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 siginificant 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
Eh, you know. February. —Mostly I’ve been busy with the city, finishing off no. 17, thinking about the end game. There are quite a lot of plates spinning, aren’t there. Hadn’t really realized just how many till the last little while. Hmm.
I was intereviewed by Joey Manley (no relation) as part of a series he’s inaugurating on webserialists; lots of backstory, if you like. —And also I reveal the title of a putative volume three, about which there has been little to no comment, as yet.
And I should probably get back to the Great Work, shouldn’t I. (Further; talk; ambit; obversity; anent; parts.) —Trouble is, it’s time to take up the role of gender for real, and tackle the safe word, and my initial angle of attack’s over a year out of date. (Does that even matter?) —Trouble also is, Requires Only That You Hate has me instead musing over a thing that might compare Bakker’s Folly with a cheap Utena knock-off; that, however, would require reading Bakker, which has not begun well. (Petty? Perhaps.)
The other day Taran told me with the indescribable solemnity of a three-year-old that, while she was a cat, and Mamma was a cat, that I was a dog, and I’d have to stop meowing. I tried to explain how gender is performative, and meowing is a learned response, but I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet.
—On the other hand, presidents crawl on the table and have sharp teeth like beavers. So there’s yet hope?
“We clutch at the tough, dangerous heroines like Katniss because they offer an alternative to the bubbly romcoms and typically one-dimensional female characterizations. But it’s become too much of a black and white dichotomy that refuses the deeply flawed and all-too-human lead for the emotionally shut-off heroine who kills, and refuses to recognize any similarities in the two. I often hate to talk in terms of masculinity and femininity, but Blackwood is right that we tend to equate effectiveness with attributes that have been traditionally coded as male. I won’t go so far as to say Bella’s foibles are coded as traditionally female—they’re not. (As I noted above with my own memories—the most distinct weaknesses I see in Bella remind me of boys from the past, not girls.) But romance certainly is.” —Monika Bartyzel, “The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Teen Heroines”
I forget how exactly it crossed my desk, who tweeted it, or retweeted it: “If you’d asked me last week who’d do better by Irene Adler, I would have been wrong.” —Which is an interesting sniglet to unpack, depending as it does on your awareness of the general tenor of both Sherlock franchises that sophomored within a couple of weeks of each other a couple of weeks back, and your familiarity with the œuvres of their respective auteurs, or at least the reputations of those œuvres: Ritchie’s “Women? What women?” bonhomie; Moffat’s polarizing brio, burning bright and quick through two seasons of Who and his first Sherlock outing. —And once all of that’s been taken to account, the intent of the sniglet’s clear: Ritchie’s inept dismissal of Adler from the plot of his second Sherlock (if not, technically speaking, the franchise) had already long since disappointed; the only possible surprise could come from Moffat’s being moreso. —But of course fandom being what it is, and polarizations being what they are, only someone expecting to be so surprised would have bothered to make such a statement. Once we might have expected more, they’re saying, but look! I’ve got a new benchmark to express our disappointment. —It’s not a true statement; it’s not even an ironic statement. It’s ironical. No one who could parse it could mistake its meaning. The only reason to have said it is so all could nod along.
Certainly, I nodded when I read it, before seeing the Moffat.
His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”
Never a big fan of Sherlock. Any iteration, really: he’s a bully and an asshole and his supposedly compensatory hypercompetence isn’t, so much: as a kid I never forgave him the above, and as I got older the blinkered, stratified, unbroachable classism his deductions required began to pall: how every charcoalmonger in the country must necessarily perform only the one job, the same job, in the same way, under the same conditions, that the characteristic sheen might properly be worn into the elbows of their only jackets, and the distinctive calluses of their trade manifest themselves on thumbs and index fingers, so that Holmes might once more demonstrate his skills. And his much-vaunted rede about the impossible and the improbable is nothing but a means of going wrong with ghastly confidence. —This inhuman student of humans who so haughtily disdains the humane: I suppose we had to invent him at some point, since he quite obviously doesn’t exist, but give me Dirk Gently any old day of the week.
The Ritchie Holmes amused and entertained (me, it should be understood; mileage, as ever, varies); big and noisy and engagingly designed, with preposterous plots that perform as plots ought in this sort of thing, and if I’m told the action sequences were choreographed to resemble the Victorian martial art of Bartitsu, who am I to quibble? —The chemistry’s the thing, and Downey and Law have it and to spare; I like my Holmeses manic, and my Watsons more sharpish than gruff, their fondness all but buried beneath the exasperation, and so. —I quite liked the Moriarty, far more than the warmed-over Lecter we’re given in Moffat’s. Mostly I like how in the background the whole urban world is constantly in the process of being built, modernity half unpacked from its shipping crates and left littered about the place. —And oh yes: I was indeed disappointed with his treatment of Adler, but mostly because the clumsy show-me-the-body “death” in the second film was terrible writing, and because I’d really liked Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.
Moffat’s: I wasn’t going to bother watching it at first, but enough people said enough things about it that I did, and Cumberbatch and Freeman have chemistry to burn, and if Cumberbatch is a bit too controlled, Freeman’s exasperated enough to counterbalance it, and I was enjoying the first episode right up until it utterly ducked the sole responsibility a mystery story has, of solving its puzzle (for all the varied and possible meanings of solve, and puzzle): if I’d been watching it on the teevee I’d’ve thrown things at the screen (one does not throw things at one’s laptop). But something clicked, I guess; I watched the second episode, groaning the while, and also the third, though its mugging, pop-eyed Moriarty repels me. —But the chemistry; the sharp dialogue; the update game, which works more often than not; the way the current fad for sociopathic leading men in television lets them play appropriately nasty games with Holmes’s inhumanity; these I guess were enough to keep me coming back?
And the kick for deliberately not knowing the Earth revolved around the Sun didn’t hurt.
But: a relentlessly cruel Holmes grates, if you’re not all that fond of the character; and ever since the end of Jekyll I’ve been suspicious of Moffat’s ability to end anything: he’s aces at kick-offs, and wildly profligate with crowning moments of awesome, but all those improbably twisty plots end up just being, well, impossible to resolve. (I quite like how he solved this problem at the end of his first season of Who, by destroying corner and paint with one bravura fillip, but that’s the sort of thing you can only really do the once.)
So. That’s why I nodded along with the tweet (remember that tweet? This all started because of a tweet); but that’s also why I queued up “Scandal in Belgravia” and watched it one night when I should have been writing.
But like I said… fandom doesn’t do ambivalence. We want wholeheartedness. And if the thrust of the story is different than what we’re looking for, we’ll seize on only the bits of the text which tell the story we want to be told… the rest can just vanish.
Prepared not to be surprised at all by the benchmark that had been set, I ended up—well. Pleasantly surprised, by what I think I’d rate as the best episode of Moffat’s run (“Reichenbach Fall,” though one hell of a ride, was flawed, perhaps fatally, by its final shot). —And if I had to pick which of the two Irenes I’d say had done better by her Platonic, Akashic ideal, it’s no contest: I’d go with the flawed, compromised, pandering antiheroine over the tepidly inoffensive dispenser of plot coupons any old day.
—But blowing 1200 words to refute a tossed-off tweet to one’s own satisfaction is hardly debate, much less criticism. Let me do what I came here to do, which is commend to your attention jblum’s essay, “A Scandal in Fandom: Steven Moffat, Irene Adler, and the Fannish Gaze,” which does an able job of reading Moffat’s Irene as something more than a gross caricature, but more to the point makes some good points about all-or-nothing criticism that don’t boil down to the tone argument, or fannish defensiveness: being mindful of our needs going in; noting how the ways they’re met or left unmet distort our readings of whatever it is; taking this all into account. —Any text of sufficient complexity is incoherent; Fisking is always too easy.
(What was it, that met a need for me, or didn’t leave a particular need egregiously unmet? —I suppose it would be the moment when Watson and Irene are squaring off in that iconic power station, and he says—and I should probably interrupt to say if Watson never again has another mildy cod–gay-panic moment over his friendship with Sherlock it will be too fucking soon by half and then some I mean what the fuck year is this anyway, but nonetheless: the moment he says, “I’m not gay!” and Irene says, “I am. Yet here we are.” —Those moments when people might share an acknowledgement that what they are is so much more than what they’re capable of saying it is they are; when desire—no, scratch that, “desire” gets all confused with sex, which is fine for storytelling, but lousy for criticism, even one so muddled as this—when yearning does the anarchic thing it does, heedless of the cost; that tyrant, heart, wanting what it wants no matter what. —For whatever alchemical reason, it sunk home, this exchange, this moment, and all I’d let lead up to it; and thus my reading was distorted. —That tyrant heart.
(But enough already.)
Oh, wait! Found the original tweet. Sorry, Brendan.
Well there’s most of my opening paragraph shot to hell. —“Embarrassingly.” Huh.
Bitch; virago; she-devil; hellcat; sex-kitten; nymphomaniac; vamp;
or, Malicious, quarrelsome, and temperamental.
74%: that’s the math Goodreads hands me, when I tell it I’m on page 296 of The Magicians, and I’m not gonna bother to haul out the calculator to check it. I’m gonna pull the bookmark out of the book and put it back on the shelf in a minute, here. They finally made it to Fillory, but I just can’t be arsed.
And I’m going to tell you upfront what an unfair judge of this book I’d be, assuming I ever made it through, because how much I so desperately wanted to like it meant it’d never live up to what I wanted it to be. —But even weighting the scales with one hell of a thumb to account for that, this is one fucking careless book, and I’m tired, and there’s so much else to read.
I mean, I’ve been to a small liberal arts college. That’s where I matriculated. The whole dam’ college was the size of my senior year at high school, which would be a couple thousand people. There was this phone in the basement of the library, every now and then would make long-distance calls for free, you know? Or at least not demand the caller pay for the call themselves. —And when that happened word would spread the way it does about such things, and for the few hours that the magic held, a dozen people would be lined up at a time to wait to use this phone. (This was when long-distance was expensive, like international calls or something. A different age.)
So I get how you’d want to use an image like that, but stop and think: two thousand people, a few hours or a day or so at most at a pop, samizdata updates, an otherwise little-used phone in a library basement—we’re told that at Brakebills, with only a hundred select students, the one official phone that can reach the outside world constantly also has a line of a dozen or so waiting to use it. One-eighth the entire student body. Constantly. —Even as hyperbole it’s clumsy, because we can only even begin to parse it as hyperbole.
Oh but Kip you might say, stop. You’re taking this too personally; a chance image intersects with a memory you know in your bones; a bit of grit to become a dark, unwholesome pearl in your mouth alone. And maybe I’d agree, but it’s part of an overall pattern: of Brakebills being at once much too big, with too many rooms, too many teachers, too much stuff for only a hundred students, and yet so tiny and cramped there’s only five or six or so we even ever get to meet, if meet’s the right word. Or of the five Fillory books, which expand and contract as needed; if there are five books, say, one does not airily speak of things that generally tended to happen in the earlier books: there are only two earlier books. —Quod erat, for fuck’s sake.
We won’t be getting into how this carelessness fatally undermines whatever’s trying to be said about magic, and ethics, and morality; when you don’t seem to think you need a clear idea about something so real (and magic’s at least as real as religion, you skeptic you, so sit the hell down), well, you’ll never know which way to point it when it’s time to pull the trigger. I’d have to go back through it all to marshal the evidence needed, and as I’ve said I’m tired, and it’s late, and there’s so many other books.
No, the thing is this: this is the thing. 74%, page 296, Quentin the iredeemable asshole yes yes has just proved how manly he is by shoving Penny into a tree or something (allowing us, the Reader, a surging moment of we-would-never superiority tempered by a buried hint of oh-we-have recognition, yes yes), that’s not the moment I decided to drop the book. That’s just when inertia finally ran the flywheel down. No, the moment I decided to drop the book is terribly neatly encapsulable, right there on page 196, the 49% mark:
“Of course it matters, Vix,” Quentin said. “It’s not like they’re all the same.” “Vix” was a term of endearment with them, short for vixen, an allusion to their Antarctic interlude, vixen being the word for a female fox.
Seriously, narrative voice? Seriously? —Christ, get yourself to hell already.
“Fuck the exposition,” he says gleefully as we go back into the bar. “Just be. The exposition can come later.” He describes a theory of television narrative. “If I can make you curious enough, there’s this thing called Google—”
“Good artists copy; great artists steal,” said Picasso. Except of course he didn’t.
It was T.S. Eliot, who said, “Good poets borrow, great poets steal.”
Except, of course, he didn’t.
What T.S. Eliot said went a little something like this:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
Which, and we can get hung up on what is meant by “steal” and what is meant by “copy” and what is meant by “borrow” but that’s not important right now; it’s not as if there’s two discrete actions, and if you perform the one, you’re only good, but switch to the other and you become great. As if. Stealing, borrowing, begging, these are all fundamentally the same dam’ act; defacing’s in the eye of the beholder.
No, the takeaway is this: if you’re great—or seen as great—what you do will be read one way. If not? The other. —For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.
“It’s hard to explain to writing students that there are pods of very friendly, arguably moral authors who treat each other as if the literary life is led on a firing range. They meet you alertly, brightly drawing from natty holsters their own signs of power, rank and aid, and then requesting that you do the same. They aren’t evil, really, and the impulse behind it is so close to camaraderie it almost smells right. We all need help, and we all want to help each other, which makes the nuances of the transaction murky. Some people never see the problem at all and others treat every request like you’re asking for a toe of which they are particularly fond. In the end, parsing the aspirational nature of literary friendship is as much of a longshot as sexing the yeti.” —Glen David Gold
Oh this Damien Walter post. —On the one hand it is very nice to see well it isn’t writing advice per se, but it’s nonetheless the sort of thing writing advice needs much much more of, and much much less of “cut the adverbs” and “don’t head-hop” and “spelling is important.” —What are you writing? How are you approaching it? What are the tools in your toolkit, and how might they be used to solve the problem? What the heck is the problem, anyway, and is conceiving of it as a problem even what you want to be doing? (What if you’re focused on the sound of what you’re building, and thus that string of adverbs is necessary for the swing?) (What if you’re making a point about universality and actively embrace a cacophonic leap from point to point of view?) (What if you’re making up a whole new slanguage as you oh but this is getting silly, the point is almost made—)
What if you want to write prose that plays with the grammar of cinema?
So maybe you want to cater to the more widespread literacy in cinematic grammar that Walter notes; it’s all about the reading protocols, after all. And maybe you want to mess around in the limen between the words you say and the scene they see; maybe you want to show and not tell. Maybe you want to have a narrative voice as flat and objective as possible because flat objectivity’s impossible, and that’s one of the points you’d maybe like to gesture toward. —So maybe I have a dog in this fight. The visible world is merely their skin.
But also, that other hand: any time you find yourself making essentialist arguments (“Novels dial the phone like this; movies dial the phone like this”), you need to run your check/wreck protocols, or you’ll find yourself stating things that just ain’t so merely because they neatly fit your strictures: the primary sin of fanfic, for inst, isn’t that it’s too cinematic, but almost precisely the opposite: in its attempt to exercise the authority needed to tell a story with someone else’s setting and these characters loved widely and too well, fanfic often indulges in interior monologuery far too drearily specific and on-the-nose in an attempt to demonstrate a basic competence with the material. And while I haven’t read enough Dan Brown to tell you just how cinematic he is, his failing most commonly mocked (probably because it’s the opening sentence of that book, and thus one doesn’t need to have read much further)—
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.
—it’s no cinematic sin at all; the hilariously clumsy exposition of “renowned curator” is something only prose could fuck up quite like that.
Many of the sins Walter wishes to lay at the feet of this ersatz cinema are the sins of action-adventure fiction, which prose was committing long before cinema ate the world; which cinema caught, in large part, from the pulps it aped when it was starting out. —There are differences between the reading protocols of this sort of prose and that sort of cinema, sure, and it can be instructive to use the one as a way of looking at the other (in what manner, precisely, is The Wire novelistic? Show your work), but let’s be careful not to muddle medium and idiom and mode, while we’re at it. (To say nothing of genre.)
The primary difference between prose and cinema (beyond the obvious) is I think in time, and how each handles it; cinema (like theatre before it) no matter how achingly it might strive for universal generalities, must necessarily show you specific people doing specific things in specific places at very specific times. Prose, on its wily other hand, can say: “Monday morning staff meetings were always a chore for Willy” or “For the next week whenever she went to the coffee shop she saw the woman on the corner” or “And then everybody died.” —The narrow bandwidth of prose can’t begin to approach the wealth of incidental detail that makes up cinematic specificity without enormous slogging effort; most of the tricks and tips one needs to learn to tell stories and have them told with mere words, in fact, those reading protocols we’ve all had put in place, have everything to do with tricking us into thinking that specificity’s been achieved without us noticing (just as a great many of cinema’s tricks are all about forcing us to empathize with the saps up on the screen, bridging the vast gulf between their specificities and ours). —Now prose can give up its ability to turn on a dime, go large, sweep it all up, and constrain itself to cinema’s pinched and straitened lens (one can do anything one likes, after all), and this is neither a bad nor a good thing: the trick’s in how it’s done. How conscious is the author of what they’re giving up; how mindful of what they might reach for, instead?
And I would agree with Walter in this much, certainly: too many authors who do indeed give up a great many of prose’s tricks do so without noticing what they’ve lost, and what they might be doing instead with what they’ve got.
(The effect I think’s more noticeable when you compare comics and cinema: widescreen, decompressed superheroic storytelling is a far more conscious attempt to down tools half-understood and ape instead the things a more “successful” medium might do, and in this attempt comics is doomed to become nothing but stiffly rendered storyboards for the film we’d all rather be watching.)
Female characters are traditionally peripheral to male ones. That’s why we don’t want to hear them chatting about anything other than the male characters: because in making them peripheral, the writer has assured the women can’t possibly contribute to the story unless they’re telling us something about the men who drive the plot. That is the problem the test is highlighting. And that’s why shoehorning an awkward scene in which two named female characters discuss the price of tea in South Africa while the male characters are off saving the world will only hang a lantern on how powerfully you’ve sidelined your female characters for no reason other than sexism, conscious or otherwise.