Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A New Type of Romance, and Great Writing VS Literature

I just read a 1998 interview with Douglas Adams, published in the Salmon of Doubt, where the genius author just finished a CD-ROM interactive game, Starship Titanic. He really did think up many things in technology before they were invented, such as a handheld device with wireless capability, Bluetooth (he hated all the cords needed to connect his word processor to all his other devices), a universal energy source (American, British and European were never the same output) that maybe someone could create from a car's cigarette lighter, etc. Basically, the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, thought up years before there was easy access to the internet, was a sort of Wikipedia, before Wikipedia existed. The Salmon of Doubt, mostly Douglas Adams' posthumously published musings after his untimely death, should be read just to get a rare glimpse into what a genius mind looks like inside an amiable, ambling, all-around great guy.

But back to the interview regarding Starship Titanic: the interviewer asked Douglas Adams if he was concerned a new story first published as a CD-ROM (instead of, say, a book or movie) wouldn't be treated as a work of art. Adams' response is he hoped it wouldn't be treated as art:

“Having been an English literary graduate, I've been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity. That was one of the reasons I really wanted to go and do a CD-ROM: because nobody will take it seriously, and therefore you can sneak under the fence with lots of good stuff. It's funny how often it happens. I guess when the novel started, most early novels were just sort of pornography: Apparently, most media actually started as pornography and sort of grew from there. This is not a pornographic CD-ROM, I hasten to add.”

He goes on to say that there's nothing worse than a writer sitting down to create something of high artistic worth, using Ian Fleming's Thunderball as an example. He happened to find a copy lying around, and after a friend had mentioned Fleming aimed to be “literate” instead of “literary,” Adams thought it would be interesting to see what the novel was like, how it compared to all the post-movie hype. And, of course, Adams saw that it was written well. “It's interesting, because it was actually very well written as a piece of craft. He knew how to use language, he knew how to make it work, and he wrote well. But obviously nobody would call it literature.” He goes on to add that being literate is “good craft, knowing your job...I find when I read literary novels – you know, with a capital 'L' – I think an awful lot is nonsense. If I want to know something interesting about a way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better, Ruth Rendell for instance.”

So here's the cool part. I had known about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in high school, had learned some of the lingo and jokes from people who had read the books, much the same way a Monty Python sketch, and later perhaps Saturday Night Live sketch would take on a life of its own and become part of our public discourse. And then, I found a copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency lying around. I started reading it because the whole thing just looked curiously absurd, and I was shocked at how well-written it was. This book had passages more poetic than anything I had ever read in any literature class, and the whole thing was written in (dare I say it) a literate style that just flowed together as if it had been easy to write. Of course, as I now understand, much work went into making it look like it had been easy to write.

I read the second Dirk Gently novel in college, and the entire Hitchhiker series post-college, when I had more time for leisure activity and could muse, again, about writing fiction myself. This is the stuff that's art: craft that works, and stuff that's really new. I was as amazed at the writing as I was at how he was actually able to publish these works that were truly funny. I mean, novelists are supposed to be writing serious stuff, not comedy. Although, as Adams noted, this type of writing has more literary worth than “Literature” with a capital 'L.'

The second cool part is that I, also, looked at Ian Fleming's books while researching my current spy novel, Hookers of Espionage, and found the novels and short stories surprisingly well crafted. Ian Fleming has a sort of Hemingway tone and feel – he's writing at the top of his craft, and he knows it. Like Adams, Fleming died at a relatively young age with much writing left undone – they had started making very successful movies of his stories, and Fleming had just experienced a bit of fame and financial success as a result, which he spilled over into his novels with a bit of wry humor.

But as I looked closer to Fleming's stories, I found that all but his last one, the Man with the Golden Gun, were romances. One short story, the Spy Who Loved Me, was written from the point of view of James Bond's love interest, and another, A Quantum of Solace, was a story within a story, a story told to James Bond about an Englishwoman in Jamaica who spurned her husband, and later married a Canadian: both of these are romances in a sense, but all the other James Bond stories are, quite curiously, romance from the male point of view. And I think Ian Fleming is the first guy to do it.

Hemingway, in a very real sense, is a writer of romance, but everything he writes is so consumed by pity, irony, and death, that there never really is a happy ending (except perhaps Garden of Eden or, possibly, the Sun Also Rises). But Ian Fleming seems to have perfected the male magazine style of writing for the middle-class man interested in leisure activity: golf, gambling, driving, diving, travel, drinking, and of course women. It's as if Fleming has tapped into the male counterpoint of the typical female reader of romance, creating a whole new sub-genre.

Of course, spy novels are published as espionage thrillers. But I know, now, that the great spy novels are romances. Specifically, they are romances written from the male point of view, which, surprisingly, no one else is doing. Perhaps I should corner the market on this one. After all, I aim to write literate, and not literary.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The positive power of apathy

I'm going to start with two things. One, I'm going to suggest that the answer of what to do about current politics is deceivingly simple. Two, I'm going to talk about Star Wars. Stick with me, because these things are related.

When I saw The Last Jedi, the seventh sequel, or the eighth movie in the series, or whatever it is, there was a point where I started to lose interest. Yes, the Rebels (or the Resistance) are noble in their quest to confront and wage war with the evil Empire...or the First Order, or whatever it's now called. It's just that it's all too familiar. The (chronologically) first Star Wars movie set basic plot lines the other movies followed, sometimes to a fault. The first sequel (The Empire Strikes Back) made history by ending on a down note, and the next (Return of the Jedi) made another kind of history, ending on a happy note:

Return of the Jedi is where we get Princess Leia's “sex slave” outfit, which is the origin of the name of my first novel, Sex Slaves from Galaxy Seven. It's a comedy. And a romance. But not a romantic comedy in the cinematic sense of the phrase...more of a satire in the style of Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, etc. But I digress...

This latest movie, The Last Jedi, was all too familiar not only because the films have similar story arcs, but because a lot of the political nuances in the film was happening in real time, in the US and abroad. Okay, so after the first three movies, we get the prequels, whose sole purpose is to tell us how “good” Anakin Skywalker turned into the “evil” Darth Vader. I expected something along the lines of the fall of Michael Corleone in the Godfather, but no. It turns out that the Jedi don't really have an existential grip on things, and some guy who proclaims to be evil can just turn a normally good guy evil with a few well-placed cackles. You can read the commentary on that, of how silly the plot is of the Revenge of the Sith in my novel, Sex Slaves from GalaxySeven, where two space monks discuss just how preposterous it would be for that sort of thing to happen. And then, you know, more interesting stuff happens. In my novel, not in Revenge of the Sith, because by that time the movie is over.

How would I have written the fall of Anakin Skywalker? you ask. Easy. Just create a romantic tryst between Obi -Wan Kenobi and Padmé Amidala, somewhere in the second or third prequel. They are friends, having bonded from the first prequel, where Anakin is still just a boy. So Amidala goes to Kenobi for support because Anakin is acting weird, spending too much time with Palpatine, and there you go. Amidala realizes that Anakin Skywalker is a whiney little bitch who is about to sell out everything good, and everything he loves, just because he had a bad dream. Both Amidala and Kenobi try to bring him back from Palpatine's influence, he gets jealous, feels betrayed, and attacks Kenobi, who ultimately whips his ass.

What is lacking in the movie is any motivation on Anakin's part. What we need is some reason where the audience can say, okay, the guy has some reason for going to the dark side. We still know he's evil, but we have a level of sympathy for him. Have him face off with Obi-Wan first, and get burned half to death. Then, when he's rebuilt as a cyborg, he hears that Amidala has died, and he blames the Jedi Order. He then goes in to the temple, as Darth Vader, and murders all the “younglings,” the children learning to one day become a Jedi. Now he's a murderer, and the transformation to evil is complete.

But no. In the movie, he kills all the children first, simply because his new mentor told him to. His new mentor, of course, being an evil Sith lord bent on taking over the galaxy. And then Amidala and Kenobi confront him, trying to save him, after he's already comitted genocide for no real reason. So what we end up with is the only guy (so far) in the series who gets laid – the only one who gets married – is the one guy who turns evil. Sure, Han Solo and Leia Organa later on have a child, but that child turns evil. It's almost as if George Lucas and/or Disney have weird ideas about sex and romance.

So we finally get to the movies after Return of the Jedi, with The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, and what do we find? Years after Solo, Organa, and Luke Skywalker save the galaxy, it's all messed up again. Some new evil government is in power, weilding a leadership of two more Siths (including ex-Jedi Ben Solo), and here we go again with the resisting and rebelling, fighting for democracy while, here in real life, the populist demagogue who is supposed to be President threatens the free press while his critics declare proof that he's committed treason. There are people on both sides, and we're supposed to engage in lively but civil debate about the future of our government.

But wait, wait – even if you support the Republicans in power, you're wondering why everyone is so hostile. And I think they have a point. After all, Ben Solo is on point, in that the Jedi have done everything wrong. The “dark side” of the force always seems to be stronger, and the supposedly good people are always struggling against those in power. What's the difference, really, between a rebel and a terrorist? What made Han Solo so cool is that he was a pirate. He didn't even try to follow the rules; he just did his thing. That's what made Boba Fett so cool, also: here was a bounty hunter operating on his own terms, not some tool for the Empire or the Rebels.

So we're supposed to get along. We're supposed to sit down with the other side and reason with them, convince them that these Sith lords are bad people, as if it wasn't already obvious. And by the time we get to the Last Jedi, I've about had enough, because all these First Order guys were, in some way or another, put into office. There are millions of people in the galaxy that either voted them in, or supported them financially, or, perhaps they just abstained from voting at all. And so the future of the galaxy depends on a handful of rebels? They're going to save everyone? What's the point?

Sure, there will be another movie. Probably several more. Part Nine (IX) will be in theaters at some point, and it will be entertaining, as they all are. But I just can't support the Rebel/Resistance anymore. They've won so many wars, literally decades of star wars, and humans just keep going back to being evil and stupid. We need a new tactic, I think, and that's where apathy comes in.

Caring isn't bad, it's just that we have to have a sense of humor about everything. We need to be a little less like the Avengers and a little more like Deadpool.