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Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 2: the Films

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

by Calvin Johnson (and a coda by Athena)

Previously: the books.

Translating a well-loved book into a movie is a tricky business. Translating a series of books into a series of movies is even harder.

Peter Jackson did it brilliantly for The Lord of the Rings, through a combination of breathtaking New Zealand landscapes, well-crafted digital special effects, and above all, allowing his actors to act.

Other series were not so lucky. The movie versions of both Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (drawn from three out of thirteen books) and Phillip Pullman’s The Golden Compass were badly received, especially at the box office, making sequels unlikely. And the Narnia movies are struggling despite a ready-made fan base.

The Harry Potter films, on the other hand, have been a phenomenal success. Last week I wrote about the book series; now, with the release of the penultimate movie, I’ll delve into Harry’s cinematic career.

How and why a movie succeeds or fails is a mystery. Often it’s a matter of a poor match to the strength of cinema, telling a story in images. The Lemony Snicket books were too metafictional to translate well to the big screen. The Narnia books, while bedecked with fantasy flourishes, are primarily about small, personal moral quandries, not a topic that leads to blockbuster multi-repeat viewings (I prefer the BBC Narnia series, with cheesy special effects but a tighter focus on the stories).

Rowling’s books, in contrast, were made for cinema, a criticism in fact leveled at her writing. Although she has her philosophy – that categorizing people by the circumstances of blood and birth is the root of evil – and although Harry has his internal debates, the conflicts in the novels are primarily visual: dramatic revelations, spectacular duels between wizards.

The first two movies were respectful to the point of being stiff. This is unsurprising, as they were directed by Chris Columbus, a protege of Steven Spielberg who learned Spielberg’s maudlin tendencies but none of his visual genius. The series got a real boost in the middle two movies, especially Alfonso Cuarón’s lyrical Prisoner of Azkaban. Leaping up from the best book in the series, Cuarón’s visual inventiveness matched the eccentricities of the Potterverse. Mike Newell managed to keep the spark alive for the magical tournament in The Goblet of Fire.

Alas, the flame guttered low in the remainder of the movies, directed by David Yates. Both The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince were grim, bloated, and not infrequently tedious books, and while Yates hacked out some of the extraneous material, what remained were grim, rushed, and above all obligatory summaries of the books. The Deathly Hallows is famously being broken into two films so it feels less rushed, but viewing Part I felt less like joy and more like an assignment.

Any story, be it book or movie, can be thought of as a tent, much like the wedding tent magically raised early on in The Deathly Hallows: Part I; the structure hangs supported from two or three poles. The problem with The Deathly Hallows is that there are far too many tentpoles and the movie must visit most of them. The flight of the Harry Potters. Dumbledore’s will. Bill and Fleur’s wedding. The escape and fight in the heart of London. Harry’s inherited house. Harry’s birthplace. Luna Lovegood’s home. The House of Malfoy. In between we camp in the wilderness. The book felt lost at this point, as if Rowling knew where she wanted to go but had no idea how to get there, and the feeling is reproduced all too accurately in the movie.

Indeed, although Yates is deft and visually more nimble than Columbus, the movie follows the book a little too faithfully. Part of the challenge of making a movie from a well-loved book is to both keep the uninitiated on board and to make those who have loved the book to tatters see it anew. Peter Jackson succeeded in The Lord of the Rings, allowing us to feel the burdens that Aragorn and Gandalf carry, helping us to see the tides of war rise and ebb in the chaos of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

Unfortunately, having to cover so much Yates can add little insight. The most moving scenes are the very beginning and the very end of Part I, as our no-longer-so-young protagonists suffer painful losses in their war against Voldemort.

So why have the Harry Potter movies succeeded? Again, there can be no simple answer, but the producers did have an advantage. For all her flaws, Rowling always understood the series to be Harry’s story, and she resisted having a plethora of viewpoint characters.

The trend in doorstopper fantasy and science fiction novels to have a large number of viewpoint characters is one I have come to loathe, because it makes it harder to emotionally engage with any of the characters. Peter Jackson (last time, I promise) succeeded with The Lord of the Rings because the first movie focused on Frodo’s journey.

By contrast, A Series of Unfortunate Events was more obsessed with Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf and his big eyebrows, and less with the hapless Baudelaire orphans. The Golden Compass would seem to have all the right elements for success: big name stars, dazzling visuals. But one of the joys of the novel is the rebellious, tart-tongued heroine Lyra; onscreen she got lost among the special effects, leaving a leaden, rudderless movie.

Harry Potter was different. J. K. Rowling, the screenwriter Steve Kloves, and the producers and the directors have none of them forgotten that the books and movies are all titled Harry Potter and the Something Something. With tiny exceptions, every frame of the movies is about Harry, and we see the other characters primarily through his eyes. So although the narratives have far too many plot tentpoles, there is one and only one character tentpole. Thus in retrospect having a pedestrian director for the first two movies may have been a wise move. Without this focus I don’t think the audience for the books or the movies would have been nearly as engaged.

Books and movies can both be magical, transcendent experiences that take us into new worlds, showing us new windows even on subjects we think we know intimately. If the Harry Potter films have not quite risen to that level, their popularity show a hunger for magic in our lives. And somewhere out there someone is writing or filming the next magical experience–not perfect, but a story that puts a wire to our hearts, a spark to our imaginations.

Athena’s coda: I haven’t read the Potter books, but I’ve seen all the films except for The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince. I greatly enjoyed the occasional inventive visual: the Lewis chess set brought to life-sized life in The Philosopher’s Stone; the hippogriff making itself comfortable, housecat-like, in The Prisoner of Azkaban; the final exit of the two guest schools’ conveyances in The Goblet of Fire. And I found some of the characters interesting: Snape, McGonagall, Lupin, Black (Dumbledore, not so much – enough lovably irascible father figures already).

However, my overall sense is of fatigued déjà vu, of bloated, plodding spectacles. The borrowings from the Arthurian cycle, the Brontë sisters, Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin’s Earthsea and the X-Men are obvious — and like a stew with clashing and stale ingredients, they leave me with a sour mind.

Having a single character peg may cover many sins but it uncovers others – especially because Harry’s character is tapioca-bland in the films. For one, it accentuates the fact that despite the sermons about loving everyone regardless of their “race”, this is a hierarchical universe where magic ability is genetically inherited, automatically creating castes (just like the infamous Star Wars midichlorians). Hell, Hagrid practically tugs his forelock. Even within the ranks of magic wielders, some lives are worth more than others: by the end, Harry has a long tally of sacrificed pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, queens… Even Neo’s body count was less in The Matrix trilogy.

For another, a Messianic avenger needs a worthy antagonist and, as Calvin mentioned in Part 1, Voldemort is a moldy caricature — not even a Sauron, let alone a Lucifer. Come to think of it, he looks like Gollum’s brother. Just as you wonder why the hordes of Janissary Pretorians… er, Jedi, cannot handle two Sith in Star Wars, so you wonder why the formidable lineup of white-hat wizards in the Potterverse cannot overcome that whiny slitherer.

Just as crucially, a hero needs a partner of equal stature. In the films, at least, it’s blindingly obvious that Harry’s true soulmate is Hermione (highlighted by the total lack of chemistry between the Hermione/Ron and Harry/Ginny dyads), just as in the X-Men films Wolverine’s true partner is Rogue. I can see Ron getting a consolation prize – but what does Hermione get, who is as good as Harry yet not the Chosen One because of the incorrect location of her body bulges and wrong family pedigree? I predict at least one divorce in the future Potterverse, when she gets tired of washing everyone’s socks. But that is another country.

Finally, the magic in Harry Potter is arbitrary, slaved to the plot twists. This makes it as interesting and attractive as an engine that keeps sputtering out at random moments. People hungering for magic deserve better than regurgitated, least-common-denominator myths.

Images: 1st, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) in that unexpected triumph, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings; 2nd, Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) trying to protect his charges from more plodding Potter films; 3rd, pieces from the Lewis chess set (walrus ivory, 12th century); 4th, a far more effective guise for Ralph Fiennes to play an evil or ambiguous antagonist (here shown as Heathcliff in an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights).

Harry Potter and the Two-Part Blog Post, Pt 1: the Books

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

by Calvin W. Johnson

I’m delighted to once again host my friend Calvin Johnson, who earlier gave us insights on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica.

(Warning: there be spoilers ahead!)

My wife and I came to Harry Potter in a difficult time. The details of our semi-permanent temporary limbo are unimportant but exiled to a hotel room, we began to read aloud to each other. We read Harry Potter.

Having read all of Harry Potter and several other series, I can sum up the reason for the renaissance of young adult literature in a single word: narrative. Modern and postmodern literary fiction, which Annie Dillard has termed the ‘fiction of surfaces,’ has all but abandoned narrative drive. But page-turning narrative and crisp characterization still abounds in young adult fiction.

Rowling showcases many of the virtues of YA books. She writes narratives that keep the reader wanting to know what happens next? In this she has mastered a key skill, namely creating plot twists that surprise but in retrospect make perfect sense, misdirecting the reader while dropping in hints that you only later recognize as pointing to the true solution. In The Prisoner of Azkaban she did this beautifully, allowing the reader to congratulate himself on figuring out that (spoilers) Remus Lupin was a werewolf, so much so that one completely misses that the true villain was Ron Weasley’s pet rat. And in The Deathly Hallows we finally learn the key to Snape, and why Dumbledore believed Snape had truly turned against Voldemort (that’s not a spoiler, we had to find out). In retrospect the solution appears obvious — and once she reveals it, Rowling bludgeons the reader for twenty pages where a couple of poignant paragraphs would have served — but only a few readers guessed in advance.

Rowling also writes vivid and memorable, if generally one-dimensional characters. Nothing wrong with such characters; Dickens created dozens of them. Of course, Rowling also mistakenly thinks that hiding information from the reader (example: Snape) counts for character complexity. On occasion, however, she manages to suggest true subtlety: by the end of The Deathly Hallows she convinces us that Dumbledore is loving and compassionate, and arrogant and manipulative. Real people are often both, and it is only after his (spoiler) death that he truly came to life.

Rowling also has her flaws. It’s important to keep in mind that she was almost literally the overnight success who came out of nowhere. She wasn’t the product of an MFA program, hadn’t toiled for years writing a stack of unsold novels. The former kept her free from literary pretensions but it also means her self-taught craft is full of amateur habits.

Although I do not begrudge Rowling her enormous success, I do selfishly wish the Harry Potter craze had come later. Around the time The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, the Harry Potter phenomenon exploded and simultaneously the craftsmanship of the novels plummeted.

The Prisoner of Azkaban is the best book in the series; Rowling had mastered this world, yet her plots and prose are still relatively lean. But the next books bloat grotesquely. Rowling’s gift for plotting became a curse, as her books festered with subplots and sub-sub-plots. Furthermore, the prose became systematically clunkier and cluttered with lazy punctuation.

I suspect what happened is this: in the early books Rowling’s editors helped shape the books into the brisk, enjoyable narratives they are. This is the job of an editor as few writers, particularly beginning writers, can pull off a novel that does not need judicious revision. But I suspect that as the Harry Potter books became fabulously successful, her agent and editors became reluctant to rein her in, fearful of killing the goose that laid the golden bestsellers. Oh, I’m sure they worked with her, sure that Rowling wrote and rewrote. Nonetheless, the books after Prisoner are flabby affairs that would have benefited immensely from ruthless, savage pruning.

Take, for example, The Order of the Phoenix. It has, easily, the best villain of the entire series, Dolores Umbridge. Lord Voldemort is a sniggering cartoon of evil. But Umbridge, a nanny-state bureaucrat gone bad, is the very model for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. And the story of Harry’s resistance against Umbridge and the rise of Dumbledore’s Army is a cracking good story.

The rest of the novel, however, drowns under teenage hormones run amok and Quidditch jealousies and a completely irrelevant subplot devoted to Hagrid’s giant half-brother Grawp. You could remove Grawp from this and every subsequent novel and lose almost nothing. It’s nothing against Grawp. I like Grawp. But too many, too detailed subplots hurt the book.

On top of this, Rowling’s native prose is… well… clunky: relying far too much — far too much! — on ellipses, colons, semi-colons, dashes, and so on. This becomes stick-in-your-eye obvious when read aloud. Compare a random page from the first three novels with one from the last three; you’ll find the number of ellipses and semi-colons rises dramatically. And I’ll tell you this: adding ellipses… and semi-colons — not to mention colons and dashes — in large quantities does not improve the quality of prose. Once again, the later editing process failed both Rowling and her readers.

So why was Harry Potter so massively successful?

Part of it was, as always, timing. Audiences were tired of postmodern fictions of surfaces. She offered an engrossing plot. But in addition, the underlying themes of the novels touched readers, as they do in all the best fantasies. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is drenched in grief for a lost world. The novels of C. S. Lewis were all about how we lie to ourselves. And the Harry Potter books touched a wire to the hearts of young adults and also of us adult adults:

The loneliness of the modern world.

Harry is cast from the central cliché of young adult novels, an orphan raised by resentful, stingy relatives. But he isn’t the only loner. Hermione, isolated by her talents, her painfully sharp perception, and her muggle origins; Ron, lost in his family as a relatively talentless middle child.

This theme isn’t new at all but once you pull at this thread, you realize that nearly all of the characters are tremendously lonely: Hagrid, whose enormous heart can only find an outlet in loving killer dragons, car-sized spiders, and other monstrous creatures; Dumbledore himself, immensely talented but, we learn, always haunted by secrets in his past; Neville Longbottom, the fat, teased son of parents tortured into insanity, pecked at by his strict grandmother; weird Luna Lovegood who happily hangs out with Harry because “it’s almost like having a friend.”

Nearly everyone is an exile. Sirius Black is wrongly branded a murderer. Remus Lupin is a kind-hearted werewolf. And in the end we learn just how impossibly tormented Snape is, and why as penance he takes on the lonely life of a double spy, trusted and liked by no one.

Even the villains are cursed to loneliness. Draco Malfoy, bullied by his father, bullies others in response. Mad-eye Moody is impersonated by a Death Eater, the rejected son of an ambitious politician. And Voldemort’s quest to ‘eat Death’ itself arises out of his abandonment at an early age. Although Voldemort ends up a cartoon villain, Rowling makes his journey to the dark side more believable than did Lucas with Darth Vader.

Indeed, Rowling gets right what George Lucas got wrong. As Athena has written eloquently in her essay, We Must Love One Another or Die, the fake-Buddhist Jedi code requires renouncing emotional connection to other people. Lucas’ muddled concept led to the cinematic disasters of Star Wars: Episodes I-III. But in Harry Potter, the ones who learn to love are the ones who triumph. Harry is originally saved from Voldemort’s killing curse by the love of his mother. And it is not through spells or wands so much as Harry’s connection with Hermione, Ron, Hagrid, Ginny, and so many others, that he triumphs. His friends, in turn, grow under his wing. Witness Neville’s transformation over the course of the series from a dull joke into a sleek, bold resistance fighter.

Through Harry Potter, Rowling teaches that love is more important than credentials. While Death Eaters worship the authority of their Dark Lord and murder muggles and mudbloods, Harry easily and intuitively befriends and protects the marginalized, the Nevilles, the Lunas, the Dobbies, and is unafraid to defy the powerful Minister of Magic.

And in these days, when people denounce others as Nazis and communists and religious terrorists, when we fret over immigration and the cultural purity of nations — Rowling tries to tell us that compassion triumphs over blood, that our choices, not our origins, are what best define us; that it is love, not for those like us but for those different from us, that is the most powerful magic of all.

Next time: the movies.

Spoiler policy: I’d ask that while the first six books are open for discussion, commenters not give away major plot twists in the last book.

Images: 1st, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his familiar, Hedwig; 2nd, Professor Minerva McGonagall (Maggie Smith), who would have pruned Rowling’s books vigorously; 3rd, Harry in a Sam Beckett setting and mood; 4th, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) and Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), the feral loners who are nevertheless Harry’s devoted kith and kin.

The Wind Harp

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Yesterday I got the news that The Wind Harp was accepted by the editor who solicited it for an anthology.  This means a lot to me, because I have several stories and six novels at various stages of completion in that particular universe.  My heart is irrevocably entwined with it, and much of my dreaming.

This is the world of Planetfall.  To those of you who read Spider Silk and Shoals in Time, the narrator is Ánassa/Antóa Tásri-e Sóran-Kerís, whose voice we hear at the end of PlanetfallThe Wind Harp tells of her first major political interplanetary mission.  We see her become formidable and meet several members of her extended chosen family.  One of them is Tan-Rys, caste warrior of Gan-Tem, vividly portrayed in the accompanying image by Heather D. Oliver — he’s the same doughty friend who almost forty years later dandles Antóa’s youngest on his knee.

Dhi kéri ten sóran…

Steering the Craft

Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Those who read Standing at Thermopylae know I promised a response to whiny vaporings that appeared on the Apex blog. My response is now up: Steering the Craft. It talks of embroidered jackets and starships, of bread and roses. Here’s the end:

Susan Seddon Boulet, Shaman Spider Woman (1986)

War for the Country
By Viktoría Theodórou – Poet, resistance fighter

A soft mat she found and sat, on the leaves.
A song emerges from the flute of her throat,
low, so her light-sleeping comrades don’t awaken,
just so she accompanies their dreams.
Her hands don’t stay idle, she takes up thread and needle
to darn their socks with the hand grenade
she always carries at her waist, with it she lies and rises.
The grenade in the sock, round and oblivious
to its fire, thinks it’s a wooden egg,
that the country was freed and the war ended
and Katia is not a partisan in the snow-covered woods –
that she sits by the window behind the white lilacs
and sews the socks of her beloved, who returned whole.

Slowly Ripening Apples

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

As the days grow golden and the nights deepen, many things are quietly fermenting in the back of my mind. I’m thinking of autumnal cultures, such as Vulcans and Elves; I’m thinking of language as a uniter and a divider; I’m thinking of the travails of stem cell research.

The most urgently bubbling vat is a long-suspended story close to my heart. Those who watched me create the Embers/Spider Silk universe have seen an early draft of its beginning. For those who read Planetfall, its hero — and I use the male form on purpose — is the nameless first-person narrator in Night Whispers, the last section of that story.

When I write about that world I live in it: it fills my head, it haunts my dreams. So all else will have to wait, in the cricket-filled hush of early fall, until The Wind Harp sings.

Image: Rest at Journey’s End by Heather D. Oliver, depicting the end of Night Whispers.

Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

Stone Telling magazine went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, it is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. It contains an introduction by Rose, fourteen poems, three non-fiction articles and a round-table contributor interview.

Among the poems is my dear friend Calvin Johnson’s eloquent and thought-provoking Towards a Feminist Algebra. Among the articles is A (Mail)coat of Many Colors, my discussion of the songs of the Akrítai, the Byzantine border guards — poetry of a time, place and language that is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world.

Yet Hellenes still sing these songs… and they still reverberate in the popular imagination in subtle but powerful ways. As the accompanying image shows, Antoine Fuqua’s Sarmatian border guards in Roman England hearken back to the Akrítai of Byzantine Anatolia. Too, real amazons lived and fought in the lands of the Akrítai — a liminal zone where all kinds of boundaries were crossed and history survived as tales and songs.

The poems in Stone Telling open wondrous windows to the world. And if that is not the best purpose of poetry, what is?

Image: Left, the Byzantine warrior saint Merkourios, a Scythian by birth (fresco by Manuíl Pansélinos, Mt. Athos, 1360 AD); right, Ioan Gruffudd as a Sarmatian border guard in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.

Ashes from Burning Libraries

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

…like amnesiacs
in a ward on fire, we must
find words
or burn.

Olga Broumas, Artemis

In the last few weeks, I’ve been watching the circus show of the (now postponed) Qu’ran burning with disbelief. Christians and Muslims have been playing variants of “If you don’t pay attention to my tantrums, I will shoot this dog” that was done far better by the National Lampoon. Government officials and media pundits are seriously suggesting that burning of a book that exists in millions of copies by a sad clown will touch off jihads. Yes, symbols are powerful — but fundamentalists will use any excuse for mayhem and bloodshed, whether they are white supremacists or the Taliban.

The real reason that many Muslims hate the US is because it has bombed two Muslim nations back into the Stone Age, is poised to do so to a third, and continues to pile up civilian casualties at a 100-fold ratio to US soldier deaths, while calling them “collateral damage”. Furthermore, to feed its petroleum addiction the US continues to staunchly support the primary source of militant Islamism: Saudi Arabia, whose deep pockets fund the madrassas that turn discontented, disillusioned Muslims into radical fundamentalists. However, it is equally true that imams and mullahs have issued death fatwas against books and their authors (Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist who depicted Muhammad, to list just a few).

A favorite pastime of such militant religious thugs is destruction of knowledge. Islamists, like the self-labeled “man of God” Terry Jones and the medieval Catholics, burn books, burn schools, burn girls who try to attend school. They smash artworks – sculptures and paintings in the Kabul museum, the Bamiyan Buddha statues – following the example of the 9th-century Christian iconoclasts. People of this ilk burned the libraries of Alexandria. In those days of inscribing by hand, many works existed as single-number copies. As a result of this destruction, most ancient writers, scientists and philosophers are known to us only as names or sentence-long fragments.

This loss, in all its enormity and poignancy, has been portrayed only three times in contemporary popular media. It is the center of Fahrenheit 451 and of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a thinking person’s mystery-cum-novel of ideas. It is also depicted in the recent film Agora, a romanticized version of the life of the legendary mathematician and philosopher Hypatia.

Catholic apologists took Agora to task for inaccuracy and “inciting to hatred against Christians”. This advocacy is odd on its face, given that there was no “Catholic” church at the time, and the Alexandrian Patriarchate went into the Orthodox fold after the schism. Nevertheless, the circling of wagons is understandable, especially since Agora came out at the same time that Belgian authorities finally decided to investigate child abuse cases despite the Catholic church’s attempts to stonewall them. Their hodgepodge “arguments” (italicized) include:

Hypatia’s death was “purely” political; it had NOTHING to do with her gender, religion or occupation — which makes you wonder what their definition of political is.

Alexandrian mobs routinely rampaged and she just got caught in the crossfire. This is routinely followed by the directly contradictory she was killed as a reprisal for the execution of the monk Ammonius (who had stoned the prefect Orestes, as shown in the film). In other words, Hypatia’s murder was not random and had everything to do with what she was and represented.

The loss was small in any case, since Hypatia wasn’t THAT great a scientist/philosopher, she just rode on great men’s toga tails. This “reasoning” is very common (read Watson’s original depiction of Rosalind Franklin or Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing). Conveniently, none of Hypatia’s own writings survived the various burnings. From my side, I could use this argument to point out that her loss far outweighed that of the monk.

The REAL Alexandria library had been burned earlier by Caesar’s troops. The Serapeum library, whose destruction is shown in Agora, was unimportant. This shows interesting value judgments. Furthermore, Theodoros Vrettos, in his book Alexandria, City of the Western Mind, presents convincing evidence that the fire in Caesar’s time happened at the harbor, nowhere near where the main library stood.

There are more of these, but you get the gist. Make no mistake, Agora has its share of stiffness and clunk. As far as I’m concerned, its major error is to show Hypatia young at the time of her death. In fact, she was somewhere between fifty and sixty when Christian fanatics flayed her alive. Although the death of someone beautiful and young may pluck harder at heartstrings, the choice served to render older women once again invisible. Also, Rachel Weisz, radiant though she may be, is single-note chirpy whether she’s teaching upperclass youths, figuring out the truth behind the arbitrary Ptolemaic epicycles, or proclaiming her adherence to philosophy. Helen Mirren, Charlotte Rampling or Lena Olin would have made far more nuanced, haunting Hypatias.

Conversely, I applaud Amenábar’s choice to show Hypatia focused on her work, and not willing to be deflected from it by pretty faces and the security they promise. The fact that all men in full possession of their faculties are shown in love with her is fine with me. It’s a welcome reversal of the usual setting; at least Hypatia deserves such adoration, unlike most male film “heroes”.

However, the film’s title names its true core. Agora means “marketplace”, but it had a more specific meaning in older Greek: it was the place where people met to discuss ideas. The film celebrates love of learning, the beautiful workings of the mind, and laments the fragility of reason at the face of close-minded fanaticism. Hypatia’s death is a coda – as she tells Orestes, the thugs have already won. It is the looting of the library that gives the film its emotional power. It’s the burning of all these irreplaceable scrolls that makes you weep.

In conscious homage to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Agora occasionally zooms out to view earth from space. As it does so, the screams and weapon clashes fade. And that may be the film’s second powerful point: in the vastness of the universe, we are nothing – except what we make of ourselves and our world. We can choose the way of the Taliban, the Teabaggers, the Hareddim, the Inquisitors. Or we can take the path of Hypatia. Between these two alternatives, there is no conciliation or compromise.

Images: top, Hypatia (Rachel Weisz) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) watch the library burn in Agora; middle, book burnings past and present; bottom, a Hypatia figure in Fahrenheit 451.

Note: This article has been reprinted on Huffington Post.

What I Did During My Summer Non-Vacation

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

(best read to Oysterband’s Dancing as Fast as I Can)

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes,
and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!

— Edna St. Vincent Millay

To anyone wondering about the unusually long silence on the blog — I’ve been working solo in the lab and closing out my two small grants. I’ve gone once again to half salary, to nurse my tiny seed corn until the fate of my pending grant gets decided.

On other fronts, I’ve managed to keep my hanging gardens going despite the weather. Last weekend we went on an art walk in that lovely corner of New England tucked between Newport and South Dartmouth, which is Cape Cod minus tchotchkes and tourists. I’m wrestling with several invited stories, articles and reviews — though I need to impose some discipline, because they keep jostling each other for attention in my head.

I was one of the judges in the short story contest of Science in My Fiction. The ten finalists were excellent and hard to rank. They also had several commonalities. All but one and a half were resolutely earth-bound; all but two unfolded in the US or a vague post-apocalyptic landscape; all took their kernels from biology and focused on the brain/mind; and they contained zero romance. In short, cyberpunk… but they engaged well with the scientific concepts that fueled them.

I also gave a solo talk and participated in two panels at Readercon. In my talk, Citizens of the Universe, Citizens of the World, I discussed the importance of wide horizons to writing speculative fiction with authenticity and legitimacy. The panels were Avatar and the Future of Planetary Romance and The Body and Physicality in Speculative Fiction. Both were thought-provoking and lively – and if you guessed that I had much to say and did so, you’d be right. The second panel could easily have lasted three hours. We were just getting warmed up when we had to roll our tents.

On the Saturday of Readercon Joan Slonczewski, Jack McDevitt and Sue Lange came to dinner. Given the topics we covered, I should have registered this as a panel!

And I still take the occasional moment to shake my head over such things as the seriously flawed longevity gene study (another spectacular case of hype over rigor, especially for a journal like Science) and the witchhunts by those whose appetite for destruction has overwhelmed their reasoning capacity. The Democratic leadership should grow a spine and re-read the tale of the scorpion and the frog.

Images: top, Loie Fuller, Serpentine Dance (1896); bottom, the hanging gardens of North Cambridge.

Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages

Saturday, July 3rd, 2010

A few years ago, I shared parts of my SF saga (glimpsed in Planetfall) with several dozen readers in a closed list. Their first view of the Koredháni, the major culture in the story, was the formidable Meráni Yehán:

My tehéyn’s people are lean, sharp-featured, great-eyed. Intricate jewelry circles their arms, adorns their long manes. A spiral-shaped aghír glimmers on the breastbone of one of the adult men. Two are striplings, a girl whose breasts have just budded and a boy with the roundness of childhood still on his limbs. They range loosely behind an erect, dark woman with white hair still glinting with copper threads and eyes the color of stormy seas.

Stopping two paces in front of me, she smiles calmly and briefly inclines her head. “Ánassa Tásri-é Sóran-Kerís… Meráni kóren, tanegír adhríti Yehán.”* The night-hued voice, the voice that sailed into my mind like a sleek canoe to help me reel him back from the starry void.

*”Long Shadow Tásri-é Sóran-Kerís… I am Meráni, leader of hearth Yehán.”

Right away, one reader asked: “How do you ‘see’ Meráni and her husbands?” (Yes, women lead all the households, many are polyandrous, and the co-husbands consider themselves brothers; they also have nanobiotech, star drives and both gene and planetary engineering – and have used their technology to leave practically no footprint on their adopted planet).

I replied, “Except for the seafoam eyes, she looks like Entity (Tina Turner) in Beyond Thunderdome. Her four husbands look like a Celt, a Native American, an Arab and an African. And Ánassa looks like Lao Ma (Jacqueline Kim) in The Debt.” This was so with no deliberation on my part. That’s how they looked to me from the moment I conceived them.

There was dead silence on the list for a day or so. Then I got an avalanche of private e-mails, with photos attached. Without exception, the e-mails told how they felt that the story had become truly theirs. Unbeknownst to me, and not easily discernible from the names, half my readers were non-white.

This led to another outcome: everyone stopped assuming that the characters in my story were white (in fact, none were, given the Koredháni reproductive constraints). In a tiny way, I had jogged everyone’s mindset away from instinctively following a convention. This led to an unexpected gift that has never ceased to amaze and delight me. After the photos, I also got a flood of illustrations to my saga from two readers who are artists. Their depictions were so true to my characters that I can no longer see them in any other way – and if the saga ever sees the light of day, I will try to include them in the manuscript.

I was born and raised in a country that was racially and culturally homogeneous, but had always been a migratory passage as well as the nexus of two multicultural empires – Alexandrian and Byzantine. My history courses were peopled by Persians, Egyptians, Nubians, Gauls, Huns. When I came to the US at 18, I marveled at the human colors, shapes and accents, and the individual and collective backstories that came with them. And when I started writing fiction, my characters came in all hues without any conscious effort on my part. How could it be otherwise, with the swirling kaleidoscope inside and around me?

Yet even today, the default assumption of SF/F denizens continues to be that everyone is bleach-white unless explicitly specified otherwise. This is not confined to Anglosaxon cubicleers who write faux-Victorian steampunk. The Japanese give saucer-round eyes to most of their manga characters (these, along with the breathless falsetto voices, are very disquieting on female characters with exaggerated secondary gender attributes). Manoj Nelliyattu (aka Night) Shyamalan, a Tamil who must have more than a drop of Dravidian in him, cast bleached actors in all the main roles for his disastrous Last Airbender.

I still remember starting a story by Arthur C. Clarke that postulated a long-generation starship in which the social structure was identical to fifties middle-class suburbia. Having read his “bouncing breasts of female astronauts distract men in zero-G” screed I already thought him blinkered, but this clinched it. I put the story down unfinished and never read anything by him again. How is it possible for self-defined visionaries to continue showing societies inhabited by people of a single hue in nuclear patriarchal families? Only if you build a mind cage and put yourself willingly in it can you continue extrapolating in this impoverished, impoverishing mode.

Readers want to find themselves in stories. They want protagonists who look like them, who carry at least a bit of their particular culture and history. And when enough unbleached people appear in a genre, they stop being sidekicks or tokens and become the unique, memorable persons they have the capacity to be: Ursula Le Guin’s copper-skinned, hawk-featured Ged and her Inuit-like Gethenian hero/ine Therem Harth rem ir Estraven; Poul Anderson’s half-Dutch, half-Javanese Nicholas van Rijn; Alma Alexander’s sworn women friends in alternative China; Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec priest Acatl; Xena’s rainbow of lovers; the Scorpion King and his almond-eyed sorceress partner (which put Dwayne Johnson on the snacho list).

There’s an object lesson in my experience with my readers. We don’t have to accept every culture and cultural custom as equally valid for ourselves individually. Personally, I would not be happy in any fundamentalist and/or coercive world and would be unlikely to read with pleasure a story that depicted such a culture positively (cautionary tales are a different category). But we cannot become citizens of the universe if we do not first become citizens of the world: if we do not allow ourselves to register the dizzying richness and variety that surrounds us – and use this knowledge, carefully but fearlessly, to create genuinely new worlds worthy of remembrance.

Images: Tina Turner as Entity in Beyond Thunderdome;
Ged, Wizard of Earthsea by Laurie Prindle;
Meráni, tanegír Yehán, by Heather D. Oliver.

No More Gritty Reboots! Part 2 — the Women

Friday, June 25th, 2010

by Alex Jacobs

This is the conclusion of Alex’s insightful rant about remakes of superhero films. In Part 2, he turns his jaundiced but discerning eye to the treatment of the other half of humanity in Hollywood reboots. I added a comment of my own at the end.

When I sent “No More Gritty Reboots,” it was intended as a stand-alone piece, but Athena did something rather irritating: she made me think. She pointed out that my examples only included male superheroes and asked if I’d care to see reboots of female superheroes.

I hadn’t realized I’d left such a gaping hole in my rant, but there it was. I had originally written it in a very stream-of-consciousness manner, which meant that female superheroes hadn’t even entered my train of thought. Why was that? It took me some time to figure it out, but the answers I came up with disturbed me a great deal.

I’ve no interest in seeing remakes of female superhero movies because the few that have been made have been so atrociously bad that I’d rather they scrap everything and start over completely. Most female superheroes work within groups (i.e. X-Men, Fantastic 4). While they may occasionally be given a worthwhile scene or two in films, such as Anna Paquin’s wonderful portrayal of Rogue’s fear at her growing mutant abilities in X-Men, the stories are still about the male characters. The only time a female hero has really been given equality within a group has been Elastigirl in The Incredibles.

To date, the overwhelming majority of female action heroes fall into two categories: ridiculously sexualized male fantasies (Catwoman) and male action heroes who happen to have breasts (Elektra). In very few instances are female heroes given the opportunity to explore what it means to be a female hero.

Catwoman had the potential to be a phenomenal character, as the comic books and the excellent animated series have shown.  Yet I have little confidence that Hollywood will move beyond the BDSM trappings and explore the reasons Selina Kyle has remained so compelling for over fifty years. While I would dearly love to be proven wrong, I suspect that Hollywood will see Catwoman only as a lithe young woman who wears a tight-fitting costume and carries a whip. While Tim Burton’s Batman Returns did much to explore the effects of trying to live a morally neutral life, even Burton failed to show Kyle as anything more than a freak avenger. Halle Berry did not improve matters and I see little purpose in rehashing that travesty.

I have even less confidence in Elektra. Her character was interesting in Daredevil because she was trying to balance her love for her family, a relationship, the risk of exposing herself emotionally, physically, and sexually, the danger of betrayal, and a drive for justice, all set against a world that systematically attempted to deny her agency in either a legal venue or as a vigilante. Is it any wonder she got a spin-off while Daredevil was quietly forgotten? However, Elektra completely ignored the character’s identity in order to prance her out in a ridiculously revealing costume to overly-sexualized, violent choreography (see these articles on the impracticalities of female superhero costumes). Not even the fifteen year-old fanboy target audience was interested.

Jean Grey and Mystique do better in the first two X-Men movies, but the best female superhero in film remains Elastigirl from The Incredibles. As far as power and screen time goes, she is on par with the male characters. Her character integrates classically feminine roles (the caregiver) with classically masculine ones (the protector). Most importantly, she does not let herself be defined by either the superhero group or her family but chooses her own relation to both roles. To me, that is the ideal embodiment of feminism and gender equality: not a rejection of any given role because it is associated with one’s gender, but the power to choose one’s role. Our place in the world should not be defined by our birth, whether that means race, sexual orientation, class, or gender. In superhero movies, only Elastigirl truly gets it right.

Rather than remake these movies, I’d like to see completely different female superheroes get the full Hollywood treatment. I would hope that this would avoid female knock-offs (Superwoman, Batgirl, She-Hulk, etc). Rather, I’d love to see:

- Wonder Woman: Forget the powers. I’m interested in this movie because Wonder Woman isn’t just a powerhouse, like Superman, but a leader; not a soldier but a general. A Wonder Woman movie could not only serve as a positive feminist tale, but also expand our definition of heroism.

- Scarlet Witch: While lesser known than many other heroes, Scarlet Witch is one of the most fascinating. Her legacy is that of villainy but she often strives to be a hero. If we define feminism not as the championing of femininity against masculinity but as the attempt to rise above prescribed roles, I can think of no greater champion than Scarlet Witch. A Scarlet Witch movie would have more to say about individuality, family, and freedom than near anything else I can think of. That she’s a woman is part of her character, but not her defining trait.

- Stephanie Brown: If you’re not familiar with Stephanie Brown, please see Project Girl Wonder. Brown was the daughter of a super villain and, for a time, served as Robin, eventually dying in service in an incredibly disturbing and sexualized manner. The lack of acknowledgment of her death is a source of controversy within the comics community. I would love to see a Robin movie that featured Stephanie Brown rather than any of the rotating boys. Such a movie would include Batman but would focus on what it means to voluntarily work with such a disturbed individual for a choice you believe in. Whether Brown lives or dies in the film – and I believe the latter could be included in a respectful and appropriately literary manner – either conclusion would make it a tale well worth telling.

What are the chances of these movies being made? Pretty high, actually. Hollywood is motivated by money, and right now a super hero’s name in the title is the most overwhelming factor in whether a movie makes money. Will they be made well? That’s more debatable. Hollywood has shown that it can do superheroes well — even that it can do female superheroes well — but consistency is the big problem. Joss Whedon has shown he can deliver most consistently. He’s currently doing Captain America and The Avengers, which despite its historical lineup has no female heroes in the rumored cast, but maybe afterward?

I choose to hope.

Athena’s coda: Catwoman has been an incredible missed opportunity indeed, given the allure of Trickster figures. Additionally, she illustrates how differently women and men are judged for identical behavior. Both Catwoman and Batman are trauma-driven vigilantes; yet whereas he’s viewed as a hero and has the Establishment’s resources at his disposal, she’s often portrayed as a villain and operates without any external support. As for Elastigirl (girl?!), my take is less optimistic. Although she gets to exercise her powers, they are still strictly in service of her family — protecting her kids, cleaning up her husband’s messes — rather than the “larger” goals vouchsafed to male superheroes.

Superheroes who crack moulds: Xena Warrior Princess (Lucy Lawless); Catwoman (Eartha Kitt); Hiyao Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime; Aeon and Sithandra (Charlize Theron, Sophie Okonedo).

Related posts:
Le Plus Ça Change…
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
And Ain’t I a Human?

No More Gritty Reboots! Part 1 — the Men

Friday, June 18th, 2010

by Alex Jacobs

Today I have the pleasure of hosting the first part of an insightful rant by pen-friend Alex Jacobs. Alex graduated from Beloit College in 2005 with a degree in creative writing, literary studies, and rhetoric and discourse. In addition to amateur literary criticism, he currently teaches ballroom in Philadelphia, PA. Alex’s personal writings reside at Suburbaknght and his professional dance writing can be found at Dancing Through the Recession.

I’m sick of gritty reboots.

I was going to make a joke here about gritty reboots being the new black, but that doesn’t work. A gritty reboot just takes something and puts black on it. Don’t get me wrong, a gritty reboot can be fantastic (Batman Begins) but it can also be atrocious (Daredevil) or pointless (The Hulk, Star Trek).

I have to lay most of the problem at the feet of Batman Begins. Batman Begins was a fantastic movie, the reasons for which Hollywood seems to have missed entirely. Batman Begins took a superhero who’s always had a problem with camp and whose latest films had spiraled into self-parody and got rid of all the extraneous bullshit. Instead of ridiculous bat-themed gadgets we had tools that were actually useful and based on real technology. Instead of Gotham as a bright neon Blade Runner knock-off we got a shadow-shrouded city that was as much of a character as any of the actors. Instead of Three Stooges-esque comedy fight sequences we got commando-style combat encounters that truly felt threatening due to their violence.

These were great, but they weren’t what made Batman Begins a great movie. Batman Begins was great because it was populated by real characters. Bruce Wayne wasn’t interesting because he angsted but because his angst was a realistic and sympathetic reaction to what he’d gone through. Christopher Nolan and David Goyer wrote someone who was crazy enough that we all believed he could become Batman and but was still sympathetic enough that we wanted to observe the process. Batman Begins was about character.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t pay attention to that. They saw sets with low illumination and characters with tragic pasts and said, “Aha! Keep everything dark! That’s what makes a great movie!”

No, no, no, no, no!

To paraphrase Aristotle, if characters in a drama behave in a believable manner and experience logical consequences because of that behavior, at the conclusion of the story the audience will experience “a useful fear.” It doesn’t matter if the circumstances aren’t realistic so long as the characters act in a believable fashion given the circumstances, because we will continue to identify with the characters and take something away from their experiences. That requires real characters.

Spiderman 3 was a fairly dark movie but the characters were morons. People don’t hate it because of the dance sequence and emo hair – they hate it because the dance sequence and emo hair are out of character, coming completely out of left field. Don’t believe me? Check out Doug “That Guy With the Glasses” Walker’s five-second movie. The first season of Heroes was amazing because it was filled with fascinating characters who behaved like real people despite the absurdity of dormant superhero genes, because we believed them when they reacted to such genes. The subsequent seasons fell apart because the story began to dominate the characters, and once that happens you realize how insipid the story really is.

I’m truly worried about Spiderman’s gritty reboot. I’m worried it’s going to be all grit and the producers are going to forget what made the first two movies so wonderful in the first place.

Then there’s the issue of rebooting origin stories. The origin story is the easiest to portray because it’s easier to sympathize with a normal person going through changes than a superhero dealing with being a superhero, but we need stories that go beyond puberty and mid-life crisis metaphors (X-Men and Iron Man respectively). We need stories about what it means to live in the new life you’ve created for yourself. Batman Begins was a great film but it was The Dark Knight that truly had something to say, and it was a message our society needs very badly.

Hollywood, don’t keep being gritty for the sake of being gritty and don’t keep rebooting because it’s easier to start over than to go forward. I want to see:

– A Superman movie that makes use of the “alien among us” concept to deal with 21st century loneliness.

– A Spiderman movie that uses choosing between two dreams as a theme and not a cheap way to raise the stakes.

– An X-Men movie that contrasts the team’s bemoaning their outsider status with the Brotherhood’s celebration of it (though one scene in X-2 did this very well).

I want stories that matter and characters I care about, not just endless dark-framed long shots followed by closeups of the heroes’ faces.

Images that linger, characters and connections that matter: Bruce brainstorms with Alfred in Batman Begins (Christian Bale, Michael Caine); Wolverine risks his life to heal Rogue in X-Men (Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin); Theo and Marichka risk theirs to take Kee and her newborn daughter to safety in Children of Men (Clive Owen, Oanna Pellea, Claire-Hope Ashitey).

Related posts:
The String Cuts Deeper than the Blade
Set Transporter Coordinates to… (the Star Trek reboot)
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

The (Game)play’s the Thing: The Retro-RPG Eschalon

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Five and twenty years ago, far back in the mists of time, a cyber-aficionado friend invited me to see her new game. Despite the primitive graphics, I liked the game’s feel, the sense of adventure and story, the witty allusions and non-linear play. The game was King’s Quest I. At about the same time, Rogue showed up. Since then, the major reason that I haven’t become a quest game addict is that developers stopped bringing them out for the Apple OS. Among my favorites I count Gabriel Knight, Syberia, Myst, King’s Quest, Circle of Blood, The Journeyman Project, the sui generis System’s Twilight, Christminster and its fellow interactive fictions – and of course that labor of love, Nethack.

The list will tell you something about my gaming tastes. I detest open-ended, multi-player, shooting and arcade games. If given a choice, I play a wizard or rogue and advance many skills rather than specialize. What captivates me is worldbuilding: story, atmospherics and the quality of the quests. That’s why the only Zork game I liked was Nemesis. It had a coherent storyline and context, and you became invested in the fates of its protagonists. And I don’t mind sparse graphics, as long as they’re evocative (System’s Twilight is a prime example).

Fast forward to 2007. Having decided not to buy any playstation, I was glumly contemplating the slim pickings for Mac users when I stumbled on Basilisk Games. They (well, he – it’s a single person who “followed his bliss”) had just launched Eschalon 1, a retro RPG game and the first of a projected trilogy for all major platforms. I looked at screen caps, downloaded the demo… and three years later, here I am in Eschalon 2, Grand Magus hat and Scout sandals on, Warmoth bow and Abyssal Freeze spell readied, facing rift harpies in the windy crags of Mistfell.

Like most games of this kind, Eschalon (henceforth EB) is based on the Dungeons and Dragons concept and is vaguely Tolkienesque. In a devastated world, a champion undertakes a quest upon which the fate of that universe depends. S/he starts with very little, acquiring knowledge, skills and ever more powerful accessories as s/he explores the world, completes quests, solves puzzles and dispatches enemies.

In EB 1, the future champion also starts with the too-common total retrograde declarative amnesia.  In Anglosaxon: she doesn’t even recall her name, let alone past deeds, though she still wields a mean blade. The handicap allows bystanders and texts to fill in the background story in carefully apportioned snippets, but at least here it fits into the story arc.

EB 2 starts where its predecessor ended but is reasonably self-contained. So the two games can be played independently, although playing both makes for a far more satisfying sense of story. Unusually for such a game, at the end of EB 2 what was up till that point solid fantasy veers into science fiction. The twist becomes intriguing after the disorientation of the shift dissipates, and it literally embodies the Clarke precept that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

EB has the usual player classes, “races” and alignments. Quests can be completed in any relative order until the story funnels into the endgame. Unlike Nethack and its many clones, it unfolds both above and below ground. It’s turn-based, which means you can relax and enjoy its ambience instead of frantically pushing buttons in an adrenaline haze. And though you cannot advance in levels without a good deal of slaughter, Eschalon also requires strategy – especially if you play warlocks, as I do.

The Eschalon games are not perfect. Names are the usual pseudo-epic hodgepodge. Unlike the clever, vital exchanges in Gabriel Knight, interactions with non-player characters are limited and underflavored. The dialogue is by-the-numbers (“Do you want this quest?” Choice 1: “Yes, I will undertake it and gain umpteen experience points!” Choice 2: “No, I’ll just go eat some worms!”). Entire squares of the map are featureless waste through which you must literally trudge. Worse yet, if you meet enemies in such regions you have no recourse but brute-force bashing coupled with fleeing to regroup. In some parts, the enemy throngs are numbingly monotonous. You cannot attain the highest levels unless you resort to the cheat of reloading a previous character into a new game. And unlike Nethack, Eschalon has no class-specific quests.

At the same time, the game has truly wonderful touches. Non-player characters fight enemies if you maneuver them within each other’s range. You can kill enemies by luring them under portcullises or near gunpowder kegs (which you can even place strategically in EB 2, though they’re damnably heavy). There is no respawning of hostiles and containers generate random loot that can be literally marvelous. In EB 2 you also have weather, which affects skill and equipment efficacy; and foraging ability, that gifts you with sacks of alchemy ingredients every time you camp.

The EB universe has beautifully rendered and logically varied environments – mountains, plains and coasts; tundras, forests, prairies, deserts.  Also, this is a water world, like Le Guin’s Earthsea. Rivers, lakes, seas are never too far away and play an active role in the game. During the day, birds sing or frogs peep.  At night, crickets trill and fireflies twinkle.  Then there is the music. It warns you if enemies are nearby, even if you can’t see them. It swells to a paean when you’re engaged in combat. And in EB 2 it has become a beguiling, elegiac Lydian background that is integral to the game’s mood, although it is not linked to quest context as it is in Myst.

Despite its quotidian larger concept, Eschalon is immensely appealing to me because it has a coherent story with context – and because it demands and rewards exploration. Lagniappes abound in the game: a hidden chest in this rocky cove, a skills trainer in that secluded glen. And the fragmentary texts and conversation snippets that you encounter or trigger (especially in EB 2) have echoes, as if there are indeed layers to this world beyond its surface, itself riddled with abandoned buildings and half-completed works that add to the haunting effect.

Given that the Eschalon games are essentially the work of a single person, they are a real achievement, especially in evoking the sense of a rich, lived-in, immersive universe. It comes as no surprise that EB 1 won an indie award and created a devoted word-of-mouth following that awaited the advent of EB 2 with baited breath. It will be a real loss to RPG stalwarts if this devotion does not translate to enough income for Thomas Riegsecker to complete his own quest: finish Eschalon as he dreams – and as we do, along with him.

Images: Benoit Sokal’s Syberia; Nethack, tile version (partial level); Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight; Eschalon Book 2 trailer.

Glimpses of my immersive universe (more in the Stories section):

Contra Mundum
Dry Rivers

Note: The article is now also at Huffington Post.

The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

After my second article about Cameron’s Avatar, a young British media critic who occasionally visited my blog accused me of snobbery.  He stated that my points about entertainment like Avatar went past aesthetics and “devolved into” political and moral pronouncements about people who like what he considers lowbrow art (he assumes I share his definition of lowbrow, of which more anon).  He further opined that classes of artful brows are just peer pressure.  Hence Cameron is as good as Ozu unless you “drip with disdain” for the hoi polloi.

In the article that started this discussion I primarily discussed biological drives.  I posited that certain types of entertainment arouse the fight-or-flight response and repeated immersion in them can lead to PTSD pathology, including mob-like behavior.  The argument that art is ever devoid of politics and (at least implicit) moral judgments is either naïve or disingenuous and my critic doesn’t strike me as the former. I suspect that his cultural background, awash in class distinctions and reverberations of colonialism, may partly explain his viewpoint.  Even more fundamentally, however, I think his definition of lowbrow art differs so much from mine that we are really discussing orthogonal concepts.

So I’m taking this opportunity to articulate my art classification scheme.  To give you the punchline first, my definitions have to do with the artist’s attitude towards her/his medium and audience and with the complexity and layering of the artwork’s content, rather than its accessibility.  In my book, lazy shallow art is low, whether it’s in barns or galleries.  What makes Avatar low art is not its popularity, but its conceptual crudity and its contempt for its sources and its viewers’ intelligence.

A common if usually implicit assumption is that quality and popularity are mutually exclusive.  Hence, “lowbrow” is often considered synonymous with mass appeal: bestsellers, platinum albums, blockbuster films.  Yet you can have wildly popular art that is light years away from least common denominations.  Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose comes immediately to mind; so do Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and flamenco; Peter Gabriel and Dire Straits (including their groundbreaking MTV videos); RPG games like Gabriel Knight, Myst and Syberia; and shows about nature or archaeological findings (as accessible “reality TV” as you can get) – or, for that matter, the cordon bleu-quality food you can buy cheaply in corner stores of any French or Italian provincial town.

My admittedly idiosyncratic definition comes from a cultural upbringing that makes no rigid high/low distinctions.  Hellenes still read Homer and watch Eurypides and Aristophanes for entertainment.  To use a parallel from my critic’s culture, Shakespeare and Dickens were not highbrow in their eras.  People of all classes watched Elizabethan plays in open-air theaters and Dickens’ serialized novels were the Victorian equivalents of soap operas.  Too, a lot of poetry, including that of Nobel-prize winners, has been set to compulsively singable music by Hellene popular composers – and the songs are sung across Hellas independently of social stratum.

Along similar (lack of) demarcations, there are no bestsellers or blockbusters in Hellas.  Books are printed in small runs and are not warehoused or pulped.  As a result, editors take chances on unknown authors but spend nothing on PR, and people aren’t trained to restrict their reading to genres.  Nor are films split between hothouse esoterics distributed solely to hoity-toity boutique venues versus “crowd-pleasers” shown in every mall (besides, Hellas doesn’t have malls – it has small shopping courtyards).  Finally, we live literally on top of several breathtaking, radically different past cultures, from Minoan to Byzantine. So our sensibilities tend to the syncretic.

Most cultures, if not terminally debased, have art woven integrally into the lives of their people. Folk art and craft are often extraordinarily sophisticated both in style and content: clothing, jewelry, utensils, instruments, furniture, dwellings, gardens, cooking, painting, dance, music can all be high art – yet they are part of daily life, not exhibited on museum walls or opulent stagings for the few.  This is important not only in itself, but also because such art was/is created disproportionately by women.  In such settings, artists/artisans are often political and moral forces to be reckoned with: builders and smiths, storytellers and bards.  In some nations they are honored as living monuments that preserve and transmit cultural knowledge.

A perfect example of my definition of high art is the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells.  It uses traditional 2-D techniques and is completely accessible – what my critic would call solidly bourgeois middlebrow.  Yet it engages and stimulates many levels of thought and emotion at once.  You can focus on enjoying individual aspects: the story teaches real history, since it’s based closely on what we know about the journey of the Kells manuscript from Iona; the conflict is not the usual tussle between monochromatic good and bad guys, but instead highlights the struggle between two versions of good (like Miyazaki’s Mononoke Hime – or Sophocles’ Antigone); the nuanced interactions explore the interplay between Paganism and Christianity, myth and history, imagination and discipline, nature and culture; the style incorporates both Celtic curvilinear forms (in the style of the Book of Kells as well as its Jugendstil descendants) and the tense, jagged shapes used in such graphic novels as The Crow or Sin City.

Put together, the film becomes Gesamtkunstwerk at the level of Wagner’s Nibelungen cycle or Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy: a total, totally absorbing work of art that delights and also exercises the senses, the cortical emotions, the intellect – and achieves this feat without loudly advertising its intent or, for that matter, its artsiness.  Unlike the incessant trumpetings about the groundbreaking technique or “socially relevant” content of Avatar, The Secret of Kells came and left quietly.  Then again, art of this caliber doesn’t need to shriek for recognition or classification.  Its quiet but sure voice is potent enough:

Images and links: kilim rug (Konya, late 19th century); kohiki tokuri sake flask and guinomi sake cup by Kondo Seiko (Niigata, contemporary); poster for Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells; Aisling sings magic into Pangur Bán (who has her own lovely story) in The Secret of Kells.

Note: If you visit the comments section, you will find that this review drew the attention of the Kells screenwriter Fabrice Ziolkowski and its US distributor Eric Beckman. Additionally, its principal director, Tomm Moore, linked to the HuffPo version of the review from his blog.

The articles prompted by Avatar:
Avatar: Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas
Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

Related articles:
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture: Appropriate Away
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

For I come from an ardent race that has subsisted on defiance and visions.

Two weeks ago, I was too tired to undertake the one-hour drive home after staying late in the lab.  I took refuge in a hotel with the proverbial 57 channels.  And so it came to pass that I finally saw 300, purporting to depict the life of Leonidhas and the Spartans’ stand at Thermopylae.  Except that the Spartans wore black naugahyde diapers, Xerxes was a slim version of Divine, his Immortals looked like orcs and Leonidhas showed his bravery by shoving an unarmed herald down a pit the size of an asteroid crater (in Sparta’s central square yet – bad for tots, to say nothing of fast traffic).

As I watched this dumb dull mess, it came home to me that my culture is deemed common property and used accordingly.  Yet few people really know anything about it beyond the cartoon version that passes for world history in most US schools.

As my readers know, I was born and raised in Hellas (as Hellenes, aka Greeks, call their country) and came to the US at 18.  Since my transplantation, I haven’t seen a single Anglosaxon film or TV show depicting Hellenic history or myth that was not cringe-worthy.  They’ve been so uniformly dismal that the cheerful hodgepodge of Xena was at the top of the pile (no exaggeration).  In 2005, literally everyone I spoke with asked variants of “Are all ‘you people’ like those in My Big Fat Greek Wedding?” and I had to restrain myself from wielding a baseball bat – or a spear.  There are three Hellene directors of international standing who explore the culture’s myth/history (Michalis Kakoyannis, Theodoros Angelopoulos, Pantelis Voulgharis) but their work appears only in art film archives.

I have also read vast numbers of historical and alternate history novels by Anglosaxon authors that take place in Hellas  – to name just a few, Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield, Barry Unsworth, Ellen Frye from the literary side; from SF/fantasy, Jacqueline Carey, Guy Gavriel Kay, Greg Benford, Jenny Blackford.  Many of these books are fine if judged solely on their literary merits, some are best passed over in silence. In most of them, the stray Hellenic phrases (even when uttered by natives) are at the level of tourist pidgin and the Hellene characters are Gunga Din sidekicks.  A few of the stories ring “real” enough that I can lower my shield and relax into them: Jim Brown’s Blood Dance, Roderick Beaton’s Ariathne’s Children, Paul Preuss’ Secret Passages.

In stark contrast, Hellenes have no literary voice in the west.  Although ancient Hellenic literature used to be the province of any well-educated Western European man, the same cannot be said of contemporary Hellenic letters.  If asked to name recent Hellene writers, people may manage to dredge up Nikos Kazantzakis, and him only because of the popularity of the movie version of Zorba the Greek.  If they are intellectuals, they might be able to name the four world-famous poets: Kostantinos Kavafis, Odysseus Elytis, Giorgos Seferis, Yiannis Ritsos.  English-speaking readers can browse through translations of just about any national literature you can name. Yet translations of contemporary Hellenic prose are still non-existent.  Nobody knows that Hellas boasts perhaps the best magic realist in the world, Eugenia Fakinou; at least three living poets of giant stature: Victoria Theodorou, Jenny Mastoraki, Kiki Dimoula; and a veritable galaxy of stellar novelists.

At the same time, Westerners are convinced that they “know” my tradition by hazy general familiarity, as I had the dubious privilege to discover.  Everyone mispronounces my name even after repeated corrections.  In my chosen research domain of alternative splicing, the established terminology of exons and introns betrays the namer’s ignorance of Hellenic: exons stay in, introns are spliced out to form the final RNA.  And in a concrete example from another realm, my submission to the Viable Paradise SF workshop contained scenes of contemporary young Hellene men teasing each other.  The participants who critiqued the work were American or Canadian; none had ever been to Hellas.  Yet they insisted that “only gay people talk like this.”  They took it for granted that they knew better than a native how Cretans behave and that their stereotyped assumptions trumped my first hand experience (so much for diversity and cosmopolitanism in SF).

There have been impassioned discussions in the speculative fiction community about whether authors can write with authenticity and moral authority about cultures that aren’t their own – travelogues aside, which invariably say more about the author than the place they are visiting, P. J. O’Rourke being a poster case.  This discussion cannot help but be complex because it’s overlaid with issues of race and colonization.  Taken to its extreme logical conclusion, the injunction of “Write (only) what you know” would put a fatal crimp on fiction.  On the other hand, the sudden emergence of Victorian Orientalism in steampunk is a serious added annoyance in an already self-consciously regressive subgenre.

Hellenes spent four hundred years under Ottoman occupation as second class citizens, subject to whim death and mob violence (flaying and impalement were among the common punishments), forbidden to learn to read and write their language, forced to supply their overlords with children who were turned into janissaries or odalisques.  The Hellenes – small from malnutrition and mostly olive-skinned and black-haired – were called “dirty darkies” when they first arrived in Western Europe and the US after the bruising civil war.  They were not people of color, but they weren’t considered Aryans either, as the Nazis decided during their occupation of Hellas: each German killed by the resistance merited the execution of at least ten Hellenes, or the slaughtering and razing of the entire nearest village.  The Hellas of today is a poor EU cousin currently undergoing a major economic crisis. Unlike AIG or Bank of America, it’s not “too big to fail” even though its debt ratios are similar to those of the US.

Yet the culture had enough élan and vigor to flower four times – Mycenaean, Classical, Alexandrian, Byzantine; the latter, totally ignored even in the anemic world history books, lasted a millennium and acted as a bridge and a buffer between East and West, between the Romans and the Renaissance.  Hellas gave the world much of its science, art, politics, philosophy (and before anyone starts emoting, I’m keenly aware of the equally decisive contributions of other cultures).  Its people kept their language, identity and spirit intact through all the violations and depradations.  Hellenes ace the verbal SAT with little effort, since everything in English longer than two syllables is mostly derived from our language.

So when all is taken into account, I think we are strong enough to survive even the crude cartoonish renditions of Hellas and Hellenes in the media.  I’m not sure if we’ll weather the imminent release of The Clash of the Titans remake, however.  Judging by its trailers, it will be yet another total chariot wreck.  And to Sam Worthington, a word of advice: that buzz cut reduces your hero status to zero. Hellenic heroes had long hair, from Ahilleas to Leonidhas to the untamed outlaws who wrested the country’s independence from the Turks. A shaved head was a sign of slavery. Long hair was a signal of freedom.

Images: The Angel with the Machine Gun, Tassos, woodcut (the figure is dressed like an andártis, a resistance fighter during WWII); Iríni Pappá (Klytemnístra) and Tatiána Papamóschou (Ifighéneia) in Kakoyannis’ film version of Eurypídhes’ Ifighéneia; Astradhení (Star Binder), Evghenía Fakínou’s first novel; Thémis Bazáka (Eléni) in  Pantelis Voulgharis’ Ta Petrina Hronia (The Stone Years); Athanássios Dhiákos, a freedom fighter captured and impaled by the Turks in 1821, age 33.

Note: Now also posted on HuffPo.

Related posts:
Iskander, Khan Tengri
The Hyacinth among the Roses: The Minoan Civilization
Jade Masks, Lead Balloons and Tin Ears
A (Mail)coat of Many Colors: The Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards
Evgenía Fakínou: The Unknown Archmage of Magic Realism
Herald, Poet, Auteur: Theódhoros Angelópoulos (1935-2012)

Queen of the World, Baby!

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Women nominated for Best Director Oscars:

Lina Wertmüller, Seven Beauties, 1976.
Jane Campion, The Piano, 1993.
Sophia Coppola, Lost in Translation, 2003.
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker, 2010.

Winner, 2010:
Kathryn Bigelow
Best Director, Best Picture.

Four nominations, one lone winner — out of 164 awards in the two categories since 1928. The award is long overdue, meager, and encouraging only if this tiny step is the first of many.

As for Bigelow’s major 500-pound gorilla competitor: sometimes bows and arrows do prevail over nuclear warheads, after all. Look at the bright side, fanbois. The price of Avatar lunchboxes should go through the floor.

Image: Angela Bassett as the formidable Lornette “Mace” Mason in Bigelow’s unfairly overlooked Strange Days.

The Souls in Our Machines

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

I recently saw a xkcd strip about the Spirit rover.

I’m notoriously immune to the usual causes that are supposed to make women weep.  But tears sprang to my eyes when I saw the strip.  Just as I wept while I watched the little robots tending the spaceborne trees in Silent Running; at the launches of the Voyagers; and when I saw the drawing of Sojourner that showed it leaving human footprints on Mars.

These are just instruments.  They’re not fluffy, they’re not cuddly.  But they represent the best in us – the builders, the gardeners, the explorers.

ETA: My friend Calvin asked an important question in his comment to this entry: “Do you think these robots are pushing our neoteny buttons? The Spirit rover (as well as Wall-E) have the large “eyes” of a child. And the squat proportions of the robots in Silent Running (as well as R2D2) also seem to echo the proportions of a child.”

I considered this possibility.  But the Mars rovers and the Voyagers lack several crucial attributes of neoteny: roundness, softness, cooing gurgles.

R2D2 adhered more closely to the neotenic model, and he didn’t arouse these reactions (in me, at least).  For me, their roles are what make them so enormously touching — the quiet, uncomplaining, unsung preservation and propagation of supremely “humane” values.


Top, a portion of the xkcd strip Spirit.

Center, Swirl, by Joe Bergeron.

Bottom, a gardener in Silent Running.

Storytelling, Empathy and the Whiny Solipsist’s Disingenuous Angst

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

In the last few weeks, I’ve been reading stories nominated for the Hugo awards. One of them, the first choice of an SF/F author whose judgment I trust, gave me pause. The concepts were interesting, although the story was a variation on Total Recall. But the characters tasted like cheap cardboard and the style was equally flat. This led me to ponder yet again the much-discussed decline of SF. And from there, with the help of yet another Dr. B. (not the Dr. B. I discussed in Camels, Gnats and Shallow Graves, though they’d fall into a bromance at first sight), my thoughts segued to empathy.

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, neatly falls into the “feminine” virtues. Certainly, it is a requirement for successfully rearing children. It is also is a survival tactic for the powerless. So it’s not surprising that it’s a cultivated and praised attribute in women and slaves.

Three kinds of adult humans lack empathy. The first group cannot help it: they are the people with autism spectrum disorders who find it difficult to understand or interpret the emotions and motivations of others. The second group consists of fundamentalists of all stripes who are convinced they verily possess the stone tablets of Truth and are ready to smash dissenters’ heads with them.

Finally, we have the obnoxiously smug. Invariably these are comfortably off white men who feel free to smirk and sneer about Other’s issues, but when called on it insist that they are misunderstood free spirits persecuted by the humorless PC police. Which brings us to Dr. B.

A few months ago, a pingback showed that someone had referred to my essay The Double Helix: Why Science Needs Science Fiction. Being a curious cat, I followed the link. It led to the blog of Dr. B., an academic astronomer who also writes hard SF. He advocates science literacy, calls himself progressive… so, ever hopeful, I started visiting, happily prepared to join the conversation.

Yet almost immediately, I couldn’t help but notice that several of Dr. B.’s stances “ain’t evolved” (to paraphrase Clarence Thomas). Among them was gratuitous, strident misogyny skulking under the “fairness” veneer. The trend culminated in a recent post in which Dr. B. commented approvingly on an anonymous screed from the National Post, the Canadian equivalent of Fox News:

Women’s Studies programs removed from Canadian universities: “These courses has done untold damage to families, our court systems, labour laws, constitutional freedoms and even the ordinary relations between men and women.” I guess I don’t shed a tear if these are gone. Where are the Men’s Studies? I guess some would say every other course and department out there, but that’s not exactly fair. // Well, that should be provocative enough for some comments.

The Post article itself is the usual venomous tripe about the horrific harm feminism hath wrought, though it missed one obvious talking point – that them dastardly feminazis caused 9/11. It’s the sort of thing Marc Lépine might have written before he murdered fourteen women students of engineering in the Montréal École Polytechnique.

Being a believer in giving people a long rope, I went through four rounds of exchanges with Dr. B. In his responses, he covered every single square of the misogynist bingo board, from the demand to “educate him” to the opinion that women bring down standards in the hard sciences, to whining about the humorlessness of feminists. The gist of his replies was: Enough about women and their imaginary problems. What about oppressed tenured white male ME???

People of this ilk infest self-labeled “progressive” groups – SF authors, transhumanists, “futurists”. Their mindsets are so similar that I wonder if pod-style human cloning isn’t already with us. Their sense of entitlement is as vast as that of any three-year old. They sulk and throw furniture when they’re thwarted in any way, consider their monoculture experience to be universal truth, and believe that their muddled self-serving ideas should be accepted without question because… well, because they are “liberal, leaning libertarian” (translation: it’s fine to bully Others, as long as it’s not state-imposed).

At this point, my readers will justifiably say: “Yet one more obscure navel-watcher is dragging his knuckles on the Internet. Maybe he had a messy divorce, maybe the Diversity Office in his campus took a corner office he was eyeing. Why are you wasting your time and ours on him?”

The answer is, because this man has assumed the role of thought leader and storyteller. A person with a mindset like his is highly unlikely to write absorbing fiction or convincing characters. The empathy that would make the works anything beyond a mirror of the author’s blinkered self-involvement is absent. I found one of Dr. B.’s novels on the Internet. I gave up after slogging through sixty painful pages. Bear in mind that I like hard SF, from Egan to Mixon, and I’ll endure infodumps, shallow characters and tin-ear dialogue if a story’s elements captivate me.

To write well (let alone live well), people need to have open, informed minds. What constitutes such a worldview goes beyond just imaginative extrapolations of concepts and objects. Curiosity and empathy toward others are equally crucial components. If an author can’t (won’t) do that, s/he won’t be able to create credible elves or andromedans either. By encouraging and rewarding lopsided parochialism, SF/F contributes to its own ghettoization and puts a stamp of approval on being junk-food escapism by/for the emotionally stunted.

When people in relatively privileged circumstances live as Others even briefly (John Howard Griffin comes to mind), their outlook changes radically. If I ever became Supreme Dictator, one of my edicts would be that everyone spend at least one year in another culture during their adolescence. Even a brief stay in a different environment peels away the complacency that arises from being embedded in a single context. The double vision that results from such exposure forever alters people’s perceptions. Layered, nuanced storytelling, free of navel-watching and whiny angst, can arise from these jolts.

Most fiction works are slated for oblivion. “Cool” concepts date fast, genre fashions even faster. But storytellers who see into others’ minds create characters that haunt and compel us, whose actions and fates matter to us. Through them, they burst past genre confines to make great literature that is long remembered, retold and sung.

Passed-out-cold bookworm: Gutenberg Project.
“Tantrum” bronze sculpture: Gustav Vigeland, Oslo.
Tales from Earthsea cover: David Wyatt

Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain

Monday, January 11th, 2010

“And the madness of the crowd is an epileptic fit.”

Tom Waits, In the Colosseum

Lynch_mob2Like anyone who didn’t greet Cameron’s Avatar as The Second Coming, I received predictable responses to my review. Some brave souls were relieved to hear they were not alone in perceiving that the Emperor wore slinky glittery togs but was nevertheless drooling. The percentage of these was higher than I expected, which made me hopeful that humanity may achieve long-term survival without regressing to a resemblance of the Flintstone cartoons.

Some insisted that I didn’t get Avatar’s subtle environment- and native culture-friendly message because I’m a jaded cynic out of touch with cosmic harmonies. These are probably the same people who think that positive thinking cures cancer (addressed sharply – in both senses – by Barbara Ehrenreich in her recent book Bright-Sided). I’ll believe the authenticity of their starry-eyedness when they sell their iPods and SUVs and give the proceeds to the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a few called Avatar traitorous liberal propaganda, demonstrating their terminal lack of grasp on concepts. But then, what can one expect of people who voluntarily called themselves teabaggers?

Several exhorted me to “lighten up, it’s only a movie, can’t you stop thinking and just have fun?” This demand is the traditional ploy when someone can’t marshal a real argument – which is one reason why it’s routinely used on inconveniently uppity Others (see Me Tarzan, You Ape for a longer explanation). Them I will leave to the tender ministrations of Moff’s Law, with the added footnote that it’s actually impossible to turn a brain off, short of irreversible coma or death.

Finally, which brings me to this article’s subject, the fanboys shrieked “Die, heretic scum!” Those were hilarious, particularly the ones that pointed out my total ignorance of biology and referred me to the Pandorapedia (no link to this, since I won’t promote brain softening). I was tempted to leave them to their wet fantasies in their parents’ basements. However, inchoate rage of the Incredible Hulk variety is becoming increasingly prevalent in this culture and it extends far beyond the multiplex. I’ve dubbed it the Waterworld Syndrome, because I first articulated it after watching that horrible mess – a movie only in name, but in fact a relentless audiovisual battering.

Hulk Smash LL

The unmistakable sign of a well-wrought book or film is that it puts us in a light trance, emphasis on “light”. We suspend disbelief, immerse ourselves in the universe unfolding before us. Yet we don’t become passive vessels. Large parts of our brain stay busy evaluating the originality and quality of the worldbuilding, the consistency of the plot, the authenticity of the dialogue and characters. If anything jolts us out of this trance, the work immediately becomes as enticing as a flaccid balloon.

Hollywood directors have decided they don’t want to work on any of these aspects. They go through perfunctory motions, relying on lazy shorthand and recycled clichés, while they put their real effort in milking profits from the lunch boxes and video games based on their movies. This is not surprising: many started and/or double as directors for television commercials. Straightforward product placement has become ever more prominent in movies, especially those aimed at younger viewers – which at this point means almost all of them. Focus groups that now routinely “pre-test” movies have removed any pretense that film making is the craft of illuminating narratives that must be told. It’s all about marketing the franchises.

But movies still need to achieve that trance, because viewers are not so zombified as to stop thinking altogether (see note about coma above). Also, directors want a movie to leave enough of an impression that people will buy the associated tchotchkes. So they resort to the Waterworld technique, which consists of arousing the fight-or-flight reflex by sensory overload. In short, they use assaultive special effects. Today’s blockbuster movies, numbingly sequelized, are members of the Doom or Wolfenstein gang, except that they enforce even more passivity than the minimal act of frantically pushing the buttons of an XBox.

The fight-or-flight reflex is an ancient survival mechanism we share with other organisms that have a complex nervous system. Once the reflex is triggered, adrenaline and cortisol spike, the heart rate goes up, the blood supply gets diverted from the viscera and brain to the muscles, glucose floods the body, thinking is suppressed and we tremble and sweat like a beaten horse. On the behavioral side, the result is anger and fear that bypass our cortex, eluding conscious control. This makes perfect sense as a prelude to action when the trigger is legitimate: if we spend too much time analyzing the possible outcomes of a tiger’s appearance, we may end up in its stomach.

Clockwork CSudden loud noises, abrupt luminosity changes, rapid irregular motion and objects fast growing in your visual field are among the triggers of fight-or-flight. Sound familiar? 3-D effects that force us to constantly flinch away from looming fronds or asteroids; car chases at a speed that our eyes can barely track; explosions, in-your-face gunshots and loud percussive soundtracks that make us jump – these are the common, blunt weapons in today’s blockbuster movie arsenal, aimed to jangle and pummel our brain into reflex mode.

When fight-or-flight is triggered while someone is in a theater seat, the resulting anger and fear are not expended because there’s no action possible beyond chewing one’s popcorn faster. The stress hormones linger, and so do the emotions they arouse – displaced, unfocused, free-floating, ready for use by demagogues and charlatans. Objectively, it’s a terrific use of the misnamed reptile brain, much better than the subliminal messages they used to flash between frames in older movies. The behavioral conditioning is now integrated into the experience. And moviegoers, stunned into sullen docility, their brain chemistry cleverly subverted, increasingly expect visceral punches instead of stories, willingly collaborating in their own mental and emotional debasement.

People who crave such entertainment turn into mobs far more readily than those who demand less crude fare and will not abandon the prerogative of critical thought. The primitive worldview fostered by such abusive spectacle diverts people from trying to solve problems rationally, making it easier to belittle knowledge and expertise, cede rights and liberties and scapegoat marginalized groups and the unlucky – which by now include much of what was once the middle class.

Furious George J LeFrançoisIf you think this is hyperbole, consider that Antonin Scalia used the TV show 24 as an authority for legitimizing the use of torture. The excuse that mindless entertainment relieves pressure at times of individual and collective stress is dangerous. It’s crucial to act as full humans not when times are easy, but when times are hard; when circumstances are best served by reflection, not reflex.

Images: 1st, Trey Parker & Matt Stone, South Park; 2nd, Louis Leterrier, The Incredible Hulk; 3rd, Stanley Kubrick, Clockwork Orange; 4th, John LeFrançois, Furious George.

Related articles:
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The Andreadis Unibrow Theory of Art


Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Traveler from afar who sailed to our shores –
ask the Sea Rose for a gift…


Most of my friends know that I write fiction.  Publication started fifteen years ago, when five of my stories (collected in the file In the Realms of Fire) appeared in After Hours, a venue pointed out by my friend and fellow writer Calvin Johnson.

Since then, in addition to writing The Biology of Star Trek and the essays here and elsewhere, I spun six novels in an alternative universe where the Minoans survive the explosion of the Thera volcano.  The saga starts in the Bronze Age and extends into the far future.  A small press is interested in the first novel in the series, Shard Songs, which gives me strong motivation to finish it.  The trouble is that the entire opus needs global editing – a full-time job that requires focus and calmness of mind.

Several friends saw parts of the saga as it unfolded.  It inspired two of them (Heather D. Oliver and Kathryn Bragg-Stella) to create the beautiful artworks that grace the site’s cover, blog logo and gallery.  However, none of it had officially seen the light of day till this August and I had serious doubts about its publication potential.  This was in part because it doesn’t fit into any category and ignores several recipes… er, rules.

In it, legends, songs, vision quests and geasa intertwine with genetic engineering, wormhole travel, planetary settlement and sapient aliens.  Some portions have multiple narrators, the cultures are not Anglosaxon and an invented language whispers through it: my version of the lost Minoan tongue.  Worse yet, in an era where dismemberments earn a work a PG rating, kudos and awards whereas glimpses of a nipple earn it an NC-17 rating and snide sniggers, my saga contains as much sex as it does war – and though it’s not romance, love is a powerful engine in it.

Then, in August, Crossed Genres accepted Dry Rivers, a brief story from the  saga that takes place in Minoan Crete.  The just-released issue 13 of Crossed Genres contains Planetfall, a much longer braid from the saga’s tapestry.  Planetfall consists of five linked stories whose human protagonists are descendants of the characters in Dry Rivers and Shard Songs.

BasinI don’t know if any of these novels will ever get published.  But these two green shoots have given me great joy and hope.  It was my tremendous luck to have devoted friends who urged me to keep writing the saga; to meet Kay Holt and Bart Leib whose vision of Crossed Genres focused exactly on hard-to-categorize works like mine; and to enjoy the unwavering certainty of Peter Cassidy, who’s convinced that one day the entire saga will emerge from its cocoon and unfurl its wings.  Dhi kéri ten sóran, iré ketháni.

I Prefer My Prawns Well-Seasoned

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

district_nineI saw District 9 yesterday.  This gory bore won an 88% rating at the Tomatometer?  As well as rave reviews from intelligent, well-educated people across the age spectrum?  Once again, as with Star Wars, I find myself wondering if I’m in a parallel universe.

After a gritty documentary-style start with an interesting premise, the film abandons all pretense of depth or subtlety and becomes a derivative, unrelenting splatterfest.  Toss Alien Nation, The Fly and Enemy Mine in a bowl, add a splash of Cry, The Beloved Country and Starship Troopers, mix a bit of E. T. and Close Encounters — not forgetting Kafka’s Metamorphosis with some Robocop dressing and a pinch of Chaplin via Wall-e… and you get an idea of what a jumble of recycled clichés District 9 is.

Coherence, scientific or any other kind, is non-existent.  The aliens are insectoid and seem to have castes differing in mental capacity, yet all appear to be male (since they reproduce by laying eggs, either females or hermaphrodites would be prominently represented or they would have a queen; and if the latter, the humans could have stopped their reproduction cycle by killing her).  They have bio-weapons that humans cannot use — yet the aliens can’t use them either until the mutating human’s genetic signature begins to match the weapons’ trigger setting. Their ship has remained stubbornly dead for twenty years, but activates instantly when the plot demands it.  The black fluid one of them creates is good for everything, from powering ships to altering DNA.  Two individuals with totally different physiologies become buddies.  There’s also the obligatory precocious tot (addressed, with numbing predictability, as “son” by “his father”).  The upper-caste aliens have completely human motives and responses.  All the humans except one are single-note stereotypes.  And the quasi-sympathetic anti-hero undergoes a Lamarckian change that’s as bogus as the uplifting life-lesson that accompanies it.

district9The cruelties of segregation, the plight of refugees, our treatment of Others — those are burning subjects.  So is the question of how we would interact with sentient aliens.  None of them gets real treatment here.  Instead, the film manipulates its viewers into feeling virtuous by being superficially “daring”.  District 9 is neither science fiction nor social commentary; it’s violence porn — or, as producer Peter Jackson himself called it on io9, splatstick.