Sunday, March 18, 2007

Neal Stephenson on 300

There is a nice little article on the film 300 in today's New York Times, by one of my favorite authors, Neal Stephenson. I always enjoy Stephenson's takes on the geekier aspects of Pop Culture... He's got enormous geek cred (the man wrote the classic hacker fantasy Cryptonomicon, as well as the non-fiction classic In the Beginning was the Command Line) and he also has an interesting take on American culture and politics. And this article exemplifies both of those qualities.
I watched an episode of the highly underrated final season of Northern Exposure last night where the ex-con biker intellectual DJ Chris sits through his orals for his M.A. in comparative literature. This was one of the few episodes of the series I hadn't seen, and I wish I had before I went back to school. The conflict in this subplot is between the deconstructavist perspective, and the more traditional modes of understanding literature. For those of you who weren't Lit or Philosophy majors, deconstructuralism is a very popular post-modern school thought which supposes that the author's intentions have no bearing on the "correct" interpretation of a work of art.
What does this have to do with 300? Well, the deconstructivists are having a field day with 300, just as they did with last three installments of the Star Wars saga, or with the film adaptations of the Lord of the Rings. We are told that these are reactionary, Imperialist tales, of whites versus people of color, East versus West. That these stories are thinly veiled propagandistic parables of a fascistic will to power.
Well, actually I take that back. At least in the case of 300, I can partly understand the other side of the debate. Unlike Star Wars or LOTR, 300 is loosely based on historical events. And, having been derived from comicbook source material, it is an epic tale told in broad strokes. The good guys are dashing, handsome, and brave. The bad guys are depraved, perverse, and haughty. And since there are modern cultures who still look back on these ancient cultures as their noble ancestors... Well, let's just say the modern Persians, or Iranians as they are now called, are none too pleased with the film. And of course, the timing is none-too-good for an American film which demonizes Persians.

Stephenson's approach to this controversy, is simply to step out of it.

The less politicized majority, who perhaps would like to draw inspiration from this story without glossing over the crazy and defective aspects of Spartan society, have turned, in droves, to a film from the alternative cultural universe of fantasy and science fiction. Styled and informed by pulp novels, comic books, video games and Asian martial arts flicks, science fiction eats this kind of material up, and expresses it in ways that look impossibly weird to people who aren’t used to it.

Not every piece of fiction is some kind of cultural Freudian slip. 300 is not an exhaustively researched and documented historical epic. It is historical fantasy, based more on a comic book than any rigorous academic study.



Earthlight Books said...

What about Snow Crash?!?!?!!

or Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller?!?!!??!!

C'mon man, don't just drop his more recent stuff, those two are the foundation upon which his reputation was built in the first place.

Cool article! Thanks Dragon. Was gonna stop by late last nite on my way out to the farm but the girls were asleep and I was exhuasted.

Whatcha been up to

Klintron said...

If you didn't see it on Technoccult yet, Michael Moorcock wonce wrote an excellent article about the psycho-social aspects of sci-fi/fantasy and its relationship to fascism, or at least authoritarianism.

The article is here: