It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

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Under the Influence

I went out with friends on Saturday night – nothing too exciting, just our usual stumble around “beer valley”. Towards the end of the night, we’ve all had a few, and I start telling a friend* about this amazing film, Divine Intervention (just in case he’d not read about it on my blog). I must have done something right. The following morning, he apparently woke up, checked his email… and discovered one from Amazon thanking him for ordering Divine Interventionthe night before. He has no memory of buying it.

Next time I see him, I plan to discuss some of the books mentioned on this blog. The more expensive ones, I think…

(*Don’t worry: I won’t tell anyone your name, Andy – oh, wait…)


It’s Versatile not Video…

I like to think of myself as a film buff – a cineaste, even. I subscribe to Sight & Sound; I own the Criterion Collection 5-disc edition of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander ; I have most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films on DVD (although I still don’t know how to pronounce Matti Pellonpää); and I’ve sat all the way through L’Année Dernière à Marienbad (and I agree with those who say it’s “pretentious twaddle”, rather than “genius cinema”).

I’m not a complete film snob, however. Recently, I’ve been working my way through the first, and only, season of Space: Above & Beyond, a military sf television series from 1995. It’s not actually that good – but it could have been so much better. It’s one of those programmes where the writers try to tackle important issues, and do so with some intelligence. But they ultimately fail because the show’s set-up is such rubbish science fiction. In Space: Above & Beyond, Earth is at war with an implacable alien enemy, the Chigs. The show focuses on the members of USMC 58th Squadron. Who are all lieutenants. And not only do they fly fighters, but they also spend half their time fighting as ground troops, or on special behind-enemy-lines missions. It’s no wonder Earth is losing the war – its armed forces are made up entirely of officers. The physics is the usual television sf bollocks – the plot of one episode depends on the fact that the 58th hear an enemy fighter go past their space transport… The astrography is also hopelessly confused, with all the planets in the galaxy seemingly only thousands of kilometres apart.

Oh well. Maybe I am a film snob, after all.

Anyway. I’ve been renting DVDs from Amazon for a number of years now, and my rental list is a mix of classic films, critically-acclaimed world cinema, and the latest blockbusters. Plus whatever else takes my fancy. Back in December, I rented Divine Intervention, a Palestinian film directed by Elia Suleiman. But I was never quite in the mood to watch it. I’ve seen a few Arabic films before – when I lived in the Middle East, I had 25 television channels, but the only English-language ones were BBC News and CNN (Baywatch in Hindi is actually better, by the way). Those Arabic films I did see were badly-acted slapstick comedies stuck in the 1970s. And judging by the trailers I often saw at the cinema for the latest movies from the Egyptian film industry, nothing much appeared to have changed. However, Divine Intervention was released on DVD by Artificial Eye, and I thought it unlikely they would release some dated piece of cinematic tosh. The film, I guessed, was most likely some worthy-but-dull piece of well-meaning world cinema.

So it sat there. Waiting for me to watch it.

Eventually, I did. Last week. And… I’ve been telling my friends about it ever since. Hence this blog post.

The film opens with a group of youths chasing Santa Claus. They catch him, and stab him in the chest. Then it’s a shot of a street in Nazareth from a relatively high vantage point. We watch an old man climb onto the flat roof of his house. He’s carrying a bucket. It contains empty bottles. He stacks these with the hundreds of empty bottles he has already carried up to the roof. For several minutes, we watch him carry bottles up to the roof. A police car, lights flashing, suddenly drives up to the house. The man climbs onto the roof, and pulls the ladder up after him. He starts throwing the bottles at the policemen…

Divine Intervention is a surreal black comedy set in Palestine. Its plot, what little of it there is, centres around an affair between a man from Jerusalem (played by Suleiman himself) and a woman from Ramallah (Manal Khader), who can only meet at the Israeli army checkpoint between the two towns. They do not speak. The film is mostly made up of set-pieces peripherally connected to the two lovers (such as the two described above). Some are inspired; some are less successful. The part in which a man repeatedly throws rubbish on his next-door neighbour’s garden, but is horrified when she throws it all back on his drive, is just so perfectly… Arabic. However, a scene near the end, in which Khader turns wu xia ninja-on-wires and kills half a dozen Israeli militia at weapons practice, seems somewhat too fantastical to be an effective parody.

In an interview on the DVD, Suleiman (who looks disconcertingly like Robert Downey Jr) mentions that he had been told his films resemble those of Jacques Tati or Buster Keaton. There is, I think, some Kaurismäki in there too – in fact, the scene in the welding-shop is almost pure Kaurismäki.

An excellent film. Rent the DVD now. Even better, buy it. I did.


100 Must-Argue Science Fiction Novels

100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels by Stephen E Andrews and Nick Rennison is a new reading guide to the genre. It is not, the authors write, a list of the best of science fiction. Their intent was to provide “100 books to read in order to gain an overview of the rich and diverse writing to be found in SF”.

By its very nature, the contents of such a book are going to be contentious. Why that book, and not that one? Christopher Priest says as much in his foreword, and even names some of the novels he would himself have included. Likewise, I could argue the inclusion or exclusion of many of the titles given in the guide. But what’s the point?

However, what is interesting is that of 100 books named, more than half are from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (and near half of those are from the Sixties). There are two novels from the 21st Century. It is the least-represented decade since the 1930s – and while the decade is not yet over, it has surely seen more sf novels published than the first three decades of the 20th Century. But then that’s science fiction’s single biggest problem – for a genre that frequently uses the future as its setting, it spends an inordinate amount of time looking backwards. I have seen people recommend fifty-year-old novels to readers new to the genre. Fifty years old. Why? Would they recommend Dennis Wheatley to someone looking for an introduction to contemporary fiction?

It could be argued that the language of sf requires readers to work their way through its history in order to gain fluency. But that’s complete rubbish. Current day narrative techniques and styles of story-telling – not to mention the attitudes and sensibilites embedded in the text – bear little resemblance to those of, say, the 1950s. Modern readers expect modern texts. So why foist old ones on them?

An example: last year, nostalgia drove me to re-read EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Masters of Space. Unusually, I remember exactly when and where I originally purchased and read the book: it was Easter 1978. My father had picked me up from school, and we spent a couple of days in London before flying out to the Middle East. I’m not sure in which book shop I bought Masters of Space – probably Foyles. But I remember the occasion, because it was the first time I saw Star Wars. So. Almost thirty years ago. The book itself was first published in 1961, although in style and content it harkens back to Smith’s works of the 1930s. When I read it in 1978, I remember enjoying it. When I read it in 2006… oh dear. I don’t know which was worse: the rampant wish-fulfillment, the cheesy 1930s dialogue, the neanderthal sexual stereotypes… Halfway though Masters of Space, the characters are given the opportunity of replacing their bodies with ageless, super-strong android bodies. The women are all for it – because it means their tits will never sag. While spung! may not have actually appeared in the pages of Masters of Space, it was very much there in spirit.

I would never willingly force someone new to sf to undergo the same experience. Not if I want them to continue to read science fiction. There is an unrealistic expectation among fans of science fiction that non-sf readers will appreciate classic works as much as they themselves do. Not as classics of the genre, but as straight genre works. No one reads Jane Austen without recognising that she lived 200 years ago. You, a science fiction fan since the age of eleven, may have fond memories of Asimov’s Foundation – but does that really make it an appropriate example of science fiction to give to someone new to the genre?

I argued a couple of posts ago that science fiction stories should contain a science-fictional conceit. As fans of the genre, have we become so hung up on the “idea” that it has become the only criteria by which we can judge genre works? Is that why we think of a fifty-year-old novel on the same terms as we think of one from last year? Is that why the genre won’t recognise that it has an historical dimension, and insists on categorising all its works as if it belonged to an eternal present?

They say the Golden Age of science fiction is thirteen. It’s certainly true that sf fans grow older. Perhaps it’s time they grew up too.

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He Do the Prose in Different Voices

There’s an interesting discusion here on the extra-textual relationship between reader and writer, and how blogs may affect this. I’m sort of reminded of those scam artists who accost you in the street, spend ten minutes persuading you they were at same school as yourself and so qualify as an old friend… and then ask you to lend them “a couple of quid”… On the other hand, which would be scarier* to a published author: a reader who says, “I feel I know you from your novels”, or one who says, “I feel I know you from your blog”? Is there, in fact, a difference?

(* in a Misery sort of way, I suppose.)


The Heart of the Matter

I’ve always taken it as a given that science fiction requires at least one central science-fictional conceit. In other words, if you remove the sf furniture, and your story does not change… well, then it’s not science fiction. It’s “skiffy”. And skiffy is bad.

I don’t remember where I picked this up from, although I think it’s common parlance in British sf fandom. Wikipedia is no help – it describes “skiffy” as a “deliberate humorous misspelling or mispronunciation of the controversial term ‘sci-fi'”. No mention of skiffy as a description of a story (or its shortcomings). The Turkey City Lexicon, however, calls it the “Just-Like Fallacy” – a “SF story which thinly adapts the trappings of a standard pulp adventure setting”.

To my mind, Wilson Tucker’s original definition of space opera as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn” was in part a dig at the sort of stories I know as skiffy. Certainly, Galaxy magazine’s later pendant to the term – a series of ads featuring Bat Durston, under the banner “You won’t find it in this Galaxy” – were pretty clear as to what they thought was bad sf. Their example was a western in space – a well-known and much-derided form of bad science fiction.

However, a recent discussion on a forum has made me question this given.

I still think it holds true – I can’t see the point in making a story science fiction if all you’re doing is slapping a thin coat of rocketships-&-rayguns paint on it. But how relevant is an insistence on a science-fictional conceit in a post-Star Wars genre? That film was little more than a hodge-podge of story archetypes dragged by the scruff of their necks into a space opera setting.

David Weber has done something similar with his Honor Harrington series. His heroine is Nelson in Space – even down to losing an eye and having an adulterous affair. The People’s Republic of Haven is Revolutionary France – the chief villain is even called Rob S Pierre! Where’s the central science-fictional conceit in the Honor Harrington series? What is it about the series’ story-arc that means it can only take place in the Honorverse? There are plenty of science-fictional ideas in the books, from Weber’s take on faster-than-light travel, the weaponry used by the various warships, the… er, well, the furniture, basically. The Honor Harrington novels are very successful. Yet they aren’t that much different from Bat Durston. True, a female admiral could never have existed during the Napoleonic Wars, but turn Honor Harrington into Horatio Harrington, the Warshawski sail into a canvas sail… and you have essentially the same story.

So… is the genre nothing more than its furniture? Is that all sf readers really need for a story to meet their definition of science fiction?

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Nothing is safe from the Pseud

Not even death metal - to wit...

"Demilich hold true to the melodic tradition of Finnish metal by merging the heavy metal tradition of rich tonal space liberated by abstract conceptions of harmony with death metal, layering their ideas into songs where complexity silhouettes but does not illustrate an overall thematic space via postmodernist metastructuralism."

From a review of the album Nespithe by Demilich on the American Nihilist Underground Society's web site.