— from "Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald's war on Midcult" by Louis Menand, from the Sept. 5, 2011 New Yorker
"People still use words like 'middlebrow' and 'kitsch' as terms of disapprobation, even if they don't remember the Marxist tree from which those apples long ago fell. This is because aesthetic preferences are always tied up with anxieties about social status. I can't help judging you by the novel you're reading on the plane or the wallpaper in your house. (You have wallpaper?) If we had no social invidiousness, we would probably have no art — or, at least, we would have a very different economy of art. People like to debate the merits of what they read and see and hear, and to pretend to think ill of those who differ. It's part of the game. The college freshman who declares herself a relativist in philosophy class by day will argue all night about whether Band X is better than Band Y."
— from "Browbeaten: Dwight Macdonald's war on Midcult" by Louis Menand, from the Sept. 5, 2011 New Yorker
"Drawing, I now think, need not be the bones of art, but skill must always be the skeleton of accomplishment. Without the one right tilt in true spatial time, there's nothing to see. And that's so even if the skill is cerebral, the time told abstract. Our (reluctant) admiration goes to people who can do things we can't. We know we can't do them when we try and fail.
"Art without accomplishment becomes a form of faith, sustained more by the intensity of its common practice than by the pleasure it gives to its adherents in private."
- from "Life Studies" by Adam Gopnik, in the June 27, 2011 issue of the New Yorker
GIBSON: Today I could write a version of Neuromancer where you'd see the quotidian naturalistic side, but it wouldn't be science fiction. With the fairly limited tool kit I had in 1981, I wouldn't have been able to do that, and, of course, I didn't know what it would be like.
INTERVIEWER: What was needed that you were missing?
GIBSON: I didn't have the emotional range. i could only create characters who have really, really super highs and super lows -- no middle. It's taken me eight books to get to a point where the characters can have recognizably complex or ambiguous relationships with other characters. In Neuromancer, the whole range of social possibility when they meet is, Shall we have sex, or shall I kill you? Or you know, Let's go rob a Chinese corporation -- cool!
- from the interview with William Gibson in the latest issue of the Paris Review. The magazine includes an interview with Samuel Delany that's quite good too.
"In real life, barbarians (and peasants) are the least free of men -- bound by tradition, ridden by caste, fettered by superstitions, riddled by suspicion and foreboding of whatever is strange. 'City air makes free,' was the medieval saying, when city air literally did make free the runaway serf. City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from subsistence farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs.
"Owing to the mediation of cities, it became popularly possible to regard 'nature' as benign, ennobling and pure, and by extension to regard 'natural man' (take your pick of how 'natural') as so too. Opposed to this fictionalized purity, nobility and beneficence, cities, not being fictions, could be considered as seats of malignancy and -- obviously -- the enemies of nature. And once people begin looking at nature as if it were a nice big St. Bernard dog for the children, what could be more natural than the desire to bring this sentimental pet into the city too, so the city might get some nobility, purity and beneficence by association?
"There are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimental ideas imply, at bottom, a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world's champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world's most voracious destroyers of wild and rural countryside."
-- from The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
One of my more embarrassing habits involves a compulsion to build personal top five lists, like a character out of High Fidelity. I even have a document full of lists on my iPhone, which I can bring out and tinker with whenever I can't sleep or am otherwise in need of distraction.
So what the hell. A few top fives.
Favorite Doctor Who episodes (all from the 2005 revival, because I haven't seen enough of the old show to pick favorites):
1. "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead"
2. "Human Nature"/"The Family of Blood"
3. "The Doctor's Wife"
4. "The Eleventh Hour"
5. "Vincent and the Doctor"
Favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
1. "Once More, With Feeling"
2. "The Body"
4. "Graduation Day"
Favorite Grant Morrison comic books:
1. The Invisibles, vol. 3, #1: "Glitterdammerung!"
2. All-Star Superman #6: "Funeral in Smallville"
3. Seven Soldiers of Victory: Mister Miracle #4: "Forever Flavored Man"
4. The Invisibles, vol. 1, #12: "Best Man Fall"
5. Animal Man #26: "Deus Ex Machina"
Favorite science fiction/fantasy short fiction:
1. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin
2. "The Lucky Strike" by Kim Stanley Robinson
3. "Fondly Fahrenheit" by Alfred Bester
4. "A Momentary Taste of Being" by James Tiptree Jr.
5. "The Situation" by Jeff VanderMeer
For me, science fiction begins with Isaac Asimov.
Before I picked up a copy of Foundation at the local Borders, I’d read other work in the genre (Dune, because of the video game and the movie; a few books by Arthur C. Clarke; and a healthy dose of young adult authors like Madeleine L’Engle and Bruce Coville), but Asimov was the gateway. When I was 10 or 11, I think I went crazy for him, reading all the Foundation books, then his other novels and collections, and finally, when those ran out, the anthologies that he’d edited. And it was through those anthologies that I became not just an Asimov fan, but a science fiction fan.
A few weeks ago, inspired in part by the great series of Foundation-related blog posts on io9, I decided to reread the Foundation Trilogy. I’m pretty sure that I’ve read individual stories during the past few years, say if I needed a distraction from a difficult book or if I was searching for inspiration while writing. But I don’t think I’d read the trilogy from beginning to end for more than a decade.
Of course, it’s dangerous to revisit books that you loved as a kid. There were bits and pieces that remained fresh enough in my memory that I knew I would enjoy the experience, but I wasn’t sure how forgiving I’d have to be of clunky writing, thin characterization, and the old-fashioned ideas about the future.
So how did the trilogy hold up? As well I’d hoped. It remains, for me, the purest distillation of the pleasures that Golden Age science fiction can offer. (Moreso than anything written by Heinlein, whose work I enjoy but don’t love.) And while I’m thrilled by all three books, it’s the first one, Foundation, that offers those pleasures in their simplest form. The basic Foundation story works best at the short story or novelette length of the earlier pieces -- just long enough to introduce a “psychohistorical” problem, throw in a few complications and possible solutions, then surprise you with the real answer. It’s like a mystery, but on a galactic scale.
The later stories are in many ways an improvement -- they have more space to develop their plots and characters -- but they lose some of the fun. In fact, the stories themselves acknowledge this change, with later characters looking back nostalgically at the early days of the Foundation, a time dominated by heroic men of action. (They’re action-oriented by Asimovian standards, anyway.)
In fact, my favorite story is the very first, “The Psychohistorians.” It was actually written after the rest of the trilogy, as a way to introduce the series when the magazine pieces were collected into book form. I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest of the stories, and its basic conflict is wrapped up in just a few pages. But this is where we get a real glimpse of Hari Seldon, the unseen architect of almost everything that follows, and one of Asimov's most memorable characters. We also get an extended tour of Trantor, a sort-of a warm up for Asimov’s great future-city novel The Caves of Steel -- but Trantor, having engulfed an entire planet, dwarfs other science fictional cities.
Most importantly, this is where Asimov really lays out the concept of the series, and for that reason, “The Psychohistorians” remains one of my great experiences with science fiction’s much-hyped “sense of wonder.” There’s the idea of psychohistory, the science that can predict human behavior on a mass scale (a concept that supposedly inspired Paul Krugman to go into economics, since it was the next best thing). There’s the Galactic Empire, which is disintegrating after 12,000 years. And there are the Foundations themselves, set up on the opposite sides of the galaxy, to follow a mysterious plan that may reduce the long period of chaos to a mere millennium. Like the best space opera, it’s huge in all the right ways.
"It has been said, by those who do not understand us well, that our museum is a form of escape. In a superficial sense, this is certainly true. When we enter the Barnum Museum we are physically free of all that binds us to the outer world, to the realm of sunlight and death; and sometimes we seek relief from suffering and sorrow in the halls of the Barnum Museum. But it is a mistake to imagine that we flee into our museum in order to forget the hardships of life outside. After all, we are not children, we carry our burdens with us wherever we go. But quite apart from the impossibility of such forgetfulness, we do not enter the museum only when we are unhappy or discontent, but far more often in a spirit of peacefulness or inner exuberance. In the branching halls of the Barnum Museum we are never forgetful of the ordinary world, for it is precisely our awareness of that world which permits us to enjoy the wonders of the halls. Indeed I would argue that we are most sharply aware of our town when we leave it to enter the Barnum Museum; without our museum, we would pass through life as in a daze or dream."
-- from "The Barnum Museum" by Steven Millhauser, reprinted in The Secret History of Fantasy.
Charles Yu's novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe has been getting lots of year-end attention, making the "best novel" lists for Time, Amazon.com, and others. I finished reading Alice's copy about a week ago, and I liked it, though the praise seems a little overstated -- if Time is only going to use one of its 10 slots for a science fiction book (yes, there are other novels on the list with fantastical elements), is Yu's really the best of the best?
Of course, this book seems guaranteed to set off a lot of my kneejerk warning signals. There's the metafictional title, with its suggestion that the author feels superior to regular old science fiction, a feeling reinforced by the pop art array of ray guns on the cover. There's the self-consciousness of naming the narrator Charles Yu. (It's hard for me to get too critical when I've written a story called "Anthony Ha Goes to Hell".)
And yet, most of it works. Within a few pages, the protagonist's name feels like a natural choice, not an affectation. (It helps that the character isn't Charles-Yu-the-author, but rather a parallel universe version of the same.) Yu deftly inserts an awareness of race and class into the book without making the book about race or about class (not that there would be anything wrong with that -- they're just not his main concerns). The plotting in the novel's second half is quite clever, tying the vectors of "Yu"'s self-discovery together with the time-loop plot in a way that feels satisfying, even moving.
And Yu uses his science fictional conceits and language to bring his characters to life in a new way, one that would have been less powerful in a realistic family novel. For example:
"Our house was a collection of silences, each room a mute, empty frame, each of us three oscillating bodies (Mom, Dad, me) moving around in our own curved functions, from space to space, not making any noise, just waiting, waiting to wait, trying, for some reason, not to disrupt the field of silence, not to perturb the delicate equilibrium of the system. We wandered from room to room, just missing one another, on paths neither chosen by us nor random, but determined by our own particular characteristics, our own properties, unable to deviate, to break from our orbital loops, unable to do something as simple as walking into the next room where our beloved, our father, our mother, our child, our wife, our husband, was sitting, silent, waiting but not realizing it, waiting for someone to say something, anything, wanting to do it, yearning to do it, physically unable to bring ourselves to change our velocities."
However, the language also points to the book's biggest flaw. Obviously, science fictional ideas can hold real metaphorical power, but they should be more than metaphors. To quote Scott Westerfeld on stories (and, um, zombies), "They don't just stand around 'being metaphors' whose sole purpose is to represent things in the real world; they eat the real world." In Yu's novel, virtually all the technological and fantastical armature serves some metaphorical purpose, and that makes the world seem thinner, more solipsistic, like it only exists to illuminate Charles Yu's inner life. For a novel that supposedly spans multiple universes and times, Yu's book feels awfully small.
One of my more obnoxious habits in college involved forcing my friends to watch things that they had no interest in, which usually meant episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly. At some pont I realized that I was being an inconsiderate jerk, and I don’t think I’ve been done it in years … until Friday, when I forced a jetlagged and inebriated Karan to watch an episode of Doctor Who. He endured it for about 20 minutes before finally declaring that he had to get some sleep.
I guess I’ve matured less than I thought. In fact, I suspect I haven’t matured at all -- my inner fanboy was always inside, waiting for the right time to remerge. There have been shows in the last few years that I’ve liked and recommended, but none of them has taken over my brain and heart the way Buffy did in the early ‘00s, and the way Doctor Who has now.
My route through the show’s long history has been convoluted. The hype (plus the plentiful Hugo Awards) finally tempted me to watch "The End of Time". That was the final special to feature David Tennant as the Doctor, and it served as the capstone on Russell T Davies’ hugely successful tenure as head writer, so it’s no surprise that it was a pretty bad place to jump in.
I tried again when the show returned in April with a new Doctor (Matt Smith) and a new showrunner (Steven Moffat, who wrote many of the most popular episodes of the Davies years). This time, I was hooked. I watched the premiere episode, “The Eleventh Hour”, over and over again, until I knew it by heart. The next two episodes weren’t quite as good, but they were fun enough to keep me going until I reached “The Time of Angels” and “Flesh and Stone”, a thrilling two-parter featuring Moffat’s famously scary aliens, The Weeping Angels. My devotion to the show, especially to the Moffat version, was cemented.
I haven’t ignored the older Who. I’ve dipped into the original incarnation (which ran from 1963 to 1989) by watching the initial “Unearthly Child” storyline, the introduction of the show’s most famous monsters in “The Daleks”, and one of its most famous episodes, “Genesis of the Daleks”. (Now that I’ve read Kim Newman’s enjoyably opinionated British Film Institute book on Doctor Who, I expect I’ll be watching a lot more classics.) And I’ve also been getting together with friends to catch up on the Davies revival -- so far we’ve made it through the first two seasons, and I expect we’ll start season three in the next week.
After all that, I have to say that Moffat’s version still comes closest to my ideal version of the show. It’s consistently inventive, exciting, funny, and optimistic -- not only does it realize the potential of Who, but it also captures the fun that Star Trek aimed for (and occasionally achieved). A couple weeks ago I showed “The Eleventh Hour” to my friend Jeffrey (it was consensual!). He had seen an earlier episode of the show (from the way he described it, I’m guessing it was “Bad Wolf”) and come away unimpressed. This time, when the credits rolled, he said, “Wow, I didn’t realize Doctor Who was this good.”
And I still can't watch "Vincent and the Doctor" without getting a little teary-eyed. (Partly for personal reasons. But still.)
It’s not perfect. “The Hungry Earth” and “Cold Blood” have a few exciting moments, but are mostly tedious and preachy. And when you finish a Moffat-penned episode, you sometimes realize that his surface cleverness has hidden some thin plotting or characterization -- the sharp twists and breathless pace make the season finale “The Big Bang” a joy to watch, and the against-all-odds happy ending is movingly staged. But boy, a lot of the time travel mechanics make no sense at all when you think about them. (You can read more about the logical gaps on io9.)
There’s a cliche that the first Doctor you watch becomes your favorite, and that’s held true for me. The Doctors I’ve seen -- William Hartnell, Tom Baker, Christopher Eccleston, and David Tennant -- have all been fine, but Matt Smith does the best job of being convincingly (and entertainingly) alien without seeming like he’s putting on a big show. In “The Lodger,” when he’s forced to share an apartment in contemporary England, his fish-out-of-water-ness is obvious -- and hysterical -- in every single frame, even when he’s just standing around.
The show has had its ups and downs, and I’m sure they will continue. Whenever my faith wavers, I remember the end of “The Eleventh Hour": Amy Pond looks equal parts terrified and delighted to discover that all her dreams have come true. She throws the switch, the big blue time machine makes the familiar wheezing noise, and she heads off with the Doctor to “anywhere you want, any time you want, one condition: It has to be amazing.”
I’ve been a big fan of the Harry Potter film series, especially the David Yates-directed installments, but I had mixed feeling about the latest movie, Deathly Hallows Part 1. The visuals were genuinely amazing, and it built an strong sense of dread in its first hour. But like everyone else, I thought the story dragged.
There were just too many plot coupons. I was occasionally confused about exactly what the heroes were trying to accomplish in a particular scene, and when one of them mentioned the number of magical doohickeys they still had to destroy, I thought, “Oh my God, how am I going to sit through that?”
I’ve been thinking more about my response since listening to the /Filmcast episode on Deathly Hallows, in which host David Chen delivers a persuasive rant about how the series has failed to deliver any films that really work as films, rather than as fan service for people who like the books. I am, of course, a big fan of the books (I read Sorcerer’s Stone through Prisoner of Azkaban in a single weekend, then pulled all nighters to finish each of the subsequent books), so I wondered: Is that me? Am I just enjoying the chance to see my favorite scenes from the books acted out?
Last night I rewatched the best movie in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and it really was as good as I remembered. The design and cinematography may be the most impressive I’ve seen in a fantasy film, Gary Oldman gives Sirius Black real pathos, and the script is compelling and tight.
In many ways, I think Order of the Phoenix is the perfect book for a cinematic adaptation. It has a strong plot -- the conflict between Harry and the Ministry of Magic provides more complexity than the standard good vs. evil of Harry vs. Voldemort -- but also plenty of flaws that encourage a filmmaker to offer their own take. Even J.K. Rowling has admitted that she would have probably shortened the book if she’d had more time to work on it (it’s the longest in the series). The film isn’t a radical reinterpretation, but the script is streamlined, not just eliminating minor plot threads but also condensing or replacing multiple scenes with montages and fun visual conceits.
Apparently, even before starting the film, Yates said that his goal was to make the shortest Potter film yet. I think that pays off in Order of the Phoenix’s pacing, and the way it feels like a “real movie”. I wish Yates had taken a similarly iconoclastic approach to Deathly Hallows, rather than following Rowling’s overly relaxed storytelling.
And yet … in a column about about an (apparently terrible) comics adaptation of The Alchemist, critic Douglas Wolk offers a great distillation of what we should look for when a novel or other work is adapted: “If you adapt a work from one medium to another, there has to be something it can gain from the new medium to make up for what it will inevitably lose from its original medium.”
Judged by that standard, Deathly Hallows Part 1 does just fine. Think of the fast, thrilling magic battle in a late-night London coffee shop. Or the beautifully awkward dance between Harry and Hermione. Or Rhys Ifans’ funny, fumbling, and finally oddly moving performance as Xenophilius Lovegood. And if none of that is enough to win you over, take solace in the fact that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is going to be amazing.