Visions of Paradise

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The Incredibles / Hero

Recently we have been watching more videos than we ever watched before, mostly because we have been getting free rentals through our Discover credit card. Jean and the boys watch most of them, but occasionally I rent one for myself.

Since this week is Spring Break, I knew I had ample time to watch a few videos, so I have gotten two videos which ironically both deal with the question of what does being a hero imply?

The first video was The Incredibles, which was a delightful Pixar movie about a forcibly-retired super-hero couple, Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl. In an era in which super-heroes are relocated because of lawsuits resulting from their previous exploits, two main problems linger as a result: Mr. Incredible (and his closest buddy Frozone) cannot totally give up the “rush” of fighting crime, and the two children of Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl have inherited super-powers of their own, which they are anxious to use while their parents forbid them to show any hint of abnormality.

The Incredibles is fairly light entertainment, so I do not think I am spoiling anybody’s viewing pleasure by revealing that the movie’s climax involves the entire super-family going to battle against equally-super-baddies. It’s all fun, with a twinge of thoughtfulness included.

A much more serious take on being a hero is Zhang Yimou’s Hero. I am not normally a martial arts fan, so this movie would not have interested me at all if it were not directed by Zhang Yimou, one of my favorite directors. His Raise the Red Lantern and Red Sorghum were both wonderful movies, combining thoughtfulness with characterization and probably the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen.

Hero was typical Yimou with its absolutely gorgeous scenery and well-choreographed scenes. It told the story of four assassins conspiring to kill the king of the Qin kingdom who is trying to unite the six warring kingdoms of China two thousands years ago into one country under his control. There are plenty of martial arts scenes, but even they were done in typical Yimou-style, so that rather than the fantastic fighting being the focus of those scenes, they were actually the centerpieces of much larger tapestries. And the assassins’ quest is also a small part of the examination of such things as patriotism, the true meaning of being a hero, and the relationship between calligraphy and swordsmanship. Overall, Hero combined equal parts mystery, visual splendor, and thoughtfulness, all wrapped around an action thriller.

You do not need to enjoy thrillers to enjoy this movie; in fact, if action is the only reason you watch martial arts movies, this might not be the movie for you. I was tepid towards Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but I thought Hero was vastly superior. I recommend it highly.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

I Got Dem Ol’ Sense of Wonder Blues Again, Mama

For thirty years I was absolutely in love with science fiction. It comprised well over 90% of my pleasure reading during those decades, including prozines and Best-of-the-Year anthologies and virtually every major novel that was published. Rarely did I read anything other than science fiction, since neither mainstream fiction nor nonfiction gave me the same pleasure and satisfaction science fiction did.

Then abruptly in 1995 I burned out on science fiction. The reasons are too complex to delve into here, although the tip off the iceberg was forcing myself to read too many major books and too many pieces of short fiction for completist reasons rather than for pleasure.

The next two years or so I read very little science fiction at all. Instead I sampled many types of reading that I had virtually ignored for my entire adult life. Literature, historical fiction, Chinese fiction, nonfiction. And I gradually realized something important about all that new stuff I was reading: while not all of it was wonderful, the satisfaction I received from it was similar to the amount of satisfaction I received from science fiction.

In the decade since, I’ve drifted back to science fiction. It now comprises about 60% of my total reading material. One major difference is that now I’m considerably more critical about the SF I read. After all, when you’re no longer tied to SF as the only form of reading pleasure, you can be choosier as to which SF you read: with a wider range of books to read you can limit yourself to the better quality of what you formerly read.

So the question I’ve tried to answer is this: if I can get equal pleasure from both SF and non-SF, then apparently the sfnal-ness of the fiction is not the prime ingredient which is providing my pleasure. So what ingredient is?

The first ingredient I considered was the literary qualities of the fiction, because I tend to prefer SF which straddles the border between pure genre and literary rather than the adventure-hard science stuff. But I immediately rejected that possibility because, if it was only–or even primarily–the literary qualities which were pleasing me, why would I have ever drifted back to science fiction rather than devote the rest of my life to reading Dickens-Hemingway-Faulkner-Morrison etc?

Next I began looking back at my favorite books of the past decade, both SF and non-SF. The Chinese classics Journey to the West and Outlaws of the Marsh featured worlds so different from my own–or anything with which I was familiar–that their exoticism was truly exciting. I was as much fascinated emotionally by the landscapes in which they took place as I was excited intellectually by the cultures themselves. Historical novels such as Lemprière’s Dictionary had a similar effect on me, a rich, foreign setting combined with philosophical thoughtfulness.

And, of course, the absolutely wonderful Andrea Barrett who so excited me with her love of natural science (Ship Fever), Chinese culture (The Middle Kingdom) and the marvelous exploration of unexplored territory (Voyage of the Narwhal). It soon became obvious that what all these works had in common was sense of wonder although giving it a name only seemed to exasperate the problem, because when I began seeking a definition of what I meant by the phrase sense of wonder I quickly found it to be as frustrating as defining science fiction itself. But I’ve never been the type of person to shy away from a philosophical argument, so I kept hacking away at the phrase trying to isolate its essential meaning. Several facts eventually came to my rescue.

First, while defining science fiction is dealing with absolutes, since if it is to have any sense at all, science fiction must mean basically the same thing to all people, defining sense of wonder is a relative matter since what is truly wondrous for one person might be totally mundane for another.

Second, a work of literature can affect a person on three different levels: intellectually, emotionally, or viscerally. Granted the dictionary definitions of “emotionally” and “viscerally” are so close as to be almost interchangeable, but for my purposes I consider the former to be higher emotions such as love and loyalty while the latter generally incorporate baser emotions such as fear and loathing.

None of the three levels are intrinsically better or more laudable than the others; in fact, a glance at either bestseller lists or lists of award-winners will likely reveal a fair cross-section of all three amply represented. Horror novels obviously fall into the “visceral” category while romances into “emotional”. Action novels are “emotional” unless they incorporate large elements of gore and violence, in which case they become “visceral”. Mystery novels tend to be “intellectual” but thrillers walk the line between “emotional” and “visceral”.

So what does all of this have to do with sense of wonder? Well, that’s the relative part of the equation. I do not think that what I consider wondrous is “emotional” because I do not particularly like sequels or open-ended series, and if it were my emotions providing my wondrous experience then I would be anxious to return to the scene of the wonder to experience it again in only-slightly altered form. Nor is it “visceral” because I don’t like being manipulated and such fiction generally works on such a gut, instinctual level that, for me at least, it involves some element of overt or covert manipulation.

But what I definitely do enjoy in a work of fiction is being stimulated intellectually. When something I read excites me–whether it is a truly exotic setting, or a thought-provoking premise, or delving into a character’s passion for some artistic or scientific pursuit–I immediately want to learn more about that culture or its inhabitants or the particularly artform loved so deeply by the character or the science that has sparked so much enthusiasm. I enjoy thinking about the ramifications of the story itself as much as I love delving deeper into it.

So sense of wonder, at least for me, is partly the intellectual stimulation provided by a particularly outstanding piece of fiction. I’m sure that many other science fiction fans feel the same way, since the phrase sense of wonder is as often applied to thought-provoking works about scientific endeavors and philosophical concepts as it is to fast-paced action adventure. I suspect that for every SF fan whose sense of wonder is “emotional” in works such as E.E. Smith’s intergalactic adventures or Edgar Rice Burroughs’ scientific romances, or the latest Star Trek / Star Wars novels, there is another fan whose sense of wonder is “intellectual” in such works as Olaf Stapledon’s philosophical epics and Arthur C. Clarke’s scientific explorations. And that’s wonderful (no pun intended), because the real strength of the science fiction field lies in its ability to cover such a broad spectrum of tastes. Other genres such as mysteries, horror, and romance have very limited ranges by comparison. You don’t see too many “intellectual” experiences in romances–all right, maybe you do, but I’m not a particular connoisseur of romances–while SF straddles intellectual, emotional, and visceral quite easily and quite frequently.

So what about you? What excites your own sense of wonder? I would be very interested in learning what excites other readers about their choice of reading matter.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mars Probes

Peter Crowther is one of the important current editors in science fiction. His small press PS Publishing has published a series of novellas the past several years that are worthy for their high quality and important for the outlet it has given writers in what is arguably the most important length for science fiction. Periodically groups of four novellas are reprinted in book form under such titles as Futures and Cities, which are highly-recommended. Recently he has begun publishing a regular sf prozine called Postscripts, another important jolt in the short fiction field.

Besides these ventures, Crowther also publishes traditional theme anthologies, such as Moon Shot and Mars Probe, the latter which was one of the most acclaimed original anthologies of recent years. The stories in the collection fall into three broad categories. First is stories deliberately reminiscent of specific classic Mars stories. The book opens with Ray Bradbury’s “The Love Affair”, a reprint from 1982 which reads like an out-take from The Martian Chronicles. While not equal to the best stories in that collection, the story does not diminish the reputation of Bradbury’s Martian stories.

Other stories in this category include Michael Moorcock’s “Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel” which bears the heading Homage to Leigh Brackett. In fact, the story is deliberately written exactly like a story in 1940s Planet Stories might have been written, purple prose and all, so much so that after 30 pages the story’s shallowness becomes a bit tiring. But overall it is a fun read.

Finally, Mike Resnick and M. Shayne Bell’s “Flower Children of Mars” is a satire on Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars which looks askew at what might have happened had John Carter arrived later in Martian history when all the sword-wielding Martians had “settled down” and become tame hippies. Cuter than Moorcock’s story, it also had the advantage of being half as long so the humor did not have a chance to dull.

The next category of stories were traditional sfnal stories set on a scientifically-realistic Mars. The best of this group was Allen Steele’s “A Walk Across Mars” about the personal relationship between two buddies who become members of the first Mars expedition and ultimately become famous when they become lost on the Martian surface and survive by walking back to base camp. This is not a mere adventure though, since its main concern is how the relationship of the two men belies the image in the famous picture of them returning to camp arm-in-arm for support.

Alaistair Reynold’s “The Real Story” told of a famous astronaut who underwent a psychological crisis on his long-ago flight to Mars and the reporter who finally discovers the truth. This story’s payoff was that of a mystery which was revealed gradually layer by layer, and fairly successfully at that.

Ian McDonald’s “The Old Cosmonaut and the Construction Worker Dream of Mars” was a densely-constructed story which did not work for me. In fact, I ended up skimming the portions about the construction worker while actually enjoying the old cosmonaut’s tale much better. Their ultimate meeting in the dream world was moving but might have been more successful had I not lost interest in the construction worker earlier.

Two grandmasters offer strong stories combining traditional storytelling with philosophical depth. Gene Wolfe’s “Shields of Mars” is the story of two construction workers engaging in mock Martian battles reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but as usual in a Wolfe story there is more going on beneath the surface than on the surface itself. Brian W. Aldiss’ "Near Earth Object” is a tale of time travelers from Mars’ future accidentally being trapped 30 years in the past. What is most interesting about this story is the attitude of the time travelers towards the people of the past and their society, an aspect which is rarely, if ever, considered by other writers. That attitude was the highlight of the story, although the ending also packed a fairly strong punch.

The final category is stories which were not set on Mars but were primarily “about” Mars. Scott Edelman’s “Mom, the Martians and Me” was a humorous story about a woman’s husband’s running off with a young art assistant and her resultant delusions about Mars and how those delusions affected the life of her son and community.

The best story in this group–and perhaps in the entire book–was James Morrow’s “The War of the Worldviews” which was a satire based loosely on H.G. Wells’ classic tale in which rival aliens from Phobos and Deimos descend on New York City to wage a philosophical battle by engaging in physical warfare so brutal it is destroying the city itself. Only three inmates of an asylum understand the true nature behind the battle and know how to end the struggle philosophically. Like most Morrow stories, this is not intended to be taken seriously but is a romp with some thoughtfulness beneath it.

Overall, Mars Probes is a good collection of stories, none of which loom as classics of the sub-genre, but most of which are worthwhile reading.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Martians

I should begin this review by stating that Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my very favorite science fiction writers, and has been so since his wonderful debut novel The Wild Shore, so anything I say here has more than a tinge of prejudice to it. His fiction combines the precise blend of literature and thought-provoking sense of wonder that I enjoy reading.

The Martians is a companion collection to his acclaimed Mars TrilogyRed Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. If you read that series, then you already know if you want to read The Martians, so anything I say here is superfluous. But if you have never read the Mars Trilogy, or even Kim Stanley Robinson at all, then read on

The Martians consists of 39 stories and story-fragments, ranging from the novella "Green Mars" to several one-to-two page scenes. It features characters who appear in the much longer trilogy, some of them major characters, others walk-ons. Some stories are background information to various characters’ lives, while others fill in the gaps between scenes of the trilogy. And some are alternate history versions of what might have happened differently in the trilogy but did not.

Overall, this collection demonstrates the strengths of Robinson’s novels with virtually none of the weaknesses that his longer works sometimes exhibit. It is written in typical Robinson style, very dry, matter-of-factly, with no stylistic flourishes at all, and virtually no emotional displays. While this lends itself to slow, careful reading, its careful pacing also lends itself to depth of characterization, time to enjoy visual splendor, and depth of philosophical thought. And when something important happens, it tends to be more striking because of the deliberate fact-filled manner in which it is shown.

The book opens with "Michel in Antarctica" which shows the original 150 or so finalists for settling Mars being winnowed down during a year spent living in as Mars-like conditions as Earth can produce. We meet many of the important characters in the trilogy, and learn a bit more about them away from the plot machinations of Mars itself. This story resumes over a century later in an alternate history story "Michel in Provence" in which we see how the Martian colonization might have been different than it actually was. In the two stories we view the unfolding relationship between Michel and Maya.

Maya also appears in a connected group of 6 stories examining her relationship on Mars with Desmond, the coyote. These stories then split off into two solo stories about Desmond’s political days, "Coyote Makes Trouble" and "Coyote Remembers." Together this sequence provides a close and informative look at the political passions dividing the Martian settlers.

The highlights of The Martians are the three related stories "Exploring Fossil Canyon," "Green Mars," and "A Martian Romance." The first two are reprints from Robinson’s early career, the third a coda to the story begun in them. Together they give wonderful looks at the natural beauty of Mars, including fossil climbing, mountain climbing, and iceboat sailing. They also examine the relationship between Roger and Eileen, who in the first story have a love affair as a pair of twentyish youngsters. In the latter two stories they are two hundredish oldsters who, due to medical life extension, are still robust and active. But, like all near-immortals, they have learned that nearly all people have limited memory capacity, so that at age two hundred memories of events at age twenty are basically nonexistent. Except for sports like Roger who remembers everything about his young romance with Eileen while she does not even recall who he is. Together these are the most emotionally-satisfying stories in the book. The fact that Robinson’s emotions are dry and careful make them all the more real and less like the machinations of a writer.

One trait which separate Robinson from other “serious” writers is his killer sense of humor. His collection of novellas Escape From Kathmandu was oftimes hilarious–especially the cameo from Jimmy Carter which I’ll never forget!–and he displays that humor in the story "Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars." The story is precisely what the title claims, another in the long tradition of science fictional baseball stories, this time regaling how a group of Martian natives take up the national pastime, and one Terran immigrant realizes none of the Martians have ever seen a curveball although one of them throws a natural curve that just might come in handy in a game someday. A funny and delightful change of pace from the seriousness of other stories.

The book also contains some non-fiction sections describing the scientific and political background of the Martian trilogy, as well as thirty pages of poetry, and a brief concluding section entitled "Purple Mars" which chronicles the author’s satisfaction when the entire trilogy was finally printed out and mailed to his publisher.

Obviously a book with such a variety of story types will appeal to different readers in different ways, but overall I found it a worthwhile companion to the Mars Trilogy for somebody familiar with Robinson’s opus. However, the Roger and Eileen trilogy and baseball story are all excellent stand-alones, so even those unfamiliar with the Mars Trilogy should enjoy them enough to get their money’s worth out of the paperback edition. And it might encourage you to go read one of the finest science fiction trilogies every written as well.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Good Man of Nanking

John Rabe was a German citizen who lived in China from 1908 through 1938, mostly working for the Siemans China Company, first in Peking but later in Nanking. In 1937, after the Japanese army conquered Shanghai, the cultural center of China-it's "New York City", if you will-they advanced on the capital city of Nanking. Fearing for the lives of the half million Chinese living in the city, Rabe was part of a group of foreigners, mostly German and American missionaries and doctors, who established a "safety zone" which they intended to be a war-free zone where unarmed civilians could be free from the Japanese invaders.

For three months, those foreigners protected some 250,000 Chinese civilians huddled in the Safety Zone, over 600 of them crowded into Rabe's yard itself, while around them chaos reigned: Japanese soldiers murdered more than a quarter million people in the city and its immediate environs, raped more than 40,000 women, burned more than half of the city down, and destroyed all the crops in the fields surrounding the city.

Life in the Safety Zone was not particularly secure either. A quarter million people packed into a few square miles, with insufficient food due to Japanese refusal to import more, with Japanese soldiers intruding on the zone on a daily basis, often raping and killing, but just as often being stopped by the intervention of the foreigners. Rabe himself devoted all hours of day and night rushing through the city, pleading with Japanese authorities to provide food and an end to the chaos, often physically protecting Chinese citizens from Japanese soldiers by waving the swastika emblem on his arm right under Japanese noses.

Rabe was hailed as "the living Buddha of Nanking" by grateful Chinese citizens. After he returned to Germany he gave speeches about the horrors taking place in China and pleaded with the German authorities to intervene on behalf of the Chinese. But Rabe was a relative innocent in German affairs. While in China all he knew about Nazi Germany he had read in German newspapers: Germany had finally risen above the humiliation of the post-World War I armistice; the economy was strong, and both morale and national pride were high again.

But it did not take Rabe long to realize that Nazism was considerably different up close than it had seemed ten thousand miles away. Rabe was arrested by the Gestapo and ordered to stop his speeches. Following Germany's defeat by the Allies, he found himself unemployable as a former Nazi party member and his family in dire poverty. But his Chinese friends did not forget him. One of the most touching moments in Twentieth Century history took place when the citizens of a free and recovering Nanking donated sufficient money to buy large supplies of food which the mayor took to Germany to give to Rabe and his family, saving them from hunger, and repaying a small part of the debt for all the lives he saved during the Japanese invasion.

When Iris Chang was researching her book The Rape of Nanking, a minister in Germany helped her locate Rabe's granddaughter. Iris went to Germany and interviewed Rabe's granddaughter and, amazingly, during the course of the interview the daughter mentioned that Rabe had kept a diary the entire time he lived in China. In fact, the granddaughter had the diary stored in the attic of her house!

That was how we discovered Iris Chang before her own now-popular book was published. During our discussions with Nanking scholars, one of them mentioned the "young Chinese-American who had discovered Rabe's diary". Other scholars confirmed the existence of the diary and Iris' discovery of it. Fei Fei and I went to Yale where we met with Martha Smalley, acquisitions librarian of the Yale Divinity Library. Martha showed us the original copy of Rabe's Diary and told us that it had been published in German, Chinese, and Japanese, with an American translation due shortly.

The Good Man of Nanking is the finally-published American translation of Rabe's Diary. It has been cut down from 1,000+ to 300 pages, but it retains all the events of the Nanking Massacre, starting on 21 September 1937 and continuing until 28 February 1938 when Rabe left Nanking for Shanghai under orders of his superiors at the Seimans Chinese Company. The book is edited by a longtime German friend of Rabe who, interestingly, takes credit himself for discovering the diary. At this point I have no idea who the actual discoverer was, not that it matters.

This book is absolutely incredible. It tells the story of the Nanking Massacre from the inside. Rabe is a very humble man, not given to exaggeration or self-praise, but writing in a low-key matter-of-fact manner that makes the atrocities all that more horrifying. While he makes no attempt at estimating the numbers of rapes and murders, as you read through the weeks following the invasion you gradually begin to realize the magnitude of the massacre and how the 300,000 Chinese killed seems quite believable.

Even more horrifying is the attitude of the Japanese military and authorities to the events taking place. Attempts to halt or even modify the atrocities are minimal; all that seems to matter is covering up and lying about what takes place. But no amount of misdirection can minimize the extent of the holocaust taking place. Rabe's Diary-and American missionary John Magee's film of the events which is discussed by Rabe in the diary and which has also been released to the public in the past decade-are incontrovertible proof of what took place. It is hard to fathom how horrors such as the Rape of Nanking could actually take place, but even more difficult to realize that it was not just an isolated event, but one that has been echoed in places such as Bosnia, Rwanda, Turkey, Cambodia, and the list goes on.

I tend to be cynical about human nature anyway; but my dealings with the Nanking Massacre the past decade has deepened that cynicism considerably. Anybody who has the least amount of doubt as to the extent of the horrors which took place all too frequently in the past century should definitely read this book. And then-as I told the audience at Parsippany High School's mini-Nanking Conference-try to do something to help make a difference in the world. Individually we can do little, if anything, to make the world a better place. But if everybody takes one small step in that direction, together maybe-hopefully!-we can make a difference. Because God help us if the 21st century is any worse than the 20th century was!

Friday, April 01, 2005


Nightwings was one of my favorite books of the 1960s, and one of the reasons that I developed a liking for the fiction of Robert Silverberg. But like so much of my seminal sf, I did not read it again for nearly 40 years. I was actually a bit apprehensive about rereading a book which meant so much to me as a late teen, but I should have let my trust in Silverberg assure me: it is an absolutely phenomenal book.

The first novella “Nightwings” tells the story of three travelers in a far-future underpopulated Earth. The aging Watcher belongs to a guild whose members study the skies four times daily seeking advance notice of an invasion from the stars. The young Flier Avluela is a delicate being whose nightwings enable her to fly only after the sun has descended. Gormon is a guildless changeling, a devil-may-care adventurer who is obviously smitten with Avluela.

Silverberg has always been fascinated by history, and his best fiction often revolves around historical explorations, both historical past to us and historical future, as well as often travelogues in format. Thus in “Nightwings” we examine the life of the city of Roum, a walled city filled with guild houses and public thinking caps which connect the users with networked brains which provide free information. We explore such wonders as the Mouth of Truth and the Prince of Roum himself.

Silverberg has always been a master plotter, but his plots are seldom, if ever, fueled by adventures and thriller events, but rather by characters seeking some type of fulfillment, usually either spiritual or philosophical. Thus his stories move slowly, but deliberately, leaving ample room for his examinations of the future and its history, as well as of the characters on whom he focuses. “Nightwings” is vintage Silverberg, as is the world he creates, so that its wonders envelop you as it does the three travelers.

The second novella, “Among the Rememberers” takes the former Watcher to Perris in company of a mysterious Pilgrim, following the climactic events at the end of “Nightwings” which resulted in the shattering of the guild of Watchers. In Perris he apprentices to the guild of Rememberers, so that this story is pure history, as the now-named Tomis studies his past–our future–and we learn about the splendors and hubris of humanity in the millennia ahead of us, and of the anticipated invasion which originally sparked the creation of the Watchers’ guild. For a lover of history, this novella is a delight. For a lover of strong emotional writing, this novella centers around two people struggling with their emotional lives, eventually progressing to a stunning and unexpected conclusion.

The final novella, “The Road to Jorslem” is a tale of redemption, as Tomas becomes a pilgrim and travels to the most ancient and holiest city of Jorslem, seeking physical renewal and spiritual redemption. This is a favorite topic of Silverberg’s, and one he handles very well. While it might not appeal to all readers, since the novel’s climax is primarily philosophical, I enjoy such conclusions as much, if not moreso, than a mere tying up of loose ends.

Rereading Nightwings after three decades reminded me so much of why Robert Silverberg was my favorite author until his second retirement in 1976. His fiction contains what I consider the ideal combination of character introspection, historical exploration, both our past and our future, travelogue amidst a world of wonders, and tight, if not overly complex, plots. Nightwings is quintessential Silverberg, and shows him at the height of his talent early in the mature phase of his career. I recommend this novel very highly indeed, enjoying it even more this second time than I did when I was younger and simpler in my tastes.