I was pretty dubious about John Carter. It was one of those movies which, as a serious SF fan and historian, I have to see even given a quite high likelihood that it was going to offend me with aggressively stupid handling of its source material. Therefore I am surprised and pleased to report that it is actually quite good!
I’ve read all of the Barsoom novels the movie was based on, but they’re not important in the furniture of my imagination in the way that (say) Robert Heinlein’s books are. They’re very primitive pulp fiction which I sought out mainly because of their historical importance as precursors of later and more interesting work. Still, they are not without a certain rude, innocent charm. The heroes are heroic, the villains villainous, the women are beautiful, dying Mars is a backdrop suffused with barbaric splendor, and the prose is muscular and vigorous.
This translation to movie form retains those virtues quite a bit more faithfully than one might have expected. In doing so it reminded me very much of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie with Robert Downey Junior (see my review, A no-shit Sherlock). I didn’t get the powerful sense Sherlock Holmes gave me of the lead actors caring passionately about the source material, but the writers of John Carter certainly cared as much. A surprising amount of Burrough’s Barsoomian mythology and language made it into the movie. The barbarian Green Martians are rendered with gratifying unsentimentality, and the sense of Barsoom as an ancient planet with time-deep history and ancient mysteries is well conveyed.
If you’re me, reading the Barsoom novels is also an entertaining exercise in in origin-spotting tropes that would recur in later planetary romances and space operas clear down to the present day. The designers and writers of John Carter are alive to this; there are a number of points at which the movie visually quotes the Star Wars franchise in a funny, underlined way that reminds us that Barsoom was actually the ur-source for many of the cliches that Star Wars mined so successfully.
An ironic result of this is that a straight-up rendition of Burroughs would have seemed terribly dated. The filmmakers avoided this by playing to today’s Hollywood conventions in various places where they judged (mostly correctly, I think) that the Burroughs material wouldn’t work well for modern audiences. The only point at which I found this a bit obtrusive was Dejah Thoris, who was a cardboard-thin rescue object in the original and decidedly not the brainy and butt-kicking superwoman we get in this version. While this is in some ways clearly an improvement (and kudos to Lynn Collins for a charismatic and powerful performance that rather upstaged Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter) the savant stuff felt a bit overdone. Also I could have done without Woola, the obligatory cute animal companion.
But some of the changes were unequivocally good. One of the major flaws in the original, to modern eyes, is that John Carter’s transportation to Mars was not explained or rationalized in any way – it’s a weird acausal miracle which pitches us into universe which, because anything can happen, everything that actually does happen is arbitrary and insignificant. Campbellian SF, with its affirmation of a fundamentally knowable universe behind the fantastic material in the foreground, wouldn’t be invented until a quarter-century after Burrough’s first Barsoom novel.
The filmmakers do a nice job of repairing Burrough’s acausal plot-hole in a Campbellian fashion. In their version, Carter is accidentally telegraphed to Mars by exotic technology wielded by the villains of the piece, which same technology functions as a MacGuffin later in the movie. As a bonus, this sets up an implicit threat to Earth which begins to develop in this movie and will doubtless be exploited in the sequels.
And sequels there will almost certainly be, unless John Carter does much less well at the box office than I expect. (And a raspberry to Disney marketing, whose trailer and publicity almost completely fail to convey the movie’s strengths.) In this case turning the film into a franchise would be faithful to the spirit and form of Burroughs’s original. We can at least hope the followups will be better than the superficially watchable but obscurely disappointing 2011 sequel to Sherlock Holmes.
It’s nearly a requirement of reviews like this that I urge you to read the book that the movie is based on before seeing it. I am not actually certain I want to recommend that in this case. If you have anything like my scholarly interest in the history of SF, then, yes – the original Barsoom novels are worth finding and contrasting with this movie if only as a study in how much the expectations of audiences have changed since then, and how those changes influenced the filmmakers’ choices.
On the other hand, if all you want is the sort of thalamic thrill ride that Burroughs intended to deliver, the movie can stand alone. Burroughs’s writing evolved quite a bit during his lifetime; while, like many pulp writers, he never made the intellectually demanding transition to modern SF in the late 1930s, the Tarzan of the last tales around 1940 is rather more complex than his earliest incarnation in 1915 (for some related thoughts, see Reading Racism Into Pulp Fiction). I think Burroughs would recognize what the filmmakers have done and approve.
This review gives back the hope taken by Tim O’Reilly. Thanks a lot for sharing it.
> It’s nearly a requirement of reviews like this that I urge you to read the book that the movie is based on before seeing it.
I typically prefer the other way ’round. I almost always find the book better than the movie, so watching the movie first allows me two pleasant discoveries rather than reading a good book and then finding disappointment in the movie.
The only exceptions to this that occur off the top of my head are movies I’d rather not have seen anyway (for example, I can’t imagine having enjoyed the movie “Starship Troopers” even had I not read the book first).
However, my own interests in this area are entertainment and thought provocation — I care only casually about the history of the genre outside of practical matters (e.g. finding a good story to read).
Nb. I think all John Carter books are available in Project Gutenberg.
Awesome. I’ve always been a fan of the Barsoom novels, as they make for great mindless action. I was somewhat hesitant about the movie, as hollywood in general tends to screw up my favorite books, but on your recommendation I will go see it with very few qualms.
This review raises pretty much the same points you do but is almost diametrically opposed on what the good points and bad points of the movie are:
Jakub, a Gutenberg search turns up the first six of the 11 books of the series. I’d been considering paying for one of the Nook collections, but I’ll get it there instead.
I guess the remaining five books of the series are still in copyright.
Make that the first five at PG.
John Carter will always be linked to Project Gutenberg in my mind, as that was where I read them as a kid. I remember anxiously awaiting the next book being scanned so I could read it.
I agree with much of the article. However Dejah Thoris being a scientist seemed positive to me, although her being near John Carter’s equal in combat seemed somewhat implausible given her Martian physiology. (In-story justification would have helped — perhaps she has been sparring with Kantos Kan for decades whenever she isn’t busy in the lab.) Woola the animal companion was one of the high points for me — he was hideous yet lovable in the books, and I think that came across well in the movie.
Negatives: Too little time for certain character developments to be plausible. Therns seem over-powered yet conspicuously vulnerable. The distance he can jump seems implausible given that Mars has 1/3 of earth’s gravity, and also his initial failures seemed unrealistic (like mass and weight are confused with each other — he should be skidding along, not whamming into the ground). His ability to control his jumping with extreme precision seems to improve unrealistically fast. I also disliked that he instantly became fluent in Martian as soon as he learned telepathy. Excusable in a movie I suppose, but I think a time skip of a few months would have worked better (with telepathy perhaps boosting the rate at which he acquires language) without really changing the story much.
I was expecting disappointment when I saw the trailers too. Thdn Brad Bird stepped in and said “don’t knock it till you’ve seen it”. Was pleasantly surprised.
For me, the Bird is the word: I was fully expecting MI4 to be a shitfest till I heard Brad Bird was attached to direct.
As a long-time Burroughs fan — and how I wish someone would do a relatively faithful adaptation of the first two Tarzan novels — here’s my own review. I very much enjoyed the film, but I think it would have worked better if they had left Carter as the Errol Flynn-type swashbuckler he is in the novels, rather than the brooding, reluctant figure (with a new tragic past) that they made him in the movies. ..bruce..
What didn’t you like about the Sherlock Holmes sequel? I thought that Moriarty was exquisitely creepy.
On a related note, have you seen the new “Sherlock” show from BBC? It’s streamable on Netflix.
>What didn’t you like about the Sherlock Holmes sequel? I thought that Moriarty was exquisitely creepy.
He was, and I haven’t completely figured out myself why the second movie seemed like a bit of letdown. I think maybe it was because the writers leaned too heavily on ZOMG Holmes is going nuts and wearing drag! Some element of comedy is inevitable with Robert Downey Junior in the role, but I’m obscurely bothered by a Holmes movie descending that far toward slapstick.
For an opposing point of view, see Tim O’Reilly’s review of John Carter on Google+. I’m still on the fence as to whether I’m going to pony up the $10 a ticket to watch it on the big screen.
_Sherlock_ from the BBC is great; it’s had two ‘seasons’ (of 3 or so episodes each, hence the quotes), with a third on the way in the next year or two.
RE: ESR’s post, paragraph #2;
Probably the best, most concise writeup of the value and enjoyment of the “…of Mars” series (at least from my perspective) that I’ve seen. These tales for me made for some pleasant afternoons in the sun as a youth. I enjoyed the Tarzan stories as a kid, but didn’t know about “Barsoom” until my stepfather gave me books on Frank Frazetta’s art to encourage drawing practice – Frazetta made (to a budding preteen) the Barsoom stories seem so tough and sexy, so I read them. Caused me a lot of trouble during sword training too (young and dumb, wanted to fight like John Carter, not Musashi).
Had the extremely rare and pleasant event of being able to spend an unrestricted weekend with my daughter. We went to see the movie, and we both enjoyed it quite a bit – I can’t offer a better analysis than what Mr. Raymond wrote, pretty damned on target to my eyes, and my daughter loved the entire concept and action. First movie she’s enjoyed in a long time and it caused her to download the Barsoom books.
Now if only I can get her into the great trio…why Barsoom damnit? Tried Podkayne with her and her reaction was lukewarm. I don’t get it, kid is learning aerospace through the Air Force Auxiliary/Civil Air Patrol, leads a team in the robotics club, attends DoD Starbase Academy, you know the type – and “teh bestest thing evar” is something named after a disinfectant and is about “soul reapers” and swords , one of the Anime cartoons. Then again, she’s 12, and I’m just dad. And also “just don’t get it.” But, the Carter movie is overall a lazy afternoon, enjoyably spent I think.
Holmes? Nuts? Nuts!
Despite disagreeing with you on the first Downey-starred Holmes film, I’ll use your review of John Carter to get me to go see it.
Jay, check Wikipedia and you’ll find Gutenberg links to everything but the last book.
I’ve never read any of the Barsoom novels, but I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Burroughs’ other works. As long as you know what you will and won’t get from him, he’s very enjoyable and approachable. I disagree with Carl Sagan’s comment that, “If you are over [age], it is too late to read him.” (I can’t remember what age was specified, but it was in the low double-digits.)
The hollow-earth books and the first Tarzan book intrigued me, and eventually I plan to read more of his works.
I was planning to see the new movie anyway, but you’ve given me optimism that it won’t be a huge disappointment.
The other early space-opera book I’d love to see made into a movie is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s _Skylark of Space_. Yes, it’s crude by Campbellian standards, but it’s good fun and fits well into the superhero mold, with Dick Seaton as the superhero. He can build anything from nothing in zero time, always staying one step ahead of the evil villain, and spit out doubletalk with the best of Star Trek. :-)
The whole rise of the kick-butt female heroine is one that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I’m unquestionably glad that we’ve moved away from the woman-as-helpless-victim-to-be-rescued. On the other, I think we’ve gone too far down the path of woman-who-is-clearly-superior-to-all-males — perhaps not in this particular movie, but in all too many others.
We need more popular media that appeals to teenage boys and shows men as strong heroes overcoming obstacles, instead of being slapped down as troublemakers (with the girls their age held up as role models).
>>What didn’t you like about the Sherlock Holmes sequel?….
>…I haven’t completely figured out myself why the second movie seemed like a bit of letdown.
The first movie was excellent as a mystery, which is what you want in Sherlock Holmes. It had a number of great “what is going on” and “whodunit” plot twists. The second one had hardly any mystery plot twists beyond “what exactly is Moriarty’s plan?,” and no “whodunit” suspense. It wasn’t Sherlock Holmes, it was Mission Impossible: Late Victorian Europe.
I liked the novels and, after your review, plan to see the movie, something I rarely do.
A good many years ago, I was faced with the problem of recommending reading material suitable to a child who taught himself to read at two and was reading the Narnia books at four. What I wanted was fiction suitable to the tastes of a six year old with the reading ability of an adult.
I recommended the Barsoom novels and, as I recall, he enjoyed them.
Incidentally and somewhat OT, who decided to let Paul Verhoeven anywhere near Heinlein’s source material? I would have loved to have seen a faithful version of Starship Troopers, and it think it would have sold well and played well. But why was a director chosen who clearly hated the core theme of the original?
I’m driving over 100 miles to see John Carter tomorrow, and I hope I’m not too disapointed. I’ve never seen a 3D movie, and I’ve never seen an IMAX movie, so I’m looking forward to both. As a huge fan of ERB and the 75 or so books I’ve collected since the early 1980’s I hope this will be the first of many John Carter movies. Just hope they stick to the books as closely as possible and don’t screw up the story as bad as they have Tarzan. Disney did pretty well with the animated Tarzan except for the fact that the great apes who raised him would have been chimps NOT Gorrilla’s! Gorrilla’s, in the books, had anyone read them, were Tarzans mortal enemies. He never met a gorrilla that he didn’t fight to the death. So I hope they don’t make glaring mistakes like that one with the John Carter character. Oh! and someone mentioned Therns! I was under the impression that the movie only covered the first book? Therns didn’t appear until the second book when John Carter returned from Earth after ten years absence. So I’m confused already with Therns being in this movie.
By the way there is a free online serial novel by Scott Lynch, “Queen of the Iron Sands“, heavily inspired by “Princess of Mars” and pulp fiction ovels as whole… only with a female protagonist. If only it were updated more frequently and more consistently…
> The other early space-opera book I’d love to see made into a movie is E.E. “Doc” Smith’s _Skylark of Space_.
I’m waiting for a decent Foundation film, myself.
Thanks for the review. I may take my daughter to see it next Sunday instead of waiting for the dollar movie.
To make it more nearly affordable, check to see if any movie houses in your area offer a matinee.
I like Carl Sagan less with the passing of time.
Oh, you can’t just drop that on us without an explanation!
I absolutely recommend the IMAX 3D version, if at all possible. The 3D was amazing. I had not expected it, and was pleasantly surprised.
The movie rocks, and Lynn Collins is simply gorgeous. As I’ve said elsewhere, she’d look hawt in a burlap sack, much less the sexy costumes she graced the movie with.
Great story line. Solid acting. Flawless special effects. FX have gotten so good now, it’s pretty much impossible to distinguish reality from CGI.
I’m hoping for a long and storied franchise. Disney should be making bank off of JC, so I expect sequels to follow.
And yes, Disney marketing does suck. The trailer for Brave in the U.S. focused exclusively on Merida as a tomboy princess who can “do everything better than the guys”. The Japanese trailer, er… not so much.
Disney’s output has been consistently better since Lasseter took the helm of their animation division. Yet their marketing flacks still aren’t fit to sell anything but direct-to-video Cinderella sequels to anyone but soccer moms.
I wonder if the script writers read Heinlein’s, Number of the Beast, in creating their version of Dejah Thoris.
My version of heaven would be Robert Zemeckis filming Time Enough for Love. Say what you will about Sagan; the movie based on his novel Contact is one of my favorites, due much in part to Zemeckis’ approach.
Sorry if you idolize him, but he was human, and distressingly willing to bend facts to suit his desired political conclusions.
Actually, nothing I have read indicates that Paul Verhoeven understood the core themes of the novel. He was so virulently against anything military that he missed the point.
The novel was a meditation on the proper balance between authority and responsibility. Most of the important action occurred between Juan Ricco’s ears. It’s hard to film that.
Try Have Spacesuit, will Travel. My daughter liked it. Techie viewpoint, strong female character Kip admired. Solid accessible math.
“The novel was a meditation on the proper balance between authority and responsibility. Most of the important action occurred between Juan Ricco’s ears. It’s hard to film that.”
There are ways to do it. Why do you think Star Trek created Spock and McCoy as strong characters? Why does a ship’s doctor, for heaven’s sake, get such a major role?
Answer: Because the back-and-forth between Spock and McCoy at times of crisis and decision is meant to show the viewer what is going on in Kirk’s head. Spock represents the rational, and McCoy the emotional. Both are key aspects of the tension.
Stephen Donaldson has gone so far as to define fantasy as the genre where the internal lives of the characters are reflected in the outside world.
Going back to your other point: why would you choose a director who “despises anything military” to film a movie that revolves around the military? Then are other directors with the experience and talent to do it right.
“Try Have Spacesuit, will Travel. My daughter liked it. Techie viewpoint, strong female character Kip admired. Solid accessible math.”
Yep; that book taught me how to do acceleration problems, at a time that I didn’t know algebra. I messed around with the math for days after reading it.
Yes, but if they were to add characters to SST to reflect Rico’s internal struggles it wouldn’t be SST.
I understand there’s a remake in the works.
I think Cars 1 was Pixar’s weakest film, until Cars 2.
I don’t think it works that way any more, if it ever did. Nowadays the director/producer comes up with a concept and shops it around for financing. The money guys have no criteria beyond “Do this guy’s films make money? Y/N”.
“Yes, but if they were to add characters to SST to reflect Rico’s internal struggles it wouldn’t be SST.”
It could be a lot closer to SST than the nonsense that was released in 1997-8.
“I don’t think it works that way any more, if it ever did. Nowadays the director/producer comes up with a concept and shops it around for financing. The money guys have no criteria beyond ‘Do this guy’s films make money? Y/N’.”
I’d like to think that the estate that owns & manages Heinlein’s copyrights would have been a bit more selective in approving producers and directors.
“I’m waiting for a decent Foundation film, myself.”
I think these stories may be a bit too cerebral and complex to translate well to the screen. Action was typically not Asimov’s strength. Many of his stories, including Foundation stories and the Robot novels, take place mainly in conversations between characters. They are more akin to mystery whodunits than sci-fi action films.
The robot novels might actually work on-screen, but you’d need a skilled mystery producer/director pair, rather than taking them from the SF world.
“Tried Podkayne with [12 year-old daughter] and her reaction was lukewarm.”
I’m not surprised. Poddy is a pretty feeble character. Even though she is the narrator, all the really cool stuff is done by her brother Clark. And over the course of the book, her ambitions evolve in stereotypically female directions. Bleah.
There’s a movie? Cool. I recently read the first book (go Project Gutenberg), and I quite liked it.
One of the things I liked about it was it’s avoidance of a few silly modern tropes. In particular the modern tendency to show that someone is a dangerous fighter by having them defeat a ridiculous number of mooks without even struggling. I particularly remember one of the scenes where Carter encounters four mooks in a sword fight and manages to defeat one of them by taking them by surprise, and then spends 20 minutes fighting a careful defensive battle before finally managing to strike down another, and then it takes him several more minutes to defeat the third, after which he easily kills the final one. And this is a character who’s a centuries old mercenary who has been transported to a world where he is basically Superman, and can pretty much defeat anyone else on the planet in one on one combat with ease. (It does also show a scene where he defeats a large group of mooks with relative ease as well though, but that is because they decided to charge at a man with a rapid fire rifle over hundreds of meters of open ground)
I also find the action-heroine/damsel-in-distress trope in modern fiction really annoying. I wish they’d just pick one or the other, but we can’t do that because having the main female character be less competent than the main male character, even if it makes sense from their in-universe history (princess versus centuries-old alien mercenary for example), is sexist, but portraying her as more competent in every way than her male counterpart, but still needing rescuing by him isn’t. (I don’t know how bad this movie really is in this regard of course since I haven’t seen it)
It’s not that I mind either the action-heroine characters (Zoe from Firefly/Serenity), or damsel-in-distress characters (Kaylee from Firefly/Serenity), but unless they have a good in-universe explanation, insanity seems the best (River from Firefly/Serenity), it doesn’t make sense for the one character to be both. (Yes I know Kaylee is more than just a damsel-in-distress in the same way as Zoe is more than just a gun, but in a firefight those are the parts they play)
“Try Have Spacesuit, will Travel. My daughter liked it. Techie viewpoint, strong female character Kip admired. Solid accessible math.”
Good call, thanks. I’ll give it it a go. I was thinking about Space Cadet, but as a kid I remember liking Spacesuit a lot more. I think the interplay between Kip and PeeWee will have a lot of appeal for her as it touches on two strong sides of her (she lost her mom when she was young and its played out that she really is the brilliant, strong-headed, but very vulnerable-underneath-it-all type at this stage in her life). The spacesuit dev premise is probably just the hook too ( ANNOYING PARENT BRAG ALERT: kid actually came up with a useful mod for a tactical diving rig for smaller people) Damn man, really, really good call. Thanks again.
“I’m not surprised. Poddy is a pretty feeble character. Even though she is the narrator, all the really cool stuff is done by her brother Clark. And over the course of the book, her ambitions evolve in stereotypically female directions. Bleah.”
Oh yeah, right on the head there. I can definitely see where that would annoy her. Should have determined that beforehand, really. As cool as it is to see her going down the science/aero/space road, I still have to remind myself she is a young lady. She takes it easy on me though – I’m home for awhile and so I got to pick her up from school today. Offered to take her out to get her nails/hair done and go dress shopping for an upcoming school dance. Her suggestion – go back to the house – she wanted to go out back for a sword match – wanted to test some western methods vs. eastern (her using Kumdo, me using longsword and buckler) – it was the Carter movie that got this idea in her head. Heh, she’s going to love Penguicon when she’s ready to go.
Then again, I had to sit through a half-hour reading of some book called Monster High tonight…something about fashionable teenage monster girls in high school. My head hurts.
If you are interested in the original novels, they are freely available on Project Gutenberg.
Interesting review. I actually like Burroughs better than Heinlein (and Heinlein is great, absolutely great–I’m just speaking relatively), and a lot of the comments here and in the review seem to argue that Campbell is the touchstone against which all others must be judged. Do you really want to insist on that?
I just saw the Sherlock Holmes sequel, and while I enjoyed it, I can see why it might seem like a disappointment. For starters, the plot doesn’t really stick until the second half. The audience is just waiting around for Holmes and Watson to get to the point where the story can begin. The first one, in contrast, was gripping from the beginning, with a strong sense of mystery and a driving force behind the plot. The second did have less mystery to it—we were always within a step or two of Sherlock racing to stop the next part of Moriarty’s plan—but there were some clues to the audience as to where the plot was going that I found engaging. I would have preferred more of a mystery and more hints for the audience, but it was a nice change of pace from the first movie, where the mystery was dragged out until the big reveal with little hope of the audience figuring it out on their own, despite a number of clues. In short, the second movie took the opposite approach to the first one in a few major ways.
Not Campbell the writer, who was rather pedestrian, but Campbell the editor.
BobW “but Campbell the editor.”
Yeah, his “Astounding” editorial policy really shaped the early masters, though he could be whimsical as well. One novel I’d really like to see made into a film would be James Schmidt’s “Witches of Karres” – if done well it would be nifty. “Citizen of the Galaxy” could be good too.
“’Citizen of the Galaxy’ could be good too.”
Many of the Heinlein juveniles would be excellent movies. “Tunnel in the Sky”, excellent. “Citizen of the Galaxy”, excellent. “Between Planets”, excellent. “Double Star”, yes, with the right screenwriter and director.
“Starman Jones” would need the incredibly archaic computer technology than is central to the plot to be updated, but could probably be done with some rewriting. “Space Cadet”, maybe. “Rolling Stone”, I don’t think so; maybe if animated. “Time for the Stars” and “The Star Beast”, no — they wouldn’t translate well to the screen, though the first is a pretty good story. “Farmer in the Sky” might be difficult to make appealing.
“Podkayne of Mars”, not just no but absolutely not (see my earlier post in this thread). “Rocket Ship Galileo”, no way.
Foundation is filmable?
I just saw that they are announcing casting on a Ender’s Game film.
I’d rather see a Cyberiad with either puppets or by Pixar.
Disney marketing apparently begged the director to let them change the trailer. He had creative control, and insisted on that trailer. (Apparently marketing people are worth their cheese sometimes.)
A lot of hard SF fans including your host consider the SF written under Campbell’s editorship, and successors in that same vein, to be the gold standard. So, Asimov, Heinlein, etc. While that set a high standard for technical detail and accuracy, it is completely lacking in characterization. The protagonists of Campbellian SF tend to be pulp-fic heroes who creep up on Mary Sue territory. Heinlein’s later works are extremely guilty of this, in addition to Heinlein’s little problem of completely misunderstanding women to the point where his female characters devolve into sexualized caricatures that make Lara Croft look like Mary Poppins. I’m slogging my way through Time Enough for Love and it’s an appalling wankfest.
Stanislaw Lem brought vast improvement to the field by introducing thematic elements of the vulnerability and sensory limitations of mankind in the face of a vast, fundamentally mostly unknowable universe. Aliens that are completely inscrutable, technology that gets out of our control, etc. But the true master of the form is Philip K. Dick, whom Lem himself declared to be the savior of SF. For in Dick’s mind, if the universe is unknowable, reality itself must be considered suspect.
>But the true master of the form is Philip K. Dick, whom Lem himself declared to be the savior of SF. For in Dick’s mind, if the universe is unknowable, reality itself must be considered suspect.
And that is why most of Philip K. Dick’s work is not SF at all, but rather its antimatter inverse.
Nobody has improved on Greg Bear’s definition of SF in “The Ascent of Wonder.” SF is the branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its characteristic emotional experience the “sense of wonder”, the feeling of having suddenly understood the universe in a new and larger way. This definition is both explanatory and generative, accounting for characteristic features of the genre (such as indirect exposition) and of reader response to the genre. It also supports useful distinctions from neighboring genres such as fantasy and horror, and handles edge cases such as the technology-of-magic story.
To be fair, early in his career Dick did write some SF, but he lost both interest in doing so and the ability to try as his mind unraveled. He slipped gradually from literary psychotomimesis to psychosis – one of the morbid fascinations of reading him is trying to figure out when that line was crossed. The fact that Dick continued to use SFnal stage furniture in books that were really about his progressive disintegration and insanity is a distraction, and no more qualifies his later work as SF than references to lariats and sixshooters would have done to qualify it as Westerns.
Stanislaw Lem praised Dick because Lem has never actually understood SF (this is unlike Dick, who at least understood SF while he was still sane). Lem’s work is brilliant, but properly analyzed as allegorical fantasy that makes shallow use of SF imagery. In this it is much like (say) the Star Wars movies but not much like (say) Anathem (to choose a recent example of excellent SF).
Or a faithful adaptation of Dick’s edgier works. Ubik might be a good choice. I haven’t yet seen A Scanner Darkly…
In loose topicality to Mars and pulp SF, S.M. Stirling – who can be rather uneven in quality I grant – has a pair of novels that take as their premise that the early US/Soviet space programs found life on Venus and Mars. They can be seen as more modern homage to the pulp SF. “The Sky People” and “In the Courts of the Crimson Kings”. I think the latter is better than the first, but there is some macguffin introduced in the first that shows up in the second.
>They can be seen as more modern homage to the pulp SF.
Yeah, those were a lot of fun. They also illustrate how busted the charge that SF can’t do characterization is. That was a flaw the genre outgrew so long ago that even modern pastiches of pulp SF do it acceptably.
Mind you, if it comes to a zero-sum choice between characterization and sense of wonder, characterization can go piss up a rope. The notion that story necessarily has to center on character is an invention of 20th-century litcrit that would dismiss most of the world’s great literature from the epic of Gilgamesh onwards, not just SF.
I started re-reading the Mars series on Kindle just a few months ago, and didn’t even know the new movie was coming out. What a happy surprise to hear from several reliable sources that it’s well worth a look.
I definitely got the feeling from the preview that Dejah Thoris would be a bit of an uber-chick, and must admit to a mild bit of disappointment that they chose that route. Happy to hear the actress does well, though, and I look forward to seeing this myself.
I think it would have been refreshing for the ‘cardboard’ Dejah Thoris to have been retained. The challenge for the actress, writers and director would have been to make her as charming, disciplined and devoted as she was in the books. As thin as her character may have been, she showed emotional depth in the devotion she earned from her subjects and in the self-discipline she showed in the earlier book of sticking to her ideals and customs, such as when she was due to be wed to another when she truly loved John Carter. Classic pulp stuff, but I would love to see someone pull that sort of thing off and put aside the Sigourney Weaver routine for just a while.
Feminist heads would spin, but wouldn’t that only add to the joy?
A while back, I had the thought that just like “Jewish” refers to three frequently-overlapping but conceptually distinct things (religion, secular culture and ethnic group), “SF” can be described in terms of genre conventions (which is, I think, what you’re describing Stanislaw Lem as using), reading protocols (as in your “SF Words and Prototype Worlds” essay), or, as I like to think of it, a kind of constraint on writing. What do you think?
>”SF” can be described in terms of genre conventions (which is, I think, what you’re describing Stanislaw Lem as using), reading protocols (as in your “SF Words and Prototype Worlds” essay), or, as I like to think of it, a kind of constraint on writing. What do you think?
I think your notion of a constraint on writing is a primitive and local version of what Bear’s definition was driving at in a more global way. The requirement for consistency is a consequence of affirming rational knowability. I think you’re right, but Bear is way ahead of you.
Lem didn’t use genre conventions much at all. He used genre imagery extensively, but that’s different – he’s got robots and spaceships and aliens, OK, but you can’t back-read the causal structure of Lem’s worlds by applying SF reading protocols. You have to accept it as a kind of dream logic or narrativium in Terry Pratchett’s sense.
Further: my analysis in terms of reading protocols (which is actually a development of some of Samuel Delany’s ideas) in no sense conflicts with Bear’s definition or proposes an alternative to it. Rather, I’m describing the implementation of Bear’s definition – how the information required to affirm knowability is shared between authors and readers.
So I would say there are really only two possibilities in defining SF. You can focus on surface phenomena like the presence of robots and spaceships and aliens, or you can go for deep structure – which is what Greg Bear and I have tried to do. The deep-structure analysis is better because it better explains both authorial production of SF and reader response to SF.
>The deep-structure analysis is better because it better explains both authorial production of SF and reader response to SF.
A good test for any definition of SF is how it handles the technology-of-magic story. That is, how it explains the fact that SF readers like and respond to these stories in the same way they like and respond to SF with conventionally technological furniture.
If you focus on the imagery and furniture of a technology-of-magic story, you wind up puzzled as to why SF fans respond this way while fantasy fans generally find such exercises pointless and bewildering. On the other hand, if you look at deep structure. the mystery vanishes. SF fans like technology-of-magic stories because they can back-read causal structure out of them in the way I described in SF Words and Prototype Worlds. Bear’s assumption of rational knowability is affirmed.
Greg Bear’s definition doesn’t work (and did Bear write anything as good or as influential as anything by Lem or Dick?) and I suspect you just like that definition because it affirms your Golden Age Uber Alles viewpoint.
>Greg Bear’s definition doesn’t work
Explain how it fails, then? Think carefully before you answer; genre definitions have to correspond closely to reader response to be anything but masturbation, and on that level coming up with a superior alternative to Bear’s is quite difficult. Darko Suvin’s idea of SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement wasn’t too bad, but Bear’s definition largely subsumes it.
>(and did Bear write anything as good or as influential as anything by Lem or Dick?)
Neither Lem or Dick have had any lasting influence on SF itself. Bear, on the other hand, has – he was instrumental in the neo-Campbellian revival of the early 1980s. Lem and Dick are mostly worshiped by people who don’t like SF.
>I suspect you just like that definition because it affirms your Golden Age Uber Alles viewpoint
But I don’t actually have a Golden Age Uber Alles viewpoint. I cited _Anathem_ recently; one reason I did so is that I think it’s actually better work than most of the Golden Age novels one might compare it to. Greg Egan today beats the snot out of Hal Clement in 1940-1950. Charles Stross is better than his rough equivalents in the Golden Age – Alfred Bester, say. Michael Swanwick owns Fritz Leiber.
It would be fairer to claim that I have a Campbellian-SF-uber-alles viewpoint, but even that ignores some important details. I’m quite pleased that we no longer have to pretend that our characters lack genitalia (not actually Campbell’s fault; blame Kay Tarrant). I don’t have any trouble recognizing the best output of New Wave or cyberpunk, and I’m quite capable of recognizing important precursors like Rudyard Kipling and H.G. Wells. I’m glad we do characterization now, though I’m completely unwilling for idea content to be sacrificed to it.
No, what I’m loyal to is actually Bear’s definition of the SF field, and the mindset from which it springs. Reverence for the Golden Age is consequence, not cause – I’m quite clear-eyed about the ways that Golden Age SF was a flawed execution of what Bear was driving at.
I wasn’t disappointed. As tiresome as the “tomboy princess” trope can get, Lynn Collins is charming and fit enough to really make it work. And to their credit, the screenwriters tended to underplay Dejah’s tomboy characteristics. They even put her in that diaphanous bit of almost nothing when she is captured by the Zudangan Jeddak to evoke that old-school, seedy-pulp-novel-cover feel.
But oh man, in Helium battle armor, showing just enough skin to show she’s been to the gym… Lynn Collins as Dejah reminded me of those Vallejo-esque digital paintings floating around the net of bodybuilder Tomoko Kanda, dressed in bog-standard bikini chainmail, swords at the ready.
Not if you use a deep-structure analysis deliberately favoring Campbellian SF and rejecting Dick and Lem, et al.
Hmmm… I wonder how those would look like as anime by Studio Ghibli (c.f. “The Little Mermaid” as “Ponyo”). ;-)
@esr: What do you mean by “technology-of-magic story“? Could you give any [canonical] examples?
Is it something like “sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology” ;-) in Jacek Dukaj (Polish hard SF writer) short story “Ruch Genera?a” (“The Iron General”)?
>Could you give any [canonical] examples?
Yes. The canonical examples of technology-of-magic stories are Pratt & deCamp’s “The Mathematics of Magic” and Heinlein’s novelettes “Waldo” and “Magic, Inc.”, both from the early 1940s – historians of SF and fantasy generally consider the former the foundation example of this subgenre. For recent examples, see Ted Chiang’s 2002 anthology Stories Of your Life and Others; the piece titled Seventy-Two Letters is particularly notable.
Brandon Sanderson’s excellent Final Empire novels from a couple of years ago also qualify. Nowadays there seems to be some tendency to label this sort of thing “hard fantasy” and it may actually be getting some traction among people who think of themselves as fantasy fans (rather than SF fans who occasionally read fantasy).
In technology-of-magic stories we are presented with worlds in which magic works and all the usual figments of supernatural belief are quite real, but the operation of magic is constrained by laws that are as regular and rigorous as those governing physical processes. The plots of such stories often involve the discovery of these laws in much the same way and with the same emotional resonance that SF often turns on such discoveries.
Gregory Benford wrote the essay y’all are discussing. It’s a good essay. Probably worth noting that Benford isn’t defining hard SF as the only valid form of SF, nor is he putting it at the center in the way Eric does. The political elements are also Eric’s addition: Benford accurately cites Dune, The Forever War, and the Culture books as hard SF.
“Gregory Benford…isn’t defining hard SF as the only valid form of SF…”
Hmm, has he changed his mind? Didn’t he once use the term “playing tennis with the net down” to describe SF that violated physical laws? I wish I could find the source of the original quote.
“Gregory Benford has championed hard science fiction as the core of the sf genre, saying that any other type of science fiction is “playing tennis with the nets down” (Spinrad etc., 93).”
@Jakub Narebski, RE:
“Hmmm… I wonder how those would look like as anime by Studio Ghibli (c.f. “The Little Mermaid” as “Ponyo”). ;-)”
This is an interesting thought.
I’m not an “anime” guy but find it can be an effective and valid method of storytelling. One of my favorite series is the Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex seasons. The GitS steering committee did a great job of bringing the “near future” to life in a way that was (to me at least) accessible, demonstrating depth to the evolution of technologies and environments and bringing out the philosophical questions that an increasingly cyberized society would have to deal with. Essentially, they created a possible world in rich detail and history – one of my favorite components was the brief discussion on cyber-brain sclerosis that the some of the early adopters of cybertech developed.
I think that the CGI heavy, anime-based platform was the only avenue they had at the time that could really do this well. Someone mentioned Pixar earlier – they could probably do this too at this point and I think that some of Heinlein’s (and others’) works could be adapted for the screen via these methods. Or as with GitS, might be better told as a series rather than a single film. Said methods might be the only way to really make some of them work even, lest we wind up with another Matrix-esque trilogy.
But I don’t know really. Idle speculation from someone who does not write novels or make movies…
“The notion that story necessarily has to center on character is an invention of 20th-century litcrit that would dismiss most of the world’s great literature from the epic of Gilgamesh onwards, not just SF”
This is a development that I’ve thought about a few times. Why do you suppose this is? I’ve tried to come up with a few ideas but nothing really satisfactory. As you say about the epics, makes me think about stories such as Beowulf, Gilgamesh (as you said), etc. Where the point is often about the events/message/philosophy/etc. of the story and the characters are the tools to unfold the premise. Or even stories that are just…stories, not necessarily meant to be taken as more than entertainment (Barsoom, perhaps? Though one can usually find multiple layers to most things…)
Some character development is usually good; rounds it out and makes the story richer, but why the insistence on the absolute centrality of the character to the story? Any thoughts on that?
>why the insistence on the absolute centrality of the character to the story?
I don’t know – I know when that insistence developed, but I’d never thought about why. It happened sometime between 1870 and 1910, and one of its most effective critical champions was Henry James.
The first clue that occurs to me is that those were also the formative years of Freudian psychology. There’s probably a connection there, some common element of the Victorian zeitgeist motivating both.
Oh, he understood it. The core features of SF in your definition — specifically the conceit that the universe is knowable — are the things that Lem challenged and critiqued.
But he’s not writing CAMPBELLIAN sf, and there’s no place for that here.
Cathy: he absolutely defines it as the core of the field, but he also very clearly doesn’t think it’s the only true form of SF. The quote: “Yet the most simon-pure breed, that based on the physical sciences, strikes many more as the true core of the field. It yields the central images (spaceship, glittering future city, time machine, alien world) on which the rest of science fiction (sf) feeds.”
It’s interesting that he cites time travel as a central image. I think in the end you have to admit that the appearance of being based on physical science is more important than actually being rooted in the constraints of physical science: it’s a stylistic choice. I don’t think that actually weakens his argument, though. The really important thing is rigor once you’ve defined the laws of your environment. It’s logic-driven, not science-driven.
But back to your question — note that he says “the rest of science fiction.” He’s not at all denying that the rest of the field exists, and he’s happy to call it science fiction. He just thinks hard SF is the primary core of the genre, and that it’s better. The difference between centrality and exclusion is important.
“Lem and Dick are mostly worshiped by people who don’t like SF.”
Preach it, brother.
Is it too late to start a flame war on “SF” vs “SciFi”?
Just in passing, I noticed a trailer for John Carter (I actually quite liked the books, cheesy though they are) and got precisely one and a half bars into Kashmir before I managed to hammer ctl-W.
And now for a splash of cold water:
I thought the riff was appropriately bombastic.
I read several of the Mars books growing up and enjoyed them. I just came back from seeing the 3D version of the film with my family and reallyI found it to be quite good. The mix reviews for this film are maddening. Most of the negative reviews seemed to be written by people with the attention span of a two year old. For what it’s worth Disney and Pixar took a gamble with this project and put out a good product. Sadly, people don’t seem to appreciate it and the bad press will stop people from the chance of getting to enjoy this film.
@esr: “If you focus on the imagery and furniture of a technology-of-magic story, you wind up puzzled as to why SF fans respond this way while fantasy fans generally find such exercises pointless and bewildering.”
I find your distinction between “SF fans” and “fantasy fans” puzzling. I have not seen this distinction in the wild: Most of the SF fans I know also like fantasy, and vice versa. “Science fiction & fantasy” is seen as a single super-genre, and Heinlein and Tolkien are seen as having more in common with each other than either have with, say, Stanislaw Lem or the writers of “magical realism” novels.
I suppose you could be flirting with “no true Scotsman” – taking the view that most “science fiction fans” are actually fantasy fans who approach science fiction as if it were fantasy. This would account for the popularity of “soft” SF: For a fantasy fan reading SF, science-fictional hardness doesn’t matter and often will actually get in the way of the things he reads fantasy for.
Or is there another explanation?
>I find your distinction between “SF fans” and “fantasy fans” puzzling.
The people who produce and market both genres don’t; they know they’re selling to overlapping but distinct reader populations. That’s why publishing houses that do both often have separate SF and fantasy imprints marketed through slightly different channels.
Say what you will about China Miéville; PA certainly hasn’t held back.
What I do know, though, is that he is absolutely the future of SF.