About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.

The “Best” Feminist Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Isn’t it a little sad that when a celebrity like Joseph Gordon-Levitt calls himself a feminist, it’s considered news?

But in the wake of so many high-profile women—Madonna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Juliette Binoche, Bjork, Melissa Leo…even Lady Gaga—all declining to identify as feminist, a public voice that still embraces the term, from either side of the gender divide, is a necessary corrective.

Let’s review: women still only hold 4.8% of the CEO roles of the Fortune 500, as of January 2014 only 9 women served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government (there are 196 countries in the world, roughly), in 38 countries women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians, and in the United States—bastion of freedom and equality—median full-time earnings for women have been 77% of men’s across the spectrum of jobs for a decade. And it gets much worse. The largest survey ever conducted in Europe on violence against women showed that 33% of respondents reported being physically or sexually abused since age 15, and some people estimate that 500,000 women have been raped while serving in the U.S. military since the 1940s—largely by their comrades in arms.

Despite the feminist movement’s long and storied history of achievements—which include, let’s not forget, things like very basic property, reproductive and voting rights—stunningly ignorant young women like Shailene Woodley use their undeservedly large public pulpits to spew nonsense like “The word ‘feminist’ is a word that discriminates, and I’m not into that.”

You know how Webster’s defines feminism? “…the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Equal. How the hell, in 2014, is that still considered controversial?

In the spirit of declaring myself a staunch feminist, here are a few examples of the best* feminist sci-fi and fantasy books. Please join in with any recommendations in the comments below.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
The most oft-cited book in any discussion of either feminism, or women in sci-fi in general, The Left Hand of Darkness is the indisputable first choice for the simple fact that it is one of the all-time great science fiction novels of any kind. In the classic mold of all great SF books, The Left Hand of Darkness revolves around an elegant what-if conceit, but really lives in the specificity and richness of its characters.

Le Guin imagined another world where humans have evolved over time to go through gender cycles, being neuter, male and female at different stages of their lives. This blunt metaphor for the ways in which gender dictates how we experience this world is shown through the contrasting absence of fixed roles and discrimination on another planet. But the core of the novel is essentially a love story between an Earth-raised man—who arrives on Winter with all the preconceived gender boundaries of the world of 1969 Le Guin published the novel in—and Estraven, a government minister whom the Earth Envoy initially mistrusts.

The Left Hand of Darkness is, all at once, a gripping ice-bound survival adventure, a thought experiment and a truly feminist exploration of possibilities: what does it mean to be human when we are all equal?

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood has always annoyed me. Her reluctance to accept that she’s a science fiction writer has always seemed the worst kind of pretension to me. However, I’d be a fool to deny the power of The Handmaid’s Tale, which sits comfortably beside 1984 as one of the most chilling dystopian novels ever written.

Atwood’s genius with The Handmaid’s Tale lay in how little satirical stretching is required between the real lives of many women and the hypothetical stern and inhuman patriarchy of her imagined future. Women subsisting as breeding stock is also a clever inversion of the B-movie trope of Amazon-ruled styrofoam planets. All of which makes Atwood’s denial of the science fiction label even more irritating given her obvious understanding of it’s power chords and traditions.

But let’s not quibble, The Handmaid’s Tale is an excellent novel with sharp world-building and even sharper satire—a book that even resists dismissal as a feminist rant thanks to the genuinely moving journey of the protagonist Offred towards agency.

The Scar, China Miéville
Here’s where my choices get a little more eclectic and less obvious but bear with me. You could reasonably point to any of China Miéville’s books—particularly Embassytown, which was warmly reviewed by Le Guin herself—as being, if nothing else, feminist-friendly. Few other contemporary male writers of fantastic fiction imbue their female characters with as much individuality.

The Scar, in particular, is told from the point of view of the fascinating (and wonderfully named) Bellis Coldwine. Bellis starts the novel as a near-caricature of a repressed ice-queen and ends as a strongly sympathetic, fully-realized and recognizably flawed human. As in The City and the City‘s city, Miéville uses scars as a multi-purpose and fluid metaphor for various physical and psychic transformations. The novel is structured around a journey towards “the scar,” a physical location where the laws of reality break down into chaos—the transformative potential of scars taken to the extreme of sundering.

Bellis becomes a surrogate for all women through a series of bad choices and unhappy accidents, which, by the end of the novel, are even revealed to be the result of unseen manipulations by a man…maybe.

Also, The Scar is full of beautifully baroque monsters.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson’s 10-volumes of door-stopping high fantasy may seem like a perverse choice to appear on the same list as books like The Left Hand of Darkness, but I think it’s a great example of feminist fantasy simply because it assumes equality as a starting point.

Erikson made an incredibly smart choice when he began the vast and archaeologically deep worldbuilding at the heart of the Malazan series: since this is a fantasy world, traditional gender roles don’t have to apply. So, when new characters are introduced—which happens very often—as “Sargent” or “Captain” or “Commander” you can’t automatically assume they are male.

In the first novel of the series, Gardens of the Moon, the two most politically powerful characters we are introduced to are both women: Empress Laseen and her Adjunct Lorn. And Erikson goes on to include a wide variety of other female characters at all levels of power, from slaves to gods, whose gender has little to nothing to do with their standing, role or fate. Rape is unfortunately a possibility for some women, but no more-or-less so than the possibility of violent outcomes for any of the male characters—it’s a dark place, but equally dark.

This may seem like a simple choice, but how many high-fantasy books are still full of damn ladies in waiting? Even in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular books, Brienne of Tarth and the Mother of Dragons are still really outliers, no? And Daenerys begins the books as an ineffectual court lady, sold into marriage by her brother and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

Jack the Giant Killer, Charles de Lint
Jack the Giant Killer is something of a nostalgic choice on my part as Charles de Lint lives and works in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario where the novel is set. The wild hunt that opens the novel takes place in a park I can picture easily and is only 10 minutes from where I’m now writing. However, Charles de Lint is also possibly the best urban fantasy writer working today.

His re-imagining of the classic Jack of beanstalk fame as a kind of archetypal trickster role that can be inhabited by a woman was fresh and unexpected in long ago 1987. Today, when every second e-book bestseller on Amazon is an urban fantasy of some kind, it’s hard to imagine how fresh de Lint’s approach with Jack the Giant Killer was. I know I had never read anything before Jack that resuscitated fairy-tales, which had been thoroughly trampled on by Disney for so long, by combining them with contemporary urban settings and issues.

Jack the Giant Killer is a tightly-written, thrilling bit of fantasy adventure starring a woman—whose main aide-de-camp is also a woman. Charles de Lint has been reflexively and undemonstratively feminist throughout his career and should be much more widely celebrated.

——
*And by “best” I of course mean: “my personal and highly subjective favourites.”

Hardboiled: Motherless Brooklyn

Belonging, without question, within the lineage of the hardboiled, Jonathan Lethem‘s moving Motherless Brooklyn is an example of the way hardboiled tropes can be tweaked to make sense in a contemporary context. Not a revisionist book per se, Motherless Brooklyn stays true to its generic inspirations while also exploring new modes.

Published in 1999, reviews at The New York Times and Salon, described Motherless Brooklyn as “better than the average hip post modern novel” and working under “the guise of a detective novel” to achieve loftier goals, respectively. The problem I have with these analyses is that they dismiss how cleanly the novel stays within hardboiled genre conventions. Lethem clearly, to me at least,  set out to write a detective novel first, and the subtext and twists on genre followed after.

The story is entirely from the main character’s point-of-view, Lionel Essrog, an orphan who grew up with a close group of three other Brooklyn castoffs, Tony, Danny and Gilbert; later to be taken under the mentoring of a shady local businessman Frank Minna. As “Minna’s Men” the four eventually become a detective agency/limo service, with some sketchy additional responsibilities doled out by Frank with little context. Despite some occasional rough treatment at all of their hands, Lionel loves Frank like a father and the other Minna Men as brothers. A subtext in Motherless Brooklyn about the way we, sometimes desperately, create ersatz families out of friends is essentially text.

The primary plot driver of the novel is an investigation Lionel undertakes—of his own volition with no support and rife with obstacles—of the mysterious fate of Frank Minna himself. This investigation eventually destabilizes and recontextualizes Lionel’s understanding of almost all of the people and situations he has lived with most of his adult life.

What sets the novel apart from other hardboiled detective fiction is the unique interior mental landscape of Lionel Essrog. Lionel has struggled all his life with Tourette’s syndrome, in a social environment that is by turns dismissively cold or actively hostile to the different and unexpected. But while Lionel’s syndrome is the source of a wide range of injuries to his self-esteem and a daily challenge, it’s also shown to be part of what makes him a natural detective. Lethem turns Lionel’s Tourette’s into a kind of secret—admittedly hard to control and potentially damaging—super-power, like an X-Men-style mutation. Given Lethem’s well documented love of comics, this approach to explaining Tourette’s to the lay person is organic and strangely relate-able. I had never understood Tourette’s as a collection of discreet compulsive behaviours until I spent time in Lionel Essrog’s mental landscape.

Lethem tries to capture what it must be like to compulsively turn an idea, word or image over-and-over in your head until it has to explode out of you in a outburst—like venting steam to release pressure—the outward expression of rapid and compulsive thought processes. I have no idea how accurate Motherless Brooklyn is to the interior life of a Tourette’s sufferer, but to an outsider like me there seemed to be an emotional honesty and genuine empathy to the depiction. Lethem also makes a compelling argument that the compulsions at the heart of Lionel’s syndrome make him the only one in the book capable of following through on the truth behind the fate of Frank Minna.

In hindsight, it’s hard not to see Motherless Brooklyn as the precursor (inspiration?) to so many television shows about brilliant characters with diagnosable mental problems, which seem to help make them better at their jobs, such as Monk, House and even the recent Sherlock.

While engaging and heartfelt throughout, Motherless Brooklyn is not without some minor issues. In particular, a love interest for Lionel begins as an intriguing personality sketch but quickly thins out into inscrutability. This was probably a deliberate choice on Lethem’s part as it either helps show the challenges someone with Tourette’s must face in cultivating romantic relationships, or the challenges Lionel faces in specific because he basically inhabits, and is largely comfortable in, a world of thugs and gangsters. Either way though, the net effect is to turn an initially promising character into stock. This is a little disappointing in that the lack of positive female influences—particularity mother figures—in all the Minna Men’s lives (implicit even in the title of the book) is an interesting bit of subtext that could have been explored further. Lethem pokes at the idea with his depictions of Frank’s mother and wife, but the concept feels slightly under-served.

Flaws aside, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshingly entertaining read: a tense, driving, hardboiled detective story with heartfelt and truly moving pathos and a unique point-of-view—it’s also full of lovingly rendered Brooklyn details that ground the proceedings.

Motherless Brooklyn helps to reinforce that hardboiled writing can have a place in contemporary fiction, and not just as a curio of the past. Motherless Brooklyn feels as fresh and interesting today as when it was written, and I suspect it will age very well.

Is the YA Book Bubble Bursting?

Charlie Jane Anders posted a brief but intriguing piece recently at io9 (based on a Wall Street Journal article) that speculates on the possible end of the current young adult book boom. The film and book industry that serves the YA audience seems to be collectively holding its breath in anticipation of Divergent‘s performance this upcoming weekend. In Ms Anders words:

“Studios are hoping it’ll show there are still audiences for young-adult films other than Hunger Games, after the dismal performance of several other films.”

She goes on to cite fatigue over the similarities between different YA books and movies as one of the causes of the seemingly receding YA market.

“…studios are getting wary of novels that feel too much like cookie-cutter copies of other stuff. Especially Twilight clones.”

This argument resonates with me because as a lifelong reader of genre, I’m sensitive to the difference between the artful use of common genre conventions—like a dystopian society under the thumb of an oppressive government—and the recycling of tired clichés because they moved product previously—like the Romeo & Juliet combinations referenced in Ms Anders’ post.

Ms Anders also provides a couple examples of new, more literary sources, as potentially a positive direction for producers, including The Giver, but doesn’t encourage a lot of enthusiasm.

“…the larger problem remains—in books as well as in movies, there’s no ‘mega franchise’ to replace Hunger GamesTwilight and Harry Potter among the tween and teen crowd. At least, not yet. Maybe that book is being written as we speak.”

I really like that last hopeful note. The image of someone toiling away somewhere in—what I imagine to be—a cramped, drafty space, maybe at night after a day job, to produce the next big hit is heartening. Because whatever feelings I might have about the relative literary merit of books like Twilight, any “mega franchise” that drives young people to seek out other reading options is a boon to book culture at large.

During the last book sale we attended, I was surprised at the number of young readers who came to our booth. Several were looking for Twilight and The Hunger Games or something very similar, sure, but also many of them were exploring genre books in different directions, as a result of having read those books already—some of whom even had a more than passing interest in true classics.

I guess my point is that we maybe should all be crossing our fingers that Divergent is successful this weekend, leading more young readers to the book, and hopefully on to other books.

Divergent Ticket Winners

Divergent, the movie

We had an amazing response to our recent Divergent ticket giveaway. Thanks to everyone who entered and congratulations to our four winners, listed below along with their favourite YA book choice:

Rubby Neville “Hunger Games trilogy…first [of the] dystopia genre I’ve read…”
Karen D “…The Giver…first futuristic book I read that seemed plausible…completely engross[ing]”
Susan Lehmann “I hate to sound stereo typical…but I still like all vampire…related books (especially with a good love triangle…)”
Alyson Barlow “Hunger Games—it was so well written”

Based on the entries we received, The Hunger Games still seems to loom over the YA market, but the Divergent books are selling well and there’s some buzz around the upcoming movie. Any of the winners are welcome to come back and post a comment here letting us know what you thought. Enjoy the show!

Giveaway: Divergent Tickets [CONTEST CLOSED]

Divergent

UPDATE: unbelievably fast response and the tickets are spoken for. The winners will receive emails shortly, thanks.

——

We have four pairs of tickets to give away to a preview showing of Divergent in Ottawa:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014
Show Time: 7:30 PM
SilverCity Gloucester Cinemas
2385 City Park Drive
Gloucester, ON K1J 1G1

If you’re interested, send us an email using the contact page with the subject line: “DIVERGENT TICKETS.” In the message of your email, tell us what your favourite young adult book is and why—just a couple of lines is fine. The first four entries will receive a link and code to download free passes.

And before you ask, no I don’t know anything about either the Divergent books or the movie, but I am partial to dystopian teen angst a la Battle Royale, so I have an open mind.

Top Five Reads of 2013

“The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.”
—Umberto Eco

I enjoy lists and list-making so much that there’s no better way for me to brush away the cobwebs and get into 2014 than to look back, briefly, at 2013 and praise my favourite reads of the past year. Confining this list to just a top-5 is a wise choice, I think. Despite enjoying a wide variety of reading experiences in 2013, it seems prudent to me to only highlight the best-of-the-best and not belabour the exercise.

So, here are my top-5 favourite reads of 2013, listed in reverse order of importance. I strayed from the genre path only once in this list, but couldn’t help myself. Feel free to throw any of your favourite books, stories or comics of last year into a comment at the end.

5. Omega the Unknown, Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple


I read a lot of great comics in 2013. Some of the best were: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, an epic SF and fantasy backdrop for realistically human drama; The One Trick Rip-Off by Paul Pope, a hip urban love story wrapped in cyberpunk; and Prophet by Brandon Graham et al, which re-imagines a boneheaded superhero character from the 1980s as a Moebius/Druillet/Eurotrash-style, galaxy-spanning space opera.

In hindsight, the first comic I finished last January established a theme that unites all of the comics I really loved this past year. Omega the Unknown, by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple is an almost perfect synthesis of indie-comic sensibilities and superheros. There seems to be a current trend in comics for creators to revisit and build upon their influences in unique ways—reinterpreting science fiction and superhero tropes (or power chords per the genius of Rudy Rucker) though the filter of indie and underground comics aesthetics.

Omega strikes a delicate balance between honouring the intention of a superhero comic in terms of engaging action and colourful characters, while simultaneously deconstructing superheros for the 21st Century. But rather than retread the over-familiar territory of something like Watchmen, Omega‘s deconstructions make us contemplate the outsider status of the comic fan of the past, the relationship between comic reader and superhero character, and the the all-consuming commercial juggernaut that is the superhero today. Lethem and Dalrymple achieve this balance in intriguing ways: an protagonist whose alien bearing is interpreted as autism, a doppelganger/projection of the antagonist who is nominally the superhero but is mute and struggles to understand both his mission and the foreign milieu of New York City, and an antagonist, The Mink, who is a wildly popular “superhero” and media darling who is wracked with paranoia, narcissism and other disorders. Dalrymple is a particularly brilliant choice of artist, he realistically conveys emotions and movement through a slightly sketchy, cartoonish line that reminds the reader of the handmade quality of the work—reinforcing the factory feel of most current superhero product.

Omega even incorporates a brilliant comic-within-the-comic device, using the work of underground iconoclast Gary Panter to represent Omega’s attempts to communicate—essentially abetting Panter’s mission statement to infiltrate the mainstream using underground ideas.

Omega the Unknown is both comfortingly familiar as a superhero comic and yet challenges us to reexamine our assumptions about our relationship to superheros, something badly needed in an age of billion-dollar franchises. And it does all this using idiosyncratic and absorbing characters, situations and art.

4. The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard

The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard re-contextualizes both the distorted mirror-image of Heart of Darkness‘s Marlow and Kurtz, and the ennui of Fitzgerald’s decaying upper-class zombies, by placing these literary archetypes into a future world of utter societal collapse and ongoing environmental change.

The story follows Dr. Robert Kerans, a biologist and part of a generation who grew up post-apocalypse, exploring a flooded and largely abandoned London that has become an archipelago of decaying buildings amid a resurgence of Triassic-era jungle flora/fauna and rising tropical temperatures. Kerans is mesmerized by the devolving landscape and finds himself mentally embracing entropy. He longs to change along with the environment.

In this, his first novel, Ballard’s pet themes and personnel obsessions find expression in a traditional SF framework. As a child, Ballard and his family were ripped from the lap of British ex-pat luxury in a large home in Shanghai and dumped into a prison camp by the Japanese during WWII. Ballard was therefore intimately familiar with the psychology of disaster and as a student of the surrealists, he would explore the same themes over and over: regression, coping mechanisms, identity, sexual fetishism, technological fetishism and the relationship of the media to the spread of psychopathology.

The Drowned World is the near-perfect expression of our unspoken or unconscious ambivalence towards the inexorable march of entropy.

3. Consider the Oyster, M.F.K. Fisher

If you told me years ago that a book of essays devoted entirely to the oyster would be one of my top-five favourite reads in 2013, I would have laughed out loud. I love food, and even reading about food and cooking, but I eat oysters maybe twice a year, maybe. Any one essay in Consider the Oyster made me want to eat oysters again immediately—like I didn’t properly appreciate the last experience I had eating them.

Mary Frances’ prose is so casually elegant it seems effortless. But her razor-sharp mix of erudition and earthy passion speaks to a devotion to craft. Pick up any volume of her work and start with any essay and you’ll enjoy the same impeccably constructed writing again and again. She wants the reader to think and feel in a measure equal to herself.

It’s almost impossible to know someone from their writing, but MFK Fisher’s work has an immediacy and intimacy that deliberately encourages identification with both her intellectual curiosity and sensual retrospection.

2. The Passage, Justin Cronin

This book surprised me more than any other I read in 2013. I have a tendency to resist hype in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion, so the acclaim surrounding Justin Cronin’s The Passage, made me avoid it when it came out. The book only landed on my ‘to-read’ pile because I got a copy for fifty-cents in a library sale. Home sick one day, I hauled it out and promised myself I’d only read the first couple of chapters and then ditch it if I wasn’t sufficiently engaged. The better part of the day was gone before I looked up again.

Not only is The Passage an engrossing and satisfying read as a pure thriller, but it reveals surprising depths and rich prose styling the further you get into its massive length. The Passage is like a high-art makeover of Stephen King’s The Stand—taking similar end-of-the-world themes of contagion, social collapse and the struggle to sustain community, and extending those themes into a grander discussion about what really makes us human and binds us to one another—also vampires.

The plot turns on pivot points that take large leaps into a post-apocalyptic future, where attempts to maintain recognizable social constructs fail again and again. Cronin drags us through these massive story changes by making us identify with a character that seems less human at each leap, but somehow more humane.

Neither purely nihilistic nor unconvincingly optimistic (a la King’s opus) The Passage is a refreshingly new approach to both the apocalyptic and vampire sub-genres—each so well worn by now that a book as interesting as The Passage is wonderfully unlikely.

1. The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

Empire of the Sun is often thought of as the key to understanding Ballard’s work as it deals most directly with the childhood trauma he experienced interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai during WWII. But I now think that the real Rosetta-stone text for Ballard is The Atrocity Exhibition.

The Atrocity Exhibition is one of the most challenging books I’ve ever stuck out to the end. It took me three tries to read it, but on the last attempt I went through most of it in a single sitting. It finally unlocked for me when I began to see the short chapters or sections—particularity in the early parts of the book—as analogous to gallery wall labels for an art show entitled “The Atrocity Exhibition” taking place in an asylum and showing works by the inmates. The edition I read contains a number of notes, written by Ballard much later, that almost constitute a fascinating separate book—a gloss on the original rather than explanations per se. One of his recommendations is to flip through the book and read pieces at random, which makes the gallery-like structure more apparent. However what worked for me was to flip through and read random pieces, as suggested, and then go back to the beginning and read it all the way through like a more conventional novel.

Atrocity contains most of the themes, obsessions and fetishes that run through all of Ballard’s work: a protagonist whose identity and name shifts scene-to-scene, doctors with obscure and often perverse motives (echoing Burroughs), car crashes as expressions of transformation and carnality, planes and pilots, clinical descriptions of medical procedures and sex blending into each other, celebrity worship as the ultimate pathology of the twentieth century, the psychology of disaster and decay both urban and biological, and often on a blurred line between the two.

What sets Atrocity apart from Ballard’s other books is that is seems to contain all his pet themes and presents them more directly than anything else he wrote, as it largely ignores conventional plotting and story-telling. The semi-experimental nature of the book allows him to lay out his mental and emotional clutter on the table in front of us—encouraging the reader to participate in an autopsy of Ballard’s subconscious. Atrocity even features lists generated through word-association games Ballard plays with himself as discrete “stories” or labels.

The odd thing is that if you described this book to me before, I’d probably tell you flat out that it wouldn’t be for me. I tend to favour conventional stories and plots. My reading tastes are usually pretty prosaic. But Atrocity works for me because of Ballard’s unusual approach to his experimental writing. Rather than wallow in stream-of-consciousness, the way a writer like Kerouac did, Ballard’s deliberately distant and cold approach to examining his own psyche is weirdly refreshing.

You feel like you’re sitting in a lecture-hall with Ballard himself watching films of doctors dissecting Ballard’s own brain while he says things like “that’s fascinating” at your elbow, chuckling. Reading The Atrocity Exhibition was a unique and unsettling experience that I’m thrilled I finally undertook, but let me be clear: most people I know would hate it.

Honorable mentions:
The Anubis Gates, Tim Powers
Bubba Ho-Tep, Joe R. Lansdale
Fatale, Ed Brubaker & Sean Philips

Hardboiled: Pronto

This year, a legend in the hardboiled genre passed away, Elmore Leonard. When I heard the news of his death, I was reminded of a copy of his novel Pronto that I had picked up a few months earlier, along with a small lot of other used paperbacks. Pronto had caught my eye because it features a character named Raylan Givens, who is the focus of one of my favourite television shows, Justified, which Leonard was involved with as a producer until his passing.

Pronto is both an excellent example of Leonard’s style and functions as a de facto prequel to Justified—the novel’s climax is a key scene early in the pilot episode.

Raylan emerges gradually as the hero of Pronto, but the character the reader begins and ends the story with is Harry Arno, a Miami bookie in his middle sixties who has been skimming from his mob bosses for years as part of a plan to flee into retirement in Ripallo Italy. Ripallo holds a special place in Arno’s heart due to a Word War II encounter he had there with poet Ezra Pound. But in the way of most of Leonard’s protagonists, reality rarely, if ever, matches the vision in their heads—of either the past or the future.

Years earlier, Arno had given U.S. Marshal Givens the slip in an Atlanta airport. The dogged Raylan sees Arno’s latest flight to Italy as a chance for him to redeem himself with the Marshal service, and hopefully secure a promotion. At the same time, Arno, vaguely dissatisfied with life in Ripallo, has called his ex-stripper wife Joyce to join him, using American ex-pat Robert Gee, a former foreign legionary, as intermediary and security. Joyce is pursued by Raylan, Tommy ‘The Zip’ Bucks—a cold-blooded hitman working for Arno’s mob boss Jimmy ‘The Cap’ Capotorto—Nicky Testa, The Cap’s assistant, and several other Italian confederates of Tommy Bucks. All of these vividly drawn characters converge on Arno’s decaying villa in the hills of Ripallo.

But the events of Ripallo will lead to an inevitable final showdown between Tommy Bucks and Raylan Givens back home in Miami. In Raylan, Leonard found an engaging balance of traditional western* and contemporary crime heroes—extravagantly flawed, but attempting to make the right decisions, to do good, within a limited frame of reference.

Arno, in contrast, is a perfect example of a Leonard protagonist who is incapable of understanding his own motivations—not stupid per se, but too myopic and narcissistic to fathom the impact his choices might have on those around him. He is entirely driven by trying to satisfy needs he is unable to effectively articulate or even enjoy when he meets them.

Better than any other writer, Elmore Leonard understood the intersection between criminality and stupidity. Not that all of his criminal characters are idiots, but even the smarter ones make bad decision after bad decision as a result of greed. Rather than a simple “crime doesn’t pay” morality though, Leonard’s novels are often overtly sympathetic to the way average people can be lead astray by greed. Even his heroes are drawn as complex individuals who make bad decisions due to flaws—like Raylan’s temper and stubbornness.

Pronto is classic Elmore Leonard, clean hard prose** with ultra-sharp dialogue, but the novel is also an interesting read if you’re a fan of JustifiedJustified captures the essence of Elmore Leonard’s writing in a way no other adaptation, some of them very good, has managed—a specifically Leonardian combination of black humour and gripping crime drama. Although published back in 1993, Pronto contains a number of scenes and characters that appear throughout Justified, albeit often in reconfigured fashion. Raylan’s back-story in the tv show is very close to what appears in Pronto, with some minor variations—for example he mentions two young sons in the novel, but starts the tv show childless. As a fan of the show, the variations become a bit distracting, but the novel definitely merits attention on its own terms.

It’s striking how clearly Leonard’s characters and dialogue translate to the screen. Twenty-six of his novels and short stories have already been adapted into movies and television,*** starting in the 50s. But this natural affinity film and television has for Leonard’s strong dialogue and plotting shouldn’t obscure the overall quality of his writing. His ability to convey rich characterization with a minimum of highly readable prose sets his work well apart from many of his hardboiled contemporaries. Elmore Leonard’s books aren’t just entertaining, they’re very good.

——
*Leonard began his writing career with westerns, including the seminal 3:10 to Yuma.
**Leonard was influenced by Hemingway, but found him too humourless—nicely summarizing Leonard’s appeal as a prose stylist.
***Apparently even Pronto in 1997 with Peter Falk!—thank you for your generous bounty wikipedia.

Sci-Fi: Future Shock Proofing

Can science fiction make the world a better place?

As I’ve discussed before, SF can have a demonstrable impact on the real world in terms of inspiring scientists to develop new technologies. But part of that previous discussion included the potential costs and negative effects of that technology—something SF lit explores in often frightening detail.

Damien G Walter has written a thoughtful and compelling piece for The Ascender Magazine on the way SF serves as a forum for building a better world through imaginative explorations, as, in his words: “…imagination has an unspeakably important role to play in solving the problems of our world.”

In the overview to The Ascender article on his blog, Mr. Walters describes the two basic audiences for SF as liberal and conservative constituencies, each approaching reading SF with different aims: world-building and escapism, respectively.*

“The increasingly frequent arguments about race, gender, sexuality and other forms of representation in science fiction (I put forward this increasing frequency as a good thing, to be clear) arise at the faultlines where the two constituencies of science fiction meet.”

It’s this social futurism that is often neglected when discussing the predictive aspects of SF writing. Mr. Walters cites excellent examples of progressive SF writers who address sociopolitical issues directly, such as Ursula Le Guin. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is still one of the benchmarks for literature about gender and The Dispossessed made me seriously consider for the first time if an anarchist state might be possible. But there are just as many wacky libertarian-conservative imagined futures like Starship Troopers or The Moon is a Harsh Mistressline marriage anyone?

But I think Mr. Walters really gets at the core of an important idea when he writes about SF as the literature of the imagination:

“The wider message of science fiction isn’t necessarily the content, but rather, the medium itself. If science fiction is the great product of the modern imagination, then it is to the imagination that it directs our attention.”

The individual quirks of a given vision of the future are less important than the act of trying to imagine one. Gay marriage seems downright prosaic once you’ve spent time inhabiting an imaginary line marriage. Star Trek showed the first interracial kiss on television. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass made us confront the possibility of ecological disaster as early as 1956. Beyond predicting the next cool gadget, SF has long helped those of us who embrace the genre adapt to the ever increasing pace of technological and social evolution.

One of the principle benefits of reading a lot of SF is the protection it affords the reader from future shock. If you have imagined—with the help of a good writer—a wide range of possible futures, you’re less likely to be alarmed by new technologies or new social norms.

Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End is a great example of near future world-building that examines both the practical and social impacts of emerging technologies. Reading the novel, I shuddered at the (largely metaphoric) book scanning device that devoured whole libraries; felt pangs of sympathy for a character struggling with the displacing effects of anti-aging tech (a possible social cost of looking younger that had never occurred to me before), and vicariously reveled in the potential applications of wearable computing.

Despite the potential downsides of Vinge’s future, I’d be ready for it tomorrow. Bring on the wearable computing and constantly wired life, I’m ready to Google everything I see.

Can SF make the world a better place? The cumulative effect of all these imagined futures on the real world is probably equally dark as light—as many drugged-out cyber terrorists as social progressives might have been inspired by a given piece of SF. But change is indeed the only constant and SF is the only literature that has ever fully engaged with change at all levels.

——
*Although I would argue that the line he draws between these two goals is blurry at best, isn’t world-building just a different kind of escapism? —maybe a more progressive kind, but still.

Starship Troopers: a Misunderstood Masterpiece or Trash?

starship-troopers-shooting-bugs

Let me just state my position up-front: I have really come to bury Starship Troopers, not to praise it. I think Starship Troopers (the movie, I’ll rant about the book some other time) is gradually being reassessed in all the wrong ways. Starship Troopers is junk by any measure, and always has been.

In the past few years, a number of critics have come out with revisionist-themed pieces on Starship Troopers lauding its value as satire. Here’s a recent one by Calum Marsh of The Atlantic.

Mr. Marsh rightly castigates viewers who want to take the film at face value. But what his, and most of these attempts at reassessment fail to grasp is that many of us who saw the film when it first came out always understood it to be satire, and still think it’s a terrible film.

The problem with Starship Troopers is that it utterly fails to be good satire. Director Paul Verhoeven‘s filmography is overstuffed with luridly violent trash with satiric subtext. But where the satire mostly works in say his own Robocop, it doesn’t in Starship Troopers because Verhoeven’s obsessions and fetishes overwhelm the thin satiric content. Robocop featured a strong performance by Peter Weller that helped ground its violent satire on 80s consumerist society and policing in a basic humanism. In contrast, the acting in Starship Troopers is limited and wooden throughout, so all we’re left as an audience is either to revel in the violent spectacle or enjoy a “knowing” chuckle at the ham-fisted satire.

Mr. Marsh, like many contemporary critics, characterizes Starship Troopers as “…a ruthlessly funny and keenly self-aware sendup of right-wing militarism.” He also quotes fellow critic Phil Coldiron who “…described it as ‘one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films,’ a parody of Hollywood form whose superficial “badness” is central to its critique.”

Funny? Starship Troopers features barn-broad satiric touches such as a military flogging shot like sweat-drenched S&M porn, screamingly obvious recruiting ads, vagina-mouthed aliens, and military scientists who dress like SS monsters. None of this is at all subtle or in any way a unique statement—it’s parody without the moral high-ground that true satire requires. Verhoeven has nothing to say in Starship Troopers except fascism is bad and Hollywood loves sex and violence. The trouble is, Hollywood loves sex and violence only slightly less than Verhoeven himself, so who is he critiquing exactly? And I’m not sure many people are lining up to defend the cartoonish fascism in the film as a viable political system.* But to say that the politics of Starship Troopers provides a fun-house-mirror-style understanding of our own politics is like saying The Honeymooners provided an enlightening window onto domestic relations—broad caricature is not good satire.

One of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films? Really? So, Starship Troopers is up there with classics like The Man Who Would Be King,** Lawrence of Arabia, The Mission and The Battle of Algiers? If we can’t all agree that sounds ridiculous then I’m not sure why I’m bothering. It doesn’t measure up to any of these films in terms of plot, script, art direction, cinematography, editing or performances. Starship Troopers exhibits a reasonable level of film craft, but only as an efficient delivery system for flat, brightly lit blood, bare-chests and sledgehammer-like campy humour.

I think Starship Troopers could be reasonably embraced by an audience as a semi-self-aware trash-art work—a slick, high-budget camp-fest that wants to make fun of jingoistic military clichés while simultaneously reveling in violent, sexy spectacle. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy Verhoeven’s ultra-pulpy The Fourth Man under those terms.

But, accepting that premise makes Starship Troopers a decently executed, hyper-garish b-movie with ardent fans, not an unrecognized cinematic classic.

——
*Heinlein might have been the exception here, but again, I’ll save that rant for another day.
**A true example of largely misunderstood satire.

Bookstore Browsing and Chaos Theory

Charles Stross—the exceptional writer of Accelerando* among other great books—has posted a piece on how readers will discover books in the future, which I believe is both completely accurate and deeply chilling:

“In the future, readers will not go in search of books to read. Feral books will stalk readers, sneak into their ebook libraries, and leap out to ambush them. Readers will have to beat books off with a baseball bat; hold them at bay with a flaming torch: refuse to interact: and in extreme cases, feign dyslexia, blindness or locked-in syndrome to avoid being subjected to literature.”

It’s a polemic about the inevitability of virulent bookspam entering our e-readers.

“Books are going to be like cockroaches, hiding and breeding in dark corners and keeping you awake at night with their chittering.”

In general I’m not afraid ebooks and their attendant marketing because I am neither a Luddite nor paranoid about Minority Report-style** targeted marketing; but I am hesitant about our ebook-dominated near-future. Something essential in my life as a book lover will be lost when I can no longer browse an interesting shelf in a well appointed store.

In a post on book buying, Rod Dreher of the American Conservative notes in an offhanded manner that browsing in big-box book stores isn’t fun anymore because e-readers:

“…solve the “problem” of that Barnes & Noble brick-and-mortar store. When we were in Paris last month, Julie and I took so much pleasure in the gorgeous small bookstores—all independently owned—all over the Left Bank. If either of us read French well enough, we easily could have lost hours, just browsing. You don’t have that experience often in American bookstores anymore. It used to be fun to browse in record stores too. Times change.”

Mr. Dreher, rightly, bemoans the lack of depth in the stock of big-box bookstores, but fails to see the small independent bookstore as a valid alternative. Many have written about the long tail approach to retail—selling a higher volume of unique items over time rather than, say, a box full of one bestseller the week it comes out—a mode of retail that is largely seen as an online option. But doesn’t that description apply to some of the better, especially used, bookstores you’ve visited?

The most successful independent bookstores that still exist have combined both bricks and mortar and online operations—thriving off both the long tail online and the personal service that many punters still appreciate: a good chat about books followed by some recommendations. But what the bricks and mortar bookstore offers that surpasses even the best online experience is physical browsing.

Amazon-style automated recommendations have arisen to try and simulate the real-world experience of stumbling on something new while browsing, by bombarding us with suggested purchases. The problem with these systems is the rudimentary nature of the AI involved. I frequently buy gifts through Amazon, or order for friends and family. For example, I’ve ordered a large number of craft books for my lovely wife. So the amazon bookshelf assembled just for me contains a surprising number of books on Estonian needle-craft. Not only do these suggestions not interest me, but my wife isn’t Estonian and to my knowledge has never asked me to order a book related to Estonian heritage.

The only way to improve the Amazon system is to continually click “not interested” as you browse their recommendations in order to affect the overall results. But the minute I order another knitting book for my wife, I will screw with the algorithms again.

But here’s the more important factor that online systems can’t even come close to emulating: the chaos of browsing.

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
—Albert Einstein

The recommendations of online systems are based on the statistical likelihood that you, the buyer, will be enticed to buy something else based on trends in your past purchases. In the words of Michael Crichton’s characters in Jurassic Park:

“They believed that prediction was just a function of keeping track of things. If you knew enough, you could predict anything. That’s been cherished scientific belief since Newton.’

And?’

Chaos theory throws it right out the window.”

Browsing a good bookstore is like visiting an art gallery where everything is for sale—a curated experience that is then randomized by alphabetical shelving. Chaos enters the experience through the shelving of unlike works next to each other under broad categories.

A certain frission occurs for the book lover when she glances away from the body of work of a familiar author to light upon the spine of something new—drawn by the title, or a vague familiarity with the author’s name, or even the colour and texture of the binding.

This is a feeling I have treasured all my life and however much I like my iPad—and I love the damn thing—or however much I like browsing random pictures and snippets of text on various websites—nothing I’ve experienced online comes close.

Booksellers have complained of “showrooming” for online book sales and have even considered charging for admission to their stores as a way of solving the dilemma of browsers who leave their stores to buy the same item online. This is, of course, patently ridiculous. A long time local Ottawa book dealer once told me a story about a customer who wandered into the back of the store, found a quiet corner to take off all their clothes, then proceeded to the front of the shop and climbed into the window display; where he sat quietly until the police came. “Showrooming” is the least of your worries as a shop owner.

The only avenue open to independent bookstores to close deals is to provide a better experience through personal service or superior selection of stock—it’s not volume, it’s quality.

And a shop that provides a high-quality browsing experience—cleanliness***, organization, good lighting, peaceful atmosphere, interesting stock—will encourage the spread of chaos.

——
*Seriously, why are you not reading this book immediately? I’m looking at you…
**Though I do blame Minority Report, in part, for all the streaky fingerprints littering the screens of the key electronic interfaces in my life…and for freakin’ Windows 8.
***As book lovers we all have stories about dirty, disorganized, dingy shops that we’ve found hidden treasures in, but do you really prefer that kind of store or would you rather leave with a good book and not the urge to wash your hands?