Friday, May 25, 2018

The Book Club

The Book Club
Bobby Derie

"I want to thank you all for coming," the Captain said. They had requisitioned one of the meeting rooms, and sat around the table. Several of them had copies of their books at hand; Jennifer and Kamala even had notepads and pens. "It means a lot to me that we can come together like this, and share our thoughts. I'm certainly curious at what you all think about this story. Since this club was my suggestion, I thought I would start off with what this story means to me."

There were six of them, including the Captain. The blond demigod sat to his right, his hammer on the table, his hand absently tracing the script written on its head; next to him was Miles, the eager teenager with the big webbed boots to fill. Looking somewhat uncomfortable - and still in full mask - was Laura, another young person living up to a legacy, and next to her the towering green figure of Jennifer. It was odd seeing the pair there, knowing how often their counterparts had gone at it tooth-and-nail - or fist and claws. Finally on his left was Kamala - or Miss Khan, as he liked to call her when she was off-duty. She seemed the most eager of the bunch, sitting on the edge of her seat.

"I was twelve years old in the March of 1933, when this story was first published in Weird Tales. Pulp fiction is what we had, before comic books. As a boy I would trace out the figures in the magazine to practice my drawing - and thrill with the other kids to the adventures of Conan the Cimmerian, Doc Savage, and the Shadow. I guess I never dreamed, back then, that I would be one of them - war was so distant to us then. The Great War was my parent's war, and Hitler...the Nazis came to power, in '33. We couldn't see yet what he would become, and people had a hard enough time, during the depression. These stories were our escape." He paused to gather his thoughts. "Except Conan isn't a hero, exactly. He was a rogue, in roguish times. A thief and a murderer...yet not without his own sense of justice, his own code. That made sense, back then. You read it a lot, in the hardboiled magazines. Hard men dealing out 'justice,' which was little more than vengeance. I don't believe in that, and never have. But he also...he had pity, for Yag-Kosha. He saw someone different, a monster to his eyes, and yet did not strike him down just for that. At a time when so many of the villains were simply monsters...that was different, and that still means a lot to me. That we shouldn't hate others, just because they look strange to us. That we should sympathize and understand their suffering...and help them, when we can."

"Well said, good Captain," the demigod's voice rolled like thunder through the room; though he could whisper, the thunderer was still not used to an "indoor voice." One finger idly traced a rune on his hammer. "I have not read much of the works of Robert Ervin Howard of Texas, yet there is something strange and familiar to them - they are not history, not of any age that I have lived; yet there is there the sense of an age when he would have lived, I think. There are sentiments that stir powerfully in the blood - this Conan is a manly example that echoes some of the epics of Valhalla and Asgard -"

"Including his sentiments about women?" Jennifer butted in, shaking her green locks. "Where all women are wenches, and men talk openly of stealing women and selling them into sexual slavery?" Her voice rose a trifle. The thunderer lifted his hands.

"Peace, my green friend. In soothe, thou has a good point, and it is well-made. In ages past, women had a bitter lot, and were oft regarded as little more than property - but as I said, this is set in no true period of history, and it is beyond my ken as to whether the Texan intended his story to reflect the reality as he understood it, or to feed the prejudices of his own era. Yet women feature so little in the story, I know not whether 'tis much more for me to say on this score - I say only that I do in part identify with the rogue warrior, drawn from his own land by wanderlust, and facing such strange magics and challenges as the Cimmerian did." He shrugged. "For in my own life, I have known such strange circumstances."

There was a pause, and Miles coughed a bit. "I liked it. It isn't like the normal things we read in school. I kinda get what Ms. Walters is saying though - it's's kinda like...I don't want to say racism, but like awareness. Like today we'll say 'Oh, he's Puerto Rican, she's African-American, he's Jewish...' and in this story everybody is like Cimmerian or Kothian or Zamoran or Shemitish and...y'know, Shemites, Semites, I think he was maybe getting at something there. And 'Khitai' is just an old name for China, right? And there's no like, half-and-half, right? No half-Shemites or anything like that. It's a little like...the old folks in Brooklyn..." The teenager looked sheepish and glanced at his fellow New Yorker, who smiled.

"In the '30s you had Harlem and Spanish Harlem, Little wasn't segregated, officially, but there were certain blocks that were like that. You could walk along and hear only Polish, or hymns being sang in Hebrew while women gossiped through windows in Yiddish..." The Captain shrugged out of his reverie. "But it is a good point. Times were different. Although Howard was in Texas, and never came to New York, as far as I know, I think the story definitely reflects something of the attitude of the times...what do you think, Laura?"

She kept her hands on the table, as everyone turned toward her. There was a sensation almost like a caged animal, but she hadn't popped her claws. Yet.

"I liked the fights," She said. "The giant spider, especially. The lions in the garden...that made me sad. I've seen people do that to animals. Cut their vocal chords, so they can't growl. Makes them better guards. I've had to deal with a few of those, and I don't like it. Just...cutting them to make them" She dropped off into an uncomfortable silence. "I don't read much. Fiction, I mean. Most of the stuff people try to get me to read it's...meant for girls. Twilight and all that. I don't like that but...I like this. I like that maybe anybody can read it, for the action, for the story. It doesn't seem just like boys' fiction. Like if Conan was a girl, it wouldn't make a difference to the story."

"I never looked at it that way," the green giantess said to Laura's right. "I don't get a chance to read much fiction either, between court documents and files...and I think maybe I've been too influenced by the Schwarzenegger movie. Reminds me of Arnie climbing the tower of the Serpent, not the Tower of the Elephant, but...I guess you're a bit young for that." She drummed green fingers on her pad of paper, which the Captain saw had a few notes written on it. "It's pulp fiction. I don't think we need to dive too deep into that. That '30s had a lot of sexism and racism and...well, one thing I think you were dead-right about Cap is how close to hardboiled fiction this was. Except not from a private detective kind of vibe, but from the view of criminals...but it's in a society where there doesn't seem to be a lot of rule of law to begin with. Private guards, paid for by someone rich and powerful enough to blackmail the authorities into looking the other way for his crimes that keep him rich and powerful...I think there is a sense of justice behind this story, although maybe Conan isn't Raymond Chandler's 'a good enough man for any world.' Didn't you say there was a story of Howard's that was more of a police procedural?"

"'The God in the Bowl.'" the Captain said, with a nod.

"Well, maybe I'll enjoy that one better, for comparison and contrast. But that's all I have for this week."

"Miss Khan?" They group turned their attention to the final member of the group. She looked small, and a little frail sitting there - the youngest of the group, and for all that they contained a demigod and a gamma-powered Amazon, perhaps the most different. An American Muslim in New Jersey, growing up after 9/11...the Captain had great respect for the young woman's courage, though he hadn't yet told her that. To be a hero and stand up for everyone, when so many thought the worst of you just based on your religion and the color of your skin.

"I don't know if sword-&-sorcery is my thing," she said. "It's really kind of weird, when you live in a world like we do, where magic and...people that call themselves gods..." she looked embarrassed, but the thunderer gave her a wink.

"'Prick us, do we not bleed?' Say on, young hero, and if you do not call us gods, I will not gainsay thee."

"Right, so...I think what I really took away from this is, kind of something that Miles and Cap were saying, about how much of this goes back to when it was written and who was writing it...but I keep thinking that even though there were all these super people back in the '30s and before, it was kinda secret and not public and everything. They didn't have super-soldiers during World War I, and the Sorcerer Supreme wasn't on the front cover of magazines, and aliens and...y'know, these mythical people...didn't just come down out of the skies. The one time they thought they did, the whole 'War of the Worlds' thing, people just freaked, and I think... what would he have thought, if he had seen us today? Like, if he knew magic and aliens and mutants existed, and not just the pulp heroes... how would he have written things differently?"

"'What if?' is the hardest question." The Captain said. "If Howard had lived longer, maybe he would have changed...would have seen things change, anyway. As it is, he died...before everything, really. Before I was a super-soldier. Before the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, the Invaders...although you never know what he might have heard, out in Texas. The Phantom Rider and the Two-Gun Kid were active out on the frontier...his grandparents would have remembered them, probably."

"I would have liked to see him live to see the Civil Rights era," Jennifer said dryly.

"Kamala...what did you think of the alien?" Miles said, looking at her across the table.

She took a deep breath. "That was one of the saddest things. I mean, I like what the Captain said...that Conan felt pity for it, for being different. And I was sad, hearing what had happened to it. Like, Yag-Kosha reminded me of...of the other Captain. The alien one. I mean, I never met him, but I heard how he died and...well, that's the difference, to me. There was nothing of vengeance in that. He just...accepted his death. Didn't want to wish it on an enemy. That's kinda where I differ from Conan, I guess. I don't think I'd want to do what he did."

"'Tis no dishonor to be an avenger," the thunderer rumbled, "so I do not know if I can agree with thee completely. Yet I know well that vengeance can be a poison, and it is not always worthy..." he let his hand rest on the hammer " let it eat away at you. If it must be done, I would hope it be done swiftly, as in Conan's tale. Yet there is wisdom in your own thought, that vengeance for its own sake need not be pursued. There is always a higher path..."

"Justice," Jennifer chimed in.

"Aye, justice. When such justice may be found. Yet could Conan conceive of such justice, in his world? Or Howard, in his? I know not what Texas was like that time, if it be a lawless place, but Conan's world seems, if not lawless, than a world of little justice save of the rough sort that men might make themselves." He mused.

"Or maybe that was just his interpretation. Like, the way he made the world not as a historical setting, but how he thought it was, or should have been, or something." Miles chimed in.

"Perhaps. This matter is too deep for me...yet I am glad to have the pondering of it."

"Yeah, I'm glad we came together to discuss it." Kamala said.

The lights blinked, suddenly, red and white...and down the corridors, the whine of an alarm.

"Well heroes, looks like we'll have to cut this meeting short." The Captain said, a tone of command creeping unconsciously into his voice. "Does anyone have a suggestion for next week?"


No comments:

Post a Comment