The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Something for the Weekend


Innovation Starvation— SF author Neal Stephenson at World Policy Journal on why the big stuff doesn’t get done:

SF has changed… from the 1950s (the era of the development of nuclear power, jet airplanes, the space race, and the computer) to now. Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone. I myself have tended to write a lot about hackers—trickster archetypes who exploit the arcane capabilities of complex systems devised by faceless others.

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima when we have the possibility of clean nuclear fusion on the horizon. The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

See also:  Stephenson’s new book REAMDE reviewed by The A.V. Club and the NY Times.

Stealing from Dr. Strange — Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians and The Magician King, talks to Graphic Novel Reporter about comics:

Watchmen (and, just as much, Miracleman) changed everything for me. [Alan] Moore attacked and undermined everything that was sacred about the superhero story, and in the process he wrote the greatest superhero story that had ever been written. I never forgot that. A lot of those lessons show up in The Magicians: When you question the basic assumptions of a genre, you make that genre stronger, not weaker.

Also, I steal a lot from Dr. Strange.

And on the subject of comics… Ruth Franklin reviews MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman for The New Republic:

This writer is not Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, though his work, like theirs, is based in testimony. He is not Piotr Rawicz or H.G. Adler, though he shares their interest in viewing real events through a filter of surrealism. He is not Thomas Keneally, though his work has a quality of the “nonfiction novel” about it; nor is he W.G. Sebald, though his books, like Sebald’s, have been described as a mix of fiction, documentary, and memoir. He is Art Spiegelman, and he has done more than any other writer of the last few decades to change our understanding of the way stories about the Holocaust can be written.

Edges — Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, on what remains of books:

One of the essential characteristics of the printed book, as of the scribal codex that preceded it, is its edges. Those edges, as John Updike pointed out not long before he died, manifest themselves in the physical form of bound books – “some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained” — but they are also there aesthetically and even metaphysically, giving each book integrity as a work in itself. That doesn’t mean that a book exists in isolation — its words, as written and as read, form rich connections with other books as well as with the worlds of nature and of men — but rather that a book offers a self-contained experience. The sense of self-containment is what makes a good book so satisfying to its readers, and the requirement of self-containment is what spurs the writer to the highest levels of literary achievement. The book must feel complete between its edges.

And finally…

In The Wall Street JournalLee Marshall looks for Fellini’s Rome:

Sometimes Fellini’s Rome and Felliniesque Rome live in close proximity. The apartment that Federico and Giulietta shared (Via Margutta, 110) is on a small, charming street where Truman Capote once lived and Puccini composed. There’s not much to see except a plaque on the building with caricatures of the pair and a commemorative poem in Roman dialect. But notice the number on the door of the palazzo: above the 110, it says “Già 113″—formerly 113—a very Felliniesque address.

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