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Future Interrupted – Rest In Peace, Uncle Bob

January 25, 2015
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February 2015 must surely have been raised by heathens for it promises to come upon us unbeknownst. A month down the line and the timelessness of Christmas is but a fading memory, the mustiness of childhood bedrooms and Quality Street Victoriana banished for another year by a future that will not be denied. In 2015, the Conservative Party of Great Britain and the Marvel Cinematic Universe will battle for control of our collective brainspace… they will demand entry with images of ruined cities and whisper of looming threats that can only be averted through the actions of certain expensively-marketed media constructs. Who do you trust to run the economy? Who do you trust to sell you cars and fast food? The sickness will spread on the words of people who should at least wash their hands if they aren’t going to do us the courtesy of gouging out their own eyes. Remember… friends don’t let friends circulate viciously right-wing fantasies.

What better way to prepare for this ugly future than with the latest issue of a magazine that remembers when the future was still trying to gets its foot in the door? A magazine that knows where the skeletons are buried and who took a padded envelope to look the other way… That’s right! Issue #256 of Interzone is out in the world for your dee-light and dee-lectation!

This month’s issue includes such stories as:

  • “Nostalgia” by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
  • “An Advanced Guide to Successful Price-Fixing In Extraterrestrial Markets” by T.R. Napper
  • “The Ferry Man” by Pandora Hope
  • “Tribute” by Christien Gholson
  • “Fish on Friday” by Neil Williamson

Aside from the usual columns by David Langford, Nina Allan, Tony Lee, Nick Lowe and myself, there are interviews with the artist Wayne Haag and the writer Ann Leckie as well as the usual suite of book reviews by such luminaries as Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Graham Raven, Stephen Theaker and John Howard.

One idea that particularly caught my eye appears at the end of an excellent Nina Allan column in which she expresses her frustration with Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road. Musing on the current relationship between British SF and mainstream publishing, Allan quotes an optimistic piece by Martin Lewis:

So my hope is the non-genre boom simply becomes the start of a new wave of British science fiction without boundaries and that the next time the broadsheets come calling we have some better broadsides.

Allan has been enthusiastic about the SF that is being published in Britain by mainstream presses before and yet her response to Lewis’ optimism is a fascinating note of caution. Quoting a rather disappointing Nick Harkaway interview from the Independent she writes:

My heart says bring it on, but my head says never gonna happen. Many of the mainstream writers cited by Lewis — not to mention their publishers — seem at pains to distance themselves from the science fiction label, often citing SF as a childhood enthusiasm rather than an ongoing preoccupation.

I am sceptical because we have been in this position before: Cast your minds back to 2003 when China Mieville was first acquiring broadsheet respectability and the strength of the British scene would result in an all-British Best Novel Hugo short-list only two years later. Unlike Harkaway, Mieville had steadfastly refused to distance himself from the British genre scene meaning that the attention lavished upon him was trickling down to authors who, though well-known to people in genre culture, were almost completely invisible to people outside it. The now infamous TTA Press forum discussions that saw the birth of the New Weird were, first and foremost, an attempt to capitalise on this rare moment in the mainstream cultural sun and find a way for British genre writing to break free from its old chains and find a way of operating without boundaries.

Needless to say… this new creative space was shut down almost as soon as it opened. Genre institutions were too rigid and paranoid to provide much support to mainstream-published SF and attempts to discuss the cultural moment in genre spaces were rapidly swamped by American authors who couldn’t see the point and genre commentators eager to see science fiction slipstream the commercial success of post-Tolkienian fantasy via the dissolution of genre boundaries. Waves of historical revisionism have stripped the Britishness and the Science Fiction from the New Weird moment and American-dominated genre spaces have (if anything) become even more indifferent to the interesting stuff being done on the margins of British genre publishing. Then, as now, British science fiction is beginning to assume a really interesting shape but I would not look to the institutions of genre culture to provide much in the way of support.

Now don’t you wish you could read the rest of that column and the magazine that contains it?  Well now you can! Physical subscriptions are available via the TTA Press website and digital subscriptions can be found on Smashwords!

Anyway… on with the reprints!

 

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My Seventh Future Interrupted column is entitled ‘Rest in Peace, Uncle Bob’ and it is best thought of as a continuation of the line of thought I began in “Dominion of the Dead” and continued in “Not a Series of Waves, but an Ocean”, which is to say that it is another examination of the history of science fiction and how various systematic and commercial forces shape our cultural history. The piece of cultural history covered by the column is the career and continued visibility of Robert A. Heinlein.

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Heinlein

 

 

I remember Robert A. Heinlein being dead, which is not the same thing as remembering when he died. Back in the 1990s when I was first getting into science fiction, Heinlein was almost out of print in the UK. Contemporaries such as Asimov and Clarke still enjoyed vigorous sales and a reassuring amount of shelf space but Heinlein himself was disappearing beneath the historical waves with only the spires of Starship Troopers still visible. In fact, Heinlein’s legacy was far more obvious in the works that reacted against his style and values, from the stripped-back futurism of cyberpunk to the progressive politics of the so-called Radical Hard SF. I remember Uncle Bob being dead but something seems to have disturbed his well-earned rest.

After decades of being an American phenomenon, Heinlein’s works are back on the shelves of Britain’s remaining bookshops. Gollancz’s prestigious Masterwork series has expanded to include Double Star and The Door into Summer alongside its existing editions of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Meanwhile, non-fiction presses have been doing their part to stimulate academic interest with the publication of not only a two-volume hagiography by William J. Patterson but also a series of critical volumes that acknowledge the problematic aspects of Heinlein’s patriarchal individualism and sex-positive incest advocacy but try to present them as evidence of a complex and progressive sensibility. Even the storm-tossed seas of online fandom are helping to wash Heinlein back into the limelight as certain corners of American genre culture have taken to using his position and popularity as indicators of the moral and aesthetic health of science fiction as a whole. What is going on here? Why are we seeing a concerted effort to repair the reputation and standing of a man who died over twenty-five years ago? There are a number of answers and most of them are partially true.

One explanation is that Heinlein’s back catalogue represents a substantial financial interest for the copyright holders. Time, fashion and the collapse of the mid-list are unkind to long-dead authors and while Uncle Bob’s books might well have leapt off the shelves in 1988, the current beneficiaries of Heinlein’s estate must now work harder to keep his books in the public eye. Sometimes this work might involve working with tame biographers, other times it will involve cutting deals that make little money for the estate but do at least keep Heinlein’s books in print. Clareson and Sanders’ book The Heritage of Heinlein includes anecdotes about Heinlein’s widow trying to block re-publication of work that she deemed ‘vulgar’ but the concerted effort to get Heinlein back into print suggests that such prissiness has now been replaced by steel-eyed pragmatism and the realisation that the dead no longer look after themselves.

 

HoH

 

Another thing to bear in mind is that while Heinlein’s reputation has been declining in the UK for decades, American genre culture still considers him to be a central figure in the history of science fiction. One of the more regrettable aspects of the online marketplace of ideas is that sharing a language with Americans and Australians means that it is proving difficult to maintain the distinctively British genre culture that once flowed from British magazines, conventions and publishers. Like every other product of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism, the Internet provides a level playing field on which local concerns and sensibilities are dismembered and devoured by their much larger and better-resourced competition. Don’t get me wrong… American genre culture features an over-abundance of great stories, books, writers and ideas but the price of gaining admission to that abundance includes having to pay attention to American issues, American histories and American ideas about what constitutes a canonical author.

Shifting realities of genre publishing aside, the campaign to restore Heinlein’s reputation and standing may also have something to do with the fact that a particular generation of science fiction readers are now reaching the end of their natural lives. The growing concern about Heinlein’s status and visibility are reminiscent of a similar concern regarding the status of the film producer and director Roger Corman.

One of the most intriguing books about American film that you are ever likely to read is Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. Drawing on extensive interviews and biographical research, Biskind describes how the post-war baby boomer generation came of age in the 1960s and set about changing the face of American film. The book’s opening chapters are upbeat and filled with anecdotes about the likes of Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola and Dennis Hopper taking on the system and convincing the studios to give them enough freedom to reach a new generation of filmgoers. However, while this strategy did deliver huge successes such as Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather, it also allowed for ruinous failures like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. According to Biskind, New Hollywood engineered the golden age of 1970s Hollywood but their excesses and individualism also paved the way for a backlash in which studios reasserted control and forced talent to cooperate with the blockbuster business model that endures to this day. The nuance of this historical account is entirely missing from a recent film made about the exact same time frame.

 

cormans-world

 

Alex Stapleton’s documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel features many of the same names as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls but rather than describing a period of boom and bust in which some directors were indulged at the cost of what turned out to be much less creative freedom for everyone else, Stapleton presents the ‘50s and ‘60s as the opening steps of a long triumphant march towards the era of the blockbuster that began with Jaws and Star Wars. The interesting thing about this film is that despite being an inexperienced director, Stapleton managed to secure interviews with a large chunk of Hollywood royalty who all turned out to praise the vision and independent spirit of the man who made terrible films like Battle Beyond the Stars and Frankenstein Unbound.

Much like Heinlein, Corman has become so closely associated with a particular moment in cultural history that it is almost impossible to pass judgement on the man’s work without also seeming to pass judgement on that moment in cultural history. Sure… Corman is an important historical figure whose strategy of targeting younger audiences with genre material laid the foundations of contemporary Hollywood, but the real reason Hollywood royalty lined up to praise Roger Corman is that he represents a spirit of independence and experimentation that is entirely at odds with the reality of today’s Hollywood machine. The re-invention of Corman as the Man Who Built Hollywood suggests that Hollywood baby boomers are trying to write their own epitaph and ensure that their generation is remembered for its experimentation and individuality rather than its complete capitulation to the forces of big business.

 

ballard_cokliss1

J.G. Ballard’s short work “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” makes the point that Ronald Reagan the person was an entirely different entity to Ronald Reagan the political figure and media construct. Similarly, the ideas and principles represented by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein and Roger Corman bear only a passing relation to the real people buried beneath the weight of those names. We fight over these names because of what they represent. We fight over these names because we want recognition for our values and concerns.

Some right-wing American fans want Heinlein to remain visible because they think that science fiction should continue to embody a blend of iconoclasm, rugged individualism and patriarchal power worship that is common to both Heinlein’s writing and the contemporary American right. Some progressive fans accept that Heinlein had a huge impact upon the development of science fiction but want to re-invent him as a progressive or even quasi-feminist figure because re-inventing Heinlein to fit your values is a means of ensuring that your values will be as much a part of the history of science fiction as Heinlein himself. Despite sharing the desire to emphasise science fiction’s history as a political literature, such revisionism strikes me as wrong-headed, why go to the trouble of papering over the cracks when it we could instead re-plaster the ceiling? We do the future no favours by seeking to deceive the present about the past.

Nobody Knows (2004) – Left Luggage

January 22, 2015
NK1

Art house film is a really shitty cultural milieu. Back in the 1960s, when European directors began to chafe against the studio system and competition from an ever-expanding Hollywood machine, they looked to the East for legitimacy and proof that cinema didn’t need to be about three act structures and infantilising melodrama. The history of European film may be dominated by European names but those early Japanese victories in Berlin served to remind the world that Hollywood is not the default option when it comes to film. Half a century later and Japanese film is treated in the same cavalier fashion as every other piece of non-English language cinema: Invisible until someone has a breakthrough at which point the floodgates open until everyone gets bored and moves on to the next big thing. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a Spanish horror film or French thriller at your local cinema? Was it after one Spanish horror film or French thriller had a breakthrough success? I thought so.

It is now a long time since a Japanese film was embraced by European audiences and so the lines of communication with the Japanese cinema scene are growing increasingly faint. Fancy watching a cartoon series about World War II battleships that are anthropomorphised as sexualised pre-pubescent girls? No problem! There’s a massive website that will sub-title that shit and stream it so that you can see it at the same time as Japanese people! Fancy watching a Japanese live-action film that peels back the surface of Japanese social problems and exposes the embattled spirit that all humans share regardless of their race, gender or sexuality? Yeah… that might appear on DVD eventually but only if it does well at Cannes. Clearly, Japanese directors are missing a trick by not having their intricately-drawn characters be semen-drinking demons that look like 10 year-old girls.

Hirokazu Koreeda is one of only a handful of Japanese directors who retain some visibility in the West. Over the past twenty years, his films have charted the emotional landscape of contemporary Japan with a degree of humanity that nearly justifies Koreeda’s reputation as heir to the cinematic tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Released in 2004 and winner of the Best Actor award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Nobody Knows finds Koreeda using one of his favoured narrative techniques: Taking inspiration from a contemporary news story and producing a film that unpacks the emotions underpinning not only the story but its relationship to Japanese society.

Read more…

REVIEW – Thief (1981)

January 20, 2015
IF

FilmJuice have my review of Michael Mann’s cinematic debut Thief. Despite having seen Mann’s first feature-length film (a TV movie called Jericho Mile), I had somehow evaded seeing his first cinematic feature. This means that I have just had one of my best cinematic experiences in years as Michael Mann’s Thief is a stone cold classic!

The film revolves around a highly organised and professional thief played by James Caan in full 70s tough guy mode. Despite having his life completely squared away and stripped of all unwelcome and unnecessary emotional entanglements, the character feels a yearning for normality when a face-to-face meeting with an old mentor gives him a Ghost-of-Future-Present moment in which he imagines himself dying alone in jail. However, despite wanting to live a normal middle-class life, the character approaches his desire for normality with the same level of aggression and control-freakery that he approaches his job as a cat burglar resulting in an absolutely amazing sequence in which Caan’s character almost pulls a gun on a woman as a means of declaring his love and desire to start a family. Unfortunately, the character soon realises that his chequered past and lack of social skills mean that a proper middle-class existence is out of bounds (he cannot adopt or secure a mortgage to buy a house) and so he enters into a relationship with a crime boss who is looking to start a family.

The conventional reading of this film emphasises the humanity of Caan’s character and see a desire for emotional openness in his pursuit of a middle-class lifestyle. However, I don’t believe that Thief is a film about someone who has a middle-class life stripped away from him, this is a film about a man who was never suited to middle-class life to begin with!

Hardboiled crime thrillers love the idea of emotionally isolated men discovering reasons to live: In Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Ryan Gosling’s highly-professional simpleton goes on a couple of nice dates with the woman next door and sacrifices himself for the sake of her family. In Brian Helgeland’s Payback, Mel Gibson’s highly-professional blank slate murders his way through an entire criminal syndicate for the sake of a few thousand dollars until he spends time with an old flame whose presence transforms the money from a stupid reason to risk your life into a chance for a new beginning. Directors and writers love these transformative moments as it softens one male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case) into a slightly different male power fantasy (the highly-professional hard case who turns out to be a sensitive soul after all). Part of what makes Thief so fascinating is that while Mann literally walks Caan’s Frank up the garden path to an ordinary life, Frank abandons that life at the very first set-back. In fact, Frank doesn’t just walk away from his life… he abandons his family and burns his house to the ground because he cannot cope with the emotional entanglements that characterise a normal life.

Michael Mann’s Thief can be read as a hardboiled version of Jean Renoir’s classic Boudu Saved From Drowning except rather than being about an eccentric homeless person who is taken under the wing of a nice middle-class man only to walk away from middle-class bliss, Thief reskins Boudu as an emotionally isolated cat burglar and the lovely middle-class book salesman as a patriarchal crime boss. Both films critique the idea that everyone is suited to a normal middle-class existence and both films suggest that there is something faintly intimidating about the middle-class urge to uplift and civilise the lower orders.

 

Read more…

A Perspective on Perspectives

January 10, 2015

The Good people at Nerds of a Feather are currently experimenting with a couple of new formats including the Blogtable I was lucky enough to participate in earlier this week. The second format they have tried is called Perspectives and it seems to involve a number of bloggers responding to a particular piece or event. For reasons best known to The G, they chose my reviews of Terraform and Uncanny magazines as the basis for their first Perspectives.

Whenever people respond to anything I write (particularly negatively, natch) my first instinct is to mutter about them getting the wrong end of the stick but this time, I was reminded of an old article by John Clute in which he talks about the wonders of ‘misprision’ and how someone’s decision to latch onto a meaning other than the one you intended can serve to open up interesting perspectives on the original piece. Plus… it would be a bit off of me to argue that the author is dead and then argue that people have failed to interpret one of my essays correctly! So rather than seeking to ‘correct’ their responses or ‘punish them for their impudence’, I’ll respond to their ideas directly and use them as an opportunity to clarify some of my own thinking.

Read more…

The Positive Value of Negative Reviews

January 6, 2015
RoundTable

Following last year’s Hale and Sriduangkaew-related turmoil, The G at Nerds of a Feather asked me to participate in a round-table discussion about the positive value of negative reviews. The results of this discussion have now been published so you can see me discussing the issue with G, Maureen Kincaid Speller and Jared Shurin. My contribution talks about fan cultures and Jacob Silverman’s infamous ‘Against Enthusiasm’ piece and concludes with what I perceive to be the value of negative reviews:

I believe in the value of negative reviews because I want to be part of a literary culture that puts the emotional and intellectual needs of ordinary readers above those of professional elites. Unlike Silverman, I don’t yearn for a culture of intellectual combat but I do want to exist in a cultural space where people feel empowered by their community to talk about books in the way that feels most appropriate to them. I want people to be unafraid to talk about books in ways that lead to discussions about more important things and it is impossible for fans to have that type of freedom when they are expected to bear in mind the interests of authors who are trying to build their careers and manage their brands.

The piece has already generated some interesting discussion in the comments Erin Horáková asks about the supposed firewall between critiquing a book and critiquing an author:

Is there room to make critical inquiries about the Author as persona, the author as creator of multiple texts, the author as biographical entity? I mean, this paragraph presupposes, in a way, that we’re ‘helping people decide’ about the specific text we’re reviewing. I tend to think that’s one thing we’re doing! But we’re also, inextricably, talking about books generally–ways they can be good and bad, speaking to an audience of readers, some of whom are also writers, in ways that will inform how they read and write, as conversations about how books function/fail/succeed do. I’m very ‘Author is Dead’. But in a way, that’s what makes me willing–not to read/engage in divination about intent and biography per se, but willing to treat the author as a choice-making entity with attitudes/effects that reverberate through their work, and a cultural persona that/who inescapably affects how we read their work.

I remember a video about how to call someone out doing the rounds a few years ago.  In it, the speaker argued that we need to draw a distinction between accusing someone of having said something racist/sexist/homophobic and asserting that they are racist/sexist/homophobic. The idea being that people are more likely to be receptive when they are accused of errant behaviour than when they are accused of being morally deficient and prejudiced. It’s a lovely idea but the world simply does not work that way.

Read more…

REVIEW – The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)

January 2, 2015
KOLC

FilmJuice have my review of Mikkel Nørgaard‘s Scandinavian police procedural The Keeper of Lost Causes. Based on the novel Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olssen, The Keeper of Lost Causes is an entirely predictable and by-the-numbers Scandinavian police procedural. Its plot is entirely linear and generic, its characters are generic, one-dimensional stereotypes and nothing introduced by either the director or the writer complicates matters in any way. This is a solidly entertaining slice of Scandinavian noir that offers no surprised whatsoever:

The Keeper of Lost Causes is the Tesco Everyday Mild Cheddar of Scandinavian noir: Competently made and entirely free of anything in the least bit new or different, it gets the job done but leaves you yearning for something with a little more flavour.

I quite enjoyed The Keeper of Lost Causes but, as I point out in my review, I can’t help but wonder how much more Scandinavian noir the British market can endure before people start getting sick of it. How many more series of The Bridge can sit through before we start shouting ‘Oh for fuck’s sake get some colour on those walls and go and have a shave!’? The Keeper of Lost Causes is based on the first novel in a series meaning that the film feels a lot like a pilot. In fact, there is already an adaptation of the second book in the series by the same director and with the same actors. Will it be released in the UK? Almost certainly but Scandinavian noir is definitely starting to feel a little bit long in the tooth… time for someone to adapt Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy and move us away from grizzled beardy Scandinavian men and towards grizzled beardy Mediterranean men instead! The Keeper of Lost Causes actually raises an interesting critical question as while the film does absolutely nothing even remotely new or different, it does it in a very competent and enjoyable manner. For as long as I have been paying attention to it, the conversation surrounding science fiction has portrayed genre boundaries and conventional narrative forms as something to be overcome but I think there is probably a case to be made for innovation being a somewhat over-rated quality. A lot has been made of the way that the gender of critics and gatekeepers tends to skew the conversation around a cultural scene but I think the same is probably true of scenes where the conversation is lead by creators and experienced critics. I suspect that a reader-focused conversation about books or an audience-focused conversation about film would see formal and narrative innovation as much less important than the competent deployment of established forms and story-types. The Keeper of Lost Causes is a solid piece of genre cinema, it does precisely what it says on the tin and absolutely nothing more.

REVIEW – Hockney (2014)

January 2, 2015
Hockney

FilmJuice have my review of Randall Wright’s documentary Hockney.

I approached the film without knowing a huge amount about the work of David Hockney and I left in pretty much the exact same condition. Like a lot of documentaries produced these days, Hockney tries to convince us that its subject matter is worthy of our attention without engaging either with the subject matter itself or with the cultural context that allowed the creation of said subject matter. The result is a film content to display the work of David Hockney without really bothering to say anything about it. In lieu of commentary, the film provides a string of anecdotes that are intended to be amusing but actually come across as intensely patronising:

Wright tries to establish Hockney as someone who was considered eccentric even by the lofty standards of the 1960s London art scene. Allergic to anything that might resemble a broader context, the film draws on anecdotes that all seem to revolve around the fact that Hockney is a gay northerner who happens to dye his hair. Far from establishing Hockney as a rebellious artist, this suggests that the 1960s London art scene was full of patronising snobs who are still patting themselves on the back for giving house room to people from Bradford. Oh darlings… it was all so mad in the 1960s! We all had long hair and pretended to be friends with ghastly northern yobbos who dyed their hair!

On reflection, the film reminds me quite a bit of Sophie Fiennes’ film about Anselm Kiefer Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as both films are content to let the art speak for itself. The problem is that whereas Kiefer’s art is a huge installation that has transformed an old silk factory into a mad alien landscape, Hockney’s art is a series of twee and colourful paintings of his friends. On a very basic level, Hockney’s art is not as well served by the cinematic medium as Kiefer’s and, on a more critical level, Fiennes’ wordless approach to Kiefer’s art emphasises its opaque and inscrutable nature whereas Wright’s attempt to juxtapose Hockney’s paintings with anecdotes about the artist only serves to make his work seem insubstantial and whimsical.

 

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