Author: GB

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!

Apocalypse is a Dirty Business

 

We’ve got a treat today.  Author Nick Barton is celebrating that he has a story in the Enter the Apocalypse anthology (in which our editor-in-chief, Gustavo Bondoni also has a story) by writing about the apocalypse.  We think you’ll enjoy his take on what makes the subject so effective.

 

Apocalyptic stories have always appealed to me. That sounds somewhat sinister out loud, but I can’t help it. I’m not alone, either. So many writers have shared their own cataclysmic nightmares, all brought to print, the big screen, and in video games. From nuclear fallout to monster floods, dangerous spores and chemical warfare, and nameless disasters and formless creatures, you could say we are well studied.

However, insane weather and giant comets are great, but it’s the mystery of the disaster that always gets my attention. This year alone I have read around five apocalyptic stories (not always by choice) and each one has featured its own harrowing brand of terror. Four out of the five have clear names for their horsemen, but one book, BIRD BOX keeps the nature of its horrors unknown. This is a good thing. Monsters remain scary the less you see of them. That’s why the Xenomorph in ALIEN only has a token amount of screen time. In BIRD BOX, the end of the world comes about by erratic murders. Later it becomes apparent people are going kill-crazy because they have seen something. People begin to stay indoors, boarding up their windows so they can’t look outside. It gets to the point they must wear blindfolds to navigate outdoors. Scary? Bloody terrifying. I was genuinely getting anxious while reading it, and once when I left it to get a drink I jumped at a window. I was still halfway locked inside the story. That’s immersion on a level I haven’t experienced before. BIRD BOX is simply a book you must read.

While reading BIRD BOX, it reminded me of another end of the world novel that has haunted me long after reading it. THE ROAD. Perhaps the ultimate apocalyptic novel (at least in my mind.) Nothing remains. Nothing and nobody has a name, and the reason behind the burnt world is never explained. In every story like it there’s always a glimmer of hope, but for the Man and the Boy there is no hope. Trees are falling down, what people left have become cannibals, and the sun is always snuffed by the ashen atmosphere. You really wonder what the Man and the Boy are living for. They’re heading south for the coast, but it’s clear even if they do make it, what happens next? Without an ecosystem, the planet isn’t going to last.

THE ROAD, much like BIRD BOX, also features incredibly vivid and frightening imagery. BIRD BOX’s unseen horrors drive people rabid. One of the deaths include someone getting their lips torn off. In THE ROAD, the Man and the Boy come across a campfire with a charred newborn baby on a spit. It’s dark, terrifying and disturbing, but at the same time you sympathize with the characters. You don’t hate them. Survival instinct runs hot in humanity, and in THE ROAD it really does seem like people are surviving, not because they’ve got anything to live for, but because it’s in their nature. They just have to.

Hopefully we won’t ever have to.

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCover

Nick Barton is a speculative fiction writer living in Somerset, England. His horror short story, THE LAST RESORT can be found in Wicked Tales anthology, ‘Muffled Scream: Corner of the Eye.’ If Nick has gone missing, chances are high he is living as a wood elf in Skyrim, dancing to The Beatles or watching The Lord of the Rings, again. Visit him at nickbartonauthor.weebly.com, or on Twitter @NickBarton101.

Noir Fantasy – Double the Fun

Anyone who’s been following Classically Educated is well aware that we have a soft spot for noir around here.  We like it in film, we like it in writing.  We would like it in plays and tweets if it were available widely in those formats.

We also enjoy the fantasy genre.  Again, film and literature are our preferred genres, but who can really resist playing Zelda every now and then?

So when writers decide to mash these two genres together, we sit up and pay attention, with the result that we’ve decided to share some of our experiences with two very different takes on the subject.

Exhibit A is a recent anthology entitled Darker Than Noir, edited by Faith Kauwe.  It’s a collection of short stories which does exactly what the title says:  blend the noir detective sensibility with the darker end of the fantasy spectrum.  A few of the tales could rightly be called supernatural horror, but all have fantastic elements.

Darker Than Noir

In this book, our fearless–or, in other tales, hapless– detectives investigate everything from actors who want to stay young forever to misdeeds at a furry convention.  There’s something here for every taste, as long as you like it dark and with hardboiled sensitivities.

As a primer to get one’s feet wet, it’s nearly ideal.

But that’s an appetizer – for the main course we’d like to discuss the man who, in our view, takes hardboiled fantasy to its most exalted heights:  Glen Cook.  Yes, he’s better known for his military fantasy series, The Black Company, but we’d argue that he will be remembered for being the man who most perfectly blended put a human private eye in a world of elves, ogres and pixies.

Cook’s P.I. Garrett series has to be one of the most entertaining fantasy series out there, bar none.  It tells the tale of a former marine who makes his living by investigating crimes.  As expected in a fantasy world, the bad guys are usually both magical and very, very twisted.

Sweet Silver Blues - Glen Cook

What makes these compelling, though, is the main character’s voice.  Honoring the noir canon, they are told in the first person, in the world-weary, street-savvy voice we’ve come to love from the genre.  Garrett shows his human side early and often, and in so doing makes you laugh and suffer with him.  It really is a change from implacable heroes (even the flawed ones are often implacable in fantasy) and perfect elves we’ve come to expect.

It’s not our intention to do a blow-by-blow of each book here (read them, you’ll thank us), but just to point readers who share our interest in a couple of interesting directions.  Both of these very different propositions proved entertaining–so think of our pointing you their way as a public service!

Eventually, the War Ended

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Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

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The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

Book Recommendation – Siege by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here!

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Siege is a far-future SF piece in which humanity is fighting for its very survival.  From the book description at the publisher’s page, we get the following:

Threatened on all sides by enemies they can’t fight and often can’t even comprehend, the human race has taken refuge in an inhospitable corner of the galaxy. A tiny pocket of habitable space concealed by black holes and dust clouds, hiding a cluster of colonies where the last humans in the galaxy reside, preparing themselves for a war of annihilation against all comers.
Crystallia is a hidden military base that guards the access route to the colonies. The main mission of the soldiers there is to remain undetected for as long as possible, to spot any incursions from the outside and to hit them with everything in humanity’s arsenal.

No one is quite convinced that this strategy will be enough to save the colonies or even to create enough of a delay for some of the colonists to escape. The best bet for the human race is to remain concealed.

Unfortunately, something has found them.

Siege can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

If you do happen to read it, drop us a line and let us know what you thought.  You might make an editor’s day!

 

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.

 

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

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Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

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Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.