S-Town: the Self-important Blowhard as Culture Hero

In 2012 a depressed restorer of antique clocks wrote This American Life to tell the staff about an uninvestigated and unpunished murder in his home town of Woodstock, Alabama. Produce Brian Reed was intrigued enough to eventually go down to Woodstock, meet John B. and investigate the murder.

 The podcast does have a great logo

The podcast does have a great logo

It turned out to have been no murder. John B. was totally wrong. But, for some reason, Reed found John B. fascinating and decided to investigate other things about his life. and turn the results into a podcast, S-Town ("Shit Town" being John B.'s nickname for his hometown). John B. committed suicide during production, and Reed then investigated that, uncovering John B.'s private sex life, among other things.

Reed affected to find John B. fascinating, and I, as podcast listener, was expected to do the same. Instead, I found John B. to be a tiresome blowhard. People claimed he was a fantastic restorer of antique clocks, a genuine expert. I don't even believe that, though my belief he was a faker even in that is unsupported by evidence, and is just prejudice on my part.

Talking a lot doesn't make you fascinating

We've all met people like John B., always talking about how much they read about all sorts of different topics and how deeply they've thought about everything. John B. provided no indication of understanding anything, and, in fact, seems to have poisoned himself with mercury while doing fire gilding...though that, like so many facts in this podcast, is never to be confirmed, since the autopsy did not check for mercury.

I still listened to the whole thing, because it kept promising to become more interesting than it actually ever did. And Reed is pretty good at digging around, and getting people to talk pretty freely. That's a real skill, and you do get some self-revelation from people, some of whom probably regretted being quite so open when the podcast finally was available.

We may be facing a shortage of genuinely compelling true crime

But the success of the podcast Serial has stimulated a lot of people to create multi-chapter investigations of past crimes and misbehavior. Serial itself never convinced me that its central character, Adnan Syed, was anything other than guilty. The BBC's Death in Ice Valley...well, I don't want to give spoilers, but I found it unsatisfying. These people do seem to play fair: if they are stymied, or can't figure something out, they don't pretend they have, and don't fake any kind of resolution if there is none.

But the problem is a lack of interesting unsolved crimes, fascinating locals, and evocative situations. That unfortunate shortage is pretty much why mystery fiction was invented. John B. is a typical serial liar, always rambling around the subject and trying to avoid giving away that he doesn't know a damn thing. I didn't get the appeal. I don't think the podcast did John B. any favors by exposing him to a wider audience, and most of the controversy the podcast aroused was about the invasion of privacy, not so much that John B. wasn't much worth listening to.

An actually interesting podcast: Reply All

By contrast, a podcast that is consistently interesting and showcases interesting people is Reply All. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman always seem to find interesting puzzles, and then find interesting people to provide pieces of the explanation. Plus, Vogt and Goldman are incredibly funny, and give each other shit in a realistic and delightful way. I always learn something interesting from them.

So that's one thing. An interesting host (or two), who is skeptical, willing to dig deeper, and doesn't take anything at face value, can go a long way to making the story more interesting, even if sometimes they don't get all the way to the conclusion. In fact, at least once, they've reopened an investigation when they realized they'd actually reached a wrong, or at least incomplete, conclusion.

So that's my prejudice: I'd rather listen to smart people tell me about interesting true things than half-smart people bullshit me about pointlessly untrue or half-true things.

What serial podcasts do you like to listen to?

It's a genuinely interesting art form. Though I think Serial benefited quite a bit from great theme music, and its charming Mail Chimp ad, all of which turned it into something iconic. But don't forget The Nisha Call...actually, by the time it became an issue, I had totally forgotten the Nisha Call, and never bothered to go back and find out what it was. No, I don't want you to write and explain it to me.

The weirdest scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey

A couple of weeks ago, I took my son to see the restored 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 mm at the Somerville Theater.

It was fantastic. I'd forgotten it started with an actual overture, Atmospheres, by Ligeti. At the Somerville the speakers are huge, and you felt it in your chest. Plus the theater still has a curtain, which remained closed until the famous Also Sprach Zarathustra.

What's wonderful about it is how unconciliating it is. Unlike pretty much ever other science fiction movie, it doesn't seek to meet your expectations, charm you, or to make you feel good about yourself. In fact, it thinks you're kind of dull. After all, you're just sitting in a darkened room, eating popcorn and staring at it.

It has no real characters, a plot whose main motive force comes late in the movie from a piece of malfunctioning industrial equipment crossed with a bad employee ("Open the pod bay doors, Hal...this is going on your performance review"), and ends in a strange sequence that telescopes a man's life into a few minutes of accelerated senescence.

The abominable Dr. Floyd

 "I've got my eye on you."

"I've got my eye on you."

But before we get there, we have to follow the sinister bureaucrat Heywood Floyd as he travels incrementally from the Earth to the Moon and refuses to inform anyone of anything in every place he moves through. I took him for granted when I saw the movie as a kid, or even in college when I saw it again, but now he seems a complete fraud. He has a strained, dishonest-feeling conversation with his young daughter over a videophone. He can't come to her birthday party. One has trouble imaging this fine-tolerance piece of bureaucratic machinery wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker at a kid's birthday party. In fact he can barely pretend to care about his offspring--that is, assuming she is not a crisis actor of some sort, hired to create a simulacrum of a real life.

 Does this hat make my head look fat?

Does this hat make my head look fat?

Floyd then has a strained conversation with a bunch of Russians, who include the only non-stewardess/receptionist women in the movie. These women are also not forced to wear unflattering bulbous headgear like their servile American sisters (as far as I am aware, these Kubrikean bonnets have not yet been used in The Handmaid's Tale). They are friendly with Floyd, but don't believe a word he says. They've all played this game before. They let the somewhat-less-sophisticated Smyslov ("guys always think they're so smart") ask the obvious question about the transparently fake story of a disease outbreak at Clavius. Floyd stonewalls shamelessly. Lying doesn't even give him pleasure, but it's the only thing he knows how to do.

 Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

Is it just me, or does Elena look weirdly like Theresa May from this angle?

We then see a sequence of the technological sublime, as Floyd flies from the space station to the surface of the Moon—where he goes to a conference room to give a briefing. In general, the movie alternates vividly realized scenes of space travel with mundane, even boring sequences of people being people in a technological civilization, Unlike the terrified ape men of the opening sequence, they doze off, eat at Howard Johnson's, get tans, and lie blandly to their fellow evolved apes: the ultimate goal of our striving.

Then we see Floyd give a briefing. He has killed men with his bare hands, we just know it. But here he just stands behind a podium and tells everyone they need to sign security oaths, penalty for not doing so unstated but obviously pretty bad. After all, the airlocks all have breathable air on only one side, if you catch my drift....

Then Floyd takes another spaceship to the terrible discovery, along with a subordinate named Halvorsen and a guy who hands out sandwiches. Here we have as blandly corporate a piece of toadying as I have ever had the bad luck to live through:

HALVORSEN: You know that was an excellent speech you gave us, Heywood.
SANDWICH GUY: It certainly was.
HALVORSEN: I'm sure it beefed up morale a hell of lot.

Floyd told a crew if high-level professionals they couldn't tell anyone the truth about what was going on, and then ordered them to sign loyalty oaths. Maybe what boosted morale was the fact that no one was actually detained for interrogation. But these guys know their business. In an organization, a lot of your time is spend assuring your superiors they deserve their positions, and the rest is spent clarifying to your subordinates that they certainly deserve theirs.

Floyd then goes to the site of the excavated monolith, where he touches it, an oddly humanizing gesture, showing the man beneath the functionary. Then the monolith screams, and we cut to Discover One, en route to Jupiter.

We will see Heywood one more time, right when Dave finally eliminates HAL and we hear HAL sing "A Bicycle Built for Two". Floyd tells the viewer what the purpose of the mission is, revealing that no one on board had any idea of why they were traveling out to Jupiter. Poole and Bowman were really professional, because they never once say to each other "Do you ever wonder why the world created a crash program to send us out to Jupiter?"

Of course, Floyd thought he would be addressing the full crew of Discovery, not just the one survivor, Dave Bowman. I can't judge how much any of this can be counted his fault, but somehow I'm inclined to think that Floyd carries a lot of responsibility for how things worked out. However, I'm sure he's already chosen someone less politically adept to take the fall. Maybe Sandwich Guy.

The weirdest scene

What, you thought I forgot about this?

The weirdest scene is the one where the languidly sun-bathing Dr. Poole watches a video from clearly fake parents wishing him happy birthday. It's pre-recorded, and the movie has been at pains previously to let us know that the round-trip message time delay is now over seven minutes.

 An even weirder birthday party than the first one

An even weirder birthday party than the first one

Again a birthday party, again a weirdly stiff, fake-seeming encounter, except that this time only one side is able to speak. Poole watches the video placidly, lounging in shorts and white sneakers and socks. His "parents" sit behind a large cake covered with lit candles (absurd overkill indicating a support crew just out of view) and tell him about other people who failed to show up for this event. Presumably the two of them are going to eat the cake in Poole's honor. They discuss a few other family members, a problem with some bureaucratic form, and then say goodbye. Poole watches without showing any reaction, and without recording a reply to send back.

In a movie full of stiff, by-the-book characters, Mr. and Mrs. Poole are the stiffest and most clearly reading from a script written for them by bureaucrats. Then, after the transmission ends:

HAL: Happy birthday, Frank.
POOLE: Thank you, HAL. A bit flatter please.

HAL lowers his headrest. That is as much reaction as Poole can manage. Is it any wonder we fear being replaced by AIs? Who will really notice the difference?

By the way, the only way I could have gotten all this straight, despite having seen the movie only a couple of weeks ago, was by the meticulous shot by shot analysis of the entire movie at Idyllopus Press, well worth reading.

What struck you most on rewatching the movie?

And if you haven't rewatched it on this latest release, you really should.

Can causality violation save this marriage? Dexter Palmer's Version Control

Version Control

Dexter Palmer

Science fiction is best when it is about the near future, and thus, about now. Too often, we're writing about situations distant in space and time, so characters and dialog have some warrant to be unrealistic. I'm certainly guilty of a lot of that.

Palmer writes better than most people in our genre, and Version Control held my attention from start to finish. Palmer pushes both detailed observation of specific personality types, social and professional milieus, and stages of life, and wider-scale cultural criticism, accomplishing both with real panache.

Is Version Control science fiction?

Aside from the causality violation device (please don't call it a time machine--this bit of fiddly correction is a funny recurrent theme in the book), Version Control has a variety of science-fictional trappings, from self-driving cars to a President who can speak intimately, if a bit salesmanishly, to every one of his fellow citizens.

But these are merely external features, not integrated with the basic story at all. It could have happened here and now, and really, it does happen here and now. A car crash plays a role in the plot, and Palmer has to do all sorts of explaining how it happened despite the safety precautions, but it is just a car crash, something that happens here and now all the time. This is an occasional flaw of various forms of SF, particularly alternate world SF. I remember an alternate world novel where there was a kind of magic, and there was a terrible, concealed disaster at some facility. When you dug into it, it was an industrial accident. Those used to happen all the time. Terrible, dramatic, interesting...but nothing deeply existential. A bad marriage is painful, whether you're wearing a gray flannel suit or a suit of armor.

But adding these kind of nifty (though usually not as original as they think) features is what more literary types do when the decide to "do" SF: what they are really doing is not extrapolation, but satire. There's always a covert jokey element to it, a lack of seriousness. Palmer takes his basic device and the team working on it seriously indeed, but he does not take his world seriously.

Now, a lot of SF is, at its root, satirical. Both satire and SF have reductio ad absurdum as a basic technique. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a satirist. But he inhabited the worlds that he created, and took them seriously as emotional spaces separate from our own. I guess that's the basic difference between mainstream and genre writers. Genre writers like a separate world, while mainstream writers find the very notion of such a world pointless and even ridiculous, and so merely distort the one in which we actually find ourselves, while ensuring that the reader remains grounded in the fact that it is, in fact, fundamentally our world.

The SF elements outside the basic conceit are not a big deal either way. Don't let them bother you, but don't expect them to startle you either.

What I learned from this book

Palmer knows how to pace things. Mostly that means not going too fast. Now that I think about my own work I realize that I worry that slowing down will bore the reader. That is a sign of not trusting the reader. Palmer does trust the reader. The main POV character, Rebecca, gets a post-college slow period where she hangs out with her girlfriends, and then an extended description of how she tries online dating. Each of these sequences is a delight to read, because Palmer observes closely, and builds suspense into the choice of whether to take another drink--even if you pretty sure the answer is going to be "yes". Every little emotional transaction has a bit of suspense, and a bit of a payoff. The pace actually feels fairly quick, because there are interesting little things going on on every page.

Now, I'm not sure how much understanding that is really going to help me. "Put interesting things on every page" is an aspiration, but a hard one to achieve.

What do you think is a diagnostic difference between mainstream and genre fiction?

There are probably as many answers to this as there are readers, so I'm interested in being argued with.

My Boskone panels

I’m at Boskone In a couple of weeks. I’m moderating the Noir and Marketing panels, something I like to do—I like to think I’m a solid, mildly authoritarian moderator who keeps things moving. And the Marketing one will reveal to me all the things I still don’t know about how to promote myself as a writer.

If you go, be sure to look me up.

Angels in Speculative Fiction

16 Feb 2018, Friday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Angels in fantasy, science fiction, and horror aren't always what you might expect. There are the ones that behave, well, angelically, and the fallen angels — but also bad-tempered angels, angels from advanced civilizations, and more. What attracts writers (and readers) to this motif? What common themes, like redemption or the Fall, recur? Are there novel ways to write an angel?

Bob Kuhn, Alexander Jablokov, Victoria Sandbrook , Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Walt Williams

Future of Noir

16 Feb 2018, Friday 19:00 - 20:00, Marina 4 (Westin)

Noir (the French word for “black”) began as a Hollywood subgenre depicting hard-boiled, cynical characters in sleazy settings. It’s certainly found a new home in urban fantasy. But is the murky world of noir inherently incompatible with the sleek, shiny surfaces of science fiction? Or as our visions of the fruits of science and technology grow darker, does noir have a future as a main strain of SF?

Alexander Jablokov (M) , Nik Korpon , Christopher Irvin, Vikki Ciaffone, Laurence Raphael Brothers

Group Reading: Cambridge SF Workshop

Format: Reading

16 Feb 2018, Friday 20:00 - 21:30, Griffin (Westin)

A rapid-fire reading by the members of the long-running Cambridge SF Workshop, featuring writers Heather Albano, James L. Cambias, F. Brett Cox, Gillian Daniels, Alex Jablokov, Steve Popkes, Ken Schneyer (M), Sarah Smith, and Cadwell Turnbull.

Heather Albano, James Cambias , F. Brett Cox , Gillian Daniels , Alexander Jablokov , Steven Popkes , Kenneth Schneyer , Sarah Smith

Non-Genre Fiction That Inspires Us

17 Feb 2018, Saturday 15:00 - 16:00, Marina 3 (Westin)

We’re always talking about icons such as Mary Shelley, Stephen King, J. R. R. Tolkien, and others who breathed air into our literary lungs — but what about non-genre fiction? Our panelists discuss some of their favorite authors from outside the SF/F/H field, who have inspired them as writers and readers.

Kenneth Schneyer (M), Tamora Pierce, Alexander Jablokov , Theodora Goss, F. Brett Cox

Marketing Uphill

18 Feb 2018, Sunday 11:00 - 12:00, Harbor II (Westin)

Sometimes marketing for writers feels like walking uphill to school barefoot in the snow. Does it ever get easier? At what point is enough enough for you and your social network? What about live events? How much should you invest, and how do you measure the return? Our panelists share their experiences and tips for managing your marketing.

Alexander Jablokov (M), Melanie Meadors, Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert, Joshua Bilmes , Craig Miller

Emotionally out of step

The other night I saw the movie A Monster Calls at a friend's house. It's about a boy, maybe 12 years old, whose father has left and whose mother is seriously ill. He's bullied at school, drifts through is days in his imagination, and eventually ends up living with his emotionally distant grandmother in a house where he is not allowed to touch anything. Oh, and he's visited by a talking tree man from the nearby churchyard who says he will tell him three stories, and then wants to hear one in return.

Everyone else was deeply moved by the movie, and several people were weeping near the end. Afterward, others talked about the good the animation of the tree man was.

I felt like an inadequate human being, because I really hated this movie.

This is not me. Really.Every story the tree man tells the boy, Connor, comes complete with explanatory apparatus that makes clear what wholesome and psychologically empowering lesson the story imparts. Two are vaguely fairy-tale-like (one about a royal family with major communication problems, the second about a rationalist and therefore inevitably tragedy-bound parson, and a sullen apothecary with a failing business), the third just a nub to incent action in the story. And they aren't even stories, really. Without the excess commentary, they are just situations. And they rely a great deal on some nice watercolor illustrations--which Connor, the boy, can't actually see, because he's being told the stories, not watching them on the screen, making his experience even less adequate.

Beware of stories with explicit morals. Stories can bring us through conflict to resolution, but they allow us to do at least some of the work ourselves. At the end Connor is forced to bark out his realization of how he is coming to terms with his own frailty in the face of tragedy.

The tree man...oh, and the animation is so hyper-realistic there is nothing at all magical, ambiguous, or even disturbing about this big piece of shrubbery at all. Anyway, the tree man is voiced by Liam Neeson, who does a good job with some pretty wretched lines. I kept imagining him barking at someone who indicated some doubt about one of his stories, "I will find you, and I will explain it to you!"

 You really don't want him to do that

And he's a yew tree, which finally explains a mysterious verse from my childhood.

So long, farewell, auf weidersehen, adieu, adieu, adieu, to yew and yew and yewAs if the over-explained stories weren't enough, there comes a point where two characters who have been in conflict hug each other in the face of tragedy as "This is a big emotional moment, folks!" music rises.

Well, now I'm just being kind of mean. But this kind of thing takes all the fun out of...well, pretty much everything.

But I do have to emphasize that mine is a clearly minority opinion, among critics as among audiences. I am allergic to overt authorial manipulation, but many people welcome it. But that's an essay for another day.




Recent reading: Lady Susan

In her teens, Jane Austen wrote an epistolary novella. It was published decades after her death as Lady Susan. It's flawed, but entertaining. Lady Susan is a manipulative yet observantly witty, and is a dominating character--no one else in the narrative is of much interest.

It involves money and marriage, no surprise, and is no one's idea of a romance. Lady Susan tries to marry her daughter off to a wealthy but otherwise inappropriate suitor, but her plans are thrown off by her own urge to misbehave with yet another man. A good manipulator is never manipulated by her own emotions, so Lady Susan falls short of the ideal.

Whit Stillman recently turned the book into the movie Love and Friendship (named after quite a different unfinished Austen work, even though there is little enough of either in the book, or the movie). It's a chilly and austere enterprise, probably not worth seeing if you haven't read the book.

It is interesting to read, because it's always interesting to see a writer working with favorite themes but with incomplete control of technique. Since the novel is written in letters, the letters must be written to someone. So Lady Susan confides all her machinations to her friend Alicia Johnson. Alicia has no role in the narrative, save as uncritical cheerleader to Lady Susan, and is give a perfunctory background life with an unsatisfactory husband. She's a bit like a pillar in the middle of the living room put in to support to roof by an architect who hadn't figured out a way to work it into the design.

In the movie, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) keeps popping into London from the country house she is staying in to visit Alicia (Chloe Sevigny, played as American, presumably to expand the film's market) whenever she needs to talk to her, as if there's a commuter train between the two. If Alicia had been an actual part of the narrative, that would have been easier for Stillman to manage.

One thing I really like about Lady Susan is that she is a bad mom. And this is just a fact about her, not much more terrible than her other personality traits. In most fiction, being a bad mom is the worst thing a woman can be. Bad dad...well, hey, that's a hard job, no wonder us guys screw it up now and then. Lady Susan describes her daughter as a bit of a dullard. Mean, but entirely accurate, in both book and movie. She is phenomenally dull. Her only use really is to get married off so that mom can continue to live an overleveraged life.

The story feels truncated, as if Austen went on to other, more promising projects (Sense and Sensibility, originally Elinor and Marianne was apparently also epistolary in its original draft) and never got back to it. Kind of a pity. If Alicia Johnson, earnest confidante, had turned into an actor in her own right, with goals that gradually diverge from Lady Susan's, it might have been quite something. Call it Will and Idea, and scoop Schopenhauer into the bargain....

I read this for my favorite book group, where I always find myself reading something unexpected.


Where I'll be at Arisia

I'll be attending our local con, Arisia, next weekend (January 13-15). I probably won't be there Friday night, but will be all day Saturday and Sunday.  If  you're there, say hello. My panels are:

10 am Saturday Fashionpunk
A discussion of various aspects of fashion and SF, with Chris Brathwaite, T. X. Watson, and Nightwing Whitehead.

10 am Sunday How to Self-Edit That Steaming Hot Pile of Crap
Thrilling editing stories and methods, with Trisha Wooldridge, Matthew Kressel, Jackqui B., and Ken Scheneyer.

1 pm Sunday The 100 Year Old Barbed Wire: The Great War & SF
A combination of works by people who went through that war, and works about and influence by it, with Sioban Krzywicki, Greer Gilman, Debra Doyle, and Sonya Taaffe.

Uncle Vanya and our current moment

Last night I went to a reading group I like, where we discussed Anton Chekhov's play Uncle Vanya, first put on stage in 1899. After rereading it, I rewatched the great Vanya on 42nd Street, with Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore (the movie has a wonderfully sly beginning, sliding us into the play without our quite realizing it).

It's a play about hopelessness, about an unproductive world in which changing your situation seems completely impossible--and also about the self-defeating personality those circumstances seem to engender. Astrov the idealistic doctor is dissolving himself slowly in alcohol and finds it impossible to make a real human connection. Vanya labors pointlessly for someone he once respected, but his labor is really to keep himself from taking any chances. Vanya's mother spends her time making notes on political pamphlets, as close to an obsessive commenter on blogs as the nineteenth century could get.

A modern restaging set in one of America's hollowing out areas would work perfectly. The frustrations, angers, and acceptance of a humble and undeserved fate would require little translation. Dr. Astrov's big interest is environmental destruction, the effects that destruction has on the human soul, which would also be spot on.

See you at Readercon?

Readercon has moved this year, and will be at the Quincy Marriott, in Quincy, MA (if you're not from around here, that's pronounced 'quin-zee'), starting this Thursday night (July 7 - 10).  I have every intention of getting down there that first night, but it's a farther haul from the house than Burlington was, so we'll see.

My schedule is all on Friday:

2:00 PM    AT    Autographs. Alex Jablokow, Alex Shvartsman.

6:00 PM    5    Author Trademark or Personal Cliché? . F. Brett Cox, Gillian Daniels, Karen Heuler (leader), Alex Jablokow, Bud Sparhawk. Most writers occasionally suspect that they are writing the same type of story over and over again. Some writers set out to do so. Is this a good thing or bad? Our panelists will examine which writers persistently revisit the same images, themes, characters, or situations, and discuss when and for whom this revisiting works and when and for whom it does not. The panelists will discuss how they handle this situation, when they realize the story they're writing seems too familiar. Should the story be discarded because it's already been written, or should a writer continue and try to discover the source of the weird power it holds for them? Panelists will discuss which writers they admire, and what distinctive features make them exceptional and unique. Panelists will also come up with a few strategies to help audience members (and perhaps each other) see their work in a new light, using everything from literary influences to music and movies to dreams and the unconscious.

8:00 PM    6    The Future of Government . Christopher Brown, Alex Jablokow, Paul Park (leader), Steven Popkes. We like to think that US democracy is the ultimate and best form of government, but it has its weaknesses as have all the types of government that came before and exist today. What forms of government are coming? What new technologies, economic ideas, or environmental changes might play important roles in these new types of governance? Was Marx ultimately right and we just haven't gotten very far along his timeline yet? What forms of government have been proposed that haven't existed in the real world?

One mystery: whatever possessed me to sign up for an autographing session?  And they used my legal name instead of my pen name.  There seem to have been some organizational issues this year, so I'l just deal with it.
I hope to see you there.

Why "Elvira Madigan"?

I listen to classical music while I work. Few classical music announcers are permitted much personality, and they seldom say much about the music they are about to play.  Whenver someone plays Mozart's 21st piano concerto, they do feel obliged to say the music (the 2nd movement Adagio) was used in a movie, "Elvira Madigan", and some people call the concerto after that.

It's a great piece. I have a collection of Alfred Brendel playing those late piano concertos, and it's always tempting to listen to more than one. It's kind of a sin against self to listen to this music while doing something else in the first place, but letting these works blend into each other is even worse.

But why "Elvira Madigan"? Has anyone actually watched or even heard of this Swedish movie from 1967? Why do the announcers feel obliged to say this? What are we supposed to get out of it? It's an odd tic, no doubt originating with some marketing person at a record company. People who feel themselves immune from influence of any kind are often slaves of some defunct marketing person.

Why "The Moldau"?

I usually listen to my local classical music station, WCRB, while I work. Sometimes I listen to All Classical Portland, which I started listening to because I start writing really early in the morning, and the all-night shows tend to have less chatter on them.

Both of these stations have a number of pieces they play over and over again, and one of these is the section of Smetana's Ma Vlast called The Moldau.

I remember when I first heard that piece, as a teenager. It came on some record of classical selections, I don't remember what, and I loved it. It's a great piece of program music, traveling down a river from its springs to its greatest majesty.

I still love it--and own the complete Ma Vlast. But it seems like this piece in particular gets way too much airplay.

European concert music, Baroque to Early Modern, is my music, the music I grew up on, and the music I still return to, both for stimulation and recentering. I do worry about wearing it out. But the unification of my thoughts with the music really enables me to get my work done. At my age, that's nothing I would give up on easily.

I have recently been changing location, from my office to the living room, where I take notes and think in total silence. It's an odd feeling, like I should be able to hear the rattle of the little marble of my mind rolling around inside my skull. Sometimes old and familiar habits need to be disrupted simply because they are old and familiar, and thus rote. I'll see if I get something out of this.

I may well miss a few playings of The Moldau, which would be OK.

Update, 12/17/14, 10:43 a.m.:  I just tuned to All Classical Portland, and there it is again! Those damn peasants are dancing (one of the sections of the piece, if you are unfamiliar). Oh, well, it always sounds like fun to me.  Happy peasants. How we envy them, and their folk dances.

How to read The Accursed

If you have an interest in reading The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates, but worry about how long the damn thing is (and it is long), relax: I'm going to give you a guide on how to read it more quickly, and still get a lot out of it. Because it really is worth reading.

The book is partly a historical novel and partly a historical gothic horror. On a prose level, Oates always has it going on, and even slowly paced scenes keep you reading. No problems there. And both the historical novel part and the gothic romance part are great.

I just don't think they fit together very well, and the result is a book that is just too long. I happen to think that the gothic horror part is much more fun, consistent, and effective. If you want to read just that part, then skip most places there is a name you recognize from history.  The only possible exception to this is Woodrow Wilson, and I'll get to him in a minute.

The first thing to skip are the Upton Sinclair chapters. They are just as well-written as the others, don't get me wrong. But they have nothing to do with the actual story. They culminate in a wonderful sequence involving Sinclair's encounter with a drunken, abusive, and charismatic Jack London. It's great. It's also long. Skip it and save it for later.

Now, Woodrow Wilson. He's front and center her in this book, so you can't really skip him (though you probably could). I've discussed Wilson as a noir villain before. Here is is convincingly portrait from the inside: obsessive, paranoid, racist, unhealthy, narrow-minded, yet with a kind of saving force of personality. He harbors some of the villains of the piece, with no idea of who they are or what they represent. But, in the end, he makes a good choice, slightly redeeming himself. Wilson remains the great mystery of American history.

But when he encounters other historical characters, he goes dead too. There is an extended sequence in Bermuda, told through letters from Wilson to his wife. You can skip that whole part too. Why? Two words: Mark Twain.

Mark Twain is mandatory for any novel, whether alternate history or historical, set in the decades around 1900. After all he is a charismatic figure, and he really did seem to have known and befriended every significant figure of that era. But he almost always kills stories stone dead. Because he is impossible to imitate without being Mark Twain, and was, by this point in his career, playing Mark Twain as a role anyway. And he encourages writers to coast by stealing quotes and turning them into faux dialogue. He is a character in those Bermuda letters, which are pretty much as interesting as you would imagine letters from Woodrow Wilson to be.

You can read about Grover and Frances Cleveland. They are just local color, really.

There. I've saved you a couple of hundred pages out of a 700 page book.

The book is told as the historical researches of one M.W. van Dyck, a scion of a local family. He collects documents and personal testimony, which he edits and even destroys, as needed to maintain propriety. We all love our obsessive annotators and collators, and van Dyck is a worthy member of the tribe.

There is one charming chapter where he details the various sources he has used: The Turquoise-Marbled Book, The Beige Morocco Book, the Crimson Calfskin Book, the Black-Dappled Book, the Sandalwood Box, and so on, giving a physical manifestation to the various characters we have been following.

There are murders, vampires, grotesque deaths, mysterious magic kingdoms, a boy turned to stone, an abduction of a bride in full view of the congregation, and a manifestation of Sherlock Holmes that tells us that certainty does not necessarily mean truth.

So, I recommend it. Whether you skip the sections I suggest is purely between you and your readerly conscience.






RIP P. D. James

The mystery writer P. D. James died on what was Thanksgiving, here in the U. S.

She was one of my favorite writers, and I was impressed (and heartened) as she continued to produce high-quality works well into her 90s, decades after most writers have to give it up, or are reduced to producing parodies of their older work.

James was a genre writer.  She wrote mysteries (and one SF book), but wrote novels that were mysteries, rather than just mystery novels. I write "just", conscious that that somewhat insults all of us genre writers, for our toy-like limited worlds that delight because of their very limitations and simplifications. Still, it's important to realize that you can focus on the things that make a genre pleasurable, and get a fair measure of novelistic breadth as well, as James did.

The first novel of hers I read was Death of an Expert Witness, which I pulled off my parent's bookshelf as a teenager.  Both my parents were big mystery readers. The most recent I read was just a month or so ago, a fairly early one, Death of a Nightingale, because somehow I had missed that one.

James had a fairly standard setup for these things:  a specific community of people, usually professionals in some business (forensics, nursing, running a nuclear power station, publishing, politics) in a specific venue, often a large Victorian structure, but also more modern buildings as well, with growing tensions that finally manifest themselves in murder. The murder does not remove the tensions, but makes them worse, bringing out the specifics of each character's personality and situation.

Then Dalgliesh shows up. If you want the antithesis to the jazz-listening alcoholic can't-get-along-with-superiors loner cop preferred by Americans, he is it. He is grave, private, and remorseless. Don't look for quirks. And P. D. James knew exactly who he was. The New York Times obit (linked above) quotes James critiquing the performance of the actor playing Dalgliesh in the BBC series: "[Dalgliesh] wouldn’t wear his signet ring on the wrong finger." Details matter, and Dalgliesh, also a poet, is all about the details.

James also wrote two novels about a young female detective, Cordelia Gray, and the first of these, Unsuitable Job for a Woman, is one of my favorites. She never wrote any more, which is a pity. I think about Cordelia sometimes, and what might have happened to her in later life. I think her outsider status, an appeal to some of us, was not entirely sympathetic to James, the consummate insider, and runner of systems. In addition to her writing, she was a successful and respected administrator, governor of the BBC, and later member of the House of Lords.

My move has left all of my James paperbacks inaccessible, so I will have to pick one of her novels up (maybe even her last, Death Comes to Pemberley, though I have a low tolerance for Austen pastiches, which seem mostly aimed at people who don't normally read Jane Austen--maybe James will be different) at the library. I'll let you know.

An Interstellar encounter

Note:  there area  couple of minor spoilers in here, for those who have not seen the movie. There is a bit of unexpected casting, not listed in the publicity materials, that is a genuine surprise. I'm actually not sure what the point of that surprise is, really, but it is there, so think about it before reading.

Science fiction movies come in two main categories, both large: the loud, weaponized alien invasion type, with stuff blowing up and carefully placed taglines, and the spiritually transcendent Big Idea kind with soaring music and people staring off at things. Chistopher Nolan's recent Interstellar is definitely that second kind.

It was OK, actually. It had some good science fiction stuff in it, though its best parts seemed to crib a bit too much from the 2013 Cuaron film Gravity (a vastly superior work, I think, largely because it was on a human scale, involving the survival of a single person in space, not entire races, civilizations, etc.).

I could go on about a lot of stuff I didn't like in it (the stunt-cast Matt Damon plays a smarmy douchebag so well it is startling than anyone would ever believe a thing he has to say, for example), but I want to focus on just a couple of things:  the film's portrayal of poverty, and of dishonesty.

The world we step into in the beginning of the movie is explicitly impoverished. Crops are failing, civlization has largely collapsed. And its intellectual horizons are likewise impoverished, as is shown at a parent/teacher conference where a former astronaut is cautioned to not have his daughter tell her classmates the Moon landings ever really happened--those dreams will impede recovery, it is implied.

But the main character, Cooper, lives with his family in a classic Midwestern farmhouse. He drives a pickup truck, goes to baseball games. It is dusty. OK. But otherwise, it does not look like any real compromises need to be made. Even the corn we see is high and vigorous (though weirdly flammable, as is shown in a late scene that makes little sense).

The whole thing is symbolized when the pickup has a flat. Cooper says to get the spare, his son says "that is the spare". Then a drone flies past and Cooper takes off in pursuit of it. Despite the fact that his rear tire is flat, he drives up and down hills, and through cornfields that, presumably, are the only food they have. The terrain is hillier than good corn country generally is, but I can deal with that.  What I can't deal with is that the flat tire vanishes as an issue.

Having a flat you can't easily fix is a great referent for poverty. Nolan likes the idea of poverty, but neither its reality nor its appearance.

Later, of course, we find an entire concealed space program, paid for by some secret appropriation, and one that is much more effective than our own open space program.

This is all a lie--appropriate, becaue, aside from poverty, the movie is about lies and promises not kept (except by deus ex machina miracle). The government lies to people to keep them from dreaming too high, Cooper gives his daughter an assurance he can't keep, Damon's Dr. Mann lies about his planet, Anne Hathaway's Brand (did she really not get a first name?) lies about how neutral she is about picking the planet that holds her lover (in a self-justifying speech so lame I can't imagine the crew doing multiple takes of it without cracking up), Michael Caine's Dr. Brand lies about pretty much everything.

Some of these lies aren't just self-justifying fibs, they threaten the very survival of the human race.  This is a society in crisis, falling apart and losing everything that once held it together. How does an honorable person of good will deal with this situation?  That's an interesting movie, and one, I think that the Nolans had in mind before they succumbed, as they usually do, the the lure of their favorite fabrics, fustian and bombast.

And can we give "clever" robots a rest for a while?

I did like a couple of moments:

Cooper and Brand return from serious time dilation on their first planet and the man they left in orbit stares at them, quaking, because for him it has been over twenty years.

Dr. Mann starts on a standard self-justifying villain speech but doesn't get more than three words into it before the consequences of his bad decisions wipe him out.

Dozois's Best SF 31: my story

The Gardner Dozois anthology The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-First Annual Collection came out a couple of days ago.  It has one of my stories in it, "Bad Day on Boscobel", set in the same universe as my novels Carve the Sky and River of Dust. It comes from the wonderful anthology The Other Half of the Sky, edited by my friend Athena Andreadis.

As I've mentioned before, Athena is the reason the story exists to begin with, since she asked me to contribute to the anthology, and then, when I was unable to come up with anything, suggested the subject, the life of a certain character, Miriam Kostal, in between the two books (Dust is kind of a prequel to Carve).

This is always a great collection, and I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in it.

And the story itself has generated enough interest that I am thinking about another story with Miriam and the characters she encounters in it. We'll see.


Image search serendipity

Often, when you text search a movie title for images from a movie, you see a few iconic images, images from a 70s remake, images of the actors in other movies, images from lists of similar movies, etc.  And then there are always the oddballs, images that have some matching text associated with them, but that don't have anything to do with the topic of the original search.

When I wrote my little piece on "The Narrow Margin", I of course searched on the movie title.  And, among all the various images that came up, the one below always did.

It's probably because of the margin of victory in 1916, or something, but I prefer to think that search is giving me a clue about the roots of noir, and the kind of overconfident men who think they can handle a situation that is completely beyond them.

"But I just wanted to make the world safe for democracy!"Of course, look at him enough, and he seems a lot more sinister than just the poor schnook who gets his lunch eaten by Henry Cabot Lodge. This is the man behind the guys behind the guys you think are the problem. The star of a new genre: Progressive Noir.

This week's arrogant rewrite: "The Narrow Margin"

Many lists of great minor noir movies includes the 1952 train-centered The Narrow Margin, where a tough cop from LA is sent to Chicago to secretly escort a mob moll, Mrs. Frankie Neal, back by train so she can testify against her husband's gang. Gangsters get on the train to find her and kill her. The movie is usually described as tight and suspenseful, and, at 71 minutes, goes by fast.

Still, I think it is overrated, for reasons I will go into.  People really like it for one thing: the performance of Marie Windsor as the moll.

"You don't like me--but you aren't going to look anywhere else."

You may remember her as the disastrously sexy Sherry Peatty, the unfaithful wife of the Elisha Cook, Jr. character in Stanley Kubrick's 1956 noir, The Killing:

A classic noir marriageWhat happens in The Killing is mostly her fault (as expected). But what is with the "noir bad girl" wig thing?  I mentioned this in my discussion of Too Late for Tears a while ago. Fortunately, the actresses compelled to wear these things were hot enough to overcome their disadvantages.

Fortunately, if Windsor's wearing a wig in The Narrow Margin, it is a good one.

Windsor does her wise-ass sparring with Walter Brown, who is as bricklike as his name, and not much of a sparring partner. He is played by Charles McGraw, who has a voice like a cement mixer. He looks and acts a bit like a slowed-down Kirk Douglas, and, what do you know, he played Douglas's gladiatorial trainer in one of my favorite boyhood movies, Spartacus.

Brown comes to Chicago with his older, wiser, more cynical partner, Gus Forbes, to to pick up Mrs. Neil. En route, Forbes asks Brown what he thinks Neil looks like. "A dish," Brown answers. "What kind of dish?" And then we get this classic description:

Translation: "girls are icky."Because who else would marry a hood? But there is a twist in the plot that brings this whole assumption into question. But that twist is not the one that is interesting.

Here at the Chicago apartment, someone is lying is wait, and as Forbes and Brown escort Mrs. Neal out, someone tries to kill her, and kills Forbes instead. Brown gets her safely to the train station, and aboard the train. There she is resentful, and he is angry, sad about his partner, but dedicated to his job. They never do learn to get along:

"I still think you're icky."After this, it's a bunch of hugger mugger, with an innocent woman with one of those annoying 50s children whom Brown befriends, and several overlapping baddies. In fact, one smooth baddy who tries to bribe Brown is then whisked off the train at a station stop and is replaced by another one who flies from Chicago by plane to totally disrupt the "we're all stuck on this narrow train" concept.  And, at one point, a car drives parallel to the train on a totally straight road for miles and miles, also messing up the isolation scenario.

The story is really about institutional corruption, not about Mrs. Neal. Everyone is compromised, particularly Forbes. If this was an actual noir, the events of Forbes's death in that Chicago apartment building would be returned to, a couple of times, as it is reinterpreted.

And Mrs. Neal should actually do manipulative, maybe even nasty things in her desperate attempt to survive. There is actually an explanation in the movie for why she doesn't, but it comes late and is just a routine movie reversal rather than something that makes you reexamine all of your assumptions about what's going on. I do like that Brown never warms to her, never likes her, and never even seems to find her hot, which shows something about him, given the fact that they have to live in such close proximity:

A mysterious man on the wall is standing between them: part of the hidden movie.Forbes was clearly on the take. Someone took him out, or he got taken out by accident. And all the playing around in the train has a deeper purpose. I actually think a lot of this was in the story originally, but was removed during rewrites, or edited out to keep the focus on Windsor, and the running around on the train. Fine, I guess, but it leaves a perfectly good noir plot just sitting around, ready to be reused.

Speaking of "running around", at several points Brown is blocked in the narrow corridor by a self-deprecating fat man, Sam Jennings:

"No one likes a fat man except his grocer and his tailor"

There's something to him, but not enough. Potentially another interesting and expanding character.

Good stuff:

Aside from some credits music, there is only ambient sound in this movie, including the portable record player Mrs. Neal plays her jazz records on.

Brown never falls for Mrs. Neil.

Given the limitations of the big cameras they had then, this has amazingly flexible camera work.

In addition to that lacy thing, Mrs. Neal shows why giving up on dresses has made our lives poorer:

No need for a negligee with a dress like this.Oh, look, her hair does look like a terrible wig here. I think I have uncovered the dark truth of noir.

Fat Boy's Folly

In college I wrote a story called "Fat Boy's Folly" to entertain my friend Bill. I don't actually remember what the story was about, but Bill later put that title on the weight track sheet he had on the wall above his scale. Somehow, though, I don't think I could have competed with Weight Watchers with that title for a business. Tough Love for the Tubby. Nah, that wouldn't work either.

A couple of nights ago, Marilyn, Sherri and saw a more recent version of Fat Boy's Folly, this time called The Whale, at the SpeakEasy in Boston. As it starts, an immensely fat man (actually a normal man in an impressive fat suit) sits in the middle of disgusting piles of old takeout containers, running what sounds like a fairly typical and boring online class where students write meaningless essays about great literary works. Who these people are, why they take this class, and how it works never quite becomes clear.

Class over, the fat man puts on some gay porn, masturbates, and almost has a heart attack. This lets you know you're in a modern work of art.

Then, various people pop in an out of his house: a Mormon missionary with a hidden agenda, a nurse who has a weird affection for this carcase, and a wittily obnoxious long-lost daughter. Later on, ex-wife and mom shows up.

There is a kind of plot, but it's more an actor's play, with some nice scenes, and a bit of a sitcom pace. Mormonism comes in for some whacks (is it really the easiest religion to make fun of?), particularly about its intolerant spirituality. As usual, a gay relationship has some extra oomph that a regular heterosexual relationship wouldn't have, at least to the kind fo audience that goes to a play like The Whale.

There is a cute essay about Moby-Dick that gets read over and over until you realize where it came from at the end. That is cute too, but is paced to seem like some kind of deep revelation.

Overall, not a wasted evening at the theater (Boston has a lot of those, as we know), but not so great either. But the fat suit is pretty amazing.