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Sunday, November 29, 2009
The Future Is Sooo 1959

Fifty years ago the western was the most popular Hollywood genre, and science fiction films were enjoying their first modest successes.

Today the western is all but dead, and science fiction films seem to be bubbling up from the multiplex all the time.

There's hardly a Philip K. Dick novel that hasn't been adapted for the movies. But Isaac Asimov, arguably the most respected writer of that benighted genre, has never successfully made that jump.

I guess this was because Asimov wrote lots of scenes where two Very Smart People stood in the same room, quietly outwitting each other. Not the most cinematic writer, to be sure.

There have been exceptions to the No-Asimov-at-the-movies rule, of course. Back in the 80's, someone did an adaptation of his short story Nightfall that kept the title but little else. A few years ago, Will Smith starred in I, Robot, purportedly based on an Asimov short story. But aside from the presence of robots, there wasn't much Asimov in that one either; it was essentially a Will Smith actioner set in the future.

Interestingly, the only adaptation of Asimov's work that came close to being faithful was from a game -- a rather primitive "interactive" VCR game produced by Kodak in 1988. Isaac Asimov's Robots was based on The Caves of Steel, the first novel to feature New York homicide detective Elijah Bailey and his android partner R. Daneel Olivaw.

Asimov imagined a future in which the inhabitants of an overcrowded Earth built vast underground cities. Over time people become so used to their underground existence that they developed agoraphobia; they could no longer bear the idea of being "outside". Meanwhile, human colonists who had traveled to other solar systems built a prosperous and technologically advanced civilization, largely on robot labor. These "spacers" look down on the Earth people, but they have developed a neurosis of their own. They are incurable germaphobes who are fearful of direct contact with the Earthers,whom they see as dirty.

Nemo's dad used to have a copy of the VCR game, and for its time -- and for what must have been a miniscule budget -- it worked pretty well.

But it seems unlikely that The Caves of Steel will get a big-budget Hollywood treatment anytime soon. In Hollywood's view, the future is old-fashioned; most science fiction movies produced today take place in the present or, if they really want to go out on a limb, the near future.

Saturday, November 28, 2009
A Library For Your Militia's Bomb Shelter
In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde stated that there are no moral or immoral books. To him, a book was either well-written or poorly-written, and had to be judged on that basis alone.

I tend to agree with that, but in our Manichean culture, all literature must be weighed for its political content. And John J Miller, whom you may remember from the National Review's attempt to identify politically pure rock songs, has opened the floor for nominations for the Best Conservative Novels Ever Written.

Miller is on firmer ground here than he was on the rock song project. You can find a novel to support any worldview imaginable. But of course, the goal here isn't simply to identify conservative novels; rather, the intent is to demonstrate that the center of intellectual gravity in western culture is in conservative territory.

Not so easy, that. Readers threw in all sorts of suggestions -- some quite sensible, others a bit off, and some truly wacky. A few of the highlights:

Not So Strange

State of Fear, Michael Crichton

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Anthem, Ayn Rand

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A Heinlein

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein

Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin

Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis

The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Animal Farm, George Orwell

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh

Advise and Consent, Alan Drury

Okay, A Little Strange

Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Watership Down, Richard Adams

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson

A Canticle For Liebowitz, Walter M Miller, Jr.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Maybe You Should Re-Read That Book

Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

Never Let Me Go, Kauzo Ishiguro

USA Trilogy, John Dos Passos

The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

The World Accordiong To Garp, John Irving

Like Miller’s previous effort to list “conservative” rock songs, this project becomes something of a Rorschach test. If a conservative likes a book, does that make the book conservative?

Many readers seemed to think so. One suggested that Nabokov’s Lolita is a conservative novel “if you can get past the allegorical child molestation”. Another recommended a John Derbyshire essay extolling the virtues of Lolita, saying that was proof the book’s conservative bona fides since “John knows what he likes” (It’s well-documented, of course, that what Derb likes is young ladies whom our decadent, liberal society has labeled “underage” )

Watership Down got several nominations. There is a “freedom vs. tyranny” theme that will cause people of all political stripes to embrace it; but it’s interesting to note that Watership Down could have been written as an allegory to the post-9/11 world. Adams portrayed the Efrafa warren as a state that had made a deliberate choice to pursue security at the cost of freedom. The result was a highly regimented, highly paranoid culture.

John Kennedy Toole's brilliant A Confederacy of Dunces appears several times on the list of suggested books, though it's difficult for me to see why; that comic novel's protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly is an avowed Medievalist who professes his hatred for our Enlightenment-tainted world -- a conservative enough attitude, I suppose. But he is also a lurid train wreck of a man: bumbling, complaining, solipsistic and lazy -- not exactly a poster child for rock-ribbed conservative values.

Some books seem to have been nominated because the reader was simply immune to irony. The Great Gatsby was suggested, on the grounds that Jay Gatsby was a self-made man, the kind of fellow who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. One reader recommended Stephenson's The Diamond Age because it posited a future in which Victorian culture and values makes a resurgence (true enough, but the "neo-Vics" in Stephenson's novel are depicted as retrograde and faintly ridiculous).

What to make of the nomination of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I don't know. That melodrama about the injustices of slavery so enraged southern conservatives that it is commonly cited as one of the causes of the Civil War, a conflict that some conservatives still haven't gotten over. It's a baffling suggestion, really -- one that makes me wonder if the person nominating it had even read it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
But I Wasn't Suggesting It
If they gave out an award for Best Defensive Jibber-Jabber On A Blog Post, National Review's Andy McCarthy would take it in a walk. He gets all huffy because Glenn Greenwald called him on the nutty conspiracy theories he regularly promotes on NRO. McCarthy's response to one of Greenwald's accusations:

I didn't suggest that Bill Ayers is the author of one of Barack Obama's biographies — I reported that someone else had made the suggestion and had made an interesting case, and that Obama was not helping matters by refusing to disclose any of his prior writings which might put any doubt to rest by demontrating his writing skills.
Seems to me if you demand that Barack Obama prove that Bill Ayers didn't ghostwrite his memoirs, you are strongly suggesting that he, in fact, did.

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