I keep telling people that I can’t handle anything right now except completely escapist reading and miniseries — the sci-fi I teethed on, the fantasies and Sherlock Holmes pastiches and Marvel action movies.

Except. I’m not at all sure it’s escapism. Sometimes it seems like reframing.

There’s a monologue written by J. Michael Straczynski, spoken at the end of the third season of the shoestring-budget, turned-showrunner’s-hair-white cable series Babylon 5. Prosthetic aliens, space station, plywood star-fighter ships, all of that.

Straczynski grew up in a horror show like you read about. Superhero comics were his only escape; if you want a hair-raising read, pick up his memoir Becoming Superman. There was not a sound mind or a moral compass anywhere in his birth family (I could relate). Superman became his role model instead — someone who always used his power to help, did the right things, saved the desperate, thwarted the cruel and destructive. Full circle, JMS went on to write for the comic in the 80s and 90s, after writing for more TV shows than I can count, and eventually came up with Babylon 5, which at heart is a parable about how much individual choices matter. Some other guy isn’t always going to fix it. Apt in any time, critical in times like these. It’s been pointed out a good many times that J. K\. Rowling was doing something similar with her Potter books.

Here’s the Narn ambassador G’Kar, a complex character (brought to life by the amazing character actor Andreas Katsulas, of blessed memory) who evolves from hedonistic buffoon to prophet, speaking over the end credits of the pivotal third season:

“G’Quon wrote, There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way.

The war we fight is not against powers and principalities – it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender.

The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation.

No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain.”

Here we are, I think. This is going to hurt for a long while. for the rest of our lives really, and I only hope that the world learns something about the important of choices.

I recommend the whole series. The writers of space opera and comics and invented-world fantasies and children’s books have gifts for us.





I have just finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, which despite being a New York Times bestseller has been read by only one person I know so far (the woman who passed me her copy, after seeing it on my Amazon wishlist), and I am contemplating turning it over and reading it again. I don’t think I’ve done this since Ursula Le Guin’s Beginning Place. It is that good, if you are a Fillory kind of person.

Fillory — the name evokes a picture of a theriomorphic and equine Secretary Clinton, but that is my sick mind I guess — stands in for Narnia in Grossman’s universe, a world chronicled lovingly in iconic children’s books cherished by a certain type of discontented person, the sort of person who never quits believing on some level that magic could exist and there could be a door to another, realer world — in the wall, through a wardrobe, along the light cast by Mars, through the Lotus Room or through a looking-glass, as it has happened in one book after another.

Grossman is a bit of a deconstructionist at first blush. His story, despite the Fillory references in the opening chapter, comes across more as a gloss on the Harry Potter books, and he seems to be saying that genuine magical education would be more difficult and gritty, yet simultaneously less ennobling, than it is in the books of Rowling and all those who influenced her. He is a master of the hand-clapping “yes!” moment when his reader recognizes a familiar text reworked — the flight of Wart as a goose from White’s Sword in the Stone, the Wood Between The Worlds (deftly re-imagined as a deserted city whose buildings contain only books) from Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew. But he is also cruelly adroit with the wincing “Yeah, you’re right” moment in which it becomes apparent that a young, privileged, arrogantly bright kid from the modern world, confronted by these infinite possibilities and realities, is just as likely to be, well, an asshole as any of his mundane peers, preoccupied with achievement and crushes and the liberty to drink and squander his talents.

But Grossman has put his finger on an important thing: the yearning for the window to open and let us through, the desire to escape — as Lewis said, “escapism” is usually pronounced condescendingly, but what if the escape imagined were from a prison?

I imagined that door opening when I was young, over and over again.

“Oh, Kitty, how nice it would be if we could only get through into Looking-Glass House! I’m sure it’s got, oh! such beautiful things in it! Let’s pretend there’s a way of getting through into it somehow, Kitty. Let’s pretend the glass has got all soft like gauze, so that we can get through. Why, it’s turning into a sort of mist now, I declare! It’ll be easy enough to get through — ” She was up on the chimney-piece  while she said this, though she hardly knew how she had got there. And certainly the glass was beginning to melt away, just like a bright silvery mist.

“In another minute Alice was through the glass, and had jumped lightly down into the Looking-Glass room.”

Or in Grossman’s words:

“It was almost like the Fillory books — especially the first one, The World in the Walls — were about reading itself. When the oldest Chatwin, melancholy Martin, opens the cabinet of the grandfather clock that stands in a dark, narrow back hallway in his aunt’s house and slips through into Fillory… it’s like he’s opening the covers of a book, but a book that did what books always promised to do and never actually quite did: get you out, really out, of where you were and into somewhere better.”

I am going to be fifty-seven my next birthday, and I don’t find any codified religion, for example, worth my investment because they all seem to be foolproof methods for misinterpreting the life you have, but the same could be said of the secular value systems, bloated with smug conventional wisdom, that insist everything is all about self-esteem and appropriateness and success and social contracts and shit like that.

I took a side path out of a local park one day when I was not so young, but far younger than now, and for a moment as I emerged from the trees I could see no work of man, only a long light-drenched meadow, and thought holy crap, I’ve done it, I got through. Of course it was over in an instant, the horizon cluttered with houses and power poles and road signs.

I keep hoping to get through somehow, nonetheless.

Schrodinger’s Hippogriff

I have been a little scarce over the alleged holiday season. I found myself with this stack of books and nothing like the time I wanted to devote to them; I blush to say I have still only accounted for three entire ones and parts of four more.

Right now I am embarking on John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat. I’ve never liked that cat gedankenexperiment, in which the observer effect in  quantum physics is illustrated by imagining a cat in a box with a poison gas capsule that does or doesn’t deploy and, until you open the box to look, the cat is “both dead and alive…” well, let’s say that if time travel is ever discovered I stand ready to kick Erwin Schrodinger’s ass around the block for even imagining anything that would hurt a cat, but meanwhile, physics is one of those things that fascinates me consistently even if my mind slides off it like a grapnel off an obsidian wall. I get it up to a point, and then I lose my grip. Gribbin, whose book is a classic I have culpably neglected, was recommended by a medical friend who also sent me The Botany of Desire. (It’s about plants that humans have fucked with, not plants that conduce to fucking.) More as I read it.

In the same breath — sort of — I’ve been devouring Harry Potter scholarship. So sue me, I’m an old used literature major whose undergraduate work was all elbow deep in the poets and prosodists of the Neoplatonic and Enlightenment centuries, not to mention an unapologetic taste for The Inklings, despite a temperament best described as pagan skeptic. I got sucked into the Potter stuff, inevitably, and given the conspicuous historical, mythical and linguistic literacy of the series, there was no way I was going to pass up a book like Unlocking Harry Potter, which proposed to trace influences and undercurrents as various as the alchemical Great Work and the devices of Jane Austen. It was such a rip that I bought three more books written or edited by its author, John Granger, genially known as “The Hogwarts Professor.” If some of my literature professors had been as deft in demonstrating the philosophical substructure of the poems and plays that I loved just for their own internal virtues, who knows, I might be on some faculty today. (But probably not: tenure battles and similar bitchery would have driven me to operate a sandwich wagon or something like that, eventually, not to mention the crap I would have had to take for doing handstand push-ups against the door of my office and drafting my graduate students for donkey raises.)

The whole glut is giving me swimmy phantasmagoria as I fall asleep, in which a hippogriff in a box with a poison egg emerges before the physics class can open it and kicks Erwin Schrodinger in the head before flying off with Hermione Granger, Time-Turner and all, astride his winged back.

And we haven’t even brought in the vampire novel yet.