Friday, July 29, 2005

Whoville

I was pointed in the direction of Andrew Rilstone's blog during a discussion about the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. If Rilstone's keen wit and crisp prose weren't enough to keep me coming back for more, there was the fact that, while his reactions to the individual films were largely the same as mine, his ultimate feelings about them were the complete opposite. I've made a rather thorough review of Andrew's blog (and his older website) since then, and have discovered in him a rare treasure--a person with whom it a genuine joy to disagree. Although Andrew's perspective is frequently more harshly fannish than my own (how, for example, can you damn Peter Jackson's films and praise The Phantom Menace?), he is such a perceptive and insightful writer that I always walk away from his posts with something new to think about.

Andrew is also largely the reason I ended up watching the new incarnation of Doctor Who. You may have heard, from various media sources, that the SciFi Channel's reimagination of Battlestar Galactica is the best new science fiction on TV, but this is simply not the case. With its overpowering exuberance, compelling performances, and infectious humor, Who leaves Galactica struggling for second place. For most of the first season (and before it), Andrew provided a running commentary at the level of excellence I'd grown accustomed to expect from him, but just at the season finale, he decided to become succinct. My hopes that this entry was merely meant to provide Andrew with an interlude to gather his thoughts in preparation for a marvelously detailed critique of the episode and the season in general, hopefully on the scale of his six- (or possibly eight-) part series about Revenge of the Sith have thus far proved unfounded. Happily, I now have a forum of my own (it's probably not overstating the case to say that I started this blog in order to have a place from which to discuss Andrew's thoughts about DW).

So, without knowing Andrew's fully-formed opinion (which, at the time of the entry's posting, he may not have known himself) and with the understanding that everything I know about Doctor Who I learned from Andrew himself and this extremely helpful Wikipedia entry, let's answer Andrew's question.

Is the resolution of "The Parting of the Ways" a deus ex machina?

Andrew's accused DW of taking the deus ex machina route before. In his blog entry of May 11th, he writes:
Another problem is the show's embarrassing fondness for deus ex machina. ... it is getting wearisome that each week, there is a magic button that the Doctor or one of his companions can push to end the story. (Week 1: The Doctor happens to have a cannister of "alien destroying chemical" in his pocket. Week 2: There happens to be a "defeat the baddies" button hidden on the ship. Week 3: The guest star realises that the aliens go away if your turn the gas on. Week 4/5 The Doctor has a secret code word to call in an airstrike Week 7: The alien goes away if you turn the heating up.)
Which seems to me a rather drastic interpretation of what a deus ex machina is. Yes, in the first episode of the season, the Doctor had a vial of alien-killing chemical on him. However, as Andrew himself pointed out in his review of the episode, the story starts in media res and is told from Rose's perspective. For all we know, the Doctor came up with the formula for the alien-killing chemical after years of careful study, gathered the ingredients at great personal risk (making his way through the slave-pits of Ur, the icy slopes of Mount Eee, and the Jaxen-beast infested wastelands of Makek), and combined them in a chemical reaction so dangerous and volatile that it has been declared illegal and punishable by death on three different planets. Or he picked it up at the supermarket on his way home from the movies. The point of the story isn't how the Doctor saved the world from the Nestene consciousness but how he met Rose, and how, when he very nearly failed to save the world from the Nestene consciousness, she risked her own life to help him.

It's a theme that recurs throughout the season. Yes, there's a Stop Platform One From Exploding button in "The End of the World", but the Doctor only reaches it because Jabe sacrifices her life so that he can do so (and because he walks through a series of giant swinging blades, but the only proper reaction to this kind of obstacle is a Gwen Demarco shriek of "This episode was badly written!" Let us never speak of it again). Yes, Dickens figures out that turning up the gas weakens the aliens in "The Unquiet Dead" (and really, is a solution still a deus ex machina if it has to be figured out?), but without Gwyneth's sacrifice, the rift still would have opened. The "Aliens of London"/"World War Three" two-parter isn't about how the Doctor bravely defeats the aliens but about how he struggles with the question of saving the world but risking Rose and Harriet Jones' life, and how Rose, Harriet, Jackie and Mickey accept that this is a reasonable trade.

What Andrew might be trying to say, for which deus ex machina might be a misleading catch-phrase, is that the resolutions of most of the episodes in this season of Doctor Who have been simple. Most of them are arrived at with great ease. Quite a few rely on technobabble.* "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" is a good example of both, and do you know what? It's still my favorite story of the season. Because it's eerie and really quite frightening. Because the guest characters are interesting and well-acted. Because Jack has instant chemistry with Rose and the Doctor. Because there are some wonderful lines and great character moments. And, of course, because of the Doctor's sheer infectious joy at the end.

In almost every episode this season, the parts have been greater than the whole. The minute the crisis is introduced, you know exactly how "Father's Day" is going to end. In fact, from the moment the Doctor stupidly agrees to take Rose back to the day of her father's death, you know exactly how the episode will play out, from beginning to end. Nevertheless, "Father's Day" is a grueling, heart-wrenching 45 minutes of television (my own opinion is probably biased--I lost my father at a young age before I could really get to know him--but I know other people reacted similarly). In an ideal world, would the DW writers be able to wrap their excellent character development, good lines, and great humor inside good stories with interesting and exciting resolutions? Yes. But if forced to choose between the former and the latter, I know which I prefer. In the long run, I'd like to see better stories on this show, but it's the strength of the characters that convinces me they are worth waiting for.

But I've veered away from the question. Is the resolution of "The Parting of the Ways" a deus ex machina?

On the one hand, yes, of course. There is literally a god nestled in the machine of the TARDIS. It emerges at the end of the episode and saves the world, taking the entire Dalek fleet apart with a wave of its hand. If our characters are playing pieces on a chess board, the ending of "The Parting of the Ways" is the player's hand, sweeping away the entire opposing side and even bringing back the knight we lost in the previous turn.

And yet. A deus ex machina ending is unsatisfying not because the god emerging from the machine is so powerful but because we don't know why it has done so. For some reason, this all-powerful creature has allied itself with our hero and against our villain. For some reason, it has taken time out of its busy schedule to meddle in the affairs of creatures as insignificant to itself as ants are to us. Why? Why now? If the god in the TARDIS cares about the Doctor so much, couldn't it simply have prevented the Dalek Emperor from escaping in the first place?

The answer to these questions is the reason that the resolution to "The Parting of the Ways" isn't a deus ex machina. The god in the TARDIS doesn't emerge of its own volition. It has to be forced. It has to be carried, at great personal risk, by Rose, who very nearly loses her life in the process.

It isn't another easy ending. In order for the Dalek army to be defeated, the following things have to happen:
  • The Doctor has to choose to preserve Rose's life and send her and the TARDIS out of harm's way.
  • Rose has to reject The Doctor's request that she live a normal life and choose to return to help him.
  • Rose has to realize that Bad Wolf is a message for her, and what it means, and how she can force the TARDIS to return to Satellite 5.
  • Mickey and Jackie have to choose to help Rose to accomplish this.
  • Rose has to risk her life by not only returning to a losing battle but also by looking into the heart of the TARDIS**.
It is through all of these decisions, and through Rose's sacrifice, that the world is saved. Nothing could be further from a deus ex machina.

Sacrifice, as previously mentioned, shows up again and again throughout the season. It is the question at the core of the ninth Doctor's character. Most of us would agree that sacrificing ourselves to save many others is justified and right. It's a decision that requires 'merely' courage and selflessness. But what happens when you're asked to sacrifice not your own life but the lives of others? Is it right to risk the world in order to save a loved one? Is it right to sacrifice an entire planet to stop a deadly menace? The first season of the new Doctor Who started with a character who had answered that last question with an affirmative, and was suffering from the crippling doubt that naturally resulted from that decision. At the end of the season, the Doctor refused to make the choice again; instead, both he and Rose chose to sacrifice their own lives for someone they loved. Taken as one continuous narrative, the season is not only a good character exploration or a collection of funny lines, but a damn fine story with a completely satisfying ending. In the end, the new Doctor Who is greater than the sum of its parts.

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* I suspect that for Andrew, a DW fan from way back who is used to multi-episode storylines, the quick and dirty resolution of so many of the stories in the first season rankles far more than it does for someone like myself. Endings are famously a problem for shows like DW, in which potential menaces are limited only by the writers' imagination--just look at Buffy (no weapon forged can defeat this demon, so let's attack him with a bazooka!)--but if you're already reeling from what appears to be a truncated format, the rush to solve the problem in the episode's final act must seem particularly inorganic.

** One of the great things about "The Parting of the Ways" is that it retroactively justifies the existence of "Boom Town", one of the season's weakest entries. That episode did have a deus ex machina ending, but it served to teach Rose about the heart of the TARDIS and its dangers.

And People Complain About Political Undertones in Tolkien and Lewis

From T.H. White's The Once and Future King:

Everybody was happy. The Saxons were slaves to their Norman masters if you chose to look at it in one way--but, if you chose to look at it in another, they were the same farm labourers who get along on too few shillings a week today. Only neither the villein nor the farm labourer starved, when the master was a man like Sir Ector. It has never been an economic proposition for an owner of cattle to starve his cows, so why should an owner of slaves starve them? The truth is that even nowadays the farm labourer accepts so little money because he does not have to throw his soul in with the bargain--as he would have to do in a town--and the same freedom of spirit has obtained in the country since the earliest times. The villeins were labourers. They lived in the same one-roomed hut with their families, few chickens, litter of pigs, or with a cow possibly called Crumbocke--most dreadful and insanitary! But they liked it. They were healthy, free of an air with no factory smoke in it, and, which was most of all to them, their heart's interest was bound up with their skill in labour. They knew that Sir Ector was proud of them. They were more valuable to him than his cattle even, and, as he valued his cattle more than anything else except his children, this was saying a good deal. He walked and worked among his villagers, thought of their welfare, and could tell the good workman from the bad. He was the eternal farmer, in fact--one of those people who seem to be employing labour at so many shillings a week, but who are actually paying half as much again in voluntary overtime, providing a cottage free, and possibly making an extra present of milk and eggs and home-brewed beer into the bargain. In other parts of the Gramarye, of course, there did exist wicked and despotic masters--feudal gangsters whom it was to be King Arthur's destiny to chasten--but the evil was in the bad people who abused it, not in the feudal system.

"But they must listen." Small flecks in the iris of Mordred's eyes burned with a turquoise light, as bright as the owl's. Instead of being a foppish man with a crooked shoulder, dressed in extravagant clothes, he became a Cause. He became, on this matter, everything which Arthur was not--the irreconcilable opposite of the Englishman. He became the invincible Gael, the scion of desperate races more ancient than Arthur's, and more subtle. Now, when he was on fire with his Cause, Artur's justice seemed bourgeois and obtuse beside him. It seemed merely to be dull complacency, beside the savagery and feral wit of the Pict. His maternal ancestors crowded into his face when he was spurning at Arthur--ancestors whose civilization, like Mordred's, had been matriarchal: who had ridden bare-back, charged in chariots, fought by stratagem, and ornamented their grisly strongholds with the heads of enemies. They had marched, long-haired and ferocious, an ancient writer tells us, "sword in hand, against rivers in flood or against the storm-tossed ocean." They were the race, now represented by the Irish Republican Army rather than by the Scots Nationalists, who had always murdered landlords and blamed them for being murdered--the race which could make a national hero of a man like Lynchahaun, because he bit off a woman's nose and she a Gall--the race which had been expelled by the volcano of history into the far quarters of the globe, where, with a venomous sense of grievance and inferiority, they even nowadays proclaim their ancient megalomania. They were the Catholics who could fly directly in the face of any pope or saint--Adrian, Alexander or St. Jerome--if the saint's policies did not suit their own convenience: the hysterically touchy, sorrowful, flayed defenders of a broken heritage. They were the race whose barbarous, cunning valiant defiance had been enslaved, long centuries before, by the foreign people whom Arthur represented. This was one of the barriers between the father and his son.


And yet, for all that, still more fun and less insulting than the humorless, shrill The Mists of Avalon.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Condensed

(Inspired by.)

Book I

Pullman: Religion is Evil.

Readers: Why?

Pullman: Because priests kill babies.

Readers: No they don't. You just made that up in the book.

Pullman: Shut up! Look at Iorek Byrnison!

Readers: Hey, he is cool. (Iorek does cool stuff for one book and then spends the next two books being completely boring, chasing after Lyra.)

Book II

Pullman: God is Evil.

Readers: Why?

Pullman: Because priests kill babies.

Readers: No they don't. Hey, how come you can't seem to separate organized religion and God? And how come the only organized religion in your books is Catholicism?

Pullman: Shut up! Look at Will!

Readers: Hey, he is really cool. (Will does really cool stuff for one book and then spends the next book being completely boring, chasing after Lyra.)

Book III

Pullman: God, religion, and any person of faith are Evil.

Readers: Why?

Pullman: Sheesh, are you deaf? They kill babies!

Readers: Hang on, the leader of the fight against God also killed a baby. Why isn't he evil?

Pullman: No he didn't.

Readers: Yes he did, it's right here in the first book.

Pullman: Shut up! Look at Will and Lyra having sex!

Readers: Urg. Isn't Lyra ten?

Pullman: She's twelve now.

Readers: Well, that makes it all better, then.

Lyra: Even though I've never shown any interest in religion or the struggle against God, and I've never really been taught anything about the subject, I will now give a long stirring speech about establishing the Republic of Heaven, just in case there are still readers who aren't brainwa... I mean convinced. (Book ends.)

Pullman: Remember, God is Evil.

The 30-Second Bunnies Strike Again

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Because Some Lines are Too Good Not to Quote

You have to have heard Carter speak to know how funny the next moment was. She had a reedy and somewhat thin British voice, toward the upper end of the scale, and she paused a lot when she spoke. There were a lot of ums and ahs. Before she replied, she cocked her head and said “um” once or twice. Then she said, “My work cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis.”
(Via Tingle Alley, quoting Rick Moody)

Careful, He's Educated or, Thoughts Prompted By a Computer Game

I played a lot of computer games as a kid, but the ones that I've kept playing are the Myst games. Commonly known as a game for non-gamers, Myst is brilliantly minimallistic. No cumbersome inventory management, no labored backstory, no complicated interface. Most importantly, Myst has a good story. I adored it as a young teenager, when it occupied my mind from morning till night for more than a month. Its sequel, Riven, was the Empire Strikes Back to Myst's Star Wars--a wider world full of tougher puzzles with a more interesting story that ended in several intriguing ways, not all of them complete losses or wins. The series has persisted to the present day, with two sequels (Myst III: Exile and Myst IV: Revelation) and a related game originally intended as a multi-player environment (Uru). A fifth and final installment is scheduled for release this fall.

All Myst games revolve around Atrus, one of the few survivors of a highly advanced civilization called the D'ni, whose greatest achievement, The Art, allowed them to write books through which they could travel to different worlds. In Myst, we discover that Atrus' greedy and power-hungry sons, Sirrus and Achenar, have lured him into a trap so that they could ravage his library and the worlds it linked to, eventually becoming trapped in two prison books of Atrus' devising. In Riven, the player follows Atrus' kidnapped wife Katherine to her home and matches wits against Ghen, Atrus' megalomaniacal father, who wants Atrus to repair the damage he's caused through his inept mishandling of The Art. In Exile, a former victim of Sirrus and Achenar (Brad Dourif, making ends meet before Peter Jackson and the producers of Deadwood started handing him fat and well-deserved paychecks) tries to take his revenge on Atrus by stealing his only link to the new D'ni homeworld. Revelation, which takes place a decade later, sends the player to Sirrus and Achenar's prison worlds to discover which one of them is responsible for the kidnapping of Atrus' young daughter, Yeesha.

The first two Myst games (and the three tie-in novels that tell Atrus' backstory) emphasized the fact that the good guys were highly educated, inquisitive, and scientifically minded. The bad guys were lazy, uneducated, unable or unwilling to acknowledge their intellectual inferiority and constantly looking for shortcuts on the way to knowledge and power. If that wasn't enough, the metaphor of books that allow you to influence the physical world and travel to distant places is a clear indicator of a pro-intellectualism mindset.

Things start to change in the third game, Exile, in which we get a glimpse of the process of educating someone like Atrus when we follow the villain to his prison of two decades, a lesson world written by Atrus for his sons as they began to learn The Art. These lessons, however, are nothing more than insipid New Age mantras such as "energy powers future motion".

Things get worse in Revelation. Atrus summons the player to offer an unbiased opinion on whether Sirrus and Achenar have reformed enough to be allowed out of their prisons. While exploring these prison worlds, the player gets a glimpse of how the brothers have spent their incarcerations through flashbacks and journal entries. Sirrus, the "smart" brother, immediately sets out trying to find a way out. Using only crude tools, he somehow manages to MacGyver everything from circuit boards to airships. When Atrus inserts an impervious meeting chamber into the prison world, through which he and Katherine can talk to Sirrus without allowing him to escape, their unrepentant son immediately begins trying to find a way to shatter it, going so far as to manipulate his young sister and tug on his mother's heartstrings to do so.

Achenar, on the other hand, is depicted as a lumbering, grunting he-man (the brothers' personalities in Revelation are a gigantic retcon from the original Myst, in which Sirrus was a greedy, effete abuser of alcohol and narcotics with zero understanding of technical matters, and Achenar was a giggling psychopath with dark and grotesque appetites) who uses his incarceration in a jungle world teeming with wildlife as an opportunity to hunt big game. Though not unskilled with his hands, Achenar is clearly Sirrus' intellectual inferior, as his crude handwriting and poor spelling reveal when the player reads his journals. These journals also reveal a slow but definite change in Achenar's personality. He begins to be horrified with his and Sirrus' crimes, and with his own depletion of the jungle's wildlife population. He becomes a conservationist, spending hours observing and studying the indigenous monkey population. When his mother makes him a gift of a home-made garment, the simple giant is moved to tears by its beauty and softness.

Revelation's final act takes place on the world to which Yeesha has been kidnapped, a New Age wonderland ruled by of a group of priestesses who travel to "Dream" to meet the spirits of their ancestors. There the player discovers that the still-evil Sirrus is Yeesha's kidnapper, and that he plans to take over her body in order to learn The Art from Atrus, whom he intends to kill once he's learned all he needs. Through the self-sacrifice of Achenar and, of course, the help of The Ancestors, Yeesha is saved.

The transformation is complete. From a series that extolled the values of education and erudition, Myst has turned the intellectual into a boogeyman. The only permissible kind of intelligence is the ethereal, illogical, fortune cookie "wisdom" of the spirit world. To paraphrase Achenar as he describes his quarry in the jungle world, stupidity has become a virtue.

Anyone watching popular culture depictions of academics knows that the stereotypical egghead is and always has been cowardly, weak, and effeminate (unless they are female, of course, in which case they usually aren't womanly enough). The stereotype doesn't exist without reason--if only because the kind of mindset required to do something very brave probably doesn't benefit from too much introspection or imagination--but recently it has evolved to include moral deficiency. Most worryingly, a lot of these new depictions of the academic as heartless and amoral come from science fiction--supposedly the stronghold of geeks and rationalists.
  • When Farscape's John Crichton is duplicated by an alien device, one of his copies is farther along the evolutionary scale (naturally, this copy is pale, bald and less well-hung). The more advanced Crichton is smarter than the regular one and, as the audience soon discovers, is coldly amoral. He manipulates Crichton and the rest of Moya's crew in order to preserve his own life, whereas Crichton's cave-man duplicate selflessly sacrifices himself for the greater good.
  • When the new Doctor Who picks up Adam, a self-proclaimed genius, as a companion, the young man immediately turns around and tries to make time travel work for him by stealing schematics of future computers, not caring how he might disrupt the flow of history. This is in contrast to the selfless Rose, who dropped out of school (which she hated) without getting her A-Levels.
  • Battlestar Galactica's Gaius Baltar was probably the smartest person on his planet, and when he discovered that the Cylons had used him to destroy nearly all of humanity, his first reaction was to shirk the blame and try to hide his guilt from the other surviving humans, going so far as to frame another man for being a Cylon spy. At no point during the series' first season has Baltar expressed remorse for his part in the genocide of his race.
  • Willow, the geeky best friend of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, thoughtlessly manipulates the minds of her lover and friends to prevent them from being angry at her. Buffy's mentor, the bookish Giles, proves the be the most morally flexible character in the cast when he kills a helpless man to prevent his monstrous alter-ego from reemerging, and later when he distracts Buffy as the vengeful Robin Wood tries to kill her sometimes-ally Spike.
  • On Angel, the educated Wesley Windham-Pryce betrays Angel by kidnapping his son. Even more distressing is the staunchly moral Gunn, a street kid frustrated by his intellectual limitations, who receives a magical gift of legal knowledge. He becomes so enamored with his new erudition that he betrays his friends, causing the death of one of them, rather than lose it.
The mad scientist archetype exists for a reason--genius is the flip side of madness, and it is the role of geniuses to push the limits of the possible and the permissible, and sometimes to go too far--but the plot lines I've described deal with ordinary people, not geniuses, who have chosen to contribute to the world through their intellect rather than their muscles. Without fail, all of them lose sight of the difference between right and wrong, believing themselves to be more worthy than their less intelligent peers.

I would hazard a guess that the devaluation of the academic as a moral entity has something to do with the belief that intellectuals can't be spiritual. Again, that's a sterotype with roots in reality (although plenty of scientists and academics are also religious), but whence the assumption that a person needs to believe in God (or Goddess, or Gaia, or Buddha, of The Force, or some non-specific deity-ish bugaboo) in order to be moral? I find it vaguely offensive to suggest that the only reason people know that killing is wrong is that God told them so, or even that they don't kill because they fear God's retribution.

Morality is a tricky notion. Some people suggest that it is inherent to us as thinking beings (or as immortal sparks of the divine, whatever floats your boat), that something in us recoils from causing pain and damage to others. Others claim that morality is a construct of civilization, and that our animal nature, left to its own devices, would prompt us to act out of total selfishness to secure our own survival and comfort. I vacillate between the two, but either way I don't see why it should follow that an intellectual would be any less moral than an uneducated person. Whether from God or from society, the impulse to act morally should exist in all of us, and I see nothing in the process of education that would distance a person from that impulse.

I find it unfortunate, therefore, and not a little bit ironic, that the people who have made the sterotype of the intellectual as amoral and untrustworthy so prevalent should be the same kind of intelligent, educated people who make games like Myst.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

7 Reasons Why the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice is Going to Suck, Based Solely on the Trailer

  1. Elizabeth Bennet is not a 'ahead of her time'. Her refusal to marry Mr. Collins is not modern (indeed, the notion that mercenary, loveless marriages are somehow a thing of the unenlightened past is quite naive). Elizabeth is very much a woman of her time. She doesn't want more from her life than marriage and family. She doesn't want to break out of a woman's place in society, or out of her social class. What she wants is a husband she can love and respect, and there's nothing modern about that.
  2. "From Jane Austen, the beloved author of Emma and Sense and Sensibility". Gee, I wonder why those books? Could it possibly be because they're the ones that have gotten the Hollywood treatment most recently?
  3. No one who really thinks P&P is a book about a woman "who discovered the one person she can't stand is the one person she may not be able to resist" has any business coming near an adaptation of it.
  4. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth are pulling in for a kiss during the first proposal scene.
  5. "From the producers of Bridget Jones' Diary and Love, Actually"
  6. "You have bewitched me, body and soul." That's coming from Mr. Darcy. It's finally becoming clear--this is Pride and Prejudice by way of Wuthering Heights.
  7. Because anyone who thinks the world needs another P&P after the Firth/Ehle version is clearly insane.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: Scattered Thoughts

Assume spoilers ahead.

  • Probably my favorite book of the series, which isn't surprising when you consider that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was my previous favorite and probably for the same reasons. Although I enjoyed the previous two volumes, Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix, they felt underedited and unfocused, and Half-Blood Prince is a welcome return to form.
  • Writing about Alfonso Cuaron's version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, blogger Andrew Rilstone wrote that the story JK Rowling "really wants to tell is the one about the schooldays of the previous generation: Pettigrew and Riddle and Harry's parents and Voldemort's rise to power. Harry is only the lens through which we see this history take shape." I disagreed with him at the time, feeling that an important part of the coming of age story is the hero discovering and understanding his past (remember what I said before about the detective novel being an empowerment fantasy? Part of Harry's empowerment--his becoming an adult--is understanding the reasons, personal and political, that have brought him and his world to the state they are in. Which, of course, leaves me with an opportunity to start talking about Veronica Mars, but that's a matter for another time). While I still think Andrew is off-base, there's no denying that the older characters have become much, much more interesting than the kids. It was almost disappointing when the narrative shifted away from the various adult characters Rowling had been focusing on for the book's first two chapters and came back to Harry, Ron and Hermione.
  • Back in 2000 I read an interview with Rowling in which she said that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a keystone book in the series. I've only now realized what she meant by that. GoF was a moment of dissilusionment--a passing from childhood to adulthood--and all the books that have followed it have mirrored the plots of the earlier, childish books in new, adult ways. Phoenix mirrored Azkaban: in the earlier book, Harry discovered his godfather, learned more about his family's past and his father's boyhood, and saved Sirius Black's life; in OotP, Harry discovered that the idyllic father he had imagined was very far from the truth and, of course, lost Sirius for good. The parallels between Prince and Chamber are too numerous and too obvious to mention. If the pattern persists, book 7 will take us right back to the beginning.
  • My God, but Harry is a powerfully stupid. He's got plenty of good qualities, but he's definitely not one of the greatest minds of his generation. I have to say, I'm siding with Snape's description of the kid as 'painfully mediocre'.
  • Two different people--Horace Slughorn and Rufus Scrimgoeur--try to "collect" Harry and place him in their camp, but of course Harry has already been collected. I'd like to see Harry as his own man, but there's no denying that it was satisfying to watch him put Scrimgoeur in his place--I didn't think the kid had it in him.
  • Not that I'm clamoring for more of ALL-CAPS Harry, but is it really believable that he should have recovered so well from Sirius' death after only a few weeks? At the end of OotP, Harry was finally confronted with the fact that he wasn't the only person on the planet who had experienced loss and pain--finally shaken out of his teenage self-obsession--but it doesn't necessarily follow that he shouldn't need time to grieve.
  • If Luna Lovegood doesn't become the permanent Quidditch commentator, I'm going to be very put out.
  • Throughout most of the book, I was betting on either Dumbledore or Snape buying it. Don't hate me, but I'm very pleased with the result. Snape is a much more interesting character, and Dumbledore's perfection has always annoyed me.
  • I Want My Props, part 1: on March 28th, 2003, I wrote in the discussion group Harry Potter for Grownups (post #54495):
What if Harry neglects the Quidditch team, because he's too busy fighting evil on Dumbledore's team? He has to choose between what's perceived as important and
what he knows is important, and he loses out, because his teammates are angry at him (and probably the rest of the house too).
  • I Want My Props, part 2: on February 4th, 2003, again on HPfGU (post #51593):
My own personal view of Draco has for a long time been that he's the Potterverse equivalent of A.J. Soprano - the privileged son of a corrupt father who is simply too soft to successfully take over the family business. I believe, as many people do, that Draco will find himself unequal to the task of being a DE, although not necessarily for any moral reasons - he simply won't be able to hack it. And I also agree that
in such a case, there's a very good chance that either Lucius or LV will kill him. Frankly, I don't see any way that the series could end without Draco being either redeemed or dead.
  • Once again, kudos to Rowling for showing how tricky and complicated the issue of racism is in the real world. Horace Slughorn is probably the most common kind of racist you'd find--the one who doesn't think of himself as a racist. He clearly prefers people of wizarding blood, and he maintains that preference in the general case even as he constantly makes exceptions to it in individual cases. And, of course, he is fundamentally a decent person. I hope he sticks around.
  • The requisite opinion on Snape: I think it would be a shame if it turns out that Rowling has written this fascinating, multi-faceted character for six books only to make him an unrepentant bad guy. As a good guy, Snape is great precisely because he isn't good: he's nasty and petty and resentful and twisted and terribly sad. As a villain, all of those interesting qualities get buried beneath his fundamental badness. Also, Snape's betrayal of Dumbledore is so carefully ambiguous that I can only assume we're meant to question it.
  • Oh, and finally: Regulus A. Black.

UPDATE: See my slightly more coherent thoughts here.

Friday, July 22, 2005

When Sherlock Met Vivian Relf or, Mundane Fantasy


In Michael Chabon's novella The Final Solution, Sherlock Holmes comes out of retirement in the 1940s to solve the case of a young Jewish refugee's missing parrot and, eventually, a murder. Although Holmes--his body weakened, his mind failing, and his thoughts constantly on his impending death--solves the murder, he fails to unravel the central mystery of the story--the significance of the strings of German numbers the parrot recites. A Rosebud-like secret that not even Holmes could ever hope to penetrate, it is revealed to the readers in the book's final pages.

The detective story, in the Sherlock Holmes mode, is about the triumph of rationalism. The detective strides onto a scene in which the moral order of the world has been upset and, using his wits and powers of observation, sets the world aright. It's an empowerment fantasy, too: all that is required to repair the world's ills is sufficient intellect and determination. Holmes himself is the paragon of 19th century rationalism, of an Empire the sun would never set on; the stalwart and honorable emblem of the Victorian age (with, of course, a secret opium habit and an unrequited crush on his best friend).

When confronted with the irrational horrors of the 20th century, Chabon's Holmes crumbles. What can a detective--even The Great Detective--do to right the wrongs of the Holocaust and the World Wars? What form of rational inquiry is powerful enough to make sense of them?

Despite the rather absurd comparisons to the Harry Potter series, The Final Solution was the book that came most powerfully to my mind when I read Susannah Clarke's bestselling fantasy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell earlier this year. Both books examine the Victorian conviction that the mysteries of the world can be solved with good old-fashioned English common sense, ingenuity, and perseverance. In both books, the inherent irrationality of the world overwhelms the best efforts to comprehend it.

John Clute has described Strange & Norrell as being a story about "the unthinning of the world". Standing at the other end of the Victorian era from Chabon's Holmes, the magician Norrell announces the return of practical magic after years of merely theoretical pursuit. Deeply paranoid and greedy for fame and recognition, Norrell hoards England's magical texts and attempts to encourage a new, rationalist approach to wizardry. His magic is devoid of mystery, mysticism, and wonder.

Of course, what Norrell and his sometimes pupil and friend Strange discover is that whether you want them or not, mystery and wonder are the unavoidable side effects of working magic. They attract the attention of a fairy, who proceeds to wreak havoc under their oblivious noses. By the book's end, and despite Norrell's best efforts, England has slipped back into an era of wonder.

The meeting of the magical and mundane, the rational and irrational, has been a staple of the fantasy genre since its inception. We could add Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist--in which the middle-class merchants of Lud-in-the-Mist banish their feudal lord and his fairy friends from their town, their language and their consciousness, only to watch as their children are carried away and fairy culture seeps back into their lives--to the list of books that chart the defeat of rationalism in the face of wonder. Neil Gaiman, having a great deal more sense than publicists and journalists, pointed out that Mirrlees' book is a clear progenitor of Strange & Norrell, and in Gaiman's novels he also places modern, rational protagonists in magical, irrational settings (Richard Mayhew, kidnapped into London Below in Neverwhere; Tristran Thorn, whisked off into Faerie in Stardust; Shadow, imbroiled in the affairs of the gods in American Gods. Apparently, Charlie Nancy has a similar journey in the upcoming Anansi Boys).

Traditionally, these rational 20th century types are quickly taken over by the mystical world they've entered. Bringing a modern sensibility to fantasy, as Gaiman, for example, is often credited with doing, actually means tinging the modern with the magical and the insane. But a new generation of fantasy writers is calling that assumption into question.

In China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, magic is a science, and although his characters frequently find themselves facing terrible danger after meddling in magical affairs, these dangers are always comprehensible. Ian R. MacLeod's over-praised novel The Light Ages works so hard at making magic mundane that the entire book becomes an exercise in dullness. In the Harry Potter books, the art of learning magic is as simple and transparent as attending classes and handing in papers, calling for no more sacrifice than that required of any other student. Rowling's magic is ordinary because her story is one of a world emerging into rationalism, rejecting its history of prejudice and lawlessness.

Miéville and MacLeod's books are usually lumped in the Steampunk sub-category of fantasy. With some reservations, we might place Rowling there too. Steampunk, of course, is all about the 19th century--the age of industry, of scientific inquiry, of the triumph of intellect over superstition. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, or Susannah Clarke's title characters, the protagonists of Steampunk novels usually have no illusions about the moral rectitude of the world they live in, but neither are they eager to return to the pastoral and the feudal. It's interesting to note this turn towards the mundane in fantasy fiction, which has occurred at a time when mainstream or semi-mainstream fiction begins to incorporate genre elements in an attempt to express the world's inherent messiness.

Which brings me back to Michael Chabon and his McSweeney's anthologies (McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and the vastly superior McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories). Chabon's stated purpose in these anthologies is to reinvigorate the literary short story by infusing it with genre elements. To abolish, or at least strenuously ignore, genre boundaries, Chabon insists, is to make all literature stronger. I had some quibbles with this thesis, and with the success of Chabon's experiment, which I expressed when I reviewed Enchanted Chamber on Amazon (and got myself into a bit of trouble with Poppy Z. Brite too, although it all ended well). It seems that I'm not the only one who thought so, as suggested by Jonathan Lethem's intriging contribution to Enchanted Chamber, "Vivian Relf".

Vivian Relf is a young woman who keeps meeting our protagonist, Doran Close, at various points in his life. Although they both feel an overpowering sense of familiarity with each other, Vivian and Doran are strangers. Readers of genre fiction know how this story is supposed to play out: Vivian and Doran were lovers in a previous life, or they met but have had their memories of the meeting erased, or they're both aliens stranded on Earth who recognize each other on a cellular level. Lethem doesn't travel down any of these paths. Instead, he ends the story with Vivian and Doran meeting one last time, at a party given by Vivian's husband. As Doran watches in horror and despair, Vivian transforms their ethereal connection into an anecdote.
He suddenly wished to diminish it, in present company. He saw now that something precious was being taken from him in full view, a treasure he'd found in his possession only at the instant it was squandered. ... He might have known Vivian Relf better than anyone he actually knew, Doran thought now. Or anyway, he'd wanted to. It ought to mean the same thing. His soul creaked in irrelevent despair.
This is what happens, Lethem seems to be saying, when the mundane and the fantastic meet. Mix a dose of magic into your everyday life and what you'll get won't be new and exciting but curdled and sad--a slaughtered unicorn; a Monet painting reduced to grams of dry paint.

So who do you agree with, Chabon or Lethem? Is 19th century rationalism merely a fantasy, a brief interlude of reason between wonder and horror? Is the world fundamentally unknowable? Or does any mystery, too closely scrutinized, yield nothing but a disappointing secret?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Happiness Is...

...a new international trailer for Serenity (the US trailer is still available here).

Some thoughts, after multiples viewings:

  • Holy frikking hell, that's gonna be one beautiful movie.
  • And funny too. "...or, we could talk more." Heh heh.
  • "Six rebels on the run"? How do you get six? Serenity's crew number five. Inara and Book are passengers, and neither of them are rebels. If you count Simon, you have to count River too, which brings you to seven.
  • Speaking of Inara and Book, where are they? Inara shows up in the background of a couple of shots but has no lines. Book doesn't even get that much.
  • Oh my God, will you look at that shot with the guy walking through River's face.
  • Looks like there's going to be the requisite scene in which the crew threaten to walk out on their maverick captain because He's Gone Too Far.
  • I still have no idea what this movie is about and what's going to happen in it, and I watched Firefly's entire original run. I can't imagine what a non-fan would make of it. I can only conclude that the trailer's purpose is to make people go 'wow' and 'heh' a lot in the hopes that this will get them to buy tickets.
  • I honestly don't think there's a movie I know about that I want to see more than this one.
  • Which is unfortunate, because the odds that it'll be released theatrically in Israel are slim to none.
  • OK, now I'm less happy.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

People Who Generalize Suck or, Your Host Rants a Little

For the last few days, I've been engaged in an odd three-part discussion on three different weblogs. Edward Champion started it by suggesting 18 Fantasy Authors to Read Instead of J.K. Rowling and then Gwenda Bond suggested 18 others. Matt Cheney kept the whole thing going by wondering what books you'd recommend to someone who'd liked Potter and wanted more of the same.

Ed and Gwenda's lists are interesting. Of the 40 authors mentioned (Ed added 4 more to his list), I've read books by 20. Two I think should be threatened with a sledgehammer to the thumbs should they ever look at a writing implement again (there's another one I might have said the same about, but she's already dead). Another three are authors of frothy but insignificant work who, while they may be, on a sentence-by-sentence level, better writers than J.K. Rowling, haven't produced anything on the caliber of the Potter books. Two others are excellent and highly talented authors whose books have never engaged me emotionally. The remaining twelve are, with a few quibbles here and there, superb and well worth reading. I'd also add Jeff VanderMeer, Tim Powers, John Crowley, Mark Helprin, Susannah Clarke, Hope Mirrlees and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien to the bunch.

And yet, I've found myself reacting very strongly to Ed and Gwenda's lists and, to a lesser extent, to Matt's requests. I was downright snippy when I commented on Ed's weblog and very nearly rude when I did the same at Gwenda's. It was while trying to puzzle out this reaction that I came to a rather shocking realization.

I've been a Harry Potter fan for nearly seven years. During that time, A.S. Byatt has called me childish, explained that the only cultural nutrition in my life must have come from Saturday morning cartoons and that I wouldn't recognize real quality if it hit me in the face. Jack Markowitz of the Tribune-Review has decided that I'm a slave of marketing, blindly following without any volition of my own. Most recently, in The Observer, Robert McCrum concluded that I don't exist. And, although they clearly have no malicious intentions, Ed, Gwenda and Matt seem to be saying that the only reason for me to read the Potter books is that I'm a naif who knows nothing about fantasy.

Godammit, I am an adult. I'm intelligent and well-read. I like the Harry Potter books. It shouldn't be acceptable for people to suggest, off the pages of national newspapers, that there must be something wrong with me for all of these things to be true. Not when the millions of people who have flocked to buy a poorly-written, not particularly thrilling, not particularly interesting airport thriller with some rather absurd theories about art and the early history of Christianity aren't even frowned at.

Honestly, the people who dress up as Klingons in science fiction conventions get more respect than adult Harry Potter fans, and for the life of me I don't know why I've put up with it for so long. Why have I been so defensive? I defy Byatt and Markowitz and McCrum and even Ed and Gwenda and Matthew's assumptions about the kind of people who read Harry Potter, and of the dozens of fans that I've met physically and hundreds that I've met online, there were only a handful who didn't. Why are we still putting up with these absurd generalizations?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Comics and Abigail Don't Always Mix

'A friend declared, "I've read comic books for years and I just decided: I don't like them."'
Jessa Crispin, blogging in Bookslut


For a voracious reader, I have some stunning holes in my resume. I didn't read Jane Eyre until I was 22 (in certain countries, I believe that's considered sufficient evidence of being male). My mother gave me The Lord of the Rings as a kid, but she never pointed me towards other fantasy titles, so I skipped the Terry Goodking/Terry Brooks/Robert Jordan phase of a fantasy lover's life-cycle entirely. I still haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird or Little Women. Growing up in a non-English speaking country and reading almost exclusively in English makes for some odd reading habits, especially when you're left to guide yourself.

Which is one of the reasons I never read comics as a kid. Another, and probably more likely reason is that I'm a girl, and no one around me was reading them.

But it's impossible to read bloggers like Neil Gaiman and Jessa Crispin for very long without hearing how wonderful comics are. You learn to be appalled with newspaper articles (usually titled "Bang! Zap! Comics are Growing up!") that condescend to an entire genre, disgusted with critics who won't even give comics a chance, and enraged at state prosecutors who jail comics shop owners for selling adult comics to adults because "Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids." It's a familiar situation to a science fiction fan, and it's hard not to sympathize.

So, for the last three years I've been slowly trying to become comics-literate. If you hang around the internet for longer than 30 seconds, you'll accumulate a list of the top recommended titles, and, very seriously and studiously, I started crossing them off. For the last few months, I've been aided in this endeavor by my friend Hagay, who's been very generous and trusting with his collection.

Unfortunately, like Crispin's friend, most of the time I just don't like comics. Sure, there have been graphic novels that I've closed with tears in my eyes and deep gratitude for the impulse that made me buy them, but they've been the minority. In most cases, I'll turn the last page and say 'Well, the art was nice, but...', or 'Good story, what a shame about the art', or 'Why did I spend 150 shekels on that?'

What I'm about to write might strike some readers as being just as condescending as those articles I mentioned earlier, but honestly, that isn't my intention. I've been trying very hard to enjoy comics, and most of the time I just can't. These are some of the reasons I've come up with.

I think a serious problem with comics is that so much has to go right. With books, you need a good author and a good editor - there's limited room for things to go wrong. With comics, there's a tremendous number of people with serious input into the work - writer, artist, inker, colorist - and any weak link can damn the whole enterprise.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is a good example. This is one of the comics that I loved, but it took me a long time to get there because, quite frankly, the art during most of the series is dreadful. It becomes close to bearable around volume 5, A Game of You, crosses over into decent with volume 7, Brief Lives, and doesn't even approach good until volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In other words, for 80% of the series, Gaiman's stunning prose, fascinating characters and terrific story are buried beneath drawings that belong on some mother's refrigerator, not a recognized classic of the genre.

At the other end of the scale, take Craig Thompson's Blankets. The art is absolutely gorgeous. Sinuous forms melt into each other, landscapes are conveyed with a few lines, the characters' faces are marvelously expressive. But the story? Eh. Thompson is as earnest as all get out, but there's really not much more to Blankets than a rather unexciting boy-meets-girl tale. It's very honest and accurate - in fact, many reviews have noted how much Thompson's story resonated with their own experiences, which seems to me to be a point against him. If everyone has a young love story like Thompson's, what makes his so special that he had to write a book about it? There's nothing in Thompson's writing that elevates the story beyond the mundane, and so all his stunning art is wasted.

Which brings me to another problem that may keep many comics from greatness. In interviews, Thompson describes the all-consuming experience of writing Blankets. Apparently, the storyboarding alone took a year. From beginning to end, the project took Thompson three and a half years - to tell what is essentially a short story. A prose writer would have gotten this autobiographical tale of first love out of his system in his first creative writing class, and moved on to better and more interesting subjects, but for Thompson, telling that same story took up a significant chunk of his career.

(A corollary to this issue might be the limited topics that comics seem to cover. You have your superhero comics, and then you have everything else, which tends to mean navel-gazing, meandering, plotless, autobiographical or semi-autobiographical stories. There doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground between the two, neither of which appeal to me when it comes to books.)

Interestingly enough, I love Sandman and have lukewarm feelings towards Blankets, which suggests another problem in the Abigail-comics interface. I don't really know how to read comics. I concentrate on the words and not on the pictures. I don't tend to notice details, and when I remind myself to keep an eye out for them, my appreciation of the narrative flow is interrupted.

Now, reading is an acquired skill, and one that requires much more than just a first grade education. I read better books today than I did when I was 18 or 12, but those books taught me how to be a better reader. It isn't clear to me what the corresponding comics are, and whether they would appeal to me in terms of their subject matter and quality of writing.

In the blog post from which I lifted the quote that opens this entry, Jessa Crispin distinguishes between comics that are 'good for a comic book' and those that are 'good for a book'. She goes on to conclude that you could play the same game with any genre - "Robert Heinlein: good for science fiction. Stanislaw Lem: good for a book." Which suggests an obvious question - do I enjoy science fiction because, having read it since I was a child, I'm accustomed to its idiosyncrasies? If I were trying to read science fiction for the very first time at the age of 24, would I enjoy it?

(As a interesting counterpart to this question, go read Matthew Cheney's fascinating post about teaching Neil Gaiman's American Gods to eleventh graders, many of whom had never read a work of modern fantasy - or a 500 page book - before.)

Friday, July 15, 2005

While We're on the Subject of Defining Ourselves Through Cultural Preferences...

About a year ago, a blogger called Terry Teachout published something called The Teachout Cultural Concurrence Index, which spread through blogdom like wildfire, inspiring dozens of imitations. In theory, the purpose of the TCCI was to let readers of Teachout's blog see how compatible they were with his cultural preferences. In reality, I suspect most people couldn't care less about their score and simply enjoyed the fun game. But, since a Cultural Concurrence Index is a) fun and b) a good way to introduce yourself, I thought I'd have one of my own. Some of the questions are mine, and others come from various other CCIs I found on the net.

The rules are simply: for each of the following questions, select a preference, column A or column B.

1. Gaugin or Van Gogh?
2. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny?
3. Cats or dogs?
4. The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth?
5. Robert A. Heinlein or Isaac Asimov?
6. The Martian Chronicles or Something Wicked This Way Comes?
7. Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins?
8. The Moonstone or The Woman in White?
9. Hamburgers or hot dogs?
10. Any of the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen?
11. Jane Eyre or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall?
12. Wide Sargasso Sea or Jane Eyre?
13. Grosse Point Blank or High Fidelity?
14. PC or Mac?
15. Election or Ghost World?
16. Spider Man or Spider Man 2?
17. Batman Begins or Tim Burton's Batman?
18. Oklahoma or The Music Man?
19. Bus or subway?
20. Short novels or long ones?
21. Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
22. In the Bedroom or Lost in Translation?
23. A Midsummer Night's Dream or Twelfth Night (the plays, in both cases)?
24. Coffee or tea?
25. "Friends" or "Scrubs"?
26. Rent or Angels in America?
27. Strictly Ballroom or Moulin Rouge?
28. Andrew Lloyd Webber or Stephen Sondheim?
29. Glory or The Mayor?
30. Summer or winter?
31. The Simpsons or Futurama?
32. The Sopranos or Deadwood?
33. "The Wasteland" or "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"?
34. East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath?
35. Dune or The Lord of the Rings?
36. Rushmore or Groundhog Day?
37. Nonfiction or fiction?
38. Snow Crash or Cryptonomicon?
39. Neuromancer or Pattern Recognition?
40. Sleeping Beauty or Fantasia?
41. Kill Bill vol. 1 or 2?
42. Star Wars or The Matrix?
43. Kirk or Picard?
44. Hardcovers or paperbacks?
45. Doonesbury or Calvin and Hobbes?
46. The Little Friend or The Secret History?
47. The Mists of Avalon or The Once and Future King?
48. Babylon 5 or Deep Space Nine?
49. Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman?
50. Alien or Aliens?
51. The Hours or Mrs. Dalloway?
52. The Hours: book or movie?
53. A Christmas Carol or "Gift of the Magi"?
54. Ursula K. Le Guin or Madeline L'Engle?
55. Monsters Inc. or Finding Nemo?
56. Aladin or Beauty and the Beast?
57. The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou?
58. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Speed of Dark?
59. Doomsday Book or To Say Nothing of the Dog?
60. "Funeral Blues" (AKA That Poem from Four Weddings and a Funeral) or "Lullaby"?
61. Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett?
62. The X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
63. Tintin or Asterix?
64. H.G. Wells or Jules Verne?
65. Jonathan Carroll or Stephen King?
66. Jonathan Lethem or Michael Chabon?
67. Emily Dickinson or Dorothy Parker?
68. "After Apple Picking" or "Fire and Ice"?
69. Philip Pullman or J.K. Rowling?
70. Philip Pullman or multiple compound fractures?

In each of these questions, I prefer the B option. So, in order to discover how culturally concurrent we are, count the number of B answers you gave, divide them by 70, the number of questions, and multiply by 100 to get your percentage of Abigail Nussbaum. Which should tell you if you want to keep reading anything I have to say or if you want to run screaming for the hills.

Just to be clear, I'm not kidding about that last one.

Non-Indigenous Wildlife on a Rooftop in Tel-Aviv

Via my friend Nurit.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

We Know They're Evil Because They Watch Voyager or, Some Scary Thoughts About Being a Genre Fan


Hamza and Yehat are two over-educated, under-appreciated twentysomethings working dead-end jobs and waiting for their lives to start. When Hamza meets Sherem, who is beautiful, smart and completely interested in him, he thinks his luck has finally changed. What he doesn't know is that Sherem has an agenda, that she's been looking for him for a long time, and that before the week is out he and Yehat will hold the fate of the world in their hands.

You've read this book before, right? And seen the film and watched the TV series and read the comic book? Well, so have Hamza and Yehat, which is what makes Minister Faust's (the pen name of Malcolm Azania) The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad such a hoot (apart from the fact that Faust is a good writer with an excellent ear for narrative voice and a knack for writing crackling plot). Faust faces the hoariness of his plot head-on in a neat meta-fictional trick by making Hamza and Yehat uber-fanboys, armed with stacks of comic books and an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek trivia. They're living out a science-fiction geek's dream, and they know it, and they're quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi as they do it. Faust even introduces each character with a D&D stats card, including their 'genre alignment' (the good guys like Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine, the bad guys like Star Trek: Voyager).

Even a casual genre fan, however, will very quickly notice that Coyote Kings takes place in the mid-90s. Several reviewers have wondered why Faust chose to set his story a decade ago, but his reasons are obvious when you look at the acknowledgment page. Faust was already writing Coyote Kings (then in screenplay format) back in 1996, when his pop-culture references were contemporary. Clearly then, moving the story a decade forward would have been a herculean task when you consider how many of those references (and how much of Hamza and Yehat's personalities and opinions) would have had to be altered.

Think about it. A mere ten year shift would have made Coyote Kings a completely different book. Not because for Hamza and Yehat, if they are even aware of it, the internet is a small club of a few thousands, and not even because the current political situation would certainly have a serious impact on the lives of two anti-establishment youths of Arab descent, but because the genre geek of 1995 is so different from the genre geek of 2005.

These are just a few of the things that Hamza and Yehat don't know:

They have only an inkling of how low Star Trek is going to sink. They don't know that it's going to go from the definitive SF show to the equivalent of an embarrassing older relative who has to be kept in the back room when there's company.

They don't know that Babylon 5 will squander the promise of its earlier years with a terrible final season, some execrable TV movies and a deeply embarrassing spin-off.

They haven't yet given their hearts to a quirky, eerie FOX show about the paranormal, only to watch it blast into the mainstream, spawn dozens of imitators, spiral into a parody of its former self, break the heart of everyone who ever loved it and go down in flames, all in the space of a few years.

A new Star Wars movie is nothing but a rumor to them, and they have no idea how much they're going to wish it had stayed that way.

They don't know that it's possible to make good films out of The Lord of the Rings.

They've never seen The Matrix.

So, if Hamza and Yehat seem this quaint and out-of-touch to readers in 2005, it stands to reason that in 2015, genre geeks will be thinking the same thing about me in 2005. And this matters because for Hamza and Yehat, and for people like them, 'genre affiliation' doesn't just mean which movies and TV shows they like. They are the stories to which the random occurrences of their existence are set, the lens through which they view the world. One can argue that Hamza saves the world because of his awareness of the ways in which his story parallels Star Wars and a dozen other genre narratives. By recognizing that he's playing the Luke Skywalker role, Hamza becomes Luke Skywalker.

Which is overblown and not really relevant to our everyday lives, unless one of you happens to be contacted by a beautiful desert sorceress. But the fact remains that in our commercial society, the things we like inform and affect the people we are. Jane Austen has been a recognized genius for 200 years. Superman has existed for 70. What does it mean when your personal cultural landscape has a shelf life of less than a decade?

Hello World

When I was 10, or maybe 12, my mother gave me a copy of I, Robot and made me a science fiction fan for life.

Asimov is a good way of introducing children to SF. He's not a great stylist, but there's an immediacy to his prose. He doesn't use ten words where one will do and doesn't bury himself in description. His robot stories conform to a very simple formula - the three laws of robotics assure the complete safety of humanity. The system is flawless. Here's how it went wrong.

Kids like formula, and Asimov knew his audience and gave them exactly what they expected, in clever and unexpected ways. These same qualities are probably what attracted him to mystery writing, in particular his Tales of the Black Widowers.

The Black Widowers are a gentlemen's club who meet every month with a guest. Each time, the guest introduces some trivial but vexing puzzle (the one I remember involved a chemistry grad student whose thesis advisor was threatening to scupper his career if he didn't name the one unique element on the periodic table). In every story, the Black Widowers are flummoxed. Without fail, the Widowers' faithful waiter, Henry, solves the mystery.

The Black Widower stories are fiction as a puzzle. They have the same weight and literary merit as a crossword, and are probably a little less challenging. Still, after more than a decade, they've lingered in my mind because of one small detail.

At the end of every meal, The Black Widowers ask their guest to justify his existence. That's a tall order, and one that I've always struggled to answer. Asimov, being an educated white male in the 1950s and 60s, has his guests justify their existence through their professions - they were policemen, doctors, scientists. That's probably not an approach that would fly nowadays, and anyway I don't have a profession yet. When I do, it's hardly going to save the world. I suspect most people would have to admit the same.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, I resisted the notion of starting a blog of my own for a long time. The internet doesn't seem to be in desperate need of yet another weblog, especially not the kind I'm going to write. I'm going to talk a lot about books and television and movies - things I tend to think about too much and formulate complicated opinions about for which I have no outlet. I'm a science fiction fan, as previously mentioned, although I read plenty of other stuff. By the standards of 95% of the population of the planet, my reading tastes are hopelessly esoteric. By the standards of most of the remaining 5%, I'm stuck in the mainstream.

I'm Israeli, but I don't think I'll be writing about politics too much. I'm 24, and one semester away from a degree in Computer Science from the Technion institute in Haifa. Every six months or so, I dig out a copy of a short story I've been working on for years, tinker with it relentlessly for a few weeks, realize it sucks and put it away for another six months.

I am female. I belong to the Reform Judaism movement and up until a few years ago I attended synagogue regularly. I still go on holidays, light candles on Friday nights and keep kosher. I have two dogs.

This blog exists because I wanted to post a comment on another blog and needed to register with Blogger to do it. I have no idea if it will justify its existence. I have no idea if anyone other than my mother will read it. I have no idea if it'll still be here a year, six months, a week from now.

I'm casting my words out into the ether with the full knowledge that they will be lost in the din. The sheer arrogance of the act is overwhelming.

Should be fun.