Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Indeterminancy Determined

A few months ago, after Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas had said something stupid, I offered the opinion that she had not actually gotten dates wrong. She was instead from a parallel universe in which the events of our history had happened differently and she had slipped up and used the dates she had learned in that universe. There was no way to prove it, of course, but I preferred that idea to the one that since 1995, the residents of Texas Congressional District 18 were stupid enough to elect a woman who didn't know basic dates of the history of the country in whose government she served.

Today, however, Rep. Jackson-Lee has shattered my slender hopes. In speaking against the idea that the U.S. House of Representatives should sue President Obama because the suit was a thinly-veiled attempt to impeach him, Rep. Jackson-Lee pointed out how Democrats who opposed President George W. Bush did not "seek an impeachment of President Bush, because as an executive, he had his authority."

Except, of course, that Rep. Jackson-Lee was one of the co-sponsors of then-Rep. Dennis Kucinich's 2008 resolution seeking to impeach President Bush.

I have heard some people suggest that Rep. Jackson-Lee is the dumbest person in the U.S. Capitol Building, but I do not know if that is true. Except when her constituents visit her. During that time, I know she can't possibly be the dumbest person in the building.

Koontz Klatsch

As we all know thanks to Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, "Frankenstein" is the name of the doctor who stitched together pieces of several corpses and reanimated them. That reanimated being is usually known as the monster, and it has no name. But what if Frankenstein really was the monster?

Which is exactly what the mad doctor is, according to Dean Koontz's revisionary take on Mary Shelley's novel in his five-book "Frankenstein" series. Victor Frankenstein's horrible vision for "improving" humanity has morphed, 200 years later, into a vision for replacing it. Frankenstein has used his genius to keep himself alive and to gradually begin building biologically engineered super-humans he programmed and controls.

Koontz begins the series in New Orleans, as detectives Carson O'Connor and Michael Maddison confront a series of horrific and unexplainable murders. The mysterious giant Deucalion enlists their help when he reveals that the murders have their source in Victor's schemes and that he is the original monster stitched together in Victor's lab. The first three books in the series cover the three fighting Frankenstein -- now calling himself Victor Helios -- in New Orleans, before shifting in the final two to a battleground in a small town in the rural northwestern U.S.

The series is entertaining and offers some food for thought as Victor's creations wrestle with their artificially created existence and its implications. Koontz is a practicing Roman Catholic and he brings that perspective into conflict with the idea of lab-grown people. Are they people? Do they have souls? Does Victor's programming to suppress what he sees as humanity's flaws improve them or does it sow the seeds for their destruction? Genre fiction can ask and deal with questions like these even without being "serious literature," in the same way that C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" does.

Although intriguing, the series is really too long, though. It would have been better as a trilogy, either excising the second two books entirely or by collapsing the first three into two and the last two into one. The last pair add little to the ideas with which Koontz is working and not that much to the story itself. Koontz's vision of Frankenstein works at a pretty high level for genre fiction, but the length and the rather listless and talky final confrontation between Victor and Deucalion keep it from being a classic on the shelves.
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Jonah Ellington Basie Hines Eldridge Wilson Hampton Armstrong Kirk is a young boy with a long name. In an un-named city in the United States in the mid-1960s, he will encounter new people. Some of them will become friends, and some of them will mean danger for him and those around him. As he reflects back on those times from the vantage point of late middle age, he will see connections between these people and events both near and far. He will also see influences that are simultaneously from beyond his own world and intimately tied to it, in Dean Koontz's 2013 novel, The City.

Although he'd written several novels in different genres, many under pen names, Koontz first made a name writing thrillers with a distinct supernatural flavor. Once he began regularly charting on bestseller lists, he used his pseudonyms less and less often and began overtly branching out into those other arenas. but he regularly circles back to his supernatural roots.The ghost-story feel of The City is a good example. Jonah encounters people and events he can't explain with his knowledge of the real world, even if the life he lives as the son of a single mother who works at a department store by day and sings in jazz clubs by night is as much a part of the everyday world as you or I.

These supernatural appearances may want to warn or alert Jonah to some possible future disaster, or they may just be a part of his dreams. Koontz uses the natural mysticism of the child to help foster this atmosphere. An appearance by one character takes on supernatural implications in Jonah's mind, but a neighbor responds to it in ways that an adult would. That which is literally supernatural blends with what seems to be so in our narrator's eyes and soaks magic into even the mundane. The reminiscent tone of the story allows for some brief reflective pauses to stop and mull over ideas and concepts the narrative introduces. Koontz dribbles those out in small doses so he doesn't clog his story.

The adult voice reflecting on childhood experience is common but here done particularly well, leading to a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-by-way-of-Peter-Straub feel that makes The City a pleasure to read as well as to digest. Koontz is no Harper Lee -- the villains are far less organically a part of the story than Bob Ewell was, and the supernatural agents sketchier and more vague than they really should be. But even so, The City is one of Koontz's better works and one worth spending some time and gray matter on.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Double Meaning

This item on the website for San Diego State University describes a virus discovered by SDSU researchers that's found in something like half the people on the planet.

The virus, given a name for which nine-year-old boys everywhere on the planet are sending up hosannas of thanks, is called "crAssphage." Yes, the capital letter is part of the name.

It inhabits bacteria that live in the human digestive system which are called bacteriodetes. Those bacteria live near the end of the intestines (if you don't stop snickering I'm going to send you to the principal's office) and scientists think they may play a role in affecting digestion in a manner which in turn can have an impact on obesity.

What originally drew my attention to the article was the headline the SDSU website gave it: "Novel Virus Discovered in Half the World's Population." The headline writer obviously intended to describe the virus as newly-found when he or she used the word "novel," but of course that word also denotes book-length fiction.

And since a virus is a biological agent that is capable only of reproducing itself using DNA from host material, I think the SDSU headline writer has also hit upon an explanation for a sizable majority of the crap that's on bookshelves and the New York Times bestseller lists. More than half of humanity is afflicted with a virus that causes it to believe it can produce a novel, only most of them are just reproductions of something someone else already did.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I Can See for Miles and Miles and Miles...

You'll have to excuse me a moment while I geek out over these really really cool telescopes under construction, as reported by Gizmodo.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Her Majesty's Photobomb

A couple of field hockey players placed themselves strategically for a selfie at a recent match, and managed to catch Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in the frame in exactly the right attitude to include her.

Although the Queen herself probably doesn't take selfies (I wonder how the royal "we" would affect the etymology of that word), I suspect some of her grandchildren have informed her what one is. The two players in the picture said that Elizabeth chatted with them briefly about how their tournament was going and bade them to enjoy their time.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Item: Car Insurance Spokeslizard Disappears

Authorities have said they have few leads in the disappearance of the famous Gecko spokeslizard for the GEICO insurance company, whose whereabouts have been unknown since Thursday. In a bid to try to enlist public help in tracking down the diminutive pitch-reptile, police have revealed one piece of information they believe to be significant, although they have not discussed what that significance may be.

"We found a laptop computer with this page from The Washington Post on the screen," a police spokesman said. "Other evidence suggests the resident exited the dwelling in an extreme hurry; there were several insects prepared for a meal left on the table and a DVD of the 2007 sitcom Cavemen was still in the player."

In an apparently unrelated item, the SpaceX commercial spaceflight company refused to confirm or deny that its Falcon 9 spacecraft is also missing.

(H/T Musings from Brian J. Noggle)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Anticipation

They're getting ready to restart the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which has been shut down for upgrades. It will now have more power than ever.

In case this goes wrong, been nice knowing you.