History is Bunk

“Riding the New Wave,” in Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, The Cambridge History of Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

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In Gardner Dozois’s history of SF after the Golden Age, there is a moment when he complains that “although it was easy enough even then to prove that the New Wave as such did not exist, the public insisted on reacting as if it did exist.” If this opinion were entirely true, the next few pages of this book would be blank – so I will assert that there is indeed such a thing as the New Wave, perhaps even several New Waves. The temptation is to assume a linear history to the genre, such as the parodic one offered by Barry Malzberg: “the primitive twenties, wondrous and colorful thirties, systematized and optimistic forties, quiet and despairing fifties, fragmented and chaotic sixties, expressionless seventies . . . ” This straw history claims that Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell created an optimistic genre that celebrated engineering and technology, in which characterization and style played a distant fourth or fifth place to ideas, the sense of wonder, and action. John Clute refers to this as “Agenda” or as “First” SF, which is “born to advocate and enthuse and teach”; “the result was an SF universe written in the shape of Man. Women and other aliens had visiting rights only.”

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Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

Butler’s First Law of Research

Write it down.

No, seriously, write it down.

In the bibliography to my thesis I quote Walter Benjamin, “The only exact knowledge there is is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books”.

(Of course, date of publication isn’t always clear — see Endangering Science Fiction Film with its copyright date of 2016 that I got in 2015.)

Quoting this to other people, it occurred to me I didn’t have the source. Pah.

Ironic, but. Pah.

It seemed likely to be in Illuminations, if only because that’s the book I know best. But could I find it?

A year ago, perhaps reading about Benjamin, maybe for the stuff on special effects and Brecht, I relocated the quote.

But I still didn’t write it down.

Double pah.*

Last week I was talking to Rob McPherson about the materials he’s been turning up about pubs and brewing, and I was sat at my iPad, occasionally searching for webpages to clarify details. One of these was from the Canterbury Archaeological Trust and had an interesting quote which I want to follow to its source. There’s a copy of that book in Ashford Library. The quote related to a Canterbury family who either brewed or owned pubs or …

I still didn’t write it down.

Cue frantic searching through Kent County Council Libraries catalogue.

By a miracle, the name reappeared in my memory.**

I am the kind of person with a physical memory of the “it’s halfway down p. 222” type, but I should know not to rely on it.

* And ironically it turns out that I actually misremembered that. The quote is “‘The only exact knowledge there is’, said Anatole France, ‘is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books'”, complete with a reference. I clearly never thought to check.

** The Flint family, if you’re wondering. The volume is Brief Records of the Flint Family.

What I Did on My Holidays

For about a month now I’ve been told that I can put my feet up now.

Yes, the teaching is over, but then there’s the marking to be done and then there’s all the bits and pieces that got lost in transit because essays can be handed in all kinds of places now and every time you think it’s over there’s another one beneath.

And then there’s internal boards and external boards and reviews and overviews and forward planning and archiving and interviews and supervising …

… there’s the catching up with work and thus …

… well, I want to do something but I can only find two days in the next fortnight where I can do this.

There’s the research.

There’s a pile of reading to be done (remembers something else) and before the end of July I need to write four pieces:

  • conference paper on Ex_Machina
  • writing up of the conference paper on Quest for Love
  • conference paper on the 2005 film adaptation of The War of the Worlds (probably not the one you are thinking of)
  • chapter on Star Trek movies

That’s in order of how much prep I’ve already done, but on the other hand that’s about eight films to rewatch and mull over for the last one.

I can probably hide from Quest for Love, but I applied for QR funding for that one and — well other bits of research got in the way to use that do I feel duty bound to finish before the end of the academic year.

And meanwhile I’ve been given some money to employ a research assistant on the beer stuff and I really have to visit an archive with him before he can go much further. And there’s only two days I can do that in the next fortnight. And of course there’s things I need to read to know where to send him next.

Watch the plates.

Watch them spin.