A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘popular literature

[LINK] “Terry Pratchett’s Joyful, Absurd, Human Fantasy”

Julie Beck’s essay at The Atlantic about Terry Pratchett, passed away today, is a superb tribute to the writer’s genius.

There is deep truth to be found in fictional stories, no less so if they include witches and wizards and a flat earth carried through space on the back of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle. Fantasy at its best is more than just escapism. The distorted funhouse mirror of an imagined world can sometimes reflect our own more clearly than the most realistic fiction. Pratchett’s books were fantasy at its best.

But what set him above and apart was his sense of joy. The Discworld novels are satirical, but it’s a kind satire, running over with affection for all the wacky, messed-up things in life. Even death.

One of Pratchett’s greatest and most beloved characters is Death, capital D, the walking personification of the end that waits for everyone. He looks like a classic reaper—a skeleton in a dark robe, wielding a scythe, talking only in all caps. But he rides a horse named Binky. He loves cats. When the Hogfather—Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus—goes missing, Death stands in, donning a beard and a red cloak, and doing his best to bring presents to Discworld’s children, even if he finds it a little hard to adjust to the role.

Death is “implacable, because that is his job,” Pratchett once wrote in The Guardian. But “he appears to have some sneaking regard and compassion for a race of creatures which are to him as ephemeral as mayflies, but which nevertheless spend their brief lives making rules for the universe and counting the stars.”

[. . .]

This wonder in life shines through in his writing, in all of his characters, from the gods down to the rats. (Who are met by their own Death—sometimes called the Grim Squeaker. Whimsy even at the very end.) The people and the creatures who inhabit Pratchett’s world are determined, difficult, insightful, and absurd. As are we all.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 13, 2015 at 1:02 am

[LINK] “China’s Arthur C. Clarke”

The New Yorker‘s Joshua Rothman makes the convincing case for the relevance of Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin.

Last week, a team of astronomers at Peking University announced the discovery of a gigantic black hole with a mass equivalent to twelve billion suns. The black hole formed near the beginning of time, just nine hundred million years after the Big Bang. It’s twelve billion light years away, but, because the quasar surrounding it glows four hundred and twenty trillion times brighter than the sun, it’s still visible to telescopes on Earth. “How could we have this massive black hole when the universe was so young?” Xue-Bing Wu, the lead astronomer, asked, in a paper published in Nature. “We don’t currently have a satisfactory theory to explain it.”

Reading about these developments, I thought of Liu Cixin, China’s most popular science-fiction writer. Liu is fifty-one years old and has written thirteen books. Until very recently, he worked as a software engineer at a power plant in Shanxi. In China, he is about as famous as William Gibson in the United States; he’s often compared to Arthur C. Clarke, whom he cites as an influence. His most popular book, “The Three-Body Problem,” has just been translated into English by the American sci-fi writer Ken Liu, and in China it’s being made into a movie, along with its sequels. (If you Google it, beware: there are some big plot twists that you don’t want spoiled.) Liu Cixin’s writing evokes the thrill of exploration and the beauty of scale. “In my imagination,” he told me, in an e-mail translated by Ken Liu, “abstract concepts like the distance marked by a light-year or the diameter of the universe become concrete images that inspire awe.” In his novels, a black hole with the mass of twelve billion suns is the sort of thing that Chinese engineers might build. They’d do it a billion years from now, after China’s spaceships have spread throughout the universe.

American science fiction draws heavily on American culture, of course—the war for independence, the Wild West, film noir, sixties psychedelia—and so humanity’s imagined future often looks a lot like America’s past. For an American reader, one of the pleasures of reading Liu is that his stories draw on entirely different resources. Much of “The Three-Body Problem” is set during the Cultural Revolution. In “The Wages of Humanity,” visitors from space demand the redistribution of Earth’s wealth, and explain that runaway capitalism almost destroyed their civilization. In “Taking Care of Gods,” the hyper-advanced aliens who, billions of years ago, engineered life on Earth descend from their spaceships; they turn out to be little old men with canes and long, white beards. “We hope that you will feel a sense of filial duty towards your creators and take us in,” they say. I doubt that any Western sci-fi writer has so thoroughly explored the theme of filial piety.

But it’s not cultural difference that makes Liu’s writing extraordinary. His stories are fables about human progress—concretely imagined but abstract, even parable-like, in their sweep. Take the novella “Sun of China,” which follows Ah Quan, a young man from a rural village that has been impoverished by drought. In the first three chapters, Ah Quan sets out from the village and finds work in a mine; he travels to a regional city, where he learns to shine shoes, and moves to Beijing, where he works as a skyscraper-scaling window-washer. Then the story takes a turn. We discover that it’s the future: China has constructed a huge mirror in space called the China Sun, and is using it to engineer the climate. Ah Quan gets a job cleaning the reflective surface of the China Sun. It turns out that Stephen Hawking is living in orbit, where the low gravity has helped to prolong his life; Hawking and Ah Quan become friends and go on space walks together. (“It was probably his experience operating an electric wheelchair that allowed him to control the miniature engine of his spacesuit as well as anyone,” Liu writes.) The physicist teaches the worker about the laws of physics and about the vastness of the universe, and Ah Quan’s mind begins to dwell on the question of humanity’s fate: Will we explore the stars, or live and die on Earth? Soon afterward, he is saying goodbye to his parents and setting out on a one-way mission to explore interstellar space. By the end of the story, Ah Quan’s progress is representative of humanity’s. He has traversed an enormous social and material distance, but it pales in comparison to the journey ahead.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 12, 2015 at 10:41 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

  • The Big Picture looks at the uses of oil barrels around the world.
  • blogTO wonders if the Annex is ready for a condo boom.
  • Centauri Dreams features a guest post from Andrew Lepage noting how odd spectra on Mars were misidentified as proof of life.
  • Crooked Timber notes a student occupation of the University of Amsterdam’s headquarters.
  • Discover‘s The Crux makes a poor argument that space probe visits to Pluto and Ceres will lead to the redefinition of these worlds as planets.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze looks at an odd pulsating hot subdwarf B star with a brown dwarf.
  • The Dragon’s Tales suggests chemical mechanisms for life on Titan, and explains the differences in water plumes between Europa and Enceladus.
  • A Fistful of Euros notes political conflict in Germany.
  • Discover‘s Inkfist notes that birds from harsher climates are smarters.
  • Joe. My. God. shares Madonna’s critique of ageism.
  • Languages of the World examines the genesis of the English language.
  • Marginal Revolution notes Japanese funerals for robots, suggests Facebook usage makes people less happy, and notes family formation in Europe.
  • John Moyer examines punctuation.
  • Steve Munro maps out routes for a Scarborough subway.
  • The Planetary Society Blog looks at science on Pluto.
  • pollotenchegg maps the distribution of ethnically mixed households in Ukraine.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at how Panama successfully made use of price controls, and why.
  • Progressive Download’s John Farrell wonders what is the rush for three-parent IVF therapy.
  • Transit Toronto explains how old TTC tickets can be exchanged.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the importance of Belarus for the Baltic States, notes the newly-debatable borders of the former Soviet Union, suggests Tatarstan is unhappy with Russian federalism, and looks at the small grounds for Russian-Ukrainian hostilities.

[LINK] Abraham Riesman in the Vulture on the Success of Harley Quinn

“The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman” describes how, from humble origins as an intended throw-away character on the Batman animated series of the early 1990s, Harley Quinn has become one of the biggest characters in the world of American comics.

Writer Paul Dini is credited as the creator of Harley, and that’s technically true. He came up with the character while he was writing for the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series in the early ’90s. But the true origins of Harley Quinn lie years earlier, in the mind of the actress who voiced her on the cartoon: Arleen Sorkin.

In 1987, Sorkin was a regular on the soap opera Days of Our Lives, playing the show’s comic relief: the ditzy, leggy, Noo Yawk–accented Calliope Jones. But unlike her flighty character, Sorkin was a skilled and experienced comedy writer. “I could never just come in and run my lines,” she told Vulture. “I was forever suggesting stuff, probably out of boredom!” So when she went to a screening of the faux-medieval The Princess Bride, an idea struck her: Why not do a fairy-tale dream sequence on Days? The producers were into it and aired an episode in which Calliope acts as a court jester, roller-skating into a throne room and doing some hackneyed borscht belt gags for a royal family.

Dini and Sorkin were college friends, and one day, she gave him a VHS tape of her favorite Days moments — including her jester bit. The tape sat idle for years. But in mid 1991, Dini was sick as a dog and popped the tape into his VCR. He was a budding television writer at the time, cranking out freelance scripts for the as-yet-unaired Batman: The Animated Series. He’d been struggling to come up with a female character to use as a one-off in an episode about Batman’s archnemesis, the Joker.

“I thought, Maybe there should be a girl there,” he said. “And I thought, Should the girl be like a tough street thug? Or like a hench-person or something? And then suddenly the idea of someone funny kind of struck me.” When he saw Sorkin in clown makeup, the pieces fell into place, and he came up with a silly little sidekick. He gave her the comic-book-y name of Harley Quinn, sketched out an idea for her look, and brought the sketch to the cartoon’s lead artist, Bruce Timm.

“He did do a rough design for her, which was, frankly, not very good,” Timm recalled. “It had a weird ’60s kind of vibe to it. It was just odd. Charming, but odd. I thought we could improve on that. So I immediately started researching traditional harlequin gear and did kind of a simplified super-villain version of that. It was always intended to be just a one-off.” Nevertheless, Timm was — and is — a perfectionist and labored to give this cameo character a distinctive look: a red-and-black full-body jumpsuit adorned with playing-card diamonds, ruffled cuffs, and a dual-pronged jester’s cap.

It’s a long read, and a good one.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 2, 2015 at 10:26 pm

[PHOTO] On the TTC, Lindsay Kelk, and the stock photography both use

Take the TTC 192 Airport Rocket bus to Pearson.

I saw the above ad advertising the TTC’s 192 Airport Rocket bus and was struck by its familiarity. Where had I seen this image before?

That TTC ad was stock photo for the cover of a fun 2011 Lindsay Kelk novel.

It was the image on the cover of a trade paperback edition of British author Lindsay Kelk‘s 2011 novel The Single Girl’s To-Do List, that’s what.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 28, 2015 at 7:00 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

  • blogTO notes that Yorkville’s Lettieri is shutting down.
  • Crooked Timber starts a debate as to who won the latest Greece/Eurozone confrontation.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper suggesting a new way to analyze carbon-rich exoplanet atmospheres.
  • The Dragon’s Tales observes that India is hoping to build its next aircraft carrier quickly.
  • Languages of the World’s Asya Perelstvaig announces that people can now apply for her online Stanford course.
  • Marginal Revolution argues that antibiotics are of underestimated value.
  • Spacing reviews an interesting-sounding book, The Language of Space.
  • Towleroad notes an anonymous college lacrosse player who has just published a book of love poems to his boyfriend.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that Russia wants to weaken Baltic faith in NATO and suggests that everyone, detractors and supporters alike, overestimate Putin.
  • The Financial Times‘ World blog notes that apparently Russia was unhappy with being ignored, so explaining in part why it went into Ukraine.

[LINK] On Mizae Mizumura and The Fall of Language in the Age of English

A recent Slate article by Katy Waldmann pointed me towards Minae Mizumura‘s 2008 book The Fall of Language in the Age of English. She seems to make some interesting arguments about the position of the English language and the potential threat to the position of non-English languages.

Languages have materiality, Mizumura insists, and her personal essay-cum-allegory lets the landscape of English letters hover like a mirage above physical America. In Iowa “the view was not particularly beautiful. There was none of the poetry one sees in scenes of the countryside in American films.” Yet “turning to Chris [the program director], I roused myself and said exactly what an American might say at such a moment: ‘Beautiful day!’ ” Such are the dangers of a universal language: Being in America, speaking “American,” Mizumura can utter only “what an American might say,” even if that means lying about the blighted prospect around her. In contrast, here is the author’s memory of touching down in France: “Once I set foot in Paris, I was greeted with boulevards shimmering with new leaves and skies gloriously liberated from the dark of winter.”

I mention France because the French language—all liberté and illumination—is one of Mizumura’s sanctuaries, a spiritual alternative to English. (It is also a scholarly alternative: Though she doesn’t mention him outright, Mizumura, who studied French literature at Yale during its Structuralist heyday, is clearly indebted to Ferdinand de Saussure, one of the first to propose that meaning arises from closed linguistic systems. Saussure wrote in French.) Her family moved from Japan to New York when she was 12, and she “stubbornly resisted getting along either with the United States or the English language,” instead soaking in French audiobooks on repeat in her room. What draws Mizumura to the lingua franca of the Enlightenment is its beauty, but also its predicament: Once the embodiment of the “soul of Europe,” a standard-bearer for the humanities, the expressive Play-Doh for writers like Voltaire and Diderot is now in the same lamentable position as Japanese. Which is to say, French and Japanese speakers are confined to the particular, while English speakers live in the universal.

A writer writing in English can count on her words reaching people all over the world, whether in translation or the original, but there’s no guarantee English-speaking readers will ever encounter experiences first framed in Japanese. Nor can bilingual writers just switch to English: Even if the West does not seem “too far, psychologically as well as geographically,” a sense of romance surrounds novels written in the novelist’s mother tongue, making fiction formulated from a second language less palatable. So, Mizumura concludes, non-English speakers “can only participate passively in the universal temporality … they cannot make their own voices heard.” Discouraged by the deafness of the world—even as Internet fans sing about our increasing connectedness—they might decide to stop writing altogether.

When writers stop writing in a language, that language decays. People lose faith in its ability to bear the burden of their fine feeling and entrust their most important thoughts elsewhere. Raging against the decline of “lesser” lexicons, Mizumura is stressing more than the loss of cultural artifacts, or the value of diversity for its own sake. Non-dominant tongues must live on, she warns, because “those of us … living in asymmetry are the only ones condemned to perpetually reflect upon language, the only ones forced to know that the English language cannot dictate ‘truths’ and that there are other ‘truths’ in this world.” Buried in that argument is an oddly touching one about the nature of literature: “The writer must see the language not as a transparent medium for self-expression or the representation of reality, but as a medium one must struggle with to make it do one’s bidding.”

She says some interesting things. Going by this sympathetic review in The Japan Times, it seems as if her argument is based at least as much on a need for better education in non-English languages. Is fluency in Japanese incompatible with fluenct in English?

Written by Randy McDonald

February 24, 2015 at 4:59 am


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