Criticism

The Poetics of Aggravated SF Assaults

So in the interests of being less vitriolic and not just hurling insults, I thought I'd approach some of the more irritating aesthetic (as opposed to political, ethical, or social) problems with the SF Ghetto and Con Culture in particular. Some of this stuff is just dumb, and it's probably not worth pointing out why. But I think it needs saying in order to point out the differences between what I think about this stuff, and the things I'm more vocally critical of.

1. Filk

Filk makes no sense to me. My enduring image of filk is that guy from Trekkies who was really bad at being in drag, singing a klingon hymn of some sort. It made me cringe. I still cringe when I think about it. It was that bad. Supposedly the idea behind filk is a group of people getting together and singing songs. That, on its own, is a good thing. Music is wonderful and we all need more of it in our lives, even people like me who have a lot of it. What doesn't make sense to me is the form that Filk takes, which, to an outsider, appears to be something like a cross between Weird Al Yankovic and Mark Russell, only with none of the musicianship or genius to be found in those musical satirists. The point here is not that the idea of filk is a bad one, it's that it seems to be executed in an internally contradictory way. What I mean by that is that on the one hand it's pushing this "everyone can sing" idea which is laudable. But at the same time, the actual activity itself is rife with in jokes and jargon that are only really accessible to a very small group of people. It's this internal irony, that seems to be completely missed by the participants, that I find displeasing about filk.

2. Costuming

Plot Genre and the Pulp Fiction Boondoggle

Apparently yet again the mainstream critics have gotten it wrong, and not surprisingly it came out of Northeastern literary circles, whose stable of critics includes such dim luminaries as the functionally illiterate Michiko Kakutani and the it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-tragic-how-completely-wrong-she-always-is-about-everything-she's-supposed-to-be-an-expert-on Helen Vendler, and need I mention N+1?

This latest, as Matt Cheney rightly points out, is an attempt to elevation to "serious literary discourse" the old straw man that's been kicked around in genre fiction and fan fic circles for at least a generation now, namely that genre fiction is somehow superior to literary fiction because it has a plot and literary fiction is just a bunch of navel gazing character study nonsense couched in mandarin language.

Formula, Fiction and the Work of Michael Moorcock

This is the second in my ongoing Series on the work of Michael Moorcock, which will include a review of his latest book The Best of Michael Moorcock, and finally an interview with the man himself.

Some readers may have been surprised at my admiration for Moorcock's formulas for writing fantasy novels, considering previous statements I've made disparaging formula in fiction. I've been especially critical of the tyranny of the three-act structure in film, because so many films are shoe-horned into it that it becomes predictable and rote.

However, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with formula in fiction per se. No less than William Shakespeare used them quite often, and even the strictest literary fiction will often use structural conventions, such as the "moment of epiphany". It occurs to me that a good comparison can be made between music and fiction here— stories that hew closely to formulas, such as the typical closed-door mystery, can be compared to Blues, where the structure from song to song is almost identical and the interesting stuff is what you do on top of it. Looser, say, would be rock music, with its standard forms like ABACAB but no hard-and-fast chord structures, and then there are any number of other forms with varying degrees of complexity and looseness, from the classical sonata to the most experimental out-jazz. What forms you use depends (obviously) on what kind of music you want to make; for someone like Frank Zappa, the ever more bizarre song structures is what makes the work interesting, while for B.B. King, what he plays and sings over the standard structure is where the magic lies. Which is all to say that formula is only bad if you do it in a boring way.

Michael Moorcock has always shown an obsession with structure and an eagerness to play with it. In his early fantasy writing, he took his lead from Robert E. Howard, who wrote relatively simple stories about heroes fighting monsters in which the innovation lay in making the monsters and settings weird and fascinating. Conan the Barbarian may have been the star of the show, but it was the soul-sucking devil-dog or the tortured, blind elder-demon-thing that kept you reading. To this Moorcock added a hallucinatory, sixties sensibility and moody, unpredictable characters, especially the doomed albino Elric. A decade later he followed the lead of a very different writer, William Burroughs, and created the absurd, plotless book A Cure for Cancer, part of the ever-more-experimental Jerry Cornelious series. Even A Cure for Cancer, though, follows deliberate structural decisions; a note at the beginning describing it as being "in something approximating sonata form." Further, all the Cornelious books (which each take place in a different, parallel universe) have ripples and patterns flowing through them, characters and situations following similar courses or being reinvented in intriguing ways. Likewise, the entire Cornelious series references and is referenced by the rest of Moorcock's work, with, for instance, the first part of the first book (The Final Programme) being essentially a rewrite and update of the first Elric story with elements of the psychedelic (and Philip K. Dickian) short story "The Deep Fix" thrown in for good measure.

Throughout his career Moorcock made a project out of mastering different forms and styles, refusing to stay still or stop experimenting, and in this, he is comparable to Pablo Picasso or David Bowie. In one sense, Moorcock's work can be seen to be a reflection of the entirety of 20th century literature, a map of modernist, post-modernist and pulp sensibilities. In another sense, Moorcock's work is a complete, self-contained universe, a game of mirrors, connections, clues and red herrings. And it's Moorcock's obsession with structure which allows him to create his narrative puzzles, and to blueprint so many different styles and fill them up in new and interesting ways.

Very Short Reviews of Recent Speculative Fiction Television Shows

In no particular order...

The Middle Man: The best sf show in recent memory. Canceled, of course. However, show creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach appears to be working on a new show, so I look forward to seeing that.

Virtuality: A very well written and well acted pilot. Not picked up as a series, of course. Always remember, in television mediocrity is the bar to be aspired to. (Though I have to say I am getting a little tired of EVERYONE on television having to look like a supermodel.)

Fringe: And what a God-awful crapfest this is.

Eureka: I saw one episode of this show, where they had someone gain magical powers by using "100% of their brain", thereby perpetuating a grimace-worthy line of bullshit that has been widely known to be false for... ever. It would really take me a lot to watch this show again.

Heroes: Stopped watching at the beginning of season 3 when it was clear it was gonna be no better than season 2.

Warehouse 13: Taking the premises of two shows (The Librarian and The X-Files) and putting them together does not make you original. Promises Smallville-level mediocrity of character, plot and storyline. Still, at least it's better than Fringe. Also, see point about Virtuality and looks. (Though at least some of the minor characters are normal-looking. Also, note they go out of the way to make some supporting characters token ethnics, but the leads are all white.)

Stargate Whatever: Are these shows still around? Are they still the same sort of story mill for plots we've seen before and two dimensional characters?

Doctor Who: Still the standard-barer of what sf TV can be, at worst stupid and at best insanely brilliant and fun. Very much looking forward to the new season, with new head-writer Moffat.

Torchwood: A show that could have been great but was actually crap. Haven't watched the new mini-series yet, but after watching what's come before I don't have high hopes.

Dollhouse: Ambivalent about this show. On one hand, I think it's the ballsiest thing on television, and loads more interesting than, well, most of the shows above (and other, non-sf shows). On the other hand, everything everyone has said about the show having problems w/r/t its treatment of women is well justified, and I have trouble sympathizing with any of the characters who either have literally no personality at all, or are horrible, awful people who exploit those with no personality at all. Even the detective, who's supposed to be the good guy, is not really that nice a fellow. Still this is the most audacious, most complex thing going right now and I look forward to season two.

Terminator Chronicles: Never cared about the Terminator franchise, never was interested. Haven't seen a single episode of this show, and don't really want to.

Lost: Interesting enough that I'll still watch it, even though it's become painfully clear that they're making everything up as they go along and lots and lots of things just don't really make sense.

Still haven't watched Sanctuary. Don't know what that'll be like.

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw Out Now

On another note, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, a collection of speculative fiction criticism by Samuel Delany that was the instigation for my long conversation about SF with Matt Cheney is now available for purchase. I've already ordered a copy with my favorite independent bookstore. You should too!

Star Trek: What a Ridiculous Load of Crap

Massive spoilers below.

EDIT: added more notes at the bottom.

Imagine if you will that there's a magic red goop, and that a single drop of this goop—one drop!—can create a black hole. Now imagine that a whole man-sized container of the stuff (which one needs, for some reason, because a few drops just won't do the job) smashes in the middle of a starship. Now imagine that for some reason that ship is still around with a giant black hole forming all around it and you can have a nice conversation with the captain of that and then decide for some reason you need to shoot him with your phasers and photon torpedoes because the black hole hasn't completely destroyed them already.

Okay, now imagine that you sky dive from space into the atmosphere of a planet. There is no sense of burning up on reentry or even any sort of heat. Then you land on a giant laser drill in the stratosphere. This drill is hanging off of a ship in space and is drilling a hole in the planet, but there's no sense at all of the ship maintaining geosynchronous orbit; indeed the drill seems to be moving around quite a lot and yet is still drilling this big hole. Oh yeah, and the reason you need a big hole? Because you want to put a drop of red black hole goo in the center of the planet to destroy it because for some reason creating a black hole anywhere in the general vicinity of the planet isn't good enough. (Why do they bother even using the term "black hole" if they have no desire to have anything to do with what a black hole is or does?) But okay, so then you land on your space drill. You whip off your helmets and have no trouble at all breathing up in the stratosphere. Then for some reason the drill is manned, and the bad guys come out and you all have a big kung fu fight up on the top, complete with flips and acrobatics. On a platform in the open air in the stratosphere. And nobody just blows right off.

I don't think I've ever in my life seen an ostensible Science Fiction movie with such complete contempt for science. Space Balls had better science. Godzilla had better science (all of them).

My Review of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

My Little Brother by Cory Docotorow is up over at Literary Kicks. Here's an excerpt:

One thing you have to say for Little Brother, Cory Doctorow's recent book for young adults (now nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel): it's ambitious. It is an adventure story about teenage terrorism that's also a screed on the importance and meaning of the right to privacy and a guide to bad government practices and how to fight them, a novel made manifesto and handbook. The book tells us, for example, why anti-terrorism measures like ramped-up airplane security are bad, or how to safely destroy the RFID tag in a passport. It's useful. It's also pretty blatant propaganda, and it is its nature as a work of propaganda that ultimately undermines its effectiveness as a work of fiction.

Go read the rest.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1, Pages 12-18: Enter Mary Sue Rosenbaum

In 1973 Paula Smith, the editor of a Star Trek Fanzine, wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale" as a satire of the kind of strange wish fulfilling fan fiction that she received from people writing themselves in to the crew of the Starship Enterprise. The story featured a character named "Mary Sue" who was a fifteen and a half year old wunderkind who in the course of a few brief paragraphs earns Captain Kirk's love, Mr. Spock's respect, is revealed to be half vulcan, and then runs the whole ship while the main characters from the TV show are languishing with a sickness. In the end she dies of the sickness herself, mourned by the entire crew, and is given her own "national holiday" aboard the enterprise. The story spawned the term "Mary Sue" as a pejorative term for an authorial surrogate whose primary purpose is to live out the fantasies of the author in a fictional world. This criticism has worked its way into the sort of collective unconscious of amateur writing, and admonitions to avoid writing Mary Sue characters is well known in the fan fiction world.

Atlas Shrugged update

JF Quackenbush will not be posting an Atlas Shrugged update today because he is too damn sick of reading the book and cannot read anymore at the moment. Please stay tuned.

We should all give thanks to Mr. Quackenbush for reading this crap so we don't have to.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1, Pages 3-12: Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand is the worst book ever published. The characters are poorly drawn, the story is ridiculous, the philosophical underpinnings are incoherent and morally repugnant, and the writing is incompetent. Quite frankly and put as simply as I possibly can, there is no value to this book, it should not be read by anyone for any reason. And yet it is. By millions. It has sold a bajillion copies and is a touchstone of political thought for a wide swath of the American public who for some reason have come to the conclusion that it has something to offer. I offer in return the thesis that these people are fucking idiots. As a public service in order that no one else should ever have to read this garbage, I am undertaking the following analysis, in detail, of the book in its entirety, page by excruciatingly awful page. If you're interested in following along, it will be useful to know that all page references and quotations are from the 1999 Plume Paperback edition with a new introduction by Leonard Peikoff. But I discourage anyone from following along. It's my hope that this summary and close reading will be more entertaining than the actual text, and that one can read this instead of ever having to suffer through the actual book.