A Medicine For Mourning.

ill_man5.jpgAnything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction.”-Ray Bradbury


Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer. It was, more than anything, his gorgeous, sensual phrases, wonderfully evocative little details giving magic to seemingly mundane things that made me want to write. I loved those details even more than the oh-so-ironic endings to so many of his stories. I wanted to capture the world in that same way. Here are some examples:

The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light. (from There Will Come Soft Rains)

The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air. (from The Veldt)

He felt his brain fill with boiling mercury. (from Fever Dream)

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. (from The Fog Horn)

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. (from A Sound Of Thunder)

And the sand in the dying light was the color of molten copper on which was now slashed a message that any man in any time might read and savor down the years. (from In A Season Of Calm Weather)

I recognize that these are, at best, examples of overwriting; Bradbury sometimes tends to pile up metaphors and similes like a car wreck. There may have been a certain pragmatism in that; a lot of Bradbury’s early writing was done for pulps that paid by the word. It’s hard to say this, though, because, having revered him so much when I was young and now being acutely aware of Bradbury’s flaws as a writer, I feel a sense of loss. Ray Bradbury used to represent all I wanted to be. No other writer has ever come close to filling the void I created when I pushed him aside.


In addition to my own stylistic tastes changing, I could never accept Bradbury’s pessimistic vision. While his story There Will Come Soft Rains is a masterpiece of economy, clarity, and skillful use of metaphors–a story that stands among the best short stories of the Twentieth Century, if not all time–expresses it well, it’s a nihilistic attitude. As a thirteen-year old devoted Bradbury-phile, holding him in greater esteem than any other writer I knew, I was completely turned off by Farenheit 451, supposedly Bradbury’s masterpiece. As young and nave as I was, I knew there was something smug and self-satisfied about his vision of a future divided into the saintly dreamers and preservers of books and the evil, self-destructive non-readers. His ultimate conclusion–that readers should withdraw from a world that doesn’t want them and let it destroy itself–was preaching that we should evade problems rather than confront them. In fact he went even further in a short story, Usher II, in which a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe murders those who suppress his works. I never thought murder was an effective way to counter censorship, and, growing up in the last throes of the Cold War in the 1980’s, although most of us didn’t realize how soon it would end, I hated Bradbury’s assumption that humanity wouldn’t be smart enough, possibly even wasn’t good enough, to save itself. Even without the pessimism I found it hard to get into Bradbury’s novels; Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes just didn’t do it for me. It was the short stories I really loved. In high school I used to either finish my work as fast as I could or I’d use research for a term paper as an excuse to go to the library and read Bradbury’s short stories. I also had an English teacher who, when he caught me reading some cheap paperback (not by Bradbury), couldn’t resist making a disparaging remark about science fiction. I said, “What about Bradbury?” And he said, “Oh, Bradbury’s good!” And then he quietly added, “Hey, could I borrow that book when you’re done with it?”

At the end of The Illustrated Man the unnamed narrator sees his own murder foretold in the illustrated man’s tattoos. The fact that he escapes, the fact that he lives to tell his story, leaves open the possibility that what he’s seen is only one possible future and that, having seen it, he has the power to change it. The power lies in knowing that the future is not fixed.

Hail and farewell, Mr. Bradbury.

Happy Birthday, Siggi.

Sigmund Freud would be 156 today. While I think his theories are holding up about as well as he is, he was at least a thought-provoking individual whose ideas had an extraordinary impact on how mental illness, as well as the mind itself, is regarded. And even if he didn’t say “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” it’s still a useful line.

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Aspera ad astra.

Once, during an opening ceremony of the winter Olympics, I heard someone say that many smaller or poorer countries enter even though they have no chance of winning any medals. It’s a remark I hear repeated occasionally and it always irks me. No one can say in advance who will win or lose. Anyone who, during the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics, said Latvia or Kazakhstan didn’t have a chance of winning any medals would have been wrong. The only country that doesn’t have a chance of winning any medals is one that doesn’t send any athletes to the Olympics. The only athlete or team that we can say with absolute certainty won’t win is the one that doesn’t enter.

There was a time when I wanted to be an astronaut. Looking back I realize no one encouraged me, no one said I could. I heard plenty of reasons why I couldn’t, why it would never be possible, why I shouldn’t even try. In the end my life went another direction, because I made other decisions, because there were other things I wanted. I didn’t become an astronaut because I couldn’t, but because I chose to pursue other dreams instead. Maybe that’s why this particular commercial, even though it’s just a commercial, moves me so deeply every time I see it.

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Word of the Week: February 20th, 2010.

letter-hOccasionally I’ll say that I used to be indecisive but now I can’t decide what I am. The problem I’ve had my whole life is I don’t want to make a hasty decision, hasty coming from an Old English word that means “violent, vehement, or impetuous”. I think the impetuous part has it right, although I do want to avoid making any violent decisions. A vehement decision doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, though. I’ll make a firm stand and stick to my principles–as soon as I can decide what my principles are. It’s not that I’m apathetic. By the way, every time I use the word apathetic I remember the time a teacher used it and a girl raised her hand and asked what it meant. The teacher said, “I don’t care”. The girl said, “Well I do!” A friend of mine thought that demonstrated how stupid she was, but I thought that was a hasty judgment. My friend was pretty well-read so he already knew what apathetic meant, but he’d had to learn it at some point, and you had to know what the word meant to get that the teacher was making a really lame joke.

Speaking of lame jokes, you may have heard of a the Harvard theatrical group called Hasty Pudding. I have no idea why they’re called Hasty Pudding, although I have found a few recipes for hasty pudding and all of them require baking the pudding for at least two hours, so maybe that’s the joke: it’s anything but hasty.


Word Of The Week: February 13th, 2010.

gammaThere was a guy who sat behind me in high school World History. We talked a lot, mostly before class, sometimes during class. Well, mostly he talked and I listened. I was somewhat in awe of him. He was an über-cool goth guy who, even though he was my age, had done things I couldn’t imagine. He could play seven different instruments and had performed on stage. He’d travelled across the country with a couple of friends. He also told me about run-ins with mall security guards, and being locked out by his parents when he came home too late. He spoke to me as an equal even though I, shy geek that I was, felt intimidated by him. I never would have spoken to him at all if he hadn’t talked to me first. He simply said, “What’s your name?” I told him. He nodded and said, “Chris. That’s a damn fine name. It’s mine too.” We managed to make some connection. I lent him Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos, he lent me Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. We were both fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, although I don’t think we were ever at the same midnight showing. And I was relieved because I wasn’t sure if he’d even acknowledge me if we met outside of class. The last day of class I said goodbye to him. He stopped me and said, “See you later. The word ‘goodbye’ isn’t in my vocabulary.”

It took me completely by surprise. It wasn’t just that maybe he thought more of me than I realized. The concept of a word not being in someone’s vocabulary—of permanently removing a word to avoid the concept. I’d read 1984 and had thought about how words could be used to control people, to control thought. The whole idea of Newspeak, after all, was to reduce the words in the language. Dismissing the word goodbye from one’s vocabulary, though, seemed like a positive thing.

Most people probably never think about it but the word goodbye does have a sad finality to it. The French “au revoir” means “until we meet again”, and so does the German “auf wiedersehen”. The Spanish “adios” means “to God”, which seems like a frightening way to say goodbye to someone. I think “hasta luego” is preferable. In Russian the common way of saying “goodbye” is “do svidaniya”, which also means “until we meet again”. There is a less commonly used word in Russian, “proschaia”, which is a way of saying goodbye to someone you’re never going to see again.

It’s strange that English we so commonly say “goodbye” without thinking about the finality the word implies. When Chris told me the word wasn’t in his vocabulary it was, fittingly, the last thing he said to me, but we may meet again. If we do, when we part I’ll say, “See you later.”

The Librarian In Winter.

The year I started this blog it snowed enough that the grounds of Vanderbilt University were covered. I wrote a post about it exactly three years ago today, although, unfortunately, the pictures that I linked to have now been removed. Since we just got another layer of snow I took some pictures of my own to share with you. Here they are.

First, there’s a view of the library.


And a slightly longer view.


Here’s a view of the campus from the library entrance.


Someone built a snowman on the wall surrounding the area in front of the library. I think it’s melting an interesting way. From one angle it looks almost like a heart.

snowmanAnd finally here’s one of your intrepid librarian. I’ve heard of the Ivy League, but this is ridiculous.


Word Of The Week: February 6th, 2010.

letterfI’m pretty sure I’m fluent in the English language, although I could be wrong about that. As Steve Martin once said, some people have a way with words, and others…not have way. Anyway, English is the only language I’m fluent in. I could claim to be fairly good at Latin, but I have a long line of Latin teachers who think differently. And I’ve picked up little bits of several languages, mainly French, Spanish, some German, a little Russian, a little Romanian, and a little Norwegian. The trickiest one was the Russian because I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet at the same time by reading signs. For instance, the Russian word for telephone is telefon, so I learned to recognize all those letters.

When I was a kid and I’d hear someone say they spoke a language fluently I’d think they were saying fluidly, and in a way it makes sense. Both words come from the Latin word fluere, which means “to flow” . Language is like a fluid, especially if you’re listening to someone speak a language you don’t understand. My mother’s parents came from Czechoslovakia, and I used to love listening to some of my relatives speaking Czech. Because I couldn’t understand a bit of it the sounds were like music.

I once met a guy who was fluent in three different languages. He said at one point that being trilingual had its disadvantages. I said, “Wait, what could disadvantage could there possibly be?” He said, “I misspoke. I meant it definitely has its advantages.” If a guy who speaks three languages can misspeak I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad about those times when I not have way.


clashoftitansWhen I heard that there was a new film of Clash Of The Titans, the first thing I thought was, Does everything have to be remade? From what I remember the original wasn’t that good. It did have its high points. For one thing it was the last major film of the great Ray Harryhausen, and while the Kraken looked a little too much like the creature from 20 Million Miles To Earth—or maybe an overcaffeinated Creature From The Black Lagoon—Medusa with her rattlesnake tail was pretty wicked and the model of Pegasus was breathtaking in its detail. And I realized that this is one of the great myths, and myths have been told and retold from the very beginning. Some myths, I think, have to be retold so that each generation has a chance to make it their own. In ancient times numerous writers retold the story of Perseus. While Apollodorus’s version remains the most complete we still have, Horace added a few details of his own, and Pindar wrote in a way that’s really hard to translate. The classical writers wrote sequels and prequels, some trying to tie all the myths together into a single unit. Of course the 1981 film isn’t just a retelling. They had to make some pretty major changes to the story to make it make sense to modern audiences. I’m curious to see if the new version keeps any of those changes, and also what other changes they’ll make. Here are a few things to look for:

  • In spite of the title there are no Titans in the 1982 film. The only Titan to appear in one version of the myth—a version Ovid tells—is Atlas. On his way home, having slain Medusa, Perseus finds himself in Atlas’s home. Atlas has been told that a son of Zeus will try to steal his golden apples, so he tries to drive out Perseus. Courtesy to travelers is a common theme in Greek myths. If you’re in a myth and someone knocks on your door, you’d better invite them in and treat them nicely. The consequences of being a bad host could be deadly–or worse. To reward Atlas for his lack of hospitality Perseus whips out Medusa’s head and turns him into a mountain.
  • Danae, Perseus’ mother, is exiled by her father Acrisios because he’s been told by an oracle that he will be killed by his daughter’s son. I don’t think this is ever explained in the 1981 film, but that was a different time when people took it for granted that that was how you treated single mothers. Anyway, mythic oracles aren’t astrologers. If you’re in a myth and an oracle tells you how you’re going to die you might as well just hang it up because anything you do is just going to move you closer to your fate.
  • Poseidon doesn’t release the Kraken to destroy Acrisios’s kingdom. In fact kraken is a Scandinavian word. Maybe the filmmakers thought it was better to call it something other than “sea monster”.  Acrisios doesn’t really meet his foretold end until very late in the story.
  • Calibos is not a character in any of the original myths. Calibos is apparently based on Caliban, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I have no idea how he got into the story.
  • The reason Perseus goes to get the head of Medusa is because he and his mother are living in the kingdom of Polydectes. Polydectes desperately wants to marry Danae, but he’s afraid of Perseus (who is, after all, the son of a god). Depending on the myth Polydectes either demands a tribute or tells Perseus he’s going to marry a completely different woman and would like the head of Medusa as a wedding gift. Either way it’s a ploy to get rid of Perseus.
  • Perseus does get some gifts from the gods, but not while he’s hanging out with Burgess Meredith. Athena gives him a sword, and Hermes gives him a helmet that turns him invisible and winged boots. I think the filmmakers made a smart choice having him ride Pegasus instead, even though in the original myth Pegasus doesn’t show up until later. It was a smart choice having Perseus lose the helmet too. Being invisible might have its advantages, but it doesn’t make for very interesting pictures. Maybe that’s why so many artists–such as Edward Burne-Jones with The Doom Fulfilled–portray Perseus as wearing the helmet but still visible.
  • doomfulfilled
  • Medusa is one of three sisters. She’s just unlucky enough to be the only one who’s mortal. I’m sure there’s a reason for this, but the film will have to be successful enough to be a franchise with sequels and prequels for us to find out what it is. Perseus finds them all when they’re asleep and cuts Medusa’s head off. When he does Pegasus springs out. I have no idea why. Maybe Pegasus had always been around and Medusa swallowed him at some point. Also, drops of Medusa’s blood do not produce giant scorpions, but instead produce poisonous snakes, which is still pretty cool.
  • Perseus does some sightseeing on the way back to deliver Medusa’s head. He sees Andromeda and stops because, hey, it’s not every day you see a beautiful woman chained to a rock. Maybe it’s a photo shoot for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and you know how those draw a crowd. Her mother, Cassiopeia, made the mistake of saying Andromeda was more beautiful than the sea nymphs. If you’re in a myth never ever compare yourself to the gods. They have a whole team tapping phones and monitoring e-mails for just that kind of thing. Cassiopeia’s words angered Neptune, so he flooded the land and sent a sea monster rampaging across it. Andromeda willingly offered herself up as a sacrifice to save the land. Perseus does not use the head of Medusa to destroy the creature but instead engages it in close combat.
  • In Ovid’s telling, Perseus sets the head of Medusa down on some seaweed, which hardens under its touch. This is the origin of coral. It’s not something that would fit into a movie, but I think it’s an interesting story.
  • Andromeda has actually been promised to her uncle, Phineas, as a bride. Aside from the fact that incest is seriously wrong even if you’re not in a myth Phineas is pretty much a coward who refused to rescue his own niece from the sea monster. He brings a small army to Perseus and Andromeda’s wedding feast. Perseus shows them all Medusa’s head, and suddenly the banquet hall is full of statues.
  • After marrying Andromeda Perseus heads home to visit his grandfather Acrisios and make peace with him. Acrisios hears Perseus is coming so he flees to another town where there’s a sporting event going on. Perseus, coming through the same town, signs up for the discus throw, but he slips and his discus flies into the crowd and accidentally kills Acrisios.

That would make an interesting surprise ending for the movie, but it’s also kind of a downer. The original film also scores some accuracy points for the Stygian Sisters, for instance, who are thoroughly creepy, and for little touches such as when Thetis tells her fellow goddesses that Zeus once tried to seduce her disguised as a cuttlefish. She responded by turning herself into a shark.

Super (War) Heroes.

batman-warLike so many other questions, asking What is a superhero? seems like it used to be so much simpler. They were the good guys (or gals). Even when comics were in color the superhero world was black and white. That’s what makes this gallery of pictures by Indonesian artist Agan Harahap so intriguing. He’s added various superheroes to wartime photos, making for some surprising juxtapositions. According to the Telegraph article,

He says there’s no political motivation behind his work and if the heroes ‘really’ attended the events they would probably just pose for a photo and take off

And yet it’s hard not to draw political conclusions, at least looking at some of them, such as the one of Captain America between Himmler and a concentration camp prisoner. Looking at the one of Batman talking to US soldiers on June 5, 1944 I can’t help thinking he’s giving them a stirring pep talk but, unlike Henry V, he’s not about to lead them into battle. And unlike Henry V he couldn’t come to the camp the night before in disguise. That’s one of the paradoxes of the superhero: the identity protects their anonymity, but it becomes their public face.

Others are just goofy. What is Darth Vader doing at the Yalta Conference? Well, he is standing right behind Stalin, so maybe he’s planning to take out the competition, although, as a friend of mine said, shouldn’t he have been carrying a real light saber and not a cheap plastic one?

The Joker standing on a Moscow hotel roof is the one I like best. The composition makes it look like someone just happened to be up there with a camera and caught the super villain just as he popped in. It’s unnerving, but it makes me think that it’s easier to define a villain than a hero. This is wartime, but there’s no question which side The Joker’s on. He’s on his own side, taking advantage of the chaos of war.


Martian Dreams.

marsLately I’ve noticed that, if I look almost due East in the evenings, I can see Mars rising. There’s something about Mars. Although Venus is the closer neighbor, it’s also closer to the Sun. And a lot less hospitable, although Mars ain’t exactly friendly to human life either. Maybe it’s because Mars seems like the next obvious step in space exploration. We’ve been to the Moon, and I keep hoping we’ll go back, but Mars is waiting. The trouble is I know we’ve got some pretty big hurdles to get over. In his book Centauri Dreams Paul Gilster makes a case for a long-term space mission–an unmanned one–to some of our closest stellar neighbors. He compares it to cathedral building which, even at its medieval peak, took decades–even centuries. The problem, of course, is that scientists haven’t yet developed what’s really needed: a spacecraft that can travel at one-tenth the speed of light, or approximately 18,600 miles per second.

If scientists could develop a spacecraft that could travel at that speed–and if it were safe for humans–we could make the trip to Mars at its most distant point in a matter of minutes*.

The trip to the Alpha Centauri system that Gilster describes, by the way, would take more than forty years. That’s why centaurihe compares it to cathedral-building. Some of the people involved in the building and launching of such a spacecraft likely wouldn’t live to see the project’s outcome, since, if the radio signals beamed back to Earth travelled at the speed of light, it would still be years before the information about our stellar neighbors reaches us. He also suggests Barnard’s star, although at almost 6 light years it would take even longer, while Epison Eridani, at 10.7 light years, would take even longer.

A spacecraft travelling even at one-tenth the speed of light would make Mars a day trip, but would probably flatten any human passengers, which just reminds me of the biggest obstacle to reaching Mars: gravity. It’s not just that the spacecraft carrying human passengers would need a tremendous amount of fuel for both the takeoff from Earth and the return from Mars. The trip would also take years, and in zero gravity muscles atrophy while bones disintegrate. Gilster doesn’t even think about human beings in his equations so he doesn’t worry about gravity, but it’s a huge problem for space travelers. In most science fiction the problem’s solved with artificial gravity. If we could manipulate gravity it would solve a lot of problems.

Imagine this: if we could manipulate gravity we wouldn’t just be able to create one-G environments inside spaceships. Potentially we could create zero-G environments outside of spaceships, making it possible to launch a ship using only a small amount of fuel. And maybe we could even alter it so that the ship could travel at incredible speed–say, one-tenth the speed of light–while the ship’s passengers would be comfortable in a one-G environment inside the ship.

The problem is that, while Gilster offers some practical solutions to the problem of reaching the closest star (after the Sun), including antimatter and solar sails, as well as a ground-based laser system that would propel the craft from Earth. Okay, they’re not exactly practical, but at least they’re theoretically possible. As far as I know there’s not even a theoretical model for an artificial gravity device, but I hope someone’s working on it. Sending unmanned spacecraft to the stars is an intriguing idea, but I really want to go to other places. Even if I can’t go myself I find the thought of a human footprint–even a permanent human presence–on Mars more exciting than sending unmanned spacecraft to the stars.

*Please feel free to check my math on this, especially since it doesn’t sound at all right. Mars at its most distant is 250 million miles from Earth. I divided that by 18,600 and got 13,440 units, which, divided by 60, comes out to 224 seconds–or a little over 3.7 minutes. But I think it’s safe to say that even if my math is way off at that speed Mars could still be a day trip.