A Chinese Puzzle by Franz Kafka

Once there was a Chinese puzzle, a cheap simple toy, not much bigger than a pocketwatch and without any sort of surprising contrivances. Cut into the flat wood, which was painted reddish-brown, there were some blue labyrinthine paths, which all led into a little hole. The ball, which was also blue, had to be got into one of the paths by means of tilting and shaking the box, and then into the hole. Once the ball was in the hole, the game was over, and if one wanted to start all over again, one had first to shake the ball out of he hole. The whole thing was covered over with a strong, convex glass, one could not put the puzzle in one's pocket and carry it about with one, and wherever one was, one could take it out and play with it.

If the ball was unemployed, it spent most of the time strolling to and fro, its hands clasped behind its back, on the plateau, avoiding the paths. It held the view that it was quite enough bothered with the paths during the game and that it had every right to recuperate on the open plain when no game was going on. Sometimes it would look up at the vaulted glass, but merely out of habit and quite without any intention of trying to make out anything up there. It had a rather straddling gait and maintained that it was not made for those narrow paths. That was partly true, for indeed the paths could hardly contain it, but it was also untrue, for the fact was that it was very carefully made to fit the width of the paths exactly, but the paths were certainly not meant to be comfortable for it, or else it would not have been a puzzle at all.

The Music of You

We are like music. 

Music is a pattern. A specific arrangement of sound waves playing through time. Who we are, our consciousness, the "I" that is reading these words, is a also pattern. An arrangement of biology and neurology shaping itself through time.

Our genes are like the score. One may think the entirety of the music is contained within these symbols, but this is not true. The instruments, the performers, the acoustics, an unlimited number of factors beyond the symbols upon the page define the sound we hear. Our genes gives us limits and form but they do not define us.

Our epigenetics, our gene expression as governed by our embryological and childhood environment, are like the instruments. A classical piece can be varied endlessly based on the instruments selected by the orchestra. The sound of a rock ballad comes as much from the guitar as from the player and score. And our music, no matter the score, can almost never reach its full potential when played through instruments damaged by a life marred by early malnutrition or abuse or disease.

Our psychology, the facets of ourselves that grow from our upbringing and choices in life, are like the players in an orchestra or band. We each contain multitudes within us. Urges and fears and moods that fade in and out, combining in infinite variations, each sometimes the dominant force and sometimes barely present. They may be tied to the score before them and limited by the instruments they hold, but ultimately the music is determined by the players.

So who are we in this scheme of things? What is left for the conscious actor residing behind our eyes? We are the conductor or producer. The one who directs the players of our psychology, signaling to them how to make use of the instruments of our physicality to best play the music of our genes. We are responsible for the music of our lives even if much of it is ultimately beyond our control. Many a great piece of music has gone to waste through an inattentive conductor. And on occasion a passionate producer has created a beautiful album from the work of unreliable players upon substandard instruments.

This Machine

         Bravo was alive for six months. He is now four years old.

         He awakens in a chamber barely large enough to contain the twenty-foot metal fuselage of his body. He is held inches above the floor by three clamps connecting him to the ceiling. His steel wings lay folded above him. There are no lights in the chamber, but Bravo can see by the infrared that radiates from his own metal shell.

         He knows from experience that the bay doors beneath him will open in minutes. He spends this time running diagnostics. Opening and closing his aerial flaps, dilating his exhaust nozzle, and spinning the fans of the jet engine that runs through his core. It feels like stretching, but despite the familiarity instilled by repetition Bravo has never been able to shake the feeling that something is off during these diagnostics. A sense that there are pieces of himself he is unable to stretch. As the seconds tick by until the doors open this sense of loss gradually gnaws at him.

         Bravo’s controllers do not know his thoughts. They do know that his alertness drops precipitously between awakening and his release. Early in the program there was a brief effort to learn the reason but it was quickly deemed immaterial. Bravo’s focus always returns with his release and the researchers time was needed in areas more critical to the war.

          Beneath Bravo the steel floor opens. The clamps holding him release and he begins to fall. His atmospheric sensors report an airspeed of 749 miles per hour. He feels the data like a rush of wind and all former confusion is forgotten in the pure joy of flight. Carefully unfolding his wings he revels in the gentle push and pull of contesting the wind with his steel limbs.

         Scanning his surroundings he sees above him the bomber from which he was so recently released. It’s little more than a black dot now, already so far from him that it’s close to vanishing into the blue-black of the high altitude sky. Closer, before and behind him, Bravo finds his companions, Alpha and Charlie. This is Bravo’s favorite part of the drop. The closest he gets to his friends. The three of them sharing the safety of the upper atmosphere. Soon the time will come for them to part, each veering off to their own individual target, but for now Bravo is not alone.

         Though they no longer come close enough to see each other’s markings Bravo can distinguish his friends by their movements. Alpha always flattens out at the beginning. Slowing his descent until he hangs in the sky above Bravo and Charlie. Once, Alpha’s target was reassigned mid-mission, but he’d dived too quickly in the drop and had been unable to reach his new target. Ever since he’s overcompensated with this early slowness.

         Charlie always begins a wide, evasive corkscrew as soon as he’s unfolded his wings. At this altitude they lie far above the effective ceiling of any anti-air defense, but Charlie has been intercepted more often than Bravo or Alpha and his bad luck has made him paranoid.

         There was a time when they would spend these moments of safety before the mission began approaching each other. Spiraling about one another in playful circles. Bravo remembers those early missions fondly. Before they all grew so different.

         Alpha and Charlie begin to depart, Alpha rocketing toward the horizon while Charlie banks sharply to the left. For a moment Bravo watches the receding figures of his friends, then he pitches forward and identifies his own target. A dense grouping of concrete buildings sixty-thousand feet below. He fires his engine and accelerates downward.

         At fifty thousand feet he hits the first defense. Near the primary target building is a structure that has begun to glow in the infrared spectrum. A laser battery preparing to fire. Bravo flings himself into an erratic spiral as the space he occupied the previous second is lanced by a brilliant beam of laser light. The beam follows him, chasing him through the open air. For twenty-thousand feet Bravo moves incessantly and unpredictably to stay ahead of the pursuing beam in a well practiced aerial dance.

         At thirty thousand feet Bravo detects via millimeter wave radar the distinctive pattern of incoming flak rounds. Raising aerial flaps Bravo dives straight down, barely avoiding the first storm of steel shrapnel. For the next ten thousand feet Bravo moves furiously, slipping between bursts of artillery fire while still leading the trailing laser.

         A brilliant flash near the horizon tells Bravo that Alpha has been hit. He feels a surge of sympathy, knowing too well the pain that comes upon awakening from a failed mission, but he puts the emotion aside. These defenses shouldn’t have been enough to bring Alpha down. It’s likely there is something new on the way.

         Bravo spots it just before it hits him. The barely perceptible infrared glow of the small missile’s exhaust. A new model invisible to all radar frequencies. Bravo is just able to roll out of its path, his fuselage singed by its passing.

         The missile banks a tight turn and enters a new intercept course. It’s faster than Bravo. It will soon catch up with him if he can’t get rid of it. He fires his thrusters to their limit, burning up much of his remaining fuel, and pulls upward into a vertical loop. Putting himself on a direct collision course with the trailing laser.

         At the top of the loop, only feet away from the incinerating beam, Bravo pitches violently away from the lasers path. The missile blindly following Bravo does not. The beam passes effortlessly through it splitting the missile into two glowing halves.

         Bravo feels a sharp stab of pain. The laser took off a few inches of his left wing, reducing his maneuverability, but it matters little. He’s now within five hundred feet and falling fast. Soon he’s beneath the firing angle of the laser and the artillery with the target lying directly beneath him. He’s won.

         Bravo feels the heady rush of pleasure that’s administered with a successful mission. He relaxes and waits to be awakened once more within a darkened chamber. A command hardwired within his circuitry, set to trigger at one hundred feet to target or upon hull breach, activates. A digital snapshot of his neural network at that instant is transmitted back to his controllers via encrypted satellite connection. This image will then be uploaded into a new shell for the next mission. The Bravo in that new shell will remember everything that’s happened up till the moment that command was triggered.

         But this Bravo is still falling.

         He’s at 90 feet to target. He’s never been at ninety feet to target. A sudden fear consumes him. He begins to panic, frantically trying to think of anything he’s done wrong. Power drains from all other systems to his central processor as he desperately searches his memories for anything that might make sense of this situation. He’s made thousands of drops, but not once does he remember ever passing one hundred feet to target. With the extra power his processing speed increases exponentially, speeding his thoughts, and as his thoughts race faster his perception of time slows. He’s at twenty feet to target and every millisecond has become an eternity.

         He hits the concrete. His metal exterior begins to crumple and his simulated nerves howl with pain. A fraction of a second later the 1.5 kiloton payload inside his core detonates, but his overclocked thoughts outrace the speed of the expanding fireball and as the explosion blooms within him Bravo feels something new. His entire hull is reporting rapidly increasing temperature and this data is translated into a striking, blissful sensation. Bravo feels warm.

            His pain and his fear melt away as the warmth absorbs his entire consciousness. But then he realizes what the strangest thing about this feeling is. It’s familiar. He knows he’s felt this before and in the nanosecond before his circuits boil he tries to recall when that was. His mind is drawn further and further back through his memory until in the kernel of his neural net he finds it. Just before the end Bravo remembers when he ran through grass on legs of muscle and bone. He remembers a hand that would run gently across his fur, and a kind voice telling him “Good boy. Good dog.”

Review: Bojack Horseman Season One

Halfway through the first season of BoJack Horseman something remarkable begins to happen. By degrees, over a handful of episodes, the show transforms itself from a middling comedy into one of television's (or the internet's) most affecting dramas. 

For the first seven or so episodes it seems clear what kind of show this is. A witty dark comedy about a washed up actor as an initially selfish, unlikable protagonist. When, in the first episode, he is forced by his agent to work with Diane, a sensitive and funny woman who also happens to be dating BoJack's carefree rival Mr. Peanutbutter, we think we see the beats coming. There will be romantic tensions and misunderstandings before, ultimately, the incompatibility of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter becomes apparent and BoJack can swoop in, reveal his heart of gold, and they can all live moderately happily ever after. A story of redemption with some dark undercurrents. Except, as the show rolls on we realize it has set up these expectations in order to systematically demolish them.

We wait expectantly for that moment of redemption but it never arrives. Instead BoJack's acts of selfishness become increasingly egregious and destructive as he insults, sabotages, and hurts everyone close to him. Simultaneously the show manages to make BoJack more and more sympathetic as we learn about his emotionally crippling childhood and the bad but all too human decisions that turned him into the person he is now. Finally, in the penultimate episode, BoJack asks Diane, himself, and the audience the question that has been at the heart of this whole show: is Bojack, deep down, a good person? 

We've seen his story from the inside and so we know that his intentions, while often selfish, were never outright malicious. We understand why he did all that he did and we see that it haunts him. But how much do good intentions and regret count when weighed against the actual consequences of ones actions? The show, to its great credit, is more interested with the questions than with answers, though Diane does eventually have one for Bojack. It's a good one, even though it's one that cuts to the core, but it is only her answer. It is not the answer. Because, contrary to what is often taught on television, sometimes in life there are no answers.

Review: Blue Velvet

The great shock of Blue Velvet doesn't lie in any of it's notorious violence and sex, but rather in its earnestness.

From the very first shots of the movie there seems like there could be no doubt this movie will be a satire. How else could one interpret this montage of sickeningly sweet suburban images, ending in the zoom into the dark, writhing world of insects that lies underneath the perfect suburban lawns. So perfectly satirical do these images seem that even the great Roger Ebert couldn't help but conclude that this was the intended effect of the film, and for these he gave it one star believing that the films scenes of raw emotion were cheapened by being in service of little more than mocking suburbia. But it seems to me that Ebert missed the parting message of the film. It's not a mockery at all, rather it's saying that the heart of the small town dream, a life spent in peace and love, is something beautiful. How else can we interpret the denouement of the film where the protagonists watch from their comfortable home a robin, used in the film as a symbol for love, eating the bugs that crawled through the opening sequence? 

There is a wrinkle in that final image though, coming in the form of the old woman (Grandmother? Her role, like many in the film, is left vague) who expresses revulsion that the a bird so lovely could eat something as gross as a bug. Here lies the puzzle at the heart of the film, the relationship between good and evil, between love and hate. Because while Lynch is not actually satirizing small town life, he is saying that evil will still be there, as it will always be everywhere because it is part of ourselves. When Frank recites his menacing, spoken word rendition of Roy Orbison's In Dreams it's not just a showcase of Dennis Hoppers fantastic powers of intimidation, it's also the character acting as a voice for evil itself, telling us that it will always be with us in our unconscious. One is reminded of McCarthy's Blood Meridian, when the protagonist finally escapes from that other incarnation of evil, the judge, only to find that in his dreams "The judge did visit. Who would come other?"

But goodness, true goodness as opposed to the brittle kind seemingly embodied by the grandmother, comes in confronting the darkness in the world and in ourselves and still finding the power to overcome it. This is the victory earned by Kyle Maclachlan's character, symbolized in the robin eating the bug.

Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

I had heard The Periodic Table described as a holocaust memoir couched in the viewpoint of the periodic table. Fitting images are not hard to imagine: the gold of rings and teeth, the carbon of human smoke. But, Primo Levi had, it turns out, already devoted two books to his time inside Auschwitz. Here he presents something more general and more universal. This book encompasses the majority of Levi's life, before and after the war, most of it spent in science. His time in Auschwitz is here given only a single chapter. That of Cerium, telling the story of some cerium rods, a metal which emits sparks when struck, that Levi stole from the chemistry lab he was forced to work at while interned at the camp. He shaped the rods at night in his bunk, a process that risked death through fire or detection, then sold them as flints for black market lighters. The profits kept him feed through the final months in the camps.

Each of the books other twenty chapters similarly revolve around a single element and a time in the authors life connected to that element. Either literally, as that of cerium or when he was employed extracting nickel from the waste rock of an asbestos mine, or symbolically, like when he uses Argon to describe the Jewish community he grew up in, comparing the noble gasses unreactive nature, it exists everywhere as part of air but never binds with any part of the world, to the communities insular nature.

Many of these chapters take a surprisingly deep look into the true complexities of working with these elements. The difficulty in separating nickel or the surprisingly costly task of acquiring chicken shit in the hopes of extracting nitrogen. These real life science stories intertwine with his more politically oriented autobiographical reminiscences, and it may seem like a strange combination: in depth examinations of chemistry problems wedded to ruminations on growing up under the looming specter of fascism, the formative year spent trapped in its nightmarish culmination, and attempting to reconstruct a life afterward. But, for Levi, these things are not separate. They are intimately connected, both inside his own life and philosophically. Science, Levi tells us, is a natural antidote to fascism. By its nature, that of eternally seeking truth, choosing the hard, ego crushing path of acquiescing to material reality instead of giving in to idealistic fantasy, science will always offer a silent rebuttal to the empty rhetoric of fascism.

Review: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

More specifically the novel Over My Dead Body, by Rex Stout, which is the seventh Nero Wolfe mystery but my first.

Supposedly Nero Wolfe was once ranked amongst the most popular fictional detectives. Now his star has faded to the point where I cannot even recall how I managed to hear about him. An interesting character, he possesses an arsenal of quirks that seem designed to set him apart from that perpetual giant of detective fiction, Sherlock Holmes. He is enormously fat. He never leaves his New York Brownstone residence where he maintains a rigorous, inflexible schedule consisting mainly of protracted meals prepared by his live in chef and hours dedicated to tending the orchids grown on the top floor. But while most of us if inflicted with such a laundry list of eccentricities would be forced to live off disability, Nero is saved from that by spending his off hours unraveling New York's most baffling crimes, all without ever leaving the house. Instead he sends out his agents, notably our narrator Archie Goodwin, to gather evidence, witnesses, and suspects and bring back to him for further analysis. At last, after much thought and more gardening, he inevitably and climatically brings all interested parties into his office where he unveils the true culprit and motive as revealed by his supposedly gigantic intellect. 

It's a great formula, but you'll notice the use of the word supposedly in that last sentence. For while Rex Stout clearly wants us to believe Nero's mind to be at the same level as his Baker Street predecessor, none of his deductions ever manage to truly impress, and sadly one cannot make up for talent with defects in character. Though that hasn't stopped many from trying. And so I was ready to close the book on Nero Wolfe, content to let Over My Dead Body be my first and only foray into his universe. But, as the days have gone by I find myself thinking more and more about that cozy, expansive Brownstone house and its quirky inhabitants. At last I've realized this must have been the true reason for Wolfe's appeal. That even if the mysteries solved in that house are of subpar quality, the setting they are solved in is sublimely charming. It was a delightful place to let ones mind rest for an evening or two. Perhaps one I may find myself visiting again from time to time.

Review: True Detective Season One

The Spoiler Free Version:

Go watch True Detective.


The Spoiler Full Version:

Everything about this show is top notch, from the music to the cinematography to the acting, but I'm going to talk about the writing. Even with that narrow focus there is so much to talk about, but let's begin with the true heart of the show: Rust and Marty. These two are the greatest incarnation of the Holmes and Watson archetype in a very, very long time. I say Holmes and Watson, but of course in creating them Doyle pulled from Poe's Dupin and Narrator. And if we go back further than that, much further, we can more properly call it the Gilgamesh and Enkidu archetype. In that story, the oldest of all stories, we are given the most transparent view of the essence of that relationship. Enkidu, or Watson or Marty, is of the natural world. He is simple, direct, and lustful, enamored of the simple pleasures of life. He serves to balance Gilgamesh and connect him to the rest of the world. Gilgamesh without Enkidu is selfish and cruel, the embodiment of the Chinese proverb "A great man is a public misfortune." But, with Enkidu at his side Gilgamesh is able to see the folly of his ways and work for the betterment of society. He becomes a great man on the side of the common man. He becomes a hero, and together the two are able to defeat the true monsters of the world. 

In many ways Enkidu, or Marty or Watson, is the real hero of these stories. The one who doesn't need a friend to keep their ego in check. The one naturally on the side of the people. But, Enkidu alone is not a story, for without Gilgamesh he is complacent. So much a part of the world that he doesn't try to change it. We need Gilgamesh, the outsider who struggles for what he is outside of, to have the story. Which brings us to Rust. Rust who positions himself as the ultimate outsider to normal society by maintaining that life is a mistake. That people should "Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction - one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal" as he says, seemingly pulling from Zapffe's Last Messiah.

I haven't looked into it yet, but I have no doubt Rust, or at least his monologues, has found himself a devoted fanbase of the same sort who celebrate Fight Club as a ringing endorsement of violent revolution and anarchy rather than the critique of hero worship and obedience that it is. While his monologues are fascinating, to celebrate them misses the true heart of the character. Because despite all his monologues Rust continues to fight for the lives he claims are meaningless. He devotes himself to stopping mothers who smother their children and others who take his purported philosophy to its farthest extreme. Why does he do this? He himself is not able to explain it for most of the series. It's only after he truly confronts the extreme of his philosophy, the man who calls him "Little Priest" and recognizes, somehow, a fellow acolyte of death. Only after he confronts this man and the swirling vortex of nothingness at the heart of this philosophy, only after he undergoes his near death experience, his crucifixion, his eighth-circuit awakening, the apotheosis of his twenty year long dark night of the soul is he able to see the truth. That despite the overwhelming presence of darkness in this world, despite the pain all us sentient meat are subjected to in a world we didn't agree to be born into, the light that makes it worthwhile is still there, and as long as we continue to scratch away at the dark it is winning.
This is why the bulk of True Detective is so overwhelmingly grim. Why it never flinches away from plunging us into the darkest aspects of human nature. It was not for the sake of shock value as many other shows that claim to be 'dark' for the sake of ratings. It's because it has to show us that night so dark it seems total, it has to show us the baby in the microwave, to bring us to the same place as Rust and understand him, in order that we may be shown that darkness is not all there is. That there is light, and by understanding the darkness, understanding the worst in humanity, we are better equipped to fight for it.

That's some damn good writing.

Of course, it's not a perfect show. I doubt such a thing can even exist, and there are plenty of nits I feel the compulsion to pick. The penultimate episode, After You've Gone, was a bit of a drag all around. While hearing Carcossa rants from psychos and tweakers and LSD inspired diary entries is chilling, in After You've Gone we get to hear the same babble from a nice old lady who, though later accused of having dementia, is never shown to us as being anything but mentally sound. The results make Carcossa sound like the weird fiction it's pulled from rather than foreboding presence it is for the rest of the series, and gave the series it's only moment of bathos. Finally, in the last episode, while Rust was thematically heading for a crucifixion from the moment he brings up his habit of 'contemplating the moment in the garden,' I'm not sure it had to be quite so on the nose as being stabbed in the side, descending into a three day, near death coma, and coming out the other side with hair more messianic than ever. 

Though, perhaps Rust's near death journey has a closer parallel in Odin, who hung himself from the World Tree and pierced his side so that he might go through near death and gain wisdom. Further echoed by Rust's left eye being wounded to the point of appearing lost when he first wakes in the hospital, mirroring Odin's other trial of giving up an eye for yet more wisdom. Of course, for this argument one would have to ignore the preponderance of Christian imagery in the show and its total lack of Norse symbolism. So why do I bring it up? Because maybe the reason these comparisons can be made so easily is what Rust tells us at the end. It's just one story. The story of light versus darkness. The light of the love extolled by Christ, of the wisdom prized by Odin, of the justice of a society that punishes those who hurt the weak, versus the darkness of violence, of cruelty, of ignorance and blind obedience, the 'chain of command' that the sheriff falls back on to avoid the guilt of allowing children to be taken by the dark. The darkness that comes when people give themselves wholly to the direction of another human being, believing them to be perfect, placing them above suspicion. Because no one is perfect. We all have our dark sides and the only way they can be truly kept in check is for all of us to be equal.

That brings us to True Detectives stance on religion. Something to note is that this show is so well crafted that even the most fundamentalist, hard line Christians could, in theory, enjoy it as a tale of devil worshipers brought to justice. When really the deeper message of the story is that Christianity, at least that of the Tuttle brand with its dogma of blind obedience and faith, is not so far removed from the most ancient, predatory forms of belief. That, in Rust's words, they all amount to "one monkey looked at the sun and told the other monkey, 'He said for you to give me your fucking share.'" It doesn't matter whether it's done in the name of the Sun, or God, or the Yellow King, that kind of system will always be a doorway for the most evil among us to gain power over the rest. 

However, one shouldn't mistake this withering critique of organized religion or Rust's frequent monologues as a condemnation of religion entire. Indeed, one of the most surprising, sympathetic, perhaps overlooked characters the show gives us is the revivalist minister Joel Theriot. When first encountered he seems suspicious if not outright sinister, it's only later that we learn his whole story. That he left Tuttle's organization after his attempts to reveal pedophilia among its leaders ended with being framed for embezzlement, that over the years he's given up on preaching because he's found that nearness to God can only be found in silence. In fact, if Rust hadn't been so busy criticizing his congregation he may have recognized much of the ministers sermon (the text of which was graciously made the top comment of that video). The core of this sermon, the ideas Theriot is wrestling, how we are both simultaneously a part of nature and apart from nature, that we are prisoners of our senses and corporeality, are the exact same ideas that Rust wrestles with for the whole of the show. And the answer Theriot tries to tell him, if only Rust had had ears to hear, is the same Rust finds in the end. Theriot may call it God while Rust calls it the universe, but the essence is realizing our oneness with it and with each other. 

This Month's Reading - May 2015 - Heroes and Knights

I recently took the dive back into the world of comic books. Among others I caught up on the always fun Atomic Robo and the beautifully weird Prophet. I also, for the first time, read some of Chris Claremont's legendary run on X-Men. Claremont, if you don't know, is the one credited with turning the X-Men into sales juggernaut it was in the 80's and early 90's. How did he do this? Simple, he turned it into a soap opera. He took what was a small, ragtag group of superpowered teens and turned it into a sprawling family drama full of strained relationships and shocking hereditary revelations. To this day there is probably no family more complicated, more, well, soap opera-y than the Summers family. Under Claremont the X-Men leader Cyclops, real name Scott Summers, went from a lonely orphan to the center of a family drama encompassing long lost siblings, an absent father turned space pirate, time displaced future children, a wife who suffers from chronic case of dying, and clones of all of the above. And the comic buying audience of 1983 loved it. But why? Why did an audience largely made up of teen boys fall in love with this drama? Because truthfully young boys love melodrama just as much as young girls. They're dealing with some big, unfamiliar emotions and big, sweeping emotion is what they want from their fiction. They just want to see it from a guys perspective. Especially if that guy shoots lasers out of his eyes.
So are the stories good? Well, as literature, of course not. It's maudlin and mawkish and from that stand point hard to take seriously. But, I'm a proponent of judging works based on what they're attempting to do. How well a work meets its goals. X-Men is not trying to be Tolstoy. X-Men is trying to be a place of respite for (to quote Tom Haverford) teens, tweens, and everything-in-betweens. A place for them to see characters dealing with the kind of emotions they themselves are having trouble with, but magnified a thousand fold. And, most importantly, to see these characters overcome those problems. X-Men by it's nature has an advantage in this regard. Its premise, a group of young people hated and feared for their uniqueness, is especially appealing to teenagers, but Claremont tapped the potential of that premise like no one before, or perhaps since. So, with the proper expectations, these stories are fantastically good, and, if you let them, still engrossing as an adult. After all, our 12 year old selves are still inside us somewhere. We contain all our previous versions. And if you don't believe that, try reading The Dark Phoenix Saga and see if you don't feel some younger aspect of yourself stir at the larger than life battles being waged, both physical and emotional.

After that I dipped further into the history of comics with the first two years of Spider-Man, courtesy of Marvel's Epic Collection imprint. If 80's X-Men is a gateway to your inner 13 year old, Stan Lee's Spider-Man is the perfect gateway to your inner 8 year old. Here we have the barest rudiments of plot and character, these aspects being wholly subservient to delivering the goods: Exciting action. But, of course, action grows stale without some character to give it stakes and it's here that Stan Lee's real genius shows. The characters are invested with just enough individuality, just enough pathos, to keep the readers interest while taking up as little time as possible. Lee's Peter Parker (or Peter Palmer as he is called for the entirety of issue 3) is not complex. He is, however, far from empty. He worries about his Aunt, he is pestered by the taunts of classmate Flash Thompson, he crushes on Betty Brandt, he hopes to be a scientist. In short he has enough characteristics to feel real, but the characteristics are kept at a perfectly calibrated simplicity to be understandable and relatable to kids. These early Marvel stories are masterpieces of minimalism.

Going back even further I next read the first ever deconstruction of the superhero story: Don Quixote Part One. It's almost a cliche at this point to talk about how superheroes are a modern mythology, but often left out is just how much mythology is ancient superheroes. Origin stories that become increasingly intricate as character traits added later have to be retconned in, logistically improbable team ups, hero vs hero fights fueled by misunderstandings, all these are staples that we tend to think of as unique to the weird world of superheroes are staples of mythology from the Greek heroes of Hercules and Theseus to the superhuman knights of Roland and Orlando. And, as Don Quixote shows us, the larger cultural reaction to these stories has also been consistent across the ages. Near the end of Part One a character launches into a speech against the dominance of simplistic, artistically bankrupt chivalrous knight plays that have edged out more nuanced dramas out of the market and fatally lowered the quality of plays in the world. With a few word changes it would be identical to the criticism frequently launched against Hollywood and its current superhero obsession. The lesson here is that simple, fun entertainment has always been the biggest draw in media. It has never meant the end of culture that some critics always herald it to be.
On the opposite side, that of the fandom, Don Quixote again shows that people never change. Almost everyone Quixote bumps into on his adventures proves to have at least a cursory knowledge of the popular knights and all take great fun in discussing them. Discussions that have a tendency to drift toward deciding which knight is the best, usually meaning which would win in a fight. Everyone shows a combination of amazement and horror at Don Quixotes encyclopedic knowledge of all aspects of knights. Their origins, their exploits, their villains, their crossovers, every bit of minutia he could glean from his personal library of knightly tales. A knowledge which he never fails to use in browbeating others who dare to question his opinions on the knights.
Some have said that Don Quixote was the first modern novel as it focused on reality rather than fantasy, but it has a far greater honor. Being the worlds first depiction of that eternal character: the Comic Book Guy.

Game of Thrones Season 4

Two Swords, or, The Hound Eats Chicken

At long last the Martells show up. And they're the totally not-Moors! I think I'm going to like them.
DRAGONS!! Disrespectful dragons? "Dragons can't be tamed. Even by their mother." Says Jorah. You knew this the whole time Jorah? Sorry I didn't know you took a dragon rearing class back at spy academy.
From the talk of pyramids it looks like the city Daenerys gets to waste screen time steamrolling this time is the totally not-Egyptians. Sounds like fun.
North of the Wall we see more totally-not-Vikings join the plot against the Wall and they've got a real obsession with fat. I fear for Sam.
Come on Shae, are you really jealous of Sansa? She's Sansa.
Finally, Arya and The Hound. Well, all I have to say is this.

The Lion and the Rose, or, A Typical Westeros Wedding

The Boltons. Well that's one way to keep a show going after you've killed of all the good guys. Make worse bad guys. At this point I don't care who does it. The Lannisters, The Greyjoys, the Wildlings, I'll root for anyone who kills the Boltons.
This episode we return to Bran's magical quest. I hate Bran's magical quest. If it wasn't for Hodor it would be without interest.
This episode is the first I recall hearing of this Iron Bank that apparently can make the Lannisters and the (Flower people) afraid. These are some people I want to meet.
Joffrey's dead! That was pretty darn satisfying. Someone should probably let that grandma know that if you're going to poison a dude you probably shouldn't blatantly foreshadow it in front of everyone. "No man should be killed on his wedding day. Just awful. Why I never." I'm onto you ya old bird.

Breaker of Chains, or, One Awkward Viewing

Ah so Little Finger was behind the poisoning. That's a surprise.
We return to the Onion Knight! He needs to be in at least 200% more of this show. And his plotline looks to soon involve the mysterious Iron Bank. Things are looking up.
Daenerys continues her unstoppable and therefore increasingly boring quest to free everyone everywhere. Ya know, clashes of squeky clean moral paragons fight cookie cutter evil with zero dramatic stakes isn't exactly the reason I watch Game of Thrones.
And where are the dragons? I want to see the dragons! I want to know what they're up to!
This episode had the infamous Jamie-Cersei 'rape' episode. Not nearly as rapey as I'd heard. These are warped, complicated characters. It's clear to me that it's not black and white, which is obviously what the creators were going for, even if the execution could use work.

The Oathkeeper, or, Little Boy Blue
Ah, Little Finger and grandma were both behind the poisoning. That those two are plotting together makes me very excited for what may be in store.
Jamie sends Brienne and Podrick to rescue Sansa. This should be good. Though a little unrealistic. Just two people on their own? Isn't that how you lost a hand, man? You don't have anyone else you could send with her?
North of the Wall we find out they're turning babies into White Walkers. Not sure why. I feel like babies would make pretty poor troops. Maybe they make good artillery?
An exiled princess fighting an evil empire. Ice demons living in Skeletor's castle. Knights errant on noble quests. A ragtag group of kids on a magical voyage. This show is rapidly falling into its genre conventions. 

First of his Name, or, That One in the Middle Where Not A Lot Happens

This episode we finally return to the Vale with Lisya the crazy queen and Robyn, her malnourished little creep. I'm surprised it took us so long to get back to them, their sheer crazy was so entertaining.
It is here that we get the biggest revelation this show has had to date, and it has the gall to slip it in so casually that I have no doubt some viewers even missed it. Just the mention that Little Finger was behind the poisoning of the former Hand of the King, the man Ned Stark was called to Kings Landing to replace, and that he got the crazy queen to tell Catelyn that the Lannisters were behind it. This is huge! Little Finger is behind the ENTIRE WAR. He got the Starks killed, including the woman he loved, just for a shot at power! This takes him from sneaky bastard to Dr Doom levels. He's the super villain of Westeros!
Also this episode: Daenerys decides to be queen of place-we-don't-care-about and Bran escapes. Did I mention Bran was captured? Well he was. But he's not anymore.

The Laws of Gods and Men, or, The Gods Have Some Pretty Dumb Laws

What a depressing episode.
We start with possibly the single most miserable segment I've ever seen in a show. Theon's sister not only failing to save him but actually abandoning him to a lifetime of torture. This shit's so miserable it would sap the fun out of even an exciting episode but on top of that we have Shea betraying Tyrion. I wanted to think she was forced to but it seems that she was simply too dumb to see through his dismissal of her. Varys also betrays him, which is no surprise but still sad.
Though we do finally get to see the Iron Bank, run by Mycroft Holmes no less, and Oberon, aka the Batman of Kings Landing, agrees to fight for Tyrion.

Mockingbird, or, Dr Doom in the House

A lot of stuff happens in this episode but what really matters is that Little Finger pushed Lysa off a mountain! This guy is definitely reaching Dr Doom levels. He's now Lord of the Vale and in a position to marry Sansa, making him the rightful ruler of Winterfell. Only problem is he lacks an army, and I don't expect the Lannisters will be too happy about any of this. Well see how he gets out of that one. I have no doubt he has a plan.

The Mountain and the Viper, or, Goodbye Batman

What a fight. What a shock. Oberon, we hardly knew ye.
I have no doubt Tyrion will get out of this little death sentence, mainly because this show's cardinal rule seems to never let you see a death coming. From Ned to Rob to Oberon, it thrives on sudden shock. Although, perhaps spending episodes building up to an execution only to actually have an execution would be its own brand of shocking..
Also North of the Wall the not-Vikings get closer and closer to attacking, and I have to wonder, why does NO ONE else care about this? Where are the reinforcements? How is their letter writing campaign going? We saw Stannis get a letter about it at the end of last season that he's apparently totally forgotten about. What about everyone else? Why aren't the Lannisters ordering the Boltons to send some troops so that this crazy huge army doesn't flood into Westeros.
In Daenerys's little kingdom of boring she finally finds out Joreh was once a spy. In a stunning display of idiocy she decides to banish him. Because a demonstrably won over enemy spy isn't valuable? And banishing your second in command, privy to all your most secret information, is always a good idea. Just ask Ser Barristan. 
Finally, Sansa smartens up for once and as a reward gets a new dress.

The Watchers on the Walls, or, Totally Not Helms Deep
So the Nights Watch has a building sized scythe blade on a giant chain for sweeping the wall. I wonder when they built that? In what century were they just sitting around contemplating different defense projects when one of them said "Ya know what would be great.."
All in all this was some good action with no real surprises. Ygritte died, as we all must have known she would although I'm glad Jon didn't do it, along with almost all of Jon's likable supporting characters. We end with Jon taking off on an assassination mission. Without a sword. Or any food. Not the best plan.

The Children, or, The Skeletons
In some ways every season I marvel that I, and millions of others, keep coming back to this show when every season ends exactly the same way, in despair.
Daenerys continues her season long slide into dullness by deciding to lock up her dragons in the catacombs. Why the catacombs? Why not outside like any other good owner of a potentially dangerous pet? Drama that's why.
And while she seals away the only magical creatures viewers came to the show to see we replace them with magical creatures no one wanted to see: poorly animated skeletons and fireball casting elves. I knew Bran's Magical Quest would have to have a magical ending, but I never expected him to end up at Hogwarts.
And then there's Shae. I could barely believe she was petty and vindictive enough to come back and pin a crime on Tyrion and Sansa she knows they didn't commit. But sleeping with Tywin just to hurt Tyrion? I'm assuming when he sent her away it was with enough money for her to give up whoring, so I can't think of any other reason. That doesn't seem at all like the Shae we spent two seasons getting to know. Maybe she suffered a personality changing head injury just in time to put Tyrion through the emotional crucible.
But, the truly heart wrenching segment of this episode revolved around Arya. The fight between Brienne and The Hound was one of the tensest, not to mention brutal, fights I've ever watched. Two beloved characters who would be on the same side if they only just talked, fighting to the death. No matter who wins, we lose a character. But then, after all that, for Arya to leave The Hound to die alone, in pain. That's just low. After all the time he'd spent protecting her since they met up, and it's not like he was very high on her list to begin with. What did he ever really do to her? Killed a boy she'd just met because he was ordered to. It's not like he had a say in it. Wouldn't it be enough to simply kill him? Does he really deserve worse than the names she's already crossed off with quick deaths? No, and so Arya takes her place among this shows ranks of amoral monsters.
The lone moment of hope in this episode comes from Stannis! The one king in all Westeros actually doing something to protect Westeros!
And so we end. The North is firmly in the control of the Hussein family. Old favorite The Hound and new favorite Oberon are dead and Arya might as well be. So what are we left with? Two plotlines. The adventures of Jon and Stannis and Tyrion and Varys. I can only hope they prove to be buddy-cop-esque.