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Note: Return e-mail addresses will be posted only if you include it in your closing, or your subject matter specifically requests some sort of response; otherwise it will be omitted. Letters may be edited for length.
Dear Locus Online,
Noted with displeasure is the continued debate over the alleged connection
between Al Queda and Isaac Asimov's Foundation. I thought this question was
put to rest awhile ago, with negative findings. Indeed, it would take a
considerable stretch of the imagination to figure out how a group of
Islamist terrorists would find much in Asimov's work that would inspire
Much more interesting, and far more likely, is the link between science
fiction and the Grateful Dead. While reading A Long Strange Trip: An Inside History of the Grateful Dead (Broadway Books/Random House), the recent
biography of the Dead written by band publicist Dennis McNally, I was
surprised to discover just how many members of the group had read SF during
their formative years. Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir, and Ron "Pigpen"
McKernan, along with lyricist Robert Hunter, are all cited as being SF
readers, with Lesh in particular being influenced by Theodore Sturgeon's
More Than Human as an example of the group-mind gestalt he perceived the
group as trying to establish.
And the Dead apparently wasn't the only San Francisco band of the `60s that
was influenced by SF. According to McNally's book, Paul Kantner's first
choice for the name of his new band was The Nest, based upon his enthusiasm
for Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land. He was voted down by
the other members, who preferred Blind Lemon Thomas Jefferson Airplane ...
soon shortened to Jefferson Airplane.
Cultural influence works both ways, of course. I've made no secret of the
fact that my own work owes much to the Dead, and it's a matter of record
that the Airplane's album Blows Against the Empire was once nominated for a
Hugo Award. The rock-SF connection has been a long and illustrious one ...
and, in the final analysis, more benign than the connection between SF and
terrorism, if such even exists.
Allen M. Steele
Dear Locus Online,
A quick note about Nick Gevers' aside in the current review of A Walking Tour of the Shambles.
"...A Walking Tour is a spoof traveler's guide to a small,
preternaturally nasty, and quite nonexistent area of Chicago. When Gene Wolfe
finally got around to this sort of concrete writing, so at odds with his
customary Nabokovian numinousness, one could have hoped for a step-by-step
tour of the Matachin Tower (including detailed technical disquisitions on
Master Gurloes's torture apparatus), or of Tzadkiel's starship, or
conceivably of the Grand Manteion in Viron; but whimsy does as whimsy
dictates (or as Neil Gaiman commands), ...."
Nick's small aside needs clarification: "...as Neil Gaiman commands"? C'mon.
Have you ever met Gene? In fact, I was the one who suggested the
collaboration to Neil and Gene. I wanted something special for my old home
town of Chicago's World Horror Convention, and I knew the Guests of Honor
were good friends. So a collaboration between them immediately came to mind.
I remember the phone call to Gene vividly, he was most delighted with the
idea. When I suggested the collaboration to Neil, I believe, he just gibbered
hysterically at the thought of writing with Gene. He got over it and they
agreed to work on the project when I'm sure they could have been working on
other things and I was delighted they built the whole thing around that old
Chicago neighborhood. It was in the spirit of the convention, in the spirit
of fun, and in the spirit of friendship. So I'm rather put out that it would
be portrayed any other way. Not a major quibble, to be sure, but I am obliged
to set the record straight. Ooops, I'm late for an appointment at the House
of Clocks. Gotta run. I'm late for a very important date.
Too Long a List
Dear Locus Online,
Claude Lalumière's provocative review at least had the virtue of understanding the driving intent of M. Night Shyamalan's movie, Signs. In this respect, it supercedes Corey S. Powells' in the latest issue of Discover Online, which tries to pick apart its scientific flaws and fixates on the crop circles as the signs alluded to in the film's title. While certainly not as powerful and eerie as his first hit, The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan deserves credit for drawing heavily upon his autobiography and using resources from his religious confrontation with Christianity at the Catholic school he attended. Succeeding reviewers five years or so from now will be probing his personal history and psycho-cinematic development for clues to his already impressive body of film making.
When they do, they might use as an important primer Carl Jung's Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. There Jung takes note of the symbolic affinity of so-called flying saucers to the mandala. His interpretation of UFO sightings as visual rumors (visible symbols of the collective unconscious), his attribution of their growing number of sightings to a kind of millennial anxiety, and the parallels of crop circles with mandala-shaped flying saucers suggest affinities between the film, its key symbols, and our growing apprehension at so many levels and spheres of existence that collectively we negotiating a millennial shift from one epoch to another heralded by the hoopla over beginning a new millennium in the year 2000 (really 2001). In this respect, Shyamalan's movie Signs serves as a lightning rod and expression of these and other markers of our incipient cultural paradigm shift.
Dear Locus Online,
Some letter writers have wondered why the people who tore Minority Report apart haven't written in about Signs. It might be a rhetorical question, but my personal answer is: my wife and I aren't the Movie Police. However, for the record, and it isn't going to become a habit to respond re every movie: We're split on Signs. Ann liked it a lot more than I did. As for the logic problems most of these are not so much logic problems as intentional decisions on the part of the director. You can like them or not like them, but I think the director clearly made the movie he set out to make. (What struck me as particularly ballsy of the director was that at one point he seemed to be telling the audience: If you don't believe in my movie, you don't believe in God!) I was mostly concerned with the huge tonal shifts in the movie, which didn't seem to make sense. It's a drama. It's a comedy. It's a tragedy. It's a horror film. It's a SF film. It's a dramedy. No, wait, it's a horremy. Or maybe that rare creature, a tragedracohorrosf. A friend suggested that the film might be the result of the MTV-like attention span people have today, so that the shifts in tone simply fit the pacing of people's ability to absorb scenes. More likely, it's that the director is more adept at making movies like The Sixth Sense, which does one thing well for two hours.
Too Long a List
Dear Locus Online,
In response to John Shirley's August 10 letter asking why the people who nitpicked the logic of Minority Report are not doing the same for Signs, a few thoughts come to mind:
1. I for one didn't have the wherewithal to type out the list of logic flaws in Signs because it would have simply been too long.
2. For all its flaws, I think Signs attempted something weightier than Minority Report, at least in the way it handled its subject. Where the concept of "pre-crime" in Minority Report was used primarily as the driver of action (if it was intended as more, it missed the mark), in Signs the concept of "signs" was the focus of the film and the action was for the most part off to the side. People seem to have attacked the main focus of each film.
3. I may be reading too much into it, but I thought a lot of the logic flaws arose out M. Night's attempt to pay homage to earlier invasion films. The basement scene was an overt tribute to Night of the Living Dead and War of the Worlds, the water vulnerability of the aliens was a tribute to Day of the Triffids, etc. So some of these logic flaws appear to have been put in deliberately rather than arising out of sloppy writing/plotting, which does not make them more excusable but does make them less of a magnet for carping. Like I said, I'm probably reading too much into it.
Although I didn't state all the reasons I disliked Signs in my first letter, I'm pretty much a generalist when it comes to the film. Forget the message, which didn't bother me nearly as much as it did Claude. I didn't care for the story, the acting (except the kids), the way it was shot, the pacing, the way it tried to achieve "suspense", the "surprise" ending, etc. It simply didn't work on any level for me.
Dear Locus Online,
Have we really sunk so low? One reviewer has attacked another for criticising a film that, by even by his own account, is morally simplistic, full of logical errors, and based on "bullpucky" crop circle mysticism. So what's wrong with saying Signs is manipulative trash? Why is it a crime to attack moralisms the reviewer finds offensive? If Shyamalan is allowed to express contentious messages, why isn't Claude Lalumière allowed to respond? A well-directed film with good dialogue shouldn't be immune from all other criticism. I've just re-read Claude's review of Signs and although he is savagely critical of the film, not once does he argue for censorship. For John Shirley to compare the review to Stalinist repression isn't just wrong, it's insulting.
Murder, by God
Dear Locus Online,
Marianne Plumridge wrote in to correct what she thought were misrepresentations of the movie by another letter writer that the driver who killed Gibson's wife was drunk, and that it was a "murder." She was right on one point: the driver actually fell asleep at the wheel. However, her objection to the term "murder" is unwarranted.
The whole point of the movie, and a point which is made explicitly clear by the end, is that all the "coincidences" encountered during the past 2 hours were not coincidences at all, but manufactured events: the daughter's warnings about the water, the son's asthma that closed his lungs and saved him from the poison gas, and the dying wife's last words. The conclusion that Gibson's character comes to, obviously, given his return to faith at the end, is that God caused these events. If that's true, then the word "murder" is entirely appropriate, because God murdered his wife.
In a separate issue, it's plain that Shyamalan knows next to nothing about baseball. No minor league prospect who owns at least 5 hitting records, to say nothing of two 500 foot home runs, would be released merely because he also set a record for strikeouts.
Dear Locus Online,
I liked Signs better than Claude Lalumière but I was wondering where all the people were who attacked Minority Report for its illogic. That doesn't seem to be what people don't like about Signs. We could have one of those numbered lists. 1) Why would these advanced aliens need crop circles for mapping? 2) Why are these advanced aliens so low tech no tech on the ground. 3) Why is it so hard for them to get into a basement? 4) Why did he just leave that alien in the pantry without even calling the sheriff? 5) How likely is it the aliens would be so vulnerable to water? 6) Why are they harvesting people exactly? Etc etc. I know why no one's making this list Spielberg didn't make the movie!
I could explain the alien lowtechiness by saying that the aliens on the ground were the tech itself they were like dogs sent to fetch. Artificial themselves. Bred or something. The rest I can forgive, or shrug off, because he made me believe in it while the movie was on. It was beautifully directed, and I don't agree with Claude about the dialogue, I thought most of it was pretty damned good some of it was really very good indeed.
I thought the theology was simplified, but people who say that Shyamalan shouldn't be making didactic theological statements should go back in time and space to the 1950's Soviet Union. Who are you to say what someone's message should be, Claude? It should only be what the postmodernists say? The postmodernists can kiss my...assertion. The man has a right to assert that God is trying to take care of us. (Why does he take care of Mel Gibson's family but not those who were harvested you may ask...yes, it's a simplified message). I thought he did a good job at it, if simplified.
Crop circles, now are bullpucky. They are all hoaxes. People who believe they're not also believe the "face on Mars" is an alien artifact and fragments of bottle glass found in someone's feet are alien implants. Such people believe what makes them feel special. But why not use them in a tale, a metaphor who's to say he can't?
Dear Locus Online,
I've read some of the letters on Locus Online this month and found some of the remarks interesting from a psychological point of view, Mr Scott Miller's remarks regarding the issues described in the motion picture, Signs. Firstly, the accident that killed the priest's wife in the movie was twice described by Mr Miller as "drunken" and "murder". If Mr Miller had seen the movie with his own eyes and prejudices, and not someone else's, he would have seen for himself that a) the driver was far from drunk, and b) in fact was a veterinarian returning home from a late night call who happened to fall asleep at the wheel. How many times everyday are the facts misrepresented by someone else's point of view? I thought Science Fiction was supposed to open our eyes to the possibilities of what could be, what might be out there. If you close your mind and focus too much on just one thing, then the point is moot: the Golden Age of Science Fiction is really over. The dreams of generations are dead.
And as to Mr Miller's defence of Scientists: in every society there are the obsessed few who try to make the square peg fit in the round hole, because according to their calculations, it must. Scientists are not exempt. Also, what skews anyone's calculations these days is the power of the almighty dollar, and the desire to keep a job. This is usually where the moral conflict starts. So really, mudslinging is a multi-society affair.
I pride myself on keeping an open mind and seeing things for myself, and if I fall by my own judgement so be it. It's called a responsible adult decision. The witch hunts of the old world started with just one person's misrepresentation, and hurt many. This is just one example in many thousands of years of history aren't we supposed to learn from these times?
Dear Locus Online,
My first reaction to Signs had a lot in common with Claude Lalumière's, in that I too recoil from M. Night Shyamalan's apparent need to put across the idea that there are no true coincidences. Of course there are coincidences they happen all the time. In many ways Shyamalan's attributing apparent coincidence to a plan of God (or Whomever) is bad storytelling as well as bad philosophy, since it invites the response, "Yes, the events of the film were dictated by a higher power; to wit, the writer who has absolute power over the movie."
Nevertheless, I also understand that my reaction is colored by my sharing the general SF community perspective summed up by Bob Eggleton as "If you are so much as entertained by the thought of crop circles, UFOs (and anything paranormal) generally speaking then you are a wacko who supports hoaxes and should be laughed out of the SF community." I readily admit I'm averse to all that stuff, and my main misgiving with Signs from the beginning was its use of crop circles as a plot device. I'm truly disturbed that many people fall for such things in the real world, and I wish that Shyamalan had come up with some sign of aliens less tainted by hoax. (I guess I should thank Whomever that Shyamalan didn't get into cattle mutilations as well.)
On the other hand, I also see the wisdom in Sophie Masson's statement that "no-one has to follow the director's ideas." When one looks at the actual events in Signs, keeping an open mind about what's really happening as opposed to what the writer/director has led one to believe about it, the film can be interpreted as not a denial of coincidence but an affirmation of the human ability to find meaning within the apparently meaningless. Now all good skeptics know that most of the time that found meaning turns out to be erroneous or coincidental. The wise ones, however, understand that sometimes it turns out to be a key to new knowledge, often far more strange and surprising than anyone could possibly have anticipated.
Both perspectives on coincidence (apparent or not) have been exploring many times in science fiction; for example, coincidence-with-possible-purpose is a major theme in the work of Connie Willis (in stories such as "Blued Moon," "Chance," and Bellwether). Perhaps Willis's upfront artifice makes her use of the theme more acceptable than Shyamalan's die-hard drive to suspend the viewer's disbelief does, though in Signs he counterposes this drive with a wicked sense of humor not too different in some ways from Willis's comedies. (Maybe Shyamalan should direct an out-and-out comedy next time? I would pay good money to see that.)
In conclusion, though I still dislike the philosophy in Signs I do think it's more open to interpretation than Lalumière does. Nevertheless, while the film as a film is far ahead of most offerings this year, that doesn't mean there aren't other films worth seeing first. (Personally, I not only prefer Disney's Lilo & Stitch as a piece of science fiction, I also prefer its answers to the free-will-vs.-Whomever's-plan question.)
Robert B. Tomshany
Dear Locus Online,
Though I agree with Claude Lalumière that Signs is sometimes burdened with didactic expository dialogue, I have to part company with him beyond that point.
I'm not a particularly religious person, but I wasn't offended by the "divine revelation" that concludes Signs. I was actually rather impressed that director M. Night Shyamalan chose to step away from the traditional alien-horror tropes and veer into a finale that, while not seamless, truly felt original.
(Warning: spoilers ahead!)
Lalumière and other reviewers have extrapolated the conversations between the two brothers central to the film into some kind of sweeping condemnation of atheism. Come on. It's only a movie. For that matter, it's a B-Movie about a minister wrestling with his faith who ends up defending his home from aliens, directed by devout Episcopalian.
Is it really so terrible (or so surprising) that the minister gets his faith back?
As to the idea that all good and evil is simply "meant to be," I did not come away with that impression. The man who caused the accident talks about how it seemed "meant to be," but the killing clearly lays heavily on his conscience, and he worries for his soul.
And I was intrigued at how the wife's dying vision if you pay attention, the movie makes it clear she and her daughter can see the future leads ultimately to something good, the saving of the son's life. But it wasn't an automatic, inevitable process. The minister had to piece together what she meant, at the right moment.
It's the sort of thing Stephen King sometimes dabbles in, a sort of God-as-Serendipity, God-helps-those-who-help-themselves schtick. To my mind, it's nothing to be afraid of. It seems that Lalumière was so offended by Shyamalan's ideology that he missed a fairly entertaining (and at times, delightfully creepy) movie.
Dear Locus Online,
I read with great curiosity Claude Lalumière's review of Signs and was quite glad that I had not gone to see it after I read his review. If there is a purpose behind anything we do in this life, I have yet to uncover it, and I'd rather not see the hideous spectacle of someone trying to justify a drunk-driving accident resulting in murder as "meant to be."
Therefore, I was a bit perturbed by Bob Eggleton's response to Mr. Lalumiere's review.
Despite his professed enthusiasm for the work of Carl Sagan, I can't think that Mr. Eggleton enjoyed Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World much, since Sagan argues against the kind of nonsense propagated by UFO enthusiasts including crop circle fans.
It's fatuous to argue that crop circles are alien phenomena just because those two English guys couldn't have traveled the world doing them.
I personally find this kind of crap distressing, because it's so widespread. If Signs were an isolated phenomenon, and scientific information was more widespread than it is today, I'd take it as "just a movie."
But Signs promotes a world where aliens really DO make crop circles, where their only desire is to kill us (if the aliens really do just want to kill us, than it's all right to be a xenophobe!), and where a just and benevolent God provides a reason for everything, even senseless, tragic drunk-driving accidents. (Presumably we are meant to destroy the aliens, too, although it isn't clear to me why a God that would prove to be such a fan of Type A micromanagement would want to send us genocidal aliens in the first place.)
Perhaps the most depressing thing in Mr. Eggleton's letter was the snide remark about "scientific extremists," who seem to be defined as people who don't believe in God, UFOs, or the paranormal, and his equation of them with religious extremists. No, the difference between a scientist and a religious extremist is that a scientist must change his or her mind when he or she is wrong. A religious fanatic tends to become defensive, upset, and enraged when proved wrong, and they tend to refuse to understand the criticism.
Comic books, pulp SF (I refuse to even type skiffy), and cheesy impossible big bug movies are all great fun, and occasionally more than that. However, I don't want to live in a world where that's all that anyone may aspire to, and I really dislike living in a world where these things can promote actively dangerous placebo beliefs. Most of all, I'm sick of living in a society where "science fiction" movies are almost always anti-science, anti-reasoning, anti-anything that takes more effort and imagination than commonly-accepted pseudo-science and pseudo-spirituality.
Scott E. Miller
Dear Locus Online,
If possible, I think I liked Signs less than Claude Lalumière. I don't have the stamina to detail all of the things I found lacking in this film, but I would like to bring up two telling points:
1. When you have to have your characters inexplicably drop their flashlights in more than one scene to create suspense, you're probably doing something wrong.
2. When someone leaves the theater after your film and loudly exclaims "There's two hours of my life I wish I had back" and everyone in the theater agrees, you're probably doing something wrong. (No, I was not the one doing the exclaiming.)
In short, I'd recommend skipping this one.
P.S. I've seen more realistic aliens at the Worldcon masquerade...
Dear Locus Online,
Really enjoyed Lawrence Person's review of Eight Legged Freaks. It's a wonderful B monster film in the grandest tradition of Them!, Tarantula and even Godzilla (the "real" Toho Godzilla, not the Tristar version by, oddly, the same team). I think people have to sit back and just enjoy films for what they are: "entertainment". Exactly the same as Reign of Fire, as John Shirley pointed out that it was a "Great Drive-In Movie". Indeed it was. And so what? It's not a crime. I'm one of the biggest champions of the Drive-In era (Reign played at a local Drive-In by the way, and the weekend attendance is usually so big, the parking lot fills up and sells out an hour before show time it's a wonderful communal experience everyone should enjoy). Reign of Fire was so cool, BTW, it was the only film I saw three times in ONE WEEK. What do you expect from a guy who can explain the meaning of life through Godzilla movies?
I disagree however, strongly with Claude Lalumière's review of Signs. When my wife and I saw Signs, it had all the right jumps in all the right spots, and it was a totally enjoyable bang for my buck. So much so, we're planning on seeing it again. Not to spoil any plot points for those who have yet to see it, I found myself, at one point, turning to my wife and whispering "Some SF people will have canaries over this". The aliens are, indeed, hostile and one has the right to be xenophobic in this case. Also, the story springboards from the "Crop Circle" phenomena which may or may not be hoaxed as was once admitted by two gents from England (but they must have racked up an awful lot of frequent flyer points doing them) and tops it all off with UFO lore which I find, mention the term to some of the intelligencia in the SF community and they are ready to burn you at the proverbial stake. The same way, Carl Sagan (who I like in general for his various projects and books) wrote a rather damning review of Spielberg's landmark Close Encounters back in l978, largely because it relied on UFO/Bermuda Triangle lore as its main plot points.
In the SF community, it's my observation, if aliens are hostile and contact is malevolent, then it's our fault for not understanding them. If you think otherwise then it means you like Pulp Sci-Fi and comic books yee gads!!!!! If you are so much as entertained by the thought of crop circles, UFOs (and anything paranormal) generally speaking then you are a wacko who supports hoaxes and should be laughed out of the SF community. And...if you have any believe in a destiny or afterlife (which, while not overtly religious, I do believe in some kind of "cosmic intelligence", God if you will...) then forget it, get lost buddy because it's the "extraordinary-beliefs-require-extraordinary-evidence-don't-give-us-a bad-name" club members only. Hell, I even read my horoscope for a giggle!!! I once remember a furor in the science community for a casual metaphor for the Hubble Telescope as "Looking into the Eyes of God". Extremist science, like extremist religion, is not a good thing. To that end, as a laugh at this point, the feeling I have gotten from some exponents of the field is that you should be honored to have a superior alien dissect you if you happen to be in a lonely field and a UFO drops down.
The inherent psychological layering of Signs was extremely good, and could quite easily be the theme for any university or term paper. And, in Shyamalan tradition, he expertly distracts you from what one would assume would be the obvious storyline and it turns out...something much deeper. Some of the images burned their way into my brain in ways I can't easily dislodge.
The point is: so what? It's ENTERTAINMENT. Lighten up. Science Fiction Movies and books are all part of popular culture. It's the same argument I have with artists who argue the points of "commercial" art vs. "fine" art. It's ALL commercial art. If it ends up in a museum 150 years from now and someone builds some mythos around it, and you have a guide telling a crowd "this is his blue period", then you've become a "fine" artist. No one tries for greatness or to be remembered. It just happens. Or...it doesn't. But I am not waiting around to find out or planning for it. I try to live in the moment, be creative and have fun so that doesn't bother me.
I like science fiction, it's a lot of fun and has some great ideas, but recently, I find sometimes it tries way too hard to justify itself.
I don't know whether there is a destiny or not; recent events in my life tend to support the fact there might be....but, I just let it happen by chance and that seems to work for me. Those are my signs.
Dear Locus Online,
I haven't seen Signs yet but Claude Lalumière's review has whetted my appetite, strangely! (and hey, no-one has to follow the director's ideas: if you want to believe that as flies are to wanton boys so are we to the gods, that's your prerogative, just as it's Shyamalan's to think there's not a sparrow falls to earth, etc..)
I was interested too to see that it might be based on War of the Worlds.
Crop circles are certainly a good metaphor, anyway. I wrote a short story, "Circles of Fire", which appeared in an Australian anthology in 1994 and a US one (Altered Voices, Scholastic) in 1999, and was written at the height of the crop circle boom. I linked the circles with passages in Ezekiel and Revelations and the appearance of angels as 'wheels of fire': but perhaps as a pessimistic Australian I tended more to the 'flies to wanton boys' view the angels as unknowable terrifying agents of a justice that is inhuman..
4 August 2002