Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Alternate History, Japanese Style

The things you can learn at a science fiction convention, even when it’s not a very good one. My wife Marcia and I were at Lunacon in Rye, NY, the weekend before last, and the affair seemed to be run by knit wits. Yes, they actually had programs about knitting. Not to mention beading, blindfold sculpting… still, there were some programs that actually had to do with sf.
One of the sessions was about Japanese science fiction, which is best known here for manga and anime – distinct schools of comics and animation that have caught on abroad in a big way. You can see entire sections devoted to manga at Barnes & Noble, and Princess Mononoke (1997), a feature-length historical fantasy anime, which Roger Ebert put on his Top Ten list after it was released here in 1999, and which is a cult favorite today.
There are many other examples of manga and anime that have found a loyal audience here, and I have seen some of them and at least heard of others. But one I had not heard of before Lunacon is Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ōoku (2005-), a manga series set in an alternate history. Alternate history is a big thing here, as witness the dozens of novels by Harry Turtledove and others. It’s also represented in Japanese literary sf, but usually imagines history changing elsewhere rather than in Japan itself.
Only, Ōoku is set during the Edo period of Japan (the 17th and 18th centuries by our count), after a plague called the Redface Pox wipes out most of the male population. The sex ratio is thus four women to one man; what was once a patriarchy has become a matriarchy ruled by a female shogun who maintains a retinue called the ōoku (inner chamber) of about 800 men – although few among them actually have sexual access to her; the rest are essentially advisors and bureaucrats.
For ordinary women, marriage is hard to come by, and many visit brothels to become pregnant. The first volume of Ōoku, the only one I’ve read thus far, follows the story of Mizuno Yunoshin, a troubled young man who has given his seed to women too poor to afford brothels, and considers it unconscionable that his impoverished mother hasn’t rented him out to the class of women who can pay, and thus enable her to raise a dowry for her daughter. He rejects an arranged marriage to the daughter of a bureaucrat, and forsakes his childhood sweetheart Nobu, to enter the shogun’s service – that way, at least he’ll be able to send a little money home. But once in, never out, or so it seems.
Yoshimune, daughter of the lord of a remote province, succeeds to the throne soon after his arrival, and has fresh ideas about how to run the country. In a combination of real pluck and seeming luck, Mizuno finds himself chosen as her first lover, not realizing that he’s been maneuvered into her favor because he who deflowers a virgin (which she is officially, but not actually) is put to death afterwards. But Yoshimune has fresh ideas about that, too, and Mizuno gets to live and love another day with the girl he’s left behind – under an assumed name. Further volumes in the series move back and forth in time to show how the matriarchy emerged and has shaped not only sexual politics but governmental administration and even foreign affairs.
In Yoshinaga’s history, the Tokugawa dynasty still reigns, but Yoshimune’s accession is the result of a conspiracy: there are three branch houses of the family, and her Kii branch bribed retainers of the Owari branch to withhold news of the death of the previous shogun (a sickly seven-year old girl), from their Lord Tsugotomo. First come, first served: Yoshimune has taken over at Edo while Tsugotomo is still trying to get her palanquin ready. And as soon as she assumes the throne, she shows she’s a take-charge woman.
By coincidence, we’ve recently been watching a Teaching Company lecture series on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England. One of the burning issues after the restoration of the Stuarts in 1660 was their extravagant spending – Charles II, especially, ran up huge bills for courtiers, mistresses and assorted hangers-on. He even conspired with King Louis XIV of France to bail him out, promising to convert to Catholicism at an opportune time – if that secret had gotten out, he might have met the same fate as his father Charles I, executed in 1649.
When Yoshimune takes over, she is approached by a female privy councillor, who wants her to splurge on a fancy new wardrobe. The shogun immediately dismisses her, saying that “only a lunatic” would recommend such extravagance at a time when the shogunate’s coffers are empty. As she later tells a confidant, she had reform on her mind in any case, and Councillor Manabe gave her the perfect excuse to clean house:
But my liege… if you dismiss all of the current privy councillors, you will have none left. Is it your purpose to abolish the post of privy councillor in your government?
Verily so. And instead of having a gaggle of privy councilors, I shall create a new post of intermediary, and have but one person charged with mediating between the senior councillors and myself.
The best-looking would-be studs of the Inner Chamber also have a surprise coming when they are summoned to a general audience. They figure she’s about to pick one of them as her next lover. Only, they’re all sent packing instead – again out of concern for the state of finances and the welfare of the country:
Ye may well ask, then, wherefore the fifty men here? I shall tell you my reasoning. Ye are all young and handsome, and therefore the most likely to find good prospects of marriage in the world outside the castle.
Little is known of Yoshinaga (1971-), but her series is widely regarded as a feminist parable, and she gets in some great digs in a scene where Yoshimune receives a Dutch trading captain – who assumes she must be a man:
‘Tis reported that there is not one woman in your entire company. Wherefore is that?
Yes, my lord. ‘Tis a long sea voyage we must undertake, for we indeed circumnavigate the globe, and ‘tis far too arduous a journey for women to make.
 There’s a live-action movie based on the series, from which somebody posted a music video on YouTube.
I assume the man must be Mizuno, and the woman we see him with most Nobu. From a comment there, I gather the movie may stress the romance more than the manga series – in which these two don’t seem to figure much, or at all, in later volumes.
One of the other sessions was on Young Adult sf and fantasy, which is very hot right now because of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games and the movie based on it. Since I haven’t read the book or seen the movie, I’ll hold off on that. But there was talk of other YA fiction I hadn’t even heard of, such as Karen Sandler’s Tankborn, which involves genetic engineering.
Heady stuff. Grim stuff, too: it’s dystopian, too (a genetic class system). In fact, a promo for David Weber’s YA sf novel, A Beautiful Friendship (a prequel to his Honor Harrington series, just out) is at pains to stress that it “strays beyond popular dystopian fare.” That it does, although there’s a subtext about genetic engineering on a smaller scale and prejudice against “genies.”
Lots of food for thought there, in another blog post, and in Imagination and Evolution.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Even Jane Austen?

"What an excellent device," said he, "the use of a sheep-skin for carriages. How very comfortable they make it;--impossible to feel cold with such precautions. The contrivances of modern days indeed have rendered a gentleman's carriage perfectly complete. One is so fenced and guarded from the weather, that not a breath of air can find its way unpermitted. Weather becomes absolutely of no consequence.”

That’s doesn’t come from a work of proto-science fiction, although a few such works had appeared by 1815, when Emma was first published. It’s doubtful that Jane Austen was aware of them, and she may never have given a thought to hot air balloons or other technological innovations that figured in them. But the introduction of sheepskin insulation for carriages would have been part of the world she wrote about, that of the English country gentry, and for an sf reader it jumps off the page as evidence, however trivial, that change was coming to that world.

I’ve become familiar only lately with the world of Jane Austen, and through a curious circumstance. P.D. James, one of the great mystery writers of our generation, had just published Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. I have a vague recollection of Pride and Prejudice having been assigned reading in prep school more than 50 years ago, and it can’t have made much impression on me at the time. But even people who’ve never read it at all may recognize the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It was hard to avoid the publicity three years ago about Seth Grahame-Smith’s urban fantasy rip-off of Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with its alternate opening: “'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.'' I avoided that like the plague. But James’ novel was another matter; there have been any number of mystery novels featuring historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and John Fielding (who commanded the Bow Street Runners, the first professional police force, in 18th Century London) or esteemed writers like Charlotte Bronte getting involved in mysteries.

Some of them have been really good. But was Death Comes to Pemberley among them? And was it authentic? Last year my wife Marcia read Joanna Challis’s The Villa of Death, which features novelist Daphne du Maurier (best known for Rebecca) – but Challis didn’t bother to get even the most basic facts of du Maurier’s life straight. On the other hand, Marcia just finished Barbara Hamilton’s Sup with the Devil, which stars Abigail Adams and is true to her and her time. But to make an informed judgment about Death Comes to Pemberley, I had to get back to Pride and Prejudice.

It turned out to be a revelation in more ways than one. The novel is every bit as good as its reputation, but it is also a fascinating look at another world and another time. First off, however, those who still aren’t familiar with the novel may have the impression (I did) that the mistaken pride and prejudice are all on the part of Elizabeth Bennet, who spurns the marriage proposal by Fitzwilliam Darcy because he has not only taken upon himself to thwart a budding love between her sister Jane and Charles Bingley, but has seemingly been cruel towards George Wickham – a militia officer who had once been taken under the wing of Darcy’s father and promised a living as the local vicar.

Elizabeth had previously turned down a proposal by William Collins, a clergyman – a good thing, because he turns out to be a complete and utter pill. It’s a wonder he’s able to win over Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, or how she can put up with him after their marriage. But Wickham knows how to turn on the charm, and forms an attachment with Elizabeth, pouring out his tale of woe about Darcy’s alleged mistreatment of him. Moreover, she knows how her sister feels about Bingley, only to learn that Darcy has contrived to keep him from seeing her. Elizabeth rakes him over the coals for that; his only excuse is that he thought Jane wasn’t really interested in Bingley. As for Wickham, Darcy declares him to be a complete wastrel and scoundrel, but Elizabeth isn’t about to believe anything he says.

The thing is, Elizabeth eventually finds out that Darcy was right about Wickham. Yet he learns that he was wrong about Jane’s love for Bingley: he too has to eat crow, and help make things right by Jane, before they can find happiness together. The fact that these two had equally been in the wrong makes Darcy and Elizabeth more credible as equal partners. That wasn’t what I expected, and it may not be what others still expect if they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice. But then there are other details that stand out – not only matters of custom, but matters of language, as in this bit from Elizabeth’s father:

"From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced." 

“Collect” instead of “gather:” one of those changes in the way English is spoken, but not as well known as others – notably the shift in meaning of “silly” from “blessed” to, well, silly, a few centuries earlier. Actually, I first came across the old usage of “collect” in a Georgette Heyer novel, The Quiet Gentleman, set during the same period, in which there are expressions like giving one the bag (as opposed to the slip). Another usage of the time was “in-law” to refer to step-relatives as well as the relatives of one’s spouse; this might have been rooted in legal language of the late 18th and early 19th century for all I know. 

After Pride and Prejudice, I turned to Death Comes to Pemberley, of which I’ll say only a little here. It is a murder mystery – James is a mystery writer, after all – and Wickham is at the center of it. Darcy and Elizabeth return, but not as sleuths in the classic sense; the solution to the murder involves the work of a number of parties. What is more important is that James captures the essence of Austen’s time, and even her manner of writing about it, as Charles McGrath pointed out in a review for The New York Times:

The prologue remarks, for example: “A family of five unmarried daughters is sure of attracting the sympathetic concern of all their neighbors, particularly where other diversions are few.” And the odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, makes a characteristic appearance, declaring: “I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.”

Emma is the story of Emma Woodhouse, who fancies herself a matchmaker but doesn’t know the hearts and minds of the people she’s trying to match, or even her own. When Amy Heckerling wrote and directed an updated movie version set in California, she called it Clueless. That would be an apt characterization of Austen’s heroine if “clueless” had been an idiom in her time as opposed to that of Cher Horowitz in the 1995 movie.

Austen admitted that Emma was pretty hard to take for anyone but herself, and – contrary to the case with Elizabeth and Darcy – I couldn’t fathom what she and George Knightley, the man she eventually marries, ever saw in each other. But I could see a lot of things in the novel that readers at the time might not have noticed, because – like the casual details in novels today – they were taken for granted. Sheepskin for carriages was one; it may well have been the talk of the town, or should that be talk of the country, at the time Austen was writing. Another example, which is unintentionally funny today, has to do with a family supper (served in “basins,” as bowls were called in those days):

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said--much praise and many comments--undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable;--but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin.

As the Wikipedia entry on gruel (cereal boiled in water or milk) puts it, there are similar staples even today for recently-weaned children and invalids, but none would dare call them "gruel" because of "the negative associations attached to the word through novels like Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist." But there are other passages in Emma that uncannily seem to look forward to elements of our own literature. There is, for example, a spinster, referred to only as "Miss Bates," who can't seem to shut her mouth once she's opened it to declaim on any subject – like, for example, the apple harvest:

The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell--some of Mr. Knightley's most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple anywhere as one of his trees--I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day--for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. 'I am sure you must be,' said he, 'and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.' So I begged he would not--for really as to ours being gone, I could not absolutely say that we had a great many left--it was but half a dozen indeed; but they should be all kept for Jane; and I could not at all bear that he should be sending us more, so liberal as he had been already; and Jane said the same. And when he was gone, she almost quarrelled with me--No, I should not say quarrelled, for we never had a quarrel in our lives; but she was quite distressed that I had owned the apples were so nearly gone; she wished I had made him believe we had a great many left.

When I read that, two things came to mind: stream of consciousness and Edith Bunker. As you’ll see from the link below, I found that I was hardly the first to think of stream of consciousness in connection with Miss Bates:

A Google word search [Austen/Emma/“stream of consciousness”] brings up others – including a pdf of a 2003 Master’s thesis at Marshall College by one Diane M. Counts that invokes Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Sheesh! But the parallel with Edith Bunker may take more explaining than that with Woolf and Joyce, since All in the Family isn’t likely to be as common a subject for college courses. One of the recurrent shticks of the show was Edith starting in about some trivial happening in her day and going on and on and on – until Archie mimed committing suicide in various ways. I wasn’t able to find any of her actual ramblings on YouTube, but there’s one link that shows Archie’s reaction to them.

What would Jane Austen have made of that?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Strange Bedfellows

Is this weird, or is weird?

You can’t get much more left-wing than the Occupy movement. You can’t get much more right-wing than the Tea Party. And yet here they are making common cause in press releases two weeks apart, both condemning a sweetheart deal between the New Jersey state government and Prudential Insurance. I haven’t changed a word; both of these broadsides come exactly as they popped into my e-mail box at work.

Occupy Newark release, Feb. 15


Only one day after Occupy Newark protestors were removed from Military Park, Occupy Newark spokesperson Adam Karl today blasted a state deal to give $250 million in tax credits to a company, Prudential Insurance that made $3 billion in profit last year. The Occupy Essex and Occupy Newark groups have vowed civil disobedience to stop the Prudential deal. 

At Military Park, the site of Occupy Newark, about two dozen police officers and fire fighters disassembled what was left of the movement’s encampment yesterday. Karl said Prudential would be the target of the next occupation by his group.

“If Prudential insurance wants a posh new corporate tower in downtown Newark let them pay for it themselves” said Karl who was elected spokeperson for Occupy Essex, an affiliate of Occupy Newark that is connected to Occupy organizations in D.C., Oakland, and New York. “New Jersey taxpayer’s shouldn’t be asked to subsidize successful billion dollar corporations.”

“This corporate welfare for billionaires” said Karl. “Adding insult to injury Prudential is getting tax credits reserved for companies moving from out-of-state and bring new jobs to New Jersey. Claims by Prudential that the consolidation of all their New Jersey employees in a shiny new corporate tower in downtown Newark will create 400 new are Bullshit” said Karl. ‘In fact the Pru will lose employees who don’t want to leave Morristown for downtown Newark”

“Now we know why Prudential—a hugely profitable corporation wants $250 million in tax credits they are not eligible for” said Karl “They have to make up for the giant losses they are taking on a bad real estate investment, 11 Times Square in Manhattan. More than a year after it opened, the 1.1 million square-foot building is about 60% empty and unleased. 

“Prudential is the 1% “ said Karl “This is crony capitalism at it’s worst. Karl said his group would occupy a Prudential facility but has refused to say when.” The 99% percent will make our voices heard soon,” said Karl.

“By taking tax credits they are not entitled to they are screwing the people in Newark, Camden, Jersey City, East Orange, Elizabeth, Hoboken, New Brunswick, Paterson, and Trenton who could be using these specific tax credits to bring new jobs to those cities” said Karl “The executives at Prudential are pigs at the trough.”

The tower, built by a Prudential Financial Inc.-run fund cost $950 million to build. “Prudential must pour more cash into 11 Times Square. Its $720 million construction loan, held by a group led by PNC Financial Services Group, must be repaid in May” said Karl. “ Why should New Jersey’s taxpayers bail them out?”

“Prudential says they will pay off the current loan using the fund's own capital. " said Karl ‘’Why should we provide offsets for their balance sheet?” he said. Given the building's declining value, Prudential would be able to refinance the construction loan for no more than about $600 million—leaving them a $120 million hole” Said the veteran organizer “Why should New Jersey pick up the tab? Prudential’s greed is stunning.”

Tea Party release, March 1


By Donald Hurley - Chairman

It’s not just government that needs to be drastically down-sized. Giant corporations that suck up taxpayer dollars all the while they are getting perks from their government partner–in- crime also need to be reined in and hog-tied like a calf cut loose in a rodeo.

 And there’s no bigger cash cow than the Prudential Insurance Co., which pulled in $3.5 billion in profits in 2011and has more than $870 billion in assets and now has the temerity to take $250 million in tax credits created to attract companies that bring new jobs so it can build a huge monument to itself in Newark, the city of its birth.

The suits in the corner offices may have forgotten that Prudential began as the Prudential Friendly Society in a basement office in Newark in 1875, the first company in the country to make life insurance available to working-class people, and at very low premiums. Now it is crushing the already meager city and state coffers with a greedy grab to erect a new edifice and pay as little as possible for it.

The excuse? They claim new facility will create 400 new jobs at the Rock.  Since they are doing a consolidation and closing smaller offices in New Jersey, this number is suspect. The head of Occupy Newark has called it “bullshit.”

The state solons in Trenton designed the tax credits to encourage outside companies to relocate to New Jersey and thereby provide jobs to an area that desperately needs to boost employment rates. But the state Economic Development Authority, in league with state politicos, has been crushed by “the Rock.” Why else would the EDA approve the tax credits first applied for under the Corzine administration?

Making the situation worse, Prudential is sucking up tax credits meant to bring new jobs to Newark, Camden, Jersey City, East Orange, Elizabeth, Hoboken, New Brunswick, Paterson, and Trenton. The tax credits the Pru is grabbing are reserved for companies bringing new jobs and industries to these troubled cities.

Now the New York Times tells us Prudential is underwater in a real estate investment they made in Manhattan, 11 Times Square. The skyscraper built by a Prudential Financial Inc.-run fund cost $950 million to build. Its $720 million construction loan, held by PNC Financial Services Group, must be repaid this May. The Pru can only refinance the construction loan for $600 million given the declining value of the property, That means the Pru is $120 million short-and they want us to pay for it by adding $250 to their bottom line in taxes they won’t have to pay. Bad idea.

Why Governor Chris Christie would approve these tax credits born in the Corzine administration is a mystery. Christie has battled mightily to get New Jersey’s fiscal house in order. He has fought the Democrat spenders in both the Senate and the Assembly. Only Governor Chris Christie can stop this drain of state funds by a wealthy, profitable corporation. New Jersey has no obligation to bail out the Pru. Governor Christie should tell his EDA Director to kill this sweetheart deal.