Monthly Archives: March 2008

Film Rec: Into the Wild

A brief but enthusiastic shout-out for the film Into the Wild, which I just caught up with on DVD via Netflix; a beautiful, complex film about a young misfit’s obsession with living off the land in Alaska, and by extension, about the ways in which people decide to lead their lives. (In this case, I had *not* read the book, by the way.) Had I seen it earlier I would have been disappointed not to see this among the films named Best Picture Oscar nominees — certainly a more substantial and rewarding film than that too-clever bit of fluff Juno. (Though my enjoyment of Atonement was actually diminished somewhat by just having read the book, I did think the remaining three best film nominees, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and Michael Clayton, were all very fine and deserving nominees.)

Just finished posting interview excerpts from the March issue. Isn’t Charles Stross looking more and more like Gene Wolfe? And isn’t that a cute cover design for Saturn’s Children?

2008 ICFA Highlights

In addition to the grad student paper presentations and the author readings, the conference program also features panels, in the manner of more typical SF conventions, on particular topics. Friday morning I attended one about World War II and SF, moderated by Gary K. Wolfe, with panelists Kathleen Ann Goonan (whose WWII novel In War Times I just read last week), Joe Haldeman, Andy Duncan, Ellen Klages, and Eileen Gunn, plus Brian Aldiss and Rusty Hevelin from the audience, all telling fascinating stories about their own or their father’s experiences in the war, and peripherally some of the problems in turning real life experiences, which tend toward anecdotes with punchlines, into believable fictional drama.

The luncheon banquet featured what must be one of the most memorable guest scholar presentations in ICFA history, Roger Luckhurst on “Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime”, asking, “Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?” After some theoretical forwarding — about found genres, such as alien abduction stories, he went on to present a series of photographs by various contemporary and not-so-contemporary photographers that present unusual subjects in ways that bring new perspectives on real or contrived subjects in ways that variously echo the powers of science fiction — Bernd and Hilla Becher, of industrial architecture, those forgotten gas tanks and cooling towers and mineheads that people don’t see; Andreas Gursky, whose vast prints depict strange patterned landscapes that aren’t what you first think they are; Edward Burtynsky, a series of “Before the Flood” photos of the dismantling of various Chinese villages to make way for the Three Gorges Dam, photos that look post-apocalyptic; and others. Luckhurst made the point that the current digital revolution has affected photography, with the possibilities of digital manipulation, far more profoundly than it has publishing.

A late Friday evening panel moderated by James Morrow was on “Global Fantastique”, with David G. Hartwell, Brian Aldiss, Kathryn Morrow, Stefan Ekman, and Javier Martinez, addressing issues of SF in translation, and the different pleasures to be experienced by SF from different cultures. Ironically, it’s often noticed that American SF publishing seldom looks outside to works translated from other languages, but the Ekman noted that the same is true in Europe — the French don’t translate the Germans much, and vice versa, and so on to many other combinations of languages and cultures. Hartwell cited someone’s definition of good SF (in contrast to ‘literature’) as that which retains its power in summary or in translation.

Saturday morning was a panel about Cyberpunk and Beyond, with John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly (promoting their anthology Rewired), Ted Chiang, and Ellen Datlow (plus Kevin Maroney, Eileen Gunn, and others from the audience) discussing what has happened since cyberpunk, is there any equivalent movement currently, and how Neuromancer, seminal as it was, is less impressive the more you know about certain other books and stories that had been previously published and which Gibson read — contemporaneous works by Haruki Murakami, for instance. They also discussed how, in a way, the “mundane SF” movement is similar to cyberpunk or “radical hard SF” — they both want to re-examine premises and take them more seriously.

Later I listened to readings by James Morrow (a forthcoming short novel called Shambling Towards Hiroshima) and Guy Gavriel Kay (Ysabel), and hung out by the pool for a while chatting with Ted Chiang and Deanna Hoak.

At 7 was the reception for the final event of the conference, the awards banquet, which began at 8: the usual buffet dinner, typically the longest portion of the evening, with a salad bar, three kinds of risottos, and some sort of little pork sandwiches, plus desert, following by the relatively brief awards presentations. This year they included Sheila Williams presenting the Dell Awards for stories written by undergraduates, the Lord Ruthven Society awards for works about vampires, two ICFA awards for essays, one by a grad student, the other — now named in honor of Jamie Bishop — for best non-English language essay, and finally (after president Farah Mendlesohn made a special announcement of the BSFA Best Novel of 1958 award to Non-Stop by the attending Brian Aldiss), the last two awards presented by Gary K. Wolfe: the Crawford Award to (as previously announced) Christopher Barzak’s One for Sorrow, and the scholarship award to Roger Luckhurst.

After that–a *post*-banquet reception, at first derailed by reports of rain outside by the pool, later rebooted by updates that the rain had passed. Though the cabana bar was closed for the night, people bought their drinks in the bar and trickled out to chat in the dark by the pool and pond (which, at least one person reported, an alligator lurks).

Clarke, 2001, and ICFA 2008

The past few days have been hectic, what with preparing for and traveling to Orlando for this year’s International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ICFA, which this year has relocated from its previous 20-some-year venue at a hotel at the corner of the airport in Ft. Lauderdale. The new venue is a big Marriott at the corner of the airport in Orlando. But it’s a big, more modern hotel than the facility in Ft. Lauderdale, and there are a bunch of restaurants within walking distance, which wasn’t true in Ft L, even if they are all chains.

Of course the principal event of recent days was the death of Arthur C. Clarke, which I first heard about on NPR while driving home from work on Tuesday afternoon. As it turned out the news was only an hour or two old, but by the time I stopped at the market and got home, there were 8 or 10 emails alerting me of the news, more than one of which rather irately wondered why Locus had dropped the ball and not yet posted anything. Well, I am sorry; as I’ve described here in this blog on numerous occasions, my current East Coast red pen authoritarian employer blocks most non-work websites, not to mention personal email, and I had no way of learning the news let alone updating the site during the work day. I wish it were otherwise, but there’s no way to support a staff to run the website, and this part-time, some-time support is the best we can do.

My impression is that there’s been greater notice of Clarke’s death in the general press than for any other SF author ever, including Heinlein and Asimov, who did not have the high profile Clarke gained through his involvement with the film 2001. Dozens of others have written tributes and appreciations about Clarke, so I will not attempt another, except for a couple personal notes. Of the ‘big three’, Asimov Clarke Heinlein, Clarke was my favorite, the one I’ve reread the most often. 2001 was the formative experience of my life: I was 11 or 12 when I was turned on first by “Lost in Space” and then by “Star Trek”, but the quantum leap between those two was dwarfed by the majesty of 2001 and 2001 the book — I *read* the book before I saw the movie, and so I knew, I’ve always known, exactly what the film was supposed to depict, and I’ve always seen the wordless, abstract ending of the film as a cinematic illustration of the sort of transcendence that can barely be expressed in words (though that was of course a recurring theme of Clarke’s fiction), rather than some invitation to drug-addled mysticism. I think 2001 remains in some sense the only SF film, the only SF film that both takes on a big serious theme and has the discipline and artistic integrity to do it right in its depiction of the mechanics of spacecraft and space flight, and in developing the consequences of its central premise, in contrast the countless examples of ‘SF’ films since then that to some extent pander to the naive expectations of the unsophisticated audience. (Swoosh! goes the Enterprise, in every one of its incarnations.) Of course I am drifting; the film is as much Kubrick’s as Clarke’s; but the film has always represented for me the seriousness and non-religious, in the conventional “it’s all about me” sense of the major Western religions, cosmic philosophy that underlies so much of Clarke’s fiction…

So, then, a solid hour Tuesday evening compiling an obituary/summary of Clarke’s career to post on the site. Then weekly bestsellers, another hour and a half; then packing for the trip; then up early for the drive to LAX and the 5 hours flight (fortunately nonstop) to Orlando. (I should mention that more impressive than my hasty online obit is the fact that the Locus Magazine staff put together a complete obituary for the April issue, swapping out a couple pages already sent to the printers, and had updates to them, including a revised cover from Arnie Fenner, for the final issue by Wednesday morning.) The flight was uneventful. I read half a John Varley novel which was, coincidentally, about flying into Orlando. I arrived about 4:30 p.m. local time, checked in, and on my way down to find registration and see about dinner, stumbled over an electric cart in the hallway outside another room on my floor with a name tag affixed to the front reading “Charles N. Brown”. So I knocked on the door and said hello to Charles and to Liza, and subsequently joined them for dinner, along with Ellen and Eileen and John, at a high-end seafood restaurant miles and miles away from the hotel (close to that mouse place, I think), where we ate oysters and stone crab and key lime shrimp and wahoo and drank 5 bottles of wine among the 6 of us (over a 3 hour period). It was great, though it rather blew my food budget for the weekend, and I’ve resolved to eat more modestly from now on.

The conference actually began Wednesday afternoon, though I didn’t see any of it until today, Thursday. As always, the bulk of the program consists of grad students reading papers about various aspect of fantasy — this year’s theme is “The Fantastic in the Sublime” — along with readings by attending authors. There are buffet lunches on Thursday and Friday, and a buffet awards banquet on Saturday evening. Today’s luncheon featured a Guest of Honor speech by Guest of Honor Vernor Vinge. If Vernor Vinge is not the first person you might think of as headlining a fantasy conference, he nevertheless gave a speech supporting his role, first claiming that SF, along with peripheral genres like magical realism, is a part of fantasy, and then discussing various ‘meta-scary’ things, that is things that are scary to writers of fantasy. These included the demise of books, first as printed objects, then as textual bodies that have fixed associations to particular authors — just as where we started, in the age of the Odyssey and Iliad, when stories were passed on and amended by tale tellers.

Tonight’s dinner was more modest, a salad and quesadilla in the casual hotel restaurant with Chris Barzak, then drinks and chatting with people hanging out in the bar, as usual. The hotel has a lovely indoor/outdoor pool, and a gazebo situated by a pond, but it’s actually been rather cool the past couple days, in contrast to the typical mugginess of Ft. Lauderdale, and most people are staying indoors. We’re far enough north to experience a different weather pattern, I’ve been informed.

More tomorrow.

Lost: The Return of Michael?

On another topic, I’m quite jazzed by the recent episodes of Lost, which not only have had key revelations about the central mysteries of the show in virtually every new episode, but which, in its flash-forward revelations of what happens at the *end* of the series, rather brilliantly indicates that the writers/producers *do* have an over-arching story in mind, an end goal, and are not just making it up as they go along, as some naysayers would suggest.

Last night’s episode ended with the announcer predicting the reappearance next week of a character we never expected to see again…. I think this is easy; it’s Michael, Walt’s father — just because the actor’s name, Harold Perrineau, has been appearing in the opening credits all season. (Yes, I’m a credits geek. I sit through the end credits of every movie I see in theaters, too.)

February Reading: Ballard, Le Guin, Swanwick, McDevitt

The high point of the month was the J.G. Ballard autobiography, Miracles of Life (published in the UK by Fourth Estate), a fascinating account of the life of one of the most distinctive and controversial SF writers of the 20th century, about which I can complain only of its brevity. Compared to many autobiographies — the other extreme would be Asimov’s — Ballard’s is brief, almost minimalistic. The first half of the book covers his childhood, already familiar to readers of his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, or viewers of the Steven Spielberg film adaptation — he was a child of British parents living in Shanghai (his father worked for a British cotton firm that bowed to Chinese competition in the 1920s), in an isolated, privileged compound existence, until the Japanese invaded in 1937, resulting in their eventual relocation to an internment camp from 1943 until the war’s end in 1945. The difference between real life and film is that the boy Jim was not, in fact, separated from his parents, though in ways JGB explains in the book, it seemed like it. The virtues of the book are the ways Ballard reveals the mindsets of life as he was growing up — the way the British presumed their incarceration was no big deal, not taking the Japanese threat seriously; the way parents of the era, when so many children died of diseases, treated their own children as gambles, not the centers or meanings of their lives.

The second half of the book is a bit scattershot; it does describe events that led to a couple of Ballard’s seminal works, The Atrocity Exhibition (inspired by a certain Whitechapel Gallery art exhibition, the avante garde literary scene of the time, and the premature death of his wife Mary) and Crash (and the response to the David Cronenberg film thereof). More central to this section are his children, which are the titular “miracles of life”, and his second partner Claire Walsh. He spends rather too much space talking about impressive people he’s known — Christopher Evans, Eduardo Paolozzi — though there are interesting anecdotes about serving on a film jury, and finally, his return to Shanghai, in conjunction with a BBC profile about him and The Kindness of Women, in 1991. It was the publication of Miracles of Life that caused Ballard to reveal his diagnosis of prostate cancer, with its terminal implication; but with no worse news thus far, we can only hope there might be some further output from Ballard in the months since he finished this book.

I also read…. the second and third of Ursula K. Le Guin’s young adult novels in her “Western Shore” trilogy, which began with Gifts (2004), and was followed by Voices in 2006 and Powers in 2007. All are beautifully written and inspiring books, and the good news is, if you’re not inclined to commit yourself to reading all three, the books are semi-independent — set in the same world, but concerning different protagonists in different cities. There is a lovely scene at the end of Powers when the three come together in the same place, but it’s a bonus, not a necessary culmination. The virtues of these books are the anthropological imagination Le Guin invests in depicting various cultures, and the way she portrays her characters as presuming the rightness of their own cultures — whether it involves class systems, slavery, or the repression of books — before learning to see the possibilities of other ways of life. Each book portrays, in its fashion, a cultural conceptual breakthrough, the very essence of what, I would say, is the purpose of speculative fiction.

Also: Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons of Babel is a delicious, colorful undermining of the usual tropes of fantasy, while serving as a sly commentary on current politics and war-mongering. Portions of the book were earlier published as separate stories, not all of which I’d previously read, and it’s a tribute to the book that it does not read like a usual fix-up — I couldn’t tell which unread portions I hadn’t read until I researched it.

And on a completely different note, I caught up with Jack McDevitt’s Odyssey, now that it’s on the final Nebula ballot. McDevitt is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me; he’s not especially literary, or cutting-edge in any sense, but he is hard-core science fiction in a way not a lot of good books are these days. McDevitt’s virtue is that he writes what I would call Hard SF Space Opera — he deals with casual FTL space flight and various aliens races out there in the galactic arm — and though his political and social interactions are identical with 20th century life, his SFnal content is knowledgeable in the sense that he understands the distances involved and the astrophysical characteristics of real stars and planets. (If only *any* Hollywood film were so well informed.) Odyssey keys off the idea of UFOs and analogous observations throughout human history, here called “moonriders”, but ultimately it deals more with human politics and gullibility than it does with the questionable existence of actual alien beings. McDevitt’s tolerance for unresolved endings (which McDevitt Locus reviewer Russell Letson has noted) makes his novels rather like episodes in an ongoing, open-ended series, not unlike, say, Lost, or thinking back, certain plot threads of Star Trek: the Next Generation. The book reaches a resolution, but there are mysteries yet to discover.