Saturday, September 21, 2013

Did Virginia Woolf write science fiction? Not really

Photo from Wikimedia
     A recent post on Facebook got my attention: it linked to an article by Donna Dickens about "Nine Women who Shaped Science Fiction" at BuzzFeed.
     There were the usual big names, such as Mary Shelley, and some unfamiliar names, but there was one familiar name that surprised me: Virginia Woolf. The post claimed that Woolf, under the name E.V. Odle, had written several science fiction novels.
     I had never heard of Odle or that Woolf had written science fiction (unless you count Orlando, which is more of a meditation on sexuality and/or gender, or a fantasy at best since no scientific or even alchemical explanation is given for Orlando's sex change). So I did a quick Web search.
     Well, there was a reason for my ignorance: it's not true. As Annalee Newitz put it on the blog, "Sometimes you come across a satire that sounds so plausible that you wish you lived in an alternative universe where it were true. Such is the case with this article from Check Your Facts about Virginia Woolf's pulp career writing under the pen name EV Odle to make money."

     (Michael Walsh provided additional citations -- here and here -- in a comment on BuzzFeed.)

Cover image from HiLoBooks
     That being said, Odle's book The Clockwork Man (available from and other booksellers) sounds like a precursor of steampunk, so I'm sort of grateful for the shout-out. Less appreciated is the naming of several invented or misattributed books that either didn't exist or weren't written by Odle or Woolf, and all of which are claimed to be an influence or basis for another work of literature or film: "The Houyhnhnm," based on the intelligent horses from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, claimed in turn as a source for Pierre Boulle's Planet of the ApesThe Puppeteer God,  claimed as an influence on The Wachowskis The Matrix; and, most absurdly of all, An Unwanted Guest, which is said to have inspired The Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. These don't seem to be mistakes but a deliberate fraud.
     (Interestingly, Woolf was a science fiction fan, having corresponded with one of my favorite neglected science fiction authors Olaf Stapledon, best-known for Odd John, Sirius, Last and First Men and Star Maker.)

     Was Dickens aware that this was a hoax, or was she simply too willing to be taken in by a hoaxer? Either way, it's a good reminder to not believe everything you read on the Web.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Who cares if 'Mortal Instruments' started out as 'Harry Potter' fan fiction?

     The film version of the first of Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments series has apparently bombed, but I've been surprised to see why it's being attacked.
     In addition to the criticisms of the acting, special effects and storytelling (some say it's packed in to much plot or that it looks like just a setup for the second film -- which probably won't be filmed now), some are criticizing it because it allegedly began as fan fiction based on J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. (See here for the latest rant.)
     I haven't read any of Clare's series -- which has expanded its universe with a steampunk-y concurrent prequel series -- but the books are popular and the plot details seem to me to be sufficiently different for everybody, including J.K. Rowling's lawyers, to chill-lax. The books and/or the film may be great, or may suck, but I doubt they approach the realm of copyright infringement or ripoff.
     The books do sound derivative, but here's a big surprise for at least some of these critics: Harry Potter is derivative. (When I read the first book -- annoyingly retitled from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for U.S. consumption -- I thought it was OK, but hardly original, and I declined to read any of the further books in the series until the movies came out and persuaded me to take a second look.) As the above link acknowledges, even Shakespeare was derivative. Hell, I'm confident that The Iliad and The Odyssey were derivative. What matters isn't what inspired a story but what the writer did with it.
     As far as the film is concerned, it also matters what the filmmaker and screenwriter did with the book. Maybe they have put some more Harry Potter into the story, wittingly or unwittingly. I'd still prefer to judge the film based on its own merits, not on some perceived connection to another book/film series. Sometimes a ripoff is better than its source (see Norman Jewison's Rollerball and Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000).
     I suspect some of these critics/bloggers latch onto this to show their smarts ("Hey, I know this was based on Harry Potter fan fiction! I'm so smart!") or laziness ("It stinks because it's based on Harry Potter fan fiction. Did you know 50 Shades of Grey was based on Twilight fan fiction? Fan fiction sucks.")
     Unless you actually worship J.K. Rowling and consider it blasphemy to write anything similar to the Harry Potter books, you can confine your criticism to "I didn't like it because it stunk," not "I didn't like it because it ripped off Harry Potter."

'The World's End' pays homage to 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'

The World's End
by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright
(Focus Features)

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
By Jack Finney
(Simon & Schuster)

     There have been at least four official adaptations of Jack Finney's paranoid science fiction horror classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the third was just titled Body Snatchers and the fourth just The Invasion; the next will probably be Of), but they all failed to depict the author's original ending. The World's End isn't strictly speaking an adaptation of Finney's novel, though it has many similarities, including an approximation of its ending. I can't say for certain that writers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have actually read Finney's book, but after seeing their film I'd be surprised to learn they hadn't.
     There will be SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen the film and/or read the book in question, look away now. Suffice to say, I throughly enjoyed The World's End as I did Shaun of the Dead (an obvious tribute to George Romero's Dead films) and Hot Fuzz (which paid homage to another favorite of mine, The Wicker Man, even including the star of that film in a prominent role).

     Everyone out who's getting out? Good.

     Invasion of the Body Snatchers is, as most filmgoers are aware (even if they haven't seen any of the film versions) about pods from outer space that drift to Earth, duplicate perfectly and replace people down to their memories and scars with one difference: they have no emotions. The usual tack of the films is to suggest that the pods are able to take us over because we've pretty much taken ourselves down that path already, and it was an effective and satisfying theme in the first two films at least. In both, near the end, the male protagonist discovers that the female protagonist, his girlfriend, has succumbed to the pods (if you fall asleep, they can take you over). It was not the ending that Finney wrote, however. Either because he was more optimistic about humanity than the filmmakers or because he lacked the conviction to put such a downbeat ending on the novel, he ends it before the female lead is replaced, with the pods realizing that they cannot conquer man's indomitable spirit, and give up, blasting off into space en masse. Those pods that have already taken over and replaced people remain, but live their lives the way those people would have, more or less, and the surviving human let them be.
     That is almost exactly the ending of The World's End.
     The World's End is about five old school buddies from a small town who return there for an epic 10-pub crawl, during which they discover almost everyone in the town has been replaced by some sort of artificial creature from outer space. They're closer to robots than pods, though they deny they are robots, and seem to have the essence of the people in them (though whether it's a copy of that essence or just a transfer isn't really established).
     At the end, the remaining humans persuade the aliens that although they think they're doing this for our own good, it's not working; they've had to replace virtually everyone. So the aliens depart, leaving the replicants to live out their lives as well as they can ... although the alien's departure has also removed almost all of our technology (apparently the aliens were responsible for it) and killed a lot of people.

     That doing it for our own good bit is reminiscent of another film/book, too: The Monitors. In that, aliens do take over the world for our benefit, and give up when they realize how self-destructive we are and that their presence is actually making it worse. In the film version, the aliens leave; in the book, they allow the humans to hire them to run things so it doesn't seem like an invasion/takeover.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Frederik Pohl dies

      Science fiction author, editor, historian and pundit Frederik Pohl died Monday. I didn't learn of this until this morning. He was't the best known SF writer, nor one of my top 10 favorite writers, but I usually liked the books of his that I read, including The Space Merchants (written with C.M. Kornbluth), Man Plus, Gateway and its sequels Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous. I also especially liked his short story "The Day After the Day the Martians Came" from Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions.
     He was a childhood friend of Isaac Asimov and was instrumental in getting his first SF novel published. He was involved in early SF fandom, and edited an acclaimed SF magazine and a groundbreaking SF paperback line.
     So I'm sorry he's died, and I hope some who read this will pick up his books and read them or re-read them. He was a bit of a curmudgeon, though, so I'd like to write about one of his less sterling traits.
     He thought his right to smoke was more important than a woman's right to equal protection under the law, at least as embodied by the ERA.
     Perhaps you remember or have heard of something called the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have read:

      Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this articleThis amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

     You could argue that it should read "gender," not "sex," but it doesn't sound terribly controversial. It was approved by Congress in 1972, and it only awaited approval by 38 states by 1979. Not enough did, and the ERA died. 
     Pohl was not an opponent of the ERA, but -- in a column in a 1979 SF magazine (Algol, though its name may have already been changed to Starship) -- he said it wasn't as important to him as his right to light up a cigarette wherever and whenever he wanted. (At least some airlines had recently banned smoking, and he was upset. He proposed having some smoking flights and some non-smoking flights.)
     That could be explained by his being a man, by his being a nicotine addict, by his belief that women largely had such protection without the ERA or maybe he was just a selfish pig. I don't know the precise reason, but when he wrote that, my opinion of Pohl dropped a little bit. 
     Again, I don't mean to say he was a sexist or even a jerk. You can read much more in-depth and glowing obituaries of him from Locus, Huffington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian. I acknowledge his virtues. I just felt like sharing one of his blemishes, too.