Monday, November 29, 2010

Authors I Am Thankful For

Thanksgiving and Black Friday are over. Everyone, welcome back.

This is probably something that should have been posted on Thursday, but everyone was probably busy this weekend.

In my life, few authors have affected me in any way, shape or form. Most of it affected me in a professional manner. From Joseph Garber's Verticle Run, I learned how to start a thriller that didn't stop from start to finish, and while he was recently trumped by Matthew Reilly and James Rollins, Garber is where to start.

Few authors have ever actually had an impact on my life in general. And by few, I mean three. And, technically, I wasn't even the one who really felt the impact for two of the authors … it's a long story.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Once upon a time, I had considered getting a friend of mine a gift for his birthday. The novel was Good Omens, which was essentially Murphy's law as applied to the apocalypse— losing the antichrist, for example. It was fun. Strange as all hell, but fun. Neil Gaiman still insists that he wrote some of the funny parts. I thought my friend would like it.

Meanwhile, in another part of the internet, a woman was trying to remember the title of a novel she had read once upon a time. She signed into her dating website of choice, and came across the novel in my friend's profile. The book was Good Omens.

That relationship culminated in the marriage from two months ago.....

J. Michael Straczynski.

Way back in the 1990s, there was a television show called Babylon 5. It was a science fiction program that was less about special effects, latex masks and tight body suits, and more an epic about character. It was essentially a filmed novel. Like War and Peace, with one-tenth the cast. It was interesting enough that I would spend time with my family pondering what would happen next.

Along the way, when I was sixteen, I started writing what is unfortunately known as fan fiction. I had written stories based off of throwaway one-liners in the series. And while I touched nothing of the actual series storyline, I had a few concepts that the show didn't expand on, and spun that off into little corners of the universe, and aside from the first two books, it basically became its own series. I started rewriting what was a fan fiction quartet of over two thousand pages, and I'm now on book 6 of a possible 13 that I've outlined...

One of the artifacts I had picked up because of Babylon 5 is a leather bomber jacket. It had a great big gold embroidered 5 on the back, in the style of the show, and the show logo on the front. I have worn it every winter when the temperature dropped below forty, and there was no precipitation. This includes my days in college, when it was just too cold to wear a suit jacket.

One day, in 2001, I walked out of a class called the History of Terrorism, and one classmate had noticed the jacket. We walked and talked across the university's great lawn, past the library, an administrative building, and to the other side of the campus, until my ride literally started the car, pulled up behind me, and flashed his brights at us.

A month ago, I was a groomsman at his wedding.

A few years afterward, during my abortive attempt at a PhD in history, I drove down to a social in Manhattan, wearing the same jacket. Someone behind me said, “Cool jacket, I know that show.” He hasn't stopped talking to me since. Two months ago, I was the best man at his wedding... the one made possible by Terry Pratchett

I've heard people tell me that reading is an anti-social activity. Obviously, they've been reading the wrong books.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Philosophy, Religion, and Sex.

Dear Pope Benedict, I've been a fan of your career since you worked under John Paul II.  The press hated you because you were hostile to them, and for that I applaud you.  But you have to stop having statements come out so close together, it messes up my schedule.

Last week, I explained why the Catholic Church wanted to hire exorcists.

This week, because no one in the Vatican can shut up, I'm going to try explaining something else that was recently in the news.

The New York Times recently reported that, "Yippie, the Pope is giving in and endorsing condom use."

The old gray hag of The New York Times has, once again, gotten it wrong.  One day, they may actually try to get a theologian to explain theology to them.  Unfortunately, given most theologians, that may not help much.

Let's start at the beginning: Why does the Catholic Church have an issue with condom use?  Or any contraceptives?

It basically involves philosophy ... bare with me a minute, I'll keep it short and comprehensible ... and what is the function of "a thing."  In the case of sex, the mechanism of sex is "insert tab A into slot B."  The "function" of sex is procreation, and a darn good time, if you're doing it correctly.

Contraceptions mess with the natural function of sex by removing elements that are inherent to the act -- procreation comes with sex.  The Vatican position is, that if you mess around with it and start taking out elements, then you are messing around with things that are not yours to mess with.

If you are pondering what the Catholic church's advice is on STD prevention when you have sex with your boy/girlfriend, the Church's position is that you should be having sex with your spouse, only with your spouse, have a nice day, thank you.  Under this rubrick, STDs are not a problem, since if you only ever insert one tab A into one tab B, STDs are not an issue; pregnancy remains in effect, but in the Catholic church, marriage is a contract to have sex, have kids, and spread the spawn around the globe, carrying the faith with it.

You are currently up on previously held positions.

The NY Times said, on November 21st .....
“Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS . . . .”
However, George Wiegel, papal biographer and general Vatican busybody, corrected the Times report.  You can find the full text online, but since that will take forever for you to read, I'm going to translate it for you, gentle reader, into something easily comprehensible.

The pope's actual statement, in context, was during an interview.  The pope mentioned how the Catholic Church runs more AIDS hospitals, and stresses "prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment."  IE: The pope pointed out that, unlike pontificating reporters, the Church actually does something,

The pope even stressed that "we cannot solve the problem [of AIDS] by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease."

The pope continued:
.... people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence–Be Faithful–Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality .... the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

Short version: sex is important, has an effect on a person, and is also for the purpose of expressing love.  Throw in a condom, and you just make it another way to drug yourself into a stupor.

The part where the NYTimes gets confused is probably in the following section:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
When asked if "the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"  Pope Benedict XVI answered that "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."

Short version: If it's someone infected with AIDS, yes, the Church would rather that they NOT KILL PEOPLE by infecting them further.

Basically, it's like robbing a bank -- if you rob a bank, the Church would rather have someone use an empty gun; it'll lessen the risk of someone getting their head blown off.

So, despite news reports, the Catholic Church's position hasn't changed.

With luck, we can all move on to something important now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Pius Synopsis

The below is basically how the fly leaf of a A Pius Man dustjacket would look like.

A Pius Man is a mystery with too many suspects.

In Rome, an old terrorist is blown out the window of a hotel and crash-lands on a car at the gates of the Vatican. A figure in a priest’s robes is seen running from the scene. But the body on the windshield is just the beginning for a team of six unlikely investigators from around the world. Each pair of hands on this case has a past, and a few secrets … and an axe to grind. They don’t want to work together. They don’t want this case.

And one of them just might be the killer.

Is it....

Sean Ryan, an American stuntman turned mercenary and self-described “cleanser of the gene pool”? He’s supposed to be in Rome to train priests in combat, and old habits die hard.

Then there’s Giovanni Figlia, a homicide cop for the Pope who fears only paperwork. He was best known for starting soccer games with bishops in the Borgia gardens … until the corpse landed on the hood of his Jetta.

Could it be a former U.S. Army chaplain who was meeting with the murdered man on a weekly basis? Did the Jesuit priest who’s killed men with his bare hands know that his weekly luncheon date had just murdered a researcher in the Vatican Archives?

And what about Scott "Mossad" Murphy of Israeli intelligence’s “Goyim Brigade”? He and his partner are in the middle of investigating another murder at the Vatican … this one a high-ranking Muslim leader with connections to al Qaeda.

Into this mix comes Maureen McGrail, an Irish Interpol agent with a bitter past with Sean Ryan. She’s working her own murder case, related to the controversial canonization of Pope Pius XII, sometimes known as “Hitler’s Pope.” And guess who Interpol wants to send to Rome … ?

And the final, most distressing suspect is Joshua Kutjok....aka Pope Pius XIII, a right-wing African pope with rumors of blood in his past and the stated goal of turning “Hitler’s Pope” into the “Hero of the Holocaust.” To accomplish this goal, he’s already let terrorists into the Vatican Archives … would he kill a man who stood in his way?

In A Pius Man, six unlikely heroes must work together to unravel a web of intrigue and murder that entwines one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century. Was Pius XII a Nazi collaborator who deliberately let millions of Jews die? Has the Vatican covered up the truth for more than 60 years? Or has someone perpetrated a decades-long smear campaign? And what will happen to six strangers trying to finally bring the truth to light?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

For Those of You Just Tuning into A Pius Man.....

[This is the Short version of how A Pius Man came to be.  The longer version is 13 pages long, in fort parts, and starts here]

In graduate school, I was a history major, and I did a paper on Pope Pius XII and his history during the holocaust—essentially: what did he do, what did he know, and when did he know it. I went through the standard procedure: primary documents (papers of the day), and secondary sources (books written later by people who weren't there at the time). Along the way, I came across non-historians, forgeries from convicted criminals, historians who had done jail time for slander, and deliberate liars (for example, one idiot said that “X person should have done Y thing”... but cited articles where it was STATED that X did Y, making him either brain dead or a liar).

One of the most interesting things about this is that one side of this conflict doesn't acknowledge the other. One side takes the opposition's statements and theories, vivisect them with a scalpel, the end result looking like shredded wheat, and the second side acts as though there are no alternate theories, interpretations or evidence.

Anyway, by the time I was finished, it was fairly clear who was right. I had enough primary documents to work on that alone. I left motivations alone, because I wasn't going to break out my Ouija board to ask a dead pope what he was thinking at the time. “These are the actual events; to the best of our knowledge, this is what happened, and this is how the people reacted to it AT THE TIME.”

The average reader is probably thinking “Duh.” The average reader would be right. No, I wasn't going for high intellectual value. Much of the paper was a simple narrative, and many of the conclusions were very “duh” worthy. I finished the paper, game over.

Shortly thereafter came some … other books. Novels where the history was so bad, it was painful to read. And people were getting their history from these books; in some cases, more than from actual texts. Did these inspire me on a rampaging crusade? No. I was bored, I moved on.

Then I read a completely different novel, also using historical events as a background to the primary action. Premise … nothing new, really. Evil Nazi Catholic church, blah blah, snore … "But, hmm, wait, I know that character's name. It's historical …" Skip to the back of the book to read the author's note, which collected the works used to create that novel. I had assumed that this author had read one side of the argument, and wrote another “evil Catholic church” story based on that. But, no, I had read these books. All of them. He had done his homework, and had completely and utterly screwd up the history. I could take it if he had just said “I'm writing fiction, not commenting on a historical debate.” But he took a side and even lied about facts that everyone agreed on.

Dominoes fell in my brain. People not only read this crap, they believed this crap. Most readers would have almost no intellectual background to separate the wheat from the chaff (seriously, how many people read about the religious and cultural activities of Europe in World War II?)

My reaction was somewhere akin to the quote of the eminent physician and research scientist, Doctor Bruce Banner: Hulk smash.

Fine. Two could play at this game. If people got their history from entertainment, I would take up the strangest project ever imagined. I would write a thriller that was (a) thrilling, (b) factually accurate about the Catholic Church in the Holocaust.

Now how the HELL was I going to do that?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Catholics are Doing What Now? Exorcism and the Church.

The Catholic Church is running low on exorcists. Positions are now open for new applicants. Please register at your local parish, thank you.

Don't look at me like that, I'm not joking.

Okay, maybe a little.

Seriously, the Catholic Church is running low on exorcists. If you've been near a Catholic Church lately in America, then you may have heard the daily intentions going out for “vocations,” hopefully to the priesthood … there are some parishes who would like at least ONE priest who was born within the boundaries of the United States. Me, I prefer the ones from Ireland and Vietnam, but that's just me.

There are also similar calls within the priesthood itself for vocations ... to become exorcists. Why would they be running low?

Remember that funny look that you gave me at the start of the blog entry? That's pretty much how a lot of priests look at exorcists, especially in America, where we suffer from visions of Linda Blair every time we think of exorcism.

One thing that no one remembers is that The Exorcist was based on true story. There was case of an actual possession in Georgetown. The possessed in that case was a boy, not a girl, and he stills needs therapy to this day, and no priest was harmed during the performance of that exorcism. If you look at the credits of the film, there are several real-life priests involved in the movie; several of them were involved in the original incident.

But, at this point, you're probably wondering what sort of barbaric, medieval lunatic tries an exorcism nowadays.

If you're asking that, I would actually recommend that you read the book The Exorcist. You see, with the Catholic Church, unlike some other Christian groups, you have the largest collection of skeptics ever when it comes to supernatural events. During the European witch hunts of the early Protestant Revolutions / Reformation period, the Spanish Inquisition would listen to tales of people who confessed to being witches who went flying with Satan. The Inquisition politely told them all to get lost, a variation on CW Fields' “Go away kid, ya bother me.”

More recently, trying to get miracles verified requires a small army of scientists who can confirm or deny that something is a scientific impossibility. For example, Father Stanley Jaki, PhD, physicist and Catholic priest, once wrote about the miracle of the sun dancing in the sky over Fatima (early 20th century). Jaki concluded that the effect was produced by a rare, naturally occuring phenomenon of frozen ice particles in the sky that turn into a giant convex lens; this giant lens appears to make the sun jiggle around the sky, like looking at it through a a magnifying glass. Did Jaki conclude that it was no longer a miracle? No; because it is scientifically impossible for anyone to predict such a meteorological event, to heck with three small children in the middle of Portugal.

In the case of exorcism, the book The Exorcist catalogs what the subject has to go through in order to get a Cardinal to sign off on an exorcism. The movie covers it a little, but not as much as the book does. Blisters appear on the skin? The stigmata appears on their hands? Sorry, those can be psychosomatic. Do you smell strange odors around the “possessed,” even if they've bathed, and you've lined the room with car fresheners? That could be caused by mental suggestion. Can the symptoms be caused by schizophrenia? Tourette's? Multiple personality? Thank you very much, come back when you have a problem that can't be found in the PDR, theDSM-IV, and might look more akin to something out of Ghostbusters (“...[S]he sleeps above her covers... *four feet* above her covers.”).

The Catholic Church gets about 9,000 applications for exorcism per year. If they do two, that's a lot.

Just so we can all be clear on the terms, when I say possession, I mean a case that defies all scientific explanation. I don't mean “possessions” that are “cured” by every other storefront preacher in a backwoods somewhere.

If you're an atheist, you could have an argument for saying that what appears to be possession is just a form of advanced psychosomatic disease that we haven't figured out yet. It could be a variation of Clarke's law, only this time, any sufficiently advanced biology is indistinguishable from magic. Maybe it's some variety of alien head-cold out of Doctor Who that creates mood swings and personality changes and enables the cold victim to speak in tongues, cause visions, and other things that appear to be supernatural.

However, no matter the cause of possession (or “possession” if you like), they still happen, even under the strict Catholic guidelines. And exorcisms still work— Pope John Paul II performed a few of them himself. If you're an atheist, and think that cases of possession are some extremely bizarre disease that no one has discovered the cause of yet, just look at an exorcism as a case where one human being, through sheer force of will, can help another be cured of their affliction.

And if you're a believer, I promise you, the Vatican is not going crazy … well, not anymore than usual. I'm a member, so someone has to have a screw loose somewhere.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Infinite Crisis of DC Comics.

Ah, DC Comics..... You didn't think I had a grudge with Marvel, did you?

Last week, I took a look at Marvel comics, and how they've tried for yet another Marvel “event” every other week.

At the other end of the comic book universe, in DC Comics, there has been a crisis or two … hundred. They had an Identity Crisis, an Infinite Crisis, a Final Crisis, and one, three year War of the Rings (a Sinestro War, a Corps War, a Blackest night).

Spoiler Alerts all around.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Disasters to Marvel At: A Comic Discussion.

While I generally leave anything referring to comic books or superheroes to others, I am now stepping in.  The disaster known as Marvel Comics has become a wasteland of jibberish for years now.  Finally, there is a solution at hand.

Dear Disney, you own Marvel now. Have Joe Quesada walk the plank off the roof of 666 5th avenue. You can have Johnny Depp hold the sword that nudges him off, if you like.

Why do I say that? About five years ago, DC Comics started their epic of the week. Marvel, in perfect monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, has tried to keep up. In this effort, the result has been … nothing I can adequately describe using PG-13 language.

Let's see if we can all follow this round of abject stupidity.