Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Coherence

The second stop in my short trip through 2014's lesser-known genre filmmaking is James Ward Byrkit's Coherence.  Which turned out to be fortuitous, as the comparison between Coherence and The One I Love revealed some interesting similarities, as well as telling differences.  On the surface level, the two films feel very different--The One I Love is intimate and tightly focused, while Coherence is chaotic and occasionally rambling.  Coherence has a more overtly SFnal subject matter, which it expresses through the more obvious tropes of horror filmmaking, such as jump scares and dark shadows, a stark contrast to how The One I Love conceals its horror story under a sunny, comedic tone.  And perhaps most importantly, Coherence is a micro-budget production (IMDb claims it was made for $50K, which if accurate is very impressive indeed) next to which even the small-budget, independent The One I Love looks polished and well-funded.

Dig a little deeper, though, and the two films feel like different glosses on very similar stories.  Both have a mumblecore aesthetic--Coherence's dialogue was even ad-libbed by the actors to create a greater sense of verisimilitude.  Both focus on troubled middle class white couples whose attempts at socializing are interrupted by the supernatural.  And both have doubling, and specifically alternate versions of their characters, at the core of their SFnal premise.  Of the two films, genre fans might gravitate to Coherence because of its focus on investigating and working out its central McGuffin, but though that element of the film works very well, the marriage between it and the film's character-based elements is less successful than in The One I Love.

Set almost entirely in a single house and on a single evening, Coherence begins with eight friends getting together for a dinner party.  The roster includes two established couples: Mike and Lee, the hosts, and their close, older friends Hugh and Beth; a newer couple, Em and Kevin, who are struggling with Em's reluctance to join Kevin on a four-month work assignment; and perennial single guy Amir, whose date, Laurie, is Kevin's ex.  The improvised dialogue does a good job of establishing that these people have long histories together, but is a little more awkward at introducing the fact that a comet is passing near Earth that evening, and that strange events were recorded on its previous appearance.  Halfway into dinner, the power fails, as do the phones and internet.  Venturing outside, the friends see that the entire neighborhood is dark except for one house.  When Hugh and Amir walk over to ask if they can use the phone, they return visibly shaken, carrying a box containing pictures of the eight party guests.  Deducing that they may have scared the inhabitants of the other house, Hugh decides to leave an apologetic note, but when he opens the front door to leave, he finds an identical note there.

The bulk of the rest of the film is taken up with these strange occurrences--some of the characters decide to make another journey to the other house and meet subtly-different versions of themselves, the ones left behind see and hear strangers outside, and the house is eventually invaded by the characters' doubles.  There's a lot of Primer-style fun to be had trying to work out what's happening from a limited perspective and with little information, mapping the trajectories and movements of the characters and their duplicates.  And it's particularly rewarding that the person who exhibits the most analytical approach to the situation, and eventually figures out the full contours of her predicament and how to work within them, is Em (Emily Foxler)--though it must be said that the other female characters are less well-drawn, and that Laurie (Lauren Maher) in particular is a caricature of the crazy ex who is gunning for the heroine's man.  The solution to the mystery doesn't entirely work--and our understanding of it relies on the fact that Hugh (Hugo Armstrong) just happens to have a physicist brother who just happens to have left with him some notes about Schrodinger's cat and quantum decoherence that just happen to have been written in such a way as to explain what the characters are experiencing--but it hangs together well enough for the duration of the film, and is sold by the characters' frightened reactions and the spooky direction.

But while the SFnal aspect of the film works very well, it doesn't, in itself, earn the film's character beats.  It's clear that Byrkit wants to use the existence of parallel versions of the characters to muse about regrets and missed opportunities, and as these alternates begin visiting the house, in some cases trying to get back to their own reality and in others trying to take over this one, the question of which versions of themselves are "good" or "bad" begins to haunt the film's heroes.  Em, for example, is a dancer who passed up on an understudy role that eventually led the woman who accepted it to stardom; "that woman is living your life!" Laurie exclaims, but it soon becomes clear that she is also trying to usurp Em's role by seducing Kevin.  Aside from Em, the most prominent character in the film is Mike (Nicholas Brendon) an out-of-work actor and alcoholic who is haunted by the possibility that one of the alternate versions of himself might be violent, but who turns out to be sufficiently reckless and destructive in his own right.  (In one of the film's funniest and most meta-textual moments, our first hint that we are dealing with alternate realities comes when Mike explains to Laurie that he used to be a regular on a genre series, and then names it as Roswell.)  But, just like the coincidence of Hugh having information that relates to the film's strange occurrences, the fact that those occurrences just happen to reflect on the characters' deepest anxieties is unearned, and its obviousness means that the film's climax feels over-determined rather than cathartic.  It is never, for example, explained just why the characters keep leaving the house even when it becomes clear that doing so is scary and dangerous (a fact that the film itself seems to recognize when it reveals that the "best," happiest versions of the characters are the ones who ignored the chaos outside the house and stayed in to play party games).  They have to do so, because otherwise there would be no story and no way to work out the film's central puzzle, but Byrkit never successfully explains why the characters, as people, made that choice.

I'm terribly sorry to make this pun, but Coherence ends up unable to make something coherent out of its genre and mimetic elements.  This is far from a fatal flaw, especially when you consider how rare it is to find films that do what it does well--investigate an otherworldly occurrence in a methodical but also compelling manner.  And though Byrkit fudges the process of getting his characters to their crisis point, Em and Mike's desperation once they realize how lost they are, and their choices of how to deal with that situation, are very well done.  The One I Love may be a better example of how to marry mimetic character drama with genre elements, but Coherence is a bolder work, and earns my admiration for its boldness even if it isn't entirely successful.  Both are good films, and both are worth watching as example of what genre filmmaking is capable of.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The One I Love

I wrote some half dozen full-length film reviews in 2014, and looking back, almost every one of them revolves around the theme of how difficult it is to find genuinely intelligent, thoughtful SF movies.  "Intelligent," in this context, means a willingness to engage with the SFnal tropes that drive a story, to explore their implications on the film's characters or even its world, instead of plumping for the familiar story beats of a superhero movie or a family drama without asking what the existence of the SFnal does to change them.  As I get to catching up with the 2014 culture that I wanted to get to (and in preparation for Hugo nominating, open until March 10th), I've been exploring the year's smaller-budget genre efforts, and finding a much greater willingness to explore the limits of the genre than in the studio fare.

The first of these forays, The One I Love, is not precisely the elusive beast I've been looking for.  Rather, it takes a fantastic element and grafts it onto a mumblecore relationship drama, the sort of movie that, as Noel Murray wrote just yesterday in a wonderfully peeved essay at the AV Club, revolves around the non-problems of privileged white people (the film is the debut feature effort of director Charlie McDowell and writer Justin Lader, but it was produced by the brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, two of the most dominant figures of this stream of filmmaking).  What makes the film work is the deftness with which it achieves that graft, and how it uses it to both elicit comedy and change the contours of the over-familiar story it's telling.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are a young couple whose marriage is on the rocks.  As Sophie explains to their therapist (Ted Danson), she feels as if their life used to be full of love and happiness, but that now they have to work to achieve just a fraction of what used to come so easily.  Shortly afterwards, it's revealed that the reason for this rupture is that Ethan was unfaithful, and that Sophie, though outwardly willing to work on the marriage, has been retreating from him.  Within the film's first scene, it establishes personalities for both its main characters--he's selfish and immature, she's passive and judgmental--that are so familiar as to be stock types, especially within the sub-genre suggested by the film's naturalistic, mumbly dialogue and its delivery.  The brilliance of The One I Love is in taking this over-familiar premise and adding a genre twist to it, when Sophie and Ethan's therapist suggests that they go on a weekend retreat to a beautiful house in Southern California.  "I've sent lots of couples there," he says, "and they all came back... renewed."

Though the audience is primed to expect something strange, Ethan and Sophie treat their trip as just another weekend getaway, cooing over the beauty of the house and the grounds with an over-obvious determination that seems designed to conceal their doubts about the endeavor.  On their first night there, however, the supernatural rears its head.  Sophie, investigating the guest house on the estate, meets Ethan there and has a moment of connection, getting drunk and having sex for the first time in months.  When she returns to the main house, however, she finds Ethan there, acting as if he has no memory of their encounter.  After a fight, Ethan retreats to the guest house himself, and when he wakes up in the morning, a sunny Sophie is making him breakfast--which makes it a surprise when he finds her in the main house with no memory of doing so.  The couple realize that whichever one of them enters the guest house will meet an alternate version of the other there.  Though Ethan is freaked out and wants to leave, Sophie is intrigued, suggesting that they "explore" what they've discovered.

I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film, but it should be noted that on paper, its opening beats seem far more reminiscent of a horror movie.  Many horror stories begin with a family that has been broken--by infidelity, death, or financial troubles--traveling to a home that represents a new hope for the future but whose secrets actually tear it apart, either to come back stronger or to reveal that the rifts within it were irreparable.  But though The One I Love hews closely to the beats of a horror story, all the way to its end, that genre never felt like the right fit for it.  The film's comedic tone (and its sunny look, with director McDowell taking full advantage of the lush Ojai scenery and the beautiful estate on which it's set, shooting the film, at points, almost like a tourist commercial) defuses the scariness of its premise even as its events veer farther and farther from normalcy.  The very fact that Sophie's suggestion to go back to the house seems reasonable--and perhaps even therapeutic--suggests that science fiction is what you get when you replace the danger and menace of a horror story with humor and a gloss of rationality.

Though Sophie and Ethan lay down ground rules that give them each equal access to the guest house (and reinforce the film's treatment of the numinous as a form of therapy--the couple agrees, for example, that the guest house is a safe space and that neither one is allowed to spy on the other), their enthusiasm for it is quickly shown to be unequal--as are the versions of each other they find there.  Sophie's "Ethan" is a better version of her husband, funny, interesting, and most importantly, emotionally open.  He's able to apologize for his infidelity and thank her for sticking by him in a way that the defensive, self-absorbed Ethan has clearly never done.  "Sophie," meanwhile, is a nondescript male fantasy, swanning around in slinky negligee and pretty dresses and cooking forbidden bacon for breakfast.  To his credit, Ethan doesn't seem interested in spending time with her, insisting to Sophie that "there is no version of you that I'd rather be with."  But this is might be because he senses that just under the surface of "Sophie"'s Stepfordian perfection lies an icy disdain for the kind of man who might desire it, which takes very little prodding to reveal itself (it shouldn't come as a shock, at this stage, that Moss is an exceptional actress, but she's fantastic at conveying the layers of both Sophies--the anxiety that underpins the real Sophie's breeziness and good humor, and the bitchiness that occasionally erupts from under "Sophie"'s placid surface).  As the weekend draws on, Sophie becomes more entangled with "Ethan" while Ethan goes to ever-greater and more unethical extremes (unsurprisingly, the couple's ground rules are quickly abandoned) to try to save a marriage that may be beyond repair.

The film's final act turns the screw even further, with both couples sharing space, pretending to have a normal, "fun" evening together even as the absurdity of the situation and the tensions between them rise to a fevered pitch.  (This isn't quite an Orphan Black level of complexity, but there are several scenes in which Moss and Duplass play against themselves and at least one that has all four characters on screen at once, all of which are accomplished with a smoothness that is impressive from a newbie director working with what can't have been a huge budget.)  When Lader's script shows its hand and reveals the true purpose of the retreat and just how Ethan and Sophie are going to be "renewed" by it, it's almost a relief to be able to abandon the couples' pretense of normalcy and congeniality, and if the film can't quite make a coherent SFnal concept out of its mysterious premise, it certainly comes close.

In the end, The One I Love does turn out to be a horror story, of a sort.  None of its four characters end up getting what they want, and its happy ending only lightly conceals a rather nasty judgment on all of the couples that are formed and reformed within its story.  It's not an ending that I can imagine getting from a mimetic mumblecore film, a genre that in my (admittedly not huge) experience tends to avoid strong negative emotions.  In the film's climax, Ethan makes the requisite big romantic speech to Sophie, telling her that while he may not be as good a partner as "Ethan," he is real and he believes in their relationship.  The fantastic premise of the film leaves space for a version of this story in which this kind of grand gesture doesn't work--and in a way whose consequences are far stranger and more tragic than a simple divorce.  If I've been calling The One I Love a science fiction film despite its horror story shape, it is because of this--because it uses the meeting of the fantastic and the mundane to add a new twist to a familiar story, to suggest a new consequence to the shopworn circumstances of its characters.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Winter Crop, 2015 Edition

After a profoundly lackluster fall pilot season, the networks and cable channels seem to be pulling out all the stops for the midseason.  Just about every odd, high-concept, genre-ish series on the roster seems to have been held back for January, and if the resulting shows aren't always good, they're at least interesting to think and write about.  Not covered at length in this post, but still interesting, are Empire (whose concept I respect but whose episodes have a weird habit of collapsing into incoherent messes around the 20-minute mark), new comedies Togetherness (low concept but extremely well made), Man Seeks Woman (high concept that doesn't quite work but is funny enough to be worth a second chance), and Schitt's Creek (horrible title; surprisingly clever writing and some stellar acting from a great cast; too much reliance on cringe humor for my tastes), teen-oriented shows Hindsight and Eye Candy (sometimes YA shows work for adults; this is not one of those times, but it's nice to be reminded that unlike adult viewers, kids aren't expected to survive on procedurals alone), and detective show Backstrom (which hasn't aired yet, but whose concept--a jerkass policeman whose rudeness is tolerated because of his brilliance--is so familiar that it seems out of place in this winter of originality; I doubt I'll bother watching the first episode).
  • Mozart in the Jungle - Amazon's latest series, about the behind-the-scenes antics at the New York Symphony, does a lot to recall the immortal, inimitable Slings & Arrows, and though that comparison does a lot to make the show enticing--I'm a sucker for any story that makes a serious effort to show its audience what's unique and unusual about its setting, rather than turning it into the same soap-inflected workplace drama we see everywhere--it also sets a high bar that Mozart in the Jungle can't reach, largely because it doesn't seem to have a clear idea of its story.  The ten-part season's early and late episodes have a fairly conventional let's-put-on-a-show structure, focusing on aspiring oboe player Hailey (Lola Kirke) as she gets her big break, flubs it, and then out of the blue gets to make her debut through the musical equivalent of being on hand when the star twists her ankle on opening night.  It's not badly done, but it's a conventional story that Mozart doesn't find much nuance in, and Hailey herself is too timid a character to carry the show.

    The season works much better in its middle segments, when it focuses on Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal), the orchestra's new, superstar conductor, who has been brought in to make classical music edgy and sexy, but turns out to have more depth than his bad-boy image suggests.  Like Slings & Arrows's Geoffrey, Rodrigo is at once a buffoon and someone who is deadly serious about his art, terrified of losing its immediacy in the pursuit of commercial success, but also aware of the need to reach an audience.  The best parts of the first season see Rodrigo struggling to find the truth in music that can sometimes seem ossified and over-familiar--as when he takes the orchestra on a "field trip" to perform the 1812 Overture in a vacant lot, to the surprise and delight of the people in the neighboring buildings, or when he's chastised by his anti-establishment, performance artist wife Anna Maria (Nora Arnezeder) for selling out in order to gratify his ego.  (These are also the parts of the season that make the best use of Hailey, who becomes Rodrigo's assistant, mentee, and only real friend.)  These parts, however, don't amount to a whole--Rodrigo's seeking is scattershot, taking a different form, sometimes silly and sometimes sublime, in each episode, and giving the season as a whole a shapeless feeling.

    Mozart in the Jungle is a comedy, which means that it finds a lot of humor in backstage politics, squabbles over supremacy, and irreverence towards a cultural artifact that is usually treated with deadly earnestness.  But at the heart of that comedy is something serious and often quite sad--a group of people giving everything they have to be a small part of something ephemeral and inherently flawed.  Whether it's Hailey killing herself to become a better player without knowing if she can ever be good enough, cellist Cynthia (Saffron Burrows) who is approaching middle age and wondering what she has to show for her career, former conductor Thomas (Malcolm McDowell) who is coming to terms with no longer being the rising star, or Rodrigo himself, who is at the top of his game but terrified of never producing something transcendent, what makes Mozart in the Jungle work is how seriously it tells stories about people who are serious about their art (without ever forgetting the mundane and ridiculous aspects of that life).  But it hasn't yet found a story to tie those characters together, which prevents it from being the great show it might have been.

  • Galavant - When the new network shows were announced last spring, Galavant was the one that I thought I would enjoy the most.  I like whimsy, and I firmly believe that it offers a greater scope for meaningful statements about the human condition than the more fashionable "realism" of grim-n'-gritty.  So an all-singing, all-dancing pseudo-medieval romp sounded like it could be absolutely delightful.  In the intervening months, however, I (and the rest of the TV-reviewing public) discovered and fell in love with Jane the Virgin, a show that does exactly what I wanted Galavant to do--combine a ridiculous premise with good humor, smart writing, and real emotion to create something as heartfelt as it is fun.  The problem with Galavant is not just that it falls short of the standard set by Jane (which is, after all, one of the most remarkably assured and well made debuts of the last few years, and thus perhaps not a fair comparison), but that even by the more modest ambitions of its obvious inspirations--chiefly, Mel Brooks's Robin Hood: Men in Tights--it's kind of a dud.  A musical comedy should have good jokes and good songs, and Galavant scores barely 0.5 out of two--there are some good jokes here and there, but also a lot of obvious, pratfalls-and-farts humor that feels hopelessly dated (the latter camp includes the show's unfortunate fondness for using gayness and male sex as the focus of its jokes).  The songs, meanwhile, are clever but almost instantly forgettable (with the unfortunate exception of the title song, an earworm that only becomes more annoying the more the show repeats it).

    Having said all that, it should also be said that Galavant is a lot more enjoyable than it has any business being.  This is mostly down to the cast, and chiefly Timothy Omundson as the evil (but is he really just lonely and misunderstood?  No, he's actually evil) King Richard, the titular hero's nemesis.  In Omundson's hands, even the show's trite writing and lackluster jokes become rich meals, and he manages to tie together his character's villainous and sympathetic sides to make him the most watchable person on the show.  Though no one else in the cast is quite on that level, everyone is very good--from Vinnie Jones as Richard's leg-breaker, a bruiser-with-a-deadpan-delivery role that Jones has played a million times before, but always impeccably, to Mallory Jansen as the love of Galavant's life, who threw him over for the life of a queen and now terrifies even Richard with her sadism and lust for riches (though wisely, the show follows Jane the Virgin's lead in giving even this castrating bitch character layers and insecurities), to Karen David as the damsel in distress who is actually much smarter and more competent than the show's hero, to Luke Youngblood (Magnitude!) as Galavant's enthusiastic and slightly weird squire.  (The actual star of the show, Joshua Sasse, gets a little lost in the shuffle, a predictable result given that he plays the only straight-ish man in the ensemble, but one that might have been counteracted with stronger writing.)  If Galavant isn't quite on the level that I hoped it would achieve, its strong cast can usually smooth over its infelicities and dead moments to make something that is at least fun to watch, if not actually any good.

  • Marvel's Agent Carter - After seven years, massive lobbying from fans, and what felt like tireless legwork from star Hayley Atwell, the MCU has finally produced a female-led vehicle (albeit a limited-event series of only eight episodes).  That's the kind of buildup that can lead you to dread watching the pilot episode for fear that it won't live up to your expectations, and in Agent Carter's case I also worried that the show's central gimmick--both the female lead and the 1946 setting--would be allowed to substitute for decent writing.  The first two episodes of Agent Carter--in which Steve Rogers's former colleague and love interest finds herself shunted to the side in the post-war reality, struggling to prove her worth in a world awash with virulent sexism--did a lot to dispel my concerns.  They build a rich, interesting world (though oddly enough, far more interesting for its ordinary period setting than for the glimpse it gives us of the SHIELD precursor organization, the Strategic Scientific Reserve, which so far comes off as a by-the-numbers law enforcement organization whose odd purview doesn't really register) and jump-start a twisty plot that sees Peggy recruited by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to spy on her own bosses and find out who is stealing his inventions.  The series's limited timeframe--though galling when you consider that it's being treated as a junior sibling to the lukewarm and underperforming Agents of SHIELD--helps a lot on the storytelling front, forcing the writers to cut out the fat and deliver nonstop plot (including some fantastic action scenes).  But that same breakneck pacing also reinforces the sense that there's not much there there.  Where Agents of SHIELD has at least the potential to comment meaningfully on, and perhaps even question, the core assumptions of the MCU, Agent Carter seems content to work within them, delivering an enjoyable romp without much nutritional value.  Even the show's skewering of sexism, though valuable, is more than a little self-congratulatory given that it's looking back seventy years--and especially considering that this back-patting is coming to us from people who, again, took seven years to be persuaded into telling a story about a woman.

    What's keeping all this afloat, and at the same time gives the show its anchor, is Atwell's performance as Peggy.  She's excellent as a larger-than-life hero who is barely tamping down her frustration at not being allowed to do what she's best at, and at being expected to give way to people (men) who aren't even half as smart or competent as she is.  That kind of uber-competence, however, can leave a character feeling unapproachable, so the smartest thing that Agent Carter does is give Peggy a sidekick who both respects and challenges her.  The fact that this position is filled by someone as unexpected as Edwin Jarvis (James D'Arcy), Howard Stark's butler and the inspiration for Tony Stark's AI of the same name, only makes the rapport that he and Peggy quickly develop more delightful.  Acting at some points as Peggy's Alfred and at others as her trainee, Jarvis brings out her humanity--the irascible, impatient side of her that just wants to feel useful, and sometimes leads her to act recklessly out of the belief that she's the only person for the job.  Somewhat less successful is Peggy's nascent friendship with Angie, a friendly diner waitress played by Lyndsy Fonseca--it's never quite clear why Angie is so eager to befriend Peggy, and Fonseca plays her so young that it's hard to see what Peggy gets out of the relationship--but it's nice that the show clearly sets out to pass the Bechdel test on a weekly basis (though on that front it would have been nice to see other women in Peggy's workplace, who might help or even hinder her efforts).

    One point on which Agent Carter disappointed me is the near-total absence of people of color from its story.  This is hardly surprising given Agents of SHIELD's problems on this front, but especially for a series that has clearly set itself the goal of telling stories about people who have been left out of the official history, it's sad to see.  There are no doubt people who, when questioned about the show's uniform whiteness, would reply "but people of color just weren't allowed to do anything interesting back then!"  Ignoring the fact that this is exactly the same excuse used to justify not telling stories about characters like Peggy Carter--and just as untrue in both cases.

  • 12 Monkeys - The thing that makes Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys such a great film--and such an enduring classic of SF cinema--is that it takes a fairly standard, Terminator-ish premise and, at every turn, refuses to indulge in the heroic tropes implied by it.  So the hero, James Cole, is mentally unstable and ultimately powerless, his life defined by the powers that have sent him back in time and the time loop that limns it; the alleged villain, Jeffrey Goines, turns out to be nothing but an entitled brat with neither the ability nor the mental focus to do the evil deeds ascribed to him; and, of course, the film's central story is one of failure, of how a single man failed to prevent an apocalypse engineered by corporate and financial interests against whom no hero could ever triumph.  That Syfy's rebooting of the film into a series jettisons that wondefully bleak message and dives straight into the very tropes that Gilliam's film mocked doesn't exactly come as a surprise, but it's still disappointing to realize the series's complete lack of self-awareness.  You have to wonder: did anyone involved with the show even watch the film?  Not only does 12 Monkeys appear to be telling the Terminator story straight, with Cole (Aaron Stanford)--who in this iteration of the story is not just a lab rat but a self-directed agent, and even has superpowers as a result--teaming up with scientist Cassandra (sigh) Railly (Amanda Schull) to prevent the end of the world, but it seems to have forgotten that in the original film the titular Army of the Twelve Monkeys were a false lead, setting up pharmaceutical heiress and mental patient Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) as the first step down the rabbit hole of a conspiracy to end the human race.  Possibly this is just the pilot setting up expectations that the rest of the first season will explode, but given how little attention it pays to the emotional beats that gave the movie its heart--Cole's detachment from humanity in both the future and the past, Railly's descent into madness alongside him--it's hard to hope that the series is interested in being anything more complex than a techno-thriller, a task which the pilot manages competently but with very little flair.  In that sense, 12 Monkeys is the exact opposite of what we got when the Terminator franchise was brought to television with the late, lamented Sarah Connor Chronicles, a series that actually took the time to wonder what it would be like to know that the end of the world is coming, or to travel back from an apocalyptic future into a comfortable but doomed past.  Again, that's not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 2015 Hugo Awards: Thoughts on Nominating

Is it just me, or does it seem as if Hugo season gets longer and longer every year?  The first few months of the year are taken up with nominating.  The spring is dedicated to arguing about the nominees.  The summer is spent anticipating the winners and then--which is really much more fun--obsessively analyzing the nominating and voting statistics.  It's only in the fall that we have a brief reprieve, and then the whole thing starts all over again.  Which it has--at the end of this month the Hugo nominating period will begin, and in anticipation of that, I have a few thoughts for people who are, or are considering becoming, Hugo nominators.
  1. Because it seems that every year there are more people coming in who find the Hugo rules baffling (which they are, I'm not judging here), let's get the boilerplate out of the way.  You are eligible to nominate for the 2015 Hugo awards if you are:

    • An attending or supporting member of LonCon 3, the 2014 Worldcon.
    • An attending or supporting member of Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, and you purchased your membership before January 31st, 2015.
    • An attending or supporting member of MidAmeriCon II, the 2016 Worldcon, and you purchased your membership before January 31st 2015.

    If you're a member of any of these groups, you should receive an email from the Sasquan awards administrator informing you of your eligibility to nominate some time around the end of the month.  Note that members of LonCon and MidAmeriCon can only nominate for the 2015 Hugos, not vote for the winners--to do that, you need to be a member (attending or supporting) of Sasquan itself (but that's further done the line).

  2. It's become traditional for authors to greet the new year by posting "award eligibility posts" listing their Hugo-eligible work from the previous year.  And it's become equally traditional for fans, critics, and other authors to criticize this custom on the grounds that it's pushy and creates a culture in which authors feel obliged to campaign for awards.  At which point the authors and fans who are pro-eligibility posts weight in and, well, the last two weeks on twitter happen.  I said my piece on the subject last year (and if you're looking for a 2015 variant, Ian Sales has the goods), and I pretty much stand by that except for two additional comments.

    First, though I haven't changed my mind about the central point of my post last year--that awards, and the Hugo award in particular, are not for authors, and that to treat them as yet another means for self-promotion is to distort and pervert them--that argument feels a lot less urgent this year.  In fact, the entire eligibility post discussion is starting to feel like a distraction, because if the evidence of the last few years--and the 2014 awards in particular--tells us anything, it's that award eligibility posts, in themselves, don't actually do anything.  If you're a new author who published a few short stories in 2014 and you put up an eligibility post which you publicize to your 500 twitter followers, it's really not going to have any effect on whether or not you get a Hugo nomination.  If, on the other hand, you're someone with a blog that gets thousands or tens of thousands of hits a day, or if you get linked to by someone like that, then your chances of a nomination are pretty high whether or not you "informed" anyone of your eligibility.

    For better and worse--and there are ample examples of both cases--we have created a situation where the Hugo nominees are determined primarily through campaigning.  Last year when the nominees were announced there were several attempts to distinguish between "good" and "bad" campaigning--to argue, for example, that Larry Correia's Sad Puppies ballot (which gave us Vox Day, Hugo nominee), and the campaign to get all fourteen Wheel of Time novels nominated for Best Novel, were substantively different from, say, my posting my Hugo recommendations on this blog, or John Scalzi recommending me for the Best Fan Writer Hugo.  I don't believe that's true.  I think that in all four cases you have people recognizing that the system operates in a certain way and working within it to achieve their goals.  I would love to have a conversation about whether that's a good thing, and what--if anything--we should do about it, but before that can happen there needs to be an acknowledgment of this new (which is to say, at least five years old) reality.  And part of that means getting over the reflexive defensiveness of authors who won't admit that they've chosen to prioritize their own career over the Hugos as an institution (which, you know, is a perfectly defensible choice), and the reflexive snobbishness of fans who pretend that the Hugos were ever free of manipulation and logrolling.

  3. The second comment I'd like to add to last year's thoughts about award eligibility posts is this: if you're an author who, some time in early January, put up a post on your blog listing the work you published in 2014, and you do not also have on your website an easily-found, up-to-date bibliography, then I honestly have no idea what to do with you.  One of the ways in which we can tell that award eligibility posts do nothing in themselves is that, for their stated purpose, they are fucking useless--if I show up on your blog in March, I'm not going to dig through your archives to find out when exactly you posted about your eligibility.  I'm going to look for a bibliography--preferably one with links, and sorted by publication date--and if I don't find one, I'll probably just move along to the site of another author who actually wants me to nominate them for a Hugo.  So many authors refer to eligibility posts as a service to their readers, and yet they forget to perform this most basic service--and, to my mind, a far more fundamental act of self-promotion.

  4. To get back to the issue of campaigning, ever since I got my hands on the 2014 nominations breakdown (which is to say, within minutes of the end of the ceremony--the Hugo administrators know their people), I've been haunted by one particular couterfactual.  If Larry Correia's Warbound and The Wheel of Time hadn't been nominated--in other words, if there hadn't been concerted campaigns to get those specific works on the ballot--the next two nominees were Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls (two votes from tying for fifth place) and Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria (six votes from tying for fifth place).  In other words, if the Sad Puppies and Wheel of Time fans hadn't done their thing, we would have had, for only the second time in the award's history, a best novel ballot where four out of the five nominated works were by women.

    Now, I can only assume that as far as the majority of the Sad Puppy voters are concerned, preventing this result is merely icing on the cake.  But I hope that at least some of the Wheel of Time voters consider it a loss, which brings me to my next point: if you are someone with a big megaphone (or even a mid-sized or small one) and you decide to use it to campaign for the Hugos, take a moment to consider the consequences of your actions.  If you succeed, what kind of award will you be helping to create?  What picture of the field will it reflect?  In ten or twenty or thirty years, when future fans look at the ballot you helped shape, what will they think of you?

  5. The flip side of this, of course, is that each of us, no matter how big or small our megaphone, has a vote.  None of us, individually, can counteract a campaign like Sad Puppies, but it would have taken just two more of us voting for Lauren Beukes, or six more for Sofia Samatar, to have taken away a bit of their accomplishment.  And the good news is, one of the consequences of the new, campaign-oriented Hugos is that it has never been easier to find interesting, worthwhile work to nominate.  Many authors have begun supplementing their award eligibility posts with recommendations for other nominees.  Many fans are doing the same--I'll be posting my nominees, as I did last year, closer to the nomination deadline.  Last year, Aidan Moher performed a useful service by collating many of these recommendations posts into a master list; he informs me that he plans to do so again this year, so watch his blog or twitter feed.  Resources like Hugo Award Eligible Art(ists) and Writertopia's John W. Campbell Award Eligibility Page can help to find nominees in categories that have historically been neglected.  As much as they are politicized and easy to manipulate, the Hugos are an award where every vote really does matter--especially in the nominating phase.  So if you're eligible to nominate, do take the time to study the field and make your voice heard.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014, A Year in Reading: Best Books of the Year

I read 47 books in 2014, which, strangely enough, is exactly the same number as I read last year--not sure that's ever happened, and certainly not since I started keeping track.  It was a very odd year too, reading-wise, with periods of intense and enjoyable reading alternating with long fallow stretches in which nothing appealed and the thought of concentrating on a single work was positively wearying.  Nevertheless, looking back at the books I did manage to read this year, I'm impressed with their quality and how much I enjoyed them.  Usually these end-of-year posts include examples of the year's worst reads as well as the best ones, but this year I don't really have any nominees for the former category.  The closest I came to a bad book this year was Dorothy L. Sayers's Five Red Herrings, in which Sayers takes her obsession with "fair play" mysteries to unreasonable extremes, bogging the reader down in minute descriptions of the various suspects' movements, travel time calculations, and of course train schedules, that completely overwhelm any interest we might have had in the characters, the detectives, and even the central murder.

Nevertheless, Five Red Herrings was a blip in what has otherwise been a strong year for mysteries, which make up a full third of the year's reading.  This is down largely to two series--the Holmes canon, which I revisited for the first time since my teens (you can see my thoughts on the various novels and story collections at my Storify account), and Sayers's Peter Wimsey novels.  I've read (and in some cases reread) the novels featuring Wimsey's love interest and fellow detective Harriet Vane, but this was my first time through the solo novels, which I am reading in order.  With the obvious exception of Five Red Herrings, it's turning out to be a delightful experience, with Wimsey shining on his own as both a character and a detective (though the classist and occasionally sexist aspects of the novels can be hard to take).

Otherwise, it was a quiet year for genre reading.  Aside from the mysteries, most of the books I read were either literary or historical fiction.  I tend to seesaw between the two extremes as my year-end reviews point out to me how I've neglected a particular corner of my reading, so expect a stronger genre year in 2015 (and anyway, there are quite a few genre novels I'm planning to read in the coming weeks as I gear up for Hugo nominations).  Something else that I'd like to focus on in 2015 is reviewing the books I read, which I've neglected terribly this year--though I planned to do so several times, I don't think I've written a single full-length book review this year.  Next year, I'd like to not only get back to that, but maybe change up the format of reviews on this blog a little.  Instead of concentrating my shorter book reviews into recent reading roundups, I'm thinking of posting them as I go in individual blog posts (I might do the same thing for film reviews as well).  I don't know if that's a format that will suit me--I think I've nailed my colors rather firmly to the long review--but it's worth experimenting with.  At any rate, my reading resolution for 2015 is the same as every year's, and the same, I think, as every book blogger's--to read more, and more widely, and to blog more about what I read.

For the last few hours of 2014, however, here are my best reads of the year, in alphabetical order of the author's surname:
  • Spin by Nina Allan

    I'm very much looking forward to Allan's debut novel The Race, which is sitting in my TBR stack, and a great deal of that expectation is rooted in the exceptional quality of this 2013 novella (which deserved a lot more awards attention than it got).  Allan's prose is spare and her story is low-key, but with those deceptively simple tools she constructs an elaborate alternate world, in which religion and government are subtly but powerfully different, and magic is real but heavily regulated.  The story of a young artist struggling with a difficult family history and her nascent magical powers is woven into the myth of Arachne in ways that are delightful and thought-provoking, but an equal pleasure is Allan's handling of the seemingly mundane topic of an artist discovering her voice and style.  The fact that the heroine is engaged in the traditionally feminine (and thus frequently delegitimized) field of textile arts only makes the seriousness with which Allan depicts her process more enjoyable.

  • Longbourn by Jo Baker

    I had no idea what it expect from this book, and yet it's lingered with me through the year.  The concept seems gimmicky and calculating--Pride and Prejudice retold from the perspective of the Bennetts' servants--but not only does Longbourn tells its own story, into which the original novel intrudes only occasionally, but it uses its central concept for a lot more than just a refreshing perspective shift.  Through her heroines--the thoughtful, searching maid-of-all-work Sarah, and the level-headed but loving housekeeper Mrs. Hill--Baker explores not only the life of a Regency servant, but the effect that class has on women's roles in that era, and on the limitations and expectations placed on them.  The final encounter between Sarah and Elizabeth Bennett is devastating for what it reveals about the two women's choice between freedom and security, and for the value that is placed (and often not placed) on their work.  Far from repeating Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn uses its outline to make its own statement, and is all the more powerful for it.

  • Versailles by Kathryn Davis

    I read several books this year by Davis, an author of quasi-slipstreamy literary fiction whose dense, impressionistic prose shifts time, place, and point of view at a moment's notice.  Versailles--a short novel about Marie Antoinette--is the one that has stuck with me.  As much about the palace and its history as it is about its heroine, the novel switches from her point of view to potted histories of the palace, to interludes with her servants and courtiers.  Amazingly given its slight size, both the character and the place emerge as fully-formed creations, and Antoinette in particular is sympathetic and interesting (though perhaps a little too prone to self-justification).  It often feels as if historical fiction is too beholden to realism, too conventionally structured and plotted.  Versailles is a rare and welcome instance of an author experimenting within that form, and it yields great results.

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

    A bit of a cheat, since this isn't a book that I read for the first time in 2014, but as my return to Hill House revealed, the first time I read this book it went completely over my head.  In my mid-or-late teens, I expected a haunted house story to have, well, ghosts, and preferably an explanation for them.  I wasn't able to understand that what makes The Haunting of Hill House so scary is the house's unknowability, and even more than that, the hauntings that the ghost-hunter protagonists--and particularly the troubled, childish heroine Eleanor--bring with them when they come to stay.  The second time around, I feel as if I've discovered this novel for the first time, and am kicking myself for not revisiting it sooner.  It seems as if, in recent years, Hill House's star has dimmed a little in favor of Jackson's other and equally magnificent novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle--perhaps because its conventions have been recycled by works like House of Leaves, whereas Castle remains utterly unique.  I think it may be time for a rediscovery--I'm sure I'm not the only one who needed to be reminded of what a sharp, tense, frightening novel this is.
Honorable Mentions:
  • HHhH by Laurent Binet - At once a nonfiction account of the attempted assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, a fictionalization of it, and a meditation about the gap between the two, this novel (?) is surprisingly readable and entertaining for such an odd experiment (and such a grim topic).

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - A lush, beautifully written historical fantasy about the lifelong love between a 19th century French winemaker and an angel.  Weird and indescribable, but utterly enchanting.

  • Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner - This slim volume constructs a whole fantasy world, complete with manners and conventions, within a few chapters, and the political and social drama that it sets within that world (not to mention its central love story) is instantly engaging.

  • Tenth of December  by George Saunders - Sharp, funny, and often extremely weird short stories.  Genre readers will like Saunders's forays into that field, but his mimetic stories are equally distinct and memorable.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Recent Movie Roundup 20

In the previous installment of this series, I noted that I was looking forward to watching some more grown-up fare at the movie theater.  Eight months later, I seem to have failed spectacularly at that task.  There are a whole bunch of movies for adults, like Boyhood and Whiplash, that I meant to see and never got around to, and here I am again reporting on the more shlocky end of the scale.  So let's make this a resolution for 2015--watch some more challenging stuff at the movie theater, and if I can't manage that, try to catch up with it at home.  In the meantime, though, here are my thoughts on the movies I have seen.
  • Gone Girl - David Fincher's artful, tense direction can't obscure the fact that this is one of those novel adaptations that are completely inessential if you've read the book (in fact, much like this summer's The Fault in Our Stars, Gone Girl is a case in which watching the movie and reading the book would probably take about the same amount of time--though in Gone Girl's case that's largely because the film is overlong, taking far too long to wrap up its story).  With the exception of Rosamund Pike's Amy--a wonderfully chilly, scary performance that can't quite get around how hollow the character, as written and conceived, is--there's nothing that Gone Girl the movie adds to the book, and nothing that it does with a story that is, let's face it, pretty schlocky and ridiculous if you think about it for a moment, to make it its own.  If you're coming to that story for the first time--like my brother, who watched the film with me and loved it--that should be more than enough, even if you know the major twist (as I did when I read the book).  On a second viewing, when you already know the story beats, there's not much here to watch for.  Despite Fincher's reputation as an auteur, Gone Girl is clearly a commercial creation first and foremost, designed to feed on and multiply the book's popularity.  That means that it can't afford to alienate fans or potential fans by failing to deliver exactly what they expect.  I found myself, while watching the film, thinking again of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book that has more than a few similarities with Gone Girl and whose success in the mid-00s meant that it, too, was briefly intended as a cash-in product for some major film studio.  Somehow, miraculously, Lynne Ramsay got her hands on the project and was able to make something living and vibrant out of it, filing away the book's problems and making something resonant out of a rather silly story.  Gone Girl hasn't been so lucky.

    Perhaps inevitably, author Gillian Flynn's screenplay strips out most of the novel's social commentary, and on the whole this is for the best--Gone Girl's biggest problem was that it tried to make a statement about marriage through a story about a marriage in which one partner was a raging psychopath.  But it's also a choice that lays bare the absurdities of the story's twists and turns, and leaves the leftovers of this theme feeling particularly unconvincing--the Cool Girl speech, already out of place in the book (it's a darling that should have been killed, except that its cultural currency is already greater than the novel that contains it) sticks out like a sore thumb in the movie.  When I read Gone Girl it seemed to me that the only way to resolve its inherent inconsistencies and problems (chief among them, the choice to indulge in so many pernicious stereotypes where the rape-faking, sperm-stealing Amy is concerned) was to take it as a very dark comedy, and I think that a director who was less beholden to a studio determined to monetize the book could have made a great movie along those lines.  That's not what happened, and so Gone Girl is roughly as good as the book--compulsive and extremely well made, but prone to falling apart if you think about it too much.

  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 - This movie has been catching a lot of flak for being half a story, and for a split that quite clearly happened purely as a cash-in measure.  But though Mockingjay.1 has its moments of padding--there was no need for Katniss to make two trips back to the bombed and destroyed District 12, and the action scene that concludes the films is ridiculously drawn out in a way that makes it less tense and more comedic--on the whole it benefits from the extra breathing space, which leaves us room to appreciate the film's remarkably un-heroic subject matter, and a stellar central performance by Jennifer Lawrence that brings it to life.  I went into Mockingjay feeling very jaded about the Hunger Games series, which seemed to go into a holding pattern with the utterly unnecessary Catching Fire, repeating the beats of the first film with only minor variations.  Mockingjay, thankfully, moves the story forward, with Katniss spirited off to District 13 to become the symbol of the revolution.  Where the two previous films struggled with the realization that Katniss's heroism in the arena was merely a tool that ultimately served the Capitol, Mockingjay faces that truth head-on.  It does this by effectively removing Katniss from the hero role--where the film's trailers make it seem that she is fighting the Capitol, in truth she's making propaganda films (and in a clever touch, the logos and films produced by this propaganda machine look remarkably like the film's own promotional materials).  Meanwhile, Katniss is struggling with PTSD and with her growing inability to protect the people she loves--chiefly Peeta, who was left behind in the arena at the end of Catching Fire and has been forced into becoming the Capitol's spokesperson.

    Mockingjay can assign Katniss this passive, reactive role because it gives more space to other characters, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, a PR maven who doesn't quite realize what a revolution actually entails, Julianne Moore's Alma Coin, the soft-spoken but slightly sinister leader of District 13, and the reliably delightful Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).  (Even Liam Hemsworth's perpetually underserved Gale finally gets the chance to seem a little more like an actual person, after two films in which his character seemed to have no point.)  Since worldbuilding has always been the Hunger Games films' strongest point, this chance to see more of the series's world and its workings is all to the good, even if the revolution that Mockingjay depicts doesn't really make sense--the scale of the revolutionaries' willingness to commit violence, often at the cost of their own and their families' lives, requires a great deal more explanation than the film gives, probably because it isn't willing to face up to its implications.  Nevertheless, the sense that we are finally getting to see the bigger story playing out around Katniss is a relief after being stuck in her limited point of view in Catching Fire, and though I don't doubt that Mockingjay.2 will place her back in a more central, heroic role, the bleakness of the first part is both necessary and extremely effective.

  • Big Hero 6 - Marvel's first foray into the realm of animated kids' entertainment, though not officially part of the MCU, feels both inflected by it and different from it in significant ways.  There's a great deal of Iron Man in the way that lead character Hiro (Ryan Potter), a juvenile genius in the futuristic city "San Fransokyo," designs and manufactures robots, armored suits, and a myriad other fantastical devices that help to turn him into a superhero.  But despite the team name in the title, Big Hero 6 is only really interested in two of that team's members--Hiro, and the medical robot Baymax (Scott Adsit), who allows himself to be transformed into a fighting, flying machine in the belief that this will enable Hiro to come to terms with the recent death of his older brother.  Big Hero 6's story thus has a lot more in common with The Iron Giant or Up, though those comparisons are perhaps a little unkind, since it lacks either of those films' emotional power and fleet-footed plotting (like Up, the film starts with a preamble that establishes Hiro's life, his close relationship with his brother, and the sudden trauma of his loss, but what Up achieves in ten heart-wrenching, wordless minutes takes Big Hero 6 twice as long, with nowhere near the same effect).  What makes Big Hero 6 its own creation is its stunning animation, and the world that it brings to life, a vibrant, truly multicultural city whose citizens are a genuinely diverse bunch (starting with the film's protagonist, of course, but hardly stopping there--at least three of the human members of the Big Hero 6 are people of color).  The result is enjoyable and often quite funny--especially when the other members of the team are on screen, though none of them ever emerge as fully-fleshed characters--but adult viewers intrigued by the Marvel imprimatur could just as easily wait for the DVD.

  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - It's disappointing to me how disappointing I found this film.  Despite recognizing that neither one was particularly good, I enjoyed the two previous installments in Peter Jackson's bloated, aimless "adaptation" of The Hobbit, finding enough bits, scenes, and character moments in each one to tide me over their absurd running time and complete incomprehension of what made the original novel lovely and engaging.  There's little of that in The Battle of the Five Armies, probably because with this movie, Jackson and his fellow writers Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh have hit their lowest ratio yet of original material to running time--the film is based on only a few chapters of The Hobbit, none of which actually describe the titular battle, since Bilbo is unconscious for most of it.  What that translates to on screen is essentially a single, two-and-a-half-hour battle scene, with little ingenuity or directorial flair to enliven it--it's hard to believe that this is the same writer and director who made the final battle scenes of The Return of the King so tense and engaging.  While some of the emotional beats of the movie still land--basically anything involving Martin Freeman's Bilbo is golden, with Freeman effortlessly conveying Bilbo's fundamental decency, and how his matter-of-fact Hobbit nature shines through the disreputable burglar-hero that he has become--others, such as the strained relationship between Legolas and his father Thranduil, never rise above boilerplate (though on his own Lee Pace's Thranduil remains one of the secret successes of these films, a character who is, at one and the same time, absurdly camp and genuinely powerful and scary; the fact that he ends the film as neither a villainous figure nor a fully "redeemed" one is one of the most subtle touches in it).

    And then, of course, there's Thorin, a character who has had a dozen different motivations, tragic flaws, and fast-approaching dooms since this series began, none of which were well-realized or very convincing.  The Battle of the Five Armies swaps out his One Ring-like lust for the Arkenstone from The Desolation of Smaug (itself a replacement for his desire for vengeance from An Unexpected Journey) for "dragon-sickness," the lingering curse of Smaug which causes paranoid greed (and does not affect anyone except Thorin, and is shaken off with a crude, unintentionally hilarious CGI montage).  All of this is because Jackson, Boyens and Walsh can't face up to the fact that in the original book, Thorin is an ornery, greedy, unheroic businessman, not the Byronic figure that they and Richard Armitage keep trying to cut.  But what makes The Battle of the Five Armies such a failure is that, in the end, it's really not clear why Jackson and Co. chose to make that swap.  We've been saying for years that the core flaw of the Hobbit films is trying to recreate the sweeping, elegiac tone of the Lord of the Rings movies, telling an epic story where the original book was a more mundane, small-scale story about people who just wanted to get paid.  But just at the point where you'd expect The Battle of the Five Armies to hit that heroic tone hardest it seems to forget that it ever meant to do so.  The titular battle--and its tragic outcome for Thorin and his line--turns out to have been about nothing more than petty disputes over gold, conveniently forgotten when a common enemy emerges in the form of the orc army, but no less petty for all that.  This is, of course, the point that Tolkien made in the original novel, but Jackson and Co. have so obscured it with their constant references to the future war with Sauron, and with their reimagination of Thorin as a great-but-angsty warrior, that the full tragedy of it--the unnecessary waste of life--fails to land.  The movie ends up being neither one thing nor the other, and perhaps mainly concerned with making sure that certain plot elements, such as Bilbo's mithril coat, end up where they need to be for the story of The Lord of the Rings.  This is pure prequel-itis, and far less than The Hobbit deserved.

  • Ascension - Not actually a movie but a Syfy channel "special event" miniseries.  But of course that's not true either, because once you've watched Ascension, it's clear that what you're seeing is a pilot and four episodes of an ongoing series, recut into three parts after Syfy declined to order the show to series--and thus without anything like a proper conclusion to the story.  (The series's creators have raised the possibility that Syfy will order more episodes, like it did after the Battlestar Galactica miniseries aired, but it's hard to watch the existing material and believe that this was the original plan.)  Which is actually a shame, because for all its flaws--and there are many--Ascension might be one of the more ambitious genre efforts of the last few years, a show with a chunky premise and lots of moving parts that might have been a lot of fun to follow.  That premise is that in the early 60s, mankind launched a generation starship on a hundred-year journey to a new world.  In the present day, the descendants of the original crew are struggling with the stratified society that has emerged on the ship, and with the realization that their life's work is merely to act as a bridge for the generation that will get to see and live on a new world.  So when a murder is committed on the ship for the first time, the small, fragile society is rocked, and the officer charged with investigating the crime finds himself out of his depth.  There's a twist to all this that is pretty easy to guess about halfway into the pilot but whose revelation is handled very well, so I won't spell it out here (though if you're a genre fan you've probably worked out what it is simply by being told that it exists), but in the later episodes of the series the currents of power and influence on Ascension are joined by forces on Earth, who reveal a very different goal for the mission than the one imagined by the crew.

    It should be said that despite this intriguing premise, the execution, and particularly the worldbuilding, on Ascension are nothing short of ridiculous.  The point is made that the ship was launched before most of the social justice movements of the last half-century came to fruition, and yet Ascension's crew appears to be fully integrated.  On the other hand, this is also a spaceship on which dozens of young women (and not a single man) have no greater call on their time and skills than to be prostitutes (this plot strand is also where the series criminally wastes the talents of Tricia Helfer, who could play the politically hungry madam role she's been given in her sleep, and only comes to life in the final episode when her character is finally handed some real responsibility).  The series repeatedly stresses the rigid class system that has emerged on Ascension, but with every reference to the "lower decks" it only becomes clearer that this system is unworkable--the right to have children, for example, is reserved for higher caste crewmembers, but if that's the case then where did all the lower deck people come from?  Despite this, I found myself enjoying the show and buying into its world, ridiculous as it is, largely because there are so many components to it, and the plot of the miniseries moves so fast that it was easy to ignore these obvious flaws.  I don't know if Ascension could work as an open-ended series--the last few years have proven that barreling through your plot at a breakneck pace to distract from how empty and silly your story is can only work for so long, and especially for a series whose premise touches on so many meaty subjects, I'm not sure it's possible to simply coast on the audience's desire to know what happens next.  Nevertheless, I'd be happy to learn that Ascension will given the chance to fail or succeed.  There are so few genre series with genuinely odd, SFnal premises out there right now, that even a flawed, ridiculous one could be a lot of fun to watch.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recent Reading Roundup 37

I went through an unplanned blogging hiatus this summer, which meant that a lot of books and movies that I would have liked to write about ended up unreported (though some of them will be showing up in my forthcoming year's best list).  Still, it seemed wrong to end the year without another look at what I've been reading (one of the things I'd like to get back to next year is full-length book reviews, which is something I've let slide, but this will do for now).  Those of you who haven't been following along on twitter (or who have been defeated by its ephemeral format) might also be interested in the conclusion of my read-through of the Sherlock Holmes canon--here are my thoughts on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Tartt's bestselling, Pulitzer-winning novel kicks off with a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his beloved mother in the explosion but survives himself, and in his addled state, steals the titular masterpiece.  For the rest of The Goldfinch's 800 pages, the painting functions as both a talisman and a millstone for Theo--a reminder of his mother's love (it was her favorite work) and of the world of beauty and kindness he lost with her death, but also a source of anxiety, as he worries about being prosecuted and jailed if he tries to return it, and alienates potential friends in trying to keep its secret.  Tartt doesn't quite manage to argue that Theo's fears of the authorities throwing the book at a theft committed by a traumatized, concussed child are realistic (but then, late in the book, she seems to suggest that Theo himself doesn't really believe in this danger, and is keeping the painting for more selfish reasons), but The Goldfinch is extremely effective at conveying the toll that trauma, sudden loss, and uncertainty take on Theo's psyche.  Though not officially mistreated--he bounces from the home of a friend's affluent but chilly family, to the Nevada desert with his abandoning, neglectful father, who allows Theo to run wild, then back to New York where he's taken in by a kind but unworldly antiques restorer--Theo is left to more or less fend for himself, and his obvious bewilderment at being thrust into the world unprotected is heartbreaking.  Distrustful of his new guardians, and anxious about being torn from them and deposited somewhere worse, he expends all his energies on gaming the system and fobbing off those in authority, and none on processing his trauma and growing up--which eventually leads, in his twenties, to an involvement with the criminal underworld, as he sells fake antiques and hobnobs with art forgers.

    Despite its length, The Goldfinch is a compelling, engaging read, effortlessly evoking both the wood-paneled rooms of New York's upper classes and the dusty decay of a half-built Las Vegas suburb.  But by the time one approaches the end of the novel--in which Theo's criminal acts, his concealment of the painting, and his emotional instability all lead him to a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam and a violent crescendo to the story--it's hard not to wonder what the point of all this was.  Did the world really need another baggy coming-of-age novel about a middle class white guy who struggles with self-absorption and self-loathing?  Even more importantly, did it really need a novel that is as obvious a retelling of Great Expectations as The Goldfinch is?  On the latter point, it's particularly disappointing that Tartt passes up any and all chances to address the problems that Dickens poses to modern readers.  Like her 1992 breakout novel The Secret History, The Goldfinch is steeped in a snobbishness so profound that it goes out the other end into self-parody.  Goodness, in this novel, is associated with the sort of old-world, Anglophile gentility that wouldn't be out of place in an Edith Wharton novel, with people who love Old Masters, classical music, and early American furniture, and are politely bewildered by any pop culture artifact produced after 1960.  The actual realities of American life, meanwhile, are treated--even by a modern teenager like Theo--with horror and incomprehension, as in the case of his grotesque stepmother Xandra, a spray-tanned, pill-popping New Age freak.  People of color, in this construction, are almost entirely absent except as cheerful, devoted servants--the doormen at Theo's building, or the housekeeper who loved his mother so much that she offers to work without pay.  (In a particularly tone-deaf moment, Theo's horror of going into the foster system is illustrated through the example of a pair of black children who were abused and murdered by their foster parents.  It seems to have escaped Tartt's notice that this brief mention immediately throws into sharp relief how petty Theo's self-pitying concerns are, and how privileged he is in comparison to the children not deemed interesting enough to star in this story.)  The novel's Estella is Pippa, a girl who caught Theo's eye in the moments before the explosion, and whose fascination for him is rooted equally in love and in his need to dwell on their defining traumatic moment.  The Goldfinch occasionally hints that Pippa is just as troubled as Theo, just as haunted by what they experienced and just as lost (in her case, even more profoundly; being in the explosion throws Theo into the world of antiques and provides him with an avocation, but the injuries she sustains cost Pippa her future as a professional musician).  But it never allows her to become a real person, rather than the idealized object of Theo's obsessive--and, as even he is eventually forced to admit, unhealthy--love.

    Tartt is known for taking years--just over a decade, in this case--to produce her novels, and especially given that weight of investment it's hard to look at The Goldfinch and not wonder what it was all for.  In its closing chapter, The Goldfinch launches into several pages of Theo trying to explain his new life philosophy, but though this creed is unobjectionable--don't get hung up on labels like good or bad, or waste your life obsessing about which one describes you; just be kind and loving to other people--it's also thin enough to drive home that there's really nothing at the heart of this novel.  And its failures when it comes to race, class, and gender only reaffirm how shallow and unnecessary it is.  (It's both interesting and sad that Tartt's only attempt to buck the snobbishness that infects her writing, her second novel The Little Friend, which has a female protagonist and tries to treat its working class characters with respect and explore their humanity, is also her least successful work, and that its poor reception is almost certainly the reason she returned to the milieu and tone of The Secret History in her third effort.)  I'm coming off more negative on The Goldfinch than I actually felt while I was reading it, when I was carried along by Tartt's engaging prose and story, but by the time I turned the last page, the book's pleasures had faded, and I was left with its hollowness and its lingering problems.

  • Inversions by Iain M. Banks - This stealth-Culture novel (whose stealth is wasted since every list of Banks's SF identifies it as such) has some echoes of Banks's more ambitiously structured work, such as Use of Weapons or Feersum Endjinn, with two storylines proceeding concurrently but with enough ornate worldbuilding detail that it can take a while to work out how their settings and time periods relate to one another.  But in nearly every other way this is a major departure for Banks, his SF writing, and the Culture sequence--a novel rooted in character and emotion rather than elaborate SFnal invention, or in the grand scale of the Culture and its neighbors.  This is all, of course, in service of the same goal as all Culture novels, the question of the Culture's right to interfere in the business of other races, and of the methods it uses to achieve its goal of spreading peace and prosperity, but in Inversions that question is examined on a very personal scale.  In one plot strand, the narrator is the apprentice to Vosill, a foreign doctor in the court of the king, who has scandalized the court and the political system with her gender and her attempts to influence the king towards a kinder, more progressive mode of rule.  In the second storyline, DeWar, a bodyguard in the service of a Napoleon-like usurper, tries to protect his master from multiple assassination attempts even as the empire he's built begins to crumble.  Both stories are largely about interpersonal drama--Vosill's apprentice falls in love his mistress, who is herself in love with the king; DeWar develops a friendship with Perrund, the emperor's concubine, who slowly reveals her history of suffering and abuse during the emperor's wars--but interwoven through both are the central questions of the Culture sequence.  Vosill is trying to make a difference while doing no harm; DeWar is protecting a violent warlord who might be a better ruler than his predecessors.  Which is the right approach?

    It's a concept that is perhaps too slight to carry a whole novel--or perhaps the whole thing would be more compelling if knowing that Inversions was a Culture novel did not make it so obvious who the Special Circumstances agents are (though I suspect not; I think that reading the novel cold would have been a supremely annoying experience, as so much of it is opaque unless you know the secret, and there aren't enough plot twists or action scenes to distract from that obliqueness).  Banks has never been a particularly good writer of characters, and his tendency to plump for melodrama, particularly when it comes to the unrequited romances in Vosill's story, robs the book of much of its affect.  (Another problem is the way that Inversions uses rape in both storylines; Vosill's story ends with a gruesome scene of attempted rape whose graphic description is not made any less exploitative by the fact that the rape is prevented at the very last moment; in the other story, Perrund's revelation that she was gang-raped as a child has no effect on the burgeoning romance between her and DeWar, despite the fact that she has obviously not recovered from the experience.)  In the end, it doesn't feel as if Inversions adds much to the conversation that all Culture novels are involved in.  The personal stories through which Banks chooses to approach it obscure the central issues rather than clarify them, and the dual twists at the end of the novel--in which Vosill is forced to commit violence, and DeWar is forced to acknowledge the personal cost of his big picture approach--feel more than a little schematic.  The novel ends up working only as well as its characters do, and since the most compelling one of them, to me, was Perrund, whose story is glimpsed only in pieces through DeWar's eyes, this made for a patchy experience.

  • The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - On a summer's night in 1808, a heartbroken eighteen-year-old French peasant, Sobran Jodeau, take a bottle of his father's wine into the hills to drown his sorrows, and meets an angel.  The two share the wine, and make a pact to meet on the same spot every year for the rest of Sobran's life.  This is the starting point of Knox's novel, a strange, lush historical fantasy, and from it she spins out a number of enticing, interwoven stories.  The Vintner's Luck is a portrait of early 19th century French peasant life, following Sobran's fortunes as he marries, has children and loses some of them, flourishes as a vintner, and becomes an influential figure in the village.  Knox's portrait of the community, with its subtle nuances of class, family connection, and unspoken secrets, is delicately drawn and full of vivid characters, chief among them Sobran himself, who grows into an irascible, strong-willed man whose gruff demeanor belies the befuddlement he experiences whenever he encounters the numinous in the form of his winged friend.  At the same time, The Vintner's Luck is a fantasy, with a meticulously constructed cosmology that gives not only the angel--whose name is Xas--but god and Lucifer and several other Biblical figures roles and stories to contrast against Sobran's human drama.  (The one problem with this aspect of the novel is its unquestioned assertion that Christian theology is the correct one; there's more than a frisson of discomfort when Xas reveals to Sobran that one of his other human friends is a Turkish woman who, as a result of her friendship with the angel, converted to Christianity.)  And finally, The Vintner's Luck is a love story, at points a deeply sensual one, between Sobran and Xas (as well as Sobran and several other human lovers).  It's a romance that takes decades to unfold and suffers multiple complications, but despite its otherworldly elements Knox succeeds at making the relationship feel weighty in just the right way.  When Sobran and Xas fight, their arguments are as petty and knowing as any other married couple's; when they make up, the resulting affection is often homely and mundane.  Taken all together, these different elements should amount to a mess (especially in a novel as relatively brief as this one) but Knox miraculously manages to weave them all together into something beautiful and moving, which ultimately becomes a meditation on love and loss as the inevitable end of Sobran and Xas's relationship approaches.  The Vintner's Luck is very much its own thing, and in some ways indescribable, but it's also truly worth a look.

  • Tenth of December by George Saunders - About ten pages into Saunders's collection, one of the most lauded books of the last few years, I sighed and decided that it and I were probably not going to get along.  Saunders seemed to be writing in the familiar vein of literary short story writers--minute, well-observed pieces with little in the way of plot or resolution--and I envisioned myself admiring Tenth of December but not really getting the fuss.  About twenty pages after that, I got the fuss and then some.  Saunders, of course, writes beautifully, his prose spare and incisive, and often quite funny.  But the true magic of his stories is how they often conjure whole worlds in just a few pages--the internal worlds of their characters, such as the fantasist, Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of "Al Roosten," but sometimes also strange alternate worlds.  Several of the stories in Tenth of December are unabashedly SF, and where you'd usually expect a literary writer dipping their toes in genre to write simplistic worlds with overwrought social messages, Saunders's light touch and sharp humor are as present in these stories as in the mimetic ones.  In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a middle class parent desperate to keep up appearances buys a lawn decoration made from living job migrants, and though this feels like too outlandish a concept to work Saunders is deft enough at describing the social nuances of this future society and its timeless need to keep up with the Joneses that you buy both the fad for such ornaments and the narrator's ability to ignore their profound cruelty.  In "My Chivalric Fiasco," a theme park employee receives a promotion as a bribe for overlooking a superior's crime, but the new job involves being chemically altered to be truly chivalrous, and in that mode the employee can't keep his mouth shut about the injustice he witnessed.  The humor of the story only lightly conceals the horror at its core, both at a technology that can alter people's personalities, and at an economic system that forces employees to accept such a treatment, and then punishes them for its consequences.  And then there are stories where Saunders lets his humor fade, and the sad humanity of his characters come to the fore, as in the title piece, which intertwines the narratives of a terminally ill man bent on suicide and the lonely, precocious boy who decides to save him--a premise that might have been maudlin but is instead deeply moving (and also very tense, as both characters come close to death).  It feels a bit silly to say that a book that has been decorated with almost every award possible turns out to actually be very good, but if you've been put off Tenth of December by its aura of respectability, I strongly urge you to give it a chance.

  • The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - A new Sarah Waters novel should be an event, so I was a little surprised at how muted the response to The Paying Guests has been.  A hundred pages into the book, that reaction seemed a little less remarkable.  Not that The Paying Guests is bad--it's as sharply written and plotted as any of Waters's novels, and just as compulsively readable.  But readers looking for the delicious ambiguity and slippery characters of her last novel, the masterful The Little Stranger, will be disappointed.  The Paying Guests, by comparison, is something much more mundane, a love story whose strong depiction doesn't quite make up for the familiarity of its beats.  Set in 1922, the story centers on Frances, the only surviving child of an upper-class London family shattered by WWI and ensuing financial crises, who has let her sense of duty and propriety distance her from the rebelliousness of her youth.  Struggling to pay the bills, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers, the lower-class but vivacious Leonard and Lilian.  The early chapters, which chart Frances's unease at this incursion into her and her mother's life, and the subtle currents of class snobbery between the two families, are very well observed, but it comes as no surprise when Frances and Lilian become friends, and then more than that.  The problem is, Waters doesn't really have anywhere interesting to go from that point.  She's very good at describing the feverish, obsessive tenor of Frances and Lilian's affair, their growing desperation at being kept apart by the two other people in the house, but once that sense of claustrophobia is established, what can she do with it?  Her choice is a rather melodramatic one that shifts the focus fatally away from the novel's strongest aspect, Frances's psyche.  The book's final third, in which Frances and Lilian are torn apart by guilt and nearly caught in a legal noose, feels slack and boring compared to the tension of their early friendship and courtship.  It's hard to know why we should care about these two characters, who suddenly seem very mundane where before their love affair felt as grand to the reader as it did to them--which means that the central question of the book's final chapters, can Frances and Lilian overcome the darkness that has come between them, is a lot less urgent than Waters needs it to be.  In her afterword Waters says that The Paying Guests was inspired by several famous murder cases among the British middle class in the 1920s, but it lacks the nasty streak it would have needed to truly do those cases justice, or the emotional depth necessary to make their horror truly resonate.  Instead, the book feels a little bit like Frances herself--too wedded to its respectability to be any real fun.