Tag Archives: science fiction

On Road Trips and Road Literature, Part 2: American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Subtitled: America must be especially beautiful to people from other countries, but does it mean the same thing to them? Also, what’s the true meaning of the roadside attraction?

Four years ago my friends and I went to see Neil Gaiman speak at a local high school. He was charming, funny, and erudite, as I expected him to be, and as he continues to be on Twitter (1.7 million followers! What!). He showed us a sneak preview of the film adaptation of his children’s novel Coraline (a totally enchanting movie if you haven’t seen it). He read from his newest children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I bought a signed copy.

neil gaiman, author, american gods, fiction, novel

Neil Gaiman looking erudite.

Neil Gaiman is British, but lives in Minnesota, of all places– not New York or Los Angeles, but Minnesota. To me, that means he must know, and maybe love, America, because Minnesota is too remote and not-Britain to be ambivalent about. It’s the American heartland forgoodnesssake. I’ve always found that interesting, and American Gods, I feel, gives me a little more insight into how that residential paradox works.

American Gods is kind of a slow burn of a novel. I actually bought it for my boyfriend, on one of my first trips to Borderlands in the Mission (a totally enchanting sci-fi/fantasy bookstore on Valencia if you haven’t been there), because I knew he’d been wanting to read it. He started it, never finished it, said nothing was happening. It’s true that most of the story feels like a preparation for some big event (a war between the gods, incidentally), but after you stop waiting for the war to start, I think you can appreciate the burning.

american gods, neil gaiman, novel, fiction, literature

Things you can tell from the cover: That the book’s about gods, that a storm is coming.

Our hero is named Shadow, and he’s just gotten out of prison. There’s something special about Shadow that, being inside his head most of the time, we never completely understand. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t moralize much, he’s good in a fight and he accepts jobs from strange, potentially sinister men that he’s just met. But we know, from the little choices he makes, that he’s a good person anyway.

Part of Shadow’s disconnectedness from the world is because of the years he spent in prison. Part of it is because, right after he is released, his wife is killed in a car accident along with his best friend, who she had been having an affair with. So he starts his post-prison life in a kind of vacuum. No connections, no home, nothing and no one to care or live for.

He falls into a weird work relationship with a man he meets on the plane home, an older, bearded gentleman by the name of Wednesday. At this point, if you know anything about Norse mythology, you know who the guy’s supposed to be. I mean, the name of the book has gods in it! But while we might know who Wednesday is, we don’t really know what he’s up to—just that it has to do with a war, a coming storm (oldest metaphor in the book, am I right?!? e.g. “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne”), that it’s taking place in America. Also, that it has to do with the gods of the Old World (including the Old New World) and the gods of the millennium (read: technology, drugs, tabloids, etc).

Add to this the fact that Shadow is being followed around by his dead wife, and the fact that the small town Wednesday stashes him in between jobs is hiding a dark child-abducting secret, and there’s enough to keep your reading interest even if the storm takes forever to come.

One of my favorite touches in the novel is the way Neil Gaiman makes subtle observations about the American landscape. It’s something I like to do too, when I’m on the road: observe all the little idiosyncrasies, from road signs to billboards to store windows to restaurant decorations. When I feel like I’ve seen something special, that couldn’t be anywhere else in the world, it’s like a little, private victory to add to my collection.

utah, springdale, zion, road art

Art in front of a roadside cafe in Springdale, UT.

The epic nature of the mythological landscape feels special because it’s grounded in the real America. It feels like all of these places really exist, and that Neil Gaiman has probably been to them. It makes the book feel bigger than itself.

“They spent the night in a Super 8 motel south of La Crosse.” (234)

“They ate their Christmas lunch late in the afternoon in a hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned beans… [The waitress] wore a bright red-and-green skirt edged with glittering silver tinsel.” (234)

“Main Street, which they were on, was a pretty street, even at night, and it looked old-fashioned in the best sense of the word—as if, for a hundred years, people had been caring for that street and they had not been in a hurry to lose anything they liked.” (252)

In America everything goes on forever, said a voice in the back of his head. The 1950s lasted for a thousand years. You have all the time in the world.” (537)

On my road trip, I was everywhere looking for the real America. I thought I might find it in those same types of ephemera: signs, windows, décor. Nevada and southern Utah felt, in passing, like home—strip malls, gas stations, highways and Starbucks. And home for me isn’t special; it’s where I live, it’s home. I thought I found it, for a little bit, on Route 66 in Arizona. But I realized that to an extent, the tourist kitsch of Williams and Seligman were parodies of the real America, created in dialectic response to the expectations people have when they arrive. Looking at the droves of European tourists, I wondered if they could tell the difference. Of course, maybe all this time I’ve been living in the real America, and I’m the one who can’t tell the difference.

america, road trip, seligman, route 66

Gas station-turned-gift shop in Seligman, AZ.

My other favorite thing that Neil Gaiman does in American Gods is meditate on the nature and power of belief. The “gods” that are featured in the story are less like big-G gods who control the winds and the oceans and the fates of men, and more like beliefs made manifest who strengthen and weaken with people’s changing faith in them. To that extent, it’s unclear if these “gods” retain the core essence and identity of the actual god, or if they’re more an image, a shadow, a representation. (A question I had after the book: if these Old World gods were brought over by immigrants to America, is there a different, similar copy that remains in the Old World?)

Ancient mythology is referenced and re-lived, as when Shadow agrees to hang from the tree of life—Yggsdrasil or its Virginian farmland equivalent– for nine days and nine nights, something Odin does in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the Egyptian god Anubis works at a mortuary and eats slices of organs from the bodies he embalms.

But even more interesting, to me, was the way American mythology was identified and lived. The gods Shadow runs with are stronger, able to puncture dimensional fields, only from locations of deep significance. In America, these are tourist traps in remote places, where people make pilgrimage every vacation season. Most prominently:

1) The House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is where Shadow first witnesses the supernatural powers of the gods he is accompanying. They walk the tree-lined, Victorian-themed Streets of Yesterday, purchase fortunes from a machine using branded House on the Rock coin tokens, and ride an antique carousel to the strains of a slightly off-key Strauss waltz, which transports them to a separate dimension where they hold their godly council.

2) The center of the United States near Lebanon, Kansas, is where the Old gods hold a ceasefire meeting with the New, because neither has much power there—it’s a place of “negative sacredness”. This point was determined to be the U.S.’s geographic center in early 20th century, though the plaque had to be erected a few miles from the exact spot because a farmer didn’t want it on his land. The monument and the park and the hotel were meant to attract tourists, but never really did. Thus, the lack of power.

3) Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee, is where the final showdown takes place. The gods do battle over this mountain lookout that also has animatronic attractions and a seven-state vantage point.

I really like Gaiman’s ideas: that people’s beliefs have power, that places have power, that whether it’s a totemic and totalizing religion like Christianity, or an unshakeable positivistic belief in science; whether it’s fairy tales or animism or origins stories; or whether it’s just a lifestyle, a set of behaviors, an absorption in modern technology; it all means something because it requires some kind of faith, and because we are always searching someway somehow for something transcendent.

“The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.

“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” (536)

Note: Rumors that this will be an HBO series as early as next year. Confirmation?

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4 Upcoming Book-to-Film Adaptations Worth Getting Excited About

So the old adage goes, that the movie is never as good as the book. It’s kind of the elitist’s refrain: “It was alright, but the book’s better.” Translation: “I read the book. I’m smart. I read books. Everyone else was lazy and just watched the movie. They’re all jumping on the bandwagon now. I READ THE BOOK.”

Unfortunately in most cases it’s actually true. With a few exceptions—The Godfather (the book was kinda pulpy and doesn’t nearly achieve the expansiveness of the film), The Lord of the Rings (in concept, obviously, the books are unparalleled works of genius, but tell me if we really needed all the dense paragraphs of description of foliage and food that J.R.R. packs in that trilogy?)—filmmakers can never quite get the book right. At least not in a way that satisfies a book’s fans. I’m not making any statements about the validity of one art form over the other; it’s just that something gets lost in translation between the two.

(Note: There is never, ever, any valid reason to have a film-to-book adaptation. That’s straight up not a valid art form. Just gonna say it.)

Regardless, I still get excited whenever a book I like is being turned into a film. I’ve been disappointed before (ahem, The Golden Compass!) but I still hold out hope that the film will at least halfway capture the awesomeness of the book, or even just take something awesome about the book and run with it in a slightly different direction. It doesn’t have to be the same! It just has to respect the source material enough to make a good movie out of it, faithful to a T or no.

So here’s three book-to-film adaptations and one book-to-musical-to-film adaptation that I am really excited about and that, by implication, am also crossing my fingers they don’t totally ruin:

1) Life Of Pi

 yann martel, novel, fiction, tiger, boat, lifeboat

Yann Martel’s book—with its blue ocean cover and its big orange tiger– was a huge hit when it came out, though I came away with mixed feelings. It begins with an interesting take on faith: Pi, the teenage Indian narrator, actively practices three different religions, and rather petulantly states that despite his piety he prefers atheists to “muddled” agnostics because at least they believe in something. It moves on to a gripping story of adventure and survival as Pi is stranded on a lifeboat with a few of his zookeeper father’s charges, including an orangutan, a zebra, and, ultimately, after the rest die, only a tiger, with whom he must learn to coexist while surviving at sea. It’s a fantastic premise (in both senses of the word), and the “twist” at the end is intriguing, but in the end I wasn’t sure if I really liked the book or not. I might have to revisit.

ang lee, trailer, tiger, cgi, 3d

An extended scene trailer (which I could not find online) was shown before Prometheus for Ang Lee’s film adaptation, coming in November, a scene in which Pi and the tiger are caught in a flurry of flying fish and then engage in a battle of wills over the prize of a boat-stranded tuna. It looks amazing, despite my wariness of creatures with major screen-time being CGI. And Ang Lee has done well with book adaptations before (Brokeback Mountain, and from what I’m told, Sense & Sensibility) while also not doing well with a comic book adaptation (the Eric Bana Hulk). Level of promise: 7 out of 10.

2) The Great Gatsby

 f scott fitzgerald, the 1920s, jazz age, novel, american

This is the third Great Gatsby film that I’m aware of, the first being the 1970s film starring Sam Waterston as Nick the Narrator, Mia Farrow as Daisy, and Robert Redford as Gatsby, the second being the late 1990s TV miniseries starring Paul Rudd as Nick, Mira Sorvino as Daisy, and the guy who played a fake Caucasian/actual Korean in the last Brosnan Bond film as Gatsby. Rereading Gatsby a few years ago, I was surprised by how incredibly wordy it was. Both the denseness of its prose and its use of symbolism are a little hit-you-over-the-head (the optometrist’s eyes; the green light). But I still like the book. It’s a classic, you know? It wormed its way into the cultural fabric. And my heart.

So this version, slated for December release, has Tobey Maguire as Nick the Narrator, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (and Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfsheim… WTF!). That makes two out of three blond Gatsbys, even though I always pictured him brunet. Director Baz Luhrmann is known for his flamboyant over-the-top filmmaking, which has only worked once or twice (I love Moulin Rouge, and, yes, I enjoy Romeo + Juliet in spite of its ridiculousness, but I hear Australia was just plain terrible). But based on this trailer, it looks like he might have reined in some of his crazier impulses, and besides– the flashy, glittery, all-style-no-substance 1920s party scene might be particularly suited to his visual style. Level of promise: 8 out of 10.

3) Ender’s Game

 orson scott card, science fiction, nebula, young adult

For some reason Ender’s Game was assigned reading in eighth grade, and I remember it was just a fascinating and disturbing piece of young adult sci-fi that stayed in my head for awhile after. Ender Wiggin is a boy genius, the younger brother of two other geniuses, one brutal, one tender– he splits the difference between them. So, naturally, he’s recruited to the elite young person’s military academy in space to help in the war against an ant-like alien race. Orson Scott Card does not sugarcoat the violence of childhood—Ender is the victim of bullying on two occasions, and both times his tactical response is much worse than its provocation—nor for that matter the violence of adulthood, when Ender’s skills are finally put to horrifying use under the auspices of the military brass, which upsets him deeply and produces extreme moral ambivalence.

ender's game, hugo, star, fiction, science fiction

Asa Butterfield in Hugo

The film doesn’t come out til 2013, so not even any stills yet. But what I’m hoping for with this adaptation is that they avoid some Bridge to Terabithia shit (disclaimer: I didn’t see the film, but wasn’t the goddam book about your best friend dying? Why were the trailers filled with fantasy creatures? That shit was all in their heads! It’s not goddam Chronicles of Narnia!). Meaning, Ender’s Game is a dark and violent story, and it should remain as such. Hugo star Asa Butterfield is Ender, and True Grit star Hailee Stanfeld is Petra, and Little Miss Sunshine Abigail Breslin is Valentine. Harrison Ford’s there too (kinda weird). Orson Scott Card talked about the challenges of translating the Battle Room to film—anti-gravity and all that—so looks like they’re taking the technology seriously. Level of promise: 6 out of 10.

4) Les Misérables

victor hugo, book, french, fiction, novel

Book cover

musical, cameron mackintosh, french, stage, theater

Musical poster

Of all the dramatically over-the-top blockbuster musical overproductions this is my absolute favorite. (The only other one is Phantom of the Opera, anyway, and Les Mis is like TEN TIMES better.) I’ve never read the book, so I can’t speak for its translation from book to musical—though I’m sure it’s not exactly faithful. But I can and will speak for its translation from crazy awesome musical to movie musical.

(There is a 1998 film version of Les Miserables, NOT the musical but the book, starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Uma Thurman as Fantine, Claire Danes as Cosette, but I never saw it all the way through. And when I first heard about it, not gonna lie, I was a little disappointed they were not singing.)

Jean Valjean, liam neeson, les miserables, film

Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, 1998

geoffrey rush, les miserables, film, movie

Geoffrey Rush as Javert, 1998

(The book also spawned elements of The Fugitive—the film, and, I’m assuming, the TV show it was based on. Harrison Ford is a Valjean, Tommy Lee Jones is a Javert. “I didn’t kill my wife!” “I don’t care!”)

Javert, tommy lee jones, i don't care

Javert-ian Tommy Lee Jones, 1993

So Les Mis is basically one of the biggest musicals ever produced. It was written by French guys Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel (?) Schonberg, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and imported to the U.S. and England and is now all over the world. It has a gigantic cast, a gigantic orchestra, a gigantic rotating stage, a gigantic effing barricade that people wave French tricolor flags from. It has thirty themes that you hear twenty times each. It has big hit songs (“On My Own,” “I Dreamed a Dream”). It has an epic struggle between righteousness and goodness. It’s possible to recognize, criticize, and fully and totally embrace the heavyhandedness of the whole overburdened enterprise, because it’s just that engaging and invigorating and exciting, and it’s just substantive enough to not feel bad about loving it.

In the film version coming out in December, we have Hugh Jackman playing Jean Valjean (no stranger to musicals, but no easy part!), Anne Hathaway playing Fantine, Russell Crowe playing Javert, Amanda Seyfried playing Cosette. It’s directed by The King’s Speech’s Tom Hooper. The trailer shows Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream” over a montage of scenes. Even if this movie is terrible, I will enjoy it, because if nothing else it’ll have a lot of awesome music. Level of promise: 9 out of 10.

Ah, screw it. They all get 10 out of 10! Make it good guys.

Brave New World and 7 Horrifying Dystopias

Within the first few pages of Brave New World I felt an odd sense of déjà vu. At first I was like, why does this feel so familiar when I haven’t read it before? After some real soul-searching*, I found the answer. Of course it feels familiar. Because it’s a mid-twentieth century Western work of dystopian fiction. There are so many, and I have read many, and there are also many dystopian movies, etcetera; not unlike rom-coms, I’m pretty sure we all recognize the tropes and conventions and conceits of the genre (in the latter: rushing to the airport to stop a plane! writing a big-break magazine article but then falling in love with your subject! bearing your heart obtusely at a major press conference!)

*This is an exaggeration.

Not to say I didn’t enjoy it. The book, written in 1932 (my copy is from 1946! Isn’t it cute!), as might be expected, includes an uncomfortable portrayal of Native Americans, who are called “savages”, as in, Bernard and Lenina go to visit the Savage Reservation for vacation, though ultimately the word “savage” becomes an exercise in irony because the character saddled with the name the Savage (John, born of a white civilized mother but raised on the Savage Reservation) is the requisite Realizer (but then– double irony!– underneath his more-civilized uncivilizedness he’s just as savage as all humankind). I made up this term, Realizer, but essentially that’s the character in the dystopian novel who Realizes that all is not well, that this perfect society isn’t so perfect after all; and, because of his crazy different-ness, in some way seeks to challenge it. John is joined in his Realization by two male friends, born and raised civilized: the one, Bernard, comes to it because he is smaller, weaker, less handsome than the other Alphas (his high caste) and consequently resentful; the other, Helmholtz, because he loves to write but can’t find anything worth writing about. ‘Cause shit’s just too damn perfect! (I like Helmholtz. If I lived in this book and was a very handsome male, I would be Helmholtz.)

The conceit of each fictional dystopian society changes, but also seems to remain the same. Because I like making lists, and because lists are generally less demanding of the intellect as befits an Internet blog post, here are my top 7 dystopian societies from over the years.

1) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932, England)

brave new world, aldous huxley, sci fi, dystopia
The Conceit
: No natural reproduction, no families, no relationships. Happiness, productivity are privileged over knowledge, meaning. People are genetically and conditionally placed into castes, Alpha down to Epsilon. Everyone knows their place and fits into it perfectly. Sex is casual and with many partners. Consumerism is rampant. Daily rations of soma (a hallucinatory drug) keep everybody happy.
But Then!
: Bernard and his short-term partner Lenina bring John the Savage back to “civilization,” which John hopes will be a “brave new world” (he reads a lot of Shakespeare) but he is instead horrified by the callous, meaningless society he finds. After weeks of being paraded around town as a kind of fascinating curio, he spectacularly snaps and is consequently brought before Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the London district and the only other man who’s read Shakespeare.
How Much Would It Suck? (1-10, 10 being the suckiest)
: 6. At least everyone is incredibly superficially happy. Minus one (minus negative one, that is) for no books.

2) Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953, USA)

ray bradbury, sci fi, dystopia, novels
The Conceit: Books are considered offensive — every part of every book was offensive to some person or group— so they are banned. TVs take up walls and empty, unthinking entertainment is privileged. “Firemen” set fires instead of putting them out, and no one remembers anything different. They burn books and the houses of those who have books.
But Then!
: Montag, a fireman, starts thinking critically about his society after meeting his misfit neighbor Clarisse, who disappears shortly after they meet. He begins taking the books he is supposed to burn and comes into conflict with the Fire Chief.
How Much Would It Suck?
: 7. Burning books. Straight up not having books. Not my kind of place.

3) The Giver, by Lois Lowry (1993, USA)

lois lowry, the giver, young adult, sci fi

A cover that screams “I’ve won a Newbery.”

The Conceit: Jobs are assigned, marriage partners are assigned, children are limited to two. Emotional attachments are downplayed, including between parents and children; pills are taken to suppress emotions called “Stirrings”. People cannot see color. A Committee of Elders runs the society; when people commit infractions, they can be “Released”, which (duh) actually means they are killed by lethal injection. Same thing happens when people reach a certain age.
But Then!
: Jonas, a 12-year-old boy, is assigned to be the “Receiver of Memories” for his job, which is the one person in society who keeps the memories of what it was like before. When being trained by the current Receiver (now “the Giver”) he learns what love, color, knowledge, etc were like and questions whether it wasn’t better in the old days.
How Much Would It Suck?
: 4. I don’t know. I mean, the whole job assignment thing is kinda cute. And black and white can be pretty. Plus it’s Young Adult so it can’ t be that bad.

4) “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut (1961, USA)

kurt vonnegut, monkey house, short story, harrison bergeron

As found in Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut’s compilation of short stories.

The Conceit: Everyone is made to wear “handicaps” to temper their natural gifts: beautiful people wear masks, strong people wear heavy weights, smart people wear buzzers that go off at regular intervals in their ears and disrupt their thoughts. This is regulated by a Handicapper General named Diana Moon Glampers.
But Then!
: Harrison Bergeron, a larger-than-life 14-year-old boy recently imprisoned for handicap-related violations, escapes and makes his way to a TV ballet program, where he encourages the most beautiful, graceful ballerina there to shed her handicaps and they dance a soaring, gorgeous dance until the Handicapper General shows up.
How Much Would It Suck?
: 9. The smartness-handicap George wears really freaks me out.

5) The Cure, by Sonia Levitin (1999, Germany/USA)

sonia levitin, sci fi, dystopia, fiction, young adult
The Conceit: Again, no emotions, no diversity, no independent thought. People follow set career paths and live for 120 years. Society governed by Elders who keep everyone in check. For those who seem to deviate from societal dictates, there is a mysterious Cure that puts them back on the path. (I’m not actually sure how well-known this novel is. It’s YA, like The Giver, but The Giver was assigned reading in school and this wasn’t. It’s just that I remember reading The Cure recreationally in high school and enjoying it, and it is surely a worthwhile contribution to the genre.)
But Then!
: The main character and his twin sister are assigned to the Cure because he has been having strange dreams and striking out with violence. Turns out, the Cure puts them in the bodies of two Jewish children living in 1348 Germany, at the onset of the Black Death. They see firsthand how horrible the old humanity was and why it’s better to live with no emotions, no diversity. Of course, despite this, by the end the twins still aren’t entirely convinced that humanity run rampant is worse than humanity kept in brutal check. (Science fiction-y AND historical! Fun.)
How Much Would It Suck?
: 7. Not sure, but if 1348 Germany-as-a-Jew is better, this future can’t be very pleasant.

6) A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962, England)

a clockwork orange, anthony burgess, san francisco, dystopia
The Conceit
: This is a relatively near future, so society isn’t so drastically different. Young people speak in Nadsat, a Russian-based slang language. Despite the apparent existence of law and order, chaos often reigns in the streets as teenagers like protagonist Alex and his friends engage in street fights, break enter and steal, sexually assault and rape.
But Then!: Alex is sent to prison for his crimes, where he is volunteered as the guinea pig for the Ludovico Technique, a cure that trains him to physiologically associate violence and rapine with feelings of horrible nausea.
How Much Would It Suck?: If the scenes in this book are at all representative, 9 if you’re a woman, 3 if you’re a man.

7) 1984, by George Orwell (1949, England)

george orwell, big brother, sci fi, dystopia, novel
Well, shit. I haven’t read it.

Big Brother, yada yada yada.

I think the takeaway themes here are abhorrence of consumerism, capitalism, fascism, totalitarianism, socialism, anarchism– pretty much every -ism running rampant thru 20th-century societies– and implicit celebration of diversity, knowledge, BOOKS, and, I guess, reproducing and growing old the old-fashioned way. Kinda all over the spectrum, but also really similar. Any others I’m missing?

a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick, film

I have to say though the droogie outfits from A Clockwork Orange’s Kubrickian adaptation are pretty effing awesome, not to mention the bottom layer mascara.

Ray Bradbury, minority voices, and super old white dudes

Last Friday night, my boyfriend and I were arguing about Ray Bradbury in Target.

Well, “arguing” might be a strong word. It was more like a vigorous debate. And during such debates, my normally socially inhibited self suddenly forgets that other Target shoppers can hear the argumentative overtones of our conversation and my exasperated denunciations of “super old white dudes.”

Okay, I wasn’t straight up denouncing old white dudes. My grandpa was one, and so were some of my favorite authors. What it was, was this:

Ray Bradbury. My boyfriend recently finished both The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451. I myself haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 since ninth grade, and I didn’t like it. Paul says I should give it another try. I agree with this assessment.

What I didn’t agree with was Paul’s summary of Bradbury’s position (the position, not the summary) on so-called “minority voices.” Bradbury felt — and this was part of where Fahrenheit came from — that art should be free from the meddling and censorship of people who felt offended or took issue with any part of the artist’s work. Specifically, he brings up, there were a couple instances when he was written to and chastised(?) for not having greater minority representation in The Martian Chronicles. “No strong female characters,” a woman wrote. “No African-American characters,” an African-American wrote.

Apparently, this really pissed Bradbury off. I mean, I’m with him up to the censorship point. But lumping these “minority voices” in with whitewashed school editions and straight-up book banners makes Bradbury look like the asshole. Venturing into both the wrong side and the logical conclusion of the artistic expression debate: “Leave my work the f*** alone, even if I’m a racist old bastard perpetuating white male hegemony.”

For the record, I don’t really think Bradbury is a racist old bastard. What bothers me isn’t the fact that his casts were so white, or his heroes so male. It isn’t his demand for artistic freedom, or his morality in Fahrenheit (which I think can be read and appreciated from a lot of different angles, all over the political spectrum). What bothers me is his entitlement to complain so profusely about “minority voices.” It’s his position as a sci-fi writer of great repute, great success, who feels affronted by a few non-influential minority group representatives who, lacking the power to effect widespread change on a culture that overwhelmingly fails to represent them, had the gall to voice their concerns to him in ultimately ineffectual written missives.

I don’t know how passionate or how enduring a cause this is in Bradbury’s life, so I don’t know how much to hold it against him (though if this 1996 Playboy interview is any indication, it stuck with him for decades). I’ve read other letters he’s written, including this one to a teenage fan, and he actually seems like an entirely charming and funny guy. So I want to like him, very much.

LOL @ Whale of a Different Color. Photo credit: Paris Review.

What this all, also, gets into is the wider issue of minority representation in media and culture– almost an “affirmative action” of sorts, most recently embodied in the criticisms around HBO’s new series “Girls” (which quickly evolved/devolved into a debate about hipster racism). In a society and culture machine still dominated by whites, do white artists have a responsibility to represent minority voices? If they don’t, are they entitled to complain incessantly that people are telling them they do? If they are, is there a way they can do it without sounding like an asshole?

Sci-Fi Side Note: Been watching the Alien franchise for the first time. My favorite is Alien, Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. It’s for a lot of reasons– including the fact that its closest competitor, James Cameron’s Aliens sequel, is essentially the same plot with more people, more explosions and a little girl instead of a cat– but I especially love how the last three people in Alien to survive are the two women and the black guy. Ripley, of course, being a particularly kick-ass white lady. Ostensible white male hero (Dallas, no less) is murdered in the middle of the pack. Hurray for defied expectations.

So in conclusion:

Can I still like Fahrenheit 451?
Can I still like Ferris Bueller? (John Hughes was apparently some kind of hardcore Reaganite conservative.)
Does it make a big difference what the intent of the work was — if it can be received differently? If the creator’s political views actually were not expressed, intentionally or unintentionally, in the work?

All in all Ray Bradbury is and will continue to be an old white dude– hanging in strong at 91. Enjoy his books, enjoy him; just don’t hafta agree with everything he says.

Bradbury: Even more depressing is that I foresaw political correctness 43 years ago.

Playboy: In Fahrenheit 451, too?

B: Yes. [At one point, another character,] the fire chief, describes how the minorities, one by one, shut the mouths and minds of the public, suggesting a precedent: The Jews hated Fagin and Shylock – burn them both, or at least never mention them. The blacks didn’t like N***** Jim floating on Huck’s raft with him – burn, or at least hide, him. Women’s libbers hated Jane Austen as an awfully inconvenient woman in a dreadfully old-fashioned time – off with her head! Family-values groups detested Oscar Wilde – back in the closet, Oscar! Communists hated the bourgeoisie – shoot them! An on and on it goes. So whereas back then I wrote about the tyranny of the majority, today I’d combine that with the tyranny of the minorities. These days, you have to be careful of both. They both want to control you. The first group, by making you do the same thing over and over again. The second group is indicated by the letters I get from the Vassar girls who want me to put more women’s lib in The Martian Chronicles, or from blacks who want more black people in Dandelion Wine.

P: Do you respond to them?

B: I say to both bunches, Whether you’re a majority or minority, bug off! To hell with anybody who wants to tell me what to write. Their society breaks down into subsections of minorities who then, in effect, burn books by banning them. All this political correctness that’s rampant on campuses is b.s. You can’t fool around with the dangerous notion of telling a university what to teach and what not to. If you don’t like the curriculum, go to another school. Faculty members who toe the same line are sanctimonious nincompoops! It’s time to stop the trend. Whenever it appears, you should yell, “Idiot!” and back them down. In the same vein, we should immediately bar all quotas, which politicize the process through lowered admission standards that accept less-qualified students. The terrible result is the priceless chance lost by all.