Candyfloss horizons forever!

April 27th, 2008

‘It’s just superhero poetry’

Grant Morrison

Okay, I don’t have a link to it, but somewhere at the back of the collected Rogan Josh edition Milligan has a bit of a waffle about how you should read his book. I don’t know why it’s there – perhaps Karen Berger insisted on it, or maybe he just felt a mite uncomfortable about throwing it out there into the greasy mitts of the phillistines – but, regardless:

Who gives a flying fuck how to read this great shit?

Yesiree, it was all new back then.

The mind-bending stuff still had to come with the York Notes attached. Despite the fact that it had been entrenched, thematically and stylistically, in other media for decades, it took until the nineties for hardcore soft SF to finally find a voice within comic books, and it wasn’t until the middle of the decade that it really began to sing – before it attained any degree of consistent depth or subtlety. Before it became at home with itself.

Sure, Milligan’s work was a real step forward and Shade was a candyflossed book, incorporating as it did everything from Queer Theory all the way through to unjudgemental depictions of polyamory (indeed, it adopted a polymorphously perverse gaze in order to interrogate all of its major themes: sexuality, identity, gender, relationships, cybernetics….). In this sense, then, the world of Kathy, Lenny and Rac could easily locate itself with the soft SF cannon. Its primary area of focus was the realm of the post-human, where the knowable was something to be exploded in favour of a new landscape of shifting probabilities and constant ontological revision. Prophetic visions of the self, sexuality and society (?) augmented by a barmy power-suit. Perfect. Well, almost.

Inspite of some incredible high points and a real grasp of the issues it sets out to interrogate, re-reading the first two thirds of Shade now can, for this poodle at least, be a bit of an exercise in forgiveness. Its not that I don’t enjoy it, but sometimes the metaphors feel a bit too heavy-handed, the symbolism a little in-yer-face and, well, see above for my feelings on comic creators ladling on the exposition and providing a how-to manual for all the blurry bits. And it’s the same with the other early Nineties’ soft SF heavy-hitter, The Invisibles. The first volume employs a really simplistic thematic schema – the ‘war’ behind the scenes between The Forces of Chaos and The Forces of Order – that clunks around for a good twenty or so issues before things get less transparently obvious, more complicated and a lot more interesting. And when does it really start to shine? Well….

We’re here to talk about Soft SF and superhero comics, and I think it’s telling that just at the point that The Invisibles was getting really good, Morrison hits the ground running with The JLA.

By the time all the bizzaro conceits, magico-technologies and experimental writing techniques find their way into a Superman book and nobody bats an eye-lid, you know they’ve fully established themselves. Everyone’s comfortable with the approach. Even the kids. Especially the kids. Yep, kids do still read comic books and there’s nothing like a kid, and their fave avatar of choice for venturing into imaginary worlds, the superhero, for open-mindedness and an ability to negotiate concepts-from-beyond. It makes perfect sense that ideas it took whole issues or arcs to fully explore in The Invisibles should be summed up so quickly and succinctly, in such a compressed form, in the Justice League book. The Hand of Glory? It took most of volume 2 for anyone to get a handle on that thing (if they ever did), but the JLA and Luthor have its DCU counterpart, The Wirlogog, sussed in a flash. The Fifth Dimension? The vast majority of The Invisibles‘ run was dedicated to mapping that one, but Crisis Times Five wasted only three issues on it. Lord Fanny and pals spend years preparing Jack Frost to consume The King Archon, but Superman’s assimilation of Mageddon is given only the briefest of nods – probably a couple of panels – and there’s fuck all build to it.

The point being that the DCU is the spiritual home of the Gamma Gong, the Invisible Plane and the Boom-Tube. These ultra-gadgets fit in there with little or no justification or rationalization. In fact, to explain these things away would be unnecessary and, in a fundamental sense, it would only serve to weaken them as ideas. Soft Sf doesn’t care for analysis and to approach the above works in this spirit is to unweave the rainbow. Indeed, it is telling that Grant’s JLA run found its core ideas, not in Arthur C Clarke, but in Greek Myth – The Justice Leaguers representing the Olympians – and continues to plough this fantastical furrough throughout its run: from the Grail Myth that informs the Rock of Ages storyline, to the DCU’s very own mythosphere, The Fourth World, that acts as the historic backdrop for the final arc, World War Three.

In my opinion, the superhero book is at its most confident and exciting when it chooses not to hot-link to other mythologies. The fact is, it’s got all this mad shit already inbuilt. It is its own myth, just a modern one, dressed up in gleaming spandex and employing the tropes of sci-fi in order to immerse the reader within the magical and the numinous. For contrast, just check the worlds of modern fantasy writers like Phillip Pullman, where a kingdom of wheely beasts becomes a soap-box for the theory of natural selection and The Divine? Well The Divine’s only there so we can kill him.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But there’s an equal pleasure to be had in wallowing in mystery.

So this can only be leading to one place: the book where Grant ditches Zeus and Co., where he refers only to the Man-in-Pants (literally) for inspiration.

If one was to compile a list of core super-hero soft SF texts, then Flex Mentallo would have to take pole position. It’s contains all the genre requirements: it prizes imagination over the science it represents, it makes deep forays into experimental writing, functions as a cartography of impossibles worlds and, above all, it consciously manipulates and subverts conventional SF approaches in order to destabilize notions of rigid categorization and fracture the boundaries between the solid and the imaginary.

Soft SF is by its very nature a post-modern medium, in that it posits science fiction as just-another-narrative, refusing to afford it the privileged status of the realistic. It ditches the vanity of the Jules Verne school of SF and asks, ‘Of what is this genre made?’, or, ‘What does it feel like?’, as opposed to, ‘How would Nemo put together a fully functioning Nautilus?’ And Morrison knows full well what the super-hero is made of…. Indeed, that’s the primary focus of the book: the Ages of the Superman, from the naive, radiant Gold Era to the free-wheeling, shape-shifting Silver to the deconstructionist Dark; the functions he performs, from the masturbatory power-fantasy to the spring-board to the transcendental and, ultimately, to the fifth dimensional shape of the the hero seen from above, blasted into the over-sphere by a teleporter and fragmenting into individual comic panels. In the last example *technology* is utilized to push at the Source-Wall of the medium itself and expose the cracks. There’s no pretense at trying to describe exactly how an actual teleporter would operate, but I think the comic is all the more interesting for it. We create an imaginary diegetic throughline in order to understand the characters in a comic book. We fill in the blanks. But what do Flex and the rest really look like viewed from high altitude, from the satellite HQ of the Legion of Legions? They look like the cover of Flex 3.

Story-board as exploded atomic structure.

Costumes as super-skin.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths as drug overdose as nuclear holocaust as the crisis of adolesence.

In fact the foundation of the Flexverse rests in science-fantasy. The Universe is the product of quantum fucking – the love-child of Nanoman and Minimiss – both of them trapped, mid-orgasm, in the throws of the, errr, Big-Bang. All of us, the comic argues, are caught up in the bright lights of manifestation and we only have to stop, look around and take possession of ourselves in order to create a new reality. The engines of creation, it suggests, reside in our mind and that ‘before it was a bomb, the bomb was an idea’. We can conjure a better reality, we just have to have better ideas. And here we arrive at the meat of it – Flex, for all of its nods to futurism and future science, is, in the end, only concerned with these things insofar as they gesture towards the road-map to Utopia. The Omniscopes and oscilloscopes are metaphors for the self cybernetically enhanced by dreams, just as the ‘gloomy canyons of Satellite City’ and the ‘far-away orphanages of Farville’ outline the topography of a remythologized Earth. Why would anyone settle for shoes when they can have boom-shoes, Grant asks? Why tolerate the flat surfaces of the everyday, when one can imbue even the most mundane things with meaning? And that’s the point of Flex – to re-energize our world. We can wank on and on about the processes that inform it and how they can be harnessed, but isn’t it important to marvel at them too? In the final analysis, Flex Mentallo is, like so much of Grant’s output, a romantic work and we can be cynical about that or we can embrace the insights it offers. It doesn’t mean we simultaneously have to deny Newtonian Physics.

In this regard Flex differs fundamentally from the other knowingly modernist superhero texts, in that it breaks down the mechanisms of the super-narrative in order to build. The batmobiles and the owlships aren’t there to illustrate the character’s inadequacies, but, rather, to illuminate a brighter tomorrow. The childish urge to make Star-Trek tech a reality is celebrated, not berated, so long as it invigorates the reader’s interactions with the day-to-day. So long as it encourages hir to ‘go out and meet some girls’. This stuff is far from the techy, nerdy, anally retentive worldview of the misanthropic fanboy/hard SF enthusiast – we don the garb of the super-hero in order to act. Flex Mentallo is soft sci-fi that’s out and proud, and it has a mission. It attempts to condense and distill everything that’s wonderful about the super-hero and, by the end of the story, we’re permitted ‘total sychronization with the comic’ – we’re invited to share in this wonder, to utilize it, and make our daydreams flesh. Hard science fiction may well have similar goals, but, for me, it rarely induces the feelings necessary to galvanize any real creative work. Too much of it – all that fussing about tachyon drives and the rules by which the Federation interacts with, *yawn*, aliens – puts me in mind of those GM’s obsessing about rising property prices in Middenheim.

Booo! Rubbish!!!!

Personally, I think it’s telling that Flex draws so heavily from DC’s creative well as opposed to Marvel’s. The costumed adventurer it depicts sports a proper pants-over-tights, wrestler’s costume. There’s no shiny Iron Man kit within its pages. Flex Mentallo mail-ordered the source of his powers, the Muscle-Mystery For You! book, from the back of a comic book – it’s pure Golden Age shit. In recent years, as I have alluded to elsewhere, Marvel have become reliant on replicating the look and feel of the CGI, SF, action spectacular in order to flog its funnies, whereas DC, try as it might, finds it enormously difficult to shed its playful, fantastical roots. The strong whiff of the fairy-story suffuces the DCU, in stark contrast to Marvel’s increasingly teenage bent, and perhaps this is why Grant’s work in the early days of the new millenium interests me the least. New X Men is modern Marvel through and through. Sure, there’s some great soft SF concepts lurking beneath the surface, but the surface is so important . For me its impossible to ignore. And what comprises that gleaming veneer? Psuedo-science. Not technology as unbridled imagination, oh no, that’s not what we’re talking about here. No, this is just boring old waffle about X Genes, evolution and mutants, mutants, mutants. Mutants are the Marvel-verse equivalent of conventional SF’s aliens. There’s nothing wrong with the idea in theory, but Marvel have leeched all the life out of the fucker. Heroes shocked the shit out of me because, for the first time since I was a kid, someone really captured just how fantastic discovering you had superpowers really would be. Sure, the show absolutely isn’t perfect, but it is streets ahead of the X Men. But I’m getting distracted here. Marvel borrows from blockbusters, which in turn borrow from SF, but always making sure any of the really weird stuff is neutered. And that’s how Grant’s X-title read to me. Hedged in. Tramelled.

Time to break out:

We3 enjoys a pseudy sheen too (‘realistic and relevant’ according to The Washington Post - God, you couldn’t ask for a more depressing endorsement, could you?), but it more than makes up for it in every other respect. Grant keeps the content within the strictly science-possible, while allowing all the conceptual tilt-a-whirls that fuel the vast majority of his comics free reign within the formal sphere. It’s hard SF with a soft SF centre. Or the other way round. William Burroughs doing Isaac Asimov. At times, with it’s exploded, atemporal panel layouts and surveillance camera eye, it’s pure cut-up, in the best tradition of Robert Anton Wilson, the Soft SF poetry of the aforementioned Jeff Noon and a raft of Semiotext contributors. This isn’t simply an empty exercise in formal anarchy for the sake of it. There’s both rhyme and reason to Grant and Frank’s methods. Sure, watching Tinker slicing inbetween the panels as he attacks the soldiers looks good, but it’s also there to illustrate the sheer, lethal speed he possesses and the idea that the animals experience ‘time and motion differently’. Not only that, but the chaotic four-dimensional perspective, with panels ansychronously, almost randomly, layered on top of each other that Grant employs for most of that fight scene manages to convey the sense of blood-drenched mayhem far better than a more linear progression from event to event. And as for the surveillance camera eye-view – well that, as has been said elsewhere before, that creates in the reader a sense of both tension and confinement. What will the lense reveal next? ‘I WANT TO GET OUT!’ I could go on forever… We3 is fascinating in that it combines a hard SF high-concept – enhanced animals as biological weapons – with a storytelling approach more commonly found in its soft counterpart and Speculative Fiction. It could have been a farily mundane story updating the, WOOOAH!, super-pet for the 21st century, but instead we get a stylistic tour-de-force that, in all the ways in which it rocks, owes fuck all to Kim Stanley Robinson’s dull-as-dishwater Mars trilogy.

And finally:

Seven Soldiers is the hard stuff. As I mentioned in part one, the DCU, like smulchy science fiction generally, can accommodate everything , from swords and sorcery, to hard-boiled, horror and straight-as-u-like SF, and that’s exactly what SS sets out to capture – that imaginal melting-pot. I’m not saying Marvel is incapable in this area, just that at the present time it’s disinclined to break from its fairly staid, but commercially viable ‘Look, it’s a SPACESHIP!?! From the mooovies!!!111!’ approach. Grant’s mega-series is a love letter to DC’s past, present and future and a big thank-you for all the outlandish thematic and conceptual kinkiness it allows. It relies only on the universe’s internal mythos for inspiration – just as upstairs I’ve argued superhero comics should – and it finds within those kaliedoscopic, zany environs all one would need to generate a fully formed sense of place, history, drama and epic resonance. Sure, the series had its faults, but at its best it was totally brilliant. I mean, who could argue with a (meta) book that effortlessly incorporates everything from Subway Pirates, lives as (literal) prisons for fallen Gods and a potted creation myth of the DCU Earth itself? The stiff contours of hard science fiction find themselves springy and permeable within the pages of Mister Miracle, Klarion, Frankenstein and the rest, bending, breaking, popping and yielding to the whims of imagination.

To sum up then; I believe that this understanding of DC’s fictional potentiality is evidenced in Grant’s earliest forays into its universe: right there, at the end of Doom Patrol, Morrison chronicles the last days of the battle between the Key-Smiths, obsessed with the knowable, versus the bastions of the odd, the Chair-People; and then there’s the big reveal that Danny The Street is really Danny The World, where all realities are equally possible depending on the heart’s desire…. Morrison chooses sides from the get-go, rejecting the masculine, clean-and-proper body of the late eighties super-hero text – an approach that, one would argue, is inrinsically bound up with hard SF – in favour of a smoother, fundamentally less certain narrative and creative attitude.

Actually, I would go further and suggest that, like Milligan’s, Morrison’s approach to the super-hero is polymorphously perverse in aspect – that it shape-shifts, refusing a fixed identity – and that it recognizes in its subject matter, particularly the DCU, a like-minded beast. Superheroes kick-ass so bad because they can, have and do transcend the apparent constraints imposed on them by their ideological essence – men and women of Tomorrow who serve as more-or-less transparent ciphers for the latest scientific paradigm – by fixating, like soft SF, on the Tomorrow part of the equation. And the World of Tomorrow cannot be explained away as a simple extrapolation of modern technological trends. One also has to include revised and radical roadmaps of the self and the soul and, most importantly, the mysterious.

Because the future is hidden from us, behind the frontier.

I know this post has been very Morrisoncentric, but that’s because I believe Grant to be the best modern exponent of this kind of writing. He is as important to the creative zeitgiest of the Nineties as Moore and Miller were to the Eighties. And thank the Highfather for that. Grant’s sense of utopian futurism is so hopeful – it allows us something to look forward to and to aspire to. It’s grown-up, not in the trenchcoats-and-rape sense, but in its avante-gardness, its willingness to play with new ideas, reject traditional modes of storytelling and make deep and bold incursions into the unknowable. So the end is drawing near and I think I’ll come right out and say it:

Soft science fiction is BETTER than its grizzled predecessor.

For all the reasons Morrison’s writing is so good. For all the reasons Jack Kirby still does our heads in. For all the reasons Superman’s still up in the sky.

Soft SF ram-raids and runs with the optimism embedded in the earliest victorian science fiction and brings it slap-bang up to date. It’s hard SF’s 20th century counterpart. Its evolution. Recent hard SF seems so wanky in comparison, what with its fetishistic obsession with the operating manual and what lies beneath the pants of the futuristic societies it slavers over. It also feels terribly stuffy and conservative. Vanilla. ‘Nothing will essentially change’, Star Trek, Stargate and the rest of the drivel explain, ‘but we will have faster aeroplanes that move about in outer-space’. Well, bollocks to that. Do you think anything will be recognizable a million years from now, if we survive that long? I don’t. Least of all ourselves. And as for the stories that inform our new world? Grant and a few others are intuiting them now. They’re showing us what might be – charting the candyfloss horizon.

The ‘dreamy piling up of the weird and the impossible’ The Whip describes in Seven Soldiers is actually a ladder from here to who knows when. We must scale it if we want to reach for the stars.


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32 Responses to “Candyfloss horizons forever!”

  1. neonsnake Says:

    *applauds*

    Despite not sharing my lovin’ for teh continuity, you could well be channeling my own thoughts on these posts.

    Compare: JLA 20 from a week or so back. Turns out Flash wasn’t creating vacuums when he used to run around fires to put them out! No! He was creating an updraft which funneled the hot air up and away from the fire, which deprived it of…fucking blah blah blah. We get two…whole…pages explaining exactly how a Flash puts out a fire, in scientific terms. Because, we need to know. We can buy that the guy can run through solid objects, but we start getting twitchy when he puts out a fire…

    Compare against: JLA New World Order, 4th issue or so. Flash is up against a Martian, only weakness – fire.

    Panel one, Flash tells GL to hold on. Panel two, he’s surrounded the bastard with lit candles.

    Two panels.
    Job. Fucking. Done.

  2. Comics Should Be Good! » Great Blog Piece on Morrison Says:

    [...] has a great piece up at Mindless Ones about Grant Morrison’s work. Amypoodle is really putting together a great [...]

  3. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    You have upset a second-gen Thundercat today, amy. Well done.

    Is Warren Ellis ‘hard SF’ then? Sometimes, eh?

  4. Qthgrq Says:

    Poodle and I had that discussion yesterday. I’m not so sure, but he’s happy to throw Ellis on the boring heap. I tend to agree that Planetary, despite being superficially fantastical, is actually channeling some of the worst aspects of hard SF.

    Can you organise a defense, Beast.

  5. Birdy Says:

    Really, congrats.

  6. LDones Says:

    Well done, excellent post.

    The only thing I might say in response is that I think books like 7 Soldiers (and to a small degree, Flex Mentallo) do reference mythologies outside their own in meaningful ways.

    7S draws on veins in Arthurian myth as symbols for struggle against tragedy & senselessness.

    And I’d say Flex Mentallo (while definitely avoiding any obvious outside references or religious symbolism) references all myth, all human stories and religion – with its creation myth, with Flex as the messianic figure in a fallen world, and especially with the Hoaxer – who has (as a mythmaker, as a guy simply making shit up), it’s implied, found a way to trick the reader into seeing a better reality – like swapping out dead goldfish for live ones, so no one knows they’ve died.

    I’d say, while it’s perhaps a more stoic interpretation, that idea is a big part of that optimism, hopefulness, and excitement of Soft-SF that you’ve nailed so well above, and that underpins the best superhero comics.

    Great article, look forward to more.

  7. Papers Says:

    For all its flaws I loved Shade (and your talk of its polyamory and polymorphous perversity makes me want to write a paper on how it destroyed and exploded the idea of family in favour of found and reconstructed families), but I still think a better example of soft-SF from Milligan (discounting the hallucinating Rogan Gosh which you talk about) was The Enigma, because he managed to break out of some of his explanatory tic-patterns. It embraces the Mystery, you just have to deal with a man having the power of a God and patterning his life after a comic book — while also firing through the typical Queer Theory, gender conception, sticky sexy drippy discomfort, and existentialism.

  8. Birdy Says:

    I forgot to say, I find it curious that such aesthetic is the closest representation I’ve seen of Alan Moore’s talks of how the “future will be vapor” (even if he’s still rigidly stuck conjuring very rational justifications and excuses for one day maybe finally marching into that liquid/vapourous territory so it won’t be perceived like he ‘lost it’). He and Grant should just team-up already, they would complete one another too perfectly.

    But I wouldn’t know how to properly map that correlation — seems so far that is at least the first step in trying to imagine different things than the overall “9000 years from now? Well it’s just like now, Iraq and red panic!”. To at least, at first, recognize how a fluid and foggy beast the future can be, to bring that “sense of the coming millenium”, to go through that door, “les mysteries”. It’s usually a point of entrance more in key with a hopeful anxiety for the future (by its willing acceptance of what the basic concept of future entails, the unknowable) than a anchored conservative and egoic rigid wank.

    Really, that was a truly lovely post.

    (but I’m glad I’ll probably never meet with you face-to-face, since I have a tendency to want to jealously enter into kung-fu fights with people who have the privilege of having Rogan Gosh)

  9. Qthgrq Says:

    The only thing I might say in response is that I think books like 7 Soldiers (and to a small degree, Flex Mentallo) do reference mythologies outside their own in meaningful ways.

    Was thinking that very thing. You get a little woolly there, Poodle.

  10. Birdy Says:

    But I think it’s that whole Jesus-Superman thing. Yes, there are similarities and similar functions. But he’s a more similar figure when he doesn’t try to reference to something outside himself, and takes what’s built-in.

    He’s more like Jesus when being just Superman than when he’s doing cross poses and hearing elderly voices in his head, and having heavy-handed biblical allusions etc.

  11. amypoodle Says:

    I got as bit wooly because it’s easy to. SS is such a massive celebration of all things DCU.

  12. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    If you’ve a computer, Birdy, there are… ways… to rectify; I don’t really advocate wholsesale theft but it was basically a really easy way for me to get, to read, all of Zenith without paying £200 or so. You know. Diminishes the whole ownership fetish something rotten, but there it is.

    Ellis… mmm, I’ve really enjoyed basically every mainstream comic since, oh, Nextwave, Desolation Jones – there’s really no excuse for Doqtor Sleepliss, of course, but even Black Summer from the Avatar set, that was decent up to #5, not read past that. Aside from the painfully obvious technofetish, he is genuinely quite literate – I mean, say Ultimate Human, which is abridging some of Orson Scott Card’s (Hard? Fundie-mentalist?) SF had the temerity to drop into serious Le Carre mode after two issues of – probably – the hardest SF I’ve read in a superhero comic, maybe ever. It still seemed quite well-paced, character-based, decent primer on the two mooovie guys this Summer. (There’s maybe something about imminence v. timelessness there, too; the whole ‘ripped from the headlines’ bit – I reread my current Marvel comics more often than any others, but am less inclined to go back to them a year on, but go back to JLA probably annually. At least.)

    I mean, I like facts (although not so much as to actively pursue them in any other meaningful sense than through fiction) – everyone complains about Vaughan droppping fun facts in everything, but to me it’s kind of a bonus? Not a necessity, mind; Morrison’s also transited to an almost wilful factlessness since – you can see the drop-off in Seaguy or JLA: Classified, pretty much. (“Science sure lied about this place”/”There’s an area of the brain called… oh, never mind” – we all fucking knew what it was by then, anyway) Invisibles conversely basically packaged numerous, well-documented conspiracy theories into a massive bundle – but it’s like, yeah, he’s pursuing some kind of transcendence at this point: being the pop culture rather than referring to it.

    Not really a defence of Ellis, that, I suppose – I just think there’s room for him, or the crime books, or even – God forbid – Millar’s Fantastic AlGore in my readership too, but some way below Morrison on the pantheon, certainly.

    (Iain M Banks new book isn’t hard SF, really, although I think it may be meandering it’s way around not-quite-saying anything useful about the Gulf; it is, however, pretty abysmal. Is, like, Snowcrash – is that hard SF?)

  13. David Allison Says:

    Another great post!

    Re: the whole thing with We3 being “hard SF with a soft SF centre”, I think that explains something about the differing reactions you get to one element of the book’s ending.

    (Erm, SPOILERS, I guess…)

    I know some people had a problem with the fact that the animals are just able to shed their armor at the end, which… if you’re reading We3 as a hard SF story, then I can understand how that would be an issue.

    For me, though, that element of the ending is just so perfect and transcendental and… I guess I just never found myself worrying about that sort of realism because I was reading the book as sheer OTT sci-fi poetry.

    But hey — that’s not what everyone wants, so whatever.

    And Mr Beast — good call on the way Morrison has “transited to an almost wilful factlessness”. I re-read The Invisibles recently, and found myself almost overwhelmed by the amount of quotes and pointed references. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff (in Morrison’s older work and in some of, say, Vaughan’s), but I think that at its best Morrison’s recent work hits really damn hard for its lack of such long-winded detours.

    Seven Soldiers, We3, Seaguy, All Star Superman, even JLA Classified to an extent… there’s a lot to be said for the way that these works absolutely lose themselves in their own mad logic. But, yeah, I’m gonna shut up now cos this post articulates that thought way better than I could right now!

  14. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    Good post poodle.
    Damn good post.

    Gud poodle.

  15. NeonSnake Says:

    Isn’t it a matter of ‘place’ and ‘appropriateness’, as well, though?

    I mean, I love me some superhero; it strikes me as completely counter-intuitive to be worrying about the god-awful conceit of ‘realism’ when reading about fellas who can fly and shoot lazers from their eyes and stuff; I don’t care about how they do it, and don’t want pages wasted on it.

    It comes back to what amypoodle was saying in a previous post about how some people want to know HOW Batman pulls the “disappearing” trick. It’s not relevant…it’s because he’s Batman. That’s how he does it. That’s answer enough. “How do you do it, Bats?”…”HH. I’m Batman”…”Ah. Of course. Gotcha.”

    I mean, I hang around on the Batman section of the DCMessage Boards, and it’s FILLED with posters moaning about how it’s unrealistic for Batman to have a boom-tube glove, or a rocket under a fountain in the garden, or asking why the Batmobile never gets stuck in traffic. And this is Batman – I dread to think what I’m going to find on the Green Lantern boards.

    On the other hand…I’m reading Scalped as well, and I got a leeeetle twitch when the main character takes out a room full of armed men, purely using his badass m@d nunchucka sk1llz. It rubbed up against the conceit of the book, and not in a particularly good way.

    In terms of Ellis…well, I’m reading Doktor Sleepless, and it’s a near-future tale which, I assume, is mean’t to prompt us into looking at our own technology with fresh eyes. With that in mind, I guess it’s entirely acceptable that the tech we see in the comic will be within shouting distance of our own, and a level of scientific explanation works in the context.

  16. adam Says:

    I think you guys seem a bit biased in some regards.

    I too often experience aesthetic revulsion and boredom in the overly technical details in art.

    But I think it is also a bit too dismissive to hate on the hard sci-fi in general. It is a little bit overly simplistic of a difference.

    Also, I think the hard SF vs. Soft SF dichotomy is a little problematic. I mean soft SF includes “Star Wars” and those movies don’t exactly scream “quality” on some levels.
    On the other hand, “2001: Space Odyssey” is fairly hard SF (and seem wonderful). And not all soft SF is optimistic: see Ellis’s “City of Silence” or “Akira.”

    For a guy who mentions Robert Anton Wilson, it seems a little weird to say: Soft SF is better.

    I think the distinction you make between focus on surfaces and interiors seems interesting but problematic. I think you are also setting yourself up in a superior position because some people have less refined lexicon and interaction with fine art than yourself (see your quote of the review of We3).

    Your article was very insightful and intelligent (and well-written), but I think there is a lot of problems with the theory and that it devolves into ranting against certain people. How can we fix this?

  17. Qthgrq Says:

    Of course Poodle* seems biased, this is, afterall, an opinion piece not a balanced essay written for a a GCSE English class. As for being dismissive of hard SF in favor of soft SF, I’m not sure he says anywhere that all soft SF is good.

    That said, I do have some sympathy with your position, although I’m not entirely sure 2001 counts as hard SF, and I’d suggest that Starwars, despite fitting a strict soft SF definition, does, in some of its worst moments, channel some dull hard SF impulses. Lucas is rather keen on teh rule making, eh?

    *emphasis on Poodle, the rest of us have our own opinions that may or may not match his

  18. amypoodle Says:

    If you prefer, adam, think of my criticisms not as attacking individual works per se, but certain tendencies. However, I *do* reserve the right to make value judgements re tendencies I dislike. if that makes me ‘superior’: oh, well – fair enough. I can live with that.

    Has fuck all to do with my vocabulary, tho’.

  19. amypoodle Says:

    I’m also aware that the distinction between hard and soft sci-fi can be blurry – that’s why I generally picked targets where there was a clear distinction. Clarke’s 2001, esp as envisioned by Kubrik, is a problematic I’ll grant you, but some of Clarke’s work is very hard indeed. As for RAW, I’d hardly call Illuminatus a hard sc-fi text. Wilson interests me the least when he’s banging on about cryogenics, but I do enjoy him a great deal when George Dorn is unfolding out of his life-prison in Shroedinger’s Cat and the yellow submarine’s descending into the ‘waters’ of the 3D, material world in order to pick him up.

  20. adam Says:

    I said “vocabulary” as a roundabout way of saying “taste” and was referring to your understating of artistic works and aesthetic qualities. As a sf fan it follows that you would have a better measuring stick than the random reviewer in a mainstream publication (who have their own political and cultural perspectives).

    Also, with my reference to RAW, I was referring more to his non-fiction work and his hardy endorsement of using E-prime in written and interior work and criticism.

    Underlining my own criticisms, I attempted to point out that I just don’t agree with cut and dry distinction between hard sf and soft sf (or the definition you give…aha, so it is “vocabulary”) and the aesthetic qualities of the two as thus divided.

    I think that hard sf can have it own aesthetic power:
    Blade Runner is hard SF.
    Aliens is fairly hard SF. (in space no one can hear you scream, but you can hear a nuclear explosion ;)
    The Matrix is fairly hard SF.

    Also, the anal retentive technical detail is an (often unrecognized aesthetic) of its own (and besides who does think a clean asshole or rocket science–”His science so tight!”–is necessarily unaesthetic?).

    Also (on the flip side), shouldn’t we equally dismiss works that are little more than pretty pictures with the same aplomb as works that are overly concerned with the rational points of a story (“He ate the bread. The bread was made of yeast and wheat. It traveled to his stomach…”)

    That said, I pretty much agree with piece and your take, but I think it is full of holes you could patch and give us a more complete and illuminating picture. Preferences alluded to.

  21. amypoodle Says:

    Okay. Points taken on board. I have to say, when I was tapping away at the piece, I was aware of a great many of the ‘holes’ you detail above, but you know how it is when the spirit takes you. You ignore them.

  22. adam Says:

    I feel you

    …actually, the essay reminded me of one of the many brilliant essays in Harlan Ellison’s Watching (so I rate your energy and taste in high company). But in the book, Harlan takes the opposite side of the track (ironic since he probably loves the soft sf as you describe it) critiquing dumb-downed sf with little connection to science. However, ultimately you both have the same complaint:

    Unintelligent readers and poor writers.

  23. neonsnake Says:

    “Okay. Points taken on board. I have to say, when I was tapping away at the piece, I was aware of a great many of the ‘holes’ you detail above, but you know how it is when the spirit takes you. You ignore them.”

    Had you not ignored them, would you not have been guilty of writing anally retentive ‘hard posts’, perhaps?

    Anywho, the point was clearly made, and to ‘fix’ issues with the post would, ultimately, do the same harm to the post as having to worry about (to nick a point someone else made) how the Tinker and Bandit get out of their exo-suits.

  24. Dave Says:

    It’s interesting that I want to write a rebuttal to this. Why is it interesting? Because I don’t exactly disagree with the author, but I think that this text falls into a common sort of mental trap among romantics that insists on describing any difference as irreconcilable conflict. It is worth keeping in mind that the really good romantic authors did, in the end, embrace the dynamic synthesis of their conflicting principles.

    What’s crap about “hard” sci-fi? I would claim the unimaginative shitness happens when the authors stop trying to tell a story about characters and the world they live in, and instead go off on boring tangents about either how the world is actually just like the one outside the reader’s window, or how the characters are just like the long-suffering reader’s own, just transposed in time and space. Although I haven’t read the “JLA” issue you reference, “The Flash” mightily from moments where two to eight pages are eaten by tedious and unconvincing descriptions of a few milliseconds.

    What’s crap about “soft” sci-fi? Well, it too can fail to tell a story in various ways. Maybe it’s a plot element that is there out of thematic necessity that makes no sense. Maybe it’s a bit of spectacle that makes sense in a way the author probably didn’t intend — like, say, the revelation in the “Invisibles” that our protagonists were , in effect, a live-fire LARP troupe.

    The stuff that works is good not because of genre elements, but because it manages to simultaneously render the fantastic mundane and the mundane fantastic. It’s the synthesis that makes the difference.

  25. amy poodle Says:

    I actually don’t think difference equals irreconcilable conflict, but for the duration of writing that post it felt like it did. It’s always good to have some drama, some conflict – a villain. And sometimes setting up a false dichotomy really assists with bringing out the stuff you want to say.

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