Monday, 30 March 2009

Last visible Droste

Dr C's "Friday Crab Blogging" series is always fun: children's unusual and creative drawings of crabs. But one of the artists of Friday March 27th will go far: as Dr C says, "You've got to appreciate the detail on this one's tee-shirt", which includes one level of the recursive Droste effect, named after the image-within-image on the label of a Dutch cocoa brand 1. See Droste Effect Packaging at Box Vox for other commercial examples.

Bonzo Dog Food For Thought at Isn’t it infomantic? has another example, the cover of a 1918 book called Khaki Comedy, and mentions Russell Hoban's excellent fable The Mouse and His Child in which the Beckettian play The Last Visible Dog takes its name from the Droste-style label of the book's fictitious Bonzo Dog Food (image and explanation here at The Last Visible Dog blog, and it can also been seen from around 36mins 20secs onwards in the rather creaky animated version).

Ignore the maths on this bit and just enjoy the pictures if you want.

A while back I ran into an interesting site, Escher and the Droste effect, which reports on a study to determine the mathematical structure of MC Escher's Prentententoonstelling (Print Gallery). An American Mathematical Society paper, The Mathematical Structure of Escher’s Print Gallery (B. de Smit and H. W. Lenstra Jr., Notices of the AMS, Vol, 50, #4) goes into the detail. The authors not only derive the function, completing the drawing by filling in the self-similar core that Escher left as a blur, but derive variants including a hypothetical undistorted version. Other artists have used the resultant mathematics to similarly extend Escher's and other works, as well as create original images: see Jos Leys' Droste effect gallery and Josh Sommers' Droste Effect Flickr series, which puts the manipulation to surreal, in some cases nightmarish, use (via the Escher Droste effect formula and Mathmap).

End of mathematical bit.

Scenes-within-scenes (not necessarily recursive Droste-style nor even pictorial) are also called mise en abyme in heraldic and various artistic/literary contexts. Amateur d'art (an arts blog hosted by the French newspaper Le Monde) has a post Un cabinet d’amateur, in relation to the work of Georges Perec, mentioning the use in conversation pieces such as the paintings-of-paintings capriccios I mentioned in Architectural fantasies a while back (it gives as example one of the "kunstkamers" - only three are known - of Willem van Haecht). However, I'd never noticed Group Bel's brand "La vache qui rit" (the Laughing Cow ®) logo to be approximately recursive.2

1. A number of sources, such as Henrik Lenstra in the Paradiso science lectures compilation Het raadsel van informatie (The Riddle of Information, B. Mols, Johan van Benthem) track the coinage of the term "Droste effect" to the writer and journalist Nico Scheepmaker in the 1970s.
2. Nor had I realised its venerability. See for more works by its creator Benjamin Rabier (1864-1939). According to the Bel official site, the original Laughing Cow - which I find a wee bit sinister - was painted on WW1 army vehicles when Rabier was in the same unit as Bel's co-founder Leon Bel.

- Ray

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Dickens in cyberspace

A book on my to-read list, as it combines some of my regular interests: Charles Dickens in Cyberspace: The Afterlife of the Nineteenth Century in Postmodern Culture (Jay Clayton, Oxford University Press US, 2003). I ran into it via this review, Wired Victorians (Dawn Coleman, Novel: A Forum on Fiction, Fall 2003) whose summary says it

brings to light nineteenth-century Britain's fascination with engineering novelties and scientific discovery and examines how this often-forgotten Victorian legacy resonates with contemporary literature and culture

The blurb at Google Books adds:

In Charles Dickens in Cyberspace nineteenth-century figures--Jane Austen, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Ada Lovelace, Joseph Paxton, Mary Shelley, and Mary Somerville--meet a lively group of counterparts from today: Andrea Barrett, Greg Bear, Peter Carey, Helene Cixous, Alfonso Cuaron, William Gibson, Donna Haraway, David Lean, Richard Powers, Salman Rushdie, Ridley Scott, Susan Sontag, Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling, and Tom Stoppard

Google Books has an extensive preview including a good overview and critique of Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine. The chapters are:
  1. The Past in the Future of Cultural Studies: Crystal Palace to Millennium Dome.
  2. The Voice in the Machine: Hazlitt, Austen, Hardy and James.
  3. Undisciplined Cultures: Peacock, Mary Somerville and Mr Pickwick.
  4. Hacking the Nineteenth Century: Babbage and Lovelace in The Difference Engine and Arcadia.
  5. Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein's Monster, Replicants, and Cyborgs.
  6. Is Pip Postmodern? Or, Dickens at the Turn of the Millennium.
  7. Genome Time: New Age Evolution, The Gold Bug Variations, and Gattaca.
  8. Convergence of the Two Cultures: a Geek's Guide.
Looks fun.
- Ray

Onion with a layer of truth

Moving back to destructive natural events: Unreal Nature's Onion Science just featured a couple of nice science stories from recent issues of The Onion ("America's finest news source").

I especially enjoyed San Francisco Historians Condemn 1906 Earthquake Deniers since one of the recipes for good satire is edginess created by its closeness to the truth. In 2006, a Channel 4 documentary, The Great San Francisco Earthquake, commemorated the centenary of the event, exploring also the subsequent cover-up that (to protect business and real estate interests) massively understated the death toll and the cost of damage, and spun the reportage to portray the event as a plain fire - even to the extent of retouching photos to emphasise fire damage. See Earthquake! The ST shakes out startling new data by Giselle Bisson, and SFGate's Sunday Interview - Gladys Hansen (90 Years Later, Quake Victims Get Names) which both tell of the work of the archivist instrumental in revealing the true loss of lives (at least 3000, as compared to the original official figure of 478).

The Caltech Archives have a good virtual exhibit Documenting the 1906 Quake, which covers topics such as disaster literature and official post-quake spin, as when the Real Estate Board of San Francisco pledged its members to speak of "the great fire" rather than "the great earthquake". However, the sheer extent of the disaster is probably best conveyed by the kite-borne aerial photos by George Lawrence (see The Lawrence Captive Airship Over San Francisco in 1906 and 1908) and the photographer Arnold Genthe's classic images from Chapter 10, Earthquake and Fire, of his 1936 autobiography As I Remember.

As to The Onion, definitely check out its book Our Dumb Century, a 164-page collection of newspaper pastiches ridiculing US social trends and attitudes, from 1900-2000. A site search on for "Onion in history" finds plenty of tasters such as the issues for August 5, 1914, October 29, 1919, April 9, 1942 and November 22, 1963.
- Ray

Monday, 23 March 2009

Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante

One for those who like spotting cultural allusions. A number of newspaper articles, such as the Telegraph's 103 famous faces in one painting, have reported on an Internet meme, the rather kitsch painting Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante by Dai Dudu, Li Tiezi and Zhang An. The Guardian's It's the painting the web is abuzz about - but what does it mean? goes into more detail: the overall style imitates the 18th century "conversation piece", with particular allusions to Raphael's Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, The School of Athens and The Parnassus. But beyond the basic depictions, the poses allude to other paintings; for instance, Li Bai is falling off his chair in the same posture as the man in Hogarth's An Election Entertainment, Rameses II sits in the classic melancholy pose of Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Sterne, and so on. As to the intention, the presence of Dante might suggest these celebrities are in Hell, but this China Digital Times account says its creators merely intended to depict the sweep of history

According to Dai Dudu, the three began work on the painting in 2006, completing it 10 months later. “At the time, we wanted to represent world history within a single painting. We wanted to showcase the world’s story, and let viewers feel as if they were flipping the pages of a history book,” Dai said.

If you want a crib, Famous People Painting with Wiki Links & mouse over tagging and Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante provide identifications
- Ray

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould

Further to Sidmouth and nearby, yesterday - showing the area to a friend on holiday - we took the bus to Beer, walked up and over to Seaton, then took the bus back to Sidmouth for a potter. Beautiful but rather odd day: hot sun but distinctly cold; and bright but very hazy, giving vivid near views but indistinct far ones, with a dazzle of misty headlands.

Seaton (or its eastmost end, Axmouth Harbour) is one end of the famous Axmouth-Lyme Regis landslip terrain, the Undercliff, a region bibliographically under the vast shadow of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. However, I didn't know until recently about Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs (Sabine Baring-Gould, 1900) which looks rather fun as a romantic melodrama ("Love, iniquity, treachery, smuggling, redemption") set around the then hamlet of Seaton. The heroine Winefred Marley is torn between twin heritages, that of her gentleman father and her smuggler mother, and the novel features a Jack Rattenbury, implied to be a son of the famous Lyme Bay smuggler Jack Rattenbury (who is called Job Rattenbury in the book). Its climactic event is the great Bindon landslip on the Christmas Eve of 1839, where a huge tract of farmland slipped to produce the feature now called Goat Island. Toward the end of the book Jane Marley, Winefred's mother, is shown something worrying by a man working near her clifftop house:

"Missus," said he, "I advise you to budge. Something is going to take place; we don't know what, and I've had orders to give you warning."

"I do not understand you."

"Come and see for yourself."

Jane followed the ganger, and he led her from the house, through the bushes, to a point on the edge of the cliff that commanded the beach and the sea some three hundred feet below.

She was silent.

No wind was stirring. The moment was that of the turn of the tide. At a distance of half a mile from the shore the surface of the water heaved like the bosom of of a sleeper in rhythmic throb. There were no rollers, no white horses.

But nearer land the sea was boiling. Volumes of muddy water surged up in bells as from a great depth, and spread in glistening sheets, that threw out wavelets which clashed with the undulations of the tide. Moreover, there appeared something like a mighty monster of the deep, ruddy brown, heaving his back above the water.

"That which is coming in is sweet water," said the man. "One of our chaps has ventured down and tasted it. It is not the fountains of the deep that are broken up, but the land springs are feeding the ocean. Did you ever witness the like?"

"Yes," said Jane, "there was something of the kind took place, but only in a small way, before the crack formed when my old cottage was ruined."

"Exactly, missus. And there is going to happen something of the same sort here, but on a mighty scale, to which that was but as nothing. Where it will begin, how far it will extend, all that is what no mortal can guess. Now you know why I have been sent to tell you to clear out as fast as you can. If you want my help, you are welcome to it."

Oo-er. And furthermore, the birds and the rabbits have deserted the cliff. But in true movie-cliche style she goes back to the house alone, locking the door behind her to pack (because she has a secret stash of gold), but who should be hiding there but the villain, the evil ferryman Olver Dench, who attacks her, packs a carpet-bag with the gold, and leaves her tied up and locked in the house. She manages to get to the window in time to see the landslip starting:

Looking out she saw Dench standing irresolute — as one dazed. She saw something more. At that moment the house swayed like a ship. The surface of the land broke up, and seemed transmuted into fluid, for in one place it heaved like a mounting billow, and in another sank like the trough of a wave. It was to Jane, peering through the little window as though she were looking at a tumbling sea through the porthole of a cabin. Again the house lurched, and so suddenly and to such an acute angle, that Jane fell from the table.

(To be concluded) - The Graphic serialisation

Sabine Baring-Gould was an interesting character. Yet another prolific - see bibiliography - but largely forgotten novelist, he combined broad antiquarian and folklore interests, such as The Book of Were-Wolves (Gutenberg EText-No. 5324) and Curious myths of the Middle Ages (Internet Archive curiousmythsofmi00bariuoft), with hymn-writing, folksong collection and, it appears, general eccentricity (as told in the story of his failing to recognise his own small daughter at a children's party). The diverse contents of his library can be seen at Devon Libraries' Sabine Baring-Gould's library at Killerton list.

Judging by the description of Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs by Seaton Visitor Centre Trust, Baring-Gould's overall geekiness is reflected in the wealth of geological and topographic detail. As The Pall Mall Gazette review said:

He doubtless knows his public, and his public doubtless enjoys the didactic manner in which he pauses in his story to give long passages on the geological formations of the cliffs of South Devonshire, wedges of informing discourse on the history of smuggling on the south coast, instructive scraps about bacon-curing and tinder-boxes, and long string of platitudes upon the general influence of education.

- The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Wednesday, December 19, 1900

It's still a good yarn, though. It was serialized in The Graphic in 1899, as I managed to find via the British Library (text as usual hacked via Google Books). I'm not sure why the book isn't online in its entirety; S B-G died in 1924 so it's out of copyright.

Of related interest, William S. Baring-Gould, the prominent Sherlock Holmes scholar and analyst, was one of Baring-Gould's grandsons, so it looks as if the cataloguing fervour ran in the family.

PS: I'm pleased to say I found the resolution to the cliffhanger in The Graphic. Spectators above, including Winefred Marley, see a running figure. It's not Jane Marley, but Olver Dench, carrying the carpet-bag. He runs in terror as the landscape tears itself to pieces around him, giant fissures opening.

Rendered crazy with fear he mounted a fragment of rock and saw about him the wreckage as of a world - prostrate trees, leaning pillars of rock, disrupted masses of soil, bushes draggling over to drop into the throats open to swallow them.

Dench makes a final attempt to escape by jumping one such chasm, but can't or won't leave the heavy bag of gold:

He ran, leaped, was flying in space over the chasm, touched the rock on the farther side, caught at the grass, but was overbalanced, dragged backward from the crest by the weight of the bag, and went down with a tuft of wiry grass and hawkweed in his right hand, and disappeared in the midst of the rock and earth that was in process of being chewed. Now the carpet-bag, then a leg, next a hand appeared, and went under again. Then up came the head, only next moment to be drawn beneath and disappear in the mighty mill.

When the landslip ceases, however, amid the general devastation the house remains, damaged but still largely intact, and Jane Marley is found alive and not badly hurt. She and Winefred are reconciled, Jack Rattenbury promises to go straight and gets parental blessing to marry Winefred, and all (except the buried Dench who "has gone to his account") live ever after, happily and presumably well-informed about rotational slump processes.

You might be interested in a contemporary account:

Supposed earthquake in Dorsetshire

One of the greatest convulsions of nature ever on record, or that has taken place within the memory of man in this neighbourhood, has occcurred in Dowlands and Bending Cliffs, situated between Lyme and Axmouth harbour. Various are the opinions respecting it - some attribute it to the long-continued and heavy rains, others insisting on its being an earthquake. It certainly has every appearance of the latter. The inhabitants are no strangers to the occasional sliding of the cliffs, on this part of the coat, both east and west, but here is presented a scene of awful grandeur.

The above cliffs, which are very lofty, are about three miles west of Lyme Regis.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Chaple, the tenant of Dowland's estate, invited his workmen to the farm-house, to regale them for the evening, among whom were the occupants of four cottages, situated on the common at the foot of the cliffs. On their return home they found considerable difficulty in opening their doors, but took little noticce of it. On rising on Christmas morning they discovered a settlement of their homes; and becoming alarmed, removed their goods with all speed, and retired to Dowland's farm, about a mile on the top of the cliffs, for safety. And very providentially too; for shortly after an immense portion of the top cliffs, consisting of between forty and fify acres of arable and pasture land, with their crops, together with the common below, sunk to a depth varying from 50 to 100 feet; two of the above tenements being completely buried, whilst the other two are shattered to their very foundations. The scene presents a spectacle not easily described - gigantic rocks having been rent asunder, lofty trees buried beneath the mighty mass, with only their tops visible; large fields with their crops, separated, one part here and another there - immense precipices formed, awful chasms which appear bottomless, the whole of which strike the beholder with terror and amazement and present a striking view of the Almighty power of Him "who holds the mountains in the scales and the hills in a balance." The length of cliffs affected by this shock is more than two miles, and perhaps in breadth about one, encompassing about a thousand acres. But perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the whole is, that immense and ponderous rocks in front of this scene of action have been forced by the concussion from their beds, where they have reposed for ages, under the bed of the ocean beyond low water mark, and made their appearance in pyramids and different forms - in some places 40 or 50 feet above the sand, and have wonderfully formed a sort of harbour, while the beach adjoining the land remains unmoved. Boats have entered this naturally formed harbour on the eastern side, which is shallow, and found in the middle three fathoms of water. Outside the rocks thus formed, towards the sea, is about five fathoms at high water. Thousands of persons have already been to visit this extraordinary scene. No doubt but it will attract numbers of the nobility and gentry to Lyme Regis. The celebrated Pinney cliffs, which are situated betwixt Lyme and Dowlands, and which have been admired for their romantic scenery, sinks into comparative insignificance, and its lofty rocks must "hide their diminished heads" when compared with the grandeur and sublimity which Dowland's cliffs wll in future present. Dr Buckland, of Oxford, the eminent geologist, who has been residing in Lyme for some time past, has prolonged his stay, in order to explore and view the wonders of this phenomenon of nature. He states that he never witnessed anything equal to it in England. It is to be hoped that his, or some other able pen, will gratify the public by a full and proper description of the scene.

- The Hull Packet, January 10, 1840

PPS: I'm not sure why I consider Baring-Gould geeky, when (just as Katin in Samuel R Delany's Nova is a fan of moons rather than planets) I'm a fan of chines, the miniature coastal valleys of the English south coast. The majority are in the Isle of Wight, notably the now-lost Blackgang Chine, but Seaton in East Devon has one - Seaton Chine - whose foot is occupied by a cafe at the western end of its esplanade. But about 100 yards to the west, a flight of steps leads up from the beach to a fenced-off deeply-incised stream valley that I can't find in any accounts but surely deserves to count as a minor chine. See Google Maps: Seaton Chine and its cafe are at the right; the second chine is to the left. The dark shape is the shadow of a knife-edged section of cliff created by erosion between the sea and the stream, which runs almost parallel to the coast at this point.

PPPS: Winefred; a story of the chalk cliffs is now on the Internet Archive (ID winefredstoryofc00bari).

- Ray

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


While it's not quite the Vernal Equinox (which is March 21st) this week has been pretty close to Spring - we just took the very nice round walk from Exmouth to Sandy Bay - along the beach and back along the cliffs via Orcombe Point (which is the official western start point of the Jurassic Coast heritage site).

The tulips are already out at Exmouth's Manor Gardens, which is excuse enough to blog about tulips, in part to draw attention to Tulip Press in Vancouver. Its proprietor Senka Kovacevic sent us a very kind e-mail and comment, and I've added a permanent link to the Tulip Press weblog; it's very worth following for its nice mix of literature, art, book illustration, photography and video. Also check out the Flash flipbook of her poetry anthology Where the Sun Reposes, which is accompanied by photographs of her family in 1960s Yugoslavia (Senka is another of those annoyingly talented people, who has managed to combine being a good poet and photographer with being a champion gymnast).

The tulip is a flower with a particular history in episodes of cultural obsession. The tulpenmanie ("tulip mania") in 1600s Holland is well-known, largely via Charles Mackay's Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (Gutenberg EText-No. 24518) - though the view nowadays is that Mackay may well have exaggerated the impact of this early speculative bubble. Less-known is the Tulip period of the early 1700s, during which the elite of the Ottoman Empire became fairly tulip-obsessed; as Tulips of Turkey describes, tulips are actually native to central Asia and Turkey, and the name itself derives from tuliband, the Turkish proununciation of the Persian dulband (= turban, which the flower resembles).

It's easy to list a long string of tulip-related novels since then: Dumas' 1850 adventure The Black Tulip (Gutenberg EText-No. 965) has espionage elements that are echoed in Lauren Willig's The Masque of the Black Tulip (one in a series of botanically-titled Regency romance/espionage novels by the same author) and Milt Bearden's The Black Tulip: A Novel of War in Afghanistan (the Great Game updated to the 1980s). Just a few others include Deborah Moggach's 2000 Tulip Fever ("A novel of art and illusion, doomed love and a tulip bulb"); The Tulip touch (a children's novel about peer pressure and dealing with evil) by Anne Fine, best known as the author of Madame Doubtfire; and Richard Lourie’s A Hatred for Tulips (see Wartime Lies, Elena Lappin, NYT, August 12, 2007), which is about an old man who fills in the historical lacuna of who betrayed Anne Frank's family. Perhaps the tulip's real-world history makes it appealing as a title and motif for novels that seem, in their different ways, to focus on scheming and obsessions?

Of a rather different flavour, there's Tulip by Dashiell Hammett: an unfinished novel, it broke away from his normal hardboiled detective fiction and would have been enlightening as the nearest thing to a Hammett autobiography. The narrator is "Pop", a white-haired thin man whose eventful life - exactly resembling Hammett's - has led him to the point where he has nothing left but to write about it.

I'm just out of jail ... The last of my radio shows went off the air while I was doing my time, and the state and federal people slapped heavy income tax liens on me. Hollywood's out during this red scare. So he [Pop's friend Swede Tulip] figures I'll have to do another book - which doesn't take much figuring.

The existing fragment begins with Pop living at the house of Gus and Paulie Irongate, whose estate is not unlike Lillian Hellman's Hardscrabble Farm. His Hemingwayesque reminiscences begin with his time as a young soldier in World War I and subsequent spell in a tuberculosis ward. I read it a while back: it's not bad. You can find it in the collection The Big Knockover: and Other Stories.
- Ray

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Watchmen: film review

So, further to previous Watchmen-related posts, I saw the film at Exeter Vue yesterday.

Overall impression: a superb film, with some qualifications.

It's a film where reaction will strongly depend on how well you know the graphic novel. As I do know it, I can't really fault it the majority of it as a visually perfect adaptation. To a large extent it was clearly story-boarded straight from the Watchmen book, with only minor alternations (parts removed include the pirate-comic countertext, and the plot threads about the newsstand vendor, the prison psychiatrist's home life and the bickering lesbian couple, as well as altering to no real detriment - and even logical improvement - the precise form of apocalypse toward the end).

All that said, if I didn't know the book, I'd have still enjoyed it but have been sitting Googling afterward to help put the pieces together. The film starts with the murder by defenestration of a grizzled middle-aged man (despite his evident ability to defend himself) - his death is the focus of the whodunnit/conspiracy plot that is the film's main thread. It then moves into an exposition of the backstory via film clips and photo-tableaux - I suspect mimicking Annie Leibovitz, who's among the characters though I didn't spot her 1) that outlines an alternate 20th century in which Nixon, having won the Vietnam War, is still president in 1988. We see triumphant group photos of costumed heroes, one image posed as The Last Supper; a battle in a speakeasy; the same heroes with a cast of famous people such as John F Kennedy, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and no doubt many others I missed; a raving man in moth costume dragged to a hospital van; a dead costumed hero in the doorway of a bank; an evidently lesbian heroine seen kissing a nurse at the WWII victory celebrations, then the crime scene of their murder; the Kennedy assasination (where we see the window man, younger, as the gunman on the grassy knoll); the March on the Pentagon scene followed, in this reality, by the National Guard firing on the Flower Power protesters; a Wagnerian helicopter attack accompanied by a giant blue man (who turns out to be "Doc Manhattan", the only character with super-powers); and the same blue man reflected in Armstrong's visor taking his photograph on the Moon...

This was all a clever and visually spot-on creation, but there would be the problem. If I didn't know the background, the rapid dump of information would have been insufficiently explicit that I think I'd have been floundering on what exactly was the scenario when the story proper began. I think I'd have still enjoyed it a lot, but I go with Alan Moore's comments to the effect that there's a major problem with altering the medium; with a comic you can go back at your leisure "nice and cozy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee" to re-read and correlate, but with the film it comes straight at you in a continuous stream. On that basis, the film probably works best watched as beautifully-developed accessory material, an additional experience for those who already know the background inside-out.

I found the overall atmosphere surprisingly dark and violent compared to the graphic novel. Visually, it confirmed my impressions on seeing the ‘Watchmen’ Trailer to Comic Comparison: film and comic colourings are stylised in different ways, and unless a film-maker chooses to go radically against realism (as in the vivid Dick Tracy) the cinematic appearances of, say, dark rainy city streets, a funeral in rain, and the surface of Mars are bound to be fairly downbeat.

As to the violence, film necessarily fills out sequences told quite sparingly; for instance, a whole fight that is the book is told via a few frames, and it also has more impact when brought out of the flat, silent print format. That said, there were signs of the urge to up the action in action sequences; for instance, a break-in by Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II to a rioting prison, achieved in the book largely unopposed by the use of sonic "screechers", was turned into a pitched martial arts battle. Instances like this, and their general failure to use minimum force, weakened the book's distinction between these (marginally) more humane characters and the violent and uncompromising Rorschach.

The acting overall was very good, with any tendency to star-spot removed by a relatively low-key cast. Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Matthew Goode as the effete Ozymandias were particularly well cast; and Billy Crudup, despite the jokes (Unreal Nature's Julie Heyward pointed me to Anthony Lane's beautifully vicious New Yorker review, Dark Visions, that described his character as "buff, buck naked, and blue, like a porn star left overnight in a meat locker") produced a subtle characterisation, even under all the Čerenkov-like CGI, that brought out perfectly the other-worldliness of Doc Manhattan. The point is perhaps lost on reviewers not au fait with the graphic novel that Doc Manhattan goes naked not as exhibitionism but because, having been transformed into a godlike entity who is increasingly drifting away from understanding human concerns, human taboos no longer matter to him.

Anyhow, excellent film on balance, and I recommend it. Don't drink gallons of tea before going in, though; you'll be there for 162 minutes, not counting the usual half-hour trailer material that most cinemas have these days. See the official website for sampler material.

Addendum, 17th March: Felix just sent me a clipping of Peter Bradshaw's Guardian review, whose print form appeared under the header Get cape. Wear cape. Flail. It's a very fair assessment that's unusual among the UK newspaper reviews in catching, whatever the film's faults, the richness of its historical/cultural mix. I also rather like the spoof on YouTube spoof, Saturday Morning Watchmen.

1. Yes. Having Googled her work - particularly, her Killers Kill, Dead Men Die, a series of film noir scenarios shot with Old Masters chiaroscuro and what appears to be high dynamic range - I think it was a definite homage.

- Ray

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Bad luck with gazelles

At an Unreal Nature thread on Sod's Law (a.k.a Murphy's Law) - "the atheist’s reflex concession to magical thinking" - Dr C just mentioned the particular exposition

I never had a slice of bread,
Particularly large and wide,
That did not fall upon the floor,
And always on the buttered side.

The annoyance of dropping bread on the buttered side is timeless enough to be a truism. You can find it, for instance, in the 1807 precursor to Grumpy Old Men, The miseries of human life; or The groans of Samuel Sensitive, and Timothy Testy: or the groans of Samuel Sensitive and Timothy Testy : with a few supplementary sighs from Mrs. Testy : in twelve dialogues, by James Beresford, where it's listed as one of the miseries of the table. But the above four-line verse has a more specific history.

I first recall it from Arnold Silcock's Verse and Worse (a lovely collection of humorous verse, in print on and off since 1952) where it's credited to James Payn (e.g. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations says Chambers's Journal, February 1884). But the highly reliable The Yale Book of Quotations tracks it back to the Huron Reflector, 23rd November, 1841, and it can also be found uncredited in The Knickerbocker; Or, New York Monthly Magazine in 1835 as:

I never had a piece of toast,
Particularly good and wide,
But fell upon the sanded floor,
And always on the buttered side!

However, we start hitting source for this particular form with Thomas Hood the Younger:

I never nursed a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its dappled hide,
But when it came to know me well,
It fell upon the buttered side.

- from Muddled Metaphors, "By a Moore-ose Melodist", Thomas Hood Jr (date unknown), A Nonsense Anthology, Carolyn Wells, by BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2007

This identifies it as a parody of lines from Thomas Moore's The Fire-Worshippers, one of the four segments in his 1817 work Lalla Rookh, an Arabian Nights-style romance partially based on the story of Al-Muqanna (see The Poetic Works of Thomas Moore). In The Fire-Worshippers, a tragic sub-story, the heroine comes out with these deeply fatalistic lines:

Oh! Ever thus, from childhood's hour,
I've seen my fondest hopes decay;
I never loved a tree or flower,
But 'twas the first to fade away.
I never nurs'd a dear gazelle,
To glad me with its soft black eye,
But when it came to know me well,
And love me, it was sure to die!

These lines (which portray a life at the level of Unlucky Alf from The Fast Show) tickled the Victorian funny-bone, and there are many parodies, such as CS Calverley's Disaster, Henry Sambrooke Leigh's 'Twas ever thus, Lewis Carroll's Tèma con Variaziòni, a reference in Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop (Chapter 56, where Mr Swiveller paraphrases it as "...and love me, it was sure to marry a market-gardener"), and Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Death of a Wombat 1.

I never reared a young Wombat
To glad me with his pin-hole eye,
But when he most was sweet & fat
And tail-less; he was sure to die!

One might wonder why such an obscure poem should attract such ridicule, but it wasn't obscure then; it was a bestseller from the start, and stayed in the public eye via reprints and stage adaptations: see Gill Stoker's Lalla Rookh page. Maybe the problem was the bizarre choice of animal (as Terry Caesar says in I Quite Forget What--Say a Daffodilly: Victorian Parody, "his rather unfortunate choice of an exotic gazelle to illustrate his trite presentation of life's fragility"). Maybe there was an undercurrent of hostility because some saw Lalla Rookh as Irish nationalist allegory, as argued in "The Standard of Revolt": Revolution and National Independence in Moore’s Lalla Rookh (Jeffery W. Vail, Romanticism on the Net, Numéro 40, November 2005).

Thomas Moore is overall another writer whose reputation has diminished (at least, outside his native Ireland). In his lifetime he was considered on a par with Lord Byron (for whom he was literary executor), but is now probably best known for his song lyrics, particularly The Minstrel Boy, The Last Rose of Summer and Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms.

"Dear gazelle" references, incidentally, also crop up in James Joyce's Ulysses and PG Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning (see Bully Says: Comics Oughta Be Fun!: A Wodehouse a Week #25).

"I shall miss you, Jeeves."

"Thank you, sir."

"Who was the chap who was always beefing about losing gazelles?"

"The poet Moore, sir. He complained that he had never nursed a dear gazelle, to glad him with its soft black eye, but when it came to know him well and love him, it was sure to die."

"It's the same with me. I am a gazelle short. You don't mind me alluding to you as a gazelle, Jeeves?"

"Not at all, sir."

1. It's little known that the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with wombats: see Rossetti's Wombat: A Pre-Raphaelite Obsession in Victorian England, National Library of Australia.
- Ray

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Hole in the Zero: update

Site update: I just expanded last February's The Hole in the Zero JSBlog post - about MK Joseph's amazing 1967 novel of that name - to include an enlightening 1969 review by JP Downey in the New Zealand literary magazine Landfall.

Briefly, The Hole in the Zero is a tour de force of literary SF in which four characters are cast into the 'Nothing' outside space and time, where they play out their conflicts in a series of incarnations into a diverse set of different realities. The subject of Dr Johnson brought the book back to mind, since it has an episode in which its character Paradine, in one such reality, becomes a Frankenstein-like magus who creates an artificial man clearly modelled on Dr Johnson.

The carved eyelids blinked and opened and wrinkled up as the eyes peered out shortsightedly on upon the world. The figure sneezed enormously and sat up. He draped over its shoulders a loose white robe and led it gently to a chair, where it sat like an ancient emperor, with its vast swathed body and its noble flawed face. He held a glass of cordial to its lips; it took the glass from him, swallowed it down, and sighed appreciatively.

"Claret," it said in a voice like the echo of thunder, "is the liquor for boys, port for men, but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy."

"What am I to call you?" said Paradine.

"John Samuelson," said the figure firmly.

"You are now alive, John Samuelson. Does it give you pleasure to be alive?"

"To talk is good and to laugh is good," said the figure, holding out its glass to be replenished. "A tavern-chair is the throne of human felicity."

"Then what is the purpose of life?"

The figure rolled about in distress, and the seamed face crumpled. "The whole of life ... is ... but keeping away the thoughts .. of death."

"Is there no choice?"

"Nature sets her gifts on the right hand and on the left," said the figure more calmly.

"Are not all things possible to the mind?"

"We may take our fancy for our companion but we must let reason be our guide. All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity."

"By what then will you rule your life?"

The figure started to its feet and its voice rolled out in full thunder. "Give me something to desire," it shouted, staring with blank eyes to the east, suddenly cold and rigid, a heroic statue eroded by the ages.

All of the creature's words are Johnson quotations, and this poignant vignette of his enthusiasms and torments is one of many literary allusions in The Hole in the Zero.

This particular section of the book has many layers, drawing on the Frankenstein mythos even deeper than the basic scenario of Paradine animating his creation on a slab. Paradine's laboratory also contains a set of homunculi, little figures with single strong personality traits

He passed slowly along the bench where stood his first tentatives, the tiny homunculi, some dreaming, some frenziedly active, in their warm prisons of glass. They were the toys of his youth, childish but lovable - the musician-prince with his little tinkling harp; the spider-woman who had eaten her mate; the idiot-girl, bald and yellow; the spangled juggler perpetually whirling his indian-clubs; the knight, like a small iron statue; the duchess making eyes at the tattered beggar inthe next jar; the sleep-walker; the washerwoman; the siamese-twins; the black boxer sparring with his own shadow; the girl who sang perpetually on one note amid the shining golden waterfall of her own hair.

These are very similar to the jarred homunculi created by Dr Pretorius 1 in the film The Bride of Frankenstein: a king, a queen, an Archbishop, the Devil, and a little ballerina who "won't dance to anything but Mendelssohn's Spring Song and it gets so monotonous". The allusion appears self-referential too, in that in The Hole in the Zero, the main characters are similarly forced to play out scenarios shaped by the fixtures of their individual personalities. Some of Paradine's homunculi are also applicable to the characters themselves. Anyhow, for context, see The Hole in the Zero.

1. The above Dr Pretorius tribute site says "One wonders where Dr. Pretorius got the little costumes-the crown, capes, tutus and ballet slippers. Did he sew them himself? Is the good doctor a closet fashion designer?" Probably the author, Elizabeth Stein, is having an in-joke here: the actor playing Pretorius, the excellent Ernest Thesiger, was an expert in needlepoint, and even wrote a book on the subject, Adventures in Embroidery.

Addendum: see also The Time of Achamoth.

- Ray

Sunday, 8 March 2009


It's interesting to see classical and niche allusions getting mainstream spotlight; one example is the name Ozymandias, via its appearance in Watchmen as the superhero (played by Matthew Goode) who surrounds himself with ancient Egyptian trappings. I knew even before reading the graphic novel that Ozymandias is the Greek name for Ramesses II, but only recently ran into the etymology: it's the Greek rendition of part of his throne name User-maat-re Setep-en-re ("Powerful is the Justice of , Chosen of Ré").

The broken "Younger Memnon" statue of Ramesses II, now in the British Museum, is generally viewed as the inspiration for Shelley's famous sonnet, Ozymandias. Its pedestal inscription was reported by the 1st century Greek historian Diodorus Siculus as

"King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works"

- Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, Book I/47

and this is the prototype for Shelley's

"My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!"

The poem arose out of a sonnet-writing contest between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, both of their efforts on the same theme being published in The Examiner magazine early in 1818. Smith's is not at all bad, and certainly interesting in its wider scope that taps into a long-running literary fascination with apocalypses engulfing London (see Where London Stood). Maybe it suffered from its decidedly unsnappy title.

On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below.

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows: -
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." - The City's gone, -
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,- and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Smith deserves to be better known, a polymath who impressed Shelley for combining writing talent with a successful career as a stockbroker. He and his brother James co-wrote a massively popular book of poetic parodies, the 1813 Rejected Addresses, or, The new Theatrum poetarum (Gutenberg EText-No. 3769) which imagines various popular poets' takes on the topical theme of the rebuilding of Drury Lane Theatre. Even the poets lampooned liked it; Sir Walter Scott said that he was convinced "that he had indeed written the description of the fire in A Tale of Drury Lane, though he had forgotten when" (ODNB).

Horace Smith went on to write a series of mostly-forgotten historical novels - thirteen including Brambletye House; or, Cavaliers and Roundheads (1826), The Tor Hill (1826), Reuben Apsley (1827), Zillah: A Tale of the Holy City (1828), The New Forest (1829) and Walter Colyton: A Tale of 1688 (1830) - as well as a large body of poetry and essays (see the Internet Archive).

As a prolific and popular writer in his time, Smith was widely read, and as explained in Figs, Bells, Poe, and Horace Smith (Burton R. Pollin, Poe Newsletter, vol. III, no. 1, June 1970, Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore) the works of Poe contain frequent quotations and allusions to Smith's works. Poe's A Tale of Jerusalem, for instance, makes more sense once known to be a lampoon of the overblown pseudo-biblical style of Zillah.

The memorable phrase "where London stood" also appears in the 1823 epic poem Love by Ebenezer Elliott, "the Corn-law Rhymer and Poet of the Poor", which has lines - see here - with a very similar suggestion that England might go the same way as other lost empires:

England, like Greece, shall fall, despoil'd, defaced,
And weep, the Tadmor of the watery waste.
The wave shall mock her lone and manless shore;
The deep shall know her freighted wealth no more;
And unborn wanderers, in the future wood
Where London stands, shall ask where London stood?

I just amended this post because I initially thought Elliott's use predated Smith's. It doesn't: the transcriber of the intro page of this online edition has apparently mistaken the publication date MDCCCXL (1840) for MDCCCXI (1811). It looks then as if Elliott got the idea from Smith.

- Ray

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Dr Johnson's struggle

Further to Dr Johnson as he really was and Sutherland et al on Johnson et al, I see a new biography of Johnson is getting good reviews: Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (Jeffrey Meyers, Dec 1, 2008, Basic Books, ISBN: 9780465045716).

I saw it mentioned in yesterday's Daily Mail 1 - Revealed: Why the moralising Dr Johnson DIDN'T hold forth on his own love life - which, apart from the prurient lead, is a pretty fair portrait of Johnson's tormented complexity, much of which was airbrushed out in Boswell's classic account, good though it is. The more measured Los Angeles Times review by Tim Rutten ('Samuel Johnson: The Struggle' by Jeffrey Meyers "The new biography does justice to one of the English language's towering intellects") admires Meyers' approach of integrating Johnson's many facets, rather than treating him as a great writer with a catalogue of incidental quirks. (For instance, if the diagnosis of Tourette syndrome 2 is correct, Johnson's amazing quickwittedness and his bizarre array of tics and mannerisms are two sides of the same coin).

[Meyers'] is the first biography to recognize that personal history, habits, eccentricities, style and achievements were inextricably intertwined in what we would call personality.

Judging by the sample available at, it looks in addition extremely readable.

- Ray

1. ... which I abhor for its general "Asylum seekers laugh at dying Diana as house prices plummet" fixations and its crusade to divide all substances into those that cause cancer and those that cure it, but it often produces surprisingly good articles on historical topics.
2. Doctor Samuel Johnson: 'the great convulsionary' a victim of Gilles de la Tourette's syndrome, J M Pearce, J R Soc Med. 1994 July; 87(7): 396–399.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Nova and Samuel R Delany

"Hey, Mouse! Play us something," one of the mechanics called from the bar.

"Didn't get signed on no ship yet?" chided the other. "Your spinal socket'll rust up. Come on, give us a number."

The Mouse stopped running his finger around the rim of his glass. Wanting to say "no" he began a "yes." Then he frowned.

The mechanics frowned too:

He was an old man.

He was a strong man.

As the Mouse pulled his hand to the edge of the table, the derelict lurched forward. Hip banged the counter. Long toes struck a chair leg: the chair danced on the flags.

Old. Strong. The third thing the Mouse saw: Blind.

He swayed before the Mouse's table. His hand swung up; yellow nails hit the Mouse's cheek. (Spider's feet?) "You, boy . . ."

The Mouse stared at the pearls behind rough, blinking lids.

"You, boy. Do you know what it was like?"

Must be blind, the Mouse thought. Moves like blind. Head sits forward so on his neck. And his eyes—

The codger flapped out his hand, caught a chair, and yanked it to him. It rasped as he fell on the seat. "Do you know what it looked like, felt like, smelt like—do you?"

The Mouse shook his head; the fingers tapped his cheek.

- Nova, Samuel R Delany, 1968

I've been meaning for a while to write about the works of Samuel R Delany, but it's quite a daunting thought: Delany is a much-critiqued writer, and it'd be very easy for commentary to be extremely trite. However, I had an enforced chance to re-read some of his books early in 2009 (abed with flu) so will give it a go.

I first read Delany's Nova (see longer excerpt from the introduction) in my early teens, and found the opening amazing in its difference from other SF I'd read. It was the first time I'd encountered the device of not immediately explaining a setting, and it's still intriguing. We find out pretty quickly what's going on, and the Mouse gets his wish of joining a starship crew, except (in a scenario strongly reminiscent of Moby-Dick) he finds that ship, the Roc, is captained by the scarred Lorq Von Ray, whose obsession is to seek out a nova, meanwhile pursued by a psychopathic adversary, Prince Red.

Nova - I recommend its Wikipedia article - is centrally a quest novel, with explicit references to the Grail quest. Its main story is a conflict for dominance of interstellar trade between the Red and Von Ray dynasties (think Old World vs. New World fighting over Third World interests, transferred to an interstellar arena). That could be pretty dull, but the Grail in question is "Illyrion", a prized superheavy material that powers starships and terraforming projects, and Von Ray intends to get it at source: from the heart of an exploding nova. The dynastic conflict is also very much personal, Von Ray having been facially scarred by Prince in a fight over the latter's sister.

As a melodramatic space adventure, Nova can loosely be described as space opera, but it was an early example (long before "New Space Opera" became a genre term) of how the format could have high literary standards. The Roc's crew are not the macho stereotypes of space opera, but very disparate gentle characters with a decidedly countercultural stance. The narrative is nonlinear: flashbacks tell the stories of Von Ray and the Mouse, and there are extensive observational asides on cultural issues from a narrator character, Katin. Other unusual themes are the use in this future of Tarot divination for major decisions; the Tarot is repeatedly mentioned explicitly, through scenes of divination and characters playing Tarot Whist, and implicitly in this scene where the four suits of the Tarot (cups, coins, swords and wands) appear in a video message from Prince.

Across the room Prince turned to face them. "Just what the hell" — His black-gloved hand struck a crystal beaker, as well as its embossed dish, from the table — "do you think you're doing, Lorq?" The hand came back; the dagger and the carved wooden stick clattered to to the floor from the other side.

Another resemblance to Moby-Dick is the wide racial mix of the Roc's crew. Lorq Von Ray himself is mixed-race (his father Swedish, his mother Senegalese) and this caused initial problems when the great but often conservative (and possibly racist) editor John W Campbell refused to serialise it in Analog because of his view - cringeworthy even at the time - that SF readers weren't ready for "a Negro protagonist". However, Nova's multicultural slant is perfectly normal in SF now (consider Deep Space Nine, with its African-American captain) and the book is remarkable for how little, if at all, it has dated. It was out of print from 1990-2002, but is now readily findable. A modest proposal to Hollywood: if any book deserves to be made into a movie, this does (Luc Besson would do it well; Nova's visual focus and multiracial sensibilities are not unlike those of The Fifth Element).

Nova was written in the late 60s - early 70s period when Delany's SF output peaked in quantity and mainstream SF acclaim (as judged by awards). The same time-slot saw Nebula Awards for the novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, and the short stories Aye, and Gomorrah and Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones (collected among others in Driftglass). Although varied in setting, Delany's works of this period have are common factors. They're rarely about heroes, but are more commonly about encounters among future working-class people that examine assumptions about culture and language. In Nova, for instance, all work has been converted to hands-on format by universal cyborg implants, and the abolition of disease has made hygiene taboos obsolete, so that it's perfectly normal for someone to pick up food with their foot or to accept another's sucked sweet. In The Star Pit, perpetual war has led to the institution of "group marriages" designed to give children a stable upbringing given the likelihood that some of the parents will die. Babel-17, a literal dramatisation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - "language shapes thought", has "triples" as a routine form of marital relationship for starship-piloting teams.

Where there are characters with exceptional abilities, these tend to come with a downside, making these characters "outsiders". Aye, and Gomorrah concerns "Spacers" whose elite status as astronauts comes at the expense of being neutered before puberty; their main pleasures are general high jinks and winding up "frelks", individuals who fetishize them for their very unattainability. The novella The Star Pit has "golden", individuals whose unique ability to pilot intergalactic craft is coupled with psychopathic personality. The Mouse in Nova is a skilled "sensory syrynx" player, but has a speech impediment, as does Brass in Babel-17 (caused by his implanted fangs).

Since Barthes' essay Death of the Author took root in literary criticism, there's been a standard caution about relating text content to authorial background. Nevertheless, as Delany later moved toward more overtly autobiographical material and has been extremely candid about his background - such as in his extremely readable and Hugo-winning The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village - it's hard not to make such connections. As this pseudonymous autobiography by "K Leslie Steiner" describes, Delany is African-American, gay and dyslexic, which relates readily to his themes. He's also a highly-respected academic who has worked in professorial posts in English in US universities since the late 1980s: the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, University of Buffalo, and since 2001 Temple University.

These themes - culture, language, race, sexual identity, and the intellectual/academic mindset - continued to develop in his SF works in the 1970s and 80s: Dhalgren explores the adventures of a bisexual young man in Bellona, a reality-shifting dystopian city created when an American city is engulfed by a singularity; Triton is set in a utopian society where people are free to change identity, including gender; and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand involves a romance between an intellectual and a slave in a far future where gender identity is very different (all sentient creatures are defined as female by default, but male when the object of another's attraction).

The 1970s also saw the development of new thread in Delany's work, what he openly called "his pornography", starting with The Tides of Lust (1973) - a compromise with his publisher, who wanted to call it the The Tides of Eros - and now re-released under Delany preferred title, Equinox. (I have a copy of the Savoy paperback signed by Delany - it's one of my few treasured literary possessions. It tells the story of the violent and sexual encounters that take place among a cast of low-life characters over a day and night when a black ship's captain (who, it's strongly implied, may be the Devil) arrives at a small American seaport. The work has been described as "a Baudelairean rite of passage", and is certainly serious in intent. The overall effect is distinctly unerotic, the book being full of literary quotations, knowing asides about stylistic and racial stereotypes of pornography, and literary passages in which characters step out of the action and comment on the plot.

Bibliographically, the most interesting aspect is that Equinox is inseparable from the Delany canon; it was written more or less contemporaneously with Dhalgren and is full of motifs that repeat in Delany's other works, such as Nova: a black ship's captain; a one-shoed character; one with bitten nails and a rope holding up his trousers; and brothers, one black and one white. Even the works of Delany's artist friend Russell FitzGerald make a shared appearance, as influence for the Alkane Institute's art museum in Nova and as Proctor's "Black Studio" in Equinox. Nova and Equinox also share a general focus on dark vs. light (equinox, the time when day and night are balanced, recalls Lorq's interpretation of the Tarot card The Sun in Nova:

"Two boys with hands locked for a fight. You see how one is light and the other is dark? I see love against death, light against darkness, chaos against order. I see the clash of all opposites under ... the sun. I see Prince and myself.

For critical discussion of Delany's pornographic works, see Delany's Dirt by Ray Davis. Equinox was, and still is, controversial. Like the following Hogg, it featured under-age characters (in the reprinted 1994 edition of Equinox, this was tackled by adding a "Note of Moral Intent" and adding 100 years to the relevant characters' ages). The Mad Man is very different in flavour: in Delany's description "a pornotopic fantasy", it's a massive literary novel with elements of pornography, social commentary, magic realist fantasy and romance. Set in New York just before full awareness of the impact of HIV, it features a young and brilliant African-American academic whose thesis is to investigate the biography of Timothy Hasler, a philosopher who was stabbed at a gay bar some years previously. In the process, Marr finds himself increasingly drawn into sexual encounters with homeless men, eventually establishing a permanent relationship with one.

The book is provocative by any standards; Delany has mentioned that it was inspired by his outrage at Harold Brodkey's classic New Yorker article To My Readers ("I have AIDS. I am surprised that I do") in which Brodkey takes the stance of undeserving victim. The protagonist of The Mad Man, John Marr, states the exact opposite ("I do not have AIDS. I'm surprised that I don't . . .") and the novel explicitly argues, even to the extent of citing a Lancet paper on seroconversion, that there are areas of sexual behaviour where there's no hard-edged data about HIV risks and which, anecdotally, appear to be low-risk contrary to general perceptions. Despite the theme, however, it remarkably manages not to be a dark or depressing book; for the most part there's a huge cameraderie among its large cast of outsider characters. (The Pinocchio Theory has a considerably more intelligent review than I can muster).

The Mad Man moves toward the focus of Delany's most recent works, many of which have been largely autobiographical. Hasler's relationship with a street person, "Leaky" Sowps, mirrors Delany's long-term relationship with Dennis Rickett, told in the autobiographical comic Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York. Delany recounts his experiences in the non-fictional Times Square Red, Times Square Blue too, and the protagonist of the 2007 Dark Revelations - and its overdue companion sequel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders - isn't a million miles from Delany either. However, the novella Phallos breaks away from this territory into the interesting device of modern academic commentary framing a fictional history of Neoptolomus, a young man in the time of the emperor Hadrian. It doesn't look as if we'll be seeing any time soon From The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the sequel to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand that was under way a long time back. Personally, vastly intelligent and readable though Delany's latest works are, I find it a pity that he has moved away from the richly-imagined SF that sprang from metaphorical exploration of his personal themes - I'm sure he'll be remembered as one of the SF greats - but one can hardly dictate where writers' interests go.

For more bibliographies, which include Delany's critical works and non-fiction titles such as see the bibliographies section of Jay Schuster's Samuel R. Delany Information page, which is probably the single most comprehensive guide to SRD resources online.

- Ray