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Spiking a Christmas Song

I was going to mess with an ancient Christmas song involving eating pig heads—surely you’ve heard of “The Boar’s Head Carol”—but that may have to wait for another day, ideally after everybody’s already had Christmas dinner.

No, this morning I want to write about something I learned just yesterday, about another Christmas song that Carol and I both like. We’ve never heard it on the radio, and we wouldn’t know about it at all if it weren’t on our very favorite Christmas CD: Christmas Portrait by the Carpenters (1978). The song is the medley “It’s Christmas Time/Sleep Well, Little Children.” It’s on none of our other numerous Christmas CDs, and my assumption has long been that Karen and Richard wrote it themselves, as it’s a little bit whimsical and in spots a little bit goofy.

I got curious yesterday and looked it up. The song was actually written by four men: Alan Bergman, Al Stillman, Victor Young, and Leon Klatzkin. It’s not new; in fact, it was first recorded in 1953. And when I read who first recorded it, I laughed out loud. It was Spike Jones!

Ok, I suspect young people will wonder who that is, and why his name made me laugh. Short form: Spike Jones (1911-1965) was the Weird Al Yankovic of the 1940s and 1950s. He took popular songs of other artists and recorded them in his own satirical style, with manic voices, gunshots, whistles, cowbells, hiccups, and other “special effects”. I came upon Spike Jones and His City Slickers when I was quite young; probably five or at most six. In that era my folks had a creaky old record player and a cabinet full of 78RPM records, including a few by Spike. His best known spoof song is probably “Cocktails for Two.” Note that the linked YouTube item is not a video of Spike and his band performing the song. It’s a sort of primordial music video, with Spike playing a bartender with many of the sound effects done by tipsy men at the bar. I’m sure sophisticates will roll their eyes, but when I was six I thought the song was hilarious.

So when I went looking for Spike’s version of “It’s Christmas Time” on YouTube, what I found is a cut from Spike’s Christmas album—and on this cut at least, Spike himself is notably absent. The song is played straight, with no silly sound effects, but rather a nice choir and lots of harmony. I imagine it’s Spike’s City Slickers band playing in the background. There’s a little bit of goofiness in some of the other cuts from that album, but for the most part it’s just Fifties Big Band vocals playing Christmas standards. Several are on YouTube; listen to a few if you’re interested.

I have to wonder what Spike thought of rock and roll, and what he might have done with it (or to it, more likely) had he not smoked himself to death at 53. He wasn’t a filker (like Bob Rivers of Twisted Christmas) and I wonder if he had imitators. If he did, I’ve never heard of them.

In the meantime, thanks to all of you for reading me in whatever form, and putting up with my occasional Spike Jones-ish metaphors like the Base Four Martians in my assembly language book. Have a fun Christmas, with good food, good wine, good friends, good music (even if it’s a little goofy in spots) and an occasional glance to the heavens, and a word of thanks to God, who gave us the ability to laugh and be silly as we make our way through His beautiful and extravagant creation!


DraculaWineDrink enough of it, and you will definitely be happy. In a sense it was an obvious thing to do: Universal Studios partnered with Australian vintner 19 Crimes to bring you…monster-themed wine. Alas, there are just two: Dracula Red Blend and Frankenstein Cabernet Sauvignon. Bummer. How about a Wolfman White Blend? or a Mummy Malbec? Maybe if this year’s special monster editions sell well, they’ll expand the brand next year.

As best I can tell (and I’ve drunk 19 Crimes Red Blend off and on for years) Dracula Red Blend is the same Red Blend I know well: Medium-bodied, fruit-forward, no detectable tannins. It doesn’t quite qualify as a “soft” red blend like Menage a Trois Silk, but it’s in the ballpark. Solid pizza wine, or doubtless good with bratwurst on the grill. In recent years I’ve come to favor dark red blends, like the brilliant but sadly discontinued Gnarly Head Authentic Black. This isn’t that. On the other hand, I drink zins and pinots here and there so I don’t get tired of soft-ish red blends. 19 Crimes Red Blend would serve that same purpose well. Oh—and the label supposedly glows in the dark. I guess I’ll find out tonight.

As for old Frankie Cab, you’re going to have to try it yourself because it’s a rare Cabernet Sauvignon that I can drink with a straight face. Once again, I’m a supertaster, and to me, oaky tannins dominate the taste of the wine. I don’t chew on oak floorboards. And I don’t drink cabs. (Ok, before my friend Jim Strickland jumps in to remind me, he found a cab that I actually like, from Daou. It passed muster with me because it’s reasonably fruit-forward, with so little oak that I can actually taste the fruit.)

If you pair wine with music (I do sometimes) consider Franz Liszt’s “Totentanz,” a piano-centric orchestral piece based loosely on the venerable Dies Irae chant. Definitely a Halloweeny minor-key composition, full of bassoon noodling and superhuman Liszty piano work I could never dream of while I was playing pop songs (badly) on our piano when I was in college.

Hey, not everybody is good at everything. Have fun tonight, and perhaps hoist a drink with Drac.

Hallowreads: Poltergeist by Colin Wilson

It’s that time of the year again, when I pull down a couple of titles from a region of my bookshelves where I keep books in a category I call “Weirdness.” This year’s leadoff volume is Colin Wilson’s Poltergeist. It’s special because my old eyes can no longer read the microscopic type in the MMPB edition I bought when I was in my 40s, and in truth haven’t read it for ten-ish years. I gave my friend Jim Strickland the MMPB last year and (later on) he gifted me a hardcover copy from 1982.

Jim had a reason for reading Wilson’s book: He’s finishing up the second volume in a series of novels about a private eye who is a poltergeist animating the body of a woman suicide, and solving, well, cold-case murders. (What? You want her to be a patent attorney or something?) Poltergeist! Ask the Dust is a terrific read, and very much in the spirit of the season right now. Get it or regret it, as they say.

I have a reason of my own for rereading Wilson’s Poltergeist. But I’ll come back to that.

The late Colin Wilson (1931-2013) covered a lot of ground as a writer, but what he’s best known for is books on, well, weirdness. Poltergeist may be my favorite, in part because he zeroes in on a handful of related phenomena in the immense pantheon of paranormal peculiarity. (The bulk of his books cover many topics, most of them briefly.) Even ordinary people who wouldn’t know an urisk from a hole in the ground know what a poltergeist is: an invisible presence that generates loud bangs and knockings and scrapings in houses unfortunate enough to host one. More energetic specimens throw things around (stones especially) pull bedclothes off beds, generate perfectly round puddles of water (usually on kitchen floors) and much more rarely speak. Their product line is basically chaos.

Wilson’s book begins with is a sampling of poltergeist hauntings from ancient days to as recent as 1968. He’s a very engaging writer, but even he admits that the more poltergeist reports you read, the more alike they start to sound. There are exceptions, of course. (An old friend of mine, now deceased, sent me regular reports on his poltergeist for a couple of years back in the late ‘90s. Its favorite trick was stealing sleeping pills and pain killers.) For detailed discussion, he chooses a few instances that stand out for one reason or another.

The well-known “Black Monk of Pontefract” poltergeist gets a whole longish chapter, because it happened in the UK and Wilson was able to interview some of the people who experienced it. The instance involved at least one phenomenon not seen elsewhere: Chalk dust appearing out of nowhere in a room and drifting down to the floor. It was unique in that the dust appeared in a plane about five feet above the floor before it fell. The air above the plane was perfectly clear. The Black Monk (whom almost nobody actually saw) created those round puddles on the kitchen floor and broke a lot of dishes, potted plants, and a large grandfather clock. Unlike most poltergeists, the Black Monk actually threw people off their beds onto the floor, and in one case dragged a teen girl up a flight of stairs by her neck.

Poltergeists rarely seriously harm people, either from thrown objects or physical mistreatment like pinches and slaps. The 19th Century Bell Witch is another atypical poltergeist Wilson covers, as the only well-known example of a poltergeist killing someone. (There is a whole book on the Bell Witch: The Infamous Bell Witch of Tennessee by Charles Edwin Price, if you’re interested. It’s weirdness cubed and very creepy.) Poltergeists are often considered demonic entities, but there’s a problem: Poltergeists are unaffected by exorcisms. They show up unannounced, have their fun for awhile, and then leave. Holy water, prayers, and crosses have no effect on them.

To fatten up the book, Wilson does stray a little from the core topic. He has a chapter on spirit possession, and another on fairies and other “elementals”. He spends more time on the Cottingley Fairies than they warrant. Google the term for pictures, and riddle me this: Don’t those supposed fairies look awfully two-dimensional? In 1917, two tweener girl cousins took photos with their father’s box camera in the woods by a stream that supposedly include dancing fairies. As fakey as the creatures looked, powers like Arthur Conan Doyle swallowed it whole. Years later, one of the sisters confessed that they’d used cutouts of figures they drew on thin card stock, kept in place by hat pins. Where the hell was Sherlock Holmes when Conan Doyle needed him?

Wilson admits that we don’t know how poltergeists “work.” Ghost hunter Guy Playfair offered Wilson this explanation: There are invisible “footballs” full of energy lying around, and when disembodied spirits find one, they play with it until the energy is all gone. Because poltergeists often haunt houses with children in mid-puberty living there, many have suggested that poltergeists draw on that sexual energy to do all their levitating and banging around. Kids grow up, the footballs deflate, and the poltergeists say bye-bye.

It’s a fascinating business, and Wilson captures this fascination very well. Don’t bother if you’ve long written off the paranormal as (like the Cottingley Fairies) a collection of hoaxes. The book is a real page-turner, and if there’s still space in your head for mysterious going-ons, I’d say get it. I looked for but did not find an ebook edition. (Only about two thirds of his books are on Kindle, and Poltergeist is one of the no-shows.) Highly recommended.

Now, I have some interest in the topic, which goes back a long way, all the way, in fact, to my novel The Cunning Blood. I postulated that our cosmos is the 3-dimensional surface of a 4-dimensional sphere, and that there are minds inside that hypersphere, the interior of which is called “metaspace.” Jamie Eigen called them “the players,” and researchers later named them “metaspatial intellects.” (MSIs.) We learn a lot more about the MSIs in my WIP, The Everything Machine. The MSIs, we discover, can create poltergeist-like phenomena by manipulating our space from their space in a higher dimension. Just like you can touch any point on the surface of a sphere without actually entering the sphere, creatures inside a hypersphere can touch any point in the hypersphere’s 3-dimensional surface. I also think that this is what “dark matter” is: 4-dimensional mass bending our space from the 4th (or higher) spatial dimension. Dark matter’s gravity bends our space, but all we see is the bending. Just good ol’ SF writer speculation on my part, but hey, you got any better theories?

Anyway. Stay tuned. If I can find the time in the next few days, I’ll try to review a couple of other Hallowreads here. And on Halloween, I will post a review of…Hallowine.

Review: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust

AskTheDustCoverAs an indie author, I don’t pay much attention to genre anymore. I write the story I want to write, and let the genres fall where they may. I wrote “Drumlin Boiler” long before I knew what a “space western” was, but that’s what it turned out to be. Bending genres has become a thing, and I’m seeing the guldurndest categories. You may not have heard of the steampunk zombies weird western genre, and if you haven’t, I encourage you to read James R. Strickland’s Brass and Steel: Inferno. It’s a helluva good book, and you’ll never see zombies quite the same way after you’ve read it.

Well, Jim’s put his genre-bender in gear once again, and he’s given us a genre that I’ve not encountered before: the paranormal noir murder mystery. Chew on that for a moment while I caution that there is another James R. Strickland who writes children’s books like Does God have a Favorite Pet Dog? Emphatically not the same guy.

Enter Jim’s latest book: Poltergeist: Ask the Dust. 14-year-old Nina Cohen goes down with the Titanic in 1912. Her higher (mind) spirit, or ruach, flees for parts unknown. Her lower (body) spirit, the nephesh, wanders the seas, possessing sharks and other fish, eventually finds the land and arranges to be born into a feral kitten. The kitten is taken in by a young Romanian woman in Las Vegas, and becomes Viviana’s constant, affectionate companion. Viviana, however, is deeply depressed, and after a few more years puts a pistol in her mouth and commits suicide. Nina’s nephesh cannot abide the thought of losing her human, so she leaves her cat body and enters Viviana’s. Nina is a body spirit, and in a living human being the nephesh handles much of the task of healing injuries. Nina furiously works to repair Viviana’s damaged brainstem, which is complicated by still having a .22 slug in it. She does her best, but the struggle to keep the body’s heart beating and lungs breathing is ongoing. After considerable work, Nina inhabits a (mostly) functional body. Viviana is gone, leaving Nina  without a partnered mind spirit. Nina is thus a dybbuk; i.e., a poltergeist. Most dybbuks get bored, make noise, and throw things around. Nina has a body to maintain and lacks time for mischief. But she needs a job to keep body and nephesh together.

Enter Tom Fletcher, a former cop and current chain-smoking private investigator in the Raymond Chandler mode. Except…he is also a powerful occultist, and when he spots Nina at a bus station, he looks at her in the lumina (the realm of spirit and life force) and immediately knows what she is. Fletcher takes her in, moves her back to Minnesota with him, and begins teaching her how to be a private eye. Nina gets her license, and learns from Fletcher that there are some powerful advantages to being a poltergeist gumshoe who can see the lumina and the numa life force that glows within it.

That’s a lot of backstory, and peculiar backstory at that. Jim has a fairly rare talent: He can build a backstory and major universe details in bits and pieces dropped into the primary narrative, without an infodump anywhere. The story proper begins two months after Fletcher dies of throat cancer, leaving her the private investigator business and the building he owned plus all his goods inside it. A man calls her and asks her to find his son, who has been missing for ten years. Nina takes the cold case with an eagerness bordering on naivete. In searching for Mike Berg, she runs afoul of the local drug-running gang, hitmen, conniving relatives, various lowlifes in the bad part of Lakeport, and the limitations of her poltergeist talents. Poltergeist tricks like psychokinesis cost her in numa, which accumulates slowly but can be spent very quickly. She can leave her body and travel through walls to look around, but her body doesn’t breathe while she’s not in it and so the clock is ticking. Although a local Lakeport cop befriends her, Nina soon finds that there is more than mere friendship involved—and that the spirit world is a great deal more complex and treacherous than even she knew.

The background has a startling richness. Its internal consistency is one of those things you don’t always see in fantasy yarns. It isn’t abracadabra magic so much as spirit physics, with limitations implicit in its laws. The idea content is dazzling, granting that I’m an ideas guy and I love that sort of thing in fiction. Jim has a new take on physical invisibility based on the workings of the human eye and brain. Numa energy can be transferred between humans by a mechanism that sounds a lot like electrical circuitry. And a poltergeist inhabiting a body generates a lot of static electricity. Anything Nina touches that has transistors in it croaks as the junctions die. She thus uses antique dial phones and radios with tubes, and wears limeman gloves while working on her snotty AI-driven computer.

Nina’s POV has a wry if sometimes naive voice, with lots of low-key humor and affectionate flashbacks to the late Tom Fletcher’s kindness and his quirks. She is devoted to her cat Djinn as she in cat form was devoted to Viviana. In fact, there is a great deal here for cat lovers. We see the lumina universe through her inner eyes, whether the view is of great beauty or molten terror. The terror is real, and at the climax she must face and fight it at the possible cost of her very existence.

Jim has indicated that Poltergeist is a series, and he’s working hard on the second book. I’ll let you know when it appears.

It’s a wild ride. Take it. Poltergeist: Ask the Dust is the best new fiction I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended.

AI Image Generators, Mon Dieu

I finished a 10,700 novelette the other day, the first short fiction I’ve finished since 2008, when I wrote “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs,” now available in my collection, Souls in Silicon. I’ve mostly written novels and short novels since then. (I’ll have more to say about “Volare” in a future entry here.)

To be published, it needs a cover. I have no objection to paying artists for covers, which apart from an experiment or two (see “Whale Meat”) I’ve always done in the past. Given all the yabbjabber about AI content creation recently, I thought, “Hey, here’s a chance to see if it’s all BS.”

The spoiler: It’s not all BS, but parts of it are BS-ier than others.

Ok. I’ve tested two AI image generators: OpenAI’s DALL-E 2, and Microsft’s Bing Image Generator. I found them through a solid article on ZDNet by Sabrina Ortiz. As it happens, Bing Image Generator outsources the process to DALL-E. I wanted to try Midjourney, and may eventually, but you have to have a paid subscription (about $8/month) to use it.

I’m not going to summarize the story here. One image I wanted to try as a cover would be the female lead sitting with her behind in a wicker basket, floating through the air at dawn a thousand feet or so over Baltimore. In both generators (which are basically the same generator) you feed the AI a detailed text description and turn it loose. I started simple: “A woman flying through the air in a wicker basket.” Edy Gagliano does precisely that in the story. What DALL-E gave me was this:

DALL·E 2023-04-23 14.46.55 - a woman flying through the air in a wicker basket - 500 Wide

Well, the woman is flying through the air, but we have a preposition problem here. She is over, not in the basket. Good first shot, though. I tried various extensions of that basic description, to the tune of 48 images on Dall-E. I won’t post them all here for space reasons, but they ran the gamut: A woman flying through the air holding a basket, a woman flying through the air in a basket the size and shape of a bathtub, and on and on.

The next one here is perhaps the best I’ve gotten from DALL-E. It’s a woman in a basket over Baltimore, I guess. Here’s the description: “a barefoot woman sitting down inside a magical wicker basket that flies through the air at dawn over Baltimore.” In one sense, it’s not a bad picture:

DALL·E 2023-04-23 10.05.40 - a barefoot woman sitting down inside a magical wicker basket that flies through the air at dawn over Baltimore 500 wide

That said, It looks out of focus. The basket is not wicker and it’s yuge. And in the story, Edy just puts her butt in the basket and lets her legs hang over the side.

Now let us move over to Bing Image Generator. In a way, it came closer than nearly all of the DALL-E images. But now we confront a well-known weakness of AI image generators: They can’t draw realistic hands or feet or faces. Here’s my first take on the image from Bing:

_77229ce5-3d7c-4c09-964f-b2b784ba3580 - 500 Wide

Look closely. Her hands and feet appear to be drawn by something that doesn’t know what a human hand or foot looks like. The face, furthermore, looks like it has one eye missing. (That’s easier to see in the full-sized image.)

I’ll give Bing credit: The images are less fuzzy and smeary. Because Bing uses DALL-E, I suspect there are DALL-E settings I don’t know about yet. I tried a few more times and got some reasonable images, all of them including some weirdness or another. The one below is a better rendering of a woman who is actually sitting in the basket with her legs hanging over the basket’s edge. But did I order a helicopter? Her face is a little lopsided, and her hands and feet, while not grotesque, aren’t quite right.

_090cd681-df9a-4736-8fcd-cdaafe028ae1 - 500 wide

Bing gave me about 24 images while I messed with it, and some of the images, while not capturing what I intended, were well-rendered and not full of weirdness. The one below is probably closest to Edy as I imagine her, and we get a SpaceX booster burning up in the atmosphere to boot. Is she over Baltimore? I don’t know Baltimore well enough to be sure, but that, at least, doesn’t matter. Stock photos of anonymous cities are everywhere.

_794c2ce1-7cd6-492d-9712-7e75ab646a3c - 500 wide

None of the others are notable enough to show here.

So where does this leave us? AIs can draw pictures. That’s real, and I’m guessing that if you tell it to draw something a little less loopy than a woman with her butt in a flying basket, it might do a better job. I remain puzzled why hands and feet and faces are so hard to do. Don’t AIs need training? And aren’t there plenty of photos of hands and feet and faces for them to generalize from a substantial number of specific examples?

I have no idea how these things are supposed to work, and if there were a good overview book on AI image generator internals, I’d buy it like a shot. In the meantime, I may practice some more and look at specific settings. If nothing else, I can produce some concept images to show to a cover artist. And maybe I’ll luck into something usable as-is.

Whatever I discover, you can count on seeing it here.

New Year’s Daywander–A Day Late

But better late than never. I actually relaxed, played with our Lionel trains, and posted a few Odd Lots to Twitter, which I will gather into a Contra post later this week as time permits.

One of those Odd Lots posts went viral.

This has never happened to me before. I didn’t join Twitter until 2014, and haven’t used it as much as most users, especially the bluchecks, who more or less live there. I have better things to do than live my life on social media. I keep my Twitter account because every time I post a link to one of my books, I sell a few books. This doesn’t happen on Facebook, probably because my Facebook audience is relatively static, and I’ve sold about as many books to the people who read my Facebook wall as that static audience wants to buy. I’m ok with that. Saturating an audience is a species of winning.

Twitter is different. People who read something I post and like it can retweet (basically, repost) that tweet to their own followers, most of whom have never heard of me. If it catches their attention they can in turn retweet my original tweet to their own followers, and the chain reaction continues until it burns out.

This is not a good thing if the chain reaction consists of a Twitter lynch mob. That usually happens with political tweets, which I rarely if ever post. The tweet that sparked a chain reaction this time had nothing to do with politics. It was about food: A team of University of Washington researchers scrutinized decades’ worth of studies focusing on red meat consumption and its association with various illnesses, like cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. What they found was (a little) startling: The correlation between red meat and cancer, heart disease, and diabetes was down in the noise. There was no correlation with stroke. None.

Their conclusion violated all kinds of conventional wisdom, which warmed my heart. I have some sort of genetic aversion to conventional wisdom, most of which is deliberately designed by those in power. I’d seen some research showing the meat-disease connection to be false. This time, people at a reputable institution nailed it for all time.

And it took off like an F-14. Before the dust settled last night, that one tweet got 823 likes, 295 retweets, and 16 comments, many of which I answered, spawning still more comments. Come this morning I had 21 more followers than I had before I posted the meat-bomb tweet.

No other tweet of mine has every done a tenth as well.

There were some grumblers and at least one troll, who claims that he lost weight on a high-carb diet—and stated that all books saying carbs make you fat have been debunked. They haven’t, obviously, but I’m letting him be him. Maybe he’s a metabolic outlier. It’s ok. I don’t block people unless they attack me, and politely challenging a tweet I post is not an attack.

I have no idea why that particular link started a chain reaction. I don’t really care. It’s how I build an audience for my books, and to a lesser extent, for Contra. It’ll be very interesting to see if it ever happens again.

_…_  _…_

Yesterday was Public Domain Day. This year everything published in 1927 went into the public domain. The big fish in that pond is (finally!) Sherlock Holmes. The last Holmes story was published in 1927. So now the Conan Doyle estate can pack up their tent and go home. They certainly got their money’s worth.

What else is now free as in, well, free? It’s a decent list:

  • The first three Hardy Boys books are now PD. I was never a big HB fan, but I read The Tower Treasure and enjoyed it. Expect more HB adventures entering the indie pipe soon.
  • Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
  • The Jazz Singer.
  • …and a whole lot more.

_…_  _…_

I begin 2023 with a new blog editor for Contra: Open Live Writer. This is a fork of the Microsoft product Windows Live Writer 2012, which was open-sourced some years ago. I tried that item back in 2012, but it was not “better enough” to switch. I’ve been limping along on Raven Plus, an adaptation of the now-defunct Zoundry Raven, introduced in 2008 but basically killed by Windows 10. Raven Plus runs on Win10, if barely, and in 2022 I got tired enough of its glitches that I spent some time trying out new blog editors. Open Live Writer won. I won’t fully endorse it until I’ve used it for a few months, but so far it’s given me no trouble at all.

Oh—and I no longer post to LiveJournal. Nobody was reading the Contra mirror I maintained there, and the site finally killed my paid account for nonpayment.

_…_  _…_

So before I forget: Happy New Year, everybody! My plan file this year includes finishing the fourth edition of Assembly Language Step By Step, and finishing and publishing The Everything Machine, the first full-length Drumlins novel. If I can nail those two items, I’ll consider the year a good one. Thanks for reading and don’t lose touch!

Flashback: New Music on YouTube

I posted this entry last year on 12/23. I haven’t discovered a lot of new Christmas music since then, so I’ll repost the entry here in its entirety. This may become an annual thing, plus new tracks as I discover them. So earbuds on and enjoy!

As we close in on Christmas, I wanted to post a few items I’d found and liked on YouTube. Nearly all of it is Christmas music. (I’ll post some other non-Christmas discoveries in a future entry.)

And that, my friends, is precisely what Christmas music is for.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Stuff That Works and Doesn’t

As with yesterday, there will be spoilers in this entry. Whole great big bleeding buckets full of them. Spoilers never bothered me much, but if they bother you, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the whole series.

All jokes aside, I’ll give you the bottom line up front: I liked this series. Quite a bit, in fact, in spite of a little too much pointless dialog and a few howlers. Some things were just wrong, like Galadriel stating that her husband Celeborn had already died in some war. Celeborn was in LOTR, and in fact Galadriel bailed from Middle Earth before Celeborn did, if he bailed at all. Tyler’s The Complete Tolkien Companion (highly recommended) says Celeborn lived into the Fourth Age, and there is no indication that he ever went back to Valinor. I’m sure there were a few other counterfactuals that I just missed. If I missed them, they weren’t serious enough to bother with.

So let me move on to things that I thought worked. First and foremost are the sets and the settings. Egad, I thought Peter Jackson’s films had a lock on this, and in some instances he still does, like the Khazad Dum interiors. Amazon’s Khazad Dum is less grand. All the wide-open spaces are the mines. Living and meeting quarters are smaller, almost comfy. But the cityscapes are breathtaking. So are the sailing ships. And you can’t beat New Zealand for rugged landscapes.

Celebrimbor, the master smith of the Elves, was brilliantly cast in Charles Edwards. He has the face of an Elf Lord to begin with, and he acted like a guy who Makes Important Things. His workshop was a very nice piece of architecture. Also, the process of crafting the Three Rings in that workshop was excellently shown.

Lenny Hendry as Sadoc, the top Harfoot, is terrific. Lloyd Owen is a very good Elendil, both in appearance and in action. Sophia Nomvete as Princess Disa is the only Dwarf woman we spend any significant time with. People are bitching that she didn’t have a beard. Sheesh, guys, not everybody likes beards. And she has a warmth that one doesn’t generally expect from the Dwarves.

And then there’s Adar, a brand-new invention of the showrunners. Adar is one of the Elves captured by Morgoth in the First Age and turned to the dark side. The orcs of the southlands call him “Father,” and that is in fact what the name “Adar” means in Elvish. Adar was born an elf, but bears all the marks of living thousands of years torn between two natures: elf and orc. He wants to protect his orc children from war and sunlight. He hates and claims to have killed Sauron (untrue), though that might have been a lie to keep Galadriel off his case.

The actor playing Adar, Joseph Mawle, presents possibly the most skilled performance in the whole series. Adar is sad, but more than that, he is weary, weary of fending off attempts on his life while he tries to care for his orcs. His craggy, scarred face projects that weariness in every scene where he appears. He takes no pleasure in anything. His defiance is quiet, and sometimes seems desperate. He is eventually captured and imprisoned, though I’m guessing he will have a significant role to play in future episodes.

Reviewers have rolled their eyes at the rock-cracking contest between Prince Durin and Elrond. I think they missed the point: This is a grin-inducing joke on the Dwarves, who consider themselves the masters of iron, stone and mountains. Well, Elrond, who one might think couldn’t even lift the hammer, swings it hard and cracks the rocks with alacrity. When he stops, I almost think he was throwing the contest to Durin as not to embarrass him in front of his underlings in the audience. Given Elrond’s character as shown up to that point, it’s precisely the sort of thing that the good-natured (to the point of goofiness) Elrond would do.

One thing that didn’t work well was the guessing game Amazon was playing with viewers, putting several contenders in front of them and daring them to guess which one was Sauron. I guessed Adar, though in truth none of the choices seemed likely to me. And I was wrong. Adar is Adar, which is a good thing, as I’m eager to see how he will relate to the southlands’ new boss next season. The answer to the puzzle, Halbrand, made me groan. The most I would grant him is a sort of bad-boy girl magnet type who looks a little too much like Viggo Mortensen, who played Aragorn in the Peter Jackson films.

But maybe that was the point. Like his former boss, Sauron is pure evil, but he’s still a king. He didn’t use the power that a major Maia could conceivably summon. Maybe that’s because he was in hiding. And he rescues Galadriel from drowning. That was a lot harder to figure. Once he establishes himself in the brand-new Mordor, I suspect the facade will fall away, and he’ll look like the nastioso that he is and has always been.

Galadriel? She needs to chill a little, or she’s going to pop an artery. The serene power projected from Cate Blanchett in the LOTR films simply isn’t there. Again, I think this is a fault of the scripting. Morfydd Clark didn’t seem as melted into her role as some others in the series, especially Joseph Mawle. Some of her dialog is too too utterly utter. Her acting wasn’t bad. I think the showrunners’ vision of Galadriel was just lightyears away from mine. That’s fair.

The pace is slow. I would have enjoyed a few more action scenes, and maybe a few more minutes to gape at the fantasy world that Amazon’s billion bux created. It is what it is. My recommendation is positive: Watch it. Enjoy the ride. Don’t pick nits; there are nits allthehell over the place, and if you go off on them too hard it’s you who are likely to pop an artery.

Cautiuously recommended.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Silliness

Yesterday was all overview. Today we get into things that most people would consider spoilers. So if you’re of the cohort that can’t abide spoilers, leave now.

Here and there during the 9+ hours of the first season of The Rings of Power, I rolled my eyes. Every so often, I giggled. I doubt that this is what Amazon intended. I’m a hard man to please on the fiction side. I considered The Silmarillion a waste of time and money. I’d already been to college, and had read quite enough Cliff Notes, thank you very much. I wanted another story.

The Rings of Power is certainly a story. Several stories, in fact, and I enjoyed most of them. I was very interested to see what Amazon could do, given how little they had to work with about the Second Age. We got Ar-Pharazon the Golden; will we get the sinking of Atalante? (Yes. That’s what Tolkien called the Lost Continent underneath Numenor. Really.) Well, they made a lot of it up. What would you do, with a sparse outline of events and a billion bux to blow? You’d make most of it up too.

They did. Some of what they made up was better than expected. And some…I giggled.

First up: The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them. Here and there in the saga there were these three women dressed in spotless cream-white capes, wandering around the wild country asking every third person they met if they were Sauron. This is silly enough on the surface. But really: Where were the grass stains? Where were their backpacks? Did they camp somewhere, somehow, or just get a room at the Southlands Best Western?

One was a soldier, with a helmet. She threw knives, and nailed one of my favorite characters. Another was a preacher, with her hair under cover, who carried a saucer sled and said a lot of pompous things that didn’t amount to much. But the third…Eru help us…she was another damn deranged albino. I was already tired of deranged albinos in 2008. (There is a whole Wikipedia entry about deranged albinos.) I guessed that she was the boss, carrying around a very Egyptian-looking magical staff and levitating rocks with it. Alas, she eventually picked a fight with the wrong man (also not Sauron) who grabbed her staff and roasted the three of them real good.

The Harfoots (proto-hobbits) were sweet and sane, and only occasionally silly. I liked Sadoc the Harfoot tribal chieftan, who was well-cast and acted the part brilliantly. He defied The Three Witches Or Something Very Like Them and got a knife in the heart for his trouble. So what was silly? Just this: As best I could tell, their primary source of protein was…snails. Raw. Sometimes shells and all. Ye valar, everybody knows that snails carry a veritable arsenal of parasites, many of which can send you off to that far green country beneath a swift sunrise with barely a burp. The Harfoots haul their whole village around in tumbrel carts. A few dozen chickens in cages wouldn’t weigh that much and could work wonders for their diets.

Ok. Here we get to the more significant stuff. Elrond, one of the Elf-lords who eventually got to wear one of the Three Elf Rings of Power, is a cuddly, huggy, back-slapping round-faced good ‘ol boy who looked like he could do standup and keep the audience in stitches. Ok, this was the Second Age. He still had a few thousand years to develop Hugo Weaving’s gravitas–but probably wouldn’t. The actor did his best with what they gave him. But the casting and the scripting were all wrong.

And now, the biggie: Early in the series, a human teen kid named Theo discovers a weird artifact in his unpleasant neighbor’s barn. It looks like the hilt of a sword minus the blade. It gives him the serious galloping creeps, so being a teen, the only thing he could think of doing is to wrap it up in rags and take it home. It comes out of hiding here and there, with Theo’s blacksmith friend finding that hammers can’t do a thing to it. Shifty-eyed people want it, and eventually get it, without having to kill Theo in the process, whew. I was thinking it was some kind of immaterial magic sword, which would have been way cool, like an Iron Age lightsaber. But no–here there be belly-laugh spoilers–the damned thing is the ignition key for Mount Doom.

Really. And literally. I am not making this up. The shifty-eyed neighbor takes the gizmo, shoves it down into some kind of keyhole, and gives it a twist, just like a car key, if any of you remember what car keys were. Alluva sudden, in an undisclosed location that clearly wasn’t anywhere nearby, hidden machinery opened up a very big dam and sent a megacrapgallon torrent of water roaring toward the dormant volcano. The water goes down into the cracks, meets some lava, and (presumably) boils. Then, boom! Old Orodruin (AKA Mount Doom) suddenly erupts like Krakatoa cubed, and turns the Southlands into…wait for it…naw, you already figured it out…Mordor.

I did not know that you could make a dormant volcano erupt (rather than merely explode) by giving it a good thorough soaking. I was really into volcanoes when I was a kid, and that never came up in any of the books I read about them.

I didn’t giggle. I laughed out loud.

Here and there I also groaned, but those groans were few and far between. (I hope you figured out by now that I’m not being entirely serious about all this.)

To avoid leaving you with the wrong impression, tomorrow let’s talk instead about what works and how well.

Review: LOTR The Rings of Power: Overview

Carol was gone for a week, so after I burned out on updating my assembly language book during the days, I had empty evenings. My path was obvious: Pour myself a drink or two, and binge on the first season (now complete) of Amazon’s Tolkien pastiche, The Rings of Power. I’ve seen various estimates of how much money Amazon is spending on the project, which is projected to release eight episodes a year for five years. Whether it’s 750 million or a billion, that is very serious money.

As best I can tell, Amazon bought rights to The Lord of the Rings…appendices. They pointedly did not license The Silmarillion, which I’ve heard was a rule laid down by the great man himself and respected by his estate. My guess? He really didn’t want The Silmarillion turned into a story.

The Silmarillion is not a story. In a way, it’s the Cliff Notes to a bunch of stories that JRR never wrote. But in truth, it’s a history. It’s like viewing a story on satellite video from Middle Earth orbit: We get to see all the people and the monsters running around killing each other, a continent and a half sunk to the ocean bottom, and much else. But we get inside no one’s head to experience their insights or their sufferings. It’s all Who Did What To Whom (Or What) But Not Why, which set the stage for the extremely rich cultural background behind The Lord of the Rings saga itself. (I consider The Hobbit part of that saga.)

We have Amazon Prime. The series is part of Prime, and thus without marginal cost. Why not? I’d already paid my money. I took my choice.

So what did I get? Here’s quick list:

  • Some of the most beautiful scenery and backdrops I’ve ever seen in cinema, greater than what Peter Jackson managed twenty-odd years ago, and his weren’t shabby.
  • A great deal of interpolation and (mostly) studied invention of a lot of original characters and conflicts. Some of this was very good; I much enjoyed the Harfoots (basically wandering Iron Age proto-hobbits), particularly Nori and Poppy.
  • A certain amount (probably less than you might have read elsewhere) of silliness, none of which we can lay directly at the feet of JRR. I’ll come back to this.
  • Mostly excellent acting, and (huzzah!) no celebrities.
  • A slow, often clumsy, dialog-heavy screenplay, which at times bore more than a whiff of an Iron Age Days of Our Lives. When you have 560 minutes to fill, well, dialog is cheap. Alas, as dialog goes, it wasn’t thin gruel, but gruel so thick it was occasionally impossible to swallow.
  • Wholesale butchery of the Tolkien timeline. This may have been necessary, given the scraps Amazon was able to license versus what true Tolkien fans were sure to expect. The Dwarves didn’t strike balrog until Third Age 1980, but Durin the Somethingeth almost got the booby prize thousands of years earlier, in the Second Age. Everybody loves balrogs, right? They break the Days of Our Lives boredom, fersure. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing more balroggery in forthcoming seasons, if Amazon doesn’t run out of money first.
  • A puzzle: Which character is actually Sauron? I guessed wrong, but as with a lot else, I’ll come back to that.

This will have to do for today. I have to leave for the airport pretty soon to pick up Carol.