Category Archives: Culture: sf & pulp lit

Tin-foil hat time

Let’s just say that I was talking with someone today; it doesn’t really matter who they were. We were talking about how lousy the economy is, and how the cost of everything is rising.

“Except gas. Gas is cheap right now,” said this other person.

“That’s true,” I said.

“For now. For the next three weeks. It’ll go up again after the election.”

“After the election?” I said.

“Yeah, it’s the oil companies trying to influence the election.”

Mm-hm. Of course I don’t believe this. No need to wear our tin-foil hats, folks; we do not live in a world of puppetmasters and vast conspiracies.

And if the price of gas rises sharply in mid-November, it will just be coincidence.

Getting mad, Perry Mason style

A discussion of tactics between the lawyer Perry Mason and the private detective Paul Drake that occurs on page 128 of The Case of the Amorous Aunt by Erle Stanley Gardner:

“ ‘Tomorrow I’m going to be dignified, injured, and perhaps just a little dazed by the rapidity of developments.’

“ ‘Are you going to be an injured martyr or are you going to get mad?’ Drake asked.

“ ‘It depends on which way will do my client the most good,’ Mason told him.

“ ‘My best hunch is that you should get mad,’ Drake said.

“ ‘We’ll think it over,’ Mason said.

“ ‘Won’t you get mad anyway?’ Drake said.

“ ‘A good lawyer can always get mad if somebody pays him for it, but after you’ve been paid a few times for getting good and mad, you hate like the deuce to get mad on your own when nobody’s paying you for it.’

“Drake grinned. ‘You lawyers,’ he said.”

Well. I feel a little odd agreeing with a fictional lawyer, but it occurs to me that that religious professionals are wasting their time if they get mad while at church, unless they’re getting paid to get mad. I guess what I mean to say is this: while getting mad is a natural reaction to many things that happen in church life, you rarely get anything out of getting mad, except getting mad.

Not that I think we should draw life lessons from a pulp fiction hero.

Arthur C. Clarke

There was a time in my early teens when I was obsessed with the book 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I saw the movie later, and have never liked it as well as the book. In the book, Clarke tells his story efficiently and well. True, the human characters are one-dimensional automatons, but that creates the delicious irony that HAL, the rogue computer, is the only three-dimensional and interesting character. When at last the human “protagonist” (although he is so bland and unsympathetic it’s hard to call him a protagonist) comes back to the solar system as a post-human creature produced by non-human aliens, you wish that HAL had survived instead — HAL seems more trustworthy.

I think I understood 2001 partly in religious terms:– a mysterious force (non-human aliens rather than God) determines the destiny of human affairs through rather heavy-handed interventions — and the prophet, the one who returns to earth after meeting this mysterious force, starts out as a bland faceless prig and doesn’t get any better from his encounter with the aliens. That is to say, I disagreed strongly with the basic moral argument of the book:– that humanity needs to depend on some external source, some deus ex machina, for moral authority. As a young teen, I only felt a vague disquiet with the premise of 2001, but somehow I knew it Clarke was wrong: humanity cannot depend on some outside saving force to redeem itself.

We need to read authors with whom we strongly disagree. As a teenaged science fiction fan, I got to disagree strongly with Arthur C. Clarke, which helped me better understand my own thoughts. That is a gift that cannot be underestimated. He wrote many other books and stories that made my teenaged self think, and so I was very sorry to hear that he died this morning.

Boredom is good

Back in August, 2005, I read a stunningly good story by an author who was then unfamiliar to me. The author was Kelly Link, and the story, “Magic for Beginners,” was a sort of magical-realism-science-fiction-fantasy story with characters that were very well drawn. Since then, I’ve read some other stories by Link, and while I feel “Magic for Beginners” is her best story, everything I’ve read by her is good enough that I’m willing to listen when she says something about writing.

In an interview in the November, 2007, issue of Locus magazine, she asserts that boredom is useful, perhaps even necessary, for writers:

Boredom is useful for writers. I need a certain amount of boredom to get work done. But I also need to do other things besides sit at a desk and write…. You need other kinds of work, and you also need significant periods of stillness in order to have time to think. Boredom allows time for thinking. Even in writing, boredom serves a useful function in writing — if I’m boring myself when I write, it means I need to stretch myself, try something I haven’t done before….

I don’t know if boredom is useful to everyone who writes, but boredom certainly is useful for me when I’m trying to write. When I get overly busy — and I have been very busy the past month or so — I don’t write much, and what I write isn’t worth much.

Yet another reason for not letting excessive busy-ness creep into my life.

Someone call Matt Groenig, now!

All hail to commenter Paul, who has imagined what it might be like if the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) managed to get some product placement in one of Matt Groenig’s productions. Quick, someone have the UUA ad agency call Matt Groenig with these little snippets to be incorporated in the next Futurama movie:

Bender greeting visitors at a “Welcome Table” at his Unitarian Universalist church:
    â€œWho are you, and why should I care?”

Bender on an anti-racist Journey Towards Wholeness:
    â€œThis is the worst kind of discrimination. The kind against me.”

Bender contemplates the Ultimate:
    God: Bender, being God isn’t easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch, like a safecracker or a pickpocket.
    Bender: Or a guy who burns down a bar for the insurance money.
    God: Yes, if he makes it look like an electrical thing. If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.

Bender, the Unitarian Universalist congregant:
    â€œHey. Do I preach at you when you’re lying stoned in the gutter?”

(I made some slight edits for clarity, but the funny bits are Paul’s. Thanks, Paul! As a Futurama fan myself, I just had to post this on the main page.)

’87 Worldcon GoH wins Nobel

The five novels in the Canopus in Argos: Archives series, by Doris Lessing, are among my favorite science fiction books. Their stories and images continue to haunt my imagination. The fourth book in the series, The Making of the Representative for Planet Eight, tells the story of how to face the collapse of a planet’s entire ecosystem. The first book in the series, Shikasta, contains one of the more interesting sustained meditations on racism that I have ever read, and as I thread my way through anti-racist theology, I find Lessing’s words coming up through memory. And the second book in the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five has no real relevance to current events (not that I can remember, at least), but the image of contact between the three different, and increasingly transcendent, zones of existence still fuels my imagination.

Two bits of trivia about Lessing: The Associated Press reported that Doris Lessing was less than enthusiastic about winning the prize at first, which makes me like her better….

Doris Lessing pulled up in a black cab where a media horde was waiting Thursday in front of her leafy north London home. Reporters opened the door and told her she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, to which she responded: “Oh Christ … I couldn’t care less.”

And the last bit of trivia: Lessing was the Guest of Honor (GoH) at the 1987 World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). (Via.) Whaddya bet she wins an honorary Hugo award for lifetime achievement at the 2008 Worldcon….

30th anniversary

Thirty years ago today, the Science Fiction Club of Concord Carlisle Regional High School went on an afternoon field trip. Actually, it was just me and Mike Saler who went on the field trip, because the other two members of the club couldn’t make it that afternoon. Mike and I stood at the entrance to the high school grounds waiting for our ride to pick us up (but I can’t remember if our faculty advisor, Mr. Williams, gave us a ride, or if Mike’s mom did). We engaged in typical science-fiction-fan behavior — Mike found a basketball-sized rock, captured it, and tied a scrap of clothesline around it as a leash.

“His name is Spot,” said Mike, “and he’s coming with us.” Mike dragged Spot by his leash, until the clothesline broke. “He’s escaping!” cried Mike, and we both started laughing.

We got to the movie theatre in Boston and bought our tickets to the new science fiction movie, “Star Wars” by a young director named George Lucas. “His first film, THX-1138, was really good,” said Mike, who was already a member of NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association), and a contributor to at least one science fiction fanzine. “They showed THX-1138 at the last Boskone.”

“This film is better,” said a guy standing near us. He said he had already seen “Star Wars” twice that day, and he was going back in to see it a third time. He was a little strange.

We got into the theatre just after the film had started. The scrolling text that told the background story had just about finished scrolling its way up the screen. We made our way into the dark and crowded theater. “Half these people are NESFA members,” Mike whispered.

We loved the movie. It was a real science fiction fan’s movie. At the beginning, as the characters make their way across the desert planet of Tatooine, they pass what looks like a huge dead worm. “Sandworm!” Mike and I whispered to each other, and we could hear other science fiction fans in the audience whispering the same thing. Lucas had obviously included it as an homage to the novel Dune. We loved the bar scene — “Better than Spider Robinson!” whispered Mike to me, and that was saying a lot, since Mike was a big fan of Spider Robinson’s bar stories.

But then the character Han Solo said, “Fast?! The Millennium Falcon can do three parsecs!” You could almost hear all the science fiction fans thinking for just an instant — “‘Three parsecs’… waitaminute, a parsec is a unit of distance, not velocity” — and then everyone hissed.

That was really the only sour note. Aside from that, it was the perfect movie for us science fiction fans, obviously made by a fellow science fiction fan. Even the ending, where you find out that the evil bad guy, Darth Vader, wasn’t really dead, was perfect. It harked back to the old Flash Gordon movie serials — they still showed old, scratched copies of the Flash Gordon serials at science fiction conventions — where there’s one last scene showing that the evil bad guy actually survived, so you know there will be another episode.

We made our way out of the movie theatre. Thinking of Flash Gordon, I asked Mike, “Do you think they’ll make another movie?”

“Nah, it’s too much of an insider film,” Mike said. “No one except science fiction fans will get all the jokes.”

I had to agree. This just wasn’t going to be a successful movie. As we were going out the door, they offered us buttons that said “May The Force Be With You!” Neither Mike nor I bothered to take one. After all, the movie was just going to disappear, only to reappear year after year at science fiction conventions, with more and more scratches appearing every year.

How very wrong we were. Within two years, I noticed that at the summer camp where I was a counselor, all the little kids were playing with Star Wars action figures. “Stah Wahs! Stah Wahs!” they’d say, in their diminutive Boston accents. I couldn’t figure out why little kids liked a movie that made so many references to science fiction books that they had never read.

I still don’t get it. “Star Wars” is not a particularly good movie, it’s just a fan-boy movie, and it should have faded into obscurity. Unfortunately it became wildly successful, which completely derailed George Lucas from what could have been a wonderfully creative career as a film writer and director.

In some alternate universe, “Star Wars” didn’t achieve undeserved success. It made enough money so that the movie studios were willing to give Lucas another shot, as long as he stayed away from science fiction in his next films. Instead, he goes back to his 1966 short film “Freheit” and picks up on the idea of freedom, goes back to his big hit “American Grafitti” and the characters of middle America, and makes a powerful film about a young white man in a midwestern town who finds his way to intellectual freedom through his friendship with a young black man. In that alternate universe, Lucas builds on that success to make an updated versions of “Hamlet,” and spends the rest of his career making a wide variety of films that continue his exploration of freedom and individuality and response to authoritarian power.

In that alternate universe, George Lucas is compared to Stanley Kubrick instead of to the anonymous makers of the Flash Gordon serials. I would prefer the George Lucas of that alternate universe to the the sterile and unintelligent George Lucas that has evolved in this universe.

No wonder Mike repudiated science fiction, and now leads a mundane life as a history professor who is occasionally interviewed on NPR and writes popular articles about John Le Carre’s spy thrillers. As for me, I have remained a science fiction fan, somewhat to my regret, and thus toil in obscurity as the 21st C. American version of a provincial English curate. And George Lucas is laughing all the way to the bank. Tanj.