Sunday, 31 August 2008

The Crown of the Continent '08

The summer was a slow start for us here at Voyages Extraordinaires. Unfortunately, work and life issues plagued us for the first half, only freeing us up for travel towards the end of July and through August. The first of our trips was camping our way through the land designated "The Crown of the Continent" by National Geographic, Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Living close to a world wonder tends to dilute its significance. Spanning the 49th Parallel, the world's first International Peace Park - also a UNESCO World Heritage Site - is composed of Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada, and Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. From our home office in Calgary, it is only a short drive of a few hours along a major highway. However, the park also spans the Continental Divide, resulting in some of the most remarkable scenery to be seen anywhere in the world. It's what reminds us that this local getaway is the sort of place that other people save up their entire lives to visit.

We've been to the Canadian side of the park many times. The grassy prairies roll up to the foot of the Canadian Rocky Mountains on the eastern edge of the park, a unique geological circumstance reducing the formation of the foothills prevalent further north. Over this ancestral land of the Blackfoot First Nation, the mesa-like Chief Mountain stands eternal guard, gateway to the sublime landscape of towering peaks and abyssal valleys lying within.

A paddock of bison, a small remnant of the once great herds that roamed the continent, welcome us to Waterton Lakes National Park on every visit. Between these visits, we've experience most attractions available in the front-country. We've sat for high tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, the iconic lodge standing high on a picturesque bluff, its great picture windows presenting a vista of the body of water for which the park is named. We've sailed to the American side aboard the antique International cruise ship, the border between the two countries marked only by two solitary pillars and a swath cut through the forest. We've walked through the ferrous-rich gullies of Red Rock Canyon, blazing like fire in the afternoon sun. We've stood on the shores of the placid alpine Cameron Lake, silent in the chilly twilight, while grizzly bears eek out a living on the far slopes beneath Mount Custer. We've heard the evening winds roar through the valley, whipping up the waves before hitting our tent with furious force.

Upper Waterton Lake and Cameron Falls,
Waterton Lakes National Park.

This summer presented an opportunity to go further afield, deep into the American side of the Canadian Rockies along the Going-to-the-Sun Road. An incredible engineering feat completed in 1932, it is one of the most scenic drives in the world. In a constant stream between the Grand Railway Hotels dispersed through the park - Prince of Wales Hotel, Many Glaciers Lodge, Lake MacDonald Lodge and the Glacier Park Lodge - antique red touring buses ply the road, crossing the Divide at Logan Pass and down into the cedar-hemlock forest on the eastern side.

One of the antique Red Buses.

Significant of the "National Parks Rustic" style, the Going-to-the-Sun Road seems to grow organically, geologically from the hillsides. Bridges constructed of native rock span Sunrift Gorge, leading down to Baring Falls, or perch precariously in impossible ways across the Three Arches. A low wall is all that saves the many automobiles and Harley-Davidson motorcycles (signifying one of the great American road trips) from a steep drop off the gargantuan mountainside. Mountains like Going-to-the-Sun tower to heights unimaginable even to the seasoned veteran of the Canadian Rockies further north in Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper.

St. Mary Lake and Going-to-the-Sun
Mountain, Glacier National Park.

The Continental Divide was especially impressive, as sublime as it was in its scope. The ranger station at Logan Pass or a bend near the "Weeping Wall", an outcrop over which pours a constant stream of water, allows one to stretch their legs, hiking paths through the glacial cirques and above the treeline, usually inaccessible from the valley floor. Logan Pass sits at 6600ft above sea level, the closest peaks another two to three thousand feet higher.

Though the paucity of photographs might suggest otherwise (and, quite unfortunately, we are currently experiencing Windows Movie Maker problems), the landscape of Waterton-Glacier is one of the most stirring that we have ever had the privilege of encountering. The Canadian Rockies as a whole are truly, as the Blackfoot suggest, the Backbone of the World. The dazzling vertical expanses of Waterton-Glacier are the crown.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Steampunk (2000)

When the comic series Steampunk, by Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo, was first published in 2000, it was pretty roundly panned and ignored by fans of the genre "Steampunk". At the time, "Steampunk" was merely a type of Sci-Fi, a handy label invented by author K.T. Jeter for modern imitators of Victorian Scientific Romances. For the relatively obscure branch of fans who were interested in the genre, Steampunk was unimpressive. Its existence made possible by the runaway success of Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the comparisons were inevitable and unflattering. Furthermore, just using the name of the genre as the name of the comic was an audacious move made all the worse by promotional materials that made it sound like Kelly and Bachalo invented the whole concept. It seemed like Steampunk was to Steampunk as Marilyn Manson was to Goth music: a cheap attempt at appropriating the image with no regard for the history, development and breadth of the genre.

If we only knew then what we know now! With that in mind, it's worth letting bygones be bygones, putting one's nose back into joint and reassessing Steampunk's merits. The conclusion one reaches is that while the comic is not a masterpiece as such, it's not really all that bad. The main problem left after finishing the two published volumes is that the story is incomplete.

The misfortune of Kelly and Bachalo is that they were way ahead of the curve, as was nearly everything with which it was contemporaneous. Steampunk was released in the same turn of the century melieu that saw the rapid release of Wild Wild West, Back to the Future Part III, Disney's Tarzan, Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet into theatres, The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and the Doctor Who revival on television, GURPS Steampunk and Forgotten Futures into RPG stores. The market for these comic, films, shows and games was a few years off yet, and the only one of them to really light a fire under anything was the aforementioned League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, benefitting as it did from the name and talents of Alan Moore.

Had Steampunk been released now rather than in 2000, there is little doubt that the series would have reached completion. However, it couldn't find its audience then and was cancelled halfway through its planned 25 issue run. This abrupt ending leaves the reader unfulfilled on the plight of the mysterious Cole Blaquesmith, his entourage and his nemesis Lord Absinthe. Not that these couldn't be extrapolated, barring any jarring and controversial plot twists that Kelly might have thrown in those hypothetical latter issues. By the end of the 12th issue, key resolutions seem obvious.

This much can be gleaned from what has been released: a pair of graverobbers on the outskirts of Absinthian London in 1837 happen across a dusty and forgotten tomb in which lies a glass mechanical coffin. Within this lies Cole Blaquesmith, a fisherman from a century prior whose heart has been replaced with a coal furnace and his right arm replaced with a powerful mechanism. He awakens to a horrible alternate future which Lord Absinthe has turned into a shambling, smog-ridden nightmare governed by technological and biological monstrocities. Cole knows that it's not supposed to be this way... 100 years before he came to this same Dr. Absinthe, a mad scientist of the most perverse order, to find a cure for his dying aristocratic teacher Ms. Fiona. Absinthe failed to save her, but still tricked Cole into delivering into his hands the technology of 1950's London via time machine. The resistance to Absinthe finds Cole and with them in tow, including the enchanced assassin who would have been Queen Victoria, he works to unravel the mystery of himself, this alternate future, Ms. Fiona and the all-powerful Engine.

Artistically, the setting of Steampunk bore much in common with Bachalo's previous work on Marvel's Age of Apocalypse X-Men crossover. Many ques are the same between the post-apocalyptic world ruled by a scientific madman. More interesting is to step back and consider the image of the genre drafted by an American writer and an American illustrator. In many ways, the comic a highly compressed American vision of England. It covers three eras, all of which are iconic for Britain in the American consciousness, being the Georgian Era of Romantic poets and the American Revolution, the Victorian Era, and the 1950's/60's British Invasion of Mod hipsters. Together it forms an interesting, if culturally amusing, amalgam.

Perhaps it is only an odd form of nostalgia that, in light of later developments, would cause one to reevaluate something like Steampunk. Kind of like a Goth going back and recognizing that maybe, just maybe, Portrait of an American Family isn't such a bad album after all. It hearkens from that time before photoshoots and computer mods became the whole sum and substance of what was once the genre of Steampunk, and in that way it can almost be forgiven.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D (2008)

No doubt any of our readers who have wanted to see the 2008, 3D novelty film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth will have done so already. However, in the interests of those who haven't, we are posting a review out of our usual order. We're ordinarily not on top of reviewing current books and films unless specifically asked to do so, but the problem presented by Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is that it has practically no redeeming value if not seen in theatres, and because of that, it is not going to be in theatres for very much longer.

This Brendan Fraser vehicle really is a ridiculous film. While watching it and dodging the various things flying at our faces, the thought that kept crossing our minds was that this is a very dorky film. We've never considered a film to be itself dorky. We've been considered dorky - that odd combination of clumsy ineptitude but therein possessing a certain weird charm - for liking certain films, but never considered a film itself to be dorky. Produced by Walden Media, it follows in a line of what we may retroactively recognize as rather dorky films: Chronicles of Narnia, Bridge to Terabitha, The Waterhorse, Holes, and not the least of which, Around the World in 80 Days somehow starring Jackie Chan. Journey is a good chess club fit with this bunch.

Like a dork, it's got a neat little trick, a gimmick. It doesn't do magic tricks nor does it wear a top hat and goggles to the nightclub... It's 3D, and loves throwing that literally in your face. At the beginning of the film, yoyos and books are being tossed out at the viewer in rapid succession, screaming "lookitme! I'm 3D!" But like a dork, it overdoes it. It's not content to just do magic tricks, but has to wear a velvet cape and call itself "Zoltar". It's not content to just wear top hats and goggles, but has to pretend that doing so is a revolutionary lifestyle choice. The 3D effects ironically work best when it's not trying to do anything with them, when the characters are simply walking through a scene with dimensional depth. However, Journey still tries to throw contrived roller coaster mine cart scenes at you lifted directly from Disneyland Paris by way of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Beating beneath the overdone gimmick is the socially awkward heart of the dork. For inexplicable reasons, Brendan Fraser's science hero has to stop and give exposition on how exactly you can calculate the depth of a hole by how long it takes a dropped flare to hit the bottom, or on various rock and mineral types. Journey may have been trying to capture the spirit of Jules Verne by throwing science fact in with the adventure fiction, but it comes of like a... well... dork who knows these little factoids that she tries to interject nonsequiters to impress people with how much she knows, only to either amuse or annoy.

To be fair, or at least to spread things around, the film provides ample opportunity for its viewers to be dorks as well. The boy hero of the age and gender balanced trio running through the rocky plains of inner earth fleeing a Tyrannosaurus, telling himself "I wish I read the book", gives someone who is far too familiar with the source material the chance to whisper under their breath "don't worry, this part wasn't in it." The premise is that the brother of modern scientist Brendan Fraser was a "Vernian", a person who believes that Jules Verne's writings were documentaries, not fiction. Missing 10 years prior, Fraser, his nephew and their hot blonde female Icelandic guide go into the centre of the earth to find him, discovering that he was right.

We cannot imagine that this film is worth seeing without the 3D effects, or even with the 3D effect on a small screen, assuming that the home video version will include the 3D effects and glasses. The only real reason to take it in, in all it's dorkiness, is ultimately for the 3D... Which means if you want to see it, do it now. Low returns and empty theatre seats suggest that the opportunity won't be there much longer.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Alchemy of Stone (2008)

The Alchemy of Stone is the newest novel by Ekaterina Sedia, author of The Secret History of Moscow, who was also kind enough to provide the story Amber Ships for us here. According to the publisher's blurb:
Mattie, an intelligent automaton skilled in the use of alchemy, finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between gargoyles, the Mechanics, and the Alchemists. With the old order quickly giving way to the new, Mattie discovers powerful and dangerous secrets - secrets that can completely alter the balance of power in the city of Ayona. However, this doesn't sit well with Loharri, the Mechanic who created Mattie and still has the key to her heart - literally!

If you read the aforementioned Amber Ships, then you already have an appreciation for Sedia's thick and descriptive writing style. Little escapes detailed notice in her heavily textured and atmospheric world. There is an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia in her city, pushing in on the reader with its scents and lingering, musky, smokey stimuli.

Within the city, Sedia covers a great deal of dramatic ground. The Alchemy of Stone is ultimately a web of allegories for the perfectly ordinary lying beneath a fantastic world of living gargoyles, alechmist automatons, men who capture ghosts within themselves and the giant contraptions of mechanic-kings. She charts the transition of a society from a hereditary aristocracy through revolutionary ferment while, via the political intrigues between mechanics and alchemists, the passing from a more romantic, rural age of traditional wisdom to a modern age of heavy industry and its deleterious effects on society.

The most potent moments for this reviwer were those that dealt with issues of prejudice and descrimination. The heroine Mattie has made good (or was made good) as an emancpiated female automaton, and that position allows her to experience and observe the dynamics of racism. On the one hand she is filled with revulsion at the mindless automatons who go about their slavish labours while on the other she objects to the racial epithet "clunker" being shouted at her. Mattie is accepted within both the alchemist and mechanic parties, but only because she is seen as inconsequential. She is savvy enough, however, to use the prejudice to her advantage when straddling the social order between the elite and the underclass of women and workers.

The universality of her allegory provides the only meaningful fault with Sedia's novel, being that the setting is itself inconsequential. The imaginative "Steampunk" world isn't really made use of. The automatons, the gargoyles, the lizard-wagons, the Soul-Smoker, the alechmists end up being window dressing to a story that could be told with a minimum of change in any society, real or fictional, mirroring the last two centuries' political, social and economic upheavals.

There is certainly a fine line between crafting a timeless tale and making use of a genre in such a way that the story couldn't be sensible in any other setting. If we take The Alchemy of Stone as an attempt to weigh in on the question, it would seem that Sedia threw down with timeless universality. However, there is certainly no shortage of novels, especially in Science Fiction, that are so genre-specific that they become incomprehensibly mired in jargon and abstractions. As a story of racial descrimination and the effects of technology on the worker, it is a worthy and richly descriptive novel.