Monday, September 21, 2009

The Future of Literature: Emergence of Two Cultures

In a recent post on his blog, author Ken MacLeod, draws attention to an article by Kim Stanley Robinson (author of the Mars trilogy) about the failure of the modern literary elite to recognize the genre of science fiction as a source of some truly great works. Also highlighted is the article in the Guardian in which Booker Prize judge John Mullan makes a sad attempt at rebuttal.

Follow the links above, then move on to my comments below (also left at Ken MacLeod's site).

I'm reminded of C.P. Snow's The Two Cultures (many thanks to posts and discussions here for introducing me to the work). The natural sciences were dismissed by traditional academic elite of the day as being less important to the essence of human existence than the great works of literature that had (for centuries in many cases) served as the pillars of culture. Regardless of their role in the maintenance of our species' humanity, the Humanities cannot claim much credit for the technological progress that allows (the luckier segments of) the world to live largely free of the plagues, famines, and myriad daily inconveniences so pervasive in times past. (And as a side note, I would suggest that Humanities are at least as responsible as the Natural Sciences for all of disastrous abuses of technology that have followed its development).


I am, I'll admit, a relative new comer to SF, but it seems to me that SF is the experimentally investigative science of literature. I mean this in the sense that in SF, the author is allowed to create controlled experiments, as though he/she were working in a laboratory. The parameters can be set and altered as necessary to optimize the conditions, and then the author can follow scenario to its natural conclusion, free of many of the constraints of the outside world. Then, as the themes emerge, more and more of the outside conditions can be re-introduced, in a systematic way, until the controlled environment resembles the outside world enough to allow reasonable extrapolations based on the investigator's (author's) observations. I would think that the writing of historical novels, or most other genres of fiction, would be more akin to field observations, in which the author can follow events in great detail as they proceed, but has far less freedom to alter or shape their courses, and can therefore only ever report associations and correlations, rather than the causative relationships sought by the experimental investigator.


Perhaps this is all a bit of a stretch, but building upon the (partially implied) argument that the Natural Sciences are the vehicle by which a civilization, as a whole, may potentially progress (or destroy itself), and upon the observation that regardless of the attitudes of the literary elite about the Natural Sciences, science and technology have continued to prosper, I propose that SF is the future of literature. It will continue to grow, and regardless of whether it is recognized by the Booker Prize judges and other such experts along the way, it will become to traditional literary genres what the Natural Sciences have to the Humanities -- not a replacement, and (I hope) not a direct antagonist, but rather a separate (and ever growing) culture whose power for understanding and shaping the world forces it to be recognized, acknowledged, and embraced... even if it is never fully respected by the elitists who are left to maintain their arts in the dusty halls and paper-strewn offices of an age that has past.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: a valuable reminder

I just saw it last night. It's everything that I'd expected and more. Here's my recent FaceBook post about it:

Loved it! At least my 3rd favorite Tarantino film -- maybe even 2nd. Some of the best performances ever and no trace of fear, shame, or hesitation. A thoroughly enjoyable movie that did what it needed to do without pandering to the delicate sensibilities of the opiated masses.

War is f#*%ing ugly -- always. And nobody remains clean or innocent. Were the Nazis perpetrating horrendous crimes against humanity? Did they need to be stopped? Of course. Do I think for one minute that the righteous allied forces always kept their hands clean and fought honorably? Hah!

Also, the film did a great job of emphasizing that no matter how important you think your life might be to the grand scheme of things (or how much time and energy the director invests in developing your character), when you die, you die. That's it. End of bloody story -- for you. The frequency with which such stories reach their untimely conclusions is just dramatically increased in Tarantino films -- and in war.

I'll warn you that if you're easily offended by gruesome and violent acts, you're going to be offended. But that's all the more reason to see it. Go be horrified by it. Go feel sick and uncomfortable. Go and then wonder if you should have gone, as you try to get that icky, dirty, tainted feeling out of your mind. Go and be reminded of just how appallingly perverse humans can be when motivated by greed, lust, or power, or when forced to it by injustice, deprivation, war, and genocide.

I have performed 40 autopsies, and have seen at least five times that many more dead bodies. A fair number of them were intact and would not be likely to shock the average viewer (except perhaps for the drainage of glistening nasal fluid that is pretty much ubiquitous among corpses). Many more, however, were grotesquely mutilated -- some torn and smashed in car crashes, some riddled with bullets, some with their heads blown off by a slug from a 12-gauge shotgun, some with their throats or abdomens slit open, and some burned to a crisp (most frequently in automobile accidents). I even did autopsies on one of three people crushed by a single boulder and on a man whose head was quite literally flattened by being run over by a garbage truck.

But my point? My point is that violence and violent deaths are disgusting. Humans have, along with the capacity to commit violence, developed a wonderful distaste for witnessing the mutilation (and the consequent grisly remains) of their own kind. That visceral response that we feel, the nausea and creeping shivers up the spine when we see someone in agony or when we're faced with a mutilated corpse -- that's a highly evolved survival mechanism. We're hard-wired to react to it. The reactions vary. We might hide or fight or run away or rush to help, but react we must. It is natural and right to be offended by violence and carnage. I applaud those who feel ill or vomit during scenes of torture, rape, or execution, and my hat is off to that medical student who faints in the autopsy suite the first time he sees a scalp incised and reflected back from a shiny white scull. This is how a human should respond.

The problem with violence in movies isn't that there's too much of it. It's that there is too much casual, palatable violence. I think that the PG-13 rating is one of the worst inventions of the 20th century. To allow a violent act to be portrayed on film without portraying it in all its grisly detail is a crime of censorship. Should a child or teenager be allowed to see explicitly gruesome movies? Maybe not. But should he or she be allowed to see movies in which tens to hundreds of people are killed and hardly a drop of blood is shown? ABSOLUTELY NOT! It is such polite portayals of violence that allow us to hear daily of scores of deaths of civilians and soldiers without batting an eyelash, much less shedding a tear or vomiting our guts out in horror. It is the scenes in which the hero is tortured only to then get up again and fight another day that allows us to forget that such crimes against humanity destroy lives and leave people both physically and psychologically crippled for the rest of their lives.

Every time we see a car chase in which an innocent bystander vehicle is launched into the air, instead of getting to follow our dashing hero as he expertly maneuvers his vehicle, relatively unscathed through narrow alleys and off unfinished overpasses, we should be forced to watch that other nameless, always ignored driver as his seatbelt snaps (it does happen) and he is ejected through the windshield, nose and ears being sheered off and clavicles snapped in the process, only to be smeared across a hundred feet of pavement, leaving a trail of internal organs, blood, and fat.

Every time Jack Bower slips the blade of his $495 Microtech HALO OTF knife between some dirty terrorist's ribs, and then runs off to save his SO of the day, we should have to sit with that dirty terrorist and watch as he gasps for breath, blood pooling around him almost as quickly as it floods his pleural space, collapsing his lung. He can't get enough of a breath to scream in agony, but his eyes are wide with terror, his face streaked with tears, and he thrashes about as suffocation and exsanguination vie for those final moments of life.

And every time that same honorable and admirable Mr. Bower punches a similar (but this time captive) dirty terrorist in the face repeatedly, in an attempt to extract vital information, rather than getting to see how that information saves the day, we should get a good close look at the face of that dirty terrorist, as it has become unrecognizably distorted by bleeding lacerations, echymoses, and soft tissue swelling. We should count the broken and dislodged teeth and feel the excruciating headache-like pain that envelopes one's whole body when one sustains blunt trauma to the head. And we should stay with him over the next few hours as the subdural hematoma (from when Jack kicked his legs out from under him and slammed him to the floor) continues to grow, compressing his brain, causing loss of neural function and ultimately death.

But no, we get all the addictive adrenaline high of the action, that rush of excitement, that other highly evolved reaction (this time to threats and danger), without having to live the whole experience -- without having to also feel the nausea and anguish that is an integral part of violence. Yes, fights, car chases, epic battles, and even righteously motivated high-stress interrogation scenes are exciting, even exhilerating. Yes, I enjoy watching them too. But they are only part of the story. They're like sex without STDs or unwanted pregnancy. They're like cheeseburgers and milkshakes without obesity. They're the shot of heroin without the injection site abscess. They're the rich without the poor.

When someone says that a movie is too violent, they usually mean that it made them feel uncomfortable because it portrayed violence too explicitly, and when I hear it, it makes angry, because they are asking for censorship. They want to deny themselves the only truly valuable depiction of violence on film: the reminder of exactly what it is that we do to each other every day, through wars, crimes, and stupid, preventable car accidents!

So go see the movie already. Be sick. Vomit, if you must. Cry. Get mad. But don't you dare hide your eyes or get up and leave. If you're uncomfortable, good. Revel in the discomfort. Be grateful for it. It's part of what makes you human.

And really, Inglourious Basterds is a tremendously fun and entertaining movie. It's not all just violence and gore, but that is what you're likely to hear about from those who disparage the film.