Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Alternate facts make bad alternate history

There is a long tradition of American conservatives penning tales of Alternate History:
  • former Speaker of the House Newt Gingritch took a stab at the genre with his Second World War counterfactual 1945,  
  • Republican Congressman James Rogan (CA-27) tackled the 1968 Democratic Convention in his novel On To Chicago,
  • and shortly before Donald Trump left office, his “1776 Commission on American History” tabled its report.
    Former speaker of the
    house Newt Gingrich
    tackled alternate history 
    with the novel 1945.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    This may seem like a cheap shot at the much-maligned 1776 Commission Report, but the stated purpose of the commission was to counteract the academic demythologizing of American history. The authors of the report took issue with schools teaching a more complete narrative of American history that includes the experiences of enslaved people, of Indigenous Peoples, and of women. It is argued here that any understanding of history that excludes those narratives is no history at all; it is alternate facts.

    The flaws, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods held in the commission’s report are illustrative of the flaws in what is referred to as “Patriotic History,” and these flaws are integral to understanding why there have been so many terrible alternate history novels written by those of a conservative bent in the past quarter century. 

    “Patriotic History” of the sort peddled by the 1776 Commission is a version of history that allows no space for critical examination of the nation’s founding stories. Within this paradigm, the nation cannot be allowed to be anything but perfect, heroic historical figures may be flawed but only in forgivable ways.

    Alternate history is a genre that tackles counterfactual narratives based on divergence from recorded events in the past; but without a solid foundation of factual history, these narratives are built on sand. Moreover, by imagining ways that history might have reasonably played out differently carries with it the implication that the nation might be better than it is now, and that there is no predetermined national destiny. In these ways, good alternate history is anathema to “Patriotic History.”

    The genre is rife with dismal failures written by authors whose worldview is informed by “Patriotic
    Orson Scott Card's
    Pastwatch sanitizes
    the crimes of 
    Christopher Columbus.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    History.” Orson Scott Card’s amateurish Pastwatch starts from the premise that Christopher Columbus wasn’t that bad a guy (despite all the genocide), and posits a historical divergence in which time travelers trying to stop an ecological crisis wiped out all those Indigenous folk with genetically engineered viruses. America celebrates Columbus Day, so any “patriot” must therefore believe — as it appears Card does — in a sanctified and sanitized version of colonialism.

    More recently, The Gordian Protocol by David Weber and Jacob Holo, involves a historian going back in time and learning that (just as he suspected) the oppression of women was just fine and dandy. In the understanding of events promoted by the book, Women’s Liberation — a movement that stood in opposition to dominant power structures — must be defined as being on the wrong side of “Patriotic History.”

    Even one of the better Alternate History works written by a very conservative author, Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli, only really works when it avoids history altogether. When it is a big outer space adventure, it’s relatively engaging. But the version of history depicted in the novel involves weird depictions of Barack Obama as a feckless Marxist ideologue; not so much a counterfactual as a motivated smear job.

    Obviously, the conservative movement has no monopoly on the mythologization of history. The rewriting of history to legitimize the authority of the dominant class is a time-honoured tradition among monarchies, authoritarian regimes, and racialized caste systems. But explicitly politicized left-wing Alternate History is in a minority, and often the left-wing authors working in the genre today
    If you start from the premise
    that the Civil War was about
    "states rights," rather than slavery,
    your history is too fake already.
    (Image via DailyProgress)

    have a more nuanced view of the past.

    America can only again be made great if you believe America was great at some point in the past. For those paying attention to the evidence, it basically never was if you include the narratives of women, workers, marginalized folk in general.

    Those whose worldview is already informed by a warped interpretation of history are unlikely to provide a convincing narrative of how events might unfold. Decent alternate history can only be built on a foundation of real facts.

    Alternate facts make for terrible alternate history.

    Footnote:
    *Just to be clear, for the purposes of this discussion, we are confining ourselves to the strictest definition of alternate history; that being a genre that focuses only on events that might have occurred if historical figures made different decisions. Although stories with aliens, wizards, superheroes, dragons or the anachronistic invention of super-steam technology are sometimes classed as alternate history 
    they are not relevant to this discussion (Some of these mis-classified stories are splendid, and we do not imply anything negative about those stories by excluding them from this narrow definition).

    Monday, 26 April 2021

    Zoning Out - The Hugo cinema of 1962

    This blog post is the fifth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

    At the 1962 Hugo Award ceremony, held at the Pick-Congress Hotel in Chicago, Illinois on Sunday,
    The audience at the 1962 Hugo Award banquet
    photo by Ben Jason, via Fanac.org.

    September 2, the announcement that Twilight Zone had won Best Dramatic Presentation for a third time was greeted with mixed reactions. While many in the audience were fans of the series overall, there were suggestions that the show had declined in quality.

    For the third year in a row, Rod Serling was not present to receive his Hugo Award, even though on the night of the ceremony, he was a relatively short drive (about five hours) away in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he was guest lecturing at Antioch College. Lacking even a delegation of Los Angeles-based fans to accept the trophy, Toastmaster Bob Tucker instead handed a chrome rocketship to WSFS business meeting chair Martin Moore, Jr.

    This snub of the Hugo Awards was symbolic to some fans, who had often complained that Hollywood didn’t take science fiction seriously. The dissatisfaction with the situation was compounded by questions raised about the eligibility of a series to win the award three years in a row; as the 1960 WSFS business meeting had discussed such a restriction.

    The Twilight Zone was still capable of extraordinary highs; The Invaders, which features a solitary
    When Twilight Zone is great,
    it's great. But there's a reason
    people remember The Invaders,
    but forget Quality Of Mercy.
    (Image via IMDB.com)

    woman terrorized by tiny aliens, remains a favourite. It's A Good Life, in which a child with god-like powers terrorizes a town, may be the high point of the entire series. But more and more, the writers seemed to have fallen into a rut. Viewers had come to expect a surprise ending, and the writers only aim seemed to be delivering that twist and little else.

    Serling's writerly preoccupations had begun to wear thin: nostalgia, aging, the civil war, and the misuse of magic powers. The series got repetitive. In March of 1961, Twilight Zone aired two different episodes that revolved around communicating across time using radio. By the time the dreadful civil war episode The Passerby aired in November, the series had already done at least two previous episodes where the main character was a ghost who didn’t know she was dead.

    In retrospect, this is a perplexing shortlist for the Best Dramatic Presentation, with inclusions both interesting and questionable. Despite the fact that it’s a top-tier movie — one that several of us thought should have won the award in 1961 — Village Of The Damned should not have made a repeat appearance on the ballot.

    The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, a television movie faithfully based on Daniel Keyes’ short story Flowers For Algernon, is an interesting choice. By the time the television adaptation aired, the story had achieved rare crossover success, earning the author a Hugo Award, as well as critical acclaim from the New York Times and Time Magazine.

    This would be just the first of several dozen dramatic adaptations of the story; the 1969 movie was
    Boris Karloff is just delightful as a host
    of the NBC series Thriller
    (Image via Wikipedia) 

    Hugo-nominated, and earned Cliff Robertson (who reprised his role) an Academy Award. Two big-budget stage musicals were later produced, as well as two Japanese film adaptations, and eleven different radio damas. In 1980, Stirling Silliphant was hired to write a sequel called Charlie 2. But The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon was the first of many.

    For those unfamiliar with the story, it depicts experiments to increase the intelligence of a person with an intellectual disability. Although the experiments are initially successful, the protagonist Charlie Gordon then has to deal with a slow reversion to his pre-experiment abilities.

    Performed live to air, this television production has a remarkable vitality to it. Several of the performances are terrific, including Cliff Robertson, who earned an Emmy nod for his sensitive and nuanced portrayal of the title character.

    What is interesting to note is how many differences there are between this early version of the story and later retellings. Of these changes, Keyes would later write in his autobiography that his focus had always been on ensuring that the protagonist was not an object of ridicule, and that the reader perhaps walked away with more respect for persons with intellectual disabilities.

    Another interesting shortlisted work is the second season of the television series Thriller. The show had been originally intended to be an NBC crime anthology series that would compete with CBS’ hit show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. For the first several episodes of the first season, the show was largely considered a failure. A slow retooling of the series over several months, which included the addition of supernatural elements, helped it find its niche, with stories by authors like Robert Bloch, August Derleth, Robert E. Howard, and Henry Kuttner drawing in audiences.

    The introductory monologues to these stories are provided by Boris Karloff — making him arguably the first person of Indian descent to be a Hugo finalist. Modern audiences may not recall just how terrific Karloff’s sonorous baritone voice can be, but he delivers these macabre introductions with a perfect mix of glee and charm.

    Stephen King has called the resulting show “probably the best horror series ever put on TV,” and we would not disagree. There are several stand-out episodes: The Hungry Glass (featuring a young and shockingly charismatic William Shater) is a perfectly paced ghost story. Pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery is note-perfect in the Henry-Kuttner penned Masquerade. Pigeons From Hell is the first Robert E. Howard work ever adapted to the screen. The high quality of this season of television is more consistent than the third season of Twilight Zone.
    With Aniara honoured at the
    1962 Hugo Awards, Harry 
    Martinson became the first
    person to earn a Nobel Prize
    and a Hugo.
    (Image via Youtube)


    For us, the two works that were clearly head-and-shoulders above all the other Hugo finalists were the first two foreign-language works to be honoured by the World Science Fiction Society: Swedish musical Aniara, and Czech art film Invention For Destruction. Both are extraordinarily inventive, visually dazzling works unlike anything we’ve seen before or since.

    Aniara, an opera adapted from an epic poem written by Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson, was performed in 1960 by the Royal Opera of Stockholm and filmed for Swedish television. Due to the overwhelming response to the story of a spaceship filled with refugees from Earth encountering adversity in their voyage, the BBC broadcast a subtitled version in 1962.

    The Worldcon committee determined — largely at the urging of British author Brian Aldiss — to name Aniara a “Hugo Award honourable mention.” As far as we are aware, this is a distinction that has not been repeated for any work since. The haunting music, powerful vocal performances, and surreal set design make this one of the most avant-garde and compelling works ever to be recognized by the Hugo Awards.

    But in our opinion, the Hugo should have gone to Invention For Destruction, the artfully odd adaptation of several works of Jules Verne. Released in Czechoslovakia in 1958, and translated into English for a 1961 release, it was an international hit. To this day, it remains the most successful Czech-language movie ever made.
    Invention For Destruction sometimes feels like a
    Virgil Finlay illustration has come to life.
    (Image via Criterion.com)

    Director Karel Zeman was a passionate fan of the history of cinema and of Jules Verne’s novels, using a combination of live action and animation to bring pulp-magazine-style illustrations to life. The acting is less naturalistic than most modern audiences would be used to, but in combination with the unreal visuals, that acting feels right.

    The story — which follows a scientist and his aide who are kidnapped by pirates who want to use the scientist’s work for evil — moves along at a sprightly pace. It’s an enjoyable story that’s relatively well told. But we were often so taken with the imagery that the story became secondary. There were visual effects that we are still astounded by — how could something like this have been made more than 70 years ago? The only modern movie we might compare this to visually is the Hugo winner Spider-Man: Through The Spider-Verse.

    But as difficult as it is to win a Hugo Award, it sometimes seems more difficult to stop winning them. By 1962, the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation had been in existence for five years, had been presented four times, and The Twilight Zone had won thrice.

    It would be three more years before the Hugo Awards recognized anything else for Dramatic Presentation.

    Tuesday, 13 April 2021

    Thank you for your consideration

    We are profoundly grateful to be on the Hugo Award shortlist in the fanzine category.
    We both want to thank everyone
    who put us on their
    Hugo nominating ballots.
    (Photo by Abdul Malik)

    Thank you to everyone who put us on their nominating ballot, and thank you to everyone who has been reading our blog.

    This is an affirmation of the work that goes into our passion project because it’s evidence that our writing is connecting with people.

    In a (pandemic) year that has presented challenges, it has been particularly nice to have a community of fans with whom to exchange ideas, to engage in respectful debate, and share a love of science fiction and its history.

    It is a true honour to have our names inscribed into Hugo history alongside such luminaries as Charles Lee RiddleAnton Lee BakerHenry Still, and Frank Riley

    Although the majority of the work maintaining the blog is done by Olav and Amanda, much of the content is informed by discussion and debate with the rest of the book club and other contributors. Among the people whose contributions should be recognized are: Marshall Boyd, Brian Gooyers, Kateryna Barnes, Christy Foley, Kennith Stasiuk, Sonya Betz, Michael Hoskin, Earl Prusak, Paul Senior, and Daniel Calder.

    In general, our book club meets once a month to discuss a recent Hugo-eligible SFF book. Based on that discussion, we draft a review and share it with other book club members for feedback before posting it on the blog. Sometimes, an initial draft of a blog post is written by the person in the book club who enjoyed the book the most. One example from this year is The Vanished Birds Soars — a review of a book which was championed by Marshall.

    Here are some of our 2020 highlights:
    • Hugo Cinema Club — In which some of us began watching all the Hugo-shortlisted dramatic presentations in chronological order. 
    • The Movement of Goods in Science Fiction — In this post (for which Androids & Assets podcaster Marshall Boyd gets a lot of credit), we argue that space opera often presents depictions of trade that reflect assumptions tied into neoliberal hegemony. 
    • The Phoenix Farce — In which we criticized the increasing prevalence of quick-and-easy resurrection as a trope in science fiction and fantasy. 
    • Science Fiction Canon — A comedic piece written in response to the many “best novels of science fiction” lists that somehow manage to exclude non-white, non-male authors. 
    • As well, we would like to note that although the post is dated from 2018, our ever-evolving list of SFF works that depict labour unions and workers’ rights grew considerably in 2020.
    Again. Thank you to everyone who included us on their nominating ballots. We would particularly like to thank Cora Buhlert, Paul Weimer, and previous fanzine Hugo finalist Gideon Marcus, all of whom have recommended this blog.

    This year's ballot for Fanzine is filled with fantastic works. It's delightful to be listed alongside Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner's awesome The Full Lid,  the always-excellent Journey Planet, our estimable friends at Nerds of a Feather, Charles Payseur's lovely Quick Sip Reviews, and the phenomenal team at Lady Business

    Monday, 12 April 2021

    The Lies That Bind

    The story of Stan Lee is a quintessential American tragedy. It is the story of a man whose reach would
    Beloved comic book icon Stan Lee
    is a figure worthy of serious critical
    study. Abraham Riesman's new biography
    grapples with his oversized myth. 
    (Image via People)

    always exceed his grasp, and of someone who would sacrifice the truth, his friends, and eventually himself in a vainglorious pursuit of goals that could never bring happiness.

    True Believer: The Rise And Fall Of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman grapples with Lee’s oversized cultural profile, and with the legacy of one of the most divisive figures in comic book fandom.

    Many parts of Stan Lee’s story have been told over the years in interviews, feature articles, and autobiographies. However, these accounts are contradictory and informed by Lee’s incessant and self-serving dishonesty. They were also often written either by journalists who lacked the depth of comic book knowledge to ask the difficult questions, or by comic book fans who lacked the journalistic discipline to parse myth from fact. Mainstream media was — and still mostly is — incurious about how comics are made and who was responsible for what, so often settled for the story told with the most charisma. If anything, Lee was charismatic.

    True Believer is therefore a much-needed attempt to provide as complete and accurate a picture as possible of this iconic figure. New Yorker Magazine and Vulture Magazine culture critic Riesman brings both journalistic credibility and a depth of knowledge about comic book history to this biography.

    The caveat “as accurate a picture as possible” is key to understanding why this biography is so satisfying. Riesman recognizes that Lee’s incessant lies — and the myth-making empire he built around himself — present significant obstacles when writing about him. When necessary, Riesman relays multiple accounts of the same events, and offers the reader his reasoning as to which might be the most factual. As Riesman writes, any account of Lee’s life is “where objective truth goes to die.”

    So what is certain? The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stan Lee was born in Manhattan in 1922, as Stanley Martin Lieber. Hired by his uncle at the age of 17, he began working at a comic book company called Timely and rose through the ranks rapidly. It is certain that he receives credit for helping create numerous famous comic book characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Black Panther, and many more.
    Lee loved the limelight, a trait that often led him
    to minimize the contributions of others. 
    (Image via Times Of Israel) 


    It is also clear that Lee was a gregarious and friendly person who managed to recruit and attract significant talent to the comic book industry. He wrote dialogue that was more engaging than most of his 1960s contemporaries, and had some hand in building a pop cultural phenomenon. It is also clear that Lee was capable of significant kindness.

    But since the 1990s, there has been escalating controversy about how much of the creative process was Stan Lee’s, and how much belonged to the artists with whom he collaborated. Many of his most famous colleagues — and even his own brother Larry Lieber — suggest that Lee’s contributions were minimal. Riesman doesn’t offer a definitive verdict, but the documentary evidence he provides does not always paint a flattering picture of Lee.

    The research put into True Believer cannot be overstated; Riesman interviewed almost every relevant figure, including Lee in his final years. He has combed source documents, old fanzines, lawsuit filings, and correspondence, and shows the ways in which Lee’s claims would change over time, contradicting himself. Lee lied about things even when there was no penalty for telling the truth, and he lied about things which could be fact-checked.

    Our most significant quibbles with True Believer have more to do with what is omitted from the story,
    Miscommunication over which
    character was talking in a panel 
    of Spider-Man #36 led Lee to
    order artist Sol Brodsky to edit
    Steve Ditko's artwork. Ditko
    left Marvel comics two months
    later, never to work with Lee again.
    (Image via Marvel.Fandom.Wikia)

    rather than what is included. The haphazard creation of the Avengers #1 (which Lee threw together to fill a publishing window after artist Bill Everett missed his deadlines on Daredevil) reveals aspects of Lee's talents and foibles. Steve Ditko's epic fight with Lee over Spider-Man #36 (where Lee had another artist edit Ditko's illustration of The Looter) illustrates the flaws with Lee's "Marvel Method" of comic book collaboration. The omission of these vignettes seems curious. But in any biographical work, the author must make difficult choices about what to include.  

    Because most of Lee’s memorable accomplishments occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, his last three decades of life have mostly been glossed over by biographers. Riesman’s book both fills this gap and provides context to help better understand Lee’s commercial success. If the truth can set you free, then the life of Stan Lee is a parable about how lies can entrap us. Over his last three decades, his tenuous relationship with reality eroded his ability to maintain meaningful friendships. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that Lee ended up surrounded by deceivers like himself, and trapped in a cage of his own making.

    Abraham Riesman’s book becomes a cautionary tale about the seductive, destructive power of lies. For those who have been gaslit, or who have lived with a pathological liar, the experience of reading this book might be triggering.

    It's often been observed that at the time of his death, Lee was in litigation with most of his friends and family while estranged from the rest.

    The negative reviews of True Believer posted to Amazon and GoodReads can be seen as a testament to Lee’s prowess at self-mythologizing. Some of the reviewers seem never to have read the book at all, while others take umbrage at the suggestion that Lee’s involvement in the creation of certain characters was anything other than absolute. Fandom has been overly deferential to Lee in life and death, finding it inconvenient to talk about what artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Wally Wood endured.

    There is a long tradition of fandom idolizing a certain variety of PT Barnum-style self-promoter. This tradition has come under much-needed scrutiny in the past decade thanks to works such as Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee and The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein by Farrah Mendelsohn. Abraham Riesman’s True Believer is a welcome addition to this critical reckoning.  

    In Riesman’s telling, Lee is not a figure worthy of contempt. He’s a figure worthy of pity. Somehow, that’s worse.