I awoke to the sad news that Children’s book author, the great Margaret Mahy passed away at age 76 after a brief illness. Mahy wrote over 200 books and poems, and is considered to be one of New Zealand’s finest and most acclaimed writers. Her books have been translated into 15 languages and she has won numerous awards and honors for her body of work. Ms. Mahy has won both the Carnegie Medal and the Hans Christian Anderson award. She wrote her first book at age seven.
I know I am only one among so many that are deeply saddened by the loss of such a strong voice for children’s literature. It has been a very sad year as we have lost many greats in the genre. I am sure there will be a huge outpouring from the children’s literature community and I will do my best to gather as many links to the tributes as I can find.
Rest in peace Margaret Mahy, you touched the world and generations with your work and you will be terribly missed.
Judith Ridge at Misrule
A Confusion of Princes
Author: Garth Nix
This is Young Adult interstellar science-fiction, in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton, two classic YA s-f authors to whom this book is dedicated. I grew up devouring the YA s-f of Heinlein and Norton in my teens. How close does A Confusion of Princes come? Very – and current to the 2010s, not the 1950s, too!
“I have died three times, and three times been reborn, though I am not yet twenty in the old Earth years by which it is still the fashion to measure time.” (p. 1)
Khemri is a Prince of the galaxy-spanning Empire. This is not as much a biological title as a political and technological one. The Empire, with tens of thousands of worlds and a population of multi-quintillions, has ten million Princes (male and female) to help run it. To serve efficiently, the Princes are educated from infancy to rule and are turned into cyborgs; biologically and psychically enhanced, including a connection to the Imperial Mind so that, if killed, they can be reborn.
But technologically enhanced ruling abilities (“techno-wizardry”) do not preclude personal ambition. By tradition, the Emperor abdicates every twenty years, naming one of the ten million Princes as his heir. Some, if not most, of the Princes are jockeying for position to become that heir. Young and naïve Prince Khemri quickly discovers that one or more of his fellow Princes is out to assassinate him – nothing personal; just eliminating one more competitor.
This is a novel of character development. Unfortunately, to develop into an admirably complex and self-assured character, Khemri has to start out as shallow and superficial, arrogant about his lofty status. Nix keeps his readers through Khemri’s unpleasant beginnings by painting his colorful background, a galaxy of a glittering upper class of seemingly-perfect supermen and a lower class of benevolently-ruled peasants, plus exotic alien enemies; and by presenting the story as a flashback, with Khemri wryly acknowledging his original naïvete.
The education to rule is based on a thorough understanding of the Imperial technology, which is divided into three classes, the mechanical Mektek, the biological Bitek, and the mental Psytek, each of which is managed and controlled by a priesthood that worships different Aspects of the divine Emperor – which the reader will recognize is a cadre of scientific bureaucrats disguised as a religion. The reality is shown by the fact that the first of his/her court that a Prince meets, upon becoming a Prince on his eighteenth birthday, is his Master of Assassins. The main duty of a Master of Assassins is not to assassinate anyone, but to keep his brand-new Prince from being assassinated by his nine-plus million peers.
A Confusion of Princes follows Khemri from his eighteenth-birthday investiture, expecting to become an all-powerful and all-important Prince of the Empire, through his introduction to Haddad, his Master of Assassins; Haddad’s immediate saving him from an assassination attempt; their flight to the Naval Academy of the Imperial Navy on the world of Kwanantil Nine where Khemri can connect to the Imperial Mind; Khemri’s year as a Naval cadet, and more. His experiences are fast-paced, colorful, and humbling as he learns more about what life in the Empire is really like. At the same time, he gradually realizes that his experiences are more than those of an average Prince. “So Haddad was a very senior Master of Assassins indeed. Why had he been assigned to me? And why had I been sponsored to join the Imperial Mind by an arch-priest, the head of an Aspect I’d never even heard about, read about, or suspected existed?” (p. 49)
Spoiler alert: it later turns out that the Empire has a secret service of “Adjustors” within the ten million Princes, to secretly police them and keep them from getting out of control. This “seventh service” is what Khemri is being groomed for. But the rigorous testing includes surviving for a year as an ordinary human, without any Princely powers.
During that time, disguised as Khem, a Fringe trader, he meets Raine Gryphon, a communication specialist in an interstellar wartime situation, and her family. She is the first woman that he comes to know other than a Prince’s sex servant or a fellow Prince. “It was an inexplicable, emotional response, one I had never felt before. I didn’t like it, because it felt weak, but somehow I couldn’t stop it. I tried to tell myself that she was just like a mind-programmed servant of my household, but she wasn’t. They were all the same. She was … different. More interesting … and she was different from all the humans I’d met in my training. I’d gotten on well enough with some of them, but I’d certainly never felt like I needed to protect them.” (p. 211)
At the end of the year, Khemri has passed his test and becomes an Adjustor, which he learns puts him on an inside track to become the next Emperor. But after a year as an ordinary human, with the freedom from the rigidly stratified life of a Prince, full of ultimate power and pleasure but having to always fear assassination, Khemri must decide whether he prefers the perquisites of Princedom or the liberty of a commoner. A Confusion of Princes is a swiftly-moving, vividly exotic adventure of the far future for adolescents (especially boys) and adults.
Did you grow up reading Encyclopedia Brown books? I did. I was in love with those books and always learned so much. I was deeply saddened today when I heard the news that Donald J. Sobol, the author of those wonderful books of my childhood, had passed away on Wednesday at age 87. He will be greatly missed, but his work lives on. Encyclopedia Brown has NEVER been out of print and has been translated in various languages. Rest in peace.
During Comic-Con, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Dr. Travis Langley, author of Batman and Psychology.
I started out asking Dr. Langley about the panel he moderated Thursday at Comic-Con. “Well, originally it was going to be focused more on Batman, but because we wound up with Lee Meriweather joining us I talked about Catwoman a lot more than I would have otherwise. The topic was ‘The Dark Knight Rises: Is Batman Broken?’ and this was a topic I had in mind for two years. Originally two years ago, when I mentioned it to Michael Uslan – the man who produced every Batman movie to date – this is my fourth year in a row to do a panel with him. Two years ago, thinking ahead for what would be a good panel for when The Dark Knight Rises comes about, so I said how about is Batman crazy, and he said that’s perfect. But then last year I asked him that and he had to think and he finally said it’s relevant so it evolved. The bigger question with the Dark Knight is not is Batman broken but will Batman break. Those of us who know the comic, as soon as we knew Bane was going to be the main villain we went ‘ooh… what in the world, how bad is this going to hit the Batman?’. Because in the comic Bane broke Batman’s back, so we’ve got the movie with the villain who broke Batman’s back and the one who has sometimes broken Batman’s heart.”
The panel did spend a little time looking at Bane “and what drives him more than anything else and it’s the need to achieve, the need to accomplish things for the sheer sake of accomplishing things. He likes power, but if he had to choose between power over all the criminals in Gotham and a real challenge, he would pick the real challenge. With Catwoman we went through her history. You know, she was like in the earliest days in the comic and how she pretty much vanished for twenty years from 1954 to a point in the seventies… she completely vanished for ten years in 1954 after the Comics Code came along. She appeared a few times in comics over the decade after that. but barely until Len Wein had Bruce Wayne start dating her. But Lee is the one who played the version of Catwoman who outright broke Batman’s heart, if you’ve seen or remember the Adam West Batman movie.”
I mentioned I had seen that movie, and in fact every film incarnation, except that I had not seen the second film of the current set because I am a bit squeamish by nature and the first film of the Dark Knight set actually had been a bit tough for me. Dr. Langley acknowledged what I was talking about and commented, “Nolan’s going for what’s the most realistic we can get, feeling like this is really a Batman who can exist in the real world and still not quite the real world, but it feels close to the real world. The Barton Schumacher movies, it never felt like the real world, the first one is this noirish city in the midst of darkness as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist; the rest of the world isn’t even mentioned until the first Schumacher movie when Batman refers to Metropolis.”
As to examining Batman, “we focus on is Batman ill, does he qualify for any mental illness… the big one people want to talk about is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. My fellow psychologist Robin Rosenberg and I, we both agree no. He definitely has some symptoms but he does not have enough to qualify for the diagnostic criteria. At the things he wants to do in life, he functions better than anybody else. Who’s going to fall apart first in a crisis, you or Batman? Not Batman. Honestly, with the number of adventures he’s had, the number of horrors he’s faced, it’s amazing the man doesn’t collapse. That’s not somebody who’s crippled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”
The Catwoman wasn’t the only person discussed from Batman’s love life. “We had Steve Englehart here. He created a character named Silver St. Cloud, who was supposed to be a good girl to be a love interest for Batman, because Batman’s love interests, the long term ones he has passion for, tend to be bad girls, particularly Catwoman and Talia Al’Ghul… we know there’s a child version of her in the next movie, and most people think Marion Cotillard’s character is going to turn out to be Talia, most people would be very surprised if she doesn’t turn out to be Talia. So we would have both of Batman’s main love interests in the next movie.”
As a psychology professor, Dr. Langley first came to see someone else he knew to do a panel. “I got here and I looked around and I just saw this great place – more than 100,000 people in an environment that celebrates their interests, that celebrates their differences from other people. And I just thought there’s a wealth of research that can be done here. I was reading a book by Danny Fingeroth called Superman on the Couch and Danny in there commented in there on how at that point it had been 50 years since Frederick Wortham, the psychiatrist who really stirred things up with his book The Seduction of the Innocent… it had been 50 years since Wortham or any other mental health professionals had written anything about superheroes. That got me thinking, but what really set me in motion was weeks before that. I’d had a summer Psychology and Literature class and I gave my students an assignment… everyone had to choose a fictional character and analyze it in repeated ways throughout the semester. Someone would analyze Ahab… or Huck Finn… Hamlet… and I would give people assignments like rate your character on extroversion and write a paragraph backing it up. Along the way I would analyze Batman the same way to give them examples, and I built up 50 pages of notes really. So while I was writing, I barely referred back to those original 50 pages while working on the book. But when I started working on the book and really started planning the book, I wrote it four years ago, I knew I don’t have connections in this area, I don’t have publications in this area, I knew I needed to build stuff up, because I knew then I wanted to do a book on the psychology of Batman. In my head for a long time, it was called Batman in his Belfry… but the publisher I went with had an ‘And Philosophy’ series and an ‘And Psychology’ series, but all the other books are collections by multiple people.”
They had different ideas for the subtitle. “We surveyed 504 possible buyers and the one that was the most popular was A Dark and Stormy Knight, which had been a joke I made off the top of my head one day. Well it has multiple meanings. One, it’s a play on a very famous bad opening sentence. It’s a play on the Dark Knight and his own stormy nature. If you’re going to analyze a superhero, if you’re going to write a book about fictional characters… you have to start with Batman, the one who is defined by his psychology more than any other. Superman, what is he… outside of the fact that he’s a hero… Superman he can fly and he’s super-strong, Spider-Man he’s got spider powers, Batman is not going to be defined first by powers. He’s a guy who dresses like a bat who hunts bad guys in the middle of the night. He is defined by his psychology. He is defined by what he does, just like that line Rachel Dawes has in the beginning of Batman Begins telling him it’s what you do that defines you… he is defined by what he chooses to do. He didn’t choose for the murder of his parents to happen but he’s made choices on what he’s done about it. The murder of the parents gave him the reason to be a hero, Spider-Man the murder of his uncle gave him a reason to be a hero, Superman’s really good upbringing gave him a reason and a responsibility for the power. Spider-Man and Superman both learned in different ways that with great power comes great responsibility. For Bruce Wayne, it wasn’t just that he had great power and he had great wealth but in terms of the power he built himself into the strong person, the guy knowledgable in chemistry and many other skills. He made himself a superhero.”
We then talked some about Batman’s rogues gallery, which is famous to a lot of readers who even if they don’t know much about the characters recognize who they are. I asked if any one in the rogues gallery in particular might stand out as crazy or broken based on the definitions used for the panel. “With the Riddler, you can look at obsessive compulsive disorder, and narcissism. Out of the lot of them he is one of the best for looking at narcissism as it relates to real people. The Joker is obviously narcissistic but he’s a bit more removed from how any real person would act… many of the other characters will have compulsions as we commonly use the term but not technically. Psychologically it has to be a compulsion if at some point it bothers them. The Riddler sometimes is, ‘I really didn’t mean to leave a clue and I did it anyway,’ he has this compulsion.”
I asked what the book offers. Dr. Langley described the book this way: “The book uses psychology to analyze Batman and Batman to teach psychology. I don’t just analyze the characters. When I go through I’m looking for what is a psychological concept or theory or topic that I can bring in. Like Bane was the last villain I analyzed, what story do I want to tell with Bane in terms of the character and the teaching of psychology that I couldn’t do or hadn’t done with any other… some of them are very easy, Scarecrow you talk about fear, the main thing I thought about with Scarecrow was the physiology of fear because he uses the fear toxins and everything to make people feel fear. What would go on physiologically, is it possible to make a fear toxin, yes! So what would go on specific to that.” He also uses Batman to discuss various theories such as “Sternberg’s triangular theory of love and I discuss the different aspects and how does Batman rate in those different aspects.”
As to what people can take away from the book, he said: “So those wanting to learn something about psychology can take something from that. Somebody at a psychology convention I was at once asked me about the legitimacy of using Batman to teach psychology, and I said why can’t you use anything to teach psychology or any other topic?” He went on to talk about how train examples can better explain math and science as another example. “For somebody who is interested in a character like Batman, they can learn the psychology more easily with that. Last spring I taught a class called Batman. I could have called it ‘The Psychology of Nocturnal Vigilantism’ but no, I called it Batman so the only students taking it were the ones who wanted Batman on their transcript. It was really well rated at the end of the semester, they felt they got a lot out of it not just that they learned the psychology better than they had in other classes, they got a lot out of it as people… it helped legitimize these nerdy interests of theirs.”
A big thank you to Dr. Langley for taking time out to discuss his book and the psychology behind one of the most iconic superheroes. This concludes our special “Professional to Professional” series for Comic-Con International: San Diego 2012 from AmoXcalli!