Monthly Archives: October 2010

Science Fiction Hall of Fame – Volume Two A

Science Fiction Hall of Fame - Volume Two A

The more I read of science fiction from the 1930’s to 60’s, the more I realize that this was where our culture grew up in a sense it hadn’t before.  These people were dreaming the future we live in.  I don’t mean because they (good grief) “predicted” anything, but because they were pioneers of new ideas, new perspectives, new attitudes.  To fully explore all that you needed a literature without any limits, where every dial could be turned.

The format they did it best with was the short format.  Maybe it was an accident of publishing history, I don’t know.  But most of the best science fiction stories are either short stories or short novels.

For exploring the novels, have a look at the Gollancz Masterworks series.  For the rest there’s anthologies.  This is one of them.  Every story here is exceptional or historic in some way: Call Me Joe (1957) by Poul Anderson, which contains the core ideas of AvatarWho Goes There? (1938) by John W. Campbell, filmed as The ThingUniverse (1941) by Heinlein, the original degenerate generation ship story, (one echo of which is WALL-E).  The Marching Morons (1951) by C. M. Kornbluth, the basis for Idiocracy.

The deep link between science fiction and libertarianism is demonstrated in … And Then There Were None (1951) by Eric Russell, which portrays moneyless anarcho-libertarians inspired by Gandhi, and With Folded Hands (1954) by Jack Williamson, the nanny state nightmare version of Asimov’s robotic laws.

As anthologies go, this is about as good as it gets.

Frihetsfestivalen 2010

Det var kanskje ikke så lurt av Hans Jørgen Lysglimt å invitere Nyhetsspeilet-folk til Frihetsfestivalen i Oslo i dag, men du verden som det setter farge på noe så i utgangspunktet kjedelig som en politisk konferanse.  De ble fjernet fra programmet i siste liten, men var tungt tilstede blant publikum, og jeg storkoste meg med å diskutere de virkelig store linjene i verdenshistorien med folk som faktisk tror at Bilderberg-gruppen i samråd med Rothschild-familien bruker chemtrails til å forberede noe stort som skal skje i 2012, eller noe.

Og det er tross alt mer spennende å snakke med slike folk enn å høre liberalister diskutere doktrinenyanser.  Liberalister er interessante å høre på når de legger ut om sin egen filosofi.  Når de begynner å krangle med hverandre er det bare å koble ut.  Og sånne diskusjoner er vanskelig å unngå på en konferanse med utspring i liberalistmiljøet.

Foredragene jeg var på var mer virkelighetsnære enn tilhørerne.  Og jeg fant noen interessante bøker.  Og fikk snakket med noen folk jeg bare kjente online.  Så jeg liker initiativet, og håper det blir mer.

Mine personlige ønsker for neste gang: 1) Konferansen bør favne så bredt som mulig uten at det blir vissvass.  (De Grønne var tilstede med stand, og både EFN og FriBit holdt foredrag – sånt er bra).  2) Profilen bør være sær nok til at den respektable høyresiden nøler litt med å møte opp, men 3) man trenger litt velmenende diktatorisk ordstyring for å hindre publikumsdiskusjoner om pengeteori og statens opprinnelse.

40′s movies marathon – part 132

White Heat (1949, USA, Walsh)

Here’s how it goes with movie tropes: They go out of favor, then return self-aware, building on everything that came before.  That’s why you don’t need a big intro here, you just throw viewers into the middle of a James Cagney gangster story, with the dials turned to Nightmare, and they’ll know their way around.  It was the same with Key Largo.  The result is maybe the greatest gangster movie ever made.  Watched it all.

Madame Bovary (1949, USA, Minnelli)

Once in a while during a movie intro I start thinking about Ben-Hur, for no apparent reason.  And then I notice that the music is by Miklos Rozsa.  Anyway, when it concerns literary classics like this, known primarily for being a great novel, maybe I’ll read it one day, or maybe I won’t, but there’s not much bloody point watching the movie version, now is there?  Watched: 6 minutes.

The Small Back Room (1949, UK, Powell & Pressburger)

This reminds of that 1979-81 series The Sandbaggers, where we followed the manouverings and infights of the bureaucrats who stay at home while James Bonds go out into the world.  Here it’s a research center during the war.  There’s the same tone, and the same basic story: Smart people working with and against the whims of their politically apt superiors.  Watched it all.

Thirst / Törst (1949, Sweden, Bergman)

I think it’s very wicked of this young upstart “Ingmar Bergman” to make all these parodies of the works of his famous namesake.  Watched: 17 minutes.

Where everyone’s a student, if they want to be

One of the things that makes me feel privileged to be alive at this time is the amount of informative and educational material that is available online: Lectures, courses, podcasts.  It’s like all the world is now a university, every person a student.  All you have to do is flip the switch in your brain that allows you to notice it.

For me it started with The Teaching Company, who had been selling audio lecture series on tape for years before I found them online.  High quality stuff, well presented.  But they’re falling behind, with their insane pricing model and comparatively limited selection.

There’s, who are more oriented towards politicians, public intellectuals, and authors.  There are lots of gems to discover in their massive database.  (I post some on Twitter once in a while.)  It’s like a cauldron of ideas, some good, some bad, some fresh, some stale – and it makes you feel alive just to be connected to it.

These days I’m exploring iTunes U, which gathers all the free recordings universities and colleges are putting online.

Long-time readers may wonder why I don’t do much media criticism any more.  It’s because in a world of free, 24-episode lecture series on the modern history of France, obsessing endlessly about how your newspaper is biased and uninformative becomes just whining.  Like always complaining about how awful your city is, but never leaving.  At some point you just have to let go.  Flip the switch.  Join the new world.

40′s movies marathon – part 131

The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949, USA, Sturges)

Betty Grable rampaging across the West, shooting bullets and Preston Sturges’ dialogue.  Yes!  Watched it all.  An unpolished, but otherwise worthy forerunner to  Blazing Saddles.

City Across the River (1949, USA, Shane)

Did you know that Poor People often live in Slums and suffer terribly from Juvenile Delinquency?  Watching a movie that pretends to know what that is like is the least you can do about it.  Watched: 8 minutes.

Mr Belvedere Goes to College (1949, USA, Nugent)

I feel like Shirley Temple is the nemesis of this movie marathon.  She’s been there since the mid-30′s, and even now she’s still playing teenage roles.  I’d be depressed if I didn’t know  she would retire a year later.  (And btw, she’s still alive!) To be fair, though, this is quite good, with Temple playing only an ignorable minor role.  It’s the old “successful grown-up returns to college to get a formal education” ploy, featuring Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.  I’m particularly impressed with Mr Belvedere’s familiarity with Norwegian, demonstrated in the clip above.  Watched: 7 minutes.

The Inspector General (1949, USA, Koster)

Through accidental circumstances, Danny Kaye is thought to be someone he isn’t.  Hilarity ensues.  He’s maybe the only funny comedian of the 1940′s, but I’m getting tired of Kaye.  He’s like Jim Carrey: Once you’ve seen him make one or two odd faces, you’ve seen it all.  Watched: 25 minutes.

Dick Armey, Matt Kibbe – Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto

Dick Armey, Matt Kibbe - Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto (2010)

There’s an image in my head that makes me smile: It’s when Clay Shirky decides to write the second edition of Here Comes Everybody, and realizes that he can’t get around writing about the Tea Party movement as the perfect illustration of “organizing without organizations”.

My own interest in the Tea Party movement is not so much their relevance to American politics, but this: Given some people who feel unease, anger and disgust with the political mainstream of their country, but don’t have the left’s traditions of grassroots mobilization to build on, how do you cause change to happen?

Because that’s me.  If Norway’s public sphere is like a friendly gettogether, with everyone chatting quietly, confident in their shared vision of the world, I’m the guy staring out the window, thinking “there has to be a way to smash all this”.  But I don’t know how.

The Tea Party movement is one of the data points I’m interested in.  They started with that same feeling, and are possibly achieving .. something.  This book explains how some of them see the world – with a bias towards the authors’ own organization FreedomWorks.  They present the movement as the marriage of fiscal conservatism with the organization tactics of the mid-20th century radical Saul Alinsky.  Their goal is to reinvent the Republican party, one elected official at a time.

Who knows if it will work, but this is the most interesting political phenomenon I’m aware of at the moment.  A new type of politics, with unexplored possibilities.

Max Headroom

Year: 1985, 1987, 1988

Type: Cyberpunk

Premise: Society is falling apart, and all you get to choose from on television is 60 Minutes and some goofy AI talking head

Primary audience: People who are nostalgic for a time when everything was going to hell and there was no future, no future for you

Tics: Evir Japanese megacorroporationos

Worth watching: The original standalone episode, yes

Asian businessmen are the scariest people 80′s scriptwriters can imagine.  They come here and throw some money around, and then they expect to be treated as our overlords.  But they’re getting a crappy deal.  In the future, everything is ugly.  Nobody cares.  Punks control the streets.  All that’s left is TV, and, for some odd reason, investigative reporting.

Max Headroom was made in two batches, a 1985 television movie called 20 Minutes Into the Future, (above), and a 1987-88 series.  The first episode of the series is a remake of the movie, allowing us to see how the concept was dumbed down along the way.  The series has the same visual style, but is kind of upbeat.  The evil hacker is now a good hacker.  The team of good guys win stupid little victories every episode.  It goes against the grain of the original.  20 Minutes was odd and cheap, but at least it stood for something.  It stood for believing that everything was going to hell.  The series stood for the family friendly version of that, ie. nothing. Nothing at all.

40′s movies marathon – part 130

The Fall of Berlin (1949, USSR, Chiaureli)

I can learn to like Communist war epics, if they’re all like this, the original Der Untergang.  The emotions are all heightened: All joy, all love, all rage.  The first scene with Stalin is shot with an angelic choir humming in the background.  And the scenes of the actual battle of Berlin are like nothing that actually happened – mythical, crossing over to delirious when Stalin himself shows up, and all the nations on Earth join hands to sing his praise.  Watched it all.  I guess I’m able to watch this with moral detachment because it crosses over into fantasy.  Fantasy was the element that held Communism together.  Which is why I look forward to more of these movies.

Battleground (1949, USA, Wellman)

Another step towards insincerity in war movies.  I don’t mean that The Fall of Berlin (above) is particularly sincere.  But at least it doesn’t pretend to be.  Watched: 4 minutes.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949, USA, Mankiewicz)

We never see Addie’s face, only the effect she has on her desperate housewife friends, all of whom are less beautiful, less interesting, less cultured, less alive, less perfect than she is.  They know it, and their husbands know it too.  Watched it all.

Who Done It (1949, USA)

The Three Stooges – another of the massively unfunny comedy teams of the 1940′s.  I know they won a war and all, but the World War II generation should be ashamed of themselves for having such a terrible taste in humor.  Watched: 3 minutes.

Boardwalk Empire

Year: 2010

Genre: History with swearing

Subgenre: Lovable sadistic gangsters and cops battle it out in 2000’s New Jersey / 1870’s Deadwood / 1920’s Atlantic City.

Primary audience: People who want to be reassured that everyone in the past were hedonists too.

Tics: Every man’s a gangster, every woman a whore.

Worth watching: Not sure.

Let’s call it the Ian McShane smirk, even though he’s not in this series.  It’s the look of a character out of the past who knows it’s all a charade, that there are no truths, no right or wrong.  It’s the character who at heart is really one of us, only slicker.

And this has been the mode now for about a decade, hasn’t it?  It’s beginning to feel dated.  It used to say: We’re daring and honest.  Now it says: We know nothing about the past, nothing about people, and we have nothing to say.  So we’re settling for the same old polished grittiness that makes you grin because you still think it shocks other people.

It doesn’t make you think.  It doesn’t make you feel anything.  It doesn’t even make you uncomfortable.

But hey, it looks good.

Philip José Farmer – To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Philip José Farmer - To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)

To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) by Philip José Farmer is perhaps more a thought experiment than a novel.  Science fiction always has to walk that balance, because it’s the literature of ideas.  I mean, the really big ideas, the ones that are too big for a realistic novel.  Science fiction without ideas feels empty, like there’s a hole in it where something was supposed to be.  But then sometimes you get only a thought experiment, and not much of a story attached.

Scattered isn’t quite there, but it’s close.  Every human who has ever lived has been resurrected by aliens on one big planet, where they’re given the basic necessities of life, and no instructions.  Whenever anyone dies, they get resurrected again.  It’s one big angry world of warcraft.

We follow Richard Burton, the Richard Burton, who sets out on a mission to find those asshole aliens who are responsible for this mess.  He didn’t ask to be resurrected.  And for some reason, wherever he goes he keeps bumping into Hermann Goering.

You can choose to see Scattered either as a dressed up thought experiment, or as a minimalist and more subtle approach to story-telling.  I’m going for the second alternative, because it puts me in a good mood to be reminded of SF’s leaner, younger years, when you didn’t take one small idea and turn it into 600 pages of action-packed bloat.  You took plenty of big ideas, and crammed them into 200.