No, really, why AM I superversive?

One may – or may not – be surprised to know that despite being a part of the superversive team, I have a reputation in my family as a curmudgeon. In “real life”, distinct from my writing here and other places, I am quite cynical. I tend to believe that bad news is far more likely than good; as a Catholic, like Tolkien, I believe we’re in for the long defeat.

It was my sister who posed the question to me. I don’t remember the context, but I was complaining about something or other when she looked at me and said “Why are you even part of Superversive SF, anyway”?

It’s a great question, and the answer is somewhat personal. You see, I have a secret.

A BIG secret. It’s one I really don’t like to admit out loud. But here it is:

I’m not really a cynic. I’m actually a romantic. Deep down, I believe in true love, happy endings, heroism, and miracles. Or rather, I want to believe in them. I want desperately to believe they’re true.

Of course, out here in real life, we’re living in the enemy’s world. So those things don’t happen as often as they should. But they DO happen…and more importantly, they SHOULD happen. And I don’t mean that in a pathetic way, either, like it’s a fool’s dream and I’m just not willing to face reality. I mean that the world was literally created to be better than this.

And I think that in fiction, the most powerful stories are the ones that recognize we live in this horrible, messed up, dangerous world…and that we’re destined for something better. That humanity can be better. That yes, things suck, but we have the ability to rise up and change – to live for something greater than ourselves.

And that’s the heart of superversive SF, right? That we’re out here hoping and praying and living and dying not for ourselves, but for something higher and better than us.

In a world that is often terrible and depressing we need to be reminded sometimes that there’s hope. We need to remember that hope is just as real and just as important – maybe even more important – than all of those terrible things, and that we fools who strive to be better do not strive in vain.

And we go back around again to square one. Why am I, a cynical curmudgeon who complains about things all the time and picks petty fights with people for no good reason, a member of the superversive fiction movement?

Maybe it’s because guys like me need superversion most of all.

Clearing Up Misconceptions

Looking through some of the links that have been popping up on Superversive SF lately, I feel like I might be coming off the wrong way to people. Let me try and clear things up.

Here’s the thing: The whole pulp revolution v. Superversive movement/genre debate thing? This is all fun to me. I love discussing and analyzing this stuff. It’s interesting. I get to read interesting things, talk with interesting people, and get into fun conversations with folks I have a lot of respect for.

So far, nothing I’ve written has been meanspirited. If it’s come off that way, believe me, it was unintentional – and anyway, considering how charged the whole pulp rev atmosphere tends to be I don’t even really think I’m on the more extreme end.

Anyway, the moral of the story is this: I’m not angry or upset with anyone when I write those posts unless I explicitly spell it out. Otherwise, as far as I’m concerned this has been a blast, and I hope that’s the spirit in which my posts are taken.

CASTALIA Miyazaki Retrospective: “Castle in the Sky”

Image result for castle in the skyI was going to call this a review, but considering that it’s a film from the 80’s universally considered a classic it would sort of be like writing a “review” of “Casablanca”. It’s obviously not on quite that level (though certain Miyazaki films might be – if you haven’t seen “Spirited Away”, do so right now), but you get the idea. Hayao Miyazaki is a director I heard praised so much by critics and friends I trusted that I figured I might as well try him out eventually. So I went with “Spirited Away”, his 2002 Oscar winner and widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

So was THAT particular film as good as promised?

In one word: Yes.

In two words: HELL, yes.

“Spirited Away” is what “Alice in Wonderland” should have been, adding the plot and character development “Alice” always lacked. This review isn’t for that film (though one will probably be forthcoming), so in lieu of a full explanation of what made it so great I’ll say that if you haven’t seen it…see it. Not “If you like anime”. Not “If you’re okay watching a children’s movie”. If you like films at all, see “Spirited Away”.

Okay. That out of the way, what about “Castle in the Sky”?

“Castle in the Sky” was the first film released under the acclaimed Studio Ghibli banner (“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, also considered a masterpiece, was actually NOT an official Ghibli film as many think – it was more like a test case to see if the production team could make enough money to justify a studio), and the third film by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki.

At this point, Miyazaki was already fairly well known in Japan. He was a popular manga writer and a writer/artist for several different animes. His first feature film, a Lupin III piece titled “The Castle of Cagliostro”, received mixed reviews by Lupin III fans but in later years has become widely recognized as a classic thanks to its stunning visuals and compelling action setpieces – two aspects of Miyazaki’s work that are used to full effect in “Castle in the Sky”.

Miyazaki’s second feature film, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, is the first film that made people sit up and realize what an exceptional talent they had on their hands. “Nausicaa”, like several of Miyazaki’s works, is widely considered one of the greatest animated films ever made, known – as Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films always are – for its striking visuals and fascinatingly original story. The success of the film spawned the creation of the also-legendary Studio Ghibli, an animation studio whose unbroken string of successes was at one time rivaled by only classic Disney and Pixar (all three have since diminished somewhat, alas).

So how to top that?

By creating one of the best adventure films ever made (“best ever made” is a phrase you get used to hearing with Miyazaki).

“Castle in the Sky” was both intensely familiar and like nothing I’d ever seen before. The movie feels sort of like a children’s “Indiana Jones”. The action scenes are absolutely stellar; there is a chase scene aboard a train early on in the movie that is possibly the best I’ve ever seen, and things only get crazier from there.

The plot: A young girl – somewhere between 12 and 14 – named Sheeta has been captured by the army, lead by the villainous Colonel Muska (in the English dub a wonderfully hammy Mark Hamill), who are holding her aboard their giant airship, Goliath. A family of sky pirates lead by their matriarch, Captain Dola (an ugly old crone played by a perfectly cast Chloris Leachman), attack Goliath in an attempt to kidnap Sheeta themselves; the distraction gives Sheeta a chance to escape. She slips from the airship and goes tumbling towards the earth….

…Right into the arms of Pazu, an adventurous and outgoing young orphan boy about the same age as Sheeta. For Sheeta did not fall the whole way; the crystal she carries around her neck apparently has magical powers, and it allowed Sheeta to float safely down into Pazu’s arms (who immediately almost drops her).

From there, events move at a breakneck pace, as it becomes clear that both the pirates and the army haven’t given up on finding Sheeta and stealing her crystal. Together, Pazu and Sheeta try to escape from the pirates, the army, and maybe – with luck – perhaps find Laputa, the City in the Sky of the title and the source of Sheeta’s crystal, themselves.

The movie has a sort of optimism and enthusiasm for life I don’t think I’ve ever seen replicated before. When Pazu meets Sheeta, there’s no hesitation whatsoever – he believes her story immediately and designates himself her protector with absolutely no strings attached and  no regard for his own life. The townspeople, when they realize Pazu and Sheeta are on the run, do their best to aid him – none think for a second to doubt his story or convince him to go to the police. Later, at the end of the aforementioned train scene, the army shows up. At first, Pazu and the train conductor are pleased until they see Sheeta’s terrified reaction – and then the army is an enemy. No doubt, no hesitation, no fear of reprisal.

And the amazing thing is that this is all so effortless. No attempt is made to convince you that people would act like this – it’s just assumed. At one point in the story, before a rescue attempt, Pazu yells “Sheeta means everything to me!” To be clear, Pazu met Sheeta perhaps two days ago – and the wonderful thing about this moment is that you believe him. The scene could come off as weird or creepy, but instead it’s sweet and sincere, because Miyazaki has sold you that this is the sort of world, and Pazu is the sort of person, where a relationship forged with a stranger could inspire such love and devotion.

This protective giant robot makes an impression in one of "Castle in the Sky"'s most memorable scenes.

“Wait, you mean a giant robot took on the army and this WASN’T worth mentioning to you?”

As good as the action scenes are – and they really are remarkable – the relationship between Pazu and Sheeta is perhaps the best part of the film. There’s never one big romantic gesture – never the Big Damn Kiss – but it’s tons of little things throughout the movie that all add up to one of the best movie romances I’ve ever seen. And between twelve year olds!

If there is one moment  that I had to pick to convince somebody that “Castle in the Sky” is worth watching, it would be this one:

Pazu and Sheeta have just landed in Laputa for the first time, having barely survived a horrible storm. They are alone, on top of a sort of outcropping and tied together (as a safety precaution from the flight – if one fell out, the other can hold onto them).

They decide to go and look down at Laputa for the first time, but Sheeta is unable to undo the knot binding them. So instead of waiting, Pazu simply picks her up and carries her over to the edge of the outcropping. With Sheeta in his arms, they stare in awe at the City in the Sky for the first time, a breathtakingly gorgeous view of a crumbling castle overtaken by nature, clouds drifting through the scene almost like ghosts. The two take a moment to simply stare, as Joe Hisaishi’s incredible score plays in the background

And that’s Miyazaki in a nutshell. It’s a small act of love transforming an already visually stunning scene into something quietly transcendent.

And that, my friends, is the very definition of superversive.

 

laputa 13 (1200x647)

No Genre Purity Tests!

I want to make my position on genre and its blurring and all of that more clear.

I’ll refer to hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi and fantasy and science fiction and books and movies that blur genres. I’ll cheerfully refer to something as a fantasy with sci-fi trappings or something that acts like hard SF but is really squishy soft (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).

But maybe people get the wrong impression from this. This is all an interesting academic exercise to me, really. It’s not a value judgment. “Star Wars” is squishy soft sci-fi, yes. It’s so soft that many argue it’s a fantasy in sci-fi trappings, which I can get behind.

And “The Empire Strikes Back” is still a better movie than “The Martian”, and I am a huge fan of  “The Martian”. “A Wrinkle in Time” is still a better book than “I, Robot” or “Starship Troopers”, and I love all three of those books.

Not being hard sci-fi really, really isn’t a mark of shame to me. It’s not anything. It’s just a classification into a category. It’s taxonomy. Some hard SF sucks. Some soft sci-fi sucks. Some fantasy sucks. And some of all of those things is awesome. It’s just the way it is.

So when people ask me “Why are you so concerned about genres, then?” my response is really “Well I’m not!”. But other people sure seem to be. In fact, you know who seems to be the most concerned about genre?

The pulp revolution guys.

(Shots fired!)

And I get it. I really do. In the old pulp days, genres were mixed in ways that people don’t really think about today, what with our split between sci-fi and fantasy. And it’s good to get back to that.

But where I disagree in this case is that I believe the way to do that is NOT to deny sub-genres exist. That does nothing. It causes pointless arguments and – frankly – makes you look kind of silly when you start to claim things that are obviously real don’t exist (*cough cough*).

Because I’m seeing this: On one hand, it’s “Write what you want! Write what you want!”

And on the other hand it’s “But also, this particular sub-genre is inherently worse than this one and if you write it you’re limiting yourself. But, hey, write what you want!”

No. My philosophy is this:

Write what you want. But remember the Josh Young principle:

A good science fiction story will look upward, towards the stars and away from the self.

A bad science fiction story will fixate downward, towards the ground and focus on the self.

If we keep that in mind, the bigger issues surrounding all of this will correct themselves.

So what were we talking about again?

Amidst this discussion between Daddy Warpig and Jeffro there seems to be a lot of confusion. I’m going to attempt to clarify what, exactly, I’m trying to say and why.

Disclaimer: My views are NOT the official views of Superversive SF. I don’t even necessarily represent colleague Josh Young, though we probably overlap a lot. My views are mine, and mine alone.

Without further ado…

Where we agree:

  • Sci-fi writers from the 20’s and 30’s have disappeared down the memory hole. According to the pulp rev guys, this is John W. Campbell’s fault, along with his futurian buddies. I don’t know why, but I agree that it happened.
  • We should bring back the style of fiction common in that era – we’ll call it pulp as a shorthand.
  • It would be great if people started creating more pulp works – not necessarily because they have to, but because that style fell out of favor and it would be cool to see more of it.
  • There is an era of pre-Campbellian SF that is hugely disrespected by a large portion of readers, where many rumors and misconceptions abound. We should strive to correct those errors.
  • People shouldn’t be overly concerned about bending genres as long as doing so improves their story.

Where – it seems to me – we disagree:

  • Hard SF exists. This is so obvious it’s amazing we’re actually discussing it.
  • There is nothing wrong with hard SF, and nothing about it makes it inferior to other types of SF. The only problem with hard SF is when it is not superversive, or more accurately when it is entirely anti-superversive. Hard SF was created under people who weren’t superversive, so early work in this sub-genre is naturally not well representative of the sub-genre’s potential, but great strides have been made; besides the work of John C. Wright “The Martian” has a strong superversive streak and “Interstellar” is one of the most superversive movies ever.
  • Hard SF is not synonymous with science fiction. If this were true, then how come – as was often pointed out to me – hard SF never sold particularly well when other stuff did? Clearly people write stuff besides hard SF.
  • When Campbell and his writers brought hard SF to the fore, it naturally became a reference point for other works – how hard or soft is your work? This DOES NOT mean that only hard SF was considered real SF. That was never the case; hard SF was really only a popular sub-genre during a very brief point in history.
  • Isaac Asimov’s opposition to heroic fiction is repulsive, but his robot stuff, especially up to “The Caves of Steel”, rocked. Just sayin’.
  • There is nothing inherently wrong with books that involve smart men thinking their way out of difficult problems. It’s not a weakness in and of itself, just when done badly, like anything else. Agatha Christie, who built a career on smart men thinking their way out of difficult problems, is proof of this.
  • The biggest problem in science fiction and fantasy today is not lack of appreciation for pulps, but lack of the superversive.
  • The distinction between red and blue SF is not one based on quality, but personal preference. Red is not inherently superior to blue.
  • Yes, you think red is inherently superior to blue. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Does this make sense? I think this is fair.

Men With Screwdrivers and Men With Magnifying Glasses

In the spirit of moving the discussion off site and getting readers moving back and forth, I offer you Jeffro’s excellent review of A.E. Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer”…and a comment on one of the main points of difference between the superversive movement vs. the pulp revolution movement (I said something similar in the comments to the post; this is an expansion).

From Jeffro:

The “hero” of the story isn’t really the Hari Seldon-like Elliot Grosvenor. Granted, the guy has a knack for navigating the tedious and byzantine bureaucracy that encysts almost any sufficiently complex STEM-related activity. But the real “star” here is Nexialism, a sort of meta-science that allows this guy to be way more insightful than the stodgy and blinkered scientists of his space collective.

I’m sure that this seemed like a really good idea at the time. And the resolution here is way more developed than the typical “reverse the polarity” and “re-route a phase inducer” tricks of science fiction television. But really smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems is only ever going to be just so compelling. Nevertheless, the heavy and the setting do manage to overcome this inherent weakness of the unrestrained Campbellian ethos.

Okay. Let’s pretend we’re not reading science fiction for a moment. What sort of fiction is made up mostly of “smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems?”

Anybody?

Give up yet?

Yeah. It’s detective fiction.

If you want to categorize more specifically here (like Campbellian vs. pulp sci-fi), we can talk about Agatha Christie style detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes stories were as much or more adventure tales as mysteries, though there were certainly “Men with magnifying glass” varieties of Sherlock Holmes as well – see “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”). Christie is famous/notorious for ending her mysteries by gathering all of the subjects in one room as her detective marches around and explains all of the clues you missed that point to the killer. Her most famous story and her masterpiece, “And Then There Were None”, has only the most lightly sketched characters, and the setting might as well be random. There is little to no action in the entire story. It is notable for one and only one thing: Its brilliant, mind-bogglingly ambitious, and incredibly shocking plot. And coming from a fan of that book – yes, it lives up to its promise. It’s a brilliant book. And if you take away the plot, there’s just about nothing to recommend it except maybe atmosphere, which Conan Doyle was better at anyway.

“Well,” sez pre-Christie-ites, “What character is more famous, huh? Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie’s clone of Sherlock Holmes? Answer me that, smart guy!”

Sure, okay, you can make that argument. But you’ll also need to explain why Agatha Christie is the bestselling fiction author of all time* along with Shakespeare, and, by the way, ahead of J.K. Rowling.

So what is the point of all of this? I can hear the complaints now – “Wait, so you’re denying we have a problem? Didn’t you see the sales numbers? Are you denying that the pulp works have been shoved down a hole? Are you saying you don’t want to see a revival of pulp works? Do you just hate fun? Huh?”

(Okay, those last two are a bit over the top, but the others are variations of questions I’ve been asked virtually every time I disagree in some manner with one of the pulp revolutionaries.)

Well, no, I’m not saying any of those things. I’m just saying – be careful not to extrapolate personal taste into objective fact. What you might consider to be an Obviously Worse tic of a certain style of books may well be exactly what somebody else loves about it. Because apparently smart guys thinking their way out of difficult problems is something people do like to watch quite a bit after all.

Go figure.

*In case you were wondering, the highest rated sci-fi writer on the list is Stephen King, followed by R.L. Stine, Roald Dahl (of course he was a sci-fi writer; what else is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?), and then, yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The highest rated fantasist is Rowling, naturally.

Anthony’s Notes: “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Corey already did an excellent review, so this is just my personal impressions after having just finished the film.

“Howl’s Moving Castle”, going by reviews and the Rotten Tomatoes score, is considered “lesser Miyazaki”, as Corey said. This utterly baffles me. Thus far in the Miyazaki retrospective it’s one of my favorite films.

I think it’s that people miss the point of it. I’ve seen people criticize the ending before; “Howl’s” ends on a  happily ever after note after several scenes that seem to make such an ending completely impossible. Some people thought it was a cheat, or a cliche, or a cop-out.

This is because they do not understand fairy tales. Fairy tales end in two ways: They either have grotesque endings (see much of the Brothers Grimm if you want examples of those), or they have happy endings. That’s it; there’s no in-between ending for a fairy tale, no “mostly happy” ending. Fairy tales exist to make a particular point: True love conquers all. Work hard and persevere and the universe will reward you. Be lazy or evil and suffer horrible consequences.

And the point of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is that Sophie’s love for the people of Howl’s Castle, and Howl’s love for Sophie, redeemed and saved them all. That’s the message, and to not give it a fully happy ending you lessen it. People who argue that it’s overly simplistic don’t understand what Miyazaki was doing. When you look at the ending of “Howl’s Moving Castle” from the perspective of the fairy tale, it not only succeeds, it succeeds brilliantly. The ending couldn’t be more perfect.

Some criticize the story as over-complicated. I suppose that’s a matter of taste; I was never at a loss as to what was happening. Some of the stuff that happened to Sophie near the end of the film seemed to come sort of out of nowhere, but again, it’s a fairy tale; in fairy tales, a certain amount of coincidence or randomness is allowed so long as it services the main point – like the animals in “Cinderella” coming together to help Cinderella with her chores.

And yes, the anti-war message was more simplistic than it was in “Princess Mononoke”, but fairy tales exist to make simple points, and there’s no denying that the imagery of Howl’s transformation into a hideous bird-monster was powerfully effective.

The film was not as good as “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. It didn’t have the moral or metaphysical depth of either of those films. But looked at from the perspective of what Miyazaki was attempting to accomplish, it was a smashing, brilliant success, and for that reason – to me, anyway – it is not only NOT lesser Miyazaki, but in fact stands as one of his very best films.