Novel Weekends (7): Good Progress

Well, this was actually a tremendously productive weekend in terms of novel composition. I wrote a total of 2500 words of Chapter 2, as well as some fine-tuning of Chapter 1. The latter is not completely finished yet, but it’s close to it. I’ve made a conscious effort not to leave any big gaps. In other words, I’m determined to work straight through. At this stage in my process, I think that’s really the best way.

Today’s chapter was told mostly from the point of view of the Prefect Antonius, one of my fave characters in the work. He is a straightforwardly queer character, one who lives with his beloved of many years, Trystane. He comes from one of the rural western duchies, from a farming family of modest means. This chapter reveals a lot about him, as well as his sense of loyalty, which at this point is being torn between his acolyte and his duty to the Church.

Overall, I’m quite happy with the way that Chapter 2 is turning out, and I’m excited about some of the research that I’m drawing in. Right now I’m reading a book on the Muslim conquests, as well as one about the way that the senses were understood in the Enlightenment. Everything, no matter how tangential, will prove to be grist for my imagination mill. Given that my series is loosely based on the Muslim conquests and on issues of embodiment and transcendence, these books should be especially useful for me.

I’m hoping to continue the forward momentum, though since I’m going to be traveling that might be a bit difficult. Still, I’m confident that I can eke out at least a couple thousand words before the end of the week. Then it’s back to Syracuse and back into the regular swing of things.

Advertisements

World Building (6): Haranshar

The empire of Haranshar is without question the leading political power on the continent of Aridikh and possibly the entire world. Featuring numerous peoples, geographies, religions, and traditions, it is without question an empire without rival. It is precisely because of its titanic mass, however, that it has remained stymied in its attempts to bring either Korray (in its entirety) or the Imperium back under its aegis. The Shahs have enough to do to keep their own provinces under their control, and they simply do not have the resources or the manpower to make a concerted push of reconquest.

Haranshar is a remarkably diverse nation, with many different races and ethnicities living in an uneasy peace. While there have been, at the start of the novel, at least two decades of relative stability and prosperity, there are still rumblings, both among the great powers of the native Haransharin (which are the dominant ethnic group), as well as among their various subject peoples, many of whom want to assert their own form of independence. The example of the Imperium is a powerful one, and there are many that would like to form their own sovereign states.

Foremost among these is the Kingdom of Eshkum, which has rebelled several times under the leadership of their powerful queens, known as Kidakia (from one of whom the current Imperator Talinissia is descended). Like the Korrayin, the Eshkumites claim a type of foreign descent, claiming that they come from the lost lands of Larkoness beyond the farthest horizons of the ocean. They yearn for a deliverer, one who will lead them to independence.

Despite the polyglot nature of the empire, since the rise of the semi-mythical Xaryush in the far-distant past it has remained the policy of all Shahs to subscribe to the faith of Ormazdh. For them, the material world is one that should be celebrated and embraced rather than abandoned or disavowed (as is the case with the Church). Thus, the trappings of the good life are to be embraced and cultivated assiduously, rather than disavowed (as is the case with the Church, as we have seen). As a result, the quality of life in Haranshar is quite high, particularly in comparison to the Imperium. This is not to say that the culture is an egalitarian one, since that would be against the hierarchical ordering of the universe that is key to the Ormazdhian belief system.

Governmentally, the empire is divided into four xhusts that are aligned with the four cardinal points. Each of these is under the administration of a powerful noble general, a svateth. These four enormous provinces are: Shakastan (the north), Kusharstan (the east), Pishapur (the south, and the traditional homeland of the ethnic Haransharin), and Hamarkhan (the west). These are divided into numerous smaller provinces, each of which are headed by great noble families, all connected by often complicated bloodlines.

Although the many powers in the empire frequently clash with one another, they all owe at least nominal allegiance to the Shah, who as the King of Kings is both the god’s divine representative on earth as well as the central part of the government. While this may be true in theory, it is not always so true in practice, and it is not uncommon for the various potentates in both the royal family and outside of it to attempt to seize the throne. While the bureaucracy of the state may ensure that Haranshar as a whole continues to function, ever man who ascends the throne of Haranshar knows that his life will be at constant risk.

The military is a powerful presence in the empire, and they frequently provide the muscle. Of particular importance in the military are the armoured cavalry. These soldiers always come from the nobility, particularly those of ethnic Haransharin stock, and it is this core of shock troops that has enabled this ethnic group to maintain its hold over its fractious empire. However, it is also a source of possible rebellion, as the events of the novels will make clear.

Women in Haranshar occupy a complicated but generally empowered position. They frequently circulate in the highest halls of power, and there is no law that states that they cannot assume the title of Shah should the need arise. Indeed, thre have been several women who have managed to secure a reign in their own right, though it must be noted that Haransharin law does demand that if a son is born his claim to the throne shall surpass that of any sisters that he might have, regardless of their birth order. Women can own property in their own right, and they can occupy the position of head of House. However, there are bans preventing them from occupying positions of authority in either the Ormazdhian Church or in the army. This does not mean, however, that they cannot influence those spheres of life, merely that they must do so on the sly.

Unlike the Imperium, which can trace the bloodline of its ruling house back to its very origins, Haranshar has been ruled by a number of dynasties, most of which are not related to one another by blood. Indeed, it has only been by a supreme effort of will that the Shahs have managed to keep the entirety of Haranshar from breaking apart altogether, and it is for this reason that there has long existed a measure of cooperation between the rulers and the priesthood of Ormazdh. For both of them, the stability of the religious and the worldly ensures that the cosmos itself remains stable and perpetual.

Indeed, as the events of the novel will show in some detail, there are many who are still quite resentful of both the House Nirhan (to which the primary character Arshakh belongs)   their successors the Harqashiri. Many of the other great clans still seek an opportunity to claim hegemony over the lands that were once theirs. The scheming and plots that will emerge among these powerful families will come to have dreadful consequences for the entire world that they have sought so assiduously to maintain.

The Great “Golden Girls” Marathon: “Ladies of the Evening” (S2, Ep. 2)

As I’ve said several times, the second season of The Golden Girls is, in my mind, the point when the whole thing starts to gel. The writing amps up–both in terms of the comedy and the political commentary–and the chemistry among the leads also seems to really hit its stride. You finally get the sense that these are four women who may disagree with one another in many significant ways, but deep down they truly love one another. Their friendship will endure many trials, but it will always emerge stronger than before.

In this episode, Blanche happens to win tickets to see Burt Reynolds and, as part of their celebration, they opt to spend the evening at a lovely hotel in Miami Beach. Unfortunately, the hotel they choose is a den of prostitution, and they are taken to jail. Hilarity ensues, particularly when Sophia snatches the tickets in retaliation for having been left out of their Reynolds plan.

To my eyes, at least, this is one of the funniest episodes of the entire series. The sequence in jail–particularly Rose’s dismay at losing Butter Queen in her youth–the appearance of Burt Reynolds at the end of the episode, the squabbling amongst the inmates. All combine to make this a riot from beginning to end. There’s even a nice little dig at Richard Nixon (courtesy of Blanche), which is splendidly funny. There are times in a good comedy when the writing and the performances all come together, and this is one of those episodes. What’s more, it once again shows the women come together in the end, all of their differences put aside.

There are also a few little comedic gems that are worth mentioning. When Rose reads off a litany of the other celebrities that will be present with Burt, she mentions that Charles Nelson Reilly will also be there. While the girls are less than impressed, the canny viewer will no doubt recognize that he appeared with Betty White in a number of game shows throughout the 1970s. It’s just another one of those little touches that the show frequently uses to highlight the exemplary careers of its leading ladies.

One also can’t help but wonder if the Sophia strand of this episode’s plot is a rather sly and self-aware gesture toward the fact that she wasn’t originally intended to be a key part of the series. She is justifiably upset that she is being left out of the plans that the four women make, and one can hardly blame her for her desire to finally take a little bit of pleasure for herself.

All in all, I think this is one of the most uproariously funny episodes in the entire series. The surprise appearance of Burt Reynolds at the end might be brief, but it is hilarious. The man somehow has the knack of commanding the camera regardless of what he is in.

In the next episode, we’ll see what happens when Stan returns and goes on a date with Blanche, much to Dorothy’s chagrin.

Dissertation Days (43): Scattershot

Well, today was a mostly good day of composition. I wrote the 1,000 words that were my day’s goal, but things were a bit more scattershot and unfocused than I would have liked. Indeed, it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I finally hit something that I think was truly good. Which means, of course, that I’m going to have to go back and do a great deal of deep revision in order to get the rest of the chapter into submittable shape.

I’ve noted a few spots of repetition on the close reading section of Cleopatra, so I need to iron those out. I also have to begin weaving in some of the existing scholarship on the film–and on the Cleopatra myth in general–since I’ve been putting that off for far too long.

I also made some progress reading Brooks’s Reading for the Plot. I was hoping that I would be able to make extensive use of it with the work that I was doing today, but it’s being a bit stubborn. Hopefully, as I finish up the book, I’ll be able to see more clearly how it fits into the theoretical paradigm that I’m attempting to use.

I have to resist the urge to start over with this chapter. I know that if I do that it’s just going to be a delaying tactic, but at least I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to recognize those urges in myself. I don’t want to fall into a circular trap.

Since I feel like I’m spinning my wheels a bit on the Cleopatra section, tomorrow I think I am going to focus on my close reading of Fall of the Roman Empire. As I’ve said before, that’s going to be the most challenging section, but I am hoping to be able to weave some of the existing scholarship

Saturday and Sunday, though, I’m going to have to make sure that I get at least the majority of the Cleopatra section absolutely done, finished, and polished. That’s probably a bit ambitious, but I am sure that I can do it. All it takes is the sort of determination that I am able (when the need is on me) to summon up, and I am sure that I can do it.

From there on, there’s no way to go but forward and upward.

Let’s do this.

Dissertation Days (42): Back at It

At long last, I have returned to the Dissertation. The poor thing was languishing, but now that my traveling has abated for a bit, I can now return in full force.

Today was quite a productive day indeed. I even managed to write 1,000 words of the chapter, mostly concerning the general introductory and theoretical sections.  I also wrote a bit in the section about Cleopatra, which is actually coming together quite nicely. Ideally, if I keep on at this pace with that section, it should be fairly ready and polished by the end of next week.

I’ve really determined that this will be the version of the chapter that I submit. I’ve reached the point where I have to make a concerted effort to bring my arguments together and tidy them up. Otherwise, I’m going to run the risk of spinning my wheels and not making any productive headway, and that is not the space that I want to be in again. So, it’s full steam ahead.

As far as research goes, I have begun reading Peter Brooks’ magisterial Reading for the Plot, which is a really interesting piece of literary criticism and theory. I’m hoping to use bits of it to add some layers to my theorization of the tension between spectacle and narrative that I see as a core part of how the epic film negotiates and engages with the terrifying nature of history. I’m not very far into it as of yet, but I’m hoping to finish it up by next week.

Tomorrow, it’s onward into the weeds of Chapter 4. I am hoping to work mostly on the historical context, which is coming together in its broad outlines but needs some more flesh in order to make complete sense. As I continue my work on this chapter, I’m really working on making sure that the various pieces all move together, and that each piece leads to and intertwines with the others. It’s easier said than done.

Starting in August, I am also going to start revising Chapters 1 and 2 in earnest. They are badly needing some tender loving care from me, and the revisions should be fairly minimal, so I’m ready to get started. At long last, I’m beginning to see the finish line. And let me tell you something, dear readers, that is one hell of a good feeling.

So, it’s onward and upward tomorrow.

Adventures in Research (1): The Cyclorama of Jerusalem

Some time ago, while I was doing research for Chapter 2 of my Dissertation, I stumbled across the existence of a 19th Century panorama entitled The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. This popular attraction, located in the small town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec, depicts the moment of the Crucifixion, as well as Jerusalem and its environs. With its rich depth-of-field and immersive, 360° construction, The Cyclorama sought to provide visitors with an immersive experience that would allow them to encounter the exact moment when Christ was crucified.

My curiosity piqued, I decided to see just how far Sainte-Anne was from Syracuse, and it turned out that it was about 6.5 hours, not bad at all. When an opportunity came to go to a conference in Montreal, I thought I would seize the opportunity to make a jaunt up to see this cyclorama for myself.

I am very glad that I did.

Believe it or not, cycloramas were all the rage in the late 19th Century, and many have identified them as a precursor to the cinema. They typically depicted famous battles or other historical events that were deemed culturally significant; in fact, there is another extant cyclorama located at Gettysburg. Stylistically, they often emphasized both depth and breadth, so that the presumptive spectator could feel as if they were fully immersed in the midst of history. For the 19th Century, a period consumed with the consumption of history, the cyclorama was a tremendous opportunity to escape the bounds of modernity.

Even today, over 100 years after its original painting, this cyclorama is still awe-inspiring in the scale of its accomplishment. If you are willing to pay the extra $2 to rent a pair of binoculars, you can can get a real sense of the extraordinary detail with which this pivotal moment in the history of Christianity has been depicted. This was clearly a project that entailed a great deal of love and affection on the part of its creators, who have endowed the entire thing with a feeling of profound sanctity.

As strange as it may sound, while I stood there gazing, I could imagine myself caught at the interstice of several temporal planes: in the 1st Century CE (as bizarre as that sounds), perhaps even at the Crucifixion itself; at the end of the 19th Century, when spectacle-hungry tourists would have gazed in wonder at this marvel of artistry and technology; and in the present day, as a fledgling scholar interested in theories of immersion and embodied religious spectating. All seemed to be present in me (and I in them), as I stood on the balcony looking out at the vast expanse of the cyclorama.

What’s more, the painting itself seems caught up in its own chronotopic complexity. While Christ hangs suspended on the Cross, the world seems to move on around him. Aside from those standing at the foot of the Cross gazing up at his abjected body, many of the figures in the painting seem to be going on about their daily lives, heedless of the momentous event that has just transpired in their midst. Both stasis and movement are a key part of the cyclorama’s appeal. Likewise, the moment that it captures seems to be both in and outside of history, as Christ breathes his last and escapes from the worldly plane, it’s hard not to feel a sense of bereavement that, regardless of which temporal plane one inhabits at that particular moment, one is still stuck in the midst of historical time. The entire cyclorama, both in theme and execution, remains caught at the intersection of stasis and action.

What stood out to me the most, at least at a physical level, was the way my body responded to it as I was standing there. It is breathtaking in scope in a very literal way. When you first ascend the stairs and see the vista laid out before you, you suck in your breath at the sense of spatial disorientation that accompanies seeing the vastness of this accomplishment. Just as importantly, I also felt my eyes begin to feel the strain of gazing at this scene, and while I’m not entirely sure why that was–whether it was the poor lighting, the sheer scale of the painting, or something else entirely–it also kept bringing me back into my body, disrupting the sense of transcendence that always seemed just at the cusp of attainment.

Unfortunately, the future of The Cyclorama of Jerusalem is in some doubt. According to one of the attendants, there has been a marked decrease in funding, and apparently most of the upkeep for the Cyclorama comes from the nearby church. As a media historian, this saddens me deeply, as it is just another example of how much historical knowledge and experience is threatened with extinction by the relentless march of modernity and the unwillingness of many people to seek out the sort of roadside attractions that were once such a central part of the modern experience. Sure, there are parts of it that are a bit campy, but that doesn’t lessen the value of this attraction as a relic of a previous time, one that was an important precursor for the cinema.

If you can, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to this magnificent piece of artistic achievement. Sure, parts of it are a little kitschy (the location looks more than a little orientalist, complete with domes), and the interior looks as if it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. Rather than mocking it, though, I prefer to find it charming, a little reminder of the sorts of roadside attractions that once dotted the North American landscape, vestiges from a world that has been left behind.

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I’m really glad that I visited The Cyclorama of Jerusalem. What’s more, I’m now more convinced than I was before that this sort of attraction was a pivotal precursor for the widescreen processes of the 1950s.

Stay tuned for my next adventure in research, which will hopefully be another cyclorama, this one at Gettysburg.

Reading Tad Williams: “The Witchwood Crown” (Book 1 of “The Last King of Osten Ard”)

Warning: Major Spoilers Follow

At long last, I have finished The Witchwood Crown and let me tell you, dear readers, this is one hell of a book.

The story takes place roughly thirty years after the end of To Green Angel Tower, and Simon and Miriamele have successfully ruled as the High King and High Queen of Osten Ard. However, not all is as peaceful for it seems, for there is unrest throughout the human kingdoms, and the Norns have also begun to re-emerge from a long period of dormancy. Beset with problems both domestic and political, and joined by numerous new characters, Simon and Miriamele must contend with yet another grave peril to their beloved kingdom.

There is something uniquely pleasurable about seeing the characters that we loved so much in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. All of them, of course, bear the burden of the intervening years, Miriamele and Simon most of all. They have governed well, but already there are disturbing signs that all is not as well as it might appear. Fortunately, there are still those that are able to aid them, such as the doughty but aging Count Eolair, as well as the lovable and eternally loyal troll Binabik. There is something equally sad about learning that some of our favourite characters–Rachel the Dragon, Father Strangeyeard, etc.–have already died. And if you don’t feel a tear come to your eye at the death of dear old Duke Isgrimnur, then I don’t think that you are really a human being.

While Simon and Miriamele were the central characters in the preceding series, it seems that now they are on the fringes of the narrative. Their actions are important, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that events have begun to slip beyond their grasp. Having faced the death of their only son, they now have to contend with the fact that his son has become something of a wastrel. Williams does an excellent job conveying their maturity, as well as the sinister fact that even their most seemingly loyal councilors–such as Pasavalles–may have motivations that are not in the best interests of the monarchs.

As with The Heart of What Was Lost, one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the portrait that we get of the inner workings of Norn society. This is a rigid culture that has very set ways of doing things, and while many of them believe that this is the way that it should be, there are significant nodes of resistance among even the highest of them. Viyeki, now a Magister, is one of these, and the parts of the book devoted to his viewpoint are always compelling, in no small part because he, perhaps more than any of his countrymen, realizes that the Queen and her chief adviser Akhenabi may not be as wise or as infallible as the Norns have come to believe.

Most of the new characters are likewise compelling, though Morgan, the grandson of the king and queen, is quite insufferable (for all that we sympathize with him in some ways). Nezeru, the daughter of Viyeki and the mortal Tzoja; Unver the Thrithing; and numerous others make appearances that show that this novel is comprised of a number of moving parts. Everyone has their own motivations, some noble and some not, and that is part of what makes The Witchwood Crown such an utterly consuming read.

At a deeper philosophical level (which is always one of my favourite things about Williams’s work), the novel forces us to confront one of the uncomfortable realities that simmers beneath the surface of a great deal of epic fantasy. While the endings of so many epics suggest that the evil has been banished once and for all, that is almost never the case in the real world. The story goes on, the cycle of history repeats itself, and those who are caught in the gears of it have to fend for themselves or learn to navigate as best they can. While Williams’ books tend to not be as ruthless as those of, say, George R.R. Martin, I am beginning to wonder if we might not see the end of some of our most beloved characters (after all, the series is titled “The Last King of Osten Ard”).

At this point, it’s still rather difficult to see the endgame of the series as a whole. Clearly Utuk’ku will stop at nothing to reclaim the world that she thinks has been stolen from her and her people by the mortals. What’s more, most of the humans seem to be so caught up in their own pettiness that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Even after the carnage and destruction of the Storm King’s War, humanity seems chronically unable to hold itself together long enough to be able to actually build a more just, stable world. This series seems like a slower burn than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and in that sense it seems to have more in common (pace-wise) with the Shadowmarch series. For someone like me who likes a plot that only gradually unfolds–with, of course, a tremendously satisfying conclusion–this is right up my alley. And, in my humble opinion, it is one of Williams’s greatest strengths.

Overall, this new adventure in Osten Ard seems a bit darker than its predecessors, a product, perhaps, of the very different sociocultural milieu in which Williams is now writing. There are even more grey areas than there were before, and even some of the characters whose minds we inhabit are far murkier than we might have thought possible. There are great forces at work, and it is entirely possible that the things that everyone has taken for granted in this world, perhaps even the very substance of the world itself, may come crashing down into ruin. I have already begun bracing myself for what’s coming next.

The only problem is…how long will I have to wait for the next volume?

Novel Weekends (6): Increments

Well, this weekend wasn’t quite as productive as I would have liked. I did publish a small piece of world-building, and I wrote around 1,000 words of the revised Chapter 1. However, I hope to at least write some bits and pieces this week, mostly focused on finishing up the outline for both the first volume and the subsequent ones.

Overall, I like how the entire trajectory is shaping up. There’s a lot going on in my vision of this series, and I have constructed the entire world in such a way that I see a lot of stories that I can tell that are set in it. Though I have other fantasy worlds that I’ve developed  during the years, this one feels like it has potential that the others don’t.

I know that some writers don’t like outlines, but when it comes to my fiction I like to have a strong sense of how the overall plot arcs are going to go. I don’t need to have every detail worked out, but I do like to see where all of the major characters are going to do and what’s going to happen. And, fortunately for me, I think I have all of those worked out. I’ve managed to give all of my characters, even the challenging ones, important things to do (which is harder than you might think, actually).

Speaking of the trajectory…ideally, I’d like to have a full draft of this book done by the end of the year. It’s ambitious, but I think it’s doable. Even more ideally, I’d like to start hunting for an agent sometime in the coming spring. But, given that the dissertation is also in the final stages of completion, this timeline may have to accommodate some adjustments.

But, it can be done!

World Building (5): The Art of Binding

At the very beginning days of the Church, when philosophers and theologians were still disputing about the nature of the material world, it became clear very early on that fire and air–as well as the more elusive aether–were the purer elements and that as such they should be viewed as infinitely superior to the baser elements of earth and water. Some of this was residual from the Church’s origins in the faith of the Haransharin, in which fire was held to be a purifying element. However, it also stemmed from the Church’s increasing desire to distance itself from the threads of the world, to assert its independence from the officials in the Ormazdh faith, and to provide a firm grounding upon which to build their new spiritual and political order.

In their efforts to access the transcendence offered by these purer elements, the men and women of the early Church uncovered several strange tracts written by obscure magicians and sorcerers among the Korrayin. These mysterious people, who some recorded had come from across the sea, had also brought with them the technology of Binding, one that they kept to themselves, locked behind walls. However, in the many skirmishes that had erupted in the lead-up to the revolution in which the Imperium gained independence, a number of these texts had fallen into the hands of those in the Imperium.

The practice itself involved a complex series of rituals. The base material to which the daimon would be bound had to be purified, usually through blood (it was rumoured that lifeblood was the most effective means, but that was strictly forbidden by the Church). It also required the use of an athame, a sacrificial knife, forged from a rare mineral found only in the Mountains of Korray. Through the carving of runes in the receptive material–which, incidentally, can include human flesh–the daimon is Bound, subject to the forces of the Binder’s will. The captured spirit can not only provide greater stability to building foundations (one of its most prominent uses), but also be used, albeit carefully, to produce weapons of often unimaginable destructiveness.

Foremost among those who espoused this new practice was the priest Xenoxes, who saw in it an opportunity to both attain the sort of transcendence that his fellow priests had aspired to and, just as importantly, to gain more than a little political power. He knew there were virtually no limits to this technology, and he spent a significant amount of time publishing many treatises about the ethics, practice, and philosophy around it. As a result, he gained an enormous following, and his thoughts on the matter came very close to being seen as the orthodox strain of the Church.

Such was the influence of Xenoxes that he managed to tremendously influence the other Church Elders, and there was a rush to perform Binding. Soon there arose a group of men and women who called themselves the Alchemists’ Guild, and they were determined to exploit this new magical technology to the utmost. The foundations–and many of the buildings–of the new imperial capital of Aïonis were reinforced with bound daimons. While there were some who raised questions about the ethics of doing so, the clear advantages managed to quell most of those. After all, how could it possibly be against the wishes of the Name for men and women to make the most of the accursed physical world to which they had been condemned? Was it not only right and fitting that the spirits that were the closest to the Name in substance should be used for the benefit of the fallen children of earth?

In what what would be called by some historians the First Binding Revolution, the use of this technique would soon become so ubiquitous that it transformed the world. It was, in many ways, a golden age for the Imperium. Though the production of weapons was limited–again via mediation from the Church–the buildings that were made with it were far beyond the scope of anything the world had yet seen. There was even the possibility that the power generated by Binding (and its dreadful twin, Unbinding), could be used as a source of power analogous to electricity.

Unfortunately, the technology also contained the seeds of profound destruction. A century and a half into the Imperium’s existence–after a series of protracted conflicts that became known as the First Korrayin War–a disaffected Korrayin youth, goaded on by those who did not have his own interests at heart, made his way into the center of the Palace of Justice, the administrative heart of the city of Aïonis. Having been Bound to a daimon, he had become a formidable weapon. He essentially set off a chain reaction that brought the entire Palace tumbling into ruin, and a dreadful purge of the Korrayin swept through the city.

The two synods that were convened in the aftermath of the Blaze declared unequivocally, that Xenoxes and his followers were heretical and that the daimons and the Elohim were most definitely NOT to be Bound to the mortal plane. To do so was the gravest form of enslavement, since it was held that the daimons, while they did not have the same amount of consciousness and subjectivity as humanity, nevertheless could not be held in this way. And the Elohim, which were closest to the Name in their composition–and as the servants responsible for holding the Demiurge in bondage in the Outer Darkness–were even more strictly out of bounds.

Unbeknownst to the authorities in the Church, however, there were many in the Academy who continued to conduct research into these matters. A few of these rogue alchemists were eventually betrayed by one of their own kind, however, and a terrible purge swept through every level of the Academy. Anyone who was held to have indulged in these forbidden behaviours was subject to immediate trial and execution, and the road known as Traitor’s Way was soon flocked with the flayed corpses of the heretical.

Since that time, the Art has largely vanished. It was deemed far too powerful and dangerous a weapon, and all traces of it were sealed in the forbidden vaults of the Academy. Even the Korrayin, those who perfected the craft, swore off of its use, for they saw in it the potential for the great powers on their borders to exact even more damaging losses on their sovereignty.

In the era immediately preceding the actions of the novel, the Art has once again begun to be secretly practiced among both the Korrayin and among several rogue Alchemists in the Academy, the latter of whom have discovered in the deepest parts of the archives. The discoveries have the potential to change the course of both the Imperium and, even more importantly, to disrupt the fragile stalemate that has long existed between that nation and Haranshar. Now that there are so few who have actually been trained in its intricacies, it is hard to say what the consequences will be.

It is certain, however, that they will be disruptive and, quite possibly, destructive as well.

Film Review: “War for the Planet of the Apes” and the End of Humanity

Warning: Full spoilers follow.

As everyone who is even vaguely familiar with this blog knows quite well, I am an avid fan of all things Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, then, I have been waiting for the release of this film pretty much from the moment that the last film was finished. I watched the most recent entry as part of a triple feature, and I also watched it on its own (in 3-D in RPX, no less). I can say, as both a fan of the franchise and as someone who loves a well-made movie, that this is a stirring, magnificent conclusion.

The film begins two years after the conclusion of Dawn, as the forces of the Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attempt to utterly eradicate the sentient apes, who have retreated ever further into the forest in a desperate attempt to survive. When the Colonel assassinates Caesar’s wife and child, he sets out–with the orangutan Maurice, the gorilla Luca, and the chimpanzee Rocket–to gain revenge. Along the way, they meet Bad Ape, another sentient chimpanzee (who is not part of their tribe), before coming across the hideous concentration camp the Colonel has staffed with Caesar’s captured troop. The Colonel manages to capture Caesar and uses him as a means of motivating the other apes to continue building a wall around the camp. Ultimately, Caesar leads his troop to a promised land, though he gives his life to do so.

The vision of the world that War presents is the logical culmination of the narrative arc begun with Rise and continued with Dawn. In other words, it is a brutal, bleak world where both apes and humans have to contend with the darker parts of their natures. The spirit of vengefulness that Koba represented in the second film continues to haunt Caesar, a reminder that, for all of their advanced cognition and increased self-awareness, the apes are never far from sliding into violence. That this affects Caesar, just as much as it affects any other character, makes it all the more explicable and, to a degree at least, understandable. When the world has fallen apart and all you want to do is survive–and that is the one thing that humanity seems intent on preventing–it would be very difficult indeed to keep from slipping into barbarism.

A large part of Caesar’s continuing charisma stems from his portrayal by Andy Serkis. It’s not just that Serkis is the undoubted king of motion capture; it’s that Caesar is a character as complex and contradictory as any human character. He has seen so much in the course of his life–the best and the worst of humanity–and he has the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He is also far from infallible; it is his decision to pursue vengeance that leads, however inadvertently, to the imprisonment and death of many of his beloved apes. Even the greatest of heroes, it seems, are as flawed as the rest of us.

While the Colonel gets a lot less screen time than I expected, he is also a man driven by a mission. Once it becomes clear that the virus that wiped out so much of humanity has begun to mutate and cause cognitive devolution, he is willing to sacrifice the lives of everyone–including his own son–if it means that collective humanity will be saved. For it turns out that the virus that exterminated so much of humanity has once again begun to mutate, and its new form works to rob its victims of both speech and their upper cognitive capacities. Brutal, utterly convinced of his own sacred duty (he even believes that his sacrifice of his son is godlike), he represents mankind’s worst impulses, a willingness to destroy any individuals who pose a risk to the collective. Harrelson endows this creation with a certain charismatic cruelty, and that is the brilliance of the role.

If the Colonel represents the end of the emotional attachments that make us human, the mute girl Nova represents a possible new beginning. Having already survived the new form of the virus, she cannot speak, but she is fully capable of emotional attachments, and she becomes particularly bonded with Maurice. While she may not attain the same heights of intelligence as her human forbears, there is a measure of hope that she represents a new, possibly more innocent beginning for the human race.

In the end, War ends on an ambiguously uplifting note. The seeds have been sown for the ultimate decline of humanity into the mute primitives that were seen all the way back when the first film came out in 1969. The apes have at last found a place where they can build their world in safety. Maurice and Rocket, Caesar’s most devoted acolytes and disciples, will be able to train his son Cornelius so that he can take up the mantle of leadership that his father has left behind. Caesar has left the world, but his benevolent spirit, represented by the final glimpse of the sun, will continue to live on among his people.

Speaking of Maurice…I know that Caesar is the film’s star, and I have cheered for him from the beginning, but to my mind Maurice is one of the franchise’s most complicated characters. There is a richness and a depth to him that always shines through, particularly in his eyes. Like Nova, he represents the brighter, more optimistic part of the apes’ nature, a source of wisdom and serenity. Just as importantly, he will, it is hinted, form the foundation for the future of ape society.

Formally, the film is absolutely beautiful. Reeves has really matured as a director, and there are scenes that truly take your breath away: the moment when the gorilla Luca shares a bright pink flower with Nova; the bleakness of the Colonel’s camp; the sweeping vistas all combine to make this a truly astounding film. Michael Giacchino’s score, more subtly orchestrated than Dawn’s, contains allusions to the original film and also ably conveys the operatic grandness of the film’s narrative.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting conclusion to this trilogy, a means of forcing 21st Century humans to confront the uncomfortable questions about what, indeed, makes us different from the other primates with which we share this planet. The films’ answer seems to be pretty unequivocal in many ways: not that much. War in many ways marks the definitive moment at which the planet has definitively turned aside from the path that humans once took. Given the amount of wanton cruelty that the humans have shown–both inside the film and outside of it–it’s hard not to feel that that isn’t such a bad thing after all.