Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Genre and Subgenre

Sometimes I like to try to classify my writing. Perhaps this isn't seemly. But I find that it helps me figure out what I'm trying to do, what I like and what I don't like, what I want to cleave to and what I want to break away from.

So. I've often expressed dissatisfaction with the fantasy/sci-fi dichotomy. It's useful and necessary, I know, but these are basically commercial categories. They do reflect a real division in the literature, but the boundaries don't everywhere coincide. The same holds true to a lesser degree for all the various subgenres. My main problem, I think, is that the classification concerns material elements only. If you have an elf, it's a high fantasy, or maybe an epic fantasy. Unless he hangs out in coffee shops and tattoo parlors, in which case it's an urban fantasy. But I don't read books because of the matter. I read them because of the form. Reading Tolkien was a life-changing experience. Terry Brooks never appealed to me. What was the difference? Certainly not the matter!

Take Perelandra. The pedants usually classify it as a fantasy because it has angels and concerns original sin. But they're wrong; from their point of view, it's science fiction. C. S. Lewis happened to believe in angels and sin, and wrote compelling speculative fiction about them. If we accept the characterization that sci-fi makes the improbable possible while fantasy makes the impossible probable, then Perelandra falls into the first category. How many science fiction writers, I wonder, believe in the immateriality of the human soul? Do we classify all their works as fantasy because of they contain elements of the supernatural? But this underscores the problem. The classification of a story shouldn't change when we uncover some new datum in the author's biography. So, if the pedants were consistent, they would call Perelandra science fiction, but I would still call it a fantasy, not because of its supernatural elements, but because of its structure and aims.

Everyone's heard the canard about how advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to primitive peoples. What this ignores is that magic is technology. There's no difference. Let me repeat. There is no difference between magic and technology, except in the eyes of conceited modern observers. Just because I've rejected some hypothesis in my systematic attempts to control my environment doesn't somehow render the  hypothesis a member of a different category from the ones I accept. A savage practicing homeopathic magic or whatever it is they do nowadays is merely exhibiting a certain belief regarding cause-and-effect. A medical professional does the same. The latter presumably has better results. But this is a difference of degree, not of kind. A belief in a supernatural world subject to testable and consistent rules and limitations is no less "scientific" than phlogiston theory or M-theory, whatever we may think of the truth of the thesis.

So, when people go on about how a fantasy needs to have a well-defined magic system that's adhered to consistently, they're not talking about fantasy at all. They're talking about science fiction, or, at any rate, technology fiction. Galadriel the queen of Lothlórien gently mocks Samwise for wanting to see "elf magic," confessing that she isn't entirely certain what is meant by the word. Thus does she smile at dragon dice, Magic cards, and other systems. Did Merlinus Ambrosius adhere to a magic system? No. He simply went places, and things happened. Do you get the feeling that the plot is contrived or arbitrary because of that? No. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, et al., knew what it was to write a romance. It's these systems that allow for contrived, unreal plots. In the end it's no different from Scotty saving the day by rerouting the secondary reactor drive through the main power converters. You know. Just difficult enough to add the right amount of tension.

Anyway, my writing is in the same boat as Perelandra. The pedants would call it fantasy because of various material elements. But really, from their point of view, they should call it science fiction. It is fantasy, just not for the reasons they cite. Its "macrobial" agents are rigorously conceived. It has not an iota of magic, though it might seem otherwise to primitive readers. But it's supposed to hit the fantasy spot. And what is that? I admit that I'm not certain. It's something I've struggled with. Speaking broadly, we might say that fantasy has an ecological, holistic outlook. It integrates. Science fiction is about doing; fantasy is about being.

So let's call my writing fantasy, despite the fact that it features space elevators, prehistoric biota, topological puzzles, etc. What subgenre shall we place it in? There's a jumble of tags to choose from, but they can't be regarded as concrete, mutually exclusive genuses, so we'll just have to pick what seems most appropriate. Let's see, let's see. Much of my fiction features warriors who wear sandals, carry swords, and battle dread Elder Gods and beasts from the Outside, but it isn't sword and sorcery, which is lusty, amoral, action-oriented, and narrow in scope, lacking the ecological sensibility I spoke of before. It displays a global consciousness and is centered around a battle for the soul of the world between forces of order and chaos (as I conceive of them), but isn't high fantasy or epic fantasy, as these connote a nostalgic restriction of technology and a certain elevation of manners alien to my mind. A lot of the action takes place in cities (or, rather, a City) powered by steam engines and decorated with Art Nouveau motifs, but it most certainly is not steampunk, which I leave to those who like such things. It isn't dark fantasy because it's not, well, dark (not that most things marketed as such really are), and it isn't urban fantasy because it isn't contemporary and sparkly.

No, none of these tags really apply. What remains left to us is, I think, the category we're looking for: sword and planet, occasionally (but not interchangeably) referred to as planetary romance. Think of the Mars books of Edgar Rice Burroughs. They couple high technology (mechanical fliers, radium pistols, air plants) with Bronze Age culture. There's a certain focus on action, but an ecological awareness runs right through them as well. A Princess of Mars, with its towering green warriors, haughty oviparous princesses, thoats and zitidars, gladiator pits, fleets of airships, long-range rifles, and age-empty ruined cities, is the epitome of the sword-and-planet subgenre. Planetary romance, on the other hand, is exemplified more by novels like Dune or The Left Hand of Darkness. My own novel and assorted stories are definitely closer to Barsoom than Arrakis. They take place in a counter-earth at the cosmic antipodes inhabited by paleozoic biota and antediluvian races.

Sword-and-planet novels are a threatened breed these days. Edgar Rice Burroughs was the great forerunner, but his descendants have been sadly lacking. The sixties and seventies saw a glut of nostalgiac homages and pastiches, like those awful Green Star books of Lin Carter that you're always seeing in used bookstores, and the Gor books of John Norman, which I haven't read for obvious reasons. I'm always looking for Leigh Brackett's Mars books but they must be good since no one wants to sell their used copies.

Yes, I find the writing of sword-and-planet novels a high and lonely art. I don't mean to imply that my work can be pigeonholed, though. My hope is that it embodies a certain literary flair. The models I adulate (and fall far short of) include Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Flannery O'Connor, and Willa Cather. But I'm also inspired by the great exemplars of pre-Tolkien fantasy, from "high" British works like The Well at the World's End, The Night-Land, the short stories of Lord Dunsany, and The Worm Ouroboros, to the "low" works of American pulp writers like Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and C. L. Moore.

There, that helps. Now back to work on the sequel of that novel I'm still trying to sell…

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Ender's Game

I went and saw Ender's Game tonight. The verdict: it was okay as a synopsis.

I'm a math/science geek who's into changing coordinate systems to suit different problems and things like that. I first read Ender's Game when I was an undergraduate (in a single night, no less; and actually, I haven't read it since), and what really impressed me were the three-dimensional battle tactics.

Well, they just about cut all that out of the movie! There aren't even any real battle-room games. How can you make a movie of Ender's Game without some detailed games? They kind of mention the psychology of choosing your own coordinates once or twice, but the battles are all horizontal. I guess the production team just didn't get it, or assumed we wouldn't get it.

Also, as I rather suspected, Hollywood's lust for special effects gave the plot twist away. Or at least I suppose it did. Hard to say, since I knew it was coming. The movie completely ignores relativity and its effects on the storyline in the interests of getting Ender somewhere CGI-worthy. I did hear an ansible mentioned in there somewhere. Maybe they don't realize what an ansible is supposed to be a fig leaf for.

Anyway, it strikes me that, on the whole, Ender's Game would have come out better as a movie, though with worse special effects, in the eighties. In many ways the plot kind of goes more with War Games and Real Genius (yes, I loved that movie) and things of that sort than with Star Wars.

Since I just reviewed Soylent Green, I suppose I should mention that a character referred to the bugs' population growth as "unsustainable, just like ours." Still, twenty-whateverth Planet Earth looks pretty neat and green to me.

The surprising and deeply empathetic postlude was what really stayed with me after I read the book, and I was glad to see that the movie retained this. I wasn't emotionally invested enough at that point to really care much, however. Overall, the movie was as faithful to the book as it could have been, with the exception that Ender's sister should have accompanied him at the end. It just had a rushed, cursory feel.

So, it was okay. It had its moments. But could have been better. On the other hand, the town theater only charges $6.00 a ticket, and that on a Saturday night, so I can't really complain. Room was almost empty. The midnight showing of Bad Grandpa seemed to be pretty popular, though.


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Soylent Green

I just watched Soylent Green for the first time. This is a review, forty years late.

Let me begin by saying that I gravitate toward classic film noir. Of course, no one seems to be able to say what exactly film noir is; it's a fuzzy set, I suppose, defined by proximity to certain central films. Stylistically, it recalls German Expressionism, with low-key lighting, night-for-night shooting, sharp chiaroscuro, asymmetrical picture formats, unusual angles, an emphasis on stark lines and patterns, an equation of actors with objects, etc. Thematically it varies, but always carries a sense of emotional detachment; this is tied to its style.

This isn't to say that the stories are less than engrossing. On the contrary. But emotional involvement in minimal. The protagonists are frequently annoying or despicable, and even when they're not, you're not so much afraid of what's going to happen to them as interested to see what form their own particular doom is going to take. This appeals to me; being autistic, I'm generally unresponsive on an emotional level, but once my emotions do get stirred they flare up almost uncontrollably, and I get really agitated and lose a lot of sleep. So, in general, I avoid movies that try to stimulate empathy and that kind of thing. Which means that noir films are perfect for me.

What ever happened to film noir, really? Did it die, or just morph into other forms? At the time, of course, no one really knew they were making noir films. That would have ruined it. And that's part of the answer right there. It's hard to make a self-conscious noir film that isn't really stupid. A voiceover and a trench coat do not a film noir make. It's not a genre! More than that, though, I think movies with that much detachment are just a hard sell. Theater-goers, God bless them, want to care about the characters, or at least want to feel like the movie wants them to care about the characters.

Which brings us to future noir or tech noir or whatever you want to call it. My personal theory is that the reason so many noir elements get reincarnated in science fiction films nowadays is that people will go see a sci-fi film simply because it's sci-fi. The futuristic elements add an extra level of interest that makes up for the lack of emotional investment. Plus, dystopian visions — which are inherently attractive for various reasons (what a chimera is man!) — naturally go hand in hand with doom and predestination. There was always something dystopian or post-apocalyptic about film noir and the hard-boiled genre.

The difference is that, in future noir, instead of Robert Mitchum or Fred MacMurray chain-smoking cigarettes while narrating his fall, it's the whole ruined world doing a voiceover. You could even argue that the careful attention to set design in future noir (which sometimes comes at the expense of acting and plot, as in Blade Runner) reflects the visual equation of persons with objects and the sense of alienation so prevalent in film noir. Unfortunately future noir has become a Thing now, so that big directors try to make big-budget future-noir films and botch it.

At any rate, I have to regard Soylent Green as one of the first true future noirs. It features two of the great noir stars — Edward G. Robinson (who steals every scene in every movie he's in, and who died a mere twelve days after making SG) and Joseph Cotten — and thus links true film noir with its bastard offspring. Charlton Heston, the lead actor, also starred in the last of the great noirs, Touch of Evil, a film in which Cotten had a cameo role.

Further, SG leaves the viewer emotionally detached. The citizens of the horribly overcrowded New York of the future evoke fear and disgust rather than sympathy. We aren't particularly concerned with the protagonist's ultimate fate, either, but with his actions as he goes about a murder case and the generally brutal life of a police officer in 2022. And the sequence in which Robinson's character flees the horror of the world by going "Home" (checking in at a euthanasia clinic) is more full of dark irony than pathos.

I have to admit that I found the part where Heston's character sneaks through the Soylent Green factory genuinely horrifying, despite knowing (as I suppose everyone does) the precise ingredients of that nutritious little wafer. On that note, it's interesting, isn't it, that several scenes, including the final one, take place in a Catholic church crowded with homeless people, a church in which Mass is no longer said because there's no room for it? Soylent Green is thus the antitype of the transubstantiated Host. The cooked meal shared by the detective and his partner has strongly Eucharistic overtones as well.

I also admire the production design. The flat where Cotten's character is murdered and where the protagonist subsequently romances the house "furniture" (apartment concubine) is a beautiful retro picture of its time; it reminds me of a futuristic hotel I once stayed at in Amsterdam. The crowded streets and slums are quite effective as well, and the soothing, hospitable euthanasia clinic is exactly how I've always imagined such places.

We all know how the movie ends. What I never realized was that the horror comes, not from realizing the ingredients of Soylent Green, but from the sense of utter despair that man has been driven to feed on himself in his uttermost extremity, and that this is a dead end from which there will be no emergence. The last shot of the protagonist being borne out of the cathedral focuses on his his blood-drenched, raised hand, and fades beautifully into a field of red flowers and green grass, providing the perfect denouement to this bleak and paranoiac 70's film.

All that said, I do have a slight issue with the film's premise. It never states the world population, but Wikipedia tells me that in Make Room! Make Room! (the novel on which the film is based) the world population is 7 billion. Which is…about what it is right now. Less, actually. And, well, things aren't that bad, you know, globally speaking, and certainly not in the United States. Yes, I know that there's hunger in the world, but to me this seems due less to overcrowding than to social problems resulting from mass industrialization, exploitation, and the disruption of traditional norms and structures. Yes, we have to be prudent and look to our resources, but we also need to remember that people are people, deserving of dignity, and that for every new mouth to feed there are two hands, a brain, and a beating heart to make the world a better place.

When I was a kid I went to this week-long environmental training workshop. This was the early nineties, when everyone was talking about CFCs and acid rain; I recall that I was the only one there with a notebook made from recycled paper, and that my friends made fun of me for it. A very intense, angry man ran the session on population, and the image he painted of our future, unless drastic steps were taken right now, was Soylent Green on steroids, so bleak and horrifying and misanthropic that it literally took years to get it out of my system. Because I wholeheartedly believed it.

He was, I suppose, a disciple of Paul Ehrlich, whose 1968 book The Population Bomb predicted mass starvation by the 1980s and other terrifying things that, disappointingly, did not come to pass. It's interesting to me that The Late, Great Planet Earth came out around the same time and continued to be popular long after its expiration date. I've always thought it would be interesting to do a parallel analysis of the two sets of readers.

Anyway, there's a disturbing scene in Soylent Green where "scoopers" (dump trucks with big buckets like front-end loaders) come in to quell a riot by scooping the people up in heaps and dumping them like garbage into the receptacles in back. Well, that's exactly where this alarmism about overpopulation gets you if you're not careful: into viewing human beings as garbage to be cleared out of the way or vermin to be exterminated or strays to be sterilized. What's more, when it comes to predicting the future, Ehrlich, et al., seem about as accurate with statistics as Tim LaHaye is with the Book of Revelation, and as apt to reinterpret things after the fact. So the model we're using to justify whatever control measures the leaders of the moment are telling us we need might very well be total crap. Frightening.

Welp, this is getting a little political, and I don't really care to go there on my blog, so I'll stop. I don't mean to fault the movie. Not in the least. It made me think, which is what sci-fi is supposed to do, right? If we extrapolate this trend, what will happen? Here's one possible answer. Actually, I think Soylent Green is a terrific movie, and vastly underrated for reasons that I don't entirely understand. So, if you haven't seen it, and you like future noir and dystopian sci-fi, please do yourself a favor and watch Soylent Green.