2015年1月20日 星期二

Happy Year of the Goat!! 新年快樂!!


Chinese New Year is coming!  Happy Year of the Goat!  春節快到了!  羊年快樂!

This will be my last entry for a while.  After this week I'll be on vacation until February 24.  I'll resume writing this blog then.  這是我這個學期的最後一篇文章.  這個禮拜以後開始放寒假.  我寒假後再開始動筆.

Here's wishing you a prosperous Year of the Goat, and a happy 2015!  See you next month!  祝你有一個幸福的羊年和快樂的2015!  下個月見!

2015年1月19日 星期一

"Briefing for a Descent Into Hell" by Doris Lessing (1971)


"Oh, Doctor can you give me a pill to make me sleep.  Oh, I'm working too hard and, oh, I'm worried about my marriage, and, oh, I'm worried about my job, and, oh, I can't stand what I think."

"Briefing for a Descent Into Hell" is the story of Charles Watkins, a Classics Professor who suffers a breakdown and is found wandering around London.  He is placed under the care of two doctors who have very different opinions on how he should be treated, and while in the hospital Charles hallucinates an imagined life as a sailor, a congress of heavenly beings, a sojourn on a mythical island, and a wartime experience that never happened.

And I'll agree that it sounds like a good idea for a book, but it's dreadfully boring.  Even at just over 200 pages, this novel goes nowhere fast.  The "mythical island" section takes up nearly half of the book, and it adds absolutely nothing to the plot.  Other sections are likewise dead-ends, and are almost entirely disassociated from the rest of the book.

Let it be known that I have given Doris Lessing more than a fair chance.  I have read both "The Cleft" and this book, and both books seem to suffer from a similar lack of inertia.  She may have won the Nobel Prize, critics from The Guardian might gush over her book jackets, but I fail to see what's so special about Doris Lessing.  This book waxes intellectual at times - often brilliantly so - but it fails as a novel.  

2015年1月14日 星期三

The One Character We Need to See in the Marvel Cinematic Universe


And no, I'm not talking about Stan Lee.

...or Adam Warlock.

...or even Spider-man (though he is missed).

The character I'm talking about is The Punisher.  You remember him, don't you?  The guy with all the guns and the revenge fixation?  The guy without any super powers?  The guy with the big skull on his chest?

I think it's high time we saw Frank Castle make his appearance in the MCU, and here are some reasons why:

1. Contrast

With all of these super-powered beings flying around, it would be great to see your average, everyday psychopath take up arms and surprise a few of them.  After all, why let the superheroes have all the fun?  Having The Punisher skulk around in their shadows would provide an interesting bit of contrast.

2. The Chance to Get Him Right

So far we've seen two movies that tried to introduce The Punisher.  One, filmed in the 90s with none other than Dolph Lundgren, was less than convincing.  The other, filmed in the 2000s with Thomas Jane, didn't strike the right balance between (black) comedy and breathtaking outbursts of violence.  Yeah, that scene where he fights the big dude in his apartment is awesome, but the rest of the movie didn't live up to expectations.

There was also the sequel to Thomas Jane's Punisher, Punisher: War Zone.  This featured Ray Stevenson (who now plays Volstagg!) as Frank Castle, and although this movie was violent enough (sometimes cartoonishly so), it was also a disappointment.

The Punisher is one of the most easily understood characters in the Marvel Universe.  His family gets killed by bad guys, he goes a little crazy for a while, and he ends up giving the bad guys a taste of their own medicine.  It's a story as old as The Iliad, and there is a very simple, human reason that it has been retold throughout human history.

3. What Goes Around Comes Around

If you are my age, male, and probably Caucasian, you will remember a point in your childhood when The Punisher was unspeakably cool.  Why is that, I wonder?  Part of the answer, I think, lies in the late 80s/early 90s version of "superhero fatigue." 

I will agree that a lot of great comics came out in the late 80s and early 90s, but about 80% of what the major and minor publishers were putting out was crap (however collectible).  By that time many of us were sick of superheroes, and The Punisher was a welcome change of pace.

We might be living in a similar era with regard to superhero movies.  Hence the oft-repeated phrase "superhero fatigue."  Since 2000 we've seen a slew of superhero movies from both Marvel and DC, and in the next few years it's going to get even worse.  Some of us, by the time Avengers 3 rolls around, are probably going to be a bit tired of superheroes.  So why not introduce a superhero who's not a superhero?  Why not introduce The Punisher?

4. Civil War

In case you've failed to notice, the next Captain America film is subtitled "Civil War."  This Civil War will not feature the Confederacy or the Union, but rather two groups of superheroes, divided over the question of the Superhuman Registration Act.  Captain America and Iron Man are key players in this struggle, and so is (alas!) Spider-man.  But the Punisher also had a great bit in the Civil War comic book, and the movie might be a good chance to bring him into the superhero fold.

5. A Suitable Replacement

Elsewhere on this blog I have voiced the desire to see a Marshal Law movie.  In my thinking, such a movie would be the perfect antidote for "superhero fatigue."  I am, however, a realist, and I realize that we will NEVER see a Marshal Law movie that does the character (or the comic book) justice.

This said, The Punisher does offer many of the same opportunities for critiquing the Marvel Cinematic Universe from within.  You could easily show the bad side of superheroes, and the deleterious effect such superheroes would have on a less-than-democratic society.  

Let's say the superheroes trigger a major conflict in another country, let's say two countries engage in some kind of "super powers arms race" against one another, and in the end you have a story very similar to what Pat Mills and Kevin O'Neill did in Marshal Law.  I'm not encouraging plagiarism here, but The Punisher presents such a possibility.  Again, it's probably the closest we'll ever come to a Marshal Law movie.

6. Brand Recognition

Just about everyone is familiar with The Punisher.  He's been in three films, and his comic books have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity.  With The Punisher, Marvel also has the opportunity to play upon people's preconceptions of the character, and could do so in a way that adds a much-needed gravity to a world full of gods and monsters.

So come on, Marvel Studios!  You OWN The Punisher now!  Let's get it done!

2015年1月9日 星期五

"The Jesus Incident" by Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom (1979)


"Hylighters were a nuisance, yes.  They were buoyed by hydrogen and that, coupled with Pandora's frequent electrical storms, made the creatures into lethal firebombs.  In common with the 'lectrokelp, they were useless as food.  Even to touch them produced weird mental effects - hysteria and even, sometimes, convulsions.  Standing orders were to explode them at a distance when they approached the colony."

Frank Herbert co-wrote "The Jesus Incident" in 1979, between writing "The Dosadi Experiment" and "God Emperor of Dune."  His co-author, Bill Ransom, was known as a poet prior to the publication of this novel, and is presently the Dean of Curriculum at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.  "The Jesus Incident" is the sequel to Herbert's novel "Destination: Void," and is the first book of the Pandora series.

In "The Jesus Incident" we find the crew of Ship, a sentient spacecraft, attempting to colonize the planet Pandora after all life on Earth has been extinguished.  The crew, known to each other as "shipmen," consider Ship to be a living god, and their plans for Pandoran settlement often conflict with what they perceive to be Ship's (or God's) plan.  To complicate things still further, the wildlife of Pandora is very hostile towards the shipmen, and the shipmen's plans for Pandora often run counter to the designs of the Avata, a sentient form of plant life which inhabits Pandora's oceans.

If any of this sounds familiar, it is because elements of this story found their way into James Cameron's "Avatar," and a lesser-known film called "Pandorum."  In the case of "Avatar," the borrowing of plot elements borders on plagiarism, and I wouldn't be surprised if members of Herbert's family or Bill Ransom hadn't tried to take legal action against Cameron for stealing their ideas.  In the case of "Pandorum," the theft of ideas is even more blatant, and I assume that that film's obscurity is what protected it from lawsuits.

Given the (often uncredited) influence of this book, you might think that it's worth seeking out.  If so, you would be correct.  "The Jesus Incident" is an excellent book, even if it might seem a bit slow, intellectual, or (gasp) pretentious.  "The Jesus Incident" doesn't just explore the colonization of an alien planet; it also discusses our relationship with God, our idea of divinity, and the role of language in describing the divine.  It's heavy reading for sure, but it's rewarding in the way that truly great science fiction novels always are.

Compared to the rest of Herbert's bibliography (Ransom didn't write that much, and his books are hard to find), I would rank this one near the top.  I think co-writing with Ransom brought a lot of good things out of Herbert, and where he would have normally glossed over certain aspects of the plot Ransom's presence added a finish to the overall book that Herbert rarely accomplished.  "The Jesus Incident" is a fully imagined, involving read, and it's just a shame that more people aren't aware of the long shadow this book has cast.