Month: August 2017

Reading vs. Writing: A Reflection

A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think.  This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.

First, some background.  As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous.  From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice.  It’s probably the book I love most in the world.

Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through.  It can very often be dark and grim.  Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.

I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous.  In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme.  And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.

Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist.  In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics.  Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre.  Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.

Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

First, the book.  It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it).  My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.

It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition.  And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).

But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly.  Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:

  • It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre).  Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
  • It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
  • It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
  • It’s strongest character is a woman.

I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course.  I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from  the sea, hence the island’s name.  If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.

But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly.  They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message.  I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently.  I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.

But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel?  This review is what happens.

Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review.  But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book.  Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).

Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present.  After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work.  The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?”  Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.”  To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made.  A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero.  Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.

And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.

Life is a funny old thing.

 

*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work.  Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.

**they can’t, I’m the boss.  Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.

Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.

 

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The Forgotten Gem of British Film

There’s a film out there that you probably haven’t heard of, but that many critics list among their top 100, top 10, etc.  We happened to watch it because it was on the 1001 films you must watch before you die list, but otherwise, it was completely new to us.

I know Where I'm Going Film Poster

The movie is called I Know Where I’m Going, and is a lesser known film from 1945 created by the Michael Powell, whose offbeat storytelling has appeared here before, and will be appearing here again shortly, if we can get our film critic out to turn out more than a couple of posts a year (this one included).

This film tells the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a wealthy man who lives on an island in the Hebrides.  On her way there, she becomes gets stranded on a different island by bad weather… and the rest is a romp of a romantic film with music, dancing, comedy and even some action brilliantly interwoven.  A happy film created in dark times.

Had this film been made in the US, it would be a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon network TV.  But since it wasn’t, it’s reserved for the cognoscenti, for people who compile “bets movies” lists and, of course for readers of Classically Educated!

This is one of those cases where we really, really don’t want to say too much about the plot, as it’s one that people need to discover for themselves, but suffice to say that we heartily recommend a viewing of the same.

Michael Powell

So let’s talk about Powell for a bit.  He was a man who seemed to spend the entire latter part of the war and the days immediately following creating films that were not only fun but extremely intelligently put together.  It’s amazing to think that while noir was sweeping the US–a natural reflection of the cynicism of the times the world was living–Powell was creating upbeat, fun pictures that still managed not to ignore the fact that the world was at war (more about this topic when we reach our write-up of A Matter of Life and Death, but the Colonel Blimp link above also illustrates whet we’re talking about).

A man who would do that, time and again, is one of the true greats in anyone’s book, and the fact that small-minded prudes and imbeciles essentially ended his career some time later (for creating a film that is now a niche classic) is even more reprehensible.

Finally, our notable note for this flick is that it was one of the first appearances of Petulia Clark, CBE on film.  She was a young girl then, but we’re happy to see that she’s still going strong and would like to give a shout out to her if she’s reading this!

The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

Humanity’s Greatest Achievement – and How it Relates to Science Fiction

I did a double take and had to look at the phrase again. I was sure I’d read it wrong. But no, there it was:

“…that exercise in futility.”

I almost threw the book away.

You see, this particular phrase was referring to the moon landings. It was calling the friggin’ moon landings an exercise in futility (and how sad is it that Apollo XIII is a more popular Google search than Apollo XI?). And this wasn’t a tract in some misguided critique about government spending, created by people with limited intellect for other people with limited intellect. It occurred in a book of collected speculative fiction, in a science fiction story of all things.

Moon landing Astronaut

I had to lay the book aside and think a little. When I was growing up, science fiction fans were absolutely convinced that there was no future for humanity other than one which took place among the stars. There were technical difficulties, of course – FTL travel being the main hurdle, and generation ships being the response – but there were no doubts. Humanity would continue to explore, continue to expand, as it had always done. Just ask Asimov.

And then, at some point, seemingly in the nineties although adults might have been infected earlier, attitudes changed. Suddenly the moon landings were no longer considered mankind’s greatest achievement, and many people failed to see them as the first step in the colonization of the solar system. Of course, most of these people were irrelevant. They were people with their “feet firmly planted on the ground” (as they themselves would admit with pride). To the SF world, that simply meant that they were just another unit in the plodding herd of sheeple, a group completely devoid of both intelligence and imagination.

But sheeple, like other cud-chewers, are good for one thing: breeding. And by processes both biological and philosophical, the mindset which holds that we should focus on earth and forget “useless, expensive adventures, whose cost would be better spent on practical things” is spreading. NASA is an emasculated joke. ESA and the Russians are trying, but they’re strapped for cash as well as short-sighted.  The Euros are clipping spending (after decades of utopian spending in other areas caught up with them), and private space exploration is just getting started.

Fortunately the Chinese seem determined to become the world’s most important nation (and they seem to be smart enough to realize that space exploration is an important part of that primacy, much more than the social reform the west insists on).

It has gotten to the point where even Stephen Hawking, arguably the world’s smartest man, feels he has to intervene directly in order to nudge wayward humanity back onto the correct path.

So how does all of this relate to science fiction literature?  And, more to the point, what would I say to other SF writers out there?

In answer to the first question, I’d have to say pretty directly, in fact. Probably the easiest way to get humanity back on the ball is to bypass the parents directly and restore the fascination with spaceflight in the teens and children, who are naturally attracted to it anyway. We can safely ignore the whining that says that SF literature is dying (read any of Dozois’ Summaries, and you’ll see that a hell of a lot of stuff is being printed in the genre), but what we do need to do is move the genre back to its roots.

Let’s explore the future once again, and get those kids away from sparkly vampires and steam-powered airships (if anything is an exercise in futility, it is the sparkly vampire story). I also don’t feel that many media tie-ins are doing their bit, despite their popularity. Alastair Reynolds has already taught us that there is extremely good money in deep space stories, so what are we waiting for? There are agents and publishers waiting for your take on the genre.

We tend to minimize the power our words have to change society’s conception. But great literature has always shaped the world we live in. Cinema is already dominated by the speculative genres – now all we have to do is to turn this into a tool for good. It’s our turn to herd the sheeple, so let’s get to it!

 

This post was originally published – in a different form – in the Apex blog in 2010.

Of Unrealistic Choices on Film

We’ve all been there.  Staring at the screen in disbelief controlling our urge to yell at the doomed character: “Don’t run up the stairs, you idiot! You were right next to the front door.  The guy with the hockey mask and the axe is in the house…  so why would you do that?”

The answer, of course, is that either that particular character is toast, or, if it is the main character, then having him or her run out the door and onto the street and into the nearest 7-11, where the armed cashier then proceeds to fill the bad guy with lead, doesn’t exactly ratchet up the dramatic tension.  So you end up having characters make choices that no one but a moron would make in real life, all in service of the plot.

It’s annoying as hell when it happens in a cheesy horror flick, but even more when it happens in a film that has been anointed by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.

Of course, Detour from 1945, didn’t start off that way.  It started off on Hollywood’s Poverty Row, being filmed with a reported (albeit unlikely) budget of $20,000.  Other sources cite $100,000 but it was not a high-budget film by any stretch of the imagination.

Detour 1945 Film Poster

It’s essentially a hard luck story, and one never really wonders, even for a second, why the main character is having such a bad time.  It’s clear that he is the kind of guy who would be incapable of tying his own shoelaces and is his own worst enemy.  Unlike in The Lost Weekend, which we discussed here, the main character in Detour cannot use alcoholism as an excuse for his bad choices.

Fortunately, the bad choice is early in the movie, so it won’t really spoil all that much if I tell you about it.  Essentially, the guy is hitchhiking and gets picked up by a random motorist.  The man in the car takes some medicine, starts feeling bad, parks the car and, in an attempt to get out, stumbled and hits his head on a rock.  In keeping with Hollywood tradition, he dies.

The main character decides that the police will blame him for the guy’s death.  The only logical thing to do, therefore, is to steal the man’s car and belongings and pass himself off for the dead man.  Of course.  It’s what anyone would do in that situation.

So everything else that happens afterward is his own fault.

But that’s not even the worst part of the whole thing.  I understand that penniless drifters are usually not well regarded, but to automatically assume that the police will blame them for everything and expect audiences to sympathize is another Hollywood-ism that annoys me to no end.  Yes, I know, we’re all supposed to unite against authority and “The Man”, but, just once, I’d like for the police to believe the main character when he says it was an accident and calls them to report it.

All of the above is too bad.  The acting, the mood, the dialogue were first rate… to the point where it was supremely well-received.  I suppose that audiences and critics will often overlook a single moronic decision if the rest of the elements are in place.  Maybe they are correct to do so.

But in my case, having to write my own thoughts a few months after seeing the movie, that single stupid choice was the most memorable part of the film, and therefore became what I write about.  Might not be fair, but it is what it is.

Bizarre or interesting note?  None in particular, except for the fact that, since the film was produced by a studio that no longer exists, and the rights seem to have fallen into some kind of black hole, it is now in the public domain.  Which means that I can link you to a place where you can watch the thing legally.

Oh, and it’s noir.  I did mention that everything in 1945 was noir, didn’t I?

 

Seminal Vampires

In A Glass Darkly

 

Of course, Bram Stoker is often cited (by everyone who isn’t a serious student of the genre) as the father of Vampire fiction.  With Stephanie Meyer’s popularity, I suspect that the group of people who aren’t experts but are giving their opinion anyway is pretty big.  Hell, for all I know, Meyer’s fans might think the genre started with Anne Rice…  or with Meyer herself, and that this Dracula guy is a character from one of her unpublished novels.

At the risk of adding another non-expert voice to the discussion, I will not attempt to trace the genesis of the vampire myth in eastern European folklore (there are people who have dedicated their lives to that.  Go read their work) but will simply limit myself to expressing my thoughts about an early exponent that I happened to stumble across in my readings.

I was never specifically planning to read Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darklybut it happened to be included in Easton Press’ Horror Library, which I had signed up for (as mentioned here before, I’m a sucker for pretty editions).  It’s from 1872, which means that it predates Dracula by over 20 years, and it contains at least one story,  “Carmilla” which foreshadows the sexual overtones of Stoker’s book but focused on a lesbian as opposed to heterosexual relationship.

Vampire tits - Sheridan Le Fanu Carmilla

Of course, in 1872, you couldn’t really make things too explicit, but savvy readers will have known what LeFanu was talking about.  In fact, the story (more of a novella than a short story) has been adapted several times for film, always with a view for its shock value.  There’s an excellent article dealing with the film versions here (slightly, not excessively, NSFW).

Despite its notoriety, Carmilla wasn’t, in my opinion, the most memorable story in the book.  That honor has to go to “The Room in the Dragon Volant“, another novella length tale where sexual innuendo and dark motivations combine in what is essentially a modern horror/thriller framed in a Victorian writing style.  It develops slowly, but is extremely satisfying once it does.  No vampires in it, though.

The rest of the book is composed of shorter tales, of which “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, a tale of divine retribution, is also better than “Carmilla” IMO.  Satisfying and brutal– everything one needs in a horror story!

So, without opining on things I have no first-hand knowledge of, I can safely state that, while Stoker might have popularized the form, the vampire story in English literature preceded him.  And LeFanu was much braver in the use of cutting-edge, controversial elements than Stoker would ever be.

All in all, a good book, especially for those who enjoy a good haunt.

 

Perpetuating the Alcoholic Writer Cliché

Our look at the 1001 films one should watch before one dies continues today with The Lost Weekend, a film about alcoholism but which is very steeped in the noir tradition.  This last is completely unsurprising, as the box-office success of one noir film after another affected the production philosophy of every other genre, regardless of whether it was related or not.

The Lost Weekend (1945) Movie poster

Some of the results were less than stellar, but in the case of The Lost Weekend, this blend worked extremely well, resulting in a number of Oscars.

As a writer, the most interesting aspect of the film to me is that it is purportedly an attempt by the director, the great Billy Wilder, to make a movie about Raymond Chandler, with whom he’d worked with in the production of Double Indemnity (there’s that ever-present noir link again…).

While not biographical by any means, The Lost Weekend deals with how a writer’s insecurities can lead to rampant alcoholism.  It doesn’t pull any punches: the scenes used to show the awful consequences progress from lying to stealing to delirium tremens and, finally, to the decision to commit suicide.

In the end (spoiler alert), all seems to end well thanks to the power of love (yes, gratuitous Huey Lewis reference), but I got the feeling that the reprieve was only temporary, even if the filmmakers wanted the message to be upbeat.

Why don’t I believe them?  Well, as I mentioned earlier, I’m a writer.  I know that writing is 99% rejection of some sort.  Whether it be publishers who don’t publish your book or stories, critics who hate it once it’s published or readers who don’t buy your book in droves, writing is not a place for those of fragile ego.  And if your confidence issues lead you to contemplate suicide… well, maybe you should be doing something else.

But if you’re not afflicted with the writing gene/curse, it’s a film that not only explores an interesting topic in a pretty much definitive way, but also, despite the darkness of the character’s situation, manages to entertain.

Ronald Reagan: Film Husband!

The interesting or unusual note that we always try to find int hese movies?  It’s present… This one stars Ronald Reagan’s first wife!