May. 30th, 2017

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Plodding along, but still reading.

Thieves' Carnival/the Jewel of Bas (Science Fiction Double, #22)Thieves' Carnival/the Jewel of Bas by Karen Haber

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a variant on Tor’s old Doubles idea (two short novels by different authors in one volume), in which they publish one classic SF story along with a new story featuring the same characters or world. In this case, Karen Haber wrote a prequel to a famed Leigh Brackett novella about Ciaran and Mouse, a minstrel and a thief who find out the legends of the sleeping god Bas aren’t just legends. I picked this up mainly because of Leigh Brackett, who I’ve wanted to read more of since I read The Long Tomorrow, which I liked a lot (and yes, she wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back). Rather than read them in chronological order, I read Brackett’s novella first because I wanted to see how it held up on its own without Haber setting it up for me. And … well, it’s not really for me. It’s basically that particular genre of SF that’s actually more like a fantasy story with a few tech-like elements, with a married couple that snipe wittily at each other a lot – neither of which is really my thing. (Neither are stories featuring minstrels, for that matter.) The Haber story – which is about how Ciaran and Mouse met after being paired up in a contest to steal a mysterious MacGuffin – is a bit more modern in style and fleshes out the characters a bit more than Brackett was able to do writing for the pulp magazines, but still. It’s not dreadful, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either.

The Gabriel Set-Up (Modesty Blaise Graphic Novel Titan #1)The Gabriel Set-Up by Peter O'Donnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read many of the Modesty Blaise novels, but never the original comic strips, so coming across this was a treat. This is the first of a series of collections reprinting the original strips. This volume includes the first three Blaise adventures from 1963, as well as an origin story that appeared in 1966. The stories are pretty much what I’d expected – international espionage/adventure tales with former international crime lord Modesty and her lieutenant Willie Garvin coaxed out of retirement by British intelligence to fight bad guys. It’s good pulp fun that defies more clichés than it employs, and the art from Jim Holdaway really brings Modesty and her world to life quite well given the limited format of a daily strip. There’s also some nice bonus material on the origin of the strip, and a fascinating, rather moving essay from Peter O’Donnell about a 12-year-old Balkan refugee he encountered in Persia while serving in World War 2 that became the inspiration for the Modesty Blaise character.

The Gardener's Son: a screenplayThe Gardener's Son: a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Cormac McCarthy rarely writes screenplays, but this was his first, commissioned in 1976 for a PBS TV movie that aired in 1977. It’s a Southern Gothic take about a rich family that owns a mill (the Greggs) and a poor family employed at the mill (the McAvoys). At the center of the story is young Robert McAvoy, who lost a leg at the mill after an accident rumored to be caused by James Gregg, the ruthless son of the kindly mill owner. The story ultimately builds up to a confrontation between the two. I don’t normally read screenplays – as Warren Ellis has remarked here
(quoting someone else), screenplays are usually considered to be half a piece of art, so yr not reading a finished product, and yet screenplays can take on a literary form that stand on their own. I’m not sure this is the case here. Even taking into account McCarthy’s talent as a writer and the fact that this was his first attempt at a screenplay, this didn’t quite work for me – I haven't seen the film, but I suspect it works better as a completed work of art than the half a piece published here.

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Better homes and gardeners,

This is dF
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ITEM: Ron Charles, editor of WaPo’s Book World, has written an interesting column that argues that if you’re going to go with a literary analogy to describe the Trump era, forget 1984 – it’s really a lot more like King Lear.

It’s a good argument, and one we perhaps need, if only because it’s kind of lazy – not to mention inaccurate – to compare the Trump Dynasty to 1984, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Man In The High Castle, which are the usual analogies I see.

(And I suspect the latter two are more because of the recent TV adaptations than the books on which they’re based – I can’t prove this but I’d bet five bucks that at least half the people who watch those shows and apply them to current events haven’t read the books.)

I realize many of these people are not saying that America has been literally transformed into the worlds described in those books – it’s a metaphor, a literary term which here means “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them”. When people point to books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, or The Man In The High Castle, they’re usually referring more to the mentality they perceive within the Trump admin and the GOP in general than any literal establishment of actual functioning totalitarianism (although some will argue that too, and they’re wrong, of course).

And sure, the books themselves are metaphors for the same mentalities that the authors were encountering at the time. But that doesn’t mean the metaphors translate seamlessly from one era to another. The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man In The High Castle take those metaphors to extremes as a way of saying, “Beware – this is how far these attitudes will take us if we let them.” And frankly, as bad as the Trump admin is, and as awful as some of his biggest fans are, we’re just not anywhere close to those worlds.

As for 1984, that’s been the go-to comparison for fascism probably since the book was first published. Yes, sure, as Ron Charles writes, we have Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts and Sean Spicer’s Ministry of Truth, perpetual war with an invisible overseas enemy that we are required to hate, etc. The key difference is that Oceania made it work through strict and absolute order. Look at the shambling chaos of Trump’s first few months in office – and the fact that at least half the country is perfectly aware of this – and the analogy falls apart.

King Lear, on the other hand, seems a much better fit:

The most prominent characteristic of our era is not the monolithic power of one party, but the erratic personality of one man. Every morning, all sides of the political establishment — his family and friends, along with “the haters and losers” — must contend with Trump’s zigzagging proclamations, his grandiose promises, his spasmodic attachments.

It's a good argument – so good you wonder why more people didn’t think of it.

The most likely answer, I would guess, is that far more people in the US have read 1984 than King Lear, or indeed anything by Shakespeare.

(DISCLAIMER: I’m not pointing fingers here – I’m guilty of that too. I have read Shakespeare and liked him, but I'm not a huge fan, and I generally preferred his comedies to his tragedies. And Lear is a tragedy. Much like the Trump admin. Forsooth!)

While we're at it, if you want a better non-Shakespearian literary metaphor for the Trump era, I would recommend It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, which also gets mentioned from time to time, though not nearly as much as the others, possibly because there’s no TV series or Hollywood film version of it. There, you’ve got Buzz Windrip, an authoritarian candidate and con man who wins the presidency on a campaign of fearmongering, xenophobia and a return to traditional American values and prosperity, and proceeds to turn the country into a fascist dictatorship – not in the name of ideological purity but simply to secure the power he desires to run the country the way he wants.

Obviously Trump hasn’t done that, and two reasons It Can’t Happen Here couldn’t happen today – not the way Lewis wrote it, anyway – is that (1) Trump has no paramilitary force to suppress dissent (sorry, white supremacist groups don’t count – they’re not paramilitary, they’re a bunch of yokels with guns, which is not the same thing by a long shot, no matter how much they may fantasize otherwise), and (2) the prevalence of mass media (to include social media) makes it impossible for Trump to fool the majority of people the majority of the time. Both of these were key ingredients to Windrip’s initial success – Trump has neither. All he has is the people who share his particular reality bubble, and reportedly that number is shrinking.

But anyway, I think It Can’t Happen Here is a better literary metaphor for current events than 1984 and the others listed above.

That said, an even better alt-metaphor to 1984 would be Aldoux Huxley’s Brave New World, which – as Neil Postman argued in Amusing Ourselves To Death – argues that the dystopian future won’t be Big Brother cracking down on dissent but pervasive mass media entertainment and trivia dumbing us down into passive egotists who care a lot more about celebrity gossip than, say, how the healthcare system works.

I’d say we’re a lot closer to Huxley than Orwell right about now. But that’s not Trump-specific, of course – we’ve been on that road for decades.

Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides,

This is dF


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