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on 6 May 2013
Hooray for essays! Ever since I started university, the way I do essays has been kicked into the ground, stomped on, and born anew from the ashes like a phoenix. Harvard referencing? HAH. We use numeric referencing here! Double space it! Never ever print on two sides of the paper! "Do these styles of argument, and don't just parrot the plot back at us. We're English Literature professors, don't you dare hand in an essay where you halfheartedly point out the connection between one thing and the other! Have conviction in what you're saying!" Draw a table of comparative and contrasting elements to structure your essay. Show us your essay plan at least two weeks in advance. Et cetera.

Improving on this has gotten me from middling 2:2s to high 2:1s. Go me. (That's going from 54% to 68%, because in the UK at least, 80% is the cut-off point for grading most assignments, even though essays are supposedly graded out of 100. Go figure.)

So, with exams coming up, I was excited to read Smart Pop 2012: Standalone Essays on the Hunger Games, Robert B. Parker's Spenser, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Ender's Game, and More. It may just be a preview to the real Smart Pop 2012, but it's made me interested in checking out its annual releases.

Smart Pop's mouthful of a title aside, pop culture essays are usually the most fun to read, since there's no lofty, academic syntax that may seem unapproachable to your average pleb. These essays are much more personal, and written in a friendly discourse by people who genuinely love what they're talking about.

So, let's go one by one, shall we?

The first essay is on Spenser, a character created by crime novelist Robert B. Parker. This essay is unfortunately, one of the weakest. Whatever the author has to say about Spenser gets washed away by his constant navel gazing. It's so heavily biographical that it might just be called: "Ace Atkins: A Life." In fact, I learned more about the strong allegiances the people of Alabama have with university football teams than I did about Spenser or Robert B. Parker. Or how Atkins' mother once stood in line for an hour to get her son a signed copy of Parker's book, which is a first edition, and one of Atkins' prized possessions. "I collect rare books too," as Atkins reminds pointlessly reminds us in an aside. Anyone hoping for something with substance about Parker's creation will get nothing but 'Spenser is a cool guy and he's inspired me throughout my life and uh... I'm in my forties now and I don't think I'll ever be as awesome as him, but he'll always have a special place in my heart.'

The second essay is on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. While I am nowhere near caught up with the books, I am caught up with the TV series, and I was somewhat baffled to learn from this essay that HBO once held a focus group for the series, asking their participants who were the most romantic couple in the series. The result was Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark. Huh. (I have far too many ships in Game of Thrones, so please don't ask me to elaborate or we'll be here all day.) While this is a great essay for both fans and newbies to Westeros, it came across as rather unbalanced. I was excited to read about romanticism in A Game of Thrones, but this essay presented only minute aspects - the beautiful yearned-after female and nostalgia for the past. Yes, I get it. A lot of the characters hark back to life being better before the bloody wars 15 years ago. Lyanna Stark was the greatest thing since sliced bread and everybody from Robert Baraetheon to Daenerys Targaryen love to think back on her fondly. The Night's Watch was a better place in the previous generation, back when it was populated with more noblemen than cutpurses. But it just goes on, rather awkwardly seguing into a short piece on the Byronic heroes within the series, such as Tyrion and Jaime Lannister. I did like the inclusion of the historical Great Man theory, since that weaved nicely among the points Antonsson and Garcia were making about the Lannister brothers. The essay also concludes satisfyingly, with a brief look into George R.R. Martin's reasons for writing fantasy, and how the past events highlight the 'decay' of the present events in ASOIAF. Bravo. Somewhat problematic, but a genuinely engaging and interesting piece.

We then shift to an essay on the geography and ecology of Panem, the hellish alternate North America envisioned in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. 'Armed with frosting, ice cream, and an overflowing love for Finnick Odair - as well as a mountain of research - a fellow Hunger Games enthusiast and research geek friend of mine, Meg, and I started mapping Panem.'

The geography and ecology presented is pretty sound. California sinks into the sea. What is now the United States winds up squishing in from the sides and spreading northwards over the Canadian border, and more people from Central America came to this new country. According to what Arrow and her friend have worked out, The Hunger Games probably takes place in the year 2488, accounting for all the time it would take for a new country and a new culture to develop, based on geographical events possibly exacerbated by global warming and oil depletion. I'd probably add on a hundred years or so, but the logic is sound. Arrow then goes on to describe Panem and its Districts - most of which seem to form their own nation state - as a Phi spiral. The Capitol is smack bang in the middle of Colorado, and the more technologically-advanced Districts cluster around it. Larger areas such as District 4, 10, and 11 are such a huge size due to their need for extra room to fish, grow crops, and farm livestock.

One of the biggest bugbears for me reading The Hunger Games was how Panem actually came to be, since details about its formation were pretty sparse. Also, what happened to the other continents, and does Panem not know the existence of the world outside of its borders? Ms. Arrow presents a compelling argument for how Panem came to exist, but I suppose my latter question will be left hanging in the air. (Unless there is a link somewhere I have missed out on.)

With The Hunger Games out of the way, we now have an essay on Ender's Game. Oof. I am not a fan of this book, and neither am I a fan of the author. But I did think Ender's Game had quite a few clever ideas in its narrative and I'm sure it's the subject of many fascinating essays, but it's just not my cup of tea. So, let's see what Hilari Bell has to say in Winning and Losing in Ender's Game.

Unfortunately, this essay, like the book, fell pretty flat to me. I liked how Bell went into the Frankenstein parable of a mad scientist creating a new life form,or mutating an existing life form into a super soldier, and how they always seem to forget that they have in fact bred humans with superior intelligence in every way who can and will utterly decimate them. (As a fan of Final Fantasy VII, one need look no further than the fairly pleasant army general Sephiroth going absolutely berserk and murdering a whole town of innocent people after discovering his whole life was a lie and he was born of an experiment to create super soldiers. Ahem.)

However, while I admire Bell for going through the plot with a fine-tooth comb and picking the best elements with which to argue her case, it isn't presented as well as it could be. It's mostly a regurgitation of Ender's Game, mostly going over chronological events and presenting it as just a mere run-through of key details of the story rather than a compelling essay on the futility and hopelessness in the world of Ender's Game.

I liked her conclusion, in which she detailed how the organisation responsible for twisting Ender into a 'monster' who merely got away with a slap on the wrist, whilst Ender had to pick up the pieces of his shattered world and atone for his sins. The ending of that book was rather bleak, which makes the subject of winning and losing a rather fertile ground for coming up with ideas to build an essay around. It's just a shame that most of it was spent retelling the story.

We then go into BenBella's pop culture essay excerpts. These are the last two essays, and both are pretty good!

I really enjoyed Harrison Cheung's memoir on starting up the online fandom for Christian Bale, back in the days when he wasn't known for being Batman or Patrick Bateman. He was the cute teenage boy in Newsies, Swing Kids, Empire of the Sun, and Prince of Jutland.

Anyway, back in the mid-90s, AOL forums were the place to go if you wanted to discuss movies. Cheung wrote to Bale to see if he'd put his backing behind an official online fan club, and much to his surprise, Bale's father wrote back to him and phoned him. After the first few conversations, Harrison was invited to the Bales' residence in Los Angeles, to essentially explain how the Internet would work in terms of marketing Christian Bale to both his fanbase and other interested parties.

Christian Bale's father sounds hilarious. You'll have to read the essay itself to find out, but he's essentially the stereotypical, jovial fellow, who brought Christian into acting. Everything he says just sounds like he'd be a lot of fun to get on with. Cheung notes that it is in stark contrast to Christian himself, who appears to have had the same angry disposition he displayed on the set of Terminator: Salvation as a youngster. His father says it's to do with his mother leaving the family, in a rather sobering moment.

While Cheung doesn't get to have much of a conversation with Christian, he does put his blessing behind the fan-site after he has the mechanics of becoming more popular over the Internet explained to him. Clearly, it's worked, because Newsies still has its huge cult fanbase, if the 7,000 or so fan-fictions online are anything to go by - it's the #8 spot on the top fan-fiction fandoms in the movie category.

Soon after is the essay about Babylon 5, with Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan. I have never seen this show, but it sounds pretty good. I was probably only 7 or 8 years old when it ended, but I suppose there's always time to catch up.

Anyway, Claudia Christian presents a fun memoir of her days acting as the badass Commander Ivanova on the Babylon 5 space station. Christian comes across as somebody who would be a great laugh to interview, reminiscing fondly on some of her colleagues' eccentricities. The late Michael O'Hare would walk onto set with a domineering swagger and 'unashamedly shuffle his junk' and talk about the size of his balls, Jerry Doyle would do Looney Toons impersonations, and both he and Christian would be 'taking the piss out of each other' when the cameras weren't rolling.

The cast and crew always had a 'positive energy', and it sounds like Babylon 5 would have been an amazing show to work on. Claudia Christian embraced her character and really got into her head, befriending the new actors Bruce Boxleitner and Andrea Thompson, and speaks of them in very fond terms. She then recalls the fame this part gave her, and how much she enjoyed it - heck, if SFX Magazine had named me as one of the greatest female icons in science fiction, I think I'd be quite proud of myself too.

I liked Christian's vignette about how she'd sometimes be told to be more 'sexy' for Babylon 5 promotional material, yet she always responded: '"Have you ever watched the show? Ivanova doesn't do sexy."' The readers of SFX still voted her as the sexiest female sci-fi star during the initial run of the show, though.

The essay (and the Smart Pop preview itself) ends with Christian recalling a time with her close friend the late Dodi Fayed. While I know absolutely nothing about Babylon 5, it is a nicely-written memoir that I may pick up and flick through once I dive through all five seasons.

All in all, this was a rather unbalanced collection of essays, starting off very weakly and then picking up, before somewhat losing my interest. While I really liked Harrison Cheung and Claudia Christian/Morgan Grant Buchanan's memoirs, they didn't seem to fit as well into the collection, but this is possibly due to them belonging to another catalogue or publisher? I'm not too sure.

This really is one of those books where if I still did half-marks, I'd give it perhaps 3.5 stars. However, I'm going to be straightforward and give it 4/5, since it is a very decent collection of essays. There are two essays which you may or may not want to skip, but I really enjoyed the majority of them, with my favourites being the research conducted into building the world of The Hunger Games from the sparse details Suzanne Collins originally provided, and also Harrison Cheung's memoir on Christian Bale. I'll definitely try to check out the published book when it's released.
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on 14 December 2013
I would rather read the books than read about the books. I think Amazon should pay their fair share of UK taxes.
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