Some Thoughts On SF, Nostalgia, Words

This past weekend I attended our local convention,  Archon.  It’s a St. Louis convention that’s not actually in St. Louis, for many reasons too convoluted to go into here, and this one was number 36.  Which means, with a couple of exceptions, I’ve been going to it for three decades.  (Our first con was Archon 6, which featured Stephen King as GoH, and thus was something of a media circus.  I met several writers, some whose work I knew and loved, others of whom I just then became acquainted—George R.R. Martin, Robin Bailey, Charles Grant, Joe Haldeman, Warren Norwood. Some have passed away, others are still working.)

I go now to meet up with friends of long acquaintance, in whose company we have spent relatively little actual face-time, but who by now have become touchstones in our lives.  It’s odd having people who feel so close that you see at most one weekend a year.  Granted, the internet has helped bridge those gaps, but it’s still a curious phenomenon, one which I kind of dealt with this weekend on at least one panel.

This year, the novel that seems to have garnered the most awards was Jo Walton’s Among OthersIt won both the Nebula Award and the Hugo Award, both times beating out what I considered the best science fiction novel of perhaps the last decade, China Miéville’s Embassytown.  

Now, please don’t misunderstand—I thought Among Others was a marvelous novel.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, was, in fact, delighted by it, and certainly being delighted is one of the chief pleasures of reading.  I do not here intend any slight on the work.

But it took two awards that are supposed to honor the best science fiction of the year, and Among Others was barely fantasy.  (One of the things I admired about it was the line Walton danced around separating the fantasy from actual occurrence and simple perception on the part of the characters.)  It is in the long tradition of English boarding school stories, written as the diary of a girl who is somewhat isolated, who has run away from her mad mother (who may be a witch) after a tragic loss of her sister and a crippling accident.  Living with her father now, she is placed in a boarding school where her love of science fiction is one of her chief methods of coping. The novel then chronicles the succession of books she reads over a year or two, many of which were exactly the books I was reading then and loving.  It is in that sense an overview of a particular period in SF, one I found myself reliving with immense pleasure.

Embassytown, on the other hand, is solidly SF built on a very meaty idea that plays out with intensity and provokes a great deal of thought—everything SF is supposed to do.  It is also marvelously well-written and to my mind was hands down the best of the year, if not, as I said, the last decade.

But it lost to the Walton.

Why?

So I proposed a panel at Archon to discuss the power of nostalgia in a field that is presumed to deal with cutting edge, next level, philosophically stimulating ideas.  It’s supposed to take us new places.  Granted, most of it no longer does—instead it takes us to some very familiar places (after eight decades of definably “modern” SF, how many “new” places are there really to go?) and in the last couple of decades, it’s been taking us to some very old places, alá Steampunk and alternate history.  I’d never given much thought to this before as a nostalgic longing because in both cases the writers are still proposing What If? scenarios that ask questions about the nature of historical inevitability and technological destiny.  The story might well be set in 1890, but it’s not “our” 1890 and we have to come to grips with the questions of why “our” 1890 has preference in the nature of human development.

But Among Others didn’t even do that.  It was just a recapitulation of one fan’s love of a certain era of fiction.

Again, absolutely nothing wrong with that and I say again, Among Others is a fine novel, I unhesitatingly recommend it.

My question in the panel had to do with the potential for exhaustion in SF.  Paul Kincaid talks about this here in an examination of two of the best Best of the Year anthologies, Dozois’ and Horton’s.  In my own reading, I’ve noticed a resurgence of old models—planetary romance, space opera, etc (Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey for instance)—where we’re seeing writers take these comfortable, familiar forms and rework them with more contemporary sensibilities, broader perspectives, certainly in many instances more skillful prose.  But the “cutting edge” seems to be occupying narrower slices of the collective SF zeitgeist.  (William Gibson, to my mind still one of the most interesting SF writers, has all but given up writing SF in any concrete fashion and is now doing contemporary thrillers from an SF perspective.  Is this cutting edge or an admission that there simply isn’t anywhere “new” to go?  Likewise with Neal Stephenson, who opted to go all the way back to the Enlightenment and rework that as SF—taking the notions of epistemology and social science and applying them to the way a period we thought we knew unfolded from a shifted perspective.)

Kincaid’s piece talks about insularity in the field, which is not a new criticism—arguably, the recent upsurge in YA in the field is a direct response to the ingrown, jargon-laden incestuousness of the field in the 80s and 90s, where it seemed that if you hadn’t been reading SF since the early Seventies you simply would not understand what was going on—but I’m wondering if a new element has been added, that of an aging collective consciousness that unwittingly longs for the supposedly fertile fields of a previous Golden Age in publishing, an age before Star Trek and Star Wars and cyberpunk, when it was easier (supposedly) to write an almost pastoral kind of science fiction and you didn’t need a degree in physics or history or cultural anthropology to find your way.  (I suspect the tenacity of iconic worlds like the aforementioned Star Trek and Star Wars can be explained by a very common need for continuity and familiarity with a story that you can access as much through its fashions as its ideas.)

Having just turned 58, and feeling sometimes more behind the curve both technologically and culturally, I’m wondering if, in a small way, the accolades given to a work of almost pure nostalgia is indicative of a wish for the whole magilla to just slow down.

(The trajectory of my own work over the last 20 years is suggestive, where I can see my interests shift from cool ideas, new tech, stranger settings, into more personal fiction where the internal landscapes of my characters take more and more precedence.  And many of them are feeling a bit lost and clueless in the milieus in which I set them.  Not to mention that I have moved from space opera to alternative history, to more or less straight history and into contemporary…)

The panel was lively and inconclusive—as I expected, because I didn’t intend answering my own question, only sparking discussion and perhaps a degree of reflection.

SF goes through cycles, like any other art form, and we see the various subsets rise and fall in popularity.  There’s so much these days that I may be missing things and getting it all wrong.  The reason I brought it up this time is a response to the very public recognition of a given form that, this year, seems to have trumped what I always thought science fiction is about.

I confess, there are many days I look back to when I first discovered SF, and the impact it had on my adolescent mind (and the curious fact that when I go reread some of those books I cannot for the life of me see what it was about them that did that—no doubt I was doing most of it for myself, taking cues from the works) and when I first thought about becoming a writer.  It does (falsely) seem like it would have been easier “back then” to make something in the field.  Such contemplation is a trap—you can get stuck in a retrograde What If every bit as powerful as the progressive What If that is supposed to be at the core of science fiction.

Yes, It Is My Birthday

I take partial responsibility.  After all, my parents had more than a little to do with it.

I usually forget my birthday until the week before, when everyone starts reminding me.  This year, though, I’m paying a bit more attention because, well, I’m here to have one.  That was, for the first time ever, more than an academic question recently.  So for that I am grateful to many people, most of whom I do not know and may never see again—doctors and nurses and even some folks who thought good thoughts without my knowing—and for the love of my friends.

I have pretty much everything one could ask for out of life.  The one thing that would make this just super cool would be to have some publisher offer me a significant amount of money to publish one of the books I have on offer.  I trust that will come eventually.

I’m most especially pleased that I have Donna.  Still.  Always.  She’s one seriously wonderful human being.  I love her and I am still baffled that she loves me.

So, to everyone, thank you for your birthday wishes.  You strangers out there who read this, if you want to do something more than wish me happy birthday, go buy one of my books, read it, and rave about it on your own blog or on Amazon or wherever. (If you choose REMAINS, you’ll make my publisher happy, too.) But even so, thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’m going to a convention now.  Have a great day.

Celebratin’

My World of Tomorrow

This weekend I’ll be attending the local science fiction convention, Archon.  I’ve only missed a couple of these since 1982, when Donna and I went to out very first SF convention, Archon 6. Stephen King was guest of honor and we got to meet many of the writers we’d been reading and enjoying, some, at least in my case, for many years.  Until that year I hadn’t even known such things happened.

Science fiction for me was part of the fundamental bedrock of my life’s ambitions.  Not just writing it or reading it, but in a very real sense living it.  It is difficult to recapture that youthful, naïve enthusiasm for all that was the future.  The vistas of spaceships, new cities, alien worlds all fed a growing æsthetic of the shapes and content of the world I wanted very much to live in.

I’ve written before of some of the aspects of my childhood and adolescence that were not especially wonderful.  My love of SF came out of that, certainly, but it was altogether more positive than merely a flight response from the crap of a less than comfortable present.  I really thought, through a great deal of my life, that the world was heading to a better place.  I found the informing templates and ideas of that world in science fiction, in the positivist philosophy underlying so much of it.

And I liked that world!

It was not a world driven by bigotry or senseless competition for competition’s sake.  It was not a world where deprivation was acceptable because of innate fatalism or entrenched greed.  It was not a world that lumped people into categories according to theories of race or economics that demanded subclasses.

True, a great many of the novels and stories were about exactly those things, showing worlds where such attitudes and trends dominated.  But they were always shown as examples of where not to go.  You could read the paranoid bureaucratic nightmares of Philip K. Dick and know that he was telling us “Be careful, or it will turn out this way.”  We could read the dystopias of a Ballard or an Aldiss and see them as warnings, as “if this goes on” parables.

You could also read Ursula Le Guin and see the possibilities of alternative pathways.  You could read Poul Anderson and see the magnificent civilization we might build.  You could read Clarke and glean some idea of how people could become more than themselves.

You could see the future.

And what did that future offer?  By the time I was eighteen I knew I wanted to live in a world in which we are all taken as who we are, humans beings, and nothing offered to one group was denied another just because.  I recognized that men and women are equals, that our dreams and ambitions are not expanded or diminished by virtue of gender.  I understood that building is always more important than tearing down.  I discovered that Going There was vital and that the obstacles to it were minor, transitory things that sometimes we see as too big to surmount, but which are always surmountable.

Sure, these are lessons that are drawn from philosophy and science and ethics.  You can get to them by many paths.  I just happened to have gotten to them through science fiction.

I envisioned a world wherein people can engage and interact with each other fearlessly, without arbitrary barriers, and we can all be as much as we wish to be, in whatever way we wish to be it.

So imagine my disappointment as I watch the world veer sharply in so many ways from that future.  A world where people with no imagination, avaricious or power hungry, people of truncated and stunted souls are gaining ground and closing those doors.

There is a girl in Pakistan who may yet die.  She’s 14 years old and she was shot by the Taliban because she dared to stand against them.  She assumed her right to go to school, something the Taliban refuse to accept—females should not go to school—and rather than engage her ideas they shot her to silence her.

In our own country we have men in places of power who think women shouldn’t have the right to control their own bodies, others who opine that maybe slavery wasn’t so bad after all, others who deny the legitimacy of science because it contradicts their wishes and prejudices.

This is not the world I imagined.  Why would any sane person deny anyone the right to an education?  How could the community around this girl even tacitly support this idea?  This is so utterly alien to me that it is incomprehensible.  This is evil.  This is not the world of tomorrow, but some kind of limpet world, hermetically sealed inside its own seething ignorance that, like a tumor, threatens everything that I, for one, believe is worth while.

So I write.  I write stories and I write this blog and I write reviews and I write and I talk and I argue.  It is disheartening to me how many people use their ignorance as a barrier to possibility, to change, to hope.  I can’t help sometimes but think that they would have benefited in their childhood from more science fiction.

I still have hope.  It still comes from the source well of my childhood imagination, that we can build a better world.  If that’s naïve, well, so be it.  Harsh reality, unmitigated by dreams of beauty and wonder, makes brutes of us all.

See you at Archon?

 

Affirmative Action Revisited (Again)

This will be brief.  The Supreme Court is set to hear another case about affirmative action in education.  A Texas student was not accepted for the University of Texas and has claimed that the only difference between her and other students who did get in is her skin color—she’s white.

Now, by all accounts, she is an excellent student.  According to UT, though, she wasn’t good enough.  They use two metrics to select enrollees—academic scores and what they call “personal achievement” indices, which include extracurricular activities and an essay which is supposed to reveal leadership potential and other qualities that can’t be scored on a test.  UT claimed her academics just weren’t good enough.

I don’t know the particulars of her case, but one thing that always seems to be left out of reports about this sort of thing is any mention of the value of “higher education.”

To put it simply, if the entire worth of a college education was about academics—what you learn in the classroom, how well you learn it, and how that fits you for life after schooling—then the critics of affirmative action are absolutely right.  The best qualified students should always have first dibs on places in good colleges and universities.  Smarts should count above all else.  If you’re a straight A student with an I.Q. through the ceiling, there should be no reason to bar you.  Racial quotas would in that case be pointless, because the only thing that would matter is a provable command of knowledge and the capacity to apply it.

What never gets mentioned—and which I suspect everyone knows—is that the value of a college degree has almost nothing to do with that.  Maybe at one time it did, but no longer.

What that degree gets you is entreé.  It’s the Old School Tie, the Secret Password, the Letter of Introduction, the Inside Edge, and has nothing to do with how smart or knowledgeable you may be.  That degree gets you preferred treatment in the game of life.

At least, it used to.  Currently, not so much, although it still provides an edge in the job market.

In that case, affirmative action is absolutely necessary, because businesses will use any basis to cull applicants, and a degree from a good college or university is an easy one.

If you can’t get into the school in the first place, you are starting out in second or third place, and if you can’t get in because of ethnicity, well…

Yes, it’s more complicated than that, especially today, but it is not irrelevant as the critics of affirmative action claim.  Because these schools do not admit only the best.  There are a lot of legacy enrollments, students who get in because they have an alumni card to play, and others who get bought in because their families are rich and maybe endow the school.  Academics have little to do with that and let us not even begin to talk about athletic scholarships that in many instances are even more divorced from intellectual ability.

(I have no doubt that a significant majority of students in any college are there by virtue of ability.  We aren’t talking about the middle 70% but the people who bookend those students—the privileged and the underprivileged.)

So.  If the game were all about what you do in the classroom, then I agree, affirmative action serves no useful purpose (after all, if it were all about the brains, skin color would be just as irrelevant as any other non-academic factor).  But since we all know—even if we won’t actually talk about it—that it is about prestige and a kind of club membership, then affirmative action is absolutely necessary.

You might wonder how I can say these things about our wonderful higher education system.  I’m glad you asked.

Personal experience.  I’ve worked with, worked for, and had working for me a number of college-degreed people.  I never found them to be superior, in the fields in which I worked, than someone trained on-the-job, as it were—in fact, all of them, without exception, required on-the-job training since their much-ballyhooed degrees had not taught them what they needed in order to actually work in their fields—and in several instances I found them below acceptable ability.  And arrogant about it.  (“I have a B.A. from SmartAss U!  What do you mean I don’t qualify?”)

(What college and university provide is a place and an opportunity to learn.  For the dedicated scholar, it is one of the most ideal environments in which to expand knowledge and interact with people who can help you hone your intellect.  But to society, that seems not to be the important thing.  People who attend and take no degree are seen somehow as failures.  It’s the degree, because everyone implicitly knows that this is the magic key and what you actually know has no intrinsic value to anyone else until it manifests as positive contribution.  You don’t get to show that without the job and you all-too-often don’t get the job without the ticket.  It’s not how smart you are but how smart other people say you are.)

Human history can be tracked in many ways, by many trends and institutions.  Club Membership has always been a preferred method of keeping the so-called Masses out of the halls of privilege.  Brains rarely had anything to do with membership.  University affiliation is just one of those ways to keep “undesirables” out.  It has been used to keep women out, keep minorities out, keep the “lower orders” out.  Heaven forbid some kid from a slum demonstrate higher intelligence and better grasp of the material than the spit-polished scion of an old money family!  Why, next you’ll be advocating (gasp) democracy!

You Would Think…But No, That’s Too Hard

I thought I might write about something other than politics this morning, but some things are just too there to ignore.  But perhaps this isn’t strictly about politics.

Representative Paul Broun of Georgia recently said the following.  I’m pulling the quote from news sources so I don’t get it wrong.

“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”

His spokesperson later tried to explain that this was off-the-record in a speech to a church group and the representative was discussing his personal beliefs.  What are we to make of such a statement?  That the representative really doesn’t believe what he said?  That he was lying to the church group?  Or that he’s lying to the citizens of Georgia about what he really believes when he is “on-the-record”?

Now, aside from that, there are two things about Broun and this that trouble me.  One, he’s actually a physician.  Which means that he should know better.  (But I don’t actually know what that means in this context anymore.)  And two, he sits on the science and technology committee, along with another great light of biological science, Todd Akin, who seems unclear on how women’s reproductive anatomy works as well as apparently believing you can perform an abortion on a woman who is not pregnant.

It’s not like the rest of the folks on that committee are particularly inspiring, either, but the others focus on environmental science to misunderstand.

The committee’s chair,  Ralph Hall from Texas, also has a habit of invoking the deity in denying the findings of science.  (Obviously he’s a Republican, since they are the majority in the House and committee chairs are always chosen from the majority party.  I wonder how many people actually understand that.  But I digress.)

Here is what bothers me.  We have the tool in hand to investigate and understand the world we live in.  It’s called science and its methods are nonpartisan.  Science, practiced honestly, doesn’t care what Party you belong to, where you stand on fiscal policy or trade imbalances.  It is concerned with all that precedes policy and only gets involved with policy when people start basing it either on the findings of science or for some reason wish those findings to be other than they are.

What it has a very difficult time dealing with is entrenched stupidity that is paired with a power base.

“All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology” and so forth is what gives us the medical expertise we are currently both enjoying (because it works) and having so much trouble deciding how to pay for.  Genuine lies and nonsense do not work.

Except, apparently, in politics.

Now, it is true, I do not believe in god.  There is a reason I don’t and it’s a long and convoluted story, but it began with people like Representative Broun basically lying to me about reality.  The reason I will rely on science rather than his nonsense is because I see that science gives me answers that, in a word, work.  What science describes is borne out by experience and more and more we see that, while sometimes (often) scientists get things wrong, the overall result is that we know why things happen and are learning more all the time.  All people like Representative Broun are saying, stripped of the holy-roller palaver, is “I don’t like what science tells me so I’m going to deny it and tell you that you don’t need it.”

This may seem like an academic argument.  What difference does it make if Broun says it’s god and a scientist says it’s evolution?

Normally, I’d say it doesn’t make much difference, but here is someone who has a position of power, someone whose opinion determines policy, someone whose policy decision could cost lives.  It is irresponsible of the citizens of Georgia to elect what amounts to an myopic ideologue who can hurt millions of people because he doesn’t accept reality.

You do not have to abandon your belief’s in the supernatural in order to accept evolution—millions of believers do this every day.  But you do have to ignore what’s around you to keep voting for someone who is more concerned with convincing you that the world is some other way than it really is than in serving the people competently.

It amazes me how often these days I encounter Republicans who shake their heads and bemoan the state of their Party, claiming that “those morons aren’t real Republicans.”  Maybe not and I’m more than a little inclined to believe them.  But they then continue to vote for these people.  Why?  Because they’re Republicans and they’re loyal to their Party.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that?

One or Two Observations on Last Night’s “Debate”

Okay, I confess, I did not watch the debate between Obama and Romney.  In my opinion, it doesn’t count for much.  I’ve been listening to both sides now since last spring and I’ve made my decision, so exactly what good would listening to the debate do me?  Or for a committed Romney supporter, for that matter?  None to speak of.

So, observation number one:  I’ve never known anyone who changed their vote because of something in the debates.

That doesn’t mean people haven’t, it’s just that, in the 40 + years I’ve been paying attention, I’ve never met anyone who changed positions because of anything said during one of these.  In my opinion, these are just 90 minute infomercials, a restating of positions, and a jockeying for Gotcha Points.  They will doubtless be relevant to historians at some future date.

Listening to the reactions today, however, has been both entertaining and enlightening.

For instance, one conservative (self-identified) commentator I heard said that “Well, the fact checkers were on Obama’s side even if the facts weren’t.”

Hmm.  This is close thinking?  Even grading on the curve, a lie is a lie, a misstatement a misstatement, a misrepresentation just as misleading, and there are a number of fact checking organizations today that do a very good job at tracking this stuff.

For instance, here’s one that tracked Romney’s misleading statements.  The worst of the bunch was his continued claim that he hasn’t proposed a five trillion dollar tax cut.  The numbers do not support him.

Also, there’s a bit of fast-talking sleight-of-hand even in what he said.  He claimed he intends to provide a 20% tax cut across the board.  Then he claimed that his number one principle is “no tax cut that adds to the deficit.”  Five trillion or not, those two things are utterly incompatible.  Right now, any tax cut will add to the deficit.  People who think he did well because he presented well may have missed that.

(I know, I know, this is more of that trickle-down nonsense, that if people have more of “their own money” the economy will grow.  it still doesn’t address the people who have no money or the fact that people who have a great deal are not redistributing it effectively in this country.)

But even this is beside the point.  If you’re a Romney supporter going into last night, likely you still are.

Observation two:  Hardly anyone remembers the first debate.  Those wondering why Obama didn’t unload on Romney (there’s plenty there in his ammunition box) should just be patient.  Why give the opposition anything to fuel new ads with?  Obama laid back, played a bit of rope-a-dope, and (my prediction) will lay into Romney in the last debate.  Meanwhile, he just has to stick to his record.

But in any case, people remember the last debate, which is the one that provides the final snapshot they will all take with them into the voting booth.  So to say Obama blew it is missing the point.

Observation three:  Rarely are these things actual debates.  You want a debate, you sit the candidates down in a room with a camera and microphone, allot them three hours, and let them go at it.  These formalized Q & A sessions give both candidates too much wiggle room to simply campaign a little more.  It’s not an honest debate.  It’s an airing of positions and demonstration of how well each can duck hard questions or zing the other with a punchy one-liner.

(The next one is supposed to be a town hall format, which might yield some more relevant and honest responses, but even these are so heavily vetted that I don’t expect any surprise questions that flatfoot both of the candidates.)

Observation four:  If people think they can “catch up” with all this by tuning in the debates, they’re wrong.  You don’t even keep abreast by watching the ads or listening to stump speeches.  You have to read, you have to look things up, you have to pay attention to what the Parties are doing.  And if anyone believes they have caught up by watching the debates, well…

One small ancillary observation.  A critic this morning pointed out that Romney kept accusing Obama of “wasting” 90 billion dollars on alternative energy programs, an accusation Obama simply refused to answer.  The conclusion of one pundit was that he couldn’t, because it’s true.

Two things.  Research costs money.  This is why private firms are continually cutting their R & D departments, because they are seen as sinkholes that add nothing to dividends.  (They are also doing it because they have more and more relied on government to pay for basic research.  When the government signs a contract with a big firm for a new whattayacallit that requires development, the company doesn’t pay those costs, the government does, and more and more the government funds basic R & D at all levels.  No one seems to know this.)  Investment in research and development, however, is absolutely crucial and the funding that has supposedly been “wasted” has paid to advance basic knowledge, keep teams of scientists and engineers afloat, preserve a basic substrate of intellectual reserve that without such funding would be lost.  The “waste” is a misnomer because it assumes that the end result, the goal, is profit.  This is a serious mistake.

But the other thing is that when the government pumps money into things like this, they are pumping money into our economy.  Waste?  Ninety billion dollars just got reinvested within our borders.  Out of that paychecks were made, communities kept together a bit better, dollars were distributed to Americans.

None of which matters to people who think that if your dividends don’t go up next quarter then the project is a failure.

Anyway, I thought I’d explain why I tend not to watch the debates.*

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*I did watch the GOP debates last year.  I wanted to get some idea about the candidates with whom I was less familiar.  But once the front runner was sorted out, further debates don’t matter that much. In my humble opinion.

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 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.

A Romney Review

Over the last few years I have written a great deal on presidential politics and politics in general.  With the first debate this cycle coming up tomorrow night, I thought instead of rehashing what I’ve already said, I would simply link to what I’ve already said, specifically about Mitt Romney.  I was surprised to see how far back I wrote my first post about him, 2007, when he made his bid then.

Romney’s Testament

This was about Romney’s statement that he intended to put his religion in second place as president.  As it has turned out, he has not said a great deal about religion this time around.  His one stab against Obama on that basis—Obama’s supposed “war on religion” —apparently backfired.  Since then, he’s stepped quietly around the issue, ostensibly because he is still viewed with suspicion by evangelicals.  Romney’s a Mormon. Where that fits in the hierarchy of American religious advocacy is problematic, since it is to many barely recognized as christian.

Thoughts On the End of 2010

This was more of an overview on the heels of the mid-terms that put the Tea Party arguably in the driver’s seat of the GOP, a context Romney will have to work with, deal with, should he win—one which has been a problem for him during the past year.

Will ‘E Or Won’t ‘E?

Just after Romney officially declared his candidacy in 2011 and some of the contradictions and conflicts his campaign might face.

No Longer Surprised

This is more a critique of Obama.  It has become apparent to me that I am more partisan this year than I like.  Perhaps I’ve been forced to it, and somewhat reluctantly, but it’s true.  I just can’t see Obama as the big demon the Republican Party is trying to make him out to be.  Still, partisanship, while it has its place, bothers me.  I don’t believe in being on someone’s side just because they wear a particular label.  Partisanship to ideas and ideals, that’s different, but in that vein I have some significant problems with Mr. Obama, some of which I detail here.  I have greater problems with the current GOP.

Poll Positions

I discussed my views on the GOP slate prior to the emergence of Romney as their candidate.  It’s useful, I think, to remember all this because much of it has gone into the GOP Platform.

What Is Wrong With Conservatives?

I got testy here, true enough.  I come from an attitude that says basically “What good is fixing the economy if prosperity flowers in a country wherein the rights and privileges I believe are fundamental to what being an American is are curtailed or gone?”

Here’s A Fact

Most recently, obviously, this is about Romney’s 47% comments.  Which were not, I might add, the most controversial statements in that video, but certainly indicative of a mindset I find troubling, to say the least.

You can scroll back to my latest remarks on Paul Ryan, who may have been Romney’s biggest tactical mistake in the entire year.  I have considered Ryan a policy idiot since his election to congress—and so, apparently, have many of his colleagues in the GOP, so this is not just someone on the Left beating up on him, you know, just because.  I suspect Romney made this choice for three reasons.  Ryan is certainly “conservative enough” for the Tea Partiers and the envangelicals.  He’s not afraid to be an attack dog and say all the outrageous things that Romney likely has sympathy for if not an outright belief in (which also means Romney can take a rhetorical high road and come across gentler and more humane than his running mate).  And he has (presumably) the connections in Congress Romney lacks.

But it seems like every time Ryan opens his mouth, he makes us long for the days of Dan Quayle.

However the debates come out, the thing that I find the most important aspect of this election year is not the presidential campaigning, but the Congressional.  Unless that contingent of intransigent ideologues are removed, we will have four more years of the kind of motionless sturm und drang we’ve been seeing for the last two at least.  The Tea Party representatives did not “sweep into office” with a mandate.  The 2010 elections were some of the lowest voter turnouts in recent memory and none of those elections were landslides, they were all close, marginal victories.  If twice the voters had turned out then, it is my belief not one of those people would have taken office.  I can’t prove that, of course, but I have some small confidence that the majority of Americans are not actually that dumb.

Of course, they may be.

For the record, I’ll restate my major reason for not voting for Romney.  He is on record as an advocate of trickle-down economics.  He hasn’t called it that, but when you look at his stated policies it is obvious.  Basically, we have had over three decades now of supply-side economics and it has left us in a shambles.  It does not do what it has been purported to do.  Why would anyone vote for someone advancing a policy with a demonstrated track record of failure?

Of course there are secondary reasons I won’t vote for him, the number two being that he represents a Party which embraces a whole raft of positions I simply cannot support.  No matter what Romney might think personally, he has the albatross of the current GOP hanging around his neck.

But I also do not think this is a slam-dunk for Obama, regardless what the polls may suggest.  Presidential elections are historically fraught with surprises and upsets.  I think it is therefore incumbent on voters to express their views and to show up on November 7th.  Show up.  Vote.  Because we have a history of ambivalence and, often, apathy in this country when it comes to politics (people love to argue about it, but when it comes to actually participating, that’s another matter altogether), we have often endured government by minority veto rather than majority rule.  Vote.

If you don’t vote, you don’t get to bitch afterward.