Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This Year at the Movies: The Commercial View

Since the 1970s Americans have typically gone to the movies four to five times a year. When the figure falls toward four, the entertainment press screams that This is the End, as happened last year at the industry's recent low point (the 1.28 billion tickets sold in 2011 making for a per capita average of 4.15 that year). When it rises toward five (or on very rare occasions, passes it slightly), the talk of bust turns to talk of boom.1

In 2012, American theaters sold an estimated 1.36 billion tickets, a little over 4.3 tickets per capita - hardly a rip-roaring year at the box office, despite some notable successes (like The Avengers). Still, marking as it does the first increase in ticket sales since 2009, and bringing in as it has the record gross of $10.8 billion (helped along by rising ticket prices, and IMAX and 3-D charges), this is being received as good news.

In line with the partial revival of consumer spending seen this year, it is a reminder that the film business does not operate in a vacuum but is subject to the ups and downs of the rest of the economy. It is a reminder too that entertainment journalists have the same tendency as the rest of their profession to wax dramatic over small market fluctuations.

1. The best performance since the 1970s, 2002's 1.575 billion tickets, represented an exceptional 5.5 per capita average, over 25 percent higher than 2012's, 30 percent higher than 2011's. The year 1998 saw a comparable figure.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The End of Leverage

It was with some dismay that I heard about the cancellation of the TNT show Leverage, one of the few shows (and fewer non-genre shows) I've actually followed in recent years.

Leverage may well be, as some have charged, an American variant on Britain's earlier (and in the view of many, better) Hu$tle. Still, it executed the concept with a measure of flair and conviction, something not so common as it might be. (Watching "Tick, Tick, Tick" and "Boom!"--the only episodes of Castle I've actually sat down and watched--every line seemed so trite and so insincere that I was certain I was watching a parody of the cop genre. If that's what the writers intended, the publicists have done an excellent job of keeping it a secret.)

Leverage also benefited from an affable tone, aided by a group of central characters who, despite their abundance of ego, managed to be something other than the jerks and douchebags who comprise far too much of the dramatis personae on the small screen. (Like the often insufferable Mary Sues and Gary Stus of NCIS. Or the cast of the recently concluded House, whose dialogue consisted mostly of their inflicting their psychoanalyses of each other on each other, and the hapless audience. Or the insufferable gang on How I Met Your Mother. Or--this is just too easy.)

It, helped that the will-they-won't-they-type soap opera (which there was some of between Nathan and Sophie) was kept to a minimum, and on the margins of the narrative, while the writers actually worked out their arcs (rather than using them merely to string the audience along, like Lost).

And it was nice to see a touch of social conscience in a medium so strongly given to the worship of wealth, position and their trappings, and the denigration of anyone not so situated (like the ultra-elitist drivel of Suits).

As of the fifth season I still found the show entertaining enough to think another go-round would be worthwhile, but it seems that we will at least be getting a proper series finale, airing tomorrow at 10 PM, Christmas night.

And the Best Science Fiction Novel of the Twentieth Century Is . . .

Frank Herbert's Dune, according to a poll taken by Locus Magazine, the results of which were published Saturday, part of a larger "All-Centuries" survey of the best in both science fiction and fantasy (the short version of which you can get here).

While I recently talked about the novels that most influenced me as a reader of science fiction, I am not sure which I would single out as "the best," which I find a particularly tricky kind of classification. "Best" is not the same as "greatest," which suggests genre-defining innovation, nor "favorite," which is a matter of personal taste. Rather "best" is a judgment of quality, and the standard here is hardly self-evident, given that more than one might plausibly apply. Do we pick those works of science fiction according to their conformity with the standards applied to fiction of all sorts (characterization, prose, etc.), or rather their accomplishment as science fiction specifically - their excellence in their use of speculative science?

Of course, those voting in polls rarely make such nice distinctions, and I suspect this one is no exception. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game made the #2 position, Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy #3, and so forth. Still, the selections themselves interest me less than the reactions to them. Reactions from the identity politics-minded apart, the not inconsiderable disgruntlement of some observers of the field has revolved around that tilt toward the sorts of books (Herbert, Card, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Adams, etc.) general science fiction readers are much more prone to treasure than are genre highbrows - books which are straightforward rather than experimental in form, books which are read for their exciting stories and intriguing concepts rather than their prose style, their linguistic gymnastics, their narrative technique and the like.1

This dialogue makes perfectly clear the gap between the highbrows and the rest of the readership, a divide much less often explored or even noted than that between science fiction fans and mundanes. Perhaps the latter is the more significant, but the former should not be underrated in its importance for the genre, which, in its importation of the standards of mainstream literature, has not only recreated the elite-popular divide of contemporary culture within its boundaries, but also had some inimical effects on the genre's vitality.

Consider Steven Connor's argument about the relationship of science fiction to the mainstream. Where the T.S. Eliots and James Joyces and Virginia Woolfs wrote of conventional things in unconventional ways (an upper-class woman throws a party for her friends - with the tale written in a stream-of-consciousness mode), science fiction offered an "alternative Modernism" which approached unconventional things in conventional ways (battles on faraway planets, rendered in straightforward prose). Science fiction, it might be said, offered not just a greater receptivity to divergence from the quotidian, but a higher premium on the exploration of ideas (especially those ideas regarding the material world given such short shrift by Modernists and postmodernists alike). The conventionality of form characteristic of science fiction through its early history facilitated that experimentalism with content.

Over time, however, the gravitation of science fiction toward the mainstream, and with it, to literary Modernism and postmodernism, has resulted in genre authors writing about unconventional things in unconventional ways. This made much of its output from the New Wave on decreasingly accessible, and the genre itself a smaller world, more isolated from the culture at large, a large part of its readership alienated from its more recent output. (It is telling that no science fiction work from after the '80s made the twentieth century's top fifteen on the Locus list, even Snow Crash only making #19, and, as Jonathan McCalmont noted, also that far fewer readers voted in the poll regarding the twenty-first century's best science fiction novel.) Along with the postmodernist influence of those mainstream standards to which genre highbrows are necessarily devoted, this seems to have reduced that propensity to actually engage with ideas that was one of its principal reasons for being. If that finally does go, I wonder, what is science fiction left with?

1. In fairness there appears to be some reflection of the sensibilities of "elite" readers. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness made the #5 position, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four #7, and William Gibson's thoroughly postmodern Neuromancer #8. Still, one might argue that these are all rather "obvious" selections, and that they might have been picked for "popular" reasons - Orwell's book, for instance, esteemed for its (often misunderstood) political message. At any rate, they are the exception rather than the norm with the list.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Star Wars prequels and The Hobbit: Audience Expectations

Reflecting on the likely response (long as well as short-term) of audiences to the release of The Hobbit my first thought was for what might be expected of the film itself--but there is something to be said, too, of the attitude of the audience seeing it.

The relatively short period between the originals and the prequels registers not just in the look of the movies, but the ways in which viewers will look at the older and newer films. In 2012, fewer grown-ups will have occasion to compare The Hobbit with cherished childhood or early adolescent memories of the originals, while the latter will be less romanticized by the passage of time. By this point, the audience might also have been chastened by earlier disappointments--the reaction to the Star Wars prequels only the most obvious (similar discontent having been expressed about the sequels to The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean and several other recent films).

It also seems to me the case that the cult surrounding the Lord of the Rings is less intense than that which surrounded Star Wars. Enthusiasm for the Lord of the Rings has certainly been a presence in pop culture--but my admittedly unscientific impression is that we see it referenced, quoted, parodied less frequently, the stereotypical "geek" still the Star Wars fan rather than the Lord of the Rings fan.

Part of this may be a matter of when the latter films came along. As George Lucas himself allowed, the Bond films had already established the "adrenaline movie," long before Star Wars appeared. And there had already been major science fiction films which resonated with the audience sufficiently to produce significant cults. (Nineteen sixty-eight alone saw three--2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Barbarella.) However, Star Wars was unprecedented in bringing the two together, creating a crowd-pleasing epic adventure drawing heavily on such elements--indeed, set in a thoroughly detailed fictional world, realized through technically revolutionary special effects. The results were such that, much as some genre historians sniff at the claims made for the films' niche in pop cultural history, the undeniable fact is that Hollywood had never produced anything really comparable before.1

Naturally, the following it attracted was unprecedented (such that the studio lost big, and George Lucas won big, as a result of Lucas's retaining the merchandising rights). By the early 2000s, however, what was once revolutionary was now routine, while the norm has been to have multiple franchises going concerns at once. The Lord of the Rings was a major event--but so was the Matrix trilogy, and the Star Wars prequels that all came out in the same period, and Harry Potter, which were just a part of Hollywood's total output of splashy genre-themed blockbusters, which also included the Pirates of the Caribbean (which did much to make pirates cool again), and a flood of superhero adventures (perhaps the most vigorous single trend of the decade in this kind of movie). Just a couple of years later a series based on the novels of Tolkien's friend and colleague C.S. Lewis, the Chronicles of Narnia, reached the big screen, as did films based on Eragorn and His Dark Materials.

In other words, the Lord of the Rings films arrived in a scene already crowded with competition for fans than Star Wars did a quarter of a century earlier, when in crucial respects it arrived in an open field. It is noteworthy, too, that Star Wars has had a existence beyond the films--in video games that have significant cults of their own (like Knights of the Old Republic), in tie-in novels (regular bestsellers from Timothy Zahn's trilogy on), in television spin-offs (like the hit The Clone Wars), which have helped to keep up the interest of old adherents, and increase the enthusiasm of new ones, which has gone a long way toward keeping the franchise as big as it has been despite the passage of thirty-five years since it first appeared. By contrast, Tolkien's books continue to be read, but on the whole the Lord of the Rings has had a far more constrained life in these other media.

There is, too, the differences between the films in structure, characterization, imagery. The original Star Wars movies were compact and comparatively simple, and focused on a single protagonist to a much greater degree than the Lord of the Rings films. Episodes IV, V and VI did surround Luke Skywalker with a considerable supporting cast of comrades and antagonists, even minor members of which have acquired their own cults over the years (like Bobba Fett)--but the films are undeniably Luke's story. By contrast, the Lord of the Rings films sprawl. They do so in a lucid, ably structured, well-paced way, but are still larger, far more complex tales which diffuse their heroism more completely among their cast--Gandalf the figure of wisdom and magic, Aragorn the warrior with a sword and a destiny, and Frodo the moral hero bearing the principal spiritual burden, where arguably Luke had become all three by the end.

It might also be significant that the principal characters of the Lord of the Rings saga are all clearly grown-ups, rather than the more youthful protagonists of a coming-of-age tale (even the young-looking Frodo is a middle-aged householder, after all), given that it might be the young most in a position to give such devotion to a series--as older genre fans will have other, prior claims on their affections. (Indeed, that might be one reason why it seems that we hear more about the fandoms of the more thoroughly young adult-oriented Harry Potter and Twilight than we do the Lord of the Rings.)

A reinforcing factor might be the visual impact of the trappings associated with these characters. A light saber is instantly identifiable as the weapon of a Jedi Warrior--while the costume of a Ranger of Middle Earth is less distinctive, less iconic. (A cosplayer would probably have to explain their costume. "No, I'm not Robin Hood.") All that can only make the propensity of viewers toward the kind of identification that makes for the more extreme expressions of fan adulation (like naming their children after him, as How I Met Your Mother's Ted Mosby intends to do) much stronger for Star Wars than LOTR.

The result is that the Lord of the Rings films command their share of devotion, which is considerable. Yet, however the prequels turn out (and many fans are already forming their opinions of the first of the trilogy as this is being written) their response to them, good or bad, will not be clouded by the impossible expectations that awaited The Phantom Menace back in 1999.

1. This is not to deny that Star Wars has a long list of debts to other works, from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, to the long history of space operatic adventure in print - but in fairness, what such creation doesn't? It is, of course, quite proper to point out the fact, but the tedious belaboring of the point so often seen in the criticisms of the series' detractors is essentially resentment talking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Watching Smallville

As with most of the young adult-oriented WB fantasy dramas of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Charmed, Angel, Supernatural) I missed the series the first time around, and only caught it in reruns.

I suppose my impressions watching it are about what most viewers had, to go with what I've seen about in online. The gradualness with which Clark Kent develops into Superman (it is, after all, ten seasons and two hundred episodes to that point), and the emphasis of the episodes on other things - monster of the week plots, soap opera about the love lives, family baggage, jealously guarded secrets and personal enmities and obsessions of the characters, and the associated intriguing (lent the requisite touch of glamour by the involvement of several vast fortunes in the story, starting with that of the Luthors, who contribute more than their share to the episodes' interest, and often are the central actors). The astonishing number of times Lex Luthor gets knocked out or loses his memory so as to miss or forget incontestable evidence of Clark's superhuman abilities. The limited FX resources, which constrained the depiction of the superhero action (with Kent's battle with Doomsday famously a disappointment to fans).

One thing that seems to have got surprisingly little attention, however, is the reconception of the titular town. While having relatively little acquaintance with the source comics, I suppose I had always thought of Smallville as the anti-Metropolis, an embodiment of the mythology of the rural Midwest as a repository of virtue, where the morally almost perfect Superman might be raised safe from the corrupting influences of the east coast and the big city - and so necessarily as unlike such a city as it can possibly be.

On this show, however, Smallville is anything but. With a population of forty-five thousand, Smallville gives the impression of being a small city itself, and certainly has its share of the kinds of amenities one normally associates with major urban areas, like the Talon coffee shop. It also happens to be within driving distance of the super-city of Metropolis, close enough for a daily commute to be a practical option (as would not be the case, for instance, were Metropolis in the northeast U.S., which would make the distance over a thousand miles), which gives the characters plenty of opportunities for big-city adventure from the start.

And of course, the Kents are very different from how I had previously pictured them. Far from being a stereotyped old farm couple, Martha Kent is the daughter of an affluent Coast City attorney who met John when they were both in college (and later goes on to become, successively, a self-described "corporate animal," a U.S. Senator, and then Red Queen of Checkmate). The two of them are in their late twenties', or not far out of them, when they first encounter Clark, and only middle-aged during the series - and a generation gap quite evident between John Kent and his father Hiram in the glimpses we get of him.

The rationale behind such a take seems fairly obvious - to widen the writers' latitude to come up with characters and stories, and to make the setting more attractive to a youthful, urbanized audience far less likely to take an interest in a story situated in something more like the original town. Not being a purist, I have no problem with that, but that the newer conception of Smallville seems to have been taken so completely for granted by viewers is an interesting indicator of how the world has changed since 1938, not only in its demographic character, but perhaps also in its ideals. Perhaps the tendency to romanticize the small town, while certainly not vanished, is on its way out.

Reading the Jack Ryan Novels

Tom Clancy is widely remembered as the writer Patrick Anderson hailed in the New York Times as the "king of the techno-thriller," but as a reader of that genre I tended to think of him rather as occupying a particular niche within it. He did not offer the techno-wizardry or over-the-top battles of Dale Brown (at its best in Day of the Cheetah and Sky Masters), for instance, or the sleekly dramatized wargame scenarios of the early Larry Bond (the Larry Bond of Red Phoenix, Vortex and Cauldron). What distinguished Clancy was the scale and intricacy of his plotting, the relatively "lived-in" quality of the books, the more grounded approach to the material - which, I suppose, helped make him acceptable to a wider audience that might have found Megafortresses a bit much, and so helped make him this genre's foremost author.

However, that grounded quality was also a limitation as the Cold War passed into history, as it became more difficult to present really plausible big-conflict scenarios, the use of which was what made these books different from other spy fiction or paramilitary action-adventure or political thrillers. Clancy could tell a spy story, and write interesting special forces action (even scaling that up sufficiently to offer a suitable finale in Clear and Present Danger), but in his handling these elements worked best as ingredients in a larger recipe combining them with the global-stakes geopolitical chess, the high technology, the dramatic international stand-offs and grand-scale set-pieces crucial to the more satisfying tales, like The Hunt for Red October or The Cardinal of the Kremlin (or better still, the non-Ryanverse Red Storm Rising) as compared with Patriot Games, for instance.

As the '90s progressed, however, the books became much less The Hunt for Red October, much more Patriot Games, in Without Remorse, in Rainbow Six (while also being less fresh than that early effort). At the same time the premises of books like Executive Orders reflected the greater strain of translating current events into the larger-scale stories formerly rooted in the Cold War. The result was the diminution of the aspects of the books I found most entertaining - which left me with those things I found less engaging, like Clancy's profusiveness with prose (Oliver Stone's remark that "Inside every Tom Clancy novel is a thin Ian Fleming waiting to get out" overstates the issue, but not always by much), like his characters (I'll admit it: I found his good guys rather dull Gary Stus, while even his villains failed to interest me), like his politics (which from the start verged on self-parody, as when this well-known social conservative paused in The Hunt for Red October to denigrate the quality of Soviet sailors' pornography as compared with American stuff, the Soviets not even being good at that). The result was to make me more impatient with them, while they were growing still more prominent, the books getting longer, the stories more character-oriented, and the politics taking such shapes as the long lecture on the flat tax in the middle of Executive Orders.

I still finished Executive Orders looking forward to his next book, but did not complete Rainbow Six, skimmed The Bear and the Dragon (no Red Storm Rising, that), and didn't bother to look at Red Rabbit, having had no interest in seeing him travel back in time to do the Day of the Jackal thing. Still, the difference between Clancy's trajectory at the time differed in degree rather than kind from that of the other authors I'd been reading. They turned to other kinds of stories, or told the same stories less satisfactorily, because of the changing world situation, because like the vast majority of authors working continually in the same genre they got stale and self-indulgent, and few others to take their places. I found a few efforts at the scaled-down stories that retained some plausibility reasonably entertaining - like Edward Herman's Iron Gate, or James Cobb's Amanda Garrett novels - but on the whole the field was in decline, while my interest was at any rate shifting to science fiction not claiming to anticipate the next day's headlines.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Five Most Important Science Fiction Novels

Here are what I think of as the five most important science fiction books (and in some cases, series' of books) that I have read. By that I do not mean that I regard them as the most important books where the history of the genre is concerned. This particular list is more personal than that, presenting instead those books that did most to shape my ideas about what science fiction is, and what it can be, by demonstrating significant possibilities, and in most of these cases, leading me to whole stretches of genre territory of which I had previously been scarcely aware.

1. Frank Herbert's Dune (1965).
I thoroughly enjoyed Dune as a space opera full of adventure and intrigue, capped off by the most soaringly triumphant finale I had ever read. However, there was also the sheer richness of his fictional universe, not only the much-praised invention of Arrakis and its Fremen, but the galactic empire of which it was a small part, which staggered with its complexity (this novel is far more impressive than most fantasy in giving a sense of the complexity of feudal life) as well as its scale. There was, too, a sense of great depths--of uncounted lives being lived over uncounted years on uncounted worlds, of emergent, species-level developments--just beneath the surface of his prose, at times frustratingly out of reach, and yet, unapproachable any other way (reminiscent for me of many an experience reading German philosophy).

When I turned to the sequels, both scope and depth extended through the stories' time horizon, itself extraordinary. Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, for instance (which I only got to later), went to the end of the universe and beyond, but it was written as future history, one that got progressively less detailed as it moved further and further away from our time. By contrast Herbert offered fully fleshed plots and characters living out a story unfolding over tens of millennia.

And the sense of verisimilitude through it all was extraordinary. The interplay of multiple ambitions and agendas and forces; the victories that prove Pyrrhic, or fleeting (the soaring triumph of the first novel followed by the crushing defeat of the second and third); the inevitability with which reaction followed action; the incompleteness and ambiguity of the tale's turns; give it the same sense of mess as real history (admirably captured in Willis E. McNelly's Dune Encyclopedia, and conspicuously lacking in Brian Herbert's many sequels and prequels).

In all these respects, it seemed to me then, and still seems to me now, everything that an epic work of science fiction should be.

2. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992).
I regard Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age as a richer, more polished work than the novel that made him a star. I might also add that among the cyberpunks and post-cyberpunks I find his writing exceeded in zaniness by Rudy Rucker (as in his Ware Tetralogy), and conceptual density and audacity by Charles Stross (check out Accelerando). Paul di Filippo is funnier. And where social and political vision are concerned, Stephenson has always struck me as playing it quite safe, which I suppose has something to do with the extent to which his pronouncements command respect in business fora and other such places. (Picture Forbes doing an interview with Ken MacLeod--more on whom later.)

Yet, Snow Crash was also my first exposure to contemporary (post-1980) hard science fiction, and the tradition of which all these authors are a part, and I think of it as having been a gateway to all of these other works. This was, in part, a function of its accessibility; my early attempts to read cyberpunk greats William Gibson and Bruce Sterling led only to frustration with what seemed to me their overstylized and underplotted writing, and it was years before I was able to appreciate their genre-defining books--but I got into Snow Crash right away, and stayed with it to the end. That reconciliation of concept and flash with sheer readability is a significant accomplishment, one which has likely gone a long way to making him one of the few writers of recent decades to enjoy something like household name status, while all these years later I still smile at the remembrance of such quirks as the author's naming his main character "Hiro Protagonist."

3. Michael Moorcock's Byzantium Endures (1981).
Prior to encountering Colonel Pyat my impressions of the New Wave were based primarily on a couple of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius short stories, and a bit of J.G. Ballard.1 The J.C. tales, which utilized cut-up technique, seemed to me a waste of time for both author and reader, while, heretical as it sounds, Ballard's writing left me cold and annoyed. It seemed to me that the celebration of these authors, and the larger New Wave, was merely another exercise in that particular form of intellectual snobbery which equates a work's value with the extent to which literary experimentalism renders it unreadable.

Byzantium Endures changed that. I had never before seen an author make such compelling use of an unreliable narrator, from the standpoint not just of entertainment value, but the development of a theme, and there is no question that it made me more open to Modernist and postmodernist approaches. These books also led me to the rest of Moorcock's work, like his heroic fantasies (not just the adventures of Elric, but tales like The Eternal Champion and The War Hound and the World's Pain), and his proto-steampunk (The Warlord of the Air making a far stronger impression on me than Gibson and Sterling's mostly frustrating The Difference Engine), which did much to give me a deeper interest in both those genres. It also led me to a reevaluation of the New Wave, and so to writers that I have since come to admire enormously, like Brian Aldiss, and Norman Spinrad, and John M. Harrison.

4. John Shirley's Eclipse (1985) and Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction (1995).
At an early point in my explorations of cyberpunk I happened upon Nicola Nixon's essay "Cyberpunk: Preparing the Ground for Revolution or Keeping the Boys Satisfied?" Nixon held that in spite of its radical pretenses, cyberpunk was "complicit in '80s conservatism." At that point I had seen little in the writing of Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson to dispute such a reading, and much to affirm it. Reading older science fiction (Olaf Stapledon, George Orwell, Frederik Pohl, for instance) I had been impressed with the ways in which earlier generations of authors had used their work to explore political and social ideas--but now wondered if the genre had lost that capacity, if it had not, in fact, become incapable of doing anything but repeating the orthodoxies of the moment.2

John Shirley's Eclipse put paid to that notion. Instead of the playful irony of Stephenson, and the thoroughly privatized, thoroughly head-gamed detachment of Gibson, and theDavos Man conservatism of Bruce Sterling, here was a writer who could be very funny (as the short fiction gathered in Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories demonstrates), but who could also feel something for people and take politics seriously, and actually be angry and sad and scared; who could imagine them fighting for things worth fighting for. (I do not think I will ever forget Rick Rickenharp's peforming A Song Called Youth atop the Arc de Triomphe as the war machines of the Second Alliance ground it into dust.)

Of course, Shirley did differ from other cyberpunks in this respect, but he still finished the cycle in the late Cold War, and while he continued to publish striking political tales (like his rebuff to the dispensationalism of the Left Behind series in The Other End), I still thought of Eclipse as belonging to the past--perhaps not as much so as Stapledon's work, but still on the other side of the great divide that was "the end of history." However, that was not the case with Ken MacLeod's post-Cold War The Star Fraction, which did not have Eclipse's dramatic intensity, but offered a more crisply sophisticated take on twenty-first century politics which would even have outdone it in audacity had it been published in the '80s, with its Balkanized Britain and Trotskyist resolution. The Star Fraction was also my introduction to recent British science fiction, in which I found authors like Iain Banks and Charles Stross, each in their way a game-changer for me.

Hence the tie between the two books for this spot on the list.

5. Clive Cussler's Sahara (1992).
Clive Cussler, of course, is never discussed as a science fiction writer, but his works do qualify, regularly including as they do near-future political scenarios, futuristic technology, and other such speculative elements. (In Sahara we have the United Nations deploying in-house commando forces, solar-powered toxic waste processing facilities, a world-threatening red tide that has the incidental effect of turning people into psychotic cannibals, a high-tech superyacht which is a combined scientific research vessel and warship, and the rewriting of history with a wildly different explanation of President Lincoln's assassination.)

This book showed me that it is possible to write a novel that actually feels like a Hollywood blockbuster, and for a long time I regarded Cussler as the standard when it came to this sort of writing. Matthew Reilly, who writes in a similar vein, has since pushed the envelope further, something David Williams also does in his own more futuristic novels, but again Cussler was first, and for many years his works were an important model for my own efforts--with Sahara remaining my favorite of his books.

I suppose much of the list (Dune, for instance) seems rather obvious, but then that is only to be expected. The most well-known, widely available books are the ones that a newcomer to the genre is likely to encounter first, and find comparatively accessible--while the first books one encounters are also those most likely to make the strongest impression, especially when they have become classics for good reason.

I suppose the list also seems rather weighted toward action-adventure (and I imagine a few people reading this are appalled by the importance I accord the lesson that books can be written like blockbuster movies), but then my pop fiction tastes had, once upon a time, run mainly to spy novels and action thrillers (books like Sahara), and my earlier selections naturally reflected that taste.

I suppose my list does not seem especially highbrow (excepting Byzantium Endures). Where, one might wonder, is Vonnegut, for instance? It may seem impious, too. What about legendary Grand Masters like Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein, one might wonder? Wells? Philip K. Dick? And, and, and . . . I read them, of course, and enjoyed and admired much of what I found, and like to think that I learned from them as critic and writer. But this is the order in which things played out, and it should hardly be a surprise that the pivots in our personal literary histories do not tidily match received opinion and its hierarchies.

What about you? Any surprises in your own "top five?"

1. I had some contact with a few other works by a few other authors, and actually rather enjoyed Harlan Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Tick-Tock Man," but it was still Moorcock and Ballard who loomed largest in discussion of the New Wave.
2. That was one reason why, impressive as the older authors I mentioned here were, they did not have quite so profound an effect on my thought. Another, of course, was that I had seen plenty of Star Trek in its various incarnations, which, much as some snobs put it down, had been an introduction to such things.

Greece, and the Dying European Dream

Back in 2004 Jeremy Rifkin published a book titled The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. In it he presented the argument that the European Union would be a more socially egalitarian, ecologically conscious and politically cosmpolitan actor, better able to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century than the United States has been doing--reconciling the demands of globalization with social justice, taking the lead on issues like climate change and the development of poorer countries, and building bridges between the West and the Middle East and Russia.

In the years since then particular EU members have had some achievements in these areas (Germany's accomplishments in reducing fossil fuel use and developing renewable energy sources, for instance), but the Union as a whole has fallen short of developing robust collective policies regarding them. And where Union policy has been more coherent, its purposes have been quite different from those such progressives sought for--the transformation of the EU into a vehicle for the imposition of neoliberalism on electorates which had previously resisted it, like those of Greece and Italy.

The results have been about what anyone cognizant of the results of such policies in places as diverse as Latin America and Russia would expect: economic depression, political radicalization, and the disruption not merely of the substance of democracy, but its form as well. A year ago there were rumors of a coup plot in Greece--and considerable innuendo that many a Western capital might not have been averse to such a turn, finding in it a convenient way out of the current impasse. Now swastika-brandishing Nazis patrol the streets of Athens "enforcing order" with the apparent blessing of the police, while their party rises from fringe element to major factor in Greek politics--scenes that could have come out of 1930s Germany.

It may seem melodramatic to compare Greece today to the Weimar Republic. Certainly it does not hold the continental balance of power the way Germany did, and for all its revanchist fantasies, the Golden Dawn can hardly hope to realize any of them through military adventurism. And it may be that the party's raised profile is a short-lived oddity like the popularity of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and his "Liberal Democratic Party" in Russia in the early 1990s.

Still, it is worth remembering that the ultranationalists in that country did shift the country's politics rightward, with consequences evident in the Caucasus and elsewhere to this day. It is also worth keeping in mind that the Balkans remains less than the most stable of regions, that the internal consequences of the Golden Dawn's rise might be bad enough in themselves--and that it could be that Greece is just ahead of the curve, the most advanced example of a pattern evident across the European continent, throughout which the far right has been in the ascendant. It hardly seems impossible that large parts of the continent could wind up like Athens, while worse than that might not be wholly ruled out, with France's expulsions of Roma a worrisome step backward--for the treatment not only of this group, but of minorities and disadvantaged groups in general, civil liberties in general, and the cosmopolitanism that underlies the whole European project.

Review: The Other End, by John Shirley

Baltimore, MD: Cemetery Dance Publications, 2007, pp. 292.

In The Other End noted cyberpunk and horror writer John Shirley turned his attention to presenting an alternative version of the dispensationalist "Rapture." The tale begins with a rush of particles from deep space that seems to be communicating unusual visions to selected individuals. Suddenly "awake" after these experiences, these people (who have usually been doing the wrong thing all along) suddenly choose to do the right thing instead, often at great personal risk to themselves-ranging from human-trafficking Cambodian gangsters in California to homicidal Ugandan irregulars rampaging through the Congo, to corrupt Pakistani prison guards (and many a U.S. Senator and CEO too) in an "epidemic of justice" that cannot but threaten the Order of Things as They Are, and all who benefit from it, who naturally struggle to resist it.

The book is not long, but the scope is vast, this very much a tale of a global, cosmic event, replete with minor characters whose single scenes serve mainly to clarify the plot and theme. However, the narrative is structured around the experiences of three characters: Jim Swift, a divorced, middle-aged reporter from the Sacramento Bee; Dennis Boyce, a failed, suicidal songwriter; and Frank Birch, an employee of O'Hanlon Business Machines (OBM), a company threatened by the changes, and in the vanguard of trying to stop this process, leading to "an altenative End Time," a rewrite of the "Left Behind" version of Armageddon from the "Other End of the philosophical spectrum . . . for people who would prefer to imagine another . . . more just end."

This was not the first time that Shirley took a genre and applied this kind of ideological twist, having arguably done the same with the high-tech war adventure story in the Eclipse trilogy. As might be expected, The Other End is rather less action-packed, and somewhat more idea-driven, but there is plenty that is familiar from his earlier work. The liberal political, social and metaphysical perspective of the story, about which Shirley describes himself as "unapologetically partisan," is easily recognizable from stories like "And the Angel With Television Eyes," "Ticket to Heaven," "The Peculiar Happiness of Professor Cort," and "Preach: Part Two: The Apocalypse of the Reverend John Shirley" (all of which you can find in his 1998 collection, Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories) - as well as his interest in the mystic George Ivanovich Gurdijeff, about whom he penned a nonfiction book in 2004, Gurdijeff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas.

Along with Gurdijeff's thought there is a dose of Gnosticism, and a fair bit of Jacob Boehme, all brought together in an "Other End" bereft of superstition (but not a higher intelligence, albeit one which explicitly rejects that last refuge of the Creationist, the label "designer"), with miracles that are ultimately explicable by way of high-energy physics. And for the most part, it is those who found the novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins so congenial to their world-views that end up on the wrong side of this Armageddon. At the end, in horror story style, it even turns out that the Evil Thing which has wreaked so much havoc may not be finished after all. The result may not be Shirley's richest or most complex work, but can still be thought of as a summary work regarding at least one thread in his career, bringing to full fruition ideas he explored in years past.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dirk Pitt, an American James Bond?

The James Bond franchise has been global success, but has also had a very particular niche in postwar British culture: the lone hero as a source of salvation for a power in decline, and validation for the idea that Britain could still matter in the world. When the United States sought such heroes in the 1970s it looked not to spies, but to cops like Dirty Harry and commandos like Rambo. At the same time, the other characteristics for which Bond is known, his combination of high life and adventure, and the extravagant quality of his adventures (with their colorful villains, gadgets and the like), has its best-known American counterparts in comic book tycoon-vigilantes like Batman and Iron Man, who face off against figures like The Joker and The Mandarin with the help of quirky high-tech arsenals.

Yet American pop culture, too, has produced its share of spies, for which James Bond has been a reference point, and sometimes more. Of course, few approach those figures named above as cultural icons. Derek Flint and the screen version of Matt Helm were fairly obvious and not very substantial imitations, which at any rate parodied Bond much more than matching or reinterpreting him, and have hardly been the most enduring of creations. One might say the same of the more recent Harry Tasker or Xander Cage, the latter a generational update already in need of updating again, were the envisaged XXX3 to get off the ground.

Some might suggest Jason Bourne as America's James Bond, given his clear cachet in recent years - but the Bourne of the films is a cipher (the whole idea is that he doesn't know who he is), the Bourne of the novels an academic who was sucked into a bizarre game by a personal catastrophe. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan might seem another possibility - but he is an analyst dragged into the field on a few brief if wild adventures before his meteoric rise through the national security hierarchy (ending with the Presidency of the United States!) made that all out of the question. And at any rate, Ryan's being a family man of working-class origins and simple tastes (unchanged by the money he made and married) makes him rather a different figure, less glamorous, less urbane, the fantasy the character lives out of a much less hedonistic, much more socially conservative sort. So too his more field-oriented counterpart, Jonathan Clark. The characters mentioned here also happen to star in much more grounded tales than the Bond novels, let alone the Bond films (certainly Ryan has no dramatic showdowns to compare with Bond's face off against Hugo Drax or Goldfinger or Ernst Stavro Blofeld), with Clancy's books often seeing the good guys fail to avert some catastrophic attack against the U.S. - and then struggle with the aftermath (as in The Sum of All Fears, Debt of Honor and Executive Orders).1

Indiana Jones - the answer of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to the Bond series - comes much closer in the style of 007's adventures (the travel, the involvements with women, the feel of the action, the villains, etc.). However, Jones is also a much bigger divergence from the pattern given his being an archaeologist first and secret agent second, the setting of his adventures a half century back, and the heavy paranormal element (the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, aliens). One might add, too, that despite the undisputed place of the films in pop culture, the franchise was largely of the '80s, which saw the release of the first three films (in 1981, 1984 and 1989), and a fourth only two decades later in 2008, rather than being a vigorous going concern over a lengthier period in various media - the way Bond has, and for that matter, the way Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan have been.

Still, where the big screen is concerned, he probably comes closest, though if one considers print characters which have been less conspicuous in other media, Dirk Pitt seems rather a plausible candidate. Granted, like Jones, Pitt is not primarily a spy, his job title instead "Special Projects Director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency," which makes his bread and butter salvage jobs rather than espionage. Yet, in the books NUMA is not the small private organization Cussler founded, but a large government agency with five thousand employees, making Pitt a government operative in his own right, all the more so as he came to NUMA a military officer - an Air Force Major (eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel), just as Bond is a Commander in the Royal Navy. Like Bond he is also a war veteran (of Vietnam, where he flew combat missions) who takes his orders from the very head of his agency, who, appropriately for an organization so concerned with the sea, happens to be an Admiral, just like the original M. Also like Bond, Pitt combines a privileged background (his father, George Pitt, is a United States Senator) with a rather un-aristocratc ruggedness (while incidentally happening to be tall, visibly athletic, dark-haired and light-eyed, with a whiff of the exotic about him).

More importantly, the plots of the Dirk Pitt novels typically have him doing battle with international conspiracies and chasing high-stakes MacGuffins in globe-trotting adventures packed with over-the-top action in the present or very near future. In those battles Pitt's position permits him considerable personal initiative, while giving him all the benefits that come with the backing of a large government agency - much like what Bond enjoys. His enemies are typically wealthy individuals intent on reshaping the world in line with their personal ambitions or ideals, often through the use of futuristic technologies - while Pitt frequently employs the same (the yacht Calliope in Sahara, which unleashes its hidden weapons in a river battle, a gadget right out of the adventures of 007). And like Bond, Pitt is attractive to and attracted by women, getting involved with a new one (sometimes more than one) in each adventure - with one of those women (Summer Moran from Pacific Vortex!), who just so happens to be exceptionally close to the sea, later turning out to have borne his only offspring (just as Kissy Suzuki became pregnant with Bond's son in the novel You Only Live Twice).

Nonetheless, there are important differences as well as similarities, not least the works' use of setting. Bond himself is quite outdoorsy, and certainly has his share of adventures out in the wild, diving in the Caribbean or skiing Alpine slopes, but when I think of 007 I think of cities: London, Paris, New York, Istanbul, Tokyo. By contrast, Pitt is a character I usually think of as being in the mountains, the desert, and especially the sea, which Cussler from the start envisioned as his milieu. (As is so often the case, the author himself described his thinking best in a note included in the foreword of Pacific Vortex! (the first Pitt novel he wrote, though it was the sixth to appear in print): "I cast around for a hero who cut a different mold, one who wasn't a secret agent, police detective or private investigator," whose territory, rather than "a gambling casino, or the streets of New York . . . [was] the sea.")

Strongly connected with that difference in milieu is the element of historical mystery in most of the adventures, something the Bond novels and films generally eschewed.2 There is also what might be thought of as Pitt's more "populist" quality, the character not lacking sophistication in such matters as food and drink, but less ostentatious about the fact, and certainly never giving the impression of a man accustomed to a bubble of luxury, as Bond's screen incarnation does. (As Cussler wrote in the same note, for all Pitt's "rough edges" he had "a degree of style" that made him "equally at ease entertaining a gorgeous woman in a gourmet restaurant" as "downing a beer with the boys at the local saloon," with the latter scene the more typical - and I must admit, more natural.) And of course, Cussler drew on his own experiences and tastes in creating Pitt to the same extent Fleming did in crafting Bond, such things as his Californian background and penchant for collecting antique cars finding their way into the tales, further distinguishing the two characters from one another.

The result is that Bond might not implausibly be thought of as a precedent to or even influence on Pitt, but it would be a mistake to think of Pitt as simply a Bond knock-off. Rather he is an original creation whose evolution simply came to parallel Bond's - which may be one reason why Pitt has endured so much longer and better than the uncounted carbon copies of 007.

1. In The Sum of All Fears, terrorists detonate a nuclear bomb at the Super Bowl in Denver, while attacking American forces in West Berlin, tricking the U.S. government into thinking a Soviet assault is underway; in Debt of Honor, much of the Pacific fleet is disabled and the Marianas Islands occupied by Japanese forces, in conjunction with a carefully engineered crash on the American stock market; and in Executive Orders a united Iran-Iraq starts an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. that kills thousands, while invading Saudi Arabia.
2. A notable exception is the novel Live and Let Die, the plot of which involved the resting place of Captain Henry Morgan's treasure.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reading Literary Classics

It is taken for granted that there is a vast gulf between the "highbrow" critics who hand out literary awards, write for the upmarket review pages, compose "century's best" lists and decide the curricula of literature courses; and the popular audience which consents to make books bestsellers.

As an adolescent of decidedly "pop" tastes I was at first annoyed by that gulf – by the immediately apparent difference between what was presented to me as capital "L" literature, and what I actually enjoyed reading. (Why, for instance, was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby "Great Literature" while Clive Cussler's Sahara was not?) It seemed at times that critics simply favored work which was old, difficult and lacking in such pleasures as rip-roaring action sequences out of sheer snobbery.

Still, I did make an attempt to better understand that distance. In the process I found not only that critics do have coherent standards, but that on the whole those standards are poorly explained to the broader public (so that views like those I just described were not at all uncommon). This is all the more problematic because what professional critics value happens to be the exact opposite of what popular audiences look for, the popularity of, for instance, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer, making the point quite clearly. These writers have often been criticized for offering flat characters and weak prose replete with triteness and cliché, for instance. Yet, no one denies that both authors are adept at keeping their target audience turning the pages – and it is no accident that, whatever their other faults, they accessibly tell stories with an obvious appeal to their respective readerships. To put it bluntly, the average reader – and many an exceptional reader as well – cares more for plot and action than for character, an easy and entertaining read rather than technical innovation or beautiful prose or clever authorial games, and sensational drama rather than Great Themes.

This gulf appears especially wide in the case of those older works which critics are likely to esteem as much for their place in literary history (their exemplifying a particular movement, their influence on later writing, etc.) as for their technical accomplishments or the aesthetic pleasures they offer, given the ways in which standards and conventions have changed over time. Our expectation that dialogue will sound "like people really talk," for instance, leaves us ill-disposed to appreciate Shakespearian Mannerism, while today's relatively ruthless editing makes the digressions of, for instance, Victor Hugo (his more than once interrupting Inspector Javert's pursuit of Jean ValJean to offer a lengthy historical essay in Les Miserables, for example) appear impossible trials. The importance of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as a work of nineteenth century American Naturalism is not something the general reader will have the background to recognize, or add much to the story's aesthetic or dramatic interest for them if they did recognize it – this being rather a matter of intellectual interest for literary scholars.

Additionally, the further back into the past one goes, the more pronounced the problem of accessing the work as well, with the plays of William Shakespeare again a particularly obvious example of the problem. A significant portion of his rather large vocabulary has simply fallen out of use ("coign," "orison," "welkin"), while a large part of the remainder has acquired quite different usages and connotations in our time (as with the "brave" in "brave new world"). The repleteness of the texts with allusions to history and literature now obscure even to the best educated (most of those likely to be confronted with The Taming of the Shrew will have heard of Socrates; some will know he had a wife; very few will actually remember her name, Xanthippe) is similarly problematic. Then there is the way in which he brings all these unfamiliar words and references together, in a rather looser, less formalized, more flexible grammar than the one we learn in school today, which Shakespeare takes full advantage of with his wordplay ("it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied") and his versification, rearranging "normal" phrasing so as to place rhythmic and metric effects above syntactic clarity (as when he inverts verb and subject in an expression like "Goes he"), while the rhyme and meter can distract us as we try to make sense of what is actually being said ("Full fathom five thy father lies . . . Those are pearls that were his eyes").

The result is that Shakespeare's English may not be another language, but it may not be unfair to regard it as another dialect, and it does require a college student (let alone their high or middle school counterpart) to work fairly hard to get the most superficial understanding of the words on the page. And when one does work through the obstacles the labor is likely to take its toll on the prospects for emotional engagement, just as having to explain a joke is likely to take much of the humor out of it.

The pedestal on which Great Literature is placed can serve to make all of this more confusing and frustrating by giving the uninitiated the impression that such works are transcendent and timeless in a way that will instantly impress itself upon all but the crudest of oafs as The Best Thing They Have Ever Read. When they fail to transcend millennia, oceans and the profoundest cultural and linguistic differences within the human experience to do just that, as is far more often the case than we generally admit – even for an alert and able reader putting in the effort (and few are so willing or patient as that) – such expectations are routinely and gravely disappointed.

These issues of differing standards within and between periods and the challenges of accessing these works, with all that this means for the reader's experience of them, and the misconceptions aroused by the accolades, all seem obvious enough. Yet as a practical matter little account is taken of them in discussions of such works. Books are recommended on the basis of Authority – especially when assigned in school, especially below the college level, where serious attempts at explaining why such books enjoy their standing seem nearly nonexistent. The students confronted with these books go along with what they are told to the extent that they have to in order to get the grade that they want. And then the vast majority of them go on to ignore such works, even if they are among the small minority which reads at all – even as they unthinkingly repeat what they have been told about such things as Shakespeare's being the greatest writer the English-speaking world ever produced.

The surprising result is that in this era of postmodernist claims about the blurring of the line between high culture and low, the gap between the one and the other appears to yawn ever-wider, with the particular standards held by celebrators of postmodernism – which can seem almost perversely irreconcilable with the crowd-pleasing stuff – a significant factor in that gap. (Indeed, skeptics might say that the suspicions I held about those standards as a high school student were not all that far off the mark, however simplistic the thinking behind those suspicions may have been.1) Also contributing to the gap is the declining level of print literacy strongly suggested by studies like the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.2 Perhaps, as in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, we are heading toward a post-literate age – but it certainly would not take anything quite so dramatic as that to make the literature of the past, and the present, a closed book for all but a small cultural elite, much as they were in bygone eras.

1. At a minimum the regard for literary history does privilege older works; the interest taken in literary puzzles, in experimental prose and poetry, and works requiring complex explication does privilege difficult works; and the preference for character, style and theme over plot and action does mean that Capital "L" literature is unlikely to read like a Clive Cussler novel.
2. According to this study only thirteen percent of the adult population of the U.S. was "proficient" at such basic tests of literacy and numeracy as comparing the opinions set forth in two editorials, reading a table of information about blood pressure, age and health, or calculating the price per ounce of an item in the supermarket. Coping with Shakespeare is, of course, far more demanding.

They Live, A Generation On

Over at Hero Complex, director John Carpenter recently speaking about his 1988 cult classic They Live, remarked that
the movie was just a cry in the dark against Reaganism and Thatcherism. There was nothing particularly special about it — it was just my rage about what had happened to the culture, which is not shared by a lot of people. A lot of people thought everything was great – 'Let's make some more money.'
And contrary to what might have been hoped, the decade never ended, all of it "still going on" so that the "film seems prescient."

Recently reading Kevin Phillips' The Politics of Rich and Poor I was again reminded how common it was at the time for critics to see the decade as some aberration, and to imagine that a reaction against capitalism-run-amok was around the corner. However, the U.S. instead saw one neoliberal administration after another, the twelve years of Reagan-Bush followed by Clinton, Clinton by Bush II, Bush II by Obama, while the picture was much the same elsewhere in the world, and what appeared aberrant has come to seem the norm - while artists became less prone to challenge the prevailing sensibility. The press reports a few years back about a possible remake of the 1988 film suggested that it would lack the original's satirical teeth, something that also appears to be the case with the remake of another satirical '80s science fiction film, Robocop, currently expected in theaters next summer.

Friday, November 30, 2012

What is Literature?

In an earlier post I argued that there was nothing in the nature of genre fiction to categorically exclude it from the body of work dubbed "literary." Looking back on it, however, it seemed that some elaboration of what, exactly, this contentious word "literature" means.

Where this discussion is concerned the word may be said to refer to texts, usually but not exclusively fiction (e.g. poetry, prose works like short stories and novels, dramatic works like plays), which are identified by the relevant experts (professional critics, from the Academy to the review pages) as such on the grounds of outstanding form and/or content, and which accordingly comprise the written, verbal portion of a society's "high culture."

Of course, this raises the question of what qualifies as "outstanding" form and content, what exactly a writer must be good at to win such accolades. The standard, of course, varies immensely with time and place, and certainly has been a subject of well-documented debate throughout modern history. Indeed, that history can be seen as a record of such debates, typically reflecting broader conflicts in society (the Romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationalism, for instance), and new developments in thought (like the impact of psychoanalysis on early twentieth century literature), as well as more "purely" aesthetic concerns.

Enter the Moderns
It seems useful to start with the attitudes of the present. It seems fairly obvious that the tendency in the last century or so has been to esteem conspicuous technical accomplishment (complex narrative structures, stylized prose, etc.) over straightforward storytelling. Where content is concerned, works dubbed literary tend to emphasize character over plot and action, the author's engaging with Important Themes or conveying a sense of "felt life" over "mere" entertainment. The realistic is favored over the fantastic, the everyday over the sensational or exotic, as these things are perceived by the critic making the judgment. (Joe Lansdale made a case for the merits of Robert Howard as compared with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Few but confirmed Howard fans are likely to give it serious consideration.) The serious is preferred to the comic (though the comic has hardly been excluded, as the status of writers like Evelyn Waugh demonstrates). And the doings of grown-ups are more likely to be appreciated by critics than those of the young (the difference in the protagonists' ages certainly one reason for the comparative standings of Romeo and Juliet and King Lear).

Modernist novels about the love lives of discontented middle-aged persons of means just so happen to fit these criteria perfectly (so that someone making a survey of twentieth century British or American literature can easily feel as if they are reading about little but that).

Postmodernist Literature
One can go into greater detail where the last half century or so has been concerned, the work accorded the most prestige in those decades distinctively postmodernist literature--which is to say, literature expressive of the postmodernist turn of mind.1 Here the skepticism of the postmodernist philosopher extends to the conventional view of art as a way of making sense of the mess that is existence, that activity instead depicted as illusory or subverted through such devices as the use of unreliable narrators, fragmented narrative structures, and disruptions of not merely cultural boundaries (like the distinction between "high" and "low" culture), but "consensus" reality (as with abrupt intrusions of the paranormal, or historical anachronism, into the course of a story)--tendencies evident in such works as Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five or Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon.1 Just as in our politics, there has also been a heavy stress on identity here (exemplified, perhaps, by the work of Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon), so that along with ontology (approached by way of the "reality games" described above), it is one of postmodernism's principal themes.2 And in the end, just as postmodernist philosophy's sense of irony reduces it to a parlor game, so does this go for "postmodernist literature," in which a text is likely to not be about anything but an author's game with the reader, a tendency reflected in the prominence of metafiction (writing about writing) and pastiche (homage to and parody of other works, rather than engagement with life) in postmodernist writing.3

It is, of course, not a very postmodernist thing to look at one work and deem it better than another (and certainly to esteem the "originality" that postmodernists dismiss), but the innovativeness or skill with which one postmodernist author or another works in these ways, with these subjects, nonetheless wins them distinction--while authors who work in more "old-fashioned" ways, or with themes other than the fashionable ones, have generally got less acclaim. That is not to say that such authors do not exist in the upper echelons of the literary world--but it is worth remembering that Jonathan Franzen's eschewing postmodernism for realism and social criticism in his more recent novels has been sufficient to draw widespread commentary about their anomalousness.

Reflecting Upon the Canon
Where older literature is concerned, critics (mostly) accept the received judgment of tradition, but pay special attention to work that enjoys a prominent place in literary history--for instance, because it appears to have been a turning point (like the contributions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions or Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther to Romanticism), or exemplifies or epitomizes an earlier literary school or tradition (like the satires of Jonathan Swift). Claims are also made for writers and works which have purportedly "withstood the test of time," retaining their appeal and cultural significance despite changes of taste (as with the plays of William Shakespeare).

It is worth remembering, however, that the older works in the canon also gain or lose in esteem in line with the concerns prevailing at the moment (Virginia Woolf gaining it as Sinclair Lewis, whom Woolf had rather admired, lost it), while works which retain high status (like Shakespeare's plays) are likely to be reread in the light of contemporary concerns (as with the absurdist take on King Lear, the existentialist interest in Hamlet, and more recently, the postcolonial emphasis of writing and teaching about The Tempest). It is worth remembering, too, that the natural interest of literary scholars in the history of their subject makes old but artistically marginal works seem worthy of examination (trashy Elizabethan revenge plays or nineteenth century dime novels, for instance).

One may argue with the criteria, which are far removed from what most of that already small minority of people who read for pleasure typically look for from books. One may argue, too, with the ways in which these standards have been applied--as many fans of "genre" work do, feeling that this slights many worthy works. However, the point is that they do exist, and an understanding of them is crucial to any serious debate about the issue.

1. While less evident outside of "highbrow" literature, much of this appears to have filtered down even into "middlebrowish" work--the avoidance of the third-person omniscient viewpoint in particular having come to seem like a "rule."
2. The intrusions of the paranormal into the normal, the disregard for generic boundaries (including the boundary between speculative fiction and other genres), the anachronistic treatment of history, all constitute occasions where speculative elements find their way into literary work--and thus the significant exceptions to the preference for realism.
3. The influence of postmodern thought in these respects would seem to have been reinforced by a number of other factors, like an increased concern with the possibilities of language itself as electronic media supplant print (which is to say, the things which a novel can do that films cannot), and the convenient fodder that hard-to-read books provide for learned articles and books--the publication of which makes the works in question more likely to be taught and studied.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reading Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith

Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Arrowsmith in 1926. The book is not as funny as, for instance, Babbitt (1922), let alone Elmer Gantry (1927). (I find that the comedy in Lewis's novels, like those of Eric Ambler, is directly proportionate to the protagonist's capacity for blatant stupidity.) Nonetheless, like all his best work, it still rings true nearly a century later.

Where in those two other books Lewis wrote about middle-class life and organized religion, here he took on medicine and science by way of the career of doctor and microbiologist Martin Arrowsmith.

In contrast with fiction's default mode of presenting effortlessly ultracompetent and omnicompetent Mary Sues and Marty Stus living out Edisonade adventures, Lewis writes, compellingly, of the sheer effort Arrowsmith makes, and the gaps in his knowledge he only discovers when properly getting down to work.

When this accomplished medical school graduate finally embarks on a serious career of research he finds himself giving up "three or four hours wholesome sleep each night to grind over matters which everyone is assumed to know, and almost everyone does not know"--like algebra. And when he does get around to undertaking scientific work, it proves time-consuming and grinding and frequently nerve-wracking, any pretension to inhuman, infallible meticulousness absent. The struggle to discern the order within the mess that is nature is apparent, and the results not always cut and dried. On top of that, there are institutional politics to think of--patrons to be placated, clashes between the imperatives of scientific inquiry and careerism--and at the climax in which his protagonist confronts an outbreak of plague on a Caribbean island, between methodological rigor and medical ethics.

The result is perhaps the most convincing and compelling portrait of the actual practice of science I have ever encountered in fiction.

As Arrowsmith makes extensive and effective use of scientific detail (courtesy of the considerable input of microbiologist Paul de Kriuf), and hinges on a fictional discovery rooted in then-contemporary science, this Pulitzer Prize winner can also be read as a work of science fiction which critics have simply not bothered to label as such.

Naturally one wonders why this novel has so often been overlooked by historians of the genre. I suppose it is a reflection of the unfortunate extent to which the novels of Nobel Laureate Lewis have been overlooked in an age which equates Important Literature with Modernist experimentation, and as much as ever, is uneasy with satire of this type, which offers in place of postmodern equivocations audacious social criticism of a sort discomfiting to vested interests and established mores. Jonathan Swift and Voltaire are distant enough to be safely read today (Voltaire's hostiltiy to the Church, perhaps, apart), but Lewis still has bite, George Babbitt and Elmer Gantry and Berzelius Windrip being all too clearly with us almost a century on.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Of Alternate Literary History: Jack London's The Assassination Bureau

Jack London's novel The Assassination Bureau is about the moral dilemmas facing a group of anarchists who contract out their services as assassins to clients whose motives they deem just. He did not complete the book, and it was in fact not finished and published until 1963--almost half a century later.

Naturally, it is unmentioned in discussions of the early history of the spy story, but I find myself wondering what might have been. The earlier development of the genre was overwhelmingly the work of British writers, and its initial, principal and defining tradition from Kipling, Childers and company on (to quote Julian Symons) was "conservative, supporting authority, making the assertion that agents are fighting to protect something valuable." By and large it was pop entertainment and a vehicle for nationalistic and militaristic propaganda (though Kim certainly enjoys a well-deserved status as a work of literature, as do Joseph Conrad's forays into the genre, while G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday likewise commands respect as "something more").

Yet in The Assassination Bureau there was an American spy novel which was unabashedly leftist and anti-militarist in its politics (enough so as to make a politically faithful film an impossibility, just as was the case with the graphic novel V for Vendetta, and for much the same reason), while also being exceptionally witty (its urbane humor surprising me as a reader who'd previously known London as the author of books like The Call of the Wild), decades before Eric Ambler came along. That London was at the time already well-known and influential made it that much more likely that, had the book been completed and published at the time, it would have been recognized.1

All that being the case, the possibility seems to me an interesting might-have-been of literary history, one that might have made the lineage of the spy story quite a different thing from what it is today.

1. The movie--which might reasonably be regarded as proto-steampunk--left the political principles of the bureau much more abstract, and played out as a Bond film in Belle Epoque period costume, complete with Diana Rigg as Bond girl, and Telly Savalas as the Bond villain (the exact roles they played in that same year's On Her Majesty's Secret Service).

On Bond Bashing

Just like every other comparable pop cultural phenomenon (Star Wars, or Star Trek, for instance) James Bond has rather a large army of rather vociferous detractors, more than usually vocal at the time of a new addition to the series.

In Bond's case the detractors have two arguments. The first is that the franchise simply does not do the things it is known for particularly well; that the action is mediocre, the sexuality tepid, the "sophistication" shallow and unconvincing (a case Stephen Marche made on the Esquire blog a few days ago). The second is a condemnation of the sociopolitical content of the series (a tradition begun even before the release of the first film by, ironically enough, Paul Johnson, in his review of the novel Dr. No, "Sex, Snobbery and Sadism," and continued up to our time in pieces like Ian Dunt's analysis of Skyfall for Politico).1 The critic in this case charge that the content of the films is racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, imperialist, and generally reactionary.

There is more than something to both criticisms. Some of the Bond films do leave something to be desired as action movies, too goofy or flabby or derivative (like The Man With the Golden Gun, or A View to a Kill, or Die Another Day) to really work well on that level. And especially after the 1960s, there were likely to be not just other action movies (for instance, war movies or Westerns), but really comparable action movies (movies set in our contemporary world or something like it) which were fresher, grander in scale, harder-edged or simply more finely crafted than the latest Bond installment in any given year - with the Bond films often imitating the successes of other unrelated movies (as seen in The French Connection's influence on Live and Let Die, or Jaws' influence on The Spy Who Loved Me), to say nothing of their own past successes (Diamonds Are Forever reworking Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me reusing the formula of You Only Live Twice). At the same time the films' much-vaunted sexuality came to seem at once unsubtle and tame, porn movie-casual in the frequency and manner of its incidence, and PG in the restraint of its presentation (a common enough combination in '60s cinema that today seems surreal). And there is little disputing the extent to which the image of Bond's sophistication remains rooted in an association with brand names (like Savile Row and Aston Martin) or anachronistic images of the moneyed at play (like black tie wear for a night at the casino, which already seemed comically out of date in Diamonds Are Forever).

Equally, while the excesses of postmodernist, identity-oriented analysis have done much to muddle cultural criticism by making anything and everything seem like exactly the same cesspool of oppressive ideology (often through a misreading of the texts in question), one hardly has to go to such extremes to find the politics of the Bond films problematic.2 Ian Fleming's view of the world certainly had its idiosyncracies (the element of irony in his conservatism, an ecological consciousness that appears ahead of its time, the hints of a progressive streak in his essay "If I Were Prime Minister"), but there is no denying that he possessed many of the prejudices common to men of his generation and social background, and that these made overt appearance in his fiction (including pointed remarks about the working class and women, a patronizing attitude toward Blacks, and plots reflective of Cold War-era paranoia about the left). Certainly the filmmakers strove to depoliticize the material from the start, downplaying the Cold War and leaving the books' more troubling dialogue out of the scripts, but instances where this was handled imperfectly aside (Bond's telling Quarrel to fetch his shoes in Dr. No, for instance), there may have been an extent to which the issues were not totally eradicable. Bond, despite being a representative of a national intelligence outfit, often acted as a global policeman, frequently displaying a cavalier attitude toward the sovereignty and laws of other countries, with all this implied about Britain's place in the world, and about other nations and peoples (invariably, the sources of villainy, another issue for Bond's detractors). There was, too, the problem that even while Bond's missions tended to marginalize real-world political conflicts, there was an acceptance of these conflicts as a valid reason for the Secret Service's being (at least, until Quantum of Solace, which pointed up the limited extent to which they could eschew orthodoxy). And so on.

Yet, there is little question that some of these criticisms can seem disproportionate. What seems silly to some in the treatment of the action and sex is to others exactly what appeals about the films - Deborah Lipp making that case particularly well in The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book - and at any rate, most can concede that the post-'60s films had their ups as well as their downs. As to their politics, most of what might reasonably be criticized is less some quirk of the Bond films than a matter of the action genre as a whole, where there has been many a worse offender. For instance, has Bond been more arrogantly imperial than the Secret Service agents in Vantage Point? More classist, racist or aggressively nationalistic than the similarly high-living Iron Man (an Edisonade character updated for the twenty-first century, with all that genre's ideological baggage intact)? My impression has been that Bond has actually been less troubling in these ways than those other characters - though Bond's antics have attracted far more comment.

This difference in response warrants an explanation. One possibility is the long continuity of the film series, which may cause some critics to closely associate even the latest Bond films with the content of the earlier films. This may have skewed perceptions so that even as Vicky Allan wrote quite correctly of the "feminization" of the Bond series, others wrote about it as if it had not changed an iota in fifty years. It may also be the case that Britain's post-imperial status has made observers more acutely conscious of, for instance, what Bond's professional conduct says about the country's place in the world than they have been when watching Hollywood action fare starring American characters, globally deployed and engaged U.S. military and intelligence forces regarded as a given. (Putting it another way, the behavior of Iron Man may go unremarked because we take the idea of an American operating this way so much more for granted.) And of course, there is the fact that writers in general have a tendency to tread well-beaten paths, many a writer making the case against Bond precisely because so many others have already done it during the past six decades.

There is one last matter after these, namely the cachet Bond still enjoys in British pop culture, which, strictly speaking, is not paralleled in the U.S. or anywhere else. Consider the British grosses of the last four Bond films: Die Another Day ($59 million), Casino Royale ($106 million), Quantum of Solace ($81 million) and Skyfall ($118 million and counting). The numbers are especially striking given that the British market is roughly a fifth the size of that of the United States. Factoring that in it appears that at the British box office even Die Another Day and Quantum of Solace made the kind of money the series has not seen in the U.S. since Thunderball (equivalent to about $400 million in the American market today), while Casino Royale and Skyfall (each the biggest hit of its year, something no Bond film ever managed in the U.S.) went beyond this to earn Avengers-style money (equal to $600 million in the U.S. market circa 2012).3 It is as if, for the Bond series, at the British box office, the '60s never ended - a fact which does much to explain both the predominance of British writing about the character, and of course, the sheer exasperation of British critics like Simon Winder, aghast at the fact that 007 is still so prominent when, in his view, the character is not only a legacy of the neuroses of a moment long since passed, but numerous other franchises do the same thing so much better.

1. Paul Johnson's later right-wing politics and personal predilections aside, it is worth recalling that he was to become a close adviser of Margaret Thatcher - who appeared as a character in 1981's For Your Eyes Only (played by actress Janet Brown).
2. The efforts of both Jeremy Black and Simon Winder in this area, notably, benefit considerably as a result of their eschewal of these approaches.
3. Die Another Day was only the third-biggest hit of 2002 in Britain, but it still beat both Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones, and Spiderman, while doing more than three times the business of XXX - a far cry from how the movie performed in the United States (where Spiderman earned $400 million and Star Wars $300 million to Die's $160 million, while XXX did almost as well with $140 million). In 2008, Quantum of Solace was again third in its year, but still beat Indiana Jones, Hancock and Iron Man, though all three of those movies performed far better than Quantum in the U.S. (Indy and Iron Man breaking $300 million each, Hancock breaking $200 million to Bond's $168 million in that market). The data on the performance of these films comes from Box Office Mojo, which has systematic box office data for Britain going back to 2002.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Has Quantum of Solace Been Overcriticized?

At IndieWire Oliver Lyttleton recently offered his list of the five worst Bond films. Unsurprisingly Moonraker, Die Another Day and Licence to Kill were all there, the first two especially being standard on such lists (with the third film also frequently eliciting strong feelings, negative as well as positive). Quantum of Solace was there too, a more recent addition to these listings.

Seeing such reactions I have found myself wondering if Quantum has not been overcriticized. The film had its weaknesses, the action less overwhelming than one might have hoped (especially given the massive $230 million budget), the tone one of Licence to Kill-like grimness. I imagine many were also disappointed by the relationship between Bond and Camille Montes, which did not head in the accustomed direction (though few major critics have been sufficiently un-p.c. to say so).

Still, Quantum was better paced than the bloated Casino, and the dynamics between Bond and the principal Bond girl apart, was to me much more impressive as an attempt to combine the old elements with new ones. And if it was lacking in flash and humor and glamour and fun - wasn't that what critics and audiences were supposedly demanding? Certainly if one was looking for grit in their spy adventures (as supposedly everyone is these days), there it was in abundance - in the decidedly un-touristy Haitian and Bolivian backdrops, in a plot far more substantive than those of the much-praised Jason Bourne films, not least in its featuring a villain who could have come out of a Greg Palast investigation.

But that may have been part of the problem. For all the alleged hunger for the different, the substantive and the "dark and gritty" the critics claim to have, many of them reacted much like the low-IQ lout who yells "BORING!" the second anyone mentions something about politics or the economy in their presence - just as also happened in the frenzy of over-criticism that was the reaction to The Phantom Menace. ("How dare George Lucas use a term like 'trade embargo' in a Star Wars movie!") This is often no more than the small-minded stupidity that it appears to be, but it can also be a veiled way of criticizng a work's political content (which is the way critics tend to do this sort of thing, since they are supposed to be "above" such "pettiness").

Julian Symons wrote in his critical study of the detective story, Bloody Murder, that there are
two traditions in the spy story . . . The first is conservative, supporting authority, making the assertion that agents are fighting to protect something valuable. The second is radical, critical of authority, claiming that agents perpetuate, and even create, false barriers between "us," and "them."
What he did not point out there is that the conservative, orthodox tradition prevails in the popular, crowd-pleasing thriller, as it has from Childers to Clancy, while the critical tradition is the preserve of highbrows who may occasionally pop up on bestseller lists, but generally do not command that sort of following - the Graham Greenes, the John Le Carrès. There are exceptions; certainly in the 1970s, a period when anti-Establishment feeling was especially intense and widespread, a critical element turned up in popular fare, but even there, as in the novels of James Grady or Robert Ludlum, it tended to be of a limited kind, the bad guys rogues of an otherwise upstanding organization or somesuch. This is certainly the case with the Bourne films, as compared with a movie like Syriana (another Matt Damon starrer that made just a fraction of that other film series' grosses).

However, here was a James Bond movie that, in parts at least, played like Syriana. Admittedly the blend of fantasy with realistic critique this entailed was an uneven one, as commentary as well as entertainment. Certainly from the standpoint of the left, what the spies in that movie were up to was not some aberration but standard operating procedure, and not limited corruption that a brave insider can root out, but the way the System works - while the fact that the day was saved by a heroic outsider (the Bolivians who resisted the attempt to privatize Bolivian water supplies in real life just a few years earlier nowhere to be found) was also displeasing. In other words, the shift of the series to the left did not go far enough, and could not have, within the framework of the James Bond series, given what British intelligence has really done historically, the film's need to have 007 save the day, the series' need to have him reconciled with his boss and his Service before the credits roll.

But many must have thought the opposite, that a Bond film which presented the CIA as bad guys, and even worse, one which painted not mad billionaires using their empires' resources in some zany scheme, but multinational corporations going about their ordinary business, as bad guys, went much too far, even when they didn't flatly say so. (The leftishness of movie critics, like that of Hollywood, goes only so far.) And the force of the reaction was such that the reports Bond 23 would round out a trilogy about Bond's battle with Quantum proved short-lived - apparently, to the great pleasure of those who so disliked the last film, who are loving the more conventional Skyfall.

Ultimately, the craving for "grit" in cinema seems, like so much else in critics' artistic wish lists, is a matter of taste in surface aesthetic rather than substance, few having much stomach for the real thing - like adolescents trying to show off how tough they are by saying tough-minded things in front of each other.

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