Welcome to the Derby

Hi there everyone. I’m Lou and this is my new blog! I know starting a new blog in 2019 is kind of anticlimactic. I’m sure kids these days are doing a a thing where they just share thoughts with each other directly through the brainstem or something we never imagined. Well when I was little the something I never imagined was the ability to send your thoughts out into the world to share with the universe on the magic device in their pocket so I’ll take what I can get.

Discounting aborted attempts at photo and RPG blogs this will be my second solo blog. I started Raising Hellions in the Fall of 2009. A classic Dad Blog, Raising Hellions started as a way to process being a Stay at Home Dad taking care of three little ones while The Girl pursued her career. I met some great folks through the Dad Bloggers community and the National Stay at Home Dad Network.

But even before that blogging has been a part of my internet experience since practically the beginning. I have been lucky to be welcomed into the comment sections of some great communities, Freethought Blogs, Patheos Nonreligious, The Orbit, Slacktivist (the smartest Christian blogger I know,)  but most especially Rebecca Watson and The Skepchick Network. When the network launched it’s secular parenting wing at Grounded Parents in 2013 I was ready. My elevation tom D-List Atheist Celebrity was complete.

I’m not leaving Grounded Parents, but I’m simply not as immersed in that aspect of parenting anymore. The Hellions are turning into teens and a lot of the Secular Parenting issues I’ve written about in the past aren’t part of my daily internet life anymore.

Dawkins being memed

I started writing the Internet Meme Demolition Derby as a reaction to the way terrible parenting advice or news was reported and shared on social media. It’s some of the best writing I’ve ever done so when I decided that I wanted a new blog, the name just felt right. I plan to do similar meme related teardowns here, just on a much broader range of topics.

So welcome to the my new front door on the internet. Check out The Rules before commenting please and I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

Thanks, Lou.

Tortured Shakespeare Analogy: To Be or Not To Be a Dragon

Hey George… not happy…

So HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy epic A Game of Thrones has finally come to an end in a rushed, haphazard final season that didn’t seem to please anybody.

Now I have neither the time or inclination to dive into the details of what went wrong/right, plenty of other places to get that on the internet. I always knew that landing this sucker was gonna be messy. Heck the creator himself can’t seem to wrap things up and at this point it’s likely Brandon Sanderson is waiting for the call from George’s estate begging him to write a finish that makes sense like he did for Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic.

It’s a bittersweet conclusion to a project that had so much promise, especially in comparison to the artful way the Russo’s closed the current chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame just a couple weeks earlier. I’m particularly melancholy because I was an early adopter, snagging my well worn and loved paperback of the first book way back in 1996 or so. I was an evangelist for Westeros, although it became clear that what I liked about the books, the subversion of tropes and the surprise (and sometimes brutal,) twists were not only off-putting to many, but also a crutch that was covering for the fact that Martin had gotten waaaaay out over his skis.

It was the most ambitious project of Martin’s career and the first three volumes are still some of the best examples of epic fantasy storytelling in the genre. But by the time the 4th and 5th books were finished, with five and six year gaps in between publishing, it became obvious to this reader at least that Martin had lost control of his story. And with the smash hit HBO show well under way, there was always a looming danger that the show runners might have to improvise a lot of the finish.

Which led me to this Tortured Shakespeare Analogy on Facebook, preserved and edited here for all time because I made myself laugh.

I drink and I know things… that’s what I do…

The primary person to blame for the mess that is the ending of Game of Thrones is George RR Martin. 

The last two seasons have been as if Shakespeare had handed the first three acts of Hamlet off to the director and actors with the promise he’d have it finished by the time Hamlet kills Polonius. 

But when Hamlet sets off for England, with the dictionary definition of extraneous characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in tow, all the Bard has is the rough draft of act 4. The directors and cast do their best with it and it’s not terrible, in fact they trim a few bits and get the story chugging towards an ending, but when they ask for act 5, how does the story end, Bill is all like…

“Here’s my outline… there’s a duel… everybody dies… it writes itself, you’ll be fine.” 

Then he wanders off to write comedies. 

“But who becomes king?”

“Oh… ummm Fortinbras… it’s a twist! They love my twists… it’ll be great!” 

“Say hi to the Queen!” (Waves as he sets sail for France.)

Me… being funny I hope

Monday Muse: Tallest Man on Earth Live at The Madison

He’s not actually that tall…

The Girl and I got a special treat last week, we got to see one of our favorite artists perform at the Madison Theatre in Covington. The Tallest Man on Earth, the stage name of Swedish folkster Kristian Matsson, writes deliciously Dylonesque songs about love and loss. He’s a delightful poet and an incredibly fun stage performer. I was just gonna share a clip but his show from just the beginning of May in St Paul was live streamed. So here you go, this is pretty much what we saw.


American Atheists National Convention 2019, Cincinnati Edition

Wet and Godless

American Atheists held their national convention the weekend of A[pril 19th and instead of having to drive/fly/swim to some faraway city I was able to use my magical influence to sway them to bring the shindig to the banks of the Ohio here in the Queen City. Ok… it was actually the hard work by folks at Tri-State Freethinkers other awesome local atheist activists who made a great weekend possible. I got to see some old friends, make new friends and learn a heck of a lot. And of course I took pictures. This post is mostly about the pictures. You can see the entire batch at this lovely Lightroom gallery.

I was the local ringer for Pub Trivia Night on Thursday
Met some incredible folks at the bar of the Hilton Netherland Plaza, an Art Deco treasure
Cincinnati’s newest activist group, Community of Reason
Kelley Freeman of NARAL Pro Choice Ohio sporting nifty new wheel s for the occasion
We gathered on Fountain. Square to rally the troops and freeze to death…
Podcaster and Starfleet Academy Graduate Callie Wright was our MC for the weekend…
American Atheists President Nick Fish, Passionate Atheist, Blue Suit Afficianado…
Aron Ra with one of our few protesters, I missed the guys with the cross
Serious Mustache Game
One of many epic beards…
That is one happy blue haired atheist!
Josiah Mannion , the official photographer, catching all the action
Mandisa Thomas, Black Nonbeliever and Epic level hugger…
Baby shark, doo doo doo doo doo doo
I also did an interview with The Divide podcast, coming soon, it’s a bit rambling.
Monette Richards and Carl Tracy personing the Secular Woman table. Those are Kelley Freeman’s hands…
Kelley tired…
Stephanie Svan gave an incredibly good workshop on dealing with shame, an important skill for former believers. An ex-Catholic like myself learned a lot.
Josiah, noting that he is terrible at not noticing the photographer during his workshop on art as activism. It doesn’t help that I’m terrible at being a sneaky photographer like he is 😉
Much good cheer and or whiskey was consumed at the hotel’s amazing Art Deco bar. We tipped those folks well.

A great time was had by all and I cannot wait to do something like this again.

Instead of Dune: The Warrior’s Apprentice or Trading in Danger

Miles is up to something…

Military Science Fiction as a genre hasn’t been treated well by the big screen. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers (1959,) and Gordon Dickson‘s Dorsai (1960,) were the seminal works that established the sub-genre, and the only real attempt to translate the style to the big screen, 1997’s adaptation of Heinlein; Starship Troopers (and its associated sequels,) largely failed to be any more than a cheesy guilty pleasure. It’s a tough genre to get right. David Weber, one of the modern masters, lays out his expectations thusly.

For me, military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots’. It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems

David Weber

Weber’s Honor Harrington stories and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, are both excellent modern examples and both are listed as in some form of “in development” on IMDB, so keep an eye out. Aliens (1986,) is probably the pinnacle of military SF on the big screen so far.

Military Space Opera, a term coined to cover more traditional space Opera stories that have a more military focus, are more common. The Battlestar Galactica franchise, Syfy’s The Expanse, and the venerable epic Babylon 5 are all great examples on the small screen. And this sub-sub-genre is where today’s two “Instead of another Dune,” entries come from. Both stories feature unlikely (not straight able bodied square jawed white dude,) protagonists, frustrated ambitions and gobs of family drama. Both heroes are flawed, and over the course of their sagas they must accept and overcome their limitations, surprise both their enemies and their allies, and create their own place in the universe against all odds. They would both make great tv series, but they could easily shine as stand alone films.

Trading in Danger (Vatta’s War #1)

Kylara (Ky) Vatta didn’t have to enter the Spaceforce Academy on her homeward of Slotter Key. As a scion of the Vatta family interstellar shipping empire she could want for nothing and have a place guaranteed in the family business. But the commercial life doesn’t spark her soul the way shipping out as an officer on an interstellar cruiser does.

While she is an excellent study, her habits of “taking in strays,” so to speak leads to a scandal that ends with her discharge in disgrace from the service. Returning home is torture for Ky, facing a family that never believed in her. But she gets a chance at redemption, captain of a ship… of sorts. The Glennys Jones is due at the scrapyards and someone has to captain it there. Supplied with a ragamuffin crew of outcasts and family loyalists, Ky manages to make a lot more than milk from this supposed milk run.

If that doesn’t sound like he cast of a SyFy channel series I’ll eat my boots.

Ky is a great heroine. She’s smart and resourceful, she’s aggravatingly confident, and she doesn’t know what “over your head” means. She turns her junker ship into the trading vessel it was meant to be, and when confronted with pirates she turns the tables on them with glee. She also continues her trend of taking in strays, shepherding refugees from the pirates clutches to safety.

Ky has a dark side as well. In combat she discovers a thrill she had never experienced before, a bloodlust that frightens and intrigues her. She quickly finds herself responsible for hundreds of lives and has to make hard decisions that both protect and endanger then ones she loves. And she is about to learn more about the family business than she ever expected.

Elizabeth Moon is an accomplished storyteller, a Nebula Award winner and a former Marine, which definitely shows in her appreciation of military life. But she’s also courted some controversy, in 2010 she was disinvited to the feminist science fiction convention WisCon for remarks she had made on her blog about Islam and assimilation. Looking over the controversy, I disagree with Ms. Moons’ position and was disappointed to learn of it, but I think she handled the fallout better than many might have and don’t think it reflects poorly on her work as an author, nor does it reveal a deep flaw in her character.

The Warriors Apprentice introduces us to the main character of Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Miles Vorkosigan in contrast to Ky Vatta, is desperate to get into the family business of sorts. His father, Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, is Regent to the young Barrayaran Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. His grandfather General Pyotr Vorkosigan, was a legendary resistance fighter during the occupation of the planet by the Cetagandans. And to add spice to the mix his mother is the enigmatic Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, offworlder and veteran of the Betan Expeditionary Force.

But there is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to Miles’ dream. While still carrying her first and only child, Cordelia and Aral survive an assasination attempt in the form of a deadly chemical attack. While the Count and Countess survived largely unscathed, the antidote did teratogenic damage to the fetus, resulting in an inability to form bones correctly.

Despite the chilling prognosis, Cordelia insists on attempting to bring Miles into the world and he is transferred to a “uterine replicator,” a common technology Ibn the wider galaxy but unheard of on backwards and isolated Barrayar. Miles is born a stunted and fragile child in a world that treats him as a despised mutant. The odds are stacked against our hero, but he will not be deterred.

He throws himself into his studies and makes it all the way to the brink of acceptance into the Imperial Military Academy. But while his academic marks are above and beyond the mark, tragedy strikes when he cannot complete the physical tests, left with both legs broken at the bottom of a climbing wall, his ambitions betrayed by his brittle bones, the last victim of the civil war.

But where one door closes another opens. While accompanying his childhood friend Elena and her father, his bodyguard and aide Bothari on a trip to visit his grandmother on Beta colony, Miles manic personality leads him into a series of shenanigans that leads to the creation of his alter ego, the Betan Admiral Miles Naismith. While the future Count Vorkosigan is barred from military service at home, Admiral Naismith is able to craft an entire mercenary organization with nothing but his wits and chutzpah.

Much like Ky Vatta, Miles will find himself in over his head, with responsibilities he never imagined and consequences to is actions he never anticipated. He’ll suffer heartbreak, endanger those close to him, and almost inadvertently destroy his father’s political career. But he’ll create something, the Dendarrii Free Mercenaries, that will go on long after his own career grows in directions he never dreamed of.

Both of these novels begin extended series that would provide cinematic fodder well into the future. They also offer some intriguing casting options. Miles Vorkosigan, stunted and twisted by his condition, would be an opportunity for a differently abled actor too shine. Kylara Vatta is a great “strong female character,” but she’s also not necessarily white, her family certainly isn’t depicted as Anglo at least. And both universes are populated with intriguing side characters and innovative technology to explore. I recommend both authors for further reading, and if you know anyone at the SyFy network, maybe slip them a copy?

Throwback Thursday: Quoting Awful People

Joseph Sobran was a real duckweed…

This week for the Throwback I’d like to send you deep tom catch this 2014 gem that I really enjoyed writing. This Derby is not only a remonstration against weaponizing perceived intelligence when such is a very slippery target, but how you should also undertake due diligence to identify who you are quoting. Because you shouldn’t quote Joseph Sobran without understanding who he was…

Now the person who shared this with me was a well meaning sort, hardly an arch conservative. So it is odd to me to see him sharing something that originated from someone like Joseph Sobran. Why odd? Because the late Michael Joseph Sobran (February 23, 1946 – September 30, 2010), or Joe Sobran to readers of his syndicated columns, was hardly an insignificant figure in the history of American ideas. Conservative pundit and walking Godwin’s Law infraction Pat Buchanan called Sobran “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation”. Ann Coulter called him “the worlds greatest writer, the G.K. Chesterton of our time.”  A columnist at National Review magazine from 1972 until he was asked to leave under charges of anti-semitism, Sobran described himself as a “paleo-conservative”, although in 2002 he announced his shift to “Libertarianism”, in fact he was a fellow at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. Also a pro-life, anti-war Catholic (he opposed the Iraq War), Sobran hardly fits neatly into any particular ideological box, and I’m sure a careful reading of his works would find even a died in the wool big government liberal like myself nodding along in agreement.

And the basic premise of the meme is still shitty, we have remedial classes in college because more and more people have access to higher education than when old Joe was a freshman…

100 years ago, an education past the elementary school level was almost exclusive privilege of the middle and upper class white males. And the type of education that Sobran is extolling, focusing on the classics and obviously college preparatory was even more exclusive (and still is in most of the USA). The vast majority of teenage Americans 100 years ago were already working, either on the farm or low skilled manufacturing work by the time they would have been learning Latin and Greek in Joe’s mythical Classics High.
On the flip side of the meme, yes a large number of college freshmen are now taking remedial courses in English and Mathematics. And that certainly seems bad on its face. But remember, a post secondary degree of some sort is necessary for more and more jobs in our economy. Record numbers of high school graduates are enrolling every year. Is it wasteful for so many of our students to be in remedial classes, especially since many of them don’t even realize their deficiency until they are already enrolled? Of course it is, and there is plenty of room for healthy debate on how to best bring those numbers down, (hint: eliminating the Department of Education is probably not on the healthy debate menu.) But remedial classes will always fulfill a vital role in bridging the gap between unready and ready for college, especially considering how much educational achievement can be affected by factors outside the students control such poverty, an important consideration in a society suffering from vast income disparity.

Click on over and check out the whole thing. Every click brings us closer to smuggling this cat back from Hawaii…

Monday Muse: God is a Bullet

Shoot straight, from the hip
Gone forever in a trigger slip
You know, it could have been
It could have been your brother

As Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, grieved after attacks on two mosques killed at least 50 people and injured dozens more, several charities sought donations to help the wounded and the victims’ families rebuild their lives.
Donors can research the organization or charity before offering help by checking the website Charity Navigator, which grades charities based on transparency, accountability and financial health.

The New York Times

Help if you can… Love, hugs and more love to all caught up in this tempest.

Monday Muse: Thick as a Brick

It’s March, spring is in the air and 47 years ago Jethro Tull birthed into the world the epic album Thick as a Brick. Ian Anderson was actually kind off miffed that the bands previous venture, Tull’s most recognizable album Aqualung was described as a “concept album”. Anderson hadn’t planned it that way at all and felt that it detracted from the individual songwriting, some of his most ambitious to date. So in response he crafted Thick as a Brick to be a parody of the whole idea of concept albums.

Then he wrote Passion Play and almost made Warchild into a Quadrophenia style music movie and then made Thick as a Brick Two and an entire rock opera about the bands namesake so I guess he made peace with the idea.


White People and Racial Illiteracy

One of the most striking moments of the Micheal Cohen testimony was actually completely tangential to the various misdeeds Cohen laid at the feet of his long time employer, real estate mogul, business criminal, and 45th President of the United States Donald Trump. To tell the truth most of the revelations were fairly pedestrian to the Maddow-philes in the audience like myself. Rather it was the reaction and counteraction to Cohen’s assertion, mostly through personal anecdotes, that Mr. Trump is a racist.

Now I’m pretty sure if you are reading my lil ol’ blog you would file that information along with “water is wet,” and “the Pittsburgh Steelers are Evil,” nothing new here. Trump has a long history of racist behavior dating back to when he helped his Dad keep black folks out of their apartment developments, or when he insisted that five black and hispanic men were still guilty of a crime after they had been exonerated by DNA evidence, or that time he insisted that the late American anthropologist Anne Dunham’s only child wasn’t born here and therefore ineligible to hold the office of 44th President of the United States.

Seen here preparing to eat this baby… photo by Pete Souza

But Freedom Caucus chair and proud representative from North Carolina Mark Meadows was having none of that, and he came prepared. He came prepared with a living breathing African American woman; Lynne Patton, a former Trump Organization employee and now a political appointee in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to stand mutely behind him as he asserted that her very presence in Trumps orbit disproved accusations of racism.

Then, as the hearing was wrapping up, Meadows threw a complete conniption fit when Rep. Rashida Tlaib pointed out correctly that bringing out a black person as a prop was a kinda racist thing to do. Meadows was personally affronted at the accusation that he was a racist. Ms. Tlaib pointed out that she had been very specific in her wording, not accusing Meadows of being a racist, just that the thing he did was racist. This is an important distinction that anyone who wants to seriously address race needs to understand. We need to understand that it’s possible to do a racist thing, or for your actions to have racist consequences whether or not you yourself would qualify as “a racist.” Like when Meadows went all in on the Birther conspiracy in 2012 to help him win reelection.

Meadows, keeping Ms. Patton out of focus until needed.

Far too many white Americans fall into Meadow’s camp. Our understanding of our nation’s racist history is hobbled by the way we learn about it, by the stories we choose to share. Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, penned an excellent post for NBC News’ Think that I think is a good introduction as to why we find ourselves in this pickle.

Take the Jackie Robinson story. Robinson is celebrated as the first African-American to break the so-called color line and play in Major League Baseball. While Robinson was certainly an exceptional baseball player, framing the story this way depicts him as racially special. The subtext is that Robinson was the first black athlete strong enough to overcome the barriers preventing blacks from competing with whites; no black athletes before him were skilled enough to do so. While this tagline elevates Robinson as an individual, it implicitly positions African-Americans overall as inferior. It also falsely propagates the belief that racism in sports ended with Robinson, implying that current struggles against racism in sports are unnecessary.

I had a great little picture book about Jackie Robinson back when I was a baseball mad 10 year old. It told his whole story, accompanied by the cute hand sewn baseball his mom had made. But for most American’s that’s the only part of the story we know, the uplifting tale of #42 breaking the color barrier. There’s even the white savior if you want to cast the legendary Branch Rickey in that role, (although the man himself would bristle at that characterization. He hated segregated baseball sure, but he also wanted to win ballgames.)

Historical narratives of racial exceptionality also leave us unprepared to address current conditions. For example, they hide the role of race in the response to the opioid crisis versus the crack epidemic, the Parkland shooting versus the Black Lives Matter movement, gentrification versus Flint, Michigan, the Bundy Standoff versus Standing Rock. We are left without the analysis needed to engage with these deeply complex social dynamics.
Imagine instead, if the story of Jackie Robinson went something like this: “Jackie Robinson was the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” This telling acknowledges the role of white control. It simply wasn’t up to Robinson. Had he walked onto the field before being granted permission by white owners and policy makers, the police would have removed him. Critically, the real Jackie Robinson story is a story of the relationship between blacks and whites in this country, between this individual black man and a white institution. Reframing race in the Jackie Robinson story reveals white structures of power and the strategies used by those who contested that power, strategies that we can build upon today as we work for racial justice.

(emphasis mine)

The Jackie Robinson story, like so many other stories we tell about race is presented whole but is in fact incomplete. Jackie is just the middle of that story. To truly understand the story we have to start at the beginning. We have to talk about Cap Anson.

Anson, whose plaque in Cooperstown is only a stroll away from Robinson’s, isn’t as famous a figure as Jackie. Which might surprise his contemporaries.

Considered the greatest player of the 19th Century, Anson is credited as one of the great modernizers of the game. When he took over a struggling Chicago Cubs team as player/manager in 1879 he practically invented the concept of a “Major League,” by buying away the best players from smaller leagues across the country. When other National league teams followed suit, the concentration of talent cemented the NL as an institution that could sate the public’s need for the best game out there.

Not mentioned on his Hot plaque or profile page is the fact that he almost singlehandedly established the color barrier that Jackie Robinson would have to smash through in 1947.

“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”

Kevin B. Blackistone
December 2, 2015, Washington Post

That’s the part of the story we always miss when we pick up in the middle. Without the story of Anson, Allison and Stovey then Robinson’s story can be reduced to the heartwarming tale of overcoming personal bigotry we all accept rather than the systematic racism embodied by a society that found it easier to accommodate Cap Anson’s racism rather than confront it.


And Jackie isn’t the end of the story either. That ending (if there ever will be an ending,) is still being written. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid recently settled their lawsuit against the National Football League. The settlement is considered a victory for the players, who alleged that the NFL owners had conspired to blackball them from the league after their Kaepernick’s silent protest against police violence against minorities, taking a knee during the National Anthem, became a national controversy. One stoked by none other than the Cheeto Tinted Tyrant himself.

All of us have a part to play, but the ultimate responsibility for addressing racism lies with those who control the institutions — white people. Jackie Robinson could not have broken the color barrier on his own. If I don’t understand racism as a deeply embedded system that I have been shaped by and participate in, my inaction will uphold it. In other words, as long as whiteness remains unnamed it will continue to reproduce racial inequality. To de-center whiteness it must be centered differently — in ways that expose its strategies so that we can challenge them. Because the question of whether I have been shaped by and participate in the forces of racism is not a question of if, but of how.

Professor DiAngelis is very specific as to why her work is addressed to white people. They are OUR institutions. They are OUR systems of privilege. We have to do the hard work of dismantling them, and we can’t do that until we recognize them for what they are and stop focusing on what’s in Mark Meadow’s shriveled black heart. (Seriously, he’s chair of the Freedom Caucus, fuck that guy.)

Monday Muse: The Blues are Still Blue

Well there went my first entirely dark week here. I suppose that was inevitable. I’m dealing with some stuff that needs dealt with. The schedule isn’t meant to be a straightjacket anyhow, just an outline. Hopefully I’ll be back on the horse ASAP. In the meanwhile here’s the kids from Colegio La Huerta de Santa Ana in Sevilla, Spain making the most epic dub video ever of Belle and Sebastian’s “The Blues are Still Blue.”

Friday Fiction: John Varley’s Titan, Wizard, and Demon

One of the great things that happens when a SF/F classic is adapted to the big or small screens is that there is a renewed interest in their works. Sales of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories skyrocketed when Peter Jackson finally brought The Lord of the Rings to cinemas, a book a lot of folks thought couldn’t be filmed. Unfortunately this exposure often comes long after the author is around to enjoy the experience due to our unfortunately mortal condition. But for the first installment in our “Please Not Another Dune Movie,” series we are fortunate to have the writer still with us, proud son of Austin John Varley and his SF trilogy Titan, Wizard, Demon.

Varley could be rightfully considered the hippy version of Robert Heinlein. Both authors shared a canny ability to describe the previously unforeseen, from technology to sexual relations. But while Heinlein, who gave us Starship Troopers as well as Stranger in a Strange Land veered between authoritarian and libertarian themes and some pretty creepy misogyny, Varley has always grounded his fiction in the liberation philosophy he learned at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in 1967.

Spoilers Below… You Have Been Warned

Titan, published in 1977 was the first of the trilogy. The story begins with a scientific expedition to Saturn aboard the ship Ringmaster. Commanded by the delightfully named Cirroco “Rocky” Jones and crewed by astronomer Gaby Plauget, the clone twin physicists April and August Polo, pilot Eugene Springfield, physician Calvin Greene and engineer Bill (just Bill,) the Ringmaster discovers a strange object in orbit around the ringed planet. A Stanford torus habitat. Before they can report their findings to Earth their ship is captured and the crew rendered unconscious and separated. They awaken inside the structure and are confronted with a surreal landscape, an entire alien ecosystem contained within the object.

Rocky and Gaby are reunited fairly quickly and begin exploring in hopes of finding the rest of the crew. When they find Calvin they confirm their suspicion that something or someone has altered the crew members while they were unconscious. Calvin has been gifted with the ability to communicate with the enormous hydrogen filled creatures called Blimps that float through the “sky” inside the habitat. With Calvin and the blimp Whistlestop they find the rest of the crew save for April, who remains missing.

Eventually they discover the dominant species on the planet, the centaur like Titanides, and become embroiled in their war with the Angels, winged humanoids who swoop down from their homes in the “spokes,” that connect the rim to the hub of the structure, pulled taught by the centrifugal force of the structure. From the Titanides they learn that the artificial world they are on has a controlling intelligence named Gaea who dwells in the Hub, 600 kilometers above. Gaby, Gene and Cirroco undertake to make the perilous climb. There’s some serious trigger warning shenanigans on the journey and Gene becomes more and more unstable, sexually assaulting both women.

Eventually Rocky and Gaby reach the summit and encounter Gaea, who appears in the form of a dumpy but charming middle aged woman. Gaea claims to be millennia old and has been observing Earth ever since TV signals reached her habitat. A movie addict, Gaea has created all of the species the crew have encountered. In fact she started the war below in order to prepare herself for the eventual encounter with humans, having watched how warlike we are. What’s more, Gaea’s own regional intelligences, located below each of the spokes, have begun to rebel, it was one of them that captured the Ringmaster. In exchange for ending the wasteful war and freeing the Titanides and Angels from their compulsion, Cirroco agrees to become Gaea’s representative to the Ring, her Wizard.

The next two volumes deal with what it’s like to live inside an eccentric alien and it’s relationship with both Gaea’s inhabitants and Earth itself. There’s love, rebellion, war, freaky centaur sex and a giant Marilyn Monroe. It gets really really weird.

Titan would bring some great characters to the big screen. Rocky and Gaby are smart, resourceful women. Cirroco Jones is a part that just begs for Charlize Theron to sink her teeth in. It’s primarily a quest against the environment, without a true antagonist other than the landscape (although Gene becomes quite villainous in the end.)

There is definitely some Heinlein like odes to the male gaze in Varley’s work. Pretty much everybody is sexy. The Titanides themselves are all strangely hermaphroditic, with very, very complicated breeding practices based on what’s between their front legs, but their top halves are all beautiful naked women. HBO would be salivating at the amount of boobs they could present the audience.

Titan gets this first nod because it’s one of my favorites, and one of the few works from it’s era that really holds up well to modern sensibilities. Varley is pretty woke for and old white dude. Give him a shot if you can.

Thanks to everybody who responded with suggestions last week. I’m adding a lot to my Kindle queue. Any other suggestions drop me a line!