Sunday, November 29th, 2015

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle opens with a haunting version of Edelweiss:

Here is the iconic tune from The Sound of Music — a love song to a person, a love song to a country, a love song to all that is swept up in the phrase “way of life” — transformed into an anthem of dystopia. Here is a story about the tyrannies of fascism, set to a song that is known — or, at least, that has been known — for being soft and lush and lullaby-like. Here is a song of freedom, transformed into one of despair.

It’s a common misconception that “Edelweiss” is a classic Austrian folk song, selected for The Sound of Music to bring to the show an added dash of cultural authenticity. It is not. It was written for the musical in the late 1950s by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who wanted to create a song for Captain von Trapp that would subtly convey his regret and his sadness and his pre-emptive nostalgia at having to leave Austria after the Nazi takeover. And since the actor playing von Trapp in the Broadway show, Theodore Bikel, was also an accomplished folk guitarist, the pair decided to write his elegy as if it were, indeed, a folk song.

For the lyrics of “Edelweiss,” Rodgers and Hammerstein focused on the German myths about the edelweiss flower, famed not only for its metaphor-friendly ability to withstand harsh Alpine winters but also for its symbolism of love’s triumphs: Suitors would climb the Alps to pick the flowers, giving them as gifts that proved both their prowess and their affection.


Rodgers and Hammerstein created “Edelweiss” with the intention that it would do double duty: It was to be a song of acquiescence — to family, to love, to the small satisfactions of stability — and also of resistance. It was both a symbol and an instrument of the Von Trapps’ fleeing of the Nazis — an embodiment of their belief that the “homeland” was something that could, like a flower that blooms in winter, survive the harshness of fascist rule. The original song, Playbill notes, “represented the indomitable spirit of the Austrians under Nazi control.” In The Man in the High Castle, it represents the American version of the same thing. “Edelweiss,” here, is a lullaby that is soothing precisely because it insists, against all odds, on staying awake.

Star Wars of Ancient Greece

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Aaron McConnell clearly had some fun with his Star Wars of Ancient Greece line:

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Boba Fett

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Chewbacca as Minotaur, Han

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Leia, Kenobi, Shade

Star Wars of Ancient Greece Luke, R2-D2, C-3PO

Cliff Chiang’s Star Wars Propaganda Posters

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Cliff Chiang has produced some Star Wars propaganda posters:

Cliff Chiang Enlist Today

Cliff Chiang Loose Lips

Cliff Chiang Rebuild

Cliff Chiang See The Galaxy

Cliff Chiang Unite

The Pagan Flaw at the Foundation of the West

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Tolkien’s Ring saga sought to undermine and supplant Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring cycle, which had offered so much inspiration for Nazism:

With the reconstruction of the young Tolkien’s prehistory of Middle-earth, we discern a far broader purpose: to recast as tragedy the heroic myths of pre-Christian peoples, in which the tragic flaw is the pagan’s tribal identity. Tolkien saw his generation decimated, and his circle of friends exterminated, by the nationalist compulsions of World War I; he saw the cult of Siegfried replace the cult of Christ during World War II. His life’s work was to attack the pagan flaw at the foundation of the West.

It is too simple to consider Tolkien’s protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin’s bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

S.T. Joshi Returns His Two World Fantasy Awards

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

The World Fantasy Convention has decided to replace the bust of H.P. Lovecraft that constitutes the World Fantasy Award with some other figure, and Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi is aghast:

Evidently this move was meant to placate the shrill whining of a handful of social justice warriors who believe that a “vicious racist” like Lovecraft has no business being honoured by such an award. (Let it pass that analogous accusations could be made about Bram Stoker and John W. Campbell, Jr., who also have awards named after them. These figures do not seem to elicit the outrage of the SJWs.) Accordingly, I have returned my two World Fantasy Awards to the co-chairman of the WFC board, David G. Hartwell. Here is my letter to him:

Mr. David G. Hartwell
Tor Books
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Dear Mr. Hartwell:

I was deeply disappointed with the decision of the World Fantasy Convention to discard the bust of H. P. Lovecraft as the emblem of the World Fantasy Award. The decision seems to me a craven yielding to the worst sort of political correctness and an explicit acceptance of the crude, ignorant, and tendentious slanders against Lovecraft propagated by a small but noisy band of agitators.

I feel I have no alternative but to return my two World Fantasy Awards, as they now strike me as irremediably tainted. Please find them enclosed. You can dispose of them as you see fit.

Please make sure that I am not nominated for any future World Fantasy Award. I will not accept the award if it is bestowed upon me.

I will never attend another World Fantasy Convention as long as I live. And I will do everything in my power to urge a boycott of the World Fantasy Convention among my many friends and colleagues.

S. T. Joshi

And that is all I will have to say on this ridiculous matter. If anyone feels that Lovecraft’s perennially ascending celebrity, reputation, and influence will suffer the slightest diminution as a result of this silly kerfuffle, they are very much mistaken.

Lovecraft on Cats and Dogs

Monday, November 9th, 2015

H.P. Lovecraft was obviously not a dog guy:

I have no active dislike for dogs, any more than I have for monkeys, human beings, negroes, cows, sheep, or pterodactyls; but for the cat I have entertained a particular respect and affection ever since the earliest days of my infancy. In its flawless grace and superior self-sufficiency I have seen a symbol of the perfect beauty and bland impersonality of the universe itself, objectively considered; and in its air of silent mystery there resides for me all the wonder and fascination of the unknown. The dog appeals to cheap and facile emotions; the cat to the deepest founts of imagination and cosmic perception in the human mind. It is no accident that the contemplative Egyptians, together with such later poetic spirits as Poe, Gautier, Baudelaire, and Swinburne, were all sincere worshippers of the supple grimalkin.

Alan Moore on Lovecraft and the 20th Century

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Alan Moore discusses Lovecraft and the 20th Century with John Higgs, author of Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century:

Houellebecq’s Islam, Houellebecq’s West

Friday, November 6th, 2015

Houellebecq’s Submission describes a dystopian near-future France:

When I say “dystopian,” the casual reader may infer — as many people did when the book first appeared, literally at the same moment as the “Charlie Hebdo” massacre — that the dystopia is the Islamicized France, that Houellebecq is trying to do for Islamism or “Eurabia” what Orwell once did for Stalinism. But if you’ve read the keener reviews (or Houellebecq’s previous novels) you probably understand that no, actually, the dystopia is the contemporary West, and the Islamified future that Houellebecq’s story ushers in is portrayed as a kind of civilizational step forward, or if you prefer a necessary regression back to health.

I sort of knew this going in but even so it was remarkable how — well, I think neo-reactionary is really the only term to use to describe what Houellebecq seems to be doing in his portrait of contemporary France and his mischievous prophecy about its potential trajectory. And I do mean neo-reactionary in the internet-movement, Mencius Moldbug sense of the term (if you aren’t familiar with this particular rabbit hole, good luck): The overt political teaching of “Submission” is that Europe is dying from the disease called liberalism, that it can be saved only by a return of hierarchy and patriarchy and patriotism and religion and probably some kind of monarchy as well, but that religion itself is primarily an instrumental good and so the point is to find a faith that actually convinces and inspires and works (and that’s, well, a little manly), and on that front European Christianity and particularly Roman Catholicism is basically a dead letter so the future might as well belong to Islam instead.

Indeed one of the clever touches in the book involves the way the new Islamic Charlemagne of Europe, the Muslim Brotherhood leader turned French president Mohammed Ben Abbes, builds a power base that includes both France’s remaining conservative Christians, for whom his traditional-values pitch has some appeal, and (in a prominent cabinet position) a former Nietzsche scholar who presumably found in Islam a partial answer to some of old Friedrich’s sallies against Christianity’s weak-kneed femininity.

Now as this cleverness suggests, Houellebecq is considerably slyer than your average neoreactionary (or newspaper columnist, for that matter). And everything that happens in “Submission” is filtered through his frankly repellent, self-resembling narrator, so the actual message of the novel is necessarily somewhat more complex than the straightforward, un-Straussian reading I’ve just offered.

At the very least it’s safe to assume that the novelist is satirizing almost everybody, up to and including the neoreactionaries whose message he seems to adopt.

I was not expecting that it the New York Times.

10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Ben Casnocha’s description of Reid Hoffman makes him sound like the Superman-analog of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, the Samaritan, who laments that he has no time to enjoy life, because there’s always some good he could be doing:

Every decision has tradeoffs: when you choose to do one thing it means you choose not do some other thing. When you choose to optimize a choice on one factor, it means necessarily suboptimizing on another factors. Reid faced tradeoffs in his life that were heavier than the ones you or I face. Imagine you could meet anyone, from the President of the United States on down. Do almost anything you can think of — from saving the local opera company from bankruptcy to traveling to the farthest outposts on earth in total luxury. A small number of humans have virtually no constraints on their decision-making, and Reid is one of them. When Reid chose to fly to Las Vegas and speak at this event, the list of things he chose not to do with that time was very, very long.

Astro City Life in the Big City

Often, Reid wrestled with these tradeoffs. Author E.B. White once captured the essence of why. “I wake up in the morning unsure of whether I want to savor the world or save the world,” White said, “This makes it hard to plan the day.”

For some, savor is the easy answer to the task of planning a life. For those with no constraints, the plan is often straightforward: they put their name on a few buildings of their alma matter, buy a pro sports franchise, and call it a day. For the 99% of people with resource constraints, they might bag a 9–5 job, accumulate vacation days as diligently as possible, retire early, and maybe donate to their friend’s Walk Against Cancer. Reid likes to savor, albeit not hedonistically. Savor for him means arriving at intellectual epiphanies; it means spending time with friends.

But what he really wants to do is save. He wants to use his talent and network and money to change the world for the better and solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. He is among the most selfless and externally-generous people I’ve met in my life.

NPR Voice Has Taken Over the Airwaves

Sunday, November 1st, 2015

The New York Times calmly and gently not-quite-mocks the NPR voice that has taken over the airwaves:

That is, in addition to looser language, the speaker generously employs pauses and, particularly at the end of sentences, emphatic inflection. (This is a separate issue from upspeak, the tendency to conclude statements with question marks?) A result is the suggestion of spontaneous speech and unadulterated emotion. The irony is that such presentations are highly rehearsed, with each caesura calculated and every syllable stressed in advance.

In literary circles, the practice of poets reciting verse in singsong registers and unnatural cadences is known, derogatorily, as “poet voice.” I propose calling this phenomenon “NPR voice” (which is distinct from the supple baritones we normally associate with radio voices).

This plague of pregnant pauses and off-kilter pronunciations must have come from someplace. But … where?

A primary cause of NPR voice is the sheer expansion of people broadcasting today. Whereas once only trained professionals were given a television or radio platform, amateurs have now taken over the airwaves and Internet. They may not have the thespian skills necessary to restrain the staginess of their elocution, leading to “indicating,” or overacting to express emotion.


Speaking on (the more traditionally velvet-voiced) Alec Baldwin’s WNYC radio program “Here’s the Thing,” the most influential contemporary speaker of NPR voice, Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” said his own colloquial broadcasting style had anti-authoritarian roots.

“Back when we were kids, authority came from enunciation, precision,” Mr. Glass said. “But a whole generation of people feel like that character is obviously a phony — like the newscaster on ‘The Simpsons’ — with a deep voice and gravitas.”

For his more intimate storytelling, Mr. Glass “went in the other direction,” he said. “Any story hits you harder if the person delivering it doesn’t sound like a news robot but, in fact, sounds like a real person having the reactions a real person would.”

I’ve been joking about the highly affected, neutered NPR voice for years, with its illusion that we’re the thoughtful ones.

You don’t have to hear even a full sentence to know, with complete certainty, whether you’re listening to NPR or conservative talk radio — where the voice is brash, masculine, and assertive. We don’t have our heads in the clouds!

Appendix N Survey Complete

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

In the original Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, Gary Gygax included an Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading, and old-school gamer Jeffor has gone back and read everything in it — and drawn some odd conclusions:

Tolkien’s ascendancy was not inevitable. It’s really a fluke that he even became the template for the modern fantasy epic.

A half dozen authors would have easily been considered on par with Tolkien in the seventies.

On the one hand, Tolkien’s work is peerless; nothing else compares. On the other hand, I am a bit surprised that it took off with a semi-popular audience.

Of course, what really took off was Tolkienesque fantasy:

Our concept of “Tolkienesque” fantasy has little to do with Tolkien’s actual work. Likewise, the “Lovecraftian” stories and games of today have little to do with what Lovecraft actually wrote. Our concepts of swords and sorcery have had the “weird” elements removed from them for the most part. Next to the giants of the thirties, just about everything looks tamed and watered down.

Modern fantasy writers have read a lot of modern fantasy. The early fantasy writers read history and legends.

Times have changed:

Entire genres have been all but eliminated. The majority of the Appendix N list falls under either planetary romance, science fantasy, or weird fiction. Most people’s readings of AD&D and OD&D are done without a familiarity of these genres.

Science fiction and fantasy were much more related up through the seventies. Several Appendix N authors did top notch work in both genres. Some did work that could be classified as neither.

It used to be normal for science fiction and fantasy fans to read books that were published between 1910 and 1977. There was a sense of canon in the seventies that has since been obliterated.

Modern fandom is now divorced from its past in a way that would be completely alien to game designers in the seventies. They had no problem synthesizing elements from classics, grandmasters of the thirties, and new wave authors.

Ideological diversity in science fiction and fantasy was a given in the seventies. We are hopelessly [homogenized] in comparison to them.

The program of political correctness of the past several decades has made even writers like Ray Bradbury and C. L. Moore all but unreadable to an entire generation. The conditioning is so strong, some people have almost physical reactions to the older stories now.

Nerdy protagonists like Harry Potter or Barry Allen from the new Flash TV series are an extremely recent phenomenon. Even a new wave proto-goth like Elric was a ladies’ man.

“Nice guys” like Harry Dresden were pretty well absent from the science fiction and fantasy scene from 1910 to 1977.

The culture wars of the past forty years have largely consisted an effort to reprogram peoples’ tastes for traditional notions of romance and heroism.

Tolkien and Lewis were not outliers. Writers ranging from Poul Anderson to Lord Dunsany and C. L. Moore wrote fantasy from a more or less Christian viewpoint. The shift to a largely post-Christian culture has marked an end of their approach to science fiction and fantasy.

By This Axe I Rule!

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Robert E. Howard’s first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was a rewrite of a Kull story he failed to sell, and James LaFond finds the differences remarkable:

The story was written just as America groaned under the fall of its economy, felled, in Howard’s view, by crooked bankers and politicians, who were given free reign to do evil by the very State that was supposedly there to protect the people.

The Kull character has a steady sidekick named Brule the Spear-Slayer, a Pict who is from a rival tribe of barbarians. Kull is allied against the corrupt forces of civilization with Brule, who has been tricked into leaving the king in his hour of need. Howard’s general literary theme that barbarism [remaining spiritually outside the political construct] is a superior ethical state to civilization, is laid as a foundation in the person of these two characters, who evolve into Conan, and who serve as the basis for Howard’s most intense barbarian character, Bran Mak Morn, discussed later in this book.

In 1929, almost immediately after the stock market crash, Howard’s writing drew inspiration from his perception that his nation’s economy had been brought down by the unseen hands of nefarious bankers and other conspirators. Kull is a fascistic outsider, a regicide, a chieftain of barbarian mercenaries who rips the crown from the head a corrupt king just after slaying him with his own hands. This element was kept in the Conan character. However, three key elements of Kull were — forgive me — culled from the persona template in the formation of Conan:

1. Kull is a committed bachelor and has no time for women, where Conan is an extreme womanizer, making him more salable.

2. Kull suffers from melancholies and depressions, something that is stated as a facet of Conan’s personality in the poetic preamble to the series “Oh Prince,” but not evident in his plot-driven behavior and outgoing personality.

3. While, like Conan, Kull is unable to fathom the logic of civilized ways and is not good with high cunning or political skullduggery, unlike Conan, once king, he does not accept civilized laws.

The plot of By This Axe I Rule! revolves around a band of conspirators isolating and attacking the king in his bed chamber. [...] The subplot, which rises to displace the main plot and take the focus of the story away from a king’s life or death struggle at midnight, and which was ruthlessly scrubbed from the second Conan version of the tale, in order to get a sale, tells us much about the editorial constraints Howard worked under.

This element is a love story, the story of a nobleman and a slave girl who wish to marry, not for the nobleman to buy the girl from her owner, who happens to be one of the conspirators. The young nobleman appeals to the king to sanctify the marriage, which is barred by Valusian law and tradition. The barbarian king, seeing that this man is in love, and having had no experience with love himself, feels pity for him and appeals to the chief counselor of the realm, who brings forth a stone tablet upon which the unbreakable and unchangeable law is written, and denies the king’s request.

Next we are introduced to the suffering slave girl who weeps in her master’s garden:

“In the midst of this pastoral quietude, a little slave girl lay with her face between her soft white arms, and wept as if her little heart would break. The bird sang but she was deaf; the brook caller her but she was dumb; the sun shone but she was blind — all the universe was a black void in which pain and tears were real.”

A kind, giant stranger, seemingly like a tiger, came to the little girl in the garden and spoke with her, seeming interested in her woes. She then discovered that he was the king, and that he was as much a slave as her, both of them hating the laws of civilization:

“After all, little one, the king is only a slave like yourself, locked with heavier chains.”

The girl, understanding now that she had belly ached to the king about his inability to help her and her lover, ran off.

Later that night Kull is attacked, and nearly prevails, in the brutal fight with his assassins, which spares not a drop of gore. Just as the last conspirator is about to finish him off he is slain by the young nobleman, whose girlfriend had overheard her master conspiring against the king when she ran off. As the palace awakes to tend to the kings needs and rich ladies and gentlemen scamper about uselessly, Kull demands that the law keeper bring the sacred law tablet forward. When he announces that he wishes to sanction the marriage of this noble and this slave the courtiers are aghast and refuse to condone it.

During the course of the battle his sword was shattered and he had torn an ancient heavy axe from the wall and smashed and cleaved his foes with that. He was now so armed. The axe symbolized the common man, the barbarian, not the noble symbolized by the sword, the queen of weapons. The axe was also the symbol of justice in ancient Rome, a fact of which Howard was well aware.

Kull, in a psychotic rage, more unhinged than any Howard character ever was, then gave a speech as to the vile nature of laws and tradition, stating that the best man should make the decision — and in so doing must have sounded more like Hitler than any fictional American hero ever has. He then raises the axe and smashes the tablets of the laws to bits, declaring, “By this axe I rule!”


Kull was Howard’s editorially unforgivable character.

The Muppets’ Karaoke Night

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

The Swedish chef and Beaker really make the Muppets’ karaoke night:

New Captain America Beats Up Conservatives

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

With all the nuance of a comic book, the Marvel team has replaced Captain America with a new, black Captain American who beats up conservatives:

The Fox & Friends team plays its established role:

Naturally the io9 team describes this as people getting mad that the new Captain America is acting like Captain America:

Is it political? Of course it is. It’s what Captain America as a character has been like since his creation. Like I mentioned, in his first appearance, he punched a goddamn fascist in the face. From then on, it’s been the same.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest.)

The Museum Gift Shop

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

The most important tool for the diffusion and understanding of art in the modern world, Alain de Botton argues, is the gift shop:

Though it appears to be a mere appendage to most museums, the gift shop is central to the project of art institutions. Its job is to ensure that the lessons of the museum — which concern beauty, meaning and the enlargement of the spirit — can endure in the visitor far beyond the actual tour of the premises and be put into use in daily life.

The means deployed, however, are rarely on target.


That said, gift shops will rarely sell us actual reproductions of works; fake, copy, pastiche, forgery. Many of the most bitter insults of the art world are designed to denigrate anything which is not the actual product of the master’s hand. We’ve uncritically absorbed the idea that copies are worthless, deeply embarrassing kitsch. The nightmares of curators and gallery directors are haunted by copies. Hang a reproduction by mistake and your career is over. But why? Why are copies always supposed to be terrible? Even asking this straightforward question is suspect. Sometimes, of course, a copy truly violates the original. It mucks up all the details, it gets proportions weirdly wrong, the colours become garish. But not always. What if it’s a really good copy? What if the details are faithful? What if the shapes are harmonious and the colours lovely? A well-made reproduction can carry 99% of the meaning of the original. And maybe that’s all that really matters to us.

We’ve come to think that art belongs in art galleries and thereby condemned ourselves to encountering works at times dictated by museum opening hours and holiday schedules.


Art works have therapeutic power. But usually this passes us by. Not because we are insensitive or unworthy. But for a more basic reason. Their messages are hitting us at the wrong time — at moments when we’ve no need of them — like adverts for winter coats on the first day of spring. Copying is one much-needed solution to this problem, because copies allow us to locate these important, beneficial images in the places where we can encounter them in our times of need.

In the absence of copies, gift shops will sell us a lot of signed tea towels. They have discovered that people will buy objects heavily decorated with names of artists and their works: so we have Picasso table mats and Hepworth pencils.