Why mainstream moviemaking has become a race to the bottom: everything but the blockbuster has been blotted out.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/30 10:00
David Denby has written one of the very best pieces I have read in a long time about what has happened to mainstream filmmaking. It's not that it's become a business (when has it ever not been one?), it's that the business is now one entirely of grabbing an audience by the throat and upending it and shaking it about until the money falls out of its pockets.
SF&F are always best when they're the voice of an individual observer's insight, not simply a reflection of market demands.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/29 10:00
One of Mies van der Rohe’s pupils, a girl, came to him and said, “I have difficulty studying with you because you don’t leave any room for self-expression.” He asked her whether she had a pen with her. She did. He said, “Sign your name.” She did. He said, “That’s what I call self-expression.” (John Cage, Silence [p. 269])
A while back I wrote how no author can help but express themselves. I have to revise that a bit in light of what I just wrote here: no author can help but express themselves as long as they have the means to do so.
I've repeated this before, and in enough variations, that you are almost certainly sick of it by now and want me to move on to something else. But I hammer on it often because it is one of the things I see being most consistently wrong with many of the budding (and not-so-budding) authors I run into. They equip themselves to create copies, or copies of copies, but not something where the unmistakable hint of the author's persona comes through. To use a phrase I always loathed, because it was almost always used in a thoughtless way, they are not expressing themselves.
John Cage's first book (and perhaps the only one of his you need) continues to stimulate, infuriate, and amuse over fifty years later.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/28 10:00
There are two ways to experience John Cage at this point in time: through his work, and through his writing. I had plenty of grounding in the first by way of Indeterminacy and Variations IV and so on by the time I encountered Silence, but even if I had none of those formative experiences I think Silence would have still cracked a good deal of the pavement under my feet.
It has been nearly twenty years since I first read Silence, and I keep it in the small cubby of books next to my desk that is reserved for a few select things I pull out and read whenever I need a moment to see things more clearly. It is the closest thing Cage ever created that amounted to a manifesto, even though he published it in 1961 and spent the next thirty or so years still evolving and mutating. It is the right of any artist, and any human being period, to re-invent himself continuously, but much if not all of what Cage put into Silence serves as an encapsulation of most everything he identified himself with throughout his career.
I am not sure Cage would have appreciated that. He was fondest of the living event, not the artifact that signified it. A recording of music was not for him music, but a recording—it was no more the music than the photo of the Grand Canyon was the place itself. Likewise, his words on paper were nothing more than photos, but all the same there are enough such photos in this book, and from such a diversity of angles, that it’s hard to read it and not feel a first-hand engagement with his way of seeing things. Silence has much of the experience of a performance of his work (bested only by actually attending one, that is), which means that it can be every bit as boring as the real thing—although as Cage once said, do something long enough and you’ll eventually find it’s not boring at all but very interesting.
We just upgraded to the new version of Movable Type, so things might be a little bumpy for a bit. Comments in particular are acting a tot strange. Bear with us. Update 9/27/2012 10:35: Looks like the comments problems are...By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/26 13:10
We just upgraded to the new version of Movable Type, so things might be a little bumpy for a bit. Comments in particular are acting a tot strange. Bear with us.
Update 9/27/2012 10:35: Looks like the comments problems are mostly fixed.
Tags: excuse our dust
The cost of conformity, explored in a ''Lord of the Flies''-style manga scenario.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/26 10:00
In my first years of reading about Japan I learned quickly to separate the sociological wheat from the pop-psychology chaff. Most anything I encountered originally in English about “conformity in Japanese society” was potted pop-psychology churned out in the 1980s, when fear of Japan buying out America rode high and books that purported to explain those inscrutable Japanese were being hustled out into airport bookstalls. (The big airport-reading trend now is neuroscience for businesspeople, which manages to be even more insulting to the intelligence of everyone involved than Yellow Panic For Dummies.)
I find the whole discussion of Japanese social conformity to be at least partly a red herring, because society is by definition a conformist enterprise. Most of us are conformist if only in that we do not kill the other guy because we know that if we do most everything we ourselves could draw on runs the risk of spontaneously collapsing. The idea that Japan puts greater pressure on people to fit in and work together seems borne less of perspective on the very tangible historical conditions that shaped such things, and more out of a need to contrast their straightlaced ways with more allegedly freewheeling ones elsewhere. It’s not that conformity doesn’t exist in Japan; it’s that most of how non-Japanese talk about the subject is unenlightening, sanctimonious b.s. designed to make anyone not Japanese feel like they dodged a sociological bullet.
This may seem like a loaded lead-in for a review of a manga—Keiko Suenobu’s Limit—but I cite it here as a lead-in for a story that, in its own pop-culture way, attempts to look at conformity in Japan from the perspective of a type most vulnerable to it: the schoolgirl. Limit’s main schoolgirl character is Konno, and in the opening pages she makes it clear that the ability to conform, to merge with the current and just drift along, is not something you do because you like it. It is simply a fact of life, a survival trait you either acquire and use to your advantage, or ignore at your own peril.
Fantasy, science fiction, or other? (Or multiple choice?)By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/25 10:00
[Ellen Datlow:] "Science fiction is an extrapolation of what's going on in the world…Fantasy is more about things that cannot be."
That definition felt far too lightweight for me, so here I go sticking my own fool neck out.
A long time ago -- this may still be whizzing around the 'net, for all I know -- I once said something like, "Science fiction is a mode of storytelling made possible by the scientific worldview."
How do we get out from under the shadow of our own idols?By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/22 10:00
A few notes on Stravinsky's landmark composition, a century down the road:
... what do the cruel “Rite” and the lofty Ninth have in common? Both have cast enormous shadows. “We live in the valley of the Ninth,” wrote Joseph Kerman, the musicologist and critic. “That we cannot help.”
I've written similar things about The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and all of the other shadow-casters that make writing original SF&F (or some hybrid of them, which is really what Star Wars is) that much more difficult. The authors, audiences, and publishers all see such titans as models to follow in every sense. It's a fantasy story, so it has to be a trilogy; it has to have these elements because that story also had them; and that story sold faster than the iPhone 5, so they must be doing something right; and so on.
We can't help but live in the shadow of such work. I don't want to give the impression being so overshadowed is wholly a bad thing, because the works in question are by and large not bad on their own. What's bad is how we let their shadow encompass and blot out so many other things. The LotR model for fantasy -- the Eurocentric, Campbellian-quest, Tolkien-flavored story -- has become the default mode, with everything else (I mention Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast often) shoved into the backseat, if not the glove compartment.
Any creator who finds himself working in a field that has such a shadow cast over it has a couple of responsibilities: to know the field, to know the shadow, and to know as much as possible about what lies outside of the shadow. The more work you do to get out from under that shadow, the more you stand a chance of showing others what else is possible as well. It's easy to simply read whatever else would be adjacent to your books on the shelf and call it a day, but that has to be treated as a starting point and not an endpoint.
I'm not sure we provide our creators with enough of the tools to do this. We teach them how to follow role models, but not always how to transcend them. It's not that we lack examples to follow, but that we follow them in the wrong ways and learn from them all the wrong lessons. The big lesson of Star Wars was not that you needed two cute robots (as all of its imitators were wont to do), but that you could take the swashbuckling adventures of the past and charge them with modern filmmaking technology. (We seem to have gotten stuck on that stage longer than we really needed, though.)
The last thing we need with SF is a "humanism" that doesn't have any actual humans in it.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/17 10:00
One of the books I've been keeping by the nightstand and dipping into a chapter at a time is The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, a series of conversations between Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda over a wide range of topics. Heady stuff; sitting and reading the whole thing through in one sitting would have the same congestive effect on the brain that gobbling a whole Whitman's Sampler would on the stomach. Like the box of chocolates, I've been sampling one morsel at a time. (Make a Forrest Gump joke at your own risk.)
Spam. Burp.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/11 10:58
I'm getting word a ton of spam emails are being blasted out from my site, possibly courtesy of an infected script somewhere. I'm aware of the problem and am working on it. The joys of running your own domain ...
Creative innovation vs. audience alienation.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/11 10:00
I keep making this joke about how I should write an essay entitled something like "How I Read 400 Bad Fantasy [or SF] Novels In One Year." (I think one of the contributors to the Again, Dangerous Visions compilation did in fact do something like that, which is where I suspect I got the name from. Anyone who can find additional details, please send them in. My copy of A,DV went missing ages ago and I'm too cheap to replace it because I keep thinking it'll turn up on me when I clean house.)
The joke, as with many jokes, has a grain of truth to it. A big part of why I wrote Summerworld was because I'd grown so disgusted with all the reigning clichés of fantasy, decided to systematically invert them, and use the alleged limitations provided by the systematic inversion as new forms of inspiration. If that sounds like a mouthful, try this: I stood the whole thing on its head and looked for what fell out of its pockets.
Ebook.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/10 10:00
I'm pleased to announce that after much wrangling, uploading, and banging on this-that-and-the-other, Summerworld is now available in the Amazon Kindle marketplace. Because of the way e-books work, it's taken some time to get it properly formatted and uploaded, but I think I finally have the worst problems overcome.
Versions for the iTunes bookstore and the Barnes & Noble Nook are also on the way; I'll post when those are up.
Read it, review it, recommend it.
The difference between "best" and "favorite" is often unconsciously blurred.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/09 10:00
Snobbism time. I've learned not to trust the tastes of people who describe, say, a book as "the best book I've ever read", or a movie using the same sloppy language.
I don't trust such pronouncements because all too often they tell me nothing about why the book, movie, etc. in question is any good. Anyone can say something is the best ever, when what they really mean is that it's a favorite, and for reasons that are entirely personal.
But ... I don't hold this against people for the most part. Most folks are not critics and do not train themselves to be critics, and I'm not surprised that most people don't want that crap job in the first place. You express opinions which few, if any, people agree with in the first place, attempt to introduce worthy work to largely indifferent audiences, and in the end don't even get paid for it. (The number of people I know who do get paid for such work, apart from being paid in copies, I could count on one hand with enough fingers left over to flash a peace sign. I am the index finger.)
End result, most of what people say about "best" and "worst" are essentially well-meaning prejudices, not attempts at genuine criticism. The problem is they are too easily misinterpreted by others as forms of criticism. Me included, by the way: I've done this more times than I can count, and I've only recently started to school myself out of it.
There are a few things I know I like which are not defensible or explicable. I couldn't tell you why a movie like I Love Maria leaves me in stitches -- it's some weird personal alchemy at work, for lack of a better way to put it. I know it isn't explicable, and so any talk of aesthetics on my part requires that I leave out mention of that outlier and many others in the same vein. And in the same vein, I could not tell you why other things just plain rub me the wrong way. (I "know" Heinlein is a valuable and important SF author, but something about most of his books just makes me not want to read them, and I have never figured out why.)
The business of separating your tastes from your powers of analysis is not something you can accomplish in a season, and there's good reason to believe it can only be done so far over the course of a lifetime. We all want to find reasons why our favorites are also the best, or why the things we call best are also our favorites. There may be no reason more complex than the fact that we make that connection on our own in the first place.
Back to the build-it-yourself PC, after years away.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/07 10:00
After much price-matching and sifting through parts lists, I've come to the conclusion I'm better off building a new machine for my particular price point than I am buying a pre-built system from the likes of D*ll or H*wl*tt-P*ck*rd. I wouldn't normally feel weird about this if I hadn't dug myself a hole some years back when building my own system.
The "liteature of ideas" doesn't just contain ideas; it embodies them.By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012/09/06 10:00
The "what ifs" people breathlessly talk about when they get into this sort of discussion [about SF vs. mainstream fiction as a literature of ideas] are the premises which drive SF stories, and aren't necessarily the themes they address - assuming the story actually addresses theme at all and doesn't just wallow in empty worldbuilding and pie in the sky speculation. It is true to say that SF is a "literature of ideas" if you take "idea" to mean "premises" - the critical acclaim in which SF stories are held often correlates strongly with how wild and out there their premises get. But there is no story in the world which doesn't offer premises. Science fiction isn't the exclusive literature of ideas; at most, it's the literature of freaky counterfactual premises.
The discussion was in general about SF as a literature of ideas, something I've touched on here before, and how mainstream litfic is no less suited to being the same sort of thing with the right approach.
The ideas in Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea are no less challenging than the ones in Frank Herbert's Dune; the packaging and delivery is what's most different. I suspect more people are attuned to reading the latter than the former if they must choose.
Take the test yourself: what's more interesting, a guy poking around some French town musing about the nature of his own existence, or a war over a desert planet with gigantic sandworms that secret the spice which drives the universe? (Okay, it depends on your definition of "interesting", of course, but you get the idea. Most people I know would pick Paul Atreides over Roquentin as someone worth reading about, but that doesn't mean Sartre wasted his time.)
Science fiction, rebooted.