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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
08/29/08 -- Vol. 27, No. 9, Whole Number 1508
Table of Contents
The Jewish-Chinese-Food Connection (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Several years ago I got a new office-mate who happened to be Chinese. We were chatting one day and I mentioned I thought that Chinese and Jews were a lot alike. "How so?" he wanted to know? Well, our attitudes on a lot of things are similar. His son would go to Chinese school after his school ended and the son was not really happy about it. It reminded me of my having to go to Hebrew school under similar conditions. His son also had to go to piano lessons. This too is a lot like Jews would do. Both groups favor education and culture, and especially for the young. Historically, Chinese children all studied for the civil service examination in China. It was the main path to success. Jewish kids studied for the Bar Mitzvah and to learn the complex language of Hebrew. The family is very important in both cultures, as is a strong work ethic. (Side note: I loaned him the film FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. His father watched it and commented that it was a very Chinese sort of story.) And there is another similarity I told him about. Both cultures seem to really like Chinese food.
The fact is that Jews do seem to have a special affinity for Chinese food. A lot of Caucasians seem to like Chinese food also, but not like the Jews do. It is something of a mystery why so many Jews seem to be keen on egg rolls, fried dumplings, chow fun, moo shoo, and the whole thing. Or most of the thing. I read or heard that some place--I think it was a neighborhood in the Washington DC area--had the greatest density of Chinese restaurants in the country. Yet it did not have that high a Chinese population density. Why? Well, a restaurant owner said that the reason was that it was heavily Jewish neighborhood. Jews just seem to love Chinese food. Who would have thought it? Is their food all that similar? Certainly superficially it would not seem to be. And as Jewish comic Jackie Mason pointed out, you never see an old Chinese man walking around saying "I'm looking for a good piece of gefilte fish."
Question: In any urban area of the country what day of the year is the most busy in Chinese restaurants? In fact, in New York City Chinese restaurants do twice the business on this one day of the year than on their second busiest day. You might think it is Chinese New Year? No, the answer is Christmas Day. So why do Chinese eateries do such a good business on Christmas? It is not the Christians leaving their presents, trees, and wreathes for egg rolls. Christians are generally home with their families. But you have a whole lot of Jews who have the day off and not much to do. For many Jews the tradition is dinner and a show. The show changes from one year to the next, of course. The dinner cuisine stays the same. It is, of course, Chinese. The Italian Restaurants are closed. The barbecue restaurants are locked tight like a drum. The Four Seasons has an armed guard posted out front to chase away trespassers. The non-Christian Chinese are open for business as usual (only more crowded). So it's "Shalom, and welcome" at Madam Ming's Garden.
So why is it Jews go in for Chinese and not so much for Mexican or Italian or French? There has been a lot of speculation. I will look at what two different people have to say. Jennifer 8 Lee has a numerical middle name and a book on Chinese food called THE FORTUNE COOKIE CHRONICLES that looks at this issue among others. An anonymous blogger using the penname Mortart has an article "The Jewish love affair with Chinese food" at http://tinyurl.com/3vto7m. Here are some of their suggestions and some of my own.
If one goes to an Italian or Mexican restaurant one generally sees dishes that mix dairy and meat products. Well, if the Jews were really *serious* about Kosher they would not be eating in a non-Kosher restaurant in the first place. They already have a little guilt for eating in the wrong place. That's okay. Jews like guilt. It makes them feel alive. "Ich habe shuldig ergo sum." But that does not mean they are going to let themselves go out and order Veal Parmigiana either. They don't even want to be distracted by it on the menu. And they don't want to see someone else enjoying it either. Oriental cuisines rarely use dairy. Also, you are never in a Chinese restaurant on Saint Anybody's day or the Feast of San Someone. The decor is not Christian. It is nice and neutral. Lee seems to think that Chinese see Jews as part of the establishment and almost Anglo-Saxon. Supposedly that feels good to Jews. Or perhaps Chinese is just another exotic outsider ethnicity Jews can feel a kinship to. I will reserve judgment on that one.
But it might be right that even if eating Chinese food did not make Jews feel Anglo Saxon, it might have made them feel sophisticated and cosmopolitan. They were demonstrating that they were open to other cuisines and other ways of doing things. They did not feel they had to eat only the food they were raised with. And it is not like flanken, gefilte fish, and chopped liver are real lip-smackers either.
Mortart thinks the two cuisines have more in common than it may first appear. Chinese like dumplings, and for Jews it is kreplach. Chinese, of course, have noodles and for Jews that dish is like lukshen. Both use garlic, onions, and cabbage. After a meal both can appreciate a nice glass of tea. Then the Jews stir in some sugar, the Chinese give a pained expression. And each thinks the other is a barbarian. [-mrl]
Science Fiction Book Club (comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I saw a flyer at the Worldcon for the Science Fiction Book Club. It is now under new editorship (after decades with Ellen Asher), so I was curious to see what it was like.
They still have their offer of five books for $1 (plus shipping and handling) if you promise to buy four more books in two years. But of the fifty choices for these five books, I found only three I would have been interested in if I did not have them already (a Charles Stross, a Terry Pratchett, and a Robert Charles Wilson). Even then, I'm not sure I'd want the Pratchett in hardcover, as all my other Pratchetts are in mass-market paperback.
All this makes me think that even if I could find two more books for the five, finding another four in two years might be difficult.
(One approach, I suppose, is to find a friend with different tastes and share a membership.)
One oddity I noticed was that they had books titled "Erotic Fantasy Art" and "Fantasy Art", but no book titled "Science Fiction Art". [-ecl]
THE DARK KNIGHT (letter of comment by Taras Wolansky):
In response to Mark's review of THE DARK KNIGHT in the 08/01/08 issue of the MT VOID, Taras Wolansky writes:
Belated comment (I was a bit under the weather):
Reading your review of THE DARK KNIGHT, I mulled over the reasons why I'm the village atheist where this film is concerned. Or, perhaps, like the Charles Addams character who grins from ear to ear as the rest of the movie audience sobs into their handkerchiefs.
The comic book movies of the summer I really liked--IRON MAN and HANCOCK--have an important feature in common: complex characters that grow and change. By contrast, the main characters in THE DARK KNIGHT--Batman and the Joker--are one-dimensional and unchanging. I had a hard time sitting through the movie, especially after I made the mistake of looking at my watch when the Joker was captured (for the first time!), and discovered I faced another whole hour of, as it were, plastic punching robots bashing away at each other.
Another factor is something that spoiled most of the James Bond films for me: the protagonist's relationships with women were not meaningful.(*) (I'm sure you can guess the one classic Bond film I liked!). By contrast, there is real chemistry between the star-crossed lovers in HANCOCK, and between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts in IRON MAN. Who love each other but will not become lovers--because they both know Stark is a slut. (Notice, we only see him sleep with a woman he despises.)
A third reason I disliked THE DARK KNIGHT is probably one of the major reasons it made so much money. It combines the superhero and serial killer movie genres. As depicted here, the Joker is a typical movie serial killer: he knows what other people will do before they do, and can always predict how they will react-- except, typically, at the very end. And his plots, no matter how preposterous, always work - except, again, at the very end.
Like other movie serial killers, the Joker blathers on and on, the other characters apparently spellbound by his sophomoric utterances. I kept hoping someone would say, "Oh, shut up!" and stick a gag in his mouth. I tired of the character after the first half-hour. ("Sacrilege!" Hey, I told you I was the village atheist.)
On the other hand, the film's politics made me chuckle. To catch the Joker, Bruce "Big Brother" Wayne makes every cell phone in Gotham City a spy cam: "Total Information Awareness", anyone? (The Bush administration was attacked for wanting to data mine the Net for terrorist plots shortly after 9/11.)
*When I saw Batman Begins, I blamed it on Katie Holmes' curiously sedated performance, but Maggie Gyllenhaal is no improvement. Why she was cast is a mystery; imagine what a Sarah Michelle Gellar, say, might have done with the role. [-tw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
Last week I discussed LAST AND FIRST MEN at great length. This week I will cover Stapledon's three other major works of fiction. (Remember that I said that several of Stapledon's works of fiction are not novels in the traditional sense, but I may still occasionally use that word as a shorthand.)
I skipped LAST MEN IN LONDON, Stapledon's second novel, feeling it was more important to refresh myself about his four primary novels. His third novel, ODD JOHN (1935), is a superman story. If LAST AND FIRST MEN was inspired by H. G. Wells's THE TIME MACHINE, then ODD JOHN may have owed something to Philip Wylie's GLADIATOR (which preceded it by five years). I cannot say for sure my reaction to John the first time I read it, but this time around he seemed a thoroughly reprehensible sort, willing to commit murder, human experimentation, and even genocide without any compunction, because he is, after all, a superior being. Once again, we have Stapledon presenting a very fascist, racialist view of the world, and we have the distressing feeling that he endorses it rather than shows it as a warning. The narrator is called "Fido" by John, and a fair name it is, as "Fido" shows a ridiculously high level of devotion to John--and a low level of moral concern.
[On the panel, Robert Silverberg pointed out that liking the main character was not necessary for a book to be great, or even good, e.g., CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, or LOLITA. In fact, there was a long digression into LOLITA and whether Humbert Humbert was not indeed the victim and Lolita the most negative character. Also presented was the notion of Odd John as a superior character with a tragic flaw, a la classic Greek drama. All this is true, and the parallel to Greek drama is the most convincing argument to me. I guess it was the feeling that I was supposed to sympathize at least somewhat that bothered me, and when people say they like this book because they read it when they were young and felt that they were outsiders the way John was, that just reinforces my feeling.]
STAR MAKER (1937) is the most poetical of the four major novels. It is also the least science fictional, in the sense of being more a work of fantasy, or even of theosophy, than of science fiction. While Stapledon discusses planets, stars, galaxies, and so on, his basis is not science. Indeed, his notion of the mechanics of planetary formation is very outdated: "I knew well that the birth of planets was due to the close approach of two or more stars, and that such accidents must be very uncommon." (page 266)
He also misunderstands evolution, saying, "Presently the stage was clear for some worm or amoeba to reinaugurate the great adventure of biological evolution toward the human plane." (page 331) Stapledon assumes that evolution has an ultimate goal and that that goal is humanity (or intelligence, if you prefer). But this is not true--the "goal" of evolution (or rather, its effect) is creating organisms best suited for their environment.
In STAR MAKER, Stapledon again describes most (if not all) the advanced world orders as communistic, but in a very Stalinist way: "Indeed, a highly specialized bureaucracy, or even a world- dictator, might carry out the business of organizing the world's activity with legally absolute power, but under constant supervision by popular will expressed through the radio. We were amazed to find that in a truly awakened world even a dictatorship could be in essence democratic." (page 348) Stapledon seems either amazingly obtuse, or amazingly optimistic, in 1937 to still expect that a dictatorship could be so benign and so easily controlled. (Isn't the very essence of absolute power the ability to silence one's opponents?)
But as Leslie Fiedler says in OLAF STAPLEDON: A MAN DIVIDED, Stapledon's goal was not scientific (or economic), and later science fiction writers "are responding to the challenge which Stapledon made clear constituted a chief raison d'etre for the genre: to replace traditional mythologies of a universe tailored to the human scale with one which--without falsifying the findings of modern science or denying the terror they have stirred in all our hearts--can redeem them for the imagination." (page 348)
STAR MAKER is in many ways primarily a book of poetry. In Stapledon's "On every side was confusion, a rising storm, great waves already drenching our rock. And all around, in the dark welter, faces and appealing hands, half-seen and vanishing" (page 431), for example, I hear the influence of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":
And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The last of Stapledon's major novels is SIRIUS (1944), about a dog brought up to human intelligence. This may be the most accessible of Stapledon's fiction. Just as Stapledon's other works seemed to have been inspired or influenced by earlier writers, SIRIUS seems to be a descendent of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN (perhaps by way of Wells's THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU). The Frankenstein connection is most obvious when Sirius bemoans his isolation, saying, "Why did you make me without a world for me to live in. It's as though God made Adam and not bothered to make Eden, nor Eve...."
On the other hand, some of the old attitudes are still there. The mother of Sirius's human companion, Plaxy, has been convinced to raise Plaxy and Sirius together equally, and when Sirius is injured, feels the same love toward him she feels toward Plaxy. Now, I am not a mother, but I can't help but feel that a human mother would feel more love and attachment to a human child than to a dog, no matter how much the two were raised together. This makes Elizabeth another in the line of women that Stapledon seems to get wrong--mostly by making them almost sub-human.
Stapledon was chosen for the first Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award (given annually by Readercon). (Silverberg was on the jury that year.) Why Stapledon is neglected, or indeed whether he is neglected, was discussed. Among average readers, he is virtually unknown. but among science fiction authors he is often a major influence (see quotes below). Pretty much everyone in the audience had read him, but that is not too surprising. Most obviously, panels of this sort about particular authors attract readers of that authors. But also, the sort of person likely to go to a panel on any older author is likely to be the sort that reads older authors in general. That is, someone who has read only science fiction published in the last ten years is unlikely to go to any retrospective panel, even on better-known authors such as Heinlein or Asimov.
Silverberg thought one reason for the neglect was that Stapledon had never been published in mass-market paperback. This turns out not to be true--there were Berkley mass-market editions of ODD JOHN and STAR MAKERS in the 1960s, and Penguin editions of SIRIUS and LAST & FIRST MEN/LAST MEN IN LONDON (omnibus edition) in the 1970s, as well as a Sphere edition of NEBULA MAKER. But those these came and went fairly quickly, the irony is that Stapledon is one of the few science fiction authors of the 1930s who has had his major works in print continuously for the last half century or so. Dover Books has had his four major works of fiction in print as two omnibus editions at least since I was in college. So while in some ways neglected, Stapledon is also in some ways the most available of science fiction authors. (Silverberg, I believe, referred to him as the "least neglected unjustly neglected author.")
And a few quotes about Olaf Stapledon:
Sir Arthur C. Clarke [on LAST AND FIRST MEN]: "With its multimillion year vistas, and its roll call of great but doomed civilizations, the book produced an overwhelming impact on me."
Freeman Dyson [on STAR MAKER]: "It seemed to me perfectly obvious that this was the way to think about space and about the future-- that kind of broad scope, that kind of scale."
Stanislaw Lem [on LAST AND FIRST MEN and ODD JOHN]: "[These] opened new endless perspectives, gigantic possibilities for an ongoing construction of hitherto unarticulated hypotheses."
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Everything of importance has been said before, by someone who did not discover it. -- Alfred North Whitehead
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