Hey, my young adult sequel Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak is available to pre-order! Also, I'm going to be talking about my first YA book, Victories Greater Than Death, at the SF Public Library (and on Zoom) on Feb. 24. Please join us!
Pretty much every 1970s James Bond movie begins with a ridonkulous set piece where Bond is chased by sharks, but Bond fashions the shark fins into a makeshift hang-glider so he can soar over a volcano full of SPECTRE agents, etc. etc. That scene is always followed by the cheesestastic credits, in which naked ladies dance around giant guns while Carly Simon or Lulu belts out another song about how every woman adores a fascist. And so on and so on.
But after the opening credits, there's usually a scene where Bond is called into M's office for his latest assignment. And it goes something like this:
M: Ah, come in, Bond. Tell me, what do you know about Cyrus Vandelier?
Bond: Cyrus Vandelier? Eminent noodle-ologist at Norwich University. He propounded the theory that certain types of noodles could be stretched to such a microscopic thin-ness that they could become near infinite in length. His theories caused quite a stir in the noodle community.
M: Well, he's gone missing. He was last seen disembarking a seaplane on Danforth Island. Nobody's seen him for 48 hours.
Bond: Danforth Island is disputed territory, if I remember rightly. [Proceeds to rattle off several facts about the island's political situation and what kind of noodles people eat there.]
Those scenes were always one of my favorite part of the Bond films, for the way they imply that when Bond isn't punching superthugs, driving fast cars, swigging martinis and having heaps of casual sex, he's reading all of the latest scientific journals and keeping up on exactly what is happening in the world of geopolitics. Part of the mystique of Bond, in the older films, is his worldliness and the breadth of his knowledge. He's suave, in a way that only comes from being extremely knowledgeable.
I've been rewatching some of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories, meanwhile, now that they're all getting reissued on Blu-ray. And I can't help being struck by the way the Doctor seems to memorize scientific papers — even accounting for their speed-reading abilities, it's pretty remarkable. Pretty much constantly, the Doctor meets a fellow scientist, and the first words out of the Doctor's mouth are, "I read your paper on the molecular structure of [technobabble technobabble]. It was quite impressive. When the Doctor agreed to become the scientific adviser to the United Nations' elite alien-fighting military organization, U.N.I.T., apparently one of his conditions was a fully paid up JStor account.
This, in turn, reminds me of all those bits in the original Star Trek where Spock and Kirk discuss some dude whose theories they studied at the academy, and Kirk expounds at some length about his love of political science and philosophy. The original Star Trek never misses an opportunity to remind us that Kirk was a huge nerd at school, but also that he has a genuine and abiding love for big ideas and big thinkers. (Who almost always happen to be white dudes, but that's the 1960s for ya.)
Anyway, I've been thinking lately: Whatever happened to the erudite action hero?
Even Doctor Who no longer features the Doctor fangirling (or fanboying) over scientists who've written interesting papers, that I can recall. Star Trek is still delightfully nerdy and full of lovely problem-solving, but I can't remember the last time anyone geeked out about a political science paper they'd read at the academy. And I can't imagine Daniel Craig's Bond (or Pierce Brosnan's, for that matter) ever reading a book, or taking the trouble to keep up on the latest developments in science and culture.
To some extent, this reflects the declining prominence or relevance of academia in our political economy. As someone who grew up as the spawn of two college professors, I am sure I have a very skewed perspective. But I do get the feeling that academia has suffered a vertiginous drop in prestige and influence over the past 40 years, fueled in part by state education cutbacks, tuition increases, and perhaps an overemphasis on jargon as a marker of seriousness.
In the case of James Bond and James Kirk, their erudition is clearly supposed to make us feel better about their brand of rough justice. Bond is essentially a thug who goes around doing the government's dirty work with an explicit carte blanche to murder anyone who gets in his way. Kirk is a space policeman, or perhaps a version of the lawman who comes to the frontier town and cleans everything up. Both of these men regularly bump up against versions of themselves who are less thoughtful and more ruthless, reminding the audience that we're lucky to have these particular guys enforcing rough justice.
Action heroes, and science fiction protagonists particularly, stop being quite so erudite and urbane with the rise of the blockbuster tentpole film, of course. Nobody ever expects Rambo to quote from the latest issue of the New Yorker. But also there seems to be a sea change in the 1980s, in which intellectual curiosity is explicitly coded as elitist and snobbish. Geeking out about ideas marks you as "not a regular guy."
Of course, there's another way of looking at our literate hero. The post-war period saw the rise of John W. Campbell's notion of the "competent man," who can surmount any obstacle through ingenuity and intellect. A whole generation of science fiction authors and readers grew to expect their heroes to be intellectuals as well as men of action — and they were always the straightest of straight white men, bringing civilization to the aforementioned frontier. British heroes like Bond, the Doctor, John Steed, at al., are very much patrician and privileged, speaking in perfect upper class accents and wearing natty clothes as they drink top shelf liquor. So maybe I don't entirely miss this trope after all.
I'm sure at some point, somebody's going to bring up heroes of the 1990s, such as Captain Picard — who quotes Shakespeare liberally, but doesn't seem to have read any other authors. Erudition, in 1990s pop culture and more recently, seems much more focused on a very narrow canon of cultural references that a wide swathe of audience members would probably be familiar with. And of course, Picard has Data to give him info-dumps on any topic, including the details of somebody's research. (Because every hero of the last few decades has a nerd sidekick, who is allowed to be openly knowledgeable.)
I guess, more than the specific trope of knowing all about somebody's obscure research, I miss the assumption that our most heroic heroes ought to be Renaissance people, with a strong sense of intellectual curiosity. (And here, I think Picard does provide a bit of a role model.) Perhaps if pop culture went back to valorizing the well-read adventurer, our public discourse might become a little bit less hostile to any kind of curiosity about ideas for their own sake. Or perhaps the tail can't wag the dog. Who knows?
I've talked before about my abiding love of Japanese "city pop," a type of super-funky, bouncy pop music from the 1980s (and some from the 70s and 90s, I guess.) DJ Notoya released an incredible one-hour mix of city pop a decade ago, which I listened to constantly for a long time. Now DJ Notoya has released a new compilation called TOKYO GLOW: Japanese City Pop, Funk & Boogie, which is available from all of the online music retailers. It's just what it sounds like: a compilation of city pop, including some of my new favorite songs. (Full disclosure: not every song in this mix was my favorite, but most of them rock.)
And meanwhile, around the same time that DJ Notoya's new compilation came out, Apple Music suddenly featured remastered reissues of two classic albums by Hitomi "Penny" Tohyama from 1983: Sexy Robot and Next Door. These are two of my favorite albums of all time, featuring some total bangers like "Wanna Kiss" and "Sexy Robot," and for a long time I'd only had access to low-bitrate copies copied from YouTube. I've been rediscovering both of these albums lately, and they totally slam. Especially Sexy Robot, which sounds like you should definitely be rollerskating to it wearing a polo-neck shirt.
Why Does Bari Weiss Keep Falling For This? (Discourse Blog)
My YA debut, Victories Greater Than Death, came out in paperback at the start of February. (Here's where to buy it!)
To celebrate, I was featured on the amazing podcast Queery with Cameron Esposito. I was also featured in the San Francisco Chronicle's Total SF Book Club podcast, talking to Heather Knight and Peter Hartlaub. As I mentioned above, I'll also be doing an event with Heather and Peter for the Total SF Book Club at the SF Public Library, and on Zoom, on Feb. 24.
I'm also doing an event on Feb. 22 at Green Apple Books on the Park (and on Zoom) with Isaac Fellman for the launch of his incredible new novel Dead Collections.
If you haven't listened to Our Opinions Are Correct, the podcast I co-host with Annalee Newitz, lately, then you've missed some real good episodes, featuring luminaries like Jamelle Bouie, C.L. Clark, Vinny Thomas and Wajahat Ali.