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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
04/18/03 -- Vol. 21, No. 42
Table of Contents
Geography Lesson (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Last week I reviewed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDLANDS set in the Scottish Midlands. I am reliably informed by Mark Brader that the Midlands are currently located in England and that Scotland lays no standing claims to them. [-mrl]
Tyrants, Presidents, and Artistic (?) Taste (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
A very funny comedy not nearly enough people have seen is THE IN-LAWS. Alan Arkin's daughter is soon to marry Peter Falk's son. But Arkin is meeting Falk for the first time and Falk just seems weirder and weirder to Arkin. Falk gets Arkin involved in crime and espionage. Eventually Arkin finds himself in a banana republic talking to a half-crazed military dictator. The dictator is showing Arkin around his palace and showing off his extensive art collection. The art collection is made up entirely of velvet paintings. These are the paintings that used to sell so well at flea markets. Paint on black velvet is sort of effective in a lowbrow cheapo sort of way. El Presidente shows off the new flag of his republic, a painting of a topless woman on black velvet. It was pretty funny, this powerful dictator whom nobody can say no to, indulging himself with vulgar artistic tastes.
Wait long enough and the world will imitate just about everything silly in the movies. (Well, maybe not something like Godzilla, but just about everything else.) You may have read that the United States troops broke into Saddam Hussein's love nest. And what does his decoration scheme seem to be but 1960s Playboy. (See http://tinyurl.com/9mnd.) It is a decor that El Presidente would have appreciated. There are lamps shaped like nude women. Mirrored bedrooms. And what kind of paintings does he have on the wall? He has bad macho fantasy art. The kind with large, well-endowed men and women in brief costume. There is a print of a dragon painting by Rowena. Conan the Barbarian sorts of art. (I am not talking here about his son Uday's pad. That didn't have the fantasy scheme. He just collected pornographic pictures like Imelda collected shoes. Daddy Saddam had a little more culture--if you can call it that--so was into the macho fantasy thing.)
This is a very different insight into Saddam than the ones that we have been getting. One tends to think that if one is in an elevated position they would have somewhat elevated tastes. But if you think about it, Saddam was not the kind of leader one would expect to see at the ballet. He does not strike me as a Bartok fan. But his predilection for lowbrow (American) heroic fantasy art is something of a surprise.
Of course Saddam--why do we call him Saddam and not Hussein?--is not the only major political figure whose tastes were less than elevated. Ian Fleming's big break came when his James Bond novels got an unsolicited endorsement from John F. Kennedy.
Adolf Hitler apparently was quite fond of science fiction and fantasy films. There are various references to science fiction films in descriptions of Hitler. On seeing THINGS TO COME he was impressed by the destruction on London from the air raid at the beginning. He instructed his Luftwaffe to be able to create for real the kind of destruction that William Cameron Menzies brought to the screen. Joseph Goebbels reportedly told Fritz Lang that he and the Fuhrer had seen METROPOLIS in a little German town and they enjoyed the evening so much they wanted Lang to make more films for the Third Reich. Presumably this meant they were even willing to overlook the fact that Lang was Jewish. But METROPOLIS was not Hitler's favorite film. Hitler's tastes were sufficiently elevated that his favorite movie was a foreign film. At least it was a foreign film in Germany. It was KING KONG.
It leaves me with a funny feeling to think of Adolf Hitler enjoying the same films I do.
Postscript: I just saw a comparison from The Philadelphia Daily News saying that Saddam Hussein's favorite movies are THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, THE CONVERSATION, and THE GODFATHER. George W. Bush's favorite? (Uh-oh.) AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME. Now THAT leaves me with a funny feeling. [-mrl]
Letter of Comment (from Dan Kimmel):
Good issue. A couple of comments:
1. Nice essay on Salem. Donna and I made the trip a few years ago, and I'll probably take Amanda up there when she's just a little older. Mark's point about "intolerance" is valid, but I'd say that it wasn't witches that should have been tolerated, but simply people not conforming to community norms. Hmm, she's a single woman who doesn't attend the local Puritan church? She must be a witch! I'd add that I found it interesting at one of the exhibits (don't remember which) that an acknowledgment was made of the more contemporary witch hunts of HUAC and Senator McCarthy.
2. I enjoyed the discussion on core reading lists, because I find much the same with movies. Things like the Oscar winners and the AFI "Most Romantic Movie" lists are amusing and entertaining, and may help people find films they might have otherwise missed, but it's foolish to think any of them are "proof" as to which movies will stand the test of time. When AFI did their 100 greatest American movies list it had no Buster Keaton and no Ernst Lubitsch but (at least) five titles from Steven Spielberg. To his credit, even Spielberg admitted there was something wrong with that. Such lists reflect the times and the people involved in compiling them. With books I'm less concerned with what I "ought" to have read, then in following authors who I enjoy. Outside of my usual reading in SF, film, and politics, I've read much Sinclair Lewis and Mark Twain, sometimes picking up something obscure as opposed to something famous. The important thing is to be *reading*. But, of course, you two are probably the last people in the world who need convincing of that. :) [-dk]
CONJUNCTIONS: 39 (THE NEW FABULISTS) edited by Brad Morrow, guest-edited by Peter Straub (Bard College, 2002, 436pp, $15) (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
fabulist: a creator or writer of fables fable: a fictitious narrative or statement; as a: a legendary story of supernatural happenings b: a narration intended to enforce a useful truth c: falsehood, lie --Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary
I suppose I will join the parade of reviewers who say that CONJUNCTIONS: 39 (THE NEW FABULISTS) is a good anthology, but that I'm somewhat confused by the title. In his introduction, Straub talks about "the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror . . . transforming themselves . . . into something all but unrecognizable, hence barely classifiable at all except as literature." Okay, but then where did this "fabulist" label come from, and what does it mean? And what about the "New Wave" part?
To start with the term "fabulists": they would be writers of fables. "Fables", as used in this volume, seems to include science fiction, fantasy, and horror, as well as stories that are none of these. Whatever it means, it does not limit itself here to the fantastic, or tales with morals. And "New Wave" implies some coherent approach, or technique, or attitude, or *something*- -but the stories here are merely what a wide variety of authors are currently writing in a wide variety of styles. A more honest title might have been "The Many Faces of Fantastic Literature Today", but I suppose "The New Wave Fabulists" sounds more academic.
Okay, so who cares about the title anyway? What about the contents? Sixteen short stories, two excerpts from novels, and two essays cover a lot of territory. And I'll say up front that, as with most anthologies, I found some stories good, some middling, and some unreadable.
The first story is John Crowley's "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines". It is the best story in the anthology, and is not, so far as I can tell, fantasy at all. One could describe it as a "coming-of-age" story, but with Shakespeare and the theater and Francis Bacon thrown in as well. As in his novel THE TRANSLATOR, Crowley seems to have left the world of fantasy, or even magical realism, for that of the literary tale of literature. In THE TRANSLATOR one of the central characters is a (fictitious) Russian poet, and the novel centers around poetry. Here the story centers around Shakespeare's works--always a good starting point in my opinion. But even if the story isn't magical, the style is.
One that is fantasy is Andy Duncan's "Big Rock Candy Mountain", the story of what is basically hobo heaven. But once you get the idea (turkey dinners grow on trees, no one works, etc.), there's not much else to say. Jonathan Carroll's "Simon's House of Lipstick" is also fantasy, but a bit too predictable.
James Morrow's "The Wisdom of the Skin" is science fiction, set in the future (or a future) and although it has the satirical edge that Morrow is known for, it's also a bit more heavy-handed than some of his other works.
"The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door", by Jonathan Lethem, seems more surreal than most of the other stories--but that may just be because of the suicidal talking sheep.
Patrick O'Leary has perhaps the closest thing to a fable in "The Bearing of Light" a story about sin and forgiveness. It wouldn't succeed if it were much longer, but O'Leary knows when he has given us enough, and knows to stop then.
As an alternate history fan, I read John Kessel's "The Invisible Empire" with particular interest. Inspired by Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" (It says so right at the beginning), it is remarkably unsubtle for Kessel, and also attempts an analogy that fails on close examination.
It was followed by a story from Karen Jay Fowler, "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man", which is another story here that has no fantastical element at all (unless you count the fact that the main character plays video games and has been told that his father had been abducted by aliens (though clearly this is not intended seriously).
The essays at the end are written for academics. (Gary K. Wolfe's is somewhat more accessible than John Clute's.) Feel free to skip them.
I haven't mentioned all the stories. Frankly, some were just not to my liking after a few pages, and I skipped them. (It's not like I'm being paid to review this book in detail.) Others I read but had nothing to say about them.
Oh, and each story has a lead illustration by Gahan Wilson, who also did the cover.
Do I recommend this anthology? As a look at what a range of authors with some connection to the speculative fiction field are doing, it's certainly worth while, but one could argue that if all you want are good fantasy stories, you should buy THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling instead. (After the next issue, it will be Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant.) Contrariwise, it's probably worth noting that the Datlow and Windling may very well be available in your library, while CONJUNCTIONS is unlikely to be. [-ecl]
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING by T. H. White (book review by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Continuing with recommendations from James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock's FANTASY--THE 100 BEST BOOKS, I read T. H. White's THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING. I will readily admit that I didn't look up every unfamiliar word, or it would have taken me weeks to get through it. For starters, I would have had to use the Oxford English Dictionary--the standard desk dictionary simply doesn't have all the specialized terms needed to describe British royal hunts during the Middle Ages. (Here's a list of words on just page 142: chine, singulars [of boars], skulks [of foxes], richesses [of martens], bevies [of roes], cetes [of badgers], routs [of wolves], os, argos, croteys, fewmets, and fiants. A few pages later we get huske, menee, alaunts, gaze-hounds, lymers, braches, austringer, and lesses. Some of these are not in the OED either.) (Hint: surely someone could do an annotated ONCE AND FUTURE KING. Then again, I'm still waiting for the annotated "A Dozen Tough Jobs" by Howard Waldrop.)
Most people are familiar with the Arthur story as told by White, even if they've never read THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING (or even the first section, THE SWORD IN THE STONE). White, for example, was the author who came up with the idea of Merlyn living backwards. And White also goes directly from Arthur pulling the sword from the stone at the end of Book 1 to King Arthur waving Excalibur around at the beginning of Book 2, which has probably served to reinforce most people's belief that the two were actually the same.
What most people seem not to be familiar with is White's anti-war stance. This is no doubt due in large part to the British experience in World War I, and the gathering clouds of World War II. Arthur's experiences in the animal kingdom are such that he comes to respect the most the animals that are the least aggressive and warlike. And his joy in battles (where of course he has been victorious) is tempered by Merlyn's reminder than while the knights in their armor all survived with little more than bruises, the peasants who fought for them died in great numbers. These days, were White an American, he would probably end up labeled a traitor for expressing these opinions. Yet he was by no means a complete pacifist--Merlyn is very specific that defensive war is justified and even necessary, but war is never glorious. In fact, a check around the web shows White labeled an anti-Fascist rather than a pacifist, and in addition to his description of life among the ants emphasizing the fascism as much as the warlike aspects, he has Merlyn explicitly commenting on Hitler as well as on the Boer War, and then at the end a description of Mordred's goings-on that are clearly a parallel with the Nazis.
White also skips over a lot of the "canonical" Arthurian story, often saying (in effect), "Well, if you want to know about thus- and-so, read Malory, because he describes it better than I would." So in some sense he assumes a previous knowledge of the story. However, while I have some familiarity with the story, I am not an Arthurian scholar, and I still had no problem following what was going on.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING consists of four books, written over a twenty-year period. A fifth book, THE BOOK OF MERLYN, is supposedly even more anti-war, but I decided to stop (for now) with these. [-ecl]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Time to play catch-up. It's actually been a couple of weeks since I read NOT SO FUNNY WHEN IT HAPPENED, edited by Tim Cahill. This is a collection of "travel humor and misadventure," and is certainly more light-hearted than the Granta book I mentioned earlier. The first story was about how the Vietnamese ask travelers personal questions. The most common are "Are you married?" and "How many children do you have?" followed by "What is your salary?" or "How much did your camera/shoes/whatever cost?" But more than that, they are very disturbed if you are not married or have no children. So the advice is to say something like, "We have no children yet." (This advice, I have to say, is not very helpful when you are fifty or so.) John Wood was divorced and his attempts to conceal this led to the story, "How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife." There are also pieces by well-known humorists Bill Bryson, Dave Barry, David Sedaris, and Douglas Adams, and some travel cartoons as well. (Disclaimer: even though Mark's writing has been published in another book in the "Travelers' Tales" series, we have no other connection to them.)
And remember a few weeks ago I was talking about von Kempelen's chess-playing "Turk"? Well, Charles Sheffield's THE AMAZING DR. DARWIN talks about it in one of the six stories contained in it. These stories, which are effectively Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but with Erasmus Darwin and his friend Jacob Pool as the Holmes and Watson characters. A mystery is presented, inplying some supernatural agency, and rationalist Darwin investigates it and proves how it's all natural and rational after all--think "Adventure of the Sussex Vampire". (This isn't a real spoiler if you know anything about Darwin, or Sheffield.) The book looks padded out, with fairly large type and wide margins, but is actually about 100,000 words long. Even so, though the stories are enjoyable enough as puzzles, it's hard to justify paying a hardcover price for this. (I got my copy from the library.)
USED AND RARE is the first volume by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone (whose WARMLY INSCRIBED I wrote about earlier). This one is the story of how they got started in collecting books. A couple of key moments were discovering that an Arkham House first edition of H. P. Lovecraft could go for $10,000, and a first edition Tarzan novel was similarly valuable. The book covers their education in the terminology (first edition versus first printing, points, condition, etc.), and in the process gives the reader a similar education while providing entertaining stories about booksellers, auctions, and collectors. (There is a bookstore in New York that does not come off very favorably, but from what I've heard elsewhere, the Goldstones are probably fairly accurate.)
For people who like books about books and bookshops, Christopher Morley wrote two classics: PARNASSUS ON WHEELS and THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP. The first is the story of a traveling book salesman, and the spinster who decides to buy his wagon (and his business). The second [slight spoiler here] is about the same characters after they have bought a bookshop in Brooklyn. The stories take place in the early twentieth century. While both are paeans to books, the first is also full of lavish descriptions of the Connecticut countryside, and the second is a mystery-thriller. THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP also references another one of those "little" books of the sort I mentioned last week, with the bookshop owner saying, "I get ten times more satisfaction in selling a copy of Newton's 'The Amenities of Book-Collecting' than I do in selling a copy of--well, Tarzan; but it's poor business to impose your own private tastes on your customers." This was apparently a well- known book at the time--my edition is a Modern Library edition.
(Oh, I have one quibble/question about THE HAUNTED BOOKSHOP. At one point a character is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, is set upon by ruffians, almost tipped into the water, and then flags down a passing vehicles. When we walked across, the pedestrian walkway was well above--and inaccessible from--the motorway, and was above the center of the motorway, which would mean that if you went over the railing, you would land on the motorway, not in the river. Was this the case in 1920?)
I suppose I should say something about A. Edward Newton's THE AMENITIES OF BOOK-COLLECTING AND KINDRED AFFECTIONS. Newton was considered the leading authority on book collecting in the early part of the twentieth century and this was written in 1918, with the Modern Library edition in 1935. The chapters are about subjects such as "Book-Collecting Abroad", "Book-Collecting at Home", "Old Catalogues and New Prices", and "'Association' Books and First Editions". Newton does leave the realm of the collector to talk about authors as well, discussing (among others) James Boswell, Mrs. Thrale, Anthony Trollope, and Oscar Wilde. It's considered a classic of its genre, although its age makes a lot of it less accessible to the modern reader. (Collectors will still find it of interest.) Newton further wrote about book collecting in DERBY DAY AND OTHER ADVENTURES, GREATEST BOOK IN THE WORLD AND OTHER PAPERS, END PAPERS: LITERARY RECREATIONS, and THIS BOOK COLLECTING GAME. In keeping with last week's essay, I'll note that the latter contains Newton's list of "One Hundred Good Novels", which is at least a bit more restrained than "The One Hundred Best Novels".
(Oh, and the Morley books are both available on-line through Project Gutenberg.) [-ecl]
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: American life is a powerful solvent. It seems to neutralise every intellectual element, however tough and alien it may be, and to fuse it in the native good-will, complacency, thoughtlessness, and optimism. -- James Harvey Robinson
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