Elysium is one of those movies that feels like it ends just when it's really getting interesting. That's not something I wanted to say about a film from the man who gave us District 9, one of the few recent SF movies that despite its action-ride ingredients actually felt like a science fiction movie and not just a tarted-up shoot/beat-'em-up. Neil Blomkamp's successor to District 9 has a larger budget (although, paradoxically, it doesn't feel like a much larger movie) and more explicitly political ambitions, but in ways that work against it. The earlier film was allegory; this one is just a tract, and a not especially insightful one at that.
Matt Damon plays Max, an ex-con factory grunt in a horribly overcrowded future Earth, where robot policemen administer impersonal beatings and Max's parole officer is a dingy computer. The rich and powerful have retreated to Elysium, a massive and idyllic orbital colony that looks like one giant Syd Mead painting. There, they enjoy near-immortality thanks to medical technology they refuse to share with the rest of the world. One day Max suffers an industrial accident that gives him a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and so he takes a suicide mission from an old war buddy of his in the underground. If he helps them take Elysium, they'll let him heal himself in one of Elysium's doc-bots — a favor he'd also like to grant his girlfriend's little girl, if possible.Read more
Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now. The great dystopian novels and the scary developments they portray convince us of things that are all too possible in the society we live in, if we hadn’t spotted them for ourselves. The most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.
The review in question is of Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea, which I haven't yet read but which I understand is in something of the same general vein as books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road — an ugly future as depicted by an author nominally best known for avowedly literary work. But this line from the review caught my eye, especially the bit about how the most shocking of dystopias is the first one we run into.Read more
What I termed the serial thinking or the general serial form in the fifties, or what I designated as musical through-organisation then, has by no means been forgotten or become superfluous. Rather, it has been integrated into a more comprehensive concept: integrated into the musician's mental armament. It is now applied in such differentiated areas, that it can no longer be identified only in the domain of material (or in the characteristics of the sound). Today such terms as serialist, or through-organisation or general serial form are applied to entire style aggregates. It is possible. for example, to imagine the conception of modulating an African style with a Japanese style, in the process of which the styles would not be eliminated in order to arrive at a supra-style or a uniform international style - which, in my opinion, would be absurd. Rather, during this process, the original, the unique, would actually be strengthened and in addition, transformations of the one into the other, and above all two given factors in relation to a third would be composed. The point is to find compositional processes of confrontations and mixtures of style - of intermodulations - in which styles are not simply mixed together into a hodge podge, but rather in which different characters modulate each other and through this elevate each other and sharpen their originality. In my opinion, that is the problem since circa 1960, not only in the field of music.
Emphasis mine. Hymnen was composed between 1966 and 1967, which (in my view) was at the tail end of the time when the high arts were still taken seriously by laypeople as a place where genuinely new and interesting things could happen. The problem is of course not the arts themselves, but us, our own stagnancy, but that's its own argument for later.Read more
We live in an age of invented, alternate worlds. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts, the dystopic universe of “The Hunger Games,” the places where vampires and zombies prowl: These places are having their day. Yet in spite of the vogue for fantasy fiction, in the finest of literature’s fictional microcosms there is more truth than fantasy. In William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and, yes, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez, imagination is used to enrich reality, not to escape from it.
I never got around to writing about this before (an impending move will knock all thoughts of "getting caught up" clean out of your fool head), but Mr. Rushdie echoes one of my own long-running sentiments with this one. It's not that the vampires, zombies, and hunger games are lesser for being fantastic, but that any of those things can be made greater by dint of a more complete understanding of the world we do have.
It's not the fantastic alone that enthralls us, but the way we connect with an identifiable human being who is also reeling in the face of that fantasy. It's not Middle-earth that enthralls us alone, but the process of Frodo and Bilbo Baggins encountering it. It's not the Death Star, but Luke Skywalker going up against it. Not Panem, but Katniss; not the amusement park, but Chihiro. It's the human that's the most real of all, and real in the most important way.Read more
Steven Savage has talked about Robinson Meyer's piece in The Atlantic about how looking to SF for ideas about the future via things like the Google X lab was a mistake. Steve's piece is worth reading, and he invited me to draft my own response — something I wasn't even sure was possible given how thorough his own essay was. So, while I'll respond on kind, consider this more of a string quartet to his symphony.
The big question I would pose to Meyer would be this: if looking to SF for a vision of the future is a bad idea, can we specify which SF he might be thinking of?Read more
Earlier this month I swung by one of the local used bookstores and snapped up Robert Silverberg's Hawksbill Station for cheap. SIlverberg is one of those SF authors who doesn't get much credit — he was more workmanlike and dependable than brilliant, and I kept getting him confused with that other Robert (Sheckley), whose acid humor set him a cut above the pack. But Silverberg was also quite good — The Man in the Maze, for instance, is a great little book, and Dying Inside is one of the few times an author has crossed freely from "SF" to "literary" territory without tripping on the threshold in either direction.
The idea behind Station is pretty neat: political radicals in America's future are exiled into the Cambrian era rather than executed, and have established a colony of sorts that's teetering on the edge of collapse. What I found most interesting about Station is two things about SF generally that pop out at me more and more: the way it's always dominated by the moment of time it was produced in, and the way casual sexism makes a lot of otherwise-good work from SF's earlier years hard to read.Read more
I feel bad admitting to people that there was a time in my life when I stopped reading SF entirely for something like years on end, despite having been steeped in it as a kid. It's a little like confessing you haven't eaten in that restaurant since you got slightly sick in there ten years ago, despite them having changed the staff and remodeled the place.
I'm willing to accept some of this as a product of being attached to whatever it was I grew up with (Lem, Dick, Sturgeon, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Tiptree Jr., Delaney, Zelazny, Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, etc.), but also a matter of the way my expectations changed for it. A lot of what I encountered of SF as a kid was escapism, but the stuff that really stuck with me, that convinced me SF was not just escapism and had the seeds within it for saying things as profound about the human condition as any other literature could, became my bar-raiser.Read more
One of the better pieces of creative advice I've received is "Look for the cracks in things." Leonard Cohen has a couplet along those lines: there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in. But the right way to apply that advice eluded me for a long time.Read more
I've got several possible review items on my desk, most of them for the Science Fiction Repair Shop, and something crossed my mind as I was figuring out which one was best to talk about. Is a comic book movie best approached as a kind of fantasy, or can we sneak it into the SF Room by sliding it in under the door, so to speak?Read more
Despite being a long-standing science fiction fan, I have trouble seeing the point of knowing the finer points of Dr Who or Star Trek continuity, let alone that of the endlessly retconned comic-book superhero universes. Such things are the meat and drink of some corners of geekdom, but I find that obscure knowledge of media franchises does nothing for me at all. After all, when the actual creators don’t give the appearance of caring two hoots about continuity, why on Earth should I care?
The way I've seen it, most such trivia-collection is a sort of shibboleth to indicate one's devotion to the material in question. If you care about it, so the thinking goes, then you'll care about it to know absolutely every petty detail about the setting so that your devotion can stand up under scrutiny. Cue the tiresome discussion about "fake geeks".Read more
In an earlier post, Steven Savage pointed out in the comments how "we often find people like tech but hate modernity." I'd expand that to include generally people who live in the modern age and benefit from all of its conveniences: modern sanitation, antibiotics, good hockey teams, etc.
To my mind, the one benefit they claim most unthinkingly is that it is, I would wager, a good deal easier than ever to find a place to live in this world where you can benefit from the presence of others without also running the risk of being killed by them for no particular good reason. The presumption of peaceful living is now easier to entertain than ever before, but we're still entirely too capable of obliterating each other to start patting ourselves on the back all that fiercely — and we only got this far because of ceaseless struggle, not because human nature automatically lifts us up where we belong.
Consequently, I find myself wondering what goes through the heads of people who live in the modern age but pretend it hasn't conferred a single real advantage upon them. No, that's the wrong way to put it: they discount those advantages. They pay lip service to them, but are clearly more interested in being the product of an age they idolize without knowing what living in it would really cost them.
I run into this a lot in fantasy-novelist circles, which seem to be peopled by a disturbing number of folks who disdain modernity not just in the technical sense (damn those iPhones!) but in the existential sense — e.g., the idea that anything we could possibly want from the modern age is a delusional byproduct of having been born into it, or that everything we call progress is just a delusion, or any of a number of different riffs on that particular one-note theme.
Dismantling an idea this dumb doesn't take much effort; if the hypocrisy of the stance alone isn't enough, the sheer deliberate ignorance of actual history and sociology would do it. But the hypocrisy of the stance is bad enough. Most people who evince such an attitude do so because they're dreaming of a time when things would be conceivably better for them, not because things were better universally — and I'm betting it's because they aren't really interested in how a rising tide could lift all boats.
The idea of being asked to trade today's imminent ecological collapse for yesteryear's violence and squalor isn't a trade I would want to make, but in the end I know I'm better off sticking with what I was born into and making the best of it, because it's all I've got.
The people who love what tech gives them but hate the era it produced need to choose, because they can't have it both ways. Better yet, they need to cope. The world, and the people in it, are a bigger force (and a more positive one) than they are.
The problem with getting a room full of smart people together is that the group’s world view gets skewed. There are many reasons that a working group filled with experts don’t consistently produce great results. For example, many of the participants can be humble about their knowledge so they tend to think that a good chunk of the people that will be using their technology will be just as enlightened. Bad feature ideas can be argued for months and rationalized because smart people, lacking any sort of compelling real world data, are great at debating and rationalizing bad decisions.
I suspect there's a name for this kind of effect: you assume that your brains have entitled you to dispense with processing evidence directly, and instead proceed to a conclusion by way of pure thought.
But in the end, this is a by-product of putting too many of the same kind of people together, period. Pack a room full of geniuses, squeeze out all the air, and their own unquestioned assumptions about things will leave them just as hamstring as a room full of idiots.Read more
... because computers cannot come to us and meet us in our world, we must continue to adjust our world and bring ourselves to them. We will define and regiment our lives, including our social lives and our perceptions of our selves, in ways that are conducive to what a computer can “understand.” Their dumbness will become ours.
I would argue that this has already happened — not with the rise of Facebook or Twitter, but something that has been a hazard ever since man began to "not use technology, but live technology," as Godfrey Reggio put it. But each advance makes it all the harder to resist the temptation to let ourselves be all watched over by machines of (allegedly) loving grace.Read more
The nether regions of my idea-gathering files are as disorganized as a Greenwich Village junk shop and every bit as much a source of surprises. On tidying up one such archive I found a question I'd jotted down to myself but never answered: What is the difference between fantasy and wish-fulfillment? No context, just the question, so I figured I'd have to tear into it as-is.
Definitions first; that's one easy way to set the two apart. Easy enough that it would verge on misleading, but here goes: fantasy is a genre (e.g., a reading and writing category); wish-fulfillment is an aspect of a work regardless of genre. So you can have some works of fantasy that operate as wish-fulfillment, but not all works of wish-fulfillment would end up on the fantasy shelf next to the Tolkien or the Gene Wolfe. Tom Clancy is as much a creator of wish-fulfillment as he is of thrillers.Read more
Hayao Miyazaki gets a deserved reputation for being a cranky old man, but there are times when his garrulousness is spot-on, as when he recently complained that the big problem with the anime studios today is that they're staffed by otaku.
I agree, although I'd put it a slightly different way: the problem is that they're staffed by too many people who are nothing but otaku, and that's something I should talk about in detail at Ganriki when I'm back off my self-imposed hiatus.
I have the same issue with SF&F: it's too often written by (and maybe also read by) people who are nothing but SF&F fans.Read more
[Thomas Mallon on Donald Bartheme:]
A writer freed from the need to calibrate with reality, or even be internally consistent, could put a washing machine into the sky along with a rainbow. So why not put a rhinoceros up there too? Where my contemporaries reacted with an “Oh, wow,” I shrugged with something more like “Whatever.” Barthelme, in an interview, insisted how in his work “it’s not the straightforward that’s being evaded but the too true,” and by that last phrase, he meant, I think, the trite and truistic. But I felt then, and mostly still do, that no verity can be too true; it can only, excitingly, be revealed as false or even truer, if you dig into it on its own terms.
When I first ran into the Bartheme brand of experimental fiction, my first temptation was to think of it as failed SF — or, rather, mislabeled SF. Why not just call such work SF and be done with it? That was long before I knew about the perceived stigma many non-SF writers had of SF generally: it was escapist b.s., newsstand pulp product for spotty mouth-breathers who hadn't yet left the nest, let alone pulled their pinkies out of their nostrils. I suspect the recent explosion of Dark Teen Fantasy product hasn't helped matters any: when the shelves are littered with third-hand Orwellisms like Divergent, it's hard not to feel a boiling clot of contempt rising in one's gorge for everything filed in that wing of the bookstore. (Goodness knows I feel it.)Read more
Professor John McCarthy — you might know him as the creator of a little language known as Lisp — wrote this a while back:
Personally I hate and fear modern literature and it makes me especially unhappy when it invades science fiction. The literary authors are always trying to manipulate my emotions on behalf of some cause or other they have read about in the New York Times Magazine. They want to make me share their hatreds; they rarely show affection for anyone except when they show him as a victim of someone who represents one of their hates. Therefore, I enjoy most old-fashioned science fiction in which the author shows us some neat thing he has thought up or heard about in a straightforward adventure context with good guys and bad guys of a conventional sort. It is even better if he can tell a good story without any fighting, but I understand that this is hard for authors.
His comments about SF in the essay are worth reading, but his comments about modern literature as a whole made me wonder when someone had slipped Tabasco into his Ovaltine.Read more
Some gloomy notes here about how digital distribution doesn't always translate into digital consumption.
“This generation will get to read the books they really, really like,” wrote A. Raja Hornstein of San Rafael, Calif. “Any thinkers who are unpopular or outside the box or, well, creative, won’t be read. The next generation will get to read the books written by the vapid, money-hungry writers of this generation who never read any creative works. In a few generations, there will be no new ideas, only popular ones. But there will be lots of new problems and nobody smart enough to solve them. Way to go!”
That sounds eerily like the problems I've cited with SF&F's development over the last few generations. Once it reached a kind of cultural critical mass, where it was not only on shelves but on small and big screens alike, it became easier for it to be written by people who had never read anything but that — or worse, whose primary exposure to it was through TV or the movies. (This isn't to say that TV or the movies can't do those things well, only that if you stop your research there, you won't get much of anywhere.)Read more
Has Russell Banks ever actually read any fantasy? Evidently not:
Q: ... how would you describe the kinds of books you steer clear of?
A: Anything described by the author or publisher as fantasy, which to me says, “Don’t worry, Reader, Death will be absent here.” In his brief introduction to “Slow Learner,” Thomas Pynchon says he takes serious writing to be that in which Death is present. I agree.
I guess the likes of, oh, Mervyn Peake haven't contaminated his bedside table, then?Read more
... the reason that it is important to include diverse characters and diverse voices in speculative fiction would be because the assertion “we’re all in this together” is not, in fact, a pure, shining, unimpeachable truth, handed down by the gods of speculative fiction for our enlightenment. The statement “we’re all in this together” is, instead, an ideological presumption which is not supported by most of the extant facts.
I'd put it more this way: "we're all in this together" is a dormant truth, one which can emerge one of two ways: either as an evident fact of life, becuse we are all in fact in the same boat and pulling together; or as a grim specter, in which the connectivity of each to all is expressed despite this and not because of it.Read more