Friday, June 16, 2017

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover

As regular readers of this blog (all two of you, unless I'm miscounting by two) know, I have been watching the superhero movie bubble for years expecting it to pop. Of course it hasn't, so far--this, seventeen summers after Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) (which in turn came a decade after 1989's Batman became the biggest hit of the year, and its franchise the most successful of the 1989-1995 period). And the conventional wisdom seems to be that this longest-running of action movie fashions can go on indefinitely.

I'm less sure of what to think than before. The studios have slates packed with superhero films through 2020, and by now probably beyond it as well, and at this moment I wouldn't care to bet on their shelving those plans because of an untoward change in the market--still less because of three developments.

R-Rated Superhero Movies Can Now Become Full-Blown Blockbusters
Of course, there have been plenty of R-rated superhero movies before--like the Blade movies, and Wanted and Watchmen. The difference was that they tended to not be made about first-string characters, or given first-rate budgets, with the expectation justified by their small prospect of first-rate grosses.

So did it also go with Deadpool, was not a first-string character (he reminds us of this himself, rather crudely, in the early part of the film), and he didn't get the really big budget (Deadpool gabbing endlessly about this too). Rather than original or fresh or subversive (it had nothing on Watchmen here, or even the 2015 reboot of Fantastic Four) it struck me as a mediocre second-stringer, notable in how heavy it is only in tired independent film-type shtick. Still, the film exploded ($363 million at the U.S. box office, nearly $800 million worldwide--a feat the more impressive for it not having played in the ever-more important China market), and has already had a sort of follow-up in a genuine first-stringer--Wolverine--getting an R-rated film, Logan, earlier this year. (The budget was, again, limited next to the full-blown X-Men movies at under $100 million, but the character and the budget were a bigger investment than Deadpool represented, and with over $600 million banked it seems likely to encourage even bolder moves of this kind later.)

What's going on here?

One possibility is the change in the makeup of the market. It seems that R-rated films (and not just raunchy comedies), while far from where they were in the '80s and even '90s in terms of market share, have done better recently than at any time this century, and superhero films have reflected the turn. (In 2014, American Sniper topped the box office and Gone Girl also did well, while 2015 saw The Revenant and Fifty Shades of Grey become top 20 hits at the American box office, and Mad Max: Fury Road claim the #21 spot.) I might add that reading the Box Office Guru's biweekly reports, I'm struck by how much the audience for recent films has been dominated by the over-25 crowd--younger people perhaps going to the movies less often. (Living life online, while having less access to cars and less money in general, I suspect they don't go to the theater so much as they used to do.) This might make an R-rating less prohibitive than it used to be for an action film producer, perhaps especially in this case. By this point anyone who is twenty-five probably has little memory of a time when the action genre was not dominated by superheroes. They grew up on superheroes, are used to superheroes, and so R-rated films about people with unlikely powers dressed in colorful spandex seem less silly to them, and not such a tough sell as they would have been once upon a time.

Really Big-Budget Superhero Movies with Female Protagonists Can Be Moneymakers
Just as we have had plenty of R-rated superhero movies in the past, we have had plenty of superhero films with female protagonists. The difference was that, as I recently wrote here, while there were action movies with female superhero protagonists (Elektra, for example), and big-budget, first-string superhero movies featuring female superheroes (Black Widow in the Avengers), the flops of the early 2000s left Hollywood discouraged about presenting really first-string superhero movies centered on female protagonists. The grosses of YA dystopia films like The Hunger Games, Lucy and Mad Max have made the studios readier to go down this road, however--and the success of Wonder Woman is reinforcing this. And I suspect that at the very least the trend will endure for a while, while perhaps being here to stay.

Mega-Franchises Have Become the New Normal
Where the decision to make big-budget films centered on female superheroes is a case of the superhero movie following trends set by others, in this case the superheroes have led the way. The Marvel studio gambled big and won big with a larger Marvel Comics Universe, which regularized Avengers-style grosses to such a degree that even an Iron Man or Captain America sequel could deliver them. Inspired by this course Warner Brothers gambled (but has not yet won big) with a comparable Justice League franchise. Since then Disney (Marvel's current owner) has given Star Wars the same treatment (and so far, won big again), while Universal, not to be left behind, has decided to do the same with a film franchise based on its classic movie monsters. (The first effort, the recent reboot of The Mummy, is a commercial disappointment, but as the WB demonstrated in plowing ahead with its Justice League despite the reservations about Man of Steel and Superman vs. Batman, the project is too big to be shut down by a single setback.)

A credulous postmodernist might gush at the possibilities for intertextuality. But the reality is that this is of principally commercial rather than artistic significance--as, I think, is the case with the other two trends discussed here. Indeed, by upping the commercial pressure (studios now want not a series delivering a solid hit every two or three years on the strength of the built-in audience, but a hit machine delivering record breaking-blockbusters once or twice a year) the greater synchronization, the higher financial stakes would seem likely to tie the artists' hands to a degree those who still lament the decline of New Hollywood can scarcely fathom as yet. Still, superficial as most of this is (we are not talking about anything like the reinvention of superhero films here, for the most part), the success of Deadpool says something about how little it might take to keep the boom going longer than the decades it has already managed.

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening
6/16/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)
8/18/16
Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)
5/25/16
Reconsidering Watchmen
5/21/16
The Enduring Superhero Boom
5/21/16
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
10/25/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Star Wars: Another Marvel Movie Machine
7/19/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The American Box Office, First Half of 2015
7/6/15
The Decline of the R-Rated Movie
8/11/14
The Decline of the R-Rated Action Movie
8/11/14
Man of Steel Part 2, Wonder Woman Part 0?
12/16/13
A Note on Independent Film
8/1/13
My Posts on Superheroes
12/12/12
Give the Superheroes a Rest?
9/14/10

Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening

As is well known by now to anyone who pays much attention to films of the type, DC got the Wonder Woman film made, and got it out this summer, and it has already pulled in enough money to be safely confirmed as a commercial success. (Its $460 million is just over half the $873 million the "disappointing" Superman vs. Batman made back in early 2016, and the final tally will probably fall well short of that figure--the Box Office Guru figuring something on the order $750 million. But it was not quite so big an investment, making it a very healthy return.)

In the process DC has realized what I described a few years ago as a longshot.

Of course, quite a lot has happened since--some of it, what seemed to me to be prerequisites for a Wonder Woman film. Warner Brothers firmly committed itself to a Justice League megafranchise comparable to the Marvel Comics Universe, and used the "backdoor" Justice League movie Superman vs. Batman: The Dawn of Justice to introduce new characters, Wonder Woman included.

There has, too, been something of a resurgence in big-budget action movies with female protagonists. Again, the female action hero didn't go away in the preceding years. There were still plenty of really high-profile, big-budget movies featuring action heroines--if as part of an ensemble, like the Black Widow (featured in five movies to date). There were still plenty of second-string action movies with female leads getting by on lower budgets and lower grosses--like the films of the Underworld and Resident Evil franchises (which have continued up to the present).

What there wasn't a lot of were movies combining a first-string production with a female lead after several commercial failures in the early 2000s (the underperformance of the Charlie's Angels and Tomb Raider sequels in the summer of 2003, Catwoman winding up a flop in 2004, Aeon Flux becoming another disappointment in 2005). This makes the shift a good deal less radical than some would have it (the PR for any movie doing anything tends to exaggerate what a big first it is, and an entertainment press usually eats it up, with this occasion no exception), but the change is there, the more so because the change had plenty of precedent, and that not from within the comics genre. Instead the impetus came first and foremost from the young adult dystopia--which saw the Katniss Everdeen-centered Hunger Games series explode (2012-2015), with the first two Divergent films (2014, 2015) also putting in respectable commercial performances. There was also Luc Besson's hit Lucy (2014), and Charlize Theron's turn in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

The only question, then, would seem to be whether such films will now be a commonplace of the cinematic landscape, or prone to the kind of boom and bust seen over the past decade. What do you think?

Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Have Superheroes Taken Over the Box Office?
10/25/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Man of Steel Part 2, Wonder Woman Part 0?
12/16/13
Why the Wonder Woman Movie Hasn't Happened
3/16/13
My Posts on Superheroes
12/12/12

Saturday, June 3, 2017

On the Historiography of Science Fiction: Info-Dumping and Incluing

When it comes to "info-dumping" and "incluing," a considerable current of thought about science fiction hews to the standards of mainstream literature, down to those misconceptions and prejudices summed up in the truism "Show, don't tell." Simply put, info-dumps (telling) are regarded as bad, incluing (showing) as good; and the fact that we are more likely to do the latter than before is taken as a case of "Now We Know Better," and therefore are better than our more enthusiastically info-dumping forbears. Additionally John Campbell and his colleagues (like Robert Heinlein), while getting less respect from the more literature-minded than they otherwise might, are still credited, at times lavishly, with "showing us the light" on this point.

However, Campbell was merely a dedicated and influential promoter of incluing, rather than its inventor. Others had done it before he and his writers came onto the scene. For example, E.M. Forster did so in his short story "The Machine Stops" (1909), and perhaps inspired by this example, so did one of the genre's founding fathers in one of its foundational works, Hugo Gernsback in Ralph 124 C 41+ (1911) (at least in his account of Ralph's use of the Telephot, which seems to echo the opening of Forster's own story). Indeed, the first chapter of Gernsback's oft-mentioned but rarely read classic uses the technique so heavily--and to my surprise, artfully--that it can be treated as a model for doing so, presenting us with a barrage of obliquely treated technological novelties in the first meeting between the titular hero and his love interest, Alice, that manages to be packed with action and novelty, but also lucid and smooth.

Yet, Gernsback shifted to info-dumping for the rest of the text. One reason, obviously, might be that info-dumping--telling--is simply the easier mode from a technical standpoint, setting aside the iron cage of what we call "style," and thus saving an author from having to spend five days on the same page while searching for "le mot juste." However, this does not seem the sole concern. There were particular reasons for the author to go in for incluing in that first chapter--above all, to keep cumbersome explanations from getting in the way of the action. These concerns were less operative later in the text, especially as a big part of their interest was that mainstay of science fiction from at least Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis on, the Tour of the World of Tomorrow--on which it is appropriate to have a Tour Guide along.

Indeed, Gernsback was a strong believer in the value of a good info-dump, as an editor at Amazing Stories strongly encouraging his writers to produce them. Simply put, there are things that cannot be shown intelligibly or concisely, only told, but which it is worthwhile to convey anyway; things that are worth info-dumping when one cannot inclue them; and while one may take issue with the use made of them in some of the fiction he edited, the principle is a valid one, in both science fiction and fiction generally (as H.G. Wells, appropriately, noticed and argued eloquently). Naturally, just as the author who always shows and never tells is a lot less common than the truism would have it (even Flaubert had to tell us some things straight out), so is it very rare to find a really substantial work of science fiction totally bereft of info-dumps.

James Wood on Flaubert
6/3/17
Tell, Don't Show--Again
6/3/17
On the Historiography of Science Fiction
6/1/17
A Fragment on Fan Writing
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
On the First Person Point of View
6/3/16
Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood
10/7/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
7/13/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Tell, Don't Show
2/26/14
My Posts on Literature
12/1/12

Tell, Don't Show--Again

In his book How Fiction Works James Wood early on sings the praises of Gustave Flaubert as the founder of "modern realist narration," what is often glibly summed up as "show, don't tell" done right. This, as Wood remarks,
favors the telling and brilliant detail . . . privileges a high degree of visual noticing . . . maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary . . . and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible.
Indeed, Gustave Flaubert was a genuine and highly influential master of the technique, frequently managing to convey some quite difficult content with ease and precision in many a scene in classics like Madame Bovary. However, it was worth remarking that even he used a good deal of telling--as you find if you actually pick up the book. To fill in his picture, he did not just rely on the "visual noticing" of such things as the characters' facial expressions, casual remarks and the like, but time and again delved into his characters' heads and pasts and generalized and grew abstract in relating such things as Emma Bovary's school days, and the romantic side of her that developed but was never to find fulfillment in the workaday world into which she was born and in which she had her life.
"This nature, positive in the midst of its enthusiasms, that had loved the church for the sake of the flowers, and music for the words of the songs, and literature for its passional stimulus, rebelled against the mysteries of faith as it grew irritated by discipline, a thing antipathetic to her constitution . . ."1
It is elegant telling, but telling all the same.

1. I cite here the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation.

Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
On the First Person Point of View
6/3/16
Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood
10/7/15
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
7/13/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Reading Literary Classics, Again
8/20/14
Tell, Don't Show
2/26/14
My Posts on Literature
12/1/12

James Wood on Flaubert

Having been both impressed and disappointed by James Wood's How Fiction Works--impressed by his lucid exposition of some literary fundamentals, disappointed by his uncritical acceptance of them--it was a pleasant surprise to encounter his article in The New Republic, "How Flaubert Changed Literature Forever," from the opening line forward. In his 2008 book he begins his discussion of Flaubert's establishment of "modern realist narration" with the following sentence:
Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring: it all begins again with him.
In his more recent article, however, he begins thusly:
It is hard not to resent Flaubert for making fictional prose stylish--for making style a problem for the first time in fiction.
From there he goes on to a lengthy consideration on how much of a cage that style of narration is, with its stress on the concrete, visual detail; how literature came to be "defined by what it could not hold"; how in the resultant "obsession with the way of seeing," the "flattering of the seen over the unseen, the external over the interior," all of "the important things disappear," and we run the risk of very elegantly telling a story about--nothing at all.

Of course, much of this has been observed before--some of it by Flaubert himself (who did, at times, step out of the cage Wood describes so well). Virtually all of it was said by H.G. Wells when he thought about the problems posed by the kind of style discussed here in his "Digression on Novels." It might be added, too, that Wood's conclusion is rather less radical than Wells'. Where Wells ultimately chose the important things over the obsession with the way of seeing, chose to try and convey what went on in people's heads over the flattering of exterior detail, Wood closes with his admiration of the "mysterious" way in which Flaubert ultimately managed to transcend the limits of his technique to tell Bovary's story. Still, Wood's discussion of the matter is a worthy consideration of a problem far too often slighted in our age of television shows about nothing, movies about nothing and, yes, books about nothing.

Tell, Don't Show--Again
6/3/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Why We Describe Less
8/18/16
On the First Person Point of View
6/3/16
Review: How Fiction Works, by James Wood
10/7/15
H.G. Wells' "Digression on Novels"
7/13/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Reading Literary Classics, Again
8/20/14
My Posts on Literature
12/1/12
Tell, Don't Show
2/26/14

Thursday, June 1, 2017

June 2017

The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover
6/16/17
Thoughts on the Wonder Woman Movie Actually Happening
6/16/17
On the Historiography of Science Fiction: Info-Dumping and Incluing
6/3/17
James Wood on Flaubert
6/3/17
Tell, Don't Show--Again
6/3/17
On the Historiography of Science Fiction
6/1/17

On the Historiography of Science Fiction

Writing my book Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry I produced a history of science fiction that was most concerned with the genre's most recent decades. This was in large part because it seemed to me that, in contrast with earlier periods, these decades had not been dealt with in a comprehensive fashion.

Still, to properly ground that discussion it seemed to me necessary to look at what came before--and going over the relevant history I quickly found that it was not quite as well-studied as I thought it was. Certainly a vast number of works gave overviews of it. However, Jonathan McCalmont quite justified in declaring that
science fiction lacks the critical apparatus required to support the sweeping claims made by people who use [the historical] approach. Far from being a rigorous analysis of historical fact, the historical approach to genre writing is all too often little more than a hotbed of empty phrases, unexamined assumptions and received wisdom.
So did it go in the works I found. By and large the history was a "folk history," rather than rigorous scholarship--empty phrases, unexamined assumptions, received wisdom that, even when essentially correct (as, in hindsight, it often seems to have been), explained its claims vaguely and grounded them poorly, and in the process not only left us understanding it all less fully and well than would otherwise have been the case, but inhibited further work rather than encouraging it.

Of course, there were numerous exceptions to this, but by and large I found the scholarship in relatively obscure, specialized works dealing with relatively small pieces of the field. Colin Greenland's The Entropy Exhibition is excellent at treating key aspects of the New Wave, while Brian Stableford's The Sociology of Science Fiction was particularly insightful in its discussion of John Campbell's work as an editor--and more recently, Mike Ashley's outstanding The Gernsback Days (about, as the title indicates, the "Gernsback" era).

By contrast the larger, more general works, even at their best, tended toward the folk history approach, as with Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove's Trillion Year Spree (an old review of which you can find here). The book, again, has much to commend it. Its coverage of the field is vast, the highlights all mentioned, and certainly it is packed with interesting insights that, after many years of additional reading and consideration, still strike me as valuable. But on such topics as the pulps of the '20s and '30s, for example, the book largely settles for the received wisdom, summing it all up as "Gosh-wowery . . . Bug-Eyed Monsters . . . [and] the trashy plots that went with them" (216-217). To be fair, there is truth to this--and Aldiss and Wingrove do manage to say some interesting things about the material for all that. Yet, this is less specific and well-grounded than it might be (just as it is more dismissive than it ought to be).

It seems to me that the situation is getting better, the body of better-researched, more useful coverage increasing, but all the same, the synthesis of it all has really lagged. And all that being the case one can hardly avoid the question--why has this situation persisted for so long? Certainly one factor would seem to be the history of the genre having been a fan enterprise to such a degree, for so long a time--while the scholars took little interest. (While there were earlier precursors, it was only in the 1970s that academics began to pay very much attention to science fiction, which sounds like a really long time but is not really so long in academic terms; the more so because science fiction is still a fairly marginal area of study next to more canonical work.)

Another would seem to be the conventional wisdom of literary scholarship itself, much more interested in some things than in others. To be blunt, scholars who unquestioningly embrace Modernism and postmodernism as defining what is "important" literature, who take technical experimentalism, epistemological apathy and obsession with identity as the sine qua non of what is worthy of study, and whose non-literary study has been of kindred schools of philosophy and psychology (Foucault, Lacan and the rest), are either disinclined or unequipped to deal very well with key concerns of science fiction, and accordingly much of the work that, from the point of view of the genre, is most important to its history. Instead they gravitate to those works that happen to fit in with the intellectual preoccupations they bring with them, without much interest in how they fit into the history of the field. (Consider as an example the level of attention, and the kind of attention, that Ursula K. Le Guin gets from more academic students of the genre.) And of course science fiction practitioners themselves have been influenced by all this, at least since J.G. Ballard's efforts to remake the genre in the image of the Modernists. (Tellingly Aldiss and Wingrove, while interested in and often insightful about science fiction as a genre of ideas, still tilt in favor of the more purely literary in their analysis--not least in their tracing science fiction's history not to Scientific Revolution/ Enlightenment/Industrial Revolution interest in natural and applied science, and its implications for the increasingly studied shape of society, but to Romantic-Gothic sensationalism.)

The result was that in developing my image of the genre's pre-1980 history (which the first four chapters of the book are devoted to outlining, because of how foundational they are to what follows), I found myself having to spend much more time just figuring out for myself what the facts were before I could settle down to figuring out the larger picture than I'd initially planned on. The folk history had enough in it to be a guide along the way (there were at least presumptions I could investigate, test out), but alas, it was just that, such that I had as much work to do in this supposedly well-covered territory as I had in the less well-charted decades that were my original concern.

Toward a History of Video Gaming
5/4/17
Review: Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, by Chris Kohler
2/23/17
A Fragment on Fan Writing
2/5/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
12/19/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
Trillion Year Spree, Twenty-Five Years On
11/6/11

Monday, May 15, 2017

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: a YA Moonraker?

Picking up the first volume in Anthony Horowitz's Alex Rider series, I was unsurprised to see that he took many of his cues from classic Bond films, with regard to structure, pacing, action. Still, I was surprised by how much of the specifically print Fleming there was here. Indeed, Horowitz appears to have used his novel Moonraker as the framework for his plot.

As in Moonraker a self-made industrialist is being hailed in the British press as a national hero for making an expensive gift to the British public. However, at the facility where he is producing that gift (located on an isolated bit of the English coast) there have been suspicious goings-on, among them the death of a national security state functionary. Accordingly, the British Secret Service sends an agent to the scene to investigate, where he is initially a guest of said industrialist. In the course of these events our hero happens to best the man in a game and win from him a rather large sum of money as a result--revealing in the process that his host is not just a rather unpleasant person to be around, but "no gentleman." The industrialist also happens to be a man of foreign birth. And physically not quite the norm. And as though this were not enough to set off the alarm bells, there is also the behavior of an odd foreigner with a Teutonic accent he keeps round the place, which also gets visits from a submarine delivering secret materiel.

As it happens, our ungentlemanly, foreign, "odd-looking" industrialist with the suspicious German associates and secret submarine deliveries suffered in the English public school system as a boy, and as a result, bears a burning hatred of the country, which has led him to align himself with a foreign power plotting against it. His gift to the nation is in fact poisoned--really a cover for revenge he intends to wreak on it with a weapon of mass destruction to be delivered in spectacular fashion at the ceremonial, highly publicized unveiling of that gift. That weapon will shatter Britain as a nation, while he escapes safely overseas--as the villain explains to the agent after he has captured him, because he means to kill him in colorfully hideous fashion, so there is apparently no prospect of his stopping the plot. However, the hero gets free, and unable to deliver a proper warning to the authorities, races to head off the attack himself in the very nick of time . . .

As models go, Horowitz could have done worse. Moonraker's domestic setting, and its plot's unfolding within a relatively limited space, while eschewing one of the famous attractions of the Bond series (international travel) makes the activity of this fourteen year old secret agent somewhat more plausible. That the Bond girl is engaged to someone else when she meets 007 and is never tempted to stray also makes a convenient fit with Horowitz's decision to dispense with romance entirely. Still, all this underlines the difficulties of squeezing the stuff of the James Bond adventures into a YA book.

My Posts on Anthony Horowitz's Trigger Mortis
2/7/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

Review: The Messiah Stone, by Martin Caidin

New York: Baen, 1986, pp. 407.

It seems that once again I am reviewing a novelist who was once a Big Name but has since slipped into obscurity--Martin Caidin. His novel Marooned, about a stranded astronaut who must be rescued (sound familiar?) became a major film in 1969, while his 1972 book Cyborg was the basis for the television series The Six Million Dollar Man, and its spin-off The Bionic Woman. Today, however, his novels are out of print, his name just about never mentioned--especially when one is not making specific reference to the media spin-offs from his books.

As it happens, the tale's protagonist is a familiar enough type. Doug Stavers not only displays a more-than-human physical strength, courage and ruthlessness, but possesses every conceivable combat, investigative and mechanical skill that a commando-mercenary-spy might possibly need in the field, honed to perfection--Stavers a survival expert who can live off the land indefinitely in any and every environment, a fluent speaker of just about every language, a pilot who has mastered every flying trick, and all the rest. As if all that were not enough, his alertness is equivalent to clairvoyance, his foresight to precognition. And all this vast prowess has been demonstrated in secret wars beyond counting waged in every corner of the globe, in which he killed lots and lots and lots of people and (while admittedly picking up a good many scars) lived to tell the tale.

Naturally he has picked up a good many not-quite-as-good-but-still-preposterously-capable friends along the way, on whose help Stavers can call on those occasions when even he cannot do it all himself. All of these friends also have the virtue of comprising a considerable cheering section, endlessly testifying to just how extraordinary he is--as do his equally admiring clients and enemies, and the women in all these categories (and also those women in none of them) who find all this completely irresistible.

Such Gary Stu figures (there, I said it) are the stock-in-trade of the action thriller genre--and as my roster of books, articles and blog posts ought to make clear, I have enjoyed my fair share of works in that genre. Still, Caidin took it so far in Stavers' case (think that other Caidin creation Steve Austin, times twenty), and was so verbose in doing so, that he made me repeatedly laugh out loud while I read the book.

Indeed, taking it all as parody would be defensible--the more so given that the same sensibility informs the wider narrative. The book's title, after all, refers to the tale's more than usually hokey MacGuffin, a piece of meteorite which endows its possessor with an almost inhuman charisma and power over others in their presence. Naturally it is much sought after by innumerable parties (the CIA, the KGB, the Catholic Church and all the other usual suspects), including one private group that enlists Stavers to track it down and deliver it to them. All this offers plenty of occasion for the superman Stavers to display not only his ridiculous ultracompetence, but a ruthlessness to which no string of epithets can do justice, and which makes for an adventure so astonishingly dark and demented by even today's standards (I dare not spoil it by saying more) that one would have thought this by itself sufficient to give the book the cult following it does not seem to enjoy.

If this intrigues you, you might be interested in knowing that Caidin published a sequel, 1990's Dark Messiah. I haven't read it, but the two reviews of the book at Goodreads, in their very different ways, seem rather plausible to me after my experience of the first Doug Stavers novel.

Ian Fleming's 007 as Gary Stu
11/10/11
Of Mary Sue and Gary Stu
7/9/11

Why Young Adult Fiction?

For at least a decade now the bestseller lists have seemed to be ever more dominated by works of young adult fiction. Accordingly to the data presented by Publisher's Weekly, between John Green, Veronica Roth and Jeff Kinney eight of the nine top-selling books of fiction of 2014 were of the young adult variety--with the one exception, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, boosted by the release of a hugely successful film adaptation that year.

There seems no shortage of possible explanations for this.

One is the greater readability of YA fiction. Publishers of YA routinely serve up more simply written books, and shorter books, that may be more attractive to grown-ups with declining literacy, greater hurry, shorter attention spans--with the problem exacerbated by how much of our reading we are doing off of screens.1

Another is that the books are, in some measure, sanitized--and so at least a partial refuge from a culture that so many find toxic, for so many reasons, be it the cultural "traditionalist" distaste for four-letter words and graphic sexuality, or a deeply feeling progressive's revulsion at the raging conformism and smugly fascistic tendencies of the purveyors of the "edgy" and "dark and gritty."

Still another might be the nature of contemporary, bourgeois adulthood and its portrayal--how narrow and dull the "grown-up" life encumbered by work in the age of Weber's "iron cage," and the conventional responsibilities; how little of the spectrum of such life gets attention from today's writers (whose eyes are ever directed toward the upper-upper middle class); and how false is its treatment (how oversimplified and glamourized and sensationalized). How much can one say about well-heeled doctors and lawyers and their adulteries? And how long can anyone go on being interested in the nonsense written about that?

For all its difficulties, youth is different and more varied, at least--and an object of curiosity to more of us in a rapidly aging world.

Jonathan McCalmont, responding to a recent piece by Adam Roberts, noted another aspect of this that seems worth mentioning, namely the fuzziness of the whole concept of adulthood. We are constantly subject to sanctimonious talk about "growing up"--but what does this really mean? One might reasonably think of it as referring to a person's amassing a certain body of knowledge, skills, personal qualities that permit them to function in the world, but as is usually the case with conventional social judgments, the criteria are rather more stringent than that, and much more brutally materialistic. For adult males, at least, he refers to the conventional "model of adulthood" as entailing an income sufficient to singlehandedly support a family (which, of course, an adult was supposed to have).

This has always been a fairly classist definition, implicitly denying full adulthood to the poor, for example, and therefore most people in society. However, in contrast with the mid-twentieth century period of broad middle class affluence (how brief it was in historical terms, and at the same time how deeply it has shaped our thinking) it has increasingly been out of reach "for all but the most supremely wealthy people." Indeed, even in comparison with "the 1990s, today’s adults not only struggle to find full-time employment but even those that do still wind up struggling to make enough money to live independently of their families" to an extent respectable opinion (and even pop culture) generally refuse to acknowledge.

Adulthood in that sense (whether one thinks it a good definition or a bad one, reasonable or unreasonable) has simply not been attainable--and no alternative version has appeared yet. And so chronological adults find themselves in just about all other ways (the level of their earnings and what these permit) endlessly "becoming adults" rather than "being adults"--"the coming-of-age process but not the experience of adulthood itself," which is exactly what YA fiction is so often about.

1. I draw together the research on what reading off a Kindle or other such device might mean in my essay "The Writing Life Today and What it Means for Science Fiction" in my book The End of Science Fiction?

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