I Thought About YouSpace

In three of his more recent books, author Tom Holt turned to the idea of virtual reality. Well, not entirely virtual, as these alternate realities, as bizarre as they can be, are actually real. A new program called YouSpace allows hopping through these worlds at will, with a doughnut or any food with a hole in the middle being the key to escape.

The first one, Doughnut, features a physicist named Theo Bernstein who finds himself jobless and broke after accidentally blowing up the Very Very Large Hadron Collider. When his mentor Pieter van Goyen dies, he leaves Theo a collection of strange objects and a job at a mysterious hotel with only two guests. It turns out that the whole thing is linked to Pieter’s pet project YouSpace (although no one much likes that name). Theo visits a world where everyone lives in the sky because the ground is contaminated, one where the Vatican has relocated to Australia and Russia is still a monarchy, and one inhabited by sentient and rather vicious stuffed animals. What’s more, it turns out that Theo’s ne’er-do-well brother might still be alive somewhere. In addition to pondering the nature of the universe and plenty of just plain weirdness, some of the humor is based on the relationships between siblings. Theo resents his brother Max, but spends much of the book trying to find him. It’s typical for Holt’s books to contain a romantic subplot, but while there are hints of mutual interest between Theo and a YouSpace investor’s niece who works with him at the hotel, it never really develops into anything.

When It’s a Jar focuses on a new character named Maurice Katz, with the Bernstein brothers present but relegated to the background. Like Theo, and many of Holt’s protagonists, Maurice is a down-on-his-luck guy who gets a job at a mysterious location where he has no idea what’s going on, in this case a warehouse. And once again, the hero has to search multiple worlds to find someone, in this case Theo as well as Max; and there’s a love story that doesn’t really go much of anywhere. The running gag of the old man and his always-hungry nephew who seem to work every possible job continues as well. There’s somewhat of a new element, albeit not entirely new for Holt, in that Maurice’s adventures play on the basic ideas of the classic heroic journey, with his killing a dragon with a bread knife and receiving a magic letter opener from a lady in a toilet bowl. We also pay a visit to Valhalla and learn what a place where people kill each other and then come back to life every day might actually be like, particularly for someone who does not have a natural proclivity toward fighting. It’s an enjoyable read, but doesn’t really add much to the YouSpace concept.

Finally, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice completes the trilogy with a quite amusing title, even though there isn’t actually an apprentice in the story. The only alternate world visited is a fantasy one of elves and goblins that was foreshadowed in When It’s a Jar, and a man from our world is using YouSpace to take advantage of its inhabitants for cheap labor. When his nephew Benny finds the YouSpace device, he enters the world as a prince, but is unable to escape due to the taboo on foods with holes in them. His presence begins making the inhabitants question things, like how the model of knights slaying dragons and receiving half the kingdom would be sustainable, why wolves continue to dress as old ladies when the ploy never works, and whether there are other options for goblins than fighting all the time. While largely a party of traditional fairy tales, there are some groan-worthy parodies of Tolkien in particular, like a dwarf leader named Drain son of Dror and a marshmallorn tree.

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I’ll Be a Dirty Word

This article that I discussed in an earlier post touches on a subject I thought might be worth another post, which is that of Penn Jillette referring to women as “cunts” on social media.

I generally like Penn, but I can’t help but find it bizarre that his Bullshit! was dedicated to exposing scams, but then he and Teller did an episode about how the nation could get by without income taxes.

I get that that’s more a matter of opinion than whether reflexology has any scientific basis (SPOILER: it doesn’t), but it does seem that he has his own rational blind spots.

In general, I’m all for free speech and against censorship. I don’t think any word should necessarily be off limits, but there’s a bit of a paradox here in that people who think blue language should be used freely also take into account that there’s a certain amount of taboo associated with them. Otherwise saying “fuck you” is no more hurtful than saying “darn you.” So what about the word “cunt” is so bad? Obviously not the technical meaning, especially when it’s a heterosexual man using it. There IS something about that particular combination of letters that sounds particularly curt and harsh. The main issue is, however, that it’s a word specifically associated with a specific group that’s frequently marginalized in society. The thing is, there are a lot of slurs of this variety that I would say are likely much more hurtful than run-of-the-mill stuff like “piss” or “shit,” but that don’t always have the same limitations. The first time I saw the movie Blazing Saddles, it was on a network broadcast where they kept in every instance of the N-word, but edited out the word “ass.” Granted, you wouldn’t have much of a movie without that word, and a satirical usage is quite different than a casual one, but it still makes me question the network standards to some extent. I don’t think “cunt” has quite the same history of being used oppressively (although maybe it does; I haven’t really looked into it), but there’s a similarity there.

I’m also thinking back to another entertainer who was called out for using the same word, Bill Maher, who called Sarah Palin a cunt during a 2011 stand-up routine. Now, I think this is mostly a non-issue, and we’d probably never have even known about it if the right-wing media didn’t take every possible opportunity to denounce left-wing personalities. It was a frequent right-wing talking point at the time to say, basically, “Democrats think they’re so pro-women, but what about their attacks on Sarah Palin?” Never mind that they were primarily making fun of Palin for being totally unfit for the position for which she was running, something that’s done to men all the time. But when you use such gender-specific language, doesn’t that make it at least a bit misogynistic, hence kind of giving Fox News what they wanted? Maybe Maher was aware of this and did it just to rile up his critics, but I think it would have had much the same effect and gone against the usual expectations if he’d just said, “Sarah Palin is a dick.” I’m not about to tell professional jokers how to do humor, just wondering whether there might not have been better word choices in these particular cases. After all, isn’t the whole point that you think these people are terrible in ways totally unrelated to their gender? Or is there something that makes a woman who writes a comedy piece that doesn’t work worse than a man who does the same thing?

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Grave Duggars

From what I understand, Mike Huckabee has taken a break from trashing Beyoncé to explain that he stands behind the Duggars after it was revealed that Joshua sexually molested several girls, including his sisters. I guess wearing revealing outfits while you sing is a whole lot worse than rape.

I came across a comment on my Facebook feed from someone I don’t know about how the Duggars are facing more repercussions than other celebrities who have committed heinous acts, presumably for political or religious reasons. As far as I know, though, the Duggars aren’t facing any legal penalties, just having their show canceled, and I’m sure that’s because the sponsors don’t want to be associated with them. That’s all about money, not politics or religion. And I think you have to take into account that Josh and other members of the Duggar clan have made themselves out to be moral authorities, claiming that homosexuality was immoral and linked to child molestation. I’ve also heard that the patriarch spoke in favor of the death penalty for incest.

Not that the opinions of these people should really count for anything. I mean, they were basically on television as a circus sideshow, so that audiences could gape at how many kids they had. Not that I feel bad for the parents, as they’re making plenty of money. I do, however, feel for the children on so-called reality shows like that. I’ve never watched 19 Kids and Counting, but my wife used to force me to watch Toddlers and Tiaras, and it was just disturbing how terrible some of those parents were. Granted, the shows are edited so we don’t always know the whole story, but I’m not sure there’s any excuse for some of what they put their kids through, and this is what they’re willing to have broadcast on national television. Even the title of the Duggars’ show suggests that they see their kids more as a commodity than as actual human beings, and the truth is apparently far worse. They’re really not allowed to have any individuality at all, particularly the women, who are basically just baby factories. As Beth pointed out, if you have that many kids at the same time, can you really know any of them? The even more disturbing thing is that, even though it’s essentially a freak show, some people still hold them up as role models. Why? I don’t know for sure, but it seems that people who use religion to defend bigotry are really keen on famous people who share their views, even if these people are famous for stupid reasons. If a guy who eats bugs for money is against gay marriage, he’d likely become a darling of the Religious Right. How do you think Kirk Cameron still has a career?

The problem is, if you have a holier-than-thou attitudes, those who don’t share your beliefs are going to have a greater sense of schadenfreude when you’re revealed to be a hypocrite. Look at Bill Cosby, lecturing kids about wearing baggy pants while sexually assaulting women. Or Bill O’Reilly, self-appointed media watchdog who allegedly dragged his wife around by the neck. I just wish people weren’t abused in the process. I think Woody Allen and Roman Polanski were way too easily forgiven by the entertainment industry, but I know of no indication that they made themselves out to be moral authorities.

I do have to say it’s a bit of a lame argument when someone calls out a celebrity for reprehensible behavior, and someone comes back with, “But Celebrity X did something just as bad or worse!” That’s really the best you can do? I do, however, think some celebrities’ crimes or alleged crimes are much more easily dismissed than others. I’ve seen it suggested a few times that Chris Brown gets more flak than other abusers because he’s black, and while that might be a factor, I don’t think it’s the whole story. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think it’s more that Chris Brown was never all that famous as a musician with white people. If he hadn’t beaten up Rihanna, I don’t think I’d have any idea who he was. For me, that’s a different story than someone like Bill Murray, who is said to have abused his wife, but was in movies I quite enjoyed as well. Does that excuse him, or make the allegations less likely to be true? Of course not, but I do think it’s somewhat natural to try to find excuses for people whose work we admire, as totally unfair as that might be. So I guess if you like the Duggars for whatever reason, you’re going to want to find a way to forgive them. Since they appear to only be famous for being prejudiced and self-centered, however, why WOULD you like them?

Posted in Celebrities, Current Events, Politics, Prejudice, Religion, Television | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Got My Kojo Working

King Kojo, by Ruth Plumly Thompson – Published in 1938, toward the end of Thompson’s tenure as Royal Historian of Oz, this book is an attempt at a children’s fantasy on her own terms. She had been writing Oz books for years, and was not at all satisfied with how Reilly & Lee was handling the series. Kojo was published by the David McKay Company, and had illustrations by Marge, creator of Little Lulu. It’s been out of print for some time, and while Hungry Tiger Press has announced a new edition being in the works, it hasn’t been forthcoming. As it is in the public domain, John Troutman went ahead and scanned the whole thing, so you can read it online.

For a book written at least partially to break away from Oz, it’s obvious that the famous fairyland was still very much on Thompson’s mind. There’s a parrot named Nickadick and a goat named Buttonbite, and she had even used the name of Kojo and his kingdom of Oh-Go-Wan in her own Oz books. The former was a minor character in The Purple Prince of Oz, and the latter an unidentified location mentioned in Pirates in Oz (although she spelled it as the slightly less silly-looking Ogowan). Her writing style is very similar to her Oz work, although perhaps even more so to her other non-Oz children’s fantasy, featuring a jolly kingdom with a weird mix of old-world style and modern sensibilities. King Kojo is a childish, fun-loving monarch with a good heart and a tendency toward naivete, a type we find throughout her work. The book is episodic, detailing the experiences of the King and his subjects throughout the course of about a year and a half. Some chapters are self-contained, while others end with cliffhangers. Kojo himself, who seems to get kidnapped about once a month, tends to be the focus of most of the plots.

Probably the most interesting character, however, is Dorcas, a wooden ship’s figurehead that lay at the bottom of the ocean for 500 years before being brought to life with a magic staff. While somewhat belligerent at first, she soon settles into being someone who, despite her size and unusual appearance and history, just wants to fit in.

Puns, magic, and jokey dialogue abound; at one point, Kojo finds an easy chair that makes things easy to do. It’s mostly fun throughout, but there is kind of an odd theme about not trying to rise above your station in life. A kitchen boy who takes initiative to try to gain a fortune through magic is reprimanded, and a soldier who takes the King’s place for a joke turns traitor and rules the kingdom himself for a while. It seems common in Thompson’s cozy kingdoms that, while the bosses tend to be kind, the court is informal, and nobody works too hard, challenging the social order is pretty much always wrong. Kind of strange for a fantasy land that celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter in ways American readers of the time would have recognized; but I guess that’s Thompson for you.

By the way, there are also three other King Kojo stories that aren’t in the book, all available in the collection The Wizard of Way-Up and Other Wonders. In these, Oh-Go-Wan acquires a court wise man who’s actually a dog and a carpenter who pretends he’s a wizard. Marcus Mebes ties in the kingdom with Oz in his Royal Explorers of Oz trilogy and includes several of the locations from the tales on his map of Tarara. Not included are Beckadore (located on the opposite side of Big Enuf Mountain from Oh-Go-Wan/Ogowan), Faru, the Ordney Isles, Eightpenny Isle, or the desert land of Whyness. Dorcas mentions Zittycoo and Zundersnutch, but since these are from her seafaring life centuries earlier, there’s no real way of knowing where they are or if they even exist anymore aside from just making it up. Since Dorcas’ ship was called the Dork, it’s possible it has some link to the Isle of Dork and its Duke from Pirates.

Posted in Book Reviews, Humor, Marcus Mebes, Oz, Oz Authors, Ruth Plumly Thompson | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Misogyny Without Mysticism

This BuzzFeed article addresses something I’d been wondering about recently, which is misogynistic atheists. While a logically possible position, it just seems weird in light of the fact that the major group that’s historically been discriminated against by the major world religions is women. Even when women played a significant part in starting a religion (shout-out to Mary Magdalene and Khadijah, among others), men have generally found a way to use it to enforce what they see as traditional gender roles.

Hey, my wife just sent me a link to this very disturbing page recently. With religion behind you, you can claim that it isn’t just YOU who thinks women should be subservient to men and provide sex whenever they’re asked for it; it’s the Almighty Lord of the Universe who thinks that.

Atheists and agnostics can’t very well use this argument. You’ll still occasionally get people insisting women are less rational than men, presumably because of their hormones, which is obviously total crap when you take into account how irrational and belligerent testosterone makes men behave. And now there are commercials on television insisting some men don’t have enough testosterone. I don’t know the medical science behind this, but my initial reaction to these is one of horror. Of course, neither men nor women are completely controlled by their body chemistry, and pretty much everyone thinks their position is the rational one. The article suggests that this misogyny is somewhat ingrained in atheist and skeptical communities for the same reason it is among comic book and video game fans, which is that they were at first dominated by guys. Now, there’s a huge difference between simply not knowing any girls who share your interests and actively shutting them out. There’s probably a certain amount of sexism involved in the former, but it isn’t entirely conscious and probably has more of a chance of being recognized and avoided as much as possible.

But then you get the Men’s Rights guys who insist that women are a lot of whiny crybabies while simultaneously expressing how devastated they are about the upcoming Supergirl television show, because that’s apparently not a matter of emotions.

One reason this interests me is that I identify as an atheist and a feminist. Both of these terms can be somewhat controversial, which is why I generally only use them when online or among friends. I’ve recently come again upon something about how men SHOULDN’T identify as feminists, which is the exact opposite of what I usually see. In some ways, I think this attitude is more or less buying into the idea that feminism isn’t about equality, but about women trying to conquer the world. I don’t entirely understand the no-male-feminists argument, but from what I’ve gathered it has something to do with feminism being a women’s movement. To me, feminism and the women’s movement are related, but not the same thing. Similarly, atheism just means you don’t believe in supernatural forces controlling the universe, and doesn’t necessarily indicate a position on public policy. Neither one automatically makes you part of a club, and while I address atheism and feminism from time to time, I don’t consider myself a member of either community, if such things even exist. I can’t help but wonder if the women-only feminists are mostly just bothered by men who try to use the feminist label as a bragging right or a pick-up line, as if basic decency is something that should instill pride. And no, I don’t think flirtation is inherently bad, but repeated unwelcome flirtation is. Hey, I get that we straight men tend to have our minds turn to sex when noticing attractive women, but I also like to think we’re respectful enough not immediately put those thoughts into action.

Posted in Feminism, Gender, Prejudice, Religion | Tagged , | 1 Comment

What a Tangled Web We Weave

Thanks largely to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and SamuraiFrog’s series of blog posts on Marvel Comics, I’ve gained somewhat of an interest in reading some of the classic superhero material. It doesn’t appear that the Brooklyn library system has all that much of it, although it can be difficult to search for because a simple keyword search for the name of a popular hero can bring a lot of irrelevant results, and even the relevant ones have been reprinted in several different volumes. I did, however, manage to check out The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 1, a 2013 publication in the Marvel Masterworks series that collects Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy and the stories from the first ten issues of his own magazine, omitting the letters pages and other such content. Spider-Man was a clever character in reflecting the stereotypical comic reader of the time, a nerdy teenage boy who has trouble getting along with his peers. It’s partially wish fulfillment, yet at the same time gaining super powers doesn’t get rid of his problems. He has money woes and general teenage awkwardness, and was of course largely goaded into crime-fighting by the murder of his Uncle Ben. The basics of the character are introduced quite early on, including J. Jonah Jameson’s vendetta against Spidey and Peter Parker’s job taking photographs for Jameson.

I’ve never been entirely sure how all of his powers relate to actual spiders, but there’s some justification for most of it. He has the proportionate strength of a spider, which is able to lift about eight times its weight, although Peter can actually lift a lot more than that. The agility and wall-climbing are obvious, and even his spider sense is said to be related to how spiders have hairs that can sense vibrations in surfaces and the air. One thing a radioactive spider bite DIDN’T give him, at least according to the original story, was the ability to spin webs. He had to make the web-shooters himself, because that’s totally believable for a teenage boy. Okay, so most of it isn’t realistic, but I think that somewhat stretches the willing suspension of belief, and suspension is partially what spider webs are about. Besides, when you think of spider-related super powers, wouldn’t spinning webs come way before precognition? The Sam Raimi films gave Spidey biological web-shooters, but I believe the more recent movies stick with the homemade ones. Peter finds a lot of different uses for his webbing in these first few books, including making swamp shoes and fake monsters.

Peter is pitted against a lot of different villains in just these issues: the Chameleon (who actually doesn’t have any super powers, just rubber masks), the Vulture, the Lizard, Electro, the Sandman, and Dr. Octopus; as well as a malfunctioning robot, aliens, and gangsters. Not surprisingly, it’s the bad guys who have weird powers of their own, either through inventions of their own or accidents, who have become his better-known opponents. Most of them are either scientists or laymen who stumbled into scientific experiments. His wisecracks when fighting are a significant part of the character, and it’s pretty much stated that his swagger is often to disguise how unsure he really is, although he does get genuinely cocky at times.

He’s also established as part of a larger superhero universe, with his coming into contact with the Fantastic Four a few times (he and Johnny Storm have a bit of a rivalry), fighting Dr. Doom, and mentioning Ant-Man. Apparently Spidey is going to appear in later Marvel Cinematic Universe films, although I couldn’t say whether they’re going to make them follow-ups to either of the recent series or just start him from scratch. Regardless, I don’t think we need to see him gain his powers and learn about responsibility again. We already know about that.

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This Dragon Story Is Just Oki

In an Oz story that we were working on together, Joe Bongiorno pointed out the similarity between the character Quiberon and the Japanese legend of Yofune-Nushi. This was a sea dragon that lived in the Oki Islands in the Sea of Japan, described as shaped like a snake twenty-six feet long, with legs and scales, a glowing body, and flaming eyes.

The story is known to us through Richard Gordon Smith, a British traveler who heard it during his time in Japan. Smith dates it to the Hojo regency over the Kamakura shogunate, likely in the early fourteenth century. The regent banished a samurai named Oribe Shima to the Okis for an unknown offense, and his daughter Tokoyo went off in search of him. She sailed to the islands on her own and encountered a priest who was about to push a fourteen-year-old girl into the sea, explaining that Yofune-Nushi demanded a virgin sacrifice just under fifteen years of age every year on the Day of the Dog in early summer. A quick Google search revealed that the Day of the Dog is, in Buddhist tradition, a day in the fifth month of a pregnancy. And in modern Japan, it’s an observance on 1 November. I’m not sure why Smith identifies the Day of the Dog as 13 June, but I assume it has to do with the Western association of that time of year with the star Sirius and the Dog Days. If the dragon did not get his sacrifice, he caused devastating storms in the area.

Tokoyo took the place of the maiden and swam to Yofune-Nushi’s cave with a dagger, which she used to stab the monster first in the right eye and then the heart, killing him. She then returned to the surface with a cursed wooden statue of the ruling regent, which had brought the serpent in the first place. Returning it to the surface cured the ailing regent, and he rescinded Oribe’s banishment.

As several sites point out, the idea of an evil dragon demanding virgins to eat is more of a European idea than an East Asian one, with Asian dragons being proud and bad-tempered but ultimately good. Smith’s book is the only source we have for the legend, and he admitted that he just wrote it as he’d heard it, without verifying its authenticity.

The similarity to Quiberon, who appears in Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Giant Horse of Oz, lies in the fact that he’s also a sea dragon who demands that the people of the nearby islands bring him girls. When Jewlia, daughter of the court jeweler, tells him stories about the mortal girls Dorothy, Betsy Bobbin, and Trot who live in the Emerald City, the serpent demands one, threatening to destroy the islands otherwise. He doesn’t want to eat the girl, though (he has no taste for land food), just keep her as a caretaker. The Wizard of Oz turns Quiberon to stone, but Bongiorno brings him back, associating him with the blue dragon who pulls King Cheeriobed’s carriage to the Emerald City in Wishing Horse. He also states that Yofune-Nushi was his father. The story is due to be released in an upcoming anthology.

Posted in Characters, Japanese, Monsters, Mythology, Oz, Oz Authors, Ruth Plumly Thompson | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment