[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Not everything in SF/F can be classified as a ‘classic’ or even ‘good’. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, you just can’t help yourself, you know you shouldn’t like it, but you do anyway. This week’s question is:
Here’s what they said…
It was not hard to answer this question, since I am one of those sober sorts who hasn’t a lot of guilty pleasures. My favorite genre distraction is Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension. The movie has a cult status that may have faded somewhat in the last few years, but no movie restores my good humor more than this one. It is a brazen festival of camp, genre clichés, and pulp excess, but it is also an extremely earnest film full of moments both funny and delightful.
It is an easy film to make fun of, given its improbable plot, implausible notions of physics and alien life, and the rampant scenery-feasting conducted by the actors, which takes their characters beyond stereotype into some other actuality. The film virtually cannibalizes not just genre conventions, but itself, feeding off of poorly-conceived ideas that are thrown at the audience and then used to fertilize the hyperkinetic progress of the movie. It is not well-filmed, has some editing problems, and constantly struggles to exceed the conventions it embraces, but it’s fun. The flaws of the film give it a rough texture that to me ameliorates those weaknesses and creates its own reality from the tension created by the juxtaposition of so much visual indulgence with characters ardently committed to the struggle at hand.
It is the relentless cascade of improbabilities, the jerky timing of the scenes, and the surreal ideas and images blended into the rote plot that make the film strangely original. Its retro-pulp-New Wave aesthetic is flamboyant but heart-felt. This cobbled-together aesthetic wants to be seen as fashionable and edgy but ends up awkward and nerdy, with a hint of derring-do thrown in to the mix. The protagonists think they’re heroic and flashy and rugged and cool, but we know that most of it is in their heads. And that’s part of the point of the film: this world is ridiculously unreal to the viewer, but standard reality for the characters.
From boa-wearing aliens to rug cleaner/mercenaries, the film’s inhabitants are strange to our eyes, unexpectedly distinctive but not out-of-place. There is a gentle culture shock involved in viewing the movie, both in trying to understand the aliens’ motivations and the humans’ actions. Despite its reliance on clichés for much of the plot there is an off-kilter exuberance and integrity to the universe the film portrays. Part of the fun of watching the movie is figuring out what matters in the details and what was tossed in to make the movie weirder, but repeated viewings give you a more holistic sense of the alternate reality of the film, which makes it a guilty pleasure worth viewing over and over again. It is not profound, but it wants you to believe, and it wants to startle you with its oddness and drag you into its universe. For me, it does that so well that three decades of watching it have not dulled its lunatic energy and capacity to charm and entertain me.
I will speak as a member of the horror contingent. I have way too many guilty pleasures, but for sheer awesomeness, I’m going with Friday The 13th, The Series. It summed up the 80s in grand style: a low-budge syndicated show that was never afraid to back comb the cast’s hair into clouds of poofy spectacle. In fact, I probably shouldn’t feel guilty about this at all. Some great talent was involved in the show, including the main cast of Louise Robey, John D. LeMay, and daddy bear Chris Wiggins. Episodes included contributions from such talents as Sarah Polley, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, and Paul Monette. Despite low production values, the show’s energy was always high. The stories were predictable, in old-school pulp style, and that’s what made them fun. Every few years I go back and watch the entire series end to end, and I dig it still. Screw it. I don’t feel guilty! It’s a great show, poofy 80s hair and all!
Turning tricks for comics outside of convenience stores and freebasing Super Friends episodes, I’d been a Superman fanatic since I was a wee wee. I was nine-ish when the big film came out and my pushover mom hauled my friends and me three tiny towns away to the theater. While we waited in a block-spanning line, a scrawny woman in her fifties came out of the first showing, pumping her fists in the air and shouting things like, “It was incredible! It was fantastic!” before slipping into her VW Bug. She immediately leapt back out, ran to the front of the vehicle and attempted to lift it up before getting back in and driving away. This was Superman, folks. Even then, entrenched for decades as an American icon, beloved by millions, adored by my round, little, apple-cheeked self.
This is not my guilty pleasure.
My guilty pleasure is Superman Returns. Three decades after that first movie, I dragged my less enthusiastic teenagers to the midnight showing of this latest iteration the day it premiered. After the show, I walked dizzily out of the large movie-box in the heady afterglow of man-crush. “What did you think of it?” I asked my neo-Smiths. “It was awright,” they said. “You just don’t understand,” I assured them with the appropriate dollop of head shaking. This was Superman! I wasn’t even aware Superman Returns was a pleasure which should make me feel guilty until other people I knew saw it and then pointed and laughed at me and slapped me with used garbage bags (the inside-out kind). This happened more than once. Recovering from their revels, they would catch their breath, realize I wasn’t joking and inevitably ask how I could love such a movie. And I would tell them.
Superman Returns wasn’t just some superhero movie, it was a movie aware of its own history, a gushing love letter to all that had come before. Not just because of the cameos from Noel Neill and Jack Larson of the fifties TV show, or the Brando footage or the photo of Glen Ford’s Pa Kent on the mantel, but because in part of Brandon Routh. Routh doesn’t play Clark Kent and Superman, he plays Christopher Reeve playing Clark Kent and Superman. To say he does it brilliantly would suggest that I believe he analyzed and intellectualized Reeve’s performance. No, he does it so damned well, so effortlessly, that it feels like Reeve is the one who returns.
And we return also. To the magic with which the series began, conveniently forgetting those sequels like a series of blind dates ending in diving, bathroom window escapes until reunited once more with our high-school sweetie. Even this New Metropolis York feels like the same city, albeit a more modern one with less flamboyant pimps.
Yes, yes, it has its shortcomings. Luthor, played well by Kevin Spacey, seems to have devised a plot similar to the one he had the first time around, to totally smoke Rob Ortiz at the next desk and become Century 21’s salesperson of the month. It’s always real estate with this guy. And then there’s Superman lifting an entire continent laced with kryptonite, a continent which doesn’t break into pieces at the point he’s pushing. And forget those trillions of tons for a second, how the hell is he balancing that thing? (A dear, Superman-loving friend of mine used to point out that whenever Superman moves a planet, to observers on that planet, it should look likes he’s some guy doing a handstand. I’m thinking he should go right through it.)
But enough of that, how awesome is it that Superman abandoned Earth for five years? That he comes back and his main squeeze is lovin’, touchin’, squeezin’ another? And doing other things as well, since there’s a very short guy who seems to be hanging around with her too. The film confirms that we need a Superman even if he’s not there. Hell, here on this earth, he hasn’t only been gone for five years, he’s been gone for five billion and yet we still need him. We need to believe in him. He is our ideal, in mind and body, and in his morality. He’s an all-powerful being who, unlike nearly every other all-powerful being in fantasy and science fiction, isn’t a dick. In these and other ways, he’s Christ, as the film’s Christ-like imagery reinforces. They both had dads who lived in the sky who sent their only sons to earth. Both performed feats beyond the abilities of mere mortals, both put themselves on the line to help people who probably didn’t deserve it. And both went away. Superman Returns is a fantasy telling of the second coming, of how we deal both with and without a god in our midsts.
Whether or not our crappy friends appreciate it.
Guilty Pleasure: Reading SF/F series back to back.
I am a patient man in many facets of life, but I would not count waiting on the next book in a series as one of those facets. Impatience compounded by parts of my memory that get harder and harder to retrieve make reading books in a series as they are published a frustrating formula; and many publishing house or authors will not put summaries of previous books in the series in the front for forgetful guys like me. I will still do it for special series (Harry Potter with my kids, or Martin’s Fire and Ice Series (George, just take your time sir)). But my guilty pleasure is collecting all of the books in a series I want to read, and reading them back to back to back to…well, you get the idea.
This obviously takes a huge commitment of time (as some of these series are five and six volumes), so I usually only do this with either author’s I have previously had a good experience reading, or a series that comes highly recommended. I’ve yet to find a series I won’t read to the bitter or not-so-bitter end, but I also have a few on deck that I have no tackled out of fear or disappointment.
Interestingly, the ones I have read recently are mostly what I would classify as fantasy series. Some recent ones:
– Jim Butcher’s six volume Codex Alera series (which my son and I read mostly together, with him reading a book or two ahead of me); I had not read Butcher’s more famous series, but an idea I have for a martial arts series got me reading this, and the books are great fun: Roman-esque politics, time and culture with control of the elements (in the form of furies) and a couple of non-human species thrown in for good measure;
– Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule series; a unique take on the end of the world, with chaos taking over technology (my review of the first book in the series is at https://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2010/02/review-worlds-end/);
– Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Gap Cycle, a total departure from the depressing but well-written Thomas Covenant series, this one is hard core sci-fi with some great characters, complex politics and interesting themes.
– Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle, while not completely fantasy or science fiction, was a great read, a somewhat pre-cursor to his Cryptonomicon (one of my all-time favorite reads).
Series that I have on deck to read, or have not tackled yet:
– Tad Williams’ ShadowMarch series; I’m actually cheating here, the last book in the series just came out, and I’m filling the hole that I have in the series (the second book is not in my stack) via a trade with the author. I’ve enjoyed his previous two series I have read (Otherland and Memory, Sorrow and Thorn) so this series is an easy choice. It is next on my list.
– Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal series; this is one that frankly I just haven’t gotten around to.
– Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy; this one scares me, and the large lump of books stares at me from the stack. I’ve not read Hamilton, but hear great things about him…so many pages, it is just such a commitment, can’t we just date first?
The first thing that comes to mind is the cartoon Tripping the Rift. It is puerile and vulgar. It fails at being a satire of SF. Nor does it manage to effectively poke fun at itself, the way Red Dwarf or Futurama do. But it makes me laugh. No, I’m not proud.
I have developed a survival tactic for certain guilty pleasures that allows me to retain my sanity when gazing at the abysmal. Take for example the movie Masters of the Universe, starring Dolph Lundgren as He-Man. There isn’t a single aspect of that previous sentence that should exist in a civil, enlightened society. It is wretched, to the point where its existence diminishes us as a species. But if you pretend it’s a loose adaptation of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, it becomes bearable. In fact if you watch it back to back with the 1998 animated Superman episode “Apokolips…Now!” the similarities are apparent.
Plus, Meg Foster as Evil Lyn is a criminally underappreciated SF babe.
The same strategy works with the Will Smith I, Robot movie, a brutal defilement of Dr. Asimov’s classic which can be marginally endured if you make believe it’s based on the old Gold Key comic Magnus, Robot Fighter. You’ll still need counseling afterward, but the recovery time should be much shorter.
If we take Wikipedia’s definition of a “guilty pleasure” pleasure as standard (“…something one enjoys and considers pleasurable despite feeling guilt for enjoying it”), and we take the guilt to mean simply the fear of losing credibility by acknowledging said enjoyment, then I run into a problem. When I was much younger, most of my highbrow friends (and many of middlebrow ones) deemed any work of science fiction or fantasy a guilty pleasure. It didn’t matter whether you were talking about RD-D2 or R. Daneel Olivaw, Tom Swift or Tom Disch, nobody saw any differentiation. Admitting you enjoyed Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns ensured you would be stuffed in a locker at some time during the school year. Quoting a line from Star Trek would make you an object of mockery. Fortunately, those days seem long gone. When I started my freshman year of high school, William Gibson only had two or three stories to his credit, and was virtually unknown; by the time I was a freshman in college, a number of people in the lit set (not just science fiction) treated him like a rock star. Today it’s not uncommon to find non-geeks who are fans of, say, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe, or Heroes.
In terms of science fiction and fantasy, there isn’t much that I would term a guilty pleasure, in large part because my taste, in or out of genre, always has been catholic, and often rests on a sliding scale…which drives both my highbrow and lowbrow friends batshit. Sure, I always ask that any work meet a certain level of quality, but occasionally I am willing to sacrifice quality if said work is done with style, or sufficiently blows my mind. Rudy Rucker’s The Hacker and the Ants may not approach the level of an early work like, say, The Secret of Life or White Light, but it makes up for any deficiencies with a great deal of humor and just feeling “real.” I don’t think Robert Silverberg’s The Face of the Waters matches the level some of his work from the 1960s and the 1970s (Dying Inside, Downward to the Earth, Thorns), but I can still admire the craftsmanship that went into it. I love Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, and have said so several times, even though it doesn’t possess a single neuron in its beautiful head. Let’s face it, there is a lot of trash in this particular genre, and that (for me at least) always has been a part of its charm. Usually, though, when a work is bad, I have a hard time finding anything that saves it.
Despite all of this, I do have my own guilty pleasures. I worry sometimes that my admission of works that have really enjoyed will cause the loss of some charisma points.
Take Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather, for example.
Now, I happen to like a great deal of Sterling’s work, which in itself one might consider a guilty pleasure. Schismatrix blew my mind when I was a teenager. I admired Islands in the Net for its attempts at creating a credible future (as he did with his most recent novel The Caryatids). But problems arise when I try to evaluate them as novels. Incredible though his world building is, he didn’t really write a fully successful novel until Holy Fire and Distraction. In a way, his work mirrors that of Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s: incredible ideas that seemed tacked on to a dramatic structure. His 1994 novel about storm chasers in a climate change-dominated future is a major offender in this regard. There’s a lot of fascinating extrapolation here, which isn’t surprising, but it really doesn’t save the novel, and as a result it’s one of the works that goes undiscussed when one talks about Sterling’s postcyberpunk period. But so much of Heavy Weather is so fascinating (especially the storm sequences) that I tend to forgive it its faults. It’s also funny.
The early passages in which Janey Unger rescues her brother Alex from an illegal Mexican clinic are about as funny as anything I’ve ever read in the genre. (It’s one of the few books, along with Joe R. Lansdale’s Bad Chili, where I’ve actually laughed out loud.) And for me, that saves it.
Humor also saves William Gibson’s Virtual Light, first volume of the Bridge trilogy and his first post-Neuromancer “failure.” For his fourth solo novel, Gibson left the confines of The Sprawl to have his cast of ne’er-do-wells cruise and bruise through a balkanized California, where Arnold Schwarzenegger has become President of the United States. Given a solid drubbing by most genre fans of the time (in part because its concerns seemed so mundane), Virtual Light actually reads like a near future Elmore Leonard novel more than anything he had done up to that point. (Most of Leonard’s novels are pretty funny, too.) Much of it lacked the flashy eyeball kicks or the brain-melting extrapolations we came to expect from his previous work, but for me it felt like a natural progression of his talents and obsessions. It didn’t hurt that at the time Bravo was running episodes of Max Headroom on Friday nights, so my brain already was in a similar playground. If I wasn’t going to have an Alien 3 scripted by Gibson, then hey,I’d settle for this bit of fluff.
Speaking of which, there are more reviled science fiction movies than Alien 3, but most fans have cause. And they have cause for disliking David Fincher’s debut film, from killing off Michael Biehn’s Hicks to the grim setting and bleak worldview. So much of the movie is dreary and unpleasant that it’s hard to imagine anybody coming to its defense. And yet, I really do like Alien 3, faults and all, in large part because it doesn’t make any attempt to show the viewer a good time, and for many of its symbolic resonances, which, along with the deaths of Hicks, Newt, and Bishop (Lance Henrickson), I’m sure also turned off a great number of fans. Of everything on my list, this is perhaps the guiltiest of my guilty pleasures, and the one for which I’ll take the most flak, but it’s also the one that, for whatever reason, resonates.
In the late 1960’s, I traveled between the galaxies.
In reality, I was standing in front of the wire-frame book rack at Packard’s Market in Hackensack, New Jersey. My parents would bring us there for the weekly shopping trip, dump us in front of the books and we would happily browse while they shopped (can you imagine anybody doing that these days?).
Ah yes, the days before bookstores. Yes, there were bookstores in the world, children. Just not in Teaneck, New Jersey, not then. There was the library (with a shelf of science fiction for “juveniles” about four foot long) that I worked through. Alan E. Nourse (Rocket to Limbo, followed by books such as Raiders from the Rings and Scavengers in Space) was my first science fiction novel. Andre Norton (Star Born, the Forerunner books, Zero Stone, Uncharted Stars) soon followed, and then Arthur C. Clarke (Islands in the Sky) and other books from John C. Winston Books…
But those wire racks. Those took me between the galaxies.
You see around that time Pyramid Books reissued E.E. “Doc” Smith’s classic Skylark books and Lensman books. I’m not sure what it was that caught my eye. Was it the name? (Did “E.E.” have the same mysterious connotations as A.E. in A.E. van Vogt and C.L. as in C.L. Moore?) Was it the fact that it was a series (if you like the first, there’s more to come!)? Was it the artwork by (as I learned later) Jack Gaughan?
The covers. Definitely the covers. Cool bug-like spaceships. They didn’t look like the Mercury and Gemini capsules that I built models of. They looked like, well, spaceships! Far future craft, plying their way between the stars.
Standing there as the crowds swirled around us, I started with the first book in the series, Triplanetary. And was hooked. During subsequent visits (I was a fast reader), I went through the rest of the series: First Lensman, Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second Stage Lensman, Children of the Lens and Masters of the Vortex.
We didn’t start small. Oh, no. We start with the collision of two galaxies, the creation of many worlds, the rise of two competing philosophies, war in space and on the Earth, the fall of Atlantis, the fall of Rome, World War II, World War ??? and then war between planets.
And that was just the start of the series!
The rise of the Galactic Patrol, the coming of Kimball Kinnison, space pirates, the layers of the onion that was the crime organization of Boskone, weird aliens that were allies…ships that got bigger and bigger, weapons that got bigger and bigger. Heck, skip ships, start tossing planets around! Negaspheres! Vortexes! Mind power! More!
Corny? Yes. Characters? No. Nevertheless, hook, line and sinker. And I revisit them every couple of years.
The Lensman series led to Skylark. Skylark led to John W. “Astounding Stories” Campbell, Jr. Then there was Edmond “World Wrecker” Hamilton, Leigh “Planet Stories” Brackett, Jack “Space Legion” Williamson and all the other proponents of the first great age of space opera.
Space Opera, yep, that is my secret vice.
These things come in waves. Space opera, as it was later termed, helped to build science fiction and bring about the “golden age” (eleven). It helped to spawn films like Forbidden Planet and television series like Star Trek. Then it became uncool and we had the New Wave and the like and then the New Space Opera and it was cool again and then fell out of favor and came back as the New New Space Opera.
It lives, it breathes, it grows. Alastair Reynolds, Peter F. Hamilton, Iain M. Banks, Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod, John Ringo, David Weber, Travis S. “Doc” Taylor (finally, another “Doc”!), Howard Tayler and many more share in my “secret vice” now.
When does a secret vice become not so much a vice? Hmmm…time to crack open Galactic Patrol. Or maybe The Legion of Space. Or The Black Star Passes. Or…