Re: The Finale Programme, by Michael Moorcock

Starting in February, Titan Books is reissuing the Cornelius Quartet, as part of their ongoing and much appreciated reprint series of Michael Moorcock’s oeuvre. I got ahold of an ARC for the first book in the series, The Final Programme.

My wife had never seen Casablanca. This struck me as an injustice and so I dutifully sat her down, put int he dvd and teared up when they sang Le Marseilles to drown out the Nazis singing German drinking songs. before we even got to that iconic scene however, my wife in near exasperation exclaimed that she flt like she had seen this movie before, because so much of the dialogue, staging and characters had been referenced, quoted, and parodied in so many other movies and TV shows since 1941.

Reading The Final Programme should have been like that. And judging by the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, for some people it is.

But it’s a testament to Michael Moorcock’s skill as a writer that this book, written in 1965, first published in 1968 doesn’t feel dated. It has all the hallmarks of the early counterculture that it was a harbinger to, the blithe attitude towards sex and drug use, open homosexuality and bisexuality, the fierce social commentary and  everything else that should, by all rights, make this a screaming artifact of a bygone era. Instead, it’s a rich, fun wild ride, full of brain melting ideas, speeches about eternal recurrence and identity, tossed off like casual banter about the weather, and a sly nod and wink to the reader that yeah, this is all a lark, but a serious lark.

(It’s also possible that I have a soft spot for weirdo counterculture fiction form the 60s, as I’m also a big fan of Illuminatus! and Mumbo Jumbo).

What struck as someone who hasn’t read the Cornelius Quartet before (and not much Moorcock at all), is how influential this series really is. Jerry Cornelius is a direct forefather to Casanova Quinn, bent gender and all. I’m honestly surprised his initials aren’t JC, frankly.

I’m not going to talk about the plot, because it’s fabulous pop art kitsch of the highest order. I want there to be a long lost movie made of it, starring John Philip Law, in full on Danger: Diabolik mode. And telling it in spare synopsis form would make it sound even more ridiculous than summaries usually do.

There’s plenty to be had in the Final Programme, for Moorcock enthusiasts, the references to other works about the Eternal Champion’s exploits. But even if you don’t know about the cosmic battle that [lays out, a hundred time sin different guises and permutations over the course of dozens of the author’s novels, there is still a lot of fun to be had. And really, that’s the adjective that best sums up this book: Michael Moorcock clearly had a blast writing it and now, it’s back for you and I to have fun reading it again, for the first time.

Kudos to Titan Books for bringing out these new editions of fantasy and sci-fi classics by a genuine master of the craft. ( I hope they do The Dancer at the End of Time series next, as that one is a personal favorite).

Special thanks to Chris Young.

And That’s Why Goonies is the Greatest Movie Of All Time

Over at Crooked Timber, John Holbo is discussing BFI’s Top 50 greatest films of All Time list. Like any such list, it’s subjective, peculiar, and bound to cause howls of outrage.

John does make an interesting observation though, that overwhelmingly, the top ten picks all come form the 1950s and 60s:

Is it sufficient to say that film critics – like all conservatives – have to pick a Golden Age that is sufficiently far back in time that they can imaginatively confiscate it for themselves, in effect constituting themselves as elite appreciators of what others do not; but recent enough that it has some damn plausibility. (As in investment, being seriously too early is the same as being wrong.) The spikes we see on the graph are akin to the average conservative American’s sense that the 50’s and early-to-mid 60’s were pretty great; then it all went to hell and now things are desolate and bad. But there is also the outlying, more severe conservative view that we have to go back further to find anything good. Before 1929.
I’m also reminded of something that old adman Gossage wrote, about ‘the shape of an idea’: “Imagine that a person sits in the center of a circle that represents his comprehension. He can comprehend anything within the perimeter, but the farther it is from the center the fainter his ability to criticize it will be. However, anything outside the perimeter is beyond his comprehension; he won’t criticize an idea placed out there because he simply won’t know what you’re talking about. So the trick is to place an idea close enough in so he gets it but far enough out that he’s not able to flyspeck it, only accept it.” Would it be too unkind to suggest that critics probably pick their Top 10’s by analogous operation? (Obviously I’m just saying that critics are incorrigible hipsters and coolhunters of the past. Duh.)
On the other hand, maybe film was just better before Star Wars; George Lucas (and Spielberg) ruined everything forever.

I have to agree. It’s boomer critics being boomers. For a film to make this list it needs to meet one of three requirements:

  1. Be fondly remembered from childhood (which as we all know, ended in 1963)
  2. Be fondly remembered from film school
  3. ?Be made later than 1966 but not after 1996 and evoke nostalgia for 1 or 2

So, yes. Subjective. But just for fun, here’s my top 10 list, (in no particular order):

  1. Some Like It Hot
  2. Charade
  3. Blade Runner
  4. Casablanca
  5. North By Northwest
  6. The Princess Bride
  7. Back to the Future
  8. The Royal Tenenbaums
  9. Close Encounters
  10. The Brothers Bloom

The qualifier being, that if you were to put any one of these movies in the DVD player, I would stop what I was doing to sit and watch them with undivided attention. You’ll note that I, being a product of Gen X,* have moved my Golden Age up to the 1970s and 80s with a few outliers from before my time, which I of course saw as a child on much-worn VHS tapes (I could watch Some Like it Hot just about any old time) and a few more recent choices as well (if you haven’t seen The Brothers Bloom you are missing out. It’s by the same director who did Brick and the upcoming Loopers).

And just to pick a fight on the internet:

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Spielberg’s best film.

It encapsulates all of his major reoccurring themes (life in outer space, father issues, mistrust of authority figures, obnoxious children, every-man confronted by the weird) without letting anyone of them steal the show. Plus it treats a numinous experience that contains mythic undertones without promoting an agenda. It glories in ambiguity, which is something few of Spielberg’s later films bothered with. Sometime in the 1980s he decided that everything had to have a clean edge, which is when he lost his.



*You’ll also note that I have committed the ultimate blasphemy as both a Gen Xer and a Science Fiction geek by not including any of the Star Wars movies on my list. Even though I still enjoy the original trilogy (and recently even acquired a copy of the theatrical versions I grew up with through means of dubious legality)  George Lucus, by meddling with his films to the point of breaking them, has been disqualified from inclusion. Perhaps in a few years, after Lucus has kicked off, and we can enjoy the films as intended, without his god awful special edits, they will make it onto the top 20.

One More Shade of Grey, Just For Good Measure

For anyone who thought I was being harsh about Fifty Shades of Grey, here’s a review by Katrina Lumsden, who completely destroys any notion that it is in any way feminist:

Now I’ll be totally honest, the biggest issue I have with Fifty Shades of Shit is neither the sex nor the horrible writing. It’s the plot. Thin as it is, it’s still there. And its basic message is that, given enough time, you can change someone. While I don’t have any problem with this if all you’re trying to do is help them to lose weight or quit smoking, when you’re talking about an emotionally and (dangerously close to) physically abusive relationship, sending that kind of message is both ridiculous and irresponsible. Christian is controlling, possessive, condescending, and cruel. He doesn’t allow Ana to behave as she normally would, and Ana just puts up with it, insistent that if she can just give him what he wants, when he wants, as often as he wants, she can eventually begin to pull his strings. Will it work? In the books, probably. In real life? No. Almost never. How many idiotic, spineless, weak women are going to waste their lives on some emotionally retarded prick because they’ve read shit like this and think this kind of fucked-up fairytale will come true for them? I know I’m not over-reacting because I’ve known women with this mentality. “Oh, he’s so dark and dangerous and threatening, but he’s got a sad, lonely side, and if I could just figure out what’s wrong, I could change him!”

Well said.

Fifty Shades of Perspective

Over at the New Statesmen, Laurie Penny writes in defense of Fifty Shades of Grey, and gets it all wrong:

When you get down to it, the problem most people seem to have with Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s for girls. Even worse – it’s “mommy porn”, porn for mommies, for older women to read and get excited about, and that dangerous nonsense really needs to be stopped right now. Everyone knows that the only women who are allowed to actually have sexuality are slender, high-breasted twenty-one year old virgins – rather like, it has to be said, the heroine of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.

My problem with Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t that it’s “Badly written,” which Laurie Penny claims is just code for “popular with women.” My problem with the book is that it’s actually badly written. The prose is bland. The characters are sketchy. The plot is a hackneyed hash of cliches and recycled tropes the author doesn’t understand, just apes because that is what the manual on how to write a story told her needed to happen in Act 3. And to defend it’s popularity on feminist grounds, because it’s a vehicle for discussing women’s sexuality and porn in public, is sophomore feminism at it’s worst.

Almost as absurd is the claim that it’s porn, and so shouldn’t be judged on its literary merits, but it’s erotic value. I’ve read letters to Penthouse that were better written and had more evocative prose than Fifty Shades of Grey. It fails as both a novel and as erotica!

The only only reason the book is popular is because of a secondary social effect: it allows timid, mainstream readers to feel transgressive. The same house fraus who feel a rush reading this watered down tripe, wouldn’t be caught dead reading The Story of O or Venus in Furs, because those books make the reader relate to people who have real kinks, and not because they are damaged, and in need of some virgin redeemer to teach them how to love. It’s because those characters find fulfillment in their kinky, sweaty, dark and forbidden lusts. And they make the reader feel as if they might as well. That’s the thrill of reading erotica. The thrill Fifty Shades of Grey fails to provide in any way.

Link via Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing.

The World of the Angrazi Raj

The Peshawar LancersThe Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Starting with an intriguing alternate history premise (a comet impact in the 19th century instigates the British empire to relocate to the Raj. By 2030, this Indian-English empire is the seat of world power) Sterling has created a fascinating commentary on culture and assimilation, both how invading cultures assimilate the locals and vice versa.

But all of that is subtext. The real meat of the story is an old fashioned swashbuckling adventure tale, with able swordsmen, ruthless villains, cutthroats, camels and zeppelins. What more could you ask for?

View all my reviews

The Word For Human In Any Language

Embassytown, By China Mieville

This was a strange one. Not quite what you’d expect, either form a space opera or from China Mieville, and both in a good way. I don’t even know if you’d want to call it Space opera, Or even planetary Romance, though it has elements of both adventure on alien worlds and galactic politics but they aren’t the driving forces of the story.

That driving force is language and where it comes form and what it means to communicate. Here we have a story that for once looks at humans meeting aliens and deals with the profound differences in psychology that creates a gulf in communication, the lengths we’ll go to just to say hello to something other, and what the ramifications of trying to communicate in our own fashion with something so unlike us and how it changes both us and the aliens culture.

China Mieville’s best quality as an author is in his ruthless abandonment of the genre scaffolding and willingness to just plunge the reader into an alien world and let them sink or swim. Most of the exotic words and neologisms are never defined. You just pick them up as you go along and figure it out, like the characters do. This can be disorienting and off-putting if you aren’t expecting it. But the joy of discovery and sorting out the world for yourself is part of the fun of this book.

How To Find Your Own North Pole

I just finished reading Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat. Leave it to a French Verne Fanatic to get Steampunk right. Instead of just gluing a bunch of random gears to a top hat and calling it Steampunk, Valtat incorporates the aesthetic and weird science of the sub-genre no one seems to know how to describe into the story in a hundred little details that bring the unique landscape and characters to life.

Mixing a bit of magic into the oddball shenanigans of the characters, we follow revolutionaries and lovers through a frozen landscape of New Venice and beyond, all in search of the true North Pole, which is more a numinous expression of true self than it is a place on any map. There are frozen patriarchs, the ghosts of famous explorers, Inuit politics, day dreams and Jazz music, weird contraptions and an arctic kangaroo. Something for everybody.

The language is beautiful and evocative, and form a non-English speaker, this is quite an accomplishment– Valtat writes English better than most native speakers, even a few writers I could mention.  The story is fun and thoughtful. My only complaint is that I would like to see more of the world and learn a bit of its history but as this is the first in a series, I’m sure I’ll get my chance.

The Sound of One Atlas Shrugging

So, Atlas Shrugged (Part 1 of what is sure to be the most interminable trilogy, ever) has a 6% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As the faithful Randites tell it though, this is just the slander of parasites, who do not recognize the film’s greater qualities. Or it may have something to do with the fact that it’s a poorly made movie, adapted from one of the most notoriously wooden and badly written novels of the 20th century. Or it could be the fact that this movie just demands too much of a mass audience. It’s designated heroes are corrupt Corporate CEOs whining about how no one recognizes their geniuses while the designated villains are everyone else, including the nameless masses, derided as parasites who are fit for nothing but being squashed by the giant brains of capitalist enterprise. And all of the drama is wrapped up in CEO speak about trains and metallurgy. Exciting.

While it is possible to make dry subject matter exciting, this isn’t the way to do it. David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin made lawyers and code geeks fucking riveting stuff in The Social Network. But then, they’re David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin. And while the hero of The Social Network may have been saddled with near-aspergers level of social awkwardness, no one tried to portray this crippling flaw as a heroic virtue. Ultimately, that’s the flaw of Atlas Shrugged. The book and the movie it’s based on is an attempt to  wrap a sociopathic philosophy in a thin melodrama starring protagonists who are petulant rich douche bags in the mold of the same class of people who are currently trying to end Western Civilization with their abhorrent greed and narcissism. A thousand Aaron Sorkins and a million David Finchers couldn’t make that movie fly and the producers of Atlas Shrugged didn’t even try, instead settling for the production values of a cash strapped after school special.

With any luck, the producers will be so incensed by the dismissal of their genius by us parasites, they’ll go Galt and spare us the rest of the trilogy.

Friends and Enemies

We weren’t going to see the Social Network but then we heard the inexplicable: that was good. You wouldn’t think there could be a way for this to be true. A 2 hour movie about the legal troubles of the socially inept uber-dork who founded Facebook?  But it is not just a good movie but a genuinely fantastic movie.

A lto f this has to do with the writer. Aaron Sorkin made a name for himself with the West Wing, pioneering the heavy expo-speak dialogue that made a show about the inner workings of the White House nto just compelling and dramatic but gave it humor, heart and context. Sorkin’s script for the Social Network does this with what feels like little effort. people have extnsive conversations about two or three topics at once, interwoven over time, while dropping pop culture references to highlight the emotional bits and it all just sings. That is how this story works and I can’t think of another writer today who could have pulled it off, making legalese, technical computer jargon and geek-speak seem natural and real.

The soundrack also carries a lot of weight and is masterfuly done by trent Reznor. It’s some of his best work and that’s coming from a fan form way back.

I was feleign a bit down abotu this years crop of movies, wondering what contendors would emerge for the Oscars but between Inception and The Social Network, I’m feleing much better about it all.