Friday Reviews: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Richard III

William Shakespeare

After debuting with a fairly weak trilogy, Henry VI, Shakespeare hit his dramatic stride by turning a rival to the house of Tudor into one of history’s greatest villains: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, better known as Richard III.

There is, of course, debate as to whether Richard really was the villain Shakespeare paints him as, but keep in mind Shakespeare had a patron in Elizabeth II, whose grandfather appears in this play as Lord Richmond. Shakespeare is clearly not above fictionalizing history to please his patrons.

The result is one of the English language’s greatest antagonist. Upon Richard Plantagenet is based later manipulative villains: From Professor Moriarty to Palpatine to Game of Thrones‘ manipulator Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish. Shakespeare’s Gloucester/King Richard is a master chess player, recruiting and disposing of allies, conning those around him into committing his murders for him. Deformed and hideous, and laying plots to “set my brother Clarence and the king. In deadly hate the one against the other.”

One by one, the obstacles between Richard and the throne tumble. His brother, George, Duke of Clarence, is executed on orders from his other brother, King Edward. Edward dies, stricken when he realizes that his countermand of the execution order never arrived in time. As Lord Protector, Richard then has Queen Elizabeth’s cousins and brothers eliminated. His wife, Lady Anne, dies under mysterious circumstances. And then there are those boys in the Tower of London, whose disappearance inspired this play.

But once the crown is his, Richard of York becomes a murderous forerunner of Richard Nixon. Both men coldly disposed of their allies once they held power. The result for King Richard as with Nixon was a spectacular downfall. Nixon was driven from office under threat of impeachment. King Richard, both in real life and in Richard III, was abandoned at Bosworth Field, left to die at the hands of Henry Tudor, Lord Richmond.

I’ve seen Richard III performed twice. The first was Ian McKellan’s brilliant 1995 movie set in a fictitious fascist England. It starts with Richard’s famous opening soliloquy first as a speech celebrating the apparent end to the War of the Roses, then Richard muttering in the bathroom about his brother Edward’s faults, and finally, sly asides to the audience about his schemes to knock off most of his own House of York.

The other performance was in the early 2000’s at Cincinnati’s Shakespeare Festival. They portrayed Richard as a greasy haired biker thug who began hiding his villainy like Clark Kent, donning a pair of glasses. It was a different vibe from McKellan’s alternate history.

I have seen several Shakespeare plays both live and on film. I’m pretty much Hamleted out, though Richard III ranks ahead of The Tempest as my favorite Shakespeare play.

Trigger Warnings?

I had a rant set to post this morning about trigger warnings. It was pretty nasty, but the very idea puts me in a foul mood.

What are trigger warnings? A number of colleges decided that certain aspects of the Western Canon might contain passages that could trigger bad memories or deeply upset those who might have suffered a past trauma. If it upsets you, they reason, then you should not have to read it.

Well, if that’s the case, Sally Struthers and Sarah McLachlan would need to stop appealing for starving children and abused animals. And let’s be honest here. We’d have to put a lot of political pundits out of work. Quite frankly, I don’t want Rush Limbaugh asking me if I want fries with that, since that’s about all he and his ilk are qualified for. (Well, Keith Olbermann did go back to sportscasting.)

I have no problems with something telling me there’s certain content in a book. That’s what the jacket blurb is for, actually. We do this for movies (although the NC-17 rating is absolutely meaningless since they dropped the X rating. Dumbest move ever made by the MPAA ratings board.) We do it for video games. We do it on CD’s. Apple even slaps an “explicit” label on some songs. And they should. Why?

It’s as much advertising as it is caution and warning. Anyone who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s will tell you that the “Parental Advisory” label on an album was like dangling candy in front of a baby to any teenager. That sticker sold a lot of Beastie Boys and Metallica albums. At the same time, it told parents that there were things they might not want to expose their children to.

But that’s for kids. Guess what. In almost every country in the world, you are considered an adult at 18. And being an adult means you are going to get offended. You are going to see upsetting things. You are going to be traumatized if you haven’t been already.

I’m hardly an “I hate people” type, since that mentality suggests I’m somehow better than everyone else. Bullshit. I’m not a narcissist. (Well, I try not to be, anyway.) At the same time, I have a deep, abiding faith in man’s ability to be an unrepentant dick to his fellow man. (“Man” as in human being.) Hiding from it is not going to help you deal with it. It’s not going to make you stronger. It’s only going to make you afraid and timid.

By all means, tell me there are a bunch of “N” bombs in Huckleberry Finn. I’ve read enough Twain to know what he ultimately thought of the word. (Hint: After a brief stint in the Confederate Army, Mr. Clemens said, “Screw this” and went west.) Go ahead and tell me that the people in Gatsby are a bunch of narcissistic sociopaths.Tell me that the people in The Grapes of Wrath will suffer some of the most brutal conditions anyone could endure in modern America.

But to give you a pass to avoid it if that’s what you’re studying in school? Go home, curl up in the fetal position, and never leave the house. We can’t be afraid of getting upset or offended. Sooner or later, something upsetting or offensive is going to happen, and you’ll be in no condition to deal with it.

Tell me how that trigger warning worked out for you then.

Friday Reviews: March Violets by Philip Kerr

March Violets

Philip Kerr

Part I of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy introduces former cop and private investigator Bernhard Gunther. Now, if that sounds like every PI novel you’ve ever read, consider that Gunther works in Hitler’s Berlin. Gunther has a lot of reasons to be cynical and hard drinking. For instance, the stiff-armed Nazi salute drives him batty.

Gunther is hired by Hermann Six, an industrialist whose daughter and son-in-law were killed in a fire. That’s not the problem. Six’s problem is that someone made off with a pricey necklace stowed in a safe. Gunther is hired technically by Six’s insurance company, who conveniently forget to tell the police about the necklace. For Gunther, it’s a collision course with the police, the Gestapo, and even the infamous SS.

Gunther’s conscience was not ground down by the poverty of the Wiemar Republic, nor does he give in to the euphoria over Hitler’s seemingly miraculous remaking of Germany. He is actually sickened by the state-sponsored anti-Semitism people casually accept. And yet he soldiers on among those he calls “March Violets,” Nazis who jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon after he became successful. He thinks the 1936 Olympics are a sham and secretly roots for Jesse Owens.

Perhaps most horrifying in the novel, Gunther is sent undercover to Dachau, the notorious “KZ” or concentration camp. As an Aryan, his plight is not as bad as the Jewish inmates. However, it is a place to avoid even as he runs across a man who got himself sent there to avoid being accused of another crime.

Perhaps the most unsettling part of this remaking of Raymond Chandler is how startling familiar 1936 Germany looks to the present day.

Whither Kepler?

Quick note: Today, I pinch hit over at Sleuthsayers where I wax philosophical over Greek gods and crime fiction. Check it out.

I started on the fourth Kepler novel this past weekend.

And stopped.

After spending the past year rewriting Holland Bay and writing a science fiction novel, the story just seemed… Small. Kepler was no longer speaking to me, despite my recently finishing a novella featuring him. The novel was even outlined years ago, during the first couple of rounds of revisions on Bad Religion.

Not happening. The setting still beckons, but most of the story just crumbled. It became another excuse for Nick to sleep with one of the characters. Plus, compared to the sprawling story that is Holland Bay and the ensemble piece that became the science fiction novel, it just didn’t have enough to hold my interest.

And so while I have a novella, a complete rewrite of “Gypsy’s Kiss,” due out later this summer, this looks like it’s the end of the line for Nick.

In a way, it’s too bad. I had an entire arc planned out for Nick. This new novel would have cost him Elaine. Its follow-up would have run him out of Cleveland. That follow up would have sent one character, the future Mrs. Kepler, in search of him in a reversal of the traditional knight-princess tale. Yeah, Nick would have been at rock bottom and in need of rescuing.

Who knows? Nick may call to me again. But the story’s gone cold, and for now, I’m content with the trilogy, a remaining short being shopped, and “Gypsy’s Kiss,” which takes place between Northcoast Shakedown and Second Hand Goods. For now, I have new stories to tell.

A Modest Proposal: Star Trek: The HBO Series

2009 Star Trek cast

Source: Paramount Pictures

As JJ Abrams takes on Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, it’s clear there’s only one Abrams-driven Star Trek left. Paramount has decided it wants a movie for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek‘s debut. But after that…?

Let’s be honest. As good as JJ Abrams is, he didn’t think of the future of Trek, just how to get fannies into theater seats. But the technology is too omnipotent. A couple of devices used to drive both movies’ plots – transwarp beaming and Khan’s blood – don’t bode well for long-term story-telling.

So let me suggest that, once Pine, Pegg, Quinto, et. al. take their last bow in 2016, that Paramount reboot the series once again, this time for HBO.

HBO Original Series logo

Source: HBO

Or SyFy or Showtime or FX or… You know. Star Trek is ripe for the kind of storytelling that made Breaking Bad, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and even Deadwood hits. It’s time to start over, give the thing an arc based on its original run, and take it places. While completely revamping it like BG is a horrible idea (Galactica was always kind of an unfinished idea in its original incarnation anyway), it would be an opportune time to toss out some of the cliches that have grown up around it. A cable series would also allow writers to explore aspects of the crew’s story that are only hinted at or played around with in novels and fanfic. Is there really a sexual undertone to Kirk and Spock’s relationship? Why is McCoy so neurotic? What’s the real story behind Khan? Klingons: Ridges or no ridges? (I know Enterprise answered that, but this would be a reboot.) I’d also love to see an end to all the time travel nonsense.

Fans, of course, would have to come along for the ride. It’s been fifty years. Time to give up pelting the writers over trivial inconsistencies that would simply be ignored in real life. It’s not Doctor Who, where the very nature of The Doctor demands inconsistency. Besides, back when I indulged in cosplay, this sort of nitpicking sucked all the joy out being a fan. One idiot told me I could never write fanfic involving Harry Mudd, the lovable rogue who gave Kirk and company migraines in the original series. When I asked why, he said that Roger Carmel, the actor who played Mudd, was dead. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were going to show up on my doorstep with a bunch of red ink. Rick Berman would shake his fist thusly at a pizza delivery driver from Cincinnati no one had ever heard of. That kind of lunacy.

But it’s also time to bring Trek back to its original story. The altered timeline with a Kirk who is something of a cross between Han Solo and Stifler from American Pie works for the Abrams movies. Now, let’s get back to why people even care about him in the first place. You can’t duplicate Shatner (which is why Kirk’s character was selected to be the epicenter of the altered timeline), but you can build on what he did previously. And it’s not that you need to ignore the latest movies. Why should you? They’re fun. (OK, I do still cringe whenever I see Spock bellow “Khaaaaaaaannnnnn!!!!“)

It’s something to think about. Besides, Trek is a story about explorers. Exploration is better suited for TV. Movies are for high action and epic battles.

Which is why Abrams needs to do Star Wars.



Friday Reviews: 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann

1493: Uncovering the World Columbus Created

Charles C. Mann

In his first book on the impact of Columbus’s voyages, 1491, Charles Mann described how our commonly held assumptions about the Americas before Columbus are fundamentally wrong. The Americas, he showed, was a thriving continent of about 200 million people. While the Black Death is often cited as the greatest biological disaster in human history, it actually was the fifty-year rampage of small pox through the native populations in the Americas, an event that sounds like Stephen King’s The Stand.

In 1493, Mann shows how the meeting of east and west inaugurated a new epoch in the history of the planet, the homogenicine. Many foods that we think of as being Asian or American or European actually originated somewhere else. For instance, China is the largest producer of sweet potatoes. The Chinese never saw a sweet potato before 1500 nor did Europe know what maize (You call it corn) was until then.

Mann does not shirk from the atrocities committed by Europeans and Chinese in the early days of globalization. He also shows how metal-based money, based on American silver, ultimately wrecked the economies and political clout of Spain and China, then the two most powerful nations on Earth. But he also shows how the mixing of Spaniards and Portuguese with natives in America, Africans brought as chattel slaves, and Asians looking to do business in Mexico created an entirely new race.

At the same time, the Golden Age of Discovery likely saved many populations in Europe and Asia from ruin and ultimately may have ended what is known as The Little Ice Age. Had small pox not decimated the Americas ahead of colonization, the tribes living in the New World might have benefited from the advent of European crops. For good or ill, Mann posits, the world we now live in would not be possible without what he dubs “the Columbian exchange.”