5.16.2005

Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go"

I'll send a review to SF Site later this week, but here's the low-down:

If you're an SF writer, buy it and learn. If you're an Ishiguro fan, you already know you have to buy it. If you're just a regular literary or genre reader, you'll probably want to skip it. If you haven't read his early novels, don't just buy them and read. Read them, ponder, and read again. It may take three reads to get your bearings. Whatever your opinion, it can be argued against--which is more because of the many branches of character than of the confusing or conflicting kind of ambiguity. What I love best about his work is the sheer complexity that even most literary of artists shun.

I read someone complaining of reviews giving away spoilers, but I don't know how one can review the work without the main plot "spoiler." Niall Harrison gives a regular review and many perspectives--one of his best and more comprehensive looks at a work (I have slightly different take, however). Mathew Cheney mainly quotes.

5.15.2005

Strahan incites, Harrison fans, Speculative Poetry as an Example

Jonathan Strahan suggested an anthology of the best writing about genre writing. Niall Harrison got more specific in his probing about what such a book might require. Sounds good to me. One complaint is finding sufficiently new material, but I suspect if searchers search far and wide enough, they'll discover plenty of material that no one stumbled upon throughout the year.

To be most helpful, the content should probably edited. Consider, for example, Mathew Cheney's Speculative Poetry Symposium. The material from the first week felt interesting, but the second week never went into specifics. So one might include the first week, along with Jed Hartman's astute response to David Moles' question: Why speculative poetry? But what's missing from all this discussion--and could be included as new material--is where are the specifics? How do you talk about literary history without talking about the poets who created it and about what their contributions strived for and later helped shape the field in perhaps unexpected ways? Poets without unique poetic vision(s), no matter how ubiquitous in the field, could probably be excluded.

Sheckley Improved

I did not report Sheckley's illness earlier because I was afraid it might turn out to be a rumor. It appears he had a cold that turned into something worse.

From comments section at Locus' blog comes a report that he's improving and working his way off the respirator.

5.05.2005

"Last Man on Earth" by Brendan Day, Polyphony 2

I just had to quote this spectacular passage of characterization:

[Liddy] was smartly dressed, but she didn't look like someone who worked in an office. She could have been pinned together by the stripes of her suit. Loosen her tie and she would fall apart.

"Liddy, meet Mr. Davison."

"Davis," [Davison] said, holding out his hand. She took it, examined it, and returned it.

The genre could use a lot more passages like this. This may be Day's only published story, which is a shame. At Clarion, he wrote a pair of interesting machine-religion-in-the-far-future stories that I thought utterly original and imaginative--a kind of Escher painting you want to keep turning for another look.

Harry Turtledove's "Bedfellows" at F&SF

Apparently, Dave Truesdale is riled up over Gordon Van Gelder's preface to the story that suggests that the magazine could be closed down because of Turtledove's story. There's a little discussion at Lit-Haven, too, although they miss Truesdale's point, bringing up points only slightly more minor than Truesdale's. It would certainly be great for business at F&SF if the government did try to do something about it. So maybe we should all draw up sides, act offended toward each side of the issue, make demands so that F&SF's circulation can go back up.

(Gordon's response to Truesdale is interesting although it doesn't really address Truesdale's point about the preface's presumed exaggeration, but if the government comes knocking, then maybe the preface's suggestion isn't exaggerated. Time will tell.)

Unfortunately, this six-page story raises a hullabaloo more minor than the above conversations--a six-page story that goes on five pages too long. It would probably work best as an editorial cartoon with the caption, "George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden get married." That'd be a good gag if the cartoonist could both capture and caricaturize the satirized's expressions. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if someone has already done this.

But the story starts and ends with the same premise. Where's the speculative development? What does each scene add? Little.

It's not just a structural lack of finesse:

"Boy, you'd think we're in the middle of a nucular war or something," W says. He always pronounces it nucular.

"Nuclear," O says gently. "It's nuclear." You can tell he's been trying to get W to do it right for a long time. Every couple needs a little something to squabble about. It takes the strain off, it really does.

There are ways to carry off old gags, and beating a dead horse is not one of them. How about simply:

"Boy, you'd think we're in the middle of a nucular war or something," W says.

"Nuclear," O says gently. Every couple needs a little something to squabble about.

Which isn't perfect, either, but doesn't this say everything the above said in less than half the words?

Undistilled Distillations

Wired has an interesting article about new ways of looking at books over at Amazon. This relates tangentially to Michael A. Burstein's examination. Just interesting stuff to note--not a real summation or explicator.

5.04.2005

Aliens as Art?

Can a compelling story be more than “trash”? Can an action movie with little character development?

Not every interpretation is equally viable for Aliens. The film makes statements on Vietnam, but the who-is-who is confused. Neither sapient species is native to the planet, so the Vietnam metaphor breaks down unless the filmmakers believe humans are not indigenous to Earth. One thesis I thought consistent throughout was that only a True Mother could conquer the evil Über-Mother, where the true mother is one driven not by biological urges alone but also by the psychological.

Women are generally better at coping with the aliens than men. Some gender issues are dealt with since the men act impressed when Ripley uses a loader even though the future has women in many places of authority: piloting ships, doctoring, taking part in the corporate board. Maybe they’re surprised that a civilian woman has such skills. But motherhood is more important since, even if the other women are mothers, they do not behave psychologically motherly toward others and are incompetent in the face of the destructive force of the alien or the biological mother.

Newt, the colony’s only survivor, has her own child, the doll’s head. Timmy, her brother says, “You go in places we can’t fit.” And Newt replies, “That’s why I’m the best.” Newt’s mother voiced the better wisdom of calling in the discovery of the alien ship, but the father went heedlessly on in (he’s also the one implanted by an alien hugger). Men and father figures are mostly incompetent, panicking [Hudson] or freezing up [Goreman] when needed, or downright destructive [corporate baddie].

Hudson: Have you ever been mistaken for a man?
Vasquez: No. Have you?

Some men do aid the women, i.e. Hicks, who may be the best father figure or male authority though he's still flawed: mistakes Newt for alien, and won’t get engaged--but maybe that locator band is engagement. After all, it is also the link that binds Ripley to Newt, making the three an adopted family of sorts.

Lt. Gore-man, the most senior-ranking father figure, can’t even tell his own men apart. Curiously, once he loses authority through a concussion and a red badge of courage, he never regains authority although he is redeemed by sacrificing himself in the utterly vain attempt to save Vasquez.

In the end, all the real men are dead or out of commission, so only an artificial man can help rescue them off the planet. One of my film classmates pointed out his milky-white ejaculation upon attack by the alien or biological mother. But if this is a sexual climax, it is also his destruction. But what is an artificial male? Is he an ideological impossibility? This is never really clear and maybe does not need to be since the film is an examination of mothers. An undaunted speculation, anyway: Perhaps artificiality is a perfection of maleness but not within gender relations as the film references Ripley’s earlier, poor encounter with an artificial man [Alien, the first of the film trilogy].

Ripley is the nearly ideal mother--biologically and psychologically. Her biological daughter, Amy or Amanda, died while Ripley was in deep freeze. Ripley could conceivably just make more biological babies, but instead she latches on to children who need mothers. She gives Newt, for instance, hot chocolate, a cleaning, and compliments. Ripley pets and sleeps with the child. When men are caught by aliens, she says it’s too late (not terribly motherly), but when Newt, her surrogate child, is caught by aliens with only 26 minutes before the planet blew up, she must risk everything. But she does act motherly to save the lives of survivors trapped in the alien den and to snap Hudson out of his panic attack with more than just discipline--she reminds him of how much they all need him sane. Hudson doesn’t get respect from any other character, and this act of tough kindness brings him back.

Aliens are egg-laying mothers, compared to bees and ants. If they had had mammary glands, maybe they would be harder to conscionably kill. But they are called bugs, have exoskeletons, and are ugly; so they must be exterminated. (Corporate baddies and artificial persons foolishly want to study the bugs in the name of science or war instead of killing them.) Nothing about the aliens even suggests maleness. The creature of the pod lays an embryo in the human. The pod creature’s implanting mouth resembles a vagina, and its pod opens like a flower (the female organ is often referred to as a flower as far back as the Bible). In fact, even the mouth within the mouth might reference urban myths of exotic prostitutes who line sexual organs with razor-blades. A man initially confuses Newt with an alien, thereby conflating Newt’s femaleness with the aliens’ (Hicks says, “I got it,” meaning Newt, conflating her with something alien even after it’s clear Newt is human. Does this mean that even good men struggle differentiate between different kinds of women?). Entering the aliens’ den, which penetrates deep into the bowels of the colony’s power center, the architectural design resembles a throat, fallopian tubes, or the mysterious labyrinthine female. In fact it is through the mouth of the ship that the alien is vanquished, not by phallic weapons lovingly dubbed “ball-breaker,” which would be useless if your enemy doesn’t have balls.

The main reason the bugs must be eliminated is that they have no ecological understanding of what destruction they wreck upon planets--no doubt why they must planet-hop. Eliminating all of a host species foolishly eliminates their ability to reproduce. When Ripley stumbles upon the alien mother, she’s producing far more pods than is necessary to wipe out the remaining humans and their own existence.

Ripley knows these aliens. As Burke approaches a specimen jar, she warns him to be careful and the alien pod creature tries to attack through the glass container. And most importantly, Ripley knows the value of a child. She communicates this to the alien as no one else has been able to, by throwing flames over the tops of the pods. The alien queen mother understands and calls off her dogs. If you pay close attention, it isn’t Ripley that breaks the truce, but an alien child/pod that opens. Note Ripley's expression when the pod opens. Like the Western code, this allows Ripley to open fire.

In the last confrontation, Ripley says to the queen mother in protection of Ripley‘s surrogate daughter: “Get away from her, you bitch!” And Newt rewards Ripley by calling Ripley, “Mommy”: the final triumph of the psychological mother over the biological.

5.03.2005

Bravo for Critical Thinking!

Errol Morris on All Things Considered:

I believe in truth. And in the pursuit of truth....

There is such a thing as truth, but we often have a vested interest in ignoring it or outright denying it. Also, it's not just thinking something that makes it true. Truth is not relative. It's not subjective. It may be elusive or hidden. People may wish to disregard it. But there is such a thing as truth and the pursuit of truth: trying to figure out what has really happened, trying to figure out how things really are....

It's not that we find truth with a big "T." We investigate and sometimes we find things out and sometimes we don't. There's no way to know in advance. It's just that we have to proceed as though there are answers to questions. We must proceed as though, in principle, we can find things out -- even if we can't. The alternative is unacceptable.

Joy Ralph on The Internet Review of Science Fiction:

I don’t think there’s nearly enough of [critical thinking] around, and some days I believe it is actively discouraged in some quarters.... Science Fiction is a natural genre to encourage critical thinking, because the minute you begin to read or watch or listen to something, you are forced to begin to solve the mystery of how the situation being described differs from normal expectations.... “Saving the World Through Science Fiction” strikes me as a banner worth rallying behind to actual effect....

Perhaps I’ve tipped my hand here to some ulterior motives behind IROSF. No, not politics (right or left) — reality. I’m of the opinion that the essentialness of the universe is sturdy enough to withstand close examination, and by a means far more invasive than your average cyclotron. How about the human imagination, unleashed? Speculative fiction can open up politics, culture, religion, and all those uncomfortable topics in ways other literature can't.


Amen, sister.

This could probably said of any genre but through different means. Traditional SF at its best does tackle such issues head-on, and through which, it may be argued compellingly, presents them in more depth than if presented through subtlety.

Certainly, Poetry magazine, which has a cool new look but is unfortunately more expansive, has recently been analyzing such issues as what poetry should be about though of course I didn't bring it with me to quote from it. Sadly, they included an opposing point of view by Franz Wright that simply double-dog dared the magazine to print his objection to the magazine--only he didn't demonstrate he had anything worth saying. He just said down with Poetry magazine because it hasn't been relevant since the 70s, as though that were critical thinking enough. Where is your proof Franz? I wish Christian Wiman had printed another poem instead.

Unfortunately, it takes a lot of effort to develop a compelling argument. I recommended the interview with William Gass below because he presents some interesting cases. As I pointed out below, even prize-winners don't always think through what they have to say. I've written a number of essays I haven't published because I argue with myself whether or not it's true. I wish other essayists did the same, but then would they be able to blog everyday if they did?

5.02.2005

William Gass Interviewed at Hayden' Ferry Review

Hayden' Ferry Review published an interview with Gass, including this great quote:

I am gratified if some find my work beautiful. I try to make it so. But failure is the rule where excellence is the goal. I don't try to be dense or difficult or easy either. I try to realize the demands of the piece as it emerges. When I want to know what to do, I ask the text. If things are going well, it will tell me.

As serendipity will have it, I listened to the commentaries on the Simpsons' first season. In it, they include parts of an episode that they claim almost killed the series. Their complaints seem rather minor at first, but if you follow their commentaries on their chosen aesthetic, that their adherence to the "text" or their vision or the rules that they established helped create a consistent vision. One might argue that they could have been less consistent in some areas and more in others, but the final product is compelling.

Gass goes on, however, without fully thinking out what he has to say:

Only trash tries to be compelling.

This is probably what Shakespeare's elite contemporaries probably told him--despite the oversight of including a compelling artist, Gass claims he wants Shakespeare with him on a desert island.

There are all kinds of art. I'll try to make a case for Aliens, an action movie, as art. It may not be Shakespeare, but it gives food for thought.

Henry James, that pulp hack that Gass adores, wrote ghost stories. Why would the bastard ever pander to readers? Because maybe James let the story decide what audience it wanted to reach. Why not let the arts be judged by the rules they create?

(Problem: The fewer the rules, the closer the asymptotic arrow points toward boredom; which is why Aliens does not rival Shakespeare: It doesn't go after as much. This is also why Gass' rule struck a chord: "failure is the rule where excellence is the goal.")

More Margo Lanagan

A YA vendor did an extensive interview with Margo and Niall Harrison sums up his thoughts.

Hitchhiking across the Universe

Here's the best trailer for the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a clever parody of trailers. And it displays more of what was lacking in the movie: wit by the minute. It had much of the wit though at times it got watered down by, say, a romance that ought to have tried for more wit than romance to keep it within Adams territory.

I basically if indirectly critique the DVD and original books at SFSite. This movie's panning so far by non-fans has been the same faults of the original which the movie actually improves upon. It's a tall order organizing the mish-mash that Adams' left and reconstructing a regular plot out of it, and the current filmmakers made some new beautiful connections though they tried too hard or not hard enough with the romance.

But because it attempts to plot Adams' wit by wit, it should be worth a writer's time to study. Fans will probably complain of not sticking to the letter of the story but how can they complain if Adams didn't really pay attention to plot either?

Empire Movies has lot of trailers to download--albeit slowly. Alec Worley at SF Site probably represents the SF fan consensus.

It'd be great if someone could do for Robert Sheckley what various media venues have done for Adams. After all, Sheckley at his best can hit the same tenor with a significant emotional core.