Movies

A Long Time Ago…

Yesterday, in fact.

Somehow, seeing the new Star Wars film on January 1st was the perfect thing to do. We went to the Moolah Theater on Lindell and had popcorn and sat back and became 12-year-olds for over two hours and it was…wonderful.

I have seen much back-and-forthing over this film the last few weeks, including some ill-advised and unwelcome splenetic blathering from George Lucas himself over how he disliked the direction J.J. Abrams has taken.  I have also seen for myself the new action figure set at Target which failed to include the key character in what must be considered one of the most blatant examples of denial in industry marketing since…I don’t know.  What?  You really don’t think little girls will buy these even with such a full-on kick-ass role model as Rey?  Or are you afraid they will buy them and we’ll have another round of how de-feminized the character is and how she’s a bad example for little girls who might opt out of the whole cute-girl-whose-brains-are-secondary track of socialization?

To get this out of the way right now, I think Rey is possibly the best thing about the new Star Wars.  Vertently  or otherwise, something significant has been achieved in her and I applaud it.  Take note, ye unwitting crafters of the female entity for screen and page, this is how you do it.  Simply put, she is her own self.  She does not define herself by the men in her life, she not trade herself for favors, she does not bow to fashion conventions that depend on genitalia.  She has her own concerns, her own goals, and runs her life on her own, the only constraints on any of that being the same exact constraints put on every other being in the world she inhabits.

And she is a deeply, deeply ethical and empathetic person.  One who is not afraid to act on her own judgment, consequences be damned.

And she pays for it with doubt and fear and the agon of the compassionate.

As if she were a real person.

Person.

(Why does he go on about this?  Why is he getting loud?  What’s the deal?)

The deal is, so seldom in something like this do we get to see a woman as Person First, self-consistent, competent, and heroic, who does the rescuing, fights (and wins) against the bad guy, and can remain herself as a human being.  She also has friendships.  Not lovers, there’s no suggestion of that, not even as foreshadowing. Friends.  They didn’t even try to dress her up in some form-accentuating bit of impractical gauzy revealing nonsense so we’d all see that while she’s running around kicking ass and being amazing she has cleavage and nice thigh.  She’s dressed for work, for survival, for movement, for function.  Her hair is even done practically.

By accident or intent, they did Rey right.

So how come she’s not in the action figure collection?

I have my opinions and they are not charitable.  But it may turn out to be beside the point.

As to all the other dross being spake about how it stacks up to the rest of the films…

Sure, it’s a broad retread of the very first film.  So what?  This is myth, which is cyclic, and the value is in reaffirmation and validation.  It is a Hero’s Journey and going all the way back to Gilgamesh certain forms remain constant.  There are tests and trials and the plot matters much less than the manner of challenge and the quality of its confrontation.  George Lucas forgot that when he made episodes 1, 2, and 3.  He tried to turn a quest fantasy into science fiction, he tried to interject politics, he tried to justify things in a way that didn’t so much subvert what he had done before as crack the road in front of the calabash.  J.J. Abrams, or whoever was principally responsible for the storyline here, went back to the Campbellian mythic underpinnings (Joseph not John W.) and brought back what mattered and made the first couple so compelling.  Certain mythic forms reoccur, time and again, and Joseph Campbell understood this and Lucas sort of did, we think, at least in the beginning, but it went off the rails when a certain gravitic pull to compete with Star Trek seemed to drag everything off in an inauspicious direction.  In spite of the superb craft of those later films, the genuinely well-executed action, and even the plot logic of much of it, they were curiously empty.  One thing after another, with only a few moments of transcendence that failed to rescue them from essentially tales about bureaucratic failure.  Lucas can be as snarky as he likes, but Episode VII has gone back to what made the first three films work.

And did it very well.

Episode IV and V were all about Becoming.  Episode VI was about coming to terms with what you have Become.

Episodes I, II, and III were all about breaking things.

Episode VII is about Becoming.

And Rey?  Pay attention, fellas.  This is how it’s done. This is what a human being looks like.  This is a hero.

We Prospered: Leonard Nimoy, 1931 to 2015

He was, ultimately, the heart and soul of the whole thing.  The core and moral conscience of the congeries that was Star Trek.  Mr. Spock was what the entire thing was about.  That’s why they could never leave him alone, set him aside, get beyond him. Even when he wasn’t on screen and really could be nowhere near the given story, there was something of him.  They kept trying to duplicate him—Data, Seven-of-Nine, Dax, others—but the best they could do was borrow from the character.

I Am Not Spock came out in 1975.  It was an attempt to explain the differences between the character and the actor portraying him.  It engendered another memoir later entitled I Am Spock which addressed some of the misconceptions created by the first.  The point, really, was that the character Spock was a creation of many, but the fact is that character would not exist without the one ingredient more important than the rest—Leonard Nimoy.

Spock IDIC

I was 12 when Star Trek appeared on the air.  It is very difficult now to convey to people who have subsequently only seen the show in syndication what it meant to someone like me.  I was a proto-SF geek.  I loved the stuff, read what I could, but not in any rigorous way, and my material was opportunistic at best.  I was pretty much alone in my fascination.  My parents worried over my “obsessions” with it and doubtless expected the worst.  I really had no one with whom to share it.  I got teased at school about it, no one else read it, even my comics of choice ran counter to the main.  All there was on television were movie re-runs and sophomoric kids’ shows.  Yes, I watched Lost In Space, but probably like so many others I did so out of desperation, because there wasn’t anything else on!  Oh, we had The Twilight Zone and then The Outer Limits, but, in spite of the excellence of individual episodes, they just weren’t quite sufficient.  Too much of it was set in the mundane world, the world you could step out your front door and see for yourself.  Rarely did it Go Boldly Where No One Had Gone Before in the way that Star Trek did.

Presentation can be everything.  It had little to do with the internal logic of the show or the plots or the science, even.  It had to do with the serious treatment given to the idea of it.  The adult treatment.  Attitude.  Star Trek possessed and exuded attitude consistent with the wishes of the people who watched it and became devoted to it.  We rarely saw “The Federation” it was just a label for something which that attitude convinced us was real, for the duration of the show.  The expanding hegemony of human colonies, the expanse of alien cultures—the rather threadbare appearance of some of the artifacts of these things on their own would have been insufficient to carry the conviction that these things were really there.  It was the approach, the aesthetic tone, the underlying investment of the actors in what they were portraying that did that.  No, it didn’t hurt that they boasted some of the best special effects on television at that time, but even those couldn’t have done what the life-force of the people making it managed.

And Spock was the one consistent on-going absolutely essential aspect that weekly brought the reality of all that unseen background to the fore and made it real.  There’s a reason Leonard Nimoy started getting more fan mail than Shatner.  Spock was the one element that carried the fictional truth of everything Star Trek was trying to do.

And Spock would have been nothing without the talent, the humanity, the skill, the insight, and the sympathy Leonard Nimoy brought to the character.  It was, in the end, and more by accident than design, a perfect bit of casting and an excellent deployment of the possibilities of the symbol Spock came to represent.

Of all the characters from the original series, Spock has reappeared more than any other.  There’s a good reason for that.

Spock was the character that got to represent the ideals being touted by the show.  Spock was finally able to be the moral center of the entire thing simply by being simultaneously on the outside—he was not human—and deeply in the middle of it all—science officer, Starfleet officer, with his own often troublesome human aspect.  But before all that, he was alien and he was treated respectfully and given the opportunity to be Other and show that this was something vital to our own humanity.

Take one thing, the IDIC.  Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.  It came up only a couple of times in the series, yet what a concept.  Spock embodied the implications even in his trademark comment “Fascinating.”  He was almost always at first fascinated.  He wanted before anything else to understand. He never reacted out of blind terror.  Sometimes he was on the other side of everyone else in defense of something no one seemed interested in understanding, only killing.

I’m going on about Spock because I know him.  I didn’t know Mr. Nimoy, despite how much he gave of himself.  I knew his work, which was always exemplary, and I can assume certain things about him by his continued affiliation with a character which, had he no sympathy for, would have left him behind to be portrayed by others long since.  Instead, he kept reprising the role, and it was remarkably consistent.  Spock was, throughout, a positive conscience.

On the side of science.  I can think of no other character who so thoroughly exemplified rational morality.  Spock had no gods, only ideals.  He lived by no commandments, only morality.  His ongoing championing of logic as the highest goal is telling.  Logic was the common agon between Spock and McCoy, and sometimes between Spock and Kirk.  I suspect most people made the same mistake, that logic needs must be shorn of emotion.  Logic, however, is about “sound reasoning and the rules which govern it.” (Oxford Companion to Philosophy)  This is one reason it is so tied to mathematics.  But consider the character and then consider the philosophy.  Spock is the one who seeks to understand first.  Logic dictates this.  Emotion is reactive and can muddy the ability to reason.  Logic does not preclude emotion—obviously, since Spock has deep and committed friendships—it only sets it aside for reason to have a chance at comprehension before action.  How often did Spock’s insistence on understanding prove essential to solving some problem in the show?

I suspect Leonard Nimoy himself would have been the first to argue that Spock’s devotion to logic was simply a very human ideal in the struggle to understand.

Leonard Nimoy informed the last 4 decades of the 20th Century through a science fictional representation that transcended the form.  It is, I believe, a testament to his talent and intellect that the character grew, became a centerpiece for identifying the aesthetic aspects of what SF means for the culture, and by so doing became a signal element of the culture of the 21st Century.

Others can talk about his career.  He worked consistently and brought the same credibility to many other roles.  (I always found it interesting that one his next roles after Star Trek was on Mission: Impossible, taking the place of Martin Landau as the IM team’s master of disguise.  As if to suggest that no one would pin him down into a single thing.)  I watched him in many different shows, tv movies, and have caught up on some of his work prior to Star Trek (he did a Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode in which he played opposite William Shatner) and in my opinion he was a fine actor.  He seems to have chosen his parts carefully, especially after he gained success and the control over his own career that came with it.  But, as I say, others can talk about that.  For me, it is Spock.

I feel a light has gone out of the world.  Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but…still, some people bring something into the world while they’re here that has the power to change us and make us better.  Leonard Nimoy had an opportunity to do that and he did not squander it.  He made a difference.  We have prospered by his gifts.

I will miss him.

 

Obsession Point

I have a friend who likes to engage me on our points of departure.  He’s a self-admitted conservative, I am not.  He’s a sincere Christian, I’m an atheist.  Looking around at the current culture, you would think that should make any conversation we might have problematic at best, impossible at worst.

Yet we carry on the occasional hour, two-hour, sometimes three hour conversation and never once descend into anger or dismissive rhetoric.  And yes, we talk about religion regularly.  We talk about politics.  We talk about meaningful living.  It’s the kind of exchange of ideas from different perspectives that seems both rare and uniquely pleasurable.  Would that we taught kids growing up how to appreciate this kind of conversation as, at the very least, an æsthetic pleasure.

Consequently, when he questions me on priorities, I tend to listen.

A couple weeks ago, after the monthly jam session (he runs a church basement coffeehouse to which I’ve been going and participating for more than a few years now) we hung around and started talking about current subjects.  My opening statement concerned the new movie Noah and the absurd fact that the studio has decided to put a disclaimer on it to appease religious reactionaries who are bothered by “historical inaccuracies.”  I expected a laugh over the ridiculousness of this—these are not people who have much patience for that kind of shallow literalism—but instead what followed was a discussion of my obsessive attention to people like Ken Ham and the anti-evolution crowd and biblical literalists in general.

“Why do you pay any attention to them?”

Well, I replied, somewhat glibly, stupidity is fascinating.

Patiently, though, my friend worked at that.  Really?  Aren’t there better things to focus your attention on than the obdurate intractability of intellectual ostriches?  Don’t you have, like, books to write?

At the end of the conversation (which is not to say that it’s over) I had to concede that I spent far too much time and mental energy worrying over the misreadings, misinterpretations, manglings, and malignancies of what is a minority example of entrenched ignorance.  Like watching a neighbor gradually destroy his property (and being unable to do much about it), or watching a slow-motion train wreck, or even repeatedly viewing and complaining about a very expensive yet utterly brainless film, it is both attractive and repellant to observe this particular bit of cultural shadow-play.

The answer to the question has occupied me now since.  Why do I give them so much of myself?

The glib answer is that they draw attention to themselves in such a way as to seem important and relevant.  Paying attention to them feels, on a shallow level, like being engaged.  Noticing them, knowing what they’ve been saying and seeing what they’re doing, seems like being a responsible agent in my own culture.  Every time they manage to censor discussions in schools about evolution or try to force prayer into the classroom or some other culture-war battleground is pushed into the news, being aware of it just seems the thing to do.

A somewhat less glib answer is that the very real political power such groups seem to enjoy worries me.  I don’t want to live in a country designed by biblical literalists.  And determining how they’re wrong and why is basic to any kind of pushback.

And of course, since this conversation took place, we have the incident of the FOX television affiliate in Oklahoma blocking fifteen seconds of the new Cosmos program, the 15 seconds dealing with evolution, and my blood boils.  I react.  I become insensed.   And I immediately go to write a new blog post about how stupid this is and how malevolent this kind of nonsense is and how—

Which is, actually, a waste of my time.  Really, there are better-qualified people doing exactly that.  You can find links to some of them on the sidebar over to the right.  You want to read a better-informed and more current tirade against this kind of thing, go to Freethought Pharyngula—P. Z. Myer is an evolutionary biologist and apparently has more time, energy, and inclination than I do to keep abreast of all this nonsense—or check the science blogs to which I maintain links.

I don’t have to do this.

And yet…and yet…I keep doing it.  Even here,  in addressing a different kind of question, I’m thrashing about and striking back.  Willful ignorance, asserted as if it is a positive attribute, with an insistence that it is Right and Truth and we should all bow to its inevitable godlines MAKES—ME—CRAZY.

Why?

Because, at base, I loathe my own ignorance.  I loathe that part of me that desperately wants to be right, whether I am or not.  Because I am aware of my ignorance and strive to correct it and because I see that as an important fight it disturbs me—more, it frightens me—when others not only don’t see the worth in that fight but are dedicated to preventing the triumph of knowledge.

So, I suppose the simple answer to my friend’s question is—fear.  Those people scare me.  They are the ideological descendents of Inquisitors, witchfinders, book-burners, imperialists of dogma, stone-throwers, and censors.  Because I read Lest Darkness Fall and Fahrenheit 451 and my imagination is such that I can see what a victory for them would mean for people like me.

And because I honestly lack any kind of faith in those who are my intellectual and cultural kindred that we will win this fight.

But that still doesn’t fully address the challenge he laid at me feet.  Why do I  pay so much attention to all this when I could better serve my own purpose and the purpose of the civilization I support in so many other ways?

Because, when combined with all of the above, this has become a rut.  It is easy.  And it feeds my sense of relevance.  But really it’s a paltry diet.  There are richer meals to be had, that would be more beneficial, to me and to others.  So it is an itch which has become easy and habitual for me to scratch.  And in certain company, it’s a sign that I am part of a certain group of like-minded.

It’s a poor excuse.  I could be doing better things with my time and frankly getting more out of my intellectual life.  Because at the end of the day, I’m not going to change their minds, and those who nod along with me when I dive into one of my tirades don’t need me to tell them about this.

I think it is worth paying attention to when tax money goes to something like Ken Ham’s Creation Museum.  That’s an abuse of public trust and a violation of the law, frankly, and should be made public and stopped.

But I don’t need to go on about Ken Ham’s idiocy.

The spot that itches has grown raw and inflamed from repeated scratching and no salve is in sight.  I need to leave it alone.  I have a book on mathematics to hand, another about the history of science fiction, and still another about World War I.  Yes, I have a couple of books dealing with the assault of reason, which is not only from a religious reactionary quarter—reason is under assault from many quarters—but I’m a fiction writer.  My job is to tell stories about the world and because I write science fiction I can do a little prognosticating.  I have to stop pissing away time on pointless subjects.

Besides, I really do think they’ll fade.  When I sit myself down and really examine it, the world view we define as that of Reason will maintain and eventually the nattering naysayers will diminish.  It’s just difficult to see that day to day and believe it when there are people worrying over the “historical” inaccuracies in a Hollywood film about a mythical event.

So I wish to thank my friend for opening a door and pointing out that I’ve been perhaps wandering the wrong hallway for a time.

This is why we must cultivate relationships with people we disagree with.

Upgrading Myths

I saw Man of Steel this past weekend and while I enjoyed much of it, some of it was troubling, and I’ve been pondering ever since.  To be sure, taking up so much brain time with a cinematic version of a comic book seems absurd, but only until you realize how much this stuff means to us as a culture.

Superman is a 20th Century American Myth and it has, whether we like it or not, supplied a good deal of workaday philosophical grist for our collective mills.  We keep revisiting it (and revising it and rebooting it and returning to it) for reasons that have nothing to do with common sense and everything to do with how we see—or would like to see—the world.

Disclaimer:  I grew up watching George Reeves as Superman on tv.  I didn’t collect the comics so much.  Some, sure, but not like friends of mine who had stacks of them encompassing years, even decades.  As a kid, I was certainly enamored of the idea of being super strong.  (I was bullied, you bet I fantasized being able to fly, see through solid objects, and take a punch that might result in my attacker breaking his hand.)  But as I grew older I just couldn’t relate to the guy from Krypton as much as I could with Batman.  Superman was never top of the heap for me.  Just so you know.

I very much liked the Christopher Reeve film.  They hit that note perfect as far as I was concerned.  And should have left well enough alone as the subsequent films just got worse and worse.  (Superman Returns for me was an impressive-looking meh.)  I liked Lois & Clark a lot.  Not so much Superboy or Smallville.  The substance of the myth only goes so far, then it has a tendency to lend itself—badly—to soap opera (is Lois ever going to get this guy in the sack?  What about Lana? And Jimmy!), which even the estimable Lois & Clark fell into eventually.

But we’re talking about a 20th Century reboot of a Greek Myth—the god (or demigod) who comes to Earth, does amazing feats, and is wooed, sometimes seduced (or does the wooing, seducing, or, more commonly, just plain raping) by a mortal woman.  Resulting in…

Well, the thing about the Greek gods is, every time they came down from Olympus to meddle about with the mortals they left a mess behind.  They just didn’t know how to not break things.

I liked that Man of Steel went there.  When the film had been out for a time, I remember people complaining about how violent is was.  Well, yeah.  It would be, wouldn’t it?  Part of the implausibility of Superman is how tidily he fights crime.  Here, in this instance, he has to mix it up with his own kind, and to be true to its pretensions it was going to get ugly.

Where the film failed for me, thematically, was that it insisted that no new mythology could be concocted from these unlikely elements.  Christopher Nolan and company, who did a wonderful job with Batman, were clearly working toward dumping all the old stuff and coming up with a new approach, that is without changing the basic idea.  Kal-el is an alien.  He was sent here to avoid the fate of the rest of his people.  He grows up to become the ultimate Hero.  Obviously there are resonances to the Greeks and just about any other ancient pantheon you care to name.

Just as obviously, there’s no good reason to stick to the old template when trying to turn a fantasy construct into a piece of science fiction—which is what they tried to do.

Large doses of Factored Plausibility were injected into this film.  The scene of young Clark in grade school, suddenly having his X-Ray Vision come on line and c0mpletely freaking out was superb.  Yes, this would seem likely under these circumstances.  And the talk with Jonathan in the aftermath of his saving the bus of kids from the river.  This is not a Depression Era salt of the earth Jonathan Kent, but a man in the presence of something he can’t handle who is scared all the time.

And the whole backstory of Kryptonian exploration and outposts—it seems they were basing much of this on Imperial China, which was a civilization that at one time had a vast exploratory fleet and maybe even colonies and then decided not to bother with Outside and shut it all down. But of course, they left stuff all over the place.  This is good, solid extrapolitive retooling.  It made it all less Olympian and far more geopolitical.  Good, very good.

But then there is the Christ Imagery.

You know what I’m talking about.  Clark wandering the Earth, going out to the wildnerness, becoming Himself—for 33 years before coming out as an alien.  And if you didn’t get it with that, then the shot of him leaving the Kryptonian ship, arms extended, a human crucifix…

And Jor-el as the ephemeral father from heaven.

The battle with Zod and the others is obviously a war with demons—or perhaps only with those who would not give up an absolute adherence to tradition, the ultimate evangelists, that have to be tossed out of the temple.

The problem is, it was incomplete and mongrel.  They threw that stuff in there in order to play the audience, establish a mythic resonance with the familiar even as they were clearly trying to recast the myth into something more plausible in a science fiction context.  They didn’t actually do anything with those little bits.  And Jesus is really not the appropriate myth in the first place.  Moses was always the grounding myth of Superman, and they actually missed the boat on this one by severing his connection to “his people.”

It’s mix-and-match mythology, done slickly and cynically—the image will mean something, but we don’t actually have to have it inform the story with anything.  It’s just a hook.

And not a very satisfying one.

Part of the problem is that Superman is such an uncooperative idea with which to make good science fiction.  They tried mightily in this one, but they kept coming up against the parts that make no real sense other than as fantasy—or myth.  They tried for an upgrade but ended up with just a patch.  So it is neither the old familiar Superman (which Christopher Reeve portrayed so well) or a brand new, fully reimagined Superman that might suit the 21st Century.  This wouldn’t matter so much if not for the fact that Superman had been made and has always served to Mean Something.  We have long since realized he could never be A Savior, not in the sense perhaps implied by Nolan et al.  He’s one man, although incredibly gifted, and even he can’t be everywhere and do everything.  So overtly tying him to Christ is a cheat.  It’s also not what he was intended to represent.  Ever.

At best, Superman represented the idea that limits are intended to be superseded.

That’s my take, anyway.  What Man Of Steel was intended to mean, I’m not sure.  Maybe the makers weren’t, either.  But if they do another one, I would suggest trying to come up with new substance for new myths.  The old ones don’t work so good anymore.  If you’re going to upgrade something like this, leave the past behind.  At least that part of it that no longer answers any real needs.

Either that, or leave it as a comic book and don’t change anything.

Great special effects, though.  Cecil B. DeMille would be envious.

Mary Poppins

There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library.  I remember finding it and being very excited.  Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be.  So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—

Took it back the next day, unfinished.  To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point.  To say I found no magic in it would be closer.  But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline.  She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by.  I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back.  Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with.  That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.

Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now.  The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited.  It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan  was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated.  Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys).  Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.

And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.

But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.

Well, at a guess, that name.  Mary Poppins.  (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.)  And the setting.  And the back story.  Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism.  Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning.  In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.

And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work.  Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly  one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today.  Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.

She was, as they say, set.

Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.

Why?

Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made.  He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed.  The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.

Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood.  She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak.  Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years.  Can anyone fault Travers for being protective?  Indeed, obsessively so?  This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.

The success of the film did not hurt.  She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation.  At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.

(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)

Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard.  It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned.  Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.

I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks.  Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward.  I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family.  But the film is about Walt Disney and his company.  Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?

I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work.  Not one.  It is a very different medium from the printed page.  Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule.  The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over.  If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine.  Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.

Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events.  Why now?  Why this?  And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened?  (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.)  I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.

For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins.  I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since.  I liked it.  I didn’t love it.  I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel.  Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library.  Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.

And that’s a point.  It matters what we’re exposed to first.  It sets out expectations.  While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed.  For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better.  In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.

Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this.  She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed.  To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy.  It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled.  She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her.  To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.

Something Disney is not supposed to be.

 

Boycotts and Bully Boys

I’m not going to the theater to see Ender’s Game, not because I’m boycotting it or Mr. Card, but because I don’t care enough about it to spend coin on it.  Of course, that can be said of 99% of the movies released in the last couple of decades—we don’t go to the movies anymore.  It’s a habit we got out of shortly after buying a house.  Priorities, y’know?

Not that I don’t eventually see them.  (We finally saw The Time Traveler’s Wife this past weekend, long after it’s theatrical release.  A couple of weeks back we saw Cloud Atlas at a friend’s house.)  We get there, eventually, but we aren’t driven by the mass energy of the zeitgeist.  It has benefits.  Seeing things well after the initial hype and scurry allows for a calmer, less media-driven appreciation.  We see it when we’re ready.

I doubt I’ll ever be “ready” to see Ender’s Game in that for decades now I’ve encountered a low-level of discussion about the novel and, more recently, its author, that “distance” is not something achievable in the sense of seeing it when controversy is not hanging in the air, like the smoke from a dozen cigars shortly after their users have left the room.  Ender’s Game is one of those novels that have acquired a kind of cultural mass, a displacement quotient, around which debate, reaction, argument, and controversy orbit.  Dune is one of those, but for different reasons.  (Outside the genre examples of this abound—think Catcher In The Rye, Ulysses, Atlas Shrugged.)  The mention of them in the right group triggers what eventually become standard, predictable set-piece conversations, and one counts status points and self-defines socially/politically/culturally by one’s stance vis á vis how one feels about the subject.  They take on lives of their own.  You could almost put them down on guest lists or schedule them as part of the entertainment over dinner.

I read Ender’s Game in the early 1980s, I don’t remember exactly when.  I remembered the novelette from which it was expanded as being one of the better stories in Analog in the Seventies.  My reaction?  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was a good ride.  I went on to read several more Orson Scott Card novels, eventually losing interest in him.  I felt the sequel to Ender’s Game—Speaker For The Dead—was a superior novel, much more substantive than the first.  I did not then nor do I now think either was Card’s best work.  I went through a phase of OSC and moved on.  (He wrote a series of superb short stories early in his career, which are still, some of them, masterpieces.)

Now the movie is coming out and so has Mr. Card, apparently, and guess what?  He’s become a lightning rod of controversy because he is not much like his landmark stories.  He is a very openly homophobic man and apparently one of those who talks blithely about governmental overthrow if the country doesn’t go the way he thinks it should.

(I say “blithely” because we hear this all the time and often from people who are so engaged with things as they are that it is difficult if not impossible to take them seriously.  It has all the significance of a child threatening to run away from home or stop breathing if things don’t conform to expectations.  It’s a way of attracting a certain kind of attention.  Someday the rest of us may learn that the best way to deal with this is to ignore them.)

How many other people does this sound like?  We may personally know someone who thinks and talks this way.

And most of the time it never comes up.  The plumber might be a Tea Party idiot, but since we never talk politics with him, we never know, and hell, he does good work.  If someone else informs us that he is a political idiot, do we automatically stop using his services?

Boycotts are being called for with regard to OSC.  In one instance, pains have been taken to distinguish between this and any kind of censorship.  It’s not his ideas being boycotted but the man himself, by denying economic support.  A fine line, that, and there is a difference, because ideas can’t be so constrained according to the moral calculus of our political standards, but we can always choose freely what we do or do not spend our money on.  The difference is real, of course, but so is the fact that in public action ideas tenaciously refuse to be teased free of their purveyors, so to attack the one (economically) is to impact the other (dialectically).

I won’t be joining any boycotts.  To my mind, a boycott is personal.  I choose what to spend my money on and that makes it personal.  By joining an organized boycott, it no longer is personal, not in the same way.  It’s political, and mass political movements have a tendency to lose the kind of finesse and nuance the personal necessitates.  Because your personal viewpoint necessarily becomes subsumed in the politics of a movement and dissension from the movement aut0matically becomes suspect by the larger group.  Conformity evolves, individualism becomes confused then lost, and what began as a specific protest of a specific thing becomes a cookie cutter that divides the public from the private in a regrettably destructive way.

Further, this is coming painfully close to book banning.  I know, no one is calling for that, in fact so far everyone is very carefully denying that is what is going on.  But it’s not very many steps between boycotting one movie, one book, one author and boycotting a body of work and then arguing that said body of work should not be “supported” (available) and removing it from…

So it goes.  Suddenly the socially conscious, liberal minded, civil rights oriented boycotters morph into thought police.

How likely do I think that is to happen here?  Not very.  But that’s not argument against refusing to participate in the boycott.  Just because in this instance it won’t happen doesn’t make the process any less odious.

This is a purely personal viewpoint.   I won’t join or support a popular boycott like the one being called for against Orson Scott Card because by doing so I lose a certain amount of control over what I might mean by not spending coin on him or his work.

And besides, Card himself stated it—such protests put more money in his pocket, because controversy attracts profits in this game.  Catcher In The Rye might never have become the phenomenon it did had it not been banned.  The wrong kind of attention was paid it and boom! it’s a cultural icon.  Regardless the quality of the book.

My personal opinion about Ender’s Game has been consistent since a few years after originally reading it when I realized that it was—is—manipulative, button-pushing, and fundamentally flawed.  It depicts scenarios of responses to bullying that are devastatingly gratifying and wholly implausible and unsupportable.  It is a well-written rollercoaster ride that I enjoyed at the time of reading that later left a bitter aftertaste.  I thought it only worth praising because of its sequel, which is a novel of redemption and expiation, a startling portrayal of guilt and responsibility and an argument for tolerance.

Which is ironic, since the work portrays a level of empathy and compassion the public statements of the author belies.  The man who wrote Speaker For The Dead is not the same as the one who seems bent on revolution in order to prevent gays from being able to live as equals in a human society.

Unless…and this is a wicked thought, but not inconsistent with some of the great monsters of religious thought down through the ages…unless the whole purpose of Speaker For The Dead  is to argue that such redemption is the whole point of the series.  That Ender is not sorry for what he (unknowingly) did to the Formics so much as willingly embracing his rôle as a Shiva Christ.  His fate, his destiny is to shoulder that responsibility, not avoid it—not wish he had never done it—but to immerse himself in the total package of destroyer and mourner.

And one cannot mourn what is not lost.  So the Formic had to perish so he, Ender, could be St. Stephen.

Which makes it not so much an argument for tolerance, belated or otherwise, but an argument that the goal of human enlightenment is to wallow in the shame of unbridled destruction.

(In a way, this is much like the many cults of the Native American the United States has embraced in the last century and a half, cults that romanticize and eulogize the vanished Indian, appraisals that could not exist the way they do without the very destruction of the Indian they seem to mourn.  The Indian had to die in order for this peculiarly American form of self-flagellation to be enjoyed and enshrined in film.)

Not something, to my mind, which should be shoved off the stage, boycotted into oblivion.  That is something that needs to be discussed, at length, so we can recognize it when we encounter it.

Where Is Found A Soulful Mind?

Roger Ebert, the film critic, recently wrote a piece about the possible death of the Liberal Arts.  It’s disturbing, not so much for the dire forecast of a nation of business majors and software geeks who know nothing of Montaigne, Sontag, or Charlie Chaplin, but because of what it implies about those who keep track of Culture.

We are university-centric in our appraisal of where the Culture lies, where it is going, and what value we produce of what may be called a national geist.  Ebert talks about the days in which writers were celebrities and the universities, if not the actual mothers of such luminaries, were at least their midwives.  If there is one thing we have all learned in the last half century, though, it is that such institutions—and their products—are expensive.

Blame for the death of the Liberal Arts is lain at the feet of conservatives, but here is where I would like to start teasing these definitions apart.  Genuine conservatives, those with whom I grew up and became most familiar, were the champions of the Liberal Arts.  This was before the term “Liberal” became inextricably tangled with the concepts of “permissiveness” and “socialism.”  Because of the constant hammering both liberalism and conservatism have taken in recent years from a class of philistine whose twin deities are money and conformity, we have lost sight of what both of those labels originally meant and, worse yet, the kind of country they informed.

William F. Buckley jr. may have been many things, but poorly-read was never one of them, nor was he an advocate for the kind of close-minded censoriousness that has poisoned the Right today.  Presently, George Will carries the torch of a conservatism fast vanishing in the flood of a reactionary myopia that passes for conservative but is nothing but avaricious opportunism dressed up in an ill-fitting suit of Victorianesque disapproval.

But then Ebert goes on to remark on his comment log and how refreshingly well-read, educated, and enthusiastic his readers seem to be.  The Liberal Arts is not dead or even dying.

But it may no longer have a comfortable place in universities, which charge a small fortune for an education with which the buyer not only wants but needs to cash in.  Degrees in philosophy, except for a rare few, pay poorly in a job market grown increasingly cutthroat by dint of the exclusion of the kind of broad outlook once supplied by a Liberal Arts education.  Why bother with Thomas Paine when he died poor, a loser?  Or Herman Melville, who had to quit writing because it didn’t pay well enough to support him?  One could go down the list.

And yet.

People read.  Widely.  Minds rove over as broad a range of interests as at any time in the past—more, as there is more to learn, to see, to experience.  It would seem the Liberal Arts is far from dying.  It has only moved out on its own.

I’ve encountered students who refuse to read.  They want to know only those things that will garner them good salaries and all that this implies.  Success.  Goodies.  “Why read F. Scott Fitzgerald?  Hell, I read Ayn Rand in high school.  That’s my kinda culture. ”

I have no time for them.  Were I a teacher in a college, I’d flunk them and send them from the hall.  They are as clueless and feckless as they think others are who pay attention to the contents of the mind.

Tell me this—once you have the six-figure salary and the 2200 square foot condo and the BMW, what are you going to do with yourself in those moments when you’re the only one to keep you company?  Other than winning a footrace, what have you done?  When you look around for something to Do, how will you recognize what is of value, of worth, of substance?

I know, most people like this could care less.  If they don’t have any culture now, they think, if they think about it at all, that they can always buy some later, when they’re “secure” or ready to retire.

Unfortunately, by then they may only be able to recognize “value” as the price tag on the frame rather than the world that’s on the canvas.

It Was Fifty Years Ago, Mr. Bond

“Do you expect me to talk?”

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!

The exchange between Bond and Goldfinger may sum up the attitude of many who are tired, offended, or otherwise ambivalent or disinterested in the absurdly long career of the improbable James Bond, 007.  Even those of us who have been more or less unable to let go our adolescent attachment to the character have doubtless wondered why he hasn’t just died.

He should have, certainly after the criminal treatment he endured toward the middle and end of the Roger Moore years.  All due respect to Mr. Moore (he didn’t write the films, he had probably less control than most leading men), I for one never quite accepted him as Bond.  He was always a bit too pretty, a bit too sophisticated, a bit too…light.

But the movies were popular, he kept signing on, and we endured, waiting for the next incarnation of Sean Connery.

The iconic Bond image of Connery with the long-barreled Walther (yes, that thing was a Walther, but it was an air gun because the actual prop hadn’t arrived for the photo shoot) which was never seen in any of the Bond films is not the one that summed up the character for me.  Rather it was this one:

The first real good look at Bond, at the L’Circle club at the beginning of Doctor No.  This is the image that made me want to be Bond— utterly unconcerned, cool, detached, and completely confident within himself.  He’s playing a fairly expensive game of bacarat and he obviously could care less whether he wins or loses.  (Of course, this is not true—Bond always cared about that, but not over trivial things.  The trivial things simple fell in line when he walked into the room, and this was another characteristic that made him, to a clumsy, hormone-laced adolescent, such an enviable figure.  How badly I wanted to simply not give a damn and how thoroughly I gave a damn about not being able to do that.)

I saw that first Bond film on first release. I was eight at the time and it wasn’t the women that got me, it was that dangerous cool he had at his disposal.  Later, as I reached puberty, the women became important, but till then it was being lethal—and not using it—that was the thing.

And dressing well and talking well and comporting yourself as if you knew why you were there and what you were doing.  It was a total package that was the only viable replacement for the stoic gunslinger in the westerns.  In the scope of a kid’s imagination, Bond was doable.

I wrote an essay for one of the BenBella Smartpop anthologies, James Bond In The 21st Century ( here ) riffing on an imaginary history of the films, with a departure from Sean Connery.  It could have happened, Fleming was not taken with Connery at first, and there were others who could have filled the role.  (Fleming’s choice was David Niven, which, given the physicality of the character, is kind of absurd.  But it explains the subsequent choices, I think, of actors.)  It was also an alternate history of the franchise had it not been the hit that it was.  It was a fun piece to write, but it addressed a serious question.

Why did a franchise that became, for a time, so massively ridiculous continue to be such a big deal?

I think the answer is in the new manifestation.  Daniel Craig (and the writers) has gone back to the source in many ways and given us a Bond more in line with Fleming’s original conception of someone who is genuinely dangerous who wears a veneer of polish, culture, and civilization.

Once again, though, we harken back to that first on-screen look at Bond and see its reemergence in Craig’s portrayal.  Detached, completely in control, cool, and competent.

But with a difference for the films.

He’s vulnerable.

The last time Bond was vulnerable was in On Her Majestie’s Secret Service and Tracy Bond.  After that, he was in all but the Kryptonian origin, Superman.  It became the trademark.  Nothing got through, not really.  He had his empathy boxed up and set to one side, to be taken out on special occasions.

And there’s an appeal to that, to be sure.  We have all been undone by our notoriously fickle and sabotaging emotions, made fools of, acted stupidly.  What would we give to be able to avoid all that?

Well, the price is too high, but we have fantasy characters through which to pretend.

But I think it goes too far and they become so unlikely—not in their actions, the plots that give them a showcase, but in their emotional lives—that we cannot identify with them at all.  All we have then are the toys, the lifestyle, the fashions, and the rollercoaster ride of an action sequence.

Craig has been allowed to open Bond up so we can reconnect, albeit in a small way, with the pathetic human being caged behind the armor.  The fact that Craig is a first-rate actor (possibly better than Connery even in his prime) doesn’t hurt.

Bond has survived, though, because at his base he still represents a level of competence in a fickle, dangerous world we would all like to tap into.  Bond is always centered, he always knows what he’s about and how to act on that knowledge, and that is a very attractive ideal.  When you look at the first three Bond films, you can see that and a slightly vulnerable man, one who doesn’t always get it right, who can become involved, and can therefore be hurt. After Thunderball they became all about the gadgets and some surreal good vs evil drama that actually gave a good shadow-theater representation of the world at large.

The other thing that has carried us through so many really awful Bond films, though, is the myth of the uninvolved sybarite.  He comes in, takes his pleasure, kills the bad guy, and leaves unscathed.  He’s a moral avenger who gets to party occasionally.  His reward for doing the right thing was good food, fast cars, fine clothes, and great sex.  Bond never got fat, never caught a ticket or the clap, never left behind a single mom, and always looked good.  In return, he saved the world.  There was no sacrifice, really—he was a mercenary.

Except that’s not what Fleming wrote.  And when they rebooted the franchise and chose to do Casino Royale, they put that in there.  It may be ignored in subsequent films (I hope not, it’s what elevates Bond above the common), but it was there—Bond is sacrificing his soul.

That first novel, Casino Royale, was about that.  Bond was a new agent, freshly-minted with a 007 license, and fully a third of the book is him in hospital, working through the emotional and moral calculus of continuing to do this ugly, brutal job.  To their credit, the makers of the first Craig film kept that in.  We were even, dimly, shown its conclusion in Quantum of Solace, where at the end Bond has made his choice, and put on the armor.

It will be interesting to see if they continue to keep him human, if only slightly, or if they’ll do what they did before and turn him into the Road Runner getting one over on all the coyotes on the planet.

Happy birthday, Mr. Bond.

The Golden (Silver?) Good Ol’ Days

I just finished skimming through a fascinating little bit of fannish history, Earl Kemp’s Who Killed Science Fiction?  Fannish in the sense of science fiction fandom.  It has a rich and varied history and the concerns within the genre are as fraught with angst, ennui, and ambition as any literature.

I am always a bit bemused when I read about this sort of thing, because I came into science fiction through the rotary rack at my local drug store.  (Literally—Leuken’s Pharmacy, on the corner of Shenendoah and Compton, a good old fashioned drug store with a soda fountain, a magazine stand, and two circular racks for paperbacks, two blocks from my house.)  I had no idea about where these books came from, who wrote them, how, not to mention the whole publishing industry and its workings.  I used to think authors were “gray eminences” who occasionally deigned to write a new book and “gift” it to the public.  The notion that they did it for money or to meet a contract deadline or anything so mundane never occurred to me.  It was a wholly mysterious process, with arcane rituals and secret rites.

Nor were all books created equal in my mind.  For some reason—purely aesthetic—I early on decided that the best science fiction, the stuff with true weight and merit, was all published by Avon.  They did Asimov’s magisterial Foundation Trilogy, after all, and that was Significant Literature!  They put out a lot of Zelazny and some Silverberg.

But I knew nothing about fandom.  Occasionally I’d see a notice in the back of one of the magazines I read—If, Galaxy, Amazing, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vertex, Venture—for a convention somewhere, usually a “World Science Fiction Convention” (!), but I thought they would necessarily be by invitation only (where all the gray eminences met to determine the future offerings, etc) and I’d never go to one.

Kemp’s little tome is the result of a survey he sent out around 1960, asking the title question, among others.  Damn.  I started reading the magazines regularly around 1963 or ’64, so if already in 1960 there was concern over SF being dead, then…

Most of the seventy-odd respondents thought SF was not dead at all, but was in the doldrums.  This was right after the so-called Golden Age has ended (roughly between 1938 and 1954 or so) and there was apparently a sense that the Next New Thing hadn’t arrived yet and maybe it wouldn’t.  It was right on the cusp of New Wave and a few years before Campbell changed the name of Astounding to Analog.  There’s the sense of people sort of milling around, waiting for Something To Happen.

Well, it was five years before Dune and seven years before Dangerous Visions, two books that arguably changed the field.  In a way they represent two extremes, the last great epic of traditional SF and the compendium of All The Wild Shit coming down the pike.  (Both books are almost continually in print to this day, and while Dune has become more a media and franchise phenomenon, Dangerous Visions and its sequel is still a touchstone for serious literary study and the taking-off point for the changes in approach and trajectory that drove everything until Gibson, Sterling, and Cyberpunk worked another set of changes on a field that has always been as good as its most recent thing.)

The general consensus throughout the responses was that magazine SF was not dead (and there did seem to be an over-emphasis on the magazines, which at the time were still seen as the major outlet for SF.  Book publishers had not yet really crowded into the field as they did by the end of the decade, although some were putting out quite a lot, like ACE) but it was sick as hell.  I’ve sat in on similar conversations over the last three decades of my own involvement in fandom and I was struck reading this by the similarity in tone and even in content of the arguments.  (Horace Gold, editor of Galaxy, thought everything was fine except for too much psi.)

Kurt Vonnegut chimed in with a particularly venomous assault, that not only was it dead but he would be glad to help find the corpse so it could be properly buried.  He wrote a note to Kemp later apologizing and blaming his attitude on his isolation from the field.  Vonnegut made his bones in SF and took many opportunities to diss it because he didn’t want to be regarded by the critics—and therefore his potential audience—as a hack.  Fair enough, but sometimes I wonder if something else was going on there.  He could have distanced himself without pissing all over the whole genre.  Or maybe not.  I have to bear in mind that the critical arena is not what it was then.

The last section of the book contains revisitations some 20 years later, when science fiction was going through an enormous boom.  Some of the pessimism of the earlier responses had to be explained.

A lot of of them credited Star  Trek  with the “revival” of science fiction.  It did bring a much larger audience into the field.  It did open the door for many of those new readers to discover that, as good as they thought Star Trek was, the stuff between two covers was much better.

That all changed again in the 80s with the massive upsurge of Fantasy, all, in my opinion, in the wake of Star Wars, which did something very similar—brought many tens of thousands of new fans eagerly into the field.  But in this instance, a different realization occurred that led to a collapse of science fiction.  Instead of discovering that the material in the books they were now buying was better than Star Wars, they found that it was utterly different—and that they really didn’t like it.

Star Wars—and I’ve said this before, often—is not science fiction (even though Lucas rather hamfistedly and stupidly tried to retrofit it as science fiction in the “first” three movies) but heroic quest fantasy in space.  Or, simply, Fantasy in Skiffy drag.  Audiences went from this to the less reifying work of writers like Brin, Bear, Clarke, Benford, Cherryh, et al and it must have been like a cold shower.  Science fiction requires thought, analysis, its virtue is in the explication and championing of reason, logic, and science, and while there are heroes aplenty in SF there’s not a lot of destiny or “born to the throne” heroes who just Are.

As fast as they blew up the SF bubble, they left it for all the Tolkein clones that began to dominate the publishing field by the late 80s and still command a hefty market share.

Science fiction, it seems to me, has always been a minority taste.  It appeals to people who also find science appealing.  It has always had a fairly solid core of supporters and as a percentage of the publishing market has remained fairly constant, with certain boom times punctuating a more or less steady, dependable foundation.  Science fiction offers marvels, of course, but they are, the best of them, marvels still grounded in an idea of reality.  And reality is tough.  It takes work to survive and thrive.  A good sword arm won’t do you much good when a meteor has holed your ship and all the air is leaking out and you have to figure out how to fix it.  Orbital mechanics couldn’t care less that you’re of the House Royal as your ship starts spiraling down to a nasty end because you didn’t do the math right for re-entry into atmosphere.  Science fiction says “Yes, the future can be wonderful—but it will still be Real and you’ll have to deal with it the same way you deal with what’s real now.”

So, who killed science fiction in my opinion?

Lot of assumptions in that question with which I do not agree.