Archive for the 'Reviews & Criticism' Category

Caliban and His Mirror: a Guest Post by James Enge

November 11th, 2008

Commenter James Enge posted a rumination on fantasy and politics on his own blog, and I received his permission to repost it here for your reading pleasure (or for you to take issue with–we’re equal opportunity).

Herewith:

Caliban and His Mirror: Fantasy and Politics (or not):

by James Enge
Deep Genre has had a couple of interesting posts lately about political values in epic fantasy–specifically the old “SF Diplomat” question of whether fantasy is inherently reactionary. The first was (by Kate Elliott, and the next by Lois Tilton; both have provoked interesting comment threads, and with luck there may be more posts to come.)

In the comments to Kate Elliot’s piece, Mark Tiedemann (a sometime Black Gate writer, among other perhaps more notable things) suggested that fantasy was not necessarily interested in politics–he described it as an “added benefit” for fantasy but not essential. “Fantasy is not about systems but about the essentials of self, and the problems of the given story are designed to reveal those qualities of character which are outside of or beyond ‘politics.’”

I was going to just comment with something like “Word!” or “True dat!” but my experts tell me that no one says that stuff anymore, and they also refused to tell me what people do say. (“For your own safety,” they keep insisting, as if that arrest for misuse of “groovadelic” in mixed company hadn’t been expunged from my record years ago.)

So instead I wrote

Great post and fascinating comments. I especially like Mark Tiedemann’s point. Matters of governance in a fantasy novel are rarely about politics; they’re identity symbols. This can be bad (in an Iron Dream sort of way) or good, but it’s not necessarily advocating reactionary political values. It has more to do with the Freudian “family romance.”

Kate Elliott wondered, in a very civil way, what the hell we were talking about. I can’t speak for Mark Tiedemann, but here’s what I was talking about.
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In the wake of the USA presidential election, Deep Genre is thinking about politics, class, and fantasy and science fiction.

November 7th, 2008

Lois McMaster Bujold, at her Denvention Guest of Honor speech, talks about science fiction and fantasy as “fantasies of political agency.”  She remarks that “Even the world-building itself is often a political argument. And, oh boy, are the political aspects of the fiction ever valorized in the reviews.”

And is she ever right!

Now and again I read what strike me, as a writer of fantasy, as some rather puzzling claims about fantasy.

Is fantasy an inherently conservative genre?  Does it look back to an “idealized past” or represent a fetishization of, say, feudalism and aristocracy?  If you write about monarchy, are you authoritarian in your heart of hearts?  Are all “traditional” fantasies, or “epic” fantasies, or “heroic” fantasies, about restoring the hierarchical status quo and/or wrapped around a monolithic and absolutist vision of good vs. evil?  What is up with these modern day fantasy writers who write novels set in reactionary monarchies and don’t write a story about overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a democratic government like the one they are fortunate enough to live in?  Is there something *wrong* with them?  Or are they just pandering to the audience that reads this reactionary pap and dreams of that happy day when they were the lost prince seeking to reclaim his stolen throne?

All the statements in the above paragraph are paraphrases of statements or reflections I have read online–nor did I have to look too hard to find them.

I’m perfectly happy to agree that on an individual case by case basis we can find examples of all the statements above within published fantasy novels.  Indeed, I basically agree with China Mieville’s statement in an Autumn 2000 interview that

“If you look at stereotypical ‘epic’ or ‘high’ fantasy, you’re talking about a genre set in magical worlds with some pretty vile ideas. They tend to be based on feudalism lite: the idea, for example, that if there’s a problem with the ruler of the kingdom it’s because he’s a bad king, as opposed to a king. If the peasants are visible, they’re likely to be good simple folk rather than downtrodden wretches (except if it’s a bad kingdom…). Strong men protect curvaceous women. Superheroic protagonists stamp their will on history like characters in Nietzschean wet dreams, but at the same time things are determined by fate rather than social agency. Social threats are pathological, invading from outside rather than being born from within. Morality is absolute, with characters–and often whole races–lining up to fall into pigeonholes with ‘good’ and ‘evil’ written on them.”

Mieville rightly goes on to point out that there is plenty of fantasy that does not fit this stereotype.

I tend to think that many of these elements, where they do appear, come about as a result of lazy world-building rather than political agency.  Lazy world-building is an issue of craft, not politics.

I would also suggest that Mieville’s neat encapsulation above has more to do with the mythology of American exceptionalism (or perhaps with the fading dream of the British Empire) than with any real understanding or unreflective adoration on the part of writers of “cod-epic fantasy” of manorialism and feudalism, chieftain level societies, the early development of states, the rise of absolute monarchy, or any of the permutations in between and beyond or outside.  Bad rulers vs. good rulers?  Good simple folk?  Pathological social threats?  Moral absolutism?  If you were paying attention to the recent USA election, this should all sound familiar.

And I would go further and suggest that some people make assumptions about fantasies, especially those they have not read, which may on the surface seem to fall into “stereotypical” categories but which do not fit so easily into that stereotype if they are read with a clear gaze.

The past is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley famously wrote (although I admit I know not one other thing about him).  Writers may choose to write books set in different cultural historical political and social settings for a variety of reasons.  Writers may not necessarily choose to use sledgehammer and red flags to signal their themes, but that does not therefore mean they are writing epic or traditional settings  out of an unthinking embrace of an idealized past that never existed.  Many of us have much more complex motivations regarding our desire to explore the history and tapestry of the human condition.

The Fortress of Solitude

September 23rd, 2008

Superman Flies Lois Over Manhattan

What do you think? Was the 1978 Superman the best movie made from a comic book, with all other attempts going downhill after that, with the exception of the first two Spidermans (2002 & 2004)? And maybe, Batman Begins (2005)? Oh, wait! There was also the excellent first X-Men (2000).

We shall not even mention the ludicrously exacrable awful X-Man ast Stand (2006) — which seems to be more generally the quality of comix-to-movies and / or video / computer games-to-movies, alas and alack-a-day!

Back to Superman, 1978, the past prophesizes the future. We begin not on the planet of Krypton, but in the Depression with voice over telling us specifically that this is the 1930′s and a world-wide economic disaster has taken place, while black-and-white comic book pages flip. One wonders why, since after that we get the credits, and then the movie properly begins and we’re on Krypton.

However, with the 1930′s global Depression invoked, the trial on Krypton of traitors to the state, and then the denial and rejection of brilliant Jor-El’s warning of coming planetary destruction by the same power elite that passed judgment of the traitors, it feels like today’s headlines.

It’s lovely how the director does not rush us through any of this. The film takes just the time it needs to set-up what needs to be set-up. It remains interesting to look at through this leisurely beginning, leisurely despite the tension and pressure of special effects planetary destruction. Partly this is because the Intro is mostly narrated by Marlon Brando as Jor-El, just the first on-screen member of this all-star cast.

Then we finally get to the best parts of the movie, Superman’s adoption by the Kents and his growing up in rural Kansas. The photography’s tenderness in recording the small details of that life provokes one to wonder whether the director or the cinematographer grew up there too. The glory of the wheat, gold and rose in the lingering sunset glow, sleeping with the bakelite radio tuned in to the local R’nR station, the paper window shades with circle string pulls, the vane windmills, the barns — I know all these details intimately also from my childhood. Then Clark must leave the warm, nurturing pastoral nest, to begin his adult super education via Jor-El’s technology, in the Fortress of Solitude, grown via that same technology out of the empty ice blades at the top of the world.

Next follows assuming a mask and courtship, simultaneously. Such cute bits: no phone booths into which he can change from Kent to Superman, the most extreme looking-up-a-girl’s-skirt scene ever, as Lois Lane dangles from the helicopter teetering at the edge of a skyscraper’s roof deck, x-raying Lois’s lungs through her clothes with his super vision when he advises her not to smoke.

It’s all foreplay and courtship from the moment Superman (not Kent, despite Superman’s Kent mask’s attraction to her) and Lois Lane set eyes on each other. Innuendo, double entendre, her interview of the man who saved her, giving him his name — Superman — gathering his vital stats, most importantly that he’s neither married nor has a girlfriend. She asks if he can, um, well, eat? Meaning, do you, can you fuck? Even better, there is no way that Margot Kidder can be described as anything but, well, homely. This is all lead-up to that marvelous overflight of New York City, which neither Vaquero nor I have ever forgotten. Seeing this movie again for the first time since 1978, seeing the Twin Towers — the flight is even more magical.

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Forthcoming Vampire Films – London Times

August 17th, 2008

This article deals with vampires in the movie versions only, even if the movies mentioned were adapted from original novels.  It includes a brief chronology of vampires on film which can be a quickie refresher for those who have read any or all of the books published on this subject, and watched all the films.  Oddly, Buffy’s not mentioned.

This forthcoming film sounds interesting, so I’ll be watching out for it:

Meanwhile, although the vampire in Let the Right One In is altogether more dangerous, she symbolises as much the dark side of the human psyche as an external threat. “I was thinking about these two characters as though they are mirrors,” Alfredson, the director, says. “She is everything that he is not. She is awake when he is asleep: he is very afraid, she is very brave; she is strong, he is weak; she’s dark, he is blond. She is everything that he would need to be to survive. They are two sides of the same coin.”

The vampire craze shows no signs of abating. An English language remake of Let the Right One In has been announced. With three remaining books in the Twilight saga, there is potential for a vampire franchise. And although the Twilight books series is complete, Nash reveals that “Stephenie does have the bare bones of a chapter of a book provisionally titled Midnight Sun, which is the Twilight story but from the point of view of the vampire not the human girl”.

  Love, C.

“Sheet-heads:” The New Nazis

August 6th, 2008

When I recently reviewed the Summer issue of Helix SF (http://www.helixsf.com/) for the August issue of IROSF (http://www.irosf.com/), I made no mention of the controversy then [and now still] festering over Senior Editor William Sanders’ use of the term “sheet-heads” to describe jihahis/Musims/Arabs –- the target of the reference is not quite clear, although Sanders has insisted it refers only to terrorists. He has also argued that his use of this term can not be considered racist, since neither Muslims nor Arabs are strictly speaking a race; nonetheless I think it is clearly species of bigotry, as the argument is a species of sophistry.

In fact, I had for some time been aware of his use of this term, well before the present controversy. But I do not consider it my job as a reviewer to discuss or condemn the political statements of a magazine’s editor –- bigoted or not. My job is to review the magazine’s fiction and not its politics.

It is not possible, though, to pretend that politics does not exist in fiction. Fiction has always been a vehicle for political statements. But a reviewer, I believe, should critique the stories, not the politics. Analog, to take one example, often appears to be taking a right-libertarian stand in both its editorial content and its fiction. This is not a position with which I am particularly sympathetic, but I consider my job as a reviewer to consider whether a libertarian story is a good story, not whether its ideology suits me. Grounds for condemning it might be cardboard characterization, clumsy plotting, awkward dialogue, or heavy-handed polemic, but not the ideology itself. If I find a well-written libertarian story, I will recommend it as readily as any other.

Unfortunately, it often seems to be the case that there is an inverse relationship between political zeal and quality of fiction. One way this manifests is in characterization: the ideological opponent is cast as the Bad Guy. When I was a kid, watching crummy westerns on the black-and-white TV, it was always easy to tell the Bad Guys; they were the ones wearing the black hats. They were there in the story to be shot down by the Good Guy. They are villainous because they are villains, bad because they are Bad Guys. Like the Nazi.

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For Love of A Vampire: Twilight & True Blood

July 30th, 2008

O noes!

Twilight’s got all the cooties: romance, girl and YA — no Harry Potter adulation for this series.   Shoot, it’s as bad as Sex and the City, except – it haz shoes? It should haz belly dancing.  Does it?  Myself does not know,  not being a romance fan nor generally a YA reader. (I am a fan of belly dancing, and for long time now.)

Salon dot com analyzes.

[   No wonder the media has heralded Twilight as the next Harry Potter and Meyer as the second coming of J.K. The similarities, however, are largely commercial. It’s hard to see how Twilight could ever approach Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon for one simple reason: the series’ fan base is almost exclusively female. The gender imbalance is so pronounced that Kaleb Nation, an enterprising 19-year-old radio show host-cum-author, has launched a blog called Twilight Guy, chronicling his experiences reading the books. The project is marked by a spirit that’s equal parts self-promotion and scientific inquiry — “I am trying to find why nearly every girl in the world is obsessed with the Twilight books by Stephenie Meyer” — and its premise relies on the fact that, in even attempting this experiment, Nation has made himself an exceptional guy indeed.    ]This is an interesting piece, though, because it attempts to track similarities, if there are any, and contrasts, which there certainly are many, among Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the Harry Potter series and the Twilight series, and their audiences.


Another quote:

[  If Harry Potter has a vampire-loving, adolescent female counterpart, it’s Buffy Summers. ]  Continue Reading »

Comicon International 2008 — Dr. Horrible, The Dark Knight, and me

July 30th, 2008

Back from Comicon. Also back from Westercon. Thoughts….

First off…wow. Comicon was amazing. In over twenty years of attending, Comicon’s managed to outdo itself again, mostly by dint of those who came, both industry types and fans. I don’t know how many, but numbers of over 200,000 were rumored and probably underestimated.

Second thought, what’s up with the art shows at all the cons? At Comicon, I saw more winged kittens in the art show than superheroes, or for that matter, any comic book characters. Yes, I understand the cottage industry of marketing to dragon and cat fetishists, but seeing the same dracokitty art recycled from Westercon to Comicon was surreal given the difference of the rest of the convention.

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“Mongol”

June 24th, 2008

Cross-posted with my LJ.  Mongol, the first installment of a Russian trilogy featuring Genghis Khan is currently playing in a single theater here in Manhattan.  Go here and here to see trailers, stills and more information.  The film is supposed to have a larger release here in the U.S.  It had terrific popular and critical reception in Europe.

The best parts:

–The locations, the vistas, the action, the people — none of them are digital.  This is all location and real people riding real horses.  It does look different, and so much better, I do say.

–The landscape, as one expects, has the leading role in Mongol.   You will not be disappointed.  Vistas of snow, of arid slopes, green rolling spring grass, doesn’t seem foreign to someone who grew up on the Great Plains, though, no we didn’t have mountains where I grew up.  But I did visit the Black Hills, which are really mountains, often on family summer vacations, and the Badlands, in both South Dakota and North Dakota.  The Missouri-Platt system meanders through parts of both these states on their way to the Mississippi, so I saw those too on summer vacations.  These are true vistas and landscapes, from my own life, and the lives of these characters in

Another misguided soul

May 5th, 2008

Well, we have here yet another Literary Believer, apparently, who doesn’t understand why the general disrespect of genre annoys us all so much. It’s a review of a new Michael Chabon collection of essays.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/05/02/RVHDVM6J8.DTL&type=books

The reviewer professes to be bewildered by Chabon’s aggressive defense of genre because after all, Chabon himself is highly regarded, so why is he “fighting stale battles” ? Not so stale to the rest of us . . . Three cheers for Michael Chabon, say I, and let’s hope this reviewer eventually gets a clue from someone nicer than I.

From Penguin: A SCIENCE FICTION OMNIBUS ed. by Brian Aldiss

February 3rd, 2008

Penguin paperbacks have long provided readers with authoratative editions of classic literature from all nations and genres, edited by experts in the field.  Peguin regularly updates its classics, with new translations, new citations, new editors and different covers.  Thus Penguin’s Science Fiction Omnibus, published in Britain in November 2007, updates the Aldis edited SF Omnibus of 1973.

You can compare the 1973 edition’s Table of Contents 

here with the Table of Contents for this new 2007 edition here.  A thoughtful consideration of SF sparked by this new edition of Aldis’s Omnibus appears in the current Times Literary Supplement. 

You may not agree with every point Dinah Birch, the writer, makes, but its interesting to read.

[ Loneliness shadows science fiction, and is made more acute by its customary settings amid the emptiness of space, with solitary voyagers or beleaguered bands of adventurers encountering the hostilities of planets that deny the consolations of familiarity. The opening images of Walter M. Miller’s brilliant “I Made You” (1954) are typical:

“It sat on the crag by night. Gaunt, frigid, wounded, it sat under the black sky and listened to the land with its feet, while only its dishlike ear moved in slow patterns that searched the surface of the land and the sky The land was silent, airless. Nothing moved, except the feeble thing that scratched in the cave.”

The “feeble thing” turns out to be a man, about to be destroyed by the suffering robot that he has created. The story is recognizably a reflection of Frankenstein. It serves, like Frankenstein, to caution against the dangers of scientific progress pursued with no thought of moral consequences. This bleakly admonitory tone repels many readers. It is the business of science fiction to alarm, in the sense of providing the excitement of thrilling dangers, and of scaring readers with the prospect of a future in which human values are threatened. Ruthless invasions, apocalyptic plagues, wars and famines, dying stars, mechanized intelligences and predatory civilizations, have been its favourite devices. Fredric Brown’s “Answer” (1964), a piercingly brief story, points to the hazards of the internet, years before it was invented. Scientists link every computer on earth in order to ask a single question – “Is there a God?”. The answer is immediate: “Yes, NOW there is a God”. The warnings of science fiction are endlessly inventive, often witty, and sometimes salutary, but they do not make for comforting reading. ]

When I was a tad, far back in the days when there was little if any SF and even less F on television and in the movies and in the bookstores, these anthologies and omnibuses were among my most prized discoveries for reading, and re-reading, and re-reading even more times than that.  I didn’t realize it, but these kinds of collections were teaching me what was good about SF, and how it worked, through an infinite variety of treatments and approaches, only limited by the number of stories and writers that could be included.

Love, C.

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