Friday, April 18, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "The Water of the Wondrous Isles"

It seems as though it’s been quite a while since I’ve written one of these Journal entries… By gum, it has been a while - since about this time last month, in fact. While I’ve been idle, my alter ego has been busy, but with matters too trivial to write about.

But here we are again, another month and another meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group. This month’s selection is the 1897 novel The Water of the Wondrous Isles, by William Morris, the noted artist. Having read the book several months back, for a meeting of the group that had to be cancelled, the story was not exactly fresh in my mind. I was hoping for a large turnout to conceal that fact but, alas, this was not to be.

The book describes the adventures of a young heroine named Birdalone. Kidnapped by a witch and raised in a forest, she encounters a magical godmother, makes her escape from the witch in a boat that magically travels the titular isles, and meets a variety of people including three women who have been taken from their loves. Eventually she meets the boyfriends, falls in love with one, gets one killed, takes leave of the kingdom, works in a trade, meets more men, people are partnered up, and all live… well, if not happily ever after, at least satisfactorily.

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 001

As one can see from the photograph above, the reading room had plenty of seating available. Nonetheless, we had an interesting discussion as always, remarking on Morris’ writing style (which had an almost fable-like cadence to it, hearkening back to medieval quest literature - and, of course, Birdalone’s journey is very much a quest), his intense and somewhat unseemly liking for his main character, and why the young lady spends the first part of the book unclothed.

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 002
I listen to the wisdom of others (no, seriously!)

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 003
Dame Kghia Gherardi

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 004
A clean-shaven Sir JJ Drinkwater and Miss Ellie Mink

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 005
Miss Lacey Brenner

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 006
Mr. OldeSoul Eldemar...

Victorian Fantasy  William Morris 007
…and his wife, Mrs. (Cassie) Eldemar

Alas, next month is the final meeting for the group, a wrap-up session in which we discuss our favorite (and least favorite?) works, and perhaps even consider what might come next.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "The Novel of the Black Seal"

Our penultimate meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group involved Arthur Machen’s 1895 work, The Novel of the Black Seal.

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 003
Sir JJ Drinkwater

The story is actually part of a larger book, The Three Impostors, a work that
incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London—retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process—as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".
Another reviewer describes The Three Impostors as:
Far more of a challenge than your typical novel, this is the story of three men too absorbed by their own literary interests to realise the truth, or otherwise, of the events unfolding around them. These are Dyson, in thrall to his own imagination, Phillipps, an adherent to science, and Russell, who simply considers himself a realist.
Structurally based upon R. L. Stevenson’s ‘New Arabian Nights,’ thirteen chapters here act as anecdotal short stories, delivered to Dyson and Phillipps by supporting characters inveigling upon them their recent plights, and on whom we – and they – must trail to decide upon the truth of their motive and intent.

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 002
Dame Kghia Gherardi

The prologue to Black Seal has a woman, later identified as Miss Lally, discussing the likelihood of the fantastic with Phillipps. She tells him that she was once a rationalist, as Phillipps is, but that her experiences with a Professor Gregg changed her mind. Phillipps implores her to tell the story, which she does.

Miss Lally is a poor but educated woman who moved to London with the intention of finding a job. Unsuccessful at this, she encounters the professor, a widower, who offers her a job tending his children. The professor is a respected man of science, but he has a secret obsession involving a mysterious black stone with unknown characters on it, which he suspects is the key to finding an ancient race of terrible beings - beings that we know through folklore as kinder versions of the truth. He and Miss Lally travel to the countryside where Professor Gregg makes some final deductions before setting off to find these creatures. He disappears, leaving Miss Lally a letter that tells her everything that he has discovered; this letter comprises the last section of the story.

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 001
Your humble scribe

I was unfamiliar with Machen or his work before reading this book, but his style of writing and subject matter reminded me a great deal of H.P. Lovecraft and his “Cthulu” mythos. The ancient creatures, the sense of foreboding, the scientist daring to venture where he shouldn’t - all these elements are fundamental to Lovecraft’s tales. Sir JJ mentioned that Machen knew both Yeats and Lovecraft, and the latter acknowledged Machen as an influence on his writing.

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 004
Miss Ellie Mink

We had a small number of discussants, possibly because of the relative unfamiliar nature of the material. However, as so often seems to happen, the small group was very involved, leading to a good back-and-forth discussion.

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 006
Miss Janet Rhiadra

Several of us were interested enough to declare an intention to sample more of Machen’s work. And enough of the discussion made reference to Lovecraft’s work that Miss Mink declared an intention to read some Lovecraft, so the group clearly enjoys turn-of-the-century horror!

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 007
Miss Herndon Bluebird

Next month, in what I believe is the last meeting for this particular syllabus, we return to William Morris’s The Water of the Wondrous Isles, which was scheduled for some months back but postponed when the group was unable to meet. It’s a lengthy tome, so I hope I can remember enough of it by the time we meet!

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 008
Miss Jessie Darwin

Victorian Fantasy  Black Seal 009
Miss Amezura, Mr. Gwordn Tripsa, and Miss Finn Nesterennko

Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: Gallifrey, Seasons 1-3

I had earlier thought that Doctor Who audio stories from Big Finish were the end of the rabbit hole of fandom down which I had descended, but I was wrong. Further down, sitting on a metaphorical ledge of their own, is the Gallifrey series of audio stories. Season 1, with four episodes, and Seasons 2 and 3, with five episodes each, each at $8.15, are available on CD only (no downloads), which, with postage to the U.S., makes them a little pricey. Set, of course, in the Doctor Who universe but lacking a Doctor, this series features Lalla Ward’s character Romana, and Louise Jameson’s character, Leela, as unlikely allies in defending Gallifrey from various forms of intrigue. Both are aided by a K-9 unit (Mark I and Mark II, with an amusing rivalry of their own).

As Season 1 opens, Romana has become President of the High Council of Time Lords. Leela, having left the Fourth Doctor’s company on Gallifrey to marry Time Lord Andred, now faces the disappearance of her husband and is disenchanted with the rigidity of Time Lord society. Romana wants to include other species in Gallifrey’s control of time, receiving objections both from those who think the Time Lords should maintain control of timelines and from the “Free Time” movement, those who want time technology available to all. Romana is aided by her mentor Lord Braxiatel, opposed by Inquisitor Darkel, and vexed by Celestial Intervention Agency Coordinator Narvin, among others. As the narrative moves into Seasons 2 and 3, Romana’s rule is threatened and Gallifrey itself comes under attack.

Gallifrey faces various external threats, but the most determined opponents come from within. Time Lord society is filled with opportunists, back-stabbers, power-seekers, and mercenaries. Various characters start aiding one faction, only to switch sides - or appear to switch sides - at an opportune time.

Although some of the plots are interesting and the action is occasionally exciting, the series very much revolves around the political machinations among the Time Lords. It’s House of Cards without a charismatic schemer like Frank Underwood and without the sex scenes (but with lasers and the Matrix). Political junkies might find that more engaging than I did. In my view, a little of that goes a long way.

I was also somewhat put off by the two lead characters. Lalla Ward’s Romana, on television in the 1970s at least, came off as playful and enthusiastic, finding nearly as much delight in her adventures as Tom Baker’s Doctor did in his. Gallifrey’s deeper-voiced Romana exudes world-weariness, impatience with those who disagree with her, and an unseemly desire to maintain power. It’s hard to see the earlier character in the later one. Similarly, Leela - once Eliza Doolittle to the Doctor’s Henry Higgins, enthusiastically soaking up knowledge and culture even as she relies on her “savage” wits to save herself and the Doctor from tight spots - just seems miserable.

The writing occasionally sparkles, with good interchanges among the characters, and K-9’s deadpan delivery and tendency for interpreting statements too literally is as amusing as ever. I only wish that the storyline itself didn’t start sounding so repetitive as the bickering and political maneuvering rolled on.

The series continues with Seasons 4, 5, and 6. I have other audio adventures in my queue, so I don’t have to decide for a while whether to continue on with Gallifrey. The completist in me wants to finish what I started, but another part is indifferent to what comes next.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: Broadchurch

I had planned to write a more extensive piece, but, as often happens, time got away from me, so a few words will have to do.

A month or so back I finally got around to watching Broadchurch, the brief British crime serial starring David Tennant as Detective Inspector Hardy, and Olivia Colman as Detective Sergeant Miller. Among the cast is Arthur Darvill, Doctor Who’s Rory Williams, as the pastor of a local church. The story involves the murder of an eleven-year-old boy, Danny Miller, in the seaside town of Broadchurch, where DS Miller lives. She is upset when an outsider, Hardy, is brought in to head the investigation.

Broadchurch is less about solving a crime, though they eventually get around to it, than a show about the shameful secrets in a small town - secrets that inevitably come out during a police inquiry - and the varying ways people react to a terrible crime. David Tennant, as DI Hardy, shows his amazing range as an actor. (Rory is still Rory, though.) Hardy has his own secrets, and his time to solve the crime, and perhaps atone for an earlier botched prosecution, is running short.

Everything is wrapped up in a satisfying conclusion in a mere eight episodes, though the series (minus Tennant) will return for a second season with, one assumes, a new crime. I like shows that stretch beyond the limits of a single episode but that have a definitive end. (The ABC evening soap opera Revenge and the CBS adaptation of the Stephen King novel Under the Dome are both examples of a decent concept that should have ended after a certain number of episodes but were instead extended beyond what the concept could support.) The British seem to have an easier time making these kinds of shows than do the Americans, though I suppose it remains to be seen how Broadchurch will fare in a second season.

Speaking of bad American ideas, Broadchurch is being remade for the U.S., with the show renamed Gracepoint. Tennant - with his Scottish accent? - will again star in the production, with Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn to replace Olivia Colman. I’ll likely watch it, though I do question why such a remake was necessary. It wasn’t as though Tennant needed subtitles. Well, not too often.

At any rate, this was a very enjoyable eight hours of television.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Winter Rolls On

On the bright side, we got less snow than was predicted, a nice change from the last time around. Still, shoveling snow in March doesn’t seem right.

2014 03 03 10 11 55
The snow doesn’t completely cover the shrubs!

2014 03 03 11 07 37
On the other hand, it’s still a snowy mess

At least local businesses, schools, and the government (including the Feds) had the good sense to close for the day. Tomorrow morning may be adventurous, however...

Friday, February 28, 2014

Winter the Way I Like It

… in Slightly Twisted. The creator describes it as "A whimsical but  serene and peaceful  landscape filled with art, animals, and fun elements.” And indeed it is.

And much better than snow that requires me to shovel it.

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 001

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 002

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 003

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 004

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 005

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 007

Slightly Twisted 1 27 14 008

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wonderland Again

Speaking of Alice in Wonderland, I realized I had several photographs from an Alice-themed sim, dated from last May. The name of the sim is lost to time - in other words, I forgot to write it down - but it clearly has some Steampunk elements.

Goth  Alice in Wonderland 5 21 13 001

Goth  Alice in Wonderland 5 21 13 002

Goth  Alice in Wonderland 5 21 13 003

Goth  Alice in Wonderland 5 21 13 004

Monday, February 24, 2014

Victorian Fantasy: "Through the Looking Glass"

This month, the Victorian Fantasy discussion group had a short field trip, convening on the Great Lawn of Victoria City, in front of the main library. The topic of discussion was Lewis Carroll’s two books about young Alice, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, though the thrust of the discussion was about the latter book.

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 001

Our normal master of ceremonies, Sir JJ Drinkwater, had transformed into the Mad Hatter, and his cohost, Dame Kghia Gherardi, into the Queen of Hearts:

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 002

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 003

Through the Looking Glass begins as Alice, playing with a white and black kitten as well as a chess set, steps through a wall mirror into a fantastical world in which the chess pieces are now life-sized and come to life. Alice, a mere pawn, starts on the second row of the chess board and makes her way across the board, to the eighth row, thereby becoming a queen. Along the way she has a number of adventures with strange characters, including Red and White Knights, Humpty Dumpty, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

Dame Kghia posed an interesting thought: "Are the rules a symbol of adulthood that Alice is trying to figure out?” She continued, "I'm thinking about White Queen's statement and the fact that the rules often seem arbitrary to Alice and children in general. [T]he book seems to be leading Alice through rituals so she learns the rules but things are still confusing to her, which is why words are taken so literally in this world.” In this view, the queens are the “adults,” and Alice, in becoming a queen herself, has taken a step into the adult world. It was a view that had not occurred to me, but seems entirely consistent with the book. (If this interpretation is commonplace knowledge, don't disillusion me.)

Some of the many attendees - only some of whom are pictured below, I fear - arrived in costume for tea and conversation:

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 004
Miss Janet Rhiadra as Alice, enjoying a cuppa 

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 005Mr. Rory Torrance, with a Mad Hatter-inspired top hat

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 006Miss Herndon Bluebird

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 007Miss Aznana Shieldmaiden

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 008Mr. Ludo Merit, with his wonderful Cheshire Cat avatar

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 011Miss Eve Compton

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 012Our White Queen...

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 013…and our Red Queen, also known as Queen Mystic

Victorian Literature  Looking Glass 014And another Alice, your humble scribe

Next month’s discussion will be held March 19, and the topic will be The Novel of the Black Seal, by Arthur Machen. I am not familiar with either the author or the work, so I look forward to reading it. The 1895 work is part of a longer episodic novel, The Three Impostors, and is described as “incorporate[ing] several inset weird tales and culminat[ing] in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites.” This sounds like quite a story!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Traveling to Oblivion

Thanks to the explorations of the indefatigable Honour McMillan, and a little sisterly nudge, I visited the Steampunk area of Oblivion.

Oblivion  Steampunk sim 001

Oblivion is pleasantly sepia-toned, reminiscent of New Babbage in that regard (though perhaps, unlike Babbage, not because of the incessant use of coal). Although one starts near ground level, where signs welcome visitors, much of the city is aloft. Alas for English speakers, the signs are auf Deutsch, but one gets the general drift of things.

Oblivion  Steampunk sim 002

Transportation takes the form of teleportation via the above-pictured person-sized cages, a smart-looking design, though cozy for more than one at a time.

Oblivion  Steampunk sim 003

Oblivion  Steampunk sim 004

As one is many meters above ground level, one must be careful not to stray too far off the path. And if one sees a “road closed” sign - in English, no less - one would do well not to depend on the macadam extending much beyond that point.

Oblivion  Steampunk sim 005

The sim is rated “adult,” and indeed one of the buildings in the floating city does house some… interesting contraptions, along with a few traps for the unwary. Keep your eyes open and step lively and all should be fine.

It’s exciting to see new Steampunk areas arising. It gives hope that the 19th century is not yet over.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bryn Oh's "The Singularity of Kumiko"

Bryn Oh’s latest exhibit, on her Immersiva sim, is “The Singularity of Kumiko,” a story told in pictures and letters (in written and audio form) that unfolds as one moves through the sim. Kumiko receives messages in a bottle, as though from across a sea, from her friend Iktomi, and responds through messages of her own. (Miss Oh has an introduction and a brief video about the exhibit on her blog.)

In the arrival area, a visitor receives instructions regarding Windlight and other graphics settings, the main effect of which is to render the environment very dark. To compensate, there is a helmet-mounted flashlight, like a miner’s lamp, that allows one to see, imperfectly, in the dark.

Kumiko 002

The first scene one encounters is this accident: a car, a damaged bicycle, and a backpack, its contents strewn about the roadway. The roadway then peters out, and one is left looking for the next patch of light.

Kumiko 003

These set pieces contain objects in Miss Oh’s distinctive style. Often animal forms mix with machine parts, such as the giraffe swing set below.

Kumiko 005

Be careful, however, and do not linger in the woods. The sim is damage-enabled, and the sound of a squeaky wheel signals the arrival of a lunatic homicidal mechanical rabbit, Mr. Zippers, who will kill you if possible. You will encounter Mr. Zippers later on as well, in an abandoned, dilapidated house.

Kumiko 006

Because a visitor may encounter the tableaux in the “wrong” order, one has to puzzle together the narrative from receiving the exchange of letters between Kumiko and Iktomi out of order. Ultimately, however, one reaches a resolution of the story, even if some of the specifics remain left to the visitor’s imagination.

Kumiko 008

In mathematics, a singularity is a point at which an object is not well-behaved - for example, undifferentiable. However, perhaps a better definition of the word in this context is “the state of being singular, distinct, peculiar, uncommon[,] or unusual.” As the story unfolds, we discover that Kumiko is all that.

Kumiko 009

The darkness adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the exhibit. On my monitor everything was so dark between the set pieces that I sometimes felt as though I was stumbling blindly through the woods. I wonder if increasing the light a little would still allow the spookiness while making navigation easier. And while I’m on the subject of minor cavils, I’m not sure that allowing Mr. Zippers to kill visitors was necessary, especially as it removes one from the exhibit, at least temporarily, and breaks the atmosphere.

One interesting decision that Miss Oh made was to limit the number of visitors at any one time to 10-15, both in order to minimize the likelihood that visitors would run into one another and, more importantly, to minimize lag on the sim. I had no trouble teleporting into the sim several times (damn you, Mr. Zippers!) and experienced no noticeable lag, so this seemed to be a good idea.

Kumiko 010

“The Singularity of Kumiko” once again demonstrates Bryn Oh’s, er, singular vision and her use of Second Life to provide a multimedia form of narrative. It’s a fascinating, emotional, and disturbing journey.

For better pictures and a better description of the project, see Inara Pey’s review and Honour McMillan’s review.