A definition of fantasy is a phrase of a certain length that has something wrong with it.
Every rare once in a great while you get to see a thing be tabernacled; I don’t know about you, but it’s why I get out of bed, of a morning.
“[P]ink…” he says, “You have a lot of pink!” —And of course the first impulse is to point to all the (rational, ineluctable, situational, explicit, plot-derived and -dependent) reasons why there’s so much pink—the emblems, the nickname, the false dawns of sodium-vapor streetlights, or sunsets too, the hair, but: all these now crowd out any other meaning that might be made from all that pink. Might have been made. By other readers. —Don’t kill your darlings. Kill that which insists these things, or those, must be darling.
I can’t remember precisely what Greer Gilman called it, I mean, the “unfortunate enclitic” kinda undersells it, and the “terrible enclitic” is a bit too dignified, but the basic word itself, enclitic, I mean, damn, that’s perfect for all those goddamn -punks: steampunk, mythpunk, mannerpunk, splatterpunk, spicepunk, fuckpunk. —But. I think, for once, the enclitic has been earned.
I was going to, I don’t know; I’ve been reading Cyclonopedia and also old Frank Herbert, which proves something or other about the shortcomings of holistic systems that admit there are inevitably shortcomings to holistic systems? —The ()hole system is, of course, a system that demonstrates systems can’t possibly demonstrate anything about the world because of all the, you know, holes, that systems and worlds can’t help but have, or, as Lewis Orne might’ve put it, had he existed—
Part of our problem centers on the effort to introduce external control for a system-of-systems that should be maintained by internal balancing forces. We are not attempting to recognize and refrain from inhibiting those self-regulating systems in our species upon which species survival depends. We are ignoring our own feedback functions.
—which passage prompts any of a number of gobsmacked retorts, foremost of which might be, who died and made you God? (—The Author, but we digress.) —So the Herbert (from which that’s snipped) is not what I would call all that good, per se; I first read it years ago, and didn’t much get it then, and mostly have it now for the cover, and re-reading it was struck by how the first draft of the Bene Gesserit is a small mean ugly thing indeed, this ethnically and genderly essentialist conspiracy of the country club’s women’s auxiliary, and if the moment when Lewis Orne winks slowly and deliberately at the two men isn’t the first time I wanted to punch this ersatz kwisatz hard in the snoot, it’s definitely when I wanted to punch him the hardest. —But: the broader context: the system-of-these-symptoms: the Golden Age trope of the fallen empire, slowly rebuilding itself, the Lost Colonies drifted from the glorious Galactic Mean, the labor of bringing them back to the fold being the four-short-stories’ traffic of our fixup: it only just occurred to me, this patronizingly pat justification for benignly cultural imperialism must’ve been drawn from various collective experiences with implementing the Marshall Plan, and the Allied Occupation(s).
All of which, of course, must fail:
The polytics of the ()holey complex defies existing models of the harvesting of power correlated to the logic of the ground and the politics of whole. For the world order, inconsistent events around the world are failures or setbacks for the dominant political models. According to the politics of poromechanical earth, however, inconsistencies and regional disparities across the globe constitute the body of polytics. The emergence of two entities (political formation, military, economic, etc.) from two different locations on the ground is inconsistent, but according to the logic of ()hole complex, they are terminally interconnected and consistent. In terms of emergence, consistency or connectivity should not be measured by the ground or the body of solid as a whole but according to a degenerate model of wholeness and a poromechanics of the event.
Which together with what went before mostly goes to show how much better Herbert got when he added some Spice to his model.
Petro states aren’t like other states for several reasons, says Karl.
For starters, their dependence on oil profits breaks the necessary link between taxation and representation. Instead of extracting state funds from citizens, wealth magically comes from the ground. This makes governments unaccountable; it means that people don’t demand to see how money is spent.
And oil governments, in turn, tend to treat their citizens like subjects, either paying them off or, when necessary, repressing them. Wedded to boom and bust cycles, oil-dependent regimes are either overspending to keep themselves in power or accruing debt to mask problems with seemingly no ability for fiscal reform.
Oil and highly centralized rule go together. Oil wealth permits governments to dismantle accountability mechanisms, weaken bureaucracies and undermine the rule of law.
Karl further found that although petro states appear strong, and some governments last for long periods of time, these oil infused regimes are highly vulnerable. When they collapse, they fall apart very quickly. Neither autocracies nor democracies are immune.
But now I’m just sticking things to the wall pretty much at random; I might as well point to the future of Rome, or idylls and dynamos; instead, I’ll just ponder the irony of finally having upgraded my CMS to fix the behind-the-scenes PHP errors only to discover it’s borked some of my lovingly hand-crafted title effects. —You fix one damn thing, three others break…
I forgot to mention (here, anyway) when it went up: the folks at the Skiffy and Fanty show invited me to describe my superpower, which being: I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I don’t know a goddamn thing. (Previous visitors to the pier might recognize it as a less belligerent, more accessible version of this post.)
There were still a number of these little fragments of glass floating about in the air, and now you shall hear what happened with one of them.
I wasn’t going to see it. —The ads looked atrocious: more of the same grim bonhomie that’d soured me on Tangled, and do they even give a damn about how ugly this participial trend in titling comes off? Like they’re steering into what otherwise would’ve been an unavoidable Tony Awards skit, Neil Patrick Harris shouting Frozen! Tangled! Tattered! Feathered! Sorcelled! Fired!
I wasn’t gonna see it, and then I saw this:
So, yeah. Well.
This snow-flake grew larger and larger, till at last it became the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice—shining and glittering ice. Still she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance. She nodded towards the window and waved her hand.
“It was the best movie ever that I ever saw,” pronounced Taran as we left the theater. We’d talked beforehand, to let her know how it was going to be in a theater, and loud, and there would be scary bits, and she promised to be as brave as a bumblebee and not yell. She did yell: “I want to watch something else!” which is what she says at home, whenever a show gets too intense. —Not so much at the spills and thrills, the wolves or the roaring snow-beast; these she took in stride. But when actual stakes were on the line, however quietly: Anna, betrayed by clever Hans, left to die by the unlit fire. —You know this won’t be allowed to happen, and so do I; there are Rules. But Taran’s only five. She doesn’t know the Rules yet, and can’t bear what knowing the Rules makes bearable: the possibility of what might happen, if. What might be lost if not. —She wants to watch something else.
You know this, and I do, and for sure and certain they know the Rules: that Good, imperiled, will recover, restored with the help of True Love; that Evil will be vanquished, and if not plunged to its death will at least be roundly humiliated, kicked in the butt on the way to the brig. Way of the world. Well, a world. This world. —Oh, there’s some little flexibility to the Rules, changes that might be rung, and they are, most notably in the form and fashion True Love takes (though they telegraph their punch with constant emphasized references to it as an Act thereof). But: Good, triumphant; Evil, vanquished; swell to the chorus of the theme and: credits.
He told her he could do mental arithmetic, as far as fractions, and that he knew the number of square miles and the number of inhabitants in the country. And she always smiled so that he thought he did not know enough yet, and she looked round the vast expanse as she flew higher and higher with him upon a black cloud, while the storm blew and howled as if it were singing old songs.
You know this, and so do I—but I’d seen that song, remember?
A mostly generic new-model Disney princess belts through a radio-friendly rip of “Defying Gravity” (it’s okay, they got Idina Menzel to sing it) and blows her way through a magical-girl transformation into something of a different genre, if not richer and more strange: something of an actual, maybe, antagonist? (—Not that the Snow Queen is all that much of an antagonist in her own story; not that her own story even has that much of an antagonist, aside from cosmopolitan sophistication, or maybe atheism; any given intellectualism, really, and also robbers.) —But: a Disney princess? An antagonist? —She sheds her cloak, her glove, her tiara, her (as the lyrics make painfully clear) past, but: look at the joy, as she finally lets it go, unleashes the magic that’s been leaking frightfully from her all along thus far, learns what she can do with it, and how far it can take her, and how (through that scrim of Disney CGI) beautiful it is—but also how cold, how inimical, inhuman, how—therefore—villainous? —And the transformation, the (yes) sexualization, through that same scrim—a sure sign of villainy, in Disney. —But the va-va-voom slink, the precisely flawless makeup under the artfully touseled hair, it’s all a bit too studiedly much, isn’t it? A Disney, a Barbie-doll idea of sophistication, a perfectly realized burst of adolescent excess, of someone trying something new, of trying the very act of trying something new, of succeeding wildly in that first wild flush, giddily heedless of the cost they know they don’t, can’t know.
I may have watched it a few times.
So I knew, but I was starting to think that maybe, this time, I didn’t, I wouldn’t know. A glimpse of a possible if, a might-maybe. The Rules were creaking, bending, those serried ranks of Good and Evil muddling, confused: would she be triumphant? Or vanquished? I didn’t know! Or thought maybe I didn’t, anyway.
As Anderson-Lopez recalls, “Let It Go” was the first song she and her husband wrote that ended up staying in the movie. Its composition also led the film’s team to rethink its entire approach to the character of Elsa, a.k.a. Frozen‘s take on Hans Christian Anderson’s Snow Queen. In previous drafts, Menzel’s character had a villainous bent. Once the couple penned “Let It Go,” though, they finally began to understand what really made Elsa tick: She’s a scared, repressed teenager, not a malicious ice queen. “As the movie got rewritten and rewritten around ‘Let It Go’ to earn that moment,” Lopez explains, “she became more and more the protagonist along with Anna” — Elsa’s younger sister, voiced by Bell.
If I’d read that before I’d gone to see the movie, I would’ve.
The very idea that a scared, repressed teen could ever become the most malicious of wintry metaphors. That a malicious ice queen could ever be identified with, could possibly be sympathetic, could be a protagonist. I mean really.
X’s first novel, title, was rejected by a publisher because its female protagonist didn’t “triumph over all adversity,” thereby providing the requisite happy ending. XX’s title sold to a German publisher for six figures, but American publishers refused to buy it unless she made her lead character “more remorseful” for having a passionate fling. An editor of XXX’s title said that although readers would be “haunted and moved” by her protagonists, she should turn them into characters that readers would regard with “genuine affection.”
The original soundtrack album for Frozen includes a number of demos, drafts of tracks that didn’t make it into the (currently) final version, that suggest directions and misdirections in the revising and rewriting Kristen Anderson-Lopez refers to, herrings kippered and otherwise. —One of these demos is for “Life’s Too Short,” and in its introduction, Robert Lopez tells us, “One of the songs we knew we had to write was, the song between Elsa and Anna, at the end of which, Elsa had to freeze Anna’s heart with a blast of magic.”
Anderson-Lopez chimes in: “This first attempt was more confrontational than what ultimately ended up in the movie, but we enjoyed going to that drama place.”
It’s an oddly sprightly track, for a confrontation—
—but there’s still a charge there, an anger, on the parts of both our protagonists: a drama: they sing at each other, to each other, and what they want—who they are—is set in direct conflict: Elsa, terrified she’s the prophesied unending winter, giving in to her frozen power anyway, hiding her fear with spite and rage; Anna, who in another cut song refers to herself as the spare to the heir, eager to save their little realm, even if it’s from her own beloved sister—until the song climaxes with that magical strike: “I’m not the prophesy!” cries Elsa, as she fulfills it.
But conflict is confrontational; people get hurt, and people do hurt, and when it’s over someone will have won, however provisionally, and someone will have lost, something. Unless it’s muddled, confused, someone will be triumphant, however muted; someone will be vanquished. The story will have chosen, because there are Rules, and the logic of them works backwards as well as forwards: someone will turn out to have been Good, and someone will have been Evil all along.
And so in the revising, and the rewriting, to soften, remove, erase her villainous bent, to make her more likeable, to earn that moment—of sympathy, of identification, of grace—the conflict is ducked, dodged, leashed, concealed, not revealed:
They sing past each other, now, in this final version: choruses and recitatives that interlock musically, but don’t respond to, don’t struggle with, don’t even acknowledge each other. When Elsa learns that in letting go she’s released enough power to freeze the realm, she doesn’t retort; she crumples into a muttering despair that Anna’s soaring refrain doesn’t even notice. And when Elsa lashes out, the blow that freezes Anna’s heart, it’s unconscious, accidental; she doesn’t even notice. —No intentional villany, here—just misunderstanding: regrettable, yes, but once explained, easily enough forgiven. Swell, and: credits.
(It’s not just our Snow Queen’s possible-maybe villainy that’s softened, of course. In that unused demo, Anna’s insisting Elsa put her gloves back on, to stop eternal winter—the gloves she’d let go. And this is a demand more specific, more actionable than her vague if plaintive cries of don’t shut me out, don’t live in fear, just unfreeze it, you can do it ’cause I know you can! —A stifling, smothering, repressive demand, a frightening demand that directly opposes what Elsa wants, what we’ve been told Elsa needs, and thus a hurtful demand—and while a protagonist, a hero, can deliberately hurt a proper villain, a malicious ice queen, with no mark or stain or blemish to her character, hurting a fellow protagonist is, well. Tricky. Not likeable. So soften; so leash; conceal, don’t feel, don’t reveal. Rewrite. Revise.)
One day, when he was in a merry mood, he made a looking-glass which had the power of making everything good or beautiful that was reflected in it almost shrink to nothing, while everything that was worthless and bad looked increased in size and worse than ever. The most lovely landscapes appeared like boiled spinach, and the people became hideous, and looked as if they stood on their heads and had no bodies. Their countenances were so distorted that no one could recognize them, and even one freckle on the face appeared to spread over the whole of the nose and mouth. The demon said this was very amusing. When a good or pious thought passed through the mind of any one it was misrepresented in the glass; and then how the demon laughed at his cunning invention. All who went to the demon’s school—for he kept a school—talked everywhere of the wonders they had seen, and declared that people could now, for the first time, see what the world and mankind were really like. They carried the glass about everywhere, till at last there was not a land nor a people who had not been looked at through this distorted mirror. They wanted even to fly with it up to heaven to see the angels, but the higher they flew the more slippery the glass became, and they could scarcely hold it, till at last it slipped from their hands, fell to the earth, and was broken into millions of pieces.
Protagonist, antagonist, villainy, Good, Evil, Rules—I hope the soaring refrain hasn’t misled you as to whatever point it is I think I’m making with these muttered divagations. —I’m not, mind, arguing that Elsa should more properly have been a villain, any more than I’m pleased with Anna as a plucky, fiesty-pants protagonist. I mean, Good, Evil, anti and pro—what are we really on about, here?
Frozen is a fantasy, which means (broadly, crudely) it’s about restoration and return: of proper summer, undone and overwhelmed by the unnatural winter that Elsa embodies, had been holding back by force of will and gritted teeth and gloves, and closed doors now thrown open, now relaxed, now, at last, herself—and there, right there, that’s the kernel: in threatening what’s seen as natural, usual, expected, Elsa’s turned against what’s Good; in trying to restore and return, Anna’s doing the story’s work, fixed against Evil, as ineluctably as the tide. The efforts the movie must go to, to face them both in the same direction, as jointly likeable protagonists, according to the calculus of these Rules; the Evil the story requires, thus unmoored, has only clever Hans to bear its weight, and while his heel-turn’s admirably, literally chilling, he’s far too slight for the existential threat of eternal winter, of summer forever forgone. —No, that’s resolved almost as an afterthought, an accident: “Of course!” cries Elsa. “Love!” —And just like that the power she’d let go, the existential threat, is leashed; can now be let out, on holidays, and state occasions, as lovely sheets of skating ice and charming flurries, rather than snow-beasts and threatening, phallic spikes.
That’s all it took; that’s all the conflict required: the restoration, the mere expression of a love that was never really in jeopardy. Elsa’s rejection, her letting go, her moment, her song, the one I saw, up there, is all undone; was undone, when she crumpled at the first sign of opposition, the first indication of hardship. In an older version of the story, in an earlier draft of this story, she’d’ve been a proper villain, and fought for what she wanted. It would’ve meant something, to her, to the story, to us. It would’ve been earned. —But in that story she would have to lose, would have to have been vanquished, would have hurt someone, would not have been likeable, could not have been a protagonist, or a Disney princess.
Good, this Good, according to these Rules, because there can be no real dissent among its partisans, is necessarily univocal: we all of us good people want the same thing, right? Essentially? The restoration of the natural order, the return, undisturbed, of the safety of our realm. And so there is no contest. There can be no contest. Not if you want to be triumphant.
And the buttercups sparkled gayly, and looked again at Gerda. What song could the buttercups sing? It was not about Kay.
But that’s according to those Rules. —What I’d seen? That moment, above, the one they wanted to earn? What I’d hoped that maybe this time I wouldn’t know? That maybe this time the Rules themselves were being questioned? The kernel, cracked? That more than one vision of Good was in play, on the surface, explicitly, rather than desperately read into the cracks and fissures, the what-ifs and the mightabeens? And none of them wrenched into the role of villain, of antagonist, of Evil, despite their differences? That—instead—forged somehow between them some actual forgiveness, however fleeting? One that meant something because of what it cost, to give, and to receive? That this might be the 102 minutes’ traffic of our screen?
I mean, I guess what I’d been hoping for was a post-Brave princess movie, and what I got instead was post-Wicked. —And this, this wandering argument, this glib anti-climax, none of this is meant to take away from what Frozen manages to accomplish, and even do well; there’s good stuff in there for you. Go, see it, if you haven’t.
But still. —I wanted to watch something else.
David Auerbach’s review of Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge introduces (to me, at least) three structural motifs in reading this book, and Pynchon: the dynamo; the idyll; the decoherence event. —Each is a response to the irreality of the real, the fundamental meaninglessness of it all, call it what you will: our paranoia positing (and fomenting) actual and imagined dynamos, frantically striving for some sort of order; the idylls our dreams, those high-water marks we can see with the right kind of eyes, both the aims of and threatened by the dynamos; the decoherence event lying necessarily in wait, to tumble whatever houses of cards either might toss up, almost by accident. (Go, read; I’m seeing it with veiled eyes, and he says it better, and anyway there’s diagrams. Go.)
I’m seeing it with veiled eyes because I couldn’t help but sketch out another map on onionskin, lay it over this, and hold them both up to the light: Clute’s triskelion, his three modes of organizing fantastika as responses to the all-swallowing world storm:
- Science Fiction begins with the novum, the new thing, proceeds through cognitive estrangement on its way to a conceptual breakthrough, and ends up in some topia somewhere, in the eye of the storm perhaps, or somewhere through it, past it, beyond;
- Fantasy, as noted, begins in wrongness, proceeds through thinning, has a moment of recognition, and then returns by turning away from the world storm;
- and Horror, which begins with a sighting, then thickens about our protagonists until it can revel in the moment when we cannot look away, and leaves us shivering in its aftermath.
Or: the dynamo; the idyll; the decoherence effect.
Anyway. —There’s all manner of means whereby this conjoint model goes wrong (distinctions between ends and means but the first of them); still. The hairs stood up, on the back of my neck.
In fact it will be amazing (only to us imagining it now) how quiet a world it will be. A woman awakes in her house in Sitka, Alaska, to make tea, wake her family, and walk the beach (it runs differently from where it runs today). After meditation she enters into communication with the other syndics of a worldwide revolving presidium, awake early or up late in city communes or new desert oases. Nightlong the avatars have clustered, the informations have been threshed: the continuous town meeting of the global village. There is much to do.
—John Crowley, “The Next Future”
So many little countries, all mindful of death, each disinclined to long journeys. I want to go to there.
In 1964, Nikolai Kardashev, an astrophysicist involved with the Soviet SETI effort, devised the Kardashev scale: a method of measuring, on a cosmic scale, a civilization’s technological advancement based on the amount of usable energy that civilization has at its disposal.
A Kardashev Type I civilization has at its disposal all of the energy that impinges on its home planet. Using an equation suggested by Carl Sagan, humanity could be rated as a Type .7, as of the 1970s.
Not much has changed in forty years. On a cosmic scale.
A Type II civilization is any civilization capable of harnessing the total energy output of its home star. If we were to unravel the clouds of Jupiter, for instance, we could spin a globular shell one astronomical unit in radius that would be five meters thick, and trap every erg the sun beamed forth thereafter.
A rigid sphere that large would require materials far stronger than any currently known, of course. We might, instead, use swarms of orbiting solar panels to sop it up.
A Type III civilization is any civilization in possession of energy on the scale of its home galaxy. —Those civilizations which originate in dwarf galaxies or irregular clusters are at a significant advantage, here.
Type IV civilizations arbitrage speculative crises in what are to them immaterial commodities, selling short whole Local Groups. They can be detected by sudden changes in the redshift values of various economic indices.
Type V civilizations subsist entirely on the notional energy of Type I civilizations, scheming to become Type IIs. (Civilizations of Type II or better have mastered the art of radiating notional energies at frequencies too low to be heard.)
Type VI civilizations are indistinguishable from nature, and spend their time dreaming of butterflies, or are themselves butterfly-dreams—or the nearest local equivalent, of course.
(Nothing is known of Type VII civilizations. It is best not to consider them.)
When you finally come to understand dark matter, you will have the merest glimpse of the capabilities of a Type VIII civilization.
A Type IX civilization is any civilization that can successfully conceive of a Type X.
So Taran is, of course, named for a certain Assistant Pig-Keeper, from the Lloyd Alexander books that were important to both me and Jenn growing up. —It’s not the only reason she’s named Taran, but it’s the first and foremost.
You should also realize that she’s a huge fan of Batman, mostly because of the Brave and the Bold cartoons she’s seen. —She knows from Spider-Man and Wonder Woman and the Tiny Titans are a perennial fave (“Aw, yeah,” she says feistily, and one’s heart swells), and she’s already mastered certain arcana of these proprietary, persistent large-scale popular fictions that I never knew, but it’s Batman that’s captured her heart more than anyone else; go figure. (Her two imaginary friends currently—entirely imaginary, as opposed to the complex society of ponies and fairies and stuffed animals she oversees from the throne of her bed—the two imaginary friends most likely to show up these days are Batman and Moomintroll, which makes sometimes for interesting arguments in the car.) —Being such a fan of Batman, and dealing as she is with certain intimidating big-person tasks as potty-training and such, she’s come up with an alternate persona: Batmangirl (as distinctly opposed, you must understand, to Batgirl)—whenever she feels called upon to dig deep and do the right thing, she’ll puff up and proclaim: I’m not a little girl! I’m not Taran Jack! I’m Batmangirl!
It is solemnly agreed amongst all of us that Batmangirl would never pee her pants. As a for instance.
Now, Taran is aware of the books from which she got her name; once or twice I’ve read the first chapter to her, but that was back before she was tracking much of anything that didn’t have many or any pictures. But ever since the Moomin books went over as well as they did, she’s been more adventuresome about longish chapter books as read-aloud material at bedtime. (The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp is another of her favorites.)
So the other night she pulls the Book of Three off the shelf and looks at the cover—
—and says, this is about me.
And I (solemnly) agreed: yes, it is. This is the book about Taran.
That’s not Taran, she said, suddenly, pointing at Taran in the ragged tunic, the Prince Valiant bob, brandishing a dagger so bravely against the Horned King. —That’s Batmangirl, she said. She thrust the book at me. —Read it, she said. Read to me about Batmangirl.
So I did.
Batmangirl wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of her education, decided on horseshoes. And so it had been horseshoes all morning long. Batmangirl’s arms ached, soot blackened her face. At last she dropped the hammer and turned to Coll, who was watching her critically…
(I’ve genderflopped books before, like Yolen’s and Teague’s dinosaur picturebooks, where the fact the dinosaur’s always a boy gets slightly in the way of reader-identification for those not so much; this still felt—different. Further bulletins etc.)
All mysteries need them; all conspiracies shed them; all intrusions follow them, down and in to the heart of the labyrinth:
Lavie Tidhar’s notes toward a working definition of steampunk, most notably his point that “the underlying theme of all fiction within the Steampunk sphere resorts to that moment whereby technology transcends understanding and becomes, for all intents and purposes, magical.”
urban fantasy’s greatest pride is rendering the unusual-magic, etc-into ordinary, comfortable majority terms— Requires Hate (@requireshate) May 7, 2012
The time my mother slapped me.
And the time—roughly contemporary? Let’s say it was—in physics class, when we were doing these basic (very basic) labs on probability, and I had a little handheld pachinko machine? With a bunch of balls, and evenly spaced rods, and stalls at the bottom? And you tilt it down, and all the balls roll to the top, and you tilt it back, and they come cascading down, and hit the rods, and either bounce left or right, and in the end you’ve got this lovely little bell curve of balls at the bottom, because law of averages and such most balls bounce left, then right, then left, or some combination thereof, and end up in the middle? And only a few go left-left-left-left, or right-right-right-right, and end up on either end? —Anyway, it’s my turn, so I tilt it down, then back again, and click-clack-click-clack-click, and wouldn’t you know it, I’ve got an almost perfect reverse bell curve. Towering stacks of balls to the left and right, and almost nothing at all in the middle.
So I go to the teacher running the show and hold it out to him and say, okay, now what, smart guy? (“If it fails to agree, under novel experiments or with refined measuring techniques, it is not said that one should not be happy.”)
And the teacher looks at the little handheld pachinko machine, cocks an eyebrow, tilts it down, tilts it back, clack-click-clack-click-clack. Perfect bell curve.
“There,” he says. “Fixed it for you.”
—And I can’t for the life of me tell you which of those gestures is the argument with the universe, and which the sermon on the way things ought to be, dammit. —And that might just be my problem.
Actually as it turns out I quite like rye. Almost as much as bourbon. Let’s say I’m saying this as I pull a small glass bottle with a smaller green label out of the drawer of the desk, and even though the desk is pressboard with chipped veneer like every other desk in the world these days, let’s grant it what little dignity we might, and pretend it’s a well-built thing of solid wood, doing time in anonymously small offices like this for years now.
Are we smoking? Are you smoking? I smoked, back in the day. Not regularly, mind. But every now and then. Cloves, mostly. —I know, I know. Let’s say I’m smoking, anyway. Adds to the atmosphere. Where were we? Rye whiskey, right. I actually like it, I’m saying, as I pour from the bottle into a couple of plain white paper cups that I, uh, pulled out of another desk drawer when we weren’t paying attention. Don’t know how it got such a reputation as rot-gut. Is it really such an acquired taste?
Maybe it’s just hard to make well, and bad rye’s so much worse than bad scotch or bad bourbon.
Anyway. You want some ice? It’s in the bucket on the credenza there. —Chin-chin.
There’s no clear way into this or out of it, as usual: self-organizing emergent structures! Rhizomatic epiphenomena! Of which what’s past is prologue, yes, but the past, man, the past ain’t dead, it ain’t even past! Now is all we have; everything that happens will happen on the Day of Nine Dogs; we are always returning, stately, plump, to begin once more again: never be closing, always be initiate, if you look around the table and you can’t spot the Secret Masters, then they’re you. Congratulations! —Ah, God. Sorry about that. You pull on one damn thing a little too hard and something else squirts out like that and well you see what I mean. No clear way in, no clear way out. It’s all still of a piece with the Great Work, and those turtles that go all the way down.
What I should have said, and this will probably come up in greater detail soon enough, if later, but what I should have said, and this goes back a ways, and I ought to apologize, it’s been hanging out there for a while now, but back when we were tussling over whether noir as an idiom is inimical to SF and fantasy specifically as modes (and it is, it yet is), what I should have said is this:
That noir is essentially a gnostic idiom, and when you’re dealing with secondary worlds as it is you really ought to be inhumanly careful, invoking the Demiurge like that.
Yeah, I dropped the conceit. That’ll happen. Drink up! Keep up!
“Being a fool is more complicated,” [said Belbo.] “It’s a form of social behavior. A fool is one who always talks outside his glass.”
“What do you mean?” [said Casaubon.]
“Like this.” He pointed at the counter near his glass. “He wants to talk about what’s in the glass, but somehow or other he misses. He’s the guy who puts his foot in his mouth. For example, he says how’s your lovely wife to someone whose wife has just left him.”
“Yes, I know a few of those.”
—Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum
I can’t remember where I first heard it, or even whether it was first- or second-hand, or rather at one remove, or two, but: when I heard that John M. Ford, who is, you understand, on a very short list along with Samuel Delany and Greer Gilman and Avram Davidson and Ellen Raskin (and some few others), when I first heard that he had a horror of being obvious, I was all over this weird disjointed shiver: no, I said to myself, no, that can’t be right. That’s what people like me are terrified of.
It’s the reason, see, we fools work the metaphoric negative space, and talk about anything at all but what’s inside the glass: we mustn’t be obvious. Which is why you say Hashem instead of Adonai, and write G-d when you mean God: He who pronounces the Name with its own letters has no part in the world to come! Those who know don’t never say, not direct, and them what say ain’t never knowed, and if I tell you direct what it is I’m saying then obviously I don’t know what I’m talking about at all, and the rest thereof one must be silent. —The ineffable ain’t to be effed with. Like the lady says, as soon as you say it out loud they will leave you.
But there, see? Once more I’m talking outside the glass. Or paper cup, I mean. It’s utterly empty, isn’t it. No whiskey there at all.
Did you already drink it down? Want some more?
As simply and as plainly as possible, then, and with as much clarity as I might muster:
- When I say urban fantasy I mean urban fantasy as genre, as marketing category, as she is largely wrote these days;
- urban fantasy is, essentially, immersive fantasy;
- Immersive fantasies hinge on a rhetoric of ironic mimesis, taking for granted the wonders that distance its world from ours;
- Pretending to take wonder for granted can be a marvelous tool for talking outside the glass, but:
- All too often that po-faced detachment can’t help but mimic consciously or un- the iconic smartassed tone of quintessential noir;
- The gravitational pull of that older idiom positions the hapless urban fantasy as a mystery to be solved, a conspiracy to be broken, an intrusion (yes) to be repelled;
- This tendancy is only reinforced by a background radiation of comicbook thrillers and television procedurals, that syncretistic pulpy mulch—
Therefore, then, urban fantasy is functionally and structurally inimical to the ineffable, the numinous, to magic, to, well, fantasy; is, in point of fact, that singular vulture Poe mistook for science, glowering at us all from the rim of a bone-dry glass.
Speaking of which—but look! There was less in the bottle than I’d thought. Hang on, I’m sure there’s another in here somewhere… [sound of drawer opening, rattle of lone pencil rolling along the otherwise empty bottom]
“Fools are in great demand, especially on social occasions. They embarrass everyone but provide material for conversation. In their positive form, they become diplomats. Talking outside the glass when someone else blunders helps to change the subject. But fools don’t interest us, either. They’re never creative, their talent is all second-hand, so they don’t submit manuscripts to publishers. Fools don’t claim that cats bark, but they talk about cats when everyone else is talking about dogs. They offend all the rules of conversation, and when they really offend, they’re magnificent. It’s a dying breed, the embodiment of all the bourgeois virtues. What they really need is a Verdurin salon or even a chez Guermantes. Do you students still read such things?”
24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn nor wives, and they are odorous and vile. Of how much greater value are you than these wretched birds! 25 You should be worried about your appearance, that people do not take you for a raven, lest you are cast out into the fields. 26 If then you are not cast out into the fields with the ravens, you have pleased your Father in Heaven. 27 Consider the lilies! They neither toil nor spin, and so I tell you, their life is but a season, and they have no wives. Solomon had many wives, and in his glory was arrayed in garments finer than any lily of the field! 28 They are but meager grasses, fit only to be thrown into the oven, but you are precious to your Father in Heaven and your prayers have brought you great wealth. 29 In striving for what you will eat and what you will drink, pray steadfastly, and your Father will give you these things.
Last summer, Adam Kotsko went on a bit of a Twitter-tear as he is wont, cheekily parablizing the global financial crisis; his colleague, David Weasley, was then inspired to share Nate Dannison’s “National Gospel of Liberty”:
Parable of the Wealthy Fool
13 One of the wealthy men who had gathered said to him, Sir, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me. 14 But he said to him, Foolish coward! Can you not work for yourself? 15 Do you not see those around you, who have prayed steadfastly and have built up great stores? 16 And he said to them, Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of laziness, for one’s life consists of the abundance of his possessions. 17 Then he told them a parable: The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, What should I do, for I have no more room to store my crops? 18 Then he said, I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods and my wives. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, for God has blessed you with riches. 20 But God said to him, You fool! This very night you will be blessed with additional riches. And the barns you have prepared, they are not large enough. 21 So it is with those who do not build enough barns to store all the treasures that God has blessed them with.
Of this effort Kotsko said, “I have no doubt that if Nate rewrote the entire Bible along these lines, it would quickly replace the original version in the world’s affection,” but I fear in this expectation he proved to be no less foolish than the wealthy fool, his snugly satisfactory barns nowhere near enough to store the riches laid up for us all:
There are three sources of errors in conveying biblical meaning are, in increasing amount:
Experts in ancient languages are helpful in reducing the first type of error above, which is a vanishing source of error as scholarship advances understanding. English language linguists are helpful in reducing the second type of error, which also decreases due to an increasing vocabulary. But the third—and largest—source of translation error requires conservative principles to reduce and eliminate.
- lack of precision in the original language, such as terms underdeveloped to convey new concepts introduced by Christ
- lack of precision in modern language
- translation bias, mainly of the liberal kind, in converting the original language to the modern one.
Thus, a project has begun among members of Conservapedia to translate the Bible in accordance with these principles. The translated Bible can be found here.
- Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias. For example, the Living Bible translation has liberal evolutionary bias; the widely used NIV translation has a pro-abortion bias.
- Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other feminist distortions; preserve many references to the unborn child (the NIV deletes these)
- Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
- Utilize Terms which better capture original intent: using powerful new conservative terms to capture better the original intent; Defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words that have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.
- Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”; using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census
- Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
- Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
- Exclude Later-Inserted Inauthentic Passages: excluding the interpolated passages that liberals commonly put their own spin on, such as the adulteress story
- Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
- Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”
It’s not the grit, goddammit. It’s the grain.
It was the io9 headline that got to me: “The Unfulfilled Promise of Gritty Space Opera.” It’s not the basic premise of the article, no; there was something special going on in Firefly and the Battlestar reboot that just isn’t anymore—though I’d also include Cowboy Bebop, and Farscape on a good day (both of which are conspicuous in their absence), and not so much Space Cowboys or Solaris; I think the desire to see it as a discrete movement led to some distortion in selecting who was in, and why. I mean the indisputable wellspring of all this stuff for God’s sake is Alien, which is nowhere to seen.
But what was going on and what they have in common isn’t for fuck’s sake grit.
It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been kicking around the edges of the always brewing but lately intensifying backlash against the grimdark school of gritty epic fantasy? But it certainly doesn’t help that I’ve been reading comics ever since everybody with a pen and a whole lot of ink thought the thing that made Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen great was the fuckin’ grit, man. And we had grim ’n’ gritty superheroes and the joycore backlash and the relapses and the espionage crossbleeds and the X-Men in black leather and then back in the goofy costumes again and far too many people thinking that all they had to do to give us good comics (or epics, or science fiction, or procedurals, or, or, or) was to put in some grit or take the grit out again.
Fuck the grit. It isn’t the grit. The grit is nothing but an epiphenomenon.
“I realize there’s a particular type of comic I love that doesn’t come along too often,” said Shænon Garrity, and she said it about Dicebox, yeah, so sue me, “although it should. It’s science fiction or fantasy, preferably the former, with a focus on the ordinary lives of not-quite-ordinary people. There’s world-building, but it’s about society more than technology. The art is filled with interesting details.”
Botswana Beast said, “there was a final sense, to me, of new pathways, new vents in the medium and in the SF genre (which is so often entirely reliant on high-concept, but perhaps given we now live in a world of constant high-concept, it is perhaps time to read more humanised takes on such).” —And yes, he said it about Dicebox, what do you want from me?
There was also this brief Twitter conversation, on the subject of road trips, and car payments and water bills, and how maybe a dose of the latter might help the former.
As, you understand, some recent for instances.
The thing that movies and to a greater extent television and to a much greater extent comics and games can all do that prose can’t is throw in incidental detail, all of them, the best of them stuffing their multitracks with sights and sounds and physical sensations and we’re working I’m sure on smells God help us, while prose plods along laying one word down after another on its single track. —The thing of it is you need details to fill up those multiple tracks. Star Trek comes out swinging in the sixties to imagine the wonderful world of the future and can barely imagine past the walls of a spaceship. You want food? You go to a hole in the wall and ask for whatever you want. You want aliens? Slap some paint on their faces and chalk a moral caption on the sleeves of their jackets, we’ve got shots to set up. —But by virtue of longevity if nothing else details accreted, as fans and writers and producers paid attention to the world and its ragtag, hotchpotch consistency; by the time Next Generation came out, there was something of a there there, though you’re still going to the wall to ask for your tea, and when it comes time to calibrate the framminjammer you’re just typing rapidly on glass screens and saying what you’re doing, out loud, because who has time to figure out what that would really look like, doing something like that? Write down some technobabble and on to the next, there’s models to build.
Contrast that with the opening of Alien, where they’re all waking up from cold sleep, joshing Altmanly with each other over breakfast, settling into their messy workstations on the bridge and going about their business. The actors, legend says, lived and slept on that set during rehearsals, and it shows. They don’t tell us what they’re doing, they just do it, and there’s a wealth of detail, prickly, sticky, finely grained detail to pick up from what they’re doing, and how.
Or think about the very physical actions that had to be performed in concert in a very real place to turn Serenity around and save them all from the Reavers in the Firefly pilot; think about the toll that’s taken bit by agonizing bit on the pilots and the crew in “33,” to get back to our champions of soi disant grit.
An unreal world, however high-concept, that’s really lived in. —This isn’t the Dogme ’07 of mundane SF, though mundane SF was trying to get there, too. Adventures can happen, oh yes, and not-so-ordinary people can go on them. But we see the how, and the why, and the impact it has, and all the little details accumulate into how life is really lived, somewhere utterly else.
It isn’t the grit. It’s the grain. Fine details, closely observed; not irritants that require an oyster to deliver anything of value.
“Franzen is 52. I am 54. Two years would not normally suffice to place the older of the two in the class of REALLY OLD fogeys, as opposed to the class of the merely old—but I am a classicist. No classicist can take this view of the sanctity of print; one mark of the serious scholar is, of course, a preference for the printed text that comes with an apparatus criticus, that is, one which publishes important variants from the manuscript at the foot of the page. Which is to say, of course, that we are trained to be aware of the errors that creep in during transmission; we are trained to regard corrupt texts with horror. And when we are confronted with the process through which a modern text comes to print, we see it as a battle: a battle in which those publishing the book do their best to smuggle corruptions into print, against more or less effective opposition from the person who had the misfortune to write it.” —Helen DeWitt
“The model of irony which Wolff uses in understanding Marx is Socratic irony, which he defines as a statement made with two intended audiences, a naïve audience who assume that Marx intends the literal meaning of the statement, and a sophisticated audience who understand that Marx denies the literal meaning of the statement, and also understand why the naïve audience would be fooled. But this underestimates the extent to which irony is a rhetorical effect, taking the two audiences simply as given; what reason do we have to believe that there is such a naïve audience? The only reason we have to believe in the naïve audience is in the ironic writing itself; indeed, the naïve audience is purely imagined in order to produce the desired effect, in order to stage a confrontation between intention and literal meaning.” —Voyou Désœuvré