Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hobbits in Fiscal-Land (And a Nod to Daniel Abraham)

Middle Earth found itself embroiled this week in the American debt ceiling and budget negotiations, as the Wall Street Journal labeled the Tea Partiers "debt-limit hobbits." Senator McCain quoted at length from the WSJ editorial on Wednesday, sparking a series of Tolkien-inspired retorts from the Tea Party (among others, Senator Rand Paul said he would rather be a hobbit than a troll) and commentary from Stewart and Colbert, all of which led the WSJ to editorialize again yesterday about hobbits as relating to the current financial debate.

Two thoughts come to mind, one particular, one general:

* To the extent that there is a tea party and an extremely urgent time limit, and a set of definitions, principles and posturings that seem to hail from the other side of the looking glass, I think we are in the adventures of Alice rather than those of Frodo & Sam.

* Middle Earth, and very nearly all other worlds created within speculative fiction, is curiously devoid of financial elements. In most fantasy worlds-- no matter how gritty and real-- the economy is primitive, formal economic principles unstated or unknown, the study of economics non-existent or, at best, ill-defined. Middle Earth is seemingly a cash-&-carry place, without fiscal policy or possibly any taxation whatsoever-- these matters simply do not rise to the level of importance held by, say, rings of power, the flight of the elves, and the return of the king. Dragons and dwarves make terrible bankers, being content to hoard without circulating wealth, let alone extend credit. (Smaug's reaction to a withdrawal from his accumulated riches is not one intended to gain him a commercial franchise). For the most part, "the merchant" is a stock figure in fantasy, especially of the swords-&-sorcery variety, but the mechanics of wealth creation, of investment, risk, innovation, return, etc. find no foothold in the genre.

All of which is a pity because the genre would benefit from including economic and financial aspects in the plot and in the development of characters. The majority of generic fantasy worlds are modeled on medieval Europe... yet, by 1200 western Europe had built a sophisticated economy based on technological gain, division of labor, local markets, long-distance trade, nuanced and voluminous banking networks, and emerging states increasingly successful in gathering tax and creating currency. The sophistication is even greater in the medieval Islamic world and in the Chinese Empire.

(A wonderful exception to genre fantasy's economics blindspot: Daniel Abraham, whose Long Price quartet and The Dragon's Path make the workings of trade and finance integral to the plot; he has clearly studied Renaissance Italian banking and merchanting, and put what he learned to very good use.)

So, if by "hobbit" the Wall Street Journal and Senator McCain mean "economic know-nothings", the appellation is pretty close to the mark. It remains to be seen if other hobbitish traits are in evidence as well, for instance, the hobbits' great common sense and pragmatic nature, and -- above all-- their deep caring for one another, especially in times of dearth. The hobbits triumphed, not because they sought or wielded great power, but because they took pains to care for their little Elanors and their Old Tooks. In the end, their larders are full and they have in their dwellings items worth more-- as Gandalf says to Thorin Oakenshield--than those in the halls of some dwarves.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Rod Serling in Ithaca; Phantasmaphile Covers Vienna; The Cascadian Subduction Zone, and Sundry Other Good Things

We're melting like votive candles here in New York City, smothered by record-setting heat and humidity along with the rest of the Northeast. Too hot and exhausted to think original thoughts, the lobster and the canary will instead find refuge in the cool ideas of others.

Some recent good things that have landed in our mailbox:

* The Rod Serling Conference at Ithaca College (NY): Elena Pizarro writes to announce that this year's conference takes place September 9-10. Serling taught at Ithaca College 1967-1975; the college houses his archives. Click here for more information.

* Valerie McKenzie sends her gallery's summer newsletter (McKenzie Fine Art is on W. 25th in Manhattan). She represents some very interesting, and underrated, artists- I especially love Jim Dingilian's spectral etchings inside bottles ("Hiding Places: Memory in Art"). Click here for more.

* Pam Grossman is always cutting-edge! On her blog Phantasmaphile she finds the most interesting art with a baroque, occult and fabulistic mentality. Recently she noted the opening of the Phantasten Museum in Vienna ("visionary art/ fantastic realism/ surrealism")-- like her, Lobster & Canary want to go! For more, click here and here.

* The Boston Review's latest is out. The BR offers, besides its incisive political and investigative reporting, some of the best fiction anywhere. (With Junot Diaz as their fiction editor, how could they not?) Among other things, they published NoViolet Bulawayo's Caine Prize-winning short story last year. Click here for more.

* Aqueduct Press has launched The Cascadian Subduction Zone: A Literary Quarterly-- the third issue just arrived, and it continues this newcomer's strong debut. Kristin King's feature essay "Can Science Fiction Change the World?" should prompt thoughtful debate. Also, many good book reviews, plus suitably strange artwork by "Mr. Mead." Check it out here.

* Charity Shumway writes to announce the launch of an urban gardening & cookery site, Spade & Spatula ("growing and cooking in the city"). Great quick recipes, anecdotes, and luscious photographs of tomatoes, flowers, pie, vases... Makes us hungry for brunch. Check it out here.

* The Academy of American Poets July newsletter includes a provocative interview with Kenneth Goldsmith, who says (among other things): "The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn't need to be read. You don't have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don't even have to read them." Click here for more.

* Omnidawn's blog continues to share generously of their writers' work. Most recently I have been struck by Christine Hume's "Self-Stalked," which starts this way: "I looked in all eight directions then spread out my tiger’s skin. Before the public mind kicked in, I surveyed an inner shore. Its facets operated on me. I lost my lights and began my midnight thus: mental feet, mental lake, little mental pines, mental mile around the muzzle." And also Aaron Shurin's "Bruja," which opens: "Alcove of the shade tree, under which they neck and whisper… and gather their tribe. She stencils the tilt of their heads from her perch on the iron bench, their dreamy eyes and smiles. Migrating neurons: It’s as if a baton streaking the air laid them bodily onto her page…" Click here for more.

* The Pedestal Magazine's June issue features speculative poetry selected by Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, and a range of other good items. I particularly liked Steven Peck's "The Complete Text of the First Ten Volumes of Dr. Fleckwain’s Very, Very Short Steampunk Novels," and JoSelle Vanderhooft's review of God's Optimism by Yehoshua November. Vanderhooft: "This near-mystical belief in the goodness of God, God’s love, and the worthiness of human life reflect the optimism that underpins this all-too-small collection, whether its contents deal with joy or sorrow, divinity or earthliness, the spiritual or the secular. In most cases, these poems incorporate all of the above simultaneously. For these are poems about what it means to dwell in an imperfect and painful world that is nonetheless touched by the divine—or, as November said in a recent interview with The Jewish Week when explaining a teaching of the kabala, a Jewish mystical text: 'God created the world because he wanted to dwell in the lowest realm, our realm.' Thus, the most intensely spiritual moments in God’s Optimism delineate not grandiose gestures or Technicolor visions, but quiet encounters, as sharp as a needle and often unexpected." Well said! Click here for more... and then stay cool in the heatwave.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter Lives!

We saw the final Potter movie last night, and were as moved, thrilled and delighted by it as we were by the previous films and all the books.

Rowling has given us all a powerful gift, one added to by the various film directors and cinematic technologists who realized her world and the acting corps that interpreted her characters. (Surely Rickman is Snape and Smith is McGonagall, just as McKellen is Gandalf.) As Morgenstern put it in the Wall Street Journal, this one is Harry Potter and the Fantastic Finale.

Several quick thoughts about the appeal of the series, both on paper and on screen:

* Rowling understands that the fantastic is not merely about "special effects" and weirdness for its own sake. The heart of the matter is the strange magic of the Ordinary, and especially the ability of Ordinary People to tell Right from Wrong, and to overcome their own fears and weaknesses on the way to doing what is Right. Rowling loves her wizards but she loves her Muggles most of all (or rather, the Muggle qualities that her good wizards possess), just as Tolkien held his hobbits above the elves, the kings and the wizards. Pullman builds his neo-Miltonian epic on this concept as well. The theme suffuses Dickens and Chesterton, Hardy, Greene, Orwell. Rowling's world is deeply demotic, full of common sense, hard work, goofy and irreverent humor, optimism (tempered by the realization that suffering is inevitable), and the enduring sinews of love and friendship that defeat and transcend the inequities of power and those who seek it.

* The scenes of Harry's parents sacrificing themselves for him, and of the Weasleys as a family defying all comers-- in that slightly bumbling, cup-of-tea Weasley way, a bit vague at the start but ultimately decisive--are highlights in the film, as they are throughout the books. I choked up at the scene in the movie (okay, I cried here in the book too) where the shades of Lilly, James, Remus and Sirius reassure Harry that they are always with him, living on in his heart and to the end.

* If I have one complaint, it is that the films shunt Ginny Weasley aside, focusing almost entirely on Harry, Ron and Hermione. Yet Ginny is willing to sacrifice herself for Harry, while I am never quite sure that Hermione would do the same for Ron (and sometimes it feels as if neither of the lads is truly prepared to die for their swain; for each other, yes, but not for the girls).

* Snape is one of the most complex characters ever to appear in the spec fic genre. I keep coming back to his hidden love for Lilly, the impulse that drives his actions all the way to his death. "Always," says Snape (in Rickman's deliberate tone) to Dumbledore.

* I keep thinking about the words Rowling puts in Dumbledore's mouth when he and Harry are reunited in the place that reminds Harry of King's Cross Station, i.e., during the respite in the battle with Voldemort. Words about language being true magic, the incantatory power of words themselves. Words about what is most real being those things within our heads. Rowling understands the deepest truth of Power, that it exists not in weapons or armor, not in turrets or crenellations, but in the wellsprings of imagination and the flow of language therefrom. And she has demonstrated this through the thousands of pages and hours of film that constitute the Potter mythos.