Chessmen Of Mars

book-chessmenofmarsI’ll admit, I’ve been reading free copies of these novels on my Nook, but I think that Chessmen of Mars is the last of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars (or Barsoom) novels that’s in the public domain and while I’m sure it’s possible to find a free copy anyway, it’s a moral point no to, though that seems shallow, since I took advantage to read the others for free, isn’t it? But let’s not make the perfect be the enemy of the good, now shall we?

Like many of his novels set on the dying planet of Barsoom (known to us, as Mars), Chessmen feels like two long, connected short stories. The daughter of John Carter and Dejah Thoris runs away and her airship crashes among yet another previously unknown subset of Martians, the kaldane and their rykor… well, it’s complicated. The kaldane are oversized human heads that walk on little  spiders and who mount themselves on headless human bodies called rykor, seize hold of the spinal column, and use them as their bodies. Burroughs doesn’t have Lovecraft nor Carter’s feel for imparting the horror felt by a character, but he does a decent job of showing how horrified the princess is (and her lovesick rescuer who is, naturally, also a fierce and chivalrous warrior).

When the two more or less human protagonists escape (along with their new friend, one of the walking heads and his stolen rykor), they wind up in a sort of lost and primitive kingdom where a game similar to chess is played, only with… well, you can guess. Yes, the pieces are actually people, fighting on a giant board.

Will Tara of Heliun and Gahan of Gathol escape? Will they find true love together? Will the villainous king (or jeddak) be replaced by his much nicer and braver vassal? Will there be an addendum explaining the (non-fatal) rules of Martian chess?

Well, um, yeah.

‘Invasion Of The Tearling’ By Erika Johansen

9780062290410Maybe not as good as the first book in the trilogy, but still very good. The world building is nicely realized and it’s both good and important that it’s a book with a female protagonist that was written by a female author. It shouldn’t be, but I hope we can all agree that full gender equality hasn’t been reached yet, so anything that breaks up the boys club is positive.

The other week, I was visiting my new grandniece (yes, I’m old; I can already feel the icy hand of death clutching at my still, but barely beating heart; I can only pray that when the reaper comes for me, he finds wearing nothing but a pair of ruby encrusted spurs and listening to Jefferson Airplane’s classic album, Surrealistic Pillow), and my nephew-in-law showed me one of the books the infant had been given. It was an ABCs of famous American women and ‘U’ was for Ursula K. Le Guin. I explained that she was a famous and great feminist writer, best (though not exclusively) known for writing very thoughtful fantasy and science fiction.

That has nothing to do with The Invasion of the Tearling, but feminism in the genre had been on mind and that’s why.

We are in a fantasy world, with an invasion and a young queen, but the most interesting part are visions/flashbacks to how people from ‘our’ world wound up in this fantasy landscape. There’s a messianic revolutionary named William Tear and a world of corporate control created by a former president – a far right ideologue. It’s tempting to read Donald Trump into him, but he’s actually more of a Reagan-era figure. More Christian right than meandering, narcissistic fascism. The revolutionary movement grew out of the Occupy movement and it does feel real enough, but the Calvinistic, ‘chosen ones’ nature of the people who will escape to the new world (better world, they call it) is disquieting. There’s a single mention that they are not actually moving in place, but in time (to the future? the past?).

Our heroine fends off the evil queen (actually, she gets a three year truce), but quite clearly releases some more horrible evil into the world, so there’s that. I’ll check the library to see if they have the third book available.


‘The Theory Of Moral Sentiments’ By Adam Smith

9780143105923I read this book slowly, over the course of more than a year, which is too bad now, because, as I’m writing about it, I can’t remember as many details as I might like.

I remember a couple of things, like a section that seemed to suggest that, in the (hypothetical) absence of God, it is the state that matters, but that being the only significant talk of capital-G God in a work that generally, though never explicitly, developed an anthropological explanation for morality that required no divine edicts.

I remember thinking that his explanation for the natural sentiments that exist in the majority of people, combined with social norms, allow us to put ourselves in the place of others (it sounds like empathy, and it is, but also more than that) in order to develop socially enforced moral codes.

I also remember thinking that this was just a hop, skip, and a jump to John Rawls’ theory of justice (as described in his… A Theory of Justice).

It’s definitely a philosophical document, but also definitely a product of time and place. When you think of the philosophical writings of Edmund Burke and David Hume, you see this approach that I referred to as anthropological.

And then… he suddenly spent the last thirty of forty pages discussion of the history of language, I got a little confused. At some points, he seemed to be making a point about language, for example the use of and us and Romans to help people put themselves in the place of others and themselves within society. But mostly, I have no idea. It might have been cool near the beginning, but at the end, it was a total distraction and letdown. When a nice summing up would normally be called for, he went off onto a strange tangent. Oh well. Welcome to the world of belles lettres, I guess.

Shin Godzilla

godzilla-resurgence-trailer-ticketsThe latest Godzilla movie from Toho is showing only irregularly here in Washington, DC – one night here, another night there. I saw it Tuesday night at the E Street Cinema (still the best movie theater in DC).

You can’t compare it to the recent, American Godzilla. Though that was a good movie, it was also, primarily, a monster movie. So what you say? How are the Toho movies and all their kaiju movies they inspired not monster movies? Serious? Are you stupid? Are you a Trump voter? Are you that stupid?

Ok, ok. Calm down. I get you.

But the Toho productions have always been, even at their silliest, informed by political concerns in a way that the American movies have not.

Shin Godzilla takes that to a whole new level. Even more than usual, Godzilla himself plays a relatively small role and has limited screen time. What’s more, during much of his screen time, he is sleeping (he sleeps standing up, in case you were curious).

Most of the movie consists of high level meetings of government officials and their aides. And it’s exciting. I kid you not. Even though they’re just meetings, it is amazingly fast paced. There are plenty of moments of humor and of the director and screenwriter rolling their eyes at bureaucracy and some high level bumbling. The Prime Minister and later the acting Prime Minister come in for some gentle mockery, but never does the movie disrespect the ability of political actors to accomplish things.

In fact, the final message of the movie (delivered with little subtlety in the final scenes) is the need for vigorous politicians to chart an independent path for Japan in a part of the world being rapidly dominated by concerns about China and North Korea, as well as US responses to those concerns.

So, go see it.

Emmanuel Ax, Beethoven, Shakespeare

Last week, I cashed in one of my birthday presents – two tickets to see Emmanuel Ax play Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto at the Kennedy Center, followed by a Shakespearean themed program.

This was my second time hearing Ax play and, of course, he’s good; and he really seemed to enjoy playing such a youthful piece. I’m not a music expert and can’t even play the triangle, but it did seem to me that he had some rough moments during the first movement, but then really hit his stride, especially of the middle movement.

When they have stars like this, I wish they wouldn’t put them first, because, after hearing a great pianist play Beethoven, pretty much whatever follows is going to disappoint. I like Berlioz, but if one of his pieces immediately follows Bach’s Passion of Saint Matthew, well… it’s going to be a bit of a letdown, isn’t it?

The three pieces that followed were Erich Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing Suite, Richard Strauss’ Macbeth, and Antonin Dvorak’s Othello Overture. I liked Dvorak the best, but the Korngold was fun. Also, I found out that Korngold wrote the scores to two of my favorite Errol Flynn swashbucklers: Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood!

One of the cool things they did was have two actors who feature a lot locally come out and perform bits from the relevant Shakespeare. I lost the paper that told me who they were, but the man was someone I had seen in many, many plays at the Folger Shakespeare Library (off the top of my head, I’ve seen him in District MerchantsTwevlth NightRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and Mary Stuart. He got a great presence and a delicate comic touch that works even better, because he himself is such a big guy.

The Nickelback Theory Of Downballot GOP Candidates

Imagine you are the opening act for a popular band about to go on tour. Now, their most recent album hasn’t done very well, but they have been around for a while and one bad album won’t be keeping the fans away.

Unfortunately, they are touring at the same time as another popular band. But, you think, we are still going to get plenty of people coming to our shows. Also, even though we are only the opening act, we have our own fans who will come to see us, even if they aren’t very excited about the headliner.

And then it happens.

The headlining act announces that, for this tour, instead of playing their hits, they will play nothing but Nickelback covers.

So, sure, in some locales, where there is not much competition for entertainment dollars, you will still do okay, but basically, you are about to get your clock cleaned.

And you can tell yourself that you still have your fans, but your fans have just found out that you are touring with a Nickelback cover band and they’re going to think that you must a Nickelback fans, as well, and they ain’t coming to see you anymore.

The opening act, of course, is a symbolic of downballot GOP candidates and Trump is the Nickelback cover band.