Thursday, June 22, 2017

Professor Housley's Lectures - Geek Gab

Last week our very own Nathan Housley, Pulp Archivist and literary critic par excellent, was recently interviewed on Geek Gab: On the Books.  So full on insight are he and the injustice Gamer that one episode couldn't contain it all, and the clock ran long without anyone noticing.

Is he a man either wise beyond his years, or an old man full of youthful exuberance?  It's a mystery (appropriately enough, given the subject matter).  Listen, and decide for yourself!


Monday, June 19, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 10-16

Cooper gets the job, and now has to produce. As he crams in as many odd actuarial equations into a spreadsheet in the hopes of reproducing the results of Gormley's book, he is given two quants to help him. He distracts them by making them build a computer database. They return, job finished, in awe of Cooper's methods. The math is trash, but it works as a predictive model, so it's awesome.

Old Nick Scratch fires Gormley, and bides his time. Cooper owes the devil a favor, but either Satan is playing the long game, or, as he puts it, humans are so inventive at damning themselves, so why work? Gormley lands on his feet and becomes yet another of Cooper's assistants

Thisbe fends off Gormley's wandering hands and Cooper's fumbling advance while she chases after Dean. She makes a complete hash of reading the situation and thinks Cooper is blackmailing Dean, so she starts needling Cooper. Eventually, she tries to sabotage him by proving his death record wrong.

Finally, someone breaks into Mr. Scratch's basement. The cops arrive, question Cooper, and leave, but not before the devil hints that there has been another death on his premises...

Folks familiar with Game will recognize Thisbe as the classic Alpha Widow, or the woman who was once loved by a high-status man and, now discarded, can't let him go. She does get another hit of her drug here, but her obsession with Dean distorts the lens through which she sees the world. If Dean is all that and a bag of chips, why would Cooper hold any blackmail against him? Dean also occupies a position at the pinnacle of the Game hierarchy, while Cooper's place is much lower but not yet pinned down. We'll know for certain when things go south on Cooper...

So far, Mulrooney is a master of exquisite sentence-smithing, with subtle constructions, negations, humor, and rhetoric, but, like a stick figure mosaic made of jeweled tiles, the parts are greater than the sum. It's a bit of a slog through modern literary fiction--good sentences, a leavening of SFF tropes, and all the unlikable characters you can shake a stick at. It might be time for another Reader's Manifesto...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

July's Puppy: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

Where I've been is places and what I've seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.  
I don’t claim much. John’s my name, and about that I’ll only say I hope I’ve got some of the goodness of good men who’ve been named it. I’m no more than just a natural man; well, maybe taller than some. Sure enough, I fought in the war across the sea, but so does near about every man in war times. Now I go here and go there, and up and down, from place to place and from thing to thing, here in among the mountains.  
Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folks tell sound truer here than outside. About what I tell, if you believe it you might could get some good thing out of it. If you don’t believe it, well, I don’t have a gun out to you to make you stop and hark at it.
With these words, Manly Wade Wellman introduced John the Balladeer, also known as Silver John, and the strangeness of Carolina mountain hollows and Pennsylvania folk magic. With naught but his silver six-string, John walks the Appalachians in search of a good tune, encountering witch men and folk monsters along the way. Whether driving off a son of the Salem witches, challenging a Biblical giant, or escaping the snares of the house-like gardinel plant, John rises to the occasion with his command of folklore, music, and good old horse sense. After all, with a little homespun faith, a good song, and a jingle of silver in your pocket, Who Fears The Devil?

Please join the Puppy of the Month Club in July as we read Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil?, exploring the works of one of America's celebrated fantasists.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 5--9

Let's see, two chapters of how Thisbe followed the Approved Girl Power College Life Checklist into unhappiness before being swept up into a whirlwind romance that ends abruptly when her boyfriend sells his soul to the devil, a misspelling on a sign leads Cooper to try to free Keiter from the furnace of Scratch using hops-free beer, Old Nick himself hands Gormley's Death Note little black book of Death's appointments to Cooper in hopes of pushing him closer to the titular equation, and Cooper uses Death's book to bluff the insurance company even further, fending off Thisbe's attempts to scuttle his project. Finally, Cooper has dinner with Thisbe, where they recall old friends and old college-day embarrassments.

I fear that I've made this sound more amusing than it really is.

The air of the Hitchhiker's Guide has departed, leaving a rather dry ramble through flashbacks and history with an occasional step towards the delivery of the Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. There's a few clever moments, but not enough to really enliven the read. And while Gormley does evoke Discworld's Death, he lacks the charm of the ONE WHO SPEAKS IN CAPS.

Perhaps this book is too subtle for me.

But I'm still waiting to see just how Cooper's lies fall apart on him

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Bad Puppy! Bad Puppy!

I feel a need to apologize for selecting An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity as this month's selection.  Of all the books we've read over the past year, it definitely ranks among my least favorite. 

I'm a huge fan of the unreliable narrator trope, particularly when it's used to present a point-of-view character who isn't nearly as smart as the reader.  One of my all time favorite books is Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al, that makes a tremendous amount of hay out of this idea.  Lardner makes it work by using a deft touch and a character who is actually and in point of fact dumb.  In An Equation, most of the characters are presented as smart in one way or another, and then behave in ways that don't fit with an actually intelligent person.  They ignore obvious social cues, never think to do obvious actions, and generally make a hash of everything.

Add to that the issue that all of major characters are unlikable, and most of the minor characters as well.  Every single one is so caught up in their own miserable lives they can't stop and think for a moment.  They use and abuse everyone around them in ways that make no sense.  They have inflated senses of self-import, they blunder through the plot, they all remind me of Ignatius P. Reilly of A Confederacy of Dunces, and I don't like spending time with any of them.  These are the sorts of people that I avoid like the plague in real life, and if it wasn't for my guilt for inflicting them on my fellow Contributors, I'd have - as Nathan so aptly puts it - walled this book a dozen chapters ago.

(I'm only three-quarters of the way through this book after three weeks of effort, and keep getting distracted by other things to read.  For example, there's this interesting book in my queue called Dangerous Gamers that I really want to get to soon.)

It's also strange how the fantastical parts of the story feel so bolted on.  It's the tale of Death losing his appointment calendar and the machinations of those who would use that knowledge for power and money.  Yet somehow, it feels like an Oprah style workplace drama novel.  It's frankly surprising to me that this wasn't a stronger contender for a Hugo, given how very much it feel like one of the novelettes that were nominated this year.

The last quarter of this books is going to take some time and effort for me to get through, but I'll soldier on and let our faithful readers know whether or not Mulrooney pulls a last minute save out of his hat.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Almost Infinite Complexity, Chapters 1-4

When an expected cash-out lawsuit falls through, Cooper finds himself without money, with mounting bills, and a ton of laywer's fees. At his lowest point, Mr. Scratch, as his next-door neighbor prefers to call himself, throws a party. The devil offers him a deal--a lucrative position as a creative actuary for the Seals Insurance Company. 

Cooper flubs the interview.

To save his prospects, he boasts that he can calculate to the very moment when an individual will die. By bluffing his way through with lies overheard from other actuaries, he cons his way into the job.

Now he has to deliver on his boasts. But events continue to distract Cooper, such as meeting the beautiful Thisbe, discovering that Death lives with Mr. Scratch, and finding that Mr. Keiter, a man Death killed at Mr. Scratch's party, now exists as a 12 inch spectre burning away in Mr. Scratch's furnace...


I'll admit, I'm not a literary type, and Vox Day, the editor of Castalia House, is far more enamored of literary fiction than most of us who blog for Castalia House. (He's also far more into gonzo. Check out Loki's Child by Fenris Wulf some time.) So I was a little hesitant to dig into An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity. However, the madcap idea of a dude bluffing his way through a job offer from the Devil by promising to create what amounts to a psychohistory of the individual caught my attention. You just know that a Faustian deal is around the corner.

But that deal is slow in coming. The Devil makes no coy attempts to hide who he is from Cooper, who seems to be living within a huge Somebody Else's Problem Field. Rather, we are treated to a rather droll party, where the height of amusement is watching Cooper trip over himself as he attempts to muster the courage to interact with Thisbe. Well, that and Mr. Keiter's death and discovery in the furnace below. It's a dry humor, trust me, like watching Arthur Dent bumble through the Hitchhiker's Guide universe, although An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity is spiritual fiction instead of science fiction.

The story is strange, outside my comfort zone, but has potential to develop in a myriad of ways. Let's see where it goes.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vance and the supernatural

In "The Miracle Workers" Jack Vance plays with an odd philosophical experiment: a society where "magic" is rational, deductive, and logical (but not scientific) and what we know as science is seen as superstition. Some fantasy writers have attempted that, especially as a way to justify why in their worlds there doesn't seem to be any scientific progress, but I believe Vance is the only one who managed to pull it off. "Superstition" here doesn't just mean "we don't know how it works." The jinxmen (the "wizards") know perfectly well what empiricism (science) means and what they mean when they say that empiricism is superstition. 

In the preface of "Jack Vance's Treasury," Vance mentions that The Miracle Workers was sent to Astounding because "John Campbell, the editor, had a predilection for unusual ideas." And unusual it was. The jinxmen, with their hoodoo and mental magic, are, indeed, the "rational" ones in the story. When they say that their "magic" is deductive and rational, Vance isn't joking (well, at least, he is doing more than that,) or merely saying "here magic is science, because reasons." He has built a whole justification for that.

The jinxmen know the laws behind their magic, how it works, and why. They may not know the ultimate cause, but who cares really? They are not "superstitious" because they know when their magic is not going to work and why. The process has a deductive logic to it, whereas science is... just playing around until some "effect" is discovered.

But the limits of jinxmanship are what sets the story in motion; it's the appearance of an enemy they are unable to influence. But unlike other stories where this would have been used as an excuse to present the magic-users as mired in superstition, trying to work their useless magic again and again until the Science Man appears, here the jinxmen (from the start) admit that their Art isn't going to work with those aliens. And if they are reluctant to explain so is because the source of their Art —and, therefore, their power and status— depends (partially) on people believing in it (it's not simple placebo, though.) Their power is described as such:

"What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade."

The jinxmen deal in irreducible qualities, emotions like fear, hate, rage, pain or bravery, which is why they describe their trade as "logical," because to a considerable degree it is. If the foundations are known, there is no need for "empirical speculation" like "from where do the demons come?"

Everything can be deduced from first principles. But what happens when you are trying to hoodoo a race of aliens with a collective mind which may not even have words for those feelings (or those feelings in the first place.) You cannot empathize with them, and at no level (conscious, unconscious, or cellular.)

From their point of view, science is some bumbling baboon playing with things he doesn't understand. Scientists, therefore, become "mystics," people who don't have answers but search for them anyway, who toy in their laboratories, mixing this with that, trying to see if something happens. That "empiricism," however, is what in the end (even if through sheer luck) ends up saving the humans.

"Undoubtedly the ancient were barbarians. They uses symbols to control entities they were unable to understand. We are methodical and rational; why can't we systematize and comprehend the ancient miracles?"

By "symbols," I presume, he means mathematics and scientific notation, and by entities, he means the laws of nature. That may seem like a preposterous way to define science, but compared to jinxmanship, the charge is not unfounded. Who understands gravity or quantum physics? We can control and manipulate physical phenomena, of course, but our "understanding" of them is unlike our immediate, irreducible, and unavoidable understanding of our own feelings. It makes sense that a society based on such magical performances would have problems understanding (or caring) about "Science." Hence, hoodoo is rational and logic, empiricists are miracle-workers and mystics who toy with strange mathematical entities and write down bizarre arcane formulas.

In the previous post, Nathan Housley says that he feels the story shrieks of message fiction. I can see how that may seem to be the case, but I don't think it is. The setting is purely speculative, and "progress" doesn't appear as the inevitable march of history against superstition (empiricism here IS superstition), but as a fortuitous stroke of luck against an enemy they can't understand. 

From what I know of him, Vance seems to have had a distaste for intellectual blowhards, obscurantism, and certain brands of organized religion or theology (he pokes fun at lying priests and religious manipulators on many occasions.) However, I don't think this is a message/ideological work to attack such things because I believe the goal of this story was to play with an idea, something to which he was going to return again and again with his "magic system" in the Dying Earth setting, which apparently is some sort of highly advanced mathematics that works in many dimensions and levels at the same time or somesuch. I have noticed that Vance usually tries to "explain" the supernatural in his stories, how it works or how it may work assuming it was real.

That seems like a great feat of speculative fiction to me, to think "let's assume supernatural powers are real" and then work out a Universe whose laws would allow it, and then see what happens. This short story is an example of that, and he pretty much says that its Afterword (which appears in Jack Vance's Treasury.)

"Strange things happen. Almost everyone has had some sort of brush with the paranomal, even the most resistant and skeptical of persons. [...] In olden times angels and demons were held responsible; to date no one has produced a more reasonable explanation. Phenomena such as telepathy and poltergeist may well be manifestations of different and distinct principles; there may be two, three, four or more such realms of knowledge, each at least as rich and intricate as physics or astronomy. There is little systematic study. Conventional scientists shy away from the field because they are, in fact, conventional; because they fear to compromise their careers; because the subject is difficult to get a grip on; because scientists are as susceptible to awe and eeriness as anyone else. So: the mysteries persist; the lore acccumulates, and we know for sure no more than our remote ancestors, if as much... 'The Miracle Workers' [has a] definite psionic orientation, and [makes] at least a superficial inquiry into certain aspects and implications of telekinesis and demon-possession. I can't pretend to offer enlightenment; there isn't any to be had. The [story], in any event, [was] not conceived as [as] argumentative [vehicle], but simply [reflects] my own fascination with the vast and wonderful reaches of the unknow."

                                                                                                       Jack Vance 1970.

[I have no idea why there are so many [ ] there]

I'll be honest, that text came a bit as a surprise to me even if I had sometimes suspected it as much. Vance's fascination with these subjects snf his constant attempts to mix science with "magical" elements always seemed too... methodical to me, always going to the extremes of building weird but detailed explanations and philosophical points to justify why such phenomena may occur or how they may work.