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District 9, Stross, “The Anthologist,” Updike

Man, when was the last time I saw a good movie in the theaters? We do like to get out, and there’s a movie house within walking distance from our house, so we hit the theater fairly often. It’s potentially more fun than watching a rental at home.

But…Matt Damon in Informant! — ugh! I’ve always found the Matt to be physically repellent, and to see him play an unbalanced, lying sleaze-bag, wearing a kids-Halloween-costume mustache, in a seemingly endless series of scenes set in beige plastic corporate offices — ugh! The movie is so repetetive and slowly paced that, while watching it, I started wondering if my watch had stopped.

Was that movie with the stupid title even worse? I think so. 100 days of {Dullness}? Oh, wait (500) Days of Summer. Take a not-quite-love story between two completely uninteresting people and shuffle the order of the scenes. Who cares? Over and over the screenwriters have the opportunity to convey some personality and spark during this couple’s conversations—over and over they don’t even bother to try.

But, ah, wait, a ray of joy — District 9. (Are we in a period where most movies will have numbers in the titles?) The best SF movie I’ve seen since Terminator 1. (Well, make that “The best SF movie that my deliquescing brain can remember, off the cuff, after ten seconds thought, having seen since T1.” Maybe Blade Runner was better, except for the dull and gratiuitous violence at the end, so contrary to the spirit of Phil Dick. But I digress.)

The weapons in District 9 kick butt, it’s great how grotty the guns are, with those wild fractal sparks, and that you need a funky alien hand to shoot one. And, as John Shirley remarked to me, it’s quite a feat for a director to get the audience rooting for a gang of aliens who are tearing apart a human and eating him. A sensitive treatment of the difficult topic of prejudice! The main actor is great too, so weaselly and frantic and nervous and, in the end, courageous. Wonderful giant UFO, too. And the Nigerian gangsters are a trip. Bring on District 10!

Rental movies: Attack of the 50 Foot Woman! Memorably cheap special effects that are nothing like the famous poster for this film. The errant husband is hanging out in a back lot saloon with a wonderfully nasty girlfriend (Yvette Vickers, in the role of her life), and a woman’s offscreen voice yells hubby’s name very loud, “Harry!” The saloon’s doors swing open, and in slides—a stuffed cloth hand the size of a cow. “It’s your wife, Harry!” cries Yvette.

It’s so early a movie that they didn’t even have the words “flying saucer” or “UFO.” They keep talking about “the satellite”.

And now for some books…

I recently finished reading Charles Stross’s Saturn’s Children. I read slowly at first, rationing it, but wolfed down the second half in one late-running session of bedtime reading. What a feast! Really the most enjoyable SF novel I’ve read since…I don’t know, since Stross’s Accelerando—which set me on the path to writing my novel Postsingular.

I guess to some extent I’m a pre-selected audience for Saturn’s Children, in that I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov, and Saturn’s Children is in some ways a take-off on that mode, carried out very wittily and consciously, so that, for me, the book felt like a nut-filled holiday cake stuffed with funny twists and jokes and references.

There’s a joke about the robots believing that the “Creators” (the now extinct humans) lived with Tyrannosaur dinosaurs during the “antediluvian” times—they’re getting their historical info from fundamentalist tracts they’ve unearthed.

The statue of the Maltese falcon appears, described as a “model of an extinct airborne replicator that preyed on other similar avioforms.” And the robots wonder about public bathrooms: “I keep moving, looking for an unoccupied shrine—one of those curious rooms of repose that our Creators installed in all public places.”

There’s some beautiful prose in there, too. “Jupiter is a gibbous streaky horror…while the sun, a shrunken glaring button…”

In recent years, I’d almost forgotten about the old-school SF notion of Earth spawning a civilization that spans our solar system. Stross has his his robot lead character move her physical body around with rocket ship rides, and she carries around her ancestors’ personalities in a “graveyard” box of chips. How quaint that now seems! I guess this is what they call Space Opera.

Obviously the author of Accelerando knows that it might be more plausible that robots would simply email their personalities from world to world, and store their data in a Cloud. But, given that the game is to stay in the mental mode of a Heinlein or Asimov novel, the science makes perfect sense, and I was exhilarated to swim around in it once again. Real machines you can get your hands on!

Wanting more Stross now, I’ve been reading The Jennifer Morgue this week, but it’s tweaked into a different channel—it’s a parody James Bond novel in which Lovecraftian magic plays a role. For the Strossian metahumor, the characters are aware that it’s a James Bond novel, in fact some of them have [spoiler alert] cast a spell so as to force the main character to walk the Hero’s Path of being like good old 007. And there’s yet another level…the book itself is a spell that magicks the reader into being James Bond.

The Jennifer Morgue doesn’t quite scratch my itch in the same way that Saturn’s Children did—but it’s hypnotic fun. Like in Saturn’s Children, the plot is wonderfully intricate. It’s always a joy to find out more about Lovecraft’s monsters. Like reading juicy pop gossip about your favorite stars. “Brad Leaves Angela!” “Chthonian Bones Deep One!”

I have to say that the ending of The Jennifer Morgue is a freaking blast, an insane rising arc of action…like taking off in an ejector seat at Mach 3…a final rush which was, I now recall, characteristic of the Bond novels. And, actually there IS a literal ejector involved here, only it ejects a whole car. Carefully the bonfire wood is stacked…and then WHOOOMP! Stross is a demon, an evil genius, a wicked man.

He has an interesting essay about the cultural meaning of James Bond at the back of the book, and he points out that, truth be told, SPECTRE has won out in the modern world. The biggest criminals of all are never brought to justice—they escape by controlling legislatures, by being “too big to fail,” and by manipulating the financial markets…just like Stavros Blofield might have wanted to do.

On the high-lit front, I just read Nicholson Baker’s, The Anthologist—a really terrific book about a down-at-the-heels poet who’s trying to get it together to write a longish introduction for an anthology of rhyming poetry. It’s written in the first person, with the poet going on and on about his theories on rhyme and meter, larded with gossip about poets of the past, and with the gossamer thread of a love story running through it.

The big deal in The Anthologist is the voice and the poetry of the prose. Here the narrator is describing a book of poems by John Ashbery that he just bought in an (unrealistically) well-stocked airport book store, “…although the poems themselves weren’t heartbreakers, the book made me think of the sound of someone closing the door of a well-cared-for pale blue Infiniti on a late-summer evening in the gravel overflow parking lot of a beach hotel that had once been painted by Gretchen Dow Simpson.”

I love how that description unfolds and unpacks and runs on. To really appreciate it, you have to know that Gretchen Dow Simpson’s paintings used to appear fairly often on the cover of the New Yorker, which Nicholson (and his character) tend rather to fetishize.

More high lit: This summer, I reread all four of John Updike’s Rabbit novels, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, assembled into a nice good-sized-print edition of two volumes. And I read his novelette postlude, “Rabbit Remembered,” which, rather chintzily, the publisher make you buy in a separate collection with the off-putting title Licks of Love.

I don’t have the time and energy to describe what I find so great about the Rabbit books, suffice it to say that it’s like wallowing in a giant soap opera that’s also high literature. A secret history of an unknown America. A true modeling of a mind. The whole thing assembled from poetic yet demotic passages tiled together into a seamless whole. And with in-your-face humor that won’t quit.

Like—Rabbit is at the funeral of a woman he had an off-and-on affair with for years. Self-involved in hiw own grief, and meaning (perhaps) to comfort her husband, Ron, Rabbit blurts out something like “She was a great lay, Ronnie.” Ron doesn’t speak to Rabbit for quite some time after that…but eventually Ron—well, read “Rabbit Remembered.”

I see Updike falling out of his chair laughing when he wrote that “great lay” line…like Franz Kafka would do when he’d read “The Metamorphosis” to his pal Max Brod.

Updike really should have gotten the Nobel Prize…in his later years he somewhat touchingly and even pathetically wrote a story about his alter ego writer-character Henry Bech getting the Prize, which reminded me of the impoverished Edgar Allan Poe launching into a very long description of the treasure trove of gold, silver and jewels that his characters unearth in “The Gold Bug.”

7 Responses to “District 9, Stross, “The Anthologist,” Updike”

  1. The Necromancer Says:

    You make me want to read more Stross. I’ve been eying up Saturn’s Children for a while. Halting State was essentially a journey into yesterday. Pure cyber-thriller. Like what your buddy Gibson just did with Spook Country.

    On the subject of new SF I wanted to ask a pro whether he’d run across The Unincorporated Man by the Kollin bros. yet. Has the feel of second-hand Huxley mixed with Heinlein’s classic Starship Troopers. Except less violence. And less aliens. Well, no aliens. But as much as it slogged at points it had a sprinkle of that idealism (utopia/distopia) sometimes so expertly done in the history of SF. I dunno. Wondered what other people may have thought…

    District 9 was brilliant. And unexpected. I guess a South African SF flick ought to be…

  2. Nick Robinson Says:

    Just finished reading The Jennifer Morgue myself this week and it was a lot of fun. I couldn’t decide if I liked the machine-gun-like spray of ideas more, or the whole irrestible Bond parody/homage.

    District 9 – fantastic, so good to take some non-SF friends to see a movie and have them say how this is what SF can do for us

  3. Dave Moore Says:

    While The Informant may not be the greatest of entertainment (I enjoyed it), it is a very important film it that it portrays the behaviour of a pathological narcissist, and it is important to recognize the symptoms.

    Narcissim is very common here. It is also a bit of a national characteristic.

    What makes narcissim so dangerous is not only is the individual very selfish, but there can be a significant disconection from reallity because the individual becomes so self-involved they cease to be able to model a world outside their own. (The film makes this evident.)

    I would therefore recommend you, at least, catch the film on DVD.

  4. MarcL Says:

    Yeah, I’m actually looking forward to The Informant. I think Damon is one of the more interesting people involved in film right now. He’s a good writer. He gets cast in some very strange projects–there is no obvious Matt Damon stereotype role you can expect to see him in over and over again. And he was in Gerry, which I loved.

  5. Alex Says:

    Thanks for the tip awhile back on ‘The Math Book’ by Clifford Pickover – I just got that and it’s excellent, I shall get ‘The Jennifer Morgue” soon, sounds good.

    Did you see the movie ‘Watchmen’? I think you might like that.

  6. Steve H Says:

    I totally agree about Stross – all hail the autopope, and have you read his Merchant Princes books yet? He’s managed to conflate Zelazny with Beam Piper and make it work in a modern-day setting, although I felt his main character makes too many dumb mistakes while moving the plot along. I also like the way ‘Saturn’s Children’ drank gasoline cocktails for the taste.

  7. Mac Tonnies Says:

    I’ve never read any of Updike’s “Rabbit” novels, but I really enjoyed “Toward the End of Time,” his quasi-apocalyptic science fiction novel.

    Some of the elements in “District 9” reminded me of Cronenberg’s “The Fly” — the scene where the main character is losing his teeth and fingernails, especially. Speaking of which, I’ve heard that Cronenberg is considering a remake of his own movie. (Anyone know any more about this?)


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