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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 8, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Infringement, Watts, Plum, Ringworld, and Even More Books

I didn't see The Village, but I did get a detailed synopsis of the story from my brother. And as I read his synopsis, I grew more and more furious.

Because the movie is, point for point, based on award-winning author Margaret Peterson Haddix's 1995 young-adult novel Running Out of Time.

This is not a matter of subtle resemblances. Nor is the story one that might ordinarily arise in the general culture.

It is simply impossible to believe that M. Night Shyamalan did not take his movie from Haddix's book. Especially because the "influences" Shyamalan cites in interviews are so ludicrous. King Kong? Please.

This isn't the first time. Sixth Sense was, absolutely, exactly what Hollywood was bound to do if it wanted to adapt a novel called Lost Boys -- you can't let the kid be dead, so ... you make it someone else who's a ghost without anybody knowing it, while the kid can still see dead people.

But the author of Lost Boys -- me -- knew that enough had been changed that there was no point in suing. Besides, if Lost Boys was filmed, I wanted it to be more faithful to the storyline of the novel -- and that film could still be made.

And maybe Shyamalan thought it up himself.

With The Village, however, Shyamalan has gotten cocky. The changes are relatively slight. The resemblances are overwhelming. And, most important, because The Village was made, no movie based on Running Out of Time can ever be made. He used up Haddix's property completely.

And with two copied stories, it's a pattern now.

The sad thing is that in both cases, the rights to the books would have been, by Hollywood standards, relatively inexpensive to acquire. But apparently it's important to Shyamalan to be thought of as a genius. Or maybe he reads stories and forgets he read them, and then when the idea crops up in his mind he thinks he thought of it.

That can happen. But when it does, an honorable writer realizes it and makes restitution. In my case, as I said, no restitution is needed: Lost Boys is still filmable. But in Haddix's case, there can be no movie of Running Out of Time because The Village is already that movie. Therefore, she deserves to be paid -- and Shyamalan should be first in line to insist that it happen.

Meanwhile, Haddix's publisher, Simon & Schuster, are deciding with Haddix whether to sue Disney and Shyamalan for copyright infringement.

I hope they don't sue -- I hope Shyamalan and/or Disney make it unnecessary by giving Haddix full credit and paying them in full without need of court action.

*

Walter Mosley's new Easy Rawlins mystery, Little Scarlet, may be the best novel of the year.

I don't mean "best mystery." I mean "best novel."

Just because Mosley writes with such clarity that even people without a degree in decoding contemporary English-language literature can understand it doesn't mean that he isn't writing important, serious literature.

The Easy Rawlins series (Devil in a Blue Dress, Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog, White Orchids, Red Death, Gone Fishing) has always been a rich, rewarding view of African-American life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during the fifties.

But with Little Scarlet, Mosley moves his characters into aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965, and what emerges is not just a first-rate mystery (for Mosley never forgets to give us that!), but also a deeply wise look at what the Watts riots meant to the people who were inside them.

The mystery centers around a black woman who was murdered during the riots -- but not as part of them. And since there are rumors that she was killed by a white man, the authorities fear that the news will provoke another outbreak of rioting.

So they come to Easy Rawlins and, for the first time, he finds himself armed with the white man's authority -- which doesn't help him among blacks, but allows him to face down whites before whom he would once have had to cower.

By the end, as with all of Mosley's mysteries, you find yourself filled with love and heartbreak, anger and yet patience. It's a time we're well rid of, but haven't yet learned enough from; but with Mosley's help, maybe we can pull some of the right lessons from it.

*

Sometimes I think all Janet Evanovich aspires to in her Stephanie Plum mysteries is to have readers close the book and say, "What a hoot!"

How else to explain the long-since tedious family members, each of them one-joke caricatures only one step up from the inhabitants of Maggody in Joan Hess's aren't-country-folks-funny series?

And yet, behind the superficial humor, I think Evanovich's purposes are serious. Because the character of Stephanie Plum herself is presented whole and real, torn with indecision about her own life and the men she loves.

The premise of the series is that Plum is a bounty hunter, not by any wish of hers but because it's the only job she was able to get that allowed her to live an independent life.

In the newest book, Ten Big Ones, Plum manages to get herself on a gangland hit list, with an assassin after her who likes to entertain himself with his victims before they die. The menace in this book is powerful and fairly plausible, making up for Plum's overdone family.

But I have to recommend reading this one in print. The audio is once again read by Lorelei King, who does a marvelous job with all the characters except Stephanie Plum herself, whom she reads in a stilted, overly sweet, and definitely non-New Jersey telephone-receptionist voice that continues to be irritating through the entire book. Better to read it yourself and let Evanovich's prose evoke what Plum should really sound like.

*

I was passing through the science fiction section of the bookstore the other day and noticed that Larry Niven's new book, Ringworld's Children, had a quote from me on the cover:

"Great storytelling is still alive in science fiction because of Larry Niven, and his finest work is the Ringworld series."

I wrote that blurb for an earlier entry in the Ringworld series. But it's fair play to revive it for a new book in the same series -- even one that I hadn't yet read.

I pretty much stopped reading science fiction about ten years ago, having burned out as a reviewer. But what I wrote about Larry Niven is true: Back in the sixties and seventies, when writing obscure, pretentious, and/or repulsive sci-fi was all the rage (resulting in some brilliant work, but also a lot of dreck), it was Larry Niven, almost alone, who maintained the tradition of intelligent and intelligible stories.

Besides which, Niven is a wonderful human being. My family and I once had a chance to spend an afternoon with him, walking up and down Mud Island. Now, Larry knows everything -- even more than Ken, the guy on Jeopardy -- and he also knows how to tell it to you without making you feel dumb.

That's because he's not proud to know this stuff, or contemptuous of you for not knowing it, but rather he's excited to know what he knows. Like a kid showing off his Christmas presents, not to brag, but because he's thrilled to have them.

So with those memories of Larry Niven as a person, and my memories of Larry's books as dazzling science fiction -- not to mention the irresistible blurb from a writer I know so well -- I bought the book.

Niven still has it -- the ability to flood a story with intelligent ideas, fit everything together brilliantly, and tell it in a breakneck, headlong rush through adventure.

Niven is always clear. But this book is mid-series, and while it contains every speck of information you need to understand the story, it is told from the point of view of a character who is completely familiar with all the ideas and events in the previous volumes. The character takes it all for granted, and so, as a good writer of viewpoint, Niven doesn't emphasize the information that's going to be important later in the story.

So a lot of things might just slip past you if you aren't paying attention. In other words, you must read this book alertly if you aren't familiar with the other Ringworld novels.

But why cripple yourself? Get Ringworld and go from there. It's still one of the great books of science fiction, and the cool thing about reading the sequels is that Niven hasn't stopped learning and thinking, so there are great new ideas in every book.

It's pure, hard-as-diamonds science fiction. Nobody does it better. And not because the rest of us don't try.

*

Steve Neal's Harry & Ike: The Partnership That Remade the Postwar World should have been a better book. Truman and Eisenhower are both fascinating people who reached their influential positions by a series of accidents and unintended consequences. Neither was consumed by ambition, though both were advanced by intensely ambitious men who thought to use them for their own purposes.

Plutarch would have made a fascinating couple of essays out of their lives.

Unfortunately, Neal was both more and less ambitious. More, because he attempts to deal with all the major issues that both men addressed in their lives and careers. Less, because he never brings meaning into focus. It keeps feeling like mere coincidence that these two men ended up as both collaborators and rivals at key moments in our history.

Still, reading the book gave me some good reminders. For instance, two of the silliest myths of our time are: "Anti-Communism was worse than Communism" and "Communists weren't really trying to take over the world."

Since Truman and Eisenhower were both deeply involved in the early years of the Cold War, presiding over its conduct and setting its themes -- while also wrestling with domestic anti-Communism -- it's worth remembering that without strong American and Allied resolve, Greece, Turkey, Thailand, and many other nations would almost certainly have fallen under Communist domination.

Anti-Communism was so important to the future of the world that it's natural that a few ambitious slimeballs leapt aboard to exploit it politically, giving the whole movement a bad name. But let's keep in mind that the constant vigilance of the real anti-Communists, like Truman and Eisenhower and thousands of other servants of freedom, really did save millions of people from living under the consistently cruelest regimes of modern history.

Here is Eisenhower, still in the military, writing a memo to encourage the extension of the Truman Doctrine to nations beyond Greece and Turkey:

"Wherever possible, however, preventive action should be taken in advance of the development of a crisis. In the long run, the U.S. must depend upon forehanded action in its foreign policy because of the high price of a continuous series of crises, and because the failure to prevent them will contribute to the continuation of international instability and expansionism."

Hmmm.... Don't you wish he were a candidate this year?

The greatest value of this flawed book is that it reminds us that Presidents never govern by plan -- they govern in response to crises generated by foes and forces of nature.

*

I was listening to David Baldacci's Split Second on tape, which I bought primarily because it was read by my good friend (and award-winning audio-book actor) Scott Brick. But through sheer idiocy (or maybe hyper-relaxation), I left all of the book (except the tape that happened to be in my car) in a hotel in Asheville.

So I had to break down and buy the hardcover.

That's probably the most important aspect of this review: I had a perfect excuse not to finish it, and I went ahead and bought the book a second time just to see how this kidnapped-candidate Secret Service thriller came out.

I'm not sure whether it's because Brick's reading was so seductively good, or because there is a genuine change in the novel, but from about the point where I started reading instead of listening, the book slid into a quagmire.

The problem is that Baldacci had created such an omnipotent, omniscient villain that it was almost impossible to believe that someone with such an insane and trivial motive (compared to his crimes) could also be that competent and that successful in concealing his identity. Especially because he relied on co-conspirators.

Baldacci also relies far too heavily on cheap withholding of information. It would have been a better book if he had simply told us, right at the beginning, what it was that the hero, a secret service agent assigned to a presidential candidate, saw when he was distracted long enough for his protectee to be murdered.

Baldacci has the sales to prove that many readers are satisfied with the stories he tells. But it's frustrating to see someone this talented who still thinks he needs to rely on flummery to bring off his story. It's clear he aspires to tell better stories, but he doesn't yet trust his audience to follow him if he wrote thrillers that had believable characters and made sense.

*

Here's a book that we didn't need: Harold Bloom's The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost.

Bloom is a scholar who has made real contributions to the study of literature, though one can argue that the only one with truly lasting value is The Anxiety of Influence.

So we can ignore the fundamental silliness of the premise of his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, which is the epitome of the book that takes a mildly interesting observation and stretches it beyond the breaking point, then pounds the pieces into mush.

As a celebrity litterateur, he gets the chance to do things like The Best Poems, which serves only one function: to demonstrate why the best anthologies are assembled by consensus, not a single editor with an ax to grind.

After all, Bloom had to be able to justify the inclusion of every poem, not on the basis of its historical importance or traditional acceptance, but because it is somehow the "best." What's on the line is not the reputations of the poets -- they're dead and presumably past caring. No, it's Bloom himself who is being tested here, and in his effort to seem wise, he makes some pretty foolish choices that make this book nearly worthless.

Just one example: He includes excerpts from several works of the great Alexander Pope, mostly from his satires; but includes not a scrap from Pope's Essay on Man. His reason? Science has long since superseded Pope's view of the nature of man, so the essay is valueless.

But the poems he does include are satirical attacks on long-dead men or parodies of long-ignored forms. And the Essay on Man remains a singularly powerful and, yes, wise look at human life. Not to include it is foolish, perverse, and vain on Bloom's part. The omission can only be explained by Bloom's need to appear wiser than the consensus of literary historians and anthologists.

Bloom's book is worthless, not because it doesn't include any good poems, but because there are already many anthologies that do a much better job of offering readers a compendium of the best poems in the English language. You want completeness? You want quality? The Norton anthologies will do the job much better than what Bloom offers us, and without any intruding vanity.

I believe in the power of poetry; I believe poetry has been almost killed in our time by precisely the kind of vanity Bloom demonstrates, on the part of both editors and poets themselves. This kind of book won't revive it.

What poetry needs are new poets speaking in the vernacular. Not screaming in the vernacular -- the Def Poetry stuff on HBO is merely sad. We need poets with power to use the language and poetic forms to say things that need saying to people who are hungry to hear them -- and to hear them said with beauty and cleverness and skill.


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