As one does on a Friday evening, I yesterday made a point of heading along to the Dunedin Public Library’s event, Mystery in the Library. This was a panel of local crime-fiction writers, and a follow-up to a similar one in April 2019 (no prizes for guessing why there was no April 2020 event).
The authors in question were Vanda Symon, Robert W Fisk, Ella West, and Maxine Alterio.
There were approximately twenty-five people in the audience, mostly leaning towards the mature age-group (I would place good money that I was the youngest person in the room), and female. Women actually outnumbered men in the audience by a ratio of about seven to one. But that’s by-the-by. It was a fun hour-and-a-half, with the panel discussing such things as the ways they conduct research, and the juggling acts required to keep crime fiction in the YA category. West has apparently written a novel set on the West Coast of the South Island, featuring copious rain and closing coal-mines. I haven’t read the book in question, but as a West Coast native myself, hearing her talk about it brought a smile to my face.
Time for a strange rant. A very strange rant. But bear with me, because this is serious business.
A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata is not Science-Fiction.
What on earth am I talking about? Well, it was one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes. I was reading about George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (I had just finished the series – it’s awesome, incidentally), when I noticed that the name ‘Flashman’ had first appeared in a second century classical text. So I followed up the article, and discovered A True Story, by Lucian of Samosata. A Greek prose novella (as written by a Syrian), which the Wikipedia article breathlessly claims as the earliest known example of Science-Fiction. Why, it has space-travel and aliens!
So I read the (translated) story, and firmly decided that Wikipedia’s references are stretching things to breaking point.
(Also, the ‘Flashman’ in Lucian has nothing to do with the Flashman of Fraser or Hughes. It’s simply one possible translation of the Greek, referring to a Sun person who signed the peace-treaty with the Moon people. But I digress).
I am sceptical of the Wikipedia claim because A True Story does not engage with – or even handwave – scientific knowledge. It is merely an absurdist satire-adventure, that just happens to include scenes set in space. Think Gulliver’s Travels, only sillier – and while I will happily include Swift (or this) under the general heading of Speculative Fiction, I draw the line at Science-Fiction.
There’s no science in it, at any point, in either plot or setting – which means it doesn’t even pass for a Douglas Adams of the Ancient World. And while modern science did not exist in the second century… Ancient Science was certainly a thing, whereby people reasoned about the world in a way that did not rely on the divine or the supernatural. As it is, there is no attempt in A True Story to engage with the Natural Philosophy of Aristotle or Lucretius. The former would certainly have been relevant to this story. After all, according to Aristotle, travelling into space would involve passing through the sphere of fire before you even get to the Moon.
(Seriously. Dante’s Divine Comedy has a better claim to the Science-Fiction label than this. If A True Story is Science-Fiction because it just happens to include scenes in space, then Tolkien’s Roverandom is Science-Fiction, Moon-spiders and all. Similarly, if something is science-fiction because it satirises the ideas of intellectuals, The Clouds by Aristophanes pre-dates Lucian by centuries).
So if A True Story isn’t Science-Fiction, what is it?
The easiest categorisation is Fantasy. After all, it is self-consciously describing Weird Stuff that Lucian knows full-well is false. He even tells us it is false at the start of the book. But while that is a convenient (and more accurate) classification, I still feel that this is inadequate as a classification.
The thing about Fantasy is that while the author and the audience know a story is Fiction, it still operates in accordance with internal logic, however alien or warped. Fantasy is Real within the confines of the page. But A True Story doesn’t do that. A True Story does not conceptualise a world where Pumpkin Pirates (yes, really) are real. Instead, it takes our existing world, adds random silliness, and laughs at it… which is something quite different.
So while I will happily accept Lucian as a classical example of Ancient Speculative Fiction, I think shoe-horning it into Science-Fiction or Fantasy really does a hatchet-job on genre classification. Lucian is the ancestor of More’s Utopia, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or even Orwell’s Animal Farm… he’s a satirist, first and foremost, having a good laugh along the way. That he has space adventures is neither here nor there.
Addendum: Lucian is obviously public domain. You can read him online here: https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/true/tru01.htm
Time for reviewing something a bit different. Move over Tolkien adaptations, hello Japanese splatter movie. Specifically, a certain 2009 movie called Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl.
I watched this one a few days ago with some acquaintances, never having seen it before, and not being familiar with the manga it is apparently based on. I had a fun time. The thing is gloriously outlandish and occasionally outrageous, even if you could never accuse it of being particularly deep, either in terms of theme or character. Vampire Girl vs. Frankensten Girl is the sort of splatter movie that wears its cheese on its blood-drenched kabuki sleeve.
If I were to summarise it in one sentence: ‘Early Peter Jackson does Twilight, only with a budget and CGI.’
But here’s the funny thing. Tempting as it is to see this as a Japanese version of Early Peter Jackson, I still feel the comparison is slightly off. I am just not entirely sure why it is off, which is probably a function of genre-familiarity, or lack thereof. My previous experience with splatter movies (and horror movies in general) leans more Western than Eastern. So I thought I’d write a blog post as part of a more general film review. Sometimes essays help you get your thoughts in order.
The setting is a Japanese High School, and our protagonist is a male student in the middle of a love-triangle. On one hand, he has the attention of the vice-principal’s daughter, a Gothic girl. On the other, he also finds himself getting offered chocolate by a new and mysterious transfer-student. It turns out that the chocolate contains blood, and partly transforms him into a vampire… because our transfer-student is a vampire with an interest in him. Alas, her motivations have an element of practicality to them, but initially she frames it as love.
Our Gothic girl then manages to get herself killed. But luckily for her, her Dad is actually a mad scientist as well as the vice-principal. He’s even got a secret lab in the school basement, where he abducts students in conjunction with the over-sexed school nurse. And because it is that sort of film, the vice-principal makes a point of wearing an outrageous kabuki costume while he’s experimenting on his prisoners. Because why not? What’s the point of being a mad scientist if you can’t prance around like a Witch-Doctor and hack people to bits?
With a dose of vampire-blood, the vice-principal is able to animate bits of corpses… which means he gets the opportunity to revive his daughter as a hacked-up undead abomination – something he gleefully declares to be every father’s dream. Enter Frankenstein Girl.
The rest of the movie is Frankenstein Girl and Vampire Girl battling it out for our protagonist… who has absolutely no say in the matter.
It’s an interesting one. As I noted, there are comparisons with Early Jackson – of course there are, it’s a splatter horror, a genre that delights in the over-the-top grotesque, while allowing full-rein to slaughter sacred cows with a chainsaw. The framing narrative also consciously evokes the sort of tacky High School Paranormal Romance one associates with Twilight.
But I think if I were summarising the differences between this movie and Jacksonian splatter, it would be that Jackson’s protagonists follow the classic storytelling pattern. They are confronted with an obstacle, struggle, and eventually overcome the obstacle. In the case of Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, the protagonist does not overcome obstacles. Rather, he is a spectator in his own story – he is simply the reason for two monsters to fight, and everything else is simply set-up to this grand event. The fun comes from watching the bizarre set-up, and then the blood-soaked pay-off.
(It also makes for a much more cynical movie. No matter how depraved the setting, Jackson’s protagonists still have agency – but there is no agency here, at least for our protagonist, who will lose no matter what the outcome. The film does not dwell on this, however, preferring to focus on the comedy of the situation, rather than the darkness. It’s all too absurd to cry over).
So there’s gore and black comedy, but Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl does not simply go to town on the splatter. It also has fun with the High School setting, and uses it to mock teenage subcultures. This is where the internet controversy over the Blackface element comes from – there is a student club in the film who take their “appreciation” of African culture a bit far, turning them into African weeaboos of the worst kind. Rather than racism, it’s really just Crossing the Line Twice, something so outrageously risque that it actually loops around and becomes more funny than offensive. For my money, it was actually more awkward to watch the scenes with the school’s Wrist Cutting Club.
(Why, yes. There is a Wrist Cutting Club, and even a Wrist Cutting Championship. Absurd black comedy, remember).
So yeah. Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. A mad and thoroughly entertaining way to spend eighty or so minutes of your time. For myself, I actually preferred the set-up with the High School over the Final Battle, with the likes of the vice-principal, Igor the Janitor, the sexy nurse, and the chain-smoking Chinese teacher stealing the show. The protagonist – the straight man in a crazy world – was probably the least interesting character in the entire film, but as mentioned, this was not a story about him.
‘Tis the season for unearthing the rarest gems in Tolkien adaptation – which, considering that the fandom has been dominated by Peter Jackson for nigh on two decades, is a positively heart-warming development. It is why I have devoted so much blog space to the obscure and weirdly wonderful world of Tolkienian television and cinema, as it stood before the Coming of Jackson. These poor neglected things need more love. Sure, no-one will ever see these works as staggering examples of creative art, but we ought to treasure them all the same.
Today I am digging yet further, by reviewing a Slovakian-language radio adaptation of The Hobbit, from 1989 (back when the country was part of Czechoslovakia).
Reviewing this creates a unique headache – unlike the Swedish or Soviet efforts, where I could not understand the language, but could at least follow along via visual cues, this is a radio adaptation.
There are no visual cues.
I am thus reliant on my knowledge of the source material, and the voice-acting, to guess what is going on. Well, that, and the YouTube versions of the Slovakian Radio Hobbit are set against relevant pieces of art, allowing at least some visual guide. Wish me luck.
The radio adaptation in question is in two parts, with each part being just under forty minutes. For reviewing purposes, I have broken down each part into eight five-minute segments, allowing me to give what amounts to a real-time response to what is going on. Or at least to explain what I think is going on.
Part One (An Unexpected Party to Riddles in the Dark):
I: Gandalf confronts Bilbo outside his door. Gandalf is noticeably prone to laughter – almost as though he knows something Bilbo (and the audience) does not. Bilbo does not take kindly to this, so retreats inside. He stuffs his face with dinner, and goes to sleep.
II: The Dwarves show up in one big heap. Party time, complete with comic songs. Eventually the Quest is explained. The overall tone is extremely light and fluffy, with the Dwarves being a messy rabble.
III: The Company sets out on the Quest. The Dwarves continue to be a bit silly, while Bilbo whinges. This adaptation is definitely going for a playful light-hearted tone.
IV: The trolls. I actually think this is the pinnacle of the entire radio play. The trolls’ voices – deep and brutish – are absolutely perfect, while Gandalf’s intervention is noticeable, even for someone who can’t understand the language.
V: We get more laughing Gandalf (he’s rather prone to this), and then onto Rivendell. The Rivendell Elves sound out-and-out drunk, and not in a good way. I am actually not sure if Elrond is there at all. It is a very short stay anyway, because soon we’re up into the Misty Mountains.
VI: The other highlight. The Company is captured by the Goblins, and unlike the Elves, the Goblin song is perfect. The Great Goblin’s horror at Orcrist is very apparent… though I was scratching my head a bit as to his death, which sounds weirdly drawn-out. Bilbo becomes isolated, and is clearly confused and exhausted.
VII: Bilbo encounters Gollum. Gollum’s voice is distracting – it’s too deep and monstrous, making him sound much larger than he is. On the other hand, for the first time in the story, Bilbo stops whinging and actually becomes pro-active.
VIII: Bilbo follows Gollum up, and escapes the Mountains. The effects of the Ring (clearly picked up at some point in the previous five minutes) are represented by a strange tinkling noise.
Overall, I actually enjoyed the first forty minutes of this radio play – the tone is a world-away from Jackson’s ponderous nonsense, and not hard to follow, even for someone who does not speak Slovak.
Alas, this was to change in the second part.
Part Two (After the Misty Mountains to the Return Home):
The second forty minutes of this radio play had one big problem: if you are devoid of visual cues, and are entirely reliant on your knowledge of the source material to understand the story… heaven help you if the radio play departs from the source material. Which this part certainly did.
It wasn’t Jackson-style additions. No, it was the cuts. If you aren’t sure what is being cut, that rather throws off your guess as to what is actually going on. Oh well.
I: A recap of Part One. I’m not sure it was needed, to be honest. The pacing is also a bit off in the second part generally, as it speeds up to conclude the story inside the forty-minute time limit. I actually think a three-part version might have worked better, since it would have allowed for more organic and less-rushed storytelling (as in Part One). As it is, we get copious narration from laughing Gandalf. Narration in a language you can’t understand, without visual cues, is a recipe for confusion.
II: Recap concludes. Bilbo rejoins Gandalf and the Dwarves.
III: They appear to entirely skip the Fir Trees, the Eagles, and Beorn. This is what I meant by the problem of cutting… fair enough if you are watching a visual medium, or can understand the language, but I am an Anglophone listening to a Slovakian radio play. As it is, they enter Mirkwood, where the Dwarves seem to get lost.
IV: I can’t tell if the spiders are cut or not. It’s still Mirkwood. The Dwarves are captured by the Wood-Elves, and Bilbo is organising the escape.
V: There’s a cheerful Barrel song. The story suddenly moves at warp speed, as we race past Lake Town, and up to Erebor. Bilbo confronts Smaug.
VI: Smaug throws his temper tantrum – which is a disappointment, since it makes him sound vaguely asthmatic in an audio-only medium. There is a narration of his attack on Lake Town. The Dwarves stumble into abandoned Erebor.
VII: The Dwarves learn of Smaug’s death – and the impending attack – via the old raven. They become less a rabble, and altogether more energetic. The Battle of Five Armies ensues, with appropriate sound effects. Bilbo groggily wakes up, and is reunited with Gandalf.
VIII: Bilbo sees the dying Thorin, and returns home.
As I have said, the replacement of dramatised action with narration makes it damned hard to work out what was actually cut in Part Two, as opposed to merely being narrated away. Part One was genuinely enjoyable, even for someone who does not understand Slovak… but the second forty minutes was an exercise in frustration.
Phew. And people complain about not having subtitles with the Soviet film. They should try this one. But in all seriousness, it was far from a waste of time, and I could definitely understand the light-hearted tone the radio play was going for. The troll episode was definitely the highlight of the piece.
Apparently, this adaptation is now quite obscure even in Slovakia, where a more recent radio adaptation has been done of The Lord of the Rings. That one is a monumental eighteen-parter, totalling well over ten hours. Time will tell if I am mad enough to tackle that particular quest.
With the rediscovery of the lost Soviet Lord of the Rings, the time has come for the important things in life.
Specifically, compiling the Tom Bombadil scenes from the three known screen adaptations that feature him:
This is a collection of scenes from:
– Sagan om Ringen (1971: Sweden)
– Khraniteli (1991: USSR)
– Hobitit (1993: Finland)
Interestingly, the Soviets are the only ones to include Goldberry, whereas the Finns are the only ones to include the barrow blades. The Swedes are the only ones with Gildor and Glorfindel, albeit that is outside the scope of this Bombadil-focused video.
Neither Ralph Bakshi (1978) nor Peter Jackson (2001) include Tom, of course. Which means that Tom has never appeared on-screen in a visual English-language Tolkien adaptation.
Since December 2020, I have been working my way through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s corpus of Sherlock Holmes stories, in order of publication.
As of today I have managed to finish this adventure through the Holmesian Canon – all four novels, and five short story collections. Yay. To mark this occasion, I thought I would rank the stories, in order of personal preference. As one does.
A rather conventional list of the novels, of course, though I would note that there is a yawning gulf between #1 and #2.
Deciding the better of the top two and the weaker of the bottom two was a difficult exercise.
I actually think the resolution of the Devil’s Foot is inferior to the Speckled Band, but I have a soft spot for the atmosphere of dark phantasmagoria, so I gave the overall edge to the former story.
In the case of the bottom two, it is really a question of what is worse – a cheap and hackneyed self-fanfiction of better works, or a disgustingly racist piece that makes you put the book down and cringe for the author and the character? In the end, I decided the self-fanfiction was worse. For all the racist faults of The Three Gables, it at least feels like a Holmes story. The Mazarin Stone is so bad it feels like Doylist Apocrypha.
Completed reads for March:
Another quiet month on the reading front. But another excellent month for work on Old Phuul. I am now up to over 30,000 words on the manuscript. Better yet, they are good words, so unless there turns out to be unexpected plot developments that force an overhaul of the early chapters… it hopefully won’t need much re-writing. It really is interesting. After spending so long dithering about how to start the novel, I have been positively zooming through it.
This is also why my blog updates have been so quiet in recent times… I have been actually working on the thing I am supposed to be working on.
Addendum: I’ve also had a revise and resubmit request on my 6,400-word sword and sorcery piece, A Night in the Witherlands.
It might just be me, but there are few things more exciting than the rediscovery of art previously thought lost. Even if it isn’t particularly great art, there is still the thrill of notching up a victory for human knowledge against the inevitable sands of time. There is a reason teary-eyed Doctor Who fans celebrate whenever a stray Hartnell or Troughton episode reappears from the 1960s.
So today, I take enormous pleasure in passing on some good news.
Khraniteli, the hitherto-missing 1991 Soviet adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, has been found, and uploaded to YouTube for all to enjoy. Sincere thanks to all responsible.
This also gives us the full-set of Soviet Tolkien adaptations – alongside the 1985 live-action Hobbit, and the 1991 animated Hobbit pilot episode, both of which I have already reviewed. Given that we also have the 1966 Snyder Hobbit, the 1971 Swedish Lord of the Rings, and the 1993 Finnish Lord of the Rings, that leaves only the 1979 Jackanory Hobbit missing among the more obscure Tolkien film and television adaptations (one day, I suppose…).
Anyway, Khraniteli is a live-action television movie. It was apparently filmed at Leningrad in 1991, and was only ever screened once on Soviet television. That it survives after thirty years is an enormous stroke of luck.
Here are the two parts, totalling just under two hours:
Part One (A Long Expected Party to the Barrow Downs):
Part Two (The Barrow Downs to the Breaking of the Fellowship)
What to make of this?
Well, it goes without saying that Khraniteli looks pretty cheap, and the special effects – yes, there are special effects – have aged very, very badly. Some of the stylistic choices are a bit weird, and certain things did jump out at me:
Since the film has no English subtitles, and I can’t speak Russian, I was reduced to following along via my knowledge of the source material. Easier said than done – the bloke with glasses I had previously thought of as Sam eventually turned out to be Pippin.
I must say, however, that for all its faults, it is actually a pretty creative interpretation, one that even borders on the psychedelic at times. Here is some of the more out-there stuff, which is less about cheapness, and more about this being an idiosyncratic adaptation:
I might well be missing a fair bit, of course, since I was largely reduced to following visual cues, and I might give it another go if someone supplies some English subtitles. All told, I enjoyed the film for its creativity. Objectively, it is neither a great film nor a great Tolkien adaptation, but I appreciated the genuine imagination and effort put into this, quite apart from the inherent delight at seeing a Lost Tolkien Film.
It’s an interesting one. Earlier this year, Cadbury’s Chocolate managed to get itself offside with religious fundamentalists over an advertisement showing gay men eating a creme egg:
Now, a cynic might suggest that this all plays into Cadbury’s plan – by finding itself offside with such groups, Cadbury’s improves its public image with everyone who isn’t onboard with religious fundamentalism. It’s essentially betting that the positives (people on Twitter praising its ‘bravery’) outweigh the negatives (religious types hyperventilating across the Atlantic). In short, it is a commercial decision to exploit modern culture wars for potential profit.
There is, however, one fly in the ointment. Namely that putting on a gay-friendly image does nothing to change the fact that Cadbury’s (and their owner, Mondelez International) are just as vicious and money-hungry as any other corporate entity.
Less than four years ago, Cadbury’s closed its (profitable) factory in my home city of Dunedin, New Zealand, at the cost of 350 local jobs. Dunedin is still economically hurting from that, and many people here still refuse to buy Cadbury’s Chocolate as a result (https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/89670508/sam-neill-doesnt-want-you-to-buy-cadbury-chocolate–ever-again).
No amount of culture war manipulation can cover that one up. So, on the off-chance that you stumble across this blog post… I’d suggest that boycotting Cadbury’s Chocolate is actually a noble cause this Easter, even if you happen to support gay rights. Advertising is neither here nor there, but jobs matter to a small city like this one.
We came across a larger town, without much in the ways of shops (bloody backwoods Imperio). On the other hand, they were more than willing to take part in an archery competition against Elknel… which Annalax obligingly rigged in favour of his fellow Drow (a few illusions of birds can work wonders at distracting people). Elknel would have won the competition even if it had been fair, but where is the fun in that?
Alas, it turned out there was also a child missing in the forest. More specifically, quite a number of people had been disappearing recently. Cue, search party. To avoid the problem of anti-Drow racism, Annalax disguised himself as a Cleric of the Eternal Flame. He had enormous fun going to town on over-the-top mockery of a religion he despises, complete with pseudo-monastic chanting and allusions to people burning in the afterlife. It was so much fun, he’s decided to do this more often.
One of the town guardsmen – accompanying us on the search – was a tad strange. An old man’s voice in a young man’s body… he claimed to have been a comparative newcomer to this part of the country, but he was clearly off. Sure enough, once we were deep in the forest, he tried to cast Paralyse on another guard. For this, dear reader, was the Thieving Cat. A strange feline monster that paralyses and eats people whole, using their limbs to create a human disguise. No prizes for guessing what had happened to the child.
Annalax got off a Faerie Fire against him, and soon the creature was truly on the run. We caught the Thieving Cat (and would have killed him), but he made the party an offer. His life, in exchange for him guiding us to a town where three dangerous Hags held the countryside in thrall. After all, we wanted to free the countryside from these evil Fae creatures, did we not?
(Well, no. Annalax was not overly concerned with the Fae. He was more interested in just getting to Shakiah. But since the rest of the party wanted to eliminate these Hags, so be it).
So, accompanied by our prisoner, we headed on. Soon we came to a clearing. A tragic accident, or so it seemed. A traveller caught under a fallen tree, and his companions helpless to free him.
It was all an illusion, of course. We were dealing with three demons.
Quite nasty demons, actually… at least in terms of their spell effects. One of them got off a Confuse spell, and both Annalax and the Dreamland Cat Sorcerer failed their saving throw (Annalax does not have great Wisdom). Worse, in the chaos, the Thieving Cat was able to escape, and the rest of the party were soon subject to a Fear spell. Oh, and our poor Goliath Barbarian was knocked unconscious by the beefiest of the demons.
After several rounds, Annalax (Darkness) and the Dreamland Cat (Healing Word) were able to help, and the tide began to turn. Annalax took out one of the demons with his crossbow, which made a pleasant change from a series of fights where he’s been weakened via magic, saving throw issues, or alcohol. And then finally, the last of the demons (reduced to 1 HP) decided to suicide itself, rather than be killed. So the demons were now dealt with Yay.
Session forty-two. We picked up a new companion in the form of a Tiefling Bard named Manya. She paints, and is surprisingly quiet for a Bard, though Annalax had a decent chat with her. Then we arrived at a town of Nightmares.
Well, strictly not a town of Nightmares… they merely lived in the surrounding forest. The actual inhabitants of the town were people… who couldn’t ever leave. Think of the town as a holding pen, presided over by non-human abominations, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. Of course, unless the party wants to fight a few dozen Nightmares at once, we are similarly stuck. Oh joy.
Annalax donned his Eternal Flame Cleric disguise, and made the acquaintance of the local Priest (who, by the way, is surprisingly young). Next stop for our Drow was the Church of the Eternal Flame. More specifically, Annalax wanted to pray to Lolth in ironic fashion, making a point of disrespecting and blaspheming the Eternal Flame while he did it. He rolled a 19 (+2), and received the message to “watch and wait.” Better than nothing, Annalax supposed, as he took time out to graffiti a spider image on the underside of the pews.
Our Goliath Barbarian really does not like the Eternal Flame either, but he is less cautious than Annalax. Rather than hack up the local Priest, he went off to hack up a tree, until he collapsed from exhaustion. As one does.
Stealthily probing the edge of the forest turned up nothing, save for a particularly watchful crow. It was all turning into quite the nasty poser for the party. Tempting though it would be to Shape Water on the river and (slowly) escape via a flying chunk of ice, that would leave us as sitting ducks for the Nightmares.
And then it turned out that the Nightmares wanted a sacrifice. Not merely a trinket or tooth, but an entire young woman. Oh dear…
Back to the Annalax Index: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/the-adventures-of-annalax-a-compendium/
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