Thursday, May 24, 2018

Anticipating Solo

In 1977 action-adventure film was still a rare experience. An action-adventure space opera, a youth-oriented, fairy tale-mythic action-adventure space opera, was unprecedented in major feature film. And this was combined with the invention of a computer-controlled camera that, by enabling an unexampled level of precision and flexibility in effects work, revolutionized it by permitting a density, a quality, a quantity of such work such as had never been attempted before.

And audiences loved it.

In the 1990s they still loved it. But it was no longer novel. And it was no longer unique, in a field increasingly crowded with action movies constantly upping the ante in regard to the scale and technical sophistication of the spectacle. In fairness, Lucas did strive for originality with the next trilogy. By making them prequels, by investing so heavily in building up his universe, not least with his then-revolutionary, lavish use of CGI, he did undeniably create something different. However, the different is not necessarily appealing, and becaue it was inconsistent with the earlier films, and did admittedly afford a kind of experience that not everyone loved (to put it mildly given the vehemence of the purists), it did not go over nearly so well.

The most recent films have been nowhere near so ambitious, redoing what went before to such a degree that it can look like fan fiction (as Episode VII did), or simply a smugly obnoxious postmodernist "subversion" of what the films have been doing (as Episode VIII did, and paid for it with a forty percent cut in the box office take). In either case, Star Wars is at best one of a growing number of franchises offering this entertainment, with more or less competence. (If you want the fuller take on this, and much else on the saga's origins, influence and general place in cinematic and pop cultural history, you can get it in Star Wars in Context.)

The brand name remains strong in spite of that, but the reality is still that a Star Wars movie is likely to be increasingly judged on that level, the way, for example, the Bond films have (as their highly variable grosses over the years show).

For the moment the outlook for Solo looks very promising, a nine figure opening weekend at just the North American box office a certainty, with some regarding the weekend as even more promising than it seemed to be a few weeks ago. Still, how the riskiest movie of the relaunched franchise (for its alternative narrative approach, for coming out so soon after its predecessor, and a disappointing predecessor at that) is something we will only find out when it happens.

In the next few weeks.

Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

Farewell, IROSF

A decade ago I was a fairly regular contributor to the Internet Review of Science Fiction. I enjoyed the site both as a science fiction fan, because it put out so much interesting stuff, and as a writer, because it was a particularly pleasant site to write for--with the two not unrelated. IROSF gave its writers broad latitude with regard to subject matter and length, offered quick (two weeks--and they really meant it) and personalized responses even when rejecting unsolicited material, and by the standards of such markets, high pay rates. And the work it put out was read. (My article "Of Alternate Nineteenth Centuries: The Enduring Appeal of Steampunk" got me onto the blog of the Science Fiction Writers' of America--I was not even a member--and into the pages of Japan's most prominent science fiction magazine, Hayakawa S-F, in translation.)

I eventually published nine pieces there (seven are gathered together in my essay collection After the New Wave, a substantial part of that book, while one more is appended to my history of the field, Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry), and had it remained a going concern I would have been pleased to go on writing for them. Alas, IROSF did not last, the site posting its final edition in February 2010. The site did remain up, but went offline this month. However, like everything else on the Internet, you can still check out its full contents via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

Looking Back: "The Golden Age of SF Television"

Back when I wrote "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV During the Long 1990s" for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, I didn't quite follow every science fiction and fantasy show on TV all the way through from beginning to end, but I did see a very big chunk of it, especially the more widely-seen and noted material. That was my basis for writing that article, and more generally, my attempts at broad assessments of the genre in that medium.

I certainly haven't attempted to follow science fiction television in such a comprehensive way since. This has partly been a matter of inclination. After several years of heavy reviewing and writing, I was a bit burned out, and when I got back to writing about science fiction, I simply didn't approach it the same way. I was more content to be interested in some things and not pay attention to others, with the second list constantly growing. (I've lost all patience with the Frankenstein complex cliche Hollywood relentlessly serves up, which means no Westworld--a remake of a project by Michael Crichton, groan--no Humans, no lots of things for me.)

But it has also been a matter of sheer mass. Today there are more channels in the cable package than ever, for which more original content is being produced than ever before, and it isn't just a matter of TV channels now. There are all the online services--Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and I'm sure three billion new ones between the time I started writing this post, and the time you're finally reading this.

Even just covering Marvel's superhero stuff, for instance, means signing up with multiple services--because in addition to all their TV stuff, on ABC (Agent of SHIELD), FOX (The Gifted), FX (Legion) and Freeform (Cloak & Dagger), and the web shows like WHIH Newsfront, there is also Runaways on Hulu, and six different series' on Netflix alone (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, the Defenders, The Punisher). And all this is without considering children's television (where Marvel is concerned, there are five different animated shows on Dinsey XD).

It doesn't help that TV is so much more arc-oriented than it used to be, making casual viewing, late entry, less worthwhile than before. The tone doesn't help either. While a large amount of '90s television was hokey, it was easy viewing, easy to just leave on--in contrast with today's TV writers and directors and producers, ever desperate to show off how intense and "edgy" they can be--which is, more often than not, a matter of showing off how pseudomature they can be in that obnoxious indie movie maker way. (Remember Deadpool? Groan again.) It also doesn't help that the sheer crowding, the abundance of short seasons, the too risque-for-syndication-even-with-heavy-editing content makes many of them unlikely candidates for the kind of rerun arrangement that lets a casual viewer see a whole show from beginning to end without going out of their way to try (the way I did with The Pretender, Angel, Charmed and Smallville on TNT).

In fact, I gave up on Game of Thrones in the fourth season, and haven't gone back. I don't think I will, either.

But I will probably eventually get around to picking up The Winds of Winter.

If it ever comes out.

Which it won't be this year.

A fact which has contributed to his fans being so starved for a continuation that the trumpet the mere mention that Martin is "working on it," the slightest hint that perhaps the work has already been completed, is trumpeted as "good news" by the Express.

Book Sale
5/18/18
Now on Google Books . . . (Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/6/18
Some of What I've Been Up to Lately (NYRSF, SSRN, Star Wars in Context: Second Edition)
5/3/18
The Superhero Film Gets a Makeover
6/16/17
Just Out . . . The End of Science Fiction?
11/30/16
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
7/27/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15

Retiring Bond?

The place of the Bond novels in the history of spy fiction is their being the vehicle for the transmission of the old-style clubland adventure tradition to the post-war world.

This was partly a matter of its adroitness in adapting it to new realities. Britain was no longer the dominant power in the world it was in the day of Duckworth Drew, or even Bulldog Drummond, but he could still see Britain as a world power by way of its partnership with a U.S. bound to it not just by a common heritage or values, but the Cold War. In service to that Britain Bond was no longer a gentleman of leisure with too much time on his hands, but inserted in the bureaucratic reality of a modern security state, while reflecting a more egalitarian era, the element of luxury is a "semi-aristocratness" smuggled in by the back door (in Kingsley Amis' phrasing). And conservative that he is, Bond cannot be so content with that earlier international standing, or entirely at ease with the post-war order he is defending; and perhaps not wholly untouched by changed attitudes toward nationalism, empire and the rest; his conservatism is both reactionary on the one hand, and carries it with a certain freight of ambivalence and irony on the other (such that while one can see Bulldog Drummond here, one can see Maugham, Ambler, Greene too).

The Bond films updated the concept yet again, while broadening its appeal, playing down the politics, embracing the Playboy era, loading up on gadgets and gimmicks. In the process it did much to define, or redefine, the spy as an updated clubland hero for a new, and global, generation of filmgoers.

Even more consequentially, they invented the action film (its particular structure and pacing, its use of set pieces, their essential range of types and scales, the techniques for editing and photographing them), and the blockbuster as we know it (not only making franchises out of such successes, but using massive publicity and wide initial releases to front-load the grosses, while raking in additional dollars through shameless merchandising). Hollywood did not really master, let alone improve, on the practice until the mid-to-late '70s, with Barry Diller-Don Simpson-Michael Eisner high concept, with the TV ad blitz that preceded the release of Jaws, with Spielberg and Lucas' stream of adrenaline-oriented hits (Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones).

But at this point, not only has the novels' update of clubland become a historical curiosity, but so has the update of the update by the films. Additionally, if the Bond films, even after ceasing to be really innovative (this ended with the '60s), remained relatively unique (until Star Wars), this was decreasingly the case. Instead the Bond movies, with more or less competence, traded on brand name and past good will, while sporadically reinventing themselves after the fashions set by others. There has been enough money in the game to keep it going up until now. Yet, that is a far cry from there being a point to it all for anyone but those who collect the profits.

What do you think? Do you look forward to new Fleming-era Bond novels and the continuation of the reboot? Or, defying the poptimist fashion, do you agree with Stuart Heritage that the best next James Bond would be no James Bond at all?

You are cordially invited to get in your two cents here.

Steven Poole Reviews the New Bond Novel
5/23/18
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

Los Angeles and the Action Movie

Looking back at the action films of the '80s, and even the '90s, one is struck by how much they used  Los Angeles as a setting.

Classics like Beverly Hills Cop (and its two sequels), and The Terminator (and its first two sequels), and Commando, and Lethal Weapon (and all three of its sequels), and the original Die Hard--they were all set in L.A.. So were Blue Thunder, and Speed. And along with them a slew of less celebrated films, like To Live and Die in L.A., and Cobra, and Tango & Cash, and Hard to Kill, and Predator 2, and Point Break, and The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero (appropriately, given its being a compendium of action movie cliche), and Demolition Man, and Volcano, and Face/Off, and Rush Hour, and Gone in 60 Seconds, and, and, and . . .

It seems fair to say that if an action movie was not pointedly set abroad (like the second and third Rambo films), or in a fantasy world or outer space (like Conan the Barbarian or Aliens); and especially when our heroes, as was so often the case, were big-city cops fighting criminals; L.A. was not just the most popular setting, but the default setting, such that the car chase through the Los Angeles River became a cliche.1

One doesn't see L.A. in such movies nearly so much now. Of course, an obvious explanation is that L.A. was where the movie industry was, and so a logical, convenient place for writers to write about, and for crews to shoot in. That industry has since sent its production away--to Vancouver, to Atlanta (where the local Pinewood Studios franchise became the locus of the Marvel movie machine from Ant-Man forward), and any other locality where the government is willing to foot part of the bill for the megabudget blockbusters. But I don't think that's the whole story, especially given that the film industry often enough used other locations prior to that (not least, San Francisco and New York for those founding cop-action movies, Bullitt, The French Connection, Dirty Harry and 48 Hrs.), and has never stopped playing the game of shooting in one place while pretending that it's in another. (Some of the $400 million reportedly spent on the last Avengers film was devoted to making Atlanta look like New York.)

There was plenty of reason not just to shoot in L.A., but to say they were doing so. After all, by the 1980s Los Angeles was the country's second-largest city, and, fast-growing in its fast-growing region, the Sun Belt, the West coast, the Pacific coast on the verge of what everyone said would be the Pacific century, looking more dynamic, more like the future, than its older metropolises in the older Northeast and Midwest (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit). Unsurprisingly L.A. seemed to incarnate more than other American cities the dreams and fantasies of the age, and at the same time, fear that that dream was souring. Beverly Hills Cop played up the luxury and glamour and sunshine (a striking contrast with Axel Foley's hometown of Detroit)--while in Predator 2 urban decay and crime gang problems turned it into a blighted war zone as appealing to the Yautja as a place for sport hunting as the Central American jungle from the first film.

Something of this remains with us. Just as it was natural for Baywatch to be set in L.A., it wasn't just a dubious faithfulness to or nostalgia for the original that made the inevitable feature film version also an L.A. production.

But at the same time, the action movies changed. The paramilitary action genre tired and its associated neuroses grew less compelling, and American film became more thoroughly unmoored from any kind of American reality in general. At the same time action movies scaled up beyond cop-and-criminal car chase and gunplay (already the helicopters and machine guns and international villains of the Lethal Weapon movies, the James Bond gadgetry and massive vehicles of Tango & Cash showed how hard it was getting to make an impression), while the disaster movies to which the L.A.-as-future-disaster area theme played also became less salient, since the escalating mayhem meant that just about every action movie was a disaster movie. Spy-action endured a bit better, but that was usually set abroad, and to the extent that cops and street hoods were still on the big screen, they increasingly went the same route. (Thus did Rush Hour go foreign for its sequels, while the Fast and Furious escalated from car theft to superspy action complete with missile-firing submarines, and even the Bad Boys, who had never been in L.A. at all, had the big finish of their second film in Cuba.) Superheroes exploded, but superheroes are New York, not L.A. (explicitly so in the Marvel films, implicitly so in the D.C. Comics movies), while the proportion of films not set on anything like contemporary Earth at all shot way up.

And so while Hollywood remains in L.A., one would be less likely to suspect it looking at today's movies, and certainly its action movies. In fact (and this is a decidedly unscientific impression), looking at the film of recent years L.A. never seems so conspicuous as it does in crummy independent movies about people trying to make movies--almost as if actually shooting your film in Los Angeles just shows that you haven't made the big time yet.

1. The only exception among the really top-rank, classic '80s action movies of this type would seem to be Robocop, which was set in Detroit, an even more pointed setting for a story of urban decay.

My Posts on Superhero Movies
5/21/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
7/9/15
The Summer 2013 Movie Season: Other Takes
9/16/13
My Posts on the '80s Action Movie
8/27/13

Sociology and British Sitcoms: Remembering Are You Being Served?

I first watched that PBS staple, the BBC sitcom, Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft's Are You Being Served? (1972-1985) what feels like a lifetime or two ago.

If you've never seen it, it is about the salespersons in the clothing department of an old-fashioned British department store.

Reading the Wikipedia article about it recently I noted that much of the commentary on the show's content (all too predictably) concentrated on the sexual humor. However, as the article also acknowledges,
The main humorous base of the series was a merciless parody of the British class system. This permeated almost every interaction and was especially evident in the conversations between the maintenance men and the ostensibly higher-class store personnel.
And indeed, what stands out most about the show in my recollection is the sociological insight it showed in this parody--in such things as the workers' conception of their jobs, their perception of their standing within their firm and within society more generally, and the ways in which they related to people of other classes above and below theirs within the British social hierarchy (like "the maintenance men").

Years later, reading works like Daniel Bell's The Coming of the Post-Industrial Society or C. Wright Mills' White Collar, I found myself thinking that I'd already learned much of what they had to teach--in reruns of that TV show. The pretensions and prejudices, the illusions and delusions, the fantasies and realities that Bell, Mills and others wrote about (the boundaries of that vexed term "middle class," the differing attitudes toward organized labor, etc.) were all amply dramatized there. Simply watching Mr. Mash bicker with Captain (Corporal?) Peacock was the equivalent of a master's class in these matters.

How many situation comedies can you say that about today?

Review: The Sociological Imagination, by C. Wright Mills
5/21/18
Book Reviews (Political and Social Science)
5/21/18
Review: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills
5/15/17
Sociology and James Bond
11/17/15

John le Carrè

Listed below are my posts on John le Carrè and his work.

John le Carrè and the Bestseller List
5/21/18
Filming John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy
7/1/13
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè
3/1/13

Review: Rigor Mortis, by Richard Harris

Contemporary fiction is prone to beat us over the head with exaggerated, overdrawn pictures of elite prowess, not least in regard to its depiction of workers in scientific and technological fields. Just as the billionaire is invariably brilliant and hyperarticulate (what a far cry from real life!), the scientist is always superhumanly lucid and meticulous.

Just how superhuman the depictions are, how removed from the human reality they are, is made all too clear by Richard Harris' recent book, Rigor Mortis. The field of medicine, Harris argues, has seen much smoke and no fire in the endless announcement of imminent breakthroughs that somehow never materialize. Where computer science has "Moore's Law," describing the geometric growth and cheapening of computing power, medical science has the reverse--"Eroom's Law," in which progress toward treatments and cures has slowed in equally dramatic fashion in a textbook case of futurehype, even as we remain in a very early phase of the battle against disease. (Harris informs us that of some 7,000 known diseases, only 500 have treatments, and the treatments of many of those "offer just marginal benefits" (3).)

Harris gives us to understand that this is a function of the publication of enormous volumes of intriguing experimental results that, somehow, other scientists are incapable of reproducing--a "crisis of reproducibility" suggestive of the field drowning in low-quality research. Just how bad is it? To take a significant example, John Ioannidis' survey of tens of thousands of papers on genomics reporting genetic links to particular diseases--98.8 percent of those results irreproducible, forcing one to conclude that they are false positives (132).

This problem is, partially, a matter of the maddening complexity of biological systems--the sheer difficulty of controlling for single variables in the way we are all taught in the third grade science is supposed to do. As Harris' ancedotes demonstrate the slightest difference in the choice of experimental apparatus, or lab procedure, can skew the results. (Not only is the gender of the mouse in question relevant, but so is that of the scientist who picked them up, given the stress reactions of mice to male rather than female handlers.)

However, the roots of "Eroom's Law" run a good deal deeper than that. It is partly a matter of educational failures--of medical researchers not getting a proper grounding in the deeper intellectual foundations of science (the scientific epistemology, sheer old-fashioned logic), or the use of statistics. Moreover, rather than lab work being a matter of standardized best practice, it remains a matter of individual craft, acquired by way of apprenticeship. All of this makes the design of experiments and the interpretation of their results sloppier, in ways ranging from inadequate sample sizes, and failure to properly "blind" studies, opening the door to researchers' biases--with such problems afflicting perhaps three-quarters of the studies examined by the Global Biological Standards Institute.

It is also a matter of institutional failings that worsen the problem. There is the scarcity of genuine, academic research positions, and even for those who can land research positions, funding for the actual research work. (Colleges don't pay for it. "Get a grant, serf!"--to quote recent Nobel laureate Jeffrey Hall--is the prevailing attitude.) One result is the intensification of competition for positions (let alone tenure and promotion) and for grant money far beyond what is good for the field. Scientists might spend half their time writing grant applications--a devotion of time, thought and energy that would be far better utilized in the actual research. The difficulty of raising suitable sums also encourages the cutting of corners to stay within one's budget--among the results of which scientists have not always taken the trouble to properly check their cell lines (an epic of scientific blundering in itself), and become overly reliant on the pool of underemployed, ill-paid "postdocs" left by the scarcity of research positions as cheap but inexperienced scientific labor. Additionally, with the premium on being first rather than on doing it right; on the Next Big Thing; there is a tendency to rush to conclusions, and play those up. (One study found that the use of superlatives like "unprecedented" in the opening sections of scientific papers shot up a staggering 15,000 percent between 1974 and 2014 (191).) Mixed in with all this is an increasing temptation to fudge, if not fabricate and falsify (187), about which no one can be complacent.

Of course, the great virtue of the scientific method is that it has a mechanism for self-correction built in--but the current situation undermines the mechanisms by which this happens. The failure to reproduce experiments does not easily register within the field's collective consciousness. One reason is that journal publishers (a multi-billion dollar business), and unavoidably career-minded scientists, are encouraged by all these circumstances to attend to the next thing rather than revisit old work. The journals' editors are uninterested in the repetition of experiments to check old findings, especially when they have negative results. They also make the retraction of invalidated findings difficult (journals charging thousands of dollars for this), while by the time it happens, a good deal of damage might have been done, the work cited hundreds of times already by other researchers in other papers--building on that flawed foundation. Besides, the intensified career pressures exacerbate the resistance to admitting prior research failures, or calling out those of others (who might be in a position to pass judgment on one's next grant proposal). Accordingly, even though it seems that much or most of what is out there ought to be retracted, this happens with perhaps 0.02 percent of papers in a given year. (It might be noted, too, that pharmaceutical manufacturers have "whittled away their own research departments," leaving them without alternatives to the troubled academic system as a source of leads (227).)

The cult of specializaton also feeds into this, by reducing the chance for outside views, fresh thinking and greater perspective. And the problem is not relieved but worsened by the revolutionary changes in scientific tools--the weakness in statistical analysis taking its toll as medical research becomes more quantitative, and increasingly deals with "Big Data" like everything else.

All that said, Harris is optimistic--arguing that the problem is at least better publicized than it was before, and that reformers are taking steps to correct the problem. There is a broader development of "meta-research" (such as that conducted by the aforementioned Ioannidis), examining the difficulties of research itself and searching for solutions to it, and limited but real efforts to create standards where none existed before.

I can only judge Harris' book as an outsider to this world. Still, his case strikes me as a formidable one, lucidly argued, and amply supported by scholarly as well as journalistic research. The bigger problem of low productivity in this area of research is undeniable, and Harris is quite persuasive in his pointing to the factors that are leading to that crisis of reproducibility. Moreover, for all that he presents his argument in a highly accessible fashion--the most general knowledge of biology and academic research sufficient to follow it along.

Still, one could argue that if he points to the problems, the full story is even larger than the one he tells. While Harris does not actually claim anything of the kind, his book can still lead one to think that the only problem is a broken academic research system, when arguably there are a whole host of others--from the more intrinsically difficult nature of the problems on which scientists are now working (admittedly, he does acknowledge the Big Data issue), to the ways in which the patent system frustrates the creation of potentially helpful new drugs. Moreover, where this particular problem is concerned, the book's stress on the scientist in the lab can seem to slight the other factors in the situation. After all, just why is it that scientific education has been weakened in the ways he says? Might the lack of grounding in epistemology and logic that helps lead to those flawed experimental designs not say something else--about the disdain for humanities like philosophy in contemporary culture? For that matter, why is medical research so starved for funding? And might all this be a problem not merely within this field, but across the sciences?

Anyone looking for answers to these parts of a larger story would have to look elsewhere to round it out--while in doing so it would quickly become apparent that not just the problem of maximizing the return on our massive investment in medical research, but the solution to it, is also larger, depending very much on what non-scientists do. Nevertheless, this very worthwhile book deserves a great deal of credit for its account of a key element of the problem.

The Politics of Fight Club

What seems like a thousand years ago, I was gulled by the hype into reading Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

I ultimately found it incoherent and frustrating and dismissed it, eventually deciding that it was yet another piece of postmodernism in the worst sense of that term--shallow, muddled, pushing lots of buttons but not actually saying anything, which was a common enough experience back then, when I still paid attention to such things as "independent film." And I was annoyed by how unlike so many pop cultural "phenomena" Fight Club didn't seem to go away--how year after year, decade after decade, people kept on talking about it, getting excited about it.

In hindsight, it seems something much more insidious. Tyler Durden and company's smugly willful irrationality and anti-rationality, their exultation in violent action for its own sake, their contempt for egalitarianism (from here we get the current, unfortunate usage of "snowflake"), their leader-worship, their fascination with the idea of an all-male pseudo-community intent on mayhem . . . they seems to pretty much cover any laundry list of traits of fascism one cares to name.

Of course, defining an ideology simply by a list of traits is not entirely satisfying. And so I find myself thinking of characterizations of fascism which attempt to get at its essence, with two such attempts standing out in my memory. One is of fascism as a politics that organizes people around self-expression, around theatrical display rather than self-interest (think of the Nazis serving up the spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies instead of making good on their promises of a higher living standard for the German people). The other is that fascism is a combination of rebellious feeling with reactionary thinking. The book's principals fit on both counts, of course--because self-expression rather than self-interest is what is at issue for them, because their rebellious feeling is combined with that worship of inegalitarianism, anti-humanism, violence, leader-cult and the rest that by any reasonable measure is reactionary.

Of course, having established that Tyler Durden and company are a pack of fascists, one is left with the question of what to make of the book itself. To depict a thing is not necessarily to advocate that thing--and like any other postmodernist Palahniuk surrounds his work with such a freight of irony that one can never be sure what he really thinks about anything, or even if he has any awareness of what he is presenting. (Given the intellectual shallowness on display, one cannot take that much self-awareness for granted.) However, whatever his intent, the attraction of what he presented for a certain demographic makes it clear that it did appeal specifically because of its fascism. Looking back it appears that this should have received more, and more critical attention--our cultural commentators fallen asleep on the job again.

My Posts on Postmodernism
11/21/12

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Steven Poole Reviews the New Bond Novel

The Guardian's Steven Poole has just reviewed Anthony Horowitz's Forever and a Day--the next Bond novel, which is notable for two features. One is that it is the first time since Raymond Benson that an author has had a chance to pen a second of the Bond continuation books. The other is that it represents yet a new wrinkle in that series by offering a prequel to Casino Royale.

Poole remarks that Horowitz's novel serves up "disappointing" bits of exposition (like where we get his preference for his dry martinis shaken, not stirred, and even "the name is Bond, James Bond"), and "prose throughout is more verbose and cliched than the brutal efficiencies of Fleming." However, he also praises the choice of villain, remarks that Horowitz is "good at the action scenes," and declares the book on the whole "still an enjoyably compact thriller, with an absolutely killer last line . . . [with] some pleasingly echt Bond moments."

It seems a rather plausible assessment as far as it goes, given my impressions of Horowitz's prior effort, Trigger Mortis (which you can read about, here)--though Poole, perhaps predictably, skirts the issue of whether there is a point to his having made it a prequel (could the adventure have been just as satisfying as another '50s era entry in Bond's adventures?), and whether there is any point to writing more novels in a series where so much is modified (Poole acknowledges, among other things, the gender relations, again predictably, and Horowitz's apologies for the extent to which he carried forward Fleming's attitudes, even while, as Poole's observation suggests, exaggerating that extent). The book hits the market next week in the UK, but arrives in the States in November (according to Amazon, at least).

I expect to get in my two cents then.

Stormbreaker, by Anthony Horowitz: a YA Moonraker?
3/21/17
James Bond for the YA Crowd?
3/21/17
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

Monday, May 21, 2018

John le Carrè and the Bestseller List

Recently going through the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists with an eye to the performance of spy fiction over recent decades for a recent paper, I must admit that what the hard data did was mostly confirm my more casual impressions—that the genre had done very well commercially in the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, and then became much less conspicuous in the '90s. (Predictably given not just the inevitability of changes in commercial fashions, but the damper the end of the Cold War put on the genre, but notable all the same.)

Still, it was something of a surprise just how well one of the bigger names sold—namely, John le Carrè. As the tables appended to my paper show, he was commercially on a level with such titans of the "airport novel" as Ian Fleming, Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Going by the PW lists (the information from the year-end editions of which are conveniently gathered together by Wikipedia), from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (the top-selling novel of 1965 in the United States) to The Russia House, just about all his spy novels were among their year's top ten sellers.

This adds up to a quarter of a century at the very top, an extraordinary run, especially back in those days when the uppermost ranks of the publishing world saw rather more flux than they do now.

That his sales were quite so strong is all the greater given that, reflecting his comparatively greater acclaim by critics, he was anything but a producer of the kind of crowd-pleasers that made those other authors such big names. Not only were his stories slow-paced and lacking in action, decidedly unglamorous and preoccupied with moral ambiguity, but they were so obliquely told that I suspect anyone who picks up anything by him from The Looking Glass War on and does not feel bewildered by the goings-on can count themselves a highly accomplished reader.

Indeed, I find myself wondering—is this a case of audiences having become less tolerant of such writing, or is it the case that people were buying his novels and just pretending to understand them, or even just pretending to read them, because it seemed fashionable to do so? All those copies of the volumes detailing the adventures of Smiley and company, merely purchased to make the buyer look sophisticated by sitting on their coffee table or their bookshelf?

Any thoughts?

Filming John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy
7/1/13
Smiley, Ace of Spies: Reading John Le Carrè
3/1/13

Book Reviews (Political and Social Science)



This page presents a listing of my reviews of political and social science works posted on Raritania. For a listing of older reviews of work in this category posted or published elsewhere, see the listing at my other blog, Nader Elhefnawy.


Sociology
"The Sociological Imagination, by C. Wright Mills." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills." Raritania (May 15, 2017).

"The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen." Raritania (October 19, 2015).

"The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2033: The New Elite of Our Social Revolution, by Michael Young." Raritania (July 30, 2009).


Political Science
"Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"The Baroque Arsenal, by Mary Kaldor." Raritania (December 19, 2016).


Economics
"The End of Normal, by James K. Galbraith." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"Principles of Economics, by Alfred Marshall." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"The National System of Political Economy, by Friedrich List." Raritania (May 21, 2018).

"The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions, by Thorstein Veblen." Raritania (October 19, 2015).


Psychology
"The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes." Raritania (May 10, 2012).

Update: Six Book Reviews

I'm finally getting around to posting material I've been sitting on for a long time--in some cases, for years.

This time around, I've put up a half dozen book reviews.

Three are of works of economics, two of them nineteenth century classics of the kind that every serious student of the subject should eventually get around to, but which people are much more likely to cite than to actually read--Friedrich List's The National System of Political Economy, and Alfred Marshall's Principles of Economics. (The textbook for generations of economists, John Galbraith remarked in A Journey Through Economic Time that his training for his Ph.d consisted mostly of mastering that one book.)

The third book reviewed here is John Galbraith's son James' more recent work, The End of Normal, interesting not as a foundational classic, but for its more recent address of our contemporary situation, especially the post-war, post-1973, post-2008 situation that List and Marshall could not have anticipated, and the ways in which it challenges the received wisdom of the "Marshallian" view.

The other three book reviews also have a social science interest, if of a very different kind. One is also a review of a classic, C. Wright Mills' The Sociological Imagination. Another concerns, again, a comment on our times, Thomas Frank's, Listen, Liberal (the title of whose book, rather intentionally, evokes Mills' work).

The last is actually a work of film criticism, Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing. A fascinating study of American film in the 1950s, it is also a study of the 1950s themselves, which I find worth discussing in this context because of its extraordinary grasp of the politics of that era, and the way in which they manifested themselves in its movies.

Review: The End of Normal, by James K. Galbraith

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, pp. 304.

One of the principal points of interest (and certainly, the object of his most striking prose) in James K. Galbraith's work is his debunking of the orthodoxies (pretensions?) prevailing among academic economists—as with, for example, his answer to the question of "Just what is a market?" in the view of conservative economic thinkers in The Predator State.1

His 2014 book The New Normal is no exception. Perhaps its most memorable passage is his retort to Paul Krugman's excuse that economists' obsession with econometric models that have distorted understanding of their subject was (among other things) a matter of economists having been seduced by "beautiful mathematics":
Economists using mathematical expressions . . . may believe that their work is beautiful. Outsiders see instantly that it isn't . . . no one with a sense of aesthetics would take the clumsy algebra of a typical professional economics article as a work of beauty.
Rather, Galbraith observes, the math is there
not to clarify, or to charm, but to intimidate. And the tactic is effective. An idea that would come across as simpleminded in English can be made "impressive looking" with a sufficient string of Greek symbols. A complaint about the argument can be deflected, most easily, on the grounds that the complainer must not understand the math.
(Anyone who would doubt that this is the case ought to check on just what exactly wins you a "Nobel Prize" in the field.)

The book's target is larger than the very severe limitations of econometrics, however, or even the multitude of explanations of the source of the crisis of 2008 so far proffered—the mealy-mouthed declarations of "experts" that "No one could have seen this coming," or the narrowly journalistic accounts of exactly who said and did what (Galbraith's round-up of which takes up roughly the first third of the book). Rather than some minor, surface event such as (to use his father's famous phrase) the "conventional wisdom" holds it to be, after which growth might be expected to return to pre-crisis norms, the world economy is experiencing a much more fundamental slowdown. As Galbraith argues, the expectation of rapid economic growth as an eternal norm is largely an outgrowth of the highly unusual experience of the post-World War II boom, and its generation of 4 percent a year expansion of American GDP (while much of the world, catching up from well behind, grew much faster than that)—and indeed, a highly simplistic reading of that experience, which took such hugely important variables as natural resources and technology totally for granted. Finance was taken for granted, too, and so was the effectiveness of military effort as a way of securing desired political (and economic) outcomes—or even stimulating a national economy.

The conditions that permitted such a shallow and intellectually lazy reading of the situation to look passable, however, simply ceased to exist. Resources became scarcer and more expensive, which had a "choke-chain" effect on growth (as demonstrated by the energy crisis of the 1970s). Technology's disruptive effects became harder to ignore—precisely because the most dynamic area of technological change, digital computing and communications, was unprecedentedly oriented toward replacing labor old activities with less labor-intensive new versions of them (the traditional bookstore with Amazon), which arguably contributes less to economic growth than earlier technologies which more clearly opened up fundamentally new lines of product and activity, while undermining it again with its impact on unemployment. The financial sector, which from the 1930s to the 1960s was kept under relatively tight control, along with its capacity for generating crisis, was unleashed—with destabilizing and often disastrous results (epitomized today in the 2008 crisis and the aftermath with which we are still living). At the same time, military power has become less efficacious at everything from regime change to providing economic stimulus (as the costly and frustrating experience of the U.S. in Iraq demonstrated).

So where does this leave us? Instead of enduring ecological, financial, military disaster in the pursuit of growth rates we simply cannot achieve in the foreseeable future, the book argues, we should focus on the slow growth that may be achievable, and at the same time, socially and ecologically sustainable.

The book's strongest points are its critique of the grave weaknesses in the conventional economic wisdom up to our time, and at least in its broad outlines, its reading of what we should do now—a simple return to yesteryear not an option. However, the study has significant limitations as well. Galbraith's discussions of heterodox economic thinking and its presumed failures to account for the present situation were far less impressive than his analysis of orthodox, neoclassical economics' failures. (Ultimately he raises some of the Marxist discussion of how the crisis of 2008 happened—and then does little more than dismiss Marxist analysis altogether. His handling of the Marxist case aside, his references to The Limits to Growth gave me the impression that he knew the study mainly by its detractors' mischaracterizations. For that matter, he also gives the ideas of Robert Gordon less than their due.)

Additionally his explanation of how we got from the easy growth of the World War II period to the present stagnation leaves something to be desired. It seems a grab-bag of ideas about it—hitting many of the key issues to be sure (resources, information technology, finance), but not always handling them as thoroughly, fluidly or comprehensively as he might, often but not always because of his aforementioned weaker use of heterodox ideas. (The discussion of the connection between military spending and growth and how this changed over time seemed to me especially underdeveloped.) Still, his incisive and often witty discussion of the intellectual failures of the past three generations of mainstream economic thinking, the insights he displays into some of the major problems we now face in making economic progress, and the case he ultimately makes for a change in thinking and policy (if less complete or satisfying than it might be) make The End of Normal well worth the read.

1. His answer is that the market is a "negation . . . the nonstate . . . a cosmic and ethereal space, a disembodied decision maker . . . that, somehow and without effort, balances and reflects the preferences of everyone making economic decisions . . . a magic dance hall where Supply meets Demand, flirts and courts; a magic bedroom where the fraternal twins Quantity and Price are conceived. It can be these things precisely because it is nothing at all. Because the word lacks any observable, regular, consistent meaning, marvelous powers can be assigned"—and indeed, are assigned, which is the point of his discussion. See Galbraith, The Predator State (New York: Free Press, 2008), 19-20.

Review: Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

Thomas Frank's latest book, Listen, Liberal, revisits his longstanding theme of the decline of New Deal liberalism and its implications for the country. However, where previously he concentrated on the rise of "market populism" (One Market Under God), the use of the culture wars as an instrument of right-wing economic policies (What's the Matter with Kansas?), the undermining of the public sector as an effective actor from Reagan on (The Wrecking Crew) and the manner in which, counterintuitively, the right rather than the left made capital out of the very financial crisis that made neoliberal economics appear bankrupt as never before (Pity the Billionaire), here he sets his sights on precisely those whose duty it was to bear liberalism's standard, the Democratic Party. In particular he recounts the turn of the Democratic Party, post-'60s, traced all the way down through the years of Clinton, Bush, Obama to the election of 2016 (when the book first hit print).

According to Frank's history, the party decided circa 1970 that New Dealish, working class politics were passé amid the affluence of the postwar boom, reeling from the working class voters it identified with Archie Bunker and inclined to a countercultural embrace of "cool" urban professionals. By way of figures like Frederick Dutton, the Democratic Leadership Council and the "Atari" Democrats, it allowed itself to be transformed into a party of yuppies who, despite reality being far from the perfect meritocracy that Michael Young once tried to imagine, displayed the worst of the thinking portrayed in that too often overlooked dystopia, epitomized by the self-satisfied meanness of Larry Summers, publicly attributing rising inequality simply to people being "treated closer to the way that they're supposed to be treated"—the withering middle class, the harder-pressed working class, the growing ranks of poor deserving their fates.

As might be expected, Frank's book has its moments of humor and insight. The book's latter portion is especially strong, eviscerating such buzzwords as "innovation" and "entrepreneurship" (he's not the only one sick of these words thrown about so much and so meaninglessly), and such pieties as micro-finance. More daring still is the book's critique of "woke" neoliberalism (seen in Chapter 11, which has been made available for free on the book's promotional website).

Still, if there is much right with Listen, Liberal, as a larger history the book is not without its weaknesses, alas, not minor ones. Perhaps as a result of Frank's beginning the narrative after the '60s, his book takes the New Deal as the norm rather than the exception for the Democratic Party, and as a result he does a better job of chronicling than explaining these changes. To do that effectively, he would have had to look to the much earlier roots of these events, which imply not a break with tradition, but a return to it. American liberalism/progressivism's unease with class politics and class conflict (in the sense of lower class politics, at least), and strong preference for consensus; its exaltation of expert, professional, technocrat and the elitism that goes with it; have been features of the ideology since the Gilded Age, and to a great degree remained with it through the 1950s. At mid-century this was modified by a New Deal—but that, in turn, was a matter of the extraordinary circumstances of Great Depression, World War, Cold War and post-war boom pushing the center leftward, and that to only a limited degree. The turn of the liberals to Freud and Arendt after their brief Depression-era flirtation with Marx; the haste to declare the Social Questions merely not ameliorated but solved, the business cycle tamed and the ills of capitalism cured once and for all; the readiness of the liberal center to align itself with the right against the left; all bespoke only a limited commitment to change, as did the fact that practical reform in America went only so far, the New Deal state never approaching the welfare states of Western Europe or Canada.

Indeed, by the late '30s economic reform had largely run its course, as liberals shifted their attention to other issues, whether the threat from Fascism abroad, or civil rights and civil liberties in the Cold War, concerns which spoke less to the working public than the Wall Street types with whom they aligned themselves (all of which has been very well-covered by those '50s-era social thinkers to which the very title of Frank's book alludes). There was the Great Society in the 1960s, but Vietnam and an overheated economy quickly imposed limits on that. By the 1970s the fading of the memory of the Depression and World War II, the weakening of the left by the militant anti-Communism of the Cold War in which liberals eagerly joined, the economic stagnation that made concessions to working people like the New Deal, or the Great Society, seem less necessary or palatable to those who were better off, or simply identified themselves in different terms—freed it to return to its default mode. Indeed, as the Age of Reform gave way to the Age of Neoliberalism, it was not only predictable that the Democrats would lose interest in the lower classes, but that they would go so far in doing so, and in the manner that they did so. And after his book came out in early 2016, the behavior of the party only reaffirmed its loyalty to its post-New Deal course, and despite this being at its cost, apparently without any regrets.

Interestingly, I found a work of film criticism picked up for quite different reasons, Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing, rather helpful in understanding all this. You can read my review of it here.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon