Friday, September 30, 2005

A Special Request From Your Host...

I know you've been wondering what the best way is to show your love for me, and, considerate host that I am, I stand ready to make suggestions! Today, September 30th, is special for those of you lucky enough to live in the States because, of course, today is the day Joss Whedon's Serenity goes on wide release.
Now, I've more or less come to terms with the fact that no Israeli distributor is going to touch this film with a ten-foot pole. The last Star Trek film didn't get a commercial release around here, for Pete's sake. But, suppose Serenity were to do really well on its opening weekend...

Planning to go see a movie? Planning to go see Serenity but haven't decided when? For the sake of Joss Whedon's career, and any chance we might have of seeing sequels, and any chance I might have of seeing this film on a movie screen, consider going to see Serenity this weekend.

Along similar lines, Matt Cheney is having in impromptu MirrorMask contest (if you're not going to see Serenity, go see this film, as it needs a good opening weekend in order to get a wider US release) by asking his readers to suggest an Onion-style MirrorMask-related headline. My favorite?
"Mirrormask Fans Snubbed By Corpse Bride Fans, Mocked By Serenity Fans, Beat Up By Transporter 2 Fans"

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Dear Ronald D. Moore: Scattered Thoughts at the End of Battlestar Galactica's Summer Season

I know that Battlestar Galactica's second season hasn't officially ended but rather gone into hiatus (with one frakking hell of a cliffhanger. Could someone get the Stargate people a copy of that episode while I go depress myself by counting the days until January?), but given the recent television theme of this blog I thought it would be a good idea to talk about where the show has been and where it might be going. Plus, Galactica is a fantastically cool show and worth writing about. This is less a wish list and more a series of observations, and since it's always easier to criticize faults than to praise accomplishments I'll just get the praise part out of the way: in the first half of its second season, Galactica has maintained and occasionally surpassed the level of quality I'd come to expect from it. It's an intelligent, challenging show, full of complicated, human characters, that offers an irresistible mix of edge-of-your-seat action and byzantine political games. If you're not watching it, it's time to start.

One of the 'compliments' that mainstream reviewers have been heaping on Galactica is that it's a non-SF kind of science fiction. Usually, this kind of phrase means that the reviewer is embarrassed to be seen praising science fiction (see Laura Miller in Salon, who spent two paragraphs trashing all other SF television, including Farscape, before she lauded Galactica for doing something as innovative as creating a female character who is a capable military officer and acts like a man), or that they know so little about SF that anything out of the Star Trek mold startles them, but in Galactica's case I think this observation might point to a possible crack in the show's foundation.

It occurs to me that there are two Galacticas: Galactica-as-a-9/11-allegory and Galactica-as-a-story. The former is the one getting praised in Newsweek and Salon and other mainstream publications, with the SF setting merely a backdrop for a story that powerfully mirrors America's situation in the last five years--a devastating attack that has launched not only a war but a slew of internal crises: conflicts between government and the military; religious fanaticism; jingoistic war-mongering; the breakdown of democratic institutions and the erosion of human rights. The latter has captured the hearts of many a genre fan, who expect a story that is perhaps not predictable but that conforms to universal notions of good storytelling. Where these two shows conflict, we find the potential roots of the show's undoing.

One example is the two kinds of Galactica episodes. The best stories we've seen on the show have been the ones that grew organically out of the characters' personalities and the situations they were placed in--several Galactica crewmen are stranded in hostile territory, under the command of Crashdown, who is only an officer because of the military tradition that pilots hold officers' ranks and has no leadership experience, and in the presence of Tyrol, who is almost overqualified for the job of leading them but is only an NCO. Now what? On the other hand, we have episodes that seem to have been written out of the desire to address an issue--witch hunts are bad, is torture acceptable--and by and large they've been preachy and obvious.

In the podcast for the episode "Home, pt. 2", Moore points out that, having finally resolved or brought to a point of stability most of the issues raised in the first season finale (and by the way, kudos to the Galactica writers for taking a leisurely seven episodes to wrap up these plot strands. At no point did this decision seem like an indulgence. One of Galactica's greatest strengths is that the writers recognize and even revel in the inherent messiness of their premise. However closely they look at their characters and situations, they find compelling stories to tell), his writers are now free to write episodes that are more self-contained as the fleet inches its way towards Earth. I have no problem with this approach in theory, but the episodes that completed the summer season are definitely in the 'issue' camp--cynical reporter is embedded on Galactica and learns to appreciate the crew's sacrifices; low morale on the ship is combatted by a symbolic gesture of hope; the dehumanization that occurs when a military commander allows herself to succumb to vengeance and violence--and have been weaker for it.

To their credit, the Galactica writers seem to be aiming for a mix of issue stories and situational stories--"Final Cut" is nearly rescued by its twist ending, the sappy "Flight of the Phoenix" is actually quite affecting because we do love these characters; "Pegasus"'s slow first half is redeemed by its second, in which interpersonal crises begin to flare up--but they don't yet seem to have found the happy medium between telling an organic story and making a point. It would be nice if they did, as many of the issues they try to address in the show's standalone episodes are important--so important that until the writers figure out how to deal with them without becoming shrill, it would be better if they were left alone.

Another point of friction between allegory and story is the nature of the human-form Cylons. As stand-ins for America's enemies in the 21st century, the human-form Cylons make perfect sense--they're relentless, cruel, insidious, devoted to a fanatical religious dogma we can barely comprehend, and yet fundamentally, just like us. If we choose to view Galactica as a story in its own right, however, the human-form Cylons make no sense. Are they robots? If so, why have we been told that they have biological innards, and apparently no discernible mechanical components? And how are they capable of breeding with humans? Are they clones? If so, what is the source of their strength, their ability to transmit their consciousness when they die, and their ability to interface directly with fiber-optic cables? What distinguishes a human-form Cylon from a human? And why have none of the human characters asked any of these questions?

Galactica's packed storylines and slower-than-real-time progression (from the miniseries to the middle of the second season, less than six months have elapsed) are a great aid to writers who suggest the existence of an intricate backstory without knowing what that story might be. To my own great surprise, I haven't found myself obsessing about the Cylons' master plan, or becoming upset by the egregious contradictions in the show's premise (if the Cylons wanted to destroy humanity, why wait until the day before Galactica--the one ship they couldn't easily disable--was decommissioned? If they wanted Galactica to survive--possibly because they believe the fleet will lead them to Earth--why do they keep attacking it? And if the Cylons are so desperate to reproduce that they're willing to farm the job out-of-species, why did they kill and/or irradiate all but a tiny fraction of their potential breeding stock?), but the human-form Cylons have been so prominent and so crucial to the show's various plotlines that it is becoming impossible to ignore the glaring contradictions that they represent. I have my own theories about the nature of the human-form Cylons, but the show keeps providing us with more and more contradictory information, the allegory overwhelming the story, and in the end I suspect that no answer will be sufficient to explain away this plot hole.

Along those same lines, I can't be the only viewer frustrated by the Cylons' injured superiority in the face of the humans' reaction to, well, being exterminated, or more accurately by the writers' indulgent attitude towards this superiority. Moore is using the Cylons as a way of demonstrating our tendency to dehumanize our enemies, to deny their personhood, their ability to make moral judgments, and their capacity for emotion. The problem is that Galactica's villains may very well lack at least some of these qualities. I'm perfectly willing to accept that the Cylons are people, but if they are, it follows that they knowingly committed a monstrous crime, and should be made to pay for it.

We have yet to see a single Cylon, human-form or otherwise, who has displayed an ounce of remorse for being part of genocide on an unprecedented scale. Sharon doesn't count: the show has made it abundantly clear that she had no problem with the 'kill all humans' platform before it started interfering with her love life, and even now she doesn't seem to have comprehended the inhumanity of her people's actions--watch her trying to justify the Cylon breeding camps by explaining that, if Starbuck had acquiesced to being used as a brood mare, she would have been partnered with a nice-looking specimen. Sharon is only on the humans' side because she loves Helo, and although being capable of love is a good thing--certainly better than the alternative--it isn't a moral accomplishment, and it doesn't entitle her to sadly tell Helo that "[He's] only human" because his superiors' reaction to the extermination of their race by her people is to put her in a cage.

Again and again, the human-form Cylons demonstrate a frightening lack of empathy. There's no excuse for what Admiral Cain did to the Pegasus Six (or, for that matter, for what Starbuck did to Leoben), but wouldn't it have been nice if there had been someone around during Six's hissy fit over her counterpart's mistreatment who could have pointed out that she herself has been known to butcher babies in their sleep? If I believed that the writers are aware of the Cylons' inherent hypocrisy, and that they were intentionally highlighting it in order to make them more terrifying as villains, I might enjoy them. But it really does seem that Moore intends for us to feel sorry for the Cylons, which makes no sense given all that we know about them. It's wrong--not to mention stupid and dangerous--for the humans to insist on treating sentient beings as if they were merely machines, but nothing Moore does is going to convince me that doing so is somehow analogous to, or even worse than, genocide, and that treating the Cylons with suspicion and a certain amount of violence is not the correct course of action.

If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time you already know how allergic I am to dogma in my fiction, so it's possible that my violent reaction to the allegory in Battlestar Galactica is out of proportion to most people's, but I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder. In all forms of writing, story must come first: the characters need to be real, the plot needs to make sense, you can't demand too much suspension of disbelief from your viewers. Place story second to ideology, and you'll soon find yourself with neither.

A few more scattered thoughts and observations:

  • Only a few weeks ago I wrote about the three stock types for a female villain--the temptress, Lady Macbeth, and the ball-buster. With the addition of Admiral Cain to Six and Ellen Tigh, Galactica now has the full set, and this is a show that hasn't been eager to embrace traditional notions of villain-hood. Apart from Six, the Cylons have been a rather faceless, amorphous sort of antagonist, and the show's male bad guys--Tom Zarek, Simon the Cylon, Baltar--have been wishy-washy and morally ambiguous. I suspect I'm meant to be impressed by the female bad girls, but despite the best efforts of Tricia Helfer, Kate Vernon, and Michelle Forbes--truly a talented group of actresses--they are one-dimensional, uninteresting, and slightly troubling when you consider how few women there are in Galactica's command structure.

  • While we're one the subject of Ellen Tigh, the woman must go. Toss her out an airlock, reveal that she's a Cylon, have her drink herself to death, I don't care. Just get rid of her. Without Ellen, Tigh has the potential to be an interesting character. Unlike almost everyone else on the ship--and for that matter, most characters in disaster stories--Tigh isn't rising to the occasion, but is rather overwhelmed by it. He's the stereotypical underqualified middle manager, who reacts to a trying situation by snapping at his underlings (in "Flight of the Phoenix" he manages a pitch-perfect impression of the pointy-haired boss when he orders Gaeta to find a computer virus by reviewing Galactica's computer operating system code line by line) and making bad decisions. In this, he's probably more like us than we'd like to admit, but the writers keep providing him with an escape hatch in the form of his manipulative wife. Tigh, we're constantly told, is a good man with good instincts, if it weren't for that pesky wife of his messing things up. Which, quite frankly, makes me lose whatever respect I still had left for him. "My wife made me do it" is rarely a good excuse, but when 'it' means "placing the fleet under martial law" or "sending marines to deal with protesting civilians", it only serves to make Tigh look even more pathetic than he already is.

  • The last science fiction show to deal intelligently with religion, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, walked away from the opportunity to face the subject head on when it gave its viewers a rational explanation for the Bajoran gods. Galactica seems to be heading the same way, with a true prophecy already in evidence. Before we get too involved in Colonial mythology, I'd like to make a case for a little mystery. True faith isn't just independent of rational proof, it is incompatible with it. Let's see something like a real religion - an irrational lie that can never be proved, that is felt in the heart and not in the head. The show has already shown great promise with the introduction of Starbuck's quiet yet powerful religious convictions. Let's investigate that side of faith a little more.

  • It's refreshing to see a show as allergic to exposition as Galactica seems to be. Viewers are often dumped into the middle of the action, only to discover that they really didn't need the five minutes of talking that would have preceded it in any other show and recapped events the viewers had already witnessed (I'm looking at you, Lost). This aversion to info-dumps might explain why the human characters are so uninquisitive--sometimes absurdly so. When Sharon tells Starbuck that "[She has] a destiny", how is it possible that Starbuck doesn't ask her to elaborate? Why doesn't anyone question Sharon when she announces that the Cylons know more about the Colonials' religion than the Colonials do? Why hasn't anyone sat down for a heart-to-heart with her about what she is and what the Cylons' plan is? Either the writers don't know, or they have other things they want to write about, but either way they're making the characters look stupid.

  • Just to be clear: Laura Roslin can't die. Mary McDonnell owns the character--she practically owns the show. I refuse to believe that the writers are going to kill Roslin off. I'm tempted to say that if Roslin goes, I go, but we all know that's not true. So, writers, please?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Signs of the Coming Apocalypse, No. 496

Normally I'd use this travesty as a launching-pad for a 1,200-word diatribe about how Elizabeth Kostova shouldn't be shelved anywhere near Bram Stoker, much less be invited to write an introduction to Dracula, but Carrie A.A. Frye has already said it all better than I ever could (although I still think she's too easy on The Historian).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dear J.J. Abrams: A Lost Wish List

Aren't low expectations a wonderful thing? I might be developing ulcers over Veronica Mars' second season, but when it comes to Lost, I'm completely sanguine. Perversely enough, the superior Mars is likely to disappoint me with anything short of perfection, whereas Lost will please me simply by producing an episode that doesn't appear to have been written on cocktail napkins during a particularly jubilant lunch hour.

It wasn't always like this, of course. As little as a year ago, when Lost first hit the airwaves, I was deeply impressed. The show's combination of lush production values, compelling characters, and fascinating mysteries made it irresistible. Then, almost exactly at the season's midpoint, the show began a terrific decline, so that by the season's end it was practically a pale, campy shadow of its former self.

I wish I could say with certainty that Lost's writers can still turn things around, but remember who we're dealing with--J.J. Abrams, a man who has consistently chosen to sacrifice character and story for spectacle, and who may not, in fact, be able to tell the difference. My one hope for Lost was that Abrams took nearly two years to run Alias into the ground, and that show's foundations weren't nearly as strong as Lost's, but it seems that I've underestimated the effect that overwhelming popularity can have. The writing towards the season's end practically screams "we want our show to still be on the air in 2012", which means that character development has ground to a halt, plot development is non-existent, and the writers aren't taking any risks (Boone was the big death? Boone?).

But this is a wish list, right? Which implies that I think the show could be salvaged. Unlike Rob Thomas, Abrams hasn't earned my trust or my indulgence. I believe there are measures he could take to bring his show back to brilliance of the first half of its first season. I don't believe these measures will be undertaken, but here they are anyway:
  1. Look, Lost writers. We know you don't have any answers to give us. We know you can't tell us what the island is or why our survivors are there or how they survived or what the monster is or what's at the bottom of the hatch or who The Others are or what happened to Danielle's daughter or why Claire's baby is special or why Walt is special or what the numbers mean or what the answers are to the dozens of questions that you raised so long ago they've actually slipped my mind (in much the same way that "who knocked Sayid out?" stopped being important weeks before you got around to answering it). It's OK. We're not mad. But here's the thing: the fact that you didn't know the answers before you wrote the questions doesn't excuse you from coming up with answers now. Make something up--it's what you're paid to do. You really don't need to have the entire show plotted out, as long as you don't descend to pulling plot developments out of a hat. There's a happy medium that most television shows manage to strike. Find it.

  2. It's time to move away from the flashbacks. At the beginning of the season, they were a good idea. They broke up the island scenes, let us see the characters in non-island settings, and let us get close to them. By the end of the season, the flashbacks were showing up simply because they were expected. Instead of developing the characters, they're now stunting them--there's no time or opportunity for character interaction, and while we learn a lot about the different people on the island, they don't get to know each other. Did the writers need, for example, to introduce an ill-conceived marriage in order to tell us that Jack has a savior complex that made it difficult for him to accept Boone's death? Did we need to see Charlie make what was no doubt one of many attempts to go clean in order to understand that it was his need to feel strong that drove him to kill Ethan? From an innovative storytelling technique, the flashbacks have become an albatross around the show's neck. I don't think they should be done away with entirely, but now that we know most of the characters' secrets, its time for them to start getting to know each other, and to start moving forward instead of constantly looking back.

  3. Isn't it time we let got of the fantasy that Jack and Kate have chemistry? There were definite sparks between them in the early parts of the season, but they've long since sputtered and died. The fault lies at least in part with the writers who, for reasons of expediency, made the relationship between the two bi-polar--this week Jack is suspicious of Kate, next week he likes her, the week after that he's suspicious again. But mostly the problem is that Jack and Kate have run out of things to talk about. Time for them to go their separate ways. Along the same lines, Sayid and Shannon? Is this a joke?

  4. The following storylines have worn out their welcome and need to be wrapped up and/or dropped as soon as possible: Kate, the Outlaw With a Heart of Gold; Jack and His Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Dad; Sawyer's Search for Sawyer; Sayid's Search for Nadia. The following storylines are circling the drain: Jin and the Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Korean Mafia; Locke and His Rotten, No Good, Really Mean Life; Charlie and the Drug Addiction; Shannon, Boone, and the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

  5. 25 episodes (26 hours, as the last one was double-length) is an absurd number. Most shows can't maintain a steady level of quality with 22 hours per season. There's no question that Lost's super-sized season is a direct result of its popularity and had nothing to do with storytelling decisions, and it shows in the final result--the half-dozen episodes preceding the first season finale were wastes of space. My preference would be to see the show scale down to 12 episodes per season, but I'm aware that that's impossible, so let's settle for the standard 22?

  6. The show needs to get braver about death. The Charlie fake-out early in the season was harrowing, not least because at that point I believed that the writers would be willing to kill him off (and also because I still liked Charlie at that point). Faking Shannon's death a few episodes later was less resonant, and by the time the writers got around to killing a main character in real life I was jaded. Thus far, death has been relegated to the recurring or non-speaking survivors, which robs the show of a significant portion of its sense of urgency.

  7. It might seem strange to say this about a show that has a main cast in the double digits, but Lost's character palate is woefully understacked. We need to start seeing recurring characters on the island, but ones who don't explode once they've outlives their usefulness. A believable universe with palpable depth is one of the keys to successful novelistic television, and so long as Lost's cast remains an impenetrable clique, the show's universe will remain shallow.

  8. More Hurley. Lots more Hurley. He's without question the most decent person on the island, and the only one who hasn't become completely annoying over the course of the season. Not to mention that he's selfless, good under pressure, and seems to be one of the few characters concerned with the matter of day-to-day survival on the island. Plus, he's funny. I'm probably going to stick around for at least the beginning of the next season, but if Hurley dies, I'm gone.

  9. This last piece of advice is for the viewers: despite what you might believe, you don't actually need to know what the answers are. Sure, it'll bug you for a week or two, but you'd be surprised how quickly some other, better written show will catch your fancy. So don't let only thing stopping you from bailing on this show be the need to know what happens next. The odds are the answer will be 'nothing much'.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Dear Rob Thomas: A Veronica Mars Wish List

Could I be any more excited about Wednesday's premiere of Veronica Mars' second season? Like most of this quirky, intelligent detective drama's fans, who include Buffyverse creator and future guest star Joss Whedon, probably not. And yet, could I be any more nervous about the upcoming season? I suspect that like myself, most Mars fans are biting their nails over one simple yet unavoidable question: after one of the most impressive and assured first seasons in television history, how could this show go anywhere but downhill?

The problem is compounded when one takes into account Mars' unique qualities. The show's first season was essentially a 22-hour-long detective novel. If you've read Alexander McCall Smith's The First Ladies' Detective Agency books (and if you haven't, don't bother), you'll recognize the genre, also called a 'cozy' mystery--although the detective pursues a single case above all others, they allow themselves to be distracted by smaller caselets, usually involving their friends and neighbors. If we accept this view of the first season as a novel, then the second season becomes not a continuation of the story but a sequel, and we all know how troublesome they can be.

Especially when you consider that the second season's overarching mystery is unlikely to have the same emotional resonance, for either the viewers or Veronica, as the murder of Lilly Kane. Before details of the second season started floating around the internet, I was holding out hope that the show would rejoin Veronica several years after the end of season one, thus allowing her to accumulate a new backstory that could serve to make the new case as emotionally involving as Lilly's murder.

No such luck, apparently, but if Veronica Mars' first season wasn't enough to earn its creator, Rob Thomas, my blind trust, I don't know what would be. So, nervous as I am, I will be tuning in this Wednesday for one of the best shows on TV. Before the season stars, however, here are a few things I'd like to see:
  1. Given that the second season mystery couldn't possibly have the pull of Lilly's murder, it might be a good opportunity for Veronica to explore her role as an instrument of justice. There's been a lot of talk on the net about Veronica Mars being the new Buffy, and although in many ways the comparison is apt, one of the key differences between these two petite heroines is that while Buffy's actions are motivated primarily by compassion, Veronica is spurred to action by an affront to her sense of justice. I've talked before about the detective novel as an empowerment fantasy, and it would be interesting to see Veronica evolve as a mundane sort of superhero (one of these days I'm going to write about operatic vs. naturalistic genre shows, not just Buffy vs. Veronica Mars but also Farscape vs. Battlestar Galactica) whose actions will eventually be motivated not by any personal connection to the crime but by a desire to see justice done.

  2. The flip side of this issue is that Veronica is not big on compassion in the face of weakness. She likes catching the bad guys, but comforting the injured victims isn't her strong suit. This is only one of Veronica's flaws--as in all great characters, these flaws have their roots in her greatest strengths--she's also headstrong, arrogant, has no respect for the privacy of others, and is, in essence, a pathological liar. The first season gave us a taste of Veronica's flaws coming back to haunt her when she repeatedly sabotaged her relationship with Logan, but I'd like to see the second season take this issue further. In particular, I'd like to see Veronica confronted with the fact that her actions haven't returned the world to the perfection that preceded Lilly's death (for that matter, Veronica has already been confronted with the fact that a lot of that perfection was a sham), and that, justified as they were, they've caused a great deal of damage to both Logan and Duncan.

  3. And while we're on the subject of Veronica's two suitors... I've managed to be a fan of a tremendous number of shows--including The X-Files, four different Star Treks, Friends, ER, Buffy, Angel, Babylon 5, the new Doctor Who, and Farscape--without becoming anything close to a rabid 'shipper. Do you know how embarrassing it is, in light of this and at my age, to find myself openly 'shipping? I'm not even going to tell you who I 'ship, which in itself is a measure of how far gone I am, since clearly no one with any common sense could watch the show and come to any other conclusion! Sigh. That said, it seems obvious that the mysterious person at the door is Duncan, and that he and Veronica will get back together at least for while. I don't have a real problem with this, but can I please ask that Teddy Dunn be allowed to show some emotion? There's evidence, here and there in the first season, that he isn't a terrible actor if given something to work with, and it wouldn't kill Duncan to go through something like the emotional growth that Veronica has already experienced. What's most important, however, is that the romantic triangle between Veronica, Duncan and Logan not be allowed to overwhelm the show--that way lies Dawson's Creek.

  4. Still on the subject of romantic interests, can we please never see Leo again? Improbably enough, Max Greenfield has a series in the works, but just in case America isn't ready for a leading man who talks as if he has a mouth full of marbles, I'd like a guarantee that the writers will never try to shove him and his so-called 'chemistry' with Veronica down our throats again.

  5. Moving on to Logan, and this time not in a romantic capacity. Common sense says that in the second season Logan will experience something similar to Veronica's outsider status during the year that followed Lilly's death and, since he has neither Veronica's emotional resilience nor her support system, that he'll implode as a result. Can I make a case for the opposite approach? Sure, it'll be fun to watch Logan descend into alcoholism and end up living under a bridge, but contrary to popular myth, fixer-uppers aren't really that attractive. Why not have Logan follow Veronica's path exactly, and discover in himself a strength he never knew he had? When Veronica was ostracized, she went from soft to fiery. Logan, who was already fiery, might go cold (especially when you consider the cautionary example he has in his father about the risks of being controlled by emotion). I think it would be interesting to watch Logan go through this sort of transformation, with all its attendant problems.

  6. One of the key differences between Veronica Mars and Buffy is that Veronica doesn't have a Scooby gang. Even as her circle of friends expanded over the course of the first season, Veronica continued to work alone. Unlike Buffy's friends, who quickly chose to undertake the fight against evil, Veronica's friends function, at best, as sources of information who are uninterested or unwilling to take an active part in her investigations. To a point, this makes sense, but the result has been a flatter and less convincing world than Buffy's. I'm not sure I'd like to see Veronica with a crime-solving posse, but something needs to be done to counteract the thinness of the show's universe.

  7. Seeing as Alona Tal is Israeli, I could easily be accused of ulterior motives for this, but I would really like to see Meg again. It's not just that Tal is an interesting performer who works well opposite Kristen Bell, but the character's journey over the first season mirrored Veronica's own loss of innocence, and I'd like to see the writers take her further down that path.

  8. For all that the first season mystery was superbly constructed, and the identity of the murderer masterfully foreshadowed, the fact remains that the solution was not perfect (why, for example, does Logan tell us that Veronica is at fault for his break-up with Lilly in the middle of the season, and then tell Veronica that he'd decided to break up with Lilly on his own in the season finale?). Several details from last season's mystery have remained unresolved, most prominently the location of Logan's break-up letter and the mysterious contents of Lilly's spy pen (yes, I'm aware that these two questions might answer each other, but further questions are implied by this solution). I would really like to see these details addressed in the second season.

  9. At the beginning of season one, I couldn't have hated Logan any more if he'd showed up at my house and set fire to my dogs. By the season's end, I just wanted to bake him a whole lot of cookies. I know that his family is going to be intimately involved with the second season mystery and so I make this last and most important wish: Rob Thomas, we both know you can do it, but please, please, don't make me love Dick Casablancas.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Just to Be Clear...

... I have no horse in tonight's awards. Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica have been shut out of the nominations. Doctor Who isn't eligible. Lost doesn't deserve to win (well, maybe Terry O'Quinn does). I've never seen Desperate Housewives. Deadwood is still the best show on TV, but its second season falls so short of the brilliance of its first (which the Emmys completely ignored) that any victory tonight will seem hollow.

That said, if Ian McShane gets passed over for best actor again, I would consider him well within his rights to burn down the building.

UPDATE: Well, fuck. You just know Al Swearengen would know what to do about this.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Is There Someone at the End of This Rope? A Long Day's Struggle With M. John Harrison

Like many genre readers, I first heard M. John Harrison's name when his most recent novel, Light, was enthusiastically (and justifiably) lauded by SF and mainstream critics alike. An intoxicating blend of space opera and cyberpunk, Light demanded the reader's complete trust. What possible connection, after all, could there be between 21st century scientist-by-day, serial-killer-by-night, Michael Kearney, 25th century layabout and former hotshot pilot Ed Chianese, and Seria Mau Genlicher, a former human jacked in as the pilot of a renegade battleship turned privateer? Instead of answering questions, Harrison compounded them. Instead of explaining his characters' actions, he kept them opaque (not to mention thoroughly unlikable). The narrative, such as it was, twisted and turned, forming no coherent shape. And yet, when I turned Light's final page, I was completely satisfied. The book worked, and shockingly enough, it turned out that amidst its myriad acts of casual cruelty, it concealed a core or pure grace and forgiveness. Light was a dizzying bungie jump--both thrilling and sickening--but Harrsion was holding tightly to the cord that kept me from splattering on the ground.

How could I help but trust him to catch me again? Which was how I ended up picking up his earlier Signs of Life at the used bookstore, and more recently reading The Course of the Heart (available in the US in hardcover from Night Shade Books and in the UK as Anima, an omnibus volume that also contains Signs). Harrison, whose prose is most often described as 'precise', was probably the best author for me to turn to after hundreds of pages of Neal Stephenson. Where Stephenson's fiction is broad and surface-y, Harrison's succinct prose conceals untold depths. Like John Crowley or Virginia Woolf, he demands the reader's undivided attention--waver for a second, and you'll miss, not an important detail, but entire worlds of meaning. In some ways, reading The Course of Heart's 200+ pages was as exhausting and demanding as thousands of pages by Stephenson.

I don't want to say that Harrison let me down with either Signs or Heart, which were both of them challenging and beautifully written, but neither am I as certain anymore that he and I are right for each other. As odd is it may seem, Light turns out to be Harrison's cheerful novel, and that core of grace which seemed to redeem both the book's characters and its author may have been nothing more than a passing fancy.

Based on the novelette "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" (available here from Infinity Plus), Signs of Life is a tragedy about following your dreams. Mike and Isobel are in love and seemingly happy, but Isobel wants more. All her life she's dreamt of flight, and not even her love for Mike and their life together will stop her from seeking out any means to make that dream come true, including radical gene therapy (for those of you keeping score, Signs of Life falls on the SF end of the scale, whereas The Course of the Heart is closer to fantasy, but both books are so far removed from our stereotypical notions of what those genres mean as to make such distinctions practically meaningless). When he expanded the novelette into a novel, Harrison added two new characters into the mix--Mike's friend and business partner, the unbearable Choe (rhymes with Joey), whom Harrison describes as "what you end up as when you've ramped up the body chemicals as far as they'll go and it doesn't get you high anymore", and his sad-sack girlfriend, Christiana.

Between them, these four characters personify the different relationships we can have with our secret, burning desires. While Mike and Christiana just want to make it through the day, preferably with someone friendly they can go home to at night, Isobel and Choe reach for the stars, and are burned. Although her wish is granted, Isobel recoils from herself, only to discover that her consuming and obsessive need has destroyed all of her relationships. Choe, on the other hand, chooses to pile toxic waste on the site where, he believes, he once experienced a glimpse of divinity--better to destroy all trace of goodness in his life than to spend the rest of it yearning for something he can't have.

In his afterword to "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring", Harrison writes
"Like the novel, the story is about the confusion of dream with ambition. A true dream--the kind of dream you dream at night--is by definition something you can't have. You can't bring it across from that place of sleep. The modern dream--the aspirational dream, Isobel's dream--is something else. It defines or describes that point where greed intersects fantasy, ambition, choice, neurosis, control: intersects with, links, and binds those things. At that intersection, if you are naive, your chosen life-itinerary looks available, it looks as if it can be had. ... Every age enshrines a different character flaw as its defining virtue. This is the character flaw of our age speaking, the belief that we can "be" anything we want. Isobel Avens demonstrates an extension of it, which is to assume that what you want can be achieved without consequence, to yourself or others."
To a certain point, I think Harrison is making a great deal of sense here, but the same argument that makes "Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring" such a powerful and disturbing piece falters when transferred to the larger canvas of the novel. Where the novelette is a portrait of a disturbed and abnormal person, the novel seems to suggest that Isobel's disfunction is the rule, not the exception. It's a philosophy that falls flat on its face, as far as I'm concerned, and the result feels like taking too close a look at a beautiful painting and watching the bowl of fruit dissolve into a few messy splotches of paint.

I had a similar reaction to The Course of the Heart (which apparently also had its genesis as a short story, "The Great God Pan"), although as a reading experience I found it more satisfying than Signs of Life. Like Signs, Heart revolves around a small group of friends--Pam, Lucas, and the unnamed narrator. Twenty years ago, while at Cambridge, these three friends performed some sort of mystical experiment, with the help (and possibly the instigation) of a mysterious, half-mad magician called Yaxley. The result of of this (constantly referenced, dimly remembered, and never fully described) rite was a momentary contact with something called The Pleroma--a gnostic term roughly analogous to heaven. It's an experience that's left the three friends shaken and altered. The narrator has seemingly come furthest in his recovery from it (perhaps not coincidentally, he's the who seems most removed from the experience), but despite being outwardly functional and even successful, he remains at a distance from life--disassociated from his job, his friends, and his family. Pam and Lucas (who marry, we are told, out of a need for comfort) take the opposite approach. Obsessed with regaining that lost sense of grandeur and meaning, they fabricate a new mythology for themselves, abut the search for a mystical realm or state of existence called The Coeur, which connects the mundane world and the heavenly Pleroma.
"The empress Gallica XII Hierodule, [Lucas] claimed, had at least three children. Of a shadowy daughter whose name may have been Phoenissa, least is known. ‘She was beautiful. She may not have have escaped the wreck. You can still hear in the Pleroma a faint fading cry of rage and sadness which may have been hers. The older of the two sons was popularly supposed to have been the son also of Theodore Lascaris, but this seems like a late slander. His name was Alexius and he died in Ragusa in 1460, where, ironically, he had a reputation as one of the secret advisers of George Kastriotis, the national hero of Albania.

‘It was his brother, John, who fled to Rome after the Fall, and took with him something described as a “Precious relic”.’

What this might have been, Lucas was forced to confess, was a matter of speculation. It had been variously referred to as ‘the head of Saint Anderew’, which when stuffed with chemicals would speak; a rose, perhaps the centifolia brought back to England from the Low Countries over a century later by John Tradescant the Elder, gardener to the first Earl of Salisbury; ‘a magic book of which certain pages open only when a great variety of conditions are fulfilled’ (this Lucas saw as a parable of overdetermination); and ‘a mirror’.

‘One description,’ Lucas said, ‘has it all or most of these things at once. Whether it was head, mirror or cup, book or flower, it continually “extended its own boundaries through the medium of rays”. It was known as the Plan, and was thought also to contain within itself an explanation of the ontological relationship between the Coeur, the World and the Pleroma which continuously gives birth to them both. Whatever it was, it was enough to secure a pension from Pope Pius II; and John remained in Rome until his death, fathering three sons."
This mythology proves to be Pam and Lucas' undoing. It consumes them, destroys their marriage, and may or may not be the cause of a host of diseases that plague Pam and eventually kill her, after which Lucas embarks on a journey to discover the Coeur--the mystical state of his own invention.

In her review of The Course of the Heart, Cheryl Morgan succinctly and accurately describes The Coeur as "a Narnia for adults in which, somehow, everything is better", which seems to be where Harrison is headed as well--the destructiveness of the desire to see the world as a metaphor for something else, more real than reality.

Again, this is a difficult approach to argue with. It can't be healthy to sink into Walter Mitty-ish fantasies and forget your life in the real world, but in both books one can't help but feel that Harrison has stacked the deck. In Harrison's fiction, the real world is full of unalloyed misery and tedium. Those of us lucky or strong enough not to sink into self-destructive obsession have only a dull, grey existence to look forward to, with comfort and convenience our highest possible aspiration. Maybe I'm naive, but I just can't accept that. We all have moments in which we look around and wonder if this is all there is. We all wish we could be special, have adventures, discover new worlds. But when we turn away from those wishes, most of us find ways to be happy. We take joy in our families, our friends, and (if we're lucky) our jobs. Harrison seems to feel a genuine disdain towards this quotidian existence, and yet he reviles those who try to escape it. It's actually quite cruel.

And the fact is, if forced to choose between the numb, emotionless existence of The Course of the Heart's narrator and Lucas and Pam's unhealthy obsession, I'm not sure that I wouldn't prefer the latter. Quoting someone who may or may not be Yaxley, the narrator says of Lucas, "You can't live intensely except at the cost of the self. In the end, Lucas's reluctance to give himself whole-heartedly will make him shabby and unreal. He'll end up walking the streets at night staring into lighted shop windows. He'll always save himself, and always wonder if it was worth it." After Pam falls ill, Lucas does give himself whole-heartedly. Together, they complete the mythology of The Coeur, reciting it to each other like a catechism, so obsessed with it and each other that Pam's nurses assume (correctly, in my opinion) that they're falling in love with each other. If we were to follow Harrison's philosophy, this mental and physical exertion would deserve nothing but our scorn--we would have to see it as an attempt to escape the real world. But as I've wondered before, isn't escape sometimes a worthy endeavor? Don't a dying woman and her lover deserve something to pin their hopes on, and doesn't their passion, for each other and for their invented quest, deserve our respect no matter how flimsy its foundations?

It's hard for me to accept that the author of The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life is also the author of Light, which not only holds up the possibility of forgiveness and second chances, but recognizes the importance of the yearning for adventure and the discovery of new frontiers. Somehow, the inhabitants of Harrison's imagined future, living on the edge of an unmapped region of space called the Kefahuchi Tract, get more breaks than the inhabitants of the here and now--than people, in other words, like you and me. And again, to a certain extent I can see what Harrison is saying--it does sometimes seem as if, in our culture, we've been taught to believe that we can have something worth having without paying anything for it. But Harrison's bleak version of reality strikes me as no less self-involved. I'm not happy, his characters seem to say, and I have no direction in life. Therefore, no one on the planet could possibly be happy and full of purpose, and anyone who seeks to find purpose and happiness is a pathetic, destructive dreamer, dangerously out of touch with the world.

In an interview at Infinity Plus, Harrison had this to say about a reporter who tried to classify the genre of his fiction: "The problem with description anyway is that it's so close to explanation; and explaining something is so close to explaining it away. That's what he was doing: tidying me up, explaining me away. One of the points my stories make -- by being there, as much as by their content -- is that you not only shouldn't, but in the end you can't, explain things away."

Which comes very close to describing what I tried to do when I finished The Course of the Heart. I sought out opinions about the book (see Matthew Cheney and John Holbo) because I wanted to be able to sum it up to myself, and in that summing up, to dismiss it. It's a reaction I have to many books--I like to be able to tell myself that this book is about X, that my reaction to it was Y, and that upon further reflection I've concluded Z--but more so with The Course of the Heart because I found the book so very troubling. Now I would hate to think that I've succeeded, because for all that I disagree with Harrison, or at least with his rhetoric--he strikes me as nothing so much as a philosopher who's taken a good idea to unreasonable extremes--I'd hate to think that I've been able to set his fiction aside. Harrison is worth reading, and rereading, and thinking about, for his beautiful and precise prose, his believable and infuriating characters, and mostly for his ideas, no matter how objectionable I might find them. I likened the experience of reading Light to a jump with a safety cord, but it now strikes me that the very existence of the cord would appall Harrison, that it would embody the very flaws of our era that seem to enrage him. I no longer know if I can trust Harrison to catch me when I leap into his fiction, and I suspect that it is only that sort of leap that he would consider worthwhile.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Deleted Scenes From Roberts' Confirmation Hearings

Proceedings quickly became acrimonious Tuesday morning, as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) openly challenged Robert's claim that he "had not made up his mind" on Logan v. Wayne. "With all due respect, I find it frankly unbelievable that, in 30 years of public service, you could not have formed an opinion on this matter," Kennedy said. "So I would again ask that you simply answer the question: who would win in a fight, Wolverine or Batman?"
(via Bookslut)

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

My Very First Linkdump...

I try not to look at reviews of a book that I'm planning to write about, partly to avoid confusing my own thoughts with those of other people but mainly because whatever I have to say, odds are someone else has said it already, and said it better. Having gotten what I had to say about The Baroque Cycle out of my system, however, I was free to roam the 'net and see what others thought. Here's a bit of what I found:

  • In The Washington Post, Gregory Feeley makes an excellent point about Stephenson's anachronistic politics:
    And the anachronisms go further than turns of phrase. Stephenson's characters are invariably presented as good or bad according to whether they espouse beliefs that hold up today, and 18th-century London seems to interest him only insofar as it presages the modern era. For all its fearsome book-learning, the Baroque Cycle offers only a past that reminds us of ourselves.

    This refusal to engage with the unique particularity of his setting is most evident in Stephenson's presentation of women. Those he portrays favorably are invariably geniuses who can hold their own in male spheres of activity: the cryptanalyst financial whiz Eliza, Newton's brilliant niece Miss Barton, Princess Caroline of Brandenberg-Ansbach (who is more than equal to mediating a debate between Newton and Leibniz). Stephenson tells us about the horrors that women routinely suffered at the end of the 17th century, but I'm not sure he really believes it. His apprehension of women -- the good ones are smart, sassy and free to act like the guys -- comes across as that of a computer nerd trying to be a feminist.
  • Blogger Charles Dodgson on a possible interpretation of Stephenson's political philosophy:
    So here's another idea. In a story that's absolutely shot through with cryptograms, hidden messages, and secret identities of multiple kinds, I don't think it's going too far to suggest that the treatment of alchemy in the narrative may be deliberately intended as a metaphor for something else. Which brings me back to the other grand social transformation in the Cycle -- from a society regulated by the nobility and the church (represented, to my way of thinking, not so much by Louis XIV, important as he is to the plot, as the fictional and far more reactionary de Gex), to one regulated by currency and markets. In which case, it could all be taken as an indirect and roundabout way of hinting to the reader that this other old System of the World -- based on personal ties among titled elites -- has been encapsulated within the new, market-driven System of the World, and become a familar and even comforting presence there, though its name may have changed and its practitioners speak no more about noble titles; that it is gone from view but continues to run along beneath, as the lost river... well, you get the idea. In which context, the deliberate hiding of the old System makes a little more sense; the new System just functions better with the old one out of view.

    What makes this an interesting notion is that, whether Stephenson intended to hit the reader over the head with it or not, it's demonstrably true. Even in America, as Kevin Philips is at pains to demonstrate in the first section of Wealth and Democracy, there actually is a self-perpetuating elite, with dozens of families at least (Mellons, Rockefellers et al.) who made their money first in the nineteenth or even eighteenth century, and still have it. And for every such family whose name is at least commonly recognizable, there are quite a few more who are happier to stay in the shadows. They have their clubs, their social groups (the Bilderbergers, the Bohemian Grove) quietly still running along. Which isn't to say that it's all that's going on. The new System of the World isn't simply the old, presented through shadow-play; it has vitality of its own. Rather, it's to say that the old System is still operating, and you can't completely understand the operation of the new System without it. But there are others on the net who might, perhaps, be inclined to take this line of argument further than I would.
  • Infinity Plus' Adam Roberts gave Quicksilver and The System of the World definitive thumbs-down in his reviews of the Arthur C. Clarke nominees in 2004 and 2005. Both reviews are great fun--as negative reviews can quite often be.
    The in-jokes, the desperate over-padding, the look-ma-no-hands shifts from prose to drama, epistle, verse, diagram, journal, are ultimately more exhausting than anything else. The book is wearisome, from the sonnet on its first page to the wince-inducing author bio on the back flap ('Neal Stephenson issueth from a Clan of yeomen, itinerant Parsons, ingeniers and Natural Philosophers that hath long dwelt in the bucolick marches ... at a young age, finding himself in a pretty Humour for the writing of Romances, and discourses of Natural Philosophy and the Technologick Arts, he took up the pen ... ' Dear God No Please JUST STOP).
    But Roberts also makes a good point about Stephenson's compulsive name-checking:
    It is also the nature of this sort of historical pot-boiler that it cannot be bothered with non-famous people. If our hero bumps into lens grinder at a market, said lens grinder cannot under any circumstances be just an ordinary lens grinder. He must be Spinoza. Jack, wandering about what will later become a battlefield, sees a soldier planting his broadsword in the turf and praying before the cross of blade and handle. This can't be any old soldier, no of course not. 'As Jack was leaving he recognized the man with the broadsword as King John Sobieski'. Of course he did. The tenor of Stephenson's history is that famous people mingle with famous people; the surface density of detail, of glory and misery, of finery and squalor, masks a miserably attenuated sense of history into which no non-famous people intrude. This is an absolute sine qua non of the Forever Amber School of historical fiction, for why would the Reader be interested in nobodies?
  • And the inimitable John Clute takes Stephenson to school in his review of The System of the World (he also correctly points out that Stephenson has a lot of nerve to chart Jack and Eliza's journey back to each other over some 2,000 pages and then neglect to show us their reunion):
    To get at the monumental blockhead obdurate wrongness of the book, we need to begin at smart. Almost every single sentence Stephenson writes is exactly that: vividly and visibly intelligent, sprightly, witty, learned, sly, often camp; every sentence, taken in isolation, conveys a storytelling urgency, a sense that a contract of trust between teller and hearer, between smart novelist and smart reader, has been honored. It is only when we begin to understand that the contract has been honored in the detail but not the whole that we begin to see how System has gone so badly wrong: because the larger units of the novel, some of them hundreds of sentences long, have been bolted together with no regard at all to the pace of the whole. There are thousands of good turns of phrase in the 900 pages of System, and almost every one of them strangles in the stony abomination of Unsort.

    It is not just hugeness, it is a frozen paroxysm of hugeness, an immovable and unstoryable stone face of data incantation, a deafening dead shout in which nuance or elision or pace or shape seem literally to be unthinkable. A single chapter of this frozen unstory might read as a tour de force, an impertinence of overkill—because of the astonishing energy and grasp of Stephenson's portrayal of the inner grammars connecting 18th-century architecture, city planning, philosophy, politics, economics, into a series of great intersecting arguments about the nature of consequences. But two chapters, laid end to end, alarm the reader; and a hundred chapters drive the reader into self-protective hypnagogy, into a Darwinian dream state in which bits of story slide through the battered mind like straws to grasp, though not for more than an instant can the fact be avoided that never in this vast desert superba, never in this overweening pridefulness of infodump, does the author blink, never does he relent into telling his tale at a pace human beings can breathe to. We were not designed for this. We were not designed to sprint marathons. The Baroque Cycle is too big for folk. It is too deeply frozen into size to be told. There can be no doubt that Stephenson wrote The Baroque Cycle; but one might, I think, fairly ask: Did he ever read it?

The Baroque Cycle: How I Learned to Stop Loving and Start Worrying About Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson is famously bad at endings. His books don't end so much as stop, sometimes so abruptly that one is left to imagine Stephenson's beleaguered publisher sneaking into his house in the dead of night, rifling through whatever manuscript he's currently working on until they reach a plausible stopping point and absconding with it into the night. One of these days, I suppose, when Stephenson becomes even more of a superstar than he is now, we'll start seeing the publication of massive addenda to his previous books, and find out how Randy Waterhouse or Nell made their way out of the messes Stephenson left them in, and what they did after.

Looking at the sheer heft of The Baroque Cycle (2,700 pages, give or take) and taking into account Stephenson's inability to conclude a story, the obvious conclusion is that he's taken this proclivity to extremes. Granted a large enough canvas, he just kept writing and writing and writing until he wore out even the indulgence of a publisher who'd seen him take Cryptonomicon to The New York Times bestseller list. This is, in fact, not the case. Surprisingly enough, The Baroque Cycle (for really, the three volumes are so obviously of a piece that they can only be considered as a single work) ends quite well. In fact, and in one of several obvious homages to The Lord of the Rings, it ends quite languorously, cheerfully wrapping up each of its plotlines and politely letting us know what happens to each of its many protagonists. If there's a problem with the Cycle's construction, it is rather that Stephenson keeps delaying its beginning.

Inasmuch as The Baroque Cycle can be said to have a plot, it starts in The System of the World, the third volume in the series. The previous two volumes--Quicksilver and The Confusion--are essentially scene-setting. The first introduces us to our main characters, their personal histories, their social circles, their friends and enemies, the prevailing religious, political and financial climates of their eras, etc. etc. ad nauseam. The second tells us how each of these characters came to be in the situation that the beginning of System finds them in. Reading the entire series, therefore, is probably not unlike watching the Star Wars prequels before watching A New Hope--some of the details are interesting, a few of them are important to the plot, but you'd like the story to start now, please. With some judicious editing, most of the pertinent information in Quicksilver and The Confusion could have been conveyed in 100-200 pages, which, coupled with the fact that there's plenty of fat to be trimmed in The System of the World, would have given us the entire story in one volume, roughly the same size as Cryptonomicon.

But not necessarily of the same quality. I'd like to be able to say that all of The Baroque Cycle's problems are structural, but this simply isn't the case. Even in The System of the World, it would be inaccurate to say that anything actually happens. Or rather, things happen, but in such tiny increments that one hardly notices an event until it's passed and everyone's started talking about it. Which is, obviously, life-like, but Stephenson isn't a skilled enough writer to make his mimicry of the real world as compelling as fiction. Stephenson's never been the kind of writer you read for his characters or for his nuanced portraits of human nature, but even by his standards, the Cycle is chilly and inhuman. Daniel Waterhouse, the character who is supposedly the heart and moral compass of the story, is fun enough as such things go--his sarcasm and refusal to take seriously matters that are of great importance to the leading figures, political and scientific, of his era are diverting, but they don't add up to an actual person. The less said about Eliza, the teenage harem slave/financial genius/policial savant, or any of the other female characters in the Cycle, the better. Jack Shaftoe is probably the closest the book comes to an actual person (unless one counts Roger Comstock, who steals every one of his scenes in all three volumes). In fact, my favorite segment of the Cycle is "Bonanza"--in which Jack spends years pursuing various treasures--which is practically extraneous to the story. But even in Jack's case the readers are kept at a distance--we see through his eyes but only rarely into his heart. The result isn't so much a story as it is a sequence of events, with very little to compel the reader to care except for Stephenson's ideas and his obvious intelligence.

At this point, Stephenson's fans would be well within their rights to point out that these are indeed the main reasons for reading his fiction, and that the flaws I pointed out in The Baroque Cycle have been present in all of his previous novels. For that matter, Cryptonomicon, one of my favorite books, one that I've reread in its entirety at least once and gone back to read favorite passages from on numerous occasions, has them all in spades: the meandering, plotless story; the flat, unconvincing characters; the emphasis on cleverness rather than emotion. Ever since I finished Quicksilver I've been wondering why the same flaws that were so detrimental to my reading experience in The Baroque Cycle were practically perks when I read Cryptonomicon.

The first answer I came up with was humor. Cryptonomicon is funny. Laugh-out-loud, side-splitting, oh-my-God-I-can't-breathe funny. There are entire chapters in the book (wisdom teeth, Grandma's furniture, the trip through the jungle) that exist for no other reason than that Stephenson had a funny idea and decided to write it down. Do these chapters slow down the story? Sure, but they are well worth the delay. More importantly, humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. There's an irreverence to the story that counteracts the chilliness of Stephenson's characters. The Baroque Cycle, in comparison, is painfully earnest. There were almost no funny bits in Quicksilver, and only a few in The Confusion and The System of the World.

When I asked myself why a writer as inherently funny as Stephenson would choose to so disastrously tone down his humorous tendencies, I came up with the second, and more insidious, reason for the difference in my reactions to the two books. The Baroque Cycle is Stephenson's attempt at spelling out a political/social/scientific/economic philosophy. He sees the 17th and 18th centuries as a crucial turning point in human history in all of these disciplines: the beginning of the end of class-based society, replaced by a semi-meritocracy; the death knell of science as a set of esoteric mysteries and the foundation of modern scientific methods and institutions; the earliest glimmer of the notion that there might be better ways to settle political disputes than to make war; most importantly, a new way of looking at money--not as wealth, to be accumulated and hoarded, but as a means to an end, which must constantly be kept in motion in order to do the most good and spur the most change.

When Enoch Root lays out this philosophy in a dozen pages towards the end of Cryptonomicon, galvanizing Randy Waterhouse and preparing him for the book's nominal climax, readers are intrigued. Enoch's argument is lucid and fascinating, a different way of looking at human history, the role of money, and the inherent possibilities of technology. The Baroque Cycle is to this short, compelling interlude as a shovel to the head is to a gentle tap on the shoulder. Within a dozen pages in The System of the World, two different black hats (we can tell they're evil because one of them deals in slaves and the other is a psychotic priest who once burned down an entire galleon) take time out of their busy schedules to lament the very changes that, according to Stephenson, are our only path to a truly just and free society:
"Money, and all that comes with it, disgusts me." said Father Edouard de Gex ... "Within living memory, men and women of noble birth did not even have to think about it. Oh, there were rich nobles and poor, just as there were tall and short, beautiful and ugly. But it would never have entered the mind of even a peasant to phant'sy that a penniless Duke was any less a Duke, or that a rich whore ought to be made a Duchess. ... To nobles, clerics, and peasants--the only people needed or wanted in a decent Christian Realm--coins were as alien, eldritch, inexplicable as communion wafers to a Hindoo. ... But what has happened of late is monstrous. The money-cult has spread faster across what used to be Christendom than the faith of Mahomet did across Araby. I did not grasp the enormity of it until you came to Versailles as an infamous Dutch whore, a plaything of diseased bankers, and shortly were ennobled--made into a Countess, complete with a fabricated pedigree--and why? Because you had noble qualities? No. Only because you were Good with Money--a high sorceress of the coin-cult--and so were adored by the same sort of degraded Versailles court-fops who would gather in abandoned churches at midnight to recite the Black Mass."
De Gex goes on to envision a future free of money, in which all good Catholics labor for the greater glory of God and all bad Protestants, Puritans, Huguenots and Jews are at the bottom of the ocean, a future he intends to usher in by burning Eliza at the stake. Placing your opposing argument in the mouth of a raving lunatic is an effective (if not entirely honorable) rhetorical trick, so long as it's not taken too far. But of course Stephenson has taken it too far, and the result is less a book than a tract. Frequently during The Baroque Cycle, the narrative grinds to halt to accommodate several pages of laborious description or an info-dump on something that Stephenson found absolutely fascinating such as the workings of 18th century London prisons or how to produce phosphorus from urine, but these asides are not nearly as tedious as Stephenson's editorializing. An author with a lighter touch--or a less pressing agenda--would have recognized the inherent fascination of a story about a new scientific, political and economic system coming into being, and not peppered his novel with these ham-handed attempts to draw the readers' attention and guide their conclusions.

When I finished The Confusion, I announced that I was angry at Stephenson for compelling me to read what I knew was a bloated, overlong, plotless story, but more importantly, for compelling me to enjoy every minute of it. The Confusion is still my favorite of the three volumes that make up The Baroque Cycle, probably because of "Bonanza", but looking back I can see that 'enjoy' was probably too strong a word. I don't want to say that I read The Baroque Cycle out of a sense of duty, or that I regret reading it, but neither is it accurate to say that I needed to know what would happen next. I don't honestly know why I read the entire Cycle, except that for all its bloat, I didn't dislike it. At the same time, I don't want to criticize Stephenson too harshly. I did take pleasure out of The Baroque Cycle, and I'll almost certainly be reading whatever he comes up with next (probably another entry in the Cryptonomicon universe). Even when he's strident and criminally under-edited, Stephenson is one hell of a writer. He needs, as Huygens tells Eliza halfway through Quicksilver, to readjust himself, take stock of his goals and how he's been missing them, but whether or not he does, I'll still be there.

Not for much longer, though.

Friday, September 09, 2005

All Amoral, Oversexed Villainesses are Alike...

The conventional wisdom seems to be that I should give HBO's Rome a few more episodes to get its feet under it. I probably will--there's nothing to watch anyway these days except Battlestar Galactica--but at this point it's hard to escape the conclusion that the show is nothing more than an I, Claudius knockoff, and not a very good one at that. I like the 'man on the ground' idea that the show seems to be moving towards in theory, but if the second episode is any indication the writers' implementation of this concept has a Forrest Gump-ishness to it that's turning me right off the entire show.

Perversely enough, the character the writers are obviously hanging their hopes on to draw viewers in is the one who's most likely to drive me away. I imagine that somewhere in HBO's head offices, someone is chuckling over their 'innovative' and 'groundbreaking' decision to write a female villain who uses sex as a weapon and manipulates even her own children to achieve her ends. Someone who's never seen any television before, that is. I know Livia, I've watched Livia, and Atia of the Julii, Rome's Alexis Carrington clone, is no Livia. She's not even Alexis Carrington.

In a show with a defined hero or protagonist, a cartoonish villain isn't a big problem. It's nicer when the villains have layers (although usually 'layers' translates into 'a difficult childhood'), but as long as our point of view character is complex, we don't really need that complexity from their antagonists. Rome, thus far, doesn't have protagonists. Even the most compelling characters (and I'm grading on a curve here) don't come close to protagonism. In a show like this one, all the main characters have to be layered and believably human in order to keep the show from descending into a farce. One mustache-twirler can drag down the entire ensemble.

I suppose television reviewers are going to call Atia 'deliciously nasty' or 'fun to watch'. Whatever. I just find her boring and predictable, not to mention painfully familiar. Female villains are all the rage these days (presumably because TV writers still haven't gotten 'but women are all sweetness and light!' out of their systems), but rarely are they anything other than a stock type--The Oversexed Narcissist, The Ball-buster, or Lady Macbeth (I suspect that Rome's writers want us to think that Atia is the last, and most interesting, of the three, but guys, who are we kidding). I'm probably alone in finding characters like Atia or Battlestar Galactica's Six tedious, as they just keep cropping up and enjoying great popularity, but just once I'd like to see female villains enjoy the complexity of their male counterparts.

When we first meet Deadwood's Al Swearengen, he steps on the throat of one of his whores until she promises never to disobey him again (disobeying him, in this context, means shooting a customer who beat her). Later that same day we watch him con a New York dandy out of $20,000 and slit a man's throat in cold blood. In the episode's final scene, the same whore comes to Al's bedroom and gets into bed with him. The camera focuses on Al's face, showing just the barest hint of emotion at this unearned affection.

The lesson of that scene isn't that deep inside, Al is a big softy (unless, that is, you've watched Deadwood's second season, in which Al was transformed from a complicated villain into a lovable rogue), except in the sense that we all are. Even the worst villains among us are human, and like all of us they crave comfort, affection and safety. Al Swearengen is (or was) a brilliant villain because the writers acknowledged that, although his choices in life had all but calcified his soul, he was still a human being, with all the attendant foibles and weaknesses. The same is true of Tony Soprano. He's a frightening, dangerous man, but even this stone-cold killer often finds himself helpless and terrified by the cruelty and capriciousness of the world.

That's not something you see in female villains. Bad girls are never as human as bad guys. They are ruled completely by their villainous desires and by their coldly logical machinations. This might seem like a compliment (women are better villains than men) but it's actually just bad writing--an inability to conceive of a woman who is morally depraved and still human.

The only female villain I can think of who escaped this cliché is Angel's Lila Morgan during the show's superb fourth season. Lila, a lawyer for Wolfram & Hart, was a company girl to the core. She hated Angel and took great pleasure in causing him pain, and her other projects for her employers included robbing impoverished children, manipulating a young victim of sexual abuse into becoming an assassin for Wolfram & Hart, and securing the freedom of a mysoginistic serial killer. For all her depravity, however, Lila was still capable of something resembling love. She genuinely cared for Wesley, and their strange and twisted relationship was oddly romantic. I was actually rooting for them to work, but at the same time I knew that they never could, for the simple reason that love didn't save Lila--she was still a souless minion of evil even when she cared about Wesley, and that contradiction made her a fascinating character.

The reason that most of our TV villainesses are closer to Atia than to Lila Morgan is that television writers don't seem to have gotten a handle on that complexity. The ability of the mind to contradict itself, to hold on to mutually exclusive notions, is part of what makes us human beings, rather than just logical automatons. But when it comes to women, such contradictions aren't allowed. The problem isn't that women aren't allowed to be good or evil. It's that they're not allowed to be complicated.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Matt Cheney Tells It Like It Is

The trap many aspiring literary writers fall into is in mistaking static situations for dramatic situations. Most people who are drawn to writing literary fiction have a particular love for language, metaphor, imagery, and small moments of psychological revelation. It's a rare writer who can create anything particularly satisfying from those elements alone, however. (I recently described a book I found unreadable by saying that somebody must have told the author he wrote beautiful sentences, and so he decided to run out and fill 450 pages with them.) If a writer wants a narrative to be compelling, if they want a reader to feel a certain need to continue to read it, then they should try to make change central to the story rather than try to make a story that is a portrait of a few moments, a setting and characters caught in amber, a collection of moods. What has been written could be sensitive, it could be lovely, it could even be evocative, but it's unlikely to be compelling, and unless a story is either very short or a work of genius, it's going to need to compel readers to keep reading it instead of reading something else.

On the other hand, the trap many aspiring writers of popular fiction fall into is mistaking lots of action for a story. Lots of action might be compelling in video games, where the audience participates, but it's monotonous in a narrative unless it is linked to other elements, because there's just no reason to keep reading it when there are plenty of other stories that offer something more than just a bunch of titillating events.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Adaptation Season

Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is one of my all-time favorite novels (her upcoming Wickett's Remedy would have been on my most-anticipated list a few weeks ago were it not scandalously forgotten). I've been nervous about the film adaptation for a while (Richard Gere as Saul? Juliette Binoche as Miriam? They're both about as Jewish as Madonna). Now that the trailer has come along, I can see that nervousness was the wrong reaction--I should have just written the whole film off as soon as I heard about it.
Contrary to what you might assume from watching the trailer, Bee Season isn't a heartwarming drama about a damaged family coming together. It is a heartbreaking drama about a damaged family falling to pieces. More importantly, it's a book about the search for God in everyday life, and about the different ways in which people can approach that search--arrogance, obsession, spite, humility.

The six minute featurette on the same site only serves to demonstrate how far the writers have deviated from their source material. In the book, Saul isn't a well-meaning control freak; he's an arrogant prick who uses his children's accomplishments to dull the pain of his own failed ambitions. Similarly, although Miriam is an obsessive-compulsive kleptomaniac, in the book she doesn't want to get better--she believes that her actions are helping to perfect the world. The entire thrust of the film seems to be that the Naumanns' problems can be solved, with Eliza's ascent to the National Spelling Bee Championship as the catalyst, whereas the book unequivocally states that the Naumanns are beyond repair--even when one member of the family achieves spiritual enlightenment. It's a complete reversal of the book's central theme.

Why do the people who write film adaptations do this? Pride and Prejudice isn't a romantic comedy. Moll Flanders and Vanity Fair aren't stories about damaged young women looking for love in all the wrong places. The English Patient isn't a love story. Why adapt the novel if you're going to ignore the very things that make it what it is?

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Obligatory Buffyverse Post

A local channel has been airing Buffy the Vampire Slayer every day, from the beginning. Apart from the fact that this gave me a chance to catch up on a few episodes I had managed to miss (early seasons 1 and 4, and yes, I know that was no great loss), there's something to be said for watching the show in concentrated form. Some things became clear that I had only been vaguely aware of, such as how mind-bogglingly terrible the first season was, how quickly the second season went from merely good to freaking great, how open and cheerful Buffy was in the beginning of the second season, and how Angel losing his soul makes a gigantic dent in hers. It's easier to start seeing the show as a single story about a person who struggles against the loss of her humanity--not just because of her superhuman legacy, but because of the all-too-human impulse to protect herself from pain by cutting herself off from the world.

Last week was the end of the fifth season. I must have seen "The Gift" four or five times by now, and the final scene still leaves me wrung out and tearful. This time, it wasn't Buffy's heroic swan dive that got to me, but the moments that precede it. You can see the relief flooding across Buffy's face as she realizes what she has to do--not just at the knowledge that she doesn't have to sacrifice her sister to save the world, but at the realization that, for once in her life, she doesn't have to be a death-dealer. Her sacrifice isn't just heroic--it is triumphant, the victory of Buffy's humanity and her love for her friends and family.

All of which just hammers in how empty and meaningless Angel's corresponding sacrifice was at the end of his series. If Buffy was a show about a person burdened with superhuman powers and responsibility who struggles to maintain her humanity, Angel revolved around a human (mentally, if not physically) who chooses to shoulder a superhuman undertaking and finds himself crippled by its weight. Again and again, Angel is confronted with an impossible truth--that the fight for good can never be won, and that it must never be abandoned. Again and again, he finds himself unequal to the burden of that knowledge--he chooses to fight against evil rather than for good, abdicating his role as a champion. Again and again, he is forced to recognize the destructive darkness of that path, and returns to his role as a protector.

The most obvious iteration of this journey in and out of darkness is the second season Darla arc--enraged by his inability to save Darla's life and soul from the monolithically evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, Angel abandons his mission in favor of a quest for vengeance. He attempts honorable suicide by taking on Wolfram & Hart's senior partners single-handedly and, when he fails to either defeat the senior partners or lose his life, attempts dishonorable suicide in Darla's arms, hoping that a moment of passion will rid him of his soul. Instead of losing his soul, however, Angel gains an epiphany, realizing the importance of the neverending struggle to make the world a better place. This cycle--of despair and disillusionment, redemption and hope--recurs throughout the series, but it's puzzling to me that Joss Whedon chose to end the series with not only Angel but the entire cast on the downward slope.

Although three seasons previously Angel's friends were ready to chastise him for losing sight of his mission, by the end of the fifth season they are all eager to join him in a suicidal strike against the senior partners' representatives on earth. In the show's last moments, Angel and his surviving compatriots face an army which they can never hope to defeat, and rise up against it for one final, hopeless stand. It is a valiant moment, an honorable one, even, but are the choices that led to it equally honorable?

In the episode's penultimate scene, Angel is joined by Connor, who quips that "[Angel comes] to see me and the world isn't ending?" The most important lesson Angel ever tried to instill in his son is the difference between being a fighter and being a champion. The latter "live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be." At the show's end, Connor has finally learned the lesson, and he assumes that his father has stepped up to protect the world. In reality, Angel has called down this disaster upon himself, as an act of vengeance for Fred's death. In theory, destroying the Circle of the Black Thorn lands a crushing blow on Wolfram & Hart's plans for the apocalypse, but Angel knows that the apocalypse has already started--it is in the cold and harsh world that he can see out of his window, in the myriad acts of malice and evil, tiny and great, that take place every day. Faced with the Herculean task of overcoming this sort of apocalypse, Angel's approach seems like the easy way out. Rather than continuing to help the people suffering from this apocalypse, Angel chooses to leave them.

To my mind, the most important scene in "Not Fade Away" is Gunn's talk with Anne, who runs a youth crisis center in Gunn's old neighborhood, a difficult and hopeless task if ever there was one. Gunn asks Anne what she would do if she learned that she was powerless before the forces that sought to destroy her world, and that all her hard work to make it a better place meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. The look on Anne's face is answer enough, and I think we're supposed to learn from it that Angel's actions are justified, no matter how meaningless. I can't help but feel, however, that if Anne had known what Gunn was planning to do later that day, she would have whupped him upside the head, told him to get over himself, and given him more furniture to move.

There's no question that Angel deserved to die at the end of its fifth season. The show's overall quality never approached Buffy's, and the fifth season quickly squandered the goodwill that the third and fourth seasons had generated--the female characters were killed off or marginalized, the intriguing multi-episode stories were replaced by standalones, most of which were barely watchable, Spike was brought in but given nothing to do, and Angel himself became dull and chilly. I can't even get too upset at Whedon's decision to kill off the entire cast in the finale. It was well done, and a suitably heroic end for our heroes. It's the decisions that brought Angel and his compatriots to that point that strike me as a betrayal of the show's central theme--to the point where I can't help but wonder if it was done intentionally, if the suicide wasn't (figuratively) Joss Whedon's, who had grown tired with fighting for his invented universe (and after watching the network tweak his show into irrelevance for an entire season, I can't say I blame him) and preferred to go out in a pointless blaze of glory.