Month: November 2015

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction – Part 1

Today, we begin what we hope will become a popular, long-running and Nobel-Prize-Winning* series on Science Fiction.  It will likely have a focus on literature, at least initially, but will be perfectly willing to include movies, comics and any other interesting subjects.

It will also be open to Fantasy and certain types of Horror, as much of the audience for the three genres overlaps.

Worlds_Best_Science_Fiction_1969_cover

1969 Worlds Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

A couple of weeks ago we reviewed and analyzed one of the many Year’s Best collections that the Science Fiction / Fantasy genre: the Wollhein 1989 Year’s best SF.  Suddenly, it dawned on us that that review of a book that has proven to be a minor volume in genre history is actually an excellent starting point for comparing eras.  So let’s call that post the honorary “Part Zero” of this series.

A logical place to start was with a couple of collections that could be compared directly to that ’89 book.  We chose the 1969 and 1972 Wollheim Year’s Best collections, but not without some trepidation, as we will explain a little further below.  But misgivings aside, these fit the bill perfectly – by choosing the same editor, we avoid questions of wildly differing taste and bias, and by going back nearly two decades, we get enough of a gap that contrasts are notable.

The first thing one notices about these two titles is how much more recognizable the names of the authors are than on the 1989 edition of the same collection.  Genre fans will all recognize Sheckley, Anderson, Silverberg, Aldiss, Knight, Delaney, Lafferty, Foster, Sturgeon and Lieber from the older books.  And everyone, even non-genre readers will perk up at seeing the names Vonnegut, Clarke and Ellison – three writers whose names appear on the tables of contents of the 69 and 72 books whose stature simply isn’t matched on the 89.

Why were so many important names present?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  The first is that during the late sixties and early seventies, the writers that made the genre important were still active and close to their primes.  The amazing Golden Age of Science Fiction has, to date, never been equalled, and the writers active in the 30s and 40s were still around.  Just look at that list again.

1972 Wollheim Years best SF

1972 Year’e Best SF – Edited by Donald A Wollheim

The second reason is that SF briefly became chic in the sixties due to a combination of experimental writing in the genre and, quite possibly, an excess of recreational drug use by editors of journals such as The Atlantic and The New Yorker, who allowed their hallowed pages to be sullied by this basest of genres.  Also, in order to be able to say that one read Playboy for the articles, one needed to be able to discuss the articles – and there was some SF there as well.  This mainstream exposure is still why casual readers recognize names like Bradbury or the aforementioned Clarke, Vonnegut and Ellison.

The second thing one notices is just how much difference the editor makes in one of these collections.  We’d had some trepidation in selecting the era because of an intimate knowledge of Judith Merril’s anthologies of the same era.  Possibly fueled by the same drugs as the editors of the journals, she seemed to have a knack for selecting kaleidoscopic  jumbles of words which, though possibly beautiful, were not ideal places to extract meaning.  It was like reading a modern artist or looking for the truth in the patterns generated by a lava lamp. Perhaps you had to be fully immersed – in every aspect – in sixties culture to appreciate the stories.  Like they say: If you remember the sixties, you weren’t actually there.

Wollheim’s selections were not aimed at making a statement about pop culture, but rather are core SF tales that explore ideas about how the world will be like some years in the future.  That is what SF used to be about, and is still what good SF is about today, whether the changes be technical, social, ecological or political.  It can reflect and comment about the present, of course, but if it isn’t done obliquely, it becomes preachy and unreadable – and a lot of the (thankfully now forgotten) SF of the sixties fell into that trap.

It defeats the purpose of this analysis to do a story-by-story rundown, but suffice to say that even the Vonnegut tale is almost completely devoid of impossible dreaming – although it is admittedly weird.

So, compared to their peers, these two books hold up reasonably well, but how do they stack up against the 1989?

 

Without taking into account individual highs and lows, such as the excellent “Peaches for Mad Molly” in the ’89 collection the older books are better overall.  I believe that is driven mainly by the fact that the level of the writers was higher, as was the purity of the genre elements.  By 1989, science fiction was in a transition between the popular but looked-down-upon work of the 40’s and the literary but boring SF of today.  Sometimes that transition produced masterpieces (Dune, or Ender’s Game are examples), but more often muddled works that attempt to be socially relevant but really only succeed in being vague, preachy or both.

The older anthos are highly recommended, with some true classics among the more pedestrian tales.

 

Ad Space:  If you know someone who is classically educated, and as the personality to say so and damn the torpedoes and accusations of elitism, you might want to consider getting that person something from the Classically Educated Product Store this Holiday Season!

 

*We refuse to believe that there is no Nobel Prize for blogs.  This should be reviewed.  We may need to put a clause in our manifesto making this an explicit goal of the site.

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The Curse of the Polymath

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Photo of the Vitruvian Man

Most of the time, the Classically Educated Manifesto is a document which we are all proud of.  But, on occasion, we stop and look around the world and realize that modern human society is not really designed to cater to polymaths.

Generalists as a species have been out of favor even in places where they should thrive, such as multinational corporations, for twenty years or so.  But this is just a deepening of a trend that has been around for a century or more.

The case of companies can be quickly studied.  The reason generalists are useful for corporations is that, from a certain size onwards, companies need managers.  A manager’s job is twofold: to get results for their particular area of responsibility through the work of others, and to coordinate activity with other managers with a view toward optimizing shareholder value.

So, for instance, the company’s best programmer really can’t be promoted to management unless a) he has a grasp of human resources management, and b) an understanding of what the rest of the company is doing, from finance to marketing to production.  This is why people with MBAs tended to get those promotions.

Over the last few years, however, many companies have been ignoring this hard-learned truth and simply promoting the best-performing functional experts, people who really, really  know how their department works, causing much laughter among experienced managers who then get to watch the train wreck while munching popcorn.

There are many explanations for this phenomenon, starting with a sense that MBAs are elitist, and elitism goes against the inclusive culture of many new companies, especially in the tech arena, and continuing with the fact that a lot of HR people have gotten extremely conservative and only hire / promote technical experts within their fields in order to cover their own asses – they seem to have forgotten the immutable truth that a good manager can manage anything, even complex technical departments.  And it ends with the fact that companies aren’t getting any smarter.

While this is all very interesting, it doesn’t seem to cover the root problem, which is that as the world becomes more complex, obsession is beginning to trump… well, everything else.

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

Lewis Carroll portrait of Beatrice Hatch

So, you have people who live, breathe and dream computers, all day, every day.  Or any number of individuals who take their company work home with them and think about it to the exclusion of all else.

Even those people aim at balance tend to have one all-consuming hobby, whether it be rock climbing or model trains.  They then get together with people who have the same hobby.

So a person who works as an engineer at an airplane factory, and reads renaissance literature during his lunch break, practices amateur theater two nights a week and plays softball with friends over the weekend before his painting class and then gets together with friends from none of these activities is about as common as hen’s teeth.

It wasn’t always like this.  As recently as the Victorian and Edwardian ages, amateurs were making important contributions to both the arts and sciences (and probably even moreso to that ultimate mixture of the two: the soft “sciences”).

Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and a social critic who is best remembered for his children’s books (although a close reading of Alice will show that “children’s” is a bit of a misnomer).  He was an example of the gentleman polymath of his time.

And perhaps therein lies the problem.  The twentieth century was a century of democracy, and elitist concepts such as that of the gentleman with the leisure time to be an expert in various fields fell into disfavor – and distrust.  Even today, deep knowledge on too many subjects can get one branded as elitist extremely quickly. (If someone brands you as elitist, please let us know immediately, and we’ll offer you a place on our writing staff – unpaid, but proud to join a whole raft of elitists).

The loss of polymath pride since the turn of the 20th is a tragedy, perhaps, but even those Victorians and Edwardians were but a pale shadow of the true colossi of polymathy: the men of the renaissance.  Why, even today, the term “renaissance man” is used to refer to anyone who masters various disciplines.

Choosing one giant from among them would be an arduous task were it not for the unsurpassed genius of Leonardo, of course, but he was simply the giant among giants.  From Michelangelo to Galileo, they reveled in a society that celebrated breadth of genius far more than depth of expertise in a single subject.  They were even allowed to build huge buildings… although they were actually painters and astronomers (clearly, there were fewer lawyers back then, or the lawyers were also polymaths who got it).

That is what we have lost.  Today, the admiration that was once reserved for giants of the intellect is reserved for actors who often can’t count to ten and for surgeons who likely wouldn’t understand references to Humbert H. Humbert.  Guitar players for whom impressionism is a side effect of cocaine.  Geniuses in their fields, all, but limited in scope.

And it won’t change.  The 21st century will see a deepening of democracy globally, and one of the central tenets of democracy  is that equality is a right.  Most peoples of the world have chosen to interpret that as “no one is better than anyone else”, and if achievements show the contrary, then the person flaunting those achievements must be brought down a peg.

So polymathy, especially in “elitist” intellectual pursuits, will only get less popular as time passes and the world panders to the easily-bruised egos of the masses.  Polymaths will increasingly become dinosaur-like rebels flying in the face of social convention, the crazy old uncle no one ever talks about.

But that’s fine.  It’s more fun to offend than to conform.

Anything that requires  an exertion of sheer bloody-mindedness must, necessarily, be a good thing.

So onward the polymaths.

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

Quick Thoughts on the November 2015 Paris Attacks

November 2015 Paris Terror Attack

Everyone interested in world affairs has probably been glued to the news over the past twenty hours or so, so there is no need to review the horror of the crimes that have committed, but it’s definitely worth sharing a couple of immediate thoughts about the situation, as they may be worth reflecting on.

1.  Extremist groups, it seems, are incapable of learning.  We’ve examined before the fact that these extremists are incapable of accepting the inevitability of a modern, free and inclusive world, in which globalization is a given and women are equal to men, but the sheer stupidity of this latest series of attacks surprises even in that context.

In the first place, France has traditionally been a lukewarm supporter of the international war on terror, at best.  The French combination of arrogance and an anachronistic view of their own importance has seen the country often holding back nations who would pursue the war more aggressively.  In fact, as a staunch opponent of the Al-Assad regime in Syria, France has actually been hindering the war against ISIS.

While it’s true that France is the origin of freedom in the modern sense, and thereby represents a highly symbolic target, an armed insurrection that has been catalogued as a criminal enterprise by all respectable elements on the worldwide stage should be a little more pragmatic when selecting targets.  All this attack will do is galvanize the French people against ISIS… an organization that seems not to understand that ANY of the countries they are attacking could wipe them out in a few weeks if they have popular support.  And now, the French do – and after listening to Hollande last night, I wouldn’t be surprised if they sent in troops and did just that.  It would be the best thing for everyone.

And ISIS can’t say that this is a surprise.  In 2001, Osama Bin Laden decided it would be a good idea to attack the US.  That ended extremely badly for him, his Afghan allies, his organization, and also for Saddam Hussein, who had nothing to do with any of it, but was a target of opportunity.  A people that had been supporting a fight against terrorism half-heartedly suddenly awoke, rallied behind an otherwise unloved president and kicked some ass.

ku klux klan

It’s not just recent examples that show how silly this is, either.  After the US Civil War ended, the Ku Klux Klan was born as a terrorist group to attempt to end Reconstruction, which, though a colossal injustice in practice had the might of the Union army behind it.  That original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan was eventually disbanded… because the leaders understood that the terror attacks were only serving to intensify the crackdown, and that claims had to be pursued using other methods.  Which shows that even white supremacists, a group not noted for their brilliance, are less moronic than the current generation of Islamic extremists.

2.  Has Al-Jazeera replaced the BBC as the go-to news source when something globally important happens?  In the 1990s, especially during the first Gulf War, CNN was often the only international option to watch news live, and was the most complete coverage on cable.

But as more and more options became available, most global audiences grew to prefer the BBC’s news channel, as the stories were covered with a much more global and complete set of assumptions.  CNN was clearly too US-centric to be useful, while Fox news, of course was ridiculous (last night they referred to Hollande as the President of Paris).  Watching feeds from France and Italy last nigh left me impressed with the RAI’s coverage, while I think the French channels were in shock.  But both the RAI and the French channels are hampered by the fact that not everyone understands French or Italian (my own French means that I need to concentrate hard on that), while almost everyone interested in world affairs speaks English.  The BBC was plodding along, and Euronews, caught with it’s late-night anchors on the air, was a mess.

And then I turned to Al-Jazeera.  What a revelation.  Impeccable British accents giving the news without stridence or partiality, combined with interviews with security analysts from the US, political analysts from everywhere – including the middle east – and French government officials.   A near-perfect balance.

And they had a team on the ground, a hyper-professional impeccably dressed reporter (British accent, of course) and a couple of camera men.  And twhat they were saying was better and more informed than anything else going on at the time.

I’d never paid much attention to Al-Jazeera before, but a quick side-by-side with everyone else gives me the feeling that impartial audiences are going to keep increasing for them if they keep up the good work. I know I’ll be looking to them within the first few minutes (as opposed to just out of curiosity) the next time anything big happens.

A Novel Point of View

You know what a novel is, right?

Of course you do.  It’s any one of those fat books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble that isn’t divided into short stories or something.  What a silly question.

Well…

Most people use a working definition of the word “novel” which is pretty similar to the one above, but scholars most certainly do not.  In fact a good way to amuse oneself if one were to be trapped in a college of literary pretensions during a hurricane would be to ask a random professor to define the term for you in the presence of other professors.  It is very important to be prepared for the little disagreements this will generate: bandages, iodine, and possibly a fully-equipped trauma ward would be good things to have handy.

The Theory of the Novel Edited by Philip Stevick

Just as an example of how hard the novel is to pin down, the book that started the mental process towards this article, (Philip Stevick’s The Theory of the Novel) is divided into sections that analyze the novel from different angles (Generic Identity; Narrative Technique; Point of View; Plot; Structure and Proportion; Style; Character; Time and Place; Symbol; and Life and Art), each filled with essays written by such luminaries as Conrad or Cervantes.

It’s quite an impressive piece of name dropping–and an extremely interesting, albeit somewhat dry read–but it would be hard-pressed to fit with the popular perception of what a novel is.

So let’s put that popular perception into words quickly, in order to have a rough working definition moving forward:

Novel: Any work of prose fiction longer than about a hundred and fifty pages or so that tells a story, and which has a beginning, middle, and end.

This clearly isn’t an academic definition, but it gives us the gist – the novel is longer than a short story or a novella, it tells one story, as opposed to being a collection of shorter works, and at the end of the thing, the reader knows how it turns out for the people involved – even if what happens next may be a bit open-ended as in more modern work.  Most people would agree with this definition.

Most scholars would probably move to have anyone proposing such tripe burned at the stake.  Even Wikipedia, that supposedly democratic collection of worldly wisdom has a long, rambling article about novels that touches on every possible inclusion and ancestor, and even has a handy little chart on reading habits in England in the 18th century (and a bonus discussion on Dan Brown discussing whether The Da Vinci Code is an anti-Christian novel.  Don’t believe that? See for yourself).

This is one of those cases where a rigorous definition of the subject matter, and the obsession of academics of going beyond popular knowledge is counter-productive.  Sadly, however, it is clear that, other than Sociology, there are few branches of study quite as dominated by obsessive people who wouldn’t be able to survive in any other discipline than literary criticism.  Anyone who has ever heard of critical race theory and is aware that some people consider it a valid approach to literary criticism should be enough to convince you of the unfortunate state of literary criticism.  If that doesn’t convince you, simply pick up or browse your chosen newspaper – you will see that books are not judged based on their literary or artistic merit, but by the politics of their authors (try it, it’s fun – The Guardian is particularly unsubtle about it, which is sad because their cultural section is otherwise among the world’s best).

But if none of the above convinces you, here’s XKCD.  XKCD cannot be argued with.

XKCD impostor

(As always, you can see the original – with the mouse-over, at their site.  Plus, buy their t-shirts and stuff – anyone producing material of that quality and not charging others to use it deserves to be supported.)

But if you really want to start a fight, ask one of your captive professors what the first novel was.  You won’t even need the trauma room, as survivors are unlikely.

When Everyone is Out to Get Everyone Else

Murder My Sweet Poster

We’re on an unapologetic film noir binge here at CE, and we don’t care who knows it.

After our recent review of Double Indemnity–which established a lot of the basic format of noir while simultaneously ignoring the most important element, the hardboiled detective–we’re back in more familiar territory.  In fact, we’re entering hallowed ground, for we are about to speak of Philip Marlowe‘s film debut.

While other Chandler novels had been filmed–even Marlowe ones–the character had never appeared by name until 1944’s Murder My Sweet (which British audiences will likely know as Farewell My Lovely).

Possibly the most notable element of this film is that Dick Powell, known for light-hearted roles as opposed to anything Marlowe-esque was cast in the lead role… and, seventy years later, therein lies a problem.  The major issue is that the hard-boiled dick actor par excellence is Humphrey Bogart, and no amount of thespian versatility by lesser men could ever really equal that.  Having anyone else play Marlowe seems somehow sacrilegious.

This is still a great film, mainly because the plot is so twisted that one ends up needing a corkscrew to figure it all out… that is until the end, where the spider at the center of the web is revealed, and the motivations become a bit clearer.

Dick Powell in Murder my Sweet

We won’t spoil it by giving away the final revelation, but will limit ourselves to noting that most of the comments about human sorididity that we made about  Double Indemnity are still valid, but detract less from this film.  It’s one of those cases where having the plot focus less closely on the relationships between people and having more actually go on shifts the focus away from the baser elements of behavior.  This one feels more like a roller-coaster ride through the murky depths than the view through a microscope of that same muck… and gains by it immeasurably.

Watching the two films back to back is recommended for anyone who wishes to truly understand the extremes of noir, and how two aesthetically similar films in the same genre which touch on similar themes, and even use a similar flashback framing to tell the story, can feel completely different, and yet be unmistakably related.

And a final reflection is how dark films seemed to find favor during dark times, despite the best efforts of the Hays office.  Noir is a product of the early and mid forties, which would seem to be anti-intuitive; one would think that a people weary of war would look for light-hearted filmography.

But that clearly wasn’t the case.  Noir would never be done as well as it was then, much like comedy would never be as good as the screwball type of the thirties – Hollywood simply never recovered that particular magic.

We give this one four Schlemmons.