Please, Pale Person, Please Stop

Only because it is so omnipresent am I aware of the new raging over Ariel in The Little Mermaid and its casting of a Not White actor in the role. I would rather have not had this in my range of consciousness. I cannot convey the depth of weariness at this nonsense. You do this kind of stuff with the expectation that I, based on melanin content, will agree and share your rage.

Skin color is not intelligence. Nor is it a sign, frankly, of any kind of kinship above the purely coincidental.

Stop. Just…stop. I realize you think this of moment, important in some fundamental way, and might possibly be the last ground on which you might take a stand that is no longer acceptable as any definition of civilized, but all you are doing is embarrassing yourself and annoying me.

I know you are probably innumerate, but recently I was reminded of a statistic that sheds a stark light on the thinness of skin your railing against inclusiveness reveals. In a documentary on women in Hollywood, This Changes Everything, which examines the underrepresentation of women in filmmaking, it was striking to me that the percentage of directors who are women has yet to rise much higher than 15%. That figure has usually been lower, a couple of times briefly higher. Coupled with a kind of pervasive cluelessness on the part of men, it reminded me of a statistic related to what we once called (and may still) White Flight, which is the phenomenon of white Americans picking up and moving almost en masse once a certain level of minority presence in a given neighborhood is perceived. It turns out that the average is 12%. One in eight houses in a neighborhood are African-American (and presumably other racial minorities, but the study was done with regards to blacks) and suddenly all the white people seem to say “My god, they’re everywhere!” Twelve percent is far from any kind of majority, or even approaching parity, yet that seemed to be the point at which many white folks felt the need to flee to the counties.

“My god, they’re everywhere!”

I suppose if your default position is that 95% of everyone around should be white, then the upwelling of nonwhite in your area would be quite noticeable. If your default assumption is that only white people are—what?—“safe” to be around, then alarm bells must go off, just by the sighting of a few more nonwhite faces.

Of course, property values play into this, and for no better reasons.

But look, this is simply ridiculous at its base. Time and again, the superiority of ethnic type has been shot down and made odious, so that now all you have to complain about is—fictional characters.

And the now incessant appellation of Wokeness, which you somehow seem to think is some kind of corruption. You seem not even to have the wit to realize how ironic that is.

I no longer care what your excuses are. This has gotten absurd. If some day someone made a new version of Winnie-the-Pooh and instead of a classic  Teddy Bear they cast a Sun Bear or, heaven forbid, a Panda, I suppose you’ll rage against the Woke Left and its anti-Teddy Bear agenda.

What this says to me loudly is that along with everything else, you have no understanding of art (small “a” as a practice of symbolic communication through aesthetic reimaginings and visualizations). So you underline your aversion to being Woke by being decidedly asleep and studiously ignorant.

But please, stop claiming these things in the name of White People. All you’re expressing is a deep fear that you are losing power, which you don’t have in the first place. And you’d know you don’t have it if you were just a teensy bit…woke.

But to be clear, I am not on your side. You do not speak for me. I’m not even getting angry at it any more, just sad and weary. You don’t get it, and you expect me to not get it either, and be angry about it.

Please. Stop.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

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*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Is Scrooge Merely A misunderstood Businessman?

It was a tradition in our family for many years that at Christmastime we get together, eat, drink, make jokes, and endure the Yule Season with a skeptical resolve to give unto Santa what is Santa’s. We appreciate the spirit but the actual mechanism leaves us a bit chilly. In rejecting the corporate gloss of Xmas, though, we’ve sort of recovered some of what the holiday is supposed to mean, at least according to all the armchair philosophes.

My mother is more enamored of the childlike aspects of Christmas than my father ever was, and he indulged her. She still holds to that in her small way, even as circumstances have changed. We still try to get together around this time, though it has long been a loose calendrical event. 

However, one ritual had worn on me for a long time. I write about it now because the entire country seems in the grip of ethical and moral contests which echo this seemingly minor one and it may be that exploring the small might illuminate the large in some useful way. 

My father, who should be a charter member of the great Curmudgeon’s Club, picks bones as a hobby. He’s good at it. He can find something to carp about with almost any topic. He can be fun to listen to and more often than not we find ourselves nodding with sympathy at some sage formulation from his mouth. 

Except this one. He thinks Ebeneezer Scrooge is a maligned and misunderstood character.

Classic conservative business-speak: “What the hell, he’s employing Cratchit! And Cratchit has a house! A house! How poor can he be if he has a house? As for Tiny Tim, what could Scrooge actually do to save his life? The kid’s a cripple, they didn’t have the medical technology back then. Would just paying Cratchit more help save his life? Everybody beats up on Scrooge and in all honesty, just what can he do?”

It was an aggravating rant because the rest of us knew there’s something he fundamentally missed, yet, like many arguments from specific points, it’s difficult to counter. My mother attempted to explain that the story isn’t about what Scrooge can do for others but what he needs to do for himself. He’s got a lot of money but he’s poor in spirit, and I imagine most people see it that way.

But I grew impatient with it after years and did a little digging.

Dickens wrote four Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol being the most famous. Each was intended to be edifying about some aspect of the Christmas Spirit and they were hugely popular in their day, and A Christmas Carol has remained so, through many reprintings and several dramatic adaptations. If all one is familiar with are the movies and television versions, it might be understood that certain aspects of the story are misapprehended, but I always found this particular view stubbornly obtuse. 

Firstly, you must credit Charles Dickens for his powers of observation. Read any of his other novels and you find a severe critic who was engaged in the close inspection of the world around him. He put down in detail the ills and failures of the society in which he lived and when considering a work such as Oliver Twist or Bleak House one would be hard pressed to complain that he had gotten anything wrong. His chief power as a writer in 19th Century England was as a social critic. So, given that he was not one to complain about something just to complain and was unlikely to abandon truth and fact just to make a point (since his points were all pointedly about truth and fact), why gainsay him in this tale?

Oh, well, we have ghosts and flights of supernatural fancy! Obviously he didn’t mean it to be read at face value in those passages concerning the “real” world. 

Nonsense. Credit him with keen observational skills.

Scrooge paid Cratchit 15 shillings a week. “Fifteen bob” as it says in the book. It’s difficult to be precise, but rough equivalencies can be found. The story takes place in 1841 (or thereabouts). Fifteen shillings then would be the equivalent of approximately 56 lbs today, or about $90.00. 

Now, it is unlikely Cratchit owned that house. He likely rented it. A great deal of housing in London at the time was owned by people who may have kept a townhouse but more than likely lived elsewhere. Rental fees ranged between 2 lbs annually to over 300 lbs. Dickens doesn’t discuss that, but just the cost of food, clothing, and heat—heat especially, which was from coal, and not cheap—would have eaten up most of Cratchit’s weekly salary. Anyway one looks at it, taking care of a family of eight on less than $90.00 a week would be a challenge. 

The goose was likely from a club in which funds would be pooled, paid in advance and over time, so geese could be purchased in bulk (reducing the price somewhat) and then made available to the subscribers at Christmastime. Cratchit was hardly buying such things on a weekly or even monthly basis.

As to what Scrooge might have done for Tiny Tim, well, that is difficult to say. Medicine was not advanced, causes of diseases were only vaguely understood, and many ills befell people simply from living in squalid conditions. The onset of the industrial revolution had drawn people into the cities from the farms by the thousands and they ended up shoved into tenements where the normal barriers that kept disease proliferation in check broke down. Poor hygiene, close quarters, bad water.

Patent medicines were big business. Some of them actually had palliative effects, like Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which sold for between 2 and 5 shillings a bottle (about 12 oz.). That would have been between 8% and 33% of Cratchit’s salary to treat Tiny Tim on a regular basis.

But treat him for what?

There wasn’t much accurate diagnosis of disease in 1841, but Dickens assumes in the story that Tiny Tim’s condition can be alleviated by Scrooge “loosening up” his wallet. Certain diseases Tiny Tim might have had, granted, there would have been no cure. The best that might have been done might have been to make him comfortable. But if we allow for Dickens’ accurate powers of observation, then this wasn’t one of the guaranteed fatal ones.

Tiny Tim might have had rickets. They were rampant in London at that time. The coal used to heat homes, run factories, drive boats up the Thames had filled the air with a dense soot that effectively cut down on sunshine, which would have cut down on vitamin D manufacture, and, subsequently, rickets. A better diet would help—better diet from maybe a raise by Scrooge. But rickets, even untreated, was rarely fatal.

There is a disease that fits the description. Renal Tubular Acidosis. It’s a failure of the kidneys to properly process urine and acid builds up in the blood stream. Enough of it, and it begins to attack the bones. Untreated in children, it is often fatal.

But the treatment was available at the time as a patent medicine, mainly an alkali solution like sodium bicarbonate.

Scrooge’s penny-pinching didn’t just hurt himself and his miserliness could cost Tiny Tim his life.

But it’s also true that Dickens was talking about a wider problem. The tight-fistedness of society was costing England—indeed the world—in spiritual capital. Interestingly, Dickens never, in any of his novels, suggested legislative or government intervention in poverty. He always extolled wealthy individuals to give. He thought the problem could be solved by people being true to a generous nature. It’s interesting in a man so perceptive that he recognized a problem as systemic but then suggested no systemic remedies.

In any event, on the basis of the information at hand and a couple of shrewd guesses, we can see that Dickens was not just telling us a ghost story. The consequences for Scrooge and company were quite real.

There is at the center of the Christmas Spirit, so I have been told and taught from childhood, a benefit to abandoning questions of profit and cost. That generosity should be its own reward. That mutual care is balm to the pains of society as a whole. Scrooge is a Type, one that is with us magnified in ways perhaps Dickens could not have imagined possible, a constricted soul who sees everything in terms of costs, returns on investment, labor, and balance-sheets. Everything. The point of Dickens’ story is that such people not only poison their own spiritual pond but can spread that harm to others simply by never seeing things any other way. The stubborn money-soaked impoverishment in which Scrooge lives does no one any good and the point of Christmas is to at one time a year stopping living that way. 

But Dickens was not all of the spirit. He was a materialist and for him the costs were very real, in terms of hunger and disease and crippling disorder and agonizing despair, and that a man like Scrooge has real, destructive impact on the people around him, whether he knows them or not. The potential for him to Make A Difference was not some sentimental concept bound up in airy essences of fellow-feeling, but in the actual material well-being of people and, by extension, society.

I must here explain that my dad, curmudgeonly as he was in such debates, was in no way a selfish or stingy man. His response to need—need that he saw, that was tangible to him—was axiomatic and without strings. He never was a Scrooge.*

But I think it behooves us to stop paying lip service to the very old and too-oft repeated idea that “there’s nothing to be done.” We may not as individuals be able to fix everything, but we can fix something. We start by fixing ourselves.

The last word here I leave to Tiny Tim

______________

*To be clear, my dad is still alive, but circumstances have changed somewhat, and certain traditions have had to be modified to suit.

We Have Toys

Finally, after two trips into the wilds of computer land, I have my new scanner, all set up and ready to go. Below it my first scanned image.

 

I will get better at this, once I learn the various buttons on the new ‘chine. This is an old image, a 4 X 5 negative. To my pleasant amazement, the detail is still astounding in these things.

So in the space of a week, I have the ability now to once more make use of my (huge) library of negatives (only 50 + years of photography), and I have sold a new story—a novella, no less—to Analog. Not a bad start of a year that could have turned out a lot worse.

50

I was eleven when Star Trek premiered. I’d seen the previews all summer, I was salivating in anticipation. Just from those minute or so clips it looked just so cool!

We watched the first episode—Man Trap—and disaster struck.

See, I was a somewhat “sensitive” child. I hate horror. I was prone at an earlier age to nightmares.  I recall a couple of times waking up screaming. Of course, I’d been like four or five. It had been years. But my mother was adamant about keeping me away from anything that would curse my nights and ruin their sleep. She was skeptical that this—this—Star Trek Thing—wasn’t just another monster show.  I remember trying to persuade her that, no, it’s about spaceships and other planets. No monsters.

Well.  What was the thing in Man Trap other than a classic scary monster?

I missed half the first season because of that shaggy critter.

We lived downstairs from my grandparents and I took to sneaking up there to watch it.  They had an ancient ANCIENT television, in a pale maple cabinet and a very low-res gun painting the picture on an old tube, so the picture was anything but sharp.

Even so, there was something about it that just took hold.

It is difficult sometimes to explain what Star Trek meant to someone like me that year. It was amazing. It was miraculous.  It was where we wanted to go.

Somehow, Roddenberry and his writers had constructed a thing that had life beyond the edge of the television tube.  We knew the Federation had length, breadth, and depth.  It had substance.  It was a place.  Not like anything else on tv at the time that could even begin to call itself science fiction, this was a universe and we knew it would welcome us in if we could just–just—kind of—maybe—slip in there, past the electrons, and sort of step through.

Of course, it did what written SF had been doing for a long time.  The difference was the medium.  I never knew anyone else growing up who was remotely interested in reading the books and magazines I did. Everyone watched television and more than a few watched Star Trek.

It embedded and evoked an idea of the world and life that extended beyond the ordinary in a way that far exceeded its primitive SFX and pasteboard sets and often mediocre scripting.  It wasn’t the individual episodes that mattered, it was the proposed future portrayed.

We didn’t have any of that stuff. Today we have a lot of it.

I saw the entire first run eventually, all in brilliant black-n-white.  We didn’t have a color tv till the latter part of the Seventies.

It didn’t matter.  I could close my eyes and see all the colors.

My dad, who had a problem with obsession, didn’t like my growing dedication to the show.  “Split your head open with an axe and a bunch of starships would fly out of it,” he would say, as if that were a bad thing.

Well, it wasn’t school work.

But today I’m a published science fiction writer, and I didn’t learn how to do that in school.

More, though, in some way the optimism and vision of Star Trek became part of my general make-up.  I think I’m a better human being because of it.

It was just so fucking wonderful.

Happy Anniversary.

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.

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.

Pet Peeve

I don’t watch a lot of television.  Possibly more than I should, given everything I have on my plate, but I grew up with tv and have loved a lot of what’s been on it and it is, or can be, a great source of pleasure.

One of the shows I’ve been devoted to the last few years has been Castle.  From the first episode, I’ve been hooked.  Firstly, how could I not like a show about a writer?  And especially the writer as many of us dream of becoming.  Secondly, Nathan Fillion.  I mean, Firefly?  I was so happy to see him get a new show.  (And the fact is, if one pays attention, there are Firefly references sprinkled throughout the show.)  Thirdly, Stana Katic.  (I am hopelessly enamored of women with strong personalities and great brains—did you know Ms. Katic speaks five languages and often does her own stunts?  We don’t even have to talk about her looks, do we?)

The show started off with a smart script, tremendous wit, and immediate chemistry.  No one was talking down to anyone here and the ongoing back story involving Detective Beckett’s (Katic) murdered mother was written in just enough and brought to a satisfying resolution, if not conclusion.

It was obvious from the get-go that these two would fall in love eventually, which worried me, because so many shows have been ruined by consummation.  (Just look at Bones if you don’t believe me.  How sad.)  They wrote and played it marvelously.

When they finally decided to get them together, much to my surprise they didn’t ruin it.  Usually what happens is one of the two becomes submissive and suddenly we have “traditional male-female roles” playing out and it’s just so been-there-let’s-not-anymore.  Not so here.  They are different enough characters that they can remain equals without the kind of imbalance that might blow them apart.  Which still may happen.  They’re on their way to getting married now and the quality remains high.

So I feel a bit churlish about complaining, but I can’t help it.

Rick Castle is getting stupid as the show progresses.

Oh, he always pulls himself out of it by an episode’s end, but over five seasons he has gone from a very savvy, knowledgeable, well-informed, somewhat reckless amateur sleuth to someone who believes in woo-woo and is overly-cautious to the point of cowardly at times.  And after 30 bestselling crime novels, the rich pool of knowledge he had at the start of the show has sort of leaked out along the way.

The last show I watched, from last season, has him advancing with a STRAIGHT FACE the theory of a serial killer striking from beyond the grave.  Really?  Really?  This is as bad as people assuming because I write science fiction I believe in alien abduction.  It’s reinforcing a weird stereotype.

Oh, I get it, he’s the writer, so he’s supposed to be the romantic as opposed to Beckett’s supreme rationalist.  But I liked it better when he was the one the wild (but credible) theories opposed to her thorough and dogged policeman.

It’s even borderline sappy now.

I still love the show, I still think it has some of the best writing on network television, but it would be nice if they’d push Rick back to where he started.  This hasn’t yet ruined the show for me, he is still mostly an asset in the police work, but from time to time he’s implausible.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the Joss Whedon-scripted episode.  You know one is on the way, don’t you?  ABC take note.  Whedon, a Castle script.  Please?

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.