Cultural Update: December

So I am clearly a bit late with this and also with end of year summaries. These may occur. However I will plead the fact that I have been off-line for two weeks as a mitigating factor. Anyhow, here is the latest offering, noting that the films for the month are covered elsewhere.


Lavinia Ursula Le Guin This was very readable, and a lovely re-reading of history placing women and the world of women at the centre of what is usually very male dominated history. I enjoyed it, but part of me wanted to like it more. I thought that dragged slightly in the second half, and while the Vergil conceit was interesting, I am not sure if ultimately it added much. But it was very readable and a lovely characterisation of Lavinia and the role of women.

Zero History William Gibson This was wonderful. I think I liked it even more than Spook Country, the denouement of which was slightly anti-climatic. I felt the characterisations in Zero History were wonderful; particularly the growth of Milgrim, the wonderful abrasiveness of Heidi and whats—her-name coming to find her own way through the world. I love how Gibson engages with the present but touches the future in a way which is fascinating and tantilising, but is not the ultimate point of his work. The characters and their grasp on the world is what ultimately is most important, and the story is merely the mechanism to get them there. Am looking forward to finding some time to read it again – immediately after Pattern Recognition (which I totally adored, although that might have been in part because I was teaching semiotics and the Circle of Culture at the time) and Spook Country.

Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome A favourite book from my childhood, unread for countless years (well, I probably can count them, but not going to share that information), this was read aloud to small boys – a chance to share something loved from my own childhood. Interestingly, the small boys adored it as much as I remembered loving it when I was young. A few things have to be explained as one goes; in particular the references to natives and savages (and stockings!) which provided one with the educative moment and a chance to reflect on the way culture has changed in 80 years – or even since my own childhood when those kinds of terms were not unfamiliar. But the basic story of children (including one their own age) going off to camp on an island and sail around a lake entirely by themselves for a week is still as thrilling as ever. Reading it as a parent, it is easy to see all the parental controls which have been built in, but it is interesting to ponder how many parents nowadays would let their youngsters do it. From my viewpoint, the story did not disappoint. While it is interesting to observe now how little actually happens in it, it is still very engagingly written with rather a dry wit. We are all looking forward to Swallowdale arriving from The Book Depository so we can follow on with the adventures of our favourite junior sailors.


The Walking Dead This was interesting from the start. Some people raved about it and seemed to think it was the best television ever, while others viewed it as very genre driven. I think I largely agree with {insert review} but I will offer a few thoughts of my own. The opening scenes were brilliant but then it did indeed seem to sink into genre world – waking from a coma to find a world overrun by zombies is not exactly groundbreakingly original. The zombies were brilliantly rendered, it must be said however. The mixed race group encountered in the second episode was also so totally by the numbers (as I will write about elsewhere), particularly as most of those characters barely got past a surface sketch. I was interested when [NAME] at the CIC turned up and thought that perhaps there might be a little humour entering the equation, but that didn’t really last either. I don’t have any problems with a series about zombies drawing heavily on standard genre approaches, but I would like to see it add a little more than The Walking Dead did. That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. I did. I just think it needed more purpose. Or something. And my final thought – why don’t the characters just call them zombies?!?! Surely we have to acknowledge that we have all grown up in a world where zombie imagery is rife. But there is no self-reflexiveness in The Walking Dead – which is interesting if, as reported, people like Charlie Sheen might be showing up in the next season as “walkers”. I am hoping that the next season builds on the strengths of the first (the performances were terrific for example) and leaves some of the tired cliches behind.

Doctor Who Christmas Special It was rather nice to be able to watch the Doctor Who special less than 24 hours after it had been viewed in the UK. And it was a very good one. While not detracting from the wonderfulness of David Tennant as the Doctor, I totally adore Matt Smith in the role. This special showed him at his best and was tinged by sadness in the same way that the other Christmas special which drew heavily on cultural references, Voyage of the Damned had. Clever writing and wonderful performances made this one a Christmas special to remember.


100 sci fi women #33: Odo

Before we get to the main business of this post, another list. This one is the Twelve Greatest Living Science Fiction Authors. It is clearly focussed on longeivity to some extent, and I do tend to agree with a couple of the comments who ask where is William Gibson or Neal Stephenson – but I think they would have to die to make it onto the list. Fortunately, there are a couple of women featured, though only a couple. However, it is to the creation of one of those women that we turn tonight. Also as a first, this is a character who is long dead before the book begins, but nonetheless is intrinsic to the world created.

Odo  The Dispossessed Ursula Le Guin

Odo is a thinker, an anarchist philosopher whose thoughts change a world. I loved The Dispossessed when I first read it at 15 or so, and even more when it was part of the Anarchism and Libertarianism course I did as an undergraduate. Odo develops the philosophy of Odoism which her followers use to create an anarchist society on the desolate moon Anarres. Her followers are anarchists in the true sense, seeking to establish a society which is free from rules and oppression, a place of mutual sharing and cooperation. They are reacting against the greed and corruption they see on the home planet of Urras. Largely her followers, the Odonians, succeed, and, if over the 200 years of Anarres society things develop and change and aren’t exactly perfect, this is not the fault of the visionary Odo. A female visionary and political philosopher is not something we often see in any sort of representations, and for this reason, despite the fact that she has been long dead before the start of the action in The Dispossessed, I think her place on this list is well deserved.

To make a thief, make an owner. To create crime, create laws.

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.”