Monday, October 31, 2005

Finally, Someone Says It

While one can understand an attack on Waterstone's for its dull, one-size-fits-all stores, Amazon is the most exciting bookshop in the world. It's Willy Wonka's Book Factory, Disneyland for bibliophiles. Those who want a return to the days of the small independents are the real fantasy merchants.
Look, I'm genuinely sorry for the owners of independent bookstores, and for those readers lucky enough to live near a really good one who are now watching it flounder because of Amazon and big box bookstores, but the fact is that for most readers (and I'm including, and probably concentrating on, English readers in non-English speaking countries), independents are not a bookish mecca. If you're like me, your local bookstore is understocked and overpriced, and its selection rarely deviates from whatever thriller is at the top of the bestseller lists this week. Science fiction and fantasy? Forget it, unless your tastes run to Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks. And, of course, everything's available at a markup of 50-100% of the cover price.

To put it simply, here are a few books I never would have read if it hadn't been for Amazon.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Novelties and Souvenirs: Collected Short Fiction by John Crowley

John Crowley has had one of those hellacious careers that no writer, much less one as furiously talented as Crowley is, deserves. In the late 70s, Crowely wrote odd, lyrical science fiction that defied the genre's best attempts at categorization. In the early 80s, he switched to fantasy, but again so far out of the mainstream that even within the genre he was barely successful. His books went out of print, and it is only in the last few years, with Crowley having made a second genre switch to literary fiction and taken The Translator to the New York Times Bestseller List, that they've been reissued. Novelties and Souvenirs collects Crowley's short fiction--15 stories published over a period of 15 years (missing from the collection is the much-lauded "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines", which first appeared in the Peter Straub-edited anthology Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, and is now available as a chapbook).

It's possible to roughly divide Novelties and Souvenirs into thirds. The first, which contains Crowley's earliest short fiction, rather obviously follows the writer as he tests his skill with words (and passes with flying colors). As exercises in style, the pieces collected here are as stunning as anything Crowley has written, but none of them amount to an actual story. In "The Reason for the Visit", the narrator describes an afternoon spent with the ghost of Virginia Woolf, who has appeared in his apartment for no discernible reason.
I explained about iced tea. I couldn't tell if the expression of fascinated surprise she wore was assumed, to fend off genuine shock, or was genuine shock. I saw her surprise when the little light went on in the refrigerator, and when I squeezed lemon juice into the tea from a plastic lemon. The plastic lemon she found enormously witty. For a moment I felt a profound and inappropriate pity for her. I made mayonnaise sandwiches with Pepperidge Farm bread. "What an extraordinary number of things you take out of jars and bottles," she said.
We can see here Crowley's facility with mood and atmosphere, and his ability to capture tiny details that tell us everything about the characters. It seems right, somehow, that Virginia Woolf should be entertained by a plastic lemon. And yet there's no narrative to "The Reason for the Visit"--Woolf drinks her tea, talks to the narrator about modern existence, and leaves. Most of the early stories in Novelties and Souvenirs follow the same approach--vignettes and mood pieces rather than stories--and it is a testament to Crowley's skill as a writer that they are nevertheless compelling.

Novelties and Souvenirs starts coming alive with "Novelty", originally published in Interzone magazine in 1983. Its narrator, a middle aged author of moderately successful populist fare and decidedly unsuccessful literary fiction, is sitting in a bar when the theme of his next novel pops into his head--"the contrary pull men feel between Novelty and Security. Between boredom and adventure, between safety and dislocation, between the snug and the wild." Before long, the author himself is embodying this dilemma as he struggles with the possibility of actually putting pen to paper.
In the Seventh Saint, many years later, it had struck him that the difference between himself and Shakespeare wasn't talent--not especially--but nerve. The capacity not to be frightened by his largest and most potent conceptions, to simply (simply!) sit down and execute them. The dreadful lassitude he felt when something really large and multifarious came suddenly clear to him, something Lear-sized yet sonnet-precise. If only they didn't rush on him whole, all at once, massive and perfect, leaving him frightened and nerveless at the prospect of articulating them word by scene by page. He would try to believe they were of the kind told in bars, not the kind to be written, though there was no way to be sure of this except to attempt the writing; he would raise a finger (the novelist in the bar mirror raising the obverse finger) and push forward his change. Wailing like a neglected ghost, the vast notion would beat its wings into the void.
The question, in other words, is the question of change, without which no accomplishment would be possible, but which carries with it the possibility of failure and the certainty of death. In 1989, Crowley published "Novelty" in a collection of the same name, adding to it three other pieces. Between them, they form a panoramic exploration of the question of Novelty and Security. From the deep past to the stormy present to the far future, in various styles, genres, and voices, they examine it from every possible direction, and if the result isn't quite a novel in stories, it is certainly a thesis in stories.

Crowley goes back to the origin of the question of novelty with "The Nightingale Sings at Night", a retelling of the myth of the fall of Adam and Eve. In Crowley's version of this myth, the original sin doesn't lie in the discovery of carnal knowledge but in the discovery of the possibility of death. Man and Woman live an eternal existence in Dame Kind's forest, until the moon introduces them to the concept of change. From change, the two begin to understand time, and time leads them to conclude the existence of death. Having thought of these concepts, Man and Woman bring them into being, and end their idyllic and timeless existence.

The novella "Great Work of Time" is the finest piece in Novelties and Souvenirs, and probably one of the best time travel stories ever written. It's a deliciously circular story, a clever reworking of that hoary cliché of time travel fiction, the grandfather paradox. In 1983, Caspar Last invents time travel, and promptly sells his invention to The Otherhood, a secret society established in 1893 by the will of the infamous imperialist Cecil Rhodes, with the purpose of acting to preserve the Empire and to keep peace in the world. The Otherhood's members set out to remake the 20th century, smoothing out its rough edges: all those terrible events that have transformed the world and carried away the Empire in their wake. With each successive change, they come closer to their ideal of a genteel, comfortable, changeless existence--a quieter world, but also one that is less advanced and perhaps, less egalitarian.

The Otherhood's members are that cliché of conspiracy theories--a group of middle aged men meeting in smoke-filled, wood-paneled rooms to decide the fate of the world--but the secret to "Great Work of Time"'s success is that Crowley paints them as sympathetic, intelligent, and well-meaning.
At the First Battle of the Somme wave after wave of British soldiers were sent against German machine guns, to be mown down like grain. There were a quarter of a million casualties in that battle. And yet the generals went on ordering massed attacks against machine guns for the four long years of the war.

"But they knew," Denys could not help saying. "They did know. Machine guns had been used against massed native armies for years, all over the Empire. In Afghanistan. In the Sudan. Africa. They knew."

"Yes," Huntington said. "They knew. And yet, in the Original Situation, they paid no attention. They went blindly on and made their dreadful mistakes. Why? How could they be so stupid, those generals and statesmen who in the world you knew behaved so wisely and so well? For one reason only: they lacked the help and knowledge of a group of men and women who had seen all those mistakes made, who could act in secret on what they knew, and who had the ear and the confidence of one of the governments--not the least stupid of them, either, mind you. And with all our help it was still a close-run thing."
With their knowledge of the 20th century's horrors to galvanize them, The Otherhood's members poke and prod the fabric of time, unraveling and re-knitting it to suit their purposes. But when one of their members travels into the 21st century, he discovers that he and fellows have made the classic error of the 19th century imperialist--they have assumed, in their pride, that they could see the ends of all their actions. They acted forcefully and with hubris, failing to recognize that time is a chaotic system, and that grand gestures will have unforeseeable consequences. In remaking the world, The Otherhood's members have contributed to its unmaking, and eventually to the cessation of all life and all change.

"In Blue", the final and least successful story in the quartet, takes place in the far future. In a world that is probably post-apocalyptic and possibly post-industrial, a new kind of people's revolution is taking place. Guided by 'act-field theory' and 'social calculus', this revolution seeks not to force society into new forms but to follow the nearly undetectable currents of existence in such a way as to minimize pain and suffering. In other words, instead of imperialist forcefulness, changing the world through decisive action, the guiding conspiracy takes an almost zen approach, moving with change instead of acting against it. The conspiracy itself, the 'cadre' who wear blue to distinguish themselves, see themselves as servants to the people, and may actually be capable of making good on this platitude.

"In Blue" fails firstly because its premise too benign to be believable and secondly because the story through which we glimpse this new shape of society--the life of a lonely Blue operative who begins to doubt himself--fails to spark interest. Nevertheless, it offers a thought-provoking conclusion to the arc begun in "Novelty", and a welcome balm after "Great Work of Time"'s tragic ending.

The remaining stories in Novelties and Souvenirs show us Crowley as he begins to approach mainstream notions of genre shorts. "Lost and Abandoned" is a curious retelling of the tale of Hansel and Grettel, with a distinctive Crowley twist ("My own son, at the point in the story when the two lost children understood that the new protector they had found intended them not good but mortal harm, had cried out It's their mother! Which seemed to me to be an act of literary criticism of the highest order"). In "Gone", the earth is visited by an alien vessel, whose inhabitants knock on doors and offer to mow the lawn or clean the windows. "Missolonghi 1824" is a peek into the life of Lord Byron, probably a precursor to Crowley's longer entanglement with the poet, his most recent novel, Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land. Although none of them approach the heights of "Great Work of Time" or even the other Novelty stories, they remain a satisfying combination of beautiful writing, keen intelligence, and (finally) good plots.

Novelties and Souvenirs is probably not a good place to start reading Crowley (although some of the better stories in the collection might prove effective in tempting readers reluctant to give his super-sized masterpiece, Little, Big, a try), but it does offer a tantalizing peek into his mind and the themes that have informed his entire career. The question of novelty and security has permeated, in one form or another, all of Crowley's fiction, as does a fascination with all things English, and with the long-lost empire. The Crowley that emerges from this collection is a dreamer, but a realistic one. He knows how cruel and disappointing the world can be, and yet he can't help but believe that in the end, through hard work and careful thought and a great deal of love, we can bring it to a happy ending.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Chris Ware Uses His Powers of Whine for Good Instead of Evil

Seriously, I love Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth as much as anyone, but have you seen the cover of McSweeney's 13? It folds out into a broadsheet and the whole thing is covered with Ware's little alter-ego catching shit for drawing comics--his parents belittle him, women spurn him, editors ignore him, the literary establishment laughs at him. Dude, you've won the Guardian First Book Award. There's already a booklet dedicated to you in a series about comics writers. You know those stupid articles that can be boiled down to 'all comics are childish and inappropriate for adults except for...'? You're always in the 'except for' part, unless the writer thinks that you're so far into the mainstream as to make the mention pointless. It's time to find a new shtick.

Recent Movie Roundup

I've got something more substantial (and John Crowley-related, yay!) in the works for the next day or so, but for now, here are my thoughts on some films I've seen recently:
  1. A History of Violence: Not so much a missed opportunity as a barrel-full of missed opportunities. The film starts out with a fascinating premise, but whenever it comes close to addressing one of the many intriguing questions it raises--who is Tom? Is it possible for a man to remake himself? In doing so, has Tom perpetrated a fraud on his friends and family, or told them a deeper truth? Has Tom truly changed, or is he still Joey underneath? Where do Tom (and Jack's) displays of violence fit in? Is violence ever justified, or is it always soul-killing? Will Tom be forgiven, and does he deserve to be?--it veers away, usually into another scene of acrobatic and gory violence or acrobatic and slightly less gory sex. Viggo Mortensen does his very best with what he's given, and he's such an appealing actor that we can't help but feel for a character who isn't much more than a caricature. Tom can be boiled down to a simple description--used to be bad, now he's good--and a single imperative--protect his family--neither of which properly address the complexity of his situation. There's a lot worth watching for in A History of Violence--as well as Mortensen, Maria Bello gives a subtle, compelling performance, and the film itself is beautifully shot--but it fails to come together into a satisfying whole.

  2. Proof: A very pleasant surprise indeed. I saw the stage version on Broadway in 2001, with Mary-Louise Parker in the role of Catherine, and walked away vaguely dissatisfied. Now I think that the fault was in Parker (whose mannered performances have since blighted my enjoyment of otherwise excellent shows such as The West Wing and Angels in America) and not the play, because Gwyneth Paltrow's Catherine is delightful, in that special as-long-as-she's-not-my-sister/friend way. Although she's too old for the role of a 25-year-old math prodigy who has locked herself away from the world to take care of her mentally ill father, whose subsequent death has left her rattled and overwrought, Paltrow makes it, and the film, her own. She exudes the kind of intelligence I couldn't discern in Parker--it isn't a stretch to believe that this is a woman whose life is lived primarily inside her head and expressed primarily in the form of equations and proofs. Hope Davis is also great fun as Catherine's sometimes-shrewish, sometimes-well-meaning older sister, who cares for Catherine but can't, or won't, see her. In a culture that tends to vilify intellect and intellectual pursuit, it's good to see a film that acknowledges the fact that for those inclined to it, mathematics (and other sciences) can hold the same beauty and emotional significance as art or religion, and the same promise of salvation.

  3. Serenity: It occurs to me that although I've written about it twice, I haven't actually expressed too many thoughts about the movie itself. What strikes me as most remarkable about Serenity is how precise it manages to be while still giving the impression of being almost improvisational--just your average sci-fi action flick with lots of explosions and space battles. Every scene, every line in the film, have their place and their significance--a house being constructed, carefully and slowly, one brick at a time (River's nightmares, for example, take place on Miranda, and although we won't understand this until the crew reaches the planet, they tell us within the film's first five minutes exactly what we can expect to find there). The marvel of the film is that the end result seems effortless, which leads me to conclude that Serenity may very well be the best thing Joss Whedon has ever written (for all the justified complaints about characterization getting short shrift). Also worth mentioning is the superb work by the entire cast. Nathan Fillion and Summer Glau carry the bulk of the film, but their fine work is bolstered by Chiwetel Ejiofor's turn as The Operative, a role that could easily have descended into mustache-twirling cliché. Ejiofor manages to avoid this while still conveying the danger The Operative poses to Serenity's crew. Also notable are Tamara Taylor as the kindly-yet-sinister teacher in River's dreams and Sarah Paulson as the doomed Alliance scientist in the recording on Miranda.

  4. Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: I had my doubts about the feasibility of stretching Aardman Animation's flagship series about a hapless, cheese-loving inventor and his long-suffering canine companion into feature-length, but of course I should have given the creators of Chicken Run the benefit of the doubt. Realizing that on their own, Wallace and Gromit can't carry a 90-minute story, the folks at Aardman populated their plasticine universe with a host of quintessentially English (yet always slightly askew) characters, the most notable of which is Reverend Hedges, who steals each and every one of his scenes. The result is almost painfully funny--as after all, a film that centers around a town that has gone crazy over a giant vegetable competition can't help but being. The animation is, as usual, stellar, most notably the amount of emotion Gromit can convey simply by rolling his eyes.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

In Honor of the Hiatus: Some Lost and Veronica Mars Thoughts

Lost: The first five episodes of the season confirm my worst fears for the show, and have seriously got me wondering whether I want to keep watching. They have been slow-paced (only four days have passed since the beginning of the season), repetitive (note to the writers: the 'show the same scene from different perspectives' concept can be intriguing, but not if you take it so literally as to offer us nothing more than different camera angles), padded (Hurely gives Jack a blow-by-blow recap of "Numbers", Michael spends three different episodes searching for Walt under rocks and behind shrubbery), and uninteresting (this week, watch in fascination as we learn that Sun and Jin's meeting was completely ordinary, also, will Sun find her missing wedding ring?). Not to mention that the characters have become even more annoying and unbelievable as human beings--ask some questions, you big freaks of nature! The first ten minutes of the season premiere were interesting, fun, and a big visual treat. The remainder of the first five episodes of the season was a big disappointment.

UPDATE: The folks at Teevee.org have been having a conversation about the show, and have said everything I wanted to say (and some stuff I hadn't thought of) far more eloquently than I could.

Veronica Mars: The second season is starting off slowly and perhaps a little off-kilter, but it is useful to remember that the first five episodes of the new season are head and shoulders above their first season counterparts, and are already showing great promise. I'm particularly pleased to see that for all their alleged maturity and independence, Veronica and her two suitors are failing in believably teenage ways. All three of them are letting down the people closest to them, acting selfishly and unthinkingly, and in general proving that even if you have piles of money or PI know-how, you still need to learn how to deal with people. I'm not sure how I feel about the decision to drag Wallace into the show's games of self-discovery--I enjoyed him last season as Veronica's rock, her sole connection to normalcy. But there's no question that the Wallace-centered scenes, those from "Blast From the Past" in particular, are very strong, and as long as the writers remember Wallace's status as the show's moral center (even furious at his mother and his best friend, Wallace has the presence of mind to lambast Jackie for playing a nasty trick on Veronica), I suppose I'll be able to live with the complications in his life. At this point, I have only one serious caveat and that is that I hate Veronica's hair--I liked her so much better with the short cut she sported last season.

Oh, and because I enjoy making a fool of myself in public: I think Weevil killed Felix. I find it hard to believe that Logan's chorus line kick knocked him out for very long, and I think a scuffle ensued after he woke up and realized the PCH-ers were going to kill Logan. As for the bus? I have no idea.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

I Can't Believe I Never Made This Connection

Now I have to go back and reread "The Girl Detective" (available online, along with the rest of Stranger Things Happen, here).

The Readable Brontë

I suspect that for most female readers, the question of Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters is one of those chunky or smooth, Luke or Han type of litmus test questions. I think I've already made it clear which I prefer--I admire a great deal of what Charlotte, Emily and Anne accomplished, but I don't think any of it compares to Austen's work. Still, there's no denying that the two oeuvres make interesting accompaniments to each other. Austen's romances were charmingly witty, but the Brontës' were passionate. They approached the seamy underbelly of life that Austen was never willing to acknowledge, but Austen saw people more clearly, and was capable of poking fun at their faults. Austen was a conservative--she truly believed that coupling up into marriage and family was the best a woman could hope for. The Brontës believed the same, but to them it was a cause for resentment. In many ways, Austen's fictions are fantasies--all her heroines end up happily married and financial secure--whereas the Brontës acknowledged the often bleak reality of women's lives in the 19th century. And yet, Austen's fiction is starkly realist, whereas the Brontës' fiction often indulged in the supernatural. Austen was a moralist, but her morality was all but divorced from religion, a subject her books never touched on. In the Brontës' fiction, religion was often a touchstone, and the foundation of morality.

I don't consider myself a Brontë expert, but I have read the three sisters' four major works, and found none of them as perfect as Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion. In this post, I'd like to look at these four novels, where they work and where they fail.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

    The Plot: Raised first by unkind relatives and later relegated to a hellish boarding school, the orphan Jane learns to rely on her own inner strength, moral convictions, and religious faith. She takes a job as a governess for the ward of the reclusive Edward Rochester, only to fall in love with him and accept his marriage proposal. On the day of their marriage, Jane discovers that Rochester is already married, to a madwoman whom he can't divorce. She leaves him, ends up in the house of her long-lost cousins, and discovers that an uncle has left her money, but before her domineering, missionary-in-training cousin, St. John Rivers, can whisk her off to India to be his helpmeet, Jane senses that Rochester need her and goes back to him. She discovers that Rochester's wife set the house on fire, and that he was gravely wounded in a failed attempt to save her life. Rochester acknowledges his guilt in trying to force Jane into a bigamous marriage, and the two eventually marry.

    The Good: Primarily, what's remarkable about Jane Eyre is the character of Jane herself--a steely, self-assured young woman who takes charge of her own life. Despite a soul-killing experience as a teaching drudge at her boarding school, Jane's spirit is never broken. When her situation at the school becomes unpleasant, she make the decision to change her life and acts upon it with courage and decisiveness--no mean feat for a 18 year old girl with no money or friends in 19th century England. She holds her own against Rochester's passive-aggressive mind games until the guy actually offers her a substantial emotional commitment, and she refuses to allow him to change her or compromise her sense of right and wrong. The only person who comes close to dominating Jane is her terrifying cousin St. John, who all but stalks her in her own house as he tries to convince her to throw her life away in the service of God (and of himself), but Jane manages to shake him off as well, and as the book ends she is the mistress of her own life.

    Even more intriguing is the fact that throughout her Perils of Pauline, Jane remains believably and lovably human. She's steely, but not hardened; moral, but not preachy; religious, but not a proselytizer . For all her superhuman accomplishments, Jane has unmistakable feet of clay, and nowhere is this more apparent than in her obvious sexual attraction to Rochester. Although it's never spelled out, there's a prominent undercurrent of desire in each of their shared scenes, which gives both the characters and the relationship an added dimension that's all-too-often missing from 19th century romances. Unlike too many other Brontë heroines, Jane isn't ruled by her desire, but the fact of its existence arguably makes her triumph over it a greater moral accomplishment than anything we see from Austen's heroines, for whom sexuality is a non-issue.

    The Bad: In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf wrote of Jane Eyre that "it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance." Woolf is referring here to a scene in which Brontë allowed her own anger at being shut away from the world take over Jane's thoughts, but to my mind the same sort of score-settling is obvious in the novel's first segment, the monstrous Lowood school. Charlotte herself spent several years at such a school and watched her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, succumb to illness due to the poor conditions there. As a result of her still-simmering anger at this mistreatment, the Lowood section is disproportionately long, and features some of the most obvious moralizing in the book.

    But the Lowood section does end, and if it (and the rather absurd deus ex machina that is Jane stumbling, in the middle of a cold and rainy night, on a house that happens to contain her long-lost cousins who have just been informed of the fact that Jane has inherited a fortune) were the novel's only flaws, it would still have a very near claim on perfection, but where Jane Eyre fails is in its fundamental perception of itself as a romance. The book offers a bleak vision of what an intelligent, strong-willed woman can look forward to when she goes searching for a mate. If she's lucky, she can avoid the fate of being shackled to her intellectual superior, who will bully and belittle her, use her for his own purposes with no regard for her identity or personhood. But, out of the frying pan and into the fire! For, as Brontë tells us, the intelligent woman who avoids this fate has only one other option: to be tied down to a needy, selfish, intellectual inferior, and spend her life as his savior, his mother, and his nurse. There's no question that Rochester undergoes a change over the course of the novel--from a man whose every early conversation with Jane revolved around how she might help and save him, he learns to think of the needs of others, and he has the scars to prove it--but not enough to make the notion of someone as remarkable as Jane wasting herself on a person whom she will soon outstrip in every regard at all palatable. To put it simply, Jane Eyre is about as romantic as Carrie.

  • Villette by Charlotte Brontë

    The Plot: Charlotte's final novel centers around Lucy Snowe, a young woman with no relatives or money, who, as the book opens, has lost her position as a lady's companion. She travels to the European town of Villette and there finds employment at Madame Beck's school for girls. Lucy falls in love with the school's doctor (who, in one of those typical Brontë coincidences, turns out to be her distant cousin, in whose house Lucy spent the few happy years of her childhood), but he prefers her beautiful young pupil. Lucy in turn falls in love with the school's sole male teacher, Paul Emmanuel, who sees in her the image of his long-dead fiancée. As the book ends, Paul leaves Europe on business for his family, but first gifts Lucy with a school of her own and the promise of his return. Brontë, however, is ambiguous about the young lovers' fate--she suggests, but refuses to confirm, that Paul perishes at sea on his way back to Lucy.

    The Good: Villette finds Charlotte at the height of her abilities as a writer--the book is a masterpiece of delicate psychological examination and description, and Lucy herself is a triumphant feat of characterization. Or rather, Lucy's absence is. Despite the fact that Villette is narrated in the first person, Lucy manages to vanish into the narrative. What we see of her is not so much a character as a Lucy Snowe-shaped hole in the world, whose inner details are never fully revealed. This blankness is Brontë's master-stroke--how else could she convey Lucy's emotional exhaustion after a lifetime of loneliness, living from moment to moment, never secure in herself and in her position? Lucy is drained and almost lifeless, but unlike Jane her plight isn't meant to appeal to the readers and elicit their pity but to repel them and allow them to see her clearly, without sentimentality. For possibly the first time in her career Brontë is acting first as a writer and second as a political activist, and the result is masterful.

    The Bad: Villette is possibly the only novel in the history of English literature that could make Jane Eyre seem romantic, and between the two of them they raise disturbing questions about Charlotte's feelings towards the opposite sex and the institution of marriage. Paul Emmanuel is one of most objectionable characters ever written, a self-important, emotionally abusive stalker with an ego so fragile that he can't stand the notion of a woman being his equal, who constantly knocks Lucy down for the pleasure of being able to help her up. Even his grand gesture at the book's end--giving Lucy a school--is a subtle reminder of how powerless she would be without him. At their first meeting, Paul tells Lucy towards the end of the book, he perceived a resemblance between her and his fiancée, whom he describes as retiring and demure. We, the readers, know that Lucy is a passionate person with no outlet for her feelings, and that her subdued manner at the time of her first meeting with Paul is due to the fact that she is, at that point, well on her way to a nervous collapse. But Paul never acknowledges the difference between his idealized version of Lucy and the real one, and whenever she disappoints his expectations he punishes her with harsh words and a withdrawal of affections. Villette is a terrifying portrait of a woman in an abusive relationship, presented to the readers as a romance, and as a result was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable reading experiences of my life.

  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

    The Plot: Lockwood, a newcomer to the neighborhood, is startled by the unfriendly welcome and uncouth behavior of his landlord, Heathcliff. His housekeeper, Nelly Dean, relates to him how Heathcliff was taken in by the Earnshaws and fell in love with the daughter, Cathy. After his obsessive love for her is thwarted, Heathcliff wreaks revenge on anyone he perceives to have taken part in tearing him apart from Cathy. He marries her husband's sister, mistreats her, and after her death claims their son and mistreats the sickly boy. He steals the money and the affection of Cathy's brother, and of his son, Hareton Earnshaw, and contrives to have Cathy's daughter marry his son so that after the boy's death he can inherit both families' lands. Lockwood leaves the neighborhood and, on his return, discovers that Heathcliff has died, young Cathy has married Earnshaw, and everyone is happy.

    The Good: Um, it's short?

    The Bad: Why this shrill, absurdly overblown piece of tripe is considered a literary classic, much less a romantic one, I'll never know. I think Jasper Fforde is a poor man's Pratchett or Adams, so it should mean something when I say that I genuinely prefer his version of Wuthering Heights, in which the entire cast is brought together for an anger management seminar and told to get over themselves, over the turgid melodrama of the book itself. I genuinely can't think of one aspect of the book that I didn't dislike (including its absurd structure--Lockwood has no reason for existing and Nelly didn't witness half the scenes she narrates, so the novel's allegedly clever nesting doll structure actually makes no sense) except for the fact that it isn't a long or difficult read.

  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

    The Plot: The novel is narrated in letters by Gilbert Markham, who writes years after the events described have taken place. Markham describes his encounters with a new tenant in his neighborhood, a retiring widow named Helen with a young son. Despite great reluctance on her part and hesitance on his, the two fall in love, only to discover that Helen is not a widow--she has run away from her husband. A furious Markham receives Helen's journal by way of explanation, in which she chronicled her marriage to Arthur Huntington. Helen believed that she could cure Arthur of his profligate ways, but soon learned otherwise as his dissolution worsened and he went so far as to flaunt an affair under her nose. When she saw her husband's drunken habits beginning to affect her son, Helen ran away. Helen returns to her husband in time to nurse him in his final months, as his drinking finally catches up to him, and after one extra misunderstanding, marries Markham.

    The Good: Like both her sisters, Anne Brontë's strength lay in characterization. Helen Graham is a wonderful character--the sort of person Jane Eyre might have turned into after a decade of mistreatment. She's principled and moral, but just a little bit shrewish and wonderfully self-contained. Her behavior towards Markham and his neighbors is the cause of comment and speculation, but Helen refuses to be swayed by public opinion--she knows her mind and, having finally been given leave to exercise it, has no intention of caring too much about the opinions of others. As a result, Helen's romance with Markham is one of the loveliest in all Brontë novels. Helen is unquestionably the stronger of the two, but unlike Rochester, Gilbert doesn't need her to save him. He is complete in himself, and although his interaction with Helen teaches him a great deal (it educates him enough to realize that the woman with whom he had been flirting rather seriously was only after him for mercenary reasons), the fundamentals of moral and gentlemanly behavior were already present in him before she came along. Their marriage is the closest a Brontë comes to a marriage of equals.

    Tenant is also remarkable in the characterization of its villains. Although Huntington is an unsubtle bugaboo, who all but twirls his mustache and makes villainous asides to the audience in the earlier segments of Helen's diary, she is also confronted by danger in the form of Hargrave, one of Huntington's friends who conceives a sick passion for her. Hargrave, who starts out a vaguely sympathetic character, makes a slow, terrifying transition into a stalker while still maintaining a vulnerable, pathetic humanity. It's a fascinating character study that takes place almost entirely on the novel's sidelines, and adds another dimension to the horrors that Helen endures in her husband's house.

    The Bad: Tenant was conceived first as a public service announcement, and a very brave and ground-breaking one at that, but there's no question that Brontë's politics overshadow and damage her novel. Helen's decision to marry Huntington (and his decision to marry her) makes no sense, and her suffering as his wife is overblown, clearly meant to elicit pity from 19th century readers for whom the concept of a wife who locks her bedroom door or leaves her husband was scandalous. The entries in Helen's diary charting her disillusionment with Hungtington are carefully calculated to demonstrate her complete innocence and his complete perfidy, but they also serve to make Helen look insipid and naive (although one of Brontë's points is that young ladies in her society were being intentionally kept innocent, and were unprepared for the the horrors they might encounter in married life).

    Perhaps even worse than Tenant's double role as a novel and a pamphlet is the book's miserable construction. More than either of her sisters, Anne must have been obsessed with conveying a sense of verisimilitude. It is the only explanation for her decision to write the novel in a completely unbelievable epistolary format (who is this friend of Gilbert who is content to receive hundreds of pages worth of how-I-met-my-wife stories?). When Brontë finally gives Huntington his just reward, she has no idea how to end the story--she's missing a third act, and so she drops a additional, contrived hurdle in the lovers' path--Gilbert worries that he's now too poor for Helen, and mistakenly believes that she's already married someone else--which completely undercuts the novel's power.
Rereading this list of strengths and weaknesses, I'm once again saddened by the fact that the Brontës were never allowed to write the masterpieces they had in them. There's no question that the sisters were furiously talented, and it's a shame that the circumstances of their lives and their early deaths never allowed them to fully develop their talents. With the exception for Wuthering Heights, there's a great deal worth reading for in all of these books, and although I don't think I'll ever change my answer in the Austen vs. Brontë debate, I'm glad that they exist to offer contrast.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Recent Reading Roundup

Yet another attempt to convince myself that AtWQ is primarily a book-blog.
  1. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

    I had been curious about this book even before it got a controversial nod from the Lit-Blog Co-op, but that selection helped push me over the edge. Atkinson's 'literary mystery' revolves around sad-sack Cambridge PI Jackson Brodie, retained to solve three unsolvable mysteries: the 30-year-old disappearance of a little girl from her own back yard, the senseless murder of a teenager, and the current whereabouts of the runaway daughter of an axe-murderess. Frankly, I think the folks at the LBC could have done better--there's no question that Case Histories is well-written and engaging, but ultimately it is an underperforming little book, and for all its aspirations to the contrary, not great literature. In fact, there's something almost desperately snobbish about the novel, a sensation that creeps through Atkinson's admittedly lovely and lucid prose--'Look at me!', the book seems to be saying, 'I'm literary! I have characters who think in stream-of-consciousness and suffer from ennui!'--that leaves a bad aftertaste. Case Histories' ending is quite strong, including one very moving scene, but the book is hardly the greatest thing since sliced bread.

  2. The Iron Dragon's Daughter by Michael Swanwick

    I've been looking forward to reading Swanwick's modern fantasy classic for several years now, and possibly that's why I found it so disappointing. Swanwick has an excellent premise--he turns the traditional tale of children spirited away by fairies on its head when he reveals that these children are made to slave away on a factory floor, making dragons--magi-mechanical war-machines. As we get a wider view of Swanwick's fairyland, we discover similar juxtapositions of the magical and the industrial--elves with credit cards, alchemists with microwave ovens. Unfortunately, Swanwick never came up with a plot to match the originality of his premise, and after a strong first third, in which the changeling Jane escapes her enslavement with the help of a decommissioned dragon, the book turns aimless. It certainly doesn't help that Jane is such a thoroughly unlikable character--the sort of person who genuinely believes that her own unhappiness justifies destroying the world--that her ultimate happy ending seems unearned and even a little disappointing. I imagine that when it was first published, Swanwick got a pass on Dragon's deficiencies because of the originality of his approach to genre clichés, but nowadays, when 'industrialized fairyland' is practically a cliché itself, the book falls flat.

  3. Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

    Mitchell's first novel is unquestionably a dry-run for his 2004 masterpiece, Cloud Atlas. Not only do the two books have similar structures--both are made up of a series of seemingly unrelated narratives that connect and intersect in unpredictable ways--but several of the themes that were so prominent in Cloud Atlas make appearances in this earlier book--ghosts, of course, but also comets, the meeting of eastern and western philosophies, the search for love, and the endeavor to make our damaged world a better place. As usual, half the fun lies in working out Mitchell's intricate network of connections, with the book becoming a puzzle. Unfortunately, Mitchell's writing in this earlier book isn't as polished as his masterful ventriloquism in Cloud Atlas, and his nine narrators aren't convincing as distinct individuals. Ghostwritten is a good book and worth reading, but I wish I'd read it before Cloud Atlas, and I'm a bit concerned that Mitchell seems to be writing the same novel again and again.

  4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

    Gibbons' delightful parody of the 19th century novel starts with an introduction to no-nonsense orphan Flora Poste, who just wants a neat, well-ordered existence, and will do almost anything to make sure she gets one. Having decided to trade her small inheritance for a place with her Sussex cousins, the Starkadders, Flora encounters a host of melodramatic clichés--oversexed, movie-obsessed Seth, lovelorn wild child Elfine, and aunt Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed, to name but a few. With pluck and determination, Flora sorts out her cousins' problems, finding some romance for herself in the process. Despite missing a third act (Flora arrives at her cousins' and decides to fix their lives. She does. The end), Cold Comfort Farm is a pure joy of a novel, and highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed the similarly witty and romantic I Capture the Castle. I'll have to look up the movie, with Kate Beckinsale and Eileen Atkins.

  5. The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

    This 1924 novel is considered a minor classic of pre-Tolkien fantasy, back when 'fantasy' still meant something fantastic and not something poured out of a mold. It's a beautiful book, written in a high poetic style, about the inhabitants of a quintessentially English town named Erl who send their lord's son to Elfland, by whose border they live (Elfland was rather obviously on Neil Gaiman's mind when he sat down to write Stardust), to marry its princess in the hopes of bringing a little magic into their existence. In the vein of books like Lud-in-the-Mist and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the inhabitants of Erl soon learn that 'a little magic' is an oxymoron, and that magic is not something to be summoned and then sent away. Before that happens, however, there's a sad love story between the elf princess, Lirazel, as curious about the lives of humans as they are about hers, and her mortal lover Alveric, as well as several humorous scenes centering around a troll who crosses the border between the two realms. The downside to Dunsany's high-falutin' style is a dearth of character exploration and dialogue, and as a result The King of Elfland's Daughter, for all its lovely writing and sentiment, falls short of perfection by a small yet significant margin.

  6. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

    I've read nearly everything Neil Gaiman has ever written and, except for a few of the Sandman volumes, I've admired his fiction but never loved it. Anansi Boys is a welcome exception, probably the most charming, most romantic, most fun book I've read since either Angela Carter's Wise Children or Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle, and the funniest Gaiman has been since Good Omens. There's a chuckle, or a snort, or often a guffaw on every single page, but in between there's also love--romantic love, but mostly familial love, as our protagonist, Charlie Nancy, learns to accept his impossibly infuriating father and brother, as well as himself. Big thanks to my friend Hagay for not only buying the book for me and shipping it to Israel, but getting it signed as well.

  7. Looking for Jake: Stories by China Miéville

    Although I would classify Miéville's longer fiction as fantasy with strong horror elements, most of the stories in Looking for Jake are straight-up horror, usually of the 'trusted, inanimate staple of modern existence turns malevolent' type--as in "Details", in which a witch discovers a demonic entity looking out at her through the random patterns of tree branches and cracks in walls, or the novella "The Tain", probably the best story in the collection, in which humanity is attacked by its own mirrored reflections. As so often happens when collecting stories published over a long period of time, this repetition of theme begins to grate, and although most of the stories in Looking for Jake are good (with the exception of the pointless graphic short "On the Way to the Front"), only a few of them are superb, and those usually the ones I'd already read--"Reports of Certain Events in London" from McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories or "Familiar" from Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists. Despite what I had previously thought, only one of the stories in the collection, "Jack", takes place in Bas-Lag, and even this story doesn't reveal a great deal about that universe's demented Robin Hood character, Jack Half-a-Prayer (certainly not as much as we learned from the puppet theatre scene in Iron Council). Looking for Jake is a good collection, but not a must-read for anyone but hardcore Miéville fans. (Two of the stories in the collection are available online: An End to Hunger and 'Tis the Season.)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Oh Captain, My Captain: Mal Reynolds, Anti-Anti-Hero

Note: this isn't really a review of Serenity, more a reflection of the fact that the film finally allowed me to crystalize some of my thoughts about Mal's character. As such, there are plenty of spoilers ahead. If you're looking for reviews, here are some interesting ones from Gary Westfahl at Locus Online, Strange Horizons (a double review, from the perspective of a Firefly fan and a newbie), fellow Readerville-ian Peter Cashwell, and The Washington Post. Also see John Scalzi and Alan DeNiro on what Serenity's box office means for the chances of a sequel.

Like teenage girls with superpowers, Joss Whedon can't seem to keep away from the concept of heroism. With his first effort, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he dealt with the most conventional form of hero--the chosen one. There were twists to his version of the story in that his chosen hero was a flighty blonde girl who would have preferred a trip to the mall to saving the world, but ultimately Buffy's story boils down to a person who is chosen by destiny to save the world. With Angel, Whedon moved one step away from tradition by positing a hero who was, fundamentally, just a guy. Although gifted with superhuman strength and something nearing immortality, Angel was in temperament and inclination an ordinary person who chose to shoulder a burden he was unequal to. However, Whedon chose to set Angel's story in a universe in which good and evil were distinct, identifiable entities--they may have been called The Powers That Be and The First instead of God and The Devil (for an emphatically self-proclaimed atheist, Whedon sure took a long time to wean himself away from these notions of powerful protective and destructive entities), but their function remained unchanged. Within the Buffy and Angel universe, there existed forces for good, and a battle for good, that our heroes, although they could never understand or hope to win them completely, could join with the knowledge that they had some flavor of benign divinity on their side.

When we first meet Mal Reynolds (or, when we were first supposed to meet him, for those of us who watched "The Train Job" before "Serenity"), he genuinely believes that he lives in the Buffyverse. Despite being in the middle of a war zone, Mal is exuberant, cramming more joy into a few minutes than we see from him in the entire run of the show and the movie put together, and he might tell his frightened soldier that it's because "We're too pretty to die", or himself that it's because of his faith in God, but what it all boils down to is that this Mal believes in a moral universe. He might never put it this way, but he believes that there exists a force for good, and that a person who gives their all to a good and worthy cause will find the universe on their side (or at least on their cause's side). But of course, with Firefly, Whedon has moved away from the notion of any sort of moral authority that exists outside of ourselves. Firefly's universe mirrors our own in that it is fundamentally unfair, which is the lesson that Mal learns when the Independents surrender and his heart breaks into a thousand tiny, jagged pieces.

And from that point until the final shots of Serenity and probably after, Mal is furious. He's enraged at the universe for disabusing him of his belief that he lived in a world in which heroism was possible. Any other man would have been defeated, would have succumbed to nihilism and hopelessness (as we saw Angel do more than once) but Mal's anger won't let him do that. He vacillates between heroism and selfishness, never quite facing up to the notion that it is possible, albeit extremely difficult and ultimately unsatisfying, to be a force for morality in an amoral universe (something that Book tries to teach him in their penultimate scene together). Mal's broken heart tells him that heroism doesn't exist, that acting selflessly will have no meaningful consequence, and that he should take care of himself alone, and he listens to that heart quite often. But whatever it was that once made Mal believe in some good greater than himself sank its roots deep, and Mal constantly returns, furious and reluctant, to a fight that he doesn't truly believe in. As Inara so accurately puts it in Serenity, Mal's character is impossible to nail down because he keeps changing his mind about it. It's not just, as my brother put it after seeing the film, that we can't decide whether Mal is a hero or a complete bastard--we can't decide what kind of hero, or what kind of complete bastard, he is.

More than any other Whedon show, Firefly played with our stereotypical notions of heroism--mostly because it was grounded in the forms of a genre, the Western, that even more than epic fantasy is synonymous with a stark distinction between shining white good and deep black evil (it'll be interesting, one of these days, to talk about Firefly in relationship to that other reimagined modern Western, Deadwood), and with very codified notions of how heroes should behave. Although the writers usually used this breaking of stereotypes for comic relief (while rescuing Mal from a gangster who's been torturing him, Zoe announces that the crew should hang back, as Mal needs to deal with the man on his own. Mal: "No, I don't!"), it's also a reflection of the show's central theme--the impossibility of heroism in the mundane world.

Possibly the most fascinating and tangled aspect of Serenity is the parallel drawn between Mal and The Operative. Whereas Mal has discarded his idealism--allowed it to be burned up by his rage--thus turning himself into the kind of man who would choose a stolen payroll over a man's life, The Operative has sublimated himself--discarded his humanity--in the service of an ideal, and it's a hallmark of Firefly's twisted take on morality that the former is the hero and the latter the monster. They're both wrong, of course, and yet they both have an insight into the very aspect of humanity that they've chosen to turn away from--love. Serenity begins and ends with these two men musing over the power and danger of love, and the fact is that it is Simon's love for River, and her love for him, that enable the truth about what happened on Miranda to be known--a love that neither The Operative, nor Mal, are capable of expressing.

Because, of course, Mal is afraid. Like most people burned by love, he's wary of letting it back into his heart. And because he is fundamentally a big, melodramatic baby, he's incapable of sucking in that fear and confronting it. Having sunk his emotional capital into an ideal and watched it fade away, Mal turns around and gives his heart to something he can touch and control--a ship. Serenity is a piece of Mal's soul, and his only meaningful interactions with other humans go through that steel buffer. The people Mal loves are his crew, not his family, and although they are no less holy and important to him for that fact, he can never let himself interact with them in any capacity other than as their captain (his final benediction to Book is to tell the dying man that Mal still considers him a member of his crew).

All of which boils down to the fact that Mal Reynolds really needs a big hug, and a sharp swift kick to the head, not necessarily in that order. But more importantly, someone needs to tell Mal to get over himself and grow up.

But will he? If Serenity has a theme (beyond 'we'd really like to let everyone know what the deal is with River and why the Alliance is after her'), it is the fundamental wrongness of trying to force people to be better than they are. Is this possibly a sign to the viewers, who were looking forward to a long, cathartic journey for Mal, at the end of which he'd be happy and well-adjusted and would marry Inara and have lots of babies? Unlike Buffy or Angel, most of Firefly's characters are adults whose character, for better or worse, is already fixed. There will be no journeys into adulthood for Mal, which is probably for the best--it would be a shame to lose one of the most fascinating, conflicted characters in modern SF.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Serene

Not too many coherent thoughts in my head yet--hopefully tomorrow or the next day. Right now I'm mostly thinking stuff like 'wow' and 'wheee' and 'damn'. Not to mention 'again' and 'more'.

I was actually a little hesitant about going to see the film at ICon. I tend to find the rambunctiousness of the convention crowd rather irritating, and as a moviegoing experience it can also leave something to be desired (queuing for half an hour in front of the locked theatre door because the con organizers are allergic to assigned seating, a minimum of 15 minutes' delay before the show starts, occasionally a little lecture before the actual film--I still have nightmares about coming to ICon 2002 to watch the sixth season Buffy premiere and being treated to 20 minutes on why Marti Noxon is the devil), but tonight I was reminded of why the ICon crowd is sometimes the best kind to watch favorite shows with--they all loved the characters and the show as much as I did, and they cheered and laughed and cried when I did. When the film ended, everyone around me was clapping as hard as they could and we all knew why.

Again. And more.

Self-Promotion

If you're a member of the Israeli SFF Society, or visiting ICon this week, you can find my thoughts about the subject of Mundane SF in the society's quarterly, The Tenth Dimension.

If you've arrived here after reading the article, I salute your tenacity, as the URL given under my byline is incorrect. As a reward, here are some of my thoughts on SFF matters: on being a genre fan, Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, the fiction of M. John Harrison, and the new Battlestar Galactica.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sometimes You Can't Agree With Anyone

This is one of those cases where everyone is wrong, or at least deeply objectionable. On the one hand, you've got Philip Pullman, who announces that the Narnia books
contained "a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice" and "not a trace" of Christian charity.

"It's not the presence of Christian doctrine I object to so much as the absence of Christian virtue," he added.

"The highest virtue - we have on the authority of the New Testament itself - is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books."
Which is not only completely wrong-headed, but one of those black-hole-calling-a-vacuum-cleaner-sucky type of situations to boot. But on the other side, you've got Evangelical Christian groups announcing that
"We believe that God will speak the gospel of Jesus Christ through this film," Lon Allison, director of Illinois' Billy Graham Centre, told the newspaper.
[Hopefully no one's noticed, but AtWQ has been comment-spammed by one of these groups, whose website (which I won't link to so as not to reward that sort of behavior) offers The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe-related teaching guides for churches and prayer groups.]

Caught in the middle is the film itself, which I'm rather ambivalent about. The trailers suggest that the film will be something like Narnia by way of The Lord of the Rings, in the long-standing Hollywood tradition of 'I like this book! Now let's change everything that makes it interesting and unique!' (see. And also). I've heard a lot of good things (and Tilda Swinton as the White Witch is paricularly promising) and I'll certainly be seeing the film, but not with great expectations.

This Could Be Good... But Mostly It Makes Me Very Nervous

Also, some clever bugger on Television Without Pity's forums pointed out that "Torchwood" is an anagram of "Doctor Who".

Sunday, October 16, 2005

"Shakespeare’s classic tale of murder and intrigue performed by inch-high plastic ninjas"

"I had noticed that there were these tiny plastic ninjas in vending machines all across the city," says [Tiny Ninja Theater creator Dov] Weinstein, "but no one was using them to perform classical theater. Something had to be done."

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Myst V: End of Ages: Very Scattered Thoughts

  • In a word: no. Just... just no. Can we pretend this game never happened? Can we? Please?

  • The plot in a nutshell: Atrus' daughter Yeesha, previously seen as a bouncing, apple-cheeked cherub in Myst III: Exile, and more recently as a hilariously wooden young actress in Myst IV: Revelations, is all grown up, and has the facial tattoos and pretentious inner turmoil to prove it. She's also bugshit crazy but, surprisingly enough, not a homicidal maniac, which puts her ahead of the curve when it comes to her family. Yeesha and another D'ni survivor, Esher, send you on a dimly understood quest through the remains of the D'ni city and four other ages to collect four artifacts (the Slates) which will in turn release a fifth one--the fabulously powerful Tablet (not that we ever see even a hint of its power). The whole thing is very vague, and there are also some kind of alien creatures who respond to the Slates and the Tablet. In the end, you have to decide what to do with the Tablet, in an ending that mirrors the final choice of the original Myst, if by 'mirrors' we mean 'replicates the situation without any of the attendant tension or interest'.

  • There's something profoundly un-Myst-ish about the entire game. It's not just the absurd and quest-like plot, but the very look of it. Myst games have always placed a high premium on beauty and on spectacle--lots of elaborate, lushly decorated interiors and breathtaking exteriors, lots of cut scenes, usually fly-bys, whose only reason to exist was to give the player a visual treat--see the following examples from Myst, Riven, Exile and Revelations:

    The price for all this exquisite detail was restriction of movement--the first two games were essentially slideshows, series of static tableaus, and although the third and fourth games allowed 360 degrees of motion from any fixed position, movement between these 'nodes' was still static.

    In End of Ages, the game designers made the decision to move to a fully immersive 3D environment--all movement is animated, at the cost of image definition and the aforementioned cut scenes (even the swirly fly-bys when you link into a new age are gone). You can see the results here:

    Pretty as they are, there's simply no comparison between these images and the earlier ones, and these screenshots fail to convey the gameplaying experience itself, which often seems to be a miserable cross between your average, polygonized FPS and Monkey Island. There's almost no detail and very little texture to the game worlds--they all come off rather plastic.

  • And speaking of the plastic and the textureless, how about the decision to switch from live actors before a green screen to motion capture? I was rather critical of the game characters' appearance when I reviewed the Myst V demo, and I have to admit that there was some improvement on this front in the game itself. The characters' faces no longer look as if the skin were hung on a frame, and Cyan's 'face mapping' technique does allow an impressive range of expression. The final result is still plastic--there's simply no way to convey the intricacies of skin tone and muscle movement with motion capture alone--but it suits the look of the game itself. To bring live actors into this paltry environment would only call attention to its deficiencies.

  • The decision to move away from highly detailed graphics falls flat on its face when it comes to the game's non-human characters. Previous Myst games, Exile and Revelations in particular, incorporated lovely and realistic animal characters capable of tugging at the player's heartstrings. When End of Ages introduces the Bahro, the alien creatures whose fate is inextricably bound with the Tablet, what we get looks like something we'd be expected to shoot at, a rough conglomeration of mud-colored polygons. With watermelon-shaped lumps studded with eyes for faces, the Bahro have zero range of expression, which hardly contributes to a sense of sympathy for their plight.

  • Credit where credit's due: the voice acting for Yeesha and Esher is really quite good, a first for the series (even Brad Dourif couldn't do much with his role in Exile). The motion capture acting is slightly less engaging, mostly because of the plasticity of the characters but also because, possibly as a way of compensating for their limited facial movements, the actors chose to convey emotion with lots of exaggerated hand waves and body movements.

  • Another point in the game's favor: for the first time in the series, the writers have not only acknowledged but embraced the inherent bleakness of its premise. After all, we're talking about a group of people who are the last survivors of a fallen empire. Great-grandma was indirectly responsible for this fall, grandpa was a despotic maniac, Mom's a depressive, and the two sons are psychopaths. The notion that Atrus or Yeesha might be even remotely normal--which we had been expected to swallow in previous games--is here exposed as an absurdity. The game opens with what appears to be Atrus' suicide note, and culminates with a visit to Myst, to which the intervening years have not been kind. The writers have to have been aware of the effect that seeing the island as it is now--a water-logged, overgrown waste, its structures ruined by time and neglect--would have on long-time fans of the series, and they revel in it. These two scenes suggest a darkness that the rest of game shies away from, to its own detriment.

  • Since I raised the issue when I first wrote about the Myst series, I suppose I have to deal with the question of anti-intellectualism in the game--does Myst V continue the series' trend of vilifying intellect and extolling 'wisdom'? To a certain extent, yes--Esher, the villain of the piece, is obsessed with D'ni's lost stores of knowledge, and lambasts Yeesha's vague spirituality. But like the rest of the game's story, this juxtaposition is so vague as to barely register with the player, and so Myst V turns out to be less virulently anti-intellectual than Revelations or Exile.

  • You'll note I haven't said a word about the puzzles. In all honesty, I needed hints on more than one occasion, but I don't say this to praise the game's difficulty. The original Myst's puzzles grew organically out of the game world--they were genuinely about figuring out how the world you were in worked--but after Riven, the series started moving away from these organic puzzle. Unfortunately, the games never fully made the transition to the 'look, there's a chess problem under this carpet' type of puzzle, and the result strains the player's suspension of disbelief even as it demands it. For example, one of Myst V's early puzzles involves getting out of an icy cavern. The solution is to place the Slate on a particular spot, where, helpfully enough, the outline of a slate has been drawn. Even if we could ignore the fact that this use of the Slate is completely inconsistent with everything we've come to learn about it, or that there's no reason why placing it in that position should crack the ice, there remains one inescapable question--who drew that outline, and why? That the game designers can introduce such an absurdity with a straight face and then turn around and explain that really, this combination of pulled levers will allow you to cross over to that location because there's a lifeform in the water that responds to heat blah blah blah simply serves to confuse the player--how much realism should we expect from the game? The answer is constantly shifting, and makes for a frustrating gameplaying experience.

  • A word of advice to Cyan's marketing people: you do realize that the universal reaction to your chosen tagline, "Choose Wisely, For There Will Be No Second Chance", is "Is there something wrong with the save function?"

  • I can't imagine any hardcore Myst fan will be swayed by this recommendation, but I'll make it anyway: don't buy this game. It isn't a worthy successor to the Myst title, not even the two most recent sequels. It does wrap up the Myst universe, but in a way that will actually make you glad that there will be no further games, and I know that's not how any rabid fan wants to feel about a beloved series.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

4 Popular Misconceptions About Pride and Prejudice

Last week, perhaps because of the new adaptation around the corner, saw the publication of not one but two different articles that completely fail to understand even the most basic truths about Jane Austen's little slice of posterity, Pride and Prejudice. First it was Bookslut's Jessa Crispin, who really ought to know better, wondering if "the point of Elizabeth Bennett [is] that she’s completely mediocre". Then it was Emma Garman, doing the semi-annual chick-lit tar and feather, who displayed not so much a lack of understanding as a lack of reading comprehension when she brought Pride and Prejudice up as an example of a novel in which the rich suitor is a villain and the poor suitor is Mr. Right. But these are only the most recent examples--it seems that every few months some journalist with more free time than sense dredges Pride and Prejudice up as a prop to a theory that has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. The burden of enduring popularity, I suppose, but to a devoted Austen reader since the age of 12, it's getting a little tiring. So, as a public service, here are a few statements I'd like to see the end of.
  1. Jane Austen wrote chick-lit

    Look, I feel for the authors and readers of chick-lit. The amount of crap they put up with is completely out of proportion to the cheesiness of their genre. When books like The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series get treated seriously in major newspapers, and Michael Crichton testifies before Congress on environmental issues, it really does seem churlish to dump on this new evolution of the romance novel (actually, it seems a lot more than churlish, but I don't have enough evidence to talk about where I really think this backlash is coming from). And the fact is that in terms of plot, chick-lit, like romance before it, is the literary descendant of Austen's fiction. But to turn that correlation around and call Austen's fiction proto-chick-lit is so far beyond the pale that it would be laughable if there weren't people out there saying it seriously. I'm not talking about the issue of the quality of Austen's writing as opposed to your average chick-lit novel (that way lies 'but this is good/why, then, it's not SF')--I'm talking about the fundamental building blocks of the genre.

    The stereotypical chick-lit heroine is the representative of a lost generation--women who, although they have rejected the traditional subservient, domestic role of the female in their actions, have done so almost unconsciously, and are now searching for a new paradigm for their lives. Austen's heroines, in contrast, know their place in the world--as wives and mothers--and are eager to assume it. More importantly, chick-lit is almost universally concerned with the gratification of desires--I want a great job, I want a studly yet sensitive boyfriend, I want a child--whereas Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice in particular, are morality plays. The reward for becoming a better person, Austen tells us, for shedding the petty selfishness of childhood and emerging into maturity, is a good, stable marriage, the right and privilege of becoming the bedrock of a new generation of Englishmen and -women. This is so far from chick-lit's themes of self-actualization and self-acceptance as to very nearly make the works polar opposites, which is hardly surprising--Austen wrote 200 years ago, when conformity and self-sacrifice were virtues, not vices as they are, for better and worse, today.

  2. Elizabeth Bennet is a 'modern' woman

    Why? Because she refuses to marry an odious man simply for the comfort of financial security? Because she won't degrade herself by accepting Darcy's parsimonious and grudging first marriage proposal? Because she's intelligent and strong-willed? All of these qualities make Elizabeth a remarkable woman, but no more in Austen's era than she would be today. As far as her desires and dreams are concerned, Elizabeth is firmly and steadfastly a woman of her own time. She wants to marry a good, honorable man, hopefully for love, but at the very least out of mutual respect. Her refusal of the obsequious Mr. Collins is anything but modern--it is the only correct action, Austen tells us, for an intelligent woman when faced with the prospect of being ruled, her entire life, by a fool. Elizabeth is dismayed by her friend Charlotte's decision to accept Mr. Collins not because she has romantic notions of marrying for love, but because she has a clear-eyed image of what their marriage would be like.

    Like many of Austen's novels, Pride and Prejudice is a blueprint for making a good marriage. Elizabeth and her sister Jane are surrounded by examples of how not to choose a mate--Charlotte and Mr. Collins, Mr. and Mrs. Hurst, their own parents--and one or two examples, chiefly from the Gardiners, of what a good marriage should look like. In this, Austen is anything but modern--she is an arch-conservative. The notion that they might not marry, that they might be forced to make their way in life as governesses or as spinster sisters, dependent on the goodwill of their relatives, occurs to her characters only as a frightening fantasy, and to her readers almost never.

  3. Mr. Darcy is a reformed rake

    I came across this one in an especially insipid article in the Guardian a few years ago, which trotted Darcy out as an example of how women like to fix men. Which is true, but not about Darcy. It's what makes Pride and Prejudice such a singular novel--for maybe the only time in the history of the romance, the guy fixes himself. Not that Darcy was ever a rake by an stretch of the imagination. Austen makes it clear that he's a pretty stand-up guy--honorable, generous, intelligent--even before Elizabeth gets to him. Like every single one of us, Darcy is flawed, but unlike most people, when that flaw is pointed out to him, he tries to make himself better. His actions in the book's second half are an attempt to show Elizabeth that he's taken her words to heart, even as she becomes aware of the many fine qualities she's missed in him. Her love is his reward for learning humility and overcoming his snobbishness, but apart from the first push, Darcy achieves that transformation all on his own.

  4. Elizabeth Bennet is a twit / Elizabeth Bennet is perfection incarnate

    Like Darcy, Elizabeth is flawed--she allows her hurt feelings at his prideful manner to dictate her behavior towards him, refusing to consider that he might have good qualities as well as bad. She allows herself to lose sight of morality when she tacitly approves of Mr. Wickham's fortune-hunting behavior simply because he's flattered her with his attentions. And, like Darcy, Elizabeth is made aware of her faults and is deeply ashamed--"I had not known myself", she tells her sister. Although her actions in response to this revelation aren't as pro-active as Darcy's (Elizabeth's role as a woman in Austen's fiction is, after all, a passive one), she does try to make amends for her mistakes. It's her intelligence and her keen moral sense that allow Elizabeth to recognize her faults and change into a better person, and while she's hardly a paragon, there's no question that she is an admirable character.
As deeply fond as I am of Jane Austen's novels, and of Pride and Prejudice in particular, I don't pretend that they're without their flaws. Austen's romances are cerebral and mostly passionless, and her characters' world is no wider than her own limited, proscribed existence. The wonder of Austen's fiction is the fact that she took these coldly moral tales, combined them with her warm wit and keen powers of observation, and came up with a miniature of humanity in all its glory and silliness. Some things, some aspects of human existence, are missing, but in much the same way that we don't turn to Tolkien for complicated and flawed characters, and we don't read George Eliot when we're after a barrel of laughs, it's wrong to try and impose those aspects on our reading of Austen. For better and worse (but mostly for better), she is what she is--one of the finest authors in the English language, and well worth a first, second, and third look.

UPDATE: Welcome, Bookslut readers! Feel free to poke around. Here are my thoughts on what we can expect from the new Keira Knightly P&P. If you're interested in my thoughts on other books, here are reviews of Angela Carter's Wise Children, Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, two novels by M. John Harrison, George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and, on a more humorous note, a condensation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. On publishing issues, here are my thoughts on last year's Booker decision, and the magic of short books.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Joss Whedon Says Everything I've Ever Tried to Say About Veronica Mars, Only Better

At EW:

At the center of it all is Veronica herself. Bell is most remarkable not for what she brings (warmth, intelligence, and big funny) but for what she leaves out. For all the pathos of her arc, she never begs for our affection. There is a distance to her, a hole in the center of Veronica's persona. Bell constantly conveys it without even seeming to be aware of it. It's a star turn with zero pyrotechnics, and apart from the occasionally awkward voice-over, it's a teeny bit flawless.

A Princess of Roumania by Paul Park

I know I made it a point of honor not to read Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania, but my post about booksplitting inspired a Readerville friend to offer me her copy of the book (thank you, Sarah!), and in the end I couldn't resist*. The original concept for this post was to examine Park's novel in light of Tor's decision to split it into two volumes (The Tourmaline, due out next year, completes the story beginning in Princess). Did Princess stand on its own? Did it require judicious editing, which might have made splitting it unnecessary? Was I inspired to pick up The Tournaline?

My ability to answer these questions hinged on the assumption that, at the very least, I wouldn't find the experience of reading A Princess of Roumania an unbearable torment. Considering the exuberant blurbs plastered all over the book's cover--from such luminaries as Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Joy Fowler, Kim Stanley Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Swanwick, and John Crowley--not to mention the favorable reviews from the likes of Cheryl Morgan and Gwenda Bond, this didn't seem like a tall order. But as it turns out, A Princess of Roumania made a spirited attempt at capturing the title of my absolute worst read in 2005 (Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian held onto the spot, but only by a smidgeon). By the time I reached the end, I was actually grateful for Tor's decision to split the book--the thought of 300 more pages of this dreck was more than I could bear**.

At no point is A Princess of Roumania demonstrably terrible, but neither does it ever rise above bare competence. Park's prose isn't dreadful, just painfully unimpressive--the descriptive passages are unoriginal, the infrequent action scenes choppy, and the dialogue, which all too often relies on stereotypical Eastern European accents to convey the speaker's voice, is canned and rarely believable. Although Park's narrative moves between the points of view of perhaps a dozen different characters from all walks of life, they have almost identical voices (inasmuch as such voices exist--most of the characters remain opaque to the third person omniscient narrator). The characters themselves run the gamut from inscrutable cyphers to cardboard cutouts. The novel's plot, such as it is, moves at a snail's pace, serving only as a setup so that the next volume can begin with all the characters in place. Reading A Princess of Roumania is akin to eating dough instead of bread--the right ingredients are all there, but the sensation is unpleasant, with a good chance of an upset stomach later on.

Princess can be divided into two major storylines. The first revolves around Miranda Popescu, a Romanian orphan adopted by an American couple and raised in a small Massachusetts college town. Like most of your standard princess-in-hiding heroines, Miranda feels out of place in her adoptive home, and harbors a deep-seated curiosity about her biological family. Princess' first major twist occurs when Miranda and the readers discover that the princess' hiding place isn't a sleepy Massachusetts town but an entire world, contained within a book--our world, which is in fact a fiction. It's a neat idea, but Park squanders it. Miranda emerges from her protective shell within the book's first hundred pages, only to discover that a return is impossible--our world has been destroyed. Her reaction to this revelation--that everyone and everything she's ever known is gone forever, that she and two of her friends were the only real people in existence--is simply bland acceptance***.

From the moment she emerges into the real world--a cod-19th century in which "Roumania" is a major power, under threat of German invasion, and magic (of course) exists--Miranda's plotline loses what little tension it had possessed. Her enemy sends soldiers to apprehend her, but most of them are dispatched with the help of a gypsy woman, a former servant of Miranda's parents, who kills herself in order to appease a protective spirit (Miranda's reaction to this sacrifice is first numbness, after which she feels a little bad). The surviving soldier soon becomes a figure of ridicule, and although Miranda and her companions encounter several other 'hazarads', they seem to float through them. At no point did I believe that Miranda was in genuine danger, not least because it was obvious that Park needed to get her to Europe, and in fact the entire plotline might have been excised without any adverse effect on the story.

The second, and marginally more interesting, plotline in A Princess of Roumania revolves around Miranda's nemesis, the Countess Nicola Ceausescu. Reviewers have heaped praised on this character, calling her a fascinating and compelling villain, but trust me when I say that this is no Romanian Al Swearengen. Nicola's alleged originality stems from the fact that for a cold-blooded killer, she's a rather principled person. She feels tremendous guilt over the deaths she's caused. She's moved to pity by the plight of her servants, the people she uses in order to get to Miranda, and even her enemy of several decades. She's tormented by her husband's decision to place her mute son in an institution, which she's been forbidden to visit, and throughout her heartless machinations, she's constantly wondering if it wouldn't be better to leave all this mess behind her, go into seclusion in the country and live a quiet, blameless life. I've just described a rather fascinating character, but Park's execution gives us a Countess Nicola Ceausescu who is a whiny bore, to the extent that towards the end of the novel I was actually wondering what Miranda had to worry about. In his zeal to create a human villain, Park seems to have overemphasized the former quality and almost forgotten the latter. Nicola is human enough, but she's hardly villainous, she's rarely frightening, and she's never interesting.

Nicola's story involves political machinations between Roumania, currently ruled by a puppet-empress whose strings are pulled by a military dictator, and Germany, represented by the nefarious Elector of Ratisbon (we know he's evil because he's a chauvinist). Although marginally more interesting than Miranda's Perils of Pauline storyline, these political games advance slowly and meanderingly. Little that is accomplished on this front is likely to be important to the book's eventual plot except as scene-setting.

Park has been getting a lot of praise for overturning some of the conventions of the princess-in-hiding subgenre--the world Miranda emerges into is as morally ambiguous and complex as our own, and the hidden princess finds the notion of assuming her throne less appealing than the thought of rattling around the New England wilderness with her not-boyfriend. All of which would have been terribly ground-breaking in 1985, but nowadays is practically expected from any fantasy novel that doesn't have a dragon and a half-naked woman on the cover. Not to mention that Park's subversion of the subgenre's tropes is so half-hearted and anemic that most of the time it is barely noticeable. There are plenty of interesting and well-written novels out there that take well-worn fantasy conventions and turn them on their heads, but A Princess of Roumania doesn't even have enough moxie to make it through the front door, much less into the club.

Is it possible that with massive editing, A Princess of Roumania could have been made into a good book? I can't tell for sure without reading The Tourmaline (and in case there was some doubt on this point: only for an obscene amount of money), but my guess is no. I actually suspect that it would have been possible to dump Princess in its entirety and leave The Tourmaline as a standalone novel, but then we'd still have to deal with the fact that Park isn't a very good writer. I can't even imagine where the ecstatic praise for Princess is coming from, but I'm not too worried by it. This isn't the first time I've found myself perplexed by the literary tastes of my favorite authors, and it probably won't be the last.

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* And after all, aren't free books the reason we all got into blogging in the first place?

** I've started to wrap my mind around the notion of being allowed to put a book down if it isn't grabbing me, but the idea of reviewing a book that I couldn't even finished is still abhorrent.

*** It's possible that Park is delaying Miranda's shocked reaction until the second book, but the choice to forgo character development in favor of boring plot advancement and unoriginal dream sequences is hardly a point in his favor.