Watched and Read

Finally been able to use the holiday as I’d hoped — lots of writing, lots of reading, some movies.

What have I read?

  • Well, I finally finished Nalo Hopkinson‘s Midnight Robber. The book was a bit of an excursion for me, rather different from the bulk of SF I read. Not the futuristic, melded Caribbean patois — that didn’t faze me at all, and in fact I very much enjoyed that element, even when there were words I couldn’t pronounce mentally — but what was a departure for me was the fact that (a) this is a kind of domestic space opera, and that (b) it’s more of a universal-story mapped into an SF setting than the kind of hard-SF I usually read.What I mean is that I wanted to stay on Toussaint and explore its history and its present in terms of technology and culture, in terms of its own telling of history, in terms of its power dynamics, yet I was — before I was ready — transported to a prison planet that was, well, in some ways not completely, but certainly largely, disconnected from Toussaint. I kept hoping we’d go back, but alas, we didn’t. (Nobody seems to end books the way I want them to!) This is character-driven SF, to a point farther than I usually go, which is to say, not the kind of SF I gravitate towards, in which the story could not be told otherwise — that the technologies or science that figure in the story are crucial to the plot and its unfolding. (I think that this story — which is ultimately about Tan-Tan’s struggle to overcome being robbed of her childhood and forgive herself for how she reacts to it — could have been told just was powerfully as some kind of alt-history-with-magic world-spanning Caribbean-Dickensian fantasy. Whether that’s a criticism or a issue of my own taste is worth questioning, of course. A lot of people I know are into that kind of SF, and write it — and when they choose a powerful story, like Nalo has, it can be great… even if it’s not the kind of SF I normally read. And I should add that my own head is now spinning with the idea of Caribbean-Dickensian fantasy. But really, usually, I gravitate towards stories in which the science is more deeply entwined with the characters’ struggle.)Anyway, regardless of all of that, I thought this novel was quite strong, and it I was impressed with what a vivid picture of this world was painted in my imagination so very quickly. But I do hope that Nalo will someday write something else set on Toussaint, so I can see that world more fully.
  • In other readings, I’ve been trying to catch up on my magazine subscriptions. Between a busy semester last time and a lot of travel in January, I have several back issues of F&SF waiting for my attention. I inhaled the October/November 2006 double issue over the last few days, and I have to say I enjoyed a lot of it. The standout was Geoff Ryman’s haunting “Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter”, which made me stare out of the window as my train crossed a bridge, lights twinkling over the Han river, imagining what it would be like to be haunted by millions of ghosts. Lovely, and I have to say it raises the bar on my own ghost-story-set-in-Asia (though mine is a completely different sort of tale). There were also several other other great stories in this issue that make it worth checking out.

    UPDATE (21 Feb’07):
    I also have to say that Peter S. Beagle’s story “El Regalo” was a bit of alright, indeed, though I am puzzled where the reviewer of his collection containing this story (in the December issue of F&SF) got the idea that the kids in “El Regalo” are Korean-American. There’s certainly nothing in the text that suggests that (and unless they’re adoptees, again something I don’t remember being mentioned in the story, I’d say the that family name, Luke, rules it out).
  • Finally, I’ve read a great deal of Michael Breen’s The Koreans. It’s an interesting book, even with its flaws, and what I’m finding most fascinating about it is, of cours, my own reactions to the book itself. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by my own judgments on Korea when confronted by Breen’s magnanimity, at yet at other times, I find myself shaking my head and saying, “Sorry, buddy, but you’re buying the party line here,” while at other times, I find myself learning things I didn’t know before, and nodding in agreement. (Breen’s observation about the parallels between driving culture and political culture ran through my mind as, this evening, I observed the fallout that came after a fender-bender resulting from idiotic driving.)I also think part of the flaws of the book are that it’s trying to neatly package Korea up for foreigners, and in doing so, it has to kind of smooth over some of what Scott Burgeson rightly notes about Korea: its weirdness, which Burgeson insists is not a pejorative in this case. Breen’s efforts to make the inexplicable somehow explicable rely on his ability to gloss over the obvious criticisms of all kinds of standard assertions that Koreans make about their own country.For example, Breen suggests in several places that weakness and dependence on outsiders has decimated the Korean nation’s self-respect; but Andrei Lankov’s demonstration of how Korea’s history was only recently turbulent, but in many respects is comparable to that of Germany in terms of foreign invaders and colonial occupations, suggests this is a post-hoc rationalization. Likewise, his discussion of reunification is so simplistic, and ignores so many of the problems that I’m sure he knows will feature in any form of reunification, that I have to wonder what motivated him to term it Korea’s third miracle, and to give it such a major theme in the book, returning at the end. I imagine he’d write a somewhat different ending today.There are other places where I learned things, and where I think Breen’s analyses are spot-on (such as in his comparison of driving-culture and political culture). I haven’t thrown the text across the room, but I’m also not blown away and recommending it to everyone I know. So I guess I’m having a mixed, but positive, reaction to the book. I certainly don’t feel, from this text anyway, that Breen is as uncritical as some bloggers (and especially blog-commenters) have suggested. In fact, he seems to have a more balanced perception than most people. I’d imagine this probably has to do with his life-circumstances. When things are going well for me here, I tend to be positive. When I lose control of my situation to a Korean person who is not thoughtful or respectful towards me, suddenly negativity flourishes. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one from which I have taken important lessons.

I also have watched a few movies over the last few days. Those I haven’t blogged about include

  • Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Inexplicably, to me, this film has been strongly hyped in Korea. Reviews have appeared in newspapers and in Korean-language cinema magazines, even though, as far as I know, it hasn’t yet been released here — and I can’t see it being released to the big screen in any except a highly-edited form. Even then, I can’t see a lot of the jokes making sense to most of the audience. We’ll see, I suppose.As for me, I found it stupid, but in a way that made me laugh a lot.
  • Flags of Our Fathers.Clint Eastwood really did a good job on this movie. I have to say that some of the criticisms leveled at the film on IMDB make me wonder if I saw the same film as the rest of the audience. Unlike what some people claim, this film didn’tglorify war or soldiers. Far from it, it humanized soldiers, and showed up how their experiences — before and during the war — screwed many of them up. Most moving was the performance of Adam Beach as Ira Hayes, a native American soldier fighting for a country that we see pretty obviously didn’t appreciate his sacrifice at all. But I have to say that all the performers in this film did a good job in general.I don’t think I found it as “moving” as some people — especially left-wing American audience members — might have done. As a Canadian, I don’t, after all, feel responsible for the fate of a whole bevy of young countrymen of mine who are fighting a much less necessary war in another foreign land. I think this film probably delivers a crippling cinematic blow against any reasonable American viewer who has doubts about whether such guilt is reasonable. Held up beside World War II, the war in Iraq looks obviously shameful, both in terms of the motivations behind it (and the hoodwinking necessary to get public backing), and in terms of its mismanagement.But the movie works on a level beyond that. I think it will be an interesting, and worthwhile, war movie even outside of the context in which it was made. This movie will count for more than just the attack on Bush & co. that it is.
  • Idiocracy.I didn’t pay to see this film. You shouldn’t either. But it’s amusing,if you’re feeling ill and need something to keep your mind off that ill feeling for a few hours. That is all.
  • Finally, I finished off Season 3 of The West Wing. As my friend Ritu noted somewhere, the series started to get weird around Season 3, but I’m still curious enough that, if I see Season 4 discounted, I’ll pick it up. I don’t know what it is about this show that attracts my attention, but something does. I’m sure a propagandist could do worse than to watch the series and learn from it how to get people to sympathize with a highly compromised, questionable government running their country. Oh, wait, people already do that. Anyway, Season 3 was interesting enough to hold my attention to the end. But I did feel a little, I don’t know, weird that it managed to do so.

As for what I’m reading now, it’s a big assortment of nonfiction — mostly about Korea, but with a book on blackface minstrelsy (and race and mockery in America) — along with some more recent issues of F&SF and a collection of short stories by Terry Bisson thrown in. If you’re curious, check out the cycling covers in the sidebar, or just stay tuned for reviews in the coming weeks. I’ll post more as I go along, in between teaching courses and drafting stories and finding Lime an apartment and so on.

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