Monday, January 22, 2007

in the penny press! dodos and Ramsey Clark!

Interesting tidbits in the penny press this time around, starting with the latest issue of Esquire.

We here at Stevereads have a certain fond indulgence for Esquire - it's resolutely moronic and reductive in tone (its endless style tips and lifestyle guides only reinforce what the rest of us have suspected all along: that all those interchangeable-looking young business-suited drones we see crowded at the crosswalks on our way to work really ARE interchangeable - not that they're extremely similar to each other, but that they are, in fact, the SAME PERSON, cheaply mimeographed hundreds of times), but it has the financial clout to commission some first-rate pieces. And since hunting for first-rate pieces is the first duty of truffle-sniffing in the penny press, we must go everywhere, even to the depths of cash-and-titty-worshipping magazines like Esquire.

And it's not all uphill! Every issue of Esquire is guaranteed to produce something eminently worth reading. Fortunately for the rest of you, we here at Stevereads do the soup-straining.

One quick bit of fun comes from the always-reliable Answer Fella, who gets a peculiarly theological question: a reader asks if a cloned human being would have a soul.

The Answer Fella gathers testimony from various experts and comes down in the affimative. To quote one of them: "If humans have souls, then clones will have them, too."

Well, not hardly. As many of you know, we here at Stevereads were trained in our youth by Jesuits - and so we are, in young adulthood, completely atheistic. There are no gods, and all their appurtenances are and always have been mortal folly.

But.... that having been said, if we allow the premise, the Answer Fella and his experts are still well and truly wrong.

The problem lies in an all-consuming faith in the powers of science, alas. These experts say that if you reproduce the biology with complete fidelity, the soul must surely follow. The fallacy of this is obvious: it mistakes the soul for being a PRODUCT of biology.

Of course, from a theological standpoint (we have our own experts on this, in addition to knowing the enemy's territory quite well in our own right), this misses one crucial point: the soul is not a product of biology. It comes from God - it is the singular gift that God gives to human (and, according to Holy Scripture, only human) beings. It's not biological - it, like God, stands outside the biological process.

Fortunately, not everything in this issue is fraught with theological implications. For instance, John Richardson's wonderful piece "How the Attorney General of the United States Became Saddam Hussein's Lawyer" is purely secular, a delightful piece of research and extrapolation regarding former attorney general Ramsey Clark.

Before reading this article, we here at Stevereads would have assumed the present age had long since forgotten Ramsey Clark. Once upon a time, in a long-lost age, he was one of a brace of fearless greyhounds in the kennel of the Kennedys. He caught from them the bug of doing good work, and he pushed on with that good work even after they were gone (and new boss, Lyndon Johnson, was, shall we say, considerably less interested in doing good work).

Surprised therefore at finding Ramsey Clark in the latest issue of Esquire, of all places, we dispatched one of our Stevereads interns to conduct a thorough search of the Interweb in order to confirm the stuff we read in the article.

Turns out it's all true. He's been defending Nazis, the PLO, Lyndon Larouche ... and Saddam Hussein. And there in the article is Clark's face, once matinee-handsome, now suddenly old. Through the rice-paper skin can be seen one last flickering of the light that was Camelot.

Ramsey Clark is a virtuous man, but this has become an almost unbelievably wicked world. He looks like an anachronism, jetting from one self-evidently guilty client to another, always self-effacing, always quietly reposing his deepest faith in the rule of law. Robert Bolt's Thomas More in 'A Man for All Seasons' was written with a different person in mind, but his most famous bit of dialogue might well have been spoken by Clark.

It's no mystery in our current world that pundits and commentators would feel free to mock and malign Clark. We live in a vicious, 'Mission Accomplished' world in which the powerful routinely break the law, where they're the FIRST to break it, and then sneer transparent lies to a fawning media.

We here at Stevereads wish him well. There's nothing he can do about the way of the world, except keep doing what he's always done, even though virtually nobody believes in doing it anymore.

We took that slight feeling of disenchantment with us when we moved over to the latest issue of New York magazine, which (amidst its usual gathering of great stuff) featured an article in which writer William Georgiades tries Allen Carr's celebrated 'method' to quit smoking. Georgiades is a smart, savvy writer, so we were happy to watch him explode the manipulative myth that Carr's book has been slinging since its publication.

You don't need to do much more than attach 'the easy way' to ANYTHING to make it bestseller in America. 'Lose Weight in 10 Days - And Eat as Much as You Want!'- and such titles crowd the bookstore shelves and trumpet the quintessentially American mindframe that results should never be bought at the cost of work - surely nowadays, a pill or a program will suffice?

Contrary to the jejune speculations afloat here at Stevereads (that we were tormented with cigarettes as a small child, or even that we ourselves were once addicted), our hatred of tobacco addicts stems from the particular TACK they've always taken in rationalizing their addiction, the particular TACK the 10 billion-dollar tobacco adverstising industry always takes - i.e. that tobacco addiction is the THINKER'S addiction, that standing outside philosophically dragging on a cigarette is somehow synomymous with ... well, with pausing, with re-assessing, and most of all with ADULTHOOD. Those bitter minutes we adults take outside, burning our own lungs and bestenching ourselves for hours afterwards, are what SEPARATE us from more shallow thinkers, goes the advertising. We're not callow anymore; we realize that THIS is the price we pay for being adult, artistic, realistic, REAL.

Needless to say, any pretence that presumes superiority is guaranteed to tick us off (the typical pothead assertion that they hear music 'better' when high comes close to being the same thing). So we were glad to read Georgieades tear the program to pieces. It doesn't work for Georgiades, and his backgrounding for the article reveals how many others have been similarly let down. This only makes sense: tobacco addiction is the fiercest of all addictions to even barely control, much less 'beat.' Now if only 'The Easy Way to Stop Smoking' would stop selling so well ...

And lastly, over in the New Yorker, there's an interesting article by Ian Parker on the long, strange afterlife of the famously extinct great Mauritius dodo. Parker very gently, very forgivingly writes about the eccentrics and, to speak plainly, the lunatics who staff the 2006 Mauritius Dodo Expedition.

The picture is that of a hopeless muddle, a pathetic tangle of island politics, petty scientific rivalries, and of course the money-guys getting everything wrong (at one point they half-seriously joke about cloning a dodo, and you can just hear all the scientists within earshot cringe).

The story is ultimately sad - reading Parker's piece, you get the distinct impression that it's way, way too late for any kind of clear-eyed science to take root on Mauritius. But then, the dodo's story is a sad one anyway - you picture these big fat birds so docile and unaccustomed to mankind that they were all dead within just a century of their first contact with humans.

But there's one silver lining in the story: it gives us here at Stevereads a chance to offer a shameless plug for one of the best science fiction short stories ever written: "The Ugly Chickens" by the criminally underrated Howard Waldrop. We have yet to quiz our interns on whether or not this gem of a story is available on the Interweb, but if it is, oh, you should all read it! It's a smart, playful, pitch-perfect exercise in adumbration and irony.

Needless to say, if the story ISN'T available online, we here at Stevereads will provide as many copies for my little guppies as they require ... I am, as always, their humble servant ...


Hippolyta said...

What I learned today in Steve's blog:

Reichmarshall is, in fact, the soulless clone of Ramsey Clark.

Jeff E. said...

Ugly Chickens
by Howard Waldrop

steve said...

Thanks for the hotlink, Jeff! What did you think of the story? Come to that, what did ALL of you think of it? Wasn't it nifty?

locke said...

Lemme practice my clever comment board banter...

The only "dodo" I see here is YOU, Mr. Stevereads!

How was that?

No, I got questions and issues about both SteveReeves' defense of Ramsey Clark and the Dodo SF story...

I'm not an expert on Clark -- I'm certainly not as familiar with his life, or his time with the Kennedys as Steve is (I beleive Steve slept with both RFK and JFK, right?)

But I have to disagree with his glorification of Ramsey as "...a virtuous man [in a]wicked world... always quietly reposing his deepest faith in the rule of law... We here at Stevereads wish him well... There's nothing he can do about the way of the world, except keep doing what he's always done, even though virtually nobody believes in doing it anymore."

According to Wikipedia (which, I believe, is written by infalliable magic elves) Clark said this in defense of his infamous clients:

"He [Saddam] had this huge war going on, and you have to act firmly when you have an assassination attempt" and described Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein as "[b]oth commanders" who "were courageous enough to fight more powerful countries."

Okay, I TOTALLY get what Stevereads is after -- the trials of both men were flawed, Saddam's tremendously and scandalously so. And I understand the admiration for Clark's pure devotion to the idea of the law. Those ideals are desperately needed on the international stage. So I get that part.

But old men get,um old. And they change. Ramsey Clark is right in maintaining a pursuit of a legal ideal. But you can defend the law and defend a person's right to a fair trial under that law. But to defend Hussein and Milošević's ACTIONS and intentions is to defend genocide -- would SteveReads still defend Clark if he had said similar things in a hypothetical defense of Goebbels or Himmler, not to mention the Big H himself?

Yes, the United States railroaded Saddam using the "Iraqi Court" as its proxy. Yes, I'm sure similar arguments could be made in Milošević's trial and the EU and NATO's role. Which is why fair, open, honest trials for such seeming monsters are SO necessary -- so that no one can later martyr them as victims of kangaroo courts.

But honestly, again, ignorant as I am of Clark's full history and nature, I don't see how you can put him on a pedestal when he says things like that. If we're praising him for his intelligence and idealism, we can't write such things off -- spoken to the press and/or the public -- as slips of the tongue or mistaken out of context.

Steve says:

"It's no mystery in our current world that pundits and commentators would feel free to mock and malign Clark. We live in a vicious, 'Mission Accomplished' world in which the powerful routinely break the law, where they're the FIRST to break it, and then sneer transparent lies to a fawning media."

Again, fair enough and true enough, but Steve -- similar to Clark -- is letting his contempt for the context -- the BushWorld totalitarian mentality, and the media's willingness to pile on for ratings -- to somehow excuse Clark's behavior, just as Clark seems to be implying that the faulty TRAILS of Saddam and Slobadan somehow make their ACTIONS excusable.

And next, on to the dodo! and the Soul! The Dodo Soul -- there, one of you kids can use that for the title of your debut novel. For free, from me to you...

locke said...

Okay, The Ugly Chickens...

Delightful short story. Certainly a "gem." I very much enjoyed it, AND I learned things!

But I have two questions:

-- Why is it Science Fiction?

-- and "one of the best science fiction short stories ever written"?!?!

Come on, REALLY?!?! I ask in all seriousness, WHY?

As the leading Steveologist on this board only by merit of having put up with his guff for for 22 years, I say I KNOW why STEVE likes it: it's about birds and naturalists. But, all baiting aside, why this one, Steve? What makes it science fiction? (And yeah, I know -- it was on the Sci-Fi website, so maybe I'm REALLY missing something here... was the old woman on the bus really a time-traveling space alien? are the DODO's really space aliens? Were they really wiped out by a killer Teutonian cyborg from the future?)

And what makes it one of the best?

locke said...

And finally, the SOUL!

I just want to say that Steve makes a very impressive and enlightening argument, especially to us heathens who didn't grow up wrapped in the arms of the Roman Catholic Church and all its quaint and amusing magic stories.

But really, to debate about it is NO more significant that to argue over whether or not the Balrog has actual wings.

Which, I believe was Steve's point as well.

So I guess I have no beef with the soul stuff, unlike the Clark and Dodo stuff. Dang. I just can't resist teasing Jesuit Boy.

Hippolyta said...

That was a tease?? well shit. That's the lengthiest "tease" I've ever encountered.

locke said...

I meant what I said about Clark and the Dodo Story -- it was just the Catholic stuff I enjoy teasing Steve about...

steve said...

OK, two things:

1) What of Clark's ACTIONS doesn't deserve defending? And as for what he said, well ... since mob-rule is both ignorant and dangerous (that's why it's not tolerated here in the kindly tyranny of Stevereads), I'm a stranger to Wikipedia, but the quote you reference is TRUE, in context: both men WERE commanders, and both fought much more powerful countries (with the backing of equally powerful countries, true). Still, I agree: old men get old, and they say things they shouldn't, and sometimes their beliefs ossify into weird shapes. I hope this hasn't happened with Clark, but all I was going by was that one article, from which I took that he's still alive and pursuing an ideal of law that's conspicuously absent in today's world. If in his old-man mind that's gotten mixed up with not just legally but personally DEFENDING some of the men he defends, well ... that would be sad.

2) I'm surprised Locke's oddly Platonic 'Why is it science fiction?' question didn't generate more response from all the science fiction geeks who lurk in these comments! My own unswerving answer is this: it's science fiction because it didn't happen. That's what I love about it - it harkens back to the days when a British parson firmly maintained that, for his part, NONE of 'Gulliver's Travels' was true. Waldrop takes into account everything we know about the fate of the dodo, then he spins this entirely plausible, heartbreaking story about their actual end ('we ate for days') ...and presto! You've got excellent, thought-provoking, grade-A science fiction without an alien in sight!

What about the rest of you? Agree? Disagree?

steve said...

Oh, and it was just JFK. RFK was a happily-married man.

locke said...

"it's science fiction because it didn't happen."

So is Moby Dick science fiction? -- I'm only being half facetious about that. What about something like The Seven-Percent Solution? Or, well, um, about 75% of all fiction?

But in the 12 hours since I asked, I have done a little poking around on the Giant Series of Tubes, and found out more about Waldrop and his work and frankly, he seems like an author I'd like to read more of. And certainly in the context of HIS work, I see why "Ugly Chickens" is considered SF -- or, more appropriately, "speculative fiction." And yeah, I suppose it would be a prime example of Mundane Science Fiction.

But I would make the primary argument that science fiction or speculative fiction MUST include, at least to some small degree, something that CANNOT happen, at least not YET, according to current understandings of the laws of nature and/or existing levels of technology.

Which is not a knock on The Ugly Chickens or Waldrop, but if he'd never written another science or speculative fiction story, would it still be considered SF or have won those awards?

locke said...

let's try this little game, re Clark's remarks:

"He [Bush] had this huge war going on, and you have to act firmly when you have an assassination attempt"


Adolf Hitler was "courageous enough to fight more powerful countries."

(and no, I'm not echoing that moldy propaganda that Hussein and Milošević were "modern-day Hitlers" -- in fact, that's exactly the sort of overheated mob mentality that Clark is trying to FIGHT.)

Hippolyta said...

Locke, I agree with you. Science fiction MUST include an element of fantasy (i.e. has to dabble in the realm of the "impossible.") Otherwise it's just fiction.

steve said...

But that's what I mean! The dodo is the most famous extinct animal in the world - waldrop's story is excellent science fiction not because he bases his story on a 'what if' premise that COULD happen (a whaling captain could certainly try to exact vengeance on the whale that dis-masted him) but because he bases it on a premise that COULDN'T happen, that this stupid, defenseless - and highly visible - bird could somehow survive into the age of photography.

Gah, I'm not doing the best job possible here! Where are all my other faithful readers? Kevin, Elmo, help me out here ... what makes this story science fiction?

lockep said...

Okay, I'll give you a point or two, Steve -- 'cause really, your flailing about is kinda sad...

IF a story were about a scientist (no, wait! a ruggedly HANDSOME scientist... a ruggedly handsome scientist-ADVENTURER!) who (in the company of a buxom lady journalist and a comically bumbling boat captain) stumbles upon a race of Neanderthals living in a hidden valley in the south of France, THAT I would probably consider to be "science fiction" -- a very dorky, silly sort of SF -- even though it COULD technically HAPPEN (it's very, very, very unlikely, but it's not IMPOSSIBLE.

So to be fair, it's simply the low-key (and I admit, charming) nature of the DODO that makes Ugly Chickens the must mundane of mundane SF... I guess reading it, at no point did I say "oh, that could NEVER happen.

I mean, I find it much easier to believe that SOME small stock of dodos could have been kept alive, almost unintentionallly than to believe, say, that rogue sects of the Catholic Church run around killing people with albinos in order to preserve ancient secrets about Jesus' holy rod. But we don't call "DaVinci Choad" science fiction or even speculative fiction...

I forget my point... I just like making jokes about Jesus' penis...

Sam Sacks said...

Jesus's circumcised penis, of course.

It is fantasy. Dodos went extinct in the seventeenth century (not that they had to--I don't understand Steve's assertion that it was impossible for the dodo not to go extinct--just that they did). When Waldrop creates a fictional world in which they are still around in modern times, that's a fantastical world. It's similar to those books that narrate what happens in the world after the Nazis win World War II. That was certainly a possible outcome, and the books might be entirely realistic, but it's a fantasy/sci-fi since the Nazis did not, in fact, win. The world in 'Moby Dick' is hyperbolical and extraordinary, but it's not fantastical (although in it Melville does claim that the Pequods were an extinct this case the fact that they are now the RICHEST tribe in the country makes the real world a little fantastical).

But where I get confused is when we start saying certain writing ISN'T fantasy/sci-fi. I think you've said this of Margaret Atwood's novels. Notwithstanding the worth of them, why isn't, for example, 'A Handmaid's Tale' sci-fi? Is it because Atwood is more interested in allegory than the actual fantasy worlds she creates? And the weird dystopian worlds George Saunders makes: those aren't sci-fi because they're in the service of satire, like 'Gulliver's Travels'?

lockep said...

I would certainly consider Handmaid's Tale science fiction (who is it that doesn't -- Mr. SteveReeds?) and Gulliver's Travels a sort of fantasy. As would be Alice in Wonderland or even The Iliad and the Odyssey (ah, that'll wake our blog host, er "blost," back up.)

And I don't say that in some sort of geeky, over-compensating, defensive attempt to expand the boundaries of fantasy (or sci-fi) by adding "great works" to the genre rolls.

lockep said...

While we're on the subject of what is and isn't fantasy/sci-fi versus satire, etc. (and yeah, I know I'm not supposed to call it sci-fi -- it gets Uncle Harlan all upset and squeaky), I've got a sincere question:

What is Gormenghast? It's often called one of the greatest works of British fantasy of the 20th Century, alongside LOTR. But again, why?

The only thing really fantastical in it is the size of the castle itself and maybe a few architectural details, such as the Sister's tree. Sure, the characters are satirically grotesque exaggerations, but we can't make that a sole criteria for calling something "fantasy" or we'd be calling something like SNL "fantasy" (or, more accurately, but more obscurely, especially for you young whippersnappers, the '80s British Spitting Image stuff)...

I don't know how many of you are fans of Peake, but I read the book a few years ago, absolutely loved and marveled at it, but it does seem to teeter in some grey area in terms of calling it a "genre" work.

Just curious if anyone else has read it or is familiar enough with it to tip the scales one way or the other for me?

(and no, I don't normally worry about these things -- I'm not some Jesuitical obsessive freak about neatly compartmentalizing or labeling everything... The Ugly Chickens just brought the question up in my mind yesterday, that's all...)

Kevin Caron said...


So, its Sci/Fi (or fantasy?) because it is a fictional re-imagining of something real (ie Nazi's win the war), as opposed to straight fiction, a just made up story about made-up people?

See, in comics, the terminology is much easier: this is an 'Elseworlds' story. (Or a "What if...", if you're a Marvel Zombie).

But there you go - a "What if..." - sounds like a clear indicator of Science Fiction. Though this sure seems to sit a bit toward the grey area.

Either way, it's a charming story. Thank you Steve - and HOT LINK LAD (honorary Legionaire)!

Hippolyta said...

Hot link lad, help me out here. This is from:

Science Fiction: any story of a speculative nature dealing with possible (not necessarily probable) futuristic scenarios. These would include space exploration, genetic engineering, cloning, nano-technology, etc.

Fantasy: any story dealing with ideas and concepts generally considered to be not of this world. These would include stories about wizards, witchcraft and sorcery or similar themes, or those concerning vampires or werewolves, or creatures such as unicorns, dragons, or other mythical beasts.

Jeff E. said...

Tra, la-LA!

Jeff E. said...

Hippolyta's treatise on genres

Hippolyta said...

what service. :-)

Hippolyta said...

Boys, come now! Don't lets leave a girl waiting for comments!

Sam Sacks said...

Be careful, Hippolyta, if this Galen Strickland guy ever finds out you're linking to his site, he'll NEVER stop with the phone calls and the e-greetings and the inscribed Heinlein paperbacks in the mail and the creepy blog devoted to you, his forever cyberlove.

The categories are nicely cut-and-dry, but do they drive to the mysterious heart of the dodo story? It doesn't take place in the future, so it would not, according to your beau, be sci-fi. And what about Locke's daring expansion of those categories to contain Homer and, by implication, the Bible?

I do like Kevin's "What-if" explanation--maybe tack that on with the futuristic scenarios subset.

lockep said...

The "futuristic" tag kind of clumbsy and inaccurately evocative of shiny space suits and purple tentacles -- but, although modern alien contact, a mainstay of SF, isn't TECHNICALLY "futuristic," it does suggest technical or biological entities that are BEYOND what we have at our fingertips today (at least those of us who don't work on black-budget research programs for the Pentagon). So while I don't think I'd use "futuristic" to define SF, I'm okay with its intent.

So here's another one for you -- a story about a ghost, in which we learn that the spiritual visitation is in fact a manifestation of some sort of string-theory quantum-physics electromagnetic whathaveya of what we would call the "soul"? Now would that story then cease to be fantasy and become SF? I'd say yeah...

The "what if" dissecter is also useful (I used it all the time when teaching HS sophomores in an SF literature unit), but again while it's great for helping define SF, it too can't really be used as a SOLE defining trait, since, again, almost ALL fiction is based on a "what if" (What if you became obsessed with hunting down a white whale?).

As for the fantasy definition, the "not of this world" is a decent enough starting point, but again, I'm sure we could all come up with examples of fantasy that take place very much in THIS world. Unless -- and I'm okay with this -- we take the "not of this world" to include things such as magic, monsters, and of course the supernatural.

And speaking of applying these terms to Greek mythology, while most of Greek mythology is, by nature, fantasy, when I taught SF, I often pointed to the one story that is pure Science Fiction: Icarus.

steve said...

Locke! Drawing artificial distinctions between sci-fi and fantasy! Brooks would be livid!