Friday, 26 December 2014


Elfquest is a classic fantasy comic by Wendy Pini (art and writing) and Richard Pini (writing). The comic was first published in 20 issues from 1978 to 1984, and was later followed by several sequels.

It tells the story of the Wolfriders,  a tribe of elves who live in a forest on the World of Two Moons. Their name comes from their close relationships with wolves, who are their close companions and mounts. The Wolfriders live in a state of conflict with the humans of their world. This conflict eventually leads to the humans burning down the woods to drive the elves out, forcing the Wolfriders to set out under the leadership of their chief, Cutter to find a new home, an adventure that leads them all over the World of Two Moons. This eventually leads them on to a quest to find the other elves and, in the end, to their very origins.

Writing the above plot introduction, I realize that such a synopsis  (as always) doesn't do Elfquest justice. It doesn't even begin to imply the depth of the world that the Pinis have created, with it's humans, elves and trolls.

In particular, the imagination applied to cultural and societal matters are remarkable. Different groups of elves all have very different and complex cultures and societies, which reflect the conditions that they live in. The comic also takes care to have their (well-developed) characters interact with these cultures in their own individual way. We see reactions ranging to conservatism to alienation, from hostility to other cultures to acceptance, just as in real life. This contrasts with much science-fiction and fantasy, which often have a species only have a single culture, which all individuals follow unquestionably like robots their programming.

The use of myth and folklore is also commendable. Unlike commercial fantasy writers who lazily copy Tolkien, Elfquest takes its inspiration from real myth and folklore to create an truly original world, following Tolkien in method rather than result. There is also a welcome diversity in these influences, which come not only from Europe, but in the spirit of the Hippie culture, also from Native American (which in particular informs the culture of the Wolfriders) and Eastern culture. This mixture of cultures makes the comic have a unique and genuine American atmosphere, especially with the Native American influences.

But excellent worldbuilding is not worth much if you don't have a good story to go with it, something that Elfquest thankfully has. It has mythological and spiritual resonance to justify taking inspiration from the the folk traditions of the world. One becomes quite moved by the journey of the elves to find their kindred and origins, in part due to the great characterization. The lesson taught is a worthy one: accept change and what is different. And it manages to spread that message without preaching or making things black or white. The way of life of the elves is an manifestation of 70s hippie ideals of closeness to nature, spirituality and free love (the elves are even all bisexual), which I have no problem with whatsoever.

The art is excellent, which it should be. When Wendy Pini started the comic in 1978, she already had years of experience as an illustrator for science fiction magazines. She was also one of the first western comic book artists to be influenced by manga, something common today, unheard of in the 70s. In a way reminiscent of her storytelling, she combines this eastern influence with western influences ranging from Barks to Jack Kirby. This leads to an interesting aspect of her art: the elves are drawn in a stylized, mangaesque style, but the human beings in a realistic style, reminiscent of Kirby. This leads the reader somewhat pardoxically to empathize more with the elves (1), but also emphasizes the fact that they are not human.

When Elfquest was first published in 1978, it was very against the tide of mainstream commercial fantasy novels or superhero comics. It was a comic that relied on plot, worldbuilding and characters, rather than violence, without being lacking in the action and thrills department. It was a fantasy story that truly followed Tolkien's example and created its own world, instead of just plagiarising The Lord of the Rings. It was written and drawn by a woman, truly a rarity back then, and there were many female fans in the cult following it deservedly gained for these many virtues. Elfquest is perhaps the ultimate example of successful independent publishing.

And the magic is still there, over 35 years later. And as the commercial tide hasn't turned yet and is stronger than ever, Elfquest is perhaps more needed now than it was back then. Wendy and Richard Pini has in recent years made nearly all Elfquest comics available to read for free on their website (granted, you will need to fiddle around a little with the reader to get it to work, at least on my computer. For one thing, click on the "P0" in the top right corner to get the fullsize scan if you only get thumbnails).

The original quest is a must-read, as are it's direct sequels Siege at Blue Mountain and Kings of the Broken Wheel. The later stories are of variable quality, as some of them are not created by the Pini's, but the stories made by the creators are in general worth reading.

(1) In his book Understanding Comics, Scott Mccloud points out that it is easier for somebody to identify with a simple and cartoony image, than with a realistic one. In short, the more stylized and cartoony an image is, the less detail it has and thus the more people it can represent, who can identify themselves with it. With a realistic image, we add more detail and distinguishing features, thus less people can see themselves in the image. I have already talked  a lot about this on my blog.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

On Post-apocalyptic fiction, and a review of the webcomic Stand Still, Stay Silent

I never liked Post-apocalyptic stories, for several reasons. Firstly, most of the genre is mired in Mad Max-clichés, if the genre is not a cliché by itself. One tires quickly of endless wastelands, rust and leather. There is not much in the genre that can't be traced back to its foundational classics: Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826), Richard Jefferies' After London (1885) and M.P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud (1901). The last real injection of new blood the genre got was the invention of nuclear weapons providing it with a new method for the destruction of humanity.  The only reason  Cormac Mccarthy's The Road could be taken seriously was because it was marketed outside of the Science fiction "ghetto" towards people who hadn't read enough SF to know that it used the most tired clichés in the genre (1).

We also have the honestly reactionary politics  of much of the genre. After the apocalypse society degenerates into a Hobbesian war of all against all. Altruism and cooperation is treated as a product of modern civilization, a veneer over humanity's true brutish nature. This is of course bullshit. Altruistic and cooperative tendencies are part of humanity's basic nature, as such exists and the war of all against all that Hobbes presumed never existed. It is actually the war of all against all of capitalism that is the construct of civilization. This is because, unlike what post-apocalyptic fiction presumes, cooperation is the best strategy for survival there is. (2) If the apocalypse happened, humanity would most likely survive in groups, not lonely survivors.

Most Post-apocalyptic fiction is in fact nothing more than a macho power fantasy, in which the lone male hero survives and fights against the inhuman hordes (for reasons of sanity, I won't even go into detail on the books that feature the white hero preservering towards hordes of black people, like Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold or Christopher Priest's Fugue for a Darkening Island.) The spectre of Nietzsche's pseudo-philosphy haunts this: the ubermensch against the weak and effeminate "last men".

There is a consequent contempt of democracy. When groups of people are depicted, it's always controlled by forms of dictatorship or autocracy. No one, even people supposedly having lived their entire pre-catastrophe lives in a democracy, thinks of organizing democratically. There are no thoughts given to the advantage the open criticism of decisions can give. It is dismissed as a frivolous luxury, unfit for the real, harsh world. The ultimate example of this attitude in Post-apocalyptic literature is probably Farnham's Freehold by Robert Heinlein in which the hero controls a small band of survivors as a dictatorship. He justifies this with "lifeboat rules" (always invoked while pointing towards his pistol), which means that just like a lifeboat captain, he must be unquestionably obeyed to protect the collective safety of the group (3).

Thankfully, there is none of this nonsense in Stand Still, Stay Silent, a webcomic by Minna Sundberg, a Swedish- Finnish comic book artist and writer. It tells the story of a world in which most of humanity has died from a horrific rash-like disease. The comic is set in the Nordic region 90 years after the cataclysm, where  250 000 human survivors hang on in very small quarantined safe areas, with the biggest being Iceland, due to its island nature. The rest of the world is the unknown "Silent World" dominated by the disease. Whether other humans live on elsewhere or not hasn't  yet been revealed. The comic is about an expedition into the Silent world of a multi-national team of explorers in order to get more knowledge about disease and recover knowledge from the old world.

The most interesting aspect of this post-apocalyptic world is that it has magic. The disease has created or returned the world to a mythological state, where Norse and Finnish mythology holds true. Magic exists and the old pagan gods are not only worshipped again, but even answer prayers. Trolls and Giants roam the Silent world. In this new world, nature is yet again, as in the time of Paganism, threatening and ineffable, making the return to the old religion understandable.
 This makes one of the most interesting worlds in Science fiction(fantasy comics. Sundberg avoids all of the clichés of post-apocalyptic fiction. In Stand Still there are no lone heroes surviving through macho bravery.  Instead it is the mundane, anti-heroic and bureaucratic process of quarantine that enables humanity to survive at all. This speaks to the more healthy attitude Sundberg has towards other human beings and democratic government (which basically save humanity here) compared to most post-apocalyptic writers. She has an awareness of the necessary dependence all humans have on each other and, in modern civilization, on the government.

There is also a refreshing optimism in her depiction of the human survivors. While there is a sense of humanity hanging on a thread, the human settlements nevertheless  keep civilization and technology alive to a large extent and actively try to create a new world for humanity to live in, by trying to come up with a vaccine for the disease and expanding their settlements through "cleansing" the Silent World. It's something that is almost non-existent in standard post-apocalyptic fiction and very heartening to see here.

The Nordic setting is wonderfully done and really makes this comic something unique. There are no Mad Max style clichéd wastelands here. For me, it makes the comic much more powerful and immediate, as it is set in places I have actually visited. When yourself have crossed the Öresund bridge, seeing it in ruins in the comic is chilling.
The use of Nordic and Finnish mythology is very well done and creates along with the setting a powerful atmosphere. It has much of the same feelings which echo throughout Scandinavian folk music, lore and mythology (4).

This feeling is in part due to Sundberg's beautiful art. Her backgrounds and environments are drawn with a painting-like detail and technique, yet filled with charm and the aforementioned atmosphere. It's frankly contains some of the most beautiful art in a comic I have ever seen, with its lush winter landscapes.

Using what Scott Mccloud calls the "masking effect", she contrasts these detailed environments with more simple "cartoony" (Mccloud uses the word "iconic") character designs. In her art, she takes influence from both manga and Franco-Belgian comics (she has explicitly mentioned Moebius, Herge and Uderzo as influences).  In her explicitly "Nordic" style, she reminds me of the old national romantic painters from the region, of which she has explicitly names Akseli Gallen-Kallela as an influence (5).

Her writing is also up to the task. She provides her well-built world with well-written and likeable characters. Even minor characters are given surprisingly full personalities, like the ancestors of the main character we meet in the prologue.

Sundberg also has a fine sense of humour, which despite the bleak setting is central to the comic. This is not surprising considering her influences, like the aforementioned Franco-Belgian creators and Don Rosa (6)

The comedy eventually gives away to it's opposite: horror. The apocalypse in Stand Still, Stay Silent has the for post-apocalyptic fiction rare quality of actually being scary.  The comic actually reminds me of Lovecraft at times. And like him, Sundberg knows the value of mystery in creating horror and suspense and deliberately keeps many aspects of the apocalyptic disease and the world it creates hidden from the reader, who must make their own conclusions. I won't spoil the comic by burdening you with my own explanations, but let me say that the rash disease is one of the most frightening fictional diseases I ever read about and the implications of the "trolls" and "giants" are truly horrific.

This speaks to the greatness of Stand Still, Stay Silent: It's apocalypse is human in every way.  Most post-apocalyptic fiction has a very limited view of humanity, one that doesn't makes sense. For Sundberg however, life after the apocalypse is just as human as life before it. There is still love, comedy, horror and, above all, myth.


(1) I have a burning hatred of Cormac Mccarthy. That his cowardly and reactionary tripe is more successful than Thomas Pynchon's daring prose is a severe indictment of modern culture.

(2) Biologist Frans De Waal has talked much of how so-called "Veneer theory" of morality is not borne out by the scientific evidence. Here's a good interview with him which touches on the subject.

(3) For more on the politics of Post-apocalyptic literature, I can recommend Paul O'Flinn critique of Golding's Lord of The Flies here and Cory Doctorow's takedown of Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold in this article. On Nietzsche, there is no better takedown on the net than Sator Arepo's Wagner contra Nietzsche on his blog Think Classical: Part I and Part II. The essay require some foreknowledge of both Wagner, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, but is nevertheless brilliant.

(4). This feeling is perhaps best conveyed by music and not words. Here are some swedish bands which have this unique "nordic" feeling: Änglagård and  Sagor och Swing 

(5) As sources for Sundberg's influences I have used this interview for the Webcomic Alliance and this other interview on Artagem

(6) Like most Finns, Sundberg is of course crazy about Rosa. Combining the two great cultural touchstones of Finnish culture: Donald Duck and The Kalevala has really paid off for him.


This comic was recommended to me by ScifiterX on the El Goonish Shive fan forums, who wished for me to review it.

Rain (webcomic review)

This is an unusual review for me, as it is an request. warrl, demonhunter and Zorua on the El Goonish Shive fan forums requested this, so now that I read the entire archives on their recommendation, lets hop on it. Also, here be spoilers. I'll avoid it, but it's inevitable.

Rain is a webcomic, written and drawn by Jocelyn Samara, about the title character, a teenage transgirl named Rain Flaherty. With the help of her aunt and guardian, Fara, she gets the opportunity to go through her senior year at high school as her true gender fulltime, something hitherto denied to her (Luckily, she passes very well as a woman). The comic is about her successes and challenges doing so, and about the various people she meets and befriends during the way.

The writing of the comic is rather good, despite being somewhat melodramatic at times, due to the drama being grounded in reality (including personal experience ), which gives it resonance and meaning. The characters are well-written and deep enough to be able to handle it. (1) The drama is also leavened with a lot of humour, which is needed in a comic like this, a self-proclaimed soap opera.

However, it shares a common problem with many of its brethren in the genre: there are too many unlikely coincidences for the sake of drama. The main cast consists with one exception of various sorts of LGBTQIA people (and the one exception's father is gay, because that's just how this comic rolls), which is somewhat unlikely in general and especially considering most of them go to and met at a Catholic School (2). To illustrate, the cast at the school includes one transwoman (Rain), two gay people (brother and sister too), an asexual woman and an pansexual woman, who all know of each other and are friends. Granted, most of them have valid reasons for going there and the school is quite large, but it is still rather improbable, especially as the comic recently added another transwoman to the cast, who has no reason whatsoever to be there.

It also turns out that the Dean of students just so happens to have a brother who is trans, which makes him more understanding than might be expected, thus he enables Rain to go to the school in the first place.  Outside the school, Rain and Fara  have a neighbour who is genderfluid. Yet another example is Rain's brother Aiken having a relationship with a woman, Jessica, who turns out to be transgender as well.

There is also some very unlikely relationships between the characters. Despite the characters moving around, somehow they always run into people from the past, having unknowingly moved into the same city as their friends did years before.
For example, it turns out that also at the school Rain goes to, is her old best friend Gavin, who she lost contact with moving many years before. Another example is Rain's therapist Vincent, who turns out be one of Aunt Fara's old partners (from 15 years prior) and  trans as well (granted, the latter isn't  improbable at all, considering he as a therapist specializes in trans issues).

This is just the most unlikely examples, but you get the point. The individual stories and characters are well-written on their own, but when you get them in bulk and connected together haphazardly like this it feels melodramatic and unlikely as a whole. One's ability to enjoy the comic relies on one's ability to look past these coincidences, to see the good writing that exists beneath them.

The art is not great and far from beautiful, but passable. It has the important (for me at least) quality of clarity. Every panel is clear and lacking in clutter. You never have to question who does what or what happens. This is an aspect of comics-making that even masters fail at sometimes, but is perhaps the most important aspect (3). There is much good and beautiful comic book art, which is sadly lacking in clarity, often due to an excess of detail. Rain may not look beautiful, but the art does tell the story, which is the most important aspect of good comic art.

So that is Rain, while it has many flaws, it also has many virtues. I suspect I would have been more impressed by it if I was a lot younger and hadn't read so much about this subject (4), so that it's themes wouldn't be so well-known to me. If I was fifteen, this would be a revelation. Now I can't help but compare it to the classic, but unfinished webcomic Venus Envy by Erin Lindsey, which is also about a teenage transgirl in high school. The themes of Rain are relevant, but they have been done before.

But despite this, there is much of value in the comic and the fact that it is fiction is very welcome. Transpeople seldom feature in fiction, at least not in a positive way, and it is a gap that needs filling.
They, as all people, deserve representation in fiction and culture. (5).


(1) There is of course some wish-fulfilment involved (the author is herself trans) in the scenario, but it never overpowers the story or is too unrealistic and it's hard to find fault with it. Remember that all fiction is wish-fulfilment of some kind, as fiction always reflects and confirms the author's world-view.

(2) It is expressly noted that being gay or transgender is regarded as a sin and worthy of expulsion. It just reminds me once again why such schools should be banned. It should frankly be illegal to treat minors that way, or even teach such rubbish to them. Frankly, private schools in general should be banned by law, for they do not place education foremost as a good school should: the only reason for most of them to exist is either to make money or push religious dogma. Exceptions should only be made for non-profit secular schools.

(3) Part of the reason Carl Barks and Hergé are held in so high regard is that their art always had that clarity.

(4) While not trans or gay, I'm not gender-conforming in various ways, something which led to me questioning my gender during my teenage years and reading everything I could find on transgender and gay people and issues. There was also sheer curiosity towards other people and a wish to understand in order to help some of the people who suffer the most under capitalism and the patriarchy.

(5)  Samara has talked about writing another comic with transgender themes, but this time a full on "magical girl" fantasy comic, called Magical. I can't help but find this even more interesting than Rain, as a fantasy story with (real) transgender people would be very original. Most decent fictional depictions of transpeople have been realistic dramas, and it would be nice if they could have a part in other genres.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Refugees from the old country (poem)

Refugees from the old country

I see the elderly stagger,
refugees from a country that no longer exists,
now privatized and sold off.
The land of my mother, dead and buried like her.
And like her, that land cared for the unfortunate
and the poor.
Only the distant dreams remain, once so near.

Flyktingar från det gamla Sverige.

Jag ser de gamla famla,
flyktingar från ett land som inte längre existerar,
numera privatiserat och sålt.
Min moders land, död och begraven som hon.
Och liksom hon, tog det landet hand om de fattiga.
Bara de avlägsna drömmarna finns kvar, en gång så nära.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The nuclear solution (poem)

Following the grand example of the cancer cell, our great leaders have declared that perpetual growth
is the only way for humanity to prosper.
But never let it be said that our great leaders are unkind
to the Earth.
For they have decided in their endless magnanimity to
to provide her with radiation therapy.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

The year is 1984. Hippie survivor Zoyd Wheeler is living with his fourteen year old daughter Prairie in the Californian city of Vineland. His wife, Frenesi Gates left him (and the Hippie movement) shortly after their daughter's birth due to her relationship with prosecutor Brock Vond, becoming a FBI informant. As the novel starts, Zoyd is about to perform his annual act of insanity in order to continue to quality for his mental disability check. But his life is interrupted by Vond, who resurfaces, now nearly omnipotent with money from Reagan's war on drugs. He chases Zoyd and Praire out of their house, forcing them on the run. Now Zoyd and Praire has to figure out what has caused Vond to act, and piece together the past of their broken family.

When Vineland was first released in 1990, 17 years after Pynchon's previous novel Gravity's Rainbow, the critics were sceptical. Everyone expected a work just as grand as GR, if not more. This has lead to it having a reputation of being "Lesser Pynchon". But this reputation is wholly undeserved. Vineland is one of Pynchon's best books, perhaps even better than Gravity's Rainbow.

Vineland is like most of Pynchon's novel a humorous post-modern and absurd adventure, told in Pynchon's wonderful prose. We meet Ninjas with magical powers (one of whom is a main character), magical forests and roads, Thanatoids (people in a state like death, but different) and Kaiju monsters. But as in Against The Day, this is contrasted with characters who are painfully real and live with real issues and problems. Zoyd Wheeler is perhaps Pynchon's most sympathetic protagonist, and his quest to give his daughter a good home and upbringing and his love for his absent wife is heartbreaking. Pynchon's satire is also very close to concrete human experience: Zoyd having to perform an annual act of insanity in order to qualify for his disability check is cuttingly true as satire can get.

As in Against The Day the destructive impact of  our capitalistic society on basic human behaviour and feelings like love is explored. And just like ATD, Vineland is about historical events, this time how the 60s counterculture was infiltrated and destroyed by government repression.

To illustrate, Pynchon creates a fictional student revolution at a California university. The students secede from America and form "The People's republic of Rock n' roll", led by mathematics professor Weed Atman (another of Pynchon's wonderful and deeply symbolic names). But the republic is crushed and Atman is murdered, in part due to Frenesi's betrayal.

Pynchon uses this event to expose the power structure of the USA. This power structure takes many forms, from brute police force and drug raids to the insidious cultural attack of Hollywood films and television. America emerges as a dystopia in which the establishment destroys all dissent: a "scabland garrison state". Rebels like Zoyd are dismissed as mental degenerates.

This dystopian portrayal of America is of course emphasized by the novel being set in the year 1984. In fact, one can see this as Pynchon's answer to Orwell's novel, showing a real capitalist dystopia as opposed to Orwell's early cold-war anti-communist fantasy.

Pynchon views the "War against Drugs", as not about alleviating drug abuse, but in fact a strategy by the NIxonian-Reagan establishment to combat the counter-culture and suppress dissent. But as concerned Pynchon is with the abolition of civil liberties that this has led to, this repression by brute force isn't half as dangerous as the repression through media and culture.

Television (always called The Tube) is in particular a target for Pynchon's satire and analysis. It is for Pynchon a dangerous drug, that nearly everyone is on (including Pynchon, it seems, judging by amount of TV trivia he seems to know), spreads the messages of the establishment and takes over the lives of it's users. In a truly post-modern fashion, TV becomes reality for its users, who take in reality mostly through the distorted lens of television. A significant running gag in the book is that the characters watch absurd TV bio-pics, like Woody Allen in Young Kissinger, or Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story ("It was mostly Pee-wee talking in a foreign accent or sitting around in front of some pieces of paper with some weird-looking marker pen.."), many of which  are about TV personalities like Frank Gorshin, to further emphasize the point.

This way, The Tube is used by the establishment to control people, and in the end Pynchon suggests that it was The Tube which eventually killed off the Counterculture: "Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like the’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars — it was way too cheap..." Also: "Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for.."

Unlike Marijuana and LSD, the Tube is a drug that helps the establishment, which is why the former is illegal and the later encouraged. (this hypocrisy is underlined when we meet Hector, a former agent for the Drug enforcement Administration, who is so addicted to TV that he has to quit his job and undergo treatment)

This echoes the gigantic telescreens in Orwell's 1984, which Pynchon alludes to: "As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, 'From now on, I'm watching you."
 But Pynchon seems to argue, contra Orwell that the government doesn't really need this surveillance. The Tube (and our culture in general) controls people perfectly well without it: in the 60s, Brock Vond starts up forced re-education camps for Hippies who are busted in drug raids, but by 1984 he doesn't need to force people into them: young people sign up for the camps voluntarily, a truly chilling image.

But Pynchon is no pessimist. Just as in Against The Day and Gravity's Rainbow he puts the forces of love and human empathy against the capitalist machinery, which in the end redeems Frenesi and reunites the broken family.

Vineland is one of Pynchon's best. It is also one of his shorter novels despite a lot more happening in the book than my write-up here hints at, and is as such a good starting point for readers that are new to his work.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Video games are often stereotyped as poorly-written orgies of violence:  That may be true in many cases, but is just as often just a stereotype. And I have never played that disproves this stereotype more convincingly then Hotel Dusk (not that I needed convincing). Before I continue, I should warn the reader that parts of the plot are given away in this review.

Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a 2007 visual novel/Point- and click adventure game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Cing (who sadly went out of business in 2010). You play as Kyle Hyde, former detective in the New York Police department. In 1976, he was betrayed by his partner Brian Bradley, who was working undercover on a case involving a criminal organization named Nile. It seems that Bradley has joined Nile for real. Kyle confronts Bradley about this by the Hudson river, but the meeting ends with Kyle shooting Bradley, who falls in the Hudson  and disappears without his body being found. Kyle, disgraced, quits the force and takes up a salesman job, but continues to search for Bradley, who never explained why he betrayed Kyle and the police force and who Kyle is convinced is still alive. In December 1979, this search leads to the Hotel Dusk of the title, which is located in California, near Los Angeles. There Kyle soon discovers that the other guests have dark secrets in their pats, just like him, secrets  that might help him find Bradley.

The objective of the game is more or less to uncover those secrets. You do this in two ways. The first is solving puzzles, just like in a traditional western Point and click adventure game, ala Gabriel Knight or the Monkey Island series. If you ever played one of these, you feel right at home in Hotel Dusk. Here the game greatly benefits from being on the DS, as all the Point- and clicking is done via the DS touchscreen with the stylus. This is major improvement from the old mouse-driven computer adventure games, which I wouldn't be surprised to learn was actually developed by sinister forces in order to give the player a bad case of mouse arm.

The second is by simply talking to the other characters and gather information from them. Hotel Dusk is a visual novel, which means that it is text- and dialogue driven game, in which the player proceeds by choosing what the player character will do or say. An interactive novel in other words.
While playing you get to choose what Kyle will say to others, what questions he will ask them.
If you choose the right question's you will in most cases get information, which will enable you to progress in the game. But you can also choose poorly and say the wrong things. Some dialogue options can anger the other characters, due to being rude, invasive or aggressive. You can also lie to the other characters, which mostly backfires when they discover the deception. While there is just as in real life some leeway for mistakes, but if you anger another guest too much, they might stop talking to you (leaving you unable to progress), or it might even result in Kyle being thrown out of the hotel, all which leads to a game-over. (Certain puzzles requires breaking the law or at least hotel rules, and being discovered doing so also results in being thrown out and a game-over)

This text and puzzle heavy gameplay is ably supported by excellent graphics, in particular the spectacular character animation. While the backgrounds and environment are 3d, the characters are 2D animated in unique sketchy style, that is like nothing else in gaming. This is not only because of the sketchy art style (the only similarity to other games is a light manga/anime influence), but also due to the brilliant use of rotoscoping. The music, composed Satoshi Okubo is also excellent, if a bit repetitive, but absolutely capable of emotional resonance.

But the core of the experience is the writing, which is one of the best in all of the video game medium. It's greatest strength  is undoubtedly the characterization, which  can even rival the best novels I have read. The dialogue also has a very natural flow to it, that is very realistic.

The plot and storytelling is also incredibly strong. The only real flaw is the setup, which relies on the unlikely coincidence that all the people in the hotel are previously connected to each other somehow. But with such strong characters and a otherwise excellent plot (which I can't do justice in synopsis), it feels like nitpicking.

 The late 70s time period is another nice touch, which gives the game much of its charm. Much of the plot hinges on the limitations individuals had before the information society and the internet. Characters are able to "disappear" and hide. The plot has as it's foundation a hoax that simply would be impossible to perpetrate today. Information has to be gathered from talking to others, instead of consulting the internet. A good example (which also demonstrates the gameplay) is when Kyle meets a famous writer, Martin Summer. At one point, he lies to you and claims that Martin Summer is just a pseudonym, his real name is Alan Parker. Later, you talk to a fan of his books, and ask her about this. She informs you that Summer is not a pen-name, but in fact his given name. If this had taken place today, Kyle would have been able to find this out himself, using the internet. This furthers the theme of the importance of communication and is a lovely way to let the setting inform gameplay and plot.

Perhaps the foremost reason for the strength of the writing is that it lacks most if not all cliches of not only the video game medium but also the mystery/detective genre the game belongs to. Most video games are about you doing something epic and heroic, defeating a villain, saving the world etc.., which is true even in the non-violent adventure games. This is also the case for detective novels, in which the detective usually solves a murder, and brings the bad guy to justice, something that is true even of the more cynical noir novels. To say the least, Kyle Hyde does none of that.

What remains is a deeply unorthodox video game and a just as unorthodox detective story. Kyle never uses violence, but instead relies on his ability to convince others to give him information and his problem-solving skills. The  problems and mysteries he solves are all deeply personal. There is no saving the world here. And while there is murder involved, it isn't the driving focus as in the traditional mystery novel.

There is no villain either. Conflict exists, but is resolved peacefully and all the characters in the end emerge as sympathetic. The only candidate for the villain role is eventually revealed to have been dead for months by the time the game starts, shot in revenge by one he has wronged. The game here brilliantly de-constructs the traditional and in fiction omnipresent revenge story, in which all problems are solved by killing "the bad guy". The villain is revealed to have a daughter, who he loved and is totally innocent of his crimes, who now is left without family.

In place of the violence of the common crime novel or video game, the game offers the alternative of communication. Kyle has the ability to make people tell him the dark secrets in their pasts, and in this confession, they seem to be redeemed. If there is a message in Hotel Dusk, it is simply that honesty and communication are important, and can make you a better person. As mentioned above, you can anger the other people in the hotel to the point, that they don't speak to you any more, or even have you thrown out. But there is nearly always a simple way to avoid this: be nice to others and tell them the truth. A clear message, or at least good advice.

The ending is very ambiguous and bittersweet, but also shines with a subtle hope. In the end,  Kyle has seemingly accomplished little. He hasn't found Bradley, or any of the other missing people in the story. Unlike nearly every other detective story, the guilty remain unpunished and the one exception hardly seems worth it.
But in his interactions with the other guests and the staff of the hotel, he has in some sense redeemed them and himself. He has found out why Bradley betrayed him, and seems to be able to put it past him. The others, who have lived miserable lives plagued by guilt over past wrongs, has thanks to Kyle found the motivation to continue living and try to make amends for the mistakes they made.

So, try to get a hold of this game if you can. As said, Cing went bankrupt in 2010, (proof if anything, that capitalism doesn't reward quality or talent) but not before developing a sequel: Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. They also made the similar Another Code series, consisting of one game for the DS and one for the Wii, which takes in the same world as Hotel Dusk. I haven't played them myself, but if they are half as good as Hotel Dusk, they will be worth it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Five writers who should have received the Nobel Prize

Today the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is announced by The Swedish Academy. I am deeply sceptical of the whole idea of prizes in literature. I agree with Jan Myrdal, who in a 1974 tv interview (1), expressed a worry that such prizes have a limiting or controlling effect, by showing authors what and how to write,  enforcing the artistic standards of the bourgeois establishment. The very fact that most people have a pretty clear idea of the kind of books and authors who win these awards show that Myrdal is right: It's well known that most award-winning writers are non-experimental, "apolitical" realists with no sense of humour. The best thing would to abolish all literary prizes, including The Nobel and disarm the Literary establishment of one of its most damaging weapons.

But even if we hypothetically accept the prize as a concept, it is hard to argue that the Academy has done a good job of recognizing merit. Granted, merit is a subjective concept. But most writers, who have been awarded the prize in the past have been forgotten, and most of the writers who are remembered today did not get it. Time is in the end the only judge that matters, although I must admit that there are many authors who are unfairly forgotten. Nevertheless, with few exceptions like Thomas Mann, most writers who in my opinion based on merit should have been given the prize have been ignored by the academy. So here is a short list of writers, both living and dead, who should have gotten the prize. This list is based on my own limited reading, and others can surely give other names (2). The list come with short motivations, which shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Alan Moore, for taking writing in the Comics medium to new heights with works like "From Hell".

Thomas Pynchon, for his experimental and magnificent novels, which with humor and empathy explore what it means to live (I must admit that a big part of the reason I want Pynchon to get the Nobel is because I want to see what he will do. If he does something a smidgen as delightful as what he did when he received an award in 1974, it will be worth seeing)

Allen Ginsberg, for his innovative poetry, which revealed the human costs of modern capitalism.

James Joyce, who has done more to innovate the modern novel than any other writer.

Virginia Woolf, for her poetic fiction, with its deep psychological insight.


(1) The interview can be found here (in Swedish)

(2) For example, I haven't read much of Auden (though I have liked what I read), so it wasn't really possible for me to add him to the list. Ditto for Zola, Tolstoy, Graves and other famous "Nobel rejects".

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Life disease (prose poem/ short fiction)

"Life is an aberration, a disease of the lifeless universe. The moon is but a reflection of the Earth, as it should be."

When I first read the book, I dismissed it's author as a madman, but slowly the thoughts contained therein started to grow inside my mind and gain control. At first, it was just a mild disgust at sunlight on my skin, that with time became unbearably strong. Now the sun for me is like a repulsive insect crawling across the canopy of the sky; it's light a poison, regurgitated by photosynthesis, giving birth to the sickness of life.

I hide inside by day, covering my windows, only venturing outside on moonless nights, not able to bear the reflected light of the moon (and only with agony can I withstand the distant light of the stars). I pity the moon for being forced to reflect the light of the sun, stripping her bare of the beautiful darkness.

Now, I eat mostly to escape the pain of hunger, the ultimate symptom of the life disease. The only hope in my continued existence, is for the eclipse. Not an ordinary eclipse, for even a "total" eclipse permits the odious light from the corona to reach the Earth and only lasts for a few minutes at most, but the final eclipse.

It is written in the book, and the stars will be right to bring it about within my lifetime. The author was not so lucky, and had taken his life after finishing the book. From it I have learned the spells that will have to be performed.

Soon the moon will move closer to the Earth and slowly swallow the horrible light and the disgusting warmth of the sun forever, extinguishing the vile disease of life. We will look up and see neither sun or stars, but only a beautiful dark, cold moon... Luna...Luna

Author's note

This poem started with the central image of the Sun as an "insect crawling across the canopy of the sky" and grew from there quite naturally. As I tried to explain why someone would think that, I went from hatred of the Sun to hatred of light to hatred of life, and love of the antithesis of both the sun and life, the barren Moon.
Another inspiration was my own sensitivity to sunlight as a child. I actually covered up my bedroom window with a black blanket, because I couldn't stand the light of the early afternoon. (the window faces south). But of course this poem is pure fiction and I don't really believe any of things it main character believes. I am on much better terms with sunlight nowadays, although a lot of that sensitivity remains.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this poem to H. P. Lovecraft, for invaluable inspiration.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon

Against The Day a is 1000+ pages thick epic novel by Thomas Pynchon. It tells the somewhat absurd and humorous, but deeply emotional stories of a variety of characters, taking place in the years 1893 to 1923. They include, among others: The Chums of Chance, a group of adventurers who, in a loving parody of period pulp science fiction, fly around the world in the airship Inconvenience; Lew Basnight, a detective whose life is destroyed due to a crime he doesn't remember committing; Merle Rideout, the daughter to a travelling photographer, who as an adult sets off to find her mother who had run off with magician; Yashmeen Halfcourt, an orphan who is raised by English occultists and Cyprian Latewood, bisexual spy for the British empire, who begins to question his employer.

The centre of the book is however, the Traverse siblings, Frank, Kit, Reed and Lake. Their Father Webb Traverse is miner and an anarchist-syndicalist, who uses dynamite in his struggle against capitalism. Webb is however murdered by the villainous capitalist Scarsdale Vibe and his sons swear revenge. They soon get sidetracked however by their own stories.
The book is an absurd epic, but Pynchon manages to combine his absurd plots with very real human emotions and deep characters. As a writer, he is often accused of being emotionless and dry, something he ably disproves with this book. Amidst all the absurdity and humour, very real and resonant themes and emotions of loss and love develop. The characters struggle to love in an cold and cruel capitalist world, and must deal with death in various forms.

Pynchon is also an incredible stylist and the prose of this book is simply incredible. Here we have both humour and heart-rending emotion. Even if one loses track of the various plot threads, the prose makes one want to continue nevertheless.  I especially liked the parodies or pastiches of various genres of fiction. The Chums of Chance sections are for example written in a pulp adventure style, Lew Basnight's story is in the style of a detective novel and parts of the story of the Traverse family in a western style. There is a also a brief but very good pastiche of Lovecraft relatively early in the book.

Pynchon's use of motifs in the novel is also impressive. There is a central motif or theme in the book of doubling. The Chums of Chance, for example encounter Russian counterparts of themselves and at the end of the book gets transported to a parallel earth. There is two minor characters, the professors Werfner and Renfrew who are doubles of each other and whose names is a palindrome. The magician who Merle Rideout's mother runs off with, can create identical doubles of a person. In a memorable passage, fiction is described as giving the reader a "dual existence" between material reality and the world of the book. Finally, the book is dominated by the image of the Icelandic spar, which double refracts light.

Another central theme is the time period of 1893 to 1923 itself. Pynchon ably describes how the optimism of the age, which both the form of the liberal capitalist idea of eternal progress and the socialist dream of a better world, came to an end in the First World War and the brutal repression of the socialist movement in the United States. This is depicted partially through The Chums of Chance, who being pulp adventurers of course embody this optimism, and who comes to question everything they stand for, as the war approaches and eventually break out.
Pynchon gives powerful and harrowing depictions of both the war and the Ludlow massacre (a central moment in the repression of the US socialist movement), in which he doesn't parody, but rather evokes the writings of Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque, Upton Sinclair and other writers who have depicted the same horrors.

But Pynchon doesn't give in to despair and is thankfully unfashionable enough as writer to give the reader a hopeful and happy ending. Despite everything, hope should not be abandoned, Pynchon seems to argue. The Chums of Chance eventually construct an new positive world-view after the war has ended and starts to build an utopia aboard their airship, which leads to one of the most moving and optimistic ending sentences in all of literature:  "They will feel the turn in the wind. They will put on smoked goggles for the glory of what is coming to part the sky. They fly toward grace."

A fitting ending to one of the best novels I have ever read. A true epic, skilfully told with both love and humour.

Friday, 19 September 2014

"The Ocean at the End of the Lane" by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, in part, a novel about childhood, written from an adult perspective. The story is told by an unnamed narrator, who in the present remembers the events of the book, which happened when he was seven years old, which was about forty years ago.

His parents, in order to make ends meet, take in a lodger. He is a cruel opal miner from South Africa, who due to his gambling debts, steals the family car and commits suicide in it. However, due to him committing suicide in a magical place, his death summons forth a Lovecraftian monster from another universe. Thankfully, three women live on a farm at the end of the lane, The Hempstocks, who fight against the monstrous being. The Hempstocks are of course not human at all, but in fact powerful supernatural beings, of whom the oldest is even older than the universe. On their farm is a duckpond, which is in fact the ocean of the title.

One of Neil Gaiman's strengths as a writer has always been his ability to ground the fantastic in mundane reality. And that ability is very much in evidence here. The story is partly autobiographical and it is not hard to recognize Gaiman in the lonely and bookish child, who lives "more in books than.. anywhere else" and grows up to be an artist. He fills the book with little details, obviously from his own childhood in the 1960s, that make the story and its world interesting and convincing.
His stylistic strength as a writer is here too, the book is a delight to read. The text flows in a way that is very rare and it is very quotable. The characterization is very strong too. I particularly liked the portrayal of the narrator and his father, and their relationship. As anybody familiar with The Sandman might expect,  Gaiman's non-human characters are also very well drawn, both the monstrous villian and the Hempstocks (who, by the way, reflect the archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone).

As I said before, this is a book about childhood and it is one of the best books I have read on the subject. Gaiman brilliantly captures the wonder of childhood: “I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”

But as the quote implies, Gaiman is very much aware of the vulnerability of children, which is the source of much of the horror of the novel. Indeed, the narrator seems much more vulnerable to human adults, than to the inhuman monstrosities he must face. At one point, the Lovecraftian monster that is the villian of the book even transforms itself into an adult human, and by doing this becomes more of a threat to Gaiman's boy hero than it was before.

This way, Gaiman cleverly connects this mundane human fear all children have, with a grand cosmic, Lovecraftian horror, where the reality we know is, as he delightfully puts it, merely "a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger". This dark perspective is put into contrast by the Hempstocks, who act as a powerful, but benevolent counterforce to the immense monsters, who haunt the cosmos.

This is a rare book. It is a novel about childhood, which doesn't fall into shapeless nostalgia, but instead retains the wisdom that comes with growing up and applies it to childhood in order to bring light to it. Gaiman manages to keep both the wisdom of age and the ability of a child to see an ocean in a pond.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki (manga review)

Hayao Miyazaki is more known as a film director than as a mangaka, and judging by his own comments, he prefers it that way. In a essay included with my edition, he confesses to having "no talent for comics" and seems to have finished Nausicaä purely out of a sense of duty. It was almost surreal to read that, as the book I held in my hands proves him wrong.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind  is a fantasy/science fiction story about our planet, after our industrial civilization is destroyed in a cataclysmic war, called "The Seven Days of Fire". Despite the environmental destruction caused by industrialism and war, humanity survives, though the industrial civilisation is never rebuilt. According to the prologue, industrial civilisation lasted for about a thousand years, and in the comic itself, we learn that a thousand years has passed since its destruction. As industrial civilisation began around 1800, I guess that means the comic is supposed to take place around the year 3800.

After the apocalypse, a forest begins to grow on the polluted wastelands left by the humans, whose plants gives off a toxic miasma, called the Sea of Corruption, which takes over most of the land. Humans are forced to live on its periphery on the little land that remains, where they form small kingdoms, primarily using aircraft for transportation. The title character, Nausicaä, is the princess of one of these small kingdoms, called the Valley of the Wind. As the manga begins, war breaks out between two empires, The Torumekian empire and The Dorok empire. By necessity, The Valley of The Wind is allied to the Torumekians and Nausicaä is required to fight for them.

Thus begins an epic and thrilling, but philosophical adventure, that I will leave the readers to discover for themselves. For Nausicaä is one of the best comics I have ever read. To begin, it has simply beautiful and very detailed artwork with amazing designs, that pulls the reader into the complex world that Miyazaki constructs.

For that matter, the world-building in this manga is simply wonderful. One of Miyazaki's inspirations in creating it was Tolkien, who was the first great world-builder in fantasy, and it shows.
Miyazaki's imagination is seemingly limitless in its ability to create new and original places, animals and plants. The Sea of corruption in itself is a powerful thought, and the immense insects who live in it are among the most original creatures in fantasy. Several times while reading, I was struck by the sense of wonder, which is the hallmark of all good fantasy and science fiction.

The world is compelling and believable, although it is somewhat illogical how everyone keeps using aircraft in this non-industrial world, seemingly without having to worry about fuel at all. But as usual in Miyazaki's works, the flying scenes are wonderful and his love for flight radiates through them, so one can't really complain.

This is all tied together by a strong and intelligent story, with simple, but profound themes. Miyazaki may be accused of preaching, as his thesis, while subtle overall, is obvious to the discerning reader, but as it is a very good sermon, this stands in its favour.

The manga is especially strong in its clear depiction of the horrors and madness of war. It shows how war is nearly always caused by cynical greed instead of the supposedly noble causes warmongers always claim to be inspired by. As Peter Hammil puts it: "every bloody emperor claims that freedom is his cause". (and while we are on the subject of war and violence, I must say that this comic is the perfect refutation of the idea that one can not create a thrilling adventure story, that is also against violence.)

As in many of Miyazaki's works, the main character is a young woman, a subtle feminist statement by itself. But as you might have guessed from my synopsis above, the ecological message is paramount here. And it is a message of such rare beauty and power, that I won't even attempt to reproduce it here.

And finally, there are the wonderful and likeable characters. Miyazaki's characterization are one of his strengths. In Nausicaä he manages to create an (almost messianic) role-model, who embodies his message of empathy with all living things, but who also has human faults and foibles. But my personal favourite character is Kushana, the Torumekian princess, a warrior woman involved in the power struggles of her empire, but who slowly becomes influenced by Nausicaä peaceful views. And this is only two of the many wonderful characters in this comic.

Part of the reason for this is Miyazaki's rejection of the traditional western concept of good and evil people. There are characters who perform evil actions, but they are not themselves wholly evil and unredeemable (and of course the heroes are not wholly good either, although Nausicaä comes very close to that). This makes for complex characterizations. Often Miyazaki will introduce someone or something that seems evil, only to slowly reveal more or develop the character, so that the thing or character not only seems not so evil, but actually loveable. Often I found myself feeling sympathy for a character I hated a few hundred pages earlier.

And that is the greatness of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It not only advocates universal love for all living things, even those who seem contemptible and disgusting, but makes the reader also feel that love.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

"The King of Elflands Daughter" by Lord Dunsany

 A council in the kingdom of the valley of Erl, demand to be ruled by a magic king, so that their land will not be forgotten by the world. Their present king sends out his son Alveric to go to Elfland and fetch The King of Elflands Daughter as his wife. With help of a magic sword, forged by the witch Ziroonderel, he makes his way into the beautiful, but dangerous Elfland. He meets the elven princess, Lirazel and they fall in love. And Alveric takes her to the kingdom of Erl to be his wife...

The King of Elflands Daughter is a novel about the conflict between the mundane human world of Erl and the elfin magic of Elfland. This is a conflict that takes many forms in the novel and in reality: the conflict between Christianity and paganism, the human-made world and nature, dreams and practical reality, masculinity and femininity, childhood and adulthood.

Dunsany doesn't take sides in this struggle and both sides have their faults. The denizens of Elfland, for example, are immortal and time in their land moves very slowly, so that each moment may be appreciated in full by everyone. Therefore there is no hurry, stress or ageing in Elfland. As beautiful and desirable this may be, it also leads to almost complete stagnation (1). Ageing and death is a blessing, as it means change, growth and new people.

 On the other hand, the human world can be cruel and rule-bound. When Lirazel comes to Erl, Alveric tries to convert her to Christianity. However, as an elf, a pagan being, she is, despite trying her best, unable to become Christian and would rather worship the stars. For this, she is shunned and treated with cruelty by the humans, even Alveric. In this and other matters, Lirazel is unable to conform to the human way of life, and keeps to her "elvish ways". She eventually returns to Elfland.
For while, no one is at fault in this conflict, the rational human world and magic can not co-exist.

For Lord Dunsany, the magical world is not at all mendable to human demands, but in fact much greater and powerful than humanity. It is not hard to see the influence he had on H. P. Lovecraft, not only in the Dream-cycle stories, but also in Lovecrafts more famous horror stories. Just as in Lovecrafts books, humanity is surrounded by immense supernatural forces, so large and powerful that they are largely indifferent towards humans, who they see as insignificant. Lovecraft used this "cosmic" perspective as the basis for his magnificent horror stories.

However, in Dusany's stories (and of course in  Lovecrafts own fantasy stories) the magical is not only frightening, but also full of wonder and beauty. And this is perhaps the foremost reason to read The King of Elflands Daughter, for Dunsany's writing is, to me, simply deeply beautiful, both in content and form. His prose is unique, lyrical and dreamlike. It is often imitated, but rarely sucessfully.

Of course, the novel shows it's age at times and is far from perfect. The foremost weakness of the book was for me was the story of Orion, the son of Lirazel and Alveric. He is, as befits his name, a hunter, and spends a large part of the novel hunting unicorns with dogs at the borders of Erl and Elfland. The narrative doesn't condemn his actions and even celebrates them, which isn't surpsing considering the book was written in 1924, but it is hard for a modern person not to view Orion's actions as cruel and brutish, making these parts somewhat unpleasant to read (2). There is also a very silly plot development, in which Orion gets help hunting from trolls, that wouldn't seem out of place in a Terry Pratchett novel.

I was compelled to contrast this with T. H. White's The Once and Future King, in which unicorn hunting is also portrayed, but there as a cruel destruction of beauty, which to me is a much more relatable perspective, than Dunsany's enthusiasm for trophy hunting.

On the other hand, there is much beautiful writing even in these weaker parts of Dunsany's book. The depiction of Orion's childhood and coming of age are one of the best parts of the book and the encounter of the trolls with the Human world is very beautiful, as is the chapter in which the trolls convince the will o' the wisps to help Orion hunt.

So, despite some flaws, this is an incredible and very beautiful book, one of the foundation stones of the fantasy genre. As Lovecraft put it in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature: 

"... no amount of mere description can convey more than a fraction of Lord Dunsany’s pervasive charm... To the truly imaginative he is a talisman and a key unlocking rich storehouses of dream and fragmentary memory; so that we may think of him not only as a poet, but as one who makes each reader a poet as well."

"Lirazel" (sung by Mary Hopkin)from the album "The King of Elflands Daughter" by Bob Johnson and Peter Knight (both members of Steeleye Span)


(1) This is an idea Tolkien would later explore in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, in which the elves stagnate due to their near-immortality.

(2) Lord Dunsany was a keen hunter himself, and these parts of the book are probably based on his own experiences fox-hunting with dogs. This form of hunting is now banned in the UK. Interestingly, Dunsany, despite being a hunter, was also a animal welfare activist, active within the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and even president of it's West Kent branch.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Kaze Tachinu (2013, dir. H. Miyazaki) - an analysis

"Kaze Tachinu" (The Wind Rises), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is an animated and fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi (played by Hideaki Anno), an airplane designer who created the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter in the years preceding the second world war. He combines the story of Horikoshi, with elements drawn from a short novel by Japanese author Tatsuo Hori. The theme is fitting for Miyazaki, especially as it is supposed to be his final film. His fascination with flight, and the wonder and beauty of it, runs through his work.

The film is a poetic and elegiac portrayal of Horikoshi's life, in which Miyzaki uses a complex and beautiful visual language. The film takes as much place inside the mind of Jiro, as in the world around him, shifting seamlessly between his world of dreams and imagination and the real world
(Before I continue, I should warn the reader that I am going to discuss and analyze the plot of the film in some detail, including the ending).

Miyazaki portrays Horikoshi as an artist and airplanes as beautiful art. Miyazaki has a love of flying, that shows itself in practically all his films, but never more than here. The beauty of the airplanes of the past is fully on display in this film and Miyazaki fully imparts his love of them unto the audience. In Miyazaki's eyes, technology and engineering is an artform (1). At times, one even gets a science-fictionlike sense of wonder from the beautiful designs, all the more wonderful because they are real.  Miyazaki, known to be the master of fantasy, here makes reality as wonderful as fantasy (2).

This is entirely appropriate, as airplanes (as technology in general), by going from an idea in the mind of the designer to concrete realtity, are dreams made real. (and of course, the airplane is realization of one of the oldest human dreams, that of flight).  This breakdown between imagination and reality are fully present in the film itself, since its travels fluidly between Jiro's imagination and reality.

A world with pyramids


But dreams can also be nightmares and beauty corrupted. In the hands of the military, the beautiful airplanes become instruments of death and destruction. Jiro himself ends up designing fighter planes for the military. Of course, he realized that this would happen and, being a man of peace, struggles with the dilemma.  In his imagination, he speaks to his hero, airplane designer Count Caproni, who himself ended up designing war planes. Caproni (or rather himself) tells him to go ahead despite this. He makes an analogy with the pyramids (which were built by slave labor) and says he would rather have a world with pyramids, than one without. The world is better off with the beauty of Jiro's creations, despite the fact that others are going to use them for evil.

But of course, this is no definite answer and in the end Jiro surveys the carnage caused by the war, sincerely wondering if his Zero fighter was worth it (3).

This is of course a very difficult subject matter, but Miyazaki handles it beautifully, condemning war and imperialism, but recognizing the beauty of the Zero fighter and the humanity of its designer. He wrestles maturely with the questions this means and doesn't give easy answers.

"Das gibt's nur einmal"


The film also tells the story of the love between Jiro and his wife Naoko. He meets her during the great earthquake of 1923, when he rescues her and her mother from its effects. They are afterwards separated for several years, before they meet again at a holiday resort. Their love blossoms and they become engaged to each other.

But sadly, Naoko suffers from tuberculosis and is eventually confined to a sanatorium (Thomas Mann's Der Zauberberg is naturally explicitly referenced.). But her love for Jiro is too strong and she leaves the sanatorium to live with and marry him, despite this shortening her life. She decides that living a short life with the one she loves, is better than a longer life without him. Miyazaki seems to argue that life without love is not worth living, no matter how long (4). 

Myiazaki of course connects this theme to the questions raised by Jiro's work. Jiro "choosing a world with pyramids", by creating the Zero fighter, is in the end the same decision Naoko makes when she leaves the sanatorium.

But yet again, Miyazaki avoids easy answers. Naoko eventually returns to the sanatorium, but this time to die, in order to spare Jiro the pain of seeing her die. Just as she feared, burning brighter also means one burns out faster (5).

"The Wind rises"


 The ending is sad and elegiac. Naoko dies and Jiro's beautiful plane becomes a tool of destruction in the second world war. In the ending scene, which takes place in Jiro's imagination, he surveys the carnage and questions his life. But there is also hope.

This hope is in the very title of the film, which comes from a poem by Paul Valery: ‘Le Cimetiere marin’ ("The graveyard by the sea") which also serves as the films motto: "The wind rises!...  We must try to live!"  The wind is a recurring motif throughout the film, that is associated with Naoko.

Finally the wind rises one last time and Naoko appears. She tells Jiro to keep on living, before she disappears. On that melancholic, but hopeful note, the film ends. As Valery tells us: despite all the suffering in the world, we must try to live.


(1)There is one scene in which he extends this viewpoint beyond aeroplanes to technology in general, when Jiro admires a radiator and compares it to his beloved planes. I remember this particularly because my house has very similar old-fashioned water-radiators and the scene has made me appreciate them more.

(2) Miyazaki does the same thing with the Japanese countryside, making it seem as fantastic and wonderful as the fantasy landscapes in some of his earlier films.

(3)  Jiro says that none of the Zero fighters survived, which is a very beautiful and poetic idea, despite not being true, as there are a few surviving Zeros.

(4)  It is no coincidence, that Jiro sings the period schlager "Das gibt nur einmal, das kommt nicht wieder", right before announcing his engagement to Naoko. The ethos of the song, that life is to be lived to the fullest because it is the only one we have, is also that of her life and marriage.

(5) It is also implied that Naoko sacrifices herself, not only for her love, but for Jiro's work. She acts as muse to Jiro, inspiring him, during his work on the Zero fighter, and she only leaves when it is finished, making her the fighters first victim.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

In memoriam, Francesco Di Giacomo (1947-2014)

I have just learned that Francesco Di Giacomo, the lead singer of Italian progressive rock band Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso, has tragically died in a car accident on the 22th of February. With him, Porgressive rock lost one of it's greatest singers.

Italy for some reason, really took to progressive rock in the 70s in a way that few, if any, countries did. Prof. Bill Martin in his book about the music, "Listening to the Future" argues that this is due to the romantic currents which run deep in Italian culture. The Italians could therefore sympathize with the music of the (mainly) English progressive rock bands, which took deep influences from earlier English romanticism, both in poetry and music (Martin also points out that the English romantic poets, especially Byron, often took inspiration from the Italian landscape).

This did not only mean the mass-popularity of the English original bands In Italy (It was the only country in which "Pawn Hearts" by Van Der Graaf Generator not only made the album charts, but went all the way to number one), but also that the Italians created their own progressive music.
This rock music "sprang fully-grown from the head of Jupiter" in Italy, Martin notes, as it was the first kind of rock music to catch on there

Perhaps the best of all Italian Progressive rock bands, certainly one of the best, was Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso. They, like many of these bands took the English style and made it their own, adding Italian folk music and opera into their music.  Their very distinct sound was defined by their two keyboardists, the brothers Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzi; and of course Di Giacomo's beautiful and warm tenor, which often was operatic in style. He sang, like most bands in the Italian progressive rock movement, in Italian (with the exception of some lesser recorded efforts in English). Two of their best records were 1972's "Darwin!" ( a concept album about evolutionary theory) and 1973's "Io sono nato libero" ("I was born free", a hymn to freedom,with a 15 minute long opening track in support of the political prisoners in Latin American fascist dictatorships).

Even when one doesn't know Italian, one is often greatly moved by Di Giacomo's wonderful singing, which shows his power as a singer; the ability he had to convey emotion and move listeners all over the world just with his voice, many who didn't understand the language he spoke and sang. Hopefully he will continue to do so through the records he made.

Here are some testaments to that, recorded at an reunion concert in the early 90s. I hope they show a little of his range as a singer and, of course, the abilities of the band. Both selections are from "Darwin!"

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Tear down the mountains" ( a poem)

Dedicated to the sharks in the waters off the coast of Western Australia

"Tear down the mountains, we're afraid to fall".
"Dry the oceans, we're afraid to drown"
"Kill the wolves, we're afraid to be eaten"
So they scream in shrill voices, the "stewards of the Earth"
To them the Earth belongs
They who have never understood.

I dream of sharks at night
Huge, white, with many teeth
I do not fear

I see men, in suits.
Old and frail.
I scream in fear

For sharks kill to eat, men in suits kill to earn.
The sharks will stop eating, once they are full,
but the men are never full
They will go on, eating forests, libraries, oceans, schools, animals and hospitals,
until there is nothing left on this Earth.


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

In memory of Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

I learned this morning that Pete Seeger has died. He was musician I admired tremendously. Like few artists then and very few now, he made a political and humanitarian commitment central to his work as an artist. But on the other hand, he never compromised the quality of his art for any other sake. He wouldn't put "extra syllables into a line" as Tom Lehrer criticised other folk singers of doing.

The warmth and humanism of his work is ever present, even in his harshest condemnations of the powers that be. Punk rockers, take notes.  We should also never forget his courage; how he stood firm and proud when when the HUAC tried to censor him in the 50s. When he sang about oppression, it was real to him.

I loved his versions of old folk songs and the new ones he wrote, like "If I Had a Hammer" and of course "Where Have All the Flowers Gone". "My Rainbow Race" is a simple, but very moving and life-affirming song. I am sure they will be sung for many years to come.

While his studio recordings are nothing exceptional, his wonderful live performances are uniformly excellent. He was capable of developing an incredible chemistry with the audience and could get them to sing along with almost everything he performed. With his charisma he essentially made the audience into a willing choir for him. This chemistry, joy and energy are ever present on his live recordings, which are wonderful to listen to and are a wonderful introduction to American folk music.
It's through those recordings I came to know him and, in the unlikely event that nothing else survives (for there is much that he did in his long life that deserves to and will be remembered), he will be very fondly remembered by them.

In the end, I would like to quote what he inscribed on his banjo, which I think sums up his life's work very well: "This Machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender"

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Psuedohistorically informed performance

One of the most depressing trends in modern music is the ubiquity of ”historically informed performance” (HIP) practice. For the uniformed, this means performing the music on period instruments and adhering slavishly to the notes and rhythms marked, in the effort to be "authentic" and adhere to "the composer's intentions".

This has become obligatory in recent years when performing pre-romantic music and practically all heresy have been driven from the concert hall, including great conductors like the late Sir Colin Davis (1)  and Pierre Boulez (2), all in the pursuit of "authenticity" 

However the philosophy underlining HIP is weak, as it's questionable that we can create authentic performances or even that we should do so.

Turning back the clock

The first problem with creating "historically informed performances" is that we don't know much about how the music was originally performed before the invention of sound recordings in the late 1800s. Musical notation becomes only more and more vague and questionable the longer back we go in history. For performance practice we have rely on contemporary descriptions of how they played and instruction books on performance, which is thin stuff indeed. We don't even know if they followed the instruction books or not. To make the case even clearer, try to imagine a future historian trying to reconstruct modern performances without the benefit of recordings. Even with our much improved musical notation, it would indeed be a difficult, if not impossible task.

It is therefore very much in doubt whether we can create (or re-create) a "historically informed" or "authentic" performance. But even if such a thing existed, if the people in the HIP movement could play a piece of music just as it was played when the composer was alive, without "modern distortions", would we, the listeners, hear the music as the composer intended, as his original audience would hear it?

Of course not. Our experiences are far too different from that of the original audience, which would make the experience cloured or "distorted" by modernity. Imagine a time-traveler, who traveled back to the 1791 and went to premiere of "Die Zauberflöte". Would he or she listen to Mozart with the same ears as that of the contemporary audience?

"We cannot", as Professor Mark Berry (3) puts it, "unhear "The Rite of Spring" or the sound of the modern orchestra..." Nor, as the professor continues, should we wish to. There is no reason why we shouldn't continue to reinvent the music of the past and create a dialogue with history, instead of trying to preserve it.

That HIP, with a few exceptions doesn't take this into account show how, despite its claims to historicity, it lack grounding in the science of history. The movement takes a child's view of history, where it is the mere repetition of base facts, the listing of kings and presidents. It cares more about the instruments of the age, than the people who played them. It cares only for how the music was played, not why the musicians played that way. The understanding of the wider context, the analysis and interpretation of the facts that real history demands is beyond them. It is psuedohistory, a form of antiquarianism. They are "interested in historical facts without being interested in history", to paraphrase historian Arnaldo Momigliano.

"Dead, absent and indifferent"

The main argument for HIP is that by adhering to HIP practice, the performer honors the composer's intentions. Of course, as the preceding sections points out, it's probably impossible to recreate the performance the composer intended via HIP.

However, a more important fault with the argument is that it rests on the assumption that we should honor the composer's intentions. While it the HIP movement rejects "romanticizing" pre-romantic music, it ironically does so in the name of the romantic ideal of the artist as genius, whose work should not be tampered with.

The first problem with this is that the intentions of long-dead composers are unknownable. We can't possibly know what Bach or Mozart would have thought about Karl Böhm or Wilhelm Furtwängler performing their works on modern instruments, whether they would have liked it or rejected it. Their works now belong to us, the living, to interpret as we want. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, there is no point to performing a work, as it was when the composer was "alive, present and approving", when the difference is that he or she is now "dead, absent and indifferent". This is no more presumptous by us than claiming to know the minds of the dead (4)

I will in fact go so far as to say that there is no reason to put the composer's intentions above that of the performer. The performer is also an artist and if he or she can create good music by not adhering to the composers expressed intentions, he or she should do so. The work of pianists like Alfred Cortot and Glenn Gould are good examples of the excellent music that can result from not adhering slavishly to the composers intent.

This brings us to the second problem with using the composers intentions as a standard. For the fact is, that throughout most of our history composers expected the performer to take liberties with their music, and as musicians themselves, interpreted other composers music. The idea of putting the composer's intentions above those of the performer can be traced back to the composer Igor Stravinsky and the conductor Arturo Toscanini in the twentieth century. (5)

Earlier composers and musicians have no such scruples. Bach rearranged both the music of himself and others composers, among them Vivaldi; Mozart re-orchestrated Händel's "Messiah", while Mahler re-orchestrated Beethoven's and Schumann's symphonies.

By adhering dogmatically to the score, to the composers intentions as written, we may thus ignore the deeper, unwritten intentions of the composer. As Richard Taruskin (5) points out, Mozart's music often expect the performer to embellish the written music with his own; an expectation that is most often ignored by HIP performers, who perform Mozart without "the raiment" of the music that he would have expected them to give them.

"The fundamentalism of our times"

Musicologist Richard Taruskin has written extensively on "Early Music movement" (which he has been a part of) and he found that it was quite prepared to ignore the historical evidence it claimed to follow in it's performances. This of course means that isn't really a revival of early performance practice, but instead something new. It is modern music-making, for modern tastes. (5)

HIP's origins lie in a modern taste for text-centered literalism, impersonalism and lightness, he argued. These qualities are also evident in modern compositions. The literalism and impersonalism comes from Stravinsky and Toscanini, who argued against individual interpretation by performers. Instead the musician should only play what is in the notation and become "executants" (as Stravinsky put it) of the composer's will.

The lightness comes from modern-day aversions against the strong beliefs and ideologies. In our post-modern post-ideological age, Beethoven's claim that "all men are brothers" are today seen as outdated relics of nineteenth century-optimism. The lightness is inherent in the sound of HIP, with the small ensembles and, often, the fast, dance-like rhythms the music is played with.

I think the antiquarianism and impersonalism of the HIP movement is a way of distancing the performer and the audience from the messages in the music. When you do a personal interpretation of a piece of music, you make the music's message into your own in a way. You don't distance yourself from it. But when you perform it impersonally, and instead let "historical facts" guide your performance, letting as little of yourself into the music as possible, you distance yourself from the message contained therein. "It is the composer who says this, not me".

But this lack of sublimity has not led to tolerance. The HIP movement has, as mentioned in the beginning of this article been fanatical in it's zeal to drive out all other forms of performance from the concert hall and recording studio. This has led to one of the movements pioneers (and possibly it's most reasonable and talented member) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (6) call the authenticity ideal "very close to the kind of political dogmatism and religious fundamentalism that are so much part of our times".

This has thankfully died down somewhat in recent years, when the criticism of Taruskin and others forced the HIP movement to somewhat abandon their claims to authenticity. Some "historically" informed performers have accepted the necessity to take liberties with the text and inject emotion into their performances.


Before I finish, I must say i am not against "historically informed"  performance, at all. My disagreement with it's principles, doesn't mean I reject the music. I am after all an atheist who listens to Bach. And of course, there are many HIP musicians who agree with me in my rejection of authenticity, like Harnoncourt, Frank Agsteribbe (7) and Taruskin. HIP can be the starting point for new, interesting interpretations of music and I can not imagine anyone finding anything questionable at all about the early music movements efforts to re-discover pre-baroque music, which was it's starting point. What I reject is the idea that there is one right way to perform music. There can and should be as many ways to perform a piece of music as there are performances.

                                Wilhelm Furtwängler - St. Matthew's passion (1954)

Let all rivers flow.








Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Out into the wide World

Hello, Dear Reader.

This blog will showcase my thoughts or musings, if you like, on whatever subject I want to write about. Expect a lot of stuff about literature and music, but also about politics and culture in general.
I am an Democratic Socialist and a Humanist, which will inform my commentary on such matters.
In case you wonder, my pseudonym, Sweveham, comes from a place name in William Morris's novel "The Well at the Worlds End". The name of the blog comes from the song "The Revealing science of God" by Yes from the album "Tales from Topographic Oceans": 

"Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources.
 Chased amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten..."

The name of this blogpost comes from Ralph Lundsten's tune "Ut i vida världen", which of course translates into English as "Out into the wide world" (and yes, I am Swedish).
Well, here goes. Hope You enjoy the blog.