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Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies
      Monstrous Creatures
Daniel M. Kimmel
      Jeff VanderMeer
Fantastic Books, 190 pages
      Guide Dog Books, 250 pages

Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies
Monstrous Creatures
Daniel M. Kimmel
Daniel M. Kimmel is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. His reviews appeared in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette for 25 years and can now be found at NorthShoreMovies.Net. He is local correspondent for Variety, the "Movie Maven" for the (Boston) Jewish Advocate and teaches film at Suffolk University. He writes on classic science fiction films for Clarkesworld and Space and Time magazine. His book on the history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network, received the Cable Center Book Award.

Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Finch
SF Site Review: The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories
SF Site Review: Secret Life: The Select Fire Remix
SF Site Review: Balzac's War
SF Site Review: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: Shriek: An Afterword
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: Secret Life
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

You love the fantastic, it is in your blood. You have devoted a substantial part of your life to it, a part friends and colleagues have sometimes suggested has been wasted. Sometimes you wonder if they are right. You have poured your blood out through your pen but you find yourself unregarded, unrewarded and out of pocket. You are invested... so you want a return on your investment. How do you crystallise this labour into something that means something? How can you -- whisper it -- moneterise it? The answer is, of course, a book. A book is an artefact that has value (even in this day and age) beyond its pulped wooden weight. Commensurate with this prestige is a question though: why do my thoughts deserve collecting?

Let's put that question to one side, however; after all, that is something writers often do. Instead they skip straight to the next question: how do I corral all these words? For someone like Gary K. Wolfe, this isn't a problem. He has written so much for Locus over such a long time that his reviews can be simply parcelled out in five year tranches and form cohesive books -- most recently Sightings (2011). Most genre critics don't have the luxury of such longitudinal source material though. No matter your personal professionalism, the gap that separates most of us from hobbyists is vanishingly small; you probably have a few favourite venues that have published quite a bit of your work, you might pick up the odd bit of paid work for a newspaper, increasingly you will self-publish on your blog. Your audience changes, your subject matter changes, your tone changes. So what then? How do you impose, if not a narrative, then at least an order on this sweep of work?

For Daniel M. Kimmel, the answer is to divide your content up according to the quality of the work under discussion. Is a classic? Is it merely good? Is it an outright stinker? Jar Jar Binks Must Die collects his material from a range of magazines, fanzines and web sites (primarily the now defunct Internet Review of Science Fiction) as well as half a dozen new pieces. That explains the what of the book but not the why. Why did Kimmel deem these pieces worthy of collection and why is he collecting them here?

The answer is supplied by the first line of his introduction: "If there's a common theme to the essays in this book, which were written over a ten year period, it is this: science fiction films are worth discussing." This is immensely depressing on a number of levels: its predictability, its banality, its redundancy. This is, after all, the introduction to a book of science fiction film criticism; by definition Kimmel is preaching to the converted. He continues in this vein by pointlessly demolishing a series of straw man arguments that suggest SF films aren't worth discussing. The name Margaret Atwood is deployed. Sturgeon's Law is invoked. It is enough to make you weep.

Instead of weeping, I will pause. This is a review of two books so let's now turn to the other collection of criticism under discussion: Monstrous Creatures by Jeff VanderMeer. This is his second non-fiction collection, covering the period since Why Should I Cut Your Throat? (2004), and is divided into four sections -- essays, appreciation, reviews and biographical pieces -- with an interview between each section. Perhaps unexpectedly, the final interview is with Melanie Typaldos, an impersonator of capybaras on the internet, and this neatly segues into the biographical section (entitled "Personal Monsters"). I think that nicely encapsulates the (glorious) idiosyncrasies of the book but the reason I want to talk about it now is because of one of the essays, "The Language Of Defeat" (originally published on Clarkesworld). As VanderMeer explains:
  "This language of defeat has to do with accepting a paradigm of the fiction world as "us" versus "them," of "mainstream" versus "genre." I use quote marks around "genre" and "mainstream" because I do not believe these terms are as monolithic or as meaningful in practice as we think of them in theory. The "mainstream" and "genre," if we must subdivide in this way, are both various, rich, and fecund traditions, with many strands and diverse lineages. (In many cases, the two intertwine in such an incestuous way that separating them from each other is a job for a trained genealogist.)  

He continues:
   "If we wrote fiction the way we talk about genre and mainstream most of the time, we would all be hacks, our prose full of the most crass and belabored clichés."  

It should be obvious why I've quoted this particular essay. So, is Kimmel a hack? Well, his writing is certainly crass and belaboured. Take, for instance, the book's very first piece. It is notionally an appreciation of the restored 2010 print of Fritz Lang's Metropolis but is almost immediately derailed into a tedious and vaguely racist attack on film historian Martin Koerber for suggesting the film isn't SF. I suppose you can't say that Kimmel didn't warn us. He closes the piece by talking directly to Koerber and advising that "you need to shut your mouth and open your mind." Koerber, of course, isn't actually reading the piece whereas we -- the paying customer with an interest in science fiction -- are. Perhaps Kimmel could think of his actual audience and take his own advice. This is not an aberration; the exact same pattern is repeated a couple of pages later in his discussion of James Whale's Frankenstein and then again on page 38 ("let's take a moment to laugh at the mundanes"). The language of defeat permeates the book.

Nor does Kimmel's style -- or lack of it -- do him any favours. For some reason, science fiction fans often hold unadorned, functional prose in high esteem, as if words are just something that get in the way of a good story. Taking his cue from such sentiment, Kimmel never allows wit or flourish to impede the points he is making. The Lang piece begins:
  "The release of the restored 1927 Metropolis is the cinematic event of the year. Fritz Lang's visionary film was the first science fiction epic.""  

This is bland enough but the next piece takes it to new levels:
  "To help promote Arisia, a Boston area convention, some people have launched 'Arisia TV.' It's a website where they hope to have lots of SF content that will be of interest to fans."  

Some people have launched a website where they hope to have lots of SF content. Wow! There is nothing to draw in the reader here. The tone is conversational but the sort of dull conversation one is desperate to escape from (the sort of conversation that keeps me away from conventions). This would have been boring enough at the time it was written but there is also the problem that this piece obviously hasn't been revised at all since it was originally published on the internet in 2008. Kimmel no longer has to tell us about Arisia TV's hoped for future, he could tell us how it actually turned out (it appears to have been defunct since early 2009). Even better, he could have cut the preamble and got to the meat of the article: an interesting look at William Cameron Menzies's Things To Come.

Similarly, a discussion of the films based on Jack Finney's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers begins:
  "As this is being written [2005], plans are being made for The Invasion, scheduled to star Nicole Kidman. It will be the fourth movie version."  

Kimmel's square brackets are his only concession to when this is being not written but read. The Invasion was indeed made and did indeed star Nicole Kidman and was duly released in 2007. Kimmel could easily re-write the introduction to tell us this. Instead, he keeps the piece as it is, including further speculation about what The Invasion will be like, before eventually adding a postscript that informs us what he actually thought of the finished film. The piece would have been infinitely stronger if it had been revised to incorporate this information, rather than having it annexed. And the lack of revision is not just a missed opportunity, it also makes the book repetitive; Kimmel returns to The Invasion in a discussion of remakes later on. There is much more of this; the repeat digressions about How Others See Us, the asides about his favourite films, the accretion of dead words.

As the book progresses, it is harder and harder to understand why the decision has been taken to work from good to bad. On a fundamental level, it is hard for the reader to look forward to material covering films that the author has already declared up front to be poor (even when, as with a self-confessed guilty pleasure such as Wesley Berry's "obscure 1962 opus" Creation Of The Humanoids, Kimmel has something interesting to say despite the unpromising subject). More than that though, it means that connections between the pieces are neglected. For example, does it make sense to estrange two separate discussions of the consecutive years of the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form just because he likes the 2010 shortlist and dislikes the 2009 one? Or to discuss Lang's Woman In The Moon one hundred pages after Metropolis? To take a broader example, Kimmel is strong on historical context and it would have been nice to have had a sustained, substantial chapter on 50s SF cinema rather than a motley assortment of individual articles. Equally, his admiration for writer and director Andrew Niccol comes through in many of the individual pieces but he is never afforded an in-depth examination of his own. This is doubly a shame since Kimmel is best at longer lengths, such as when writing about the eight Batman films (originally a chapter in Batman Unauthorised, edited by Dennis O'Neil). But, of course, there are nine Batman films; Kimmel stops at Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and does not update his article to include The Dark Knight.

This sustained focus -- out of date as it may be -- is a rarity. The majority of the pieces are very short and there is a tendency to the superficial: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris is dismissed out of hand in a discussion of Duncan Jones's Moon and at more than one point, apropos of nothing, he takes a pop at John Hillcoat's The Road. Everything is just a bit too casual and slight; Jar Jar Binks Must Die mostly seems to exist because Kimmel had the material. The pieces are generally readable but you would only want to read them once, there is no reason to collect them. There are no gems of wisdom, nothing that will send me back to the shelf to raid Kimmel's mind. As a collection it is amiable but lacking acuity; Kimmel could be anyone, this stuff is ten-a-penny on the internet. In many ways, Jar Jar Binks Must Die is a wasted opportunity. From his writing here, I'm not convinced Kimmel could have written a great work of film criticism but, with a bit more thought and application, he could have certainly produced a better one than this. As it stands, it is hard to see who this sheath of recycled material is for.

The question for whom Monstrous Creatures is rather more easily solved since Jeff VanderMeer is renowned enough as a writer to come with his own audience. VanderMeer's opening to his introduction is about as far as you could get from Kimmel's:
  From an early age, I think I had an appreciation for a definition of "monstrous" that did not mean "hideous," "horrible," or "ghastly." Growing up in the Fiji Islands, if I came upon a lugubrious slug, it was cause for triumph and awe, not recoil. Similarly the defiantly ugly toads that would hop lethargic through the grass -- I loved them and their jaded, watchful but calm, eyes. Tough old lobsters while snorkelling and snarling moray eels were better than bejewelled fish any day.  

VanderMeer's love of the written word is obvious and his horizons are infinitely broader than Kimmel's (Jar Jar Binks Must Die seems tragically provincial in comparison). This love and perspective translates into a fire; from the outset his views are unmistakably his own and no-one else's. The very first piece in the collection looks at the Russian folktale of Masha and the bear, the Norwegian folktale of the farmer's cat and VanderMeer's own story, "The Third Bear", and is simultaneously criticism, fiction and manifesto. In fact, this, "The Language Of Defeat" and the other pieces that form Monstrous Thoughts are all notes towards a manifesto of sorts. In fact, VanderMeer explicitly sets out a manifesto in the footnotes to "The Romantic Underground," a 2005 essay that, ironically, takes aim at the usual progenitors of manifestos: movements. The subtitle ("An Exploration of a Non-Existent and Self-Denying Non-Movement") rather gives the game away but this is a compact tour of the noted RU subgenre that concludes with the punchline: "the Romantic Underground, like many so called movements, does not exist." For a piece that seems to exist primarily to have a pop at the New Weird, it is a remarkably successfully sustained piece of creative criticism.

(However, a touch of unseemly spite does linger here, the embryonic New Weird discussions on the message boards of TTA Press two years earlier clearly still festering. He made his peace though: "I myself reacted adversely to the idea," he admits with impressive understatement in the introduction (reprinted here) to his 2008 anthology The New Weird.)

The Romantic Underground manifesto that VanderMeer proposes at the end of the essay is part of the joke, if not VanderMeer's actual manifesto bu,t at the same time, it is. He is one of the "single-author cells, none of which are in communication with any other, similar cells" which he identifies in the piece. His manifesto is not a blueprint for other writers or a prescription for the one true art; it is something closer to aesthetic code, perhaps even a moral code. This becomes even clearer with his reviews. Here is the beginning of his review of Kazu Kibuishi's The Stonekeeper:
  "The history of Fantasy is littered with the scattered remains of books that took their magic seriously but not their characters -- or, more accurately, didn't take life seriously. True fantasy classics, in any medium, reflect what we know about the real world: that it is a bittersweet place in which terrible things sometimes happen for no apparent reason. Further, imagination and creativity must be wedded to the personal, with actions having real consequences."  

VanderMeer is setting out his code: the real world and real consequences. The impossibility of divorcing literature, even fantastic literature, from reality comes through again and again. Consider this extract from his previously unpublished review of China Mieville's Un Lun Dun:
  "At a train stop at a city in Germany last summer, my wife and I walked through a bustling station and up to our platform. Two minutes later, I wandered back down to get some snacks. Every shop was closed and there wasn't a soul in the station. I'd chanced upon an unfamiliar, very specific urban pattern, but to me it was like entering an eerie fantasy land.  

Does this help you decide whether to buy Un Lun Dun? Does it even tell you anything about Un Lun Dun? No. Is it interesting in its own right, does it illuminate VanderMeer's own view of the world and of writing, does it ultimately provide welcome context for evaluating Miéville's novel? Yes, yes, yes. Reviewers are often cautioned against inserting themselves into their reviews, as if words can come into being independently of their author. Objectivity is obviously illusory but fans seem to want the reviews they read to be as unadorned and function as the prose they read. They seek to bleach the art out of fiction and the criticism out of non-fiction. VanderMeer rejects this. He is not afraid of words, his own or those of others (a third of his entire review of Emma Bull's Territory is given over to a single quote from the novel). The review of Un Lun Dun shows that not only does the personal pronoun "I" turn out not to be toxic after all but it is actually enriching.

This, then, answers the question about why this collection exists. You buy Jar Jar Binks Must Die because you want to know more about science fiction cinema; you buy Monstrous Creatures because Jeff VanderMeer wrote it. Judged on these criteria alone, the former will prove slightly useful and slightly aggravating and the latter will delight you. Not that all VanderMeer's words are golden; the sections I've concentrated on, the essays and reviews, are clearly the strongest of the book. For a man so bearish in his interactions on the internet, he is a surprisingly woolly interviewer and the three interviews that demark the sections of the book achieve little more than that purpose. "Appreciations of the Monstrous," as the name suggests, are appreciations and several of these were originally introductions to specific books. Introductions always involve a sort of complicity since the story itself is only a page away; amputated from their context and bundled together they lose potency and identity. Perhaps he should have waited longer than the six or so years since How Shall I Cut Your Throat? but there is still enough material here for a valuable book. After all, VanderMeer is one of the best writers currently working in the fantasy genre and what Monstrous Creatures makes clear is that being a critic is an integral part of this. We are lucky to have his words.

Copyright © 2011 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in East London. He is the reviews editor of Vector and also regularly reviews for Strange Horizons. He blogs at Everything Is Nice.

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