Em oi! #411: Shopping


This is the danger of encouraging people to read Shakespeare.

I have an excellent comic for Christmas coming up next week. Hopefully this offering, which I drew mostly freehand at a restaurant, will tide you over until then.

I was going to add a few notes about the Berbee Derby 5K, because it was a fun race, but I’m a bit late, so I’ll give the TL;DR version:

Did a 5.5 mile warm up because I was going to run with some slower friends; when we got to the race, they encouraged me to run at my own pace and then double back and meet them. Bryan had guessed I could finish in under 24 minutes, and I wound up doing it in 24:23, so I was pretty close. I finished just ahead of a fellow from my running group who is a 3:20 marathoner, and was initially elated to have beat him. Then I found out he’d actually just finished a 39-minute 10K and I felt less stoked. Doubled back and did the last half mile or so with my friends. Then home for nap before Thanksgiving.

Was that really TL;DR? Maybe a bit long. Lemme try again:

Ran a 24:23 5K after an absurdly long warm up and also while wearing my heavy sneakers.

Ah, there is proper conciseness. Concision? Something.

Let’s file this under PR2819 A3A L86 2015, for English literature–English renaissance (1500-1640)–The drama–Individual authors–Shakespeare, William–Separate works–King Lear–Texts–Selections. By editor.

Amongst authors, Shakespeare is kind of weird in LCC in that he has all the numbers PR2750-3112 devoted to him, while most authors are subarranged under one number by last name. So for example, the poet Claire Wahmanholm‘s number would probably be PS3624.A3[plus some other digits to put it in order with other stuff in the collection]; the author E. H. Lupton’s work might be filed under PS3612.U8[etc.]. (In a while, you’ll be able to see the actual call number here.) And you can see how those two numbers are only a few digits apart, because ALL post-2001 authors (authors’ surnames) beginning with L are fiiled under PS3612.A-Z, and all those beginning with W are filed under PS3624.A-Z. So I may have inadvertently messed up the number above slightly, because I don’t know if I have access to the correct sub-tables. But close enough is probably okay in this situation.


Em oi! #410: Ça suffit


Click to embiggen. I had already written this script before the attack on Paris last Friday, so I decided to just go with it.

I actually have been reading Being and Nothingness[1], and contrary to my expectations (and it’s reputation, I guess), it’s not a depressing book. At least in the part I’ve read so far, Sartre is mostly concerned with setting out his view of ontology, refuting most of the philosophers who preceded him (everyone from Descartes to Kant, anyway). I’ve done this drawing illustrating the history of philosophy to show you what I mean:
history of philosophy

I hope that clarifies things.

What I really love is the feeling that all the stuff I was dragged through as an undergrad–Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Spinoza, Kant, probably a few others I’m leaving out–seems to be summarized quite elegantly here and then rejected in favor of a philosophy that seems to better describe my intuitions about how my mind/reality work than, you know, Berkeley or anything. I am surprised courses on existentialism were not offered at my university. Or perhaps they were and I didn’t take any–in those days, my focus was more on epistemology (somewhat) and logic, so I read Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein, among others. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus remains one of my favorite books I read during this period.[2] And of course, this was the time during which I discovered Foucault, but I came to him (and Derrida) through the English department rather than the philosophy department.

Here are a few other appearances of these philosophers:

  • Descartes
  • Derrida
  • All other philosophers (inclusive)
  • Bonus other comic with Camus:


    We can file this comic under B2430.S34L86 2015, for Philosophy (General)–Modern (1450/1600-)–By region or country–France–By period–20th century–Individual philosophers, A-Z–Sartre, Jean-Paul, 1905-1980–Biography, autobiography, criticism, etc.–General works.

    In other announcements, if you’re out and about, please consider buying a copy of The Joy of Fishes at A Room of One’s Own (not signed, but we can arrange it) or Mystery to Me (pre-signed). They have been very nice to take a few copies on consignment, so perhaps we can help them move them–you’d be helping not just an indie author, but a local indie bookstore as well. Huzzah.

    [1] It’s not really a dreadmill book, so I’ve been reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle on the elliptical. I’m currently on book three. Each book is about 800 pages, and unfortunately they often seem to take about the first 100 to 150 to really get rolling. But if you’ve ever been interested in the enlightenment, it’s worth it. I don’t actually think he’s mis-characterizing enlightenment ideals or anything, for the most part. Maybe I’ll talk more about that when I do a review (in a million years when I actually finish it).

    [1] I also did a lot of ancient philosophers, especially Plato. Modern philosophers included Philippa Foot, Robert Nozick, and Peter Singer.


In Which I Don’t Really Win Much But Am Still Happy: Tyranena Beer Run Half Marathon 2015

Post-Haunted Hustle with Kristi

Post-Haunted Hustle with Kristi

To preface this story, let me say that two weeks ago I did a local Middleton race called the Haunted Hustle. It wasn’t an “A” race, and though it was fun there didn’t seem to be much point in writing it up other than my friend/running companion, Kristi, getting to see her name in “print” here. Since it’s marginally relevant, I’ll just give the tl;dr version here: Hilly course, cool day, lots of costumes to look at, ran a 1:55:55.

That was, at the time, my fastest half of the season, although to be fair my other half was a trail race, and I also did a 20K in 1:50:xx, which is only about 4 seconds/mile slower. Anyway, since I’d signed up for the Tyranena race only two weeks later, my plan was to use the Haunted Hustle as a hard training run and then really race Tyranena hard, with the goal of running a faster time.

The races were only two weeks apart, so my training was unremarkable. The HH was on a Sunday; I ran 54.19 miles over the next week (October 26 to November 1), with one day off for swimming. That week included one day of dreadmill intervals and a 15-mile long run in the rain. The following week, November 2–7, I lifted legs on Monday, then hobbled through 8-milers Tuesday through Thursday and was completely off except aikido on Friday, for a total of 24.4 miles before the race. No taper, that’s me.

Running along the river in Philadelphia

This is getting dull; here’s a photo of where I went running in Philly a few weeks ago. Jealous?

Tyranena starts quite late—11:30. I got up early (well, okay, I got up at 7:30) to eat my pop tart, drink a small cup of coffee, and loiter around working on my novel until it was time to go pick up Kristi. Last year we hit real traffic on the beltline and it was very tense, so this year I actually left a bit early. And of course the beltline was empty. We arrived in Lake Mills, WI, about 40 minutes away, by 10:20 and picked up our packets, then stood around chatting for the next 40 minutes or so. At 11, I went out for a warm-up jog, just a mile out at a relaxed pace and then some telephone pole intervals on the way back. I got back with just enough time to find everyone, then jump in the line for the port-o-potties and lose them again. Oh well.

We took off at 11:30 and I fell pretty quickly into an 8:30 min/mi pace. Running with the crowd to break the wind, this definitely felt like a comfortable speed, and I decided to hold onto it as long as I could. A bit before the first mile marker, I bumped into Kristi again, but when she took off (aiming for a sub-1:50 race), I made the decision to let her go and try to stay with what I had. This proved to be a pretty good decision.

The hills on this course are all on the first half, with the biggest coming right around mile four. However, none of the hills is really too difficult; my Garmin clocked 248 ft of elevation gain, compared to 362 ft at the HH. Watching my watch on the uphills, my pace occasionally dipped as far as 8:45 or even 9:00 min/mi, but I always recovered on the downhill. At around mile 5.5, I took a gel, another big change from the HH when I didn’t have anything for the duration. I hit the 10k mark in 54:28, according to the chip, and the halfway point about two minutes later. Up through mile 8, everything went really well. Then I noticed the people I’d been pacing off were gradually moving away from me; I didn’t feel like I was slowing, but my watch was suddenly reading 9:00 for pace.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly; I’m just including this because it’s cool.

At this point, I made a very conscious decision to push the pace, to leave everything I could behind and do my best to finish in under 1:50. I ran a few intervals using the trees along the path as markers, and gradually brought my pace back toward 8:30. Mile 8 seemed to last forever, but as I hit mile 9 at 1:17:xx, I did some mental math and realized that with 5K left to go, if I could just maintain my current pace I would finish under 1:50 comfortably.

Then, a few minutes later, I remembered that 9+3 is 12 and 9+4 is 13. So if I could run the next 4 miles at 8 minutes/mile, I would be done in 32 minutes. But what are the chances of that happening? Pretty much 0%. But if I ran strategically, it might be pretty close, so I decided to keep on it.

By mile 10, I was definitely beginning to feel the effects of a sustained 8:30 pace, especially in my right hip flexor. Every mile felt like I was making a bet with myself that I could sustain the pace I was running. If I had been smart, I would have brought another gel for this point in the race, but I didn’t really expect I would be doing as well as I was. Also, I didn’t have any other gels at home that morning. Tant pis.

I had a feeling that if I could hit a little better than an 8:30 pace for the actual last 5K, I would hit a sub-1:50. It was at this point that I fell back in with the group I’d been running with earlier and exchanged a few words with them, so I wasn’t looking at my watch and assumed later I just hadn’t been hitting the pace. But looking at my watch splits, I had this:

Mile Pace
10 8:15
11 8:06
12 8:27
13 7:57
.1 (.26 on my watch) 7:30

I ran a 1:51:40 officially, which is about 100 seconds over a 1:49:59—meaning that even if I’d managed 8-minute miles for 10 to 12, I still wouldn’t have made it.

Last year, I ran a 1:53:13 on the same course, so I improved by about a minute and a half. I also managed my goal of beating my HH time. Part of this involved running strategically rather than stupidly, which is what I usually do. The biggest change was to find a pack or at least a tall guy to draft behind when running into the wind. Normally the decrease in perceived exertion in this position makes me speed up and puts me back in the wind; by biding my time, I was able to conserve some energy I really needed. I also didn’t take off with Kristi, which allowed me to save energy I would have spent very early trying to keep up with her (she’s fast). I took a gel at a good moment, about 5.5 miles into the race, with 7.5 miles on my legs. And I reengaged with my race mentally when I started to slow down and actually pushed myself. So I’ll call that a success, even if I didn’t hit my time goal.

Post-Tyranena Selfie with Kristi and Alex

Post-Tyranena Selfie with Kristi and Alex


Em oi! #409: Impatient


I actually cannot tell if I named this comic “Impatient” or “Inpatient.” Both seem appropriate.

As you can see, I wrote this in early October, just a week or so after Bryan’s operation–this actually did sort of happen during the operation. But I got it uploaded only now because life kind of got away from me last month, a month during which I took care of Bryan, did one marathon and one half marathon, worked on my novel, and changed jobs, or rather job responsibilities, and went from working a kind of weird schedule that could vary from zero to eight hours or more per day depending on what work was available and needed doing to a more typical full-time work week.

Anyway, I’m hopeful that things will calm down a little more in November. Bryan is a lot more mobile and in less pain, my running schedule is calming down so I am less wiped out, and I am maybe getting the hang of some of my new responsibilities, so I am not lying in bed worrying that I will be retroactively fired or something most nights. I have a couple of scripts written that I am itching to get drawn. However, in order to get this stuff done, I may be a bit light on the various social media you typically see me on, so if you need me, drop me an email. (Note to relatives: Email means email, not voicemail. It is not impersonal to send an email. It is helpful.)

No other real news to report, other than since I last posted my novella came out in paperback and you should totally buy a copy. It i s currently held in the Yale library and in the Madison Public Library system and will shortly be available at several local bookstores such as A Room of One’s Own as soon as I can get my act together and drive them down there. Yiss. If you buy a copy and want it signed, or want a signed postcard, see the book tab above and follow the directions to send me an email.

I have a race report for the last two half marathons (I did one this past weekend as well), which I will try to upload tomorrow or Wednesday.

Let’s file this under P301 .L86 2015, for Philology. Linguistics–Language. Linguistic theory. Comparative grammar–Style. Composition. Rhetoric. Usage–General works.


St. Paul or Bust: The Surprisingly Weird Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon

This marathon, you guys. I don’t know what to say about it. It has been a tough couple of weeks for me. And so . . . this is my blog, let’s talk about it.


My training for this race was pretty consistent. I logged 208 miles in June, 221.5 miles in July, 253.8 miles in August, and 229.4 miles in September. My longest run was 23.5 miles, which was our running group’s trek out along the planet path from the Monona Terrace to Mount Horeb. That run happened August 29, and it was basically my last long run of the training session. I had an 18-mile run toward the beginning of August too, and a bunch of runs in the 15–16 mile range. There were some weekends where I meant to do 15/15 or 13/13 across Saturday/Sunday, and typically the second day’s run was not as long as planned. But then again, there were a lot of weeks where I took a random day off on a Tuesday or Wednesday to deal with aches and pains preemptively and then ran on Friday, so my legs typically weren’t as fresh going into the weekend as they might have been.

I also did some speedwork for this race. I did mostly 800s (working up to 10 x 800), 400s, or in the last two weeks, strides (15-second sprints with about 45–60 seconds of recovery). These were always as part of a run with warmup and cooldown on normal terrain, not on a track. My pace on these was usually around 8:00 min/mile plus or minus; in fact, the goal for each run was to do the intervals (not the strides) at 85% to 90% of max HR. I made this decision based on the strategies suggested by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas in Road Racing for Serious Runners. The book is more geared toward races up to the half marathon distance, but I do so little speedwork that it seemed like a good (and unintimidating) starting point. Eighty-five percent of max HR or 8:00 min/mi works out to be about a 5K race pace, which is slow enough that I’m not (or don’t seem to be) in danger of injuring myself doing it.

Finally, my running group was doing our long runs at close to race pace, often in the 8:50–9:20 min/mi range, which basically turned my long run into a long tempo run every week. This was quite helpful; I started out this training cycle just after the 50K feeling like a 9:20 was very fast, and finished able to do a half marathon distance run at an 8:48 min/mi pace, which required some pushing but felt generally comfortable. As a result, I decided my goal for the race—contingent on having a good taper—was going to be 3:55:xx.

Marathon Week

So on the 26th of September, I tested for 4th kyu in aikido. The last weeks prior to the test were for me filled with a lot of aikido classes, so I was feeling a bit bruised by the end of it and ready to taper. Then, on the 28th, Bryan had knee surgery.

The Knee Surgery Thing

Back in the spring, B had his knee scoped. I think the technical term is a knee arthroscopy. The idea was to get a good look at a small defect on the femoral articular cartilage that has prevented him from running for, at that point, a bit over a year. At the time, the ortho shaved down the edges of the defect, and B decided to see how it went. But after rehabbing it, he found that while he could do short sprints during a game of ultimate, he couldn’t really run farther than about a mile and a half with me (on grass-covered trails, specifically) without pain. And then a day came when he went to frisbee and ran too much and the pain didn’t stop for over a week. So he got put on the list for a cartilage transplant.

The thing about being on the list, besides the awesomeness of medical technology that this is an option and the creepiness of having someone else’s cells in your body, is that you don’t know when exactly they’re going to call and tell you it’s time to rock and roll. So B got the call two weeks before my marathon, and possibly because of the aikido test (plus a play we were going to that weekend), he scheduled the surgery they told him Monday the 28th was go day. I’m glad he was able to come to my test, which meant a lot to me, and able to enjoy the play, which would have been difficult if he’d had to try to manage APT on crutches. But it did leave us a rather slender window for him to recover enough for a four-hour car ride.

After the first surgery last spring, he was back on his feet almost right away. Not an exaggeration: We went out to dinner that evening, and I had to glare at him to get him to bring the crutches into the restaurant. The surgery itself was very non-invasive, and they encouraged him to get back to walking as soon as he could. The second surgery ended with a four or five inch incision down the front of his knee, and he’s now on crutches with orders not to put any weight on the affected limb for the first three weeks, with another three weeks of gradual buildup to follow. So not only was his mobility a good bit different, his pain levels were as well; after the first operation, I think he took a few Tylenol, whereas after the nerve block for this one wore off, he needed serious painkillers. And then he developed some other side effects that I’m not going to get into, but suffice it to say that it was kind of an unpleasant week for him.

The thing about the running industry, such as it is and such as I interact with it, is that it is always telling people they have to make running a priority. Going out for a jog, being fit—if you want those things, you have to prioritize them. But the thing is, running is not really a priority for me in that sense. Running is a thing I do in order to stay sane and manage my stress levels, just like brushing my teeth is a thing I do because I have a horrible fear of my teeth falling out like in Tommyknockers to maintain dental hygiene. Race preparation, on the other hand, is something I have to prioritize or it doesn’t really happen.

Over the course of the week, watching B’s health/comfort levels wax and wane, it became clear to me that there was a serious question about whether or not he was going to be able to make the drive up. And I wasn’t ready to leave him to anyone else’s machinations; either we went together or I wasn’t going.[1] So it may be obvious here what I’m pointing at—my taper did not really happen, or not very well.

The Personal Becomes Political

Monday was also when the race organizers sent out an email informing us runners that a protest by the group Black Lives Matter was being planned to disrupt the race at mile 25. Apparently they (BLM) had first announced their plans on the 26th or so, but I wasn’t following the issue then.

At first, I was quite disappointed. After a really long, stressful summer, I had been really looking forward to going up to see my brother and his wife, hanging out, doing the race . . . it sort of belatedly dawned on me that this was a very privileged way to look at things—they’re ruining my relaxing vacation, my race, and so on, when what they’re asking for—justice for police brutality—is both an extremely reasonable thing to request and something that it’s unlikely I’ll ever have to deal with. Which is to say, anyone in the BLM crowd would also like a relaxing vacation weekend, but they weren’t going to get it.

By, I guess, late Wednesday, I was reconciled to the fact that I would run twenty-five miles to where the protest was, symbolically turn off the course, and then jog back to my brother’s house about a block away. And then do, you know, another 1.2 miles on my own. But I wouldn’t be officially finishing. (I came to this decision in part because of discussions with a number of very smart friends and in part because I read some of the comments on the marathon’s Facebook page and realized which side of the issue I thought I wanted to be on. But also, to be honest, the whole thing also felt kind of secondary to the rest of the stuff that was going on in my life, like something I was watching from a distance.)

Thursday, the city of St. Paul and the marathon people announced that a deal had been struck and the race would not be obstructed. Instead, the protesters would be given 1) a meeting with the mayor, and 2) a place near the finish to hold their protest.



Pre-race selfie. It was cold. I was tired.

So, spoiler alert, B was able to make the drive up. Friday afternoon and all of Saturday were spent in Daniel and Claire’s most entertaining company, doing things like drinking Pimm’s and grapefruit soda, eating curry, and watching episodes of Sherlock. Then, Sunday morning, we got up early for the race.

Starting line crowd

The crowd at the starting line.

Well, the race was at 8:00; I got up at 5:00 because B got up at 5 to take some pain meds. So it goes. Daniel and Claire kindly dropped me off at a few blocks from the starting line around 7:40, just enough time for a quick warm up and a stop at the port-o-potty. Actually, the PoP I found was right where a bunch of the pros were lining up, so I got to pee within ten feet of the person who actually won the marathon.[2]

The beginning of the marathon was a bit of a problem. The race typically hosts about 8,500 people or so, and we were divided up into four corrals. However, as I jogged along the sidewalk, I could see pacer signs but no indication of where each corral started. I also noticed that the numbers of the runners in the corral I was passing (corral 1) were a different color than mine, which made me anxious that I’d accidentally stumbled into the 10-miler starting area instead.[3] Eventually I ducked in and a woman in a bright yellow vest told me to move back to the 2nd corral (where I was assigned to start).


The palatial estates around Lake of the Isles.

I had jogged about 0.27 miles at this point. For some reason, I decided to just hit lap on my watch rather than clearing it. This had a few unintended consequences. First, during the first mile plus, there were a lot of tall buildings that messed up the distance tracking of my watch; since the time was also off, I couldn’t rely on that to estimate my pace. Second, I didn’t realize that the corrals were going to be released as waves, with several minutes between each. So not only was my watch off from the time on the mile marker clocks by an unknown amount, our wave time was also. Basically, I was pretty lost.

The route starts out downhill for the first mile, then turns up as you run past the Walker art museum (a beautiful building; I’d love to see the collection there sometime) at mile 2. The best sign spotted during this section said “Keep running! . . . Unless you’re Donald Trump!” Then it’s on to circle three lakes, Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun, and Lake Harriet from around the 5K mark. This part of the race is great—the houses ringing each lake are easily some of the priciest properties in the city, and there was a good crowd out to watch and cheer us on, too (and all of their dogs).[4] I felt very strong and relaxed through this section, and I was making pretty good time, clocking low 9s and even some high 8s (8:58, 8:46, 8:48). I came through the 5K in 28:xx and the 10K in 56:xx. Around mile 8, we left the first three lakes and entered a long, fairly flat part that went beneath some underpasses and eventually left us near Lake Nokomis around mile 11. I had originally thought I was going to see Daniel and Claire during this part of the race, so I stayed occupied looking for them in the crowds. Later I found out that they missed me in several places by only a few minutes. Crumbs.

Lake of the Isles or Lake Calhoun

Panorama around Lake of the Isles (or possibly Lake Calhoun).

I came through the half marathon point in what I thought, after considerable mental calculation, was about 1:58:xx. I was still moving well, and I knew if I could do the second half in that amount of time, I would wind up very close to my goal. At this point, I decided that I was going to take it easy until I reached Summit Avenue, and then really hammer it home on the last 10K. Just really leave it out on the course.

running mi 22ish

Approaching mile 22 or so. Photo by Claire.

Of course, there were some complications. Aren’t there always? Somewhere around mile 17, my left knee began to ache. At first I thought it might be my IT band, since jogging with Daniel the day before he’d mentioned his own ITB issues. I slowed considerably because of the pain, and the four hour pace group was suddenly right behind me. I managed to gap them briefly, only to be caught when I stopped to stretch. I told myself I’d catch them back up, but I didn’t see them again for the rest of the race. Of course, the problem wasn’t my ITB—it was my hip.[5] So there wasn’t really anything I could do. I tried to just relax and enjoy the day, since I quickly came to the realization that my goal time was not going to be met. At one point, I saw a lady with an orange tabby cat on a leash. The cat was lying in the grass, looking pretty chilled out, all things considered. I shouted at her, “That’s a funny-looking dog.” She seemed confused and shouted back, “Thanks?”

running mi 22

Around mile 22. Photo by Claire.

Around mile 19, there was a considerable hill near the University of St. Thomas that I’d forgotten about. At the top of it, a friend from my running group, Julie, was spectating, and she jogged about a block with me. That gave me a big boost. Then I finally got to turn onto Summit, which was kind of a bummer because the first two or three miles are one gradual hill. I don’t remember noticing it last time, but this time it was both obvious and hard. But I got to see Daniel and Claire in there (I think around mile 22), so that was another exciting boost.

Summit Avenue is another really nice section of town with really expensive old houses to gawk at. As I recall from 2008, the stretch between miles 23 and 24 was the longest ever. Although I kept hitting the lap button on my watch when I passed a mile marker, it was never registering a mile when I got to the next one, so everything seemed interminable. I was also having quite a bit of pain in both knees by this point. Then I got to see not just Daniel and Claire at mile 25, but B as well—he’d managed to crutch down to see me hobble by. What a rush!

mile 25 kiss

Mile 25 meeting. Photo by Claire.

I did reflect, as I left him, that if the protest had gone off as planned, I would be stopping at that point. And, to be honest, I would have been totally okay with stopping. But I was so close.

As I approached the finish line, I remembered the protest again. I had planned to symbolically raise my hands in the “hands up” gesture as I ran past them to express my solidarity for the protesters, since I thought from what I’d heard from the race that it was unlikely they were going to give runners the option to exit the course.[6] But I didn’t actually see the protest. I did see, off to the left behind a chain-link fence, a bunch of people holding signs, but they were mostly white, and also standing in a circle facing inward, so I couldn’t really read any of the signs to determine what group they represented. And I was actually in some not-inconsiderable pain and very focused on just getting through to the finish line, so I decided not to stay and look around and just kept going.

I finished in 4:03:36, about eight minutes off my goal time. The first time I ran the TCM, in 2008, I finished in 4:41:10, so I’ve made considerable improvements in the last seven years. I’m not quite where I want to be/think I should be, but I’m somewhere other than where I started. And that’s sort of the idea, I guess.

The Aftermath

As I mentioned, I crossed the finish line with pain in both knees. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage. With B’s help, the joint got shifted back to its proper position, and I am now again pain-free. I have already been out and run a few times this week, with no noticeable problems other than my quads being tired. I also felt pretty beat up generally at the finish; I think I have done so many trail races lately that I had kind of forgotten how running so far on concrete makes you feel like you’ve been beaten. My next two races are on a combination of cement and gravel, so we’ll see how that affects me.

Post-race selfie.

Slightly crazed post-race selfie.

I also finished with some pretty bad chafing on my back—it seems the belt I was carrying my phone in bounced around a lot, to the point where I had several kind of ugly, bloody scrapes on the small of my back. Those are still healing—yesterday at aikido, I noticed the top piece of my hakama occasionally digging into them when I fell. Ow.

Other than those, life has been pretty decent. And B’s recovery has been going pretty well.

When I told the story of this race to a friend, she asked why I didn’t just stop when things started to hurt. I don’t really have a good answer. I guess I just didn’t feel like anything was bad enough to warrant stopping, so I didn’t. What kind of what would warrant stopping? I don’t know the answer to that either. I do know that I have one more big race (ultra) and a half scheduled for this year, and possibly a 5K or 10K on Thanksgiving, and then I’m going to take it a little easy for a while. Easy meaning nothing longer than a half, maybe doing some weird trail race distances that are, you know, 15K or whatever. Maybe doing some more swimming. I feel like I say that a lot after marathons. I guess time will tell if I actually mean it.

[1] Not to sound too noble. I was going to run 26.2 miles on Sunday regardless of where I was, but if I was at home, I was planning to do 5 x 5 mile loops with a break for an ice cream sandwich after each.
[2] Okay, that was one of the weirder sentences I’ve written.
[3] I found out later that the 10-mile race had already been won by the time we set out. The winner finished in about 56:xx. Holy cow.
[4] Best dog: a husky who, when he heard the crowd shout “Woo!,” started howling. Also spotted a small bear-like beasty (possibly a chow puppy) being held and bounced like a baby by its owner.
[5] My SI joint slips, and then one of my legs becomes longer than the other, putting pressure on my knees. I’ve started doing more plank/dead bugs/half bridges to try to prevent it, but it still happens.
[6] So for liability reasons, races don’t want you leaving the course without telling anyone. There have been cases of runners getting eaten by bears and so forth—of course, an unlikely outcome in a big city marathon, but still.


Em oi! #408: Kierkegaarding


You will probably have to click to embiggen, I’m afraid.

I am forced to begin this week’s lengthy and possibly unreadable commentary on the comic with an apology: I am somewhat misconstruing Kierkegaard here.

Here’s the deal: Kierkegaard wrote a book called The Concept of Anxiety, which is the basis for the ideas that form the underlying framework here, but in the book, Kierkegaard is actually not talking about how difficult your problems are. Instead, he was talking about the responses of different religions to the idea of original sin.[1] That is, he seems to be making an argument like this: 1) Original sin happened, but there were/are people who don’t know about it because they’re not Christian (pagans) or they’re Jewish (??). 2) These groups experience anxiety in different forms (turning outward, in the case of the pagans; turning inward, in the case of the Jews, which is more correct but still unable to come to any resolution, which can only be reached by Christians because Jesus. 3) The angst as freedom of choice is still in there.

If all this sounds a little weird, well–Kierkegaard was kind of a strange guy and his philosophy is a little bit aphoristic. And this is one of his most difficult books.

These anxiety-to-outside/inside relations were distilled by another fellow, Stephen Dunning[2], into the framework that underlies the first three panels (anxiety-in-itself, anxiety-for-itself, and anxiety-in-and-for-itself), and then further distilled by another writer (whose book I cannot name yet, since it hasn’t been published) into yet another form that I’ve adapted here.

In other words, this is based on some secondary materials that somewhat (in my mind) misconstrued the original argument. Le sigh.

Also, I hadn’t used these markers with this type of paper before, and I am disappointed by how it absorbed them. It doesn’t look really as nice in person; I had to do a lot of fixing, some of which is sadly visible. Tch.

I’m currently trying to taper for the Twin Cities Marathon, which is coming up in just over a week. But B is having knee surgery on Monday, so we’ll see how well that goes. My training has been pretty average, but consistent, including consistent speed work, and my ankles are holding up really well (knock on whatever), so I’m guardedly optimistic. If I can get a good taper and decent weather, I hope to hit sub-4. I’ve been running sub-2 hour half marathons in practice, so I have a feeling I can do it. If I don’t get a good taper, I’ll see what I can do. The goal is 3:55:xx, which requires an average somewhere between 8:50 and 9:00 minutes/mile (okay, 8:58 to be precise); of course, the fact that I can sustain that for 13.1 miles is rather meaningless when we’re looking at twice that distance.

Until then, I’m sort of swamped with work, but I will still try to have a new comic up next week as well.

For the nonce, let’s file this one under B4377 L86 2015, for (deep breath) Philosophy(General)–Modern (1450/1600-)–By region or country–Scandinavia–Denmark–By period–19th century–Individual philosophers–Kierkegaard, Søren, 1813-1855–Criticism and interpretation.

[1] Side note: He says, among other things, “Jewish anxiety is over the possibility of guilt, rather than ‘the positing of an actual [guilty] relation'” (Dunning, 153). This is clearly false; Jewish anxiety is over many things, but most of them involve the possibility of disappointing your mother and whether or not this tickle in the back of your throat is going to turn into pneumonia or not.

[2] See Stephen Northrup Dunning. Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Inwardness: A Structural Analysis of the Theory of Stages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Retrieved from Google Books: Link


Em oi! #407: What Time Is It?

Hello, friends, and welcome back to another season of Em oi! I believe this is the ninth now, or it will be as soon as I learn how to draw again. So much has happened during my little sabbatical. I do appreciate everyone’s patience with my lack of comic production–during the more stressful parts of the summer, I wasn’t feeling especially funny, and the time off has helped a lot. The summer also included:

  • The death of my brother and sister-in-law’s awesome dog, Mac Z”L (pictured in Em oi! 367 and 370). I am sad that he had to go; he was a good dog.
  • The cat’s illness and recovery, alluded to here (note 1). As of this writing, she is still doing well (you may be able to see some pictures of her in the bar to the right).
  • I started to learn how to program computers.
  • I took up painting, because the stress from watching the election was getting to me and, as Bob Ross put it, I just wanted to be in a world where nothing bad happens. I am going to work harder at ignoring certain candidates for the next few months, I think.
  • My novella, The Joy of Fishes, will be released as a paperback on October 6th.
  • Pursuant to that, I hope to have a website up at ehlupton.com fairly soon. It is mostly designed (thanks to B); I just have to write the text and transfer it over to the new domain.
  • And finally, I’m training for the Twin Cities Marathon on October 4th. Everything has been going well up to this point; my longest run, 23 miles, happened a few weeks ago, and I will be going on taper after this weekend. I am pretty ready to be tapering at this point, so I suppose that’s a good sign. I am hoping the weather will be good and I will go sub-4. TCM was my first marathon, completed SEVEN YEARS AGO.

Which brings us to this comic, because seven years ago this past September 6th, I went on my first date with B. A month later, only a day or two after the marathon, we went over to a local athletic club and got a joint membership, and he started teaching me to lift weights. So what is depicted in the comic has basically been my life ever since.

I guess I’m just lucky.

Maybe if I get some time I will write down my advice for weight lifting, because I have been doing it for a while now. Or maybe if you’re interested in that I’ll just let you google for it.

We’ll file this comic under GV546.3 L86 2015, for (are you ready?) Recreation. Leisure–Physical education and training–Gymnastics. Gymnastic exercises–Heavy exercises–Weight training. Weight lifting. Bodybuilding–Weight lifting–General works. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?



Starship Troopers, because why stop with the cheap scifi just when I’m hating myself?

Heinlein, Robert A. Starship Troopers. New York: Ace Books, 1987. First published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959.

Not like a Cyberman at all.

Not like a Cyberman at all.

I have become enamored of reading bad science fiction late at night when I am feeling anxious for whatever reason. In this case, the cat’s health issues over the past month have certainly been a constant source of stomach-churning fun.[1]

Short story shorter, a few weeks ago I found a copy of Starship Troopers in the Alex P— Immemorial Wing of the library. I’d recently had a discussion with my youngest brother about politics in literature, so I decided to take a little look through it. So let’s summarize the plot!

Juan “Johnnie” Rico is an immigrant from the Phillipines (or the area formerly known as) to the US (or the area—you get the idea—the book isn’t super specific about world geography in a lot of ways) who grows up in luxury, the son of a rich businessman. He’s living in a futuristic society (post-20th century, date not specified but seems pretty far into the future, since there’s faster-than-light travel and various other gadgets) in which military or other civil service is a prerequisite for becoming a full citizen (of what is referred to as the Federation). Most people don’t bother—you can live a perfectly fine life without becoming a citizen; the main drawback is that you don’t get to vote. Still, come their 18th birthdays, Johnnie, his best friend Carl, and a girl in his class named Carmen all go down to the Army/Navy office and sign up. Carmen, who is very good at math and has good reflexes, goes to piloting school. Carl, who we are led to believe is pretty smart, winds up in R&D. And Johnnie, who has no particular skills other than being a pretty engrossing narrator, joins the M.I., or Mobile Infantry. They are basically like the normal infantry, except they have rocket-powered jumpsuits that allow them to bound over a lot of terrain relatively quickly. This turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise for him, as he is able to gain discipline, martial skills, insight into why a person might become a soldier and why it’s important that only those who have served have the vote, and other pressing societal issues. After a while, the Federation gets into a war with the bug people. Juan makes up with his estranged father, then goes to officer training school and winds up as a lieutenant leading his own platoon.

Heinlein writes about military life with a certain familiarity—he went to the naval training academy himself, though he was discharged in the 1930s with TB and never saw combat. Still, his descriptions of boot camp have a vividness to them that will be somewhat familiar to anyone who has taken part in physically demanding activities.[2] In fact, while the book is set in the future, it’s a future that smells a lot like the 1950s. We have air cars, yes, as well as faster-than-light ships and an elaborate body armor for soldiers that enables them to fly, but people still read newspapers and receive telegrams, fill out forms by hand and receive paper letters. Perhaps more striking, all the fighting is done by boots on the ground rather than, for example, drones.[3] Of course, the book would not have been as exciting had our hero been training to fly drones rather than fight himself.

Philosophically speaking, there are a few other interesting points to be made. In many ways, Rico functions as a cog in a machine, and he implies that everyone in the army functions in the same way. This is, on the one hand, bureaucracy taken to its natural extreme; on the other hand, it’s confusing to think of an army where everyone has to fight, including people who might otherwise have incredibly important skills that would dictate that they should be kept alive (like code breakers/linguists/etc.). Interestingly, despite having many friends die in training and combat, Rico never questions 1) the training he is receiving, 2) the war he is fighting, or 3) the overall necessity for war (he sees it as a biological necessity based on the availability of habitat). And for all his pro-MI rhetoric, Rico never really gets a triumph. He succeeds in a lot of things, including rescuing his Buck Sergeant[4], a man called Zim, from the bugs, but he is injured during the rescue and doesn’t really recall all of it, negating and distancing him from what would otherwise have been quite a victory. In this way, Heinlein sort of acknowledges, obliquely, that while war may be rationalized with a variety of pretty, noble tropes, its actual execution is quite a bit uglier, and much less noble.

This book does a good job of developing the world in which it’s set gradually; by the time you get to the end, you’ve gotten a fairly good idea of what life in it is like, but Heinlein doesn’t rush to dump information on you at the beginning. The book also features a fair amount of diversity in terms of race compared to most science fiction. And, at least compared to Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein’s treatment of women here is much less aggravating; yes, Rico repeatedly remarks at how pretty women are, but he’s unable to get off with anyone—in general because all the women he meets are way smarter than he is. He’s not bitter about this, which is refreshing, and the women, as I mentioned, are genuinely intelligent and good at their jobs (c.f. the constant parade of large-breasted bimbos in SiaSL).

My brother, mentioned mere paragraphs ago, reads this book as a satire. His reasons for this seem to be rooted in a few things about the book–for example, the way the the “bugs” are dehumanized/caricatured and some things about the way the bureaucracy functions, as well as the fact that later on, Heinlein commended the author of The Forever War, Joe Halderman, on having written such a good novel, and The Forever War is widely regarded as being about its author’s experience during the Vietnam War (in Vietnamee, Kháng chiến chống Mỹ). Having read the book, I’m not sure I believe him; Heinlein is a competent writer and a good storyteller, but I don’t know if he’s good enough to pull off that kind of unflinching satire.

I think that’s about all I have to say about this one. I’m told there’s a film version, but I looked at the plot, and it looked like the director didn’t actually read the book so much as steal the character names/title. Interestingly, there are a lot of articles suggesting that the film version is satire. So there’s that.

Next time: Something with women in it.

It's now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

It’s now her chair. Sometimes I get to share it.

[1] For those not following along on Facebook, the cat had an adenocarcinoma of the small intestine. She is currently doing well following a bowel resection, but the cancer isn’t really cured and will return, probably within the next six months. But there have been a few anxious nights, mostly because I’m still a hypochondriac.

[2] Like ultrarunning.

[3] Drones are weird, aren’t they? At any point in the last ten thousand years of human history right up to, oh, the mid-1990s, that war will always have to be fought by people was a reasonable assumption to make. Now the elimination of people from offensive combat could totally happen.

[4] Good luck figuring out the ranks discussed in the book. Lieutenant is higher than sergeant; that’s all I can tell you.


Getting Back Is Half the Problem: The Martian, by Andy Weir

Weir, Andy. The Martian. New York: Broadway Books, 2014.9780804139021

I first heard about this book when it was mentioned in this XKCD comic. For whatever reason, that description, plus the film’s trailer, made me want to read it. AND SO HERE WE ARE, AT THE BEGINNING OF ANOTHER REVIEW.


Okay, plot summary: Mark Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, is accidentally left behind after the Ares 3 mission to Mars. In case you don’t know anything about interstellar travel, the distance between the Earth and Mars is roughly 140 million miles; it’s only 92 million miles from the sun to the Earth (a distance known as 1 Astronomical Unit, or AU), so the distance from the Earth to Mars is roughly one and a half times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. If you could travel the speed of light, you would be able to send a rescue mission across that distance in about 15 minutes, more or less. If you lived in the far future where there were ships waiting on the launch pad in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately for Watney, he lives in the more-or-less present, where technology is about what you’re familiar with and it’s going to take upwards of four years to get him rescued. And he has the rations sent for himself and five crew mates for thirty days, so all in all he has about one hundred and fifty days’ worth of food. Also, he has no way of communicating with NASA (the communications devices were damaged during the storm that caused his mission to abort). So he’s in what might be called a real pickle.

That’s the setup. I won’t give the ending away, since this is a relatively recent book, but if you haven’t read it and plan to, you should be aware that I will refer to details of the story later in this review that could potentially spoil parts of it for you. Consider yourself warned.

Watney faces his situation with a certain amount of nerve and a sense of humor. Most of the book is essentially epistlatory in nature, playing out through a series of log entries and email exchanges, although there are some narrative sections as well. Going beyond Watney, a lot of the supporting characters are not strongly drawn personalities; there’s Annie, the NASA media person, who cusses a lot; Venkat, the administrator who is in charge of the Ares project; Teddy, a higher-ranking administrator at NASA; Bruce, who is in charge of Jet Propulsion Labs (JPL); and some other astronauts who have various jobs. They are a mix of races and genders, but their characters didn’t feel distinct enough to be able to say, “This character’s drive is x, this one’s is y.” Perhaps because they all were working toward the same goal, and no one had any underhanded motives. It’s actually pretty easy to see why this book was picked to become a film[1]—the plot is really straightforward. There are certainly a lot of events that befall our hero as he scrapes through each day, but the goal—survival, getting off Mars—remains the same for the entire book, and with this sort of Man vs. Planet plot, there’s no need to humanize the opponent in the third act to set up some sort of gray area. And, as I said, the characters have only a few characteristics given—this one likes disco, this one likes old mystery novels—so for an actor, they might be a lot of fun to add more details to and really bring to life.

One thing this book does really effectively is teach the engineering mindset. This is something I’ve been getting into myself, since I’ve been learning how to write code the past few weeks. Basically when I say engineering mindset, what I mean is a step-based, iterative approach to problem-solving. You have a particular large issue—“How do I stay alive on a hostile planet for four years?”—and break it down into pieces. What do you need to survive? Food, water, shelter. Okay, what methods can you use to get food? (Hint: The hero, conveniently, is a botanist.) Once you have a method, if you can use this method to produce x amount of food, where the total amount you need is z and zx is > 0, how can you start to increase your yield? And so on. It’s not necessarily super thrilling, but it actually feels like how an astronaut might approach a problem like this, which is kind of neat.[2] I can tell now, looking at the film’s trailer, that a lot of stuff has been added in to provide emotional interest, whereas the book was heavy on the science and low on the human stuff (second trailer: super funny). I hope they don’t get rid of too much of the science stuff, since one of the neater sides of the book was getting to see something about how NASA, the JPL, and the various astronauts work on problems and think through things. For example, I didn’t realize that they were so concerned with mission failures that a 4% margin of error is considered unacceptably high. (Or perhaps it’s not, but the book is fairly accurate about a lot of space-related stuff.)[3] Somewhat unfortunately, during the times Watney is in contact with NASA/JPL, a lot of his narrative is reduced to “Did what NASA said. Awaiting next transmission.” He doesn’t go rogue or rebel. He just wants to do right and live through this. But his willingness to cooperate is really a hint at the intriguing central question of this book.

The soul of this book, the question it really grapples with, is not a scientific one but a human one: Why spend so much money and so many resources (both physical resources in terms of food and technology and ephemeral resources like time and manpower) to rescue one guy? A few of the characters in the book bring this up sort of peripherally—by expending all their efforts to get Watney, NASA is giving up a lot of other research projects that could be providing data (and they’re not the only one—NASA’s Chinese counterparts bemoan the loss of data a probe was supposed to bring them even as they hand it over to be used for this mission. Reporters, whose constant presence seems unfortunately very realistic, question whether the expenditure of money is worth it. The book’s answer is decisively yes, and it’s not just because Watney is such a winning character. As Watney puts it (you can hear him saying this if you go watch the trailer), people’s natural instinct is to pull together in a disaster—giving blood or money, volunteering to help in some way. The book is not about man’s inhumanity to man, as is the case with so many works, but about man’s humanity to man in the face of adversity. It’s a thought that feels startlingly naïve, and yet one that’s welcome in this age of strife.

I’m not usually a hard scifi person, but this book was an exciting and quick read. Weir is a good writer; he’s not poetic by any means, but he’s funny and has a solid grasp of his craft. His characters are smart. I’d say on the whole there aren’t enough female scientists represented—most of the characters are male—but that actually feels kind of petty here. And the women who do appear are as strong and smart as their male peers; in all the depiction is much more satisfying than the one in Dune. Sorry, Frank.

[1] In addition to the other things, the film being set on Mars, a very red-orange planet, gives the filmmakers a chance to make everything as orange and teal as possible.

[3] How dangerous it is to be an astronaut depends on how you look at who exactly is an astronaut and what exactly counts as an astronaut-related death (for example, a test pilot flying a plane at sufficient altitude could be considered to have entered space without actually being an astronaut; there have been a lot of deaths during training missions, both spaceflight-related, as Apollo I, and unrelated, as various plane crashes that have killed astronauts). Wikipedia says there have been eighteen in-space deaths in four incidents, thirteen non-space (training) deaths, and also lists a bunch of non-astronaut space-program-related fatalities, such as NASA personnel who got caught in the wrong place when things blew up. There have been 536 people in space as of November 2013, meaning that astronauts have a death rate of something like 5.78%. Yikes.


“Spice must flow”: Dune Reviewed

Herbert, Frank. Dune. Ace Special 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Ace Books, 1990.

Dune is apparently the most popular science fiction book ever published. I’m not kidding—you can google that shit. Anyway, this year is the 50th anniversary of its publication (1965–2015), and I had never read it. Then one night I was having a discussion with B about world building in scifi/fantasy and he said, “Every universe has one thing that it’s centered around. In Star Wars, it’s the Force. In Dune, it’s the spice.”

I was unfamiliar. Having just finished Solaris, I decided I would rectify that and dug out our copy.[1] Soon I was deep into to the world of the gom jabbar and the kwizach hadarach, the reverend mother and the melange. Many a night in the last few weeks I was up far past my bedtime, tellling myself I’d read just a few more pages before I turned out the light.

In case you, like me, have been living under a rock for the last my entire lifetime and then some, this is the plot (spoilers ahead):

Duke Leto Atreides, his concubine Lady Jessica, who is a highly trained Bene Gesserit adept, their fifteen-year-old son Paul (who has also been trained in his mother’s weirding ways), and the duke’s entire entourage pick up and move from Caladan, a normal-sounding planet with lakes and rainfall, to Arrakis, also called Dune, a desert planet where it never rains and the native Fremen wear special stillsuits designed to reclaim all bodily moisture for recycling. Arrakis was previously ruled by the Harkonnens, who are the mortal enemies of the Atreides, and the switch got made basically because the Padishah Emperor decided it should happen.

Not long after their arrival, the duke receives notice that there is a traitor in his midst. And then, returning from a night of supervising his troops, Duke Leto finds that the Harkonnens have engineered a plot to land highly trained imperial troops on the planet, kill him and his family, and take the place back.

After a daring escape and a lot of running around in which nearly every character you’ve come to care about dies in rapid-fire succession, Paul and the Lady Jessica wind up getting adopted by a band of Fremen led by a man named Stilgar. Lady Jessica actually takes Stilgar in close combat (unarmed) to gain their acceptance, and later on Paul knifes a guy, so it’s not like this part of their journey was easy. After they return to the Fremen home base, Lady Jessica (who is pregnant with the late duke’s child) is tested with the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother (a type of religious leader), which means that she gets certain powers primarily related to communicating psychically (in a sense) with the band’s previous Reverend Mothers. This isn’t good for the fetus (who will grow up to be St. Alia of the Knife), but what can you do.

Meanwhile, Paul falls in love with a Fremen woman named Chani, and they will have a son together in fairly short order, because I guess condoms don’t exist in the year 10,191. Paul, now known by the Fremen as Usul (privately) and Maud’dib (publically), to say nothing of his other titles (Lisan al-Ghaib for one, and Kwisatz Haderach for another) is able to see the future to some extent because of the spice, his natural inclinations, and the Water of Life. Eventually, he leads the Fremen to freedom from the Harkonnens and bullies the emperor into abdicating and letting him marry his daughter in a political alliance, making him at about age 17 or 18 the emperor.

Whew. So it’s a long book. I actually haven’t touched on about 90% of what goes on, because there’s a ton of subplots. The gist of it is that everyone has a plan. The Bene Gesserit, for example, have been manipulating the various nobles in a breeding program to try and get the Kwisatz Haderach. What they intend to do with him is not clear.[2] Baron Harkonnen has a plan to get his nephew Feyd-Rautha on the imperial throne as well, which somehow involves his other nephew (“Beast” Rabban) taking over Arrakis as ruler and running it into the ground; that’s to say nothing of his initial plot to kill Duke Leto, of course. The emperor has his own plots involving control of the spice market and the nobility. The Guild (the ones who fly everyone around through space) take spice from the Fremen in exchange for preventing weather satellite and other disturbances, giving the Fremen time to execute their plan—the very gradual terraforming of Dune. I think there might be even more plots than that, some of which don’t really play out until the sequel.

This is an interesting and problematic book for a number of reasons. First, there are the women. I’ll just say that Lady Jessica is basically one of the best female characters I’ve ever encountered. Super smart, unflappable in the face of danger, highly deadly in hand-to-hand combat, and capable of undergoing the spice agony and transforming the Water of Life within her body—basically a bad ass. Highly determined and difficult to control, too—did I mention she’d originally been ordered by the Bene Gesserit to produce a daughter for Duke Leto rather than Paul? She does what she wants. She also has two kids who are highly trained Bene Gesserit adepts, trained by herself. I should mention at this point that Herbert evidently based Lady Jessica on his wife, which makes me pretty happy because in other respects he was a little bit shitty (I’ll get to this) and I feel like it redeems him for me a bit.

Unfortunately, the other women in the book are not quite as exciting as characters go, mainly because there is a strong male/female divide throughout the text. Not just within the Reverend Mothers, as I mentioned earlier, although there is that and it’s explained away by the fact that men take and women give and it’s hard for the two sides to look at each other, which would be an interesting sentiment if Herbert followed it to its natural gender-deconstructing answer in Paul, but he doesn’t. Beyond that, women are largely confined to the home and sietch (the Fremen settlements); they counsel and advise, and they have children, and they plot, but they have to have men to listen to them/to manipulate in order to actually achieve anything. Chani, the woman Paul falls in love with, is out on patrol with a group of Fremen when he meets her, and she actually knifes a couple of people over the course of the book . . . until she has kids and gets sent to a safe place for most of the rest of the story. Also, after she meets Paul she basically has no concerns besides his well-being throughout the rest of the book. Within the Fremen society, if you kill a guy, you are asked to take care of his wife and kids—and you’re given the option of marrying the wife or taking her as a servant for at least one year, and it doesn’t seem like she gets much say in the matter. The woman Paul inherits in this way seems very practical and totally willing to marry a guy who knifed her husband not 24 hours before. Women in the sietch basically exist to produce children; they do a few other sietch jobs but they’re there, and the men care for them. The other major female character is Reverent Mother Helen Mohiam, who is scheming and manipulative—scary and powerful, but only by acting through others, primarily the emperor.

In a somewhat related vein, we have the Harkonnens, who are the enemies of the Atreides and very evil. We know they’re evil because—and this is where the writing of Frank Herbert sort of fails to come into its own—the second chapter involves Baron Vladimir Harkonnen basically telling us his evil, evil plot to kill the Atreides through devious underhandedness while he strokes his mustache and laughs maniacally. If that weren’t explicit enough, we also get all these signs (and by signs I mean, I guess, stereotypes) that tell us the baron is a bad dude—he’s super fat, for one (he has to wear suspensors to maneuver his bulk around) and is a glutton for food and power. He’s homosexual, or at least seems to prefer men; he also expresses lustful thoughts about then-15-year-old Paul and not only buys slaves but has them drugged so he can have sex with them more easily. He makes his nephew, Feyd-Rautha, kill people—and okay, it’s not like his nephew was a good guy either, because we see him displaying his killing talents by fighting gladiators with a poisoned blade.[3]

Both of these things—the women’s rather distinct position in society and the rather heavy-handed “clues” to the Baron’s evilness (fatness, homosexuality)—feel like relics of the time period of the book’s initial publication. I’ve talked before about the feeling one gets, reading old science fiction, that while writers (inevitably men) were sort of sure that women would exist in the future, none of them are exactly clear on what they’ll be doing. “Women doing science? Having thoughts? Why would these things ever happen?” they seem to think, and so you see women along in various situations—spaceships and what have you—in which they serve as some sort of more or less sophisticated window dressing. I’m looking at you, Uhura. The Baron’s indicators of evil just feel dated. First, I have to wonder, given the average size of people in 1965 compared to 2015, how fat Herbert thought was so fat it needed anti-gravity devices to move around. Second—and this is what I mean when I said this is kind of shitty of Herbert—he had two sons. One (Brian Herbert) has made his living clinging to Dune’s coattails; the other, Bruce Herbert, was a gay activist who died of AIDS in 1993. Now, at the time Dune was published, Bruce would have been 14, which at the time was very young for a kid to be out of the closet, so I’m perfectly willing to believe that Herbert was mostly reflecting the unconsidered opinions of the time and may have changed his tune later on when he found out his son was gay. But still, kind of shitty.[4]

The book has a bunch of really interesting themes that Herbert addresses with varying levels of sophistication. For example, the tendency of people to follow leaders rather unquestioningly, the uses (and problems) of being able to see the future, the idea of fate and whether or not it can be avoided or changed, the question of the greater good, and different systems of government and their benefits and drawbacks. Perhaps most interestingly, Herbert is concerned with the intertwining of religion and politics; Paul benefits from the Bene Gesserit’s propagandists, who basically primed the community of Fremen to believe in him.

Actually, there are a lot more questions I have to ask about this book, like is it another example of the “White guy joins a foreign culture and becomes its most awesome member” genre (surprisingly hard to answer briefly), as well as the converse position, “Is everyone on Dune White?” (films say yes), but this review is already well over 2,000 words, so I don’t have time here. So to wrap up: Herbert’s writing is exciting if mostly unpoetic (he has his moments), and the text is very engrossing. This particular edition of the book is nice in that there’s a dictionary at the back as well as some other appendices that try to explain the world Paul’s living in. It does suffer from less-than-perfect typography, which includes not just quotation marks facing the wrong way, but also lines of text printed at different sizes and sometimes even randomly repeated. I’d guess that there’s been a better reprinting since 1990, so if you’re looking to read the book, seek that out.

[1] I was given my copy of Dune by a friend I’d lent a calculus textbook for a semester to as a thank-you present.

[2] Basically,when the Bene Gesserit Reverend Mothers look into their minds, they can see a sort of hallway with all the Reverend Mothers along it, and they are able to receive advice from those who came before—so history is preserved within them, as a sort of living racial memory. But there’s a male side to the corridor too, and none of them can access that information. So they have embarked on a breeding program to produce a man who can. Why they want that information and why they thought such a person would be someone they can control is not revealed.

[3] Part of this scene reveals that it’s typical to fight the gladiators when drugged, which seems unfair. Feyd-Rautha instead fights them undrugged, but with a conditioned “stop” word that he can use as a distraction to stab the guy. In one of those awesome literary parallels, Feyd also has a similar word implanted in him, but during their final combat Paul refuses to use it . . . and yet, his saying “I’m not going to say it” makes Feyd freeze enough that Paul can stab him. So. What happened.

[4] One always wants to believe that writers have more considered opinions than other people and think the “right” thing even when others are still against it. Of course, this is clearly not the case—there have been plenty of racist/sexist/homophobic writers who were still great writers (see the line about “The Earth, that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views” in the William Butler Yeats farewell poem written by W. H. Auden). Auden later removed that stanza, which makes me wonder if he actually decided that the Earth does not pardon Kipling . . . but regardless of his [Auden’s] thoughts on the matter, there are a lot of people who have forgiven Kipling.