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Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Realism, not romance


People keep telling me I should watch The Expanse, but my tastes in science fiction lean more towards the literary end of the genre (Ted Chiang, Ken Liu, an occasional shot of Greg Benford or David Brin) rather than '50s pulps. I could go my whole life and never see another surly arm-wrestling belt miner snarling into a glass of synthohol or another outing for the trope of cowboy-as-maverick-space-pilot.

To each their own, of course, but I found these comments by H P Lovecraft chime with what I'm looking for:
"A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any 'villain', 'hero', or 'heroine' at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. [...] We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters) as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance. [...] It must be remembered that non-human beings would be wholly apart from human motives and perspectives."
There's more from HPL's essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” on the excellent Robert E Howard site On An Underwood, though I would take issue with Mr Derie's statement that Lovecraft mostly wrote fantasy. The Cthulhu Mythos stories are SF, it just happens that the deluded humans who worship the Great Old Ones imagine that their prayers are heard and that the rituals they perform are magic.



image: "Lovecraft in Space" by Belthazubel on DeviantArt

25 comments:

  1. "I could go my whole life and never see another surly arm-wrestling belt miner snarling into a glass of synthohol or another outing for the trope of cowboy-as-maverick-space-pilot."

    Then I highly recommend you watch The Expanse, as it has nothing in common with what you describe. I always warn people there is a single pointless scene of zero-G sex in the very first episode, but that's the only gratuitous scene in it. Based on the HPL quote, The Expanse is exactly what he's asking for.

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    1. You make a compelling case, Robin. But then Wiki tells me the opposite:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Expanse_(TV_series)#Genre_and_themes

      -- so which way to turn? I guess I should watch the first episode and make up my own mind. As long as the belt miners are depicted convincingly (they'd each have astrophysics PhDs; nobody would ever ship human beings out there as muscle) I'll stick with it.

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    2. I concur. I would suggest watching at least the first season and making one's own mind up.

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    3. I watched this and I think I've made my mind up :-)

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGmTZeiCmJY

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    4. Imho this scene is not very representative of the show, but I know what you mean.

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  2. I really like the expanse, the belters are definately surly though, and generally loonatics who talk funny.

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  3. I'm afraid that link says next to nothing about the characters or the story or the setting. The belters have been out there for generations at this point. They don't need PhDs because they've been living it since birth and so have their grandparents (and the tech level is way ahead of us - it's 24th century). And it's not just belters, it's the people on Mars and Earth, too, and the inevitable tensions.

    I can't speak for the fourth season, as I've not seen it yet, but it seems to have gone down well.

    It's been several years, so I honestly can't remember if I was won over by the first episode in this case, but previously experience had taught me never to give up too quickly.

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    1. That "space western" line from the show's writers reminded me of a post from way back, almost before I'd even heard of The Expanse:

      http://fabledlands.blogspot.com/2017/03/syfy-ho-hum.html

      But naturally I can't expect everyone to be au courant with every entry on the blog!

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    2. Has it really been over three years since that post, Dave? Time’s speeding up. I think the only reason I didn’t watch The Expanse when John originally recommended it was because I associate the SyFy channel with, erm, lesser efforts (I should perhaps watch Sharknado). I’ve just clocked one of the actors in The Expanse was in Lo Pan Style as Jack Burton, a recent throw away comment.

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    3. Whether I'll ever get around to The Expanse, and whether I'll enjoy it if & when I do, remain as multivalently mysterious as the health of Schrodinger's cat, Andy. But one thing I can say -- I'd never heard of Lo Pan Style until now, just watched it, and I loved it.

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    4. I hadn't heard of it either until just before my previous post. Dave. I think I'd just assumed you would have, although why I'd think that given the film is my favourite and I'd not clocked it before, I've no idea. You must have thought, he's really lost the plot this time! I agree, it's genius. Even the end credits made me laugh, Man In Lift - Lo Pan. John Carpenter also loves it (supposedly - according to the comments). It makes you wonder what other little gems may be out there, undiscovered.

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    5. Oh yes, bonus points (not that they needed them) for having a James Hong cameo. But wouldn't you think Kurt Russell could have spared a few hours to appear in it somewhere too?

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    6. Agree. Maybe he's not sentimental around old roles, or perhaps a scheduling conflict. I suspect more that it didn't look great on paper, so politely declined. I'm surprised the director hasn't seemingly done anything else. Pulling off something like that with flair and getting double figure laughs in five minutes takes some doing. Perhaps you need to like the film to enjoy it though. I sent my mates the link and didn't get so much as an acknowledgement back. Payback for me making them endure the film most years on a lads weekend, I suspect!

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    7. I was going to watch Big Trouble tonight, Dave. My wife out for the first time in ages, lads weekend to Spain cancelled, but I thought I'd better make inroads to the mounting up film backlog. Nightcrawler, thought it was a cracker.

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    8. That's a good one, isn't it, Andy? I've been waiting to watch the 1990s miniseries of The Odyssey, which I'm sure my wife wouldn't sit still for, but that's several hours I have to find when she wants to do something else.

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    9. Just goes to show what's possible with a (relative) shoe string budget. I'll assume the Ford Coppola produced Odyssey, not the Canadian kids TV series that also came up! Another one to pass me by originally, Dave. Let me know if it's any good when you find those few hours. As my wife doesn't like Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Thrillers or anything over a PG rating for that matter, I'm usually a bit stuffed myself!


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    10. I think it is worth it, Andy. I've seen it twice before (admittedly not for years, so memory might have coloured it fondly) but the Jim Henson special FX have probably weathered the test of time better than late-90s CGI would have done. Btw the director, Andrei Konchalovsky, also did Runaway Train which was great -- but probably another one that few wives would be into.

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    11. Thanks, Dave. I'll pop both of them in then. I see the director also did Tango & Cash. The only way is up!

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  4. I got to see Ted Chiang speak in Seattle last year. He's great. I, too, have grown increasingly tired of the space western, and of SF things in which the SF stuff is more of a setting, and not a concept. I prefer the stuff from the '70s, the new wave stuff, stuff like Ballard and Delaney. Have you read Dhalgren? My favorite work of SF.

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    1. It's taken me a while (well, decades) but I appreciate the New Wave now more than I ever did at the time. I haven't read Dhalgren but I'm about to rectify that -- just bought a copy.

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    2. Ballard was one of the authors that Stephen King suggested in Danse Macabre that I read. I always peep down, the few times I go over Spaghetti Junction.

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  5. Honestly, The Expanse TV show (can't comment on the books as I haven't read them and don't intend to until after the show has run its course) actually adheres to HPLs advice pretty well. The third season climax can best be described as "Good vs. Good." Each faction is doing what they believe to be the right thing to save all of humanity.

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    1. I can't guess what HPL would make of today's TV SF, John, but you might be right. He does say he's looking for "realism, not romance" though, which in my book would be more like Rendezvous With Rama or The Black Cloud. To get Lovecraft's approval, I think a lot would depend on the quality of the writing. If anyone out there can share any of Lovecraft's thoughts on movies of his time, let us know.

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    2. Well, HPL probably wouldn't be super-thrilled with all non-white people having prominent roles. One of the characters who is white is Amos. Amos is... not quite a sociopath but similar. Unlike Sherlock or Dexter, which seemed to see sociopathy as a kind of superpower, Amos is aware of his damage. One thing he does is look for people he can trust to help him make moral choices because he wants to be a full, functioning person.

      The guy in the above You-tube video is an idiot and recognized as such by multiple characters to be an idiot. He doesn't represent the typical person on the show.

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    3. Lovecraft has somehow been put right next to Hitler by fantasy fans, but I don't buy it. He repudiated his conservative views after his time in New York, and if he were brought into the modern era I think he'd soon abandon the unexamined racism of his time. (Remember that the highest-grossing film prior to Gone With The Wind was Birth Of A Nation.)

      More on that in this S T Joshi paper for those who are interested:
      https://www.jstor.org/stable/26868554?seq=1

      As for sociopaths -- if only the ones in real life (especially those in high office) would look to decent people for moral guidance!

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