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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Falling in Love with a New Nova: Part 2

Jesse Alexander once lived an extraordinary life as a member of the interstellar Nova Corps. Those days are long behind him now. But he gave them up to marry the woman he loved, and raise a family. So he should be happy and fulfilled, right?


In time, Jesse's wife gives him two children, a son named Sam, and a younger daughter named Kaelynn. As they grow up, he tells them stories of his former life in the Nova Corps. But his simple life in Carefree, Arizona, working as a janitor at the local high school, leaves him depressed. Although he loves his wife and children, he looks to alcohol to fill the void in his life. This leaves Sam, now attending high school, to clean up after him, finish the janitorial duties, and help him get back home, where he can sleep off his drunkenness. 

Sadly, this doesn't leave Sam with a positive impression of his father. It also makes things hard on him at school, as stories about his father's drunkenness, and Sam's need to occasionally clean the toilets, lead the bullies to pick on him. Sam begins to believe his father's adventures in the Nova Corps were just tall tales, nothing more. Then one night, his father disappears, and Sam finds a black helmet in the garage. When he puts it on, it grants him incredible powers. Soon two members of the Guardians of the Galaxy show up--green-skinned Gamora, and Rocket Raccoon--and they train him in his new powers. From there, Sam Alexander begins his triple-life: trying to be a normal high school student, helping his mother keep the family afloat without his father's salary, and saving the Earth, again and again, from all kinds of despicable intergalactic villains.

After reading Issue 1, we abandoned the discount racks, threw caution (and fiscal wisdom?) to the interstellar winds, and dived in, picking up any remaining issues we could lay my hands on at normal retail prices. In short order, we had procured nearly all the issues of this 31 issue run. Now we've been reading through Nova's journeys again, this time in order. I've just read issue 28 again (for the third or fourth time), the one that coincides with the Black Vortex storyline. Sam has gotten hold of the Black Vortex, and he needs to keep its location a secret, until his superhero friends contact him to tell him where he should transport it. So naturally, he takes it home, and drapes a sheet over it in his bedroom. 

It's not long before one of the parties trying to gain possession of the Black Vortex is the Collector, who tried to procure one of the immensely powerful infinity stones in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy movie. In Nova issue 28 he drops by Earth, and offers Sam's mother gold, jewels, and unimaginable riches, if only she will sell him this precious artifact. 

So it's back into space for Sam, as he tries to hide the Black Vortex from those who yearn for the power it could grant them. His efforts are valiant, but he fails to keep the Black Vortex from one particular villain, who intends to use it to use it to kill his enemies, and destroy entire worlds. Still, at least he resists temptation, and doesn't let it transform him into an ultimate version of himself. As he puts it, every gift comes with a price, and he already has enough power. It's up to him to use the power he already has to do the most good he can.

I've tried to parcel them out, and limit them to no more than one issue per day, because...well, because I don't want my adventures with Sam to end. Other writers picked up Sam's story after Jeph Loeb's five issue run, and they kept me just as interested in Sam's everyday life, and his superhero adventures for twenty-six additional issues. Like most Marvel titles, Nova ceased publication this summer to make way for the huge Secret Wars crossover event, as well as all the associated spinoff titles. After reading issue 28, some big questions remain. Will Sam find his father? Will he be able to return Jesse to Earth? What will happen to his family after such a joyous reunion? Could he continued his own career as Nova, and a probationary member of the Avengers, assuming that occurs? I hope the last three issues will address some of those questions. To learn the rest of the answers, and to keep experiencing the thrills, adventure, and happiness this series has given me, I suspect I will have to submit to the temptation of the immensely powerful Nova series on an ongoing, monthly basis, once Marvel's Secret Wars crossover event finishes, and Nova restarts in November.

But then, as Sam would say, every gift comes with a price, right?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 28, 2015

Falling in Love with a New Nova: Part 1

Awhile back, I told you about my journey across San Diego to complete the missing chapters in Sam Humphries' Black Vortex saga. This journey was sparked because my wife and I were reading Humphries' Legendary Star Lord series, and the Black Vortex storyline spun out from that title. The Black Vortex was an ancient artifact that could imbue any person with extraordinary powers. Once it is discovered, many super heroes and villains learn of its power, and succumb to the temptation to amplify their abilities. Some of the heroes who end up permanently changed by the Black Vortex include members of the X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Thus, the Black Vortex saga continued through Legendary Star Lord, Guardians of the Galaxy, and several other titles. We had already picked up a few of these other titles in the discount box of our local comic book store. One of the issues we needed to complete the Black Vortex story was Nova Issue 28. 

My wife and I grew acquainted with the former Nova, Richard Rider, when we read some of the 1970s The Man Called Nova series, written by Marv Wolfman. After the last surviving member of the intergalactic Nova Corps bequeaths his helmet to Richard, this ordinary human teenager gains extraordinary powers. He uses them to defeat villains, team up with other superheroes, and save the Earth numerous times. 

After reading the recent Nova issue 28, and completing Sam Humphries' Black Vortex 13 issue story, I found myself intrigued by this new Nova, a young boy from Earth named Sam Alexander. So I gradually began assembling a collection from the discount racks of local comic book stores. Unlike most series, this time I didn't wait until I had nearly every issue to start reading. I dived right in, on whatever issue I picked up. Even though I was reading them out of order, I was gaining an understanding of Sam's life, and the scope of his adventures. So after awhile, I had to go out and pick up Issue 1. Even if it wasn't available in the discount section.

In Nova issue 1, written by Jeph Loeb, we meet an agent of the Nova Corps. His name is Jesse Alexander. He fights alongside people from other races who have pledged their lives in service to others. One thing he shares with his band of brothers is bravery.

He risks certain death, time and time again, for his fellow Nova officers. Unlike them, however, Jesse has, in one way, betrayed his calling. He's fallen in love with a woman, and married her. So after one particular battle, their ship takes them as close to Earth as they're likely to get, and the team drops him off, so Jesse can be a husband to the wife he loves, and a father to the child she's expecting.

Imagine leaving behind a high-flying life of sailing through interstellar space, saving people, civilizations and worlds again and again, to return home to live a normal existence as a husband and father. No matter how much Jesse loves his wife, that sacrifice will take its toll on him. I'll talk about that, how that effects young Sam's view of his father, and how I've fallen in love with this new Nova in the next post.

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 25, 2015

Getting Wacky Again

Occasionally, a friend from elementary school would invite me to spend the weekend with him. My parents generally granted such invitations, provided the friend's family went to church on Sunday mornings. While staying with one friend, his family stopped by a store, and he introduced me to a pack of trading cards he collected. They were called Wacky Packages, and the cards sported stickers with fun takes on existing products. I loved the humor and imagery, and soon was using all my spending money to buy packs wherever I found them.

One store that always had them for sale was a little local market near my grandparents' house. So every time I went to visit my grandparents, I visited the store, which I called the Wacky Store, and added more stickers to my collection. I have no idea if I ever assembled a complete collection. That wasn't the point. I merely collected them because they made me smile and laugh. My grandfather was also a collector, and his chief love was collecting stamps. During one summer vacation, I spent several days in his den, working beside him on my collection. While he busied himself with arranging his stamps in books, I ordered all my Wacky cards into neat rows and columns, and then affixed the stickers to a poster board. This I taped to the wall of my room when I returned home, and for many years gained great pleasure in looking up at that poster board, and enjoying the wit and whimsy of the authors and artists who had created my beloved Wacky stickers.

Wash'n Fly
Little Towels Ghosts Use to Wash their Sheets
Approved by Gravediggers
Scares Dirt Away!
Fightens as it Whitens!

After awhile, my stickers began curling off the poster board, and you can only use so much tape to keep stickers on a board before the poster begins to look tacky, and in need of retirement. By then, Wacky Packs had long disappeared from market shelves, and I went on to spending my money on and collecting other things (such as, surprise surprise, books). Little sign of this once great collection of mine exists today, beyond this lone sticker affixed to the cover of my Sonatina Album for the Piano. But stories about how I collected Wacky Packages stuck to my family history, and were repeatedly recalled amongst family members. Unsurprisingly, these stories generated smiles and laughter among those who recounted them, as well as those who listened.

Imagine my surprise when, on a recent trip to the store, I saw a box of these:

Unlike those packs of yore, which probably cost me fifteen cents or a quarter, these new Wacky Packages, produced by Topps, and dated 2015, cost a dollar. As the package stated that it contained four cards, this meant each Wacky Sticker was now a quarter. Given how much we spend on such luxury items as books, DVDs, and comics, and considering the not insignificant sums we spend on travel to such exotic locales as Florida, Hawaii, and England, I pointed these out to my wife, but hesitated to pick up a pack. But my wife, who has long heard such tales recounted by myself and other family members, didn't hesitate. She immediately announced that we must pick up two: one for me, and one for her. 

2 Musketeers
Make Do with Two
33% Less Secure
Includes Pink Slip
Hey, it's a tough economy...

Hair Strand Bugs
No Trans Gnats
Flea Free

Bake Like Ape-Rofessional!
Great Fur Cookies. Fur Cakes. Fur Pies.

Hairy Margarine

Finally, a fast food that's GOOD for you!
onions not included

(Packages straight from John's body, fresh to your plate).

Doubtless many will not appreciate the humor of these new Wacky Packages. But the stories they tell still resonate with me. The 2 Musketeers bar speaks to current issues in the economy. The Pik-Nits and Chimperial remind me of my great love for the Planet of the Apes movies, as well as the original novel by Pierre Boulle. The Long John's Liver seems tailor-made for me, as my mother often served me liver when I was growing up, and my favorite fish restaurant today remains Long John Silver's. 

In addition to awakening a host of pleasant memories about the food and household products from my youth, the Wacky stickers also remind me of the great stories I've read recently. The Pik-Nits reminds me of a scene from False Dawn by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, in which Thea, despite her fear of proximity and being touched, finally allows Evan to cut her hair after it has grown so long, thick, and straggly that she finds it impossible to run a comb through it without breaking off the teeth. And the old sticker, as I look at it (and smile), reminds me of Death Warmed Over, the humorous horror/detective novel by Kevin J. Anderson. I can definitely picture Dan Shambles, the famous zombie private investigator, using a product like Wash'n Fly to clean his clothes and trench coat. (Or perhaps he would use it to wash any linens his girlfriend needs, as she was murdered before the events depicted in the novel, and now works as a ghost-receptionist in his office).

Despite all the fun these new Wacky Packages have given me, I think I'm going to have to be careful about how often I visit that store. After all, it's not like I need to be spending money on yet another hobby. 

Celebrating National Talk Like A Pirate Day
at Long John Silver's

And hey, it's not like I'm all that wacky a guy. Right?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 21, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's Grand Adventure

Three decades ago, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club. This is one of the novels they sent me.

I have no idea why I chose this novel as one of my four selections. The other books I chose were collections, and the author of each would become important to me in the decades to come. That's not to say that I've ever regarded False Dawn, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, as unimportant. But I never read any of her other novels until recently. And unlike the other novelists--Roger Zelazny, Anne McCaffrey, and Harry Harrison--Chelsea Quinn Yarbro never wrote any follow-ups to this story.

This has been a big reading month for me, at least in terms of the books I've finished. (Some books, such as Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley, are longer, and necessarily take longer to finish). Nor have I finished False Dawn: I've only gotten fifty pages in thus far, about a quarter of the book's length. As you can probably tell by the cover, it's a tough, gritty novel, which paints a decimated future akin to those depicted in the Mad Max films. In this future world, genetic engineering has cause mutations that have destroyed governments (at least in the United States), agriculture, and the human race. It follows two protagonists: Thea, a woman who was raped by one of the roving motor cycle gangs, and Evan, a man who once ruled the motorcycle gangs, and seemed intent on killing mutants like Thea.

Instead of giving us the history of the characters and this future world, Yarbro makes us assemble a picture of this devastated world from sparse clues. Thea understandably can't stand being touched by a man, yet she builds crossbows and wields them with deadly accuracy. Evan carries his weight as her companion, despite having lost an arm, and does most of the cooking for them. Both are touched by the effects of genetic engineering. Thea has nictating membranes, a translucent or transparent eyelid that protects and moistens the eyes while maintaining visibility. The motorcycle gang that kicked Evan out might have cut off his arm with a power saw, but his arm and hand gradually grows back as the weeks of their journey pass. Both these mutations are thoughtful, perhaps even desirable adaptations to the human body, which have their presence in existing animals, reptiles, and birds. But other humans aren't so lucky. They're called the Untouchables, and even the motorcycle gangs avoid them. Many regard these Untouchables as lepers, but they're really people who bear undesirable mutations, and end up looking like their molecules got reassembled incorrectly in one of the transporters in Star Trek

The plot of False Dawn unfolds as a great land-journey. Unlike Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Thea and Evan are not setting out to destroy a magical talisman. They simply wish to survive. They've heard of a place of sanctuary near Gold Lake, the largest of a series of lakes in Plumas County, California. They unite in Chico, shortly after Thea shoots a dying rape victim to prevent her from being eaten alive by wild dogs. They follow a route of power lines, across terrain so difficult to traverse it prevents the wild dogs and the motorcycle gangs from following them. Then skirt what would be the scenic cliffs above Feather River Canyon, were the land not so blighted. We're only gradually learning about Thea and Evan, and both have reasons to pull back from each other. Yet necessity drives them to travel together, on foot, through the Northern California wilderness. What will occur when they reach Gold Lake? Will they choose to stay together? Will they find the community they seek? Evan after all this time, I seem to remember how the novel ends. But my memory has played me false before, so I read ahead, wondering what will happen next, and learning more about Thea, Evan, and this future world with each new page.

This grand adventure I'm sharing with Thea, Evan, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro was prompted by charting out the birthdays of authors I've read in the past few years. Ironically, Yarbro shares her birthday, September 15, with Agatha Christie. Unlike Christie, it's doubtful that I'll ever create a blog dedicated wholly to Yarbro. But then, you rarely know what stories will become significant to you in the future. I read Agatha Christie in my youth, yet her stories gradually grew more important to me as time rolled on. With False Dawn, even though the story falls outside (Far outside!) the realm of the stories I usually inhabit, I kept that novel, while getting rid of many others, because I wanted to read it again. And now I am! I'm returning to that grand adventure Chelsea Quinn Yarbro took me on three decades ago.

I couldn't be happier.

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 14, 2015

Roald Dahl's Wondrous Delights

Hungry for something sweet and substantial? Something that will delight you, and transport you on wondrous delights? Then consider James and the Giant Peach, a story that could be considered both an appetizer or an entree. 

In his book, author Roald Dahl relates the story of James, a young boy who lived happily in England until his parents went shopping in London.

A busy street in London
November 2013

Now everyone knows that shopping is incredibly dangerous. On this occasion an even more terrible thing happened to his parents than racking up large credit card bills and getting their credit privileges revoked. A rhinoceros escaped the zoo, and on a busy street in London, in full view of other shoppers, the animal ate James's parents. So James was sent off to live with his aunts in their house in the south of England. 

Aunt Spiker & Aunt Sponge,
Illustration by Quentin Blake

His aunts lived in a little house on top of a hill in the south of England. They made him work all day, beat him for his efforts, and never let him go anywhere. He had no friends. Despite the terrific view, all he could do was stand by the fence and peer out at the surrounding landscape. 

A cottage at Seven Sisters, England.

James was terribly lonely.

One day, a kindly old man appeared in his garden and offered James a bag filled with strange and magical items. He told James how to use them, and promised that if James obeyed his instructions to the letter, he would have a wonderful adventure.

Author Terry Pratchett at the World Fantasy Convention in
Brighton, England, in 2013.
A kindly old man whose strange and magical stories
transported me on many wondrous adventures.

Before James could fulfill the old man's instructions, he tripped over an exposed tree root, and dropped the bag. The contents seeped into the soil before he could gather them back together. Suddenly, a peach appeared on the old tree. 

This peach grew as large as his aunts' house. That night, James discovered a hole in its skin. He climbed inside, and and walked down a tunnel. There, deep inside the peach, the young boy who never got to see anyone else saw some interesting people.

Author Mary Robinette Kowal at the 2013 World Fantasy Convention.
From the lighting, you can tell she did her reading
inside a giant peach.

He met a musical grasshopper, a kindly spider, a polite ladybug, a mischievous centipede, and a frightened earthworm, among others.

James meets interesting people.
Illustration by Quentin Blake

These friendly bugs were as big as him, spoke perfect England, and welcomed him to the heart of the peach. Suddenly, the boy who was always lonely had some new and interesting friends. In the morning, his new friends freed the peach from the old tree. It rolled down the hill, tumbled off the cliff, and plunged into the ocean.

Seven Sisters, England, 2013

From there, James and his friends sailed off across the sea. Later, due to James' ingenuity, they even flew into the sky. Suddenly, the boy who never went anywhere was traveling, and seeing sights he could never have imagined.

To mark the 99th anniversary of Roald Dahl's birth, I read James and the Giant Peach for the first time. His delightful prose, Quentin Blake's magical illustrations, and my own journeys through England combined to satisfy my cravings for a sweet and satisfying read. Even if you haven't traveled to England, and even if your edition doesn't include Quentin Blake's masterful illustrations, I feel confident that Roald Dahl's prose alone will conjure up sufficient imagery to help you visualize James, feel for him and his friends, and help you accompany them on their journey aboard the giant peach. 

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, my brief summary cannot possibly have spoiled your appetite. I haven't told you half of his story, or touched on more than a tidbit of Roald Dahl's strange, magical, and wondrous delights. 

Bon Appetit!

Dragon Dave

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Michael Garibaldi's Motorcycle

The first season episode "Eyes," written by Larry DiTillio, transports us to Babylon 5 in the year 2258. Aboard this space station, where people of all species and planets can learn to like and respect different beliefs and ways of life than their own, disagreements often give way to violence. An air of tension and turmoil remains a constant inhabitant, given the need for everyone to get along with people who look different, who act different, who hold different values, and who belong to a nation or culture that may have wronged another people or planet in the past. This uneasy peace often gives way to out-and-out rioting, whenever news of some outrage--a politician's unfortunate statement, a military incursion, whatever--reaches the space station. Still, the space station remains a melting pot of culture and ideas, and many see this process--this constant proximity and interaction--as essential to promoting universal peace.

Security Chief Michael Garibaldi,
played by actor Jerry Doyle

No one wants peaceful coexistence more than Michael Garibaldi. As the Security Chief, it's his job to ensure the harmonious operation of Babylon 5. Yet in "Eyes," we learn what he does in his off-time. He's got a project he's working on: rebuilding a 1990s era Kawasaki motorcycle. We never learn why he decided to build an old gas-powered motorcycle while living on a space station, but he's gradually tracked down all the parts, and won a manual in a card game. Unfortunately, the manual is written in Japanese. Thus, it's fortunate for him that Lennier, the assistant to Minbari Ambassador Delenn, enjoys studying other cultures, learning new languages, and putting things together.

Minbari aide Lennier, played by Bill Mumy,
who in earlier days played young Will Robinson
in the TV series Lost In Space

Garibaldi's Kawasaki isn't the central story in this episode. As events unfold, we learn that Commander Jeffrey Sinclair's command of Babylon 5 is under attack from an Earth inspector who believes he should be running the space station instead. Naturally Sinclair's friend and right-hand man Michael Garibaldi gets swept up in these events. While Garibaldi accepts Lennier's offer, and grants him access to his quarters, he doesn't believe that the Minbari aide will make much progress in his absence.

Thankfully, the Commander is able to fight off the inspector's attacks, and retain command of Babylon 5. And when the dust has settled from this latest conflict--ironically one solely between humans--Garibaldi returns to his quarters to find that Lennier has not only assembled his motorcycle in his absence, but replaced the gas-powered engine with a Minbari propulsion system. At first Garibaldi is miffed, as he had looked forward to the conquering his seemingly impossible project, but then he accepts Lennier's tremendous gift of assistance and friendship gracefully, and takes him on a two-wheel tour of the mammoth space station. As Commander Jeff Sinclair and Lieutenant Commander Susan Ivanova watch them ride past, with the Earth inspector banished, they reflect on how nice it is that things on Babylon 5 have gotten back to normal.

Garibaldi, Lennier, and the completed Kawasaki motorcycle

"Eyes" is a wonderful episode, revealing all the rivalry and hatred Humans can bear toward each other, but also filled with the love and the desire to embrace the different that made J. Michael Straczynski's series so important to TV history. DiTillio's story also seems to have inspired those authors who wrote Babylon 5 novels. John Vornholt references DiTillio's character, Psi Corps agent John Harriman, in his novels. In The Touch of Your Shadow, the Whisper of Your Name, Neal Barrett Jr. has a religious motorcycle gang riding nuclear-powered Harley Davidsons through the station. They identify with Michael Garibaldi, as he's a fellow biker, and get the humorous idea that Susan Ivanova is his moll. Lots of fun!

The influence of "Eyes" seems surprising, if not downright strange, given how many more episodes contained significant plot elements, and portrayed events that generated higher stakes for those living on the space station and other planets. It is a quieter, more personal story, rather than one of the major foundation-stone episodes that significantly impacted the overarching stories behind the series. But sometimes it's those smaller-scale, quieter, more personal stories that linger in the mind, and prove more memorable and important to you later on, don't you think?

Dragon Dave

Monday, September 7, 2015

Boatbuilding & Hill Climbing in Appledore

I wasn't sure what to expect when we pulled into the visitor lot in Appledore. Charles Kingsley had mentioned the town in his novel Westward Ho!, but not in any great detail. We could have visited the maritime museum, located conveniently across from the parking lot. But it was mid afternoon when we arrived, and I wanted to see what the town looked like today, versus merely walking around in rooms and perusing displays. 

Not knowing how much there was to see, or how much time to allot for our exploration, we paid for two hours, and started walking.

A few blocks downhill took us to the river. Or rather, where the River Torridge flows when the tide is sufficiently high. We walked along the riverfront, enjoying the views, and stopped in at a little bookstore called Walter's Emporium to peruse the selection. Lots of great books on offer, but nothing I had to have. This was an important consideration, as the interior of my suitcase was not infinite (unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS), and I needed precious space for many must have items such as Wagon Wheels, Clotted Cream Toffees, and boxes of Yorkshire Tea. So we continued our walk along the quay.

In Westward Ho!, Amyas Leigh prepared and provisioned his ship in his home town of Bideford. When he and his crew were ready to take off on their adventure, they sailed down the River Torridge to Appledore. There, amid great celebration, they made their official departure. Shipbuilding still goes here, and I suppose lots of vessels still set sail from Appledore. But obviously, their captains must time the launches for when the tide is well and truly up.

Appledore boasts a picturesque riverfront, with shops, pubs, and vendors to cater to the visitor's needs. But we found ourselves sated with the views across the river.

Across the river lies the picturesque village of Instow, but even if I had brought my drawing kit with me, I lacked sufficient time to complete a drawing. So I contented myself with enjoying the view.

Everyone sees the world differently. Artist Ashley Jackson, for example, finds wind farms not just unnecessary, but also unsightly. Personally, I think they add interest and elegance to the landscape. Perhaps I should draw one sometime, and pour into the artwork all my admiration for these examples of green energy production. 

What do you think? Would someone buy a sketch of a wind farm? Would you?

By the time we reached the end of the riverfront (where, ironically, we found a more conveniently placed carpark offering cheaper rates), my wife and I faced a dilemma. More than half of our two allotted hours had passed. Should we retrace our steps, or attempt to find a shorter route back? Either way would necessitate a walk up a fairly steep hill. In the end, we walked about halfway back along the seafront, then ventured up, up, up a narrow street that promised to take us in the direction we needed to go. And it did, until it dead-ended. So we had to backtrack a little, which meant more walking down and then uphill again. Oh joy! 

Thankfully, we found our way back to the visitor lot, and with a few minutes to spare. 

Believe me, as we walked up (and down, and up) that steep hill, we were rueing the time we had spent exploring that little bookstore in Appledore. But then, there will always be things in life that you simply must do, even if you regret them later. Don't you agree?

Dragon Dave

Friday, September 4, 2015

Susan Ivanova on Aliens & Chamber Pots

Anyone who has ever traveled, and suffered disturbed sleep patterns as a result, can understand what the people in Neal Barrett, Jr's novel are going through. In The Touch of Your Shadow, the Whisper of Your Name, something is inflicting nightmares upon everyone aboard the space station. And I do mean everyone: all 250,000 inhabitants of the great Babylon 5 station, the universe's best hope for peace.

The nightmares, and consequent lack-of-sleep, don't create a lot of peace on the space station. Quite the reverse. All our little demons--the things about others that bother us, all our fears of suffering pain, loss, and failing those we care about--that we push to the back of our minds when we're properly rested, now force their ugly selves to the forefront. No one proves immune to these disturbing nightmares, and consequent sleepless nights. Not even the beautiful and resourceful Susan Ivanova. 

Actress Claudia Christian as Commander Susan Ivanova

For all her wit, charm, and understanding of human frailties, she suffers from her own inner demons. Chief among these are her mother's death, caused by the powerful drugs forced upon her when she refused to join Psi Corps. More than most, she knows the intimacy afforded those with telepathic abilities. So in the episode "Eyes," when Harriman Gray, a PsiCorps telepath, arrives on Babylon 5, she tells him in no uncertain terms that if he dares to peer inside her mind, she will relieve his body of his head, and use the unnecessary article for her chamber pot. 

Did I mention that she could be resourceful? I mean, using someone's head for a chamber pot. Not a lot of people would think of doing that!

So, in The Touch of Your Shadow, the Whisper of Your Name, when she learns that a Centauri youth has been kidnapped by a group of aliens known as Live Eaters, she heads down to their quarters to interrupt their Feast & Dissolution Ceremony. There she informs the giant squid people, in no uncertain terms, that no matter how intolerable they find living in close proximity with other lifeforms, that doesn't give them the right to eat them. 

So the young Centauri male remains locked in his capsule, while Susan Ivanova is forced to watch the Live Eaters commit suicide by...well, I'll give you one guess how they end their existence. It's not a pretty thing to watch, but then, at least she's saved the Centauri male's life. That's a worthwhile act.

It's easy to let life get on top of us, especially when we're tired. And no matter how hard we try, there will always be some people who refuse to draw close to us, to allow us into their hearts, and truly befriend us. We all know how heartbreaking it can be to desperately want to break down another's walls, only for them to refuse all our best efforts. But no matter how similar we appear to others, no matter how closely we're linked by ties of family, career, or society, we're all aliens to each other. It's up to us to get over our fears, and the knowledge that some people will always refuse to really live in harmony with us. It's our duty to emulate Susan Ivanova, to stand up for our rights, to fight for the rights of others, and never to give in to fears and seemingly hopeless situations. 

As for repurposing other people's body parts to perform household tasks, particularly in the smallest room in your house, I'll let you make up your own mind about that. Personally, I prefer the modern toilet to the outdated chamber pot. But then, when I have to call out the plumber, and wonder how horrendously he's going to bill me for his services...

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Another Welcome Return to Babylon 5 

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Touring Oxford With Verdant Green

Recently, my wife and I have been watching the Inspector Lewis TV series again. These stories take place in the English city of Oxford, where Lewis and his partner Hathaway solve all the most mysterious murders. Watching them reminds us of our own visit to Oxford, back in 2011. It was a day trip, and thus only allowed a brief tour of the streets and two museums. So we'd love to go back there and see this great university city again. One thing I wasn't expecting was to meet a new friend, who would take me back to Oxford, during this year's day-trip to Lyme Regis.

Picking up The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green in the Lyme Regis Museum, I wasn't certain what to expect. But it was filled with so many illustrations, apparently drawn by the author, Cuthbert Bede, that I ultimately decided to pick it up and give it a read. I'm certainly glad I did. For this historical novel transports me to 1840s Oxford, and according to the introduction by Anthony Powell, is one of the first great Oxford novels that inspired later authors to write about this famous town. This long list would no doubt include Colin Dexter, whose Inspector Morse books inspired the Inspector Lewis TV series.

Mr. Verdant Green is a bright, scholarly chap, a man with impeccable manners, and beloved by his family. Yet he lacks practical knowledge of the outside world. The local priest has failed to make the argument with his parents that he should attend public school, but when Verdant reaches university age, he makes a concerted attempt to win over Mr. Green, and send his son away to enhance his education.

His family adore him, and hate the idea of sending him away, but the vicar insists that this is necessary for his maturation. So eventually they send him off, and Mr. Green accompanies his son Verdant to Oxford, where the priest's son is also studying. There, in addition to furthering his knowledge of Latin, classic literature, and a whole host of other subjects, Verdant will befriend the vicar's son and others who teach him the true necessities of a gentleman, such as drinking, smoking, and competitive sports.

I gather that Edward Bradley, a 19th century priest who wrote under the pseudonym of Cuthbert Bede, had difficulty initially placing this novel. So it was originally published in three parts, before it was later combined into one volume. That makes sense given the structure of the book. The first part forms a series of misadventures, in which Verdant rides down in a horse-drawn carriage with his father, along with his other future friends, who are smoking like chimneys, wildly blowing trumpets, taking turns with the reins as they indulge in their youthful need for speed, and ignoring their dogs that bark, howl, and chew holes in Mr. Green's pants. Once Verdant matriculates, and starts attending classes, the chapters form a series of misadventures, in which his friends play jokes on him, which he, innocent and good-natured soul that he is, takes with a smile. In addition to meeting many colorful characters, we learn some of the traditions that were practiced in Oxford at the time, and watch as Verdant repeatedly tries, and fails, to acquire skills in horsemanship, boat rowing, or even dog ownership. 

In the second portion of the book, Verdant's indefatigable nature wins him status and respect. He doggedly persists in trying to ride the wild, irascible horses available to students for hire, and even competes in a boating race. He also stands up for his college in a general all-city brawl, called the Town Versus Gown, in which the townspeople, who are forced to daily cowtow to these students, are allowed to work off their frustrations one night each year. (See the illustration on the cover). Although Verdant lacks fighting skills, he nonetheless stands with his friends (who have surreptitiously hired a professional boxer to accompany them) for this annual event. And we see how some of Verdant's friends reform their ways, and manage to graduate, while others are "plucked" or fail at their exams.

The third section of the novel forms more of a traditional love story, the bulk of it taking place during a holiday, when Verdant and his friends are staying with another wealthy family. He falls in love with one of the daughters, and accompanies her each time she walks out to sketch or paint. He even protects her from a bull that has slipped out of its pen, proving that he has matured greatly from the young boy who dwelt within the protective embrace of his family. We pull for Verdant, and urge him on, as he attempts to woo the beautiful girl. But can he compete with a more handsome and accomplished young man, who she has known and loved since childhood? And then, in the last few chapters, we travel back to Oxford, all too briefly, as Cuthbert Bede speeds us through the last two years of Verdant's time there. 

Will Verdant graduate? Will he marry? I'll let you discover the answer to those questions, as well as all the interesting (or bewildering?) traditions practiced in Oxford during the 1840s, if you choose to read The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green. Now, the only question is, where will you get your copy? I've already snagged the one in the Lyme Regis Museum. So you'll have to march down to your local bookstore, and demand a fresh new copy of this classic Oxford University novel. Or you could order one online. Whatever you do, make sure you get a copy that contains all of Cuthbert Bede's illustrations, because they can only enhance the pleasure you derive from this charming, humorous, and insightful book.

Dragon Dave