Tag Archives: Pessimism

First 15 Lives of Harry August

It has been another interesting year, and broader notes about that are coming.

Among the many interesting experiences in 2015, though, I feel like recalling one remarkable book in particular: The First 15 Lives of Harry August, by Claire North aka Catherine Webb.

This was excellent on multiple levels. First, I found it a simple compelling page-turner. It’s also very cinematic; I can picture vividly the lead-in scene as the first few seconds of a movie trailer. “I almost missed you, Dr. August. I need to send a message back to the past…”

Beyond this, the conceit is one of those things that comes close to being something new under the sun. North basically asks “what if a small number of people all experienced something like Groundhog Day, except for their entire lives rather than 24 hours?” The consequences are challenging; you basically have to imagine a series of timelines in sequence, which mostly follow the same course except that certain individuals always begin their lives remembering all that they experienced in each previous timeline. It pretty much works, though. The resultant world and its more detailed, human consequences are fascinating.

What impresses me most of all, though, is how these have stayed with me now for many weeks since I finished the book. Themes and ideas have kept coming back to me, and I have gradually concluded that—by explicit intent or not—The First 15 Lives of Harry August is an insightful metaphor for life itself.

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Doom vs Hope (Dr. Doom, that is)

Dr. Doom was one of my favorite comic book villains almost from the very start.

I have forgotten whether Fantastic Four #200 was the first or second issue of the series that I acquired, but it was certainly among my earliest purchases, generally, when I began collecting comic books beyond the Transformers series. It was a splendid superhero book, and obviously I perceived greatness in its villain, and I still do. Many have written appreciations of Dr. Doom over his half-century existence, and I could happily reiterate the character’s established strengths. Instead, though, I want to focus on an aspect that I’m not sure I have seen highlighted before, at least not from this angle.

Cover of FF 200 by Kirby and Sinnott

I bought this as a back issue of course, probably around 1990

A couple of weeks ago, fellow alumnus of Fantastic Four fandom Sean argued that recent adaptations have mislaid the optimism which is as much a key to the concept as elemental superpowers or familial bickering. I thought it was a very valid observation about the Fantastic Four as characters and series. (I have not seen the films, though I suspect the analysis hits its target there as well.) More recently, this proposal inspired a sort of corollary involving the series’ premier villain: part of what makes Dr. Doom a great foil for the FF is a contrasting pessimism intrinsic to his own character.

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That far shore

I have very possibly lived half my life, now.

I don’t know why birthday #37 has prompted so much reflection on the finite, but it has. In addition to realizing that “young adult” status is now firmly over, it has dawned on me recently that this is probably as close to the midpoint of my life as it’s ever going to be possible to determine, in advance.

Obviously one can’t know with precision, so there’s little point getting into arguments, but the suggestion that I have something like four decades remaining to me does not seem wildly unrealistic either way.

In some ways it’s a relief, too, honestly. When I suggest that the prospect of living through 10 more presidential campaign seasons is horrifying enough that I don’t even want to imagine another 15 or 20, any humor in the remark is incidental rather than fundamental. I’m tired, of many things.

The idea of significantly extended lifespans is usually more a dread than a dream, nowadays… which is why it seems just as well that I won’t see them.

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2014 Year in Review

I don’t really have a big Year in Review post in me this year. I don’t know how much that’s me slowing down, or the novelty wearing off; perhaps a little from column A and a little from column B.

For the most part, certainly in terms of the creative/work theme on which I have focused in previous years, the story of 2014 was publishing another book and otherwise just hanging on. I’m still proud of Cotton’s Library, and the fact that I was the first person in its four-century existence to write and publish a book-length history of this important collection. Still, I guess that having done this once before, something of the wow factor is missing this time. I’m not sure what it says that I can feel like researching, writing and publishing a book is just part of the old routine… but that’s kind of how it feels now.

Work in 2014 also had a “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” lack of magic. At the moment, most of my clients are with one firm, so a lot of the work is of a kind, in addition to being sharing-restricted anyway. They do throw challenges at me, but not too many are the type of challenge that is solved by exploring new frontiers in creative design. Lot of charts dense with numbers, lot of coordinate maps. More Microsoft PowerPoint…

Otherwise, I did a surprising amount of drawing, including this, this and a series including this. I began researching a third book. I also had some interesting minor adventures like visiting the Cartoon Library, revisiting archives from my college house-presidency for a current-resident archivist, and changing ISPs. That last one was really less an adventure than a fiasco, though, and on the whole…

Really, 2014 was kind of a downer year, to be honest. I feel a deeper pessimism about the society around me than, very possibly, ever. Contrarians can offer all the “the world is actually getting better!” items they want, and I’m aware that there is a lot of the world about which I have little more than a hypothetical awareness… but pretty much all the world with which I feel any practical affinity seems like it’s locked onto a negative trajectory for years to come. Basically, I see a world of which I just don’t want to be part, and no practical alternatives.

That just makes for a drag, every day, basically. Meanwhile my individual existence hasn’t been on any kind of offsetting highlight trip, as noted. “I feel confined, only free to expand myself within boundaries…”

And this just seems like that’s basically that for now. Tough crap, keep on slogging. I have some plans and ideas, inevitably; I maintain some expectation of wringing some juice from life in 2015 come what may.

But it does seem like “keep doing my thing and try to make ends meet” will predominate.

Failed states

The coverYesterday brought me last week’s issue of The Economist, which promises coverage of “the Republican victory and what it means for America’s broken government.” The casualness of this reference to American government as “broken” is particularly interesting, to me, because I distinctly recall a different editorial stance from the same publication less than five years ago. Then, they noted a growing sense that “the political system is broken. America has become ungovernable,” before declaring that “we argue to the contrary.”

Poking into their newest cover story, the transformation is remarkable. Then, they allowed that various systemic problems “should be corrected. But even if they are not, they do not add up to a system that is as broken as people now claim.” Overall, they insisted, “the basic system works as intended.” The real problem was that “Mr Obama” would not compromise.

Fast-forward to 2014, and subheadline to their story is “Republicans have won a huge victory. Now they must learn to compromise [emphasis added].” This prospect, moreover, they categorize as an optimist’s hope, and a faint one absent systemic reforms. Now, The Economist warns that “even if the optimists are right [emphasis added], America faces a host of ailments that seem beyond the reach of today’s politics.” If this is to change, Americans “need to change the way they elect their leaders.”

So, I guess I won that argument. Progress. Splendid.

…oh, wait, the society I live in is breaking down. Actually this is terrifying.

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