You never see the average novel

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

In “The Simple Art of Murder,” as my annotated The Big Sleep notes, Chandler establishes the genealogy of the form that he chose to work in:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic. Old-fashioned novels which now seem stilted and artificial to the point of burlesque did not appear that way to the people who first read them. Writers like Fielding and Smollett could seem realistic in the modern sense because they dealt largely with uninhibited characters, many of whom were about two jumps ahead of the police, but Jane Austen’s chronicles of highly inhibited people against a background of rural gentility seem real enough psychologically. There is plenty of that kind of social and emotional hypocrisy around today. Add to it a liberal dose of intellectual pretentiousness and you get the tone of the book page in your daily paper and the earnest and fatuous atmosphere breathed by discussion groups in little clubs. These are the people who make bestsellers, which are promotional jobs based on a sort of indirect snob-appeal, carefully escorted by the trained seals of the critical fraternity, and lovingly tended and watered by certain much too powerful pressure groups whose business is selling books, although they would like you to think they are fostering culture. Just get a little behind in your payments and you will find out how idealistic they are.

The detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it. The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions. There is nothing left to discuss, except whether it was well enough written to be good fiction, and the people who make up the half-million sales wouldn’t know that anyway. The detection of quality in writing is difficult enough even for those who make a career of the job, without paying too much attention to the matter of advance sales.

The detective story (perhaps I had better call it that, since the English formula still dominates the trade) has to find its public by a slow process of distillation. That it does do this, and holds on thereafter with such tenacity, is a fact; the reasons for it are a study for more patient minds than mine. Nor is it any part of my thesis to maintain that it is a vital and significant form of art. There are no vital and significant forms of art; there is only art, and precious little of that. The growth of populations has in no way increased the amount; it has merely increased the adeptness with which substitutes can be produced and packaged.

Yet the detective story, even in its most conventional form, is difficult to write well. Good specimens of the art are much rarer than good serious novels. Rather second-rate items outlast most of the high velocity fiction, and a great many that should never have been born simply refuse to die at all. They are as durable as the statues in public parks and just about that dull. This is very annoying to people of what is called discernment. They do not like it that penetrating and important works of fiction of a few years back stand on their special shelf in the library marked “Best-Sellers of Yesteryear,” and nobody goes near them but an occasional shortsighted customer who bends down, peers briefly and hurries away; while old ladies jostle each other at the mystery shelf to grab off some item of the same vintage with a title like The Triple Petunia Murder Case, or Inspector Pinchbottle to the Rescue. They do not like it that “really important books” get dusty on the reprint counter, while Death Wears Yellow Garters is put out in editions of fifty or one hundred thousand copies on the news-stands of the country, and is obviously not there just to say goodbye.

To tell you the truth, I do not like it very much myself. In my less stilted moments I too write detective stories, and all this immortality makes just a little too much competition. Even Einstein couldn’t get very far if three hundred treatises of the higher physics were published every year, and several thousand others in some form or other were hanging around in excellent condition, and being read too. Hemingway says somewhere that the good writer competes only with the dead. The good detective story writer (there must after all be a few) competes not only with all the unburied dead but with all the hosts of the living as well. And on almost equal terms; for it is one of the qualities of this kind of writing that the thing that makes people read it never goes out of style. The hero’s tie may be a little off the mode and the good gray inspector may arrive in a dogcart instead of a streamlined sedan with siren screaming, but what he does when he gets there is the same old futzing around with timetables and bits of charred paper and who trampled the jolly old flowering arbutus under the library window.

I have, however, a less sordid interest in the matter. It seems to me that production of detective stories on so large a scale, and by writers whose immediate reward is small and whose need of critical praise is almost nil, would not be possible at all if the job took any talent. In that sense the raised eyebrow of the critic and the shoddy merchandizing of the publisher are perfectly logical. The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average — or only slightly above average — detective story does. Not only is it published but it is sold in small quantities to rental libraries, and it is read. There are even a few optimists who buy it at the full retail price of two dollars, because it looks so fresh and new, and there is a picture of a corpse on the cover. And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is not terribly different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a little grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious; but it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel. It is about entirely different things. But the good detective story and the bad detective story are about exactly the same things, and they are about them in very much the same way. There are reasons for this too, and reasons for the reasons; there always are.

You can read the whole thing.

Elegant and concise language used to describe an ugly and possibly irredeemable world

Thursday, April 29th, 2021

I recently mentioned that Neovictorian’s Sanity nudged me to read (and then comment on) The Maltese Falcon and then The Big Sleep. The introduction to my annotated copy of The Big Sleep is full of interesting tidbits, like this 1950 reflection from Chandler:

“I arrived in California with a beautiful wardrobe, a public school accent, no practical gifts for earning a living, and a contempt for the natives that, I am sorry to say, persists to this day.”

The introduction describes Black Mask magazine as one of the best regarded (of the lowly regarded) pulp fiction outlets. I’d heard of it, but I didn’t realize its origin:

It was founded in 1920 by drama critic and editor George Nathan and journalist, culture maven, and scholar H. L. Mencken as a way to fund their tonier magazine, The Smart Set.

Mencken’s Wikipedia entry doesn’t even mention Black Mask.

Detective fiction was a definite genre by this point, with its own rules:

One of these authors, S. S. Van Dine (the pseudonym of American art critic Willard Huntington Wright), even published the rules for this type of literary game in his 1928 essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” (Rule number one: “The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.” Just try this with The Big Sleep!)

These rules evolved as the new hard-boiled style emerged:

Carroll John Daly broke in the hard-boiled style with his story “The False Burton Combs” in 1922; his success was enormous, and he was emulated by Black Mask writers throughout the decade.

[...]

In the eloquent words of novelist Walter Mosley, the hard-boiled style is “elegant and concise language used to describe an ugly and possibly irredeemable world,” a style that captivates us “the way a bright and shiny stainless-steel garbage can houses maggots and rats.”

[...]

For Chandler, as for Hammett, Hemingway was “the greatest living American novelist.”

[...]

Hemingway’s 1926 The Sun Also Rises became the hard-boiled touchstone, with its interior monologue, stark prose, and colloquial turns of phrase.

Hemingway’s novel didn’t move me when I was forced to read it in high school. I may have to give it another go.

How does Thibault cancel out Capoferro?

Wednesday, April 21st, 2021

The Princess Bride features some of the earliest — maybe onlyreferences to historical fencing masters in film:

Inigo: “You are using Bonetti’s defence against me, huh?”

MIB: “I thought it fitting considering the rocky terrain.”

Inigo: “Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capoferro!”

MIB: “Naturally. But I find that Thibault cancels out Capoferro.”

Inigo: “Unless your enemy has studied his Agrippa!” [does great big somersault] “Which I have!”

Thus inspiring a legion of potential historical fencers to look up Bonetti, Capoferro, Thibault and Agrippa. Huzzah!

However, the actual choreography turns out on further study to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the fencing methods of the historical masters in question. This should come as no surprise, given that the goals of stage and screen combat are that no-one should die, and everyone should see what is happening: and the goals of real combat are to kill the enemy, which is best accomplished if no-one can see what’s going on. There are skills common to both, of course, such as control of measure and weapons handling, but the core intent could not be more different.

The Princess Bride was a book for 14 years before it was a film:

So, from the 1998 edition (pp 130-135) here are the actual references:

They touched swords, and the man in black immediately began the Agrippa defence, which Inigo felt was sound, considering the rocky terrain, for the Agrippa kept the feet stationary at first, and made the chances of slipping minimal. Naturally, he countered with Capo Ferro, which surprised the man in black, but he defended well, quickly shifting out of Agrippa and taking the attack himself, using the principles of Thibault.

Inigo had to smile. No one had taken the attack against him in so long, and it was thrilling! He let the man in black advance, let him build up courage, retreating gracefully between some trees, letting his Bonetti defence keep him safe from harm.

Quite different, I’m sure you’ll agree. But this was 40 years ago, long before the resurgence of historical swordsmanship in the 90s: where was Goldman getting his information? The next reference is also interesting:

“Inigo…was not entirely familiar with the style of the attack; it was mostly McBone, but there were snatches of Capo Ferro thrown in…”

I assume McBone is McBane (though why the change when the other masters are spelled normally: a little joke, perhaps?); has Goldman read Aylward’s The English Master of Arms?

That’s Guy Windsor, author of The Duellist’s Companion: A training manual for 17th century Italian rapier, who produced a short video on the topic:

The real insidiousness of it is its unmistakably hypnotic structure and pacing

Saturday, April 17th, 2021

An anonymous commenter on 4chan noticed that John Oliver’s show has a disturbing structure:

The subject of John Oliver came up when a colleague (fellow psychologist) and I were discussing politics a few months ago. Although we were both in agreement regarding the general shitlib inanity of the HBO show, my friend was surprised when I explained that the real insidiousness of it is its unmistakably hypnotic structure and pacing.

I ended up pulling up an episode or two off of YouTube to show her what I meant. All of the segments I’ve ever seen from this show follow the same repetitive format: present some “argumentation” and “facts” for about 10 seconds, then quickly follow these up with a snarky quip (which themselves overwhelmingly take the form of complete non-sequitur or otherwise absurd metaphor) before any rational processing of the preceding argument can take place in the mind of the viewer. Further telling is that the only “beats” or mental pauses in the show’s pacing exist solely to highlight the approving laughter or applause of the studio audience. Repeat this basic formula without variation 20–40 times in a row and you have one of the 12–20 minute “segments” that form the backbone of the show.

The end effect is (obviously) not to deliver information, but rather to literally teach the viewers on a subconscious level to mentally associate derisive laughter with any person or opinion that is at odds with the narrative’s take on the chosen issue. And it accomplishes this by maintaining a strict adherence to a roughly 20-second cycle in which a stimulus is presented, and a response is cued. This is the sense in which the show is fundamentally hypnotic in effect even moreso than its precursors in the genre (Daily Show, Colbert, etc).

To my mind, Oliver’s show is representative of the media’s increasing mastery of the methodologies of mass conditioning; in fact it is almost such a perfect technical accomplishment that I would almost have to admire it on technical grounds, which moreover is in the hands of the entirely wrong people.

Although ice might seem simple, it is complicated stuff

Sunday, April 11th, 2021

Regular six-sided crystals of ice are actually just one of ice’s many forms, or polymorphs, the form known as ice 1. Now ice 19 has been discovered:

Although ice might seem simple, it is complicated stuff. For instance, only the oxygen atoms in the water molecules of six-sided ice crystals form a hexagonal shape, while their hydrogen atoms are randomly oriented around them. This makes ice I a “disordered” or “frustrated” ice in the terminology of ices. One of the properties of such disordered ices is that they can deform under pressure: “This is the reason why glaciers flow,” Loerting said.

In contrast, the hydrogen atoms in several of the other polymorphs of ice also have their own crystal patterns, and they are called “hydrogen-ordered” or “H-ordered” as a result. Unlike disordered ices, H-ordered ices are very brittle and will shatter, rather than deform, he said.

In those terms, the newly identified 19th form of ice is an H-ordered ice; in fact, it’s an H-ordered form of a disordered ice, called ice VI, which has a random pattern of hydrogen atoms. And ice VI also has yet another H-ordered polymorph, ice XV, in which the hydrogen atoms are aligned in an entirely different pattern.

“Ice VI, ice XV and ice XIX are all very similar in terms of density [because] they share the same kind of network of oxygen atoms,” Loerting said. “But they differ in terms of the positions of hydrogen atoms.” It’s the first time that such a relationship between ice polymorphs has been discovered, and it could allow experiments to study transitions between one form and another, he said.

Naturally this reminded me of ice-nine, from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle:

Ice-nine is an alternative structure of water that is solid at room temperature and acts as a seed crystal upon contact with ordinary liquid water, causing that liquid water to instantly transform into more ice-nine.

A number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

After questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity a couple years ago, I decided to read (and then comment on) The Maltese Falcon, as he had called out Dashiell Hammett as one of his favorite authors in his afterward.

That story is better known for the Bogart film, which brings up the biggest difference between the book and the movie: the character of Sam Spade looks absolutely nothing like Bogart.

I bring this up, because I just read The Big Sleep, which is also better known for its Bogart film, where, again, the actor looks nothing like the book’s protagonist — in this case, Philip Marlowe — who is tall, solidly built, and notably good looking.

Like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep features a number of “pansies” and a lot of alcohol.

I’ll have more to say later, in part because I got an annotated edition full of interesting tidbits.

Don’t do anything

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

The MacGuffin in Glory Road is the Egg of the Phoenix, a cybernetic record of the experiences of two hundred and three “emperors” and “empresses,” most of whom “ruled” all the known universes — and serves as an excuse for Heinlein to share his thoughts on politics:

For the one thing that stood out as this empirical way of running an empire grew up was that the answer to most problems was: Don’t do anything. Always King Log, never King Stork — “Live and let live.” “Let well enough alone.” “Time is the best physician.” “Let sleeping dogs lie.” “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” Even positive edicts of the Imperium were usually negative in form: Thou Shalt Not Blow Up Thy Neighbors’ Planet. (Blow up your own if you wish.) Hands off the guardians of the Gates. Don’t demand justice, you too will be judged.

Above all, don’t put serious problems to a popular vote.

Our hero meets a comparative culturologist from one of the many other inhabited planets:

But tell me: How were things when you left? Especially, how is the United States getting along with its Noble Experiment?”

“ ‘Noble Experiment’?” I had to think; Prohibition was gone before I was born. “Oh, that was repealed.”

“Really? I must go back for a field trip. What have you now? A king? I could see that your country was headed that way but I did not expect it so soon.”

“Oh, no,” I said. “I was talking about Prohibition.”

“Oh, that. Symptomatic but not basic. I was speaking of the amusing notion of chatter rule. ‘Democracy.’ A curious delusion — as if adding zeros could produce a sum. But it was tried in your tribal land on a mammoth scale. Before you were born, no doubt. I thought you meant that even the corpse had been swept away.” He smiled. “Then they still have elections and all that?”

One of our hero’s companions later adds:

“Except that he sees only the surface. Democracy can’t work. Mathematicians, peasants, and animals, that’s all there is — so democracy, a theory based on the assumption that mathematicians and peasants are equal, can never work. Wisdom is not additive; its maximum is that of the wisest man in a given group.

“But a democratic form of government is okay, as long as it doesn’t work. Any social organization does well enough if it isn’t rigid. The framework doesn’t matter as long as there is enough looseness to permit that one man in a multitude to display his genius. Most so-called social scientists seem to think that organization is everything. It is almost nothing — except when it is a straitjacket. It is the incidence of heroes that counts, not the pattern of zeros.”

He added, “Your country has a system free enough to let its heroes work at their trade. It should last a long time — unless its looseness is destroyed from inside.”

[...]

“I could never be a democrat at heart. To claim to ‘respect’ and even to ‘love’ the great mass with their yaps at one end and smelly feet at the other requires the fatuous, uncritical, saccharine, blind, sentimental slobbishness found in some nursery supervisors, most spaniel dogs, and all missionaries. It isn’t a political system, it’s a disease. But be of good cheer; your American politicians are immune to this disease…and your customs allow the non-zero elbow room.

One should never be killed by a stranger

Thursday, March 4th, 2021

In Glory Road, our hero faces another skilled swordsman — “an ugly cocky little man with a merry grin and the biggest nose west of Durante” — who does something he had heard of, never seen:

He retreated very fast, flipped his blade and changed hands.

A right-handed fencer hates to take on a southpaw; it throws everything out of balance, whereas a southpaw is used to the foibles of the right-handed majority — and this son of a witch was just as strong, just as skilled, with his left hand.

Goldman improved on the idea.

When the big-nosed fencer gets run through, he grasps the blade:

“No, no, my friend, please leave it there. It corks the wine, for a time. Your logic is sharp and touches my heart. Your name, sir?”

“Oscar of Gordon.”

“A good name. One should never be killed by a stranger. Tell me, Oscar of Gordon, have you seen Carcassonne?”

“No.”

“See it. Love a lass, kill a man, write a book, fly to the Moon — I have done all these.”

A sword never jams

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

In Glory Road Robert Heinlein makes the case for his hero to carry a sword:

A properly balanced sword is the most versatile weapon for close quarters ever devised. Pistols and guns are all offense, no defense; close on him fast and a man with a gun can’t shoot, he has to stop you before you reach him. Close on a man carrying a blade and you’ll be spitted like a roast pigeon — unless you have a blade and can use it better than he can.

A sword never jams, never has to be reloaded, is always ready. Its worst shortcoming is that it takes great skill and patient, loving practice to gain that skill; it can’t be taught to raw recruits in weeks, nor even months.

Heinlein also reiterates S.L.A. Marshall’s famous point from Men Against Fire:

Do you know how many men in a platoon actually shoot in combat? Maybe six. More likely three. The rest freeze up.

Marshall infamously fabricated much of his research — but other sources do corroborate this.

Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger

Friday, February 26th, 2021

Ernest Shackleton famously ran this ad in the newspaper to recruit men for his Endurance expedition:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

Only no one has ever found a copy of Shackleton’s ad, which was “reprinted” in The 100 Greatest Advertisements: 1852-1958 in 1949.

That apocryphal ad might have inspired Robert Heinlein to include this ad in Glory Road:

ARE YOU A COWARD? This is not for you. We badly need a brave man. He must be 23 to 25 years old, in perfect health, at least six feet tall, weigh about 190 pounds, fluent English with some French, proficient with all weapons, some knowledge of engineering and mathematics essential, willing to travel, no family or emotional ties, indomitably courageous and handsome of face and figure. Permanent employment, very high pay, glorious adventure, great danger. You must apply in person, 17, rue Dante, Nice, 2me étage, appt. D.

That’s a real address, by the way:

Instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road is chock-full of Heinlein-isms— plus dueling scars and methane-burning dragons — but one passage stands out for stating his theme outright:

I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur — I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles.

I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be—instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is.

The Roc is the giant bird from Arabian Nights. Odalisque is a word I don’t see often; it means concubine. The only reference to a Nancy Lee that I could find was to a comic song, The Wreck of the Nancy Lee:

I’ll tell you the tale of the Nancy Lee,
The ship that got shipwrecked at sea
The bravest man was Captain Brown,
‘Cause he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Chorus:
All the crew was in despair,
Some rushed here and some rushed there,
But the Captain sat in the Captain’s chair,
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

The Captain said to Seaman Jones:
“You’d best put on your working clothes
While you stand and spray your hose
I can play me ukulele as the ship goes down.”

The owners signalled to the crew, saying:
“Do the best that you can do.
We’re only insured for half-a-crown,
We’ll be out of pocket if the ship goes down.”

The Captain’s wife was on board ship,
And he was very glad of it
But she could swim and she might not drown
So we tied her to the anchor as the ship went down.

The crow’s nest fell and killed the crow,
The starboard watch was two hours slow
But the Captain sang fal-oh-de-oh-doh
And he played his ukulele as the ship went down.

Barsoom is, of course, the fanciful Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories. Poictesme and its capital Storisende serve as the setting for James Branch Cabell‘s Biography of the Life of Manuel.

The Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin come from Huck Finn.

Prester John is the legendary Nestorian patriarch and king who was said to rule over a Christian nation lost amid the pagans and Muslims in the Orient.

Ulysses needs no introduction, but Tros of Samothrace was new to me:

The novel concerns the courageous adventures of the title character (a Greek from Samothrace) as he helps pre-Roman Britons fight the invading forces of Julius Caesar. Over the course of the novel, Tros travels from Britain to Spain, and finally the city of Rome itself.

The author, Talbot Mundy, dedicated Tros of Samothrace to his friend Rose Wilder Lane, who had funded its book publication, and Fritz Leiber was a fan.

Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

When I read a friend’s copy of Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road back in high school, only a couple things stuck with me: (1) dueling scars, and (2) methane-burning dragons. When I recently re-read it, it was chock-full of Heinlein-isms. Here’s what jumped out at me in the first few dozen pages:

It was an election year with the customary theme of anything you can do I can do better, to a background of beeping sputniks. I was twenty-one but couldn’t figure out which party to vote against.

I object to conscription the way a lobster objects to boiling water: it may be his finest hour but it’s not his choice.

Nevertheless I love my country. Yes, I do, despite propaganda all through school about how patriotism is obsolete. One of my great-grandfathers died at Gettysburg and my father made that long walk back from Inchon Reservoir, so I didn’t buy this new idea. I argued against it in class—until it got me a “D” in Social Studies, then I shut up and passed the course.

After you’ve spent years and years trying to knock the patriotism out of a boy, don’t expect him to cheer when he gets a notice reading: Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States—

Sure, they had Hitler and the Depression ahead of them. But they didn’t know that. We had Khrushchev and the H-bomb and we certainly did know. But we were not a “Lost Generation.” We were worse; we were the “Safe Generation.”

Oh, we talked beatnik jive and dug cool sounds in stereo and disagreed with Playboy’s poll of jazz musicians just as earnestly as if it mattered. We read Salinger and Kerouac and used language that shocked our parents and dressed (sometimes) in beatnik fashion. But we didn’t think that bongo drums and a beard compared with money in the bank. We weren’t rebels. We were as conformist as army worms. “Security” was our unspoken watchword.

Short of a pregnant wife with well-to-do parents the greatest security lay in being 4-F. Punctured eardrums were good but an allergy was best. One of my neighbors had a terrible asthma that lasted till his twenty-sixth birthday. No fake—he was allergic to draft boards.

More than half of my generation were “unfit for military service.”

I was no better off financially as my uncle-in-law was supporting a first wife—under California law much like being an Alabama field hand before the Civil War.

Ever been in Southeast Asia? It makes Florida look like a desert. Wherever you step it squishes. Instead of tractors they use water buffaloes. The bushes are filled with insects and natives who shoot at you. It wasn’t a war—not even a “Police Action.” We were “Military Advisers.” But a Military Adviser who has been dead four days in that heat smells the same way a corpse does in a real war.

I was promoted to corporal. I was promoted seven times. To corporal.

Military policy is like cancer: Nobody knows where it comes from but it can’t be ignored.

In Asia every cab driver speaks enough English to take you to the Red Light district and to shops where you buy “bargains.” But he is never able to find your dock or boat landing.

Do you know how much tax a bachelor pays on $140,000 in the Land of the Brave and the Home of the Fee? $103,000, that’s what he pays.

I wouldn’t be “cheating” Uncle Sugar; the USA had no more moral claim on that money (if I won) than I had on the Holy Roman Empire. What had Uncle Sugar done for me? He had clobbered my father’s life with two wars, one of which we weren’t allowed to win—and thereby made it tough for me to get through college quite aside from what a father may be worth in spiritual intangibles to his son (I didn’t know, I never would know!)—then he had grabbed me out of college and had sent me to fight another unWar and damned near killed me and lost me my sweet girlish laughter.

About then I made a horrible discovery. I didn’t want to go back to school, win, lose, or draw. I no longer gave a damn about three-car garages and swimming pools, nor any other status symbol or “security.” There was no security in this world and only damn fools and mice thought there could be.

Somewhere back in the jungle I had shucked off all ambition of that sort. I had been shot at too many times and had lost interest in supermarkets and exurban subdivisions and tonight is the PTA supper don’t forget dear you promised.

The head is mostly teeth

Saturday, February 20th, 2021

I recently mentioned that Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road introduced me to Germany’s tradition of fencing in order to earn a dueling scar. The other tidbit that stuck with me from this book was his science-fiction version of that fantasy staple, the dragon:

Of course these aren’t dragons. No, they are uglier. They are saurians, more like Tyrannosaurus rex than anything else — big hindquarters and heavy hind legs, heavy tail, and smaller front legs that they use either in walking or to grasp their prey. The head is mostly teeth. They are omnivores whereas I understand that T. rex ate only meat. This is no help; the dragons eat meat when they can get it, they prefer it. Furthermore, these not-so-fake dragons have evolved that charming trick of burning their own sewer gas. But no evolutionary quirk can be considered odd if you use the way octopi make love as a comparison.

[...]

“They don’t exactly breathe fire. That would kill them. They hold their breaths while flaming. It’s swamp gas — methane — from the digestive tract. It’s a controlled belch, with a hypergolic effect from an enzyme secreted between the first and second rows of teeth. The gas bursts into flame on the way out.”

[...]

There are only four places to put an arrow into a Nevian dragon; the rest is armored like a rhino only heavier. Those four are his mouth (when open), his eyes (a difficult shot; they are little and piggish), and that spot right under his tail where almost any animal is vulnerable.

[...]

The dragon was weaving its head back and forth and I was trying to weave the other way, so as not to be lined up if it turned on the flame — when suddenly I got my first blast of methane, whiffing it before it lighted, and retreated so fast that I backed into that baby I had stepped on before, went clear over it, landed on my shoulders and rolled, and that saved me.

I doubt I caught this the first time I read the book, but this time I immediately noted that methane is a colorless, odorless gas:

The familiar smell of natural gas as used in homes is achieved by the addition of an odorant, usually blends containing tert-butylthiol, as a safety measure.

I suspect someone caught this detail in one of his early drafts, because Heinlein addresses it:

The reason that I backed away in time was halitosis. It says here that “pure methane is a colorless, odorless gas.” This G.I.-tract methane wasn’t pure; it was so loaded with homemade ketones and aldehydes that it made an unlimed outhouse smell like Shalimar.

[...]

A proper dragon, with castles and captive princesses, has as much fire as it needs, like six-shooters in TV oaters. But these creatures fermented their own methane and couldn’t have too big a reserve tank nor under too high pressure — I hoped. If we could nag one into using all its ammo fast, there was bound to be a lag before it recharged.

I had heard the western genre referred to as horse opera before, but oater was new to me.

It has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens

Monday, February 8th, 2021

Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise is about to be updated to feel more inclusive and less racially insensitive:

The Jungle Cruise, with its ties to the park’s patriarch, is likely to be viewed with a more protective lens by the company’s vast fanbase. Yet the ride has also been one under near-constant evolution since its inception. Its early influences were Disney’s own nature documentaries and the 1951 film “The African Queen,” a favorite of early Disneyland designer Harper Goff.

Its initial conception as “The Jungle Rivers of the World” leaned slightly more educational than today’s more humor-driven take. The ride’s unsavory tribal depictions, largely inspired by images from Papua New Guinea, were added in the years after its opening. These vignettes essentially depict Indigenous people as tourist attraction, attackers or cannibals.

“Horrifyingly racist” is how one of Disney’s peers in the theme park design community, the Thinkwell Group, characterized various Jungle Cruise scenes in an essay published shortly after Disney announced the changes to Splash Mountain.

A spear-waving war party was added to the Jungle Cruise in 1957, as was the “Trader Sam” character, a dark-skinned man today outfitted in straw tribal wear. Disney tiki bars — one on each coast — are named for the character that traffics in stereotypes. He’ll trade you “two of his heads for one of yours.”

[...]

As silly and overly pun-filled as the Jungle Cruise may be, it has long been criticized as viewing adventure through an imperialist lens. Non-Americans are depicted as either subservient or savages. Although the ride is meant to be a collage of Asia, Africa and South America, human figures of the regions are presented as exotic, violent and dimwitted, humor that in the 1950s and 1960s was troublesome and today reeks of racism.

It is “horrifyingly racist” to depict the natives living in the jungle as savages. Or as hostile to the imperialist colonizers.

Cyberpunk came true

Thursday, February 4th, 2021

Cyberpunk no longer feels like “the future”, Noahpinion suggests, because the cyberpunk writers of the 80s were just too good at predicting the future:

Much of the stuff they imagined is now just the stuff you see in the news.

In 2021, the Russian government hacked much of the U.S. government and many U.S. companies. Remotely piloted drones are defeating human forces on the battlefield. A whistleblower who exposed government electronic surveillance programs communicates from his foreign exile by telepresence robot. Artificial intelligences beat the best humans at the most complex board games and trade in financial markets. Information warfare and espionage are just standard tools of politics now. Animated singers are sex symbols. Militaries train in virtual reality. Online currencies are worth hundreds of billions of dollars and are used in shadowy underground economies and cybercrime. Computer interfaces are being implanted into pigs’ brains. A blind man can now see thanks to synthetic corneas.

All of these elements are recognizable as staples of 1980s and 1990s cyberpunk science fiction, or close relatives thereof. The cyberpunks anticipated the future of technology to an almost eerie degree.