Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Combination Plate 14

I will be bringing up significant plot elements and episodes as well as revealing some of the endings.

George Eliot, "The Lifted Veil," a short story

Craig Johnson, The Cold Dish, a novel, mystery

Iron Man, a film, superhero genre

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker, an SF novel

George Eliot
"The Lifted Veil"
a short story

I've read a number of Eliot's novels, but few of her short stories, so I can't judge "The Lifted Veil" in comparison to others by her. But, this short story certainly is quite different from the novels I've read. It might almost be classified as SF if it had been written a century or so later. As it was published in 1859, it might certainly be the first or one of the first stories to incorporate certain elements that are frequently found in SF or fantasy.

The plot is rather typical. The narrator is Latimer, the weakly second son of a wealthy landowner. His older brother Alfred, on the contrary, is tall, strong, and athletic. He is, naturally, his father's favorite and the heir presumptive to the family fortune and estate. Moreover, Alfred is engaged to Bertha, the neighborhood charmer, with whom Latimer also is hopelessly in love.

Latimer is sent to Geneva to finish his education, and while he is there, he has several visions of events that occur shortly afterwards. He has become a clairvoyant, or able to see in the future. One of his visions is of Bertha. She is speaking to him, and it is clear that it is years in the future for she appears to be much older. What she tells him makes it obvious that they have been married for years now, and that she has always hated him.

At this time, he also begins to be able to gain impressions of what others are thinking at that time. What he learns about many others depresses him, for he now sees others as full of hypocrisy, selfishness, and deceit. But, there is one person he can not read--Bertha. For some inexplicable reason, she remains a blank wall.

Shortly before the wedding, Alfred is thrown from his horse and is killed instantly. Latimer and his father slowly become attached to one another. Perhaps the father is encouraged in this when he sees that Bertha seemingly is now attached to Latimer, after a suitable mourning period, of course. As his vision had foretold, Latimer and Bertha marry. The effect of his visions and his telepathic powers turns Latimer almost into a recluse.

Why does Latimer marry Bertha when he knows how it will eventually turn out? He hopes that she really does love him at first, and it is only over time that her dislike develops. In addition, she is the one person he can not read; therefore, there is a silence not found with others when she is in the room.

Eliot also includes a brief incident involving phrenology, which she was apparently interested in at one time. Near the end of the story, is a truly bizarre scene depicting the effects of a blood transfusion on a dead woman which could have come straight from Edgar Allan Poe. As Poe died some ten years before this story was published, it is doubtful that Eliot influenced Poe.

Overall Rating: a fascinating story that includes the earliest mention of telepathy and precognition as common ongoing events and not just as one-time-only episode in a highly dramatic scene. I've only read the story once, and my suspicion is that I'm missing a lot. "The Lifted Veil" is definitely worth a second reading.


Craig Johnson
The Cold Dish, a mystery novel, first in a series
Setting: Absaroka County, Wyoming
Time: contemporary
The Detective: Sheriff Walt Longmire
Mystery type: Police Procedural

Perhaps this might better be called a sheriff procedural since Walt Longmire is not the typical hard-bitten, cynical, streetwise cop so popular today. He's within a year of retirement and only wants a quiet period before he hangs up his badge and gun for good. Naturally, he's not going to get his wish.

Longmire might be called an accidental sheriff. He ended up in the Marines during the Vietnam conflict, and the needs of the service put him in the military police. After his discharge, he returned home and, having lost interest in his pre-Vietnam plans, put in for the deputy opening in the sheriff's office. Longmire and the sheriff got along, and he became the favored son when the sheriff retired. He has been winning elections since then. Now it was his turn to pass on.

Normally I feel that domestic dramas involving the law enforcement officers in mysteries should be kept to a minimum, for I can always find other works that focus on those issues if I'm in the mood for that type of work. A mystery should focus on the mystery. In this novel, domestic issues play a significant role. Walt's wife had died a short time ago, and he is still mourning her. It has reached the point when friends and relatives were shaking their heads and suggesting that "he get out a bit more." He does, and while the relationship turns tragic, he has "gotten out a bit more."

Longmire, as I said earlier, is just hoping for a quiet end to his term. So, when he gets a call about a body found outside of town, he doesn't bother to check it out himself, but sends Vic, his chief deputy, out there. It is probably a sheep. She calls back; it isn't a sheep. It's a two-legged critter that's spread out on the ground.

He goes, reluctantly, and when he sees who it is, he knows this is going to be messy. The victim is Cody Pritchard, and he has a record. Several years ago, he and three others raped a young Cheyenne girl who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was slightly retarded. Longmire had arrested the four, and they were tried, convicted, and given suspended sentences. None of them went to prison for the rape.

Was this a revenge killing by one or more of her Cheyenne relatives or friends, or was this the result of something else Pritchard was involved in? Then, a second one of the four was found dead. That answered the question. It looked as though someone, a bit more than two years later, had started taking revenge.

The novel moves on from that point, rather as one would expect. It's not very complex, but Johnson tells the story well. Longmire is a rather casual, easy-going fellow, much as one would expect from a sheriff who's been in the job for almost 25 years. He knows the people, and they know him.

Johnson has also created an interesting supporting cast for Longmire, and I hope they return in subsequent novels. First is Ruby, the lovable? office tyrant, who takes no nonsense from anyone, especially from Longmire. She ran the sheriff's office before he got there and probably will run it for his successor.

His chief deputy is Vic (Victoria) Morretti, from South Philly where her father, uncles, and brothers were cops. Her husband, however, was a field engineer for a mining company and had gotten transferred out here. She reluctantly left and applied for a position with Longmire when a deputy position came open. She's the streetwise, cynical, tough cop in the story.

Longmire's closest friend, and major problem in this case, is Henry Standing Bear. Henry had also been in Vietnam, working behind enemy lines with a special forces unit. He had been trained to kill quietly and efficiently, and he just happened to be the uncle of Melissa, the young Cheyenne girl who was the rape victim. Longmire didn't believe he was the killer, but he had to admit that Henry sat on top of the suspects list.

Overall rating: very good first novel. I like the relaxed atmosphere and the setting, far from the mean streets of the usual urban setting, or even a quiet, tame, and civilized suburban area with a murder every week. I found the second in the series, Death Without Company, and I'm looking forward to settling down some evening with this one.


Iron Man, a film
based on a superhero comic adventure

I'm no expert in the area of superheroes, at least not in the past 60 years or so. I used to read comics back then, but moved on to print tales. However, it does seem to me that there are two broad categories of superheroes. One consists of those that possess powers or abilities not given to us normal humans, Superman or Spiderman or any of the more recent heroes, the X-Men. These generally run the range from a crippled newsboy to an alien from another planet to a scientist who got in the way of an experiment. That which changes them could be the gods themselves, an alien environment, a new chemical, or radiation exposure.

The second type are those whose powers are not organic or physiological but technological. Although there are exceptions, this type of superhero is frequently a technical wizard, who is wealthy and is able to afford to hire engineers and technicians who research and develop the various gadgets. Bruce Wayne/Batman is my prime example of this type of superhero.

Tony Stark fits into the second category. He is an extremely wealthy and brilliant weapons inventor, whose lifestyle is reminiscent of Hugh Hefner. At least it was until he unwisely took a trip to do a weapon demonstration for NATO troops in Afghanistan where he is captured by insurgents. There he discovers that weapons produced by his company are getting into the wrong hands and are being used to kill American troops. He escapes and informs all that his company is getting out of the weapons business.

While a captive, he fooled the insurgents into thinking he was building his latest weapon for them, but instead he developed an armored suit that had various built-in weapons, computer guided and operated naturally. The suit reminded me of the combat suit created by Robert A. Heinlein in his novel, Starship Troopers. I haven't seen the film version, but I have read the novel, and Stark's suit certainly resembles Heinlein's creation.

Stark decides to develop the suit for the forces of good and decency which will make them superior to anything the enemy can throw against them. It means the end of war. However, as his chief foe points out in the last climatic struggle, Stark wanted to create something that would ensure peace and instead created the most deadly personal weapon yet known.

The only real surprise in the film was Stark's public announcement at the end of the film when he revealed himself to be Iron Man. Usually the character tries very hard to keep his identity as the superhero a secret--Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman . . .

Overall Rating: I'd give it three stars on a five star scale. The special effects, animation, etc. were competently handled, although the struggle at the end between the two suits looked a bit catoonish to me. Will I see the sequel, Iron Man 2, which has recently appeared in the theatres. Maybe--If I'm browsing the DVDs and I don't have anything at home to view, I may take it out.


Cherie Priest
Boneshaker, an SF novel
Time: 19th century

The reader must not be too insistent upon historical accuracy in this novel. Priest herself admits that she's taken considerable liberties with US history, including a Civil War that has lasted for over 20 years and an Alaskan gold rush that begins several decades early. It's probably best to think of this as an alternate history novel and read on.

Shortly after the start of the Civil War, gold is discovered in Alaska. Russia, which had been thinking of unloading the frozen wasteland, now has second thoughts. Gold? Russia then offers a large bonus for anyone who can build a machine that can break through the frozen ground and get at the gold. Leviticus Blue invents such a device and decides to try it out in Seattle before bringing it north.

Something goes wrong and it destroys downtown Seattle. What is worse, its digging has uncovered and released a toxic gas which kills immediately if exposed to a sufficient quantity. If it doesn't kill immediately, it turns the victims into zombies, hungry for human flesh. Naturally, those bitten by a zombie soon becomes a zombie also.

The stricken part of Seattle is quickly walled off to prevent the gas, which is heavier than air, and the zombies from escaping. Leviticus Blue is presumed dead. His wife, pregnant at that time, escapes to the outskirts of Seattle, changes her name, and attempts to lead a normal and quiet life. Her son Zeke, however, is determined to clear his father's name and heads for the walled part of Seattle. Briar Wilkes (Wilkes is the name she adopted) goes after him.

I almost gave up on the novel for the pacing in the first half was extremely slow. Moreover, I thought her editors should have done a better job in tackling the wordiness of the first part. Since it was a book group selection, I decided to skim through the novel so at least I could participate in the discussion. However, about half way through, I found that I had stopped skimming and was actually reading it.

As usual, the group reactions varied from those who thought there was no pacing problem at all, to those who liked the first part but weren't that happy with the second part, to me who had problems with the first part but found the second half much more readable.

What most bothered me about the work was the revelation of an important bit of information at the end. This was known by Briar, who was the major POV character, and though the reader was in her head numerous times, she did not reveal her secret until the end. I thought this was cheating on the author's part. While this was important, it wasn't significant enough to ruin the story for me. It was just a letdown at the end.

The story ended somewhat ambiguously as it was never very clear whether Briar and her son Zeke would remain behind the walls or would go back to where they were living or even leave the Seattle area completely, as had been hinted at earlier in the novel. The fate of several of the characters was unknown at the end. This leads me to suspect a sequel should be expected some time in the future.

Overall Rating: a decent read. Will I read the sequel if one appears? Possibly.

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