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She wanted to expand her mind. She got a drug problem that exists today, dissolving America’s inner cities like psychotropic acid. She wanted an alternative to the sexual mores of Leave it to Beaver. She got a sky-high divorce rate and a generation of kids raised in dysfunctional “all you need is love” relationships. She wanted new ways of seeing the world. She got Charles Manson and Jonestown. As Peter Fonda said, “We blew it.”
Black Hole is a graphic novel about a bunch of flower power children who are going through changes. Ch-ch-changes. As they immanentize the eschaton with acoustic guitars and reefer, their bodies are starting to transform, their skin melting like congealed fat before a blowtorch.
Sometimes the physical deformities are mild, even photogenic. One girl grows a cute demonic tail. Others look like the Elephant Man. One has pustules erupting on his face like the Yellowstone supervolcano. You’d call him pizza-face, but real pizzerias are never so generous with their toppings. Some have deformities that seem to change with unknowable and perhaps eldritch patterns.
Kid after kid comes down with the “bug”. They all become social outcasts, living on the fringes and stealing from convenience stores. One thing the graphic novel hammers home: being an outcast is overrated. Yeah, disconnecting yourself from the normies sounds great and romantic. In practice, it usually just means a lonelier cage.
Charles Burns art and writing is sparse, and leaves much unsaid. Sometimes it seems like there’s unwritten pages (or perhaps unwritten novels) hiding between his panels. That too seems to evoke a period where revelation was meant to come from within.
It’s confusing and not exactly accessible, partly because of its tone and content and partly because it draws a cultural aesthetic that sunk like Atlantis. The one slight umbilicus to the present (or at least the less distant part) is the character construction. It reminds me a little of that 90s style of cartooning: think Daria, or maybe the work of Mike Diana.
Despite its difficulty, Burns has created a comic about a subject that cannot be explained: the non-religious religions and thoughtless thought-processes of the 60s. It’s an absorbing read, though a hard one. We never find out what it was that caused the deformities: my perspective is that this is something that doesn’t need to be explained. All you need to do is witness it, or at least its aftereffects. Compare and contrast with the medieval plague. Was it cats? Rats? A cesspool of sin rising to the nose of a vengeful God? None of its victims came close to understanding it. But it didn’t matter. In the end, they still died from it.
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Have you ever installed a sound system in a cheap car? The panels shake. The floorboards hum. Each bass hit is accompanied by a dying asthmatic rattle from your car, because the chassis is thin and nothing is spec’d to exact tolerances. It doesn’t matter how expensive the amplifier, speakers, and subwoofer is: you also need a good, solid car to put them in.
I was constantly aware of rattles and hums while reading the Alchemist. I think Coelho is a cheap car – or perhaps he had a poor translator.
Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusian Spain, begins a journey to find his Personal Legend (portentously capitalized). He gets around a lot. He goes to Morocco, the Sahara desert, and Egypt, while meeting people such as a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and the king of Jerusalem. These were the strongest parts of the book – going places and doing things. The book has a simplicity and directness when relating day to day events that made me wish it had been about someone else, someone unburdened by a dream from God.
But all through the book there’s a falseness to it. It’s partly undone by its need to be a fable, and partly undone by the fact that Coelho never got me to buy into the story. Santiago rides through the desert on a horse named Author’s Convenience. You soon adapt to the book’s approach, and feel no worry or alarm at anything happening: there’s always an amazing stroke of luck around the corner. A fortuitous meeting. A freak meteorological event. Hard to care about Santiago’s fate when you know Paulo Coelho has a skyhook ready to yank him to safety.
Is this the point? That when you trust your life to fate things work out? Who gives a shit? It’s a fictional book – there’s an author operating the gears here. When Santiago receives a pair of stones that allow him to predict the future, you’re not awed by the wonder and whimsy of the universe. You’re aware that this is a MacGuffin in a preconceived plot and that it’s going to be used by Coelho to cheat.
Perhaps the book cleverly (or unintentionally) breaks the fourth wall. Santiago becomes aware he’s a fictional character, and that his author has teleological ends. I think we’d all be a lot bolder if we knew there was a sympathetic author writing our story. But this isn’t compelling reading.
Descriptions are thin and perfunctory. He journeys through the Sahara, but we don’t hear about grit under his fingernails and the agony of climbing shifting sand dunes. Somewhere in the book he meets an Arab girl called Fatima, who he vows to marry once he fulfills his Personal Legend. I don’t recall the part where they discussed the fact that he’d have to convert: Muslim women cannot marry unbelievers.
The book is based off an old Yiddish fable, about a Jew who has a dream about a fortune buried somewhere in Venice. He travels there, digs fruitlessly, until eventually he meets a man who scorns him for his foolishness. “Why, for years I’ve been dreaming of some nonsense about Jew with massive fortune under the basement of his house!”
It’s an interesting premise for a book: a treasure right under one’s nose that you’d have to go around the world to find. Maybe someone is actually searching for treasure right now. If you’re that person, put this book down. It isn’t it.
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April 22 1993. The 37th President of the United State, Richard Milhous Nixon, passed away. He was carried by motorcade to the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, was then buried Yorba Linda, a suburban city in Orange County, California. You might be thinking this is boring and useless information. You’re right. It is.
What’s interesting is that he was buried within a few feet of the place he was born, giving his life an almost palindromic quality. From birth to death, his planetary displacement was almost zero.
“Almost palindromic” describes many things about Nixon. His surname isn’t a palindrome, but it clearly wants to be. Five letters. An N at beginning and end. A pivotal X in the middle. Vowels in the spaces between. “Nixon” means “Son of Nicholas”, and “Nicholas” contracts to “Nick”, evocative of how “Richard” contracts to “Rick.”
He was born on January 1913. If he’d been born a few months later or died a few months earlier, he would have been exactly eighty years old. Eighty is a nice, symmetrical number, easy to derive as a product and palindromic in base 3(22223), 6(2126), and 9 (889.)
The situation is almost poetic, which is to say, it’s truly and deeply aggravating. I can handle the universe not making sense. What I can’t handle is when the universe almost makes sense…and then doesn’t. It’s as infuriating as a basketball shot that scrapes the rim and misses.
Imagine a more poetic and elegant universe, where Nixon/Noxin’s life truly was a palindrome: the second half a reversal of the first half.
Let’s call 1952 the midway point. Nixon was suffering the first major scandal of his career: an investigation on the misuse of Republican party funds. He looked uncomfortable, and guilty. Some women have resting bitch face. Nixon had resting guilt face. The poor guy could have said “I’m the devil” and make everyone wonder what he was really hiding.
During the speech, he told an awkward anecdote about a black-and-white dog called Checkers.
In my universe, Nixon closes those guilty eyes, the universe crunches and inverts like the X in his name…and Noxin opens them. And begins to talk.
“…As it happens, I also own a white-and-black cat called Chess.”
From there, the rest of his life plays out like falling dominoes. Or perhaps someone re-setting dominoes that have already fallen.
1954: expelled from the US Senate.
1960: fails to win California’s 12th congressional district against a Democrat challenger. Tragically loses his daughter in an unexplained accident. Noxin feels nothing. Whatever grief a man would normally feel is expressed only in negatives.
1960: returns to military service in the US Navy.
1962: War. Massive US deployment of soldiers in Vietnam. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurs – the United States enters DEFCON 2. Noxin is now part of a new form of war: one that might see nobody surviving to be a winner or a loser – a war fought by the hawks of plutonium and uranium, with humanity as their inept and feeble falconer.
1965: The Tet Offensive overruns key US positions. Vietnamization is failing, and detente is no longer possible. Behind the Iron Curtain, the USSR marshalls its strength like Zeus gathering up thunderbolts.
1966: While overseas, Noxin realises that his wife Pat has left him. He doesn’t understand why, but he also doesn’t understand why he married in the first place. It seems like something that happened to a different person.
1968: all storms break. Europe is under attack. The nukes start to fly. Noxin serves, until the point where he doesn’t. He doesn’t need to see Germany or Poland get taken, added to the Soviet urheimat. He wants to see the rot take hold in his own country. He arranges an honorable discharge, and returns to law.
1973: Noxin watches as the US implodes inwards. This is fundamentally satisfying for him. The stock market crashes. Nuclear fallout terminates the bread basket forever.
1993: Noxin returns to his place of birth, his life a blind-ended worm: no differentiation possible between one end or the other. Then he’s buried in Yorba Linda. The last men of the United States shovel irradiated dirt into this second womb.
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How are you feeling? Any food cravings? No pica? Good, good. Go to the community clinic for an ultrasound. Take some more folic acid. Bulk-billing is available. Good-bye.
This time, she had a sunken face, and shadows under her eyes.
When Dr Sabinsky said hello, she didn’t respond.
She shuffled into the clinic, and sat down in the chair opposite his.
“It’s kicking,” was all she said.
“That’s great,” Sabinsky’s PR smile lit up the room. “You must be so excited.”
Melissa shook her head.
Didn’t look excited. Not even a little bit.
“I don’t know what’s happening, or what I’ve done wrong.” She said, slowly. It was as if speaking cost her dearly. “I don’t even know if there’s a point in coming to you. The baby’s kicking.”
Sabinsky’s smile widened, and then he was off and running, reciting one of the dozen canned speeches that he gave over and over to women in this clinic. “So you’re feeling confused? Not sure what to make of all this? Don’t worry, that’s absolutely normal. Your hormones are on a rollercoaster, but all your metrics are right on point – this has just about been a model pregnancy. What we’ll do next is book you in for a multiple marker test, just to make one hundred percent sure everything’s going to plan in there…”
Melissa shook her head.
“…and I’ve got some more supplements for you to take, and we’ll also get you started on some Kegel exercises. Never too early to start strengthening up your pelvic floor. And then we’ll…”
“I miscarried.” She blurted out.
He stared at her. “What?”
“Last week. I lost the baby.” The words left her mouth like vomit. “My husband and I woke up, and the bed was just a lake of blood.”
“So why do I still feel it kicking?” Her voice rose, containing a shrill note of panic. She pulled up the hem of her maternity skirt, exposing her swollen belly. “Can you answer that, doc? What do I have inside me?“
He was the doctor. He had an answer for everything.
But when he put his hands on her gravid stomach, and felt something stirring within, he found that he didn’t, and couldn’t.
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This is a 24,000 word horror novella about a morbid fascination: self-help.
It’s one of the 21st century’s phenomenons. It’s corruptible linguistically. One letter away from “sell-help”. Another letter away from “self-hell”. It’s corruptible in other ways, too. Scientology. James Arthur Ray. Jonestown. History is full of charismatic sociopaths with the solution to all your problems, so long as those problems are a heavy wallet, your sanity, and your life.
This book takes that idea, turns the dial to 11, and tears it off. Review copies are available. Hit me up at mail @ this website URL, with “Gateless Gate, Skyless Sky” as the subject line.
“…Welcome to the program, Mr Zhang.”
What would you do to change your life?
What if you said ‘anything’…and meant it?
Jiro Zhang is a small-time criminal, steadily circling the drain. Then he meets Makassar, psychologist and founder of the Gateless Gate, Skyless Sky method.
This method is like nothing that has ever existed before. Its techniques are terrifying, illegal, and perhaps deadly. It can cure you of anything, even your humanity. It’s Zen Buddhism on steroids, crack cocaine, and Zyklon B. Jiro just has to sign the dotted line.
Under the guidance of the sinister Makassar, Jiro will walk a path to the edge of sanity, and then far, far beyond. He’s on the ultimate self-help journey…but he might look inside and find there’s no “self” left at the end.
Gateless Gate is a horror novella that mixes Buddhism, transhumanism, and ultra-violence. It’s the tale of a man who tears out the darkness in his soul and replaces it with something a thousand shades blacker.
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If Metallica’s career was a movie narrated by Morgan Freeman, here’s where he’d say “…and that’s when it all started to go wrong.” It was a bold move: they took all their signature elements and shot them behind the woodshed. A few long songs became lots of short ones. Furious speed became a uptempo bounce. Droning slowness became a downtempo plod. Everything was smoothed out, graded even – this is an album so flat you can iron your clothes on it. Pick out something you liked about 80s Metallica. Odds are, that element is now either gone or greatly reduced.
It could have been career suicide, but unknown to everyone, they were positioned ride one of the biggest waves in popular music.
Nevermind by Nirvana was sliding out the bomb bay doors, and soon rock music would be destroyed and rebuilt in a new, “alternative” image. Soon, rock concerts would be the place to get bored out of your skull. With the scent of flannel and stonewashed jeans wafting south from Seattle, Metallica was seen as a heavier alternative to the grunge rock craze. People seemed to dig their new lack of pretension. Unfortunately, The Black Album’s overall effect is one of musical homogeneity.
Sometimes, The Black Album hits home. Sometimes my finger hits home, on the skip button. “Sad but True” is pedestrian and lacks energy. Hetfield’s riffs are weak and Ulrich’s drumming has a mechanical, overproduced quality. It almost seems to flop out of your speakers. “Enter Sandman…chronic overplay is an interesting phenomenon. Some songs survive it, other songs don’t. This one didn’t.
“Nothing Else Matters” is either the most commercial Metallica song ever or an fascinating fusion of genres. Apparently Hetfield wrote the first few bars while on the phone with his girlfriend, which is why the opening arpeggios can be played with one hand.
“Holier than Thou”, “Through the Never”, and “The Struggle Within” all rock fairly hard and pull things back a bit towards a thrash metal sound. “Through” is the strongest, featuring one of Hetfield’s better vocal performances and a powerful set of riffs.
Most of the rest of the album is a crapshoot of commercial-sounding metal made with the intention of not scaring Pearl Jam fans. Tracks like “Don’t Tread on Me” and “My Friend in Misery” are now heavily dated, especially if you believe metal should push against a boundary somewhere. None of it is offensive, but you want something more – more speed, more heaviness, more hooks, better developed ideas. Instead, these songs just show up, punch a clock, do their job, then leave. They’re the Teamsters of the metal world.
For all its failings, The Black Album is not grunge rock. But it’s infected with the grunge rock disease, a pretentious lack of pretension.
Sound contradictory? Welcome to the 90s. Rockstars pretending to be tortured, introverted loners while making millions of dollars. Pantera and Ministry conducting Stalinesque purges of their back catalog, lest anybody suspect they were capable of laughing or having fun. The whole decade sucked. Phony, fake wrist-slashing garbage. Lyrically, Hetfield bows to changing times only once, writing a sob story about his upbringing in “The God that Failed”. Musically, he bent so much he turned into a pretzel.
I wish there was more contrast. It seems like it was written so that every song could be a potential radio hit, and it comes off like a plate of mashed potato – some hills and some valleys, but it’s still pile of mashed spud.
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“I tell you, the phone in my bay’s not ringing,” he said. “Nobody’s called in two hours. Normally I get one every few minutes.”
“Well, the phone’s definitely working,” his supervisor said. “I traced the lines and everything.”
“So what’s happening?”
“Beats me. Maybe the software that diverts the calls doesn’t like you.”
“Can I have another bay?”
“The center’s at maximum capacity. Look, sorry, you’ll just have to sit there and hope whatever’s wrong fixes itself. Conversation’s over, pal. I have a floor to run.”
Then the supervisor disappeared, leaving Dalip fuming. This was going to screw up his metrics for the day.
He tried to clear up his desk, so that at least he was doing something on company time.
Among the scattered papers, he found a 3.5” floppy disk.
On it were two words. STRANGE LOOP.
He couldn’t recall bringing this in to work.
Had the supervisor put the disk there, and he hadn’t noticed? Why would a supervisor at a major telecom company put anything on a floppy in 2016?
Bored and irritable, he inserted it into his computer.
Immediately, a batch file started to execute, running a program called STRANGELOOP.EXE
His screen flashed and was replaced with a computer-rendered image. A moment of panic, then he remembered that his cubicle was in the corner of the building – nobody could see what was on his screen unless they entered his bay.
He looked at the image more closely.
It looked like a computer game from the pre-CD era. The resolution was 320×240. The graphics were 16-color CGA. The neon hues almost burned his eyes.
It was a crude, pixelated image of a man sitting at a desk in front of a computer, with his back to the viewer.
At the bottom was an RPG-style inventory of items. It only had one thing in it: a floppy disk.
He had cursor input, and could move a disembodied hand around the screen with his mouse.
Curious, he clicked on the floppy disk item in the inventory.
The hand picked it up.
He dragged the cursor over to the desk, and clicked again. The floppy disk appeared on the desk.
The pixelated man looked across, saw the floppy disk, picked it up, and after a minute, put it into his computer.
Spellbound, Dalip tried to see what was happening on the computer inside the game. The screen was too small and the resolution too low. A line of text flashed in the empty inventory: PRESS + TO ZOOM.
He zoomed in, saw that the computer inside the game was running a batch file, and that it was launching a file called STRANGELOOP.EXE…
On the man’s screen there was now a digital image of another man sitting at a desk, in front of another computer, with another floppy disk.
The man inside the game started to play.
They’re like little Russian dolls… Dalip thought, zooming in even further to see what was on the screen.
He continued “playing” for the some time, going down iteration after iteration, watching game after game get installed on computer after computer, each one contained within the last.
Eventually, he was at least twenty levels deep, watching another man insert a floppy disk, run a game, use his cursor to place a floppy on a digital desk…
Are they really like Russian dolls? He thought. If I go down far enough, will I reach a final one? Or does it continue forever?
A buzzer beeped beside his head, shocking him back to earth like cold water to the face. He realised he was now at clock-off time.
And his phone still hadn’t rung once.
He no longer thought this was a coincidence.
He gathered his things together, and remembered that company policy forbid the installation of third party programs on the office computers.
Whatever STRANGELOOP.EXE was, he’d get in trouble if it was discovered.
He was about to hit ESC to close the game and then erase it from his system, when something new happened on the screen.
The man at the desk was turning around to look at him.
Hairs stood up on Dalip’s neck as he saw an expression of alarm and confusion resolve amongst the pixels.
He pressed the – key.
Started zooming out.
Another face, looking at him.
He started reassembling the Russian doll, flying backwards through the generations.
In all of the games, the man had turned around and was looking towards the screen, as if staring his own creator. The faces stared outwards, like the endless reflections of two mirrors.
Finally, there were no more games-within-a-game, and Dalip was at the original one.
Or is that really true?
Am I really the first? How can I know?
Each of those digital copies thought he was the first, the original, the only.
And each of them were wrong.
Suddenly, Dalip felt a sensation that he did not like at all, the sensation of being watched.
It was on his back like the hand of a ghost. His nerve endings tingled.
He turned around to see what was behind him.
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Back in 1992, this changed everything. It made people nauseous. It made people upset. There were violent games up to that point, but at least a third person perspective gives you plausible deniability. “You” didn’t rip out other people’s spines in Mortal Kombat, a sprite on the screen did. But from a first person perspective, with a phallic gun-barrel jutting outwards into your field of view, a paradigm shift occurs. No more murder by proxies. You were the one pulling the trigger.
…In reality, that’s overdramatic. Nobody who’s played Wolfenstein 3D could be offended by it. The Nazi element is played for kitsch and camp, this is Springtime for Hitler: The Game. And the illusion of realism is shallow and soon breaks. The corners are all 90 degree angles. The ceilings and floors lack textures. The repetitive environments make you feel like a rat in a maze. And the massive body count has a nugatory effect: late in the game, shooting someone feels about as shocking as the 300th “fuck” on a rap album.
Gameplay kicks off with a screen saying “GET PSYCHED!” and that captures the game’s flavour: a crazy sugar rush that has you charging around turning Wehrmächte into Swiss cheese. You’re not exactly thinking “only the dead have seen the end of war”. This is an arcade game that happens to have Nazis.
The more you play WOLF3D (as the DOS executable was called), the more it seems like a escapee from an arcade machine. You have “lives”. You have a “high score”. All that’s missing is B.J. Blazkowicz telling you to insert a quarter. Modern 3D shooters aspire to be on the cutting edge. There’s the feeling that a game with revolutionary graphics needs to be revolutionary along other axes, too. Wolfenstein 3D remains cheerfully stuck in the past.
There’s lots of fun goodies herein. A hidden “Call Apogee say ‘AARDWOLF’” message, remnants of an aborted contest that was immediately made pointless by fan-made data viewing programs. A Pacman level. Another level made entirely out of swastikas. The statement “This game is rated PC-13, for ‘Profound Carnage’”. A naff and entertaining battle against Adolf Hitler. A episodes 4-6 are called Nocturnal Missions. Barring Rise of the Triad, this is perhaps the most overtly comedic FPS until the release of Duke Nukem 3D (Ken’s Labyrinth was too autistic to be funny).
Little map design is possible with such a limited engine. You wander mazes and shoot groups of enemies. While Doom would give the player new and varied things in its later levels, WOLF3D has nowhere to go except harder mazes and larger groups of enemies. At a certain point, your brain becomes bored, and starts craving more stimulation. You could argue that the game reinforces the social message that mass murder is boring.
Even the game’s technological wizardry smacks of Uri Geller. Just fire up Ultima Underworld, which came out six months earlier, and had angled walls, textured ceilings, slopes, look up/down, swimmable water, etc. Not a fair comparison, since that game was developed over years next to this one’s months. And Wolfenstein 3D’s engine is faster and leaner. Too bad that equals a fast and lean journey through Legoland.
Wolfenstein 3D is a dated experience with immense historical. I can’t imagine myself ever replaying Wolfenstein 3D the same way I play Doom. But though I don’t play it, I can’t ignore it.
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In zoology, you’re not supposed to anthropomorphosize animal behavior. For example, a dog doesn’t “laugh”, it “vocalises”. The idea is that you keep a bit of daylight between human emotions and animal emotions, because they’re not the same thing.
But people are fine with anthropormophisizing other things. We talk about nations, states, churches, backyard mud wrestling federations, etc as if they’re people. Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire”. Can an empire be evil? Any more than an empire can have a favourite basketball team?
(All adjectives are behavioral. “Evil empire” = “an empire that does evil things”)
Ayn Rand once said “don’t ask me about my family, my childhood, my friends or my feelings. Ask me about the things I think.” But the things she thought were caused by her family, her childhood, her friends, and her feelings. There isn’t some “Ayn Rand” homunculus issuing orders from on high. It seems to me more likely that Rand’s feeling of free will emerged from lots of little incidents, both inside her mind and in the world outside, and they composited to form her personality. And if they created her personality, maybe they deserve the credit or blame for her actions.
Like Rand, The Soviet Union was a very large emergent froth coming from many subunits, which themselves were made up of many subunits, etc. What level of the apparatus bears the mark of Cain? Which level is “evil”? When talking about, say, a massive artificial famine like Holodomor, who do you blame?
The USSR itself? No, it only acted the way it did because of the smaller gears ticking inside. The NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat of Land Cultivation? No, same problem.
What about the minions who enacted the policies? Were they to blame? They would have claimed they were following orders.
So we can blame Stalin. He was the irreducible evil. Hopefully he won’t claim that he acted ideologically, otherwise blame for the Ukrainian famine gets passed back to Vladimir Lenin, then to Karl Marx, then to Adam Smith, then to John Ball, then to Jesus (and then to…). But hey, at least we’ve found the ultimate source of the Holodomor…
…No, we we haven’t. We’re still horsefucked. A nation is very complicated and elaborate, and if we’re withholding judgement on the USSR for this reason, we need to realise that Joseph Stalin’s mind was even more complicated and elaborate. There were 100 billion neurons in his brain. Each hemisphere had 400 to 500 distinct brain areas. His genome encompassed 20,000 genes, 84% of which were expressed in the brain. He was an incredibly sophisticated thinking machine.
Even if we understood a normal person’s brain, I don’t think we could have understood Stalin’s. Everyone who knew him or his works commented on how unusual he seemed, how cold and cruel. No more a human being than HAL9000. Adolf Hitler, although he owned a dog, strikes me as a stereotypical “cat person” – anxious, neurotic, sensitive, and artistically-minded. Benito Mussolini is more like a stereotypical “dog person” – a gregarious backslapping Il Duce, prone to self-aggrandisement and egotism. Stalin strikes me as a person who would have brooked no pets at all. Although maybe he considered Lavrentiy Beria a kind of pet.
So what in this confusing mare’s nest can we “blame”? Stalin’s neurons? They have to fire together in elaborate Hebbian patterns, and no one neuron is responsible for anything. His genes? All behavioural traits are heavily polygenic, there wasn’t any one “evil gene” in Stalin’s mind. And these genes were gifts from his parents, so we’re almost back to blaming cavemen again. “What caused the Holodomor?” It seems the answer might be…everything.
Homer Simpson’s method for getting out of trouble is to say “It was like that when I got here”, and so is mine.
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In the 70s, a journalist was diagnosed with cancer. He had reason to suspect it was terminal. To take his mind off the thing growing in his body, he started work on a fantasy novel about a mighty fortress under siege from a vast army. He left the final chapter unwritten. Did the fortress stand, or did it fall? He didn’t know. Not every question has an answer, but to even stand a chance of resolution you must do one thing: live.
Gemmell didn’t die, and the fortress didn’t fall, and heroic fantasy got a new classic: forty years later, Legend’s still a fun read. And a big one. Every single character is so massive and archetypal that they almost threaten to overpower the story, like ships so big that they displace oceans in their passage.
The Delnai empire is weakening, collapsing from inside from corruption and decadence. The warring Nadir tribes to the north have united under the charismatic warlord Ulric, and are invading. The end of an empire seems to be at hand. A few thousand ill-prepared Delnai warriors assemble at the ancient fortress of Dros Delnoch, where they await their fate. They are joined by legendary hero Druss the Legend, who was instrumental in defending the Delnai from an invasion decades ago. But he’s an old man, in poor health.
Parallels to real world historical events and figures show through (though it always puzzled me that Gemmell’s I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Mongols are lead by a man with a High Germanic name). Gemmell doesn’t do anything wholly new, but he’s an expert at tweaking things that need to be tweaked, so that the experience is one of freshness. When Druss arrives at Dros Delnoch, he finds it commanded by a laughably incompetent martinet whose appointment is political. And yeah, we get the expected scenes of Druss Delnoch whipping this stupid guy into shape like R Lee Ermey, but where Gemmell ends up going with this character…well, it took my by surprise. He didn’t have to go there, but I’m glad he did.
Gemmell has said that one of his goals with this story was to “fix” the Alamo. It’s hard to have heroes in the 21st century, history has become too good and now those stirring American frontier stories make you think of plague blankets, forced marches, slavery, et cetera. Legend is the Alamo story as Gemmell thinks it should have been, with great deeds and golden heroes that will never be sullied by history.
The first half of the novel is a slow, burning build, like lactic acid in a muscle, as the fortress prepares for war. The second half of the novel is virtually a single solid action scene spanning weeks. I liked the way the siege drags on for so long that soon everyone loses hope…but they look at their hands, and those hands are still fighting. Druss’s tale is concluded in spectacular fashion, and you almost wish the book had ended there, because nothing that comes after it matches it.
This is “first novel” territory, and there’s things I never liked. The sheer overdose of heroics kind of cheapens the effect – everyone here’s a master warrior, or magician, or strategist. And there’s a kind of tacky “DnD” element that Gemmell would carry on throughout his career: whenever he wants to demonstrate a character’s martial prowess, he has them kill a bunch of random bandits.
Despite its roughness, Legend is the book that made Gemmell’s name. The action is fast and unrelenting, the pace never flags, and bathos is laid on with a trowel. Forty years later, the fortress still hasn’t fallen.
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