Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I have this bad habit of surfing the Internet in the morning, reading news and economics. Today's depressing information is from Scientific American: global warming may have reached the point of being irreversible. The article talks about the melting ice caps, Amazonian forests dying of drought, the oceans acidifying and the Siberian permafrost melting, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

Just what I want before nine a.m.

I try to figure out the minds of the world's ruling class. The obvious thing to do right now is save the planet. They are living on it, and there is no alternative home nearby. (Stan Robinson's explanation for the terraforming of Mars in his trilogy was: the rich needed a place to flee, when Earth finally collapsed. A brilliant explanation, I thought. But they haven't done the work. Mars, like every other nearby planet, is not habitable.)

Instead, the rich continue to use up the planet's resources and fight any attempt to stop global warming. At the same time, they strip mine public wealth -- schools, highways, everything we own in common -- and the wealth of all other classes, even though doing this makes societies more miserable and unstable. Do they think the things they enjoy -- Fifth Avenue, shopping in Paris, the opera, art museums, big league sports, theater -- will continue to exist in an impoverished world? Maybe they do. The rich in third world countries manage comfortable lives. Though the third world countries sell to first world countries, and third world rich people can vacation in New York and Paris. What if the first world does not exist?

Maybe they think money will save them, when the climate hits the fan. I imagine armed and armored enclaves, where the rich live, protected by their own security forces and served by their own doctors and lawyers and engineers. Outside is a howling wasteland, inhabited -- if at all -- by savages. This is why I liked John Carter. The movie's Mars is our future.

But this is a short term solution. If the climate continues to deteriorate, the enclaves will not last. On Mars in the movie, only two cities remain, one a monstrous predator, the other lovely and refined and doomed to fall without the help of John Carter and the green Martians, the planet's savages.

It's also possible that the rich believe there are no consequences. Nothing they do or refuse to do will harm them.

Or it's possible they don't think. I have compared the rich to great white sharks in the past -- good at what they do, but not among the planet's thinkers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John Carter

This is a comment by Foxessa on my pop culture posts:
Movies and comix, like most pop culture (not the same as popular culture, which is actually culture, that sustains individuals and communities), leave us ultimately unhappy in a the same way that eating nothing but popcorn for three days will do.

So I obsess instead on history and historians and trends and objective that run through our national expression and behaviors, economically and culturally, since the beginning of the colonial eras.

This can be depressing, which pop culture isn't supposed to be, since nothing has really changed historically, it seems, as we're in the depths of the same rhetoric and tactics to re-enslave African Americans and put women back in the kitchen and nursery.

Yet history gives me energy and exhilaration, while pop culture makes me feel sick and tired, and really depressed.

At one point I tried to distinguish between popular art, which was art created by the people, and mass art, which was art created for the people. Hollywood is mass art, created by people who are upper middle class or upper class for the masses. It can incorporate genuine critiques of society, but the critiques are limited and no real resolution is possible. Or so I would argue. Still, at the moment, I am scarfing up Hollywood movies. I saw John Carter last night. The movie has an odd effect, which I don't remember from the books. The two Martian cities, populated by red Martians, come across as elite. One city is brutal and destructive, rather like the ancient Romans, who made a wasteland and called it peace. It moves, grinding its way across Mars and destroying everything in its way. The other city is lovely and refined and rather ineffectual, almost like the Eloi. The green Martians, on the other hand, come across as the riffraff of Mars: tough people living in a brutally tough world. But rather likable. We are told that the cities have destroyed Mars, and it's up to the green Martians to save the planet. Noble savages, I guess. Maybe it's an SOS from the intellectuals in the ruling class to the rest of us: come and save us from the monster hedge fund managers.

Anyway, I am stuck on mass culture for the moment.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Iron Man Yet Again

Over at Facebook Gregory Feeley commented that both Iron Man movies have Hollywood happy endings. Tony is still rich and powerful. He gets the girl, and he is -- sort of -- hapyy. I wrote:
I agree about the Hollywood endings. But there are elements in both movies that undercut the Hollywood glitz. The gritty misery of Afghanistan and post-Soviet Russia. The desperate anger of Ivan Venko and the utter decency of the Afghan doctor. This is the world outside Tony's bubble, which he really never leaves -- except to be Iron Man, encased in his suit. And the question of weapons production and the American military industrial complex. There is no nice resolution of that in either movie.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Iron Man 2 Again

From facebook:
We watched Iron Man 2 again last night. The movie does not work, but the two trade show scenes -- Tony Stark opening the Stark expo and Justin Hammer introducing his company's new line of war robots -- are both lots of fun in an utterly awful way. Mickey Rourke did just fine as the Russian thug/scientist Ivan Venko, and I liked the grit and poverty of the Russian scenes, a good contrast to Tony and Justin's lives. I liked the song that ran behind the ending credits, all about the future is now. It had a fine 50s-60s peppy corporate sound, like "Better living through electricity" and "Progress is our most important product." The movie of Tony's dad also has a fine period flavor and makes a nice contrast with the present. Tony's dad could talk about technology and business producing a better tomorrow. Justin Hammer can only talk about killing, killing, killing. So, the movie tells us, American capitalism used to talk about dreams of the future. Now, it's about repulsive displays of wealth and glitz, and it's about killing.

I remember watching movies in the 1960s and trying to decode them. What did they say about our society? What were people in Hollywood and maybe in the audience thinking? And now I am doing it again.

Thursday, March 15, 2012


So what is the appeal of an obsession? The kind I'm talking about doesn't matter, and that is absolutely key. Sports are an example. Most Americans are viewers, not participants. In the end, which team wins does not change their lives in material ways, though they may care passionately about their team.

The friendly online dictionary defines hobby as: "an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation." I think this is what I'm talking about, though the online dictionary defines obsession as: "the domination of one's thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc." This sounds less pleasant than a hobby.

Maybe what I'm talking about is something between a hobby and an obsession, which is the way many Americans treat sports.

Crucial is the idea of an amateur, I think: a person who does something out of love, for pleasure, not to gain money or fame or to change the world. A peace activist is not an amateur, because she believes that what she does matters, that the world must be change.

A professional writer is no longer writing out of pure love, because career considerations have become important. In a sense, writers destroy their own pleasure when they go from amateurs to pros. That doesn't mean that writing can't be fun, but there are other issues now.

Having an obsession can allow us to rediscover the old fannish pleasure, and I suspect it can be a way to recharge. Wow! I remember now! Fiction can engage our emotions, not our sense of craft. We don't have to always think about the market. Fiction can be fun.


Cross posted from the Wyrdsmiths:

After talking to Lyda about her current interest in anime, I decided I needed an obsession, something I could pour energy into that was not immediately useful. I think what you learn from an obsession can be useful later. What is the emotional hook? Why do you care so much? Can you (assuming you are a writer) find a way to make your own writing comparably compelling?

So I am obsessing about Marvel action movies at the moment... I like Thor because of the basis in Norse myth. Yes, the myth is twisted, but it's still there; and the movie is visually amazing: Asgard and Jotenheim are science fiction book covers come to life, and the New Mexico sections are wonderfully gritty and down home. I like Iron Man because Robert Downey Jr. is an awesome jerk, and because the two Iron Man movies are about weapons and the use of weapons, an interesting and important theme.

I'm not sure how long this obsession will last. There aren't really all that many Marvel action movies; and I'm not sure the effects of an action movie -- based so much on special effects and really big explosions -- can be transferred to fiction. But I really like the moral ambiguity of Iron Man and the use of myth (Norse and science fictional) in Thor.

More on Movies

I was sick yesterday and spent the day in bed. Some kind of food poisoning. I feel better today. Anyway, having nothing much else to do, I tried to fix the plot of Iron Man 2. A mental exercise. I didn't actually get out pen and paper or computer.

I couldn't do it. The emotional center of the movie isn't Tony Stark. It's his business rival Justin Hammer and the Russian physicist and ex-con Ivan Venko. Venko is as brilliant as Tony, but life has been hard on him. He blames the Stark family and wants to kill Tony. Hammer thinks he can use Venko to create new weapons for his company. You look at Hammer, radiating hubris, and Venko, radiating menace, and you think, "This isn't going to work."

So the movie is about the creation of weapons meant to destroy Tony Stark. In the end Venko is killed and one imagines that Hammer's stock goes through the basement after the wonderful trade show scene in which Hammer's robots turn into weapons of mass destruction right there on the stage. It's a terrific scene. Venko, tapping away at a laptop with his tattooed hands, takes control of the robots by remote control and turns them on the trade show audience. And Tony as Iron Man saves the day.

The problem with the movie is the motivation and the tinkering are all with Venko and Hammer. So Tony is given a motivation and a reason to tinker. The arc reactor (a magic shining disk in his chest) that keeps him alive is failing. He needs to find a new material to power it -- or do something with it. Anyway, a mid-1970s movie of his deceased father turns out to be a coded message describing a new element, which Tony is able to synthesize, using a home-made accelerator built in his basement. It works in the arc reactor. Tony will live.

I don't buy any of this. My belief unsuspends. I also don't like the sentimentality of Tony being saved by his father from the grave. This part of the plot is shoddy. Less shoddy, but also problematic, is Tony making his assistant Pepper Potts the CEO of his company. He does this because he's dying. But on top of all his problems Pepper is serious about her new job, and Tony finds himself becoming irrelevant to the company and her. Well maybe. It's fun, but it doesn't tie in with the movie's central issue which is weapons and the use of weapons.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Iron Man 2

This is what I posted about Iron Man 2 on Facebook, mostly in response to Gregory Feeley’s suggestion that the movie is based on the second half of the play Hamlet and the conflict between Hamlet and Laertes.
We saw Iron Man 2 last night. It was not as good as the first movie, but worth seeing, I guess. There is too much action and not enough character. The plot appears to have been designed by a committee. And while I am willing to cut a Marvel action flick a lot of slack, I refuse to believe that Tony could create a previously unknown, stable, transuranic element with a home made accelerator in his basement. Why should I stumble there, but not at the arc reactor? Because the first movie went very quickly over the arc reactor, explaining nothing. I thought, that's nice. That's warp drive. On with the story.

Is the other jerk military contractor/merchant of death Laertes? I kind of saw the movie as a battle of the jerks, with Tony as the likable jerk and Hammer as the dislikable jerk. The Russian gangster scientist is a not a jerk, but a guy who is avenging his father. Hey, he's a parallel for Tony. I really disliked the message from Tony's father from beyond the grave. I think Nick Fury should have said, "Your father loved you," and Tony should answer, "I'm sorry. I don't believe you." And let the situation rest there.

Gregory replied that the Russian gangster-scientist is Laertes, determined to avenge his father.
The Russian is an impressive character. Like the Afghan doctor in the first movie, he reminds us that there is world outside Tony's glamorous capitalist world. He's as brilliant as Tony, but a different life, a different father and a different country have made him a thug. Of course, Tony is also a thug, but a likable, glamorous thug. There's a real moral ambiguity in both movies, as they move between the worlds of Russian crime, Afghan banditry and the American military industrial complex, all three worlds tied together.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Good News

I got some good news. The rights to Ring of Swords have been reverted to me -- were reverted two years ago, but there was a failure in communication between my agent and me. This means I can explore getting it back in print in both paper and electronic versions.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Another editor bounced another one of my stories. I'm feeling discouraged, but then I have always been easily discouraged. And my work has never been especially easy to sell. I tell myself it usually sells in the end, except when I realize a given story has problems and retire it.

Iron Man and Marvel Action Flicks

This is a couple of posts from facebook:

Gregory Feeley suggested that Iron Man is the story of Hamlet: Stark's father is dead and his foster father is a monster, as he discovers. I wrote:
We were discussing Iron Man as a Hollywood version of Hamlet, Gregory's idea, which I can pretty much see. In that case, Thor is a Hollywood version of Othello -- the strong, simple hero tricked by a manipulative sneak. I saw Thor as similar to Othello, because Loki is played so much like Iago, though the movie gives Loki motivations, which Iago does not have. I can't see any play by Shakespeare in Captain America.

I saw Thor as the story of a god learning to be a decent human being, and Captain America as a decent human being learning to be an almost god. I'm less sure about Iron Man. At the start Tony Stark is rich, famous and brilliant, with everything except a human heart. At the end he has a damaged, vulnerable heart that is able to feel and an awesome suit. What does this mean? Stark is cognate with the Old Norse word sterkr, which means strong. In English, it means sheer, bleak, complete, desolate and a lot of similar terms. Stark mad. Stark naked. I think the primary meaning here would be bleak or desolate.

Josh Lukin pointed out that the comic's creators would have known the word "stark" from Yiddish, where it means strong. So Tony Stark's name probably means strong, with secondary meanings of sheer, bleak and desolate. His life in the movie is pretty desolate.
We saw Iron Man again last night. I think Jeff Bridges does a good job with his role (which is Stark's foster father). He is playing Obediah as a sociopath, and I think that works. The movie devotes most of its time to tinkering and action, so there isn't a lot of time left for character development and back story. There's a lot we don't know about all the characters. I am more troubled by the Magic Afghan, who helps Tony build the first suit and dies to save Tony; and I'm also troubled by Tony blazing his way around the world to save an Afghan village. It feels a bit creepy, given the extent to which current Afghan problems are caused by foreign invasions, including an American invasion. On the other hand, the moral ambiguity or darkness around Tony's line of business (armaments) is nicely done.
Tony is the merchant of death as a superhero, which is different.