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Friday, April 27, 2007

Of Jamesian Bondage

Jamsco writes:
My wife and I rented Casino Royale and we enjoyed it (well, except for the torture scene - my wife had to leave the room). Simple, taut, a good love story and a good 'how did Bond become Bond' backstory. Also I liked the opening credits. Thanks belatedly for the recommendation.

I'm thinking that it's possible (likely) that you own the DVD and I was wondering if I could get your opinion about the Bond Girl extra. Quite interesting, but I noted that every third actress said they took the part because for once 'the girl was able to do everything that Bond did.' They spoke like this was a new concept, but it seems like a third to half of all of the Bond Girls have been 'I can do it myself' types. Have you seen it, and what did you think?

p.s. My opinion is that the most gallant thing I have ever seen Bond do was to sit next to Vesper in the shower, not caring about his tux.

First off, thanks for the kind words. I'm glad to hear that you liked the movie. Validation of my opinion is always welcome.

As for the "Bond Girl" extra: I'm afraid I haven't seen it. At some point I expect I will add Casino Royale to the permanent collection, but that hasn't happened yet.

I think Jamsco is absolutely right about the general nature of Bond girls. Thinking it over, I'm hard pressed to think of a single shrinking violet or helpless heroine in the lot. They're all cast from the same "spunky princess" mold that when run in G mode produced Princess Leia and the Padme Amidala who appeared in Attack of the Clones, when run in PG-13 mode produces Bond Girls, and when run in R mode produced Lieutenant Ripley. Thinking it over some more, I do believe that Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service was my favorite Bond Girl.

But on the other hand, I think the actresses are also probably right when they speak as if this is a new concept, because it is a new concept — to them. After all, these are young babe film actresses we're talking about here, and as a group, they're not generally known for their keen knowledge about... about... well, about much of anything, to be frank.

Except global warming. And interntional political relations. In those two areas, all pretty young film starlets are world-reknowned experts, of course.

How about it? Who is your favorite Bond Girl, and why?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Whither the Literary Biography?

Two new literary biographies have come to my attention lately: Edith Wharton, by Hermione Lee, and The Life of Kingsley Amis, by Zachary Leader. Both are enormous works of scholarship, in quite the literal sense — the Wharton book is the lightweight at 869 pages — and both offer plenty of interesting insights into the lives and times of two important voices in modern literature and the forces that shaped their long careers.

Of the two, I would most hope that Amis is not forgotten already. If nothing else, you should read Lucky Jim, and anyone seriously interested in science fiction as literature should be familiar with New Maps of Hell. Wharton, on the other hand, to me seems inescapable, but that may simply be the long-lingering result of being forced to read Ethan Frome when I was in 9th Grade. At the end of the semester, on the last day of school, we gathered in a picnic area in Humboldt Park and burned our copies of Ethan Frome, we hated it that much. (Memo to All Teachers: if you want to imbue 13- and 14-year-old boys with a lasting love of literature, do not make them read Ethan Frome.)

As blogfodder, though, what interests me most is this idea. The Wharton book is based on an almost-forensic exhumation of her writings and letters, which was not an easy task, as Wharton had the peculiar habit of retrieving her letters from their recipients and burning them, in order to ensure that only the statements and opinions she was willing to have made public survived her. Amis, on the other hand, was a promiscuous alcoholic and wrote accordingly, producing an absolutely enormous volume of personal material and spewing it all over the landscape, leaving behind a great pool of written information to be strained through in search of meaning.

But — letters? What are these letters of which you speak? Who writes letters any more?

So here is the question of the week. In this age of email, cellphones, IM'ing and txtmsgng, does the literary biography have a future, and if so, which shape will it take? We've already seen it demonstrated in a very public way that it is impossible to retrieve one's blog postings and embarassing emails and burn them. Will the biographers of the future think we were all illiterate, because we left so few letters behind? Or will, God help us, our emails, text messages, and whining bloggerel live on long after us, in readable form, so that the task of the future biographer becomes that of donning hip boots and wading in, while hoping not to drown in effluvia and trivia?

The floor is now open for discussion. Your thoughts?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Encouraging Boys to Read

The weather is finally starting to warm up and turn to Spring, and so we finally had the sort of boy-intensive weekend that we consider normal. The Kid and his friends, liberated at last from the indoor confines of winter, raced through the houses, yards, and streets of the neighborhood on foot, skateboard, and bike, burning off energy like little packs of laughing yahoos. We had boys on the deck, boys in the yard, boys in the trees, and boys on the neighbor's trampoline, and the only time all weekend that I had to turn into Mr. Authority Figure was when they were out in the back yard with golf clubs, driving balls into the cow pasture.

There's nothing wrong with that per se, as long as the cows aren't out, but cows will eat golf balls, with unpleasant results, and the lads were exhibiting some reluctance to walk out into that bovine minefield and retrieve their lost balls.

Saturday evening we also acquired a Tagalong Little Sister (TLS) for a couple of hours, and that is when the gender difference really struck me. The Mrs. was sitting on the deck, reading, and TLS was quite content to join her, to spend the last hours of the day soaking up the light and warmth and quietly immersed in a book. And, after raising three daughters, we had plenty of suitable books on hand. But the boys?

Boys don't read — at least, not voluntarily. I've been observing the lifeform in its natural state for some time, I've formed some ad hoc focus groups, I've tried to question them, and I've even tried to give books to The Kid's friends, and I have come to the conclusion that it just plain doesn't work. To most boys, reading is something disagreeable you do in school. Among his friends, The Kid is the only one who actually reads for pleasure.

This concerns me. Literature is the collective memory of our species, and the more I observe The Kid and his friends in action, the more strongly I believe that most of them are functionally illiterate. Or maybe that's the wrong way to put it: the boys can read if they absolutely must, but will do so only if they're forced to do so, and their reading comprehension skills are painfully weak. Call it Illiterate by Choice.

So that's today's Big Question: _how do we encourage boys to read_? I don't want to stop them from running and making noise; I don't want to turn them into girls; and I have some observations and questions which I'll throw in the comments thread later on, but right now, I'm disturbed by their non-literacy and looking for ideas. Any ideas.

Your thoughts?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

R.I.P., Kurt Vonnegut

I meant to turn off the computer, but just had to check the news one last time.

Huh. How about that. Kurt Vonnegut has died.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. In a sense, I feel like an old friend has checked out — but then as I think more about it, it feels like I've lost an old friend who in recent years has drifted away and turned out to be rather less good of a friend than I'd formerly thought. When I was 16, 17, 18, I thought Vonnegut was the most brilliant writer I'd ever found. Those dog-eared paperbacks of The Sirens of Titan, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Welcome to the Monkey House still sit on my bookshelf. And even though I long ago outgrew him, deep in my heart of hearts, a part of me is very sad that the voice who told the story of "Harrison Bergeron" has fallen forever silent.

There were things about Vonnegut that scarcely registered when I was a young fan. He survived the Battle of the Bulge, in an action where the rest of his unit was nearly wiped out. He was taken prisoner and shipped off to a forced labor camp, where he survived the fire-bombing of Dresden and was forced to help clean up the carnage afterwards. After witnessing all that, to still be able to speak, much less write, is an awesome testimony to the power of the creative spirit.

Strangely enough, though, when I read the news that he had died, I started for my bookshelf, to pick up one of those old paperbacks, but instead picked up the best Vonnegut novel he never wrote: Venus on the Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout. And then I put that book down, and instead picked up Inferno, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, because I thought I remembered —

Ah, yes, there is it. Chapter 14, page 115: Larry and Jerry's acidic description of the special place in Hell reserved for Vonnegut. I'm sure that 30 years ago, Larry and Jerry felt both very funny and very righteous writing that passage. Especially the bit about the blinking green neon light on Vonnegut's gigantic sepulchre:
Memo to self: Tempting as it may seem at the time, never write a passage like that in any of my books or stories.

Christianity and Science Fiction, Part 2

Rycamor writes a post that's so good, it deserves to be on the front page and not buried in the comments. Without further ado, then...

I don't know that there is any particular need for SF and Christianity to be reconciled, any more than a good beer needs to be reconciled with Christianity. I enjoy a beer now and then, but remain fully aware of its potential for disaster.

Growing up a missionary kid (from a deeply Christian extended family) and a sci-fi buff was interesting, but hardly surprising. In fact, from what I saw, Christian missionaries are more likely than the average person to be into sci-fi. I attribute it to a certain questing personality, as well as a need for some amount of escapism when living a stranger in a strange land. My father went from being a research scientist at Firestone to adventurer for God, driving a beat-up Landrover or his motorcycle all over Colombia. He still felt no compunction about reading a good Asimov or Van Vogt novel now and then, nor did several of his colleagues. I think it came down to this: there is an undeniable sense of enthusiam and playfulness with ideas that you don't get anywhere else but sci-fi. Even if you don't agree with the premises, the ideas are interesting and fun, and all the speculation on technology is fun, too. It's really too bad that modern Christianity doesn't have much propensity for this.

Of course it was obvious to me from the start that most scifi writers either held Christianity in contempt, or (perhaps even worse) didn't regard *any* religiousity as worth mention. But I had no serious problem dealing with that fact and remaining a believer. It wasn't until my 20s that I struggled with that, due more to serious consideration of scientific determinism than any scifi books. If anything, the books forced me to face and deal with many issues that the typical Christian avoids all his life.

It was also obvious that great writing is possible from Christians in that genre. C.S. Lewis was the first to open my eyes to that. There really is quite a spectrum in sci-fi's interaction with Christianity, like the grudging forbearance in some of James Blish's work, the covert sympathy in Cordwainer Smith's novels (and Neal Stephenson too, I think), before we even get to the obvious ones like Madeline L'Engle. I have also had the odd surprise now and then, reading an overtly-Christian sci-fi book that still manages to be a good story.

Also, I think the problem we have now is not purely due to the sci-fi community. Yes, philosophically, sci-fi has grown only shallower, but so has the western Church. The typical American Christian is not happy unless God is in their happy little box. They think they are braving the maelstrom of "cultural relevance" with modern worship services and even a singles dance or two, as well as structuring church to resemble some sort of giant self-help session (nothing wrong with these per se), but all the while not realizing that much of it still becomes a sort of liturgy. The heart of Christianity is not about holy places, emotional catharses or group activities but about quiet discussions in search of truth, and prayer for the courage to act on that Truth.

Out of such shallowness comes the idea that Christian sci-fi or fantasy writers should restrict themselves to thinly-disguised repackagements of some Bible story or--even worse--succumb to the Betty Swinford school of leaden dialogue and oh-gosh propaganda (Scott was seized with horror. He felt like he was caught up in a whirlwind and his world was falling apart around him. ). I think every American writer who is tempted to play up to the church's expectations should read Franky Schaeffer's "Addicted to Mediocrity", and then maybe "Sham Pearls for Real Swine". Yes, Schaeffer can be a little abrasive at times, but his analysis is not that off.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Catching Up

Still not back to anything even remotely resembling a normal schedule. However, a sizable number of interesting items have accumulated in the blogfodder bucket and they're not getting any fresher, so it's time to get posting.

First up: if you have access to the Wall Street Journal Online, I'd like to direct your attention to a fascinating article by Carl Bialik, "The Numbers Guy," that ran on Friday, 3/23/07, and is all about how to game the sales ranking system. It turns out it's a whole lot easier than you might imagine. For example, since Amazon computes sales ranking hourly and lumps new and used book sales together, and since very few books sell multiple copies in any given hour, if you really want to give your book an (admittedly temporary) boost, you could put a plethora of copies out there at a selling price of 1-cent apiece and then arrange for your few dozen best friends to all buy their copies at roughly the same time. The resulting sales ranking will be purely a statistical fluke, of course — but hey, the important thing here is to be able to advertise that your book is The #1 Bestseller!

At the moment, the original article is in the WSJ's free content area at this link. I can't guarantee how long this link will stay valid, though, so you might also want to check out Mr. Bialik's fascinating blog, The Numbers Guy, and especially his blog commentary on his own article, which contains a wealth of links to other articles on the subject.

By the way, if you don't think that folks in the publishing business are constantly trying to figure out ways to game the other major bestseller lists, and often succeeding...

Next up, another Wall Street Journal article, this one from the Thursday, March 22 issue and titled, "Borders Business Plan Gets a Rewrite." Unfortunately I can't find an online link for this article, so here's the meat of it:
Today, Borders plans to announce its intention to reopen its own branded e-commerce Web site in early 2008, ending an alliance with that had been the core of its online strategy. At the same time, it will announce it is giving up on a decade-long effort to expand its own book-superstore concept internationally and will sell or franchise most of its 73 overseas Borders stores. The company also plans to close nearly half the Waldenbooks outlets it owns throughout the U.S.
And then in the next paragraph, the news that still has me shuddering:
Additionally, in a move mirroring a similar venture by its larger rival, Barnes & Noble Inc., Borders plans to build a much bigger proprietary publishing operation by striking deals with [...] the heads of various Hollywood talent agencies.
That's right. Borders is looking to expand their line of proprietary hardcover titles. But they aren't interested in books by actual writers, no; what they're going to do is produce even more ghost-written celebrity-driven piles of steaming @*#&^ @#*&$^#$^ @#$6 $#*&^^!!!!

[Bruce temporarily collapses into a fit of incoherent frothing.]

An interesting factoid in the WSJ journal article, by the way: the general breakout for book sales numbers in 2006 were 38% traditional retail bookstores, 24% schools and libraries, 5% book clubs, 18% nonbookstore retailers (i.e., CostCo and WalMart), and 13% online. The only growing categories are nonbookstore retailers and online sales.

Finally, for all of you who were kind enough back in February to help Czja with her question:
Question: [in my story], my men are about to rescue a woman being held captive as a sex slave. The place is rural Wisconsin [...] What kind of guns and supplies should they be carrying?
From yesterday's St. Paul Pioneer Press comes yet another story that proves that reality is always far sicker and uglier than any sane writer can reasonably imagine. Read it... And then make sure your kids are still talking with you.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Christianity and Science Fiction

Old friend Guy Stewart checks in, to let everyone know that he has a new website, SF and Faith - Crossroads, as well as new content on his older site, Writer, teacher, husband, father: Guy Stewart.

Guy is an interesting fellow. I've had the pleasure of knowing him for about 25 years now, and it's been a real delight to watch him mature from being an ambitious amateur to being a contributor to ANALOG (which, for reference, is a magazine I've never succeeded in selling to). While you'll find some good reading on his Writer, teacher, et al site, I think the Crossroads site offers promise of being something far more meaningful — if he can pull it off. He's certainly issued an ambitious manifesto, but if there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's never to underestimate Guy when he's feeling ambitious.

Me, I'm of the opinion that science fiction and Christianity can't be reconciled, at least, not in any way that does not betray underlying contempt for Christian beliefs. This goes back to the roots of the genre: the founding fathers of sci-fi were for the most part atheists and secular humanists, when not outright Marxists, and one of the central tenets of sci-fi at least since the Campbell era has been a profound belief in the perfectability of man. If I could collect royalties for every sci-fi novel, story, or movie that in some approving way expresses the idea that some day men will evolve beyond the need for gods, and in fact, become as gods...

But never mind that. Closer to home, this is the weekend of Minicon, and those of you who are local may notice that once again, I'm giving Minicon a miss. I may show up for Hilary Moon Murphy's party Saturday night, but at this point, that's only a vague maybe.

My biggest problem with Minicon — I mean, Minicon has a vast catalog of problems and I haven't time to list them all, but my single biggest problem with it — is that Minicon always takes place on Easter weekend. And, while I've had the pleasure of participating in some deeply moving Passover seders during the con, I have never once been able to get the con organizers and panel schedulers to understand that this holiday, Easter, is the single most important weekend in the entire Christian year.

Christianity ain't about Christmas, folks. God did not become Man to bring candy and toys for good little goys. He took on our form so that He could live and die as one of us, and then prove that there is such a thing as eternal life, through his triumph over death. He took the absolute worst this world has to offer, and then rose above it. The Crucifixion and Resurrection are the proverbial it, and the entire, critical, and most profound core of Christianity is expressed in those three words Christians say to each other on Easter morning: "He is risen."

Somehow, that proclamation seems strangely incompatible with spending Sunday morning with a bunch of hungover Klingons who are trying to remember where they left their battlets...