomsday weapon from “Star Wars.”

We all remember the exact moment we heard the line. We here at Stevereads experienced it in a shabby mulit-plex in West Seneca, just outside of Buffalo, and we confess it, we were quietly thrilled.

Of course we’re referring to ‘Star Wars’ (we here at Stevereads care not one jot about the franchise’s insanely megalomaniacal creator or his control-freak grip on the terminology attending his creation – ‘Star Wars’ is ‘Star Wars’ … the first, Part One, period)(when Lucas was an intern here, dreaming of making film adaptations of the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he would not have dreamt of being such a control-freak dictator … his future movies might benefit if he recalled something of that humility) the moment when our intrepid heroes, crammed inside the Millennium Falcon, drop out of hyperspace and into a great field of debris, beyond which hangs a dull grey malevolent moon. “That’s no moon,” old Ben Kenobi intones, “it’s a space station.”

His fellow adventurers don’t believe him at first, of course: why should they? A space station as big as a moon? It’s a classic science fiction moment, one for which the aforementioned lunatic, George Lucas, deserves full measure of credit. Even on old VCR tapes fuzzy with age, the moment still has the power to amaze.

So it’s not all that surprising that the ‘Star Wars’ fictional franchise would get around to giving it its due. That franchise is a deeply disturbing thing when examined in any kind of detail; the fandom it supplies like a crack dealer supplies his gibbering detail-obsessed addicts makes, it need hardly be said, no literary judgements. Members of that fandom have spent HUNDREDS of HOURS of their personal lives detailing the Mirialandan cultural epochs, with no even small hope of their work ever being acknowledged by their Dark Lord, much less used – even ‘Star Trek’ fandom has nothing by way of psychotic obsession to offer as compromise, which is saying something.

So we must walk on eggshells, but it’s still possible to do so. Can anyone, for instance, forget Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,’ the very first and still one of the best pieces of ‘Star Wars’ fiction? And, much later, Timothy Zahn gave us a genuinely talented ‘Star Wars’ novel just bristling with technical details and some pretty good character analysis.

Now, much later, comes the latest ‘Star Wars’ novel, ‘Death Star’ by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry. It’s a hardcover, and its dust jacket cover art is reminiscent of the great Vincent DiFate, and its whole enterprise is replete with a quality conspicuously absent from most ‘Star Wars’ fiction: intense readability.

‘Death Star’ tells a story we all know already, only from the inside out. We know that a revolutionary moon-sized space station, armed with a planet-killing laser, will move on the planet Alderaan and utterly obliterate it. We know this space station is commanded by a spare, ascetic man named Grand Moff Tarkin, and we know he has to deal with a towering, enigmatic black-robed figure named Darth Vader.

Reaves and Perry know perfectly well that they’re playing off this already-established tension, and they do so expertly. Vader appears tellingly seldom in the book, the evil emperor hardly at all, and of course the various medics, technicians, and enlisted grunts who move the narrative forward never know anything about a heroic Corellian freight captain and his enormous hairy first mate/pet, nothing about a weirdly-matched pair of gay robots, and nothing about the budding romance between a weirdly-coiffed Senator’s daughter and a farmboy from a desert planet. These workaday people know nothing of any of this, and they certainly don’t expect that their enormous space station (the inner day-to-day workings of which our authors convey with wonderful and eye-opening detail) will be stage to the final encounter between the old Republic’s two greatest warriors and former best friends, the armor-encased Annakin Skywalker and the prematurely-aged Obi-wan Kenobi.

It doesn’t matter that THEY don’t know – the whole point of this quick-footed novel is that WE know. And one of the best things Reaves and Perry do is to humanize the thousands of ordinary people whose workaday lives are caught up in the station’s construction and workings – somehow, the fact that none of those ordinary people are evil manages to underscore how evil their leaders are.

Of course, the novel wouldn’t be any fun without those evil leaders, and Star Wars fans will prick up their ears every time one of them makes an appearance. And naturally, given the book’s subject, the lion’s share of these appearances will go to Grand Moff Tarkin, who was played with such delicious icy reserve by Peter Cushing in the movie. At one point early in the novel the writers take us inside Tarkin’s thoughts as he’s musing about setbacks in the construction of his beloved space station, and we learn with some delight that there’s no love lost between him and our other main bad guy:

“In addition to these annoyances, Darth Vader, the emperor’s pet, was wont to show up unannounced now and again to lay his heavy hand on the whole process. Vader, unfortunately, was beyond Tarkin’s command, even though, as the first of the new Grand Moffs, he was a man whose whim was law in the entire Outer Rim Territories.”

Our authors are quick to show us that the feeling is mutual:

“This trip, he [Vader] felt, should not be necessary. Governor Wilhuff Tarkin – ‘Grand Moff Tarkin,’ as he had been recently designated; a ridiculous rank, in Vader’s opinion – knew his duty. He had been charged by the emperor to create this behemoth that was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of the Rebels, and certainly he knew what would happen to him if he failed in his duty.”

Every Star Wars fan knows story unfolding offstage while these two jockey for advantage and their minions go about their daily lives. Reaves and Perry very wisely show us nothing of that story until its course locks it into the novel. The key, as the faithful know, is a stolen set of plans for the Death Star. Those stolen plans set the stage for one final confrontation between Vader and Tarkin:

“The shimmering image of Darth Vader appeared before Tarkin, life sized, as if he were standing in the same room.
‘Grand Moff Tarkin. Why have you called?’
‘I understand there is a remote possibility that a set of plans for this battle station may have been stolen by Alliance agents.’
Tarkin clamped his teeth tight enough to make his jaw muscles ache. ‘You knew this?’
‘I have my own agents.’
The black helmet had no way to change expression, of course, but Tarkin could hear the amusement in the Dark Lord’s voice. ‘I see,’ he said, his tone carefully neutral. Now was not the time to be at odds with the Emperor’s lackey.
‘I will find out if it is true, and if so, I will deal with it.’ The black helmet inclined questioningly. ‘That is why you called me, isn’t it?’
Tarkin nodded. Vader might be many things, but fainthearted he was not. Once he began a task, he seldom served from finishing it. Odds were that the story was no more than a baseless rumor, but if not, no one was better equipped to determine the facts and eliminate the problem than Darth Vader. A useful, if dangerous tool – no matter how Tarkin might feel about him personally.”

The search for the stolen plans leads to the capture of heroic Princess Leia, and one thing after another lead to the climactic lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi. Reaves and Perry even here resist the temptation to start telling that other story – we see no further into Ben Kenobi’s thoughts during that fight than his exact words from the movie allow. Instead, they stick to the story of the Death Star until its last minute, when all but a handful of the characters whose lives we’ve been following get blown to smithereens. There are a couple of heroic survivors, but Grand Moff Tarkin goes down with the ship, believing in its invincibility to the last second.

In all, an entirely satisfying Star Wars novel – which is an extremely rare occurrence in a crap-crowded subgenre. If the book contains anything depressing, it’s the odd digression one of the characters makes while inspecting the Death Star’s library, of all things. It turns out that even long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, some things never change:

“It was a pity that most people didn’t actually go to libraries anymore, not when they could sit in the comfort of their own quarters and access files electronically. Want to read the hot new interstellar caper novel, or the latest issue of BEINGS holozine? Input the name, touch a control, and ZIP – it’s in your datapad. Need to study the history of winged intelligent species? No more difficult than inputting search parameters, then scanning the bibliographic references and choosing a place to begin.”

But fear not! Apparently, even in such a far-flung setting, there are a few holdouts:

“There were, of course, old-fashioned beings who would trundle down to where the files were. On some worlds the most ancient libraries kept books – actual bound volumes of printed matter – lined up neatly on shelves, and readers would walk the aisles, take a volume down, sniff the musty-dusty odor of it, and then carry it to a table to leisurely peruse.”

We here at Stevereads are happy to number several of those ‘old-fashioned beings’ among our legion of readers – we’re happy to know that even in the Star Wars universe they’re out there doing what they’ve always done: losing themselves in reading while the rest of the universe is zapping lasers at each other.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Comics again! Intolerable provocation!

Well, yes, yes, we know: we just five minutes ago officially signed over comics-related matters to our distant colleague Gianni over at The Latest Issue – and we meant it, we meant it. But this week, the provocation has been so extravagant, so pin-pointed to our particular obsessions here at Stevereads that even our worst enemy (that would be Desmond Tutu, for self-evident reasons) would have to forgive us for leaping into the fray one last time. The provocation comes in pure, undiluted form, in the latest issue of Action Comics, issue #858.

Why, the mere cover is provocation enough: Superman, flying over an obviously futuristic city, his right fist thrust forward showing … you guessed it … a Legion flight ring. A legion flight ring, ladies and gentlemen! We are awe-inspiring here at Stevereads, yes, but we are still but flesh and blood. We rose to the bait.

And hoo boy, what bait! In this particular issue, Chapter 1 of “Alien World,” written by Geoff Johns and drawn in an oddly inimitable style by Gary Frank, Clark Kent is being chewed out by Perry White in the offices of the Daily Planet when he super-hears Metropolis citizens in panic at the onslaught of Superman’s old arch-enemy Brainiac, this time suited up in the form of a giant robot. Of course Kent excuses himself and flies off to belt the malefactor.

But there’s a twist this time around – the robot turns out to be not Brainiac but the tool of Brainiac-5, which is the exact point when some brown-nosing intern at Stevereads stopped reading and raced up the spiral staircase to our office, bursting through the doors and interrupting an impromptu meeting we were taking with Jacques Barzun, all to blurt out “the Legion! They’re talking about the Legion!”

We took the issue and read it right through on the spot, after which (as soon as we fired the hapless intern for reading funny books on our time) we apologetically dismissed Jacques (it went hard with him – he’s no doubt rightfully worried about how many meetings he’s got left in him – but some things come first) and sat down to compose our thoughts.

The key moment comes once Superman has disabled the giant robot and learned it’s being piloted by Brainiac-5: Superman asks, “who are you?” and Brainiac-5 answers “I am one of your friends” and zaps him with some kind of energy discharge, which triggers a flashback to the first moment young boy Clark Kent met Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, who’d traveled back in time to greet the legendary Superman before he became a legend. The energy-discharge sequence clearly indicates Superman had somehow repressed or forgotten this encounter, and many more such encounters. Superman says: “Of course, the Legion used to visit me between school days. We had adventures in the future between classes … then I moved to metropolis, there was the crisis, and I never saw the Legion again.”

All of which is interesting in a ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ sort of way, but it begs the essential question.

Gianni himself might phrase that question thus: What the frak?

A little background for the uninitiated: the ‘crisis’ referred to here is that gigantic disorganized mess of a comics event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was an effort on DC Comics’ part to prune the bewildering profusion of backstory it had accumulated in nearly fifty years of comics storytelling. There had cropped up, in the course of those years, a very near infinite number of alternate-earths, alternate dimensions, and the ultimate goal of Crisis was to pair that down to one and one only. And in that single new reality, Superman had revealed himself to the world as a full-grown adult. He’d never put on the costume earlier – there had been no Superboy.

That invalidated the Legion. Its founding members – the aforementioned Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy – had taken as their central inspiration to form their club in the first place the adventures of the most famous super-teen of them all, Superboy. No Superboy, no Legion.

Or maybe not. Legion writers post-Crisis took the natural step: they posited that the Legion had taken its inspiration not from Superboy but from Superman and all the heroes of the second millennium. Fans of the Legion could still have their valiant team of future heroes, they’d just have to do without the whole ‘Superboy and’ prefix. Speaking as one of those fans (and as the proud possessor of about 300 comic books devoted to the adventures of a character DC Comics now said never existed), we took what we could get, and we weren’t disappointed: some of the best Legion runs in the team’s entire history (a very long and very convoluted history about which our old friend Locke is entirely correct: only a very, shall we say, special cadre of comics fans know). No Superboy, true, but we got our Legion and it was still great.

And that’s the way it was, as Uncle Walter used to say, despite various flirtations (the most attractive of which was also the briefest, when the Superboy clone was mysteriously transported to the future and donned the costume to fight alongside the team), until the present moment.

The present moment when, it appears, the powers that be at DC Comics have decided that official DC continuity (and it doesn’t get any more official than Action Comics, the most venerable of all venerable comics titles) now encompasses the fact that young Clark Kent often traveled to the future to have adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The real Legion of Super-Heroes, as Frank’s glorious two-page spread in the middle of the issue demonstrates in heartbreaking magnificence: there they all are – Triplicate Girl, not one of whom is a saucy tart, Princess Projectra, who’s not a great big snake, Timber Wolf, who’s not an enormous bear-like creature … there’s no Blok, no Dawnstar, no Wildfire, no Tyroc; but there’s Star Boy (not insane), there’s Colossal Boy (growing big, not small), there’s Brainiac-5 (organic, not mechanical) and everybody else … Shadow Lass, Mon-el, Chameleon Boy, Invisible Boy, Element Lad, Dream Girl, Phantom Girl, Ultra Boy, Karate Kid … even Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad.

That two-page spread broke our heart here at Stevereads.

As some of you may know, we consider the current run of the Legion extremely dismaying. The team is a conglomerate of disaffected punks who hate adults on spec and yearn to rule the cosmos. The team-members all hate each other and conspire against each other, and there hasn’t been a single ‘Long Live the Legion’ moment in almost two years. Even in the past, even when Keith Giffens’ legendary run on the series introduced a more dystopian element, there was still ample room for the particular kind of heroism that the Legion has always embodied; not so now, and we sense that the dissatisfaction this engenders is more widespread than the powers that be at DC might at first be willing to acknowledge.

Or perhaps not. After all, more ‘traditional’ incarnations of the Legion have been cropping up all over the line of DC comics in the last two or three years, not the least of which has been the hit Cartoon Network series which so completely foreshadows this current Action Comics development that we can’t help but think they are two prongs of the same prongy-thing. Despite the continued crabgrass-tenacious life of the current incarnation of the Legion, there’s obviously a group, a voice a bloc, who yearn for a return to the real Legion, the one more or less embodied in Frank’s two-page spread (not ‘exactly,’ as some of you might expect of our reactionary selves here at Stevereads – we’re not frozen in time, after all! Dawnstar is a great idea, Blok not so much; Quislet is a disaster, but Gates is a perfect addition; Tyroc screams, so to speak, for redress, but a bold, courageous, black, female Kid Quantum is perfection realized). We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly second such a group, such a movement, such a dream.

The basic scenario is simplicity itself: young Clark Kent, long before he became Superman and moved to Metropolis, traveled through time to the future in order to share adventures with the 31st century’s enormous group of super-teens, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Since he can’t very well have these adventures while wearing a cardigan sweater-vest, perhaps his new teammates give him a uniform to wear while he’s with them – and perhaps, knowing the great future that awaits him, they pattern that uniform after the famous garb of the Man of Steel.

The key to all of this, it goes without saying, is Saturn Girl. Each time young Clark is returned to his own era, the memories of his time in the future must be blocked by Saturn Girl’s telepathic powers, to reveal no trace of the future and no hint of the great destiny awaiting him. And presto – just like that, an ongoing Legion title is possible.

The only obstacle is the current ongoing Legion title, which has done significant damage to the basic continuity of Legion mythology. In its current incarnation, the Legion is not a valiant band of adventurers but a sour, cynical gang of adult-hating little jerkwads – heroism is entirely absent, for the first time in the Legion’s long history. There are other harms (characters are out of character, powers are stupidly skewed, etc), but this is the worst of them. In an interview in the latest Wizard magazine, legendary Legion writer Jim Shooter – who’s returning to the title in a month – makes it as clear as he diplomatically can that he dislikes all of these changes, but he states his intention to be a good team player and not do anything about them. And it’s doubtful how much he could do even if he wanted to – giant (in all senses of the word) though he is, Shooter is two or three decades past the point where he was a ‘hot’ writer, the kind of writer who can move into a title and make wholesale changes. Comic-geeks of today don’t know him from Adam, and comics industry honchos know that, and more’s the pity: in one issue, Shooter could undo all the damage this awful run has wrought (we here at Stevereads suggest the ‘Dynasty’ escape-clause: it was all a dream! Or, rather, a telepathically induced delusionary episode on somebody’s part – preferably an adult, given the anti-adult tone of the whole run … our nominee would be Phantom Girl’s termagant mother), and then he’d be free to forge a new era of Legion greatness, an era that tells the essential Legion story: that into a weary, orderly future world there erupted the bright smiles and dazzling colors of a new age of super-heroes, a thing unseen in over a thousand years.

We’re not picky, and Shooter (New Universe notwithstanding) is a writer we trust – certainly he’s a Legion writer we trust, as amazing an advent as if Paul Levitz himself had been induced to return to the fold – any scenario he comes up with will be fine by us, we yearn so deeply to read great Legion stories again.

The point of all this is that somebody somewhere – multiple somebodies, by the looks of it – wants the Legion, the real Legion, back in a monthly comics forum. We here at Stevereads are most certainly among that yearning group, and if this latest issue of Action Comics is any indication, we’re not alone by a long shot. We want our Legion back, not some variant but the real thing, the thing so handily illustrated in that two-page spread in this current issue of Action Comics.

Our Legion back. We here at Stevereads entirely support that.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Top 50 Science Fiction/Fantasy - 2007!

Nothing quite so restorative as a nice long list, and there’s been some demand, so we here at Stevereads unveil the latest version of our world-famous ‘Top 50 Science Fiction/Fantasy Novels of All Time.’ (a note to completists: this list supercedes all previous lists, by virtue of the fact that we here at Stevereads just keep getting smarter)

50. Norstrilia – Cordwainer Smith
49. The Pastel City – M. John Harrison
48. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
47. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
46. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
45. Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
44. Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
43. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
42. Gormenghast – Merwyn Peake
41. The Invisible Man – H.G. Wells
40. The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula LeGuin
39. Up the Walls of the World – James Tiptree
38. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Jules Verne
37. Dune - Frank Herbert
36. Dracula – Bram Stoker
35. Silverlock – John Myers Myers
34. The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle
33. The King of Elfland’s Daughter – Lord Dunsany
32. Neuromancer – William Gibson
31. The Orphan – Robert Stallman
30. Them Bones – Howard Waldrop
29. War of the Worlds – H.G. Wells
28. Under the City of Angels – Jerry E. Brown
27. The Worm Ouroboros – E. R. Eddison
26. Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs
25. The Once and Future King – T. H. White
24. Elric of Melnibone – Michael Moorcock
23. Dhalgren – Samuel Delaney
22. Anno Dracula – Kim Newman
21. Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
20. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch
19. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
18. The Mists of Avalon – Marion Zimmer Bradley
17. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
16. Slan – A. E. Van Gogt
15. Soldier, Ask Not – Gordon Dickson
14. The Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
13. Glory – Alfred Coppel
12. A Million Open Doors – John Barnes
11. Doorways in the Sand – Roger Zelazney
10. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
9. The Winter Queen – Joan Vinge
8. Farenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
7. Hyperion – Robert Simmons
6. A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs
5. Trio for Lute – R.A. MacAvoy
4. The Dragon Waiting – Robert Ford
3. Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter Miller
2. The Book of Merlyn – T.H. White
1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

As in previous versions of this list, there are some visible omissions. The journeyman work of such plodders as Asimov and Clarke continue to be absent, of course. Likewise we faced a problem with great writers – like Fritz Leiber, for instance – whose talents were almost always channeled into short stories (a top 50 short story list is in the offing). Another problem is of more recent vintage: fantasy authors don’t seem to write single, stand-alone novels anymore – most of the more talented writers are enmeshed in multi-volume open-ended mega-series that have no place on a list of this kind. So first-rate writers like Steve Erickson and R. Scott Baker find no mention here (a series list is another possibility).

But still! Even given unavoidable limitations, this list remains the single most definitive one in existence – which is surely what you’d expect here at Stevereads.