Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Blogger Went a-Rantin'

The stultifying experience that was Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian (a book that answers the question 'What happens when you take the horrifying and the supernatural out of supernatural horror?') left me none too eager to dive into another brick-sized fantasy set in Eastern Europe, but the praise for Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania has, for the last few weeks, been wearing me down. By the time Cheryl Morgan got around to giving the book a rave review in Emerald City a few days ago, I was ready to put it on my wish list. And then I noticed this little comment:
About the only thing wrong with this novel is that it is yet another one of those books that Tor has chosen to cut in half and publish in two installments. We’ll have to wait for The Tourmaline, due out sometime next year, to read the end of the tale.
Which pretty much means that I'm not reading Park's book on general principle. Call me old-fashioned, but when I buy a book, I expect it to have a beginning, a middle and an end, not necessarily in that order, and I don't intend to pay the price of two books (which in the case of hardcovers comes to $50) for that pleasure. There is literally nothing I hate more in modern publishing than Tor's recent habit of cutting books in half and publishing them in two volumes. They started the practice with Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight (published as The Knight and The Wizard) and kept it going with Charles Stross' The Merchant Princes (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family)--both books submitted to Tor in a single volume but sold to readers in two. Splitting up Park's novel is a clear indicator that this vile practice isn't going anywhere.

Back in February, Rick Kleffel examined Tor's new policy, albeit with kid gloves, in his Agony Column. He blamed the practice on chain bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, who refuse to carry long books by unknown and mid-list authors. I'll accept that the chains share some culpability in this issue, but I'll also note that no other publishing house, genre or otherwise, has chosen to deal with this problem by splitting up their books. It can hardly be a coincidence that all the books that have been split belong to a genre whose readers had already proven that they were willing to buy multiple continuations and sequels to their favorite books. Nor does blaming the problem on chain bookstores in the case of hardcover novels explain why none of the paperback editions of the split books have contained both volumes.

But what I really don't understand is why Kleffel and Morgan and everyone else writing about SFF publishing isn't spitting mad about this issue. Possibly I'm over-sensitive: being an English reader in Israel is a frustrating and expensive proposition. There's one bookstore chain that carries English books--at a markup of 50-100%--and their SFF selection is pathetic. My local library's English section consists mostly of my cast-offs. Amazon sells books at decent prices, but the shipping rates are so prohibitive that they cancel out the savings. Still, I have to believe that even people for whom Wolfe and Stross and Park's novels are readily available would pause before spending $50 on a single book. Is it really possible that this kind of financial consideration doesn't occur to Morgan, who apparently believes that the worst consequence of book-splitting is the fact that she's going to have to wait a few months to read the rest of the story, when she notes that "two 450 page books make more money than one 900 page book" as if that actually justified Tor's behavior?

And really, what are the odds that any of the split books need to be as long as they are? This is fantasy, after all, original home of the doorstopping tome and the umpteen-volume series. There's a culture of excess in the genre that publishers have been capitalizing on for decades, in light of which it's hard to view Tor's decision to split books as anything other than a new variant on an old scam--they get to save on editors and make us pay double.

Which, once again, leads me to wonder why more people aren't upset. How is it possible that this kind of avarice doesn't result in wide-spread condemnation? And even if I were willing to accept book-splitting as a business decision--and publishing is a business, no matter how much we'd like to pretend otherwise--surely Tor should have to deal with some consequences to their decision? When the time came to nominate The Wizard Knight for awards, it was listed as a single book, an approach that Cheryl Morgan called "entirely reasonable". Apparently price-gouging is fine as long as it doesn't affect your chances of taking home a Hugo.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

1,800 Words on the Subject of Brevity

At the news of the latest doorstopper to hit the book market (Hunger's Brides by Paul Anderson, 1,360 pages), Ed Champion and Mark Sarvas have both been considering the merits and weaknesses of a gargantuan page-count, and whether it should count for or against the author (we could also mention Matthew Cheney's recent discussion of 'self-indulgence'. I know I always translate the term to mean that the author could have cut at least a hundred pages from the book without losing anything). Up until a few years ago, I was firmly pro long books. I still remember the joy of reading Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and how much I enjoyed knowing that this remarkable experience would last a long time. As the mega-novel has become more and more common, however, it seems that less authors are actually justifying their decision to write longer and longer novels. Most of the long books I've read recently have either been good books smothered by an excessive page count (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or just plain lousy (The Historian).

At the same time, I've started seeing the light on the subject of short novels. This is partly due to my changing reading habits. From a serious reader, I've become a voracious one. I read 64 books in 2003. In 2004 the number jumped to 99. If my pace keeps up this year I'll end it with something around 120 books read, and yet my to-be-read stack and my wish list keep getting bigger instead of smaller. I'm more and more aware that I'll never be able to read all the books I want to, and I've begun to resent the time I spend reading lousy or even mediocre books. Wasting a day with a book is bad, but wasting a week or two is painful (I've yet to master the art of putting a book down if it isn't grabbing me).

The more short books I read, the more I appreciate the skill it takes to say what you have to say in a minimum of words. We usually assume that a very long book has a gigantic scope; that the world it describes is wide and full of event. What I've been slowly discovering is that truly talented writers are able to evoke a massive canvas in a few pages. We tend to think of short books as having little to say, but I've read novels barely 200 pages long that seemed to cover every subject under the sun.

So, if anyone is interested in following me into this brave new world of short and meaningful reading experiences, here are a few good places to start:
  1. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (224 pages) - Beagle's quirky fairy tale (the inspiration for a beautiful and psychedelic animated film that haunted me for most of my childhood) about an endangered unicorn and her kind-hearted but bumbling defenders keeps asking strange and impossible questions. Is it better for the unicorn to live as a flawed, mortal human, or to be immortal but incapable of love and sadness? Should her human lover ask her to remain with him or, remembering that he is a hero, relinquish his own personal happiness for the chance to act as one? The book is full of tiny but perfectly rendered moments, such as the middle-aged gypsy woman who rages that she should have met the unicorn when she was still young and beautiful. This fable, about the nature of stories and of real life, is as enchanting as it is heartbreaking.
  2. The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (256 pages) - whatever else I may think about J. Michael Straczynski, I'll always be grateful to him for championing Alfred Bester, one of the cleverest and most innovative writers of science fiction, and the first winner of the Hugo award. Although The Demolished Man pales in comparison to Bester's other novel, The Stars My Destination (which, sadly, was a little too long for the purposes of this list), it is a remarkable achievement. In the future, all policeman are telepathic, and murder is all but unheard of. Until, that is, desperate businessman Ben Reich decides he can beat the system. What follows is psychological duel between Reich and police detective Lincoln Powells. Bester, who was writing cyberpunk before anyone invented the term, plays with language, imagery, and typography to create a world in which the boundaries between different minds are soft and permeable. Although it was written more than half a century ago, The Demolished Man remains fresh and devastating.
  3. Wise Children by Angela Carter (234 pages) - I've gone on about this book already in an earlier entry, so I'll just say again that it is a fantastically funny, beautifully written meditation on life, theatre, and self-knowledge.
  4. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (192 pages) - This tiny volume, about a secret policeman who infiltrates a group of anarchists, starts off tense but absurd, segues into a hilarious farce, and ends with a grand finale that is operatic and philosophical. There's no question that Chesterton has a religious agenda, but his humor and the beauty of his writing keep the book from becoming a tract. This is a smart, compelling puzzle of a book.
  5. Beasts by John Crowley (184 pages) - before he started cranking out behemoths like Little, Big and the Aegypt quartet, Crowely wrote odd, lyrical science fiction. Beasts is my favorite - a panoramic exploration of human and animal nature, an examination of the double-edged sword of intelligence, and a meditation on the choice between being wild and tame. Beasts has a wide cast of characters - from a tame falcon through a girl pressed into indentured servitude to a super-intelligent dog who hates humans for making him love them - but although the readers only spend a short time with each one, they are indelible. I'm less fond of Crowley's other early novels--The Deep, in which he takes less than 200 pages to tell the kind of story that folks like George R.R. Martin expend thousands of pages on, and Engine Summer, a stately travelogue through a post-apocalyptic future--but these days the best way to read any of them is to buy Otherwise, an omnibus edition of all three, and even at his worst Crowley is always worth a look.
  6. The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley (256 pages) - I'm not much of a mystery reader, but when Amazon's recommendation engine spat out Crumley's novel, about a hard-boiled, alcoholic detective hired to find a self-destructive writer and, later, his young wife, as a book that went well with Little, Big and I Capture the Castle, I knew I had to give it a look. The book's first hundred pages are a fairly straightforward investigation cum bizarre road-trip, arriving at a solution that seems to tie together all loose the loose ends of a meandering and not particularly mystifying mystery. Then the false bottom caves in and the story folds in upon itself. The mystery uncoils and reshapes, the characters remove their masks and reveal their true faces, and the book starts racing towards its completely shocking ending, with stops for thrilling shoot-outs and pensive reflections on the nature of humanity. Absolutely perfect.
  7. Grendel by John Gardner (192 pages) - what starts off as a simple literary exercise--a retelling of the epic poem Beowulf from the point of view of its villain--quickly becomes a searching examination of the nature of heroism and fiction. Grendel, who in Gardner's hands is a sort of Holden Caulfield with a taste for human flesh, watches Hrothgar and his knights as they consolidate their power through violence and rapine, and then convince themselves of their own nobility and heroism. Even as he recognizes it as a lie, the story that the knights tell themselves compels Grendel, and he finds himself willingly and even joyfully assuming the role of the villain of the piece. It's not necessary to have read Beowulf to enjoy this book (although the poem is also short and well worth a look), which seems to sum up human existence with an eye that is both jaundiced and loving.
  8. The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis (256 pages) - it might be enough praise for Tevis' novel to say that it manages to make descriptions of slow, carefully considered Chess matches as tense and thrilling as any car chase or shoot-out, but this is hardly its greatest accomplishment. That would be the book's main character - prickly, unlovable Elizabeth Harmon, Chess prodigy and all-around messed-up chick. Tevis follows Beth on her slow but undeniable path to becoming the world Chess champion, and in her struggles against chemical dependencies and her own crushing loneliness. Although Tevis has too much respect for his stone-cold bitch of a character to end the book by 'fixing' her, he does allow her to learn from her mistakes, and at the story's end Beth is stronger - perhaps strong enough to make a fuller life for herself.
  9. Old School by Tobias Wolff (208 pages) - the narrator of Wolff's novel, a scholarship student in a New England prep school in the early 60s, wants nothing more from life than to win his school's writing contest, and an interview with the year's visiting author. After failing to capture the attentions of Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, he resorts to desperate and unethical measure when his idol, Ernest Hemingway, is announced as the next visitor. Old School is a book for and about readers--young, avid readers in particular. Wolff perfectly captures many of the qualities of a voracious young reader: the conviction, having taken so much pleasure from the written word, that your only proper course in life is to become a writer yourself; the shock of discovering yourself in another person's fiction; the certainty that a favorite writer knows and understands you--and that you know and understand them; the complete inability to connect the appearance of words on paper with the enormous, almost physical effort of putting them there, seeing writing as a purely spiritual state; and, most importantly, the vast gulf between the work as it is written and as it is read. This is a fantastically written novel, every word in its place and not too many superfluous ones, and fantastically smart and thought-provoking as well.
  10. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (234 pages) - it's true that 200 pages of Virginia Woolf are the equivalent of 600 pages by another, less dense, author, but there are great rewards in store for those who take the time to read her. To the Lighthouse is a minute exploration of the life of a simple, ordinary family in the years before and after WWI--their flaws, foibles and secrets laid bare on the page as Woolf mercilessly, and yet with great affection, cuts them open. It's a brilliant portrait of the mundanity of ordinary life, at once heartbreaking and uplifting.
Got anything to add to the list? Leave a comment.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Daniel Deronda's Cabin

Reading George Eliot's Daniel Deronda as an Israeli Jew must be a unique experience. It certainly was for me: I was on a train, watching the Jewish national home fly past me when I first cracked open this novel, written by a 19th century cleric's daughter, and encountered a frank and searching portrait of English anti-semitism, sympathetic depictions of Jews, and an acknowledgment of the fledgling Zionist movement and the rightness of its cause.

And then the man sitting next to me exclaimed in horror. Such a long book! And in English! Was I sure I didn't want to read something shorter or easier? Which, in itself, was a pretty powerful metaphor for how Jews are seen and how Israelis can sometimes be. I didn't point this out to my seatmate; I just kept reading, with less and less enthusiasm as the initial thrill wore off.

Because the fact is that Daniel Deronda doesn't work. As a novel, it is an amalgamation of near-perfect parts into a deeply flawed whole.

The book's title character is the adopted son of Sir Hugo Malinger, an English lord who is generally believed to be Deronda's illegitimate father. A principled and exemplary young man, whom Sir Hugo hope to see become a leader and a force for good in English society, Daniel is aimless until he meets and saves the life of a young Jewish woman named Mira Lapidoth, who has come to England to search for her mother and brother. In the course of trying to find Mira's family, Daniel meets Mordecai, a dying Jewish philosopher and fervent proto-Zionist who becomes Daniel's mentor. In the kind of coincidence only found in 19th century novels, Mordecai turns out to be Mira's brother, and Daniel discovers that his parents were Jews--his mother, a self-involved diva, gave him to Sir Hugo in order to, as she puts it, spare him the burden of being a Jew. Daniel, however, embraces his heritage. He marries Mira and adopts the cause of a Jewish national home. After Mordecai's death, the two leave for Palestine, where Daniel plans to help lead the struggle for a national home.

Complicated enough? Not hardly, as I've only described half of the novel's plot. A second storyline revolves around Gwendolen Harleth, a young woman whom Daniel first notices gambling away a fortune in a fashionable European casino. The eldest daughter of an impoverished widow, Gwendolen is expected to support her family--since she's a beauty, through marriage to a rich man. Although she has other, less comfortable, options, the spoiled, selfish Gwendolen has no plans to spend her life as a governess. She accepts the proposal of Henleigh Grandcourt, despite the fact that she doesn't love him, and despite the knowledge that by doing so she is disinheriting his bastard son. Through her guilt on both these counts, Grandcourt manipulates and torments Gwendolen until her married life becomes a hell. Gwendolen latches onto Deronda as an emblem of goodness and purity, using him as a confessor and an emotional crutch, and giving rise to the rumor that they are having an affair. When Grandcourt dies in a boating accident, it is expected that Daniel and Gwendolen will marry, but he has no romantic feelings for her. When he tells her of his intention to marry Mira, an older and wiser Gwendolen realizes that she must be strong on her own, and learn to be a better person without Daniel's help. At the novel's end, Gwendolen is living in quiet seclusion with her family, at peace.

Even before its completion (the novel was originally published in installments), critics were complaining that Daniel Deronda read like two books artificially sewn together. Over Eliot's objections that "[she] meant everything in the book to be related to everything else there", they insisted on separating the two stories. English critics loved Gwendolen, but were either chilly or openly hostile towards Daniel. Jewish readers, on the other hand, embraced Eliot for her sympathetic portrayal of Jewish characters, Mordecai in particular, but when the book was first translated into Hebrew all the Gwendolen material was excised. As late as 1976, the Jewish critic Shmuel Werses wrote that "If someone were to excise from this story all the chapters which tell of these Gentiles who have almost nothing to do with the main theme and basic idea, and to leave only those chapters [concerning the life of Jews] the story would lack almost nothing."

I was perfectly willing, when I finished Daniel Deronda almost four years ago, to accept that it failed as a novel because it was made up of two stories crammed into one book. That these two stories separated Daniel and Gwendolen, however, never quite sat right with me. It was a chance viewing of the BBC adaptation (with a luminous Romola Garai as Gwendolen and Battlestar Galactica's Jamie Bamber in a small role) that finally made me realize how Daniel Deronda should be divided, and where Eliot's failure lay.

Unlike the novel, which ends with Mordecai's death, the miniseries ends after Daniel and Mira's wedding. The camera swirls around the newlyweds as they strike a hero pose at the bow of a ship headed for Palestine, confident in their bright and glorious future. If, like myself, you've studied a little about the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine during the 19th century, you know that what awaits Daniel and Mira is anything but glorious. Most agricultural settlements in Palestine failed within a few years of their establishment, as their inhabitants, inexperienced farmers unprepared for the hardships of the Mediterranean, starved to death, died of malaria, or fell prey to local bandits. Even the largest and most successful settlements were largely supported by Jewish philanthropists such as Baron Rothschild (to this day, "on the Baron's account" is an Israeli idiom which implies outside funding).

As for becoming a Jewish leader, there's something disturbing about Eliot's notion that the person best suited to lead the Jewish struggle is someone who was raised away from Jewish culture. Mordecai aside, the Jews Daniel meets are, at their best, unsophisticated, low-class merchants: mundane minds with whom Daniel is only too pleased to have nothing to do. Daniel is remarkable, Eliot tells us, because he embodies the qualities of the perfect English gentleman, and these qualities are what suits him to lead the Jewish people. In other words, for all her sympathy for their plight, Eliot's best solution for the Jews was that they should become more English. This is a facile approach, only a few pegs above the racism she detested, and it is therefore no wonder that the parts of the novel that concern themselves with Eliot's unsophisticated politics are the ones that fall flat on their face.

In spite of this failure, Daniel Deronda is an excellent novel. When it stops being a political screed, when it stops being about the Jewish Question, Daniel Deronda is a remarkable exploration of strength and weakness, selfishness and selflessness. The spoiled Gwendolen, raised by a doting and soft-hearted mother, mistakes selfishness for strength of character. When confronted with Grandcourt, a genuinely strong person who cares for no one but himself, she crumbles. In order to survive, she latches onto Daniel, who is too selfless to turn someone away when they ask for his help, even if he doesn't care about them. For his troubles, Daniel finds himself tied to Gwendolen, smeared with the implication of an illicit affair, and nearly swallowed by her selfish need. Daniel's mother, we are told, used Sir Hugo's affection for her to palm off an inconvenient child. Mordecai delayed his journey to Palestine to support his mother in her grief after Mira was kidnapped, and his illness and early death are a direct result of that decision.

The novel's characters seem divided between the selfless and the selfish--those who love and answer others' needs and those who are loved and have their needs answered. Power, and contentment, come from being selfish, and yet at the end, selflessness wins out. The most moral characters in the book, Daniel and Mira, find an answer to their needs in each other, and Gwendolen, in her farewell to Daniel, sincerely wishes them well. It's a subtle and compelling morality play, which recognizes the cruel realities of life even as it tells us that we should aspire to be more than mere brutes who seek only gratification of their desires. And it's so far above Eliot's mawkish fable about the Jewish prince in disguise that it is indeed hard to believe that both stories can coexist in the same novel.

To put it bluntly, no one ever read Uncle Tom's Cabin because Harriet Beecher Stowe was a literary giant. The question becomes, how do we want to view Daniel Deronda, and Eliot with it? If the book is nothing more than a political screed then we can read it as a historical curiosity, a step in the right direction by a woman whose good intentions were greater than her political savvy. If, on the other hand, we want to read it as a work of art by someone who was a literary giant, then we can only conclude that Eliot made a fundamental mistake when she wrote for any other reason than the craft itself. There are successful political novels that open the readers' eyes to injustice and still manage to be good art, but they are rare, and George Eliot never wrote one. Daniel Deronda would have been a better novel if the Jewish segments had been left on the cutting room floor, leaving us with a story about people struggling to be better than they are, and the triumph of decency over brutishness.

Which brings us to an eternal question: which of the two--the political screed that brings to light the great evil of anti-semitism or the great novel--is more worthy? Which makes the world a better place? Which would have been a better use of Eliot's time? Maybe it's selfish or short-sighted of me, but as an Israeli Jew whose life has never been touched by anti-semitism or religious prejudice, I prefer the great novel.

Monday, August 22, 2005

But that is called cannibalism, my dear children, and is in fact frowned upon in most societies.

It probably says something about me that I started the day planning to write something about George Eliot, and ended up writing about Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Remember Edward Scissorhands? Remember the cookie-making scene? Not just how beautiful and exciting and funny the machine was, but how it seemed to encapsulate the childish conviction that a machine that makes something as delightful as cookies must be delightful in itself? How is it possible that the man who envisioned that scene--really just a throwaway, there for the fun of it--is also responsible for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's opening credits? I like the idea of seeing the golden tickets placed in the chocolate bars and sent all over the world, but the production line Burton gives us is dull, sterile, and textureless.

Apart from that, the film was really quite delightful and a very faithful adaptation. I especially appreciated Burton's understanding that it's the first part of the book--before Charlie finds the golden ticket--that makes you love it. You hold your breath when Charlie opens his birthday bar of Wonka chocolate, knowing, just as his parents and grandparents do, that although his chances of finding the golden ticket are small, they do exist. You're crushed when Grandpa Joe's illicit gift of chocolate yields nothing but candy, and you're elated when Charlie finds the money in the street and the ticket itself. For a child just coming into the painful realization of their own ordinariness, these scenes carry the first hint of adult disappointment, and the heartbreaking knowledge that, however ordinary you are, extraordinary things just might happen to you.

After that tour de force, the trip to the chocolate factory is almost a victory lap, and it's to Burton's credit that he places as much emphasis on the scenes outside the factory as he does on the ones inside. Once in Willy Wonka's domain, the film stays true to the inherent sadism of Dahl's book (and, indeed, of all of his fiction, juvenile and adult), and the result is both delightful and uncomfortable--just as it should be. Not having been raised in the States, I don't have a special attachment to Gene Wilder's Wonka, and I thought Johnny Depp acquitted himself very well in the role.

Still, one of these days I'd like to see a version of the story that points out the inherent hypocrisy of a man who makes his living by peddling candy to children and then turns around and makes fun of them when that candy makes them fat.

George Eliot is coming, I promise.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Myst V Demo, Reevaluated

A brief review of Myst forums reveals that I was wrong about a lot of things in my previous review of the demo. The Slate is used during the demo. Details that I had assumed were extraneous, such as the D'ni numbers and the symbols they correlated to, turn out to be vitally important. In fact, as it turns out I failed to make all but the most basic connections when I played the demo.

And yet, I managed to solve the puzzle and get to the demo's end, simply by using a brute force approach. There are four revolving pedestals with eight symbols on each one, each affecting a different door. It's not a combination lock, so it takes less than 32 attempts to find the right symbols. Which right there forces me to reevaluate the entire puzzle. You're not supposed to be able to crack a Myst puzzle by trying all the possible combinations, and one of the most important things a puzzle designer has to keep in mind is that as long as the number of combinations isn't prohibitive (and from my own personal experience, 'prohibitive' means a hell of a lot more than 32), most players will prefer the brute force approach to stopping and thinking.

As it stand, the puzzle also brings up some unfortunate questions from the previous Myst games, which I had hoped the End of Ages designers would have enough sense to keep in mind: why does the last man on the planet need combination locks? And even if we accept the combination locks, why would he leave himself hints to the combination which other people would be able decipher with ease? In Myst and Riven, the combinations to most locks were written in diaries, so that the challenge became getting your hands on the diaries, or, if the hints to the combinations were in plain sight, the locks themselves were hard to reach--in other words, a fairly realistic approach to security, implying the existence of real people who didn't want strangers in their secret hideaways. In Exile and Revelation, the locks were clearly meant to be openable by anyone with enough free time who happened across them. The game-ishness of the world began to peek through, destroying the player's suspension of disbelief.

Judging from the demo, it seems that End of Ages is taking the same approach, which is a shame. The quality I always liked best about the Myst puzzles was their integration into the game world. At their best, the puzzles weren't really puzzles but a series of hurdles that the player had to overcome, as if they had really been dropped into an unfamiliar place and had to figure it out as they tried to explore it. It's part of what made Myst so immersive, and it's saddening to think that the final installment in the series might not offer that same experience.

Friday, August 19, 2005

"This has always been a fave ladder of mine, for its sexiness"

A brilliant perversion of Amazon Listmania, or just a smutty joke? Either way, it's hilarious . Probably work-safe, but not for the easily offended.

Myst V: End of Ages Demo

(Available from Macgamefiles.com. The demo weighs in at 457 MB and is available only for Macintosh. The game's official site also contains a trailer and screenshots.)

The first thing you always say about a Myst game is that the graphics are lovely, which, of course, they are. When it released the demo for Myst IV: Revelation, Ubisoft sacrificed image resolution in order to keep the file under a certain size, to the horror and concern of fans. It's good to see that they've learned their lesson, even if the result is a gigantic file that not everyone will be able to download.

Beautiful as the game world is, however, I'm not certain about its Myst-ishness. Myst worlds are painstakingly detailed: whether it's indoors, where every surface is covered with books, scraps of paper that have been doodled on, pens, scientific implements, oddly shaped rocks, bits of string, pictures of loved ones, and even desk toys, or outdoors, where every bush, rock and blade of grass seem to have been individually drawn. The small area that the demo allowed me to explore--a tiny island where one of the game characters has settled--was disappointingly barren. Even the man-made objects didn't have the level of detail I've come to expect from the game (a closer look at some of the screenshots available online suggests that, even at its gigantic size, the demo may feature low-quality graphics).

A major departure from Myst tradition is the decision to turn away from green screen acting and use motion capture animation. The result is what we've come to expect from motion capture--body movements are rendered perfectly, but facial expressions are almost unreadable. The game designers have been making noises about a new 'face mapping' technique, but the results remind me of nothing more than Vincent D'Onofrio in Men In Black--there's a face, and there's something moving underneath it, but the two don't seem to be connected in the normal way. I'm really not certain why the designers chose to move away from filming before a green screen, especially when it's obvious that they still need the actors for the voice work and the motion capture itself.

Another problem of the Myst IV demo was that the puzzle was ridiculously easy (really, it was at the level of finding the not-terribly-well-hidden instructions and following them). The new demo also addresses this problem--not only is the puzzle relatively challenging, but it's clearly only a small part of a much larger puzzle. It's already clear that there's a complicated system of symbols in the game that the player is going to have to learn (I was especially pleased to see the return of D'ni numbers in base 25). In this sense, the demo does exactly what it's supposed to do--offer a tiny taste of mystery that whets the appetite for more answers. Unfortunately, very little of the story is revealed, and the only character we meet seems to have nothing to do with Atrus or his family.

Absent from the demo are the camera and the journal, which were both so helpful in Myst IV. Even worse, there doesn't seem to be a Zip Mode, a well-loved and desperatly needed feature, as the Myst games require a lot of back-and-forth-ing as the player tries to see what consequences their actions have had on the game world. I'm holding out hope that all three features will be present in the final game.

Bottom line, this is a better demo than the previous one. I have serious reservations about some of the designers' decisions (I haven't even mentioned the Slate, a writing device introduced in the demo but not used, which is another departure from Myst tradition), but like most fans, I'll be lining up to buy the game as soon as it becomes available.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book'em

It's easy to complain about the Booker award. We could talk about Ian McEwan--awarded for the muddled and aimless Amsterdam but ignored for genuine masterpieces like Enduring Love or Atonement. Or, we might mention Life of Pi--memo to Booker judges: a YA boys' adventure with a neat and thought-provoking twist at its end is still a YA boys' adventure, and, however well-written, not deserving of a major award. Or The Blind Assassin. Or The Handmaid's Tale.

In other words, when I turned the first page of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, last year's winner, I was perfectly prepared, eager even, to despise it. Last year's Booker race was famously considered to be over as soon as the longlist was announced. Pundits and bookmakers alike were handing the award to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. As it was and still is one of the finest, best-written, and most thought-provoking books I had ever read, I was overjoyed to see it recognized by an establishment that I had grown accustomed to thinking of as conservative and afraid of innovation. I was deeply disappointed at Mitchell's loss, and my only reason for picking up The Line of Beauty in the first place was to discover what about it made it better than Cloud Atlas. I didn't expect great things.

And, as it turns out, I was right. The Line of Beauty isn't a bad book, but neither is it a particularly good one. Like its protagonist, Nick Guest, it does almost nothing and aspires to very little. It's a terribly bland book--intentionally so, it seems--with almost no moments of emotion or surprise. Nick is a very flat and uninteresting character, while the secondary characters tend to run together, a sea of unmemorable names and personalities.

Beauty takes place in the mid- to late 80s, and charts Nick's infatuation with the family of his closest college friend, Toby--up-and-coming Tory MP Gerald, his refined, old-money wife Rachel, their bi-polar daughter Catherine and, of course, Toby himself, with whom Nick, a relatively uncloseted homosexual, has been unrequitedly in love since they first met. Nick is obsessed with beauty--the beauty of the antique furniture and paintings he sees in the houses of the wealthy and powerful and the beauty of the callous young men he meets in those houses. This obsession leads him to a fascination with wealth, and to a life as a hanger-on, something between a son and a servant, in Gerald and Rachel's house. The book charts the family's ascendancy as Mrs. Thatcher gains power, and their inevitable decline as the toll of the 80s--unemployment, economic collapse, AIDS--begins to bear down on them.

In other words, this is Brideshead Revisited. A less well-written, less humorous, less interesting, longer Brideshead Revisited, the homosexuality not as shameful but in the end no less destructive, and this is bearing in mind that one Brideshead Revisited was really a bit more than the world needed.

In a way, it would have been easier for me to talk about the Booker decision if I had loved The Line of Beauty. It's hardly likely, after all, that the Booker judges thought as little of Hollinghurst's book as I did. Nor did the reviewers, who called it "A masterpiece" (The Observer), "exquisitely written" (The Sunday Times), "magnificent" (The Daily Telegraph), and many other superlatives besides. Even accepting, for the sake of argument, that The Line of Beauty is a superb and insightful satire, that Hollinghurst's supple prose makes up for the deficiencies of his plot, that his characters are rounded and compelling, there is something disturbing, inexplicable even, about the decision to award it over Cloud Atlas.

Where The Line of Beauty is a tiny portrait of a single moment, Cloud Atlas is a sweeping vista; a grand, thrilling roller-coaster ride through the past, the present, and the future. Through the lives of six people, who may or may not be reincarnations of the same soul, Mitchell studies the human race itself: its moments of greatness and its darkest crimes, its impulse to do good and its predilection for evil. It is a book about kindness and cruelty, slavery and redemption, hope and despair. Cloud Atlas brings together a Western, linear narrative with an Eastern, circular one to ask an eternal question: is there hope for the human race? Is our civilization perfectible? The answer is both yes and no, and it is arrived at through a narrative structure that is playful, imaginative, clever, and great fun. In every respect, Cloud Atlas is a glorious triumph.

And yet the Booker judges preferred the stolid, down-to-earth Line of Beauty. For a moment, it's possible to see their point of view. Hollinghurst's novel, after all, deals with the here and now, with political realities that have left a lasting impression on Britons' lives. It is a naturalistic novel--boring people, dull situations, predictable results--and one can imagine the judges feeling that this made it more important, more relevant to their lives.

Another moment, however, and this viewpoint seems hopelessly parochial. By awarding Hollinghurst over Mitchell, the Booker judges essentially become the characters of Hollinghurst's novel--convinced that their tiny, insignificant day in the sun is actually the pinnacle of human existence. They preferred Hollinghurst's shrill morality play (lie down with rich, homophobic, Tory dogs and you'll get fleas--or rather, AIDS) to Mitchell's benevolent, searching exploration of human nature. They chose a mean satire, a true poster-child of the age of irony, over an emotional tour de force, with characters you might actually bleed for. I might say here that they chose style over substance, but in truth Cloud Atlas lacks neither and The Line of Beauty is short on both, so I'll say that they chose the fashionable and the hip--a book that they could see themselves (or, more likely, their political enemies) in--over the genuinely meaningful.

I have no way of knowing if any of this is actually true. I have heard negative reactions to Cloud Atlas, people who found its structure confusing, its characters unappealing, its narrative thrust less than compelling--it's possible that the Booker judges were among these people. And yet, they gave it a spot on the shortlist. All things being equal, accepting the technical perfection of both books, it's hard to see any reason, except for the judges' complete self-involvement, for Cloud Atlas' grand scope and ambitions not carrying the day.

UPDATE: Edward Champion has details about Mitchell's next book, Black Swan Green.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I'm Also Fairly Certain that "One-Dimensional Storyline" is a Malapropism

From Amazon.co.uk's review of Rachel Cusk's In the Fold (longlisted for this year's Booker award, to the surprise and consternation of Jessa Crispin and Chris Loxley), by Carey Green:
While Cusk will never appeal to those looking for one dimensional storylines with cardboard characters, this beautifully, sparingly written gem is sure to delight the discerning reader.
Alright, show of hands. How many of you, when selecting your next read, actually think "Hmm, I'd really like something with cardboard characters. The less believable, the better. And it would be so cool if this book had a one-dimensional storyline--I'm so tired of complex, interesting plots"?

Clearly, Green was trying to find a polite way of saying that In the Fold is light on plot, but overshot the mark and ended up with something that, at first glance, seems simply funny, and at a second rather insulting. If you like your books with a bit of plot, the review seems to say, you're clearly reading for the wrong reasons.

Matthew Cheney (and several others) have been discussing the use of the term 'self-indulgent' in literary reviews, with the consensus being that, if nothing else, it's a hallmark of lazy and uninformative reviewing. I've been going on about 'escapism', and how little it actually means. Green demonstrates with flair that avoiding certain catch-phrases is no guarantee that you won't come across as the worst sort of snob.

In Her Last Communication Before She Was Crushed by a Pile of Unread Books...


Yes, that is my to-be-read stack. I always try to identify titles when I look at pictures like this, so for the sake of your eyes, here's a list:
Right now I'm reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. I'm only at the beginning, but I can already tell I'm going to have a lot to say about it, specifically on the subject of brain-dead Booker judges. Any thoughts on what to read afterwards would be very welcome.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

I had not thought Death Eaters had undone so many

Madame Trelawney, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Hogwarts,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Hogwarts Headmaster,
(Those are bezoars that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Fleur, the Lady of the Wands,
The lady of embarassing situations.
Here is the woman with pink hair, and here the Owl,
And here is the one-eyed auror, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries in his flask,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Dark Lord. Fear death by fanfic.
I see crowds of people, walking round in the Floo.
Thank you. If you see dear Minister Fudge,
Tell him I bring the prophecy myself:
One must be so careful these days.

(Via Making Light)

You Keep Using That Word...

Looking for other aggrieved reactions to Brian Hennigan's screed (check out Dana Huff and David Schwartz) led me into a discussion on escapism, as in "The Harry Potter books are merely escapist pap." Calling some books 'escapist' and others not has been a pet peeve of mine for a while, and what is a blog for, after all, if not airing long-held opinions for which there has never previously been an appropriate forum?

It's a tricky term, escapism, in that it's never been clear to me what exactly is meant by it. What part of the reading experience constitutes the escape? If it's the act of immersing oneself in the lives of nonexistent people, developing emotional reactions to situations that never occurred, then all fiction is an escape. Anna Karenina is no more real than Harry Potter, and becoming emotionally involved with either one is, to take a strict and joyless approach, a waste of mental energy.

The 'escapist' label, however, is usually attached to the fantastic, the adventurous, and the wildly popular. The theory seems to be that when they read books like Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, readers imagine themselves in the place of the main characters, possessing remarkable powers and having grand adventures. When they read realistic fiction like Atonement or Snow, on the other hand, readers are faced with a facet of life which they can apply to their own existence, thus forcing them to examine their real lives rather than imagine them away.

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that fiction that is fun, adventurous, and that ends happily is somehow completely unrelated to the real world. It's the same attitude that gets writers of literary love stories like Captain Corelli's Mandolin or Cold Mountain to tear their lovers apart a few pages before the end of the book, lest they be tagged as romance writers--because, of course, in real life star-crossed lovers never end up marrying and living happily together.

When examined closely, the separation between realistic and non-realistic fiction seems arbitrary and artificial. Why is Atonement, for example, a realistic novel? Its premise is just this side of absurd, albeit not impossible, and it is only through the strength of McEwan's prose that we accept it. Some might say that the realism comes from the characters, who are thoroughly believable, but then why apply the escapist label to science fiction or fantasy novels with believable characters, as so often happens?

There is something false about the setting and premise of every novel, for the simple reason that life is rarely obliging enough to provide us with a plot. In real life, a traumatic event from our childhood may never come back to haunt our comfortable old age. A person with a fundamental flaw in their character may discover that the tragedies of their life have nothing to do with that flaw. Mysteries and questions that dog us throughout our existence may have no resolution, or a deeply unsatisfying one. Coincidences might not mean anything. Long-kept secrets may remain that way.

For all the talk about how fantastic fiction can encourage dangerously unrealistic expectations from its readers, it occurs to me that realistic fiction offers a more dangerous and seductive fantasy. After all, by a relatively early age most of us become resigned to the fact that we don't have special powers, that we're not the princes of a foreign land, whisked away in order to protect us from an ancestral enemy, that a talking animal isn't going to show up and lead us into an adventure. It takes a lot longer, however, to accept that our lives have no plot, that they are simply a sequence of events with no coherent narrative or conclusion. The impulse to tell stories, to transform our lives and the lives of others into stories, is powerful and ancient, and all novels are, in a way, an escape into a world in which human lives can truly and accurately be translated into narratives.

The closest thing to a compelling argument for the 'escapist' label is the notion that some books, by reflecting an aspect of real life, can teach their readers valuable lessons. This argument assumes, however, that the purpose of fiction is to improve, to teach, to provide useful tools for the real world. To make such an argument is to smother art in its sleep. Art shouldn't have a purpose beyond its own existence. No work of fiction written to further an agenda or educate its audience can ever hope to overcome those ulterior motives, and achieve the status of true art.

This argument also brings us to the inherent hypocrisy of the 'escapist' label, in that there are many highly respected and critically acclaimed novels that have no improving qualities to speak of. What, for instance, does one learn from To the Lighthouse, apart from a fervent admiration for Virginia Woolf's eye and voice (by no means an unworthy lesson)?

If one work of fiction is escapist, then all of them are, and we should ask ourselves if this is such a bad thing. Those who toss the 'escapist' label around unthinkingly, who use it as a catch-all insult to indicate a work that they find insignificant and unimportant, might do well to remember that there are times in life in which escape is not only harmless, but necessary. Snobbish reviewers tell us that we use fantastic fiction to escape the doldrums of our mundane life, but what about readers who use books to escape poverty, misery, sickness, war, and hopelessness? Isn't the ability to whisk an unhappy person, even for a few short hours, away from the source of their sadness, a blessed sort of magic? Shouldn't it be encouraged, one of the highest compliments a piece of art could be paid? Or, in the words of Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:
Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history--his home--the usual charge leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. ... The escape from reality was, he felt--especially right after the war--a worthy challenge. He would remember fondly for the rest of his life a peaceful half hour spent reading a copy of Betty and Veronica that he had found in a service-station rest room: lying down with it under a fir tree, in sun-slanting forest outside of Medford, Oregon, wholly absorbed into that primary-colored world of bad gags, heavy ink lines, Shakepearean farce, and the deep, almost Oriental mystery of the two big-toothed, wasp-waisted goddess-girls, light and dark, entangled forever in the enmity of their friendship. The pain of his loss--though he would never have spoken of it in these terms--was always with him in those days, a cold smooth ball lodged in his chest, just behind his sternum. For that half hour spent in the dappled shade of the Douglas firs, reading Betty and Veronica, the icy ball had melted away without him even noticing. ... It was a mark of how fucked-up and broken was the world--the reality--that had swallowed his home and his family that such a feat of escape, by no means easy to pull off, should remain so universally despised.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Another Day, Another Jackass

Joining the likes of A.S. Byatt, Jack Markowitz, and Robert McCrum is The Scotsman's Brian Hennigan. Hennigan, an anthropologist whose field of expertise is pop-culture, sums up his exhaustive study, in which he interviewed hundreds of adult Harry Potter fans, and concludes...

No, wait, I'm sorry. Hennigan gets pissed off at being asked stupid questions when he reveals that he's from Scotland (specifically, does he know J.K. Rowling)*, and launches into a diatribe against adult HP fans, who are, he concludes, losers. He goes on to say
"There was not anything of entertainment value [in the HP book Hennigan read] for a fully-developed adult mind. I am sure that one or two adults read Harry Potter books in the same distracted way that soap operas are observed or crisps are munched - in a manner entirely consistent with the obliteration of whatever dreary day they have just got through and in search of some temporary relief from the trauma of an unjust world.

MAYBE they have more important aims, such as working out what is the most frightening thing they can use to make their own children be quiet before the first pint of Lambrusco kicks in.

My concern is those adults who style themselves Harry Potter fans - supposed grown-ups who waited for the latest release with all the decorum of a drunk cheerleader trying to earn a place on Big Brother. These people are not seeking relief from life - they are denying life itself, excusing themselves from the ordinary business of being an adult and the complexities thereof. A simple retort might be that life would be so much simpler if we all remained more childish and less-grown-up; that wars are caused by adults not children, etc. Such claptrap remains a sad part of modern life, flailing a ragged paw at reasoned thinking like a fat, rancid cat that just won't die.

Adult fiction recognises that the contemporary world is a complex, difficult place with demands on our reasoning that require careful consideration. I have nothing against Harry Potter or any of his genuinely juvenile followers - children should be bursting with juvenility - but his adult disciples are little more than cowardly escapists."
I know I've gone on at length about this already, but how is this sort of writing acceptable? Hennigan doesn't like the HP books and doesn't think there's anything in them that should attract an adult. That's fine. But how does he justify drawing these kinds of overblown and patently untrue conclusions about a group that numbers in the millions, simply because its members disagree with him?

(Link via Bookslut's Michael Schaub, and don't think I'm not mad at him too. He and Jessa aren't fans of the HP books, I knew that already, but that doesn't excuse endorsing bad writing. If Hennigan had written something like this about comics readers, Schaub would be baying for his blood.)

* I'm sorry, the only people who don't have to put up with stupid questions about their nationalities are the ones who come from countries nobody's heard of. Hennigan should try being an Israeli--I know at least one girl who was once asked if she rode a camel to school.

No. Just No.

Joe Wright, director of the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice adaptation (see my, um, reservations, here), will next turn his talents to directing an adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement.

I mean, it's not as if I ever thought they'd be able to make a good movie out of this book, but why handicap it coming out the gate?

(Via Maud Newton)

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Just When I Thought Battlestar Galactica Couldn't Get Any Cooler

I didn't love the original Battlestart Galactica when I saw it as a kid, but I remember liking the episodes that introduced Pegasus, the second surviving battlestar, and its bigger-than-life Commander Cain. So I was pleased to hear that the new BSG would be introducing its own Pegasus.

Of course, this is Ron Moore we're talking about, and naturally there's a twist--not only is Cain a woman, but she's an admiral, and therefore outranks Adama!

And if that's not enough for you, according to The CIC, the actress playing Cain is none other than Michelle Forbes, known to genre fans as Star Trek: The Next Generation's Ro Laren, and also the best and only reason to watch 24's second season.

I couldn't love this news any more if it were made of chocolate.

Also BSG-related: Battlestar Galactica Accidentally Cancelled

Monday, August 08, 2005

Wise Children by Angela Carter

Give Angela Carter credit--she didn't brag without justification. Her writing, as it turns out, really does "cut like a steel blade at the base of a man's penis" (admittedly, I don't have any personal experience with which to make a comparison). I'd like to quote a passage from Wise Children to illustrate just what a fantastic writer she was, but I'm spoiled for choice. Open the book at any random page and you're almost guaranteed to find something quotable. Here, try this from the opening chapter:
"You can see for miles, out of this window. You can see straight across the river. There's Westminster Abbey, see? Flying the St. George's cross, today. St. Paul's, the single breast. Big Ben, winking its golden eye. Not much else familiar, these days. This is about the time that comes in every century when they reach out for all that they can grab of dear old London, and pull it down. Then they build it up again, like London Bridge in the nursery rhyme, goodbye, hello, but it's never the same. Even the railway stations, changed out of recognition, turned into souks. Waterloo, Victoria. Nowhere you can get a decent cup of tea, all they give you is Harvey Wallbangers, filthy capuccino. Stocking shops and knicker outlets everywhere you look. I said to Nora: 'Remember Brief Encounter, how I cried buckets? Nowhere for them to meet on a station, nowadays, except in a bloody knicker shop. Their hands would have to shyly touch under cover of a pair of Union Jack boxer shorts.'"
This is the wary and experienced, but by no means tired, voice of Dora Chance as she describes the events of her seventy-fifth birthday, which also happens to be the one hundredth birthday of her illustrious father, Melchior Hazard. Dora and her twin sister Nora are Melchior's illegitimate daughters by a nameless chambermaid (or was their mother, in fact, the woman they knew as Grandma?), and their father has never acknowledged them even in private. Despite this, the sisters' lives, professional and personal, have been inextricably bound with Melchior's and his family's--his twin brother Peregrine, as generous with his affections as Melchior is stingy with his; his three wives; his twin daughters by his first wife and twin sons by his third.

If this all sounds ridiculously theatrical, it's meant to. Melchior, Dora, and Nora are descended from theatre royalty--the august Ranulph Hazard and his irrepressible child-bride, Estella (they met when she played Cordelia to his Lear, which neatly sets up not only the many Shakespearean parallels in the book, but also the recurring themes of May/December romances and genteel incest). Melchior himself is also a giant of the theatre, whereas his daughters are song-and-dance girls who tread the boards of dance halls in everything from dance reviews to striptease acts. Wise Children is a novel full of such contradictions--legitimate children versus illegitimate ones, respectable theatre versus low burlesque, comedy versus tragedy.

As Dora narrates her life, we follow her and her sister from humble beginnings as chorus girls and hoofers, to the apex of their career in a Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring their father (in an obvious parallel to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Melchior falls passionately in love with his leading lady, the producer's wife, and they abandon their respective spouses for a tempestuous and short-lived marriage as the film goes to pieces around them), to a quiet life teaching children to dance and occasionally selling off a memento of their show-business past to pay the heating bill. There's nothing sad or wistful about Wise Children, however, nor indeed about Dora and Nora themselves. They have regrets, lost loves, failed ambitions, but as they wake up on the morning of their seventy-fifth birthday, each sister is ready for her life to begin again.

And begin it does. The day starts off with a tragedy, as the sisters discover that their beloved goddaughter has been jilted by her lover, Melchior's son, and may have drowned herself. You can always count on the Chance sisters to turn a frown upside down, however, and on Carter herself--for all the tragedy she throws in her characters' paths, Wise Children is an extraordinarily funny book. Every kind of funny--from acid wit through double entendres to broad farce. As much as I admired Carter's The Bloody Chamber, a collection of retold and reimagined fairy tales, there was a defensiveness to it that was hard to ignore. Yes, these are fairy tales, Carter seemed to be saying, but look! Sex, violence, gore, depravity! The Bloody Chamber exuded the desperate determination of a young person to be accepted as an adult and leave childish things behind them. In Wise Children, Carter's last novel, she seems to have come full circle. Her voice is that of a mature woman who recognizes that nothing is as serious as comedy, or as adult as the heartbreak and tribulations of childhood.

Wise Children's denouement takes place as the sisters attend their father's birthday gala. It's a side-splitting and heartbreaking scene, during the course of which several long-lost and presumed-dead relatives will reappear, the paternity of several children will be brought to light, a wronged woman will publicly condemn her fickle lover, a deserting husband will be made to acknowledge his true wife, ungrateful children will be punished and grateful ones rewarded, and the entire party will be served a poisoned desert.

This is all from Shakespeare, of course--or, perhaps, all of Shakespeare. There is hardly a play in The Bard's repertoire that Carter doesn't riff off, reference, or lampoon, and the book is riddled with references to Shakespeare himself--Dora and Nora's house, for example, is on Bard Road. Discovering these parallels and references--many of which, I'm sure, flew right over my head--is half the fun of reading the book, as are the ways in which Carter manages to put a modern spin on so many of Shakespeare's plots.

Wise Children is a book about the search for identity, and about the ability--and the need--to reinvent yourself. When Dora takes Nora's name for a night, the usually quiet sister finds herself mimicking, and even becoming, her exuberant and vivacious twin. Nora, on the other hand, quickly forgets to behave like Dora, and soon gives her sister a reputation as a flirt. It is a wise child, Carter tells us, who knows its own father, but for Dora and Nora Chance, wisdom is found in knowing themselves, and in being known by others. Surrounded by theatrical people, who see their lives as a series of dramatic climaxes and tragic setbacks, it is the Chance sisters who recognize that real life is simply a sequence of events without plot or resolution. The secret, the sisters know, is to hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and always be ready for a new beginning.

The Television Novel: Thoughts and Musings

I

Once upon a not-so-distant time, there was a television show.

It was a bit of an odd duck. It combined a genre premise--aliens, supernatural occurrences, government conspiracies--with a decidedly mainstream setting. To the great surprise and bewilderment of almost everyone involved with it, it became a major success. Critics adored it for its clever writing and the superb performances of its two stars. Before long, it had so thoroughly penetrated the mainstream that everything about it, from the main characters' names to the distinctive six-note opening of its theme song, was instantly recognizable even to non-viewers. It spawned spin-offs and imitations, and even a feature film. For a while, genre and semi-genre television was the hottest thing around.

By the time all this had happened, however, the seeds of the show's destruction had already been sown. The show's creator, tired with self-contained, weekly stories, started telling a bigger story about a vast conspiracy and a tantalizing revelation that lay at its core. Fan reaction was ecstatic and intense. A barrage of theories and a mountain of criticism began to accumulate. The show's creator, meanwhile, having no idea where his bigger story was going and what the ultimate truth at its center was, began to stumble. Instead of answering questions, he compounded them, contradicting himself and degrading the integrity of his characters and the trust his viewers had placed in him in the process. By the time the show ended, several years after most people had stopped caring, it and the bigger story were parodies of their former selves.

The X-Files was on my mind quite a bit during the last television season. I was trying to pinpoint the moment in which I stopped caring. When did I realize that not only did the show's writers not know where they were going, they didn't care, and in fact had never had any intention of going anywhere? They were quite comfortable where they were, thank you very much, telling the same story over and over again while pretending to be moving forward. In essence, the X-Files writers had found a way to write formula that looked like a continuous, multi-part story. Mulder and Scully find some tiny piece of the alien conspiracy puzzle (which, as like as not, contradicts all the other pieces we've seen before). Their lives are placed in danger. They survive but lose all their evidence. Despite occasionally throwing the viewers tiny continuity bones (Scully's sister dies. Mulder learns his sister's fate), the 'mythology' episodes of the show, as they became known to fans, were as standardized as the ones about Fluke-men or reincarnated killers.

I started thinking about the moment I stopped being an X-Files fan because last January I stopped being an Alias fan, for largely the same reasons. Ostensibly a show that keeps reinventing itself, Alias never strays far from its formula--Sydney living a double life, unable to trust even the people she loves, working for Arvin Sloane and chasing after the secrets of Milo Rambaldi. It was the last iteration of this formula that caused me to turn off the TV in disgust (apparently I wasn't alone in this. According to Dark Horizons, the show's next season is likely be its last). As Alias' Byzantine games of trust get buried deeper and deeper under nonsensical and contradictory revelations, the characters cease to be human. They are merely meat automatons, positioned by the writers in familiar poses.

It's worth noting the qualitative difference between the collapse of a show like The X-Files and that of, say, ER. The latter show has devolved into a soap opera: the characters have lost focus, the writers have gotten bored, the premise is tired. These things happened on The X-Files, but their cause wasn't the passage of time but the writers' failure to live up to their unspoken promises--that the story they had started had an ending, that this ending explained and justified the many twists and turns the viewers had been taken on, and that the viewers would get to see this ending.

II

One of the smartest observations I've ever seen about writing in general and genre fandom in particular came from the weblog of Teresa Nielsen-Hayden, who writes:
When I’m teaching expository theory to young writers, I always tell them yes, you should figure out your world’s geography, history, economy, climate, material culture, religion, and quaint social customs; and then you should leave 98% of it out of the story. If you do, the 2% you mention will feel solid and accurate to your readers, but it won’t overtax their patience by making them remember details they don’t yet care about. Fiction should not make you feel like you’re studying for the test.
And then goes on to observe
There’s the paradox of it: A lively, fast-moving story can so engage the audience’s imagination that they’ll go to all the work of reconstructing the background notes; but if that same information had been left lying around underfoot on the surface of the page, slowing and encumbering the narrative, the readers wouldn’t have cared enough about the story to go on reading.
Which is equally true when it come to television series. Teresa doesn't point out, however, that readers, or viewers, are just as likely to become obsessively intrigued by a story whose author hasn't gone to the trouble of figuring out its ending before beginning it. If you were a fan of The X-Files in the early and mid-90s you know what I'm talking about. If you're a fan of Lost today, you know it even more. The illusion of depth is easy to create, so long as you're never asked to draw back the curtain on your work. All over the world, millions of obsessive fans are ready and eager to take the lies of some television writer and mold them into the truth.

So how, given this fact, do we separate truth from lies? How do we tell a show whose writers simply want to keep it on the air as long as possible from one whose writers are truly interested in telling a good story?

III

Once upon about the same time, there was another television show.

This show was decidedly not mainstream. It was set in space, several centuries in the future. It had aliens covered in green latex, massive space battles, interplanetary intrigue. At the time, the field of space-set genre television was rather thoroughly dominated by one family of shows, but to the surprise of almost everyone, this new upstart was able to steal the hearts of a many genre fans. It became the de facto standard for space opera, so much so that the writers of the older show began copying it. They, too, wanted to tell complex political stories that spanned several episodes and even several seasons. They, too, strived to make their characters morally ambiguous, to tell stories that didn't always end well for all concerned, and to question the intelligence, and the good intentions, of those in power. Before long, you couldn't write a show set in space without including these elements.

The secret of the new show's success, everyone said, was that its creator had had the entire story plotted out before he even began production. One story, spanning five years. Fans delighted in trying to puzzle out the story from the clues provided, knowing that even the most insignificant details had a place in the creator's grand design.

Things went wrong when the cable channel producing the show declined to pay for its fifth season. The creator scrambled to tie up all the loose ends he had left, and to reveal as much as he could of what was supposed to come later, only to find another channel willing to give him his final season. By then, however, the damage had been done. Too much of the fifth season's story had already been told. The creator had to drag the remaining storylines out, and he had to make them surprising to viewers who had already been told what was coming. The result was a mess, and one by one viewers started noticing what their enthusiasm for the show's unique format had caused them to miss--that the show wasn't actually that good. The writing tended towards melodrama and sentimentality. The acting, with one or two exceptions, was wooden. The dialogue was unnatural and overblown. To add insult to injury, the show's creator made several television movies and a spin-off series, all of which were quite dreadful. By the time the show wrapped up, it had left a bitter taste in the mouths of most of its fans.

It's probably giving Babylon 5 too much credit to say that it shaped modern television, but it was certainly a harbinger of things to come. Babylon 5 proved that there was more to television than formula, and that if they knew they could trust you, your viewers would stay with you week after week and be far more loyal than viewers of formula shows. Without B5, we might not have shows like Buffy, Angel, Farscape, Veronica Mars, and Battlestar Galactica (but also 24, Alias and Lost).

But Babylon 5 also demonstrated the dangers of telling a story that was too inflexible. It's a lesson that many television writers have failed to learn. After an intriguing yet slow first season, HBO brought its eerie Carnivale back for another season this past winter. The show dripped with foreshadowing, and the writers obviously had an intricate story in mind--at one point, creator Daniel Knauf announced that he had a three-act story in mind, each act spanning two 12-episode seasons. But the second season moved at a snail's pace, and the revelations, when they finally came, were thin and unconvincing. Viewers were left to wonder why they had given so much of their time and attention to a show that wasn't paying them back in a good story. Ratings dropped, and Carnivale was cancelled this spring. It's possible that, had Knauf been willing to compress his story and move the plot faster than his master plan called for, Carnivale's deficiencies might have been overlooked. (Of course, television history is littered with the corpses of shows that were originally intended as a multi-episode story with a predetermined ending but never had the time or the ratings to even get past the first chapter--Carnivale joins such shows as American Gothic and Pasadena, to name but two.)

IV

I started watching four new television shows this season--a high number for me--and it's interesting to compare their approaches to long-term storytelling.

Veronica Mars is the most carefully plotted of the bunch. The central conceit of the entire first season is that Veronica is obsessed with solving the murder of her best friend. Although individual episodes often revolve around a mystery unrelated to the murder, most of them advance the investigation in some way. The show's creator, Rob Thomas, knew who the murderer was going to be when he wrote the first episode, and he and his writers did a masterful job of laying down a foundation of clues, slowly building up to the revelation of the killer's identity in the season finale. In essence, the first season of Veronica Mars is a mystery novel in 22 chapters.

At the other end of the scale, there's the new Doctor Who, a show that was almost entirely episodic. I've already written about how the slowly building mystery, which the viewers were aware of long before the characters, served to tie the season together and give it the impression of a 13-hour story, but there's no denying that the threads that connect the separate episodes have more to do with character development (the transformation of the Doctor's brittle cynicism; Rose's growth from a star-struck child, excited at the chance of exploring the universe, to a mature, yet saddened, adult, capable of making decisions that affect an entire planet; Mickey's disillusionment with Rose) than with plot. At the same time, it's clear that Russell T. Davies knew how he was going to end his season when he started it.

The caption in the opening credits of the new Battlestar Galactica keeps assuring us that the Cylons, the seemingly indestructible robots bent on the extermination of the human race, have a plan. That plan is the reason they attacked humanity when the one ship that could conceivably escape their weapons was still a few days away from being decommissioned. It's the reason they're manipulating several members of the Galactica's crew, toying with the surviving humans rather than simply killing them off. It's a plan that has a great deal to do with the Cylons' religious beliefs, and according to Ronald D. Moore, neither the plan nor the theology have been completely worked out.

One of the factors in Moore's favor is that Galactica's storyline is progressing at close to real time--four episodes into the second season, the entire show has spanned just over three months. It makes sense, given the short period of time since the extermination of nearly all of humanity, that the survivors should still be primarily concerned with keeping themselves alive, and less interested in asking questions that viewers have been obsessing about for months. Nevertheless, the longer Moore takes to answer these questions, the more data accumulates that he's going to have to incorporate into the Cylons' master plan when it is finally revealed to us, and the more frustrated his audience will become at being left in the dark. It seems hard to credit when talking about such a smart, unpredictable show, but Battlestar Galactica could easily collapse under the weight of its own unanswered questions.

Just look at Lost, a show with an almost unprecedented quality differential between the superb first half of its season (carefully plotted in advance back when the show was supposed to be a 10-hour miniseries) and its frustrating and boring second half (written after the show shot into the stratosphere and was renewed until 2023). The Gilligan's Island comparison, an unfortunate joke at the beginning of the season, is now an unfortunate reality--it is against the writers' interests to tell us anything of substance about the survivors' situation, and they will therefore work very hard to keep their characters in the status quo. They'll ask questions, but never answer them--they have no idea what the answers could be, and anything they come up with will be inherently disappointing and badly foreshadowed.

At first glance, the lesson here seems to be that carefully plotted, novelistic storytelling=good; pulling revelations out of a hat in order to extend your story's shelf-life=bad. But is it really that simple? The examples of Babylon 5 and Carnivale certainly suggest that not only is planning ahead not enough to make a good show, it can sometimes prove a hindrance. Some of the best television series of the last decade have taken a laid-back approach to novelistic storytelling. Joss Whedon famously foreshadowed Buffy's death at the end of the fifth season all the way back at the end of the third, but most of the details that bridged those two seasons weren't planned in advance. Should we conclude, therefore, that planning ahead and knowing where you're going are all well and good, but only within limits? Can a television series tell a novel-like story only if it's contained within a single season? And if so, does this restriction only apply because of the economic model of modern television, in which writers can never be certain of more than a season's grace?

V

Television is probably the visual medium most suited to novelistic storytelling. Why then are true TV novels so rare? Why do so many shows scuttle themselves by pretending to tell a continuous story when in reality their writers are making the story up as they go? Why do so many truly novelistic shows fail to find an audience, or end up crushed under their own weight?

The current economic model of television prefers longer-running shows to shorter ones, and open-ended shows to those with a predetermined length. Which gives us two approaches that can destroy a show. In the first, the writer introduces a mystery without knowing himself what its solution is. In the second, the writer knows the solution, but intends to delay its revelation for as long as possible. It's probably not a coincidence that these two problems--bad plotting and under-editing--also plague the world of book publishing.

So, where is the happy medium? How much planning ahead is too much? The secret is probably to remember what kind of show you're writing. In an episode of Law & Order, remembering the characters' personal issues is practically optional. If your show is 24, on the other hand, you might not want to pull the name of the traitor out of a hat. After the season finale of Lost aired, a lot of television reviewers berated viewers for being disappointed, reminding them that Lost is a character-driven show. This is, of course, complete crap. There is character-driven television out there--shows about people who keep making the same mistakes over and over again, shows whose plots are merely lenses through which the writers can focus on their characters' flaws and imperfections--but Lost isn't one of them, and if your premise is '50 people trapped on an island where weird shit happens', then one of your writing goals should be to explain that weird shit before your audience gets tired of your prevarication. By the same token, if you've got every scene of your multiple season-spanning story planned out before you even get a green light, you had better be certain that a) you've actually got a story worth telling, b) said story really needs to be as long as it is, and c) no one and nothing can change your format once you've started.

All of which comes down to writers who know their material and know what kind of story they're trying to tell. Russell T. Davies has consistently called the first season of the new Doctor Who a love story and a character exploration, and the writing, for better and worse, reflects that. Rob Thomas knows that, as good as his characters are, he is, first and foremost, telling a mystery. Joss Whedon understood from day one that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was only ever about the question of being a superhero in the real world--how do you carry the world on your shoulders and still remain a part of it?

In other words, the secret to good novelistic television is the same as the secret to good novels--get a good writer, with a clear idea of the kind of story he wants to write, give him a decent editor who will reign him in and let him know when he's gone off-course, keep commercial considerations out of the equation, and then sit back and enjoy the show.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Good Thing I Didn't Have Any Money Riding on This

Cheryl Morgan is blogging the Hugo results in real time, and it seems that I'm 0 for 2 in the short story and novelette categories. Kelly Link took the novelette Hugo for "The Faerie Handbag". As I said, I don't think any of the novelette nominees were undeserving, but it does seem a bit sad that this should be the story for which Link is finally acknowledged by the SFF 'establishment'. Handbag was written for a teen audience, and reading it, you can feel Link's preference for the surreal and the grotesque straining at her self-imposed restrictions, as she tries to write a kid-friendly story. It's a wonderful piece, but not nearly as brave as Link's other work, and it's a shame that she's being rewarded for reigning in her prodigious imagination.

As baffled as I was by Mike Resnick's twin nominations, I'm flabbergasted by the fact that his "Travels With My Cats" actually won a Hugo. If I had been handed this story by a fledgling writer and asked if it were ready for submission to a professional market, I would have recommended against it. I can't even imagine what confluence of events could have led to its winning the field's top award.

Composition of the long TV-related post I promised has been on hold today due to reading - Angela Carter's Wise Children, specifically, which I simply can't recommend enough.