A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘An Evil Guest’


Though I’d still call it a minor work overall, An Evil Guest (whose title comes from a quote by Simonides of Ceos, that gold is the kindest of all hosts when it shines in the sky, but comes as an evil guest too those who receive it in the hand) is much the most easily readable book in Wolfe’s oeuvre since at least Pandora by Holly Hollander.
It’s another third person story, but the profusion of accents and dialects that filled Wolfe’s last third person books, The Book of The Long Sun, are not present. The story is set in America, a hundred years into the future, with some technological advances, but otherwise in a recognisable society, and with pretty much contemporaneous language. The biggest and most relevant change is that Earth has connected with an alien race, and has links with the planet and society of Woldercan, whose technology is sufficiently advanced that they apparently have a process for manufacturing gold. An evil guest.
Wolfe introduces us to Dr Gideon Chase, a University Professor, a multi-talented man, an investigator who solves the hardest of puzzles. Chase was born on Woldercan, when his father was the American Ambassador there. He is highly intelligent. He’s obviously the hero, to the extent that he is wounded by a bullet to the leg and this has to be amputated. Wolfe suffered polio as a child and there is a running theme that his heroes at some point or other are left limping.
And Chase is being sought by the President and the FBI to investigate William (Bill) Reis, until recently the Ambassador to Woldercan. Reis is also very intelligent, not to mention impossibly rich and very powerful: complete dictator material. The President wants Reis investigating because it’s believed he’s learned how to manufacture gold, and also because wherever Reis goes, Government secrets are being stolen by some incalculable means.
In order to help himself pursue this case, Chase contacts thirtyish actress Cassie (Cassiopeia Fiona) Casey, a reasonably attractive redhead, a fair but undistinguished actress, currently appearing in an ensemble play about to close after one more performance. Chase wants to enlist her aid in locating Reis. To win her assistance, and to further his plan, Chase intends to unlock Cassie’s star quality, by some quasi-magic means that he insists is only activating something already in her.
The effect is instantaneous and overwhelming. Cassie becomes the most beautiful and in demand woman in the world, a commanding presence on stage who cannot do anything less than excellently. She is the bait to attract Reis to where Chase can get a handle on him, and she is immediately successful. Under the name of Wallace (Wally) Rehnquist, Reis attends Cassie’s last, stunning performance, and immediately signs up her Director, India, to direct a musical play, “Dating the Voodoo God”, with Cassie as its star. Wally/Bill has fallen in love with her and is determined to win her for herself.
But Cassie is the real centre of the book, playing a faux-naif role in which her new found success is a constant surprise to her. She’s forever downplaying her own abilities, not accepting that these have been enhanced, and continually deprecating about her appearance, accusing herself of being fat, and far too fat for bikinis, when it’s apparent that men will walk into walls when she’s fully dressed, let alone when she’s in swimwear.
Wally/Bill falls in love with her and, at some undefined point in the book that is never telegraphed, she falls in love with him. Gideon Chase is hunted, pursued and wounded early on, reappears under a magical disguise, by which time he’s working for Reis as well as the Government, then slides out of the book, in effect, winding up at the very end as Ambassador to Woldercan.
As well as his manipulations, all of which more or less he explains prosaically, Chase proclaims himself in love with Cassie, not just the enhanced Cassie but the lesser woman from before. Reis’ increasing and increasingly direct involvement with Cassie pushes Chase out of the way, as if the story can only accommodate one male lead at a time. Cassie ends up in love with Reis, making love with him, and removed to the South Pacific, the Takanga group of islands, where she is acclaimed as its High Queen, to Reis’ off-stage High King.
Which is where things start to go off-kilter.
Because An Evil Guest is, and is heralded by prestigious names such as Neil Gaiman as, a genre-hopping book, a book that plays with various genre style, smoothly and evenly. It begins in an SF mode, and Reis’ abilities to manufacture gold remain a strand throughout the book. But it plunges deeply into hard-boiled crime, with a number of organisations threatening Cassie in order to get at and kill Reis (her dresser, Margaret, is kidnapped, one of her fellow cast members is shot dead next to her to demonstrate how serious things are and how easily she could be killed), some vampiric aliens appear at her window, a werewolf (another Wolfean trope) hypnotizes and eats her divorced second husband when he turns up on the side of the devils, the book swings between genres with an admirable flexibility whilst Wolfe maintains an even and consistent narrative tone.
But there’s one genre shift that I cannot take with Wolfe and Cassie. It’s foreshadowed by the musical, ‘Dating the Volcano God’. Cassie’s been installed as high Queen, living a life of luxury and utter colonial native worship. She’s fallen in love with Bill/Wally, and had sex with him, though I can’t decide that this is real and is not the luxury he is determined to lavish upon her overwhelming Cassie.
But the High King has an opponent, the Squid King, also known as the Storm King (nothing to do with the Foglio’s Girl Genius). And this is an alien who has been in Earth’s seas for millennia, a Lovecraftian monster out to kill Bill Reis, and Cassie is forced through a ritual in which the Takangan’s manipulate her as ordering Reis’ ritual sacrifice, by having his head crunched in by a ritual staff, in front of her eyes.
This one is just too far outside the hard-boiled crime/espionage milieu that envelopes the majority of the story for me to accept it, coming as it does out of the leftest of left-fields in the last fifth of the book. Until then, the book is an intact experience. Now, Reis’ death is immediately followed by apocalyptic storms, destroying the Takangas. She is left stranded as a beach refugee, living off the land, until she is finally and reluctantly rescued, an indeterminable time later, almost by force, and eventually repatriated to America.
By now she is grey-haired and homely, skinny as a rake, under-nourished. All her friends are dead or gone, though her dresser, Margaret, is briefly seen. How much of this is a genuine transformation from her experiences and how much Cassie’s harsh self-assessment can’t be determined. The men she speaks to about her appearance contradict her, but out of truth or chivalry is not discernible.
The ending is very strange. After re-establishing herself in an anonymous life, and made rich by one of Reis’ manufactured gold gifts, Cassy tries to contact Chase and learns he’s now on Woldercan as Ambassador. She heads out there. Because of peculiar time dilation effects, his invitation in response to her question arrives before her question. But the story ends in mid-journey, with Cassy looking at a talking picture of a teen Bill Reis, and then collapsing in sobs asking Wally to come back.
It’s abrupt and unsettling, and not in the sense of when a skilful author leaves a story suspended to create the very effect. Wolfe is that skilled author, and he’s more than good enough for that, but from Reis’ execution onwards, the story as seen through Cassie’s eyes loses all concreteness, and becomes a kind of semi-abstract dream, so that the ending loses all substance.
It might, of course, be that Cassie doesn’t survive the storm, that all that follows is indeed a dream, and is not subject to any circumscription of logic, and I’m just not perceptive enough to read that. But in a book that for fully four-fifths of its length to be solid to change into something anti-realistic, without proper foregrounding renders the complete experience a disappointment.

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Person of Interest: s01 307 – Witness


Victim or Perpetrator, if your number’s up…

This one is pure thriller. Only not so pure.

It opens on the investigation of a murder, an execution, of an old man in a bodega. His name is Benny d’Agostino and he’s a gang hitman who’s come out of retirement to work for a new player who’s taking on the Bratva, the Russian mob. His name is Elias, Carl Elias. Detectives Carter and Fusco know that name. So too does Detective Szymanski (Michael McGlone) of Organised Crime.

There’s a witness to the crime, a balding, stocky, fortyish man, now to be a Bratva target. There’s also a uniformed cop, name unknown, with a distinctive scar below his right eye, part of the scene, handling information.

John Reese is on a roof, studying a nervous man through binoculars, a man named Charlie Burton, a High School teacher down in Brighton Beach. He’s balding, stocky, fortyish. Not until Fusco phones through to seek out Reese’s help on their shooting, do Reese and Finch know why Burton’s number has come up. And the Russians, led by Peter Yogaroff, son of Ivan, whose men are beingtargeted, whose operations are being encroached upon, whose brother has just been killed by Benny d’Agostino, have arrived, heavily-armed.

It’s a thriller. Reese goes in to keep Charlie alive, get him to the Police, despite Charlie’s refusal to testify. He loses his phone, and touch with Finch, who takes the step of contacting Fusco, by phone and in person, to help his investigation: a white people carrier, a cop with a scar on his face – is this the unknown, deeply hidden Elias?

John and Charlie take refuge in a housing project dominated by Bulgarian drug dealers. They have to stay one ahead of the pursuers. Charlie has a shoulder flesh-wound. He’s a philosophical man, a dedicated teacher, valued by his kids, one of whom helps them get out. Reese takes a captive, Laszlo, Peter’s brother.

Elsewhere, Carter and Szymanski approach Ivan Yogaroff, trying to get this war shut down, avoid more deaths. Yogaroth knows nothing of what they’re talking about but, speaking hypothetically, he lets on that Elias is the aggressor, cutting into his territory. No truce is possible without Elias. And Elias is a complete unknown.

John and Charlie get away on the Ferry towards the east side. Fusco’s to meetthem at 7.00am. Only someone’s got the info out of the Police. Scarface is on his way. Finch thinks Fusco’s done it, but he protests entirely too naturally, and besides he gets knocked out from behind. Someone is waiting for the witness to arrive.

And here is the massive twist thattthe performance of Enrico Colantoni as Charlie Burton has left us completely unprepared for. Laszlo spills it on the Ferry, exactly as Peter is spilling it at the Police station. Would they go to all this trouble, commit all these resources, for a mere witness? “Drop the gun, John,” Charlie says, in an apologetic voice. Charlie Burton is Carl Elias.

And Elias is taking Brighton Beach. It’s a start. He has plans: to reunite theFive Families, to take back crime from the hated Russians, drive them out of New York entirely. For three years he has buried himself as Charlie Burton, teacher to the Russians’ kids, learning all about them from their own flesh and blood. Anonymity has been very useful, but that phase is over now.

Elias won’t kill Reese, it would be ungrateful, but he warns him to stay out of his way. He greets Scarface, his lieutenant, who goes on toexecute Ivan Yogaroff. Reese is furious with Finch and his Machine, not to mention with himselffor nothaving seen Elias in Charlie, for having gotten so friendly with him. They have saved a monster. Finch accepts the Machine’s limitations, tries to point out that each day thereare other Numbers, but is silenced by Reese’s unanswerable question: how many of them will be victims of Elias?

A brilliant thriller. And a substantial upsurge for the series. There is now a powerful, important, ongoing story instead of a bit of continuity to a weekly procedural. It is the first. It won’t be the last.

SaturdaySkandiKrime/Horrar: Black Lake 2 episodes 7 & 8


Shedunnit

All I can say is, I really hope they don’t try coming up with a third series of this.

I’ve been billing Black Lake 2 as a horror series all along, when I should have known better and guessed it would turn out to be crime behind it all, and this time without the leavening of horror that did form a strand in series 1. Put simply, Isabell has been in love with Uno for years, got pregnant by him at 17, had an abortion and found she couldn’t have children thereafter. So, when she saw him getting off w ith Josefine, she went mad, killed Josefine, kidnapped her daughter and has been ‘protecting’ her in the old Loghthouse on the island ever since. When Minnie finds Elsa/Maja, Isabell stabs her and nearly kills her, and when Uno comes to take Minnie out, she stabs him in the back, killing her. The hero who saves the day is, guess who? Johan the prick, suffering a completely inexplicable and un-prick-like reversal of character and coming back after he’d got away (with Lippi and Elin from series 1).

You probaly guessed all this last week, didn’t you?

Actually, I have to give the programme credit for one very adept piece of misdirection. Episode 9 was long and slow, stretching minimal story out by making things last, but at least entertaining us with some soectacular shots of the island: cliff paths, seascapes, magnificnt sea-caves and the old lighthouse, a lovely old building completely different from the columns we’re used to in Britain.

But there was a moment when Agnes looks worried as Minnie heads out yet again, alone, untrusted, everyone thinks she’s hallucinating. And I think, as I am meant to think, it’s Agnes. She’s the one. Hearty, SkandiBlonde, jolly hockey sticks Agnes, total believer in Uno’s course, she’s the killer.

And the two episodes dropped in plenty of non-blatant supporting material. Minnie finds Amina’s remains (and those of many others) in the cholera hospital, under the guard of creepy, crazy Oscar, waiting for the killer, brains him (gently) with the blunt side of a crowbar, convinces Uno she’s not imagining it. Uno takes the sensible course: everything’s off, contact the Police, get out.

But everybody’s mobile phones have been stolen and the phone ripped out of the wall. In a locked office to which only two people have keys, Uno and… Agnes. And a bit of business with Agnes taking unto herself a fireaxe. Sent me properly down the wrong path, and I admire things that can do that.

There was even an attmpt to direct us back to Gittan, owner of the island, writer of a family history detailing all the ‘disappearances’ down the years (that opening scene was of her grandfather burying the Baltic refugees he’d killed, and killing the lighthouse keeper) and raver about the island containingsomething evil that mmakes people go bad things. She turns up with a shotgun and a canister of petrol, determined to burn the cholera hospital down, to prevent the Police sniffinf round her family secrets.

But, of course, we learned last week that Gittan was Isabell’s foster mother. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that Isabell’s ‘defence’ is that it wasn’t her, it was the island: something evil made her do it against her will.

Frankly, it pissed me off that Johan should be the one who saves the day. His blackmail works, he gets his laptop, phone and Certificate of Attendance, calls brother Lippi and the boat (Lippi brings then-girlfriend Elin, a too short cameo from the fair Anna Astrom, who in series 1 will suffocate Lippi and be in turn strangled by Johan) and rocks off to Daddy’s meeting without a backward glance, let alone a tear.

Only to find, in episode 8, that he’s got Maja’s locket in his pocket, which convinces him, in defiance of everything we know about Johan, heavily reinforced in episode 7, that he must go back (what is this? Lost?). So, just when Minnie collapses through blood loss and appears to be dead, Johan’s boat appears inthe dark, he spots the little girl waving Minnie’s torch and gets everything wrapped up (offscreen) in time to get her the medical attention that will save her life. Ho hum.

There’s even time for an in-joke. Johan says let’s not go there again, Minnie suggests somewhere different: skiing? Tortuously inserted reference to series 1 ticked off, we close on Minnie’s daughter Luna running towards her and a weary but sweet smile from a sweet-faced actress I’d watch again, hopefully in  something better.

Overall, this was an improvementon series 1 by simply not being anything near as bad, and by not lapsing into total incoherence in its final episodes. Not being as bad is, however, the best I could say: it suffered from not having enough plot for eight episodes, though maybe just too much for six, and it had anawful case of creeping camera, those slow forward pans meant to trigger tension that ended up so overused that all they triggered was tedium.

If they do think they’ve got a third series story, or even a viable common link character, I’ll probably watch it, because, you know, I do that and I blog it, so I’d do it to blog it. But I’d prefer not to, thank you very much.

Film 2019: Sleeping Beauty


I’m as close to certain as can be, after sixty years, that Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was the very first film I saw in a cinema, taken one night by my parents, whilst aged 4 or thereabouts. I have vague memories of the onscreen spectacle, and of a journey home by bus, coming to the T-junction with Ashton Old Road, on the 169/170 route. That would make it a visit to the old Essoldo cinema at Gorton, our nearest cinema, and my only visit there: indeed, it was long closed by the time I began passing it regularly.

The film gave me nightmares, or one specific one at least. She burst through my window in a blaze of black and yellow light, one night in my little bedroom at the back of 41 Brigham Street, terrifying me. My only recourse was to pretend I was asleep, and I lay there, awake but completely unmoving for hours, drenched in fear-sweat, my pajamas soaked through, not looking for fear she was still there and would act if I showed I was awake.

There was a Three Good Fairies series in one of my very young comics, probably Robin, in which Maleficent was a recurring villain. I was so scared, I couldn’t look at her in the comic, yet I knew I had to keep this from my parents, not let them know how afraid I was. I believed it was real, you see.

Almost sixty years later, Sleeping Beauty is one of only two classic Disney films I have on DVD. Long ago, I outgrew my fears of the Evil Witch, and she doesn’t scare me now. It’s a short film, only 72 minutes in length, and I originally bought it because I had a high opinion of it in comparison to the other Disney animations, but watching it again, I’m very far from sure now.

Sleeping Beauty, which had been planned since 1951 but not completed until 1958, was not a success, commercially or otherwise, and its failure put the Disney studios off fairy-tales for thirty years. Even many of the animators found it cold and unappealing, and it’s not too difficult to see why.

For all its dynamism in the climactic fight scene, during which Maleficent transforms herself into a towering dragon, until she gets a sword through the heart, this is a film of limited animation. A tiny handful of characters move across an ornate but static background. Though it was softened during production, the backgrounds stand out as being detailed and gothic in appearance, whereas the characters are heavily-stylised. Even the Princess Aurora, or the peasant girl Briar-Rose as she is, and her swain, Prince Philip (a rare instance of a Disney Prince actually having a name), who are drawn as realistic characters and whose movements are drawn as rotoscoping of live actors, are themselves highly-stylised human beings.

So far as the adaptation goes, Disney decided that the Princess’s awakening after one hundred years asleep may have made for a climax but didn’t offer enough for the story in terms of build-up. Instead of the Prince being a complete stranger who comes across this timelost thorn-choked castle of eery sleepers, and deciding to snatch a snog off this hot Princess (there have been several versions where he does more than kiss her, including one by Anne Rice that turns the story into rather lurid S&M porn), he’s the slightly older son of King Stefan and Queen No-Name-Given fellow King, who’s betrothed to Aurora at her birth.

After a decently impressive curse administered by Maleficent (superbly voiced by Eleanor Audley), the Three Good Fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, take the baby off to live in the forest with them as a peasant girl and they as mortals, until her sixteenth birthday. On that day, she bumps into Philip in the forest, neither having any idea who the other is, and of course they fall in love.

This contrivance means that when Aurora pricks her finger, under Maleficent’s malevolent spell, and falls asleep, the Good Fairies put everyone else to sleep to share her slumber, only to learn by accident that this handsome stranger in the wood that Briar-Rose plans to marry is her actual betrothed and spell-breaking kisser.

Except that Maleficent has kidnapped Philip and imprsoned him at the Forbidden Mountain where she intends to keep him for 100 years, by which time his kiss will have dried up. But the Fairies, despite having not nearly enough power to combat the Evil Witch, free the Prince and help him escape. Maleficent then throws up the thorns round the castle only for Philip to chop his way through these as if they were as obstructive as daffodils, kiss Aurora awake after not even the equivalent of a good night’s sleep and dance into the clouds with her (symbollically).

I dunno.

The film’s music is all taken or adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Ballet, the main theme of which is adapted for the song Once Upon a Dream, probably one of the best songs ever to be created for a Disney film, but overall my response today is pretty much that of the filmgoers and critics of 1958 and after, that it doesn’t really work on all sorts of levels. I’m not four years old any more, and I’m considerably more critical of everything I experience.

Nevertheless, I doubt I’ll sell the DVD. There’s a piece of me in it and such things arerare.

The Infinite Jukebox: Omerta’s ‘Synchronise Your Smiles’


Stop me if I’ve told you this before.
I remember a Friday night after work, back end of 1979, going for a drink with a guy I’d gotten friendly with where I lived in Nottingham.
The conversation turned to music, and I explained one of the things that I saw as a glory of the Punk/New Wave scene. Punk had rejected the standard Seventies rock meme about paying your dues, namely the gigging night after night, small venues, on the road, honing your chops.
Instead, bands were forming out of nowhere, bringing sometimes no more than crude enthusiasm and energy, and minimal technique, and independent labels were putting their records out without that two years of grind.
And some of those records were brilliant. Two to three minutes in which everything the band had got was concentrated into a moment that was awesome. Maybe/probably the band could never do it again (I cited The Undertones’ ‘Teenage Kicks’, their only release at that point, as an example of a band who would probably never produce anything else worth listening to…) but so what? We had that three minutes of brilliance.
Why did it matter that we didn’t get the boring, predictable stuff? Some bands only have three minutes of brilliance in them.
I know virtually nothing about Omerta. They were a Manchester band who were around in the mid-2000s. Very popular live, expected to be big, released three singles and disappeared. ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ isn’t even an a-side, that was a song called ‘One Chance’. I never heard them, or heard of them, when they were live. It’s only because I’ve researched this that I’ve discovered they involved into the equally highly-respected and longer lasting Slow Readers Club.
I found out about ‘Synchronise your Smiles’ when it was used as background music to a short video on the FC United of Manchester web-site. I thought it was brilliant. Thankfully, someone before me had asked what the music was and it had been identified, which enabled me to rush to YouTube and hear the whole thing immediately.
‘Synchronise your Smiles’ is one of those songs that’s a marriage of rock and dance/electronica. It begins shyly, slyly, with some beeps and tweeps, an almost rhythm, to which a solo bass that grows in regularity, cymbals dancing quickly behind, over which the lead singer(s) croons the title and follows it with the purely Mancunian advice that ‘you look so dumb’.
The electronica pulses throughout the song, which gathers in tempo as guitars and drums cut in, and suddenly, from a standing start the song is flying along on a yearning melody that drags the listener in its wake. The song becomes a rush of sound, the vocals mixed down so that the lyrics can’t easily be distinguished, except in certain moments, such as the chorus. which feels as if the song is accelerating: meet me down the (something) of Justice, don’t stand in line and they’ll see through all your bullshit lies in time, where has it all gone wrong?
And whilst that seems to be the key line, the one that repeats, the one that ends the song as the music fades to leave only that electronic riff that has underpinned the entire song is the fantastically optimistic I will see you again. Loss, pain and hope, whether justified or denied, in a three minute sugar rush.
I’ve no idea and I can’t begin to guess. I only know that this is just short of three minutes of brilliance, that this is in that sense you can’t define in words but can only know from living here, completely Mancunian. This couldn’t have been recorded anywhere else and sound like this and be like this. I don’t know what brought Omerta together and what drove them apart. I just know that here was a band that had three minutes of brilliance in it and here it is.
Where has it all gone wrong?

Lou Grant: s01 e06 – Aftershock


On a dark and cold winter morning, it’s nice to be able to transport yourself to sunny late-Seventies Los Angeles where the problems are at least different from the ones of modern life.

The latest Lou Grant was a carefully misleading episode that concealed its plans well in a slow open, and with a nicely integrated B story that seemed designed for the pisode title. But the show’s story was on completely different lines that were about a very different kind of Aftershock.

The set-up was low-key, casual. It’s a slow news day on the City Desk, with no stories for Lou to pitch for page 1 at the budget meeting. Lou rejects a lead about a man who claims cockroaches can preduct earthquakes, as any normal City Editor would. Then there’s an earthquake during the budget meeting. It’s Lou’s first but the rest of the editors are so blase they immediately bet on the intensity (4.3 as it happens).

As Duncan Aldridge isn’t back from a very long lunch yet, Lou sends Rossi with The Animal (the slovenly photographer, played by Daryl Anderson, having his first semi-substantial week, despite having been cast since the outset) to report on it. As an afterthought, he sends Rossi to interview the cockroach man, get a humourous angle out of it.

But then the news comes in that Aldridge is dead, a heart attack. Charlie passes on to Lou the responsibility for informing Duncan’s widow, a nicely but not majorly attractive woman in her early forties, Gloria (an excellent guest appearance from Joyce Van Patten).

The problem is that Duncan’s died of a heart attack in a fleapit hotel or, to be more specific, in a bedroom in a fleapit hotel or, to be even more specific, in a bed in a fleapit hotel and, aw, you guessed it, whilst fornicating with a woman not his wife. She’s still on the scene, wanting Lou to know this wasn’t just some sordid affair, which briefly has us thinking hre’s the real story, but no, she’s a red herring. Because Gloria arrives, and Lou has to start explaining things so she doesn’t get an even bigger shock than the one she’s already had…

And here’s our story. Because Gloria, as much out of shock as her own conditioned wifedom, reels from what’s happened. Lou’s embarrassed generosity in trying to help her come to terms with this rapidly becomes a full-time job in running Gloria’s lifefor her. Every day, she grows more dependent upon him to take descisions for her, talk 15 year old son Roger out of running away, deliver (extremely badly, a lovely piece of playing by Ed Asner) the eulogy at Duncan’s funeral, everything.

Lou’s growing embarrassed and frustrated at every turn. Beneath the gruff exterior, several layers thick, he has the traditional heart of gold. And Gloria’s quite good-looking, and Van Patten’s body language males it plain, without any blatancy, that Lou could pull her into bed any time he wanted to. The thing is, he doesn’t want to, but his inability to push her away is making the situation worse.

Meanwhile, in the B story, Rossi has found that Mr Tumora, the cockroach man’s predictions are scarily accurate. He’s a small, calm, intense man who’s made insects etc his study. His predictions are made on a scientific basis, plus he ‘s smart enough to have proved them by sending them in registered letters, before the recent quake, and its first aftershock, which arises exactly on cue. Fame and riches call, as well as Johnny Carson.

And he has predicted an even bigger aftershock for November 30th at 5.00pm, 6.7: bigger than the quake of ’71. That leads to a lot of tension.

Everyone around Lou is noticing his predicament, and treating it as a casual joke. The episode portrays it in understated terms. It’s undramatic, it’s naturalistic, it’s believabl;e at every step, how Gloria is falling for a competent man, a rock on whom she can rely, and totally obliterating his part in the process. There’s only one way out and that’s to be blunt, a course urged by Mrs Pynchon who relates a story of how she herself ‘relied’ on a family friend after her huband died. The accidental revelation that he was sick of her hurt her basll;y but stirred her to taking responsibility for herself.

Lou is a lot more open about it, if only marginally less direct. Gloria’s even going on about thinking she’s falling in love with him, returning to her reportorial career at the Trib, seeing him every day, several times every day, until he has to tell her, “Get off my back.” Van Patten’s response carefully mixes shock and hurt with asudden realisation ofhow she’s been, and the episode ends on a joke, setting both on the path to restoring normality.

There’s another joke ending too. Despite everybody’s paranoid fears, the second, severe aftershock doesn’t materialise. Tumora takes it philosophically – two out of three isn’t bad – or so it seems. He tips out the jar containing his two ‘favourite’ cockroaches, then hammers them to death!

A neat episode, a very human episode, carefully plotted and filled with light, often superficial performances from the cast all round, with a lot of funny lines and situations that never turned the episode into a comedy but were still laugh-out-loud good. And sunny LA is a nice place to imagine being on January mornings when the temperature is hovering around zero.

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘Pirate Freedom’


Though it can’t be compared in length, density and complexity to the earlier work, Pirate Freedom has a lot in common with The Wizard Knight. And it has enough elements in common with Soldier of Sidon for it not to be inaccurate to paint it as a hybrid of its two immediate predecessors.
Pirate Freedom, like Soldier of Sidon, is primarily a work of historical fiction, dedicated to an accurate depiction of the great era of Caribbean pirates, as carefully researched as the Egyptian book, and presented honestly through the eyes of an outsider, absorbing and reflecting the culture revealed.
And at the same time, Captain Chris, Crisofero, Father Christopher – the man has several names depending on where and when he is – is another unreliable narrator in the mould of Able of the High Heart: naïve, removed from his ‘natural’ world by some never explained means that dumps him in a world to which he has to become used, in which he proves to be implausibly successful, and, especially like Able, can’t tell a half decent story worth a damn.
Chris, like Able, tells his story via the medium of a long letter, this time to a stranger. He’s awkward, prone to lose where he is and writes as if he’s talking to someone and has to continually keep interrupting himself to tell his listener that he’d better tell him things.
But he’s not merely a retread of Able, because Gene Wolfe doesn’t do retreads, but also because there are significant differences between the two: Able/Art was a contemporary boy, from a ‘real’ America, translated to a mythical universe, whereas Chris comes from a near (early Twenty-First Century) future, who travels back into the past.
Chris’s story, after a short introduction, setting up that he is telling this story to an acquaintance who has asked him for it, begins with the Communist regime falling in Cuba. Chris’s father moves to Havana to (shades of the Battista era) a casino, and places his son in a monastery for his education (and safety?) Dad never comes back, Chris studies with a view to becoming a priest but decides not to remain in St Bartolomo.
And there’s a casual, solitary mention of Chris being extra tall because his father had engineered him that way (very Beaker Parrish from Robert Loren Fleming’s Thriller).
But that’s the only SF reference in the book, unless you count Chris’ translation in time. He leaves the monastery to walk into Havana but by the time he gets there, Havana’s not there because it hasn’t been built yet. Chris has gone back in time, without explanation or rationale or any better purpose than to drop him into the age of piracy, where, for no particularly detectable purpose, he lives several years as a pretty good pirate.
And at the end of the book, and after having the development telegraphed several times over (by which I don’t just mean telegraphed by Gene Wolfe’s standards but actually telegraphed), Chris goes back to his own time by the same unexplained and purposeless means.
In between, Chris recounts his progress into piracy and captaincy, not to mention his relationship with Novia, one of several women who dote upon him and want to do it with him all the time. There’s a housemaid and her mistress and a couple of native women and, to be honest, Wolfe renders the question of who is who so densely that, apart from her being Spanish, I can never entirely be sure which one Novia is.
Either way, this Roman Catholic novitiate, who kills a lot of people, does it very frequently with Novia (and the others), represents Novia as his wife though they have undergone no religious or legal ceremony, and fathers a baby upon her out of anything but their own personal wedlock. Wolfe is himself a very devout Catholic, so there is a great deal of musing upon what is owed to God or what we wishes us to do, but this is bending the principles more than somewhat.
Meanwhile, Chris, like Able, is stronger and harder than those around him, though not strong enough to resist two gang-rapes on his first voyage. Furthermore, like Able, he is a much more than competent strategian, tactician, analyst, whatever word you choose to use, than anyone around him.
Chris’s account of his piratical history is continually punctuated by interjections as to his life back in his own time as Father Chris, and how he practices his faith (there is one point at which Chris gives an opinion on the thorny subject of Priests abusing young boys where he or Wolfe goes very much too close to victim-blaming, saying that the boys should have been taught to fight back: that Chris acknowledges that he can be accused of that very thing doesn’t alter the fact that it is victim-blaming, and that Chris is unrepentant of his views).
He’s also forever punctuating his account by pointing out how real piracy and real pirate ships and crews went about things totally differently from what we have seen on television and in films. Between this, overly didactic approach, and Wolfe’s deliberate awkwardness in telling the story through Chris, I found things very frustrating, and despite the different subject, entirely too much like The Wizard Knight for my reading comfort.
And the absence of any mechanism for Chris’s two time jumps I found very disappointing. Wolfe is a far better writer than that, so I can only put it down to a deliberate decision. Of course, the standard response to any ignored information in a Wolfe novel is to immediately start working out what lies buried beneath. After all, Chris does mention late on that his surname is almost impossible for anyone else to pronounce, impossible to shorten and beyond the capability of signal flags, which is an open invitation to Wolfe scholars to discover it.
But I am no Wolfe scholar, as you may well have surmised by now. Chris’s name, the mechanism for his time jumps, are mysteries that remain mysteries because they are too far detached from the purpose of the story. And like high fantasy, I an not enough of an aficianado of pirates to ultimately want to know that badly.
This book is the true beginning of the slow decline. There is still interesting writing to follow. But the great books, the ones of legend, have been written.