Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound the shofar! L'shana Tova!

I wish family and friends mazel and hazlocha today on the last night of Rosh Hashanah, highest of the Yamim Noraim. I wish everyone a happy 5769, full of mitzvahs.

If you like apples and honey, boy, is today ever your day. (Technically, the last day of Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, which is why I'm blogging here tonight. But you know what I mean.)

According to the Midrash, Rosh Hashanah is a day of atonement and rememberance for all the bad things we've done, as we go in judgment before God. My list is especially longer than most. I take some comfort in the fact God, being omnipotent, probably knows that guy at Macy's had it coming to him.

It's times like today I reflect on all the great Jewish men (Moses, Jesus, Einstein, Oscar Schindler), and one stands above the rest: Harlan Ellison. Neil Gaiman wrote the best description of Ellison I ever heard: "Some people live in castles, but Ellison lives in angry old Jew man world."

Everyone even remotely connected to science fiction knows who the guy is, and has a favorite Ellison story. My favorite is definitely that one where the sound effects guy in charge of "sweetening" the laugh track on a sitcom uses the communication reel to have a conversation with a long dead woman whose voice was recorded for the tracks. In the end, instead of laughing at the sitcom, the track boos and hisses their unfunny gaffes.

It's not the most popular story, but it's the most utterly Ellisonesque one. It combines sweetness and sentimentality with humor and bitter, opinionated cynicism, along with its glorification of average people.

Any story of Ellison's that glorified the average man was that one he did about a bitter nebbish that was revealed, by visitors from the future, to actually father children that would start a nuclear war that destroys the world. The office worker agrees to kill himself to save the world - because it was the first and only time in his life he was ever important. A very bittersweet ending.

Discovering Ellison's science fiction was something of a revelation for me. I started off as a science fiction fan reading Heinlein's juveniles, which I still love (especially HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL and STARSHIP TROOPERS, which I read to the point of memorization). I read a few of the Poul Anderson FLANDRY OF TERRA books, and I thought he was one of the best heroes in science fiction. I had read Phillip Jose Farmer's VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL, which to this day, I insist is his best book even over RIVERWORLD, and I was just getting into Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A.E. van Vogt.

I found the "New Wave" writers all around the same time, around fifteen: Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and the rest. I got into them after I read 1984 - which was a shocking book to someone that thinks of science fiction in terms of Heinlein and Burroughs. I was astonished there was no space patrol to come around and save the day at the end. It was a totally different kind of science fiction that I looked for ever after, and that's how I discovered Ellison and the rest of his contemporaries.

This was science fiction that wasn't formulaic, or adventure stories (though with his astonishing gift for flexibility Ellison could write both of those). Ellison's canon of work is legendary: "Repent, Harlequin!" and "A Boy and his Dog" among them.

To this day, I dislike admitting that I'm a Heinlein fan, because on the off-chance the other person is also a Heinlein fan, they'll start falsely thinking we have something in common. Heinlein fans, by and large, are a creepy bunch that close ranks around their hero with cultlike defensiveness.

They read Heinlein not for the spirit of adventure, but for a search for competent white male father figures they can project themselves into to forget their own very real human weaknesses and insecurities. Come to think of it, they remind me a little of the more loathesome fans of Hal Jordan or "Classic" Superman, who perpetually demand his immortality and guaranteed, constant victory with such loudness that it's psychologically intriguing.

Me, I already have a father figure: he's called my Father. And even he's a mortal, fallible human being.

And Edgar Rice Burroughs? Forget it. Every single fan of his, except Genevieve back in High School, was a giant tool. True story: I went to an ERB convention hosted on Miami Beach. The first sign I noticed something was up was that every other car in the hotel parking lot was a bright racing-red "Midlife Crisis" douchecar. When I finally got there, I was the only person in the convention to be under 30 that wasn't a trophy wife. It was like you got one as a door prize, available in your choice of Blonde or Asian.

The two kinds of fans I'm most comfortable around are Ellison fans, mostly because you can't appreciate Ellison without a sense of humor. Also, I have a passionate distaste for moralists, godbotherers, hypocrites, nosy people, busybodies, preachers, and the smug in general, prudes who dislike curse words and nudity on television, or who object to wholesome, All-American bloodthirsty violence.

Oscar Wilde once said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. If so, courtesy is the virtue of the hypocrite. Ellison's work tends to repel these people like crosses repel vampires.

Anyway, Ellison as a person is just plain cool. Admit it: it was one of the coolest moments in science fiction when Ellison backed Raymond Palmer in a corner and got that midget to admit that the Shaver Mystery was all a hoax he invented to sell magazines. Or remember when Christopher Priest (author of THE PRESTIGE) turned his Richard Dawson-like smarmy, sarcastic British wit on one of Ellison's dead friends? When Ellison tacked Christopher Priest, Priest's words were "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people."

Big mistake!

Ellison has an acid wit and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he's likeable because he only goes after the big guys, the same way Don Rickles only insults guys like Frank Sinatra. Ellison called Shatner an exhibitionist that would have sex with a moose in a store window for attention. He pulled his entire "Star Trek" scripted movie (that by the sound of things was absolutely mindblowing - the Enterprise journeying to the dawn of time) because the idiot executive said something like, "And could we have Mayans at the dawn of time? I like Mayans." Ellison's reaction was as hilarious as it was predictable.

I guess that's the lesson we can take away this Rosh Hashanah from Ellison is this: there's a little Harlan Ellison in all of us. Now that's something I can dip my apple to!

Ketiva ve-chatima tova!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My She-Roes: Good Female Science Fiction Writers

As shocking as it is today, there wasn't much of a place for women in science fiction and fantasy, both as writers, readers, editors, and even characters. When James H. Schmitz published his girl-telepath detective stories about Telzey Amberdon, the reaction was, "this could have been changed to a male character with no trouble."
I doubt that, but that's missing the point: the mentality was, unless there was a compelling reason to have them, a woman protagonist was hard to take seriously. Small surprise then, that most female sf writers have gender-ambiguous names, or use a male pseudonym.

I like these women not because they're women, but because they can write, because they create incredible worlds and live up to the promise of what science fiction is about.


She was the best writer of two-fisted men's science-adventure, but she wasn't a man.

Leigh Brackett wrote not only science adventure stories, but she succeeded in multiple fields of endeavor. In her 40 year career in Hollywood, Brackett wrote the screenplays for, arguably, the best Film Noir of all time (THE BIG SLEEP), the best Western (RIO BRAVO) and the best science fiction film (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), the last of which she wrote in her seventies.

Legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks was almost bowled out of his chair when he read her hardboiled detective fiction, and when he called "that Leigh Brackett guy" into her office, he almost fell out of his chair. It was by all accounts, Leigh Brackett that came up with the idea that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, but after Brackett's death in the 1980s, Lucas, that poisonous snake, changed his story.

As a person, Leigh Brackett always dressed like one of those "dress for success" articles, and she drove her red sportscar so fast that she often terrified passengers. Ray Bradbury remembers she once played volleyball with the men on Muscle Beach in California during the early 1940s.

Leigh was married to Edmond Hamilton, "the Planet-Smasher" himself, standby hack of the original space opera generation, and it's argued the only really good stories Hamilton wrote were those that the Planet-Smasher wrote under Brackett's guidance. Leigh Brackett's pupil was some punk teenager named Ray Bradbury.

Brackett's science fiction was best typefied by works like NEMESIS FROM TERRA. She took the Burroughs' style Sword n' Planet yarn and updated it, "improved" it with the sentiment she extracted from Noir and detective fiction and Westerns. It was Brackett, more than any other writer, that created the hardboiled, cynical "Han Solo" space pirate archetype, out for himself. Her villains were not pure "comic book" evil, but a kind of very real, human viciousness and ruthlessness found in gangsters and teamsters. Her heroes were every bit as nasty.

What's even more interesting was how seriously Brackett took the writing of atmosphere, something none of her contemporaries ever did: unlike Burroughs, her Mars was a shadow-filled world much like Robert E. Howard.


What do you call a science fiction writer that doesn't like technology, that thinks the industrial revolution was "a big mistake?"

The biggest not-so-secret secret in sf is that "Andre Norton" is a pseudonym for Alice Mary Norton. What surprises me most about Andre Norton is that she isn't the object of a cult, the way Heinlein or Robert E. Howard are.

Andre Norton's work show a fascination not with the "hard" sciences, the way Asimov or Heinlein shows, but with the "soft" ones: anthropology, human cultures, archeology. All of Norton's science fiction worlds have a defined prehistory, usually featuring billion year old "Forerunners" that preceded human beings. Her pre-Tolkien boom fantasy series WITCH WORLD had a vague primordial non-human past. She frequently featured non-white protagonists in a positive light; Native American main characters in novels like THE SIOUX SPACEMAN, THE BEAST MASTER, and even applied African culture in a science fiction context in ANDROID AT ARMS.

Andre Norton's stories are about outcasts and misfits finding their place in society, about the seduction of elite power groups, and the desire to start anew on wilderness planets. Her galaxies are usually wilderness worlds inhabited by Star Rangers that are space age versions of Daniel Boone, skilled in woodcraft, inhabited by hostile animals that are tamed by laser gun instead of Western rifles.


The first work by Tanith Lee I read, had to have been her sf ELECTRIC FOREST - a novel with so many twists it was downright unpredictable. It had at least six false endings, one after the other. This work, more than any other, "hooked" me.

Tanith Lee, unlike the rest, focuses more on fantasy than straight science fiction. Her defining qualities include a fascination with the Arabian Nights, which she used in her brilliant DEATH'S MASTER, a fascination with lesbianism, and frank sexuality. She derives more from Arabesques and the sensuousness and exoticism it implies, than the traditional Tolkien stuff.


I suppose I have to give a shout-out to my hometown girl, Daina Chaviano, don't I? A Miami-native, and the only other Miami science fiction writers I can think of, off the top of my head are the late Hugh B. Cave and...didn't L. Sprague de Camp live out his last few days in Palm Beach, if I remember right? A few friends of mine were THIS close a while back to stalking Encyclopedia Brown creator Arnold J. Sobol, but that's a story for another time.

Unlike Leigh Brackett, who died before I was born, and known J.D. Salinger-esque recluses like Cuban-born, Daina Chaviano wrote several Spanish-language books, that derive from Cuban folklore and myth. A lot of the books that inspire her, I grew up reading. My Dad had a copy of UNA BATALLA CUBANA CONTRA LOS DIABLOS (A Cuban Battle Against the Demons) on his shelf for years, and it spooked the heck out of me. Asimov was fascinated by Communist science fiction, which discouraged exploration into different types of societies out of the sentiment they were creating a new one, like good 19th Century Americans.

Because her work hasn't been translated into English, here in the States, she's mostly read by science fiction fans of Cuban descent in Miami that speak Spanish, which is a niche of a niche.

This is something I've been arguing all along: Spanish language television needs to take advantage of the resource that is the emerging science fiction writing markets. Spanish language TV, if it's at all possible, is even more thickheaded and resistant to change than North American TV: the same damn telenovela over and over. There needs to a be a science fiction anthology series on Spanish speaking TV.

Part of the reason the 1960s produced so many science fiction series of quality (STAR TREKM THE OUTER LIMITS, etc.) was because of the emergence of a real talent base from science fiction that were willing to write for television, that could produce science fiction of quality: Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and so on.

A similar phenomenon could be happening right now in the Spanish speaking world.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Critics: what are they good for?

Why does Judaism have kosher laws? It’s related to why we have movie critics.

I have no idea whether this article is a parody or not.

As the writer of the article is a critic herself, it’s very tempting to look at her piece as a kind of satire that she’s writing from the point of view of an adopted persona: she’s not so much making fun of critics, as she is lampooning the whole internet-generation mentality, where the collective long-term memory has less than three months, the dominance of fanboys wowed by explosions, monsters and superheroes, raging anti-intellectualism, the importance of the blogosphere over traditional media, and last but not least, an overpowering sense of illiteracy and impatience. The over-the-top use of her language, liberally sprinkled with “totally” and “superawesome” while at the same time knowing who Fritz Lang and James Agee are, leads me to believe this is a joke.

I can just imagine the author cracking up at the idea there are some people out there that find themselves agreeing with the article.

On the other hand, there is a possibility all this isn't just fun and games. First, the obviously sincere envy and distaste for film critics, a print medium job that she correctly point out isn’t as relevant as it used to be in the age of blogs.

You get to see movies for free. You get paid to watch movies. You work part-time and get a full-time salary. You enjoy a private screening of "The Dark Knight" weeks before my buds and I queue up to pay big bucks at the multiplex. And then some of you have the nerve to badmouth Batman and the Joker! Show some love for the folks who keep you in lattes and DVDs.

Another interesting point that the article brings up: what exactly is the function of the critic?

I’m regularly known for having contradictory opinions. In fact, I’ve always thought that to agree with a large number of people on anything is a weakness. However, I’m just some random asshole on the internet beholden to no one but myself. I get paid nothing, I am not in a newspaper with an official position where I have to represent the moviegoing public.

As the article itself argues, “What we crave is consensus, write-ups that mirror the majority, the movie tastes of the teens and proles who rule the box office.” And also, “Shouldn't it be in the job description that if a critic sees a movie with 300 wildly applauding folks, it's against the rules to write as if that doesn't count? Like one fan wrote to a nit-picking critic: "If you do not like 'The Dark Knight' ... you should be fired because you do not speak for the people."

In other words, the film critic can be seen as having a position that isn't just giving their opinion, but is service-oriented. This is why we have film reviews in the entertainment section: to help people make decisions over where to go on a Friday night. If the film critic doesn't sync with the mentality of moviegoers, their ability to function should be questioned.

What the article seems to argue is that there is a disconnect between professional film critics and moviegoers, who are usually of an older generation, went to film school, and approach films from a different perspective. The article brings up the case of wildly popular comic book movies that critics don’t seem to "get." If that’s the case, how relevant is the function of the film critic, consulted not for their personal opinion, but for a recommendation as to the enjoyability of a movie? And if there is this disconnect, how important does the film critic become in the age of the blogosphere?

And this is something that is worth thinking about even if you don’t share the author’s anti-literacy and obvious anti-intellectual anxieties.

On the other hand, the average person is a moron. At some level, the function of the art, movie and food critic is to tell the average person they’re morons.

When the entire world was caught up in the mass hysteria that was TITANIC, the film critic of the L.A. Times had the stones to stand up and say the Emperor had no clothes. (If only someone had the guts to do the same to the schmaltzy, emotionally manipulative, dishonest FORREST GUMP as well!).

Here in Miami, there are two awards given for restaurants by the Miami Herald: one is given by reader poll, the other by professional food critics. A couple years ago, the award for “Best Japanese Restaurant” was given to, of all the places in this city, Benihana’s. Yes, Benihana's, the Applebee's of Japanese steakhouses. In an eighties ROLLING STONE magazine, there was a reader poll award given for the best guitarist in rock history, and the mental defectives chose the guitarist from the Bay City Rollers.

To answer the question at the beginning, the reason Judaism has kosher laws is a recognition of our humanity, that as human beings we don’t just shove anything in our mouths like an animal would.

And that, friends, is why we need movie critics. Because there is beauty and ugliness in the world, and it takes education and knowledge to discern one from the other. Food critics don’t just love every piece of teriyaki they shove into their mouths like the proles do, and critics know the difference between “Transformers” and “Dark Knight.”