Monday, October 26, 2020

Picquart and Picard

One finds that those general knowledge-type things everyone is supposed to know, like those historical facts we all had in school--it was there in the textbook, there in the lecture, and you must have remembered it long enough to answer the question on the test--almost nobody knows, in the sense of being able to recall them, let alone say anything of substance about them. Just consider how many British kids don't know what the Battle of Britain is, in spite of the ceaseless output of Heritage drama about it.

I would imagine that, especially for those of us outside France, the Dreyfus Affair is considerably more obscure than that, and that those who remember at least hearing of it, and are perhaps even capable of saying something about what it involved, can still tell us less about Alfred Dreyfus than his distant relation, Julia-Louis Dreyfus.

As it happens a crucial figure in the affair was French Army intelligence chief, Colonel Georges Picquart, who discovered evidence of the innocence of the court-martialed Alfred Dreyfus and refused to let it go, at great personal cost and risk to himself, ultimately contributing to the clearing of Dreyfus' name.

Picquart, as described by William Shirer in his classic The Collapse of the Third Republic, was a "deep student of history, philosophy, and literature," whose "cultivated mind never ceased to grow, so that his horizons were broader than those of most of his colleagues." He was also "a man of strong character who had a burning allegiance to abstract justice that outweighed any considerations of career."

Naturally I have often wondered if "Georges Picquart" was not an inspiration for "Jean-Luc Picard."

So far as I can tell, though, no one has tried to connect those two particular dots, likely because so few are aware one of those dots even exists.

Monday, October 19, 2020

On Calling Things "Overrated"

A certain sort of stupid person gets mad when anyone refers to a thing as "overrated" or "underrated." They instantly jump down the throat of the person who originally used the word, and while the precise wording of their typically ungrammatical (and, when online, mispelled) attack can vary wildly, invariably the words are to the effect of "How dare you criticize other people's opinions?"

They are, of course, totally oblivious to the fact that criticizing another person's opinion is precisely what they are doing when, in their bullying way, they take someone to task for saying something is overrated. (It was not without ample reason that I said they are stupid.)

Still, the inconsistency in itself does not settle the issue of whether one can reasonably argue that something is overrated, or underrated.

I think one can actually argue that something is overrated or underrated, and in a reasonably rigorous way, too, rather than simply expressing a vague reaction. Whenever we have a standard to which we can point for measuring the value of something, and are able to generalize meaningfully about the common run of opinion about it, we can say whether, compared with other things of the same kind, people are praising it or dispraising it excessively. This is, obviously, easier with some things than others--those things which we can evaluate according to a set of quantifiable metrics, for example, like the performance and price of some piece of technology. It is harder when we are talking about the sort of things often the subject of such remark, like movies, lending themselves less well to precise discussion. But to say it is more difficult is not to say it is impossible, or even very hard. These days it is actually quite easy to generalize about the opinion widely held of a film by way of reviews and review aggregators (Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB scores), and its presence on critics' top ten lists and ten worst lists, and the awards for which it has or has not been nominated. And we can compare the writing and acting and other technical aspects of film, discuss even the more subjective experience of watching a film, in such a way as to allow for meaningful comparisons.

Moreover, I think it plausible that being overrated is not at all uncommon. Hype is, by definition, extravagant, and there is plenty of it about. Trying to sell something in today's saturated, deafeningly noisy market, where everything has to be built up into a life-changing event, all but forces publicists to exaggerate wildly, movies most certainly included. And for their own reasons critics tend to hyperbole--especially when under some pressure to talk up, or help bury, a new release, which is hardly a rare thing. ("What passes for film criticism is so prostituted in the US at this point that hardly anyone can state the obvious" one critic quipped about a major blockbuster of a few summers ago. Moreover, while people may differ over the details, I cannot imagine any reasonable person disagreeing with the statement.) And while I have encountered a good many amateur critics whose analytical skills run rings around the A.O. Scotts of the world (admittedly, not so tough a thing to do), the public as a whole is an unsophisticated consumer, credulous and with little memory to save it from mindlessly repeating what it is told by people posing as authority figures. Indeed, I find myself inclining to the view that these days most of what comes out, if getting much more or much less than two stars out of four--if it has the critics all lining up to sing its praises or bash it brutally, if it's up for an Oscar or being reviled as the worst of the year--is likely to be something for which one can make a reasonable case that it is overrated or underrated, frequently very much so.

Just How Much Do People Really Read?

The latest put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics offered some interesting statistics regarding time use American Time Use Survey. It computed the average adult male's leisure time in 2019 at 5 hours and 30 minutes a day. Of this some three hours were devoted to television watching, while reading for personal interest took up 14 minutes of their day.

In other words, they reported that personal reading comprised scarcely 4 percent of their leisure time, as compared with the devotion of 54 percent to television watching (over 13 times as much).

Women reported less leisure time, and more reading. Still, the figures are not so dissimilar. Of 4 hours and 50 minutes given to leisure, 2 hours and 38 minutes were given to looking at TV, and reading just 18 minutes a day--some 6 percent of their leisure hours (and a ninth of what they spend watching TV).

Averaging the figure out, what we get is 5 hours and 10 minutes of leisure, with about 2 hours and 50 minutes spent watching TV, and 16 minutes of reading daily--about 5 percent of their leisure time, and a tenth of the time devoted to television.

Especially given that this is a matter of self-reporting it does not seem at all unreasonable to take these figures as possibly skewed--with people thinking they read more and watch less TV than they actually do.

It is also worth noting that this is a question of all their personal reading, which presumably includes skimming items online (as you may be doing with this piece right now), with heavier reading an unspecified portion of the total. And fiction, in turn, is only part of that, with this confirmed by those studies addressing how much fiction people actually read for pleasure, which may be quite small indeed. A National Education Association survey estimated that "the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year" was a mere 43 percent in 2015--which is to say 57 percent did not read even one such item the prior year. Putting it another way, even as people claimed to, on average, spend a rough hundred hours a year on personal reading, almost three-fifths of them did not spend a single second looking at any fiction at all (even when, again, personal reporting gives the impression that they may be overstating how much such reading they did).

I bring this up not for the sake of rant against electronic media and the decline of the printed word. We already have plenty of those, a good many of which just confuse things more. Rather I bring this up to put into perspective the place of fiction-reading in people's lives--and the fiction-publishing market in the economy of leisure and entertainment. It is simply a very small, and shrinking, part of how people spend even their free hours, and that, along with the explosion of virtually cost-less reading options, has had its reflection in the ever-shrinking demand for paid and especially full-price fiction writing.

Star Wars' Failure in China--and What It Means Beyond China

Recent writing about Disney's recent travails in China the principal topic has, of course, been Mulan, but I did run across a piece in the New York Times from January that discussed how Star Wars flopped there.

The piece had two points of particular interest.
#1. The movies did poorly in China because the nostalgia operative elsewhere was not a factor in that country. That is to say, China missed the moment when Star Wars came out--way back in the 1970s.

#2. The movies did poorly because they were simply not very accessible.
Point #1, however unintentionally, can be taken as confirmation of just how much the new entries in the Star Wars saga has relied on that nostalgic appeal--on people seeing a Star Wars movie because they are fond of Star Wars, and fond of Star Wars because of old memories, rather than what the movies may have to offer as movies in the current moment. As I have argued elsewhere, what really set Star Wars apart at the time of its appearance--its blending what was still novel high concept action-adventure with space opera and with myth, its own appeal to nostalgia for still earlier things (Saturday morning serials, Flash Gordon-ish space opera, the simplicities of the classic-style Western)--has long since become standard.

Point #2, however slightly, addressed something I have long thought about when looking at the more successful blockbusters. Yes, one sees space operas at the top of the charts--with Star Wars the most obvious case. However, superhero films, connected with present-day Earth, indeed present-day America, and not requiring the audience to think about galactic empires and such, are easier to sell consistently to a broad audience. The greatest example of this is, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cranking out hit after hit while one struggles to find any success really comparable to Lucas' old series (albeit, not for lack of trying).

While dooming the films' prospects in China, these two points seem significant far beyond it. Nostalgia proved a slender basis for the vast ambitions Disney had for the franchise. The films were by no means a complete failure (the new trilogy took in $4.5 billion, the five movies $6 billion global), but Solo made it clear that the force of nostalgia, and the comparative intricacy of the product, made it an unlikely basis for the kind of continuous output and continuous earnings the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved.

Of course, Disney has since changed tacks. It is now emphasizing TV instead. Especially given the ascent of streaming, and the difficulties theaters are facing, I suspect that for once they were (however unintentionally) ahead of the curve here--that we may see an increasing shift of big franchises from the big screen to the small, chasing home viewer dollars. I suspect that going along with this there will also be smaller budgets, and less reliance on the kind of big-screen bombast already going stale as the draw. Indeed, cinematically we may be looking at the end of one era--and the beginning of another.

Mulan's Release in China: Notes on the Chinese Box Office

Recently looking at the coverage of the box office again I have found myself considering the case of China again. While in the U.S. Mulan has gone straight to streaming, Mulan has come out in theaters in China--again, to results considered underwhelming, even given the industry's lowered expectations in the wake of the pandemic.

It is, of course, not the first Disney production to underperform there. There is, of course, the notorious case of the Star Wars saga.

As Alan Yuhas' article observes, this was a significant function of the fact that, given when the originals came out (the late 1970s, the early 1980s), China did not share in the moment. The result was that there was no pull from nostalgia. The article's assessment usefully touches on something else, too--that the series was relatively inaccessible and unengaging to newcomers (as compared with, for example, the information-lighter Marvel superhero films that have done so well in that country).

The disregard of all of this, of course, testifies to something bigger, even more apparent in the fumbling performance with Mulan. Much as we hear about the fuss over studio efforts to craft something that will appeal in that market, the reality is a profound laziness and obtuseness about the audience. Hollywood, and its sycophants in the entertainment press, seem to forget that while China represents a huge market where successful American films have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars (Avengers: Endgame took in over $600 million), China's own film industry is making plenty of blockbusters of its own, and indeed king of the country's own market. In 2019 Avengers: Endgame was only the #3 earner, with China's own Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth each outgrossing it, and together taking in some $1.4 billion. Eight of the top ten films in China were homegrown productions, each of which grossed $200 million or more. Of the twenty-three films that broke the $100 million barrier, fifteen were domestic Chinese productions.

In short, China's market is not simply Hollywood's for the asking. And I suspect that with plenty of homegrown blockbusters having historical themes, pitching a Disney live-action Mulan--one really made in line with American sensibilities (or rather, Hollywood sensibilities), while putting on a very clumsy show of pandering to what they think Chinese filmgoers want in astonishing disregard for innumerable basics of a story and a history that Chinese movie-watchers know very well (really, I suspect, one half-decent historian could and would have fixed up a lot of this for a half-decent consulting fee if the people in charge were capable of listening)--is the sort of thing that will sound much more astute to occupants of board rooms than to anyone of even median intelligence.

Mulan, Tenet and Tough Times for Hollywood

Ever since the advent of TV the Hollywood movie studios have struggled to keep people buying movie tickets. Measured in per capita terms, American movie admissions fell from thirty a year in the 1940s and 1950s to about four by the end of the 1960s (an astonishing 87 percent drop). Of course the figure stabilized at that lower level, Hollywood managing to keep admissions in the four to five a year range in the half century since--but not without increasing effort. Especially as edgier content became less plausible as a way of packing theaters (New Hollywood died, and between cable, the Internet and identity politics sex ceased to sell), bigger and bigger spectacle, backed by ever-more publicity, became the foundation of continued profitability, with single films now representing investments of a half billion dollars or more--and so only yielding an economically meaningful return if they can be a really big hit on a global scale rather than a merely national one. It has seemed to me that filmmaking has suffered for this, with the scale of the investment, and the needs of publicity, forcing studios to play it safer and safer, above all through ever more rigid adherence to the artistically suffocating requirements of "high concept," and even that in fewer and fewer ways. Indeed, writing the last chapter of the second edition of Star Wars in Context it seemed to me that the decline of that kind of filmmaking was well advanced, and maybe the end of the theatrical feature film as we know it along with it.

That book came out back in the summer of 2018. Like everyone else I did not imagine how in two years the movie industry would be virtually shut down by a global pandemic. And now it appears the studio executives are floundering, to go by the desperation of which their latest moves smack.

I recall how when the pandemic first hit and they started releasing material direct-to-streaming they were only willing to let the small stuff bypass theaters, while sitting on the really big investments. Thus Disney let its adaptation of Artemis Fowl go to streaming--while holding on to Mulan. Still, they have gone on waiting longer than they planned, because the situation still did not improve. Certainly going by the number of officially recorded daily infections August was no better than June, while given the fight over reopening schools one could hardly imagine people were eager to rush into theaters. And so for no clear reason save impatience there was talk of the theaters reopening for business in late August, with Warner Brothers rushing Christopher Nolan's Tenet to theaters, where it seems to have now performed even below their lowered expectations, an outcome at which "everyone" pretended to be surprised. (Or perhaps didn't pretend? One should be careful to not give them more credit than they deserve, which is, at best, very little credit.) Disney, more pragmatically, sent Mulan to streaming--perhaps not so pragmatically with a $30 fee on top of the cost of a Disney Plus subscription. The result appears similarly underwhelming.

And now we are hearing of a new round of delays, with perhaps the most striking the second bumping (by Warner Brothers again) of the release date of Wonder Woman 1984 from early October to Christmas Day, with Jordan Peele's remake of Candyman doing the same.

The really big movies rescheduled from early summer to November still seem to be slated for November--Black Widow and No Time to Die each still due out then (interestingly, even though there was word of No Time to Die delaying all the way to the summer of 2021 back in July). The studios are clearly resisting a second rescheduling. But what has already happened with October is not promising, and unless things get very much better very quickly (and again, I suspect that even if the virus were somehow brought under control it would take time before people are comfortable going to the theater again; and there is that economic downturn making people more careful with money, why does everyone forget that?) it is hard to picture them simply accepting their investment going the way Tenet appears to be doing. Especially given that Black Widow's release date is, at the moment, scarcely seven weeks away, my guess is that another bump is in store for that franchise--and for James Bond as well.

NOTE: This post was originally written in mid-September. The second delay of both Black Widow and No Time to Die has, of course, already happened. You can read my post about the latter event here.

No Time to Die--Delayed Once More

We all knew it was coming. Or should have.

Back in March No Time to Die was in spite of some hints back in July that such a move was being considered, rather than being the first to delay again, the producers of No Time to Die seem to have been among the last.

Now the movie will be coming out in April 2021, a full year after the original release date.

Hopefully by then life will be getting back to normal. I leave it to others to guess at the odds of that.

For the moment, what interests me is why that film's backers were among the last this time, rather than the first. My guess is that it was not any special caution on their part the first time around. It was simply that they had their already much-delayed movie coming out in a month--and so even if reluctant to delay again, had to face up to reality. This past week they simply repeated what they did before. Hesitant to delay, they waited until there was just a month to go--a month in which it seemed very unlikely that the box office would go back to normal--and finally announced that they were doing the same as everyone else, rather than see their movie go the same way as that other spy movie, Tenet.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Writing Life: The Law of Supply and Demand

I recently suggested that an optimistic calculation of the earnings of the country's novelists producing for adult readers from actual royalties in a given year might come to something in the area of $1.4 billion.

By contrast the same population includes in its work force over 1.3 million lawyers, earning a mean income of $144,000 annually. One might extrapolate from this that the country's lawyers collectively make close to $190 billion a year.

In short, if we treat market incomes as indicative of demand then there is at least a hundred times the demand for lawyers that there is for novelists. Thinking about this I can't help remembering what David Graeber wrote in Bullshit Jobs--that the society we live in "seems to generate an extremely limited demand" for people in the arts, "but an apparently infinite demand" for people in fields that, I suspect, people only work because of the money, like "corporate law." Alas, it is not a happy situation for those of us who wish for artistic careers who find so little effective demand for what they offer.

The Macroeconomics of Publishing

Not long ago I wrote about the possibility that we are entering a post-scarcity age when it comes to fiction. My analysis there focused on the collapse in pay rates for authors, and the explosion in the availability of reading material of all kinds, much of it free, and much more of it nearly so, without even taking into account the piracy about which we hear endlessly.

Right now I would like to consider the matter from a different standpoint, the size of the market as indicated by sales figures in the U.S., with what that implies about the number of authors who could under even the most favorable conditions make a living from it. (I freely admit that the figures I am working from, the estimates I can make, are rough at best, but in the absence of better . . .)

According to Forbes the retail sales of childrens', young adult and adult books amounted to $8.1 billion in 2018. That sounds like a lot, but of course only part of that went to authors. In the realm of traditional publishing print royalties top out at about 15 percent of sales, while e-books come to 25 percent--while the figures for both royalties, and the sale price off which they take their cut, can vary enormously for the self-published. In the absence of much more detailed data than anyone has bothered to collect, I know of no really satisfactory way to average things out, so let us, in the near-certainty that this overstates the royalty share, assume 20 percent of the revenue ends up going to royalties. This works out to $1.6 billion. If we assume the median U.S. wage--$32,000--then that $1.6 billion works out to such livings for about 50,000 U.S. fiction authors.

However, this is a naively optimistic way of looking at the matter. After all, the reality is that not all this money is going to authors. Literary agents are getting a cut of most of that, so take 15 percent of the top--knocking $1.6 billion down to more like $1.36 billion. Moreover, not every book sold is a book by a currently working author. After all, no author is collecting anything on books in the public domain, while books still in copyright but held by a deceased author's estate are, if supporting their descendants, nonetheless not to be counted here. It might be added that lots of books are by authors writing for an intellectual property owned by someone else, like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, which means a smaller proportion of the sales for the person who actually writes the thing. And of course, some of those sales are going to foreign authors (like, for example, J.K. Rowling and E.L. James), not U.S. writers. Thus the pot shrinks again, substantially--and while this would seem offset by the fact that American writers probably earn more from foreign sales than vice-versa, those U.S. authors benefiting this way are likely to be members of a relatively small club, the superstars, underlining the important fact that the pot is not divided at all equally. The superstars who sell millions of copies have a much larger share of the books sold, anywhere- which means that much less to go round for everyone else.

Tellingly the Author's Guild has 9,000 members, and reported in its Wages of Writing survey that the full-timers among its members were making perhaps half the $32,000 figure ($17,500), while the part-timers included in the number made much, much less than even that (a mere $4,500 a year), which implies that all but a small portion of even this relatively elite club are toiling in poverty to the extent that their income comes wholly from their writing. (And of course, only a portion of this group is making a portion of its money from fiction alone.)

One would never guess any of these things from the attention the media lavishes on the handful who achieve extremely high and unrepresentative sales; from the ubiquity of full-time "writers," and indeed "successful" and often wealthy writers, as figures in popular culture; from the relentless flogging of how-to books and courses and self-publishing services, which raises the question of just how many of those positions are up for grabs in any given year. Realistically, it would only be a small fraction as some retire (though of course, the retired and even the dead go on writing via "coauthors," usually someone who is also already established, so, no, those are not opportunities for first-time novelists).

Still, taking a shot at even one of a very few positions might not seem so bleak a prospect if there was not so much competition. Alas . . .

Agents and editors constantly tell the public that while "no one" is buying books, "everybody" wants to publish books. They point to polls saying that eighty percent of the American public thinks they'd like to be an author. I suspect this is an idle fantasy for most of them, just as being a talk show host or a film director or a YouTube celebrity would be for most people, if that. (When you have taught college writing--a day job many a would-be novelist works, the kind that brings them far closer to reality than the Mandarins of Park Avenue ever get--you are painfully aware that a very large number of people would like nothing better than to never have to write so much as a single word ever again.) Mostly, I think, the constant mention of such figures is whining on the part of those who resent the efforts of the unpublished to become published, and the insiders' way of (lamely) excusing themselves for the nasty way they treat those who fill up the slush piles with their submissions, as well as the plain old elitist snobbery and meanness of the Joseph Epstein variety hardly unknown among such.

Still, the fact that those how-to books and self-publishing courses and the rest are out there, comprising a massive industry in their own right, indicates that the number of really interested people is not small. Let us posit that out of that 200 million would-be authors even one in a thousand--0.1 percent--are both interested in competing at the adult end of the market, and serious enough about the idea to be making some real effort to write and publish something commercially at a given moment. That would work out to 200,000 people competing not for the few thousand (or few hundred) positions already noted, but the fraction of them open at any one time--likely, just scores in any given year--which again works out to a thousand contestants for each spot, each chance to, most likely, grind along in poverty as a writer, with the odds for most the worse because of the degree to which connections overwhelmingly favor a few, and the rest compete for the miniscule opportunity afforded the slush pile. (It seems relevant that agents talk about receiving five or ten thousand queries and submissions in a year--and picking up the writer of maybe one of those, maybe none, for their list.) Even were I off by an order of magnitude, and it were just 20,000 people submitting work--only one in ten thousand of those who say they have a book in them--it would not make much practical difference for any one person's situation.

As I have remarked before, the ex-interns who once had the charge of looking at the material in those slush piles, venting their hatred of aspiring authors in publications which should know better than to run the rants of the snobs (like the Guardian, always showing its elitism when push comes to shove), insist with as much vehemence as viciousness that those in the slush pile are not worth bothering about (automatically meaning, as this does, that no one but the privileged people who tend to have the connections can ever produce anything worthwhile). But what I get from these numbers is very different--namely that it is less the possession of talent than getting one of the exceedingly few "breaks" that makes the difference between the "success" on the pedestal and the "failures" the world holds in contempt (and that it is very plausible indeed that a good many of those being endlessly rebuffed have far more to offer than those whose principal asset was having an "in").

I also conclude from these numbers that while Establishment authors malign self-published writers as making things harder for everyone by bucking the system, there is simply no way in which anything remotely resembling our current way of producing books, distributing books, and apportioning the economic rewards of that activity within the existing market can give any but the thoroughly connected or lottery-winner-lucky, no matter how talented and hard-working, even a slight chance at getting their work published and read, let alone the economic opportunity to write full-time.

Is there anything that might change that?

One possibility is that the market will get bigger--that people will read more contemporary fiction than they do now. This may not seem a particularly radical thing to hope for when there is so little such reading going on. But is that really plausible?

Consider how we are constantly told that life will soon get more convenient. Consider, for example, the claims we are hearing about self-driving cars, or better still a shift from private car ownership to ride-sharing those self-driving cars. Many of us who spend hours at the wheel--and still more hours in the tedious tasks associated with car ownership, from filling up the tank to shopping for insurance--would suddenly have a lot more hours on their hands each week. Should ride-sharing prove cheaper as well as more convenient (as seems likely) they would also have more disposable income for other conveniences, translating to still more hours. And let us assume that something does not come along and muck up this improvement in our quality of life, and that people are at least able to use some of those hours for entertainment purposes. Those who already like to read might read more. Some of those who have not read much might find that they like doing so. But that they will necessarily devote that time to the fiction writers are putting out now is not a given (they might, for instance, turn to the vast treasury of classics in the public domain--which they avoided precisely because they did not have the time for them), let alone do so in a way that affords those writers now struggling more opportunity. (We might, for instance, see the biggest bestsellers claim those new readers, while all the rest get none of the extra attention.) We might see any increase in the number of readers overmatched by the increase in the number of writers competing for them as some of that eighty percent of the population interested in being an author takes advantage of the time available to them to finish that novel and get it out there. And in any event, I do not think it overly cynical to suspect that YouTube and Netflix will be bigger winners than any purveyor of things people actually read.

Another possibility is that writers will be able to claim a higher share of the income of book sales as a result of book production getting cheaper. Think of it this way: at this moment we've brilliantly automated book production and distribution. But editing, copyediting, design (to say nothing of marketing) remain laborious, and at that, labors best done by experts. This means that production costs for publishers of all kinds remain high--with the self-published especially suffering. But what if we could perform those tasks much more quickly and cheaply via an advance in artificial intelligence? Traditional publishers might find it economically attractive to publish more books than they do, while the self-published will not be at such a disadvantage, and writers at least potentially able to pocket more profit on their efforts. However, that level of AI looks to be far off, and even if it is not, I suspect the arrival of AI which can edit a book will be accompanied, or even preceded, by AI which could write a book by itself--so I suspect writers will end up losing ground in the market rather than gaining it (as the likes of James Patterson take up computers as their coauthors).

The third possibility I see is writers not having to worry nearly so much about making a living at all from their books--because no one does. I do not think this would require full-blown post-scarcity, just some tolerable minimum of income which would let people take a chance on full-time writing for as long as they found it worthwhile, and let the really determined go on plugging away if prepared to make some sacrifices. Yes, we have been talking about Universal Basic Income of some kind for a half century now without anything of the kind happening, but we have undeniably seen an uptick in mainstream interest in recent years, while at the same time a sharp drop in the cost of living may make such an income scheme more practicable than before. The RethinkX think tank, notably, has just issued a fascinating report forecasting that in a decade's time everyone on the planet could have access to a "First World" living standard at Third World income levels due to drops in the price of food, energy, transport, information and shelter resulting from the mere continuation of the recently observed trend of technological advance. None of this is a done deal by any means (indeed, I think this will take even more managing than the authors acknowledge given the extremity of the economic disruptions involved), but all the same, if $3,000 a year could keep a person well-fed and clothed and housed and mobile and Internet-connected, or we even went only partway to that goal, suddenly what was impossible becomes possible in economic and political terms. And that, in turn, would open up new cultural possibilities, above all for those so long excluded from the arts by an accident of birth that in our allegedly democratic and meritocratic age can seem hardly less damning for such ambitions than not being of noble blood in an earlier era when poetry was the purview of the patricians, and those very few of the lowborn they personally patronized for so long as they were prepared to bow and scrape.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

BACK IN PRINT . . . GUARDIANS



The year is 1992, and the Soviet Union has just collapsed. Intelligence officer Nick McNab, wondering where his career will go with the Cold War over, finds himself approached by D.C.-based company Argus Consulting to go to Russia to try and infiltrate a secret Soviet-era military research program, the prizes from which may be up for grabs in the chaos.

The assignment at first seems like a snipe hunt, but while in Russia Nick learns of the ellipton, a mysterious weapon of mass destruction which agents from several countries are pursuing. His bosses at Argus promptly assign him to get it, embroiling him in a covert international competition that has already turned bloody, and unknown to him, is exhuming a secret war thought long over.


Available in paperback and as an ebook.

You can also check it out for free on Inkitt.

Get your copy today!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

2015's Fantastic Four: Another Look

I recall being, if not pleasantly surprised, then at least intrigued by Josh Trank's Fantastic Four when I first saw it. There were aspects I was dubious about--the young adult turn in the characterizations, for one, and the inconsistency of the tone--and yet there were others that did interest me.

On a recent (if casual) reviewing of the film I was more impressed by those aspects, not least the film's handling of the scientific research at the heart of the story. The film does make concessions to silly, outworn Edisonade convention in having a high school student working with scavenged junk happen on a key part of the solution to the problem of interdimensional travel. But afterward the film displays, to a far, far greater degree than most of what comes out of Hollywood, a striking awareness, and acknowledgment, of the realities of Big Science. Its agendas and politics, which have the Suits, not the scientists, calling the shots. And the reality that science is not nerd-magic, but a lot of hard work--collaborative, protracted, at times grueling hard work that builds on the bits of the puzzle others have solved, most of that by people unlikely to get any of the glory.

Such things, small as they seem, are rare enough and significant enough that they appear to me to rate an honorable mention.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)
8/18/16

A Techno-Thriller Revival?

In writing my history of the military techno-thriller I was concerned principally with the main line of the genre--its early flickerings dating back to the seventeenth century; its coalescence into the "invasion story" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; after the shock of World War I and its aftermath convinced many that war could only mean universal calamity, its giving way to other genres it helped inspire--spy fiction, military science fiction, post-apocalyptic war fiction, "war scare" fiction; and then by way of those remnants, the revival of the old-style invasion story in the 1970s and 1980s (begun by British writers like Frederick Forsyth, Craig Thomas, John Hackett, but most identified with Tom Clancy); before the end of the Cold War turned that boom to bust.

As a result my book handled the post-Cold War period as an epilogue to the main story. Today, however, the world appears a far more aggressive place than it did a decade ago, let alone two decades ago.

Even the '90s, of course, were not without their share of crises--the Norwegian rocket incident, the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, the NATO-Russia confrontation at Pristina airport--yet today it seems the blood is actually flowing at a lengthening list of flashpoints where armies that once upon a time would not have fought each other are doing just that. The war in Ukraine is not over. In Syria, in Libya, NATO member Turkey and Russia are engaging in regular shooting incidents, while that same NATO government engages in hostilities with Greece and confronts the French(!) at sea. Scarcely a year after India's exchanging air strikes with Pakistan for the first time in nearly a half century (this, they avoided even in the 1999 war), Chinese and Indian troops have fought in the Galwan Valley (with clubs and rocks?), while China for its part remains at odds with its neighbors over its claims in the East and South China Sea.

Meanwhile everyone is chasing military capabilities and overseas bases they did not think they needed a short time ago. Not long ago most sat out the fifth generation of fighters, making do with older gear--but now everyone wants in on the sixth, while hypersonic cruise missiles may be the object of a new arms race (one perhaps responsible for a mysterious nuclear explosion in northern Russia). Britain is deploying its first full-deck carriers begun since the '40s, while German opinion-makers talk about having a carrier too (and maybe much else). There are even hints of a revival of conscription, thus far limited to smaller nations like Sweden, but plausibly extending beyond them. Sweden's action, after all, is a response to the rising fear of major war in northeastern Europe, while the French government, engaged in an extraordinarily large-scale and long-duration mission in Mali (compare this to its post-Algeria record of African interventions), gives the impression of inching toward the same . . .

It feels as if we are living in a Tom Clancy universe these days. Or, rather, a Dale Brown universe. (Yes, Turkish super-drones attacking Russian mercenaries in Libya feels more Dale Brown.)

Does this portend a revival of the genre? I, for one, doubt it. If scenarios of high-tech, conventional, military conflict look more plausible now than before it should be remembered that the readiness of a broad audience to consider discussion of the "next big war" as relevant is one thing; its readiness to accept its depiction as entertainment is another. Where the appeal of such is concerned it seems most susceptible in a moment where the theme of war is salient, but at the same time the audience has had a comparatively respite from war, some years without what it thinks of as a really major conflict, at least, with decades better still. (It is worth remembering that the techno-thriller emerged as a popular genre not in the 1940s or 1950s or 1960s, but in the late 1970s and only really took off in the 1980s, many, many years after the end of Vietnam.) Of course, this is something audiences in America and the West generally cannot be said to have had, and very clearly would like to have had. Indeed, even the political right gives an impression of weariness of foreign war, especially when one gets away from the professional hawks to which the media gives so much press. (One might add that the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq has been a very different thing from the withdrawal from Vietnam, with less division in the U.S., less anti-militarism, and at the same no desire for some kind of "redemption" on the part of the right that we identify with "post-Vietnam" evident or even plausible, all of which diminishes the interest in the kind of imaginary "refighting" of the conflict so prominent in the wake of that earlier conflict.)

The public seems more open to the genre, too, when at least part of it is being led to believe that a big war is somehow thinkable, somehow winnable. This attitude never wholly recovered from the world wars, with the result that the two defining big war novels of the techno-thriller revival--Hackett's book, and Clancy's Red Storm Rising--had to come up with a dodge to let the West get the upper hand without the conflict going all-out nuclear. I see no evidence of such a mood these days. Rather than the '80s I think a better analogy would be the '30s in this, as in so many other ways.

So people may be thinking about the danger of war more than before--but not in such a way that I see them making a bestseller out of some latterday Tom Clancy. In fact, I wonder if the H.G. Wells tradition would not find a stronger echo--save for the fact that I imagine the mandarins of Park Avenue to be exceedingly averse to publishing a work of the type.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Remembering The Pretender

Watching The Pretender it seemed that pretty much nothing about the show made sense--not that I expected much from a network TV show at that time--while I suspected an essential vacuity behind the opaqueness and the teasing. (Remember, these were the years of the original run of The X-Files.)

What was the Center? A think tank we were told--apparently a think tank that centered on the intellection of one captive savant. (The writers seemed to make up the biogenetic bits of intrigue--clones and the rest--just as they went along, with this suddenly becoming more important as the season finale approached, and then once renewal happened, receding into the background . . .)

And of course, that particular savant never made much sense, least of all in his abilities. "Genius" was an extreme understatement for what he was, even by the risible "dumb person's idea of a genius" standard to which TV adheres. He seemed instead a realization of the Faustian (I mean Goethe here, not Marlowe) will to do everything, know everything, go everywhere--as Gary Stu/Mary Sue as a figure gets. Between one episode and the next he was able to master a skill, a trade, a profession to which people devote entire lifetimes (pilot today, symphony conductor tomorrow, surgeon the next week), while having the time to contrive the fake paper trail and other deceptions necessary to pass himself off as really what he appeared to be--all with his brain not functioning as a palimpsest, with one set of skills displacing another, but one set of abilities added to the next without loss of what he had previously acquired so that his repertoire had him walking about with the equivalent of the capacities of hundreds of world-class experts of the most diverse types in his head all at once.

Of course, that complicated the writing of the show somewhat. The protagonist was in new surroundings, performing different tasks, surrounded by different people in pretty much every episode, pretending to be a different man with a different history--while he was somebody who didn't have a conventional past to begin with, making him harder to establish even as a Fugitive-type character. (It was, of course, one reason why the episodes spent so much showing what the folks back at the Center--pretty much his only consistent acquaintances--were doing.)

Still, the writers knew enough not to make him a tedious, egomaniacal mass of quirks like so many of their "geniuses"--while also being astute enough to make his eccentricities elicit amusement and sympathy rather than grate (delight in some pleasure of which he had been deprived by the Center growing up--like ice cream). They did this the more easily because he was essentially written as a sympathetic, empathetic human being.

That little lesson, I think, TV writers have since forgotten.

Reflections on Independence Day: Resurgence

According to the data set over at Boxofficemojo.com in 1996 Independence Day opened with a then-record $96 million July 4 extended weekend (five-day) gross. That made it #1 at the box office, of course, a position it held for the next two weekends, then held on to the #2 spot for the two weekends after that, and stayed in the top five for two more, on the way to banking $300 million, a sum which made it the top-earning movie of a very vigorous summer movie season, and a very good year for Hollywood overall (which, not incidentally, launched Will Smith's long career as a sci-fi action star).

In 2016 the sequel Independence Day: Resurgence pulled in a mere $41 million, putting it at #2, and was down to the #5 spot a week later, after which it continued a fairly quick plummet through the rankings. At the end of its run it had about $103 million banked, which, in inflation-adjusted terms, is a good deal less than the original made in just its first five days, and under a quarter of that movie's overall gross. The result was that it barely made the #27 spot for the year, just ahead of the far lower-budgeted horror movie The Conjuring 2.

In short, it could not but be considered a disappointment in light of the original's massive success, and for that matter, its massive $165 million budget--without at the same time gaining a measure of cult-y success.

That failure, of course, does not seem to require much explanation. The second Independence Day movie was a sequel, arrived long after the original had passed from the very short pop cultural memory of most--the more so because of the kind of movie it was. In 1996, when we had about a half dozen really big would-be blockbusters that summer, most of them quite different (the others were Dragonheart, The Rock, Eraser, the first Mission: Impossible and Twister), Independence Day was something we hadn't seen before--the subject matter at least as old as H.G. Wells, but the handling of the spectacle still something that stood out with its grandiosely CGI-powered depiction of a massive alien attack on Earth's major cities.

Now it's entirely standard.

Due to the genre's scaling up, and going science fiction-al in the process, every action movie is now likewise a disaster movie--and a monster movie, and an alien invasion movie in some way or other--any "respectable" CGI-packed tentpole apt to have otherworldly creatures wrecking the core of at least one major city before the end credits (as was the case in the same year's X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, Superman vs. Batman and Ghostbusters, to say nothing of the city-busting we saw in Rogue One). As with so many prior action movie phenomena--James Bond, Star Wars--what was once special about the movie became routine, except that it never really acquired the kind of brand name that a film franchise could go on trading on after it has ceased to be fresh and new (the dashing of which hope is all too evident when one looks at the closing scenes, and their desperate laying of groundwork for a third movie that is almost certain to not happen).

It did not help that ID: Resurgence was, in spite of some dazzling effects, a fairly mediocre example of the type, in a far more crowded season--which promptly saw it shoved out of the way by other, more vigorous movies, through the rest of the summer and after it, and then in the next year.

In fact you probably already forgot all about it until I mentioned it just now, didn't you? (I know I did until recently happening on it when flipping channels.)

Why Does Everyone on American TV Know How to Use Chopsticks?

Watching TV these days one gets the impression that all Americans are adroit users of chopsticks. Suspecting this to be, to put it mildly, a gross exaggeration, I went looking for data on the subject.

An item at Statista claims that, based on self-reporting (people answered the question "How good are you at using chopsticks?"), 4 percent of Americans are "expert," 11 percent "very good," and another 19 percent "fair."

By contrast 43 percent are "not very good" or "terrible," and 24 percent say they have never even tried to use them.

In the absence of better, let us accept these numbers as a starting point. Considering them my guess would be that, because this is a matter of self-reporting, people overstate their proficiency--and even with that just one in three claims to be fair or better at chopstick use, meaning at least two-thirds are less than comfortable with them, with a quarter never having handled them at all.

Why does TV give such a different impression? Barring the circumstances discussed above, or some idiosyncratic, deliberate effort to master these utensils as an end in itself, the vast majority of Americans, especially in the absence of especially strong exposure to East and Southeast Asian culture due to personal heritage or travel, or very close connections with people who have had that, are probably only likely to learn chopstick use in the course of frequently going to restaurants serving East Asian cuisine, and there specifically insisting on learning to use the associated utensils--something far more likely for affluent (not the 1 percent necessarily, but at least the top 10 percent) residents of big coastal cities than working class folks, and especially working class people from rural, small-town, provincial areas. This seems all the more plausible given the extraordinary snobbery with which Americans have surrounded some aspects of such dining, for example, sushi consumption (in stark contrast with the very different Japanese tradition).

In short, it seems to me a matter of exactly that subject which remains anathema not just to the right but much of the "left," socioeconomic disparity and social class.

Do I think that the hacks in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue are deliberately signaling social class when they casually pack the screen with adroit chopstick use, however? The way that, for example, they so often present characters whom they wish to impress us as not just our social and economic superiors but also our cultural and intellectual superiors by having them play the piano with concert performer proficiency, or fence like masters (a visual shorthand that, condescending from the start, is now painfully cliched)?

Of that I am more doubtful. I take it, instead, as simply another reflection on the extreme cluelessness of the hyper-privileged of medialand about the existence of anything outside their painfully cramped little world.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon