Posts Tagged ‘genre’

The initial trailer for the film adaptation (and I use this term loosely) of Max Brooks’ 2006 novel World War Z premiered last week. I’ll get to my take on it in a minute, but the most noticeable and interesting thing about the trailer’s release was the amount of negative backlash toward it from fans of the book. From what I saw on twitter, comments on the trailer’s youtube, and elsewhere, the level of discontent from fans was (is?) at levels I think of as usually reserved for older, or at least more, I dunno, “canonical” books and characters (Beowulf and certain adaptations of Alan Moore come immediately to mind).  Not that some genre fans don’t get all uppity about even the slightest changes made when their beloved, recent texts are translated to film, and often understandably so, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the level of ongoing hatred toward a film that, to be honest, looks like it could be quite good.

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about science fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, horror, and the like, and who is a fan of said genres, I understand being nitpicky about changes made and pointing out why they make sense or don’t. I am also a huge fan of Brooks’ novel, and have taught it in a college Intro to Fiction course with great success. I’m sympathetic to gripes about changes, but the people condemning the film entirely are going too far in a way that makes them look like foolish Star Wars dorks. Here’s why: There’s absolutely NO WAY you could create a faithful film adaptation of this book (as Arleigh over at Through the Shattered Lens rightly notes, this faithful version would need to be done as a serial on [cable] TV). It’s just not possible. Additionally, since the film began production and info about it started being leaked, fans of the novel who were paying attention have known about certain changes and should probably be resigned to a very different story than the one they loved.

So, to my mind, the bulk of loudmouth, purist fans trashing a film they haven’t seen are engaging in a kind self-important rhetoric without any real function beyond proving that they read it first and are “better” genre fans than those who are willing to say they’ll see the film with an open mind and may even like it.  They posture that they won’t even watch it but will spend hours online telling everyone else why it will be so awful.  They’re kind of like the kid back in school who knew everything about Star Wars or Harry Potter or whatever and who lived for being a genre pedant who talked down to you and ruined it for everyone else.  Such behavior is reactionary and dumb and fundamentally anti-fun.

That said, I would argue that the film version of World War Z, so far as the trailer lets on,does deviate significantly enough from the novel that it would be right, or at least in better faith, to retitle it something else with a sub-title explaining “inspired by Max Brooks’ World War Z” (an argument I’d also make, though more emphatically, for the poorly titled, Will Smith vehicle I am Legend).  Or, even better, let it slip into more fictional territory and say: “Based on the true accounts of the zombie war as told in Max Brooks’ World War Z.” To nitpick a bit, the title actually was already apparently changed to omit the subtitle “An Oral History of the Zombie War.” And I’m actually surprised that Brooks didn’t push for something like this given that the entire structure of the storytelling (ie, the multivocal, Studs Terkel-inspired, interview format) seems to have been replaced or sidelined in favor of a pretty standard action, hero’s p.o.v. format.  That and retaining the title as “new” for the possibility of doing it in the novel’s style via a serialized, episodic TV format down the road.  But I guess WWZ is a catchy title, so I won’t let this usage ruin my potential for enjoying the film they are actually making.

So, here’s the trailer.  A few thoughts on it vis-a-vis the novel after the cut:

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A friend recently published a smart review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go.   You should go read it.  Her review and questions, along with my less-than-clear recollection of various aspects of the book, led me to revisit it this weekend, and what follows are some loosely-organized critical thoughts on the book.

Everything after this assumes the reader has read the book, which has a major plot element withheld in the beginning chapters.  This thing is probably better left unknown if you are reading it for the first time, so don’t read this if you are planning on picking it up.  Also, what follows will  not be a proper review with any attempt at synopsis or the like, so don’t expect that you’ll follow if you haven’t read it.

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Commissioned and ready long before he left us.

Shortly after hearing the news of Ray Bradbury’s death yesterday morning, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a tribute/obituary.  I passed on the opportunity.  This was partly because my schedule would not permit me to quickly write and publish anything that would do him justice, but it was also because I hadn’t fully thought through what Bradbury’s legacy means.

Despite thinking a bit about Bradbury’s work all day yesterday, I’m still not sure I have a grasp on this latter point.  I read a fair number of mainstream obits/tributes last night (I’ve so far avoided SF sites and fanpages) and none seem to get it right.  I do, however, know what they get wrong.  A number of writers, most memorably to me this writer at Slate who professes to be a “sci-fi nerd” (and has issues with how to use “however” properly), are falling over themselves trying to distance Bradbury from science fiction as a genre.  This is the same thing that happened when J.G. Ballard died–people thinking they are doing  a deceased writer a service by situating him as a serious writer of so-called “literary fiction” instead of that low-brow crap they call “genre fiction.”  In the wake of Ballard’s death, Ursula K. Le Guin rebuked this tendency in a manner I could never hope to replicate, so I’ll just point you toward her piece “Calling Utopia a Utopia.”  I’d love to see the same type of reply from her on the reception to Bradbury’s passing. (As a side note, Le Guin spoke on Bradbury here in Eugene at the public library not long ago as part of the NEA’s Big Read, which featured Fahrenheit 451 as the primary text.  She cares about that book and about talking straight about genre fiction.)

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Thoughts on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake by way of wilderness and post-apocalyptic genre traditions
"Snowman wakes before dawn"

“Snowman wakes before dawn” – Oryx and Crake fan art by Jason Courtney
More images: http://www.perdador.com/f6update/illustration_f9.html

I gave a guest lecture yesterday on Oryx and Crake for a colleague’s 200-level Environmental Literature course.  My presentation was organized around the ways that the book participates in genres, challenges some of  their conventions, and updates the “classic” dystopia (WeBNW, 1984, et cetera) by moving the locus of power from the centralized state to a more nebulous net of corporations and their mercenaries.

Because nearly any lower-level survey of environmental literature will necessarily include readings drawn from the mostly-American, white male-dominated, wilderness tradition, my prep also involved looking for ways to connect what is going on in Oryx and Crake with those texts that students had recent familiarity with.  I’m not sure how well the lecture worked in setting this up, but the result was something that, in retrospect, seems quite obvious.  However, I hadn’t previously fleshed it out, which was kind of weird (I guess wilderness writing hasn’t been on my mind much recently).  My main take away point is this:  Post-apocalyptic protagonists share a number of traits with protagonists or narrators of the wilderness genre.  This has interesting implications for connecting a reading of Snowman in Oryx and Crake to both genres.

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At the prompting of a friend, I read this Slate review of Jane Rogers’s The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award.  I have yet to read the book, but in a brief note thanking my friend for the heads-up I couldn’t help but add:

“The Slate reviewer really should know better than to use “sci-fi” as a shorthand for “science fiction” if she wants people who read the genre to not dismiss her opinion offhand.”

Snarky? Nitpicky? Maybe. However, I doubt most regular readers of science fiction who have followed the genre for a while would not also notice the usage in the review, which implicates the  author as somewhat unaware of the genre’s history (and, as my response implies, therefore maybe not particularly qualified to review the book?).**   The term “sci-fi” is contentious for many people who write and read science fiction, and when they use it, it is often aimed at “low-brow,” space-opera stuff.  Wikipedia has a reasonably good summary of the history of the term in the article on Science Fiction:

As science fiction entered popular culture, writers and fans active in the field came to associate the term with low-budget, low-tech “B-movies” and with low-quality pulp science fiction.[39][40][41] By the 1970s, critics within the field such as Terry Carr and Damon Knight were using sci-fi to distinguish hack-work from serious science fiction,[42] and around 1978, Susan Wood and others introduced the pronunciation “skiffy“. Peter Nicholls writes that “SF” (or “sf”) is “the preferred abbreviation within the community of sf writers and readers”.[43]David Langford‘s monthly fanzine Ansible includes a regular section “As Others See Us” which offers numerous examples of “sci-fi” being used in a pejorative sense by people outside the genre.[44] The abbreviation SF (or sf) is commonly used instead of “sci-fi”.

So, people within the science fiction “community” saw that “sci-fi” was being used in the mainstream to label and discuss the genre; simultaneously they noticed that the genre was seen as trashy, juvenile, escapist, et cetera by this same mainstream (at least in part because a bunch of it, like any other genre, actually was all of these things, which is not necessarily a bad thing). So the response to this, rather than anything more nuanced, was to distinguish between “science fiction” (or “SF”) and “Sci-Fi.”  The former is serious and important (or at least tries to be).  The latter looks something like this:

Note that one of the authors featured in this issue is also mentioned in the wikipedia entry cited above.

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A friend recently proposed an interesting exercise in hypothetical course design where one must select a single American novel for each decade of the 20th century to create a teachable arc for the century (and justify said choices).  Given my own interest in genre, I figured I’d adopt/adapt it for utopian/dystopian fiction (dropping the “American” requirement) to see what kind of survey of the genre I might teach (and what works I’d be willing to drop per only having one choice per decade).  The difficult part about conceptualizing this as an actual course is there is no way I would be able to teach this without starting with More’s Utopia and some other relevant earlier texts (Campanella? Bellamy and Morris? Wells? etc.) or doing a bunch of work up front introducing literary utopias via describing those works that lead up to what is really the dystopian turn in the genre that takes place at the beginning of the 20th century.  Not that I couldn’t do the latter, but I’d much  rather have students at least read More to begin.

That problem aside, I’ve still tried to follow a structure that makes sense for how an actual course might play out: works build on previously read works to allow for connections to be made, I begin with shorter texts rather than hitting students with something big and hard to start, and finish with less time-intensive texts so that students in the midst of final papers and finals prep would hopefully still make time for them.

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When the gods do it, it is horrific and epic in scale.  But when characters in post-apocalyptic fiction are driven to it by circumstances, it is almost always laughably unbelievable.

Saturn Devouring His Son (c. 1819–1823) - Goya

Spoilers for Bodeen’s The Compound, McCarthy’s The Road, and a few other things follow, if you care.  Post also contains unapologetic and practical considerations of cannibalism with no moral/ethical judgment on those who eat others to survive.

Reading S.A. Bodeen’s YA post-apocalyptic novel The Compound, I was annoyed at how poorly handled and unrealistic one of the central horrors of the story was.  It’s an otherwise decent read (though with a predictable “twist”), but it is bogged down with a central motif that just doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

The author sketches a somewhat preposterous scenario where survivors of a supposedly apocalyptic event, confined to a well-stocked compound, eventually begin to run low on food stores and contemplate killing and eating their “surrogates” to survive.  These surrogates are genetic clones of our survivors and have been bred through in-vitro fertilization by way of the evil genius science guy antagonist and brought to term (rapidly) by a quasi-surrogate mother (she’s their real genetic mom too–the horror!).  The lurid situation and moral quandary, then, is supposedly that these surrogate babies are not just real people, but also siblings/children.

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