Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

'Tis the Year of the Anniversary

Pretty much every anniversary of the slightest significance to anyone anywhere gets its share of the limelight these days. This year, though, there are some anniversaries that I reckon deserve pretty much all the attention that's being lavished upon them. Both are, in their very different ways, writing-related, and both are ultimately about the power of words - and that's nice stuff to be celebrating, if you ask me.

The greatest hullabaloo, not unreasonably, surrounds a two for the price of one special offer: the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, and the 150th of the publication of On the Origin of Species.

Origin of Species would be pretty high on my personal list of most significant books ever published. Nowadays, if Darwin was unleashing his radical ideas upon an unsuspecting world, there'd no doubt be not only the book, but soon enough the TV series, the website, the YouTube channel of explanatory lectures etc. etc. But even now, in this digital age, I can't help but think it would be the book that really mattered. It would be the book that lasted, and that constituted the most complete prospectus for his theories. All the other, digital, stuff might be seen by more people in the short term, but it would be the book that was the real defining, immortalising statement of his beliefs over future centuries. I think. Or maybe I just hope.

Still, Origin wouldn't be that high on my list of 'great reads'. Since one of the many flavours of my geekishness is 'biological sciences nerd' (a little known subspecies, that), I did find it interesting when I read it long ago, but the journal of his voyage on HMS Beagle is a bit more of a straightforwardly enjoyable read: an intelligent and observant 19th century traveller visiting places that most of us, even now, will never get to, and thinking about what he sees there in ways that most of us are not capable of. You can get abridged mp3s of it here, and this would be a good year to give it a listen.

I'm halfway through Janet Browne's giant two volume biography of Darwin, incidentally, and for any fellow biological sciences nerds out there I can thoroughly recommend it.

The other big commemorative party this year, in Scotland at least, is for the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth. I can't claim to be much of a Burnsologist (though I'm a big fan of Burns Night - especially the food and drink involved) but I've always thought he had a certain special something: he wrote populist, accessible stuff, without great literary pretension or elobarate, elitist intent, but he wrote it with such elegance, with such a neat turn of phrase and such an instinct for the rhythms of language, that he sometimes conjured a kind of magic out of apparently simple series of words.

Plenty of people seem to agree with me, since he is a Scottish national icon who is actively and genuinely treasured here (as well as overseas) almost as much as the international publicity and tourist-targeted promotions would have you believe.

So a couple of Burns' best bits, for your listening/viewing pleasure:

Thou Gloomy December

and, of course, A Man's A Man For A' That, first spoken:

and then done in a way I suspect Robert Burns would wholly approve of:

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Please Don't Do It, Hollywood plus Any Questions

Call me a grumpy, glass-half-empty, misanthrope of a worrier, but I fear, in my bones, that the Hollywood machine is about to chew up one of my (and a great many other people's) favourite ever sf books, Hyperion by Dan Simmons.

Little snippets of info about the planned film adaptation have been turning up here and there for quite a while, with the most recent batch - which plunged me into my current gloomy apprehension - showing up on the invaluable sf signal blog.

It's not so much the naming of the potential director that alarms (I've never heard of him, my movie director geek fu being much shrivelled in recent years - although a quick check of the IMDb doesn't suggest my ignorance is exactly appalling). It's the distant sound of the butcher's knives being unsheathed as another genre classic heads into the studio slaughterhouse. It's The Dark is Rising all over again. (And we all know how that turned out, right?).

It would take, I suspect, a genius to cram Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion into a single movie without pounding into a homogenous pulp much of what is distinctive and accomplished about them as novels: the Canterbury Tales mosaic of overlapping stories that flesh out the world and the characters, the literary allusions, the wanton firework display of exotic ideas and images, the balancing of extreme violence with much more personal, somewhat philosophical and existential, struggles. Seems pretty probable that the worries expressed over at sf signal - that the Hollywood instinct will be to excise much of the subtlety and elegance to turn it into a more accessible, action-packed event movie - will prove accurate. And I love me some accessible, action-packed event movie fun, it's just I don't particularly want it marching under the Hyperion banner.

I guess it's the nature of things, given the huge cost of getting this stuff to the screen, but it always makes me wonder why the movie moguls don't just go for more of the (equally high-selling, surely) flash-bang-wallop type of books in the first place. You'd think the less reductive surgery required to turn the original text into a movie, the greater the chance of a positive outcome. That's probably my hopeless naivety talking, though. It likes to make itself heard now again. Shameless, it is.

On any entirely different subject, I'm going to work up a couple of blog posts in the not too distant future talking about writing-, book- and getting published-related stuff, taking as a starting point some of the questions folks have asked me by e-mail, over on Facebook, or in person (poor misguided souls, asking questions of me, but there you are). So just in case anyone's got any questions of that ilk, now's your chance to send me an e-mail, or ask it in the comments to this post, or head on over to the Facebook discussion board and ask it there; I'll add anything new into the pot and stir it around for a while. Like porridge.

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