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.

Great Disturbances, Etc.

Via Xeni at BoingBoing comes the news that Disney has just baught Lucusfilm with the intent, “to release a new Star Wars feature film every two to three years.”

Alright nerds, before you start catterwalling about a million voices screaming out, etc., take a deep pull on your inhalers.

Everyone despaired when Disney bought the Muppets, but the new Muppet movie was great, revitalizing the entire franchise. Clearly Lucus doesn’t care about Star Wars, but Disney does (at least enough to recognize that there’s an audience willing to fork over a gigaton of cash for a new movie or 12).

Lately Disney has recognized that what they need to do is find someone passionate about their new toy and hand creative control over, like they did to Lasseter at Pixar, and Whedon at Marvel. It’s the perfect time for Disney to find some untapped talent who grew up with Star Wars, wants to make awesome Star Wars movies, and let them at it with the sort of talent and bottomless pockets Disney can provide.

And since these new movies will need to satisfy the Mouse Kingdom and the fans rather then the whims of some old fart more concerned about fancy cameras and loud sound systems, this could very well be a Good Thing (Other than the fact that a single corporation now owns 90% of mine and everyone else’s childhood, but it was either going to be them or Time Warner, so pick your devils, children).

In Defense of Escapism

During a recent discussion over at Charlie Stross’ blog about genre fiction’s relationship to the Big Idea story, there was a sub-discussion about escapism and the role it plays in science fiction and fantasy. Naturally, a lot of science fiction authors and fans are a bit defensive whenever the subject of escapism comes up. For a long time, genre literature was dismissed as nothing but escapist fantasies, avoiding the hard work of discussing the issues of the world we live in by running off to fight over magic jewelry with orcs or flying off in rocket ships to punch bug-eyed aliens in the face, imperialistically.

I’ve long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism. A lot of it has to do with literalism, which in some ways is the opposite of escapism. The literlist tendency to take metaphorical story space at face value is the native perspective in mainstream non-genre literature. When English professors contemplate having an affair with the perky young grad student, there’s no wiggle room for interpretation as to what that means. There may be an existential metaphor at play in the prose, but it’s used as a device for extrapolating the actual emotions under discussion, unlike in genre fiction, where the brain swapping

machine is very rarely meant to be taken as an actual piece of prospective technology, but rather used as a mechanism for exploring gender and identity roles in society.

Both are valid methods of telling a story, it’s just that genre fiction requires a secondary set of skills to decode those sometimes obtuse or esoteric symbolism at play. This can be a challenge for people who don’t often read genre fiction. Their decoder muscle may be atrophied or underdeveloped. And so they may mistake an escapist story or escapist element in a genre fiction as a literal wish fulfilment. The desire of the author and the fans of that story to be somewhere else, doing something untrue.

This of course is not the case. Escapism serves a very real and valid purpose and is a useful tool in the story teller’s craft.

As an example, see the story from last year about the Chinese government banning time travel  stories. They’re so afraid of loosing their grip on power, they’re trying to control people’s daydreams about a world where they never existed, or were stopped. That’s Science fiction come to life.

There’s a difference between dreaming up a better world as a way to calibrate your own desires and expectations, and forcing others to take your fantasy world, and the moral strictures that come from it, as serious policy. That’s dragging us to the other end of the spectrum: bleak nihilism (embrace, reality, it’s good for you!) on one hand and living in an untethered Lala land (clap harder, you sinner!) at the other.

Still, we have alot of elbow room in between. That’s the playground for Escapist literature, where we define our hopes and fears and build the memetic tools to conquer the later and make the former a reality (as as close to it as is humanely possible).

The many uses of escapism are apparent in genre fiction, but also in non-genre fiction as well.

Mad Men is all about escapism. The shape of our dreams and how they contrast with reality. The escapist element is almost meta in the case of Mad Men I mean, who doesn’t want to wear a slick suit and drive a 60s era Jag? But that’s just the hook. Once you’re in that world, you start to see it form the perspective of the various characters, which is where the real story takes place.

All the characters were born between the 1890s and 1940s, and we’re watching them go through the 60s, when all the social and technological change that had been brewing for a century came to a head. It was even obliquely pointed out in one episode, where an elderly receptionist died in the office. Burt Cooper, the oldest of the partners, eulogized her by saying she was an astronaut. She was born in a log cabin and died in a sky scraper, 30 stories in the air.

As the series has gone on it’s become clear that it’s about these characters who were raised in one world and now find themselves living in another one they couldn’t have imagined growing up and confounded daily by the differences between expectation and experience.
Mad Men is one of the most SFnal shows on television even though its fantastical elements are restricted to the occasional dream sequence or drug trip. But it addresses the very core concept of Speculative Fiction, especially of the New Wave variety (I’d swear Season 5 was written by JG Ballard if I didn’t know he was dead).

Coming back around to the topic that launched this discussion about Escapism, I think the reason why it doesn’t seem like SF has a purpose any more, is because all of our contemporary fiction has become Science Fictional. Even the straight realistic period dramas address themes that were until recently, the purview of genre fiction.

Now that all fiction is addressing large social, technological and existential dilimas through a conscious lens of “what if”, all that’s left is too choose your tropes and setitngs. You can set your drama in an ad agency in 60s Manhattan or on a space ship in the 24th century. But it’s going to address the same topics. Which of course brings us back around to defending escapism as a valid and even necesary element of story telling.

Escapist fiction is a dialogue with the culture we live in. It gives our dreams of a better world a shape. It forms the vocabulary of the worlds we wished we lived in, allowing us to contrast that with the world we do live in.

The Shape We’re In

Charlie Stross nails down some thoughts on Transhumanism/Singularity, and in the process builds a near perfect summation of all that’s wrong with it:

There is a rottenness at the heart of the transhuman project, and the biggest symptom of it is blindness to its own origins: a mixture of warmed-over Christian apocalyptic eschatology (which Cory Doctorow and I poke with a stick in “The Rapture of the Nerds”) and the Just-So creation mythology of the smugly self-satisfied hypercapitalists who have unintentionally done so much to destroy so many of the moral and interpersonal values of post-Englightenment civilization.

I’m half tempted to add a sort of thematic epigraph to my novel-in-progress, in the style of Moby Dick, full of quotes that point to the themes of the story. And you can be sure this one would be right smack dab in the middle of it.

Because you see, the major problem facing the world today is not war or greed or racism. Those are horrible of course, but they are symptoms of a much larger social problem created by our cultural adherence to a fundamentally anti-human idea: that this world is broken and corrupt and we have to escape it.

The biggest problem is that there is nowhere to escape to. Religion promises some otherworldly dimension where you get to live in harmony and never have to poop. But it’s a fairy tale designed to mollify intellectual children. It’s not a real, attainable place. All paths leading toward it pass through the door of death. And there’s nothing after that but a long and empty dark corridor.

Science Fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas. But for the last decade or so, it’s chief idea is reheated Augustinian pablum. Or as Greg Egan put it, “Uberdorks battling to turn the moon into computronium… Throwing Grey Goo around like monkeys throwing turds while they draw up their plans for Matrioshka brains.”

Some time ago we stopped believing that we could make a human future and reverted back to primitive day dreams of escaping to fairy land. But it’s the same old fear of death, just dressed up in LEDs and chrome.

As long as escape (i.e. Death) is the only promoted goal of our civilization, then we will never seriously address the concerns that make life here on Earth hard. We could spend our considerable imagination and creative power on solving the problems that vex us, and build a semi-paradise on Earth (no promises that it’ll be perfect) or we could just sit around day dreaming of a fantasy world where we don’t have to poop, while we drown in toxic shit of our own making.

Those are our only two options for our future: hard work or death. I choose hard work. What shape that work takes, now that’s the question I plan to spend the next thirty years or so trying to answer.

Defending the Pirate Code

Over at io9, Charlie Jane has a list of the best and worst movie threequels.  Normally I’d let this pass as link bait, but I had to step in to defend Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, which was placed in the worst category.

I’m not sure why people are so befuddled by the second two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Yes, the story is unusually complex for a family-friendly adventure, but that’s half the fun. The trilogy does a wonderful job of creating a mythology and world and following it through without it ever becoming a series of hand waves without resorting to ass-pulls and hand waves. That’s good story telling. Gore Verbinski has proven himself a master at managing humor, drama, pathos, silliness, and existential horror and fitting them altogether in a way that is unusual and fun. In short, the Pirates Trilogy does everything we regularly bitch and moan about movies not doing with character and story.

It’s easy to pick apart the flaws of a movie but much harder to conceive of what they should look like if they were good. PotC trilogy is what Star Wars tried to be and missed, by adding teddy bears and excess plot roundabouts just to show off stuff that could be made into toys.

It was pointed out to me that the fish men are just as much toy fodder as the ewoks, which I will concede, with the caveat that the fih men still work as both cool monsters in that world, and serve the story far better than killer teddy bears form outer space.

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I also had to step in and defend Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which is not only not as bad as Charlie Jane makes it out be, but also on the grounds that it is in fact not a threequel at all. Despite having a III in the title, The Search For Spock is the second film in a trilogy that starts (with a bang) with The Wrath of Khan and ends with The Voyage Home. As both a movie that stands on it’s own, and as the middle part of a trilogy,The Search For Spock holds it’s own. Even if you don’t go in for the admittedly maudlin friendship story, The Search For Spock solidifies the revamped Klingons as the heartless badasses we’ve come to know and love, due in large part to Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Kruge.

A Microscope is also a Telescope, When Used Properly

Over at Charlie Stross’ blog, Cat Valente is writing up storm. This particular tempest is a great swirling discussion about the genre definitions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but not in the old perennial argument about which authors used which tropes, and why this makes your favorite book really X instead of Y. No. None of that. This is the soup of philosophy, examination of the meat of the craft:

And to me, it’s all one. Not in a flippant way, but deep, primal, unifying. The herd-dog is an uplifted mind. The SuperLab has old, old bones. I do genuinely believe that stories save us. Over and over, narrative tells us how to get through and get beyond, how to be human and how to be inhuman, too, when it comes time to grow. We are, at our cores, narrative beings. And most especially, science fiction and fantasy save us. They tell us who we are, who we can be, who we want to be and who we don’t, what we could be and what we can reject if we are strong enough. It says all these things more boldly and yet more secretly than mimetic fiction, which does not often try to speak to the dreams and terrors of a species on the verge.

I like that. Mainly because it sums up neatly my own operational definitions:

Science Fiction is about the exterior world: culture, technology, society and what it means to be human and what those boundaries are and how they change us.

Fantasy is about the interior world: how individuals define themselves within the context of their culture and experiences and what it means to be human, the things we believe (true, false or otherwise) that shape how we define that state of being.

Both are valid for looking at the concerns of humanity across time and space (however you wish to define those two terms). I’m less concerned with defining the genres by the outer trappings, the tropes that have built up over the last century and a half. Those are incidental and interchangeable.

The purpose of literature — of art in general — is to explore what it means to be human. As such, and given my operational definitions, it’s possible for a novel, movie, short story or Video game (i.e. a narrative work) to be both science fiction and fantasy. It’s also possible to write a space opera that is a fantasy and a medieval sword and sorcery novel that is science fiction, as it is the method by which we seek to ask and answer these questions about our place in the universe that defines the work, not the stage decorations, the symbols and ephemera.

The Skywalker Twin Delimma

So I was mopping the kitchen floor this afternoon and got to thinking about the genealogy of Star Wars. As one does. It occurred to me that the prequels created not one but two plot holes in the story of the Skywalker twins upbringing.

The first is the well known and much griped about “Schrodinger’s Amadala” problem. Those of us who grew up with the original trilogy (ep. 4-6 for you younglings) know very well that, in a conversation during Return of the Jedi, Luke asks Leia if she remembers her real mother and she says, “Yes, in fact she was a mopey bitch and I never understood what Papa Organa saw in her.” Or words to that effect. Point is: Leia confirms in ep. 6 that Amadala was alive, presumably up until Gov. Tarkin used the Death Star to turn Alderan into space debris in Ep. 4.

The obvious problem here is that Amadala dies on screen in ep. 3, 20 years before that.[1] Meaning that either A) Leia sees dead people, or 2) Leia is in fact talking about Bale Organa’s wife, her step-mother, whom we’ve never met or even seen and so the conversation is pointless. We all know that the real answer is of course 3) George Lucus forgot his own story’s continuity and ripped a gaping hole in the space time continuum/plot.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to square this fuck up in the context of the prequals as they are filmed. Taking some license, we can add a few scenes and make some judicious edits in dialogue. To wit: Obi Wan convinces Anakin that Amadala was stepping out on him with suave prince of Alderan, Bale Organa and the twins are in fact Bale’s. Amadala did survive and for 20 years was living with a man she didn’t love but who would, for the safety of the rebellion and to save the galaxy, pretend to love her and her two kids, whom he would raise as his own.[2] What do you mean, two kids? wasn’t Luke raised on some backwater planet furthest from the galactic center of civilization (that everybody just happens across at some point in the story)?

Yeah, that brings us to the second and lesser known problem: “Uncle” Owen.

So, you’ve decided to split up the twins and hide the son of Darth Vader on a distant, backwater world (that everybody just happens across at some point in the story) where he will be safe from the prying eyes and legion of spies of his father.[3] So naturally, the man you want to raise the future savior of the Jedi order and the galaxy as a whole is Lord Vader’s step-brother. His only living relative. On the planet where his mother is buried and where he spent the first ten years of his life as a slave. The only way it would be easier to find him would be to have him raised by a live-in au pare on Corescant. (“Lord Vader, I apologize for the intrusion but your nanny is on the hologram. She says young master Luke is colicy.”)

Now, originally (that is, ignoring the prequels), there’s no reason for the audience to believe that Uncle Owen is actually Luke’s father’s brother. It’s just a signifying title, to show that he’s not Luke’s Pa. Now, if Star Wars were really as mythically themed as Lucus claims, Owen Lars would have turned out to be a trusted member of the army who fought with the Jedi and was a member, if  a minor one, of the nascent rebellion. He could easily have served the role of Captain Cody to Obi Wan, a lower ranking but trustworthy commander during the Clone Wars. When Amadala bears twins and they for some reason decide to hide one of them but not the other, Commander Owen retires and returns to his ancestral manse in the boondocks to raise a family that now includes a young foundling child who will grow up to be the squire to his natural born son. He will in short, play the role of Sir Hector to King Arthur.[4]

This of course all goes out the window with the prequals, who show you that in fact, Owen is just a moisture farmer and once gone from Tatooine, Darth Vader decides never to ever look at anything going on there ever again for 20 years. Despite the fact that Tatooine is the nexus point to much of the drama of his life and clearly a magnet for Force sensitive individuals (not to mention a hot bed of extra-empirial intrigue, seeing as how it’s the seat of one of the more nefarious gangsters in the galaxy), he and the Emperor are just going to ignore it. Too much sand. Icky.

There is of course another solution to the Amidala Problem: make Luke and Leia not related. This also has the side benefit of cleaning up a clumsy bit of story telling.

Leia really is Bale Organa’s daughter by his nameless, unmentioned wife. Amidala dies in ep. 3 and the discussion between Luke and Leia in ep. 6 about mothers becomes just a symbolic discussion about family and duty. The only reason Laia is Luke’s sister anyway is as a way to defuse the love triangle between her, Han and Luke. And there’s no reason to do this. Having sexual tension would add subtext and nuance to the story. And then you can resolve the issue later by killing Luke when the Death Star 2 blows up. Or better yet: have everyone think he’s dead. Luke escapes, has a funeral for Anakin and then becomes a hermit on some far away moon, biding his time until the Galaxy needs him once more. Han and Laia become the President and first Man of the New Republic. Cue fireworks and dancing teddy bears.
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1. or 20 years later. When talking about these movies, shit gets Timey Wimey, fast.

2. Which begs the question of why it took Darth Vader, galactic bad ass, 20 years to get around to nuking Alderan and then let Gov. Tarkin do the actual dirty work. This is a man who sits at the right hand of the Emperor of the frickin’ galaxy and force chokes admirals for fun. Your telling me he wouldn’t send bounty hunters after his ex wife for cheating on him and having another man’s kids?

3. I guess Force Sensitivity is a gene carried on the Y chromosome. It would explain why there aren’t many female Jedi, as it’s a recessive trait in women.

4. And if we overlay the well-know inspiration for Tatooine that is Dune, this of course makes Luke into Feyd-Routha Harkonnen.

Return Now to the Past That Never Was

The Chinese recently banned time travel shows from Chinese television. Which sucks for a quarter of a billion Doctor Who fans, to be sure. But then a group of Chinese scientists went one step further and “proved” that time travel is impossible. So there.

What’s got the Chinese government all in a twist about time travel? Like any good authoritarian government, they are obsessed with what the common people are thinking. And in China, there are a lot of common people who, if they got it in their heads that things could be different, could lead another revolution against the comfortable despots in Beijing. I suppose the rational is, that if people can’t watch time travel shows, they won’t imagine a past where the glorious people’s revolution never happened. The worst fear of any authoritarian is not that they will loose power but that the power they have is irrelevant. Sure, you may have a billion and a half subjects to command bodily, but if they are secretly dreaming of going back in time and making you not exist, well, you don’t control their hearts and minds now, do you?

And so, like all paranoid governments before them, the Chinese have decided to try and outlaw day dreaming. Because that always works.

Architecture of the Mind

Over at BLDBLOG, Geoff Manaugh interviews China Mieville about the role of architecture and urban space in science fiction and fantasy. I’d quote a bit but there’s so many great ideas being discussed, I’d end up pasting in the whole thing.

More than any other writer that comes to mind, Mieville makes his fantastical urban settings feel like real spaces, not just the cardboard set decorations you find in a lot of urban fantasy and sci-fi.Just from the descriptions in Perdido Street Station, New Crobuzon feels like a real place, even though it’s filled with cactus people and beetle-headed women and flesh robots and dream eating moths. And that’s just one book. His magical London in Krakan makes Harry Potter’s London look like the aforementioned cardboard set decoration. It has alleys and puddles and shadows and light and grime and life, not just a facsimile of doors and windows and bricks given funny names.

Reading Mieville’s work has really opened my eyes to the potential for architecture to play as big a role as any character in a story. Definitely osmethign worth thinking more about.

Dickens in a Dirigible

A few weeks back, Charlie Stross opened a can of virtual worms in this post about the weekpoints of Steampunk as a genre. I observed the hubub from a safe distance (those zeppelin jockies have explosives, man, even if they are just dynamite dressed up with gears)  but since then have been thinking about something he wrote,* roling it aournd, looking at it from different angles:

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home.

This is, in a way, what I’ve been groping towards with a novel-in-progress that was stalled out on the side of the imagination highway, waiting for a kind stranger to slide out of the fast lane and offer it a ride to the nearest gas station.  And along comes Mr. Stross in his zombie-built airship and gives us a fucking lift.

Of course, what wa smissing all along was the Dickens angle. The eye for social justice.

And since I live in a country that despertaely seems to want to go back to the Gilded Age (but with ray guns and atomic bombs, robot hunter-killer drones and feckless Coroprate Barons) There’s aneed and i’d wager an audience for such a piece of work.

Now all I have to do is find the time to write it.

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* I’ve been thining a lot about a lot things, few of them fit for public consumption. These are stange times and relaly, what can I say about wikileaks, GOp crazies and our President’s spectacular lack of a spine that others haven’t said better? Anyway, more thoughtful posts on writing and comics and fun stuff like that will be coming soon.