Ben at Worldcon

I seem to be on the following Worldcon items: four in total, moderating one of them. Some of my co-panelists are old friends; some I at least know; some are brand new to me; so with that and a good mix of subjects, it looks like fun:

What’s In a Name?

Thursday 14th August, 16:30 – 18:00

Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb, Iain (M) Banks, Tom/Thomas Holt, James SA Corey, Mazarkis Williams: many people publish under pseudonyms, some more subtle than others. Why do writers opt for a pen-name? Why do some have more than one? How important is ‘branding’ to marketing genre fiction, and what role do genre and gender divides play in the decision?

Bella Pagan(M), Catherine Butler, Robin Hobb, Ben Jeapes, Seanan McGuire

Religion in fantasy: numinous or name-checking?

Friday 15th August, 12:00 – 13:30

Religion is central to much fantasy, from the invented faiths of Westeros to exploration of real-world beliefs in novels like “Alif the Unseen”. How do such works explore the social and political consequences of faith? Do they portray religions fully rooted in the texture of daily life and community or just as window-dressing? And to what extent can invented religions ever reflect the complexity of real-world religious experiences and worldviews?

Jenny Blackford (M), Naomi Alderman, Grania Davis, Jonathan Oliver, Ben Jeapes

Sense of Wonder in Children’s SF

Saturday 16th August, 10:00 – 11:00

YA books are well known for their dystopias and their grand adventures. What is it about these categories that have so effectively captured the young adult imagination? When Alice walked off the literary page she opened the door to a truly wondrous world filled with unimaginable things. Since then literary children have latched onto that sense of wonder in literature from Neverland, to Narnia, Hogwarts, and Panem. What is this “sense of wonder” within literature and how does it continue to “blow the minds” of young readers? What are the most spectacular feats of worldbuilding in the YA canon? Where can we find the best aliens? And what about those wondrous infernal machines?

Farah Mendlesohn, KV Johansen, Ian McDonald, Ben Jeapes (M), Jo Fletcher

Adult Readers Within the YA Market

Saturday 16th August, 13:30 – 15:00

Age recommendations on books are meant to be a useful feature for readers. What are the risks and benefits associated with age classification, and is it a necessary evil or a marketing mistake? And what’s all this we hear about the emerging “New Adult” market? Will this have on YA books? Moreover, how do the growing number of adult readers affect the YA market? Are we leaving actual young adult readers behind in favor of attracting adult buyers?

Sarah Ash, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Bella Pagan, Joshua Bilmes, Ben Jeapes

Abominable Christian Education

Until today I had never heard of Accelerated Christian Education. Now I have and I feel diminished by the experience.

The source was this article on the BBC, about a system of schooling that must surely qualify for the Millstone Around the Neck and Drowned in the Depth of the Sea Award. Please, please, please, please, please will Christians get over the them-or-us mentality that allows them to accept uncritically (or grudgingly defend, or even just tolerate because, well, you know, bits of it are okay) anything that has the word “Christian” in it. It isn’t: by which I mean, the Christ after whom it is named would be rubbing his eyes and gaping with disbelief that anyone can not only be teaching this rubbish but doing so in his name. That’s when the eyes weren’t flooded with tears, because he made everything so simple and some idiots following him had to go and make it so complicated.

So let me just dash off a few of the things I regard as quite fundamental in my view of Christianity, inspired by the article and by browsing the Leaving Fundamentalism blog that is cited [warning: the guy's story is heartbreaking; you can only cheer that he made it out sane]. Each of these is the product of many years’ thought and, might I add, scriptural study, by a man* who believes without reservation that Jesus Christ is the virgin-born physically resurrected Son of God who died for our sins. I will not only be glad to debate about these by personal correspondence but will support with scripture. Had I time then I would write a book, but this is my lunch hour. So:

  • Believing in evolution and an Earth that is billions of years old enhances God’s glory, not diminishes. Creationism is not only an insult to human intelligence but it does God down. The God – the Jesus – I believe in is so much bigger and better.
  • There may be a Hell, and the people who go there may well have rejected Jesus, but that is a statement of values, not magic. To say “I accept or reject Jesus” means to accept or reject the values and the outlook and the worldview of Jesus, whether or not you believe in (or have even heard of) the Messiah / Jewish prophet / beardy weirdy of that name who lived a long time ago. Meanwhile, no one gets into Heaven because they said the magic words or “did good” – it is entirely down to God’s grace (though I grant there may be an overlap in the two sets that could lead to a false impression of causality). And as only God can know the state of someone’s heart, no one – no one – gets to pronounce who is going / has gone to Hell based on outward appearance or statements of belief.
  • Same sex marriage? Knock yourself out.
  • Masturbation? Well, God gave you hands ….
  • Smoking? Alcohol? The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.

Rant over. For now …

* i.e. me, in case there’s still any confusion.

 

The Bens 2014

My movie-watching for 2013 was way down on previous years. 26 in total, and of those, 8 were watched on the way to, at or back from Worldcon in San Antonio. Dear me. I can only put this down to an increase in Scandi crime viewing on Saturday evenings, our usual viewing slot, including working our way through two series of The Killing.

So anyway. Remembering the criterion and adage that “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it”, here goes. The Ben Awards for 2014.

Best movie

So, how do I define “best”? I go for what I perceive as the most satisfactory meeting of ambition and ability; my enjoyment levels in watching; and the crunch question, would I mind seeing it again or would I rather just read a book? All of the above meet these criteria; and indeed, I have seen two of the three more than once. (Cloud Atlas on two successive evenings, TGtB&tU more times than I can possibly count over a period of 49 years.)

Ultimately I felt TGtB&tU is so much in a class of its own that comparisons are unfair, bringing it down to a choice of two. Ender’s Game is a flawless recreation of the book which still allows the director’s own vision to show through (unlike, say, the early Harry Potter movies, which were equally flawless book recreations). The story is simplified for the screen without losing anything, though bizarrely gaining a Kiwi accent for Ben Kingsley which contributes nothing. Ultimately however the movie misses out on the Best tag because, being as good as it is, it also highlights the absurdities of the novel – an interstellar fleet run by children? Most attendees at any games expo would wipe the floor with world-saving genius Ender.

Cloud Atlas wins not only because Ender loses but also for being, quite a simply, a 90% successful attempt to film an absolutely unfilmable book. The book tells six stories broken down into 11 consecutive chunks: five half stories in a chronological sequence, then a whole story set at the farthest point in the future, then the remaining five half stories in reverse chronology. The film takes them and chops them up much more finely, with the same core cast playing characters who are not only very different in type but sometimes age, ethnicity and even gender. In some cases it’s not until you see the end credits that you realise just how many times you have seen the same actor. And every one of them acts, even Hugh Grant, who appears in a brief role so utterly against type that I wanted to rewatch the movie straight away, just to catch another glimpse. (I didn’t, I waited 24 hours.) And, even more so than TGtG&tU, you can tell the cast are having a ball, which adds to the enjoyment; Ender’s Game, it must be said, is just a tad po-faced.

Best actor

Ender’s Game sinks or swims on the strength of Ender’s performance, and it’s hard to imagine any other boy actor in the last 20 years doing as well. Asa Butterfield is spot on: he’s grown since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but is still small enough to appear vulnerable, and his character is completely different to pyjama-boy and to his lead role in Hugo. But for all that, maybe because the character of Ender himself is such a contrivance, it’s hard to shake the feeling he’s jumping through hoops on demand, as is every other character in the movie.

Ditto Suraj Sharma, who is very good indeed in his debut performance as Pi, spending much of his time acting at a CGI tiger. Both these young men have the true triumphs of their careers yet to come.

And then we come to Karl Urban, who is Dredd, and conveys it despite having half his face obscured for the entire movie. What was I saying about contrived characters? Well, he takes the not-entirely-uncontrived lawman of Mega City 1 and makes him human. With half a face. And he is also pretty good as McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness, playing a totally different role. So, Urban it is.

Most unexpectedly good

Dredd comes very close indeed to winning here; its one drawback is that, apart from the Judges themselves, it just looks too contemporary. One thing I will give Stallone’s Judge Dredd is that what we saw on screen really was Mega City 1, which sadly was the setting for a lousy story. But this Mega City is just like downtown Detroit, with (okay, okay) brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers, but brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers alone do not a Mega City make.

Whereas Man of Steel is, believe it or not, not a Superman movie. It’s a movie about Kryptonians. Kal-el is not the only exiled member of his race trying to make a new life on Earth. Meanwhile, before succumbing to damsel-in-distress mode, Pultizer-prize winning journo Lois Lane actually behaves in a Pulitzer-prize winning manner and tracks down Clark Kent by following the inevitable clues a man like him would leave behind, without him realising.

Not necessarily bad but biggest waste of a good cast

All three have good casts, two of which include Helen Mirren. However, in two cases the story is predictable because it’s already based on historical fact, and in one it’s predictable because the denouement of the entire fiction-based plot is the only thing that could happen in a pastoral comedy starring Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. But the winner, i.e. the biggest waste, has to be Phil Spector, for not deviating one jot from reality and giving neither Mirren nor Al Pacino anything to do other than recite their lines (Pacino mumbling his around the bits of the scenery he was chewing at the time).