review

Star Trek is Not Progressive

Star Trek (the Original Series) has been mythologized as being about a hopeful, positive, Utopian future in which class differences have evaporated, war between peoples of the Federation is unknown, racism and sexism extinguished and money is a curiosity of the past, thus showing a way forward for humanity. However, actually looking at the content of the Original Series quickly belies these ideas.

Sexism is rampant on the show, perhaps nowhere worse than in “The Enemy Within” when it’s suggested that Yeoman Rand enjoyed nearly being sexually assaulted by evil Captain Kirk. (Grace Lee Whitney, the actress who played Rand, specifically called this out in her memoir as being truly horrible, so let’s be clear that any claim that this is “of its time” is actually saying “of the sexist men running Star Trek of its time”.) As for racism, yes, Uhura is on the bridge (albeit as a glorified switchboard operator) and Sulu is at the helm, but as almost every story revolves around the 3 white men of Kirk, Spock and Bones, and as these other characters tend to get less than a handful of lines between them, it seems less progressive than tokenism. (And one version of the creation of Star Trek indicates that it was DesiLu Studios that dictated the multiracial crew, not Gene Roddenberry, who would have been happy with the far whiter crew from the original pilot “The Cage”.)

But most importantly, far from showing a path to a better future, again and again Star Trek ridicules and skewers progressive ideals or the idea that people could reach a place of material social progress without it becoming a dystopian nightmare or autocratic dictatorship. The numerous examples include “The Return of the Archons”, “This Side of Paradise” and “Space Seed”.

Nowhere is this point clearer, though, than in the episode most often lauded as the “best” episode in all of the the original series, “The City on the Edge of Forever”. The climax revolves around the idea that Kirk must let Edith Keeler die because if she doesn’t she’ll start a pacifism movement that will lead to America not entering World War II and Hitler conquering the world.

Let’s think for a second about this. This episode aired in 1967, while protesters were out on the White House lawn chanting “Hey Hey LBJ how many kids you kill today”. In other words, the subtext here is expressly against the anti-war movements of the 1960s and in favor of those who felt that we had to fight in Vietnam to contain the Soviet Union. Pacifism, Star Trek is telling us in the midst of Vietnam, is an idea whose time has not come and is in fact dangerous in the present. Far from being a show in touch with the youth and representing the unbridled optimism of the 60s, this is a show that’s actively telling the youth to shut up and let the old hawks run things.

And yes, by the time we get to the movies and the Next Generation the mythologized version of Star Trek’s ethos was in ingrained in the fabric of the Star Trek Universe, to the point where we get Star Trek IV where the crew are basically idealistic hippies wandering around Reagan’s America and pointing out how horrible all the crass commercialism and commodification is and how they’re destroying the environment. This doesn’t change the fact that Star Trek: The Original Series is a fundamentally reactionary mess.

Review: MediaEntity #6

Over at the comiXology Tumblr, I review a fascinating comic called MediaEntity which uses the digital medium to create elliptical, filmic effects to tell a story that I describe as somewhere between a taught thriller and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Take a gander.

Please tell me what I'm missing about Midnight's Children

So, I tried reading Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and I have to say I think it's quite badly written. I feel a little self-conscious saying that because it's such a highly lauded book, I worry I'm making myself look like an idiot. This is, after all, the book that won the "Booker of Bookers".

But here's an example sentence: "A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country."

I think Bulwer-Lytton or any number of purple pulp writers would be right at home in that nest of adjectives and adverbs. I mean, I get that it's a magical realist book about India in the 20th century and that's interesting and not something we've seen a lot of (especially when this book was written), but the Booker? And then the Booker of Bookers? Somebody please tell me what am I missing.

The Texas Chainsaw Legacy: An American Love Affair with "True" Crime

This article was originally published on Donner, Party of One and is reprinted with permission

In 1974, Tobe Hooper terrified audiences with an all-too-real work of fiction. Almost 30 years later, audiences still want to believe it really happened.

It is an unfortunate fact of modern movie marketing that "based on a true story" has become the brightest badge a film can wear. It is as if, in an ironic twist, Godard's rebellious dictum "cinema is truth 24 times a second" has been taken so literally by mainstream audiences that they are now desperate to believe that anything on the silver screen could represent reality. Even the success of high-octane escapism can spike dramatically if it claims to be "based on true events", regardless of whether the alleged events are known to the public in any specific terms. The history of this seduction is too vast to encapsulate here, but examples are so plentiful that one can seemingly always be found within temporal spitting distance. Bryan Bertino advertised his 2008 home invasion horror The Strangers as “inspired by true events”, but rather than referring to a specific situation it seems to simply refer to the fact that people really do invade one another's homes; 2012's The Possession, a jewish iteration of The Exorcist, claims to base it self on a true story, though it is actually based on a museum curator's account of his spooky professional experience rather than a supernatural assault on an innocent family; the 2009 sci-fi thriller The Fourth Kind insists on its veracity with an opening oath sworn by lead actress Milla Jovovich that the film is a mix of Unsolved Mysteries-style reenactments and REAL FOOTAGE of the REAL ALIEN ABDUCTEES. Why anyone would choose to construct a movie in this way is anybody's guess, and The Fourth Kind is hardly a portrait of success, but the fact remains: filmmakers have some reason to believe that basing a film on a "true story" will put butts in seats. Why is it that we might value verite more than pure fantasy? Is it conditional? That is: not all audiences might reject an almost 100% synthetic entertainment juggernaut like AVATAR in favor of a difficult and compelling Henry Lee Lucas biopic, but that said, are there particular cinematic situations in which we prefer to believe that we are being presented with the truth? If so, why?

A lot has been made of the real-life inspiration for Tobe Hooper's trailblazing 1974 horror classic THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. To be totally fair, several powerful movies claim as their muse the murderous rural grave robber Ed Gein's untoppably outrageous ten year crime spree in the perfectly-named small town of Plainfield, Wisconsin. Though he committed his last murder in 1957, Gein's fabulously perverse criminal career continued to seduce cinematic luminaries from the debut of Psycho to the release of Silence of the Lambs (to say nothing of the endless catalog of great and terrible exploitative biopics and Nth generation ripoffs thereof). The effete momma-worshipping bumpkin was himself an artist, creating furniture and corpse couture from the fruits of his boneyard harvests and his plus-sized female murder victims, selected for Gein's most famous project: a skin suit resembling his late mother. Ed Gein's body count did not rise above three, but the depravity of his crimes remains unequaled by more prolific serial murderers, and moreover, the almost fantastical nature of his activities remains irresistible to filmmakers of all stripes. Witness in particular: the seven movies (so far) that make up the undying franchise of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

A Taxonomy of Recently Published Speculative Fiction Short Stories

Reading through some online short fiction, I found myself naturally placing the stories in certain categories, regardless of genre. When I was done I came up with 7 different story types that pretty much all the stories I read could fit into. I present them here, not as a perfect an inarguable ordering, but as an observation open to discussion.

Most of these stories are from the latest or next to latest edition of these periodicals, with a couple recent Hugo nominees thrown in to get a hint of what the field thinks is the best. I tried to get a good selection of different sources whose stories are available free on the Internet for anyone to read.

There were a number of stories I read that I didn't like, though they fit into these types. I'm not going to talk about those stories. All the fiction presented below I recommend reading.

Something else to consider: change "novum" to any disruption in a person's life, and change "fight the monster" to "fight the villain", and this taxonomy could, I think, work for pretty much any short story. Novels, on the other hand, are more likely to mix the types together since they have the room to do it, thus the monster is also the disruption that brings about character growth, or a modern fable might have elements of monster fighting, character growth, socio-political lens, etc. Indeed, in many ways these types could be seen as patterns that can be mixed and matched.

Reading Popular Literature Interlude 1: The Romance Problem

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

While I've made an effort to be inclusive about the genres I read in this series, you may notice one obvious omission: Romance novels. So why would I exclude a whole genre? You'd think any attempt to cover the history of popular fiction would have to include one of the most popular categories of books of them all.

I guess I just never got past the stereotype of the romance genre as porn for middle aged suburban house wives (as opposed to erotica, porn for the more adventurous, urban woman). When a pre-teen, before the Internet exploded, I used to sneak into the romance section of the library and page through the books looking for the sex scenes, simultaneously getting horny and giggling at the language ("his turgid manhood thrust into the triangle of my femininity" etc.).

And yet, it's not as if I don't like romantic story lines; I actually like them quite a lot. And I certainly don't have anything against a good sex scene. I've also read people talking about romance as a real genre, one every bit as respectable as mystery or science fiction. But I don't know where to start. Barbara Cortland and Danielle Steel, who are both on the best-selling all-time writer list, seem kind of execrable.

So I turn the matter over to you, my readers. If you've been reading my essays so far, you know something about my taste. Recommend me something in the romance category. Fantasy or paranormal romance are perfectly acceptable, as are more realist fare. Just as long as there are characters with more than one dimension, a premise and plot that aren't insulting to my intelligence, and a style that doesn't make me want to claw my eyes out. Prove to me, if you can, that my long held prejudices are wrong.

Any suggestions?

Reading Popular Literature part 4: The Pulp Era (1920-1941)

Edit: Corrected some embarrassing factual and spelling mistakes

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

Advances in publishing technology in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to huge numbers of cheaply produced magazines written to appeal to the widest possible audience. By the 20s and 30s, before television and with radio still new, these magazines were a primary form of home entertainment and sold in the millions of copies. They typically cost 10 cents and were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, and thus called "pulps" to differentiate them from the more expensive, glossy-paper "slick" magazines.

The argument could be made that much of what we think of as popular fiction today was codified in the 1920s and 1930s during the boom period of the pulps. Hard boiled crime fiction, romantic stories both sentimental and lurid, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy and horror all become recognizable in the pages of various pulp magazines. Indeed, before the pulp era, "genre" was a word commonly used to differentiate forms like poetry from prose. It was magazines like Astounding Stories (for science fiction) and Weird Tales (for horror and fantasy) that created the notion of categories of fiction separate from one another, with sets of common tropes and history. In the letter pages of these magazines and in the burgeoning hobby of ham radio, the first genre fandoms begin to arise, as people with common interests begin to find each other and communicate and eventually form the first "fan clubs."

The pulp era ended more-or-less in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America's subsequent entry into the Second World War. Paper shortages caused by the war made pulp paper much more expensive, causing many of them to shut down or change format and pricing. (The war had similar impacts on the production and distribution of popular entertainment in other parts of the world as well.) Soon enough comic books, television and the paperback revolution rose up to take pulp's place as providers of cheap entertainment for the masses.

Reading the History of Popular Literature part 3: The Progressive Era and WWI (1900-1919)

This article is part of my series Reading the History of Popular Literature.

Books marked with a red asterix (*) are recommended reading. Books that were read previous to starting this project are marked "(previously read)". The country indicated in parentheses is the country of the author's origin (or citizenship), not necessarily the country in which the book was written. If the country of first publication is different then the author's country of origin, it is noted.

Books marked "(Not finished)" I did not finish reading.

What we call the Progressive Era in the United States coincides roughly with the Edwardian Era in the United Kingdom, the period after the turn of the century up until the first world war. It was a time of optimism and ideals mixed with chaos and social and political disruption; big ideas like woman's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, eugenics, occultism, Communism and Anarchism were all gaining traction, and major technological advances—the automobile, electricity, the telephone, the movie camera, the machine gun, etc.—were changing everyday life at an unprecedented rate. The rise of industry led to corporate power on a level no one had seen before, and American industrialists like Rockefeller, Morgan and Hearst ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. All this went hand-in-hand with plenty of violence, in the form of state-sanctioned genocide, revolutionary agitation, the assassination of major political figures and finally the bloodiest war Western history had seen to that point.

In popular literature, reaction to all this change generally manifested as yearning for a simpler time or a simpler world. This simpler world might be in the past, in the future, on another planet, over the rainbow or even just in the cops-and-robbers dramas of the newspaper, but one thing you could count on was that the characters would be larger-than-life, good and evil would be clearly demarcated and good would most certainly triumph in the end.

In America, and to a lesser extent Britain and Europe, there was also a massive influx of immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as new technologies (like the steam and then the gasoline engine), and economic and political changes allowed population movement on an unprecedented scale. The racial and class anxiety this caused in the West manifested in popular literature as bald racism and stories where heroic whites battle against corrupt and evil foreigners or dark-skinned monsters.

Why I Hate Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury is one of the few writers published consistently in the science fiction category who is also read widely by non-sf readers. He was awarded a special National Book Award for "contributions to American letters", his books are regularly assigned in schools, and he inspires that special level of fanatical devotion that leads people to name blogs after him and create absurdly elaborate music videos about wanting to have sex with him.

Which is part of why it's so frustrating to me that I don't like him. Of all the sf authors who have made some significant impact on the mainstream (whose numbers include Robert Heinlein, Ursula K. LeGuin, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, among others), Bradbury is probably the one that troubles me the most. (Okay, Heinlein is deeply problematic, but that's another essay entirely.)

Bradbury's most famous and bestselling book is Fahrenheit 451. Like millions of Americans, I was assigned to read this book in Middle School, though I didn't until recently as part of my Reading the History of Popular Literature project. Most of what's always bothered me about Bradbury is summed up by this passage on page 7 of my edition:

Reading the History of Popular Literature: Introduction

After considering the history of genre and popularity, and looking at my reading list full of popular novels I missed during my years of literary fiction snobbery, I decided the best thing to do would be to put all the books I wanted to read in chronological order, and with them other books I hadn't read that might help illuminate the lineage of contemporary popular literature -- which is to say the popular literature of the culture I live in, America in the 21st century. This way I could get a feel for how the the work developed over time and get a sense of its context.

Of course, any such lineage could be traced back at least to Gilgamesh. For practical purposes, I decided to begin with the Gothics because it appears that a lot of the tropes and tendencies we associate with popular genres developed there. The list is also, unfortunately, predominantly Western. With certain notable exceptions, such as The Arabian Nights, popular literature in the West has been almost exclusively from the West, with relatively little from other regions getting translated into Western languages and brought to Western shores at all. Even today, with the welcome exception of Japanese manga and anime, most of the popular culture we consume is Western, and in America most of that is American or, at best, British.

The list is also largely dominated by science fiction and fantasy and its antecedents for the simple reason that it's what I want to read. There will, however, be forays into crime, mystery, western, thriller and other popular genres, in order to get a flavor of what else was going on at the time. I'm also going to mention some works I read before starting the project if they help illuminate or represent something that I think is important about a particular period.