May 30, 2008


We're getting the galleys ready for Angel Falling Softly and a reader points out that "dogie," as in "get along little dogies," is spelled with one "g." Seriously, I thought it was dog-related. You know, like that cat-herding commercial from EDS, only with canines. Maybe sheep dogs or something.

In other words, not this:

dog·gy [daw-gee, dog-ee] –noun, plural -gies. a little dog or a puppy; a pet term for any dog.

But this:

do·gie [doh-gee] –noun Western U.S. a motherless calf in a cattle herd.

And thus another false etymology firmly implanted in the brain goes by the wayside.

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May 28, 2008

Writing Excuses

If you're interesting in writers or writing or the way writers write or especially how science fiction writers think and do what they do, then tune into the weekly podcast at Writing Excuses, where the motto is: "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry and we're not that smart." Episodes 14 and 15, for example, sum up exactly what bugs me so much about Harry Potter. The donkey economic model is brilliant.


May 26, 2008

The Emperor and the Assassin

The Emperor and the Assassin is epic in both length and subject matter. The film takes almost three hours to tell the story of the emperor Ying Zheng and his battles to unite the six kingdoms of China in the 3rd century B.C. At the time, the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, it's an effort that could not be duplicated by Hollywood for ten times that. The grand sweep of palaces and battlefields (not sets, the real thing), thousands of extras (and a sparing use of mattes here and there) provides for the kind of stunning panoramas that I suspect loses much on the lowly television screen.

It starts out as Henry V and turns into Richard III as the emperor goes increasingly off his rocker and is driven to use all means to achieve his ends. It's not hard to read in political allusions to Mao, and one scene is awfully reminiscent of Tiananmen Square. On the other hand, it also caters to the present regime's unification ideology as a divine mandate.

The title comes from a plan hatched by Ying Zheng and his consort, Lady Zhao, to create a pretext for an invasion of a neighboring kingdom by staging an assassination attempt. But that's only one of the plots in this tangled web. You'd need a scorecard to keep track of who's double-crossing who, and whose allegiances are where, and who everybody is related to. As the emperor grows increasingly ruthless and paranoid, Lady Zhao seems to abandon the pretext and would very much like to see him dead, though her motives are hard to read throughout. She chooses her assassin, Jing Ke, and then falls in love with him, but this isn't exactly clear either. Is she setting him up, and does he know he is being set up?

I don't think the allusions to Richard III are accidental, such as the murder of two children who could contend for the throne. By the end, Ying Zheng has become quite the bloody tyrant, he violence and the body count grow a bit numbing, and the plot proves ultimately anticlimactic. Sort as if Richard (or Macbeth) ended with him taking power, and then a brief postscript filled in the rest. Which is how this movie ends. Again, I suspect the problem is the lack of historical context for we uninformed westerners. The postscript tells us that Ying Zheng did consolidate the kingdoms of China, but then only a decade later the Qin were overthrown by the Han, who established the first true dynasty.

Ying Zheng was the guy entombed with the thousands of terra cotta soldiers. Makes sense after watching this movie.

Related posts

The Emperor's Shadow

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May 24, 2008

Kotooshu triumphs!

In a commanding series of bouts, the towering (six-foot, eight-inch) Bulgarian Kotooshu handily defeated both yokozuna to become the first European to win the Emperor's Cup, the top prize in sumo. Win or lose, sumo wrestlers tend to go for the same tough-guy mien favored by NFL linebackers. But after defeating yokozuna Hakuho, Kotooshu strode out of the arena boyishly grinning from ear to ear. It was fun to see. And his dad in the crowd enthusiastically waving a little Bulgarian flag.


May 22, 2008

Astarte and Amaterasu

A provocative comparison of the political status quo in Japan and the European Union, their differing notions of collective national guilt, and their steadily diverging fates. Japan certainly has a severe demographic disequilibriums of its own to deal with (covered here by the Washington Post), but they have arisen for mostly pragmatic reasons and obvious financial externalities, not out of existential despair. I'm fairly certain Japan will embrace the new balance as soon as it is spied. What Japan won't do is abandon ship in the meantime. As Takuan Seiyo quips, the Oriental sage, given a glass of water, doesn't ask whether it is half-empty or half-full. He simply drinks it down.

Part one. Part two.

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May 20, 2008

Buffy in Baghdad

For the NPR series "In Character" (describing how fictional people can affect the real world), reporter Jamie Tarabay describes how and why she found an alter ego in Buffy Summers while working as a foreign correspondent in Baghdad. Another great entry in the series is Mike Shuster's tribute to Philip Marlowe.

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May 18, 2008

Earthquakes and mandates

The governing political principle in The Twelve Kingdoms is that of the Mandate of Heaven. It shares some similarities with the Divine Right of Kings that rationalized hegemonic power in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. But unlike the European kings, the Mandate of Heaven was not assumed to continue in perpetuity, but revealed itself in dynastic cycles. A successful coup d'etat was taken as evidence that the Mandate had been loss.

Claiming decadency from the Sun God Amaterasu, the Japanese emperor combined both the Divine Right and the Mandate of Heaven. In practice, by the end of the first millennium, political power had been completely separated from throne. It thus became politically convenient for a new shogun to seek a Mandate by seeking the blessing of the emperor, much in the same way the European kings sought the blessing of Rome.

In The Twelve Kingdoms, institutional corruption and natural and supernatural disasters are directly tied to the dynastic cycle. In medieval China, evidence for the withdrawal of the Mandate could only be offered post hoc ergo propter hoc. Modern technology could change that. This week on NPR, Morning Edition introduced the political implications of the Mandate of Heaven into its coverage of the earthquake in China:

In Chinese political culture, an earthquake, a famine, or a great flood can be seen as the end of the Mandate of Heaven. Heaven bestows power on leaders. But when Heaven sees that those leaders aren't handling the power well, it can take [that power] away. This is sometimes signaled by a great natural disaster.

One thing is certain: the earthquake has tragically revealed the consequences of very real corruption in the Chinese construction industry. Inspections recently uncovered similar corrupt practices in Japan, thankfully before an earthquake struck, and the architect and contractors went to jail. In an ever-opening China, politicians will no doubt lay claim to a "new" dynastic cycle, laying these sins at the feet of prior corrupt regimes.

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May 17, 2008

The Shore in Twilight

May 16, 2008

The Shore in Twilight (covers)

May 15, 2008

The Shore in Twilight (notes)

May 14, 2008

Luv Luv

This press release is a bit old, but I had been wondering when this market was going to open up.

Aurora Publishing, Inc. brings "passionate manga for women" to America with their new Luv Luv imprint. Extremely popular in Japan, but never before available in the U.S., "ladies comics," or redikomi, are romantic, hot and sexy manga about modern women and the men they love.

As I previously noted here, in the romance genre, the transition from a Harlequin line such as Blaze to its manga equivalent seems a natural one.

Erica Friedman explains the differences between josei and ladies comics here: "To sum up, most of what we think of shoujo, is actually josei. And josei manga is in no way the same thing as ladies comics."

This actually illuminates the profound differences between what is considered "acceptable" in Japan versus the U.S. Essentially, when manga are imported to the U.S., the target demographics are bumped up about five years, so josei becomes 18+ rather than 13+.

And in the U.S., "ladies comics" would be pushed into the NC-17 category. Of course, both the feminist left and the religious right point to this kind of material as instrumental in the downfall of western civilization.

While I think Naomi Wolf makes a good point about the use of artificial scarcity to increase the value of female sexuality, I'm more persuaded by C.L. Hanson's argument that desire openly expressed through art better mitigates objectification.

This may be a complete non sequitur, but we speak often of Greece as the "cradle of western civilization," of democracy and human rights. Those ancient Greeks sure knew how to admire the human form.

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May 12, 2008

The Path of Dreams review

Over at the Letters from a Broad blog (read the whole thing), C.L. Hanson reviews The Path of Dreams and concludes that she has "never read a novel that more perfectly captures the Mormon view of the perfect love story." She's almost tempted, she goes on to say,

to call it canonical in the mathematical sense. If the stars were to align for a pair of Mormons to make their love and marriage ideal in every way, the result would be exactly the tale you find here in this book.

There's a touch of damning with faint praise in that remark, but as it accurately sums up what I intended, I'll take it as a compliment. Hanson goes on to identify the same plot problem that Stephen (my editor at Zarahemla Books) also spotted (my upcoming novel will be published by Zarahemla).

Namely, the story resolves the major conflict first, the secondary conflict second, and the tertiary conflict last, which results in the plot taking a somewhat meandering and episodic path through the last third of the book. Structurally speaking, it does resemble a serialized romance manga.

Hanson, though, finds the glass half-full, asserting that this lack of conflict

actually provides an original burst of realism compared a lot of romantic comedies which rely on some of the most absurd situations in order to keep the lovers apart or to keep them (for a time) from realizing they're made for each other.

Rather, she sees Elly's "bland and uninteresting" ex-missionary companions, Melanie and Susan, as more significant flaws in the narrative. I confess that they exist mostly as plot devices to push the story in certain directions. In my upcoming novel, all the cardboard characters will be male (I say half in jest).

Hanson also touches upon the autobiographical tone of the novel and links to this post about "editing one's life." I concur completely with the concept. Unlike Chris though (read the post for the context), in my case I looked back on my college years and simply reversed all my bad decisions.

If I could manage my personal and mental life like a Stalinist state, I'd spend a lot of time airbrushing the past to conform with the whims of the neurotic dictator in charge of my current state of mind. Second best option: write fiction.

Hanson's concluding comment is perhaps her most intriguing, touching upon my self-classification of the novel as "home literature." For anyone "hoping to understand Mormon culture, values, and mindset," she suggests, "if you get this story, you get a whole lot of what makes Mormons tick."

I hadn't realized that the story had such anthropological value. But from now on I'll recommend it on that basis as well.

P.S. Hanson also launched this great thread about Stephenie Meyer. Her post Porn and Me refers to the same analogy I cite (see, I didn't make it up). Her post Questioning Objectification is about the most rational thing I've read on the subject ever.

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May 11, 2008

Chapter 51 (The Shore in Twilight)

弘始 [こうし] Koushi (vast beginning); the nengou system, called kokureki (国歴) in the novel, resets to year 1 upon the accession of a new emperor.
朴高 [ぼくこう] Boku Kou (simple height)

As far as I know, the fate of Taiki's shirei remains a mystery. The Shore in Twilight ends with the fate of the Royal Tai similarly unresolved, as well as Tai itself. I'd like to believe that they will be reunited in the future, but only the author knows for certain, and she hasn't written the sequel yet.

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May 08, 2008

Irrational cinematic exuberance

New Line Cinema sold off the foreign rights to The Golden Compass, hoping to clean up in the U.S. market, and then the movie earned huge returns overseas and only scraped by domestically. As detailed here, this is a sadly far from unique example of the bizarro, self-destructive world of Hollywood film financing, an industry that confuses moving money from one pocket to another with actually generating a profit.

Note that Sony "has the real chance of being the most profitable studio of the summer while not being close to the top in gross." Thanks to tight budgeting and realistic expectations. Kind of like the financial advice your dad once gave you. Gee, whoda thunk?

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May 07, 2008

The Golden Compass

Along with Starlight, The Golden Compass is one of the better fantasy film adaptations of late (a movie not being an illustrated version of a book), and remarkably well-paced. Minus the credits, it runs a tad over 100 minutes. Extraordinary in these days of unrestrained cinematic obesity.

For purists, it may zip along with a bit too hastily, skipping across narrative pond like a stone. But in a genre like this, the adventure/quest structure is always the best bet. And they still manage to cram in the most important ideas--dust, daemons and agency--without things thudding to a standstill.

Still, an intrusive narrator would have helped thread the various plot elements together, even something deliberately retro and campy, as in the first Indiana Jones movie. The risk for the non-Pullman fan, jokes Dana Stevens, is not the taking of offense, but that "you'll have no idea what's going on!"

On the other hand, remaining faithful to an epic novel requires a more elastic medium. Anime, for example. Compare Scrapped Princess or Eureka Seven or even Tweeny Witches. Perhaps a future Masterpiece Theatre will tackle the material with fewer special effects but more dramatic patience.

Dakota Blue Richards and Nicole Kidman wear the roles of Lyra and Mrs. Coulter like a pair of gloves. Sam Elliot is perfectly cast as well. Daniel Craig is James Bond. Lots of other great actors like Derek Jacobi (intimating a Rome circa 60 A.D. rather than Edwardian London) show up in cameos.

In any case, despite the complicated ideas and rushed plotting, a worldwide gross of $370 million suggests that director Chris Weitz got something right (even if New Line Cinema got everything so wrong). But then, the rest of the world saw in it a thrilling adventure story. Not the Apocalypse.

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May 06, 2008

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

A delightful and fascinating lecture by Jennifer 8. Lee (yes, that's her real name) about the origins of Chinese food in America. Guess where Chinese fortune cookies originally came from? Japan!

She also touches upon the strange demographic situation in Fuzhou, China, where the adults immigrate to the U.S. (legally and illegally) and send their children (U.S. citizens) back to China to be raised.

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May 05, 2008


Two millennia ago, Ying Zheng, king of Qin, conquered the states of Qi, Chu, Yan, Han, Zhao, and Wei, declared himself the first emperor of all of China, and began the building of the Great Wall to make its borders eternal.

Like Napoleon, Ying Zheng's administrative and social reforms far outlived his own short reign. He died a natural death, but entwined with his biography—and illustrative of his life and character—are the stories of the many assassins who tried very hard to make it even shorter. When the people trying to kill you are revered as much as you are, hey, maybe you're not everybody's favorite cup of tea. The hagiographic depictions of Ying Zheng in Hero conveniently avoid this nagging little fact.

The assassin who almost succeeded, coming close enough to tear Ying Zheng's sleeve with his dagger, was one Jing Ke, the historical antecedent for two of the protagonists, Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Nameless (Jet Li). The movie begins with Nameless arriving at the Imperial Palace claiming to have killed China's Most Wanted, and requesting as his reward an audience with the emperor. To bolster his claim, he recounts before the emperor in detail how he disposed of them.

Director Yimou Zhang borrows heavily from the Kurosawa's Rashomon, beginning first with Nameless's narrative and then retelling it again from the perspective of each of the people involved. However, unlike Rashomon, where in the denouement Kurosawa produces a reliable eyewitness, Zhang's hyper-stylized version casts aside the idea that an objective reality need exist. Which would be less problematic were we not talking about an historical figure.

This is the third biopic made about Ying Zheng in the last decade. The Emperor's Shadow (1996) and The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) take less fanciful (though no less melodramatic) views of the same material. But they also paint a portrait of Ying Zheng that, at least based on my reading, is fairly accurate.

Ying Zheng was, to be sure, a first-order Napoleonic figure, but also one with the temperament of Nero and the management style of Shakespeare's Richard III. He was the nutcase buried with a terracotta army to protect his immortal soul, which, if the Confucians at the time had any say about the matter, needed much protection. (Ying Zheng and the Confucians shared a mutual loathing, the big difference being that what Ying Zheng loathed he had summarily executed.)

Hero, in contradiction of fairly well-established facts, depicts Ying Zheng as, well, misunderstood. It is, if not in intent then certainly in outcome, an unabashed paean to Hobbes's Leviathan, a tribute to the thankless job of being an enlightened despot. You can just see China's modern-day neo-coms nodding their heads in earnest agreement. Yeah, it is tough being Darth Vader and having to hold the empire together all by your lonesome.

And yet. It is hugely entertaining. The only really depressing thing about Hero is just how much it reminds you of George Lucas's uninspired and unimaginative arguments for the opposing Lockean perspective, the natural rights of man and all that. Hero is the anti-Star Wars.

Besides, it's hard for me to disparage a film in which linguistics factors so prominently in turning the protagonists towards the light (or rather, towards the Dark Side). I mean, how cool would it be if Vader didn't say to Luke, "I am your father," but instead, "I'm going to standardize orthography across the Empire!" And Luke said, "Hmm, you've got a good point there." No kidding, and it's actually a more profound statement than anything Lucas came up with.

To be fair, Yimou Zhang, whose previous films at times ran afoul of Chinese censors, set out from the beginning to make a wuxia fantasy in the spirit of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, not a historical biopic. So forget all of the above and treat it the same as those chrome-plated Arthurian cinematic extravaganzas that have zero to do with history and everything to do with what we like to pretend about Anglo-Saxon history, including the silly sword & sorcery stuff.

Yimou Zhang has done much more than choreograph ballet-like fight scenes and assemble casts of (digital) thousands. There is as well the sheer, breathtaking vastness of the locations (these days, no one does vast like the Chinese), all magnified many fold by Christopher Doyle's stunning cinematography. Every time the narrative changes perspective and a new version of events is introduced, the entire color scheme changes--clothing, lighting, sets--from gray to red to blue to green to white.

This isn't subtle stuff at all, and could be seen to spill over into artistic self-indulgence. We're talking about vivid, primary colors, palettes of paint thrown across the screen. But, then, this isn't exactly subtle storytelling. And who cares when it's so gorgeous to look at.

And speaking of gorgeous things to look at, the beautiful Maggie Cheung and the handsome Tony Leung, as two of the conspiring assassins, steal the second half of the movie with performances so over the top, so operatic, as to demand a Puccini or Verdi to really do the material justice. Jet Li, on the other hand, has never emoted much as an actor and here he doesn't at all, so it's hard to care too much about what happens to him.

But at least what happens is so very cool to watch, as is this movie.

Related posts

The Emperor's Shadow
The Emperor and the Assassin

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May 04, 2008

Chapter 50 (The Shore in Twilight)

烙款 [らっかん] rakkan; the Twelve Kingdoms equivalent of an ATM card that can be used at trade credit unions.

Tama is the suguu that Rakushun borrows from Enki in chapter 41 of A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

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May 01, 2008

Stephenie Meyer

A TIME magazine bio about Mormon fantasy writer Stephenie Meyer, author of the fabulously successful Twilight vampire series. My favorite quote in the article: "I rarely write about just humans," Meyer says. "You can get humans anywhere."

I would put it this way: "I don't want to write about reality. I already live there."

Here's some commentary by William Morris about the novels from a Mormon perspective, with a bunch of additional links. More here, wondering if the male protagonists in Twilight are just too good to be true.

Similar thoughts back at A Motley Vision, with Anneke Majors recommending D.H. Lawrence and arguing that

I would much rather my teenage sisters read novels that would elevate their worldviews and deepen their respect and appreciation for human intimacy than see them swooning over the abusive, controlling vampire character of Edward Cullen.

So what makes this guy so compelling?

He's dangerous (a vampire!) but not really (he's good!). He is hot but doesn't care. He's rich but doesn't care and doesn't have to work for it. He is powerful but is helpless before Bella's charms after only a glimpse of her. He is attentive and loyal and thinks only of her.

And all a man asks of a woman is that she be "hot." Pretty dang easy in comparison to that, it seems to me.

Okay, I joke, I joke. But I do glean from the comments a fascination with a certain kind of stoic male sexuality, conforming to all the romance stereotypes: "Edward is expected to have all the self-control. Bella is not just passive, she is actively tempting and provoking him."

This was a theme in the first half of Buffy, and it ended badly. Buffy pretty much repeated herself with Spike, and the relationship was just as dysfunctional. Give Joss Whedon extra points for keeping it real.

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