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Japan makes lots of cartoons, so our planned cartoon episode ended up being all about anime junk: Kill la Kill, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Vision of Escaflowne, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

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Source of our theme song

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City and Swamp

Part I

Alasdair: The point you make about authoritarian regimes narrowing the scope of possibility for the future is an important one. Indeed, all of the major antagonists of the Wolfhound Empire trilogy are concerned with remaking the Vlast according to a singular vision. Continue Reading »

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Lost in Leningrad

I read Peter Higgins’s Wolfhound Century after a strong recommendation from fellow blogger Alasdair Czyrnyj. He’ll join me in the next series of posts as we air our thoughts on the Wolfhound Empire trilogy one book at a time.

First, some background. Wolfhound Century takes place in the Vlast, a country bearing the heavy mark of the Soviet Union, manifested particularly in the city of Mirgorod, a swampy cement-covered place that evokes St. Petersburg back when it was called Leningrad. Vissarion Lom comes to Mirgorod to investigate the activities of erstwhile revolutionary Josef Kantor. This thriller-esque procedural plot largely takes a back seat to the cosmology and fantastic weirdness of the Vlast, caught in a struggle between stone angels and an endless forest, industrialized but in a way that incorporates the preternatural. Giants and golems wander the streets as labourers, unremarked but haunting in their normalcy.

I greatly enjoyed Wolfhound Century but I suspect that I was drawn to different aspects of the novel than Alasdair. So, to start off, Alasdair, what did you find so overwhelmingly compelling about Wolfhound Century, and why did you insist so strongly that I give it a go? Continue Reading »

Wasted Youth

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If you haven’t noticed, I have a soft spot for DOS-era gaming. I’m supposed to be of the video game generation, but the only console I ever owned was an NES and I was never very good at playing it. My real interest in computer games didn’t come until high school, where I wasted a huge amount of time playing old DOS games that were largely older than I was (more about that here). I wish I could say that I had some sort of affinity with the early computer game scene and was drawn to the elegance and beauty of making a playable system with as few kilobytes as possible, but that would be a filthy lie. The real reason was because there was a website called Home of the Underdogs that hosted abandonware games for free, and the older games fit on a floppy disk so I could download them at school and then take them home and install on my own computer. Continue Reading »

Award Nomination

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Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for best edited anthology. I’m rather ecstatic.

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Olivier Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist: Because I do fan art now, which brings me that much closer to becoming a monster. 

I finished the last volume of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist yesterday. It’s a justly famous and popular comic with endearing characters and some really exceptional pacing—I’d compare the way the panels flow to Jeff Smith’s Bone—but what really struck me was the effortless way Arakawa blended fantasy elements into an early twentieth century industrial setting. While the alchemy of the series is undoubtedly magic, the approach is a scientific one, and outbursts of the fantastic fir perfectly alongside automobiles and rifles.

The visual aesthetic of Fullmetal Alchemist broadly aligns with the various retro-futuristic “punk” subgenres of science fiction and fantasy that boiled up in the 1980s but seem to have solidified and become more of a presence in the 2000s. The terminology began with cyberpunk but has come to mean something different, and segmented to a laughable extent. Cyberpunk was the marriage of high technology with the grimy underclass world of punk rock; steampunk was quite literally a joke word to describe the marriage of old steam technology with the upper crust world of Victorian nobles. Now we have dieselpunk, decopunk, clockpunk, which basically mean re-imaginings of pulp adventure genres from post-Enlightenment eras that operate (more or less) within the confines of that era’s technologies. While potentially fascinating, in practice science fiction and fantasy that embraces the label in North America and Britain has, I’ve found, veered towards confused pastiche and don’t reach a very wide audience.

For whatever reason, the early twentieth century in Europe and America has produced far more appealing visions from East Asia. Fullmetal Alchemist takes names, historical cues, and architecture from central Europe in the 1920s/30s. A more useful point of comparison is the anime Last Exile, which operates on the visual level of dieselpunk’s ideal: giant airships coupled with graceful planes straight out of the interwar years, the brown-and-grey palettes of military and flight uniforms in the era. This type of industrial fantasy has spread to a much greater degree in east Asia than the “punks” of western sf, which is still a largely niche genre that uses the “punk” label to proclaim its own perceived special-ness. It seems every other cover of a pulp novel or comic book or animated series out of Japan has gears and black smoke and heavy machinery, that well-regarded classics like Castle in the Sky create an inextricable link between the feeling of magic and wonder with early twentieth century machinery.

The inspirations for the look are similar but the tradition and the deployment of that look are different. That might be why my comparison here isn’t all that useful; the style of industrial fantasy in East Asia appeals to me much more than what I’ve seen out of most of the “punks” in Anglophone sf, but they are coming from different (more than a geographic sense) places. Something about the anglophone sf tradition makes bringing the same elements together seem awkward where in Fullmetal Alchemist they seem the natural thing in the world to combine. These works, while on a surface level falling into the same category, evoke a very different reaction from me that lies rooted in their approach.

Norwegian Wood

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I wouldn’t have picked up Norwegian Wood if it wasn’t by Haruki Murakami. The back cover promises semi-autobiographical recollections of college days. Those narratives makes up a respectable (but not overwhelming) chunk of contemporary literature in western countries and largely don’t fall into my wheelhouse, though at least coming out of a different culture adds another layer of interest on top of the more typical explorations of early-adult ennui.

The novel is still twice removed from the bulk of Murakami’s work–ambling narratives with fantastical elements that combine into a unique sense of atmosphere and isolated, detached moments of beauty. Norwegian Wood has none of the unreality lying at the heart of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore; it’s a more straightforward depiction of Tokyo in the late 1960s and the relationships formed by Toru Watanabe with two women as he’s on the cusp of turning 20. Elements of elegy and hints of nostalgia abound.

It was a slow read; I took Norwegian Wood in small doses over a long period of time and feel that matches the structure of the novel, itself unhurried and purposefully aimless. The other Murakami books I’ve read take the same relaxed approach to narrative, and that’s one of the reasons I like him. However, paradoxically, while Norwegian Wood cleaves closest to reality, bereft of the bizarre situations and undercurrents of the author’s other books, I found myself at far more of a distance from the work itself. I could not get a grasp on Watanabe, could not find points of connection with Naoko or Midori or Watanabe’s other friends. Watanabe is not significantly different from Murakami’s other protagonists, but it’s almost as if when those characters are faced with the baffling and strange they tap into a set of universal fears and an emotional space that makes them suddenly relatable. They come to occupy a space where I can feel the same things they do. Watanabe doesn’t face these things, and becomes locked away in his own thought processes, inscrutable to me from the outside.

And still, Norwegian Wood is well-measured, well-written. It remains Murakami’s most successful work financially, perhaps partly because it’s the most overtly erotic of his books. As far as sex scenes go, you could use this book to teach a class on them. That’s by no means the chief reason to read this; now, it appears as a generational marker, bottling up the era in an oddly efficient way. Yet it’s specificity to that era makes it less attractive to me than other Murakami: I’m more drawn to his manner of connecting the deep past and with the present through the timeless myths that run between them.