Saturday, October 31, 2015

Assorted Wildlife Enjoying Halloween

In honour of the spookiest holiday season of the year, and the fact that I'm spending tonight in a national park, here are some highlights from various wildlife sanctuaries' Halloween parties!

A lemur at Yorkshire Wildlife Park:

A Seahawk An owl at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Tacoma, WA:

A tiger at McCarthy's Wildlife Sanctuary in West Palm Beach, FL:
(Image courtesy of TripAdvisor)

A meerkat in Cotswolds Wildlife Park:

Happy Halloween!

My faithful readers know I'm not above posting animal pictures on holidays... or animal videos just because.

For archival purposes, here's an index of National Geographic links from Halloween 2008.

Friday, October 30, 2015 and the Pure Theory of Fiction-Writing Advice

In addition to reading and writing fiction, I have an interest in the theory of how fiction should be written. This takes a number of forms, whether in university-grade creative writing classes or more informally. Much of it consists of authors, online, telling more junior authors how to write. Some of these websites deliver great discussion pieces. Others are sales pitches for materials that, to be polite, let's just say I'd never buy.

This post is about the former.

I'm about to start writing a highly character-driven novel (no, not for NaNoWriMo). Everything will support the characters. The battles are internal, the settings are vehicles for their illustrious exploits... you can see where I'm going with this. I love online writers' tools, an old favourite being the Scriptorium's selection, so I decided to find a good plot tool to get my brain working.

I found this one, courtesy of Glen Strathy of the aptly named Its eight steps are far from exhaustive but certainly worth discussing:

1. Story Goal (what the protagonist is trying to achieve)
2. Consequence (what will happen if the protagonist doesn't achieve his/her goal)
3. Requirements (what the protagonist must do in order to achieve the goal)
4. Forewarnings (signs that presage the consequence); not merely foreshadowing...
5. Costs (things the protagonist sacrifices or endures in order to meet the goal)
6. Dividends (additional benefits the protagonist attains in pursuing the goal)
7. Prerequisites (events that must happen for the requirements to happen)
8. Preconditions (other characters' demands the protagonist has to meet in order to achieve the goal)

As you can see, this plot model is extremely protagonist-centric and goal-oriented. Whether a novel should be so focused on one character is up to the author to judge. For certain novels, like bildungsromans, the above model fits perfectly. For others, like ones that explore their full slate of characters to a greater degree, it doesn't work so well. The book I'll be writing soon has two protagonists, which made the eight steps fun. They can even bring about each other's preconditions, for example. The eight-step plot model is best for character-driven works that have a clearly defined protagonist; for setting-driven works, it'd border on useless.

While on characters, where I part company from most authors is in my desire for characters who act out of character. This makes them harder to plug into the eight-step model because they can so easily change. Yes, I'm a cold-blooded realist. We're like snakes.

This passage from Strathy gets at the point:

The key to creating believable characters is not to make them ordinary, but to make them consistent. Readers want to believe in your story. They like to imagine it could be true, even if it seems unusual. And one sign of a true story is that it doesn't contradict itself. So, even if you create characters who are unlike any human being who ever existed, the reader will accept them, if they behave in a manner consistent with the traits you have given them and the background you have invented.

Real people don't act that way. Discovering hidden sides of characters, even ones that are shocking at first. is part of what makes us human. To emphasize the context of the above passage, I'm all in favour of having characters who don't, say, start the book as mild-manned insurance salesmen and then suddenly turn into Megazord. Character consistency is a crucial part of mainstream dogma, though, so it's worth the comment. Sure, a person usually acts in certain ways, but how often is usually? A greedy character may shift investment projects while pursuing money, and every so often fail to pounce.

Back to plot, I like the way Strathy discusses endings. His four types of plot, defined by their endings, are a little on the simple side, but are good for discussion:

Comedy (achievement of goal)
Tragedy (failure to achieve goal)
Tragi-comedy (failure to achieve goal but it works out for the best)
Comi-tragedy (achievement of goal but it works out for the worst)

These fit into the eight-step model nicely, but again, may be of limited usefulness in a drastically different setting.

All told, I worry authors may merely be counselling each other on how to create the best clones, but Strathy's plot exercises are pretty fun.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Incredible Bleacher Report NFL/NBA Jersey Mashups and the Few They Missed

Recently (it's not date-stamped), Bleacher Report took it upon itself to release this spectacular photo gallery of NFL players wearing Photoshopped versions of what NBA teams would look like in NFL uniforms. There are 22 in total, each matching teams by city. (For example, there's a picture of Peyton Manning in a "Denver Nuggets" NFL jersey. One of the pictures, of the Seattle Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch, shows him in a Seattle SuperSonics jersey; of course, the Sonics haven't existed since 2008.

The pictures are all very well done, and I encourage you to peruse them. There are, however, 32 NFL teams and 30 NBA teams. Which cities are missing, and could this gifted graphic artist make more based on matching cities?

Here is a list of the teams, by city, Bleacher Report's photo gallery covers:

New England Patriots Boston Celtics
Indianapolis Colts Indiana Pacers
Houston Texans Houston Rockets
Arizona Cardinals Phoenix Suns
Chicago Bears Chicago Bulls
Carolina Panthers Charlotte Hornets
Miami Dolphins Miami Heat
San Francisco 49ers Sacramento Kings
New York Giants New York Knicks
Green Bay Packers Milwaukee Bucks
Detroit Lions Detroit Pistons
Philadelphia Eagles Philadelphia 76ers
Oakland Raiders Golden State Warriors
Dallas Cowboys Dallas Mavericks
Minnesota Vikings Minnesota Timberwolves
New Orleans Saints New Orleans Pelicans
New York Jets Brooklyn Nets
Washington Redskins Washington Wizards
Cleveland Cavaliers Cleveland Browns
Denver Nuggets Denver Broncos
Atlanta Falcons Atlanta Hawks
Seattle Seahawks Seattle Supersonics*

*defunct franchise

Each team matches up with the one next to it, so for example, Darrelle Revis is shown as a New York Jet wearing a Brooklyn Nets jersey.

Here's a list of existing teams the photo gallery doesn't cover. They are listed alphabetically by league, with no regard for matching because the whole point of this list is that they're unmatched:

Baltimore Ravens Los Angeles Clippers
Buffalo Bills Los Angeles Lakers
Cincinnati Bengals Memphis Grizzlies
Jacksonville Jaguars Oklahoma City Thunder
Kansas City Chiefs Orlando Magic
Pittsburgh Steelers Portland Trailblazers
San Diego Chargers San Antonio Spurs
St. Louis Rams Toronto Raptors
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Utah Jazz
Tennessee Titans

So, of this assortment, which other jerseys could Bleacher Report feature? Keep in mind the Sonics example shows that defunct franchises can be dusted off, and Colin Kaepernick's dashing purple and black Sacramento Kings picture shows at least a little geographical leeway. Although Sacramento and San Francisco are a 90-minute car ride apart, Kaepernick as a King makes a lot more sense than, say, Joe Flacco in a Portland Trailblazers jersey. (Note that the 49ers-Kings match occurs largely because Oakland claims the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors' arena is in Oakland, after all. No idea which team would claim the San Joe Sharks in the event of a NHL mashup.)

Based on the above list, a few additional jerseys spring to mind immediately. Here's a list I've made matching the remaining NFL teams to their NBA counterparts, with question marks every time I just can't find one:

Baltimore Ravens Baltimore Bullets*
Buffalo Bills Toronto Raptors
Cincinnati Bengals Cincinnati Royals*
Jacksonville Jaguars ?
Kansas City Chiefs Oklahoma City Thunder
Pittsburgh Steelers ?
San Diego Chargers Los Angeles Clippers
St. Louis Rams Los Angeles Lakers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Orlando Magic
Tennessee Titans Memphis Grizzlies

*defunct franchise

The Ravens benefit from the much-ballyhooed Bullets to Wizards name change that took place in Washington in 1997. Otherwise, they would have been out of luck... unless you want to use total geographical license in the name of the common raven's habitat distribution. Alas, "Utah Ravens" just doesn't bring up images of Edgar Allan Poe writing by candlelight any more than "Utah Jazz" does, well, jazz. Kudos for the Ravens, getting to go retro, while the Redskins are stuck with the recent blue and gold Wizards monstrosity. Well, I suppose RGIII could have had it worse...

The Bills-Raptors connection comes about from the now-turfed annual Bills losing in Toronto game. I went to the first two! Great way to catch Ronnie Brown playing for the Dolphins back when that was a thing.

For the Bengals, I had to plumb the depths of NBA arcana. The Cincinnati Royals had a good run back in the '60s. Although they eventually became the Sacramento Kings, there was a 13-year span when neither team existed. More recently, Cincinnati has probably not housed a NBA team due to its fanatically NCAA-driven basketball culture that neighbouring Kentucky shares. It's similar to how basketball-mad North Carolina didn't have a team for a couple years, and football/basketball-mad Iowa has never had any pro team. In some population centres, college is king. Speaking of kings...

The Kansas City Kings existed, but I have other plans for the Chiefs. Kansas and Oklahoma are neighbouring states. One impassioned fan has made the case more emotionally than I ever could for Kansans to root for the Thunder. Arrowhead Stadium may be in Missouri, but once you get far enough west, distance matters less. Just ask whoever put the aforementioned Thunder in the same division as the aforementioned Blazers, and both those teams in the same division as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. Kansas City and Oklahoma City may not be adjacent, but in Midwestern terms they're close enough.

The Los Angeles Clippers used to play in San Diego. The San Diego Chargers, well, currently play in San Diego, and rumours are swirling about a possible LA relocation. The two cities are close together. This makes all kinds of sense.

The Rams were historically LA's team. There's a movement to bring them back, from recent headline-generating stories to more antiquarian tastes. They were in the City of Angels from 1946-1994, over twice as long as they've been in St. Louis. Their blue and gold would be easy to template into Lakers purple and gold. Rams, Lakers, makes sense. The alternative would be to go full St. Louis with them, but there's already a team by the name of Hawks featured here.

Tampa Bay and Orlando is an interesting case. Not because of geographic proximity or shared fan base - those are around in spades. The Buccaneers get the nod to have their grey and orange swept away in favour of Magic blue and silver, but the tough part is that the Jaguars don't. There's no NBA presence within a long way of Jacksonville if you don't count the Magic.

The Titans and the Grizzlies play in the same state. If I need to add anything else, they both wear two-tone blue colour schemes, and Grizzlies star Zach Randolph is bigger than most NFL linemen. This one seemed so obvious I'm surprised it wasn't already there. Small fan bases, possibly?

Now for the two teams that don't have any remote NBA equivalent:

The Jaguars are suddenly nearing hot-button status again. It coincides nicely with LA Weekly's Nicholas Pell's call for a Limp Bizkit critical reappraisal, which is fitting considering Limp Bizkit was releasing #1 albums the last time the Jaguars topped the AFC. Owner Shad Khan is taking an active role. They'll play a home game in London every year until at least 2020. They're inexplicably one game out of first in the horrific AFC South. (So horrific, in fact, that I typed "horrific" before finding that link, Googled 'AFC South', and found that article - with "horrific" in its title - as the first result.) "Bortlesmania" is a phrase you can never unlearn. Maybe they should hope the NBA expands to London, which seems like a better bet at this point than North Florida.

The Steelers are tough because Pittsbutgh, for all its rabid fans in every other major sport, has never had a NBA team. Fans frequently discuss both the desire and the difficulties. For whatever reason, Western PA just doesn't seem to be able to pull a pro roundball team. There's good college ball to be found in the area, at least, with Pitt and West Virginia frequently fielding good squads.

An overarching theme here is that the NFL tends to have franchises farther east, whereas the NBA is content to explore westward. The NFL has six teams in the Great Lakes region* (Buffalo, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh), whereas the NBA only has four (Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana, Toronto). The NFL has an additional Florida team (Jacksonville). The NFL even has a greater Midwest presence (Kansas City and St. Louis teams the NBA doesn't have). Meanwhile, the NBA not only has a team in Portland, where no other major pro sports league does,** but used to have two other PNW teams (Seattle, Vancouver). NFL support in the PNW outside of Seattle appears moribund. The NBA also has a team in Salt Lake City, which is a fan favourite but is a one-off for major pro sports.*** The NFL is an older league, which explains the greater Great Lakes presence. The Lions date back to Prohibition!

The search for remaining Photoshop-able uniforms teaches us two things. One, that I'm waiting for my autographed LeSean McCoy Raptors jersey. Two, that the leagues' geographical distributions may be an interesting starting point for discussing why fans cannot accept nearby cities' teams.

*Only counting Eastern Standard Time teams here. Midwesterners need not apply.
**Sorry, Portland Timbers. The MLS will get there in time.
***Real Salt Lake, see Portland above.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

October's Book: Sutton

Sutton by J.R. Moehringer
Creative Journalism/Historical Fiction (2012 - 334 pp.)

Sutton is ostensibly a novel, although the qualifier "A Novel" that appears on the front of the book is much needed. It is by a ghostwriter, follows the life of a not only real but famous man, it is based largely on real events, and the time period it covers is clearly well researched. In the Author's Note at the start of the book, Moehringer acknowledges the massive gaps in information about Sutton, and of how Sutton's life could have gone, says "This is my guess." It is a compelling guess that covers fictionalized descriptions of things that happened all the time in Sutton's various environments, from Brooklyn's Irish Town to Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Fictional as the individual events are, including many in-depth conversations, the story they follow is well documented in every major American newspaper.

Sutton's many bank heists are covered in detail elsewhere. What Moehringer adds is a personal touch that follows Sutton through the first 68 years of his life. Maybe Sutton did not have vivid memories of collapsed horses on the streets of Irish Town in the 1900s, or of a childhood friends comparing a sheep to Judas, but people back then did.

Highlights of Sutton's human nature include his first hot dog* (65), his discussion with Mr. Endner about the value of a silver dollar (84), his bar night with Hughie McLoon** shortly before McLoon's assassination (155-157), and Sutton's contemplation of the difference between bad people and bad acts. (236-237) This is a non-exhaustive list, though, and I am sure the peak moments are different for every reader. My favourite thing all these have in common? None of them directly involve a bank heist. As much as I enjoy reading about the mechanics of crime,*** the human side of the story is often just as compelling. Moehringer gets its right. Whether he researched Sutton's heists much, I honestly could not tell you.

This may be a product of when Sutton was in prison, or about extant records of what he was doing, but Sutton's thirties vanish. To the reader, it seems like one moment Sutton's a late-20-something landscaping for Funck and the next, there is news of World War II. (This excepts Sutton's 1931 robbery spree, of course.) After being treated to so much detail about Sutton's childhood, including his rocky adolescence, to have a decade go so quickly is surprising. It shows how quickly life can get away, especially while incarcerated. To Sutton's credit, his penchant for escaping did not dim during those years. It makes the reader wonder why 1952, Sutton's last incarceration, ends the book instead of leading to yet another crazy escape story in the 1952-1969 range.

Part of what makes Sutton so fun is that the reader can take as much, or as little, time as he or she wants with it. My interest in 20th-century American culture, notably including crime, made me eager to read the back stories of minor - in Sutton-verse - characters like Dutch Schultz and Max "Boo Boo" Hoff. In the news, these men had profiles at least as large as Sutton's, if not larger, and are easy topics if I wanted to write a few dozen more pages here. A less digging-inclined reader may simply accept Moehringer's version of Sutton's version of who they are and read this page-turner at airport book speed.

Thanks to my lovely lady for not only recommending this book but actually buying it for me.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 7

*Sutton's first hot dog, by the book, is consumed in 1917. The hot dog in its modern form was only released to the public in 1904, in St. Louis. For a boy who had never ventured to Upstate New York, let alone the Midwest, and who mostly survived on vegetables and grains, a hot dog was exhilarating.
**Not made up. He was a real guy.
***I read Practically Perfect by Dale Brawn but completely neglected to blog about it. It has its problems, as books tend to do, but is worth the read. It helps to have a good Canadian crime book.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Genre! In Chart Form!

Here's a fun educational tool from Eastern Illinois University I found the other day. It's meant to be a guide for teachers of young schoolchildren given the picture book examples and early childhood education references.

Interesting tidbits:

  • The section on Traditional Literature and Folk Tales is very well developed. It divides Myths from Legends from Fables, Fairy Tales from Tall Tales, and even offers a few sample character names and opening sentences. This chart is probably at its highest value for someone looking to classify traditional literary sources such as these. A curious inclusion is Proverbs, which comprise the only one-liners of the whole list. Why adages and idioms are omitted, I have no idea.
  • Personal Narratives are listed quite fully. Letters and Postcards are distinguished, and Collective Biographies receive a category separate from Individual Biographies. This chart is highly useful for this category as well.
  • Under "Informational Books", there are not only essays but also Process Explanations. I don't typically encounter them in literary contexts, so I'm impressed by the thoroughness EIU demonstrates in including them here. I see them more on airplanes than in libraries.
  • The recommendation for Fantasy - and not even Animal Fantasy - is a Redwall book! The Great Redwall Feast isn't exactly the series's flagship entry, but as far as picture books go, I'll take it. Science Fiction under the Fantasy umbrella is sure to anger some SF purists.
  • There isn't much emphasis on poetry or drama. For all the prose genres, fictional and non-fictional, there's only "Poetry" with no subdivisions. Medieval sonnets and Jack Prelutzky now have much more in common than they used to, I suppose.
  • "Speech, Drama, and Reader's Theater" are all lumped together. "Reader's Theater" appears to be an inverse of closet drama, which isn't mentioned anywhere. (i.e. Reader's theatre is an adaptation of a story that is specifically meant to be acted out in front of an audience) That all of this goes in the same category as, say, Budd Dwyer's last speech, is confusing.

I'd change a few things near the end but certainly leave most. For anyone trying to explain the morass of genre to someone unfamiliar with literature, or to settle a bar bet, this schematic is pretty effective. It keeps organized too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Roman Mars's TED Talk and Some Canadian Municipal Flags

Back in March of this year, Roman Mars gave an enlightening TED talk on municipal flag design. Many cities have flags. Some are better than others. The flag design principles he discusses are basic, to the point I knew them, but many American cities apparently don't understand. The talk is also highly entertaining, especially where the poorer flags are concerned.

The five vexillological* principles Mars mentions in his talk are as follows:
  1. Keep it Simple
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism
  3. Use Two to Three Basic Colours
  4. No Lettering or Seals
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related
These are uncontroversial.

Examples Mars uses of good municipal flags, distinctive yet simple, are Chicago and Amsterdam. These stand out as emblems of civic pride, such as the University of Chicago's admissions page having a section on the city's flag, and Amsterdam's appearing in embroidery. Not so good ones include San Francisco and Milwaukee. Searches for these flags lead to petitions for them to be changed, and when looking at them in light of the above five rules, it's easy to see why.

I won't go any more in-depth on these flags considering Mars spends 18 minutes doing just that in the first link above. Instead, I decided to look up the flags of the three Canadian cities where I've lived.


Kitchener-Waterloo (no flag for Waterloo from what I can see)


Clearly, one of these flags conforms to the above principles, whereas two do not.

Toronto's flag:

  1. Keep it simple (and easily reproduced): Perhaps, in a jiffy, someone might make the T shape a little too straight. In the unlikely event Toronto were to find itself at war, I don't think people would mind the minor inaccuracy.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The T is made out of Toronto's City Hall towers. The maple leaf represents the Council Chamber, and is also present on Canada's flag. Bingo.
  3. Use two to three basic colours: This goes without saying.
  4. No lettering or seals: See #3.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: I've never seen a flag quite like it.

All told, this is a pretty solid flag.

Kitchener's flag:

  1. Keep it simple (and easily reproduced): Not really. I see an oddly-angled line, a beaver and some leaves.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The beaver is a very Canadian animal. What look like oak and maple leaves signifies the city's combined German and Canadian heritage. The diagonal line, and the strange colour of green rarely visible on any other flag... it's lost me.
  3. Use two to three basic colours: Almost. Make the beaver gold and it's good.
  4. No lettering or seals: This is where it falls apart. As Mars says in his TED talk, people should know a place's flag when they see it rather than having to read the flag to detect its origin. Even small, remote countries like Fiji see no point in adding text to their flags.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: The beaver also appears on the flag of Oregon, and in a more stylized fashion. Stylized is good. Kitchener's beaver should be more stylized, so it (a) looks more distinctive, and (b) is easier to reproduce (see #1). 

I'm not sure what I'd do with this one. The green and gold on white look good. The rest could use an overhaul.

Edmonton's flag:

  1. Keep it simple (and easily reproduced): No. I can't even remember the motto written on the flag, and I saw it minutes ago. The picture would also be difficult to draw in a hurry.
  2. Use meaningful symbolism: The frontier exploration mentality, I get. The rest... is that a wheel with wings? A semi-stylized crown? When has anyone in Edmonton ever required a shield?! Also, seeing as Edmonton only has one river running through it, and is landlocked, I have no idea why two blue stripes are necessary.
  3. Use two to three basic colours: I count at least six, including lavender of all things.
  4. No lettering or seals: See #1.
  5. Be distinctive or be related: The shield and nature also appear in Alberta's flag. Is that related enough? I don't know.

Edmonton most likely needs a new flag. The situation isn't as dire as San Francisco or Milwaukee, but there's enough artistic talent in Edmonton to make it doable.

Unexpectedly, Sierra Leone's flag could provide a model. Edmonton's flag already uses green, white and blue. The green (agriculture and natural resources) speak to Edmonton quite well, considering the nearby prairies and first Albertan oil derrick. The white (unity and justice) are fitting in that Edmonton is the home of Alberta's legislature. The blue (water) is evident in the city's river valley. What this shows is that although the designs on Edmonton's flag are far too ornate, the flag contains some good colours.

This sort of back-of-the-napkin analysis could probably be done with any city's flag. It's probably the quickest way to think about civic duty I've ever encountered.

*Google Chrome considers this word a spelling mistake yet I spelled it correctly on the first try. Who's smart now, highly paid Google programmers?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

September's Book: The Man in the High Castle

Nominally, I'm behind on these. In more real fashion, my onslaught of bonus books has resulted in the most reading I've done since 2012. This month's September's book may actually be weirder than a book I can probably best describe as being the equivalent of the next A Song of Ice and Fire book starting with Jon Snow waking up in space. That's Philip K. Dick for you, though...


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Alternate History (1962 - 138 pp.)

Where to begin? A quick summary might help: The Axis has won World War II, which actually lasted until 1947. Germany and Japan have partitioned the world between them, along basically the lines one would envision. A key development is that they have also partitioned the United States, with the East and South going to Germany and the Pacific coast going to Japan. The Mountain West is happily neutral. Somehow, despite the subjugation of the UK, the US and Australia, Canada has remained free. The American situation is the most important to the plot, with almost the entirety of the action taking place within the continental 48 states, and most of that taking place in San Francisco and Denver. The book takes place in 1962.

I'll focus on things that don't seem to surface in many other reviews, based on my slipshod research. The I Ching, for example, is covered pretty effectively. Based on how the book progresses, I'll cover the Americans and the Japanese together, and the Brits and the Germans separately.

Dick's invocation of Gresham's Law in describing the tendency of fakes to flood the Americana market (28) may also presage later economic theory developments. Americans sell kitsch to Japanese businessmen, often including items that would be worthless to us in the real world but have an air to them much like the kitsch real-world North Americans buy overseas. Much like what "Made in Japan" meant during the real-world '60s and '70s, there is a cornucopia of American-made goods available to the Japanese, many of them knockoffs. Gresham's Law - bad money driving out good money - is plainly on display, as Dick notes. This works mainly because of how well disguised the fakes are. If everyone knew there were so many fakes in the marketplace, but not which items they were, George Akerlof's "Market for Lemons" (1970) would come into play. (Extremely short version: the presence of the fakes, but inability to tell between fake and real, would drive down the average price of all goods in the marketplace.) Based on Robert Childan's reaction to discovering a fake, this may have happened in the planned sequel Dick never finished.

Similarly, The Man in the High Castle plays off the brutal culture of stereotyping the Americans and Japanese developed toward each other during the WWII era. (Yes, those are the infamous 1943 "Tokio Jokio" and 1936 "Evil Mickey Attacks Japan" cartoons respectively.) That a Mickey Mouse watch figures so prominently among the American kitsch in The Man in the High Castle adds to the craziness. Childan thinks to himself in a stereotype of how Americans imagine Japanese people sound while trying speak English language. Childan further remarks on the tendency of the Japanese race - not just its car companies - to advance itself through copying other cultures. (94-95) That the Japanese so thoroughly promote the I Ching, a Chinese invention, is testament to this. Meanwhile, the Anglo-American obsession with authenticity* is parodied at length, whether through Japanese admiration of First Nations art (27) or the shock American characters show when called upon to produce anything without any history behind it other than a proud MADE IN AMERICA stamp. (6, 27, 76, 79, 93)

The Brits are mentioned only briefly, but in ways that force the reader to question his or her understanding of Britain's WWII conduct. Atrocities committed by the Germans, Japanese and Soviets are well publicized, especially those of the Axis seeing as they lost the war. This chilling passage demonstrates what might have been thought of the Brits had they become as desperate as the Axis did:

His brothers had been killed in '44, strangled with wire by British commandos, the Long Range Desert Group which had operated behind Axis lines and which had become especially fanatic during the last phases of the war when it was clear that the Allies could not win.

'How do you feel about the British now?' she asked haltingly.

Joe said, 'I'd like to see them do to England what they did in Africa.' His tone was flat.

'But it's been — eighteen years,' Juliana said. 'I know the British especially did terrible things. But — ' 'They talk about the things the Nazis did to the Jews,' Joe said. 'The British have done worse. In the Battle of London.' He became silent. 'Those fire weapons, phosphorus and oil; I saw a few of the German troops, afterward. Boat after boat burned to a cinder. Those pipes under the water — turned the sea to fire. And on civilian populations, by those mass fire-bombing raids that Churchill thought were going to save the war at the last moment. Those terror attacks on Hamburg and Essen and — ' 

'Let's not talk about it,' Juliana said. (45)

That the fanaticism increases as defeat becomes clearer, and that the atrocities mentioned include the real-life bombing of Hamburg, inverts popular Anglo-American notions of good and evil in WWII in ways that make the reader pause... very uncomfortably.

The Germans have developed space travel, including to Mars, yet home television is a rarity. (42) Precisely how there are Mars colonists before there is a TV station in New York City, or even in many European cities, is beyond me. That Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle in a post-I Love Lucy world makes this doubly confusing.

NOTE: Most of the books I read are either easy to read or are highly educational. This should be intuitive; usually, the purpose of reading is either to be swept away in a story, to learn something, or both. The Man in the High Castle has an utterly mind-bending plot, that you can follow here if you like, and technically, because it takes place in a world so different from our own, doesn't teach much about how WWII unfolded. It's not a WWII textbook, though, in case you hadn't noticed. It's an exercise in training our minds to think about human nature, about civilization, and about how fragile the course of history is. It's a page-turner and it's provocative. It doesn't need to be easy to accomplish those.

Ease of Reading: 3
Educational Content: 4

*I quote: "Shaken caffeine-guzzlers told the Guardian that they felt 'duped' and 'upset' because they’d thought it was an 'independent' coffee shop."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Titus Alone: What Could Have Been

In my previous post today, I outlined some initial thoughts on Mervyn Peake's 1959 novel Titus Alone. In the interest of readability, I have split this post in two: one for the background, the other for the alternate history. (No, not that kind of alternate history.) This post will probably be an easier read if you haven't read The Gormenghast Trilogy in that I'm not including any spoilers. It may, however, be tougher to follow in that you probably won't know who the characters are.

While reading Titus Groan (1946), the first installment of The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946, 1950, 1959), I had an idea in my head about how the second and third books would play out. Gormenghast Castle is decrepit to legendary status, with only its stored mythos and pointless ritual keeping it from collapsing entirely. There is no sign it has any standing military, although it is so hemmed in geographically no one would realistically want to invade. The entire story of Titus Groan and Gormenghast (1950) takes place in or around the castle. (Surprisingly, that isn't a spoiler. The world is just that insular.) Titus is a baby for the entire first book, with most of the action centered on other characters like Sepulchrave, Flay and Steerpike.

What I imagined, which isn't (quite) what happened:

  1. Titus Groan - Titus as a baby (this happens)
  2. Gormenghast - Titus is a young adult; the height of Titus's rule (this happens somewhat)
  3. Titus Alone - Titus is an old man presiding over a dying castle with no heir to succeed him (this does not happen in the least)

Peake did not intend The Gormenghast Trilogy to be a trilogy. He intended the books to follow Titus throughout his life, with at least two more planned but ultimately unwritten. What if it had been a true trilogy, though? Before brushing up on criticism of Peake's works, I thought that was the plan.

Here's a brief synopsis of what I thought Titus Alone was going to be:


Titus Groan, the Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, has reigned for six decades. Having successfully rebelled against the rituals of his forefathers, he engages in only enough of them to satisfy his subjects, but is otherwise free to occupy his time as he pleases.

What he sees before him, though, is a Gormenghast ever more vacant. He has not married or produced an heir, and the rest of the Groan line is deceased. The castle is surrounded from all sides by impassable terrain, locking Titus in his tomb. It is here he concludes the Groan dynasty as its tiny world wonders what will be done when there is no longer an Earl.


For those who have read Titus Alone, it is anything but that. That raises the question of how the books would have differed in their perspective and scope had Peake done what I just did above.

The main difference is in what TVTropes calls "The Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism". For all the bleakness Gormenghast Castle exhibits, Titus leaves it. It may be the most important thing Titus ever does. The Gormenghast Titus leaves is one that replaces its Master of Ritual like a broken microwave, contains virtually no redeemable characters, has nothing left for Titus to enjoy, and, to top it all off, is recovering from a Genesis-level flood. For the unabashedly hopeful, adventurous Titus to live the rest of his life there would be The Fall of the House of Usher with a gloom factor multiplied by about a thousand. The Gormenghast Trilogy is oddly hopeful in that characters like Steerpike and Titus can amount to something more than their stations would suggest. Titus Alone the way I envisioned it would have crushed those hopes.

The other difference is for all that happens in Titus Alone, things happen. Masterful as Peake is, and emphatic about setting and character over plot as he is, it is difficult to imagine a 200-page* or 365-page** book about an aging Titus watching a dwindling population die around him work as a compelling fantasy novel. Would such a book have been readable? We'll never know, in large part because Peake never considered writing it.

This highlights the importance of every time an author has a major decision to make within a book or series. I recently had to make a decision about whether or not a protagonist dies in the first chapter of a fantasy series I'm planning. For example, what if Badrang had lived? Fiction can go any number of ways, and Titus Alone may be Exhibit A for that.

*The length of Titus Alone. For all the book's faults, its 122 chapters in 200 pages enticed me greatly. I generally prefer more, shorter chapters.
**The length of Titus Groan, which is a little less than that of Gormenghast.

Titus Alone: Initial Thoughts

I finished reading Mervyn Peake's The Gormenghast Trilogy as of late, specifically the 1999 Vintage edition. (If you were wondering where September's book went, don't worry, it's on its way. A 953-page fantasy trilogy creates holes, though.) For those not up on 20th-century fantasy, The Gormenghast Trilogy consists of Titus Groan (1946), Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). It was not originally intended as a trilogy but became one out of necessity. Also for those not up on 20th-century fantasy, you may want to read the trilogy before reading this entry - that is, unless the theory of these books is so much more important to you than the plot that you're willing to endure spoilers in order to have a lively discussion about the meaning of the novel.

I considered commenting on any one of the books as September's book, much as I did with Douglas Adams back in 2012, but ultimately decided against it for the following reasons:

  • So much has been written on The Gormenghast Trilogy I'm not sure what I could reasonably add. That said,the fantasy and world-building lend themselves to longer-form speculation rather than the couple paragraphs I wrote to acknowledge that I once, indeed, read Bleak House in a week.
  • Which book would I have picked? Unlike the Hitchhiker series, there's such a tight narrative to The Gormenghast Trilogy I could not have possibly picked one book without mentioning the others. Simply reading the first, Titus Groan, and then not the others would have been the greatest disservice of all considering the loose ends every (surviving) character faces between Titus Groan and Gormenghast.
  • Peake is such a master of setting and character that any detailed review of the entire trilogy would either be hopelessly long or a personal reflection. This blog is proud to reserve "hopelessly long" for the painstaking analysis only PUAs or exploitative TV shows can inspire, and this entry is something of a personal reflection.

The 2015 reader is lulled into a false sense of security in light of how Peake influenced so many later works, and how Peake's character archetypes pop up in the weirdest places (like this latter-day Cora and Clarice). Expecting a cozy fireside story of where various fantasy tropes originated, the reader is instead legitimately surprised at every turn. In Titus Groan and Gormenghast, Peake knocks off characters in ways that would make George R. R. Martin blush. (Accidental drowning while considering suicide, and sudden out-of-nowhere lightning bolt-inflicted death, are the two... best?)

Steerpike is the most enigmatic character of all, starting as a hero in Titus Groan before becoming a serial killer during Gormenghast. I take issue with the many reviews claiming Steerpike was evil all along; before his calamitous forays into fire, he seems to care about Fuchsia at least somewhat, is thankful for what Prunesquallor does for him, and Peake's consistent mentioning of Steerpike's lack of empathy seems unrealistic. That he does all he can for himself should be a given when considering the kitchens he flees and his general lack of resources at the outset. It is obvious by the middle of Gormenghast that Steerpike has become a villain, but the transformation in Steerpike's psyche over the preceding 400 or so pages make him, in my opinion, one of the best characters ever written. That he appears on the cover of the edition I read is, after reading the trilogy, no surprise.

Where I start this speculation, though, is a few short pages after Titus murders Steerpike via multiple stab wounds. Nothing like the two main characters on a collision course, is there?


Titus Alone is the strangest book I have ever read. For why Titus Alone is so strange, David Louis Edelman's introduction puts it wonderfully:

In the last words of Gormenghast, Peake writes that “Titus rode out of his world.” Who would have imagined that Peake meant it literally? Titus Groan and Gormenghast take place in some undefined location in what seems to be a pre-Industrial setting. But in Titus Alone, there are flying mechanical needles, death rays, and a factory filled with mysterious bad smells. Muzzlehatch drives a car, Cheeta rides in a helicopter, and Cheeta’s scientist father talks to his subordinates through a videoconferencing system. Crabcalf informs us that someone or something named “Molusk” has recently circled the moon. (A successor to Sputnik?) All this technology implies that the novel takes place in the near future, yet nobody Titus encounters has heard of Gormenghast. Gormenghast, a castle so enormous that you can wander its rooftops for days without seeing the end of it.
Unmentioned above: The only noted use of the death ray was to destroy a zoo, killing all the animals, for no discernible reason other than for science, leading to the zookeeper going on a murderous rampage in the name of revenge. This same zookeeper caught Titus sleeping with his ex-lover but then, shortly after, invited Titus over for drinks and then laughed about the whole thing.

Gormenghast Castle is situated in what approximates 18th-century Europe. To be transported to the world described above without any warning is indescribable. My first reaction was to think Titus had been transported to contemporary 1959 London, which would have made Titus Alone a reverse Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. (Or, if you're extra-cynical, a proto-Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles.) Titus suddenly starts using contemporary British slang, such as phrases like "bloody", and, defying all conventional logic, barely seems surprised by what he sees. Titus Alone's plot is what may as well a series of random events.

A curious exchange shows how dense Titus appears to the locals of Titus Alone occurs while he is in the courtroom. Titus correctly explains to the rightfully befuddled judge that his father "was eaten by owls" (812). The next time Titus speaks with the judge, the following ensues:

JUDGE: "You have told us of your father's death. What of your mother?"
TITUS: "She was a woman." [attributions mine]

Again, Titus Alone is completely unexpected, even from page to page.

While reading Titus Groan, however, I had a distinctly different idea of how Titus Alone would proceed...