A depressing number of commentators recently got sentimental and downright gooey talking about Star Wars, which was released 40 years ago this week.
By 1977, I had read a lot of science fiction. Gene Wolfe and R.A. Lafferty, Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ and Cordwainer Smith were favorites, and I collected all the various best-of-the-year anthologies (and for a while, there were a lot). I regularly visited all the bookstores in town, new and used, looking for interesting new writers and well-written, adventurous stories.
One of my co-workers praised the movie, so one afternoon I rode my bicycle out to the theatre and sat through 17 minutes of commercials in the chilly dark1 waiting to see this magnificent new breakthrough in science fiction. Finally, the movie started.
And it stunk. If you are Star Wars fan, I’m sorry, but I found it stupid. The script was comic-book level. The actors might have been talented, but their lines were drivel. The music deserved a better showcase, and why did Alec Guinness bother with this mess? (Money, I suppose.)
I did sit through The Empire Strikes Back, and found it a little better — having Leigh Brackett on the script probably helped. It was still lousy, though, and I didn’t bother watching any more Lucasian nonsense.
I would hesitate to call Star Wars “life-changing,” but along with a few other disasters like Blade Runner — I left the theater furious at what had been done to Dick’s novel — it was one of the reasons I lost all interest in movies.2
By the way, if you want to see Alec Guinness in roles that suit him, start here.
But Mark Zuckerberg found a way to convince a billion people to voluntarily enter the panopticon. He baited the trap with an irresistible siren: a perpetual High School reunion, pictures of grandkids, and cat videos.
Real history is nothing like school history. Oddly, real history is more like a swords-and-sorcery novel: evil priests, hair matted with blood, commit human sacrifices atop pyramids amidst a city built on a lake inside a volcanic crater; frenzied fighting ensues.
During 2016, many people died, some of whom were famous. This happens every year. 2016 was a really lousy year for many reasons, but not because a lot of celebrities died.
Most of the dead performers were adequately memorialized — the hoopla surrounding David Bowie’s departure was downright ridiculous1 — but a few were overlooked, and I discovered their deaths weeks or months later.
One whom I miss is Bob Elliott, half of Bob and Ray. I wonder if youngsters today can sit still long enough to appreciate B&R’s unhurried delivery. Here are some of their skits, some of which are older than I am.
Robert Benchley on not-so-Dickensian Christmas afternoons:
In the meantime, we must not forget the children. No one else could. Aunt Libbie said that she didn’t think there was anything like children to make a Christmas; to which Uncle Ray, the one with the Masonic fob, said, “No, thank God.” Although Christmas is supposed to be the season of good cheer, you (or I, for that matter) couldn’t have told, from listening to the little ones, but that it was the children’s Armageddon season, when Nature had decreed that only the fittest should survive, in order that the race might be carried on by the strongest, the most predatory and those possessing the best protective coloring.
Max Beerbohm1 wrote an entire book of parodic Christmas pieces in A Christmas Garland. If you have trouble telling Ch*st*rt*n from B*ll*c, this might help. (There’s an interesting dicussion of Beerbohm here, though it suffers from Too Much Information.)
There’s a discussion of Christmas science fiction here.
Dear [Beautiful but Evil Space Princess],
Every time I capture the hero, I get this overwhelming urge to spill the entire plan, including the way out. How can I stop myself from giving it all away?
Evil Underlord who can’t quite make the big leagues
Oh, Sweetie. This is a compulsion written into you by the author. You must use aversion therapy. Have one of your underlings dress up as the hero, and when you start spilling things, force yourself to do something really distasteful. I don’t know, pet a puppy or give sweets to children or something, until you break the compulsion.
It’s all right. If you manage to cure yourself, you can blend the puppies into a nice smoothie afterwards and it will make you feel much better.
I’m not a professional political scientist or sociologist. Then again, neither were Washington, Adams, Jefferson and that crowd ….
The election of Trump is, in many senses, stupid. However, it is far, far wiser and more in keeping with the idea that we, the people, are the defenders of the Republic to elect Trump than to elect someone who is beloved of Harvard. On the scale of errors one can make in a Republic, electing an arrogant and impulsive side-show barker is far to be prefered to electing someone whose fundamental goal is making elections irrelevant.
… humans have never had to deal with the problems that come from too much food and too much free time to consume it. We really have no idea what will come from it and how it will hurt or help society. There could very well be a huge upside to having lots of fat people. Perhaps when the zombie apocalypse comes, the zombies will eat the fat people and be satisfied, leaving the rest of us to regroup.
I’ll never forget when John Updike reviewed a book on how FDR’s policies lengthened the Great Depression. Updike basically said that because FDR cared, and was trying, that was worth more than shortening the Depression.
One food arena where the US used to be the best in the world and is now near the bottom of the pack is cider (i.e. alcoholic fermented cider.)
Back in the Revolutionary War era cider was the #1 drink in the nation, far surpassing beer or wine or hard liquor. And people had planted the right kind of apple trees all over the country (as it existed then), so there was always a big supply of the raw material.
In fact, Johnny Appleseed didn’t go around planting edible apple trees — he went around planting cider apple trees! A detail that is now lost to most people’s imaginations of history.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “there’s a difference between edible apples and cider apples?”
Yes indeed. There are three fundamental “types” of apples:
“Sweet apples,” which is what we now think of simply as “apples” — the big crunchy sweet kind that you can eat.
“Sour apples,” now mostly known as “crabapples,” which are mostly useless except for making things with their pectin.
“Bitter apples,” now mostly unknown in the US, but still planted widely in France and England. THESE are the apples you are supposed to make true cider out of. As the name implies, they’re slightly too bitter to eat, but their chemical makeup is absolutely perfect for fermenting a delicious kind of apple cider, a process during which the bitterness goes away.
If you’ve ever tasted true cider made from bitter apples (which is what they serve you in Somerset and Normandy), you’ll know that cider made from sweet apples is atrocious by comparison.
And that’s the tragic part of our story.
Because of the arrival of so many German and Bohemian and Polish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century in the US, beer started to surpass cider in popularity nationwide, and then when Prohibition hit, cider production was stopped entirely. And what happened was that ALL — or almost all — the bitter apple trees in the United States were left to die or were torn out and make room for more useful trees.
So that by the time Prohibition ended, there was no longer any way to make true cider in any quantity, and as a result beer took over the casual drinking market almost 100%. Wine only started to make inroads in the ’60s and ’70s. But cider remain completely forgotten by then.
That is until about 8 years ago, when the “small batch cider” renaissance started in the US, with small startups making cider from apples.
Sweet apples, that is — because that’s all that we have in the US anymore! Yuck!
Cider made from sweet apples is just wrong to a true cider aficionado. So no matter how much effort these America cider microbreweries put into their product, it will never match up to French and British ciders.
In fact, until just a couple years ago, most American cidermakers didn’t even know about the existence of bitter apples and didn’t know they were doing it fundamentally wrong.
Finally a few people have wised up, and they’ve started planting bitter apple trees in the US again, but it will still be several years before they are up and producing in sufficient numbers to create enough true cider for the masses.
Until then, we must suffer with an inferior American product! Frowney face!
I felt like re-reading Cordwainer Smith’s “Western Science Is So Wonderful,” the tale of a local Chinese demon with strong pro-Communist sentiments who wants to study engineering. Rather than climb the stairs to the main library, I found it online here. Smith wrote science fiction on a grand scale, but he could do comedy, too.
The first episode of Miss Bernard Said. mentioned Yasutaka Tsutsui, and I checked to see if any more of his books have been translated into English. A quick search showed nothing new. However, I did find translations of a few of his stories online:
1. Who of the following were awarded the Nobel prize for literature?
Jorge Luis Borges
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ursula K. Le Guin
Robert Allen Zimmerman (a.k.a. “Elston Gunn”)
2. What does the Nobel prize for literature signify?
Here a few pictures from one of the ballets performed at last night’s rehearsal at Friends University. The dancers put their telephones aside for the other pieces. I took about 100 gigabytes of photos altogether (including raws), which will take some time to go through. Click to embiggen.