Neither Uncanny Nor Fantastic

Is it too soon for spoilers?

L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)

I’m unclear how many of the Oz books I’ve read, but I was bought this for Newtonmas something like thirty years ago and I did read this. I suspect it is heresy to say, but I think it is a better book than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, if only because it isn’t overshadowed by the film. Whether it is true or not that the first book was the first American fantasy (I don’t believe this), or is it first for kids?, it was clearly popular enough that Baum was pressurised into a sequel.

The whole point of the first book was to get Dorothy home — having got her to marvellous Oz — and so returning her is a tough gig. The supporting characters got their brain (Scarecrow), heart (Tinman) and courage (Cowardly Lion), so everyone has what they want. Baum elects to bring back the Scarecrow and the Tinman, mainly in support roles, and gives us a boy hero, Tip.

There’s gratitude to all the Dorothies who wrote letters.

Tip is a mysterious orphan, mistreated by the wicked old witchlet Mombi, who decides to play a trick on her by making a scary dummy with a pumpkin head. Mombi responds by bringing him alive. Tip and Jack — a Scarecrow variant — run away to the Emerald City and en route create a living sawhorse and meet a large intelligent beetle (who I suspect was more amusing when I was twelve).

Then comes revolution — a girl’s army is fed up of slaving away and march on and take over the city. The Scarecrow, Tip, Jack and so forth escape, in the hopes of finding Glinda to rescue them, but mainly so that we can have a series of marvellous episodes to show off the weirdness of Oz. The resolution is more interesting than assuming there’s a satire of suffragism going on. Glinda points out that the Scarecrow is only leader because he took the city over on the Wizard’s departure, and the Wizard, who we had been led to believe built the city, usurped someone else. But there is a daughter, hidden away somewhere in safety and so the Force is safe. We also learn — thanks to the various pills and potions that run through the the story (and I get the sense that Baum trapped as liberated by variations on the three wishes trope) — that the Wizard had rather more magic than he pretended.

Did the Wizard in fact get out of town ahead of the coming revolution?

I note that all the characters are abject and marvellous — the living scarecrow, the animated squash, the giant beetle, the cyborg, the sawhorse, the Gump — and so it should be no surprise that Tip is rather more complex than we’ve led to believe. But the restoration of a matriarchal rule is also a restoration of a blood line — and Baum is perhaps not as generous to the army as his character Glinda is.

Apparently Baum had been involved in theatrical productions of Oz and pantomime — and in a world of dames and principal boys, a certain gender bending is not unexpected.

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The Ghost of Academia Future Perfect Subjunctive

So another year over, and what have we done…

In the published corner:

  • ‘Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film’, Foundation, 122 (2015): 122-32.

  • ‘Sleeping/Waking: Politicizing the Sublime in Science Fiction Film Special Effects’. Endangering Science Fiction Film. Edited by Sean Redmond and Leon Marvell, New York and London: Routledge, 2016: 117-31.

  • ‘Human Subjects/Alien Objects? Abjection and the Constructions of Race and Racism in District 9’, Alien Imaginations: Science Fiction and Tales of Transnationalism. Edited by Ulrike Küchler, Silja Maehl and, Graeme Stout, New York: Bloomsbury, 2015: 95-112.
  • ‘Iain M./ Banks’, Twenty-First Century British Writers (Dictionary of Literary Biography). Edited by Tom Ue, Chicago?: Gale, 2015.

Somewhere out there — and I don’t like to talk about work in progress before the ink is dry — are chapters on Adam Roberts, British sf short stories, queer YA sf and perhaps one I forget — editorial work on someone.

I am about to put to bed an article on The Clarke Award and a chapter on a period of sf.

Downsides — the article proposal turned down (but there was some small compensation in that the editor reassured me that I might be able to place it elsewhere, may be in a peer-reviewed venue) and the chapter rejected after much time but short shrift (it may well be crap, but it was not a well-handled project).

To do in 2016:


  • I failed to convert one conference paper into a chapter and probably have missed the boat on that book, but it can feed into another commission I have;
  • to convert the paper on Quest for Love into a chapter;
  • to convert the paper on Mieville I gave at a conference into a chapter (I seem to have fallen off a mailing list there);
  • to return to a book that was bounced and needs work;
  • to produce a book proposal that I’ve been pondering for too many years;
  • to sort out two book proposals for projects that came up some years ago and stalled;
  • beer and brewing and drinking research. I need to be priming the pump.

And I need to do some writing on sf film — maybe go back to the Moon paper and the keynote for the CRSF.

Have I missed anything any of you have asked me to do?

Clearly this is too much for a year. We’ll see.

I See Dead London

“Disfigured Myth: The Destruction of London in Postmillennial SF Film”, Foundation 122, pp. 122-32.

There is a moment in Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire (2002) when the hero, Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale), climbs a wall from a river and gazes across at a semi-destroyed Palace of Westminster and says, ‘Well, this town’s gone to Hell.’ It is not the only landmark to have survived several decades of destruction: Tower Bridge has also made it through. This article explores the symbolism and meaning of such landmarks, drawing upon the ideas of Charles Peirce, Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, within a number of recent British science fiction films: Reign of Fire, 28 Days Later (2002) and its 2007 sequel, and Children of Men (2006). To already indicate the instability of a British identity that these films work to prop up, only 28 Days Later is a fully British production whereas the others are co-productions. The director of Reign of Fire is American, of 28 Weeks Later Spanish, and of Children of Men Mexican, but they all feature a British-born star (although the protagonist of 28 Days Later is Irish-born).

This is a version of the paper “London Death Drives” I gave at the Worldcon in August 2014, fleshed out and theory-enriched. It strikes me that there are a couple more films that could also be included here (I watched Doomsday (2008) and Flood, but neither quite fitted in the word count) and I’m sure I’ll return to British sf film soon.

May be we are set in our ways — I note here I am still in the Freudian paradigm with the uncanny and the death instinct — but note also the importance of Tom Shippey’s chapter, “The Fall of America in Science Fiction”, in Tom Shippey, ed. Fictional Space, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for The English Association, 1990), pp. 104–32. That Shippey collection was some of the first serious sf criticism I read and it influences me more than I usuallly realise.

Until You Find the Key to Your Life

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

There was a documentary on BBC Radio 4 over Christmas about Alice — a couple of books to which I sometimes have an allergic reaction — that said something along the lines of the Alice books became popular in the 1960s in America because the US had had no fantasy aside from the Oz books.

Ho hum.

But presumably Alice is a taproot text — a young girl who falls into a fantastical world and undergoes an almost random series of encounters before returning home. Baum gives the story more architecture: there is the journey to the City of Emeralds; the journey to the Wicked Witch of the West and the return to the Emerald City. She is given more defined companions, each with a quest of their own: the Scarecrow; the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. A recurring trope in the book is their restatement of their needs, a fairy tale recurring rhetorical structure.

The gimmick is surely clear from the perennial Newtonmas screenings of the film version — the titular Wizard is a humbug and you must search for the hero inside yourself. (Incidentally this is a variation on the anti-technology sf movie dependent on technology to narrate its tale — the fantasy narrative distrustful of fantasy and illusions.) The Wizard isn’t who he claims to be and that is a Bad Thing, but the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion must pretend to be who they want to be and that is a Good Thing.

The book doesn’t have the is-it-a-dream-or-not? frame of the film, in which various farmhands are anticipatory doubles of her companions. The farm sequence is pretty brief, barely a chapter, as Baum clearly knows to get her to the fantasy land as soon as he can. On the other hand, there’s little sense of why she wants to go home (although in the film it makes no sense at all). The flying monkeys are less scary than they become in the movie, as indeed is the Wicked Witch. If more incidents are thrown at Dorothy and the gang in the book than the film, they are dealt with chapter by chapter. Can one whisper the film is an improvement on the novel? Or maybe got to me first.

I think a comment needs to be made on gender, and the power vacuums created and filled by the narrative. Oz is divided into four segments, North and South ruled by good witches, West and East are ruled by bad witches. Four domains, four female rulers. The central zone is the Emerald City, built by the humbug wizard (but see The Marvelous Land of Oz) In the course of the novel two of the women are killed and one is replaced by a male character (it is not clear who rules Munchkinland, but presumably Dorothy has squatter’s rights). The male Wizard is replaced by the male Scarecrow, marking a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. The novel was written in the era of the New Woman and an era of suffragism.

Perhaps this will become significant in the sequel.

Saving Captain Powers

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Actually, that’s not fair, there’s a scene where the train crosses a bridge in New York or Brooklyn that is clearly meant to mirror a sequence when Hanks is leaving East Berlin by train.

I tend to prefer Spielberg’s Entertainments. I can see why he’d want to make something like The Color Purple or Schindler’s List as a means of getting films made that a less money-making talent would struggle, but I think there’s a political confusion to his serious efforts that he hasn’t lumbered his thrillers with. As Greg Tuck pointed out to me years ago there’s something disturbingly exceptional about his subject matter — Jews who survive the holocaust or slaves who get to go home. Gotta have that triumph of the human spirit.

But of course Spielberg can tell a story on a big canvas and has trained us to watch crowds — but he never knows where to end a movie. Imagine how devastating Minority Report would have been if it had ended with Tom Cruise in jail rather than conjuring up an estranged wife who suddenly forgives and springs him out of jail.

Bridge of Spies is the same. And it is posing as an Entertainment.

It should have ended with Tom Hanks on the bridge, unclear as to what will happen next, rather than bringing him back home to hearth and family and acclaim. There’s a line in the film about how it doesn’t matter what people think of you as long as you know that what you have done is right. But Hanks’s character is given redemption and applause, in a scene that echoes an earlier restless silence in a train in which he has been viewed as a traitor.

The film begins with a bridge — the Brooklyn bridge — and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) posing as an artist in Brooklyn and receiving some nuclear secrets of one kind or another. He is arrested and put on trial — and in order to show that the American way of life is sacrosanct, he is given a trial of sorts, with insurance litigator James Donovan (Hanks) called upon by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend the indefensible. The trial is not as rigged as it might be, but in here we have a commentary of the importance of the constitution being followed even in times of war. I’m guessing we’re meant to have Guantanamo Bay in mind.

And Hanks is the most Mr Smith style actor in Hollywood today, with rare exceptions playing the decent, sincere, all-American man. If anyone can make us care for an insurance man as Capraesque rather than Kafka-esque it is Hanks. And Alda, in M*A*S*H*, played one of the most decent characters in sitcom history, so much so that he’s mostly acted against type since. He is very wary about Hanks’s attempt to appeal on Abel’s behalf. Donovan was smart enough to know that at some point an American spy would be captured and a swap could be made with Abel if he were still alive rather than executed. (Is Abel his real name? Is seems too NATO phonetic alphabet to be entirely genuine.)

And into this plunges U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers and obviously Donovan is sent to negotiate his release.

We sort of know how it’s going to end because, yanno, history, but the waters are muddied by an American PhD student who gets caught in the wrong side of the wall in Berlin. Meanwhile, Spielberg brings his fetish for widescreen historical reconstruction, in this case of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

And you can’t help noticing that this is a male world — the only women are wives, daughters, secretaries and cleaning ladies and everyone else is about bone structure. I suspect it’s a nearly all white world — the only African American I recall being on the back of a lorry in Brooklyn. But America is recuperated and that is hardly exceptional for Spielberg.

Hanks is solid throughout, but frankly the film is stolen by Rylance, whose portrayal of Abel is somewhere between his Thomas Cromwell and Private James Frazer from Dads Army. You kind of despair for the CIA, of course, as they think that Abel might come from Northern England. As in Scotland, Northern England. But he is wonderfully dry and curiously makes you feel sorry for a spy.

And so in the end, the Guantanamo parallels aren’t pushed to their limit. The American way of life is recuperated and following the Constitution is the thing to do (and I wonder if we needed a little historical context for the pledge of allegiance “under God” in the school sequence, which dated from 1954 and the McCarthy era). And rather than leave Hanks unclear as to the fate of his unlikely friend, we need to bring Hanks back to home and family and people thinking right of him.

Strangers on a Train Set

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

This is a haunted film.

It’s based on a pseudonymous and groundbreaking 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith — got but not read — who is better known for those queer crime thrillers Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitchcock from a Chandler script) and the Ripley trilogy (filmed in various versions). Groundbreaking because — spoilers — it has a happy ending unlike the gay gothic ending of most other gay and lesbian novels of most of the twentieth century. The instinct is It Can’t End Well.

And the Chandler link and the gun one of them has points towards the noir version of the tale, more suitable for pulps, with the ordinary Jo seduced and ruined by the femme fatale. It Can’t End Well. And Haynes has made the pulpish Mildred Pierce for TV, which I really must watch.

And then there’s the best film by the Wachowski Siblings, Bound, the best lesbian gangster money-in-a-suitcase movie yet made.

But here we have the linked lives of working class shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) with sort-of boyfriend and monied older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) with disintegrating marriage. We begin towards the end, with an apparently parting assignation in a hotel bar, and Therese seeing Carol walking through the New York streets from the back of a car. This scene anticipates a similar car journey with the roles reversed.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol inadvertently leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

And then I remember a decade or two years old reading about butch femme power dynamics.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol deliberately leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

Hmm. I think it’s an accidental meeting but Therese is always already masculine and fancies Carol and Carol recognises a kindred spirit in her. The affair feels like it should be doomed given the clichés of narrative. Therese dreams of a career in photography, either as artist or journalist, although fails to name check any of the female photographers active in the fifties. Somehow it was a suitable job for a woman.

We’re spared the worst of it, but it is hinted that Carol has to go through some pretty severe therapy to cure her of her moral laxity (the l-word is not actually used), but desire will out in the end. I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure if the narrative stays with Therese or allows us into Carol’s world. I wonder if it would be better viewed from the outside of Carol’s life, but we get more Blanchett with the double focus.

If I’m honest, I suspect the film is a little too long, too leisurely and fetishising the 1950s detail. I miss the mischievousness of Haynes’s earlier Velvet Goldmine. But clearly Haynes has fought for twenty years to get this made and it is glorious in its performances and luxuriating in a Carter Burwell soundtrack.

My Heart Belongs To Dada

May contain spoilers

The Force Awakens (J. J. Abrams, 2015)

I was seven when Star Wars came out – and I’d swear it had the subtitle then, but I suspect it was a couple of months into the run. I’d not seen The Searchers, The Dam Busters, Hidden Fortress or even Triumph of the Will, so it felt original. I’d probably seen Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and at some point the Glen A Larson version showed up. I would have seen The Wizard of Oz, but didn’t make the link to Star Wars, but both were modern fairy tales and I knew them, albeit via panto and Disney and Ladybird Books. There was a novelisation, apparently by Lucas, which suggested earlier segments. I didn’t yet know The Lord of the Rings.

There was a space race of blockbusters — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire Strikes Back, Superman — and at some point there was Star Trek the movie, nicknamed The Slow Motion Picture or The Motion Sickness and boy was it dull. But we saw the gang coming together for One More Mission and there’s that extraordinary ten minute sequence when Kirk and Scottie check out the old girl on the big screen. Talk about your male gaze.

And years passed and puberty hit and Empire was clearly the best of the three and the three prequels happened. Oddly the BBC paid me a lot of money to write something about sf for their website and to review the novelisation. I went into The Phantom Menace knowing the plot. But then (spoilers) we knew the ending — Little Orphan Annie Kin is going to go wrong. The poster told us. There were call backs — more westerns, an attack like the one on the Death Star, but only C3PO, R2D2 and x to link us to the trilogy. There was Obi Wan Kenobi, but in an odd non-Guinness style by Ewan McGregor. The prequels were pants.

And years passed and that seemed to be that — although there was an odd Star Trek reboot that felt more like Star Wars, and director J.J. Abrams clearly preferred that franchise.

And then Disney bought Lucas (not Lucas Entertainment) in a no-brained multi billion deal that would pay in terms of merchandising alone, even without a third trilogy and spin offs. Our friend would be back.

So what happens next? Well, Han and Leia retire to the suburbs and Uncle Luke bounces their kids above his knee. Although Han did turn into seventies dad in the original.

Well, Abrams only has one one thing to do — to not kill the golden goose. Because, frankly, the magic bean counters at Gold Mouse Central will have calculated that the deal is repaid by merchandising alone — and endless iterations in Lego.

So we shake the magic eight ball of plot and we find an orphan with exceptional abilities, the finest pilot in the galaxy, a cute robot, a wise cracking sidekick, the finest pilot in the galaxy and a new evil man in black to recreate the original plot, and bring back the older versions of the old gang. This is somewhere between fan service and prick tease — we know from the poster that Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewbacca and the Millennium Falcon are back, and can make a few shrewd deductions about Skywalker’s absence from the poster but Hamill’s name on it. There’s a balance to be struck between delayed gratification and seeing what we want.

In a sense the original films were reruns — variations on Buck Rogers and the Flash Gordon Lucas had wanted to make. Both the later films in the trilogy and then the later we-shall-not-speak-of-it trilogy ape that, albeit with diminishing returns. The secret plans of The Death Star (which presumably are on file at the local council offices) are the secret map to Luke, entrusted to the faintly double entendred BB8, the cat to R2D2’s puppy, and inevitably this ends up on the not Tattooine desert planet which is home to this film’s orphan du jour, the kick ass Rey. BB8 is antenna in hand with ex-stormtrooper Finn, whose conversion to the light side is as easily and convincingly accomplished as Annie Kin’s was to the dark.

Incidentally, the crapness of this generation of storm troopers — shuffling embarrassedly out of shot at one point — could be used as a racist argument against diversity… Ooops.

And through such frail travelling coincidences we assemble the old team and the old set pieces — scavengers, trips across deserts, scrap dealers, strangulation by the Force, a cantina, hologram chess… Fan service. Give us what we want.

A character is killed off. Oh yes — although apparently the director was so enamoured with the actor that he is completely unexpectedly brought back. Because the thing we know about popular culture — I’m looking at you, Doctor Who — is that death is simply a matter of contractual obligations. But then, death didn’t slow Ben or Yoda down. So that death that comes later is clearly a wrench but there are two more films to play out.

And so we come to the new Big Bad, so evil he has to kill someone à la Vader, Kylo Ren, who hero worships a Vader he plainly doesn’t know. He appears to have a helmet fetish, which cramps in his impossibly bouffant hair style. Incidentally, his looks seem to be be more like an Alan Rickman than his putative father, suggesting his mother has the same kind of morals as Annie Kin’s mother with her “I got knocked up by the Force” cover story. This is a man, nay a boy, with anger management issues, who would throw his toys out of the pram with or without the Force, as witnessed in his really stupid light sabre attacks on consoles. Quite what the even Bigger Bad, Gollum Snope, sees in him remains a mystery.

It turns out that all the films are about relationships between fathers and sons — from Annie Kin’s anonymous trick to Darth Emo’s petulance. If we compare it to perhaps the only other multi-chaptered, anachronous saga — Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays — we can see how the quasi-patricide of Richard II by Henry IV is still playing out in the relations of (spoilers) Hal and Falstaff and even Henry VI. We have divided good and evil fathers, fathers who can’t measure up, sons who can’t measure up (and as far as I recall, the spoiler of Luke-I-am-your-father, supposedly not known about when Star Wars was filmed and Leigh Brackett’s contribution to the saga, was there in the comic book adaptation released before Empire). Annie Kin’s missing father (and thus under developed superego if you buy Freud) is played out in Darth Emo’s over compensation.

But fathers are there to be obeyed. Well, the good ones.

When Star Wars was released in the late 1970s we had had a run of adult themed, grown up sf movies and were desperately in search of heroes in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate disillusionments. It made us children again — even those of us who were children. Arguably, Lucas and then Spielberg infantilised the sf genre with their fort da sagas. Again, again! And made shit loads of money. Fathers and sons, sons and fathers (but Indy was the dog).

The Force Awakens is a cosy old set of clothes and slippers and presses the buttons expertly. The question the remaining two films will have to answer is the nature of mothers and sons, but more importantly daughters and mothers. It is to be hoped that Rey gets to stay kick ass, rather than face the domestication Leia endured from agent to slave.