Author Archive | Roderick

Get Met, It Pays

I’m back from NYC. Dylan Delikta unfortunately couldn’t make it to our Molinari Society anarchist panel, but otherwise the session went well; Jason’s and Alex’s papers were great, and we had a decent turnout (which for me means: the audience outnumbered the presenters).

I went to some good sessions, had some good meals, and got to hang out with some of my favourite people. I got to both Harlem and Brooklyn for the first time; and I got to spend more time at the Met than my previous, frustrating 90-minute dash, though still not seeing more than a small fraction of the whole: exhiliratingly, exhaustingly endless rooms of stunning beauty.

The book I took with me to read in idle hours (well, idle minutes) was, appropriately, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, in which the half-sunken (owing to global warming) but still-vibrant Manhattan that figures peripherally in some of Robinson’s other science fiction takes center stage. I’m about halfway through, finding it excellent so far (even if the economic views it dramatises are not precisely to my own Austro-mutualist taste).

Clouds had wrapped the sky and had descended as fog to wrap the streets below, as if the sky were engulfing the city. She could see the whole of Manhattan Island, a long, triangular shape cutting into an invisible ocean. It looked like the prow of a sinking ship; a few tall buildings still rose above it, like funnels, but the rest was disappearing under gray-blue coils, going down slowly into vapor and space. This was how they had gone – she thought – Atlantis, the city that sank into the ocean, and all the other kingdoms that vanished, leaving the same legend in all the languages of men, and the same longing.

          – from Ayn Rand’s review of New York 2140

Crushing Italian Freedom Fighters and Getting Drunk in a Bat Costume

One of my longstanding New Year’s traditions is watching the annual New Year’s concert from the Vienna Musikverein (where I finally had a chance to attend a concert [though not the New Year’s concert] during my two-day trip to Vienna in 2010). Here in Alabammy my local PBS station doesn’t carry the concert; but that’s what the internet is for:

Clapping along to the Radetzky March (at 1:21:50) is a little less fun when you realise the piece is celebrating the defeat of Italian forces fighting for independence from the Austrian Empire (the bad one, not this blog). But then a lot of great art is devoted to the celebration of bad stuff. (I’m not sure the Radetzky March is great art, but it’s pleasant art.)

Another New Year’s tradition, one I celebrate somewhat more irregularly, is watching Die Fledermaus, an operetta I’ve loved ever since I was very young. I didn’t watch it this year (too busy writing up pieces I owe various publishers – with no daylight in sight as yet!), but I made sure to listen to the overture at least, as it features many of my favourite themes from the larger work:

My history with Die Fledermaus is a bit odd. When I was nine or so, I came across the book Merry Go Round in Oz, which was written by the grandmother of someone who would eventually become a good friend of mine in grad school. One of the characters in the book was a winged mouse (not a bat, he would insist) called a Flittermouse, which is why, in a San Diego used bookstore one day, a dusty libretto of Die Fledermaus caught my eye. I must be one of the few people to have become a fan of Die Fledermaus through the libretto first. But then a few years later I caught the operetta on tv and became, properly, a still greater fan of the music.

No Sax Please, We’re Russian

I’ve been reading a biography of Sax Rohmer, the creator of Fu Manchu. The biography is quite enjoyable, if not especially reliable. (It’s based on the reminiscences of Rohmer’s widow, as well as on her reports of Rohmer’s own reminiscences; and as both Rohmers were rather fanciful storytellers and dramatisers in life as well as in literature, a heavy odor of bovine manure pervades the volume.)

In any case, I came across the following gem of critical analysis from Sax Rohmer’s pen (literally from his pen; it’s from a facsimile included in order, so we’re told [p. 273], to demonstrate how impenetrably indecipherable his handwriting was – although, as befits the book’s dubious relation to the truth, the passage is in fact perfectly readable):

Why does anybody want to know Russian? … French – yes. A knowledge of this beautiful language opens the door to a treasury of literary gems. … But Russian? Why not Eskimo or Kham? … Not only is Russian an ugly language, but what has a knowledge got to offer the student? … If we except two or three gloomy writers of no major importance, what do these new enthusiasts expect to learn from an ability to read Russian? Russia is peculiarly barren in great literature.
(Quoted between pp. 151 and 152 of Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer, Master of Villainy: A Biography of Sax Rohmer (Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972).)

Rohmer, with his keen ability to sniff out menaces from the East, goes on to speculate that this otherwise inexplicable interest among Westerners in Russian literature and the Russian language must be part of a Communist plot aiming at a Soviet takeover of the West. Yes, he’s surely hit the nail on the head there.

Incidentally (whilst on the subject of Rohmer), the most interesting thing about the original Fu Manchu stories (by contrast, mostly, with the movies) is how easy it is to read them against the grain, i.e., to read Fu Manchu as a hero, or at least an antihero, rather than a villain. I’m not saying that was Rohmer’s intention; sadly, all evidence suggests otherwise. But if it had been his intention, he could have achieved it by writing something pretty close to the stories he actually wrote:

The mummy of Pharaoh Seti I, described by Rohmer as his conception of what Fu Manchu should look like

The mummy of Pharaoh Seti I, described by Rohmer as his conception of what Fu Manchu should look like

a) Throughout most of the stories, Fu Manchu’s “fiendish Oriental plot” consists essentially in trying to protect Asia from Western imperialism.

b) Despite his ruthlessness, Fu Manchu is portrayed, for the most part, as a man of honour, who keeps his word even to his enemies.

c) Nayland Smith, the Sherlock-Holmes-based character and supposed hero of the stories, is virulently racist; but his assistant Dr. Petrie, the Dr.-Watson-based character who narrates the early stories, while he never criticises Smith’s racism, and is not entirely free of racism himself, never expresses anything remotely close to the same level of racism as Smith, and also comes across generally as far more likable than Smith – all of which serves to distance the stories from a full endorsement of Smith’s “Yellow Peril” rhetoric. And while Smith describes Fu Manchu as “the yellow peril incarnate in one man,” Rohmer has other sympathetic and knowledgeable characters describe the idea of a “Yellow Peril” as “ridiculous” and a “defunct bogey,” insisting that whatever threat Fu Manchu and others like him may pose has nothing to do with their being specifically Chinese. Relatedly, when Petrie falls in love with Kâramanèh (an “eastern” or “Eurasian” woman of rather vague ethnicity), Smith immediately distrusts her on racist grounds – but she turns out to be reliable and trustworthy; here again, the racist perspective of the supposed hero is undermined.

In many ways Fu Manchu seems to be a fictional ancestor of pulp heroes like the Shadow (who was similarly a mysterious, powerful, and fiendishly clever figure, principled but ruthless, with a vast army of agents). William Blake once described John Milton, in connection with his romantic portrayal of Satan’s rebellion in Paradise Lost, as being “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” and I think it might equally be said that Rohmer was of Fu Manchu’s party without knowing it.

I’d love to see a miniseries featuring Fu Manchu as the protagonist. As noted, it could follow the plots of the original stories with surprisingly few changes. I’d also love to see it fill in the backstory that is only alluded to in the original stories (Fu Manchu seems to have been involved in the Opium Wars and Tong Wars – but also to have picked up doctorates at the Universities of Edinburgh, Heidelberg, and Paris).

We Have Intercepted a Transmission

This Star Wars fan film is amazing. And as it was (of necessity) produced on a nonprofit basis, it gives the lie once more to the idea that we couldn’t have this sort of thing without IP. Indeed, this is something we have despite IP. I’m glad that those who claim ownership of Star Wars are less draconian about enforcing IP privileges than those who claim ownership of Star Trek.

Sirens and Custodians

The circumstances that compelled Euripides’ Alkmaion to commit matricide appear laughable.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics III.1

The Arrowverse shows have always been varied in tone, with Arrow at the dark, gritty, angsty end of the spectrum and Legends of Tomorrow at the goofy and bonkers end. But the current season of Legends has been goofier and more bonkers than ever before – while simultaneously incorporating a far darker/gritter/angstier arc than usual with the character of John Constantine. It’s a combination that shouldn’t work, but kind of does.

The goofy/bonkers trend reached its height in the midseason finale, “Legends of To-Meow-Meow.” While the episode was filled with parodies of other shows, in one crucial respect it was specifically, though less obviously, a parody of one of its fellow Arrowverse shows, The Flash.

[SPOILERS for Legends of Tomorrow and The Flash:]

Two seasons ago on The Flash, the villain Savitar was revealed to be a time-displaced version of the hero, Barry Allen, who had turned evil through losing his support group (a loss actually engineered, time-loop-style, by his future alternative evil self):

The notion that losing his connection to his loved ones would be enough to turn the Barry we know evil was never remotely believable; indeed, the oddness of evil Barry was recently lampshaded in the Flash episode “What’s Past Is Prologue,” where Barry’s archnemesis Eobard Thawne (in a delightfully chilling return) comments on it:

(For those unfamiliar with The Flash: Barry’s daughter Nora is named after his mother, whom Thawne killed; that’s the context of Thawne’s creepy line “At least you still have one.”)

It’s the unlikelihood of the hero turning evil so easily that’s parodied in “Legends of To-Meow-Meow,” where first we learn that a version of the timeline in which Sara was killed has turned the Legends into an evil mashup of The A-Team and Rambo – and then an attempt to avoid that timeline leads to a new one in which the deaths of Ray, Nate, and Mick have turned the surviving members into an evil version of Charlie’s Angels. Out of nowhere, both evil teams get their own bonkers credit sequences (with the second one explicitly imitating the Charlie’s Angels theme music):

Now admittedly we’ve seen similar craziness before, in the Flash / Supergirl musical crossover:

But in that story (as in the Buffy episode that inspired it), there was a supernatural force causing the characters to act as though they were in a musical. In “Legends of To-Meow-Meow,” by contrast, there’s no supernatural force causing Sara, Ava, and Gideon to suddenly turn around in the hallway and form the classic Charlie’s Angels pose. It’s just one of the things they now do because … their teammates’ deaths have turned them evil. One could just take this as sillier-than-usual Legends silliness; but I do think it’s also intended as a comment on the implausibility of Barry’s transformation into Savitar.

Speaking of superhero characters suddenly forming the Charlie’s Angels pose and/or breaking into song, let’s not forget the episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold in which Catwoman, Huntress, and Black Canary are caught infilitrating a gangster hideout and have to pretend to be a musical group:

(It’s striking how many sexual innuendoes these “Birds of Prey” manage to get away with, in what is ostensibly a children’s show.)

It may seem odd that I enjoy this sort of goofiness, given that of the various current and/or recent superhero shows, my absolute favourites are the mostly dark/grim/serious (and now mostly cancelled) Netflix Marvel ones. But hey, I am both gun and frock; I contain multitudes. (Though I confess I like the creepy Thawne scene above even better than I like the goofy Legends scenes.)

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