Monthly Cultural Round Up: September

Another month has come around so quickly, and the Christmas decorations are well and truly in the shops. Life suddenly got very busy when the election was decided, so the cultural intake has been a little bit on the light side, but not completely absent. So here we go.

Books

Cobweb Neal Stephenson and Fredrick George So I had been meaning to read this book for years, but, in typical fashion has seen it once in a bookstore, not bought it, then never seen it again. However, friendship came to the rescue and I borrowed it. As a big big Neal Stephenson fan in general, and a lover of Interface, I was a little disappointed in Cobweb. It had many of the elements of Stephenson’s work with the intricate web of relationships and interactions, the sardonic humour and believable yet outrageous scenario, but somehow I found it just didn’t quite gel as well as his best works. it is hard to quite put my finger on what it was, but while most of the elements were good, somehow the sum of the parts were in fact more than the whole.

Films

Scott Pilgrim Vs the World Because I am no longer the person with my finger on the pulse of the whole movie industry I once was (oh, those were the days, reading Variety for work purposes…any, I digress), I didn’t really know a great deal about this film when I went to see it, but it seemed like a good idea. So I enjoyed it and had a few giggles and, interestingly, the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. I thought it used its little quirky bits well, without becoming obsessively gimicky, and had a nice combination of clever humour, and totally stupid humour. One has to laugh, a lot, at the depiction of Veganism as the source of super powers. It managed to avoid pretension, and, best of all, had a totally awesome soundtrack. That was worth the price of admission alone.

Kea Festival – NZ short films I have always had a fondness for short films which are well done – unlike short stories, but that is a completely different story. There is something about the way that a short film can capture an idea, or present a vignette which is clever and magical. Especially when they don’t try too hard to be a mini feature film. I guess it is about embracing the form. There were some excellent examples amongst this group of films – the very first, short film which showed a lake in NZ really captured what I am talking about. So too did This is Her: it used the form brilliantly, although you could critique it from a feminist perspective – placing the blame on women for relationship breakdowns and leaving men as bystanders in the dramas of their own lives. I was also really taken by O Tamaiti even though it did move rather more into the mini-feature film territory. I was less excited by The Six Dollar Fifty Man, but I guess nothing pleases everyone all the time – too much hand held camera work for me. Some of the 100% Pure New Zealand short films were just a little too much like advertisements, but I guess that was what they were trying to be, so I can’t really complain too much!

Television

Jericho season 1 I had been meaning to watch this for a long time and finally got around to dragging out the DVDs. It starts really well and has such an interesting premise and the approach to how a small community reacts to the crisis of a nuclear war is very interesting. The early part of the season, with the sense of isolation and the search to find a new social order are really interesting. Unfortunately some of the mid  season got a bit too distracted by personal dramas and side plots. The end of the season didn’t feel too satisfactory and some of the motivations involved were a bit unclear. It will be interesting to see whether season 2 clears any of it up. So worth watching, but not the most outstanding television ever.

Internet

The Guild This was a recommendation from Twitter, and naomieve in particular. So I watched an episode…and was totally addicted. Starring and written by Felicia Day, it is 4 seasons of 7 minute episodes which are very funny and rather silly but totally entertaining. Although I am not a player of MMOs, as a RL, old skool D&D player, many of the ideas, concepts, characters and obsessions are completely familiar. I am now just sad I have exhausted all episodes… And if you want to catch up, try here.

Monthly cultural round up: August

This month’s culture quota was added to by a week at home with a dodgy neck, which included a trip to the Dendy Premium as a place where I could be reclined for two hours while the cleaner came. It is a hard life sometime.

Movies

The Ghost Writer I knew very a little about the film going in, but it was the film which was on at Dendy Premium at the most convenient time, so I went and saw it. Having Ewan McGregor and Olivia Williams (who I completely love as Adelle DeWitt)  in it certainly gave it a good start, and it must be said that I do love a good suspense thriller. Not quite Hitchcock, but entertaining enough and beautifully filmed. it did have that vague sense of confusion and unease which we like to see in a good thriller, if ultimately it wasn’t quite as thrilling as it could be. Disposable entertainment, but enjoyable.

Books

Interface Neal Stephenson and Frederick George This was a reread, and it was entertaining to read it as the Australian election was going on. Even though it was written quite some years ago, many of the ideas are still very current, and, during this election, the whole question of the entirely focus-grouped campaign was very relevant. The book handled the transition between humour and politics and drama well, and is quite a compelling read. Didn’t suffer from a re-read.

Imperial Bedrooms Brett Easton Ellis This took me very little time to read and I enjoyed it the way one “enjoys” Brett Easton Ellis. Suffused with paranoia and nihilism, it was a sketch of a person with no moral centre, and selfishness to the core. Reading it felt like slipping back into a very familiar yet totally alien world. Understanding it is enhanced by having read his other books, not for actual events, but for the emotional tone.

Television

Dead Set This was absolutely wonderful television, clever, funny, scary, dramatic, well acted and well scripted. We watched the entire series in one sitting and then watch a bunch of the extras on the DVD, something we rarely do. The characterisations were great, and I thought it was interesting that in the end it was the women who were the strongest and most decisive characters. A must see for zombie fans, and for anyone who enjoys excellent television and can cope with a bit of gore.

Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.

We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.

Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.

While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….

So what’s it about now?

Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….

All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.


100 sci fi women #46: Cord

I am currently re-reading Intervention which reminded me of a character I wanted to capture from another Neal Stephenson novel. So we are still on the literary characters for the moment folks.

Cord Anathem Neal Stephenson

Cord may not have the gift for pure mathematics that her half brother Fraa Erasmus does, but she is smart, talented and practical. Cord’s work as an artisan, as someone who can make and repair parts of the clock which is central to the lives of the Concent. Her skills and abilities make the monks dependent on her and people like her. She is also a pioneer within her own society; as she points out, she is the only woman in the artisan workshop where she works, and facing difficulties and discrimination because of that. She is bold and adventurous and willing to take risks. She is loyal to her sib, and she is important in helping to achieve the things he needs to achieve. She is strong in the face of fear, willing to be the one who opens an unknown spaceship. She is also never without her tools.  Her personality, wit and defiance make her an engaging and wonderful character, a practical, capable woman who makes things work.

Cord drew a wrench from the thing she was wearing, which seemed more harness than garment, as its chief purpose was to secure tools to her body, She released three vises put the wrench back in its ordained pocket, threw back her shoulders, bent her knees, made her spine long, raised her hands, and clasped them around two prongs of this thing she had made. It came up off the table. She carried it down off the machine as if it was a cat rescued from a tree…

For a feminist discussion of Anathem, see here at Feminist SF.

100 science fiction women #28: Margarita Nikolaevna

Ok, so I have been inattentive. but here I am now. And my list for the day is again from city of tongues (thanks James) and is 100 Top Science Fiction/Fantasy books. While there are a number of my very favourite books on the list, like The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin and The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, I think that the list is more a reflection of the writer’s 100 favourite books, leaving out as it does a number of significant authors and featuring so many books by the same author. But who said lists need to be objective? And it does provide further food for rumination. Tonight’s edition of this list involves a book I had been meaning to read for years, and have just finished, and so to….

Margarita Nikolaevna The Master and Margarita Mikhail Bulgakov

You know you are reading Russian literature when the eponymous Margarita doesn’t appear until the second half of the book (and the Master appears hardly at all). But discussion of the nature of literature aside, Margarita represents an interesting character in this book, as one of the few characters the Devil on his visit to Moscow does not treat extremely badly. Margarita is unhappy, separated from her love and lover, the Master, living in a marriage which, will financially beneficial and to, it would seem, a pleasant enough (but non-appearing) character, does not involve love. She is driven by love for the Master and her desire to be reunited with him, but even though this overrides her actions, she is willing to use the opportunity to ask for anything to beg the Devil to end the eternal torment of a dead ghost who is haunted by the child she killed. Margarita understands the desperation which drove this young woman to her crime, and asks the right question – what of the man who made her pregnant and left her abandoned – is he made to suffer as she does. Willing to embrace adventure if it leads her from her unfulfilling life and towards the Master, she rides a broom naked and invisible through the streets of Moscow. Full of passion she destroys the house of the critic who broke the will of the Master, overcome by rage and yet her compassion stills her hand when she sees the fear she creates in a young boy. She is unafraid of the strangeness and possible danger of her role as the hostess for the Devil, and will take on the pain and discomfort involved to meet the Master again.

Margarita’s breath was taken away, and she was about to utter the cherished words prepared in her soul, when she suddenly turned pale, opened her mouth and stared: “Freida!…Freida, Frieda!” someone’s importunate, imploring voice cried in her ears, “my name is Frieda.”


100 Sci Fi women #8: Nell

There is another list I have been pointed to kindly by Matthew about science fiction by women and people of colour, which has added a whole bunch of new books to the “to read” list. Check it out for yourself here. Its focus is authors rather than characters, so my character list continues below.

Nell   The Diamond Age Neal Stephenson

Nell is a little girl who starts her life with poverty and abuse, unprotected save for the love of her big brother Harv who wants something better for her and her trusty companions Dinosaur, Duck, Peter and Purple. Her entire life changes when Harv brings her home a copy of a book, which is in fact a massively powerful learning computer, which educates her and leads her into another life (the moment she meets the book can be found here). Nell learns to think and fight and lead others through her interaction with the book, and her natural compassion is nurtured. But the Primer would not have helped Nell without her innate curiousity, intelligence and willingness to learn, as we see when she is compared to the others who use the Primer. Nell is special, and her story is one of growing up and learning and the value and importance of education. But most importantly, Nell ends as she begins, a brave girl and then woman, who takes on and accepts the challenges of life.

...though Princess Nell had become so beautiful over the years and had developed such a fine bearing that few people would mistake her for a commoner now, even is she were dressed in rags and walking barefoot.

Lying in her bunkbed in Madame Ping’s dormitory, reading these words from a softly glowing page in the middle of the night, Nell wondered softly at that. Princesses were not genetically different from commoners.