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Jerusalem, Post 4

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, “Book One—The Boroughs.”

Reminder: proposal is now that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book.

This post has hints at plot spoilers.

It has moderate concept/perspective spoilers.

Start at “Do As You…” if you’re looking for a clue

Like I’ve been warning, this book goes on and on with minimal connection from chapter to chapter, and with each chapter being itself less part of a story than a character study in “short-story” form. Very worthwhile on its own terms, but confusing and potentially frustrating if judged by terms Book Club is more used to.

“Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” breaks this mold. Not entirely, but enough that I can recommend jumping to there if you’re getting bogged down. Read this and at least you’ll feel you’re being set down on a path that involves some narrative plan, and some planned central conflict, and ground rules for how that conflict will be managed.

SF/F bursts

He he. So right after writing in the last post that Jerusalem shouldn’t count as SF/F I come across a set of less than four pages that, to me, rattles off like machine-gun fire pretty specific tie-in references to a nicely wide variety of genre works that I like a lot.

Quotes from “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” perspective character Snowy:

It would be hard for Snowy because he lived in a world where everything was there forever, never ended, never altered. … When he looked at it objectively, he saw that the real measure of his freedom was that he was free of the illusion of free will.

i.e. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Hi death would come in a long corridor of rooms, like the compartments of a railway train, and Snowy’s mouth would be crammed full of colours.

… maybe Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

As if they and their lives were not the smallest and most abstract brushstroke, a pointillist dab fixed and unmoving in time’s varnish, there eternally on an immeasurable canvas, part of a design too vast for its component marks to ever glimpse or comprehend.

… i.e. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.

Ernest had explained to him and Thursa how there was a way of foldin our experience of space as easily as we might fold a map to join two different places together, say the Boroughs of Northampton and the streets of Lambeth.

… i.e. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

These two places were in fact unusually easy to bring into close proximity, due to the numerous others who had made the trip before and, doing so, had worked the fold into a worn and whitened crease.

This one hits me as so reminiscent of so much stuff I can’t quite put my finger on now (so to speak)–it definitely reminds me of the speculations on the workings of the Shadow Roads in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, but I’m almost certain that’s attributable to my obsession alone (whereas for most of the others I can very easily suspect authorial intent).

Mr. Dadd, the fairy-painter who’d gone mad and murdered his own father.

Not checking this, I’m almost certain this “fairy-painter” is also alluded to in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men (almost certain because the allusion is explicated in an afterword, with a few key notes both on the painting and its author’s life).

[H]e allowed his consciousness of time to crystallise around the quarter-inch of the duration axis that the moment represented so that things slowed to a crawl, the progress of events barely perceptible. … “Pigeon eyes,” their dad had called this gift, without explaining why.

Well, in Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children it’s explained that only birds are time-travelers.


Quote, from “Modern Times,” perspective character with several aliases:

The woman laughed and it was music, more that of a pub piano on a Friday night than of Debussy, but music just the same.

Quote, from “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” perspective character Snowy:

… [T]he baby’s head was now emerged completely. Snowy’s wife had the appearance of those peg dolls you could buy that were reversible and had a head on each end at the junction of the limbs.

Then there’s any number of mentions of chamberpots and the smells of various excreta, in any number of chapters, which are, well, just rather more vivid than I’m used to in my reading. Even in other fiction set far enough in the past as to be before deodorant (or a concern for it), it usually isn’t pointed out that people, and living, and particularly living in cities, really smells. Here, that is pointed out.

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Jerusalem, Post 3

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has ridiculously hand-wavingly vague, I wouldn’t count it but maybe Kevin would concept/perspective spoilers.

NEW PROPOSAL for shorter version of the read

I propose that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book. (Of course, if you don’t manage all of that, it’s also still fine to come! Book Club realized long ago that we can have good Book Club meetings whether or not people liked the book, and I think this also counts for whether or not people have finished the book!)

This book is long and dense enough that, considering other commitments, I’d have a lot of trouble finishing it by a month from now. The few people I’ve talked to who are also reading it are not yet so far along as me. So perhaps realism is the better part of valor.

“Book One” alone will presumably leave us hanging as to the main plot, but, seriously, this is not a plot-driven book. Let me say that again: this is a seriously not plot-driven book. It’s like Citizen Kane, which is less a story than a character study. Jerusalem is less a story than an set of character studies, linked to add up to a portrait of a place and a way of life.

Like the density of the writing, this may make Jerusalem pretty annoying for people who like their novels comprehensible. (Though I hope some of these people will try it out, then come to complain, anyhow: see above—Book Club is good with or without love of the book!) Also, it’ll mean we get more than usual chance to speculate on what the heck is supposed to be going on in general.

My husband’s told me that I’m really not making this book sound inviting in these posts. Well, what can I say? I was surprised that more people showed interest in reading Jerusalem: I had suggested it because I wanted the support of more readers for a task that was looking kind of daunting to me. I agreed to write about the reading experience—and that feels daunting, too—as a sort of giving back to those people who are also reading.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you for reading Jerusalem. And please come to HRSFANS Book Club meeting February 6, 2017, to help us all.

Is it SF/F?

Is Jerusalem a work of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction?

Books that seem on the borders of genre, or beyond it, come up every now and then at Book Club, like River of No Return and Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore. (In the former case, the overall consensus was “maybe,” in the latter “no.”) I say science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, what about if …” I’m not sure what I’d use as a definition for fantasy: probably something similar, but using some set of outside-lived-experience-realistic tropes rather than using technology. very much welcome better definitions in comments.

So I’d say Jerusalem is not SF/F. There’s some things going on that are outside of what we can experience in average everyday life, but those aren’t being used to advance a plot or an argument or an understanding, so far as I can see.

Preserve a fragment of the life

Quotes, from “Atlantis,” perspective character Benedict:

On recently refurbished crab-paste brickwork were the words or possibly single word NEWLIFE, a sideways silver logo, more a label for a mobile phone or for an everlasting battery than for a tower [apartment] block, he’d have thought. Benedict winced, attempting not to look at it. For the most part, he found it comforting to still reside in the beloved neighbourhood, except for those occasions when you noticed that the loved one had been dead for thirty years and was now decomposing. Then you felt a bit like someone form an item out of Fortean Times, one of those lovelorn and demented widowers still plumping up the pillows for a bride who’s long since mummified. Newlife: urban regeneration that the’d had to literally spell out because of its conspicuous absence otherwise. As if just bolting up the mirror-finish letters made it so. What had been wrong with all the old life, anyway?

And this:

He’d always felt that he could talk to Lily, although looking back it pained him to admit that most of what he’d talked was drunken rubbish. That was largely what had finished it between the two of them. It was the drink and, if he were entirely honest, it was Ben’s insistence that the rules in his relationship with Lily be those that had suited his own parents, Jem and Eileen, thirty years before, particularly those that suited Jem. Back then Ben hadn’t really taken in that everything was changing, not just streets and neighborhoods but people’s attitudes; what people would put up with. He’d though that at least in his own home he could preserve a fragment of the life he’d known right here in Freeschool Street, where wives would tolerate constant inebriation in their husbands and consider themselves blessed if they’d a man who didn’t hit them. He’d pretended that the world was still that way, and he’d been stunned right to the core of him when Lily took the kids and demonstrated that it wasn’t.

About that place and that way of life, which it seems Jerusalem is designed to evoke: they’re in bad shape. They’ve been in bad shape for some time: by some counts, they’ve been declining for centuries. I don’t know whether Northampton is a known place to Englishmen and Englishwomen. There’s reference in the text to it not being known, rather unaccountably so, and quite unlike how a similar place would be talked up in America. Which leads me to: both my parents grew up in Flint, Michigan. I’ve never lived there, but the city’s always still been my family’s center of gravity, and I’ve heard all my life about the pain from the city’s decline, witnessed from inside and out.

There is something living about the innumerable people, resources, animals, ideas, ambitions, projects, and so forth that converge, then weave and dance and brawl, to create a city, and the livingness of a city can resemble a lifeform in ways more than just metaphorical (if I’m remembering correctly from Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From, the same back-of-a-napkin formula for the total length of veins in a human can also be used to estimate the total length of water pipes in a city — and by the way, if I’m remembering correctly, Johnson explains why that isn’t as trivial as it sounds). So there is something tragic about the death of a city, as for a person.

And there is also something tragic about a person who has the lifestyle he was led to expect ripped away from him by the arc of history. Do I think it would be good for anyone if more modern marriages conformed to that of Benedict’s parents? No. But I don’t blame Benedict for thinking what he grew up with was normal, or for assuming that what he’d seen growing up would suit him. (McNorris opening Boomtown Season 2 episode 2 is an amazing exposition of this.)

There are a lot of angry people in my country now. Some of them are angry and frightened, and very sad, because they feel like their lifestyle has been taken away over the past several decades, or because they fear a sudden apparent change in society’s course will lead to their lifestyle being taken away over the next several decades. They’re in pain. Whether or not the pain, or the changes that precipitate it, could be or should be avoided, it’s worth acknowledging people are scared and hurting, for reasons including (if certainly not limited to) that you should expect them to lash out.

And this year Britain’s been through its own unexpected change in course, in large part due to similar fear and anger.

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Jerusalem, Post 2

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has VAGUE concept/perspective spoilers.

Next set of favorite quotes –

From “X Marks the Spot,” perspective character Peter:

The duty … seemed both at once to make his soul all jubilant take flight, and be a matter of such heaviness he should be broke and flattened quite beneath it. In these contradictions did the feeling in him seem all human feelings rolled into one, and he was filled with it so that he thought to burst. This thrilling yet uncomfortable sensation, he concluded, must be that encountered by all creatures when they act the works of God.

From “Modern Times,” perspective character with several aliases, who is 20 years old:

Perhaps in some way everybody had a sense before it came, as if it were already all set out, of how their end was going to be. He glanced up at a speckled cloud of birds that dipped and swung and flattened out like a grey flame against the sunset, as they flocked above the local inns and hardware shops before returning home to roost, and thought it was a pity that you couldn’t tell beforehand how your life was going to be, and never mind about your death.

and another of the quotes that I’m beginning to believe bears on some main theme, also from “Modern Times” –

Perhaps the only meaning that events had was the meaning that we brought to them, but even knowing this was probably the case, it frankly wasn’t that much help. It didn’t stop us chasing after meaning, scrabbling like ferrets for it through a maze of burrows in our thoughts and sometimes getting lost down in the dark.

Time, place, and orientation

In the few centuries prior to the fall of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. there was, rather than Judaism such as we’d recognize it, a Jewish spectrum with many different facets. Only two of the several dozen previously extant strains outlived the Temple, though: that which would be come rabbinic Judaism, and that which would become Christianity. There were a plethora of holy texts early on, though, ones that made it into the Bible, ones that made it into the Apocrypha, ones that were lost until the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and became trendy like the Gospel of Thomas, texts of which copies were maintained only in Ethiopia until the 18th century, or that are still lost but are casually referred to by title in books that did make the canon, and so on and so forth. Some of them jibe pretty well with standard Bible texts, and some are way Out There in a direction that, from this distance, isn’t even easy to describe. I learned about this in Donald Harman Akenson’s Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmud, which is just so much fun to read. So much fun. Seriously. (Akenson’s main approach to the reader is, “I really don’t care what you think about who or when or What wrote the Bible, and I hope you don’t really care what I think either, because can’t we all just agree that it’s so COOL?”)

But connecting back to our regularly scheduled pre-Book Club: one of the texts is called the Book of Jubilees, and what I remember hearing about it in Surpassing Wonder is that it reads like you’re supposed already to know the whole text and all its references, no matter where you pick it up. I suppose it must be written on scrolls (it was, after all, before the invention of codices, right?), but it presents as if totally non-linear. Which has to be maddeningly difficult to get into.

Jerusalem isn’t like that, but it puts me in mind of what I’ve heard of Book of Jubilees. It is dense and interconnected in a way that’s not merely linear. It does build from chapter to chapter: I finally have evidence of that. At my last post I hadn’t yet seen two perspective characters interact, but “Rough Sleepers” (Freddy) and “X Marks the Spot” (Peter) do have a face-to-face, and indeed the two chapters show the same interaction from each character’s perspective in turn. Peter in his chapter notes something about Freddy which I hadn’t noticed at that point in Freddy’s chapter.

What I still don’t know (having finished “Blind, But Now I See”) is whether we’ll ever have a perspective character come back, or whether there will be a linear plot to speak of.(I’ve also heard that the logical structure for the last Wheel of Time book would have been to be several hundred single pages, each depicting a different character’s view of the day of the end of the world. This is, mind you, not entirely unlike Nnedi Okorafor‘s Lagoon.)

I think the real reason Jerusalem feels like I’m supposed to know more than the text has told me is because I’m supposed to know the place. Not all chapters take place in a single geographic location across time, but most of them do so far, and when characters go for walks (or bike rides) the turns and street names and landmarks are specified in a way that really feels like gibberish to me, but also really seems like it is supposed to be meaningful if you’ve taken those walks yourself.

Starting to draw up the introductory post the other week I did a few Google searches on Moore, Blake, and reviews of the book, and among other stuff found a Goodreads Q&A page (“Ask the Author“) for Alan Moore. Then I realized anyone who actually wanted to read secondary sources could find what they’d want better than I could: I don’t usually find it that useful to read an author expound on his/her fiction, as the fiction should speak for itself. I did notice from that Q&A, though, that Moore expects Jerusalem to become his most personal published work. I think that’s what I’m feeling about there being a “know” to be “in.”

I’ll want to write more later about this place-layered-ness, particularly regarding the idea that a certain kind of sanctity does inhere in a place, and regarding what happens when people recognize holiness in a place over time even as their cultures’ ideas of the holy change.

Write back, please!

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Jerusalem, Post 1

HRSFANS Book Clubread-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

I haven’t yet seen (partway into “X Marks the Spot”) two perspective characters actually interact with each other, though some of them have seen each other. This is not a book where the reader is just shadowing character(s) through a narrative. Rather, it seems like the intent is that I, the reader, keep catching balls thrown by the author and, as my arms fill up, I gradually notice ways to piece them together to form a partly congruent whole. It seems intended to be organic in the chemical-reaction sense, rather than the “plantlike” sense.
This is my first Alan Moore. Can anyone tell me whether he’s likely to be able to pull that off?
First favorite quote, from the “Prelude,” perspective character Michael –

“… when he was a child, when the insane were that much easier to spot and someone walking down an empty street towards you yelling angrily into the air was certain to have paranoid psychosis rather than a Bluetooth earpiece.”

Other early favorite quotes:

from “ASBOs of Desire,” perspective character Marla –

What it was, when it was good, it felt like that was you, that was how you were meant to feel, that was the life that you deserved and not all this, this walking round like you’re asleep and feeling like you’re dead.

from “Rough Sleepers,” perspective character Freddy –

You could sometimes see the sisters still up there, a proper pair of dragons who’d been widely-known and talked about when in their prime: wild, shocking and exciting. Famously, they’d once raced naked through the town, leaping and twirling, spitting, running along rooftops, all the way from here to Derngate in about ten minutes, both so dangerous and beautiful people wept to see them. Freddy sometimes spotted them in Mary’s Street, just moping wistfully around the piles of dried-out leaves and litter drifted up against the sunken car park’s wall, drawn back here to the place where they had once commenced their memorable dance The glitter in their eyes, you knew that if they had the chance, even at their age, they’d still do it all again. They’d do it in a minute. Blimey, that would be a sight.

On a one-off basis these sentences are beautiful, but this book is going to be tough on those readers who want to understand a sentence before they go on to the next one. I mean, dude, I’m not one of those people, and I still regularly feel the need to go back and reread almost immediately. The writing is third-person limited, and closer to the idiom of the perspective character’s internal monologue rather than his/her speaking voice. Someone else’s inner monologue is not easy to catch hold of.

This makes me a bit apprehensive about how many other Book Club readers are going to be willing to read at least part of this, and come discuss it with me. We have several members who for one reason or another strongly prefer audio books. I can’t imagine trying to grapple with this in any medium other than the actual printed page – it’s too slippery even for e-reading for me.

And a quote which I’m starting to think bears on some main theme, from “Rough Sleepers,” –

It’s like the houses that used to be down here, with unexpected bends and doors that led off Lord knows where. But all the pokey little nooks and stairways had their purpose in the builders’ plan.

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Book Club – announcing “read-a-LONG” to February book

HRSFANS Book Club meets each month virtually, by Google Hangouts videoconference. (If you are interested in joining us and have not yet signed up to the Google Groups account – please email Kay S., Kevin M., or Rose M.) Our next few meetings are

  • Dec 12, Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
  • Jan 16, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

On an actual browse through an actual book store (or, well, kind of: it’s a mega-bookstore) earlier this fall I found a bunch of new stuff to try reading, including one that struck me very strongly as The Kind of Book I’d Want Help With. Such a book is usually what makes me want to recommend a month’s foray for Book Club, but Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is also 1200+ pages long, and bears some sort of relation to the works of William Blake—neither of which is by any means Book Club’s usual. (So if you like the idea of regularly discussing books with HRSFANS but not the idea of this doorstop, please don’t be turned off.) I was pleasantly surprised that multiple people said, “yeah, sure, I’m game” when I emailed the group to gauge reaction, so now Jerusalem is our scheduled February 2017 book.

It’s Kay’s suggestion that “It might be easier to tackle this huge, dense book in some kind of read-a-long like steps,” and our weblog seems the simplest way to host those steps. So my commitment for the next while is to post about my progress on Jerusalem at least every other week. Anyone who would like to offer their own post, please contact me or comment to a post and I can coordinate putting it up for you. Of course I hope for comments from other readers throughout.

Before we begin, since this has something to do with William Blake’s Jerusalem, a few sources for that:

  • from BlakeArchive (color, but single link per single page)
  • from HathiTrust (black-and-white, but downloadable in .pdf)
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 1
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 2
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Challenge me!

Not actually to a duel, please – I’m unlikely to stand a chance at anything except, maybe, a Clue or Babylon 5 reference-off—and even on those, I wouldn’t rate my chances highly. Just give me good reasons otherwise, or—even better, if appropriate—good reasons for and against:

Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

I need challenging because this came out of my mouth without me really thinking it through first, and in a context where it wasn’t likely to be challenged (right before a staff meeting starting, and I work for a regulatory body). I dredged up some justifications after (in proper Douglas Adams fan fashion; for that matter, in proper human fashion), so I think it’d be fun to argue.

So, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s mythology. Science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, …”

  • “… what would actors do if reincarnation were proven?” (Nancy Kress’s With the Original Cast!)
  • “… what would people seeking meaning do if life on other planets were conclusively disproven?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Trouble with Bubbles)
  • “… what would strong people do if another intelligent species wanted to take ‘the best’ of humanity and integrate it into some other form of life?” (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, aka Lilith’s Brood, Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms, &c. &c.)”

Star Wars uses technology to look cool while telling a story that would, and indeed does, unfold exactly the same in any context. It’s is such a classic hero journey that

  • it’s literally used to illustrate the hero journey paradigm in at least one high school class I recently heard of;
  • It’s been awesomely translated into Icelandic saga;
  • I instinctively mapped onto Star Wars characters about half a dozen of the major characters of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? the second time I read it (whereas on the first reading, exactly the foreignness of the book’s culture had impressed me most).

But, then, note that I linked no sources for parts of my claim like definitions of “science fiction” or even “hero journey.” So what am I missing? And what’ll be fun to pick apart even if I didn’t really miss it?

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Creative imprint

Recently I noticed that I first “met” with all of the following BESTs at age 14 or 15 years:

And I don’t really have a best in any other culture/arts category like novel, movie, popular song, with all of which I had more extensive experience already before adolescence, and have continued to accrue more extensive experience.

How much psychological/philosophical/cultural “imprinting” does happen in adolescence, as opposed to earlier, later, or never? It’s a question obviously impossible to answer, but fun to toss out there, and far from irrelevant in the wider world.

The Economist, “Young voters: let’s set the world on fire,” 18 October 2014:

In the long run, however, wooing young voters is of paramount importance. A study by Yair Ghitza of Catalist, a data firm, and Andrew Gelman of Columbia University found that whites who came of age when Democrats were in power are more likely to vote Democratic in later years, and vice versa. In other words: like tastes in pop music, political affiliations forged while young often last a lifetime.

After all, part of the point of adolescent brain development is to hardwire our own shortcuts and “best processes.” National Geographic, “Beautiful Teenage Brains,” October 2011:

The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain—a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s—showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. …[A]s we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.

… [S]ynapses that see little use begin to wither. This synaptic pruning, as it is called, causes the brain’s cortex—the outer layer of gray matter where we do much of our conscious and complicated thinking—to become thinner but more efficient. Taken together, these changes make the entire brain a much faster and more sophisticated organ.

This process of maturation, once thought to be largely finished by elementary school, continues throughout adolescence. Imaging work done since the 1990s shows that these physical changes move in a slow wave from the brain’s rear to its front, from areas close to the brain stem that look after older and more behaviorally basic functions, such as vision, movement, and fundamental processing, to the evolutionarily newer and more complicated thinking areas up front.

I am a consumer of cultural media. How far do its producers imprint during adolescence, or before or after? Well, Robert Pinsky admitted a “very early influence” from Philip K. Dick, one of his favorite writers in his early teens, in response to a question from me about inspiration for his poems’ imagery. (He continued, “So I would have liked to think that all the wonderful writers I’ve encountered since, like Cather and Twain and Hemingway, would have covered up that very early influence, but I guess you saw through to it.” Yes, I’d love to share the full version of “my Pinsky story” to anyone who would like to hear it.)

What about you?

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Part of whose world?

My daughter discovered Disney princesses around age 3.

I had known to expect this. I read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter a year in advance. My daughter eased us into princesses: she went through an intense Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phase 6 months earlier. (I told her recently how an insect or crab is built, using the term “exoskeleton,” and she responded, “Just like in Mikey’s Monster!”) She has plenty of favorite books unrelated to branding and of impeccable quality: we’ve read Phantom Tollbooth with her twice already. And though she does think of princesses in terms of branding very very often (Band-aids = toddler bling, and Princess Band-aids = a tantrum waiting to happen) she also tells stories about them, like when Rapunzel and Belle go visit a party Ariel’s hosting under the sea. (I think she borrowed from the plot of Anansi’s Party Time for that story, too!)

I have no standing to complain. I remember the first time I heard “Part of Your World”: my younger cousin sang it to me; I was eight or nine. During undergrad I was once in a mixed group of 8-10 people walking past Widener after dark when the song was casually mentioned, then immediately sung through with true passion and without a moment’s hesitation over a single word by every female present. (Admittedly, this was a group of Noteables). In the early-mid-nineties I believed as firmly as anyone that seeing the next big Disney animated flick was not optional but required. (I did have at least the good sense to be thoroughly and permanently disabused of that opinion by Pocahontas.)

The focus of my daughter’s obsession is indeed Ariel; said obsession has only been fed by receiving Little Mermaid birthday gifts from two great-aunts and one grandmother (DVD, novelization, swimsuit). As I already admitted, I have no standing to complain.

And yet … my acquaintance with Frozen is so far limited to a novelization and several dozen repetitions of certain Youtube videos. I live in fear of the day I’ll have to see it with my daughter. My husband says it seems like a fairly good story. That’s the problem.

Let It Go” was first described to me as, “Because ‘Defying Gravity‘ would be too awesome for a Disney princess movie.” The first time I heard it I agreed – which is funny, because it’s the same singer-actress. I respect the performance (sung and drawn) more now, but I feel terrible thinking about it: this character is going insane.  She’s expecting and intending never to see another human being again. She’s not losing her humanity: she’s deliberately renouncing it. The visuals are pretty, but a lyric likening one’s own soul to “frozen fractals” is nothing but sad and frightening. “The perfect girl is gone” not because this person discovers herself to be a different girl, or a woman. She’s becoming elemental, and she’s been so miserable for so long that she actually relishes this prospect.

It seems that the movie Frozen takes place during the first few days with any measurable level of plain speaking inside the royal family after at least 15 years of rigid, unbroken, jaw-clenched withdrawal. So even if some real trust begins to grow during those few days, I imagine so much heartbreak and fear and anger over their next decade or so. Family doesn’t heal so easily.

I read at least once some yammering about Beauty and the Beast encouraging girls to stay with abusive partners in hopes of reforming them. I can’t identify with that concern. (BTW: Fifty Shades of Grey is extremely transparently a “Beauty and the Beast” plot.) I don’t fear for what my daughter may learn from Frozen about family relationships, or for that matter how to deal with wolves. I just feel really, really sad for the characters who had to live through that pain, and I can’t believe the pain really ends for them.

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Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.


This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”


Fandom & adaptations

So who’s seen Ender’s Game?

Is it any good as a movie?

Unrelated question: which, if any, parts of the feel & experience of the book does it get right?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that those are unrelated questions? And movie reviews can only answer the second question when it’s obvious that the reviewer is a fan. e.g. for The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey (3-part Hobbit: WTF?), go straight to Anthony Lane’s review. It summarizes very neatly to “I loved it — but I’m a fanatic” (which is also, word-for-word, my own review of Terminator: Salvation).

I haven’t seen a fan’s review of Ender’s Game. (No, I haven’t searched at Hatrack River, why do you ask?) I knew I was in the wrong place at Entertainment Weekly upon reading, “The problem is, these initiation and training scenes go on forever.” I’m not a Card fanatic, but I’m pretty confident that anyone who considers Battle Room a problem hasn’t the slightest idea what Ender’s Game fandom is about.

P.S. Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham is, in theory, an unadulterated stroke of genius. Please tell me that, unlike Russell Crowe as Javert, it also works in practice.

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