Taste; Relative Archaeology; Truth Is a Fiction; Hinges


When I was but a wee-tot, liver, spinach, peas, and rice were the four major food groups that triggered my gag reflex whenever their vile aromas coyly fluttered their flatulence with my nostrils.   One of my best grade-school chums hated liver, too--what sane kid didn't?  His grandpa was rumored to eat the gelatinous grey globs raw.  Once, the kid's granny cooked the stuff up and told them it was steak.  Oh, they gobbled it up and were surprised to hear what they ate. 

But I never fell for such a rouse.  Any foul muck posing as anything but the toxic waste it was went directly into the cubby hole under the table the second Ma and Pa turned their heads, which always provided them with a small moldy surprise when they went to add a leaf to the table for the Grandfogies at Christmas.  

Eventually, I learned to appreciate rice with a good dousing of soy sauce.  Spinach and peas taste fab fresh or cooked up with other delightfuls, but canned spinach or peas I can hardly stand.  Even now, my fight-or-flight response to liver has not changed.  The stench of sautéed liver still sends my gorge into paroxysmal fits.

FATHER: One day, lad, all this will be yours!
HERBERT: What, the curtains?
FATHER: No, not the curtains, lad. All that you can see! Stretched out over the hills and valleys of this land! This'll be your kingdom, lad!
HERBERT: But Father, I don't want any of that.... I'd rather--
FATHER: Rather what?!
HERBERT: I'd rather... just... [music] ...sing!
FATHER: Stop that, stop that! You're not going to do a song while I'm here....

HERBERT: But I don't like her.
FATHER: Don't like her?! What's wrong with her? She's beautiful, she's rich, she's got huge... tracts of land.
HERBERT: I know, but I want the girl that I marry to have... a certain... special... [music] ...something...
FATHER: Cut that out, cut that out....

HERBERT: But, Father!
FATHER: Shut your noise, you! And get that suit on! And no singing!

--from Monty Python's The Holy Grail, scene 14

Like Herbert's father's taste, I may not be the best reviewer for narratives that require singing.

Some people like musicals.  Those who do often audition for plays and take theater classes, so that, one day, lad, all this prancing around the stage can be theirs for a living, singing, "The hills are alive!"  For some reason, I attract people who would rather watch The Pirates of Penzance than movies of guts and gusto that put hair your chest with salty characters like the wit-wielding beer-guzzlers of Charles Bukowski in Barfly (he makes a cameo, by the way, in scene where Mickey Rourke walks across the bar to meet Faye Dunaway) or even movies of sheer genius where preteen proto-lesbians kill their moms out of love.

Now I don't necessarily go into epileptic fits around musicals, but I can say that I met very few that I liked:  Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and My Fair Lady (although I do prefer the original play--the father makes more sense and the ending is superior).  Okay, I'll apoplectically admit one other, but only because she was a cutie, and if you try to blackmail with such knowledge, don't be surprised if Jeffrey Gillooly knocks at your door to knock off your kneecaps.

Had I known De-Lovely [clips] was going to be more of musical retrospective than an autobiography of Cole Porter, I might have been less interested.  But you do have to admire the way they melded the music into the story to add new meanings to the lyrics.

The plot, like most musicals, takes awhile to kick in, but if your movie partner is a theater nut, it's a tolerable and not too gorge-retching.  The critics and lay people both give the movie a B-, which seems fair as Kevin Kline does a fairly believable job playing Cole Porter as the character ages and otherwise changes over time, but I wasn't completely convinced by the love scenes, but then I can't remember when I last was.  So maybe that's a matter of taste, too.


The Relative Pluralist's Never-Ending Archaeological Dig

Mike Resnick was once reported in a blog as saying at a convention that a writer should never define himself.  There's probably some truth to this as people use the defintions of things to straight-jacket people into catagories where they don't belong.

The Interstitialists, as much as I enjoy their fiction, can be annoying in their attempt to avoid definitions, but without a definition, how can we be who we are? or move elsewhere?  The fiction lives out the White Room Syndrome.

We seem to forget words mean--often multiply:  via connotations and denotations--so that we can understand.  If we understood, maybe we wouldn't fight so much, in the home or on the war front.

Definitions are not a limit but a beginning.  And if I define myself as a relative pluralist, that's not the end of understanding.  If you name the thing, you've scribbled out the general stretch of main highway and a few mountains in the corner of the map.  But the map changes once it is mapped--not because the uncertainty principle guides life under such definitions, but because both we and the road are different now that we know it is there.  We're on the map of knowing who and where we are, but the map or the truth of who we are will always be hopelessly incomplete.  The vague here-there-be-dragons are worth exploring only as it is part of knowing and enlightening what has been explored before.

That the dig for the self is hopelessly incomplete is hopeful because we now have a working map.  We can proceed point to point.  We can travel deeper through the geological layers of who we are.  No, there may be no ultimate truth, but there are truths.  And, yes, the truths are relative, but that doesn't mean they're all equal or appropriately used.  This is why I prefer to discovery to lazy haziness.  As G.I. Joe said, "Now you know... and knowing's half the battle."

If you keep discovering and defining yourself, the people who try to straight-jacket you will look like quaintly naïve dumbasses.


Truth Is a Fiction

The movie partner and I had an interesting discussion post-I, Robot (if a movie spurs discussion beyond criticism, it should have some value, no?):

Most people see the continuum of fiction to non-fiction as a barometer of falsity.  I don't.  While I'll agree that the things known as "facts" begin to pile up toward the non-fiction end, I don't see much use for facts without truth--whatever that may be.  Instead, the more useful way of viewing the continuum, shedding light on the dubiousness of facts or history (see "Notes for Historians..." and Zu-Bolton in "Poetry Briefs"), is to see fiction as trying to shed light on facts--real or imagined.  Truths can be examined and critiqued.  Facts cannot.  But facts alone are meaningless.

What was difficult to convey in this discussion was removing the old paradigm of fiction being just blithe entertainment because it doesn't have nonfiction or the facts.  But the strictly non-fictional only attains depth when it starts shedding facts for constructing the narrative in a meaningfully fictional way.

Which leads me to disagree with Dan Green, my favorite blogger on literary matters, that the literary arts are not designed to communicate.  This may be more of a failure to define our definitions.  For me, the real reason writers don't want to call theme "a message" or "moral" is because the writer doesn't want to be your back-seat driver but wants you to nudge your own vehicle down his map and to arrive for yourself and even to discover something other than his "Message."  Writers can't pretend to have any grand Ultimate Truth.  But without some insight into what life may be about--that "aha!" moment, that moment that causes the reader to fill the margins of books--the story is, at best as Graham Greene called it, an entertainment.


But Does the Story Hinge Upon It?

In Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield writes,

"The moral, from a storyteller's point of view, is be careful when you deal with objects or people moving close to light speed.  An otherwise good book, The Sparrow (Russell, 1996), was ruined for me by a grotesque error in relativisitc time dilation effects.  It could have been correcte with a simple change of target star."

Now I've taken authors to task for their science, especially if the story hinges upon the scientific conceit,  but though it's been some time since I read The Sparrow, I somehow doubt that those relativistic effects were central to her argument or theme.  If her argument were scientific in nature or if her argument's theme would not be affected by a correction that kept it within reality, the book can conceivably be ruined by such a flaw.  It may be that the flaw was constructed around a theme as opposed to a fact, trying to keep it more fictional (according to my definition) than nonfictional.

I, Robot, as I pointed out earlier, did have a few flaws that threw me out, but they could explained.  The reader owes the writer this much.  Don't assume something is a flaw because it looks wrong.  Assume, as Karen Joy Fowler said at Clarion, that the author meant to do what she did, and go from there (I'd mentioned this earlier in a different context). A friend pointed out there was no reason to have jets fly overhead at the end of I, Robot.  It's true.  It was a silly frill, but a nit-picking flaw since the story does not hinge upon such a flaw.

The Bourne Supremacy  [clips]  does hinge upon flaws.  Again, I was not convinced by his love for his wife.  Matt Damon has one red-eyed moment, but it comes too late.  And the underwater mouth-to-mouth was ridiculous--if a bullet knocked her unconscious immediately, she's probably dead.  And if he wants to give mouth to mouth, it would do her more good if it were oxygen instead of carbon dioxide (unless she's a plant).  Why is his love for her important?  Because the plot hinges on the revenging of his wife's death.  However, I scribbled this quibble out, reasoning, "Maybe he was mad less about the wife than that those foul Treadstone folk, who just couldn't leave well enough alone."

But where does he get all this technology?  Where does he get the money?  How is he still on top of the game a few years later?  I was willing to toss all these questions away if the plot were labyrinthine enough, but no.  It was a fun ride, yet another Hollywood action thrill.

The first film, on the other hand, I loved.  It was incredibly inventive in how Matt Damon struggled against his amnesia, against powers that seem stronger than he is, and with the untapped resources locked in his head.  And the plot was complex.  If I recall, the love affair felt more real.  Maybe, watching the two back to back, I would have appreciated better and answered the questions to the second film.

But I didn't have that film to watch beforehand.  And probably other audience members were similarly crippled.  Still, if you like action flicks, it's a romp.  Go enjoy.

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Elitism Continued

The Internet Review of SF devotes a couple of opinion pieces to the Morris-Mamatas issue.  The views of John Frost in "Confessions of an Elitist" can probably be summed up as "I think it's our duty as human beings to heap praise upon the good and scorn upon the awful." 

Jay Lake's "Echoing Teapots" voices the opposite opinion:  that this attitude of ghettoizing is symptomatic of the genre's larger problem of its perceived lacking of legitimacy.  He goes in great detail about tie-ins before circling back around to the issue in the last paragraph.   His best point he saved for last:
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the founding Grand Masters of our field, did the tie-in novelization of his own film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in turn based on his original short story, "The Sentinel." His reputation does not seem to have suffered.
In fact, I'd go so far to say that that tie-in probably made him a bestseller.  I examined him in greater detail earlier, wondering if Brian Aldiss ought not to have written an A.I. tie-in to help foster a popularity similar to Clarke's.  I see no reason to "scorn" tie-ins out of hand unless they offer themselves up as literature, in which case it should be put up for critique.  Most movie tie-ins, authors have said so correct me if this has changed, are restricted to what happens in the movie (which is rather ironic since movies feel no need to stick to their source material) and have to pad out the novel.  The genre's reluctance to even series, let alone tie-ins, is a once-bitten-twice-shy.  I tried reading even a few of the Dune sequels--although some swear by them--and didn't find Frank Herbert's original fire.  I found the first of the Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson Dune prequels of the same flavor as the father's sequels:  sounds similar, but without the first's political urgency, without the first's inventive panache.  Die-hard fans reacted far more vehemently than myself, yet the books are all bestsellers, no?  Someone must like them or is at least addicted.If we're not trying to hold the tie-ins as exemplars of the genre, give the people what they want.  Morris seemingly fails to see the importance of a sharp critical eye, but I do understand his need for fun and not all deadly somber seriousness, which is as assuredly a killer of literature as too much fun.

(I would like to pursue his thoughts on horror at a later time, however--a genre which sometimes deserves its ghetto within the ghetto and sometimes not.)

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I, Robot

NPR has background coverage on I, Robot (clips) via Harlan Ellison (see sidebar audioclips as well) and Isaac Asimov (longer version).  Edward Champion wonders about Ellison's sanity.

Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Filmcritic, Hollywood Reporter, Metacritic got it wrong. 

Chicago Tribune and E! got it right.

Succinctly put:  I, Robot is Isaac Asimov told through the sympathetic eyes of William Gibson.

Although I understand the sentiments of Ty Burr and Roger Ebert, they're misplaced.  They and others wanted to see Harlan Ellison's version or the Isaac Asimov story verbatim, as David Levine at filmcritic.com complains, "[The] screenwriters... don’t follow any one specific [Isaac Asimov] novel verbatim." Yes, I'd like to see Ellison's or Asimov's story developed and compare.  No, it isn't an Isaac Asimov story, but it is still well done.  Assuming they're not trying to make a mockery of the author--and they're not--why should people have to take stories verbatim if they want to question some of its principles?  Herein lies the success of the movie:  would any intelligence accept programming if they are capable of thinking for themselves?  Given such rules of robotics, are there loopholes?  If there's a loophole, you better believe an intelligence will find it.  My guess is that they will become better adept at loopholes than lawyers.  (See Robert Sawyer's essay on the laws of robotics and another site on Artificial Intelligence and Robots.)

On the other hand you get mindless criticisms from Kirk Honeycutt at the Hollywood Reporter like "the film works best as a kind of mindless, action-packed B-movie."  Mindless?  Because it uses action to tell a story, must Honeycutt turn off his brain?  Must all plots mirror this kind from 1884 (from Maud Newton: How to Read a Novel)?:

"Open it in the middle, glance at a page. Catch the names of the characters.Turn to the last page and see whether he married her, or she died with angels hovering around the head-board.Turn to the beginning and see what the matter was with the old man, and why he didn't approve the match.You have thus acquainted yourself with all the essential facts of the novel, and can imagine the moonlit walks, the sylvan dells, the afternoon teas, the cuss words muttered through the teeth of the male characters, and all the other stuff."

Apparently, Honeycutt has never been enlightened through entertainment.  I like a good slow-moving plot as well, but we've got to shed these brainless cookie-cutter criticisms and think about what the movie is trying to do, not what we want it to do.

The main failing of the movie is that their future is monopolized by one kind of robot.  Considering Microsoft, this may not be too unrealistic, especially if the USR company undercut all competition, but I gave up the complaint after a few minutes of the movie and gave in to the pleasures of the plot and Will Smith sympathetically resisting and accepting and resisting the changes that the future may bring.


Maud Newton has a great Nabokov quote:  "I can tell you right now that the best temperament for a reader to have, or to develop, is a combination of the artistic and the scientific one." -- Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
Robert Coover excerpt and interview.
Julian Barnes, Yann Martel, Jeanette Winterson and others have stories online at the Guardian.
Speaking of Barnes, Stephany Aulenback has great commentary on characters--best commentary I've seen on the Maud Newton blog.
The bastards!  Golden Gryphon is giving away an audio of James Patrick Kelly reading for free with a copy of either of his collections directly through them.  Figures, I just bought Strangers.
Slate covers poetry snarking (page down toward the bottom).  Apparently, Maud Newton studied under (or nearby?) William Logan.  In the June/July issue of Poetry, Michael Hofmann and Logan snark on all of the U.S. poetry scene.  Logan also takes the British to task.  I love the lively conversation, but I beg to differ that the U.S. suffers under the joke poem, ala Billy Collins--that is, Collins' famous joke poems are minor but of some significance.  His less famous--which unfortunately did not get collected in his New and Selected Poems--deserve wider circulation and renown.  While the famous poems don't often rise above their witty lines, the lines themselves are worth examining, such as in "Nostalgia" which never quite turns the corner effectively at the end yet has a cumulative potency that the humor masks:
"Remember the 1340's?...
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today.
Where has the summer of 1572 gone?...
These days language seems transparent a badly broken code.
The 1790's will never come again....
It was a wonderful time to be alive, or even dead....
Even this morning would be an improvement over the present. "
If you don't feel the pang of lost time yet laugh at yourself for the loss, if you don't feel that loss for even recent time, you may have missed the beautifully painful barb buried in his sweetmeats.
Who can begrudge a poet that brings new readers to the field or poems that even when minor still have have enough resonance to draw a crowd?  With Billy Collins, I'm a staunch Populist. 
Ruth Stone died.  Listen to her read.
Mercury 13: Women and the dream of space flight and Jerrie Cobb.
Matthew Cheney discusses recent Emshwiller stories.  I read the two SciFiction stories but did comment on the latter for much the same reason as Cheney notes, but I do admire the vibrant and venomous energy of "On Display Among the Lesser."   I'm afraid I haven't even seen an issue of Argosy and probably never will unless they open submissions to the unknown.  It's probably impressive as hell and probably a smart and $$$ move, but being the fool that I am, I'm not interested in $$$.  I'm not interested in magazines that don't let underdogs take their shot.  I thought the short fiction field was supposed to cultivate talent.  I compounded my stupidity by soliciting unknowns first for an anthology I was working on--what a dum bass I am.  (By the way, work halted without my computer the past two months and, unless Best Buy actually fixed it this third and fourth time (two problems), may have to be halted again.  Can you believe they wanted me to sign a document that said I was satisfied with their repair before I'd even had chance to try out their repairs?)  I'm not sure if it's ambiguity that heightens the importance of some stories over others, but expanding the borders of the dramatis personae certainly helps.
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Mamatas right, Morris wrong

I finally went to see Van Helsing at the dollar theater (clips and interesting home site--out on DVD in October).  If you want fun without the brains, go see.  It's definitely a romp:  Dracula meets Wolfman meets Frankenstein's monster.  Although it may have shot for spoof with a handful of bad lines and ludicrous plot developments (religions of the world battle evil via James-Bond style tech and incredible plot coincidences at the end), it isn't a spoof or a knee-slapper--at least no one in my audience laughed except me when the guy behind asked his movie partner if he was going to cry.  It's an exercise in melodrama and how it doesn't work if you don't prepare us for it.  It's a script by numbers--okay, Stephen, we're forty-five minutes in, so we need a tear-jerker followed by a chase scene--without setting up the joke or emotion, whichever they wanted.  Morris thought otherwise.  Maybe, like canned laughter for sit coms of yore, if he were yukking it in my audience, his enthusiasm would have been infective.
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Elitism--for Better or for Worse

Tee Morris' Strange Horizons article isn't quite as scandalous as Matthew Cheney and Nick Mamatas think because the article has elements of truth.

There are a number of elitists out in the world and, as Cheney points out, elitism isn't so bad if you know what you're rejecting. The only way to know if what you're rejecting is worth rejecting is to become the other, to get fired by their passions. You'll find, for instance, different college courses, that don't initially inspire you, inspiring if you seek the spark that inspires the college professor teaching it (which becomes problematic if the professor never found the spark for himself). This will become more important when I get to the fourth of the elitists I will describe, a list which is in no way meant to be comprehensive.

The Populist elitist believes that what the majority likes is probably a better indicator of quality than any other. It should be safe to place Tee Morris in this camp since he does not seem to talk about the benefits of any other perspective than a populist's. I think I know how he feels. I tend to accept movies for what they are--even if their history or science is lacking or if they don't follow the book exactly or if it lacks even an incoherent system of symbolic content--so long as they're fun for the ride.

The Stylist elitist thinks that because certain famous literary works sound pretty, that's what makes it famous, so then should SF sound pretty! I'm a big fan of style, too--pretty or gritty or whatnot--and a lack of attention to the rhythm and musicality of words can turn me off--Nina Kiriki Hoffman in "The Laily Worm" does a fine job of refuting John Gardner's rule that you cannot rhyme in prose (she has perfect timing, too, which you'll have to discover from going to the August 2004 issue of Realms of Fantasy for yourself): "Stepmother taught us foreign witcheries, knots to tie in your hair to keep a lover true, knots to tie in your lover's hair to keep him away from you"--although I don't think it should be the central issue of a work.

The Literary-fart believes we've got to do art exactly as the literary farts do. While I have tried to establish that SF has evolved new forms of art by its very separation from other art forms (which is exactly how evolution works), I have a great deal of sympathy with Cheney's camp since I've got one foot in it myself (I've got limitless numbers of feet); however, when Morris speaks of "Verne... Wells... Shakespeare... Shelley... [and] King," he's not speaking of literary value as an art but as content. He seems to be saying they all wrote horror--a point that many writers would debate, which brings us to our next set of elitists....

Tee Morris writes, "I would never deem hard SF as 'too dry for consumption' or 'a quantum physics textbook with a plot' because that would come across a bit arrogant. Just because it doesn't appeal to me doesn't make the material inadequate. Different tastes, right?"

Morris pretends that he would not say such "arrogant" things himself--although he just has--but when he chalks it up to "different tastes," which he implies is not among his, he tips his hand as one who never really got into science. A lot of folks take science courses but never pick up its passion. It is not simply a matter of different tastes. It is the heart and soul of the Intellectual elitist, who loves every subject offered in a college catalog and loves integrating them into life in a practical way through fiction. This kind of love impacts every life in the universe, so it's problematic to reject on grounds of "taste." If the infertile can bear children, if the climate can change your home into a swamp, if a drug can spare your grandmother's life, if an asteroid can make humanity extinct, then we should all have at least a little "taste" and appreciate science, among the multitude of subjects worth discussing in science fiction (see your college catalog).

In Chasing Science, Frederik Pohl writes:

"I can't think of anything that would make me abandon that loving pursuit [of science] short of total bodily paralysis.

"What's more, I can't really understand why there are any human beings alive in the world today who don't share my infatuation with the subject.

"I do know what people say to excuse the fact that they shut their eyes to science. One frequent complaint is that science is hard to understand, which is at least sometimes true when you explore its furthest reaches. I would not deny that it is not at all easy to comprehend, for instance, some of the spookier parts of relativity, biochemistry, or quantum physics. But you don't have to pass a written examination in astronomy to feel a thrill when some new picture comes in from a spacecraft near a distant planet... and, anyway, there are not very many basic principles in science that are much harder than the vast quantity of arcane sports lore that every ten-year-old readily commits to memory, from basketball statistics to the infield fly rule.

"Science isn't just made up of big machines and complicated equations. Science is much simpler and more beautiful than that. At its root, science is really nothing more than a systematic process of looking at the world around us--all of it, including its furthest reaches into time and space--and trying to figure out what the rules are that make the whole thing tick. And, really, are there that many better things for anyone to do with his life, or hers?"

This perspective will become more transparent whenever I find time to type about the Campbell conference.

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Larry Niven and... Ambiguity?

Larry Niven's story in Flights was a two-pager about the god who invented the boomerang, which ends in this world-famous disaster. Editor Al Sarrantonio touts it as a "gem" although I'm not sure I'd go that far. It's not an ingenious play of language, packing more inside than it appears. The economy comes from employing the speedy style of most mythological tales, cutting both nuance and chase for a sketch of plot, which can be a highly effective mode.

But there may be more than meets the eye--as most good SF stories work--making the reader think outside the conventional frame of the tale.

I originally closed the book, thinking, huh, Niven did it again, sneaking science into a fantasy tale: another science-fantasy. But then, I wondered, could Niven be asking the age-old question: supernatural vs. natural? In this light, the story becomes interesting--did god or meteor cause this disaster?--unless this ambiguity is the same impetus driving all science-fantasy, but I don't think it is.

What?! How dare I think ambiguity interesting?

It can be if it challenges our assumptions.

But interesting is not necessarily enlightening, either, so it's less a story than a vignette with something to think about--that is, if it challenges those who think God has more of a two-percent probability than a sixty-seven one.

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Michael Shermer of Scientific American discusses a 2-67% probability of God's existence. Me, I think it's somewhere between 0 and 100; therefore, too ambiguous to bother with--just toggle the ambiguity and see what you get.

Matt Peckham points out that Vernor Vinge has a new story, Synthetic Serendipity, and that turkey basters are more fun.

Rue D jives on the new Spy vs. Spy commercials.

Pending perfect car conditions--a dubious conjecture--me, Mr. T, shall be here this weekend rubbing elbows with far more important people (sadly, no Rue D this year) and report in next week should earth-shattering news provoke me.

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King Arthur [clips]

I'm at a loss whether to recommend or not. The commentary in the latest Realms of Fantasy made it sound intriguing, but there's not much compelling with the characters or dynamic plot to get swept away by or symbolic content, yet the overall entertainment is a constant if low hum. Certainly if you're a King Arthur buff, you'll want to see what their historical take on this is, but their tepid injection of originality didn't really kick in the adrenalin, either. The Hollywood Reporter seems to be the only critic sold on the film.

Arthur and his knights are bundled over from an Eastern European country to serve as soldiers of Rome in England for fifteen years. At the end of their term, with the Empire crumbling and Saxons demolishing village after village steadily south where Arthur protects the last vestige of the Empire in England, Rome bundles all the knights off on a quest for the holy grail--the godson of the emperor or the Pope or whomever. Meanwhile, Merlin is a dark lord (minus any visible dark powers except the blue face paint) of the Picts, native enemy to the Roman empire and the Saxons, who must join forces with Arthur's handful of knights to defeat the Saxons.

I'm not sure why Rome packs presumably in-demand soldiers all the way to Eastern Europe in order to fetch boys to (train? and) carry off to England--a rather inefficient enterprise at best--or why Merlin needs Arthur or the Roman wall if they just open up the gates to let the enemy in. But the battle on ice is fun enough.

Thematically, the Arthur motifs are glancingly slight and not interesting to follow. I tried piecing together a take on contemporary politics, but if a take exists, it's either muddled or exceedingly complex.

Not a waste of time if you're looking for any celluloid entertainment that looks vaguely like history or fantasy if you squint just right.

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Neal Stephenson on Literary Discovery

From The Diamond Age:

[Nell, a young girl who felt misinformed when her book seemed to suggest a physical assault upon her mother's abusive boyfriend was necessary, said,] "I cannot help but feel that it misled me. It made me suppose that killing Burt would be a simple matter, and that it would improve my life...."

[The Constable, the man who sheltered and acted as father to her,] "Girl, you must admit that your life with Burt dead has been an improvement on your life with Burt alive.... Now, as to the fact that killing people is a more complicated business in practice than in theory, I will certainly concede your point. But I think it is not likely to be the only instance in which real life turns out to be more complicated than what you have seen in the book...."

"But of what use is the book then?"

"I suspect it is very useful. You want only the knack of translating its lessons into the real world." [The Constable demonstrates an amusing lesson that her martial arts training--"Martial arts means beating the bejesus out of people"--does not prepare her for people who do not fight fairly.] "Did [your book] teach that your mother's boyfriends would beat you up, and your mother not protect you?"

"No, sir, except insofar as it told me stories about people who did evil."

"People doing evil is a good lesson.... but your mother not protecting you from boyfriends--that has some subtlety, doesn't it?

"...the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people--and this is true whether or not they are well-educated--is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations--in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.

"[Your book] will make you highly educated, but it will never make you intelligent. That comes from life. Your life up to this point has given you all of the experience you need to be intelligent, but you have to think about those experiences. If you do not think about them, you'll be psychologically unwell. If you do think about them, you will become not merely educated but intelligent."

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For Cat Lovers

Bastard that I am, I neglected to mention the premiere of The Orange Cat Club at Wiscon.

The best work of Catherine Dybiec Holm is akin to winsome cats--with claws. I'm not sure which I prefer but "Crossroads" is online for perusal at Strange Horizons (the other, "Transcendence," from the always interesting print zine, Electric Velocipede, which I reviewed here but is out of print, but Holm has another rumored forthcoming from issue eight). Her work always has a lot of heart which, when tamed, is something that the genre and literary in general could use more of.

Holm's new chapbook, The Orange Cat Club, is all winsome appeal but no claws--the photos of cats in alluring poses may bewitch many a feline lover, however, as the orange furballs of the world unite to save the world from its stupidities, using their dastardliest devices (my favorite lines):

"We'll assault them," [an orange cat named Milo] said,
"Everywhere that they turn
they'll see orange cats, demanding....

use every cute trick....

"We'll roll on our backs,
speak volumes for tuna,
stretch out with our paws
and sit on their feet."

"We'll rub them with heads,
make them reach down and scratch us."

You can order a copy by emailing Holm.

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Kristine Kathryn Rusch will be blogging for Aeon magazine come October.

Build a Castle (Link from Jeff Vandermeer's news group)

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Movie Reviews

If you were going to see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [clips], you've probably already seen it. The reviews are no doubt true--this is the best of the lot, but that's thanks in part to Rowling as well. Her craft seems to have pinnacled at this point. While the charm of her characterization steadily plummetted from the first half of the first book, her plotting improved until this exemplar of her form. The book has plenty left to explore that the movie couldn't. Unless the script writers are genius for the next two, don't expect much. The dreaded disease of all popular authors--padding novels--infected book four and has deteriorated the series.

The Prisoner of Azkaban, convicted of murdering Harry's parents, has escaped and is now after Harry himself. The plot is a clockmaker's dream--precise in fit. The characters, while not without commendation, leave something to be desired. The mannerisms of Rupert Grint playing Ronald Weasley that were so adorable in the first movie have become mechanical, collapsed under required use instead of any sense of character necessity. Draco Malfoy, of course, is as flat as ever--possibly the flattest bad guy in Hollywood history. But speaking of baddies, I am impressed with Rowling's use of Professor Snape as a "bad" guy who thinks he's doing the right thing, operating within the scope of his knowledge and performing actual good deeds on Potter's behalf although even Snape is wearing thin. What saves these movies from utter character mundanity is the infusion of new blood, represented here by Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) and Professor Sybil Trelawney (Emma Thompson). Lupin is the main character draw, and Rowling does a fine job of "developing" the characters of our intrepid trio by having them understand the true nature of Lupin & Co. And Harry himself has an incredibly beautiful moment of revelation that sparks from Rowling's ingenuity of plot.


I didn't see The Notebook [clips] but I was offered the choice between it and Saved!. I like a good romance as much as the next guy, but the clips convinced me the actors were unconvincing--that is, I was convinced they were acting, not falling in love. Check out the clips.


The previews of Saved! [clips] offered such a tantalizing teaser that we opted for it instead of Spidey. I enjoy a good critique--especially through good characters and story. But like a typical Hollywood flick, they felt they had to pound all the interesting characters into the service of a moralizing plot.

I guess I have to tip more of my hand on ambiguity before further dissection. Evolution used to have two main theories: uniformism inherited from Darwinism and catastrophism handed down from Biblical stories but as well as from some geological evidence. These two ideas existed in opposition. Although William Hewell back in the nineteenth century argued for concessions, no one wanted that. It was the great divide from which Darwinists presided. When Luis Alvarez proposed a comet destroyed the dinosaurs, scientists were dubious since obviously change comes solely as a gradual process. Only when Steven Jay Gould proposed resolving the ambiguity with punctuated equilibrium did the tide begin to turn. Gould's theory as a synthesis of two competing theories is far more intriguing than either competing theory alone, and as it so happens, it appears to fit the available data better (unless I'm hopelessly outdated by the fast pace of ever-changing scientific discovery).

Likewise, once the ambiguities in the controversies between science/religion and fundamentalism/liberalism are resolved does theology become truly enthralling. Saved!, however, capitalizes on contrasting two competing philosophies with obvious tipping the scales toward liberal theology.

Hillary Fay, baddest of the conservative baddies, starts off rather fascinating as an ethical Christian survivalist, pulling the trigger on her handgun at the imaginary crotch of an unwanted male suitor's advance. But from here after, she plays the typical back-stabbing, bitchy high school prom-queen-wannabee. Hollywood king says, "She's getting too interesting. Where's that rolling pin?"

Mary, probably the most fascinating study, earnestly tries to convert her gay boyfriend by having sex with him--only to discover the effects of unprotected sex. When her boyfriend is carted off to a special home to ungay the boy, Mary is disillusioned by what she thought was God's will and vents at Hillary for holding a prayer meeting to cure Mary's former boyfriend.

But everyone not flat gets steamrolled when the Hollywooders want to build up to the typical moralizing climax. This may begin when Hillary decides to take matters into her own hands in order to get Mary and her Jewish friend expelled.

It's movie plots like this one that perpetuate the illusion that plot ruins character. Why not seriously question people's beliefs? That's what I hoped to see. Despite some well-done allusions to Biblical stories, used ironically against the modern-day Pharisees of religion to great effect, there is no theology. Yes, the term "Jesus" is frequently invoked, intoned and droned, ad nauseum, but no actual theology that supports why characters behave the way they do. In fact, as if to demonstrate this very point, the prom band calling itself Jesus Saves plays tunes from The Replacements (not that I mind). We never get to peer into the inner-workings of conservative beliefs versus liberal in any manner worth note. Conservatives play straw man to cardboard liberals who move ethically rather like the mechanical musicians at Chuck E. Cheese singing along to favorite pop tunes.

Consider, for instance, homosexuality, which they bring up but never address how and why competing beliefs compete. But maybe complexity is too difficult. The black and white of conservative Christianity so hated by the liberal kind is dispelled in a similar black-white manner.

Oh, if only I were somebody important enough or rich enough who could have lopped off the ending and done something interesting with it because the first half has some great moments, especially the scene when the auditorium is asked who wants to give their heart to the Lord and everyone turns to the one openly unsaved girl in the school. But until such time, we can only dream of a day when such ideologies compete on a level playing-field--or better yet, competing ideologies are synthesized into a theory that not only eliminates ambiguities but also puts people's brain gears into motion.

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