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!

Monday Muse: 9 to 5

The Schmoo, my musical theatre obsessed NB-Teen has been taking lessons at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. One of the numbers that they will be doing a solo in at the end of the session will be from the Broadway adaptation of 9 to 5.  This tickles me pink because I love the original Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlion and Jane Fonda film, the movie that kicked off the 80’s workplace comedy boom, as well as the album of the same title. So I get to share both with them!

Fiction Friday: SF/F Movies We Need More than Another Dune Movie

Musical accompaniment to this post by Tom Smith

It’s too late to stop Blade Runner 2049  director  Denis Villeneuve’s  adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The project already has Dave Bautista, James Brolin, Jason Mamoa and many other big sweaty Hollywood stars attached. Considering the Canadian’s resume it will probably even be really good, I’ll definitely go see it. But to be completely honest, I’m not looking forward to it.

This will be the third screen adaption of Dune, the fifth if you count Arthur P. Jacobs and Alejandro Jodorowski’s aborted attempts in the 1970’s. David Lynch’s 1984 Dune, did a great job capturing the visuals while butchering the sci-fi, while SyFy’s Dune and Children of Dune told the story better but with a lot lower special FX budget. So why Dune again? Why is this particular sci-fi epic getting another bite at the apple ahead of so many other candidates in the canon?

Part of it is of course familiarity and the risk averse nature of big studios. Getting a famous property on the big screen is a lot easier than an obscure one, especially if you want big stars and big budgets and the big profits that hopefully follow. Dune has also developed a cache over the years as the classic sci-fi book most people are familiar with, especially since Frank’s son Brian has continued churning out new books with regularity in the years since his father’s death. The Dune section at your Barnes & Noble is a pretty enticing lure to anyone thinking about the next big movie franchise. And there is definitely a whiff of directorial machismo behind attempts to get Dune right, especially in the eyes of hardcore fans who have lambasted the previous attempts.

I don’t buy it though. We live in an era where an obscure band of Marvel misfits led by Chris Pratt and a talking raccoon of all people are getting at least one more big budget blockbuster. Luc Besson got a French comic book turned into Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I really think we can do better than yet another visit to Arrakis. Off the top of my geek head I could name at least 10 old dead white dude sf/f books that deserve a chance. Heck, there are Frank Herbert books that would be a better choice for a feature film. Let alone the amazing number of women, people of color or sexual minorities whose speculative visions deserve a big screen treatment.

So that’s the new Friday feature. Starting next week we’ll start diving into some overlooked sci-fi and fantasy works out there and make a pitch for them to at least show up in your Netflix queue. If you have any suggestions, drop them in the comments or share them on Facebook. Everyone can play.

Virginia is for WTF?

“Hmmm …” Lou Doench is seeing if this class is more interesting SIDEWAYS.

The above is the most embarrassing picture of me in the St Xavier HS Class of 1987 yearbook. It’s not even really that embarrassing, my wife (who has seen very few pics of me from this era,) thought it was kind of cute. I was just really tired that day.

At least I’m not doing anything racist… as opposed to Virginia Governor Ralph Northham, who was recently discovered to be at least one of the people on the right in this picture from his 1984 medical school yearbook.

Which is more racist? White people don’t get to decide…

Good old Ralph is the 73rd Governor of the Old Dominion, having beaten by nine points veteran GOP flunky Ed Gillespie in one of the most contentious and racially charged campaigns of the last election cycle. The image was uncovered by a right wing website and quickly confirmed as authentic by the mainstream media, evidently provoked by the Governors clumsy response to a reporters question on a bill being debated to change the states late term abortion restrictions. Ralph’s questionable media savvy is going to be a recurring theme here.

In a whiplash series of apologies and retractions, Northam seems to have settled on a claim that he is neither of the people depicted in the yearbook photo. Why a future pediatric neurologist with the nickname “Coonman” would have two other people dressed in blackface and KKK cosplay on his yearbook page is a mystery. In his press conference in support of this strange claim he managed to fit his foot even further into his mouth by admitting that he had worn blackface in college in order to impersonate Micheal Jackson for a dance contest. Oh, and he referred to the first Africans in Virginia as “indentured servants,” for some strange reason.

Pretty much everyone in the Virginia and national Democratic Party have called on Northam to resign, which would be fine except for the fact that the next two people in line have their own scandals.  Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax  has been credibly accused of at least two sexual assaults. And Attorney General Mark Herring got out ahead of his own blackface history by admitting that he and his friends had put on blackface to go to a party as Run DMC.

Jesus Christ on a Pogo Stick Virginia…

I’d like to believe that such shenanigans are a thing of the past or confined to the more “yokel” adjacent parts of the nation. Sadly that would be misguided. Blackface has a long history in the good old USA, and it’s always been an act of white supremacy. From the above 2014 Vox article…

Blackface is much more than just dark makeup used to enhance a costume.
Its American origins can be traced to minstrel shows. In the mid to late nineteenth century, white actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage.
To be clear, these weren’t flattering representations. At all. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.
The blackface caricatures that were staples of Minstrelsy (think: Mammy, Uncle Tom, Buck, and Jezebel) took a firm hold in the American imagination, and carried over into other mediums of entertainment.
Blackface has also been seen in Vaudeville Shows and on Broadway. Yes, black actors sometimes wore blackface, too, because white audiences didn’t want to see them on the stage without it.
We have blackface performances to thank for some of the cartoonish, dehumanizing tropes that still manage to make their way into American culture.
Beyond that, blackface and systematic social and political repression are so inextricably linked that, according to C. Vann Woodward’s history The Strange Career of Jim Crow, the very term “Jim Crow” — usually used as shorthand for rigid anti-black segregation laws in force between the end of Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement — derives from an 1832 blackface minstrel number by Thomas D. Rice.
There’s no way around it: this particular costume choice has a terrible track record.

Yet we white folks still keep sticking our hands into this particular Gom Jabbar. Like we’re convinced that THIS TIME it will be OK. Just last year Megyn Kelley’s attempt to craft a career outside the Fox News Bad Take Factory exploded spectacularly on contact with her defense of blackface Halloween Costumes. A week later a BYU student walked right into that shitstorm with his shoe polish proudly applied, while the lily white campus was “hosting a symposium(in collaboration with historically black Morgan State University) on the 50th anniversary of the report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” And that’s just tip of the Jolson Iceberg when it comes to blackface (and yellow face, and sexy Natives, etc) on our colleges.

I just don’t get it. I feel like I missed class on the day they taught “White Supremacy 101” in school. It would never have occurred to me that it was OK to go all Amos and Andy at ANY POINT of what I feel was an adequately misspent youth. I feel certain that the Jesuits at ST X who taugth me to be a “man for others,” would have kicked my ass up and down North Bend road for pulling that shit.

As it stands today it looks like Twerk-it Ralph is gonna hold on to his job for now. As a Democrat I would prefer he step down, but considering the scandals brewing beneath him and the short attention span of the media in the age of Trump he’ll probably be able to ride this out. Which is too bad. We gained a lot of credibility when Al Franken was pushed into stepping down because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. When we let our own get away with shit like this we feed into the conservative propaganda that anti-racism is just a mask we put on when we want to chastise conservatives, one we gleefully discard when the camera’s turn off, proving that we’re the “real racists.”

We should be better than that.

Monday Muse: Minstrel in the Gallery

If I had to pick one Jethro Tull album for my desert island this would be it. So I thought I’d throw it up there to celebrate almost a month of the new blog. And yes I know it’s late.

Things are actually proceeding pretty much as I planned. After an initial burst of enthusiasm I’ve managed to miss a few dailies, but that’s OK. Getting this thing up and running was always going to be a process, an experiment in getting me writing with more regularity and confidence. I’m not a natural writer, typing is slow and hard for me and unless I’m in one of the unpredictable hyper-focus periods of my ADHD it’s exhausting to concentrate on one task for too long. But I’m gonna keep plugging along.

I really wish I’d been able to see them live in this era…

Throwback Thursday: Let me do my Job

Today’s Throwback is back to the long ago year 2014. And the anecdote it refers to is from 2011! It’s all about how being a Stay at Home Dad was made extra stressful by the insistence on treating caregiving Moms more respect than caregiving Dad’s. Just let me do my job people…

Let me set the stage. Each year the kindergartners through 3rd graders put on elaborate (for little kids) performances. With singing and dancing, the kids get a chance to really show off the “performing” part of their education. It is a scrumptiously cute production every year and only slightly painful to sit through. As the Schmoo’s first year of big kid school approached its end, she grew more and more excited. She practiced her one line over and over. She sang her little songs ad nauseum. She was adorable.
When the fateful date arrived, we ran into one little hitch. The Girl had a work-related obligation (details are hazy as to whether she was busy at the office or on a business trip to India . . . it was 3 years ago), which meant I had to fly solo to the big shindig. No problem, said the utterly confident SAHD. Get the Grommet (still under factory warranty at this point) in the stroller. Bribe the Peanut with fruit snacks to settle down. Make sure the Schmoo is in the right clothes. Arrange to meet the Nana at the school. Get there early. Check, check, check and check! Everything appears to be going according to plan. Thirty minutes to showtime as I and the rest of the family wait in the hallway outside the dance classroom, checking the iPhone to make sure Nana isn’t lost, I hear a familiar crying. It’s not the Grommet (who is asleep) or the Peanut (who is running around in circles). It is definitely the Schmoo. Parent reflexes kicking in, I grab the Peanut, tell her to watch her little brother for a moment, and go to check on my big kid. And at the door I am rebuffed. A volunteer, not even a teacher, informs me that only mothers are allowed in the “dressing room.”
“But I can hear my kid crying. She’s obviously scared, probably just stage fright,” I respond reasonably.
“I’m sorry, but moms only in the dressing room”
“It’s not even a dressing room, it’s the Dance Classroom, I’ve been in there before. . . . C’mon, she just needs a hug. It’ll take a minute.”
“Tell me your child’s name and I’ll send her out.”
At this point I was beginning to become a bit upset. I gave her the Schmoo’s name and waited at the door, craning my neck to see if I could catch the kid’s eye. I heard the crying get worse, not surprising me at all because if there’s anything that I can depend on, it is for the #1 kid to get incredibly anxious if she feels like she has done something wrong. And having a stranger talking to her at that point was the worst thing we could do. Finally, with the other two kids losing patience/gaining consciousness I was able to flag down her actual teacher, who while sympathetic to my plight once again insisted on the Moms Only rule. She was able to coax the upset five-year-old out into the hallway, where a hug and some reassurance from Dad was all she needed to brighten up. Crisis averted just as my mom arrived. We trundled into the auditorium, and the rest of the show went off without a hitch. All’s well that ends well, . . . right?


The other explanation is a bit more troubling. Sex crimes against children are nothing to take lightly. Child molester, child pornographer, these are amongst the worst crimes in our national imagination. We have a National Sex Offender registry at the FBI. And politicians eager to look tough on crime have no problem crafting draconian laws that make those on such a registry’s lives a living hell. I’ll go into this phenomenon in more depth at a later date, but for now I’d like to propose that in the frenzy to protect our kids from lurking predators, we have created a paranoid climate of mistrust. Combined with a zeal for zero tolerance, we put our schools and other child-oriented institutions in the position of being suspicious of all men. In just my own experience I have twice been approached by park staff and questioned as to why I was taking pictures of kids at the playground. My kids! Which I had to prove by showing the concerned park ranger all the pix I had taken of them at other playgrounds. (To be fair, this isn’t just on my iPhone; as a fairly serious enthusiast, I have a camera getup that can look a little intimidating.)

Check it out over at Grounded Parents, every click gets us closer to getting this dog an all expense paid trip to Amsterdam!

Monday Muse: Pancho and Lefty

Sometimes it’s lonely being the only country music listener at the table. During a lull in last nights D&D game we indulged in a philosophical digression whilst the DM scanned the module we were battling, like you do. We were discussing religion, specifically the more toxic forms of Christianity and their doctrine of Hell. And I pointed out that my favorite liberal Christian blogger Fred Clarke had a great blog post about how he doesn’t believe in that kind of hell, and explained it using the classic tune Pancho and Lefty,  the signature song of late but legendary songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

But still there was a stretch of several hours there where, willingly or not, I found myself thinking about the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” and especially about the lyrics of the final verse, the only one I remembered well:
The poets tell how Pancho fell

Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel

The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold

So the story ends we’re told

Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,

But save a few for Lefty too

He just did what he had to do

Now he’s growing old

This verse suggests something of the scandal of grace. The singer is willing to extend that grace to Lefty, to forgive him his greed, cowardice and betrayal. But what gives the singer the right to do this? It was Pancho who was betrayed, after all, so it seems that only Pancho should have the right to forgive that betrayal. By usurping that right, the singer seems to be claiming something like the divine prerogative.
This is, after all, what God is like. God is willing to forgive our enemies for wrongs they have committed against us, to extend mercy where we are unwilling or unable to grant it. That hardly seems fair. Not only that, but God is always going on about how we have to be willing to join in this prodigal grace, to join in the party for our prodigal brothers, to join the Ninevites in celebrating that the capital of Babylon itself can be spared. And if we insist on simple justice and responsibly refuse to join in this wanton confetti-showering of forgiveness, God has the nerve to suggest that we’re cutting ourselves off from that very same grace.
Some people, of course, don’t think that this is an accurate picture of what God is like. They believe that God is not as merciful as Townes Van Zandt. That seems to me to be a theologically precarious proposition, which is, I guess, my point here: If there is a God, then God must be, by definition, bigger and more merciful than Townes Van Zandt.

When I got to the end of the anecdote I was surrounded by quizzical faces looking at me as if I had begun speaking in tongues. They’d never heard one of my favorite songs. We do this a lot, my friends and I. Despite having so many crossover’s in our various cultural tastes, there are acres of territory where we are still strangers in the other’s landscape.

I do think Fred makes a very good point. As an ex-Catholic it’s a take on God that is too generous by far. In Dante’s Inferno betrayal is the worst of sins. The wretched souls condemned to the 9th circle of Hell are trapped in the frozen lake Cocytus, forever bound as far from Gods love as can be. One can certainly see the appeal of a God who welcomes even Lefty into his grace in the end.

Ah well, The song’s been recorded by some of the greats, Emmylou Harris, Willie and Waylon, or Willie and Dylan. I’m partial Steve Earle’s take on the tune, from his album Townes, a tribute to his old friend and mentor. Enjoy…