Tag Archives: death

Review 105: Reaper Man

Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett

So. What are your thoughts on death?

Or rather, Death?

It’s a weird thing, death. I mean, you’re here one minute and then you’re… not. And while we all know intellectually that we’re going to die, there’s something in us that refuses to believe that the essential Person that we are could possibly cease to exist. We have personalities, unique aggregations of memory and experience and inborn preferences that all display themselves as a Person, as far as we know unique in all the world. Each human being is an entity that will never be seen again in this universe, and as far as we know, the cessation of life brings that entity to an end, reducing the person we knew to a mere insentiate object.

Is it any wonder we come up with stories for what happens… y’know, after?

Just about very culture that’s ever been has come up with some form of afterlife, be it an eternal feast for heroes, a paradise in which we can bask in God’s glory, a place of exquisite pain and torment, or a ticket back to Earth for another go ’round. There is no way of knowing if any of those are actually what happens to us when we die. At least not until we actually do it. So since we cannot know, we make stuff up, if only to make the whole thing easier to bear.

What often goes with that other world is someone to take us over. A ferryman or a guide, someone who knows the territory and knows where we need to go in what is very likely a rather confusing time. It’s another piece of comfort – knowing that there’s Someone out there who knows where we need to go and what we need to do.

Grim indeed.... (photo by provia_17)

Which brings us to Death.

 

He’s been portrayed many ways over the years – my favorite is the Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series – a sort of older sister who’s known you all your life and loves you anyway. If she shows up for me when I die, I think I’ll be okay.

I would be just as happy with Pratchett’s Death, even though he is the more traditional robes-scythe-and-skeleton type. Fans of Discworld love Death, which I imagine was somewhat baffling for Pratchett early on. In the first few books, Death was a bit character – he showed up a couple of times to collect the recently deceased, and that was it. But his scenes were so memorable and so good that they sometimes stuck out above the rest of the book. He speaks entirely in capital letters, which lends him a voice that is probably reminiscent of James Earl Jones. He’s aloof, but not uncaring, and seems to take a rather curious interest in humanity. He likes cats, has a house off on the edge of nowhere, and rides a great white steed named Binky. Death has become, in short, an interesting person.

And it seems that’s a problem.

The Universe, you see, is a finely tuned instrument, one which needs monitoring and, occasionally, adjusting. There are… let’s call them Auditors, who make sure that reality stays real – no odd deviations or anomolies such as, for example, anthropomorphic personifications of natural forces. In all honesty, they would eliminate all life if they could, but that is, as yet, beyond their capabilities. So they settle for telling Death that it’s time for him to retire. He gets a little hourglass all his own, and time to kill until the new Death comes into being.

Heya Tom, it's Bob - from the office down the hall... (photo by Scott Beale)

In the interim, this time between Deaths, a new problem arises: nothing is dying. Or, to be more specific, things are dying, but the vital energies that empowered everything, from cabbages to clergymen, aren’t being taken away. Without a Death to handle this very vital – so to speak – function, the life energy is looking for a place to go, an outlet. As a result, things that shouldn’t be alive are up and moving around. In some cases this means objects running along of their own accord, and in others it means that the dead simply have nowhere to go.

Such is the case with the wizard Windle Poons. After 130 years at the Unseen University, he was rather looking forward to a nice rest and then a bit of reincarnation as a woman in a far more liberal society. What he got instead was nothingness. Given that option, he went back to his body and became Undead, much to the consternation of the rest of the UU faculty. Unfortunately for them, they have bigger things to worry about – the buildup of life force is having a rather larger and more dangerous effect on the city of Ankh-Morpork itself. The lack of a Death may well doom the city in a manner that will be horribly familiar to many of Pratchett’s readers.

And where is Death in all this, or at least the person who used to be Death? He has found a small farm below the famous Ramtop Mountains. An old maid, Miss Flitworth, needs a hand and Death needs a way to spend his time – something he’s never had to worry about before. He takes the alias Bill Door and starts to learn what it means to be alive, despite the short time he has left.

"What can the harvest hope for if not the care of the reaper man?" (art by Andrew Mar)

The book, as you might imagine, is all about being alive. What makes life special and precious and ultimately worth living. Windle Poons let life go past while he grew old behind the university walls, and it is only in death that he finds out all that fun he’d missed. Bill Door learns that it is the fragility of life, and its most certain end, which ultimately gives it meaning. In the middle, we see that everything that can live yearns to do so, from the mayflies to the great Counting Pines to cities to ideas.

 

While the book gives no answers to what may happen after death (the Discworld books rarely do), it does give us another way to look at life. And that, ultimately, is the goal of any great story.

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“Huh! Priests! They’re all the same. Always telling you that you’re going to live again after you’re dead, but you just try it and see the look on their faces!”
Reg Shoe, Reaper Man

Discworld on Wikipedia
Reaper Man on Wikipedia
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Filed under afterlife, death, Discworld, existentialism, fantasy, finitude, humor, Terry Pratchett, wizardry, zombies

Review 100: Machine of Death


Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

How would you live if you knew how you would die?

The premise for this collection of short stories was introduced back in 2005, in an installment of Ryan North’s popular Dinosaur Comics. In it, he presents the following premise: there is a machine which, with only a small sample of your blood, can tell you how you will die. But there are no dates, no details, no explanations. Just a few words, and that’s it. The Machine is never wrong, but it is annoyingly vague and has a decidedly un-machinelike love of irony. So you might get OLD AGE and think you were set, right? Not necessarily. You could be murdered by an octogenarian while trying to steal their TV. Or you might get PLANE CRASH and decide never to fly again. Fine, but that won’t stop the single-engine Cessna from plowing into your house one fine spring afternoon. Pulled GUILLOTINE, did you? Hope you know to stay away from heavy metal concerts.

But it doesn’t matter. The Machine, while perversely misleading at times, is never wrong, and like most prophets, its predictions often only make sense after the event has already happened.

With that premise, hundreds of writers across the internet set to work. How would this Machine affect people? How would it affect society or business or politics? Would we become slaves to its predictions, or simply shrug it off and live our lives as we did before, knowing that we were going to die someday anyway?

In “Flaming Marshmallow” by Camille Alexa, we see how the existence of the Machine has begun to shape youth culture. Carolyn is about to turn sixteen, the legal age at which one can be tested. A milestone equivalent with getting one’s driver’s license or being able to vote, kids monitor each other’s fates with scrupulous detail. Your eventual manner of death brings you together with those of similar fates, and new cliques begin to form. Kids who are going to die violent deaths sit together in the lunch room, far away from the ones who get OLD AGE. The kids with DRUG OVERDOSE and fates like it all mill about with each other, and nobody talks to the ones who get SUICIDE. By finding out one’s manner of death, a teenager gets what teenagers always want: a sense of belonging and inclusion. But will Carolyn’s fate bring her closer to her fellow students or just leave her an outsider?

“After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face,” by William Grallo, continues that idea out into the adult world. Ricky is dragged out on the town to a nightclub where people flaunt their deaths. They wear fake toe tags with MURDER or HEART ATTACK on them. Or, if they’re feeling impish, NEVER, or BOREDOM. But while everyone else is mocking their deaths, Ricky is in the odd position of knowing that he’s got a good end to his life. What he doesn’t know is what will happen between now and then, or with whom he will share it.

David Malki ! explores the darker side of society’s reactions in “Cancer.” James is a young man whose father is dying of cancer. It’s what the Machine had predicted, and it was all coming true. Despite the Machine’s infallibility, however, his father was seeking out a cure, a way out from the fate that had been given to him. And he’s not the only one – a new generation of hucksters and faith healers has sprung up, all claiming to be able to defy the predictions of The Machine. It gives James’ father hope, but whether that hope is worth the price or not is something James is unsure of.

“Nothing,” by Pelotard, is a touching tale of a young woman who discovers a family secret that never would have been revealed before the Machine was invented. “Despair,” by K.M. Lawrence, is an examination of how paralyzed people might become by the ambiguity of the predictions, unable to act lest they inadvertently fulfill them. “Improperly Prepared Blowfish” by Gord Sellar is an entertaining moment of secrets and betrayal among a group of yakuza in Japan, and Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has some fun with the politics of Machine predictions by giving us a politician whose fate is to die from EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR.

Some stories are funny, others are touching, but they all center around that most existential of questions: how do we live, knowing that we will die?

Without The Machine, we still know we’re going to die. Every one of us has, somewhere in the back of our mind, that constant reminder that our lives are finite, that there is a limit to the amount of time we can spend on this earth. And, for the most part, we choose to ignore it. After all, if you spend your whole life obsessing over your own death, then you can’t have much of a life, now can you? But add to that fundamental knowledge of finitude the extra awareness of the manner of your death. If you get CAR CRASH, what can you do with that knowledge? You know it’s inevitable, that The Machine is never wrong, but you may still struggle with that fate. You may cut up your driver’s license, move out to Amish country and vow never to be within striking distance of a car again. The entire course of your life will shift drastically, based on the two words printed on that card, but the end result will be the same: CAR CRASH. Knowing that, is it better to act on the knowledge you have gained, or to ignore it?

Even worse, sometimes the very act of finding out your fate leads you right to it. In “Suicide” by David Michael Wharton, characters learn about their deaths only moments before experiencing it. Had they not gone to get tested on The Machine – had they not gone to that machine – would they have avoided their fate? The Machine would say no, but you’d have to ask it first. The best expression of this paradox is contained in the book’s shortest tale, “HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle” by Brian Quinlan, wherein the very act of discovering your fate causes that fate to happen, whereas you would never have had it if you hadn’t gone looking for it. It’s kind of a mind trip, if you think about it.

What if you get something fairly straightforward, like CANCER, and you decide to, say, jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Will that even be possible, or will random events conspire to keep you safe until your proscribed end? And if you get SUICIDE, the one form of death you have absolute control over, do you fight against it or give in, knowing that nothing you do will change the outcome?

And what could this tell you about the future for everyone? In “Heat Death of the Universe,” by Ramon Perez, teenagers who reach the legal testing age start getting NUCLEAR BOMB as their means of death. The government springs into action, testing, re-testing, and vowing to corral all these kids into one place. But if their deaths are inevitably by NUCLEAR BOMB, what does that mean? It means that whether they’re all in one place or dispersed across the country, that is how they will die. Acting on the information doesn’t change its outcome, only what the manner of that outcome will be.

Conversely, it might be impossible to predict anything from the predictions The Machine gives out. As was pointed out in the same story, the 3,000 victims of 9/11 probably wouldn’t have all had TERRORISM printed on their little cards. They might have had FALLING or FIRE or PLANE CRASH – all true, but none of that would have helped anyone prevent that event. Even something as clear and unambiguous as GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR creates problems, as Cassandra finds out in the story of the same name by T. J. Radcliffe. If you tell people about this future, will they even believe you? Or will the actions they take to prevent it instead be what causes it to happen? There are no easy answers, at least not without electroshock.

It’s a fascinating group of stories, illustrated by some of the internet’s best artists – Adam Koford, Kevin McShane, Aaron Diaz, Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, and too many others to mention. It will do what all really good writing should do – make you think. As seductive as it sounds, knowing the means of your death is information that you really can do without. It is the end to your story, whether you know it or not, but everything until then is still up to you. While you may not have any choice over how you die, you still have plenty of control over how you live. You can live in fear or hope, make plans and take risks and hope for the best.

Just like we do now.

I’ll leave you with a joke from Steven Wright, one that was running through my head as I read the book: My girlfriend asked me if I could know how and when I was going to die, would I want to know? I said, “No, not really.” She said, “Okay, forget it, then.”

Thank you, he’ll be here all week.

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“What good is knowing the future if you can’t do anything with the knowledge?”
Dad, from “Friendly Fire” by Douglas J. Lane
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Machine of Death homepage
Machine of Death on Amazon.com

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Filed under David Malki !, death, existentialism, humor, Matthew Bennardo, Ryan North, science fiction, short stories

Review 77: Identity Crisis


Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer and Rags Morales

There are, traditionally, two modes of thought when it comes to comic book super-heroes. The first is that just as these people are stronger, faster and more powerful than we, so must they also be better than we.

This is the philosophy behind the immortal words penned by Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man story – “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not enough to be able to see through walls, teleport, manipulate eldrich energies or talk to gods if you do not live up to the incredible burden that comes with such powers. Even if you’re a self-made hero, with nothing more than your wits, a jaunty cap and a quiver full of trick arrows, there is still the expectation that you will always do the right thing. Or at least try to.

There is a nobility to this kind of super-hero. He is not motivated by fear – he surpasses it. She does not fall prey to baser human nature – she provides a model for us all to be better. These heroes don’t do what is easy – they do what is right. They don’t ever do the wrong thing, even if it is for the right reasons. They are, in a word, heroic.

This story is not about those kinds of heroes. This story is about the other kind – the heroes who are, when you strip away the Batarangs and magic rings and masks and tights, just as human as we are. Just as fallible, just as vulnerable to anger, fear and weakness as we. Much like the traditional hero, they are us writ large – in every way, unfortunately.

Being a super-hero – either kind – has never been easy. Balancing your hero life and your private life is something that even the best heroes have trouble with, and the decision to involve someone else in your life is one that carries great danger with it. If you marry someone, if you have a father or mother or lover, they all become potential targets for those who would want to hurt you. At some point, you have to decide which one is more important to you, and the special people in your life need to be included in that.

For Ralph Dibney – The Elongated Man – the choice was simple. He loved his wife, Sue, and his heroism, so he decided to have them both and became one of the very few heroes to make his identity public. Together, they were a true celebrity couple, touring the world, solving mysteries and showing everyone what a truly happy marriage looked like. And they were so very happy. Sue became an honorary member of the Justice League (an honor that not even Lois Lane has been granted) and their love inspired everyone who knew them. The heroes’ love for Sue Dibney led them to one of their greatest mistakes – albeit one that would not come back to haunt them until the worst had already happened. Not until Sue Dibney was murdered.

The heroes of the DC Universe went into overdrive, searching every corner of the world for Sue’s killer. Whoever it was had bested the technology of four worlds and eluded the greatest detectives in history. And what’s more, this new villain was targeting others that heroes loved. It was only a matter of time before someone else died, and if they could not find the killer then the very fabric of the hero community would be torn apart.

While this is, with a few caveats, a good story, it’s not a pretty one by any means. It shows the darker side of the heroes we love. They act in morally questionable ways – something that the traditional super-hero would never do – in order to serve the greater good. By using their powers to adjust the personality of Dr. Light, turning him from a menacing villain to a laughable punching bag, they set in motion a chain of events that would have universe-wide repercussions.

All told, I liked this story. For one thing, the writing was really solid, with great care paid to pacing and visual impact. The story is not really about the heroes, at least not by themselves. It’s about the relationships they have with other people, and how those relationships affect their decisions. That’s why characters are constantly introduced in terms of their relationships to each other. You can see it on the very first page – “Lorraine Reilly and Ralph Dibney. Co-workers.” The fact that they’re both super-heroes is self-evident. The fact that they’re people, with a relationship to each other, is often taken for granted in comics.

Ray Palmer and Jean Loring go from “Divorcees” to “Lovers” in the span of two pages, while Firestorm goes from hero to atomic bomb. “Father and son,” “Husband and Wife,” “Partners” – characters are constantly being introduced by their relationships, and usually by their given names, rather than their superhero sobriquets. In fact, Green Arrow, who is one of the driving forces in this story, rarely refers to anyone by their code name. When he does, it’s an immediate signal that this is a person he doesn’t know well. To Ollie, and thus to us, these are people under those masks, and it’s important to remember that.

My favorite example of the heroes’ humanity is the scene in the issue “Father’s Day,” wherein Robin and Batman are racing to save the life of Robin’s father. Set up by the mysterious killer who murdered Sue Dibney, Jack Drake tries desperately to tell his son not to blame himself while Tim tries just as desperately to save him. In the end, even the incredible Batman is unable to save this one life, and the reader is forced to feel every moment of it. It’s a painful, beautiful sequence, both in terms of the writing and the artwork.

I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the villains as well. All too often they have been portrayed as madmen and megalomaniacs, driven by nothing more than nefarious purposes and misanthropy. The villains in this book are also humanized. They tell stories, have trouble making ends meet, even have hobbies outside of villainy. And, like the heroes, they have relationships with each other. They are fathers and sons, friends, employers and employees, and the tragedy being visited upon the heroes spills into their world as well. While we may not root for the bad guys, we can at least sympathize with them a little more.

There certainly are flaws to the story, though. For one, it’s been described as “tragedy porn,” and I can’t disagree. Much as regular pornography takes the sexual act and distorts it into a pleasurable fantasy, so does tragedy porn take an unfortunate event, such as rape or murder, and make it into something even more horrible than it normally would be. Whether this is entirely a bad thing, I can’t really say. Writers have always used pain and death for our entertainment – hell, look at Titus Andronicus. Not only was Lavinia raped, she was mutilated on top of it. Was Shakespeare just trying to get a rise out of the masses? Maybe. Is Meltzer doing the same here? Probably. Does it work? Hell, yes.

There have been a lot of objections raised to the use of rape as a plot device in this book – whether it was appropriate for a super-hero comic book, for one, and whether it was nothing more than a gut-punch. A story choice that’s effective, but ultimately unimaginative. All this may be true, but my take on it is this: That’s not what the story is about.

The story isn’t about rape or murder. It’s not about mind-wipes and magic. It’s about the relationships between these people, heroes and villains all. It’s about their identities, as the title implies – how they see themselves and how others see them. It’s about people, with all the flaws and defects that make them human. It’s a book of revelations, illumination and truth, none of which are ever easy to confront.

While this wasn’t the first comic book story to feature its characters as humans rather than heroes, it could be the most influential. At least in recent years. The events of this book started a chain reaction that has followed through to every universe-wide event that DC has published in the last six years, from Infinite Crisis all the way to Blackest Night. Meltzer built a story that provided a solid foundation for a new DC Universe. It’s a universe that gives us heroes more realistic than before, more human and fallible. While it may not be the kind of story that you like, you cannot deny the impact that it’s had.

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“Think about your own life, Wally – everything you’ve done to keep your secrets safe. You don’t just wear the mask for yourself. It’s for your wife, your parents, even for – one day – your children. There are animals out there, Wally. And when it comes to family, we can’t always be there to defend them. But the mask will.”
– Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) to Wally West (Flash), Identity Crisis
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Identity Crisis on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer on Wikipedia
Rags Morales on Wikipedia
Brad Meltzer’s homepage
Rags Morales’ blog (last entry2006)
Identity Crisis at Amazon.com

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Filed under Batman, Brad Meltzer, comic books, DC Comics, death, detective fiction, ethics, identity, morality, murder, Rags Morales, rape, super-heroes, Superman

Review 67: The Graveyard Book


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As I’ve said before, Neil Gaiman is one of the very few authors whose books I’ll pick up without reservation. I can always be sure that I’ll enjoy what he does, so I always look forward to new work. I am happy to say that this book is no exception. It’s even made news recently – it won the Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature, a very prestigious American literary prize. So good for you, Neil….

It’s a well-deserved medal for a book that follows in the footsteps of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s a book that can appeal to young readers and adults alike, without being condescending or patronizing, something that many writers for young readers have trouble with. As can usually be expected from books aimed at young readers, it’s heavy on the themes of growing up, learning your place in the world, and eventually deciding who you want to be. The means by which this book does it, however, are slightly different.

The first line was enough to get me hooked: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Ooo. Shivers.

The story begins with a gruesome triple murder, as all good childrens’ books do. But the intended fourth victim, a young toddler, manages to escape the bloodbath and wander, quite innocently, up to the graveyard on the hill. There, amidst tombs and graves that had lain there for centuries, he is saved from certain death and given protection by a most unusual new family: ghosts.

The boy, rechristened as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, is raised by the spirits of this tiny world through the intercession of Silas, a mysterious individual who straddles the boundary between the living and the dead. As far as places to grow up go, it’s not a bad one. He does end up learning some rather old-fashioned English from those who died half a millennium ago, and wanders around in a grey winding sheet instead of proper clothing, but he is safe there. He has the Freedom of the Graveyard, a gift from the ghosts that allows him the protection that only the dead can offer.

As Bod grows up, he learns the tricks that ghosts can do – how to fade from sight, or to rouse fear and terror, how to walk through walls. But he also learns that he’s very different from his adopted community. Their lives are ended, their stories are done. He is alive, and as he gets older, that difference becomes more and more vivid. While he may live among the ghosts, he is not one himself. Not yet, anyway.

But there are those who would like to make him one. The mysterious murderer who destroyed Bod’s family, a man named Jack, is one of many wicked men who would see Bod dead. He may have lost the boy once, but he and his confederates are determined to find him again. There is a prophecy, you see, and they mean to see that it’s stopped. And once Bod learns about his family’s fate, he becomes equally determined to see justice done.

The book is really good. It’s a bit simple for an adult audience, and there were a few plot points that I was able to predict pretty quickly. But the book isn’t really aimed at us – it’s aimed at the younger reader, around eleven or twelve years old. Such readers don’t quite have the experience to know that, say, when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book, that’s a character to be wary of. It’s the kind of book that’s best read to people,and that’s how Gaiman promoted the release of the book, by doing public readings of it.

As I said before, it dwells on the theme that most books of this genre do: growing up. As Bod gets older, as he starts to feel the pull of the outside world, he understands that he can’t stay with his family forever. The dead don’t grow, they don’t change, but young people do – often very radically in a very short span of time. While it is perhaps a stretch to compare parents to dead people, there is certainly a vague parallel to be drawn here. As adults, we don’t change very much, at least not unless we have to. We’re set in our ways and our beliefs. They’ve served us well, and if there’s no reason to go mucking about with them, then they’re better off left alone. Kids, however, are malleable and ever-changing. They go through phases and changes and switch from adorable little tyke to abominable little teenager with alacrity. Eventually, they have to discover who they are, and the only way to do that is to leave.

The nice thing about Bod is that, while he does get into trouble and disobey his guardians, he is, on the whole, obedient and self-aware. He understands that his freedom – indeed his very life – is a gift to him from the graveyard. The ghosts there taught him what he knows, and made sure that he lived through the traumas of childhood and the machinations of men who wanted him dead. He appreciates what his guardians have done for him, even as he prepares to leave them. It’s a good message, slipped in with the general motif of the challenges of growing up, and one that I hope young readers absorb.

It’s easy for a young person to look at the adults in his or her life and think of them like the ghosts in this book. Yes, their lives aren’t very exciting anymore, and yes they tend to be overprotective and kind of a pain in the ass. But it’s for a good reason, most of the time. Thanks to them, you have all the possibilities of life laid before you. And it won’t be easy, living. But you should do it while you have the chance….

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“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
– Mother Slaughter, The Graveyard Book
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Filed under children, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, friendship, ghosts, identity, murder, Neil Gaiman, young adult

Review 66: Life of Pi


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Every time I go back to the US to visit friends and family, I always make a visit to a bookstore or two. I can buy books here in Japan, but the prices are high and the selection isn’t nearly as good, so a trip to our local mega-bookstore is like a visit to Mecca for me.

The last time I was home, my father let me wander for a while, and then he came up and handed me this book. He was picking up copies for a few other people as well, but he gave me this and said, “I think you’d really like it.”

He was right.

It’s one of those books that you feel compelled to share with others once you’ve finished. It’s one of those books where people see you reading it and say, “I read that – it’s really good, isn’t it?” It’s one of those books which, the author promises, will make you believe in God. A pretty tall order, but there you go. And in a roundabout way, it makes good on its promise. But we’ll get to that….

It’s a story of layers, as the best stories often are. On one layer, it’s the tale of young Piscine Molitor Patel, an Indian boy with an insatiable curiosity about everything. The son of a zookeeper, Piscine – who re-christens himself Pi in order to clear up misunderstandings of his given name – develops a great interest in the world around him, especially religion. His part of India is home to people of all faiths, and he finds himself moving between Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, despite the protests of holy men of all three faiths.

He grows up in this world, between animals and gods, until his family decides to escape India’s political turmoil by moving to Canada. They sell what animals they can, keep the ones they must, board everything onto a freighter and head off for a trip around the world, destined for a new life.

Until the ship sinks.

Pi finds himself the only human survivor of the ship’s sinking, alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Alone except for the zebra. And the hyena. And the orangutan. And, of course, the tiger. Can’t forget the tiger.

Pi’s mini-zoo diminishes quickly, of course. There’s only so long such a diverse group of creatures can abide each other’s company in such terrible circumstances, so in time it comes down to two: Pi and the tiger, who had the unusual name of Richard Parker. You would think that there would be no winner in this contest – a diminished teenage boy against a full-grown tiger, with limited resources and a very stressful environment. But Pi is the son of a zookeeper, one whose job is to know how to control animals that don’t want to be controlled. Pi’s ability to survive in these circumstances would, by itself, be a fascinating story.

But the story is not just about Pi and the tiger. Not really. It’s also about our relationship with the world, with the universe, with God. It’s about who we are when everything we ever loved is stripped away from us. And it’s about how we can survive in even the most extraordinary circumstances. Pi does survive, and his survival makes sense, within the world of the story. Would he be able to do it out here in Real Life (TM)? I have no idea. But as you read, there is no point where you think, “The author is cheating,” and allowing his main character to survive when he really shouldn’t have.

The overriding theme of the book, however, is stories. The book itself is set up as a memoir, told by Patel to the author. It’s the story of a story, and it is a story which the author says will make you believe in God. And in a way, it does. But not in the way you think.

It’s kind of a modified version of Pascal’s Wager – the idea that it is better to believe in God than not to believe. Pascal’s idea is simple. If you disbelieve in God, and you’re right, then you’ll just wink out of existence when you die. No harm, no foul. But if you disbelieve and you’re wrong, then you end up suffering eternal damnation. Whereas if you believe in God and you’re wrong, again, no harm, no foul.

There are criticisms, and fair ones, of this philosophy, but I think this book offers a more reasonable alternative. You should believe in God because believing in God is the better story. Martel suggests (through Pi) that there is no mystery in facts and reason, no magic and no wonder. That the unrepentant atheist whose last thoughts are, “I believe I am losing brain function” lacks the imagination of the unrepentant atheist who has a deathbed conversion. In other words, by sticking only to what can be known and proven, one misses the better story.

I don’t necessarily agree with this. I think it’s an interesting point of view, and as long as one can remain aware that belief is not truth, I think I can let it go, but I don’t believe that the world of fact and reason is without brilliant stories. Look at the story of life on earth – a three and a half billion year epic of survival, death and rebirth. Look at the story of a lowly paperclip – born in the heart of an exploding star, and representing five thousand years of human progress towards extelligence. There are great stories, astounding stories out there in the world that don’t need to be believed because they are true. There is evidence for them, and their veracity can be proven.

But Martel’s isn’t about what is provably true.

Pi offers a choice: given two possible explanations for something, with no evidence to support either one, which explanation would you choose? The answer is, whichever explanation makes for the better story. Pi’s adventure is an example of that. As readers, we choose to believe Pi’s story, because it’s fascinating. We don’t sit there and think, “This is bull. A teenage boy taming a tiger? Puh-leeze.” We believe the story, while at the same time knowing that it is not, technically, “true.”

So it is with God. We believe in God, regardless of whether God is “true,” because it’s a more interesting story. And Pi’s adherence to three mutually exclusive religions suggests that the God of Pi isn’t to be found in a book or a church, in the words of a priest or a holy man. The God of Pi is everywhere, and doesn’t care if we believe or not. But we should believe, Pi suggests. Because that’s the better story.

The best books leave us thinking, and burrow into our brains to give us something to chew on for a while. So it is with this book. My rational part and my romantic part argue over the meaning of this story, and whether or not Pi’s conclusion is valid. Sometimes I agree, and sometimes I don’t. That’s just how it is. But one thing I can say with certainty is that this is a very good book. And you should read it.

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“To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”
-Pi Patel, Life of Pi
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Yann Martel on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Wikipedia
Life of Pi on Amazon.com

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Filed under death, fiction, gods, memoir, story, survival, Yann Martel

Review 58: Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives


Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman

So. What happens after we die?

I’ll wait.

Is it a Heaven of clouds and harps and angels? A Hell full of fire and brimstone and horrible torture? Do you get to come back again and live a new life, perhaps building on the mistakes of your previous one? Yeah, I guess that’s all well and good. I mean, the classics never go out of style, right? Perhaps some pearly gates with Morgan Freeman hanging out nearby, or an place of endless torment where David Warner is ready to turn you into a cockroach. Variations on an old and well-worn theme.

But how about an afterlife where you get to live with every possible version of yourself? You know the “many worlds” theory of the universe, right? For every choice you make, a new universe is born, and in that universe there lives a different you. Perhaps one who made better choices, perhaps worse. Well, after you die, you get to hang out with them all! Including, unfortunately, all the yous who made much, much better decisions than you did.

Or perhaps you get the afterlife where you re-live your entire life, but with all moments of the same quality grouped together. So that means you get to spend thirty years sleeping, or two hundred days taking a shower. Doesn’t sound too bad, except for the eighteen months you spend waiting in line, or the five months you spend on the toilet, or the 27 hours of intense pain.

Maybe you discover that there is no afterlife for us, just as there is no afterlife for a computer chip. We’ve all been components in a great computer, wherein every nod of your head, every word, every blink is merely a signal sent to other processing units (AKA people). Of course, the programmers don’t know why we’ve thrived as we have – they didn’t make us to be sentient, and still don’t realize it’s happened. But our world is the greatest of the computer worlds they’ve built.

There are forty other afterlives in this book, all described in two or three pages. Each one is an attempt to break free of the traditional sense of what the afterlife “should” be, and shows a great deal of creativity.

What’s fun is reading this and understanding that any one of them could be true. Just as true as the traditional heavens and hells we’ve been building for the last few millennia. After all, why couldn’t we have an afterlife where we’re given the opportunity to come back – but with one change of our own choosing? Or another where we get to choose the form of our next life, but are betrayed by our inability then to remember why we had chosen it? Just because they don’t have the weight of a Church’s doctrine or thousands of years of philosophy doesn’t make them wrong.

Because, after all, we don’t know. We can’t know. We may think we know, or believe we know, but that really doesn’t mean anything. Hell, I came up with my own afterlife scheme that sounded pretty good to me, but does that make it true? Nope. The one big constraint that seems to apply to all afterlives is that no one ever gets to tell the living how it worked out. Why this should be is unknown to me, but that just puts me in league with every philosopher who ever lived. Not bad company.

But since all afterlives could be true, it can be argued that none of them are. And if you can’t know what will happen to your soul after death, and how to ensure that your eternity is a pleasant one, then perhaps you should stop worrying about it. The nature and requirements of your afterlife are totally out of your control.

The same cannot be said for your life. That is something that you have knowledge of and control over. So appreciate that little fact and go do something with it.

Go ahead and entertain speculation about life after death. Let your imagination go wild. But don’t for a moment think that you know what will come when you breathe your last. Because it probably won’t be anything you ever expected.

Or maybe it will. Who am I to say?

In any case, this is a fun little (and I do mean little) book, suitable for reading in one sitting or in forty tiny bites of time. And who knows, maybe it’ll spur you on to thoughts of your own afterlife. If you have one, I’d love to hear it.

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“Among all the creatures of creation, the gods favor us: we are the only ones who can empathize with their problems.”
– David Eagleman, Sum
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David Eagleman on Wikipedia
Sum on Wikipedia
Sum on Amazon.com
David Eagleman’s homepage

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Filed under afterlife, David Eagleman, death, essays, philosophy, theology

Review 53: Crisis on Infinite Earths – DOUBLE FEATURE


Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the works that has affected me deeply. More importantly, it is something that has caused considerable harm to my wallet and bank account, as I have been collecting comic books for almost twenty-five years now, and it’s all because of Crisis. I can still remember going to the drugstore after church one Sunday and seeing the cover to Crisis #9 – a classic George Perez group shot of some of the most terrible villains ever seen in the DC Universe. You name the baddie, I guarantee he or she was in there somewhere. I was hooked. Of course, coming into a 12-part series in issue 9 meant that I was really lost as to what was going on, but some effort and visits to comics shops eventually got me up to speed. Unfortunately, once I understood Crisis, I realized that there was much more that I didn’t understand.

You can’t really understand this story without understanding something of the DC Comics Universe. In the late 1950s, they published a story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123), in which the Flash, Barry Allen, managed to, using his prodigious super-speed, vibrate through some dimensional barrier or other, and meet the Flash, Jay Garrick, that he had read about as a child in – you guessed it – comic books.

The explanation for this was simple – the guy who wrote Flash comics in Barry Allen’s childhood had, somehow, “tuned in” to this Alternate Earth, watching Jay Garrick’s adventures and, thinking they were fiction, wrote them up as comic books which, in turn, inspired Barry Allen as a child. So when Barry was struck by lightning and chemicals, gaining super speed, he called himself The Flash, in homage to his childhood hero.

Anyway, in “Flash of Two Worlds,” Barry Allen finds out that the Flash he had read about actually existed, only on another Earth in another universe that vibrated at a different frequency from ours. Personally, I think this is a really cool idea, and my personal goal in life is to drink enough coffee in one sitting to accomplish the same thing myself.

Confused yet? Well, it did help if you were an avid comics reader for 25 years before Crisis came out. But to condense the whole thing, here you go:

In the Beginning, there was One. A Universe that grew and shaped and changed. Life was created, rose from the dust, and began to think. On the planet of Oa, located in the center of the universe, life grew with great swiftness, advancing at incredible speed. The beings of Oa embraced science and research. One Oan, a man by the name of Krona, sought to know the origin of the Universe they inhabited. Despite the warnings of his colleagues, he created a device that would allow him to do so. The result was a complete rupture of time and space, for the beginning of things must never be witnessed.

So…. In the Beginning, there were Many. Universe upon universe, each moving at its own speed and vibration, separated by a shadow’s thickness, but each unknown to the other.

That was the idea, anyway. The whole “multiple universe” thing, after Gardner Fox wrote his “Flash of Two Worlds” story, became one of the best plot devices the comics writers at DC ever had. Finally they could have silver age and golden age heroes meet and work together. At first, there was only Earth-1 (silver age) and Earth-2 (golden age), which was odd, because the golden age heroes of Earth-2 were older. But I guess since Barry Allen (the silver age Flash, remember) was the one who broke the barrier, he gets precedence.

Anyway, like I said – at first there were two Earths. That number grew swiftly, both for plot and copyright reasons. For example: At a certain point, DC was working on the rights to own characters from Charlton Comics (The Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, etc), and they inhabited Earth-4. Then they went to obtain characters from Fawcett (the whole Shazam line), who went onto Earth-S. As if the Hungry Beast That Was DC wasn’t finished, they put characters from Quality Comics (Uncle Sam, Phantom Lady, The Ray, etc), onto Earth-X.

Hang in there, I’ll get to the story eventually….

There was also Earth-3, where the doppelgangers of our favorite heroes were villains, and the only hero on the planet was Luthor. Then came Earth-D, Earth-Prime, Earth-Omega and, eventually, Earth-Sigma.

Suffice to say, by 1985, there was a huge mess…. Older readers had no problem following the continuity, but newcomers were baffled, and writers were no doubt also befuddling themselves. The decision was made to clean the whole thing up, make one Earth, one timeline, and one continuity. No more parallel Earths, no more vibrating through dimensional barriers.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, it took twelve issues and the appearance of almost every hero and villain ever seen in DC Comics’ fifty year history to pull it off. The research took over three years, with one guy tasked with studying every comic DC had printed since 1935 (my thought when I heard that: “What an awesome job!”). It also required the cooperation of dozens of writers and artists across all of DC’s titles, and a company-wide effort to make the Crisis a truly universal event.

Our story opens with the end of the world. Or the end of a world, more to the point. A vast white cloud encroaches upon the earth, vaporizing everything in its path, without pause or remorse. Panicking, people try to flee, but to no avail. Into this horror appears a man with dark eyes and a tortured face, who watches the world die, helpless and weeping, and vanishes again as the universe becomes nothing more than a mist of free-floating electrons.

Not a bad way to start a book, eh?

The man is Pariah, and he is condemned to appear wherever great tragedy strikes, unable to help, unable to die, only able to watch. He is there when the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3 put aside their evil to try and stop the wave of energy that devours their planet. Again, Pariah appears, and again the world is destroyed, but not before the planet’s only super-hero, Luthor, rockets his son through the dimensions, in the hope of freeing him from his world’s destruction.

Sound familiar? I thought so….

If you think you’re going to know what’s going on this quickly, you’re wrong. A mysterious figure sends his associate, a woman named Harbinger, who can split herself among many forms, to gather heroes from Earths that have not been destroyed and bring them to a satellite that hovers in orbit. While she searches them out, one of her is corrupted by a shadowy evil that tracks her through the ice of Atlantis. She gathers them, heroes, villains and otherwise, to the satellite, where we first meet a character that had been hovering around various DC titles for a few months, always in the shadows – The Monitor.

The Monitor informs them that there is great evil abroad, that universes are perishing at an astonishing rate, and are doing so at the hand of his adversary. Waves of anti-matter are consuming the universes, and with each one gone, the Monitor’s power decreases. He has a task for these heroes, spread out over millennia of Earth’s history. This is the first attempt to save the worlds….

The basic rundown of the story is that there is an anti-matter universe out there, created when Krona performed his experiment, controlled by the mirror version of The Monitor. This “Anti-Monitor” wants nothing more than to see his brother dead, and to see the positive Universes brought under his control. He’s a good, old-fashioned Evil Overlord, I must say…. So as each universe is destroyed by the great sweeping cloud of death, he grows ever stronger.

It has been pointed out to me that some people out there get all anal over this concept, thereby calling the whole damn plot into question. So, a bit of elementary physics. The above scenario cannot happen. When matter and antimatter collide, there is a huge burst of energy as the two forms of matter vaporize each other. Nothing is left – in “reality physics,” both the Monitor and the Anti-Monitor would be playing at a zero-sum game. Given that these people are willing to accept, however, the existence of thousands of metahumans who can perform feats that also fly in the face of real physics, I think their arguments about the properties of antimatter are so much hot air. As a very wise man once said, “Blow.”

Anyway, the Anti-Monitor’s release is tied with Pariah’s fate as well. Determined to do as Krona did, Pariah set up a chamber, of matter and anti-matter, so that he may see the beginning of all things. The result was the beginning of the end, and his world was the first consumed by the anti-matter wave. The Monitor, observing this, imbued him with his curse, using him as a “tracker” to see which universe might be the next to die.

So we have an unstoppable force tearing through the Multiverse, and it is up to The Monitor and Our Heroes to stop him. But the Monitor dies, and the worlds keep dying….

Of course you know that, in the end, the good guys win. But as with any good story, it is the telling of the tale, not the tale’s end, that is important. Wolfman and Perez did some very daring things with this story, not only in rearranging the whole order of the DC Universe, but also in killing off some pretty heavy hitters. The best cover in the series, so good that they came out with a statue based on it, was the cover of issue number seven: The Death of Supergirl.

The other major character to be killed off was Barry Allen, The Flash, who inadvertently started this whole mess a long time ago. But he died well, and, as Marv Woflman says in the forward to the collected edition of Crisis, there was a way left to bring him back if they needed to. Indeed, Barry Allen’s presence has not yet vanished. The current Flash, Wally West, has long held Barry to be the high ideal which he must match, but at the same time leave behind. In one version of the Legion of Super-Heroes books, the character of Xs, another super-speedster, is Barry Allen’s granddaughter, and the character of Impulse/Kid Flash, is Barry Allen’s nephew. So the Flash lives on, in his way. In fact, he’s recently been resurrected in DC continuity – though how long that will last is anyone’s guess.

On the other hand, no one remembers Supergirl. By the end of the Crisis, she had been wiped from existence, and was seen only once more, in a Christmas issue several years later, reminding the character of Deadman about what it means to work without reward. While several new Supergirls have appeared since then, unlike Barry Allen the pre-Crisis Supergirl is lost to history.

As you can probably guess, I really like this story. It has an immense cast of characters, without becoming unwieldy or dispersed. The storytelling, with its multi-universal scope, nevertheless allows you to feel for individuals, with their triumphs and tragedies. Ultimately we see that even the mightiest of mortals is, at heart, human. There is foreshadowing galore, mysteries abound, the plot twists and turns, and you get glimpses of what is yet to come – the hand in the swirling pool of stars, the image of the Flash appearing before Batman and vanishing with words of doom, the Green Lantern’s ring sputtering and failing…. It all intertwines together so very nicely and really satisfies my inner comics geek.

The Absolute Edition was aimed at people exactly like me. Someone who would say, “I’ve read this story a dozen times, I could probably recite it… but I need it to be bigger. Like, big enough to club a man to death with.” So yeah, they had me from the word go on this one, and as soon as the opportunity arose to buy it, I did so without hesitation. It really is very pretty – it’s been recolored and everything, AND it comes with a companion book about how the series came to be. Fascinating reading.

The big question, of course is this – after nearly twenty-five years and at least two other universe-wide reboots (Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis) that have changed the changes made by Crisis, why is this story still worth reading? Well, for one thing, the writing is solid – you can follow the story without having to buy a couple dozen other titles, and there are dramatic moments that have hung in my memory for years. In addition, there’s the art. George Perez has been one of my favorite artists for years. His attention to detail and his ability to draw dozens of characters to a page while keeping each of them dynamic, interesting and individual is, in my opinion, nothing short of superhuman. If I could choose to draw like anyone, it would be George Perez, and I will never get tired of looking at his artwork.

More importantly, however, this book is about the heroic ideal. On many scales, from the small-scale of characters like Hawk and Dove or the Losers, all the way up to the big guns of Superman, the Flash and Supergirl, the idea of what it means to be a good person is presented over and over again: you do good not because it’s easy, not because it will benefit yourself. You do good because it is what you must do, even when you know it could lead to tragic consequences for yourself. My model of heroism was formed in these books, and the model set by these characters has guided my moral choices ever since. Where other people take their moral guidance from Jesus or Marcus Aurelius or Oprah, I take mine from Barry Allen and Kara Zor-el and from so many others who put their lives and their interests aside for the greater good.

Can’t ask for much more than that.

Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman

Why yes, I own both the comic and the novelization. Is there something wrong with that?

Actually, here’s a Little Known Fact about me: when I was in, maybe, junior high school I tried to novelize Crisis. I sat down with the comics and went through them, panel-by-panel, trying to put them into a narrative form. I tried to fill in things like expressions, reactions, to bridge the gap between the kind of story you can tell in a comic and the kind you tell in a novel. To my memory, it was pretty good, though it’s no doubt lost to the ages by now. If I ever run across it, I’ll either marvel at my innocent youth or cringe at my fumbling attempt to do the unnecessary.

I am not the only one who gave that some thought, it seems. To his credit, though, since Marv Wolfman was the guy who wrote the comics, I think he has far more right to put it into novel form than I ever did. But whereas mine was a straight page-by-page translation of the comic to text, Wolfman decided to tell the story from a very different angle. He decided to let us see the Crisis on Infinite Earths through the eyes of Barry Allen, The Flash.

As I said in my review of the comic series, Barry Allen was (more or less) the beginning of the Multiverse in DC Comics, so it was fitting that he be the one to narrate the end in this book. After all, he didn’t get all that much page time in the comics – a few ghostly visitations, some taunting and then he was dead. Yes, his death saved billions of people, but still – for someone as important as he was, you would have thought he’d have gotten a few more pages.

The thing about The Flash, though, is that he’s hard to pin down. Literally. Even on an ordinary day, we’re talking about a man who can race laser beams – and win. He can alter his subjective view of time to the point where a hummingbird in flight becomes a still life. He can run fast enough to travel through time, and vibrate the very molecules of his body to a point where he can not only ghost through solid matter but pass between the dimensional barriers that separate the multiple Earths.

How any villain ever got the best of this man is beyond me. If the writers had ever taken his powers seriously, The Flash never would have had a challenge.

So who better to narrate our alternate view of the Crisis than he? The fact that he’s dead by the time the book begins doesn’t really make much of a difference. There’s too much for The Flash to do, and suddenly the fastest man alive doesn’t have enough time.

I don’t really need to re-iterate what the Crisis was about, why it happened and who the main players were. None of that has changed in this version of the story – we just have a different point of view. And from this point of view, we learn many interesting things that the comic held back from us. The relationship between The Monitor and his young ward, Lyla, for example – he knew even before he found her that she would kill him. In fact that she would have to kill him, if any of the Earths were to survive the coming apocalypse. We get a much better look at the Psycho-Pirate, the mad puppet of the Anti-Monitor whose ability to manipulate emotions becomes key to the control of worlds. And we get first-person views from so many other heroes and villains that took part in the Crisis – getting a much deeper look at the work.

Most of all, of course, we get to see Barry Allen. What drives him, even in this semi-dead state, to continue to play an active part in this Crisis? Incorporeal and largely unable to interact with – let alone avert – the catastrophe, The Flash remains a witness until the time comes that he is able to (with a little time-travel cheating) free himself from his bonds and go to a death that he knows he cannot avoid, and which he also knows is not the end. Honestly, how he survives beyond death the way he does isn’t very clear in this book. It has something to do with the Speed Force, a kind of semi-sentient energy field that grants speedsters their powers and provides them with a heaven when they die. His jaunts through time and space seem to be at the control of a higher power, but exactly who and what that power is we are never quite sure of.

As with any transition from one medium to another, there are changes. The villainous takeover of three Earths is gone, for example, as is the involvement of Superboy-Prime, and much of what occurs after the Anti-Monitor’s ultimate defeat is completely different (and is therefore, if you’ve been keeping up with the DC Universe over the past three years or so, decidedly non-canon). But Supergirl’s death is expanded upon, and we get to see the decisions that bring her to her doom. We know that, like Barry Allen, she did what needed to be done, knowing that it would be her end. Getting a quick look inside her head before she took on the Anti-Monitor makes her death just that much more poignant.

But also as with any transition from one medium to another, it is very hard to compare the new rendition to the original. While this novelized version of Crisis is a quick and enjoyable read, it doesn’t have nearly the scope and depth and visual punch that the comic did. Because comics are such a visual medium – a story told in mixed media – you’re going to lose something when you take one of those media away. While I enjoy reading this (and it’s a lot easier to carry around than the Rosetta-stone-sized Absolute Edition of the comic), it’s never going to take the place of the original. Wolfman is an excellent writer of comics, but he’s not a novelist.

If you are a fan of Crisis and you just want another look at the old story, pick this up. If you’ve never read Crisis before, get your hands on the comics and let this one come to you later.

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“Worlds lived, worlds died. Nothing will ever be the same….”
– Psycho Pirate, Crisis on Infinite Earths #12
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“Barry, I know people die. From the moment I understood what they meant, I was very aware of all the memorials around me. But my mother, God bless her, Barry, she said and kept saying until I believed her, that although we have to remember the dead, we can’t ever let ourselves act like we’re one of them.”
Supergirl (Kara Zor-El), Crisis on Infinite Earths: the Novelization by Marv Wolfman
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Crisis on Infinite Earths on Wikipedia
Marv Wolfman on Wikipedia
George Perez on Wikipedia

Crisis on Infinite Earths: Absolute Edition on Amazon.com
Crisis on Infinite Earths: The Novelization on Amazon.com
The Annotated Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths on the DC Wiki

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Filed under apocalypse, comic books, DC Comics, death, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, super-heroes, Superman, supervillains, time travel, world-crossing