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

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).

Jerusalem underground

The Temple Mount is an ambitious piece of landscaping by Herod the Great. Originally the site where it stands was on the eastern side of a quite deep valley. It consisted of a rising ridge of stone holding two small hills – in the Bible, “Mount” tends to mean anything between a few and several thousand feet high – on top of one of which Solomon had built the first temple a thousand years earlier. The second hill was a large lump of limestone in the north west corner of where the Temple Mount now is. (Jerusalem is all limestone. It would have looked very different and not half as nice if it shared the black volcanic basalt of Galilee.) The original temple had been ruined for centuries. Herod, installed by the Romans as king of the Jews, wanted to ingratiate himself with his adopted/foisted upon people and decided to rebuild the temple.

The original hill was too small for the temple he had in mind. How handy it would be, he mused, if it was all flat; if the land could sort of be raised up all around it …

And so he did. Or rather, that’s what his slaves did. The smaller lump of rock was dismantled and used as material for four massive walls enclosing the entire site in a slightly wobbly rectangle. The land level within the four walls rose and fell with the natural contours of the bedrock, so in some places the void could be filled in with rubble and in other places enormous vaults were built topped by a stone platform at the level of the new Temple Mount. The rock that the Dome of the Rock is built over is the natural tip of the original hill, poking slightly above the level of the platform. It has a cave in it. Gateways were built into the new walls with stairs leading up to the top. At the north west corner of the platform, the original source of the rock, the natural bedrock has been cut and dressed to look like it was built the same way as the rest of the Mount.

In short, the Temple Mount is a fascinating hodge-podge of caves, tunnels, walls and stone where archaeology and geology become interchangeable concepts. What’s not to love? It is still Jerusalem’s most obvious feature, and in its original form it must have looked stunning. Those limestone walls would have gleamed in the sun, the largest man-made object most people who saw them had ever beheld. No wonder the country bumpkin disciples marvelled at it.

The Western Wall plaza, halfway up the height of the original walls.

The Western Wall plaza, halfway up the height of the original walls.

Meanwhile, as if that wasn’t enough, I said that the Mount is on the eastern side of a valley – the Tyropoeon Valley, or Valley of the Cheesemakers, which of course isn’t meant to be taken literally but should be taken as a reference to any manufacturers of dairy products. As Jerusalem spilled into the valley (and frequently got reduced to rubble and rebuilt), so the floor level began to rise. More strong arches were built, more new ground levels were created on top of them, and then on top of them, and so on until you get to where we are now. The present day street level, defined by the Western Wall Plaza, is about halfway up the height of the original walls.

Going underground, going underground ...

Going underground, going underground …

And all those empty spaces beneath? Well, you can get into them. You can go down and look at the base of those astonishing walls. So that is what we did.

 

Looking down, from several levels up. That there in the black square is the floor of the valley.

Looking down, from several levels up. That there in the black square is the floor of the valley.

Much better pictures than I was able to take can be found here. A very good guide started us off with a little model of pre-construction Jerusalem, showing how the Mount was put off, and he then led us off into the tunnels. Even when we thought we must be at the base of the walls – well, we weren’t. The picture on the right is looking vertically down at a Second Temple period staircase, and the floor is a long way down. We are already below the level of the Western Wall plaza. Big walls.

One of Herod's building blocks.

One of Herod’s building blocks.

In the picture on the right the guide is showing one of the colossal blocks on the lower courses of the western wall. The bottom edge is level with his ribs; the top, left and right hand edges are some distance out of the sides of the picture. He set us an intellectual challenge: how were blocks that size ever lifted into place? Think about it; answer at the end.

A personal mission objective was achieved when we got to Warren’s Gate – one of the things I wanted to see as being unquestionably somewhere Jesus would have been. Sadly my camera wasn’t wide angle enough to capture it, and in a narrow tunnel you can’t step back to get a better view. At this point in the tunnel we are closest to the titular Rock above, which many believe to have been the site of the Holy of Holies within the Temple, So, many Jews come here to pray, and unlike the Western Wall plaza it isn’t gender segregated..

As you proceed northwards along the base of the wall you pass through (what is now) a buried quarry and a section of the old water tunnel. Now you’re in the bits where the bedrock has been carved to look like building blocks. Then you come to a bit where the carving and quarrying just – stops. It looks like the builders just downed tools and walked away one day. Why? Another puzzle. Maybe it was because Herod died. Maybe work was interrupted by the slight detail of the Romans destroying Jerusalem. Whatever the reason, the Mount was never properly finished, but it came pretty close.

Just before the end of the tunnel you come to the Struthion Pool, an underground reservoir. This was sort-of discovered in the nineteenth century by Charles Warren, in the best Victorian white man tradition of discovering things that people already knew perfectly well were there if only you bothered to ask. Warren conducted many of the first proper explorations of the Mount, before all that kind of thing became political and religious dynamite. Finding a pool, he naturally got into a boat and set off to find the other side. Finding a door there, he naturally knocked on it. It was opened by a very surprised and outraged nun from the convent above. The sisters then sealed off their end of the pool so that no more men could come a-knocking out of the darkness.

The Mount may have been a vanity project for Herod, but it served as the basis for the Temple, which was by no means perfect (cf. many parts of the Gospels) but was still the centre of a thriving community and somewhere that God could be found. And for all the religious gunpowder tension that still hangs around it, it is still a positive focal point of many lives. That’s quite a memorial for Herod, in the way that, say, the pyramids very definitely aren’t for their long-dead Pharaohs. And Jesus was there.

Okay, the answer to my little puzzle above: how those huge blocks were lifted? They weren’t. I said they were hacked out of a natural hill that was then enclosed by the walls, and they’re only on the lower courses of the walls. They were cut out of living bedrock, dressed, and dragged along, not up. Simple. Well, simpler.