2015 in Review: Adventure Genres and Others
by Cynthia Ward
by Cynthia Ward
"Is Everyone in This Movie Gay Except James Bond?" (Film and Television)
I finally watched some James Bond movies that weren't the execrable Moonraker, which I saw upon its release in 1979. It inspired decades of Bond avoidance. But some months ago, Joe and I watched the Sean Connery Bond movies from the 1960s. They are uneven, but can be entertaining when you're not being subject to racism (say, Connery in brownface), or noting that Bond's interactions with Miss Moneypenny might flirt with workplace harassment, or observing the creepiness of his interludes with some of the other women characters (No. Don't. Oh, James, when will I see you again?). They're the answer to the question "Is Mad Men an accurate reflection of the early-1960s white Western male mindset?"
Surely the most quoted Bond movie is Goldfinger (1964), with its witty dialogue and largely coherent plot. However, the sexuality comes off nowadays as distinctly odd. While viewing Goldfinger, I asked Joe: "Is everyone in this movie gay except James Bond?" By the end, you can argue at least one other character is straight (at least, that's the only way I can make sense of Pussy Galore's eventual behavior). At any rate, I expect my interpretation of the sexuality bears little resemblance to the creators' intentions.
Goldfinger would have been our pick for best James Bond movie, but a fellow heathen told us the best is actually Skyfall, starring Daniel Craig. We were dubious, since we'd found his Bond movie Quantum of Solace brutally unwatchable or unwatchably brutal (take your pick). But Skyfall takes the James Bond universe seriously, and in doing so creates a seriously good movie, with a distinctly cyberpunk feel. The writers even devise a vaguely reasonable reason for Bond and Moneypenny's flirtatious relationship. Afterward, when you think about the plot, you start saying "wait a minute" about various aspects; but when you're watching, the movie's got hold of you as ruthlessly as a science fiction novel with great world-building.
Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't get nearly so firm a grip on its viewers, so I spent much of my viewing time wondering. I wondered why a character named Khan was an Anglo-Saxon Englishman. I wondered why "primitive" people are disrespected as superstitious savages where a technologically advanced religious people would be respected. I wondered why sprinkling a few nonwhite characters on the plot is supposed to represent diversity. I wondered why the plot didn't make sense. And I wondered why the movie focused on raising the low maturity level of Kirk, when Spock's emotional thawing was not only the more compelling plot strand, but directly related to a major character's death.
It's typical for Western production companies to make movies about how an issue involving an oppressed group affects the oppressors--and, sure enough, you find a Great White Savior character in 12 Years a Slave (drawn from history, according to Slate: (http://primary.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/10/17/_12_years_a_slave_true_story_fact_and_fiction_in_mostly_accurate_movie_about.html). Also, slavery was often worse than the horrors portrayed in this movie, but if you've got a trigger, it will be triggered by this movie. If these facts don't keep you away, 12 Years a Slave is tremendous, and very nearly unbearable in its witness to nightmarish history. It's astonishing the Academy awarded it any of the Oscars it deserved (it won three and was nominated for nine [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/awards]).
Another excellent movie which is very nearly unbearable in its retelling of a true story--the 2008 death by cop of Oscar Grant III (powerfully portrayed by Michael B. Jordan)--is Fruitvale Station. It follows a day in the life of a young man on the eve of a new year, a good man who's made some unwise decisions but has decided to turn things around. He's ready to drive to San Francisco with his girlfriend (played by the terrific Melonie Diaz) and getting ready to propose, but a last-minute decision changes everything. I wouldn't say this movie hits as many triggers as 12 Years a Slave. But it will make you want to scream with frustration and rage.
Turning to lighter movies, The Lunch Box first came to my attention when it controversially wasn't submitted by India for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Watching The Lunch Box revealed the merits of the controversy. It's the fictional story of how a misdelivered lunchbox brings together an unhappy young wife and mother and an unhappy older widower in Mumbai. The characters don't meet in the film, and the ending is open. I have my opinion of what happens next, but I leave it to you to decide for yourself when you see this delicate, wise, and wonderful film.
Belle is a biographical film about Dido Elizabeth Belle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_Elizabeth_Belle), the mixed-race natural daughter of an English admiral, raised by the family of the Lord Chief Justice who would issue the two rulings that ended slavery in England. His role in history is a powerful part of the movie, but the focus remains on the title character. However, the presence of a romantic triangle involving the adult Dido makes the film feel a little schematic, at least when viewed shortly after The Lunch Box. However, Belle is a strong film, with a fine script and excellent acting, particularly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the actress who portrays the title lead, and the romantic triangle beats many I've seen over the years: it presents Dido with two genuinely compelling choices.
A more recent film based on British history is Suffragette, which explores the violent struggle for the women's vote, and reverts to the baseless idea that everyone in historical England was white (http://metro.co.uk/2015/10/12/suffragette-is-good-for-white-feminism-bad-for-intersectionality-5429548/). Also, if you think you'll see a lot of Meryl Streep as the firebrand political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, you'll be disappointed. In many ways, though, Suffragette is an excellent movie. And, while the main character is fictional, the most shocking scene in the movie happened, and can be witnessed in a newsreel if you're able to bear watching the awful death of a real person (http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/jun/01/suffragette-emily-davison-knocked-down-kings-horse-video).
In a fictional post-WWII Britain and Japan, the great Sir Ian McKellen turns in one of his finest performances with his portrayal of Mr Holmes, in which the great detective faces the loss of his intellectual gifts to encroaching dementia. While his last case intercuts with scenes of his present-day (i.e., 1947) existence, this is a character study, not a mystery movie. If you go in expecting to see a crime unraveled, you'll likely be displeased. Go in braced for another all-white historical piece and you might be pleasantly surprised.
If you're champing at the metaphorical bit for the minimalist and sexist treatment of women, might I recommend the first two movies in the Back to the Future trilogy, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year? Good way to ruin the fun twists on time travel. Back to the Future III goes a fair way toward redeeming things, thanks to Christopher Lloyd's excellent portrayal of the "mad" scientist's late-in-life discovery of love with an Old West schoolmarm, whom Mary Steenburgen gives more believability and charm than the creators probably had in mind.
Turning to television, Joe and I watched the Syfy channel's three-episode adaptation of the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke's influential SF novel, Childhood's End. As I last read the book in fall 1980, I remembered it poorly, and thought the Syfy miniseries must be taking enormous liberties. Then I re-read the novel, and was reminded that parapsychology used to get a lot more "play" in hard science fiction than you'll see in 21st Century SF. It seems the mainstream/mundane American viewing public is ready for 1950s SF prose, an advance from the 1920s-1940s level of SF in Star Wars and much other modern cinematic and televised SF.
The miniseries is generally faithful to the 1953 novel, including retention of the most important scientist character, a middle-class, mixed-race man. However, there are a few significant--and disappointing--divergences. Overtly religious characters and concerns are introduced. A middle-class family origin for a scientist of color is apparently considered too implausible for an American audience, so Euro-African Jan Rodricks becomes Milo Rodricks, lone child of a single, drug-addicted, African-American mother. The climax strips Milo of the scientific mindset and emotional control of Jan. And the miniseries obscures the fate and logic of the posthuman children. These alterations hamper comprehension of the climax and change the meaning of the conclusion, abandoning Clarke's secularism and acceptance of the reality of change with a presumably Christian terror of the implications of godlessness.
It is true there's a void at the heart of atheism. However, the miniseries is false to the way many atheists process and understand the impermanence of life, the human race, and our planet--a viewpoint successfully portrayed in Clarke's novel. As my partner observed, the novel is about childhood's end, while the miniseries is about childhood's end. The horrified twist at the show's conclusion is deeply disappointing. Still, the differences between the endings has made for some fascinating conversations between my atheist retired Christian minister boyfriend and my atheist self.
"The Sweet Tang of Rape" (Prose)
The James Bond movies lead me to sample some of the late British author Ian Fleming's original novels, published in the 1950s-1960s. The prose is lean and usually compelling. The oft-annoying names for female characters held across both media. Elsewhere, I found significant differences between the film and prose Bonds (FB and PB). The Connery FB is a quick-quipping womanizer so lacking in fear as to suggest pathology. PB is a humorless serial monogamist hardly unfamiliar with fear. And the rapey subtext of the Connery FB's "flirting" is text in the novels. Consider PB's thoughts about the first "Bond girl," Vesper Lynd: "he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would each time have the sweet tang of rape" (Casino Royale, p. 156, AmazonEncore Kindle Edition). Wonder no more about mid-century male behavior in Mad Men.
I have no doubt Fleming's influence has spread widely through English language adventure-suspense fiction, and I'd be unsurprised to learn it influenced the late American author John D. MacDonald, creator of the Florida-based "salvage consultant," Travis McGee, who has PB's penchant for a new woman with every novel. I hadn't read a McGee book since the '80s, but, encountering an affordable eBook edition of The Lonely Silver Rain, a title I hadn't previously read, I gave it a go. Like many another male-penned mystery novel of my acquaintance, it has a spare, tough, compelling prose reminiscent of Fleming or Hemingway. Its drug-smuggler-double-dealing plot is convoluted enough that I frankly cannot determine if it's logical. But there's a surprising theme of loss, aging, and the foreclosing of possibilities that nonetheless opens out movingly.
Speaking of the late literary luminary Ernest Hemingway, I finally read his unfinished, posthumously published novel The Garden of Eden, about which I'd heard rumors since it was released in the 1980s. I didn't quite the rumors of gender role reversals and gender dysphoria, but they're true. The novel also features androgyny, bisexuality, infidelity, and strong language. I imagine the novel would have been intensely shocking if it had been released in the reputed time period of its composition (1940s-1950s). Less surprising, given the author and time period, is the linking of the gender concerns to the wife's mental deterioration, and the portrayal of her increasingly severe mental illness as significant because affects the husband. Overall, though, it's a strong novel; it's a probable source of insight (via metafictional interludes) into Hemingway's writing process; and it ends at a reasonable stopping point despite being incomplete.
The British Yoruba author Tade Thompson was previously known to me as a creator of speculative fiction, so I was rather surprised to discover this excellent writer's intriguingly titled debut novel, Making Wolf, is non-spec mystery/suspense. Set in the fictional West African nation of Alcacia, this is a novel well aware of the Bond mythos, and there's a moment where I thought Bond's path was the one the plot would take. Then Thompson smashed that notion to smithereens, and kept smashing. I was not only surprised repeatedly, I was made very aware that my ignorance of what goes on in parts of humanity's home continent was by choice. Brutal, unsparing, brilliant. Find Thompson's work and read it.
Turning to mystery/suspense-tinged spec-fic, Coming Home is the latest Alex Benedict novel from the American science fiction veteran, Jack McDevitt. In the far future, Benedict has an occupation that would raise eyebrows in many eras: he's a dealer in antiquities. This time out, his vocation takes him and his official pilot and unofficial gal Friday, Chase Kolpath, to an Earth much altered since our era. What is not so altered is the cultural milieu of star-spanning humanity, a culture which in many ways would feel familiar, even comfy, to a mid-century Anglo-American. While the text asserts a diverse future, the names, descriptions, and behaviors generally tend toward a straight Euro default. Awareness of this will crystallize, for those who haven't already marked it, by the married lesbian trio found on an isolated asteroid. This seems to symbolize an inability to envision diversity with intersectionality. The novel's scientific dilemma (a ship gone astray in transluminal travel), the leads, and other aspects of the novel I quite enjoyed, and I hope for a more overtly blended future in subsequent Benedict/Kolpath outings.
One flat-out spec-fic novel I read in 2015 was Lagoon by the multi-award-winning writer Nnedi Okorafor. It's a good ol'-fashioned multi-PoV first contact novel, with magic-realist touches and aliens who want to be taken to the leaders of Nigeria, not the USA or UK. The tension didn't quite build for me and the pidgin dialogue sections gave me some tough sledding, but this is an intriguing, cliché-smashing, and wide-ranging examination of the alien invasion "trope."
Also in the spec-fic realm, I read the Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia's first novel, Signal to Noise, whose cover evokes the pleasure of the mixtape, where a vinyl long-player would have been more literal. On the symbolic level, however, the cassette tape is accurate. Set in 1980s Mexico City, this novel, poised at the ambiguous intersection of fantasy, magic realism, and fabulism, successfully recreates the pleasure and promise of 1980s (and some earlier) music, and also the new pleasures and pains that trip us up on our paths to adulthood. The mix of elements and genres put me in mind of the classic years of the 1980s-born black and white comic book Love & Rockets, by Los Bros Hernandez, though I don't see that L&R is an influence. Another recommended debut novel.
Over the last year or so I've read the complete Sherlock Holmes stories from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which are quite engrossing, challenging, and varied. They're deserving of their classic status, though the disappearance of racial sensitivity later in the series is saddening, if not wholly surprising. I expanded my reading in Holmesian detective fiction to pastiches, and encountered Detective Crown Investigator Abigail Irene Garrett in Elizabeth Bear's fine alt.history fantasy story, "The Body of the Nation. Investigator Garrett inspired me to check out Bear's other influence, Randall Garrett's occult detective Lord Darcy, and so far I've read "The Eyes Have It," an ingenious story. I intend to revisit both authors' alternate histories.
Currently I'm reading my friend and Clarion West classmate friend Amy Wolf's debut novel, The Misses Bronte's Establishment, an alternate history of Emily, Ann, Charlotte, and Branwell, told from the viewpoint of the young, impertinent, learning-averse attendee of the sisters' private school--an establishment which never had a student in our timeline. It's a fun romp which signals some indications of wish fulfillment, and I daresay strict or literalist Bronte fans are not the target audience. Following its conclusion I shall be reading Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, a festschrift anthology edited by publisher Bill Campbell and my friend and Clarion West classmate Nisi Shawl. And in Spring 2016 I look forward to the fantasy novel The Seer from my friend and Clarion West classmate Sonia Orin Lyris.
For The Cascadia Subduction Zone I've most recently reviewed Ernest Hogan's excellent, art-themed, reissued debut novel, Cortez on Jupiter (1990), and the terrific graphic novels Red Sonja: Volume 1: Queen of the Plagues from writer Gail Simone and artist Walter Geovanni and Supreme: Blue Rose from writer Warren Ellis and artist Tula Lotay. I read a few other graphic novels, as well. One is Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons, an adventurous, steampunk-tinged alternate history of the British women's rights movement that is perhaps less alternate than you might expect, if you're unfamiliar with the movement. Suffrajitsu is a little more aware of movement diversity than the movie Suffragette; on the down side, nearly every woman in the graphic novel's large female cast has the same face, which makes it tough to keep them sorted.
I haven't yet seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, but I read the graphic novel Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume. 1: Cosmic Avengers. Writer Brian Michael Bendis is always worth reading, and GotG:CA is fun (except for the annoying, inexplicable raccoon), but upon finishing the GN, I concluded there's not a costumed male Marvel Comics characters left who isn't a wisecracking smartass. And I'm sorry about that, because I remember when team leader Star-Lord was a solo spacefaring superhero-analog who didn't fulfill the wiseass stereotype. His original, black-and-white adventures from the Bronze Age of the 1970s have now been collected in Star-Lord: Guardian of the Galaxy. For reasons unknown (nostalgia? cheap appeal to hetero boys?), the GN is adorned with a silly, offputting '70s cover with underdressed, ankle-clinging cheesecake. Despite this, I'm in the process of revisiting the stories, and so far I'm finding many pleasant surprises, and also a surprising number of things I remember, including several individual panels. Once I conclude this GN, I'll be reading Marvel's controversially gender-flipped Thor: Volume 1: The Goddess of Thunder. I hope it will be as strong as Marvel's controversial, ethnicity-changing, Hugo Award winning graphic novel, Ms. Marvel: Volume 1: No Normal.
Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) lives in the Los Angeles area. She has published stories in Asimov's Science Fiction, Weird Tales, Altered States, and other anthologies and magazines. Her stories "Norms" and "#rising" made the Tangent Online Recommended Reading List for 2011 and 2014. Cynthia is the editor of the diversity-themed fiction anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes One and Two (WolfSinger Publications). With Nisi Shawl, she coauthored the diversity fiction-writing handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press).