Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Thank God, Or Any Other Entity Involved (Veronica Mars Casting Spoilers)

From Lindsay: Is the Donut (Teddy Dunn) off Veronica Mars for good? Or will he be back in future episodes?
I can tell you the original plan was Vanilla Sprinkles would be off the show for good. He was released from the show as of Jan. 24. However, there are rumors Rob Thomas may be asking him back for another episode or two. I'm not sure whether that has yet been decided. But when I told you (about six months ago) a series regular was being written off the show this season, that is whom I was talking about. Teddy Dunn is no longer a series regular, and if and when he returns, my sense is that it won't be permanent.
I can't tell how surprised I am at this development, and how pleased. Duncan's character has been mishandled from day one, and Teddy Dunn certainly didn't help bring an extra dimension to the character. Mars' writers, however, really did seem to be trying to sell us on Veronica and Duncan as a love story with no ending, and I was certain that they'd be bringing Duncan back for more confusing, tepid romantic antics.

On the other hand, this probably means no more Lucy Lawless.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Thoughts on the Clarke Nominees

There isn't an official online announcement yet, but the shortlist was announced yesterday and is already floating around the net:
I've only read two of the nominated books (although I'm looking forward to learning more about the other four nominees when Adam Roberts writes his yearly Clarke roundup for Infinity Plus), so feel free to discount my opinion, but Air. Air all the way. Whether or not it wins, however, I think the fact that Ryman's superb novel has made it on the Clarke, BSFA, and (in all likelihood) Nebula shortlists should be an occasion for a bit of soul-searching on the part of last year's Hugo voters. It is nothing short of embarrassing that they should have ignored this remarkable work as they did.

The nomination I'm more interested in, however, is Ishiguro's. I've expressed my dissatisfaction with the novel already and I realize that I'm in the minority for feeling so, but I had been under the impression that even among those genre reviewers who lauded Never Let Me Go, there was an understanding that as a work of science fiction, the novel failed. As Matt Cheney puts it:
If you expect Never Let Me Go to be about cloning, you will be disappointed. If you expect to be able to read it as a logical science fiction novel, one that extrapolates an alternate world that makes sense, you will find much to grumble about. You will not be satisfied. You will be annoyed, even bored.
Even accepting, as I do not, that once we learn to look past its failures as a work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go is a work of genius, does it really make sense to then turn around and hand it a major science fiction award? I suppose I'm actually trying to puzzle out the purpose of the Clarke and other genre awards--are they meant to encourage excellence within the genre, or simply to glom onto successful mainstream works with tenuous genre connections?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

What a Tangled Web: Harry Potter and the Problem of Generational Parallels

Note: The first part of this post is a reworked and much-rewritten version of an article I wrote for the discussion group Harry Potter for Grownups in the fall of 2003, not long after the publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The second part is a mass of ideas that have been swimming around in my head since I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince six months ago.

The generational parallel bomb exploded within Harry Potter fandom with the publication of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which for the first time took a closer look at, and exposed the juvenile escapades of, the parent generation--specifically James Potter and his three friends, the Marauders, and their fraught relationship with Snape. Fans expanded on the comparisons that the book draws between Harry and his father, and used them to conclude a one-to-one relationship between James' generation and Harry's. As Harry's impulsive best friend, Ron was cast in the role of Sirius, and his more serious companion Hermione was compared to Lupin. The role of the traitor and coward, Peter Pettigrew, was invariably assigned to Neville.

It's the last parallel that tends to discredit the idea of straightforward generational parallels in the Potterverse, although in the years before the publication of Order of the Phoenix and Half-Blood Prince, I found that misperceptions of Neville's character were pernicious and difficult to counteract. Neville is actually one of the trickiest characters in the series, largely because he does such a good job of misrepresenting himself. "Everyone knows I'm practically a squib", he announces at one point, but his failures at magic are consistently failures of control, not of power. When Neville screws up spells, he melts cauldrons and sends teachers flying across the room. Asked to make a stately hop on his broom, he ends up soaring in the air. Only once in the series is Neville actually compared to Peter--when Harry envisions the death of Peter Pettigrew at Sirius Black's hands. Harry has bought into the myth of Neville as magically weak and in need of protection, but of course Neville is not the only person about whom Harry is misinformed in that scene. Peter is no innocent victim, but he is a sycophant who, as Sirius and Lupin tell us later in the book, hid behind stronger and more popular wizards in school and later in life. Neville has never followed Harry around in the puppyish way that Peter followed James, and when faced with a difficult decision, Neville often chooses an unpopular and possibly dangerous path--when he stands up to his friends in Philosopher's Stone, when he freely admits to losing his passwords in Prisoner of Azkaban, when he chooses to accompany Harry at the end of Order of the Phoenix, and when he answers Hermione's call at the end of Half-Blood Prince. Peter is not a coward, but he always acts in his own self-interest, whereas Neville almost always acts selflessly.

Order of the Phoenix, Azkaban's dark reflection, tears down many of the idols erected in the earlier book. In Azkaban, Harry was thrilled to discover that a piece of his father lived on in him. In Phoenix, following the discovery that James was a braggart and a bully, Harry is horrified at the thought that he might resemble his father. Each and every one of the sympathetic adult characters is revealed as a flawed individual, and they all fail Harry in some way. It is Harry's father, however, and his two adopted fathers, Sirius and Lupin, who come off the worst--Sirius' behavior is sullen and immature, and Lupin constantly defers to others rather than doing what he believes to be right. Order of the Phoenix shatters the straightforward generational parallels established by Prisoner of Azkaban and distributes their fragments among the younger characters. It doesn't actually make any sense to discuss parallels after reading Order of the Phoenix--it's more accurate to say that the younger generation echoes the former, and to examine the limited and confusing ways in which each character recalls the previous generation.

So, for instance, in spite of the (literally) superficial similarities between Harry and James, it's easy to see that in terms of personality the two characters are nothing alike--the reserved, awkward, serious Harry hardly resembles his popular, extroverted, irreverent father. There are more compelling parallels to James in Ron, who like him takes a great deal of pride in his Quidditch skills, brags about them and recounts play-by-plays of successful games to impress others (it's also worth noting that Ron and James both have best friends whose home lives are unbearable, and whom they provide with a surrogate home in the form of their own family). There are also strong echoes of James in the twins, who like James are tricksters and jokers, and in Draco, who like James is a bully who enjoys the sycophantic adoration of his inferiors.

Along those same lines, there are obvious similarities between Lupin and Hermione--both prefects, both studious, both concerned with the plight of the disenfranchised in the wizarding world. Most importantly, Lupin and Hermione are both talented wizards who can 'pass' in regular society, but are discriminated against because their blood is impure. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two characters. Hermione speaks out. Lupin remains silent. Whether it's the rights of house-elves, werewolves, or classmates, Lupin prefers to look the other way. He only speaks out against discrimination when he is among people he knows agree with him. Unlike Hermione, who is willing to make herself thoroughly unlikable in service of a good cause and doesn't give a damn what people think about her, Lupin prefers to be liked.

Most of the adult characters who featured so prominently in Order of the Phoenix are either missing or heavily marginalized in the following book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. As I've said before, the book acts as a mirror to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, in which Harry struggled, not with issues of his family's past but with the issue of his own character. The cheerful resolution of of Chamber of Secrets is Harry's discovery that, despite his own fears and the obvious parallels between him and the young Voldemort, he is at his heart a true Gryffindor. Half-Blood Prince confuses the issue by drawing more blatant parallels between young Harry and young Tom Riddle--the scene in which in which Dumbledore reveals to the eleven year old Tom that he is a wizard is a twisted, unwholesome recreation of Harry's own joy at that same discovery, as are the details of Tom's life before he comes to Hogwarts. Like Harry, Tom was raised in a loveless environment, and his involuntary displays of power baffled both him and his reluctant guardians. The difference, obviously, is in Harry's innate goodness and in Tom's innate fear (already at the age of eleven he is terrified of death, an obsession that fuels Voldemort's every action), but it is worth noting that Tom's anti-social behavior and his tendency towards bullying and kleptomania represent a more realistic portrait of the kind of child we might have expected Harry to be at the beginning of Philosopher's Stone.

Harry rather steadfastly ignores the similarities between his own life and the young Tom Riddle's (just as he ignored the parallel when the ghost of Tom suggested it to him in Chamber of Secrets). The parallel he does vehemently note is the one between Voldemort and Snape--both half-bloods who hated their Muggle ancestry; both engaged in a self-aggrandizing fantasy that involved a made-up title, their own magical proficiency, and a document of their own 'greatness' left behind for the ages; both, ultimately, obsessed with power. We might question whether the portrait Harry paints of Snape represents the man as he is now (we know, after all, that the James we saw in the Pensieve memory in Order of the Phoenix was a far cry from the man who married Lily, fathered Harry, and died to protect them), but if young Snape mirrors young Voldemort, and if we acknowledge the parallels between Harry and Tom Riddle as Harry will not, where does that leave Harry and Snape?

Although they have different flaws--Harry is frequently impulsive, pig-headed, and not too smart; Snape is unkind, immature, and vindictive--Harry and Snape have very similar personality structures. They are both, fundamentally, similarly hardcore individuals--judgmental, unforgiving of fault, and thoroughly untrusting of the universe's ability to sort itself out without their own input (and let's not forget that Harry has been this way since he was eleven years old). Half-Blood Prince works very hard to point out the ways in which Harry and Snape think alike, in spite of their own inability to acknowledge this similarity. I love the fact that Harry develops a genuine rapport with Snape through the Advanced Potion Making book--he begins to think of the Half-Blood Prince as a friend--but when Snape all but parrots Harry's feelings about Defense Against the Dark Arts training, Harry twists the words around to conform to the negative image he's formed of Snape in his head (the existence of said image, I hasten to point out, is entirely Snape's fault). And, of course, when Snape looks at Harry he sees James, a person who as we've previously said Harry doesn't even remotely resemble.

One of the things that Harry doesn't acknowledge at the end of Half-Blood Prince is his own major role in Dumbledore's death. If Harry hadn't fed Dumbledore the poison and weakened him so severely, there's no question that Dumbledore would have wiped the floor with Draco Malfoy and the other Death Eaters. Whatever his true allegiances, Snape never would have had the opportunity to kill Dumbledore. There are obvious reasons, besides his guilt, why Harry wouldn't dwell on his own responsibility for Dumbledore's death--if we accept that Snape was acting on Voldemort's behalf, then his desire to hurt Dumbledore would seem to outweigh Harry's well-intentioned obedience. If we examine the situation coldly, however, giving no credence to motive, there's no question that Harry and Snape each contributed equally to Dumbledore's death.

Harry did what he did for good and understandable reasons--because he's Dumbledore's man, through and through. In a book in which powerful and influential men constantly try to 'collect' him, Harry staunchly chooses his side and keeps his promises to the person he's sworn himself to--even when those promises break his heart. Given the parallels drawn between Harry and Snape, and the prominence of the Unbreakable Vow (as opposed to the utterly breakable but far more holy and meaningful promise that Harry--and, I believe, Snape--made Dumbldere), I find it aesthetically and thematically pleasing to believe that Snape is also Dumbledore's man, through and through, that he promised to kill Dumbledore and kept that promise as unwillingly as Harry kept his promise to force Dumbledore to drink poison, and that whatever understanding these two men might one day gain will come from the recognition in each other of that same unflinching loyalty.

Which is not to say that I'm right, of course. I've written this before as well, but J.K. Rowling seems wholly uninteresting in writing stories that resolve neatly and aesthetically. I don't think she gives a damn about thematic symmetry, which is probably why we can no longer talk about genuine parallels between the parent and child generation in the series, and why she's shied away from 'satisfying' resolutions such as allowing Snape to resolve his grievances with the men who caused them before they died or providing justice and solace to the many damaged individuals we meet in her books. It may very well be that Snape will turn out to be a traitor to Dumbledore's side, that for all his similarities to Harry it's the differences between them that will carry the day. Or, it may well be that neither he nor Harry will ever see these similarities, and never understand how, within each other, they can find forgiveness for their part in Dumbledore's death. I have no doubt that Rowling will end her series with Harry victorious, but I find great pleasure in the knowledge that the ending she writes will be nothing as neat as a straightforward parallel.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Serenity, Made of LEGO

I mean, really, what else is there to say?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 3

In celebration of the fact that I'm finally able to read books again (a week off seems like forever) a look at the final reads of 2005 and the first ones of 2006.
  1. The Winter Queen by Boris Akunin - Akunin's well-received historical mystery, set in 1876 Imperial Russia and starring the young and earnest Erast Fandorin, junior bureaucrat and wannabe detective, languished at the bottom of my to-be-read stack for several months before I got around to reading it. Having finished it, I can honestly say that its treatment was well-deserved. The book's setting, as well as Akunin's arch and slightly needling narrative voice, make for an amusing read for about 50 pages, but when the novelty wears off what's left is a rather tedious spy thriller too absurd even for its semi-fantastical setting, with a protagonist so painfully dim-witted that it boggles the mind that he lives to star in several more installments in the series (three or four of the sequels have been translated into English, but in the original Russian I believe that the Fandorin series reaches into the double digits). As I understand it, Akunin's gimmick is that with each of the Fandorin novels, he tries his hand at a different variant of the detective novel. The Winter Queen is a Bond-ian spy novel, complete with coded messages, exploding safes, and a monologuing villainess. Other novels in the series take on other clichés of the genre--Murder on the Leviathan, for instance, recalls Agatha Christie as Fandorin finds himself investigating a murder on board an intercontinental steamer. The problem with this admittedly clever conceit is that the historical aspect of the novels--Akunin's recreation of the class-conscious, painfully polite, deeply prejudiced society in which Fandorin moves--is thin and jokey, a mere backdrop for Akunin's riff on mystery tropes. I imagine that a devoted mystery fan wouldn't have a problem with the thinness of Akunin's world, but I've never been a big fan of the genre. Without a convincing backdrop, I quickly found myself losing interest in The Winter Queen's absurd plot.

  2. The Magic Toyshop and Heroes and Villains by Angela Carter - I really should have read Jeff VanderMeer's article "The Infernal Desire Machine of Angela Carter" (available in VanderMeer's collection of essays, Why Should I Cut Your Throat), a little more carefully. VanderMeer's essay is largely the reason I gave Carter a second try after being slightly disappointed by The Bloody Chamber, Carter's collection of darkly retold fairy tales, but a closer reading would have revealed that VanderMeer considers both of these early novels to be lesser efforts on Carter's part (actually, he calls Heroes and Villains Carter's worst novel), and I'm afraid that I agree. The writing is still gorgeous and hypnotic, of course, but the novels' plots failed to draw me in, and despite some obvious forays into topics that would continue to engage Carter for the rest of her career, the novels felt underdone and uncertain. In The Magic Toyshop, fifteen year old Melanie is forced to make a rapid transition to adulthood when her parents die in an accident and she and her two siblings are forced to move in with their ogreish uncle Phillip and his cowed family. Phillip, who as the novel's title suggests is a toymaker, is a misogynist who manipulates his family like the puppets in the theatre that he obsessively works on in the basement, and seeks to do the same to the new arrivals in his house--particularly Melanie, whom he fears for her awakening and as-yet untouched femininity. In the post-apocalyptic Heroes and Villains, eighteen year old Marianne is carried away, largely at her own instigation, by a 'Barbarian'--a member of the lawless tribes who exist outside the safe enclosures of the 'Professors', where Marianne was born and raised. Among the Barbarians, Marianne encounters horror and beauty, is overpowered and deified, and constantly finds herself torn between reason and superstition. To my great surprise and disappointment, the aspect that I found most unsatisfactory about both books was Carter's treatment of the female protagonists and of questions of sex, femininity, and women's power. It seems strange that the same woman who wrote Wise Children and Nights at the Circus, whose female protagonists embraced their own sexuality without losing their identity or independence, should have started her career by writing about teenage girls who accept with equanimity that to lose their virginity is to lose a significant part of themselves, that the sexual act itself is something that can overpower them rather than something they can have power over, and that the person to whom they lose their virginity has a claim on them for the rest of their lives--Marianne with the violent, mercurial Barbarian leader Jewel and Melanie with her uncle's brutish, oversexed brother-in-law (it really is difficult at times to avoid the conclusion that The Magic Toyshop is the sort of book that Cold Comfort Farm was written in response to). I think in general I prefer Carter's humorous novels to her serious ones. She has a tendency to take herself and her prominent themes--sexual awakening in young women, reason versus irrationality, respectability and its limitations--far too seriously, and she is at her wisest and most penetrating when she remembers to laugh at herself.

  3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - I have to agree with Matt Cheney's argument, that to tear Never Let Me Go down for being lousy and badly-plotted science fiction (which it is) is unfair to Ishiguro's intention, which was to write an allegory of our own hopeless existence. Kathy and her friends grow up in the knowledge that they are clones bred for spare organs, and they calmly accept that fate. Their attempts at escape are as ineffectual and half-hearted as our attempts to find meaning in our brief and pointless existence--they ignore their coming deaths, explain them away, attempt to bargain them down, try to prove that true love should give their life some greater flavor, and finally simply rage at the heavens. None of which changes the fact that Never Let Me Go is boring, badly written, and thoroughly disappointing. I didn't care about Kathy, her friends, or their petty and insignificant problems. Kathy's voice was flat and failed to convey the reality of her existence. Her descriptions of the idyllic Hailsham--the boarding school where she and her friends grew up--were tedious and never managed to impress on me the love that Kathy clearly had for the place. Some, or all, of these flaws were clearly intentional on Ishiguro's part--he's trying to convey dreary, mundane human existence, after all--but their result was that I couldn't muster a shred of emotion for these flat characters and their contrived situation (and, allegory or not, the gigantic holes in Ishiguro's plot certainly didn't help to keep me engaged). Kathy and her friends are supposed to be us, a mirror of human existence, but even in my dullest and greyest, I doubt I'd be able to see myself in these sheepish, passionless individuals.

  4. Number9Dream by David Mitchell - At last, a book I can report positively on. When I read Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten, I worried that the similarities between its structure and that of the sublime Cloud Atlas indicated that Mitchell has only one trick in his bag--a series of narratives, taking place in different times and geographical locations but linked through coincidence and fate. Happily, in Number9Dream Mitchell mixes things up a bit while still maintaining an unmistakable voice and style all his own. Dream's protagonist is 20 years old Eiji Miyake, native of a tiny island off the coast of Japan, who arrives in Tokyo to find his father, whom he has never met. Like the protagonists of Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, who act like heroes because they understand that they've become embroiled in a heroic quest, Eiji seeks to attach a narrative to his life, as do all the people he meets in his journey towards his elusive father. The story Eiji tells himself changes shape and genre--comic book fantasies of daring rescues, elaborate schemes of vengeance, hard-boiled tales of crime and underworld wars--as he grows accustomed to the city and circles closer to the truth, but Eiji himself is never a Mitty-ish dreamer. He understands the difference between fact and fiction, and his coming of age over the course of the novel is expressed not by rejecting these fantasies but by remaking them in his own voice. Eiji learns to tell his own story, to find his own meaning in life rather than the one that others--relatives, employers, antagonists, lovers, and even his own parents--tell him he should have, and to be his own man. On top of being a top-notch coming of age novel, Number9Dream is a fantastic adventure, a fun romp, and a typically Mitchell-ian philosophical exercise. If it weren't for the mean-as-hell cliffhanger ending, I'd say that it and Cloud Atlas are roughly equivalent in terms of quality. As it is, it's still highly recommended.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

In Lieu of Actual Content...

My rule of thumb is that I don't let four days elapse without posting something to AtWQ (and if you want to know why four days and not three or five, I'm fairly certain that a couple of weeks into the blog's lifetime I took a look at my posting history and saw that the longest I'd gone without posting was four days, so). Unfortunately, the last week has seen some time- and attention-consuming real life developments which have left me constitutionally incapable of not only consuming art but also making cogent observations about said art. Seriously, the best I can offer right now is to say that Connor Trinneer is way, way better than Stargate: Atlantis deserves, to the point that I'm wondering whether someone should let him know that he's already paid up in the 'sole redeeming feature of otherwise sucky SF show' department.

So, as the title states, in lieu of actual content I'm going to leave you with this observation and hope that the next few days will see me return to some semblance of normalcy:

Did anyone else notice that when Fanty (or Mingo) tosses a coin to the fan dancer at the Maidenhead, he's doing it so that she'll start dancing in front of the viewscreen/security camera, thus concealing their meeting with Mal and Jayne from the all-seeing eye of the Alliance? There's actually a shot from the security camera's point of view that shows the fan dancer carefully positioning her fans so that they constantly hide the table the foursome are sitting at.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

What Adama Should Have Said to Boomer and Other "Resurrection Ship II" Thoughts

I was spoiled for Boomer's line, "Maybe you don't deserve to survive", several days before watching the episode and, having assumed that it came as a bitter response to the attempted rape, hit the roof in fury. I wrote a long tirade that I think has been a long time coming for Boomer and the rest of the Cylon characters, which I won't post here because, having watched the episode, it's clear that Boomer's intention was neither plaintive nor personal. Her argument for the destruction of the human race is that we fight amongst ourselves, kill and rape and hurt each other. This ties in nicely to the observation that Dan Hartland made a few weeks ago in his Strange Horizons article--that Cylons haven't yet grokked the concept of individuality. If we are to assume that they evolved as a hive-like species (which, for an artificial intelligence, makes a certain amount of sense) then it would folow that they have only a limited understanding of what individuality is, and that to see members of the same species fight and try to kill each other would seem to them a strange sickness. As we can already tell, and as the Cylons are still refusing to admit, the choice to take on distinct human forms is already taking its toll on their uniformity. We see this especially in Baltar's scenes with the battered Six model, Gina, who unlike the 'ideal' Six in Baltar's head has discovered a form of individuality through having been left alone with her pain.

All that said, and recognizing that we've gained a further insight into the Cylon psyche, I still deeply dislike that scene. A sharp response to Boomer's absurd proclamation was definitely warranted, even if it wasn't the tirade I had going on in my head when I first heard the line. At the very least, Adama should have said something along the lines of "And you do?" I've said it before, but the fact that the Cylons commit atrocities and then turn around and claim the moral high ground like they were born there doesn't bother me--it's neat and not a little bit scary. It's the complete obliviousness of the human characters to this moral bankrupcy that drives me up the wall, and the implication that Galactica's writers are more interested in highlighting humanity's darker impulses than they are in telling a story with a consistent approach to ethics. I understand that Adama's conversation with Boomer was part of his long night of the soul as he struggle with the decision to assassinate Admiral Cain, but I can't help but be irked, and possibly even offended, by the notion that a person as staunchly ethical as Bill Adama needs to have an issue of morality cleared up for him by Sharon, who has yet to demonstrate that she possesses a conscience.

By placing Adama in Boomer's presence and having her question his species' right to survive, the writers were obviously trying to make us mull over that tired old chestnut, Are We Any Better Than Our Enemies. Problem is, when it comes to the Cylons, the answer is yes, a great deal better--not because we're so fantastic but because what they've done is so awful. The whole 'our bad guys believe in God and are always polite and well-dressed' thing was neat for about five minutes, but now it's grown tedious, and I really do wish Galactica's writers would stop using the Cylons as a Dark Mirror of Humanity and start working on giving these villains some depth--at the top of my list would be a Cylon who questions their orders for moral reasons, and possibly even a fifth column.

What kills me is that Sharon's experience is actually a brilliant opportunity for the character to show a little growth. Only a few weeks ago, she was blithely defending rape as an experience that might not be so bad if you didn't struggle. Now that she's had a taste of it herself, she has a chance to develop the one quality we've yet to see a single Cylon display--empathy--which might, in turn, be the first indication that she could one day grow into a moral individual.

The episode itself I found sadly disappointing. After the intensity of both "Pegasus" and "Resurrection Ship I", the elegiac tone (which anyway isn't something that Galactica does well for any extended period of time) felt out of place. The problem, I suspect, is that the decision to split "Resurrection Ship" into two episodes was predicated solely on there being enough material to bulk out the first half of the story. The remaining two acts of what should have been a single episode weren't sufficiently expanded, and we were left with endless shots of Lee floating in a pool. The result was not only padded but insulting to the viewers' intelligence--the first shot of Lee floating in water and then transitioning to the vacuum of space was beautiful and odd, but the writers should have had enough faith in our intelligence to trust that we'd understand what Lee was doing without providing visual metaphorical aids--see, he's letting the water close in on him, see?

The question of hope and despair--and the way that both of them affect human behavior--recurs throughout the episode, but I couldn't help but feel that, once again, the writers were hammering the issue in (and rather suddenly too--it's not a theme that showed up in either "Pegasus" or "Resurrection Ship I") because they needed to fill up space. I like the idea that his disillusionment with his father and his adopted mother pushes Lee over the brink and into despair. Like all members of the fleet, he's been hanging on to hope out of sheer habit, taking his life one day at a time and never letting up for one minute, lest he curl up into a ball and die. Which is precisely what he does towards the end of "Resurrection Ship II", as the realization sinks in that the life he has to come back to is one in which the people he admires let him down and he's expected to commit terrible crimes. His only regret is that in letting go of life he's breaking his promise to the one person who still represents something pure and good. I'm not surprised at Lee's choice, nor at the fact that despite his rescue, he's nowhere near whole--having let go of hope and life, it's going to be tremendously difficult for him to regain the desire for either.

I like the fact that Adama's decision to kill Cain, even though he didn't go through with it, has irreparably damaged both of his 'children', with Kara now wondering about her allegiances (I'm not entirely certain where Kara stands with regard to Cain, Adama, and the position she was placed in. Her eulogy for Cain seems to suggest that she recognizes how a loss of hope damaged Cain and led her to make reprehensible choices, but the very end of the speech suggests that Kara is now uncertain as to whether those choices weren't necessary, and she certainly has ambivalent feelings towards Adama and what he almost forced her to do). As we saw when the Pegasus crewmen came to attack Helo and Tyrol, Admiral Cain's choices have had a similarly corrosive effect on her crew, and there's no question in my mind that Cain's death will solve very little in the short term. Some of her crew will no doubt reassess their behavior in the wake of their exposure to the fleet and its more normative moral compass, but others have crossed a line that can never be un-crossed.

I can sympathize with Galactica's writers, who found themselves in an impossible situation when the time came to write the episode's ending (although only to a point because, really, this is something they should have seen coming), but I can't help but feel that the manner in which Admiral Cain was got rid of was contrived, an easy out that seems entirely out of place for this show. I wonder whether Roslin would have been as pleasant and cheerful in her last scene with Adama if Gina hadn't killed Cain, and he came back and told her that he wouldn't commit an immoral act. We're all as grateful as she was that Adama didn't have to kill Cain, but the manner in which she was gotten rid of leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Once again, I wonder if a tighter, more intense story wouldn't have helped to allay that sensation--if the plot had moved faster, I might not have noticed its inherent contrivance until I thought about it. In general I can't help but feel that "Resurrection Ship II" is a mass of good parts that come together into a muddled whole, and that it sadly cheapens the two excellent episodes that preceded it.

Oh, and Roslin may not die.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer

There are several ways in which Veniss Underground, Jeff VanderMeer's first full-length novel, fails. The first is in the attempt to convey, as VanderMeer managed to do so powerfully in his earlier and much-lauded collection, City of Saints and Madmen, a palpable sense of place. Only a few pages into the first Ambergris story, "Dradin, In Love", the reader forms a vivid impression of the city's shape and size, of its politics, government, rituals and castes. It is a tale told by a madman, who catches a glimpse of the city at its most tumultuous and irrational, and yet the Ambergris that emerges from "Dradin" has an undeniable logic to it. The city works, and it develops a palpable weight in the reader's mind, becoming its own character.

None of these things happen during the 200 pages we spend wandering around the post-apocalyptic enclave once known as Dayton Central but now, following a collapse and fragmentation of its government, called simply Veniss. The three characters who act as our guides as we journey through the city all feel the importance of knowing their home and try to treat it as a living, breathing organism, but we remain unconvinced. Veniss lacks Ambergris' underlying logic (in fact, what underlies the city is madness and chaos), and the sense that the city would continue to live and breathe--in one form or another--even if our characters were to be destroyed by it. Veniss Underground's plot is essentially a mythic quest through the city's underworld layers, but these lightless worlds never take on the patina of truth--the further we travel into the novel and the city, the more Veniss feels like a metaphor for something else, not a creature in its own right.

The second way in which Veniss Underground fails is as a work of science fiction. On his website, VanderMeer writes that he wrote the story in order to "examine issues of the environment and bio-engineering", but his treatment of these issues is familiar and not particularly original. At the behest of Quin, the master manipulator of flesh and, as soon becomes clear, Veniss' shadow ruler, the city's inhabitants have quickly adopted intelligent, bioengineered creatures--ganeshas and meerkats--whom they use as servants and menials. Frankly, VanderMeer's treatment of this trope is roughly equivalent to what we'd see in an average episode of Battlestar Galactica--humanity creates the Cylons/meerkats and enslaves them without recognizing their intelligence. The Cylons/meerkats learn of humanity's depredations, their crimes against each other and against their environment, and conclude that humanity no longer has the right to exist. There follows a prolonged struggle between humanity and the Cylons/meerkats, in which both sides commit atrocities and then claim the moral high ground--or, at least, they would, if either side were willing to have a discussion, which they aren't, as that would involve recognizing the personhood of their opponents. Veniss is weakest when it tries to convince us that we should take the meerkats' arguments seriously or that we should sympathize with the humans' unwillingness to acknowledge the meerkats as living beings--we've seen it all done before, and it wasn't particularly interesting the first time around.

For similar reasons, the four short stories packaged as extras in Bantam's trade paperback edition of the novel also fail to ignite. We haven't developed the deep personal feelings for Veniss that would inspire us to visit it again (and anyway, none of the stories take place in the city--"The Sea, Mendeho, and Moonlight" and "Detectives, Cadavers" take place in Dayton Central before the collapse, and "A Heart for Lucretia" and the novella "Balzac's War" take place outside the city after the meerkat takeover), and as SF shorts they are mostly unsuccessful, despite a few lovely and stirring images.

Despite these flaws, there are quite a few ways in which Veniss Underground works. It works as a sad, uncertain love story. The story is told from the points of view of three characters. The first, the selfish, unthinking artist Nicholas, is an overgrown child. He acts on whims without considering the consequences of his actions, and expects those who love him to tolerate and often compensate for his many weaknesses. Nicholas makes a shady deal with the aforementioned Quin, and vanishes into Veniss' underworld. His twin sister, the cerebral, responsible Nicola, who works as a computer programmer in a futile attempt to hold back the chaos threatening the city, feels his absence like a lost limb, and breaks through her shell of loneliness to search for him. When Nicola vanishes, probably at Quin's behest, her former lover Shadrach, still carrying a torch for her and crushed by the guilt of having sent Nicholas to Quin and lied to Nicola about doing so, journeys into Veniss Underground to find her. There are no happy lovers' meetings in Veniss Underground--in fact, the closest thing the novel offers to a happy ending is the characters' ability to put their love aside. Nicola is freed from her crippling connection to Nicholas, and Shadrach learns to accept that Nicola doesn't love him. Nevertheless, love permeates the novel's every page and informs the characters' every action. It humanizes them, and makes their mistakes familiar and explainable.

Which is a good thing, because another way in which Veniss Underground works is as a mythic quest. Shadrach's journey into the city's lightless underground levels (where he was born, and from which he had made a lucky escape) takes up the bulk of the story. He travels deep into the city's bowels, far lower than the relatively sane underground levels in which he spent his youth, and the journey strips away his pretensions, his illusions, the mask of urbane sophistication he has carefully cultivated in his years above ground. Shadrach arrives at his destination a shadow of the man he was, and at the same time the very core of who he is. VanderMeer uses the myth to its greatest effect--he tells a larger than life story but maintains the humanity of his characters. Shadrach is neither a hero nor an anti-hero, and although his actions are extraordinary, Shadrach himself remains human--flawed, quirky, and, even in the midst of a surreal nightmare, believably ordinary.

The novel also works as a web of literary references, quotes, and allusions. Shardrach's journey there and back again frequently echoes Dante's journey into the inferno, and also references the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Quin, the novel's villain and prime mover, is named in homage of author Edward Whittemore, a favorite of VandeMeer's, and several other characters and locations in the novel are named in honor of other writers. For all the fun that discovering these references offers readers, and for all that recognizing them deepens our experience of the novel, VanderMeer never makes the mistake of turning Veniss into an intellectual puzzle. He echoes, recalls, and sometimes outright cribs from other authors, but he never loses his own voice (several of them, in fact--the three point of view characters each have a distinct narrative voice that suits their personality and function in the story) or the thread of his own story. Surrounded by giants, VanderMeer impressively maintains an iron grip on his work--instead of creating an echo of others' art, he makes their work his own.

Veniss works as a work of horror--at first a Frankensteinian one, as the characters describe successful and unsuccessful experiments with the medium of flesh, and later a more visceral one, as in the scene in which Shadrach makes his way through a mountain of rotting flesh to where Nicola has been abandoned by her kidnappers (many reviewers have said that VanderMeer's descriptions in these scenes recall the artist Bosch, and since I'm not overly familiar with him I'll have to take their word for it). Towards the end of the book, as Shadrach comes closer to Quin, the creatures he encounter grow strange and unreal, conglomerations of body parts and sheer imagination. VanderMeer never lets this fondness for gore and body parts overwhelm his storytelling (see Miéville, China). He doesn't stop to marvel at yet another strange creation, or to gape in horror at yet more flesh and body fluids. He maintains a tight control of his story, using the horror elements to advance the plot and not as a goal unto themselves. It is yet another demonstration of VanderMeer's skill as an author (as is the fact that, unlike other modern world-creators of the fantasy-slash-horror ilk, VanderMeer tells his story in a svelte 200 pages).

But perhaps most importantly, Veniss Underground works when it tries to be funny. This is a novel, after all, in which the main character's Virgil is the surly, disembodied, slowly dying head of a meerkat, superglued to a plate and named John the Baptist. There is also a delightful absurdity to a sequence near the end of the novel, in which Shadrach gains the services of a creature called a Gollux, who speaks (through what might be its anus) in a bizarre, semi-robotic fashion.
"I am the Gollux. I am not a flawed Gollux. I am a flawed location. The Gollux was not meant to be contained in the skull of a swannerbee. It was the swannerbee's flaw to have a Gollux for a brain."
VanderMeer doesn't draw the reader's attention to the inherent absurdity of this character--or any other of Quin's creations--but neither does he ignore it. Veniss isn't a laugh-out-loud novel, but by refusing to take himself too seriously (or to allow his characters to do the same) VanderMeer encourages his readers to recognize the absurd in his invented world and be tickled by it. It's a humanizing touch, like Shadrach's quirks or the unrequited love between the three main characters.

Possibly the most remarkable thing about Veniss Underground is how easily the entire novel could have failed to work, the many pitfalls that VanderMeer could have fallen into. What we get instead is a carefully controlled, remarkable tightrope walk, a balancing act between grandiose myth and petty humanity, fluid-and-gore dripping horror and dark humor, clever literary allusions and the author's own voice and direction. In the face of these accomplishments, VanderMeer's failures seem pale and insignificant. This is a smart, beautiful, thought-provoking novel that is going to stay with me for quite some time (what is the significance, for instance, of the fact that the three point of view characters tell their stories in the first, second, and third persons?), and a remarkable achievement by an author who constantly demonstrates his vital importance to the genre. I didn't find what I had expected in Veniss Underground, but I certainly found plenty of reasons to keep reading.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Now That All Other Fantasy Franchises Have Been Tapped...

Via Dark Horizons:
Sam Raimi will direct "The Wee Free Men," an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's bestselling young-adult novel, as his likely first post "Spider-Man" franchise project reports Variety.

Sony Pictures Entertainment has acquired the book and set Pamela Pettler ("Corpse Bride", "Monster House") to write the script. The studio aims to develop an event-sized live-action family film, and if all goes well could adapt further novels in Pratchett's "Disc World" series.
I don't know what scares me more: the thought of Tiffany Aching in your standard Hollywood 'follow your heart and protect your family' fantasy mold, or the phrase 'event-sized film' directed at Discworld.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Self Promotion 4 - Special Lost Edition

My article, Insert Your Lost Pun Here: Is ABC's Ratings Phenomenon Losing Its Way? appears in this week's Strange Horizons. If you're coming here from there or have simply not made an exhaustive review of AtWQ's archives (and, really, why wouldn't you?), here are a few more posts in which I discuss this frustrating and increasingly disappointing show:

Otherwise, feel free to poke around the site--the 'Posts of Note' section to the right contains some good places to start.

UPDATE: You know, I don't know if I would have bothered to write a 2,000 word article about how Lost now sucks if I'd known that its executive producer was going to come out and say the exact same thing.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Space-Whore Linkdump

Three excellent discussions of class and gender issues in Firefly, all of which end up, in one way or another, dealing with the character of Inara and her relationship with Mal.
  • Maia at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty discusses Firefly's two class-crossing couples, Mal and Inara and Simon and Kaylee, and then veers into a discussion of the mechanics of the Companion guild.

  • The Rabbit Hole takes the discussion further and compares the Companions with both Dune's Bene Gesserit and Discworld's Seamstresses.

  • Sartorias discusses the ways in which Inara's character fails, particularly her failure to demonstrate self-control and, in general, to act anything like a geisha.

Well, Maybe You Can Take That Part of the Sky (Updated, Now With Quote)

One of the very first coherent thoughts I had about Joss Whedon's television series Firefly was to observe that it took place in a world in which the civil war was actually fought over the issue of states' rights. The desire for freedom, and for the ability to freely govern one's life and decisions, informed many of the show's episodes, and even its theme song yearned for the freedom of the skies after all other freedoms had been lost. Post-war hardship on the one hand, and the restrictive, domineering Alliance on the other, made Firefly's universe one in which genuine choices were becoming a rare commodity.

Serenity, Firefly's feature film continuation (and, possibly, conclusion), expanded on this theme of freedom and choice. The film pits Serenity's crew against the forces of the Alliance, who seek to regain control of River and prevent the dissemination of the truth about their actions on the planet Miranda. The Alliance, the film tells us, had sought to extend its control over its citizens by using mind-altering drugs in order to weed out aggression and criminal tendencies. It's an approach to governance that we would consider monstrous even without being told of its disastrous results--tens of millions dead, further millions transformed into mindless cannibals, and an untold number of victims who have suffered terribly at the hands of these newly-made monsters. The Alliance's crime, we are told by Mal in his St. Crispin's Day speech, is the belief that people can be forced into a new shape, a new form incapable of sin.

Sin is a topic that Serenity returns to often, and one clearly on the minds of its villains. The Operative seeks to bring about a world free of it, and believes that his actions--protecting the Alliance by any means necessary--are the best way to go about achieving this goal. Whedon, in his witty and informative commentary to the film, says (big, huge thanks to commenter D. for tracking down the quote)

...it's about the right to be wrong. It's about the idea that you cannot impose your way of thinking on people, even if your way of thinking is more enlightened and better than theirs. It's just simply not how human beings are. And you take that further and you say the idea of sin is in fact outmoded, is in fact more archaic than anything that Mal believes in. When he says, 'I'm a fan of all seven,' [cut vis effects blather] he's saying that sin is just what people are; it's been codified, it's been given a name, but all of those things we take as faults are also the source of pleasure and decency, and we should perhaps rethink it.
The Alliance's error, then, according to Whedon, is in clinging to a black and white approach to human behavior. By promoting a rigid, near-perfect concept of goodness, the Alliance classifies all citizens incapable of achieving this level of perfection, or unwilling to conform to it, as evil and undesirable. Rather than embracing the broad and ultimately uncontrollable range of human diversity, the Alliance fears it and seeks to limit it. Serenity's crew, in contrast, are a celebration of imperfect, flawed humanity, and through their dangerous choice at the film's end they bring an extra measure of freedom to their entire society.

On its face, Whedon's philosophy seems hard to object to, but there's a flip side to it that neither he nor his characters seem to acknowledge. The plain truth is that sin is not an outmoded concept. Sin exists, and it blights the lives of all of us who wish to live safely and happily. Murder is a sin. Rape is a sin. The strong preying on the weak is a sin, and it is precisely that sin that we would tend to see in a society that was completely free and without control. Civilized society, in its idealized form, exists to protect its weaker members from being preyed upon by the strong. Laws exist to prevent sin and to assure that those who commit it are cast out of the community.

Society is control, and the difference between free and predatory societies is not in the existence of that control but in the ways in which that control is exercised and governed. In a free society, citizens have the right to define, and change the definition of, sin (although it's worth noting that, when left to their own devices, supposedly free societies have defined mixed-race marriages and homosexuality as sins, and failed to recognize the sin of slavery), and to affect the form that punishment for sin takes. In a predatory society, such as the Alliance, citizens have no input into, and very little information about, the actions of their government, which may spy on them, treat them all as criminals or, as we see in Serenity, drug them into submission. It is this dangerous use of control that Mal and his crew rebel against, but they don't seem to recognize the need for another sort of control in order to maintain social order.

The Alliance's failure in the Firefly universe isn't in seeking to act against sin, but in their method and approach to this task. The Alliance sought to make its task easier and, more importantly, finite. They failed to realize that the task of protecting society from the worst impulses of human nature is a neverending one--the watchmen of civilization are never permitted to leave their posts, nor can they allow themselves to act in a sinful manner, lest they become the creatures they were set to watch against (Whedon's earlier television show, Angel, has a similar theme--one that the main character was forced to relearn again and again). As in all human societies, the Firefly universe's attempt at this ideal form is flawed, probably beyond repair. The Alliance needs to be brought down, but something else needs to come in its place in order to exercise, with wisdom and with the consent of its citizens, the kind of control that the Alliance has been abusing.

I'm not at all certain that Whedon understands this half of the equation. I'm absolutely certain that Mal doesn't understand it. Mal's notion of social order largely revolves around a quasi-libertarian fantasy of powerful, moral individuals--such as himself--who help the weak and disenfranchised fight against the strong (and it's worth noting that Mal seems happiest when those predators are in positions of power--it is simpler, after all, to be the plucky underdog). It's an approach reminiscent of the one that soon-to-be-ex PM Harriet Jones accused the Tenth Doctor of in the recent Doctor Who special, "The Christmas Invasion". In the face of his rage at her actions in defense of Earth (actions which may or may not have been moral), Jones reminded the Doctor that Earth couldn't continue to depend on his protection. "You're not always here," she told him, and it does seem to me that the Doctor would rather think of humanity as a relatively helpless species under his protection than as actors in their own right. Similarly, I think Mal would prefer to live in a universe full of heroes and villains rather than in one governed by a system of law.

But the truth is that a just society does much more than simply protect its citizens. It teaches them to think like civilized people. Justice, freedom, equality--these are all fantasies, a blanket pulled over our collective heads to protect us from the nightmare of our feral nature. Living in a society ruled by law teaches us to believe in these lies. They become ingrained in us, and hopefully, when we find ourselves in a situation in which the institutions of society can no longer protect us, that ingrained knowledge will keep us from descending into predatory behavior--as we've seen happen, in third-world countries and in inner cities, when people cease to believe in the possibility of justice. On Serenity, characters like Simon and Inara represent the core planets and the unthinking belief in these lies of justice. Firefly and Serenity show us these characters, particularly Simon, struggling with a world in which their unthinking assumptions no longer hold. They suggest that in order to survive, Simon must shed some of his gentility, learn to fend for himself, and eventually act against the institutions he had been taught to respect, but throughout this journey, Simon refuses to completely let go of his upbringing. Although Kaylee chides him for being prim and proper, Simon clings to the forms of proper etiquette because they mean something to him--a reminder that he is a civilized man. It is the same, hopefully, with the concept of justice. Mal Reynolds believes in justice, or rather he believes that it should exist and is constantly infuriated by its absence, but he has yet to realize that justice is created by people, by teaching them to think justly, and that only a society governed by law can teach them to do so.

There are many, many reasons to wish for a sequel to Serenity (for one thing, I want me some Mal/Inara smoochies), but right now I'd desperately like to see Mal confronted with the inadequacy of his approach to social justice. In a way, Serenity wrapped up the storyline that would probably have made up Firefly's first season--in a compressed, louder, more effects-heavy, less afraid of character death form. At the end of this story, Mal has fought against the Alliance and won, and I think it would have been interesting to see him discover that the peace is so much more dangerous and complicated than the war (I'd also like to see the effect that living outside of constant danger has on the cohesion of Serenity's crew). Mal would be the first to admit that he's an unlikely hero, but I wonder if he's enough of a hero to assume a far more challenging and dangerous mantle--that of a man of law.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Lamest. Feminist Icon. Ever.

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland has an interesting write-up of the second half of Battlestar Galactica's summer season (am I wrong, or are most of the critical opinions about this show coming from genre insiders? Certainly it seems that mainstream venues can't stop falling over themselves to indiscriminately praise the show). Hartland makes a good argument about the importance of individuality and its acceptance within the show, and suggests that it is this ability to accept individuality--the huge range of human experience and personality--that separates good from evil on the show.
The Number Six stored in Balthar's mind exhorts us to consider the abused woman as an individual, a reality, rather than a scientific problem or icon. Balthar later observes that her catatonic state emphasizes more than anything else so far that the psychology of those Cylons who appear human is identical to that of the beings they imitate and destroy. When Cain, assuming command of the fleet, splits up the Galactica's crew on the grounds that Commander Adama is too close to them, and when Apollo is told by his new CO that he should not allow the problems of his friends to trouble him, what is really going on is a destruction of the very philosophy that has kept the understaffed crew of the obsolete Battlestar alive: their acceptance of individuality.
It's a good argument, despite some clunky supporting examples (it seems disingenuous to offer the reporter in "Final Cut" as an example of someone who learns to see past preconceived notions and recognize the crew's humanity, and it is downright incorrect to claim that Adama--who may be clinically incapable of thinking impersonally--attacks Sharon in "Home, pt. 2" because he forgets that she is a person), but more interesting to my mind is Hartland's criticism of Galactica's treatment of gender. Despite what mainstream reviewers may think, Galactica is at its core a very conservative show when it comes to issues of gender, although I haven't been able to decide whether or not this is intentional on the writers' part.

When it comes to sexual humiliation on the show, the men are seduced and the women are raped. As I wrote when I discussed the show back in September, all of its individualized villains are female, and two of those villains use sexuality as a weapon. On both Galactica and the Pegasus, there is a marked absence of women in positions of authority and command (in fact, with the exception of Admiral Cain, we've seen no female crewmembers on the Pegasus at all). And then there's Starbuck, who, whatever Laura Miller might think, is anything but a feminist icon.

Galactica
's writers can't seem to stop apologizing for writing the character as she is. Starbuck is violent and headstrong because she's trying to fill up the empty void inside. The fact that she's sexually assertive and promiscuous is a sign that she's a 'screw-up'. That she doesn't want children is an indication of trauma and the result of being abused as a child (by her mother, who was apparently also a religious fanatic). Starbuck, we're told, wants to think of herself as mean and unworthy, wants to believe that she's not worth respect and love. Her confident demeanor conceals, as the stereotype goes, a profound lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.

I wouldn't like to be seen as saying that I want Starbuck to be perfect and well-adjusted, but the shape of her disfunction infuriates me. When I watch her, I find myself constantly recalling that genuine feminist SF icon, Farscape's Officer Aeryn Sun, whose character starts out, like Starbuck, as a capable soldier who is incapable of recognizing her feelings and who treats sex as recreation. Aeryn grows and changes over Farscape's run, and although by the show's end she has traded in her role as an emotionless soldier for that of a wife and mother, it is an empowering journey. Aeryn is flawed and, as a person, incomplete, but at no point did Farscape's writers suggest that, in order to experience the full range of human emotions, Aeryn needed to be cured of her strength or her personality. "You can be more", she is told by love interest John Crichton in their first meeting, and more is indeed what Aeryn becomes. She casts away the parts of her training that, as she comes to realize, don't mean a damn, and opens herself to new experiences. At the same time, however, Aeryn holds on of the skills that have kept her alive and made her strong, and uses them to safeguard her new, more rounded existence.

Instead of suggesting that Aeryn's competence and strength are an armor concealing her inadequacies, as Galactica's writers seem to be doing with Starbuck, the Farscape writers recognized that those strengths were an integral part of Aeryn's personality, that they had to be added to, not stripped away. Like all complete human beings, Aeryn had to learn to be vulnerable (although it's worth noting that throughout their relationship, Crichton was always 'the girl', emotionally speaking), but the writers never tried to make her pitiable. Galactica's writers use pity as a shortcut to making us love Starbuck--poor abused, lost child--but it is that pity, and the pity that Starbuck feels for herself, that is the most off-putting aspect of the character. It tells us that Starbuck is shamming strength, and that she may never make the journey into adulthood.

There has been some indication of progress for Starbuck's character--her journey to Caprica seems to have rattled her and forced her to take a long, hard look at herself, and she did seem to have something approaching a normal relationship with Anders--and as I've said before, Galactica's near-real-time progression means that any change we see in the character will be slow and gradual, but I'm not at all certain that the roots of the problem have been dealt with. Whether or not they meant to do so, Galactica's writers are treating feminine strength as a problem or an indication of a problem (with the exception of President Roslyn, of course), and they will never be able to write feminist fiction while they continue to do so.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments to Hartland's article. There's a very interesting and well-written discussion going on there about the show's strengths and weaknesses, and the point is made that Galactica is a conservative show in more ways than just its attitude towards gender.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Best of SciFiction: 2005

Can't quite believe I managed to finish this little project. In a way, I'm endebted to SciFi for pulling the plug on SciFiction--given my dislike for reading fiction on the computer, I doubt I would have read through the archives if I hadn't known their time online was limited. I'm even more endebted to the existence of this blog--the knowledge of having committed myself publicly to the task spurred me on--and I hope that I've inspired some of you to take a look at these stories and maybe the entire archives. I still don't like reading on the computer (for some reason, the block doesn't extend to non-fiction and blog entries), but there's no denying that SciFiction was a remarkable accomplishment, and that its archives contain some of the finest short fiction within the genre (and, in some cases, without it). We have truly lost something special.

Could Someone Please Tell Me...

...who the hell the woman on the Serenity DVD box is?

Or, more accurately, could someone please tell me how, even through the magic of photoshop, one can get to that woman's face by starting with Summer Glau's?

Excepting the disturbing cover and its disturbing implications, the DVD is quite fun. I don't usually listen to commentary tracks, but Whedon's commentary on the film is quite interesting. He goes on a bit too long about lighting and lenses, but he also has some interesting insights into the characters and the way the film's plot is constructed.

The deleted scenes are nice, but the nicest thing about them is that by and large, they were deleted for a reason. There's only one scene that I genuinely regret not seeing in the film, and even in that case I can understand why Whedon chose to cut it.

The movie, of course, still rocks.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Down With Love Quadrangles: Why Charlie and Claire Are the Best 'Ship on Lost

This is something that ended up getting cut out of a longer Lost article (appearing elsewhere in the near future) rather early in the writing process. Clearly, it made no sense to disrupt a discussion of the many ways in which the show was stagnating for a thousand words about shipping, but somehow the idea has grabbed hold of me. Hope you don't mind leftovers.

To begin with, I want to be clear that when I call Charlie/Claire the best ship on Lost, I don't mean that they're the most romantic or the most sexy, that their attraction is the most believable, that the writers are treating the relationship well, or that I see a future for the two characters. No, I like Charlie and Claire because, unlike every other romantic pairing on the show, they interest me. I long ago stopped caring about the Sawyer-Kate-Jack love triangle (gosh! A pretty girl has to choose between a clean-cut good guy and a no-good rebel! How original!), and I doubt the addition of Ana-Lucia to the mix is going to change that. No power on Earth could make me believe that Sayid loved Shannon, and besides, the bimbo's dead (which hopefully means that Sayid can be an interesting character again). Sun and Jin are incredibly sweet, not to mention pretty, but they're done--they've overcome their problems and been reunited. Whatever comes next for them, we probably won't be seeing it on a Disney-owned channel. Same with Rose and Bernard. Charlie and Claire are the only couple on the island whose problems remain tangled and realistic, which is why it sucks (in a way emblematic of how the entire show has come to suck) that in nine episodes their relationship got maybe ten minutes of airplay, as opposed to endless repetitions of Kate vacillating between Cyclops and Wolverine and Sun gazing longingly at the horizon.

It's not that I'm so fond of Charlie and Claire as characters, either. He was quite sympathetic for a while there in the show's first season, but lately he's become judgmental and priggish. Claire is barely even a character--beyond a few details, we have no idea who she is. Which is part of what makes the relationship between her and Charlie so interesting--neither does he. Without ever acknowledging that they were doing so, Charlie and Claire skipped right past courtship, dating, romance and marriage and started playing house. They don't know each other. They don't love each other. It's open to debate whether they're even attracted to each other (the closest they've come to intimate contact is Charlie kissing Claire on the forehead). They're deeply invested in each other, but for reasons that have very little to do with who the other person in the relationship is.

Like, I suspect, many drug addicts, Charlie is a control freak. That desire for control doesn't express itself through an anal attention to detail, or a desire to dominate those close to him (although he skates rather close to the latter with some of his actions towards Claire). Charlie feels in control when he's taking care of others. He needs to be the man of the house, providing for and protecting his family. The kind of person, after all, who is capable of taking care of others surely doesn't need to be helped himself? In other words, Charlie is trying to fake it till he makes it, using other people as props. We saw last season how a previous attempt of this kind failed disastrously, but a combination of fortuitous circumstances has given Charlie a second, more promising chance on the island. I won't pretend that it doesn't speak well of Charlie that he was the person who stepped up to take care of Claire--assuring her that "[he's] not afraid of [her]"--early in the first season, but the fact remains that Charlie is using Claire as a way to avoid his problems, and that way lies only pain for both of them.

For better or worse, Charlie is the sort of person who will justify almost any action if it benefits the people he cares about--or, more accurately, the people he cares for. He'll bully Hurley shamelessly ("You're going to lie to the baby?", "I thought you were my friend!") to get Clare a favorite dish. He'll ignore Danielle Rousseau's obvious emotional distress because she endangered his family. And, most famously, he'll kill a man in cold blood and justify it by saying that he was protecting Clare. It's not the worst way to be, I suppose--there is some mileage to be gained in taking care of your own--but given that Claire and Aaron aren't Charlie's own, or at least that the relationship between the three hasn't been formally discussed, it's an attitude fraught with the possibility of conflict.

Claire, for her part, has obvious reasons for latching onto Charlie. I don't want to say that she went looking for a daddy, but whether consciously or not, there was a point in their burgeoning friendship in which she accepted his unspoken offer of shared responsibility for her child. That she is now second-guessing herself, as we learn when we see her speak to Locke in "Abandoned", is only natural. The fact is, however, that if Charlie and Claire were a normal couple, if they had met, fallen in love, gotten married, and had a baby in that order, they would still be having trouble right now. Babies put a strain on relationships. The sniping the two exchange earlier in "Abandoned", when Charlie points out that Claire shouldn't have woken the baby (or run with him towards Shannon's screams) is probably familiar to thousands of new or formerly-new parents, and it is somewhat disingenuous to claim, as many fans have done, that Charlie had no right to grow annoyed with Claire because he isn't the baby's father. She had no problem, up until that point, with letting him take on a father's responsibility, and it does follow that he has the right to act like one even when it doesn't suit her.

The problem is that unlike those other new parents, Charlie and Claire have no bedrock of genuine feeling to fall back on. So, we get Claire making vague overtures towards Locke as a possible replacement for Charlie, and Charlie making horribly inappropriate judgments about Claire's fitness as a mother. The relationship is clearly going to go sour, but unlike other instances of romantic tension that we've seen on the show, it might do so in an interesting way. There's so much potential for disaster here--two well-intentioned, damaged people facing up to the consequences of acting without thinking about the consequences. We could see fights, we could see Claire kicking Charlie out and Charlie trying to take Aaron. We could see Locke getting caught in the middle (and isn't it a blast to watch Mr. Cool start sweating the minute he's placed between those two?). And we could see actual love, because when it comes down to it, Charlie and Claire have potential. They suit each other. They're comfortable together. They want their relationship to work. Twisted as it is, this fledgling romance could yield something real--and it'll be a long, rocky road getting there.

Which is why I despise the drug twist. Charlie falling off the wagon is the equivalent of finishing off a delicate stone-carving with a ten-pound hammer. The very real problems inherent in the relationship will cease to matter, overwhelmed by the simple fact that Charlie can no longer function as a husband and father (I'm envisioning Charlie blissing out as Aaron plays at the edge of a cliff, or something similarly melodramatic). If he doesn't, the fact that he might--that he's still carrying around that unopened Virgin Mary statue--will constantly be on our mind, informing and tainting every conversation between the two. There's enough baggage and issues plaguing this relationship already, and an unsubtle trick like dangling a plane full of heroin before Charlie does nothing but bleed an interesting character dynamic dry.

Which is probably what the writers want. As I mentioned above, they haven't exactly given Charlie and Claire a great deal of air time over the second season's first half, and in general the episodes we've seen have demonstrated a preference for simplistic storytelling--the whole 'faith vs. science' dilemma is a good example. I suspect the best we can hope for from Charlie and Claire is Charlie getting back on the horse in time for February sweeps. The writers probably don't expect us to care--after all, we'll be too busy watching Jack choose between Kate and Ana-Lucia.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Not With a Bang But With a Thud! or, Whither Discworld

Last year, while reading Terry Pratchett's then most recent novel, Going Postal, I remarked to my mother how strange it was that when I had started reading Discworld, the books had been about magic and eldritch creatures from the beyond, whereas now they were about telecommunications cartels. And eldritch creatures from the beyond.

It is quite fascinating to chart the evolution of Pratchett's invented universe, currently spanning some thirty adult novels, three YA novels, a picture book, an illustrated novel and any number of companion volumes. The series started out as a parody of fantasy conventions, with Pratchett reaching into a giant box marked 'fantasy clichés' and digging out something new to lambast every three pages, whether it was the novels of Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, H.P. Lovecraft, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or just the hoary conventions of the genre. As the Discworld began taking shape, Pratchett shaved away a great many invented species and locations, and started telling his own stories. Strongly dependent on magic (quite often it seemed that the stories revolved around the menace of the Dungeon Dimensions breaking into Discworld), these were traditional fantasy stories--the deposed prince in disguise, the magician's apprentice, the dragon who terrorizes a city--with a decidedly Pratchett twist and a healthy dollop of his humanist philosophy. Most recently, Discworld books have switched over to the 'Discworld Does X' model--communism, Christmas, war, newspaper journalism, feminism, telecommunication booms, and, with the most recent novel, Thud!, race wars--with magic taking a back seat to a satire of contemporary popular culture and a more strident form of Pratchett's political commentary.

It's a common complaint in recent years to say that Pratchett is recycling ideas, settings and jokes, but in many ways, that repetition is the source of Discworld's strength, and the reason that this invented universe has remained strong and compelling (not to mention a tantalizing mix of bestselling and critically beloved) for over twenty years. Despite taking place in many different locations on Discworld, centering on different characters, and having widely divergent themes and tones, the Discworld novels are clearly of a piece. They are tied together with a shared mythology and history which Pratchett extemporizes with the skill of a great jazz musician. A throwaway joke becomes a recurring joke, the recurring joke becomes a plot point and the plot point becomes the lynchpin of an entire novel. This is essentially what Pratchett has done with Thud!, in which the battle of Koom Valley (first mentioned in a footnote in, I believe, Men at Arms) goes from humorous to gravely serious as Ankh-Morpork's dwarf and troll populations start raring for a reenactment. The murder of a rabble-rousing dwarf, who had been preaching the death of all trolls, is likely to ignite the city, and it falls to its Watch, led by the inimitable Commander Sam Vimes, to solve the murder and defuse the situation.

Over the last few years, Vimes has started to become synonymous with Discworld. Of the last seven Discworld novels for adults, three were Watch novels (The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!) with Vimes as the main (and sometimes only) protagonist, and a further two featured him prominently as an antagonist (The Truth, Monstrous Regiment). At the same time, other Discworld sub-series seem to be grinding to a halt. The Lancre witches' coven is making guest appearances in the YA Tiffany Aching novels. Rincewinds seems, by popular demand, to be staying put in his cushy Unseen University position. It's been a while since we've visited with Death and his extended family. Pratchett has been writing a lot of standalone novels with new characters, whom he might in the future spin off into new sub-series, but thus far they've been largely along the lines of the Watch novels--mysteries taking place in Ankh-Morpork.

The Watch series, and Sam Vimes himself, are a fan favorite, and for quite some time I had no problem with the notion of spending most of my time with these characters. What I've noticed recently, however, is that even within the Watch books there's been a thinning out of the characters. Whereas the early Watch novels were told from several points of view, each investigating the crime from a different angle and contributing vital information, in the most recent Watch novels the onus of the investigation falls almost entirely on Vimes' shoulders, with the other familiar characters acting as comic relief or simply showing up because it's expected of them.

It's plain that Pratchett no longer has any idea what to do with Captain Carrot, who can no longer play the innocent abroad and whose psychological idiosyncrasies (personal isn't the same as important) have long since been wrung dry of story ideas. Pratchett has taking to sidelining the character--Night Watch took place years before he arrived in the city, and in Thud! he doesn't even get a point of view and appears in only a few scenes--and will probably continue to do so until he finally decides to bring the issue of Carrot's kingship to a head (what a pity it is that Pratchett has made the very idea of Carrot claiming the throne thoroughly out of character for him--it would have been fascinating to watch Carrot square off against Vimes). Fred Colon and Nobby Nobbs show up to desultorily repeat their tired old shtick, which even Pratchett seems to find tedious. The less said about Angua's storyline, in which her by-now painfully familiar whining over being a werewolf is coupled with an extended and ultimately pointless bar-crawl with Cheery, new vampire recruit Sally, and Nobby's new girlfriend, the better. Both Cheery and Detritus, who might have been expected to take a more prominent role in a novel dealing with dwarf-troll tensions, are given little to do--at no point have I so thoroughly regretted the death of Cuddy in Men at Arms, when his friendship with Detritus might have been the focal point of a interesting sub-plot.

The only real character left in Thud! is Sam Vimes himself, who for several books now has acted as Pratchett's mouthpiece about matters personal and political. It's interesting to note that while the early Watch novels dealt with political matters in an oblique fashion, through murder investigations of private citizens whose deaths shed light on a potential social problem (Feet of Clay raises the issue of slavery, Men at Arms brings up the danger of guns), later novels have had Vimes deal with blatantly political matters--whether he's traveling to foreign countries, as he does in Jingo and The Fifth Elephant, or staying put as he does in Thud! and Night Watch. The murders Vimes is faced with in these later Watch novels are catalysts for events that might tear the city--the entire Discworld, even--apart, and it falls to him to come up with a solution that will defuse the situation.

Which, of course, he does. It occurred to me while reading Thud! that for all of Pratchett's willingness to mess up the Discworld universe, to introduce real-world politics and political crises, he's not quite willing to take the approach to its logical conclusion. Again and again, Vimes discovers that the murders he's been sent to investigate were orchestrated for the specific purpose of sparking wars, toppling kings, and resurrecting old enmities. By bringing the murderer to light, Vimes reminds both sides that they'd rather sit down and talk, and that their hatred for one another comes not from themselves but from an outside source. Unlike our own world, which progresses and regresses in cycles, the Discworld is constantly moving forward into enlightenment and away from warlike medieval notions of how the world works. It's a pleasant fairy tale, but especially with Pratchett trying to tell more realistic stories (and using his characters to moralize throughout these stories) it feels inauthentic. Are we really meant to accept that centuries of racial tension can be overcome by the discovery that Vimes makes at the end of Thud!? I think we all know a little too much about the real-world counterparts of such struggles to believe Pratchett's easy solution.

I would classify Thud! as a lesser Discworld novels, somewhere around the Maskerade level. It's funny as all get-out, of course, and the Discworld itself is as concretely real as it has ever been, but it's clear from the book's outset that the militant dwarf's murder could not have been committed by a troll, as his fellow 'deep-down' dwarfs claim, and experience teaches us that Pratchett is almost certain to reveal a vast conspiracy aimed at undermining the future of dwarf-troll relations. The mystery, in other words, isn't terribly mystifying--the book is more of a how- and whydunnit than a whodunnit, and both the how and the why hinge on a thin Da Vinci Code satire that is too subtle to be truly funny and too prominent to save the book from sinking into irrelevance the moment the egg-timer on this pop-culture phenomenon runs out (a problem that has plagued too many recent Discworld novels). The novel deals with the history and folk beliefs of both dwarfs and trolls, but whereas the former are by now the Discworld equivalent of Klingons--an invented species whose culture has become so fascinating that it threatens to overwhelm the human point of view characters--the latter have remained underdeveloped, and Pratchett has to scramble to come up with some smidgeon of folklore for them. The result is not so much a novel about strife between dwarfs and trolls as it is about internal disputes between two different groups of dwarfs, and as such is sadly reminiscent of the superior The Fifth Elephant.

Nevertheless, there are moments of profound beauty and wit in Thud!, primarily focusing on Vimes. I laughed until I had tears in my eyes at Vimes reading a tattered, much-loved children's book to his one-year-old son, and as usual, Vimes' interactions with his family and extended household have the ring of truth and serve to remind us why we love this decent, honorable man. And then there's this little piece of quintessential Vimes-iana, tucked away in a footnote:
Vimes had never got on with any game more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks around, the whole board could've been a republic in a dozen moves.
But for most of the novel, Pratchett is less concerned with letting Vimes be than he is with letting him talk. Or, more accurately, monologue. With the roles of the other Watch characters so drastically reduced, most of Thud! takes place inside Vimes' head, and we get to watch him think about and respond to the events he witnesses in typical Vimes-ian fashion--by getting angry. Anger is unquestionably Vimes' defining characteristic--his incandescent rage at the unfairness of the world, at the strong preying on the weak, at the way that real people are used up and tossed away by those who claim to be trying to make the world a better place. To Pratchett's credit, he uses Vimes' anger as a plot point in Thud!, in which a vengeful spirit recognizes in him the potential for a champion and tries to turn him into a creature of pure rage. The way in which Vimes fights and eventually confounds this creature reveals to us the bedrock of his personality, the importance he places on his self-control and on his ability to police himself and be certain of the rightness of his actions. It is a true psychological insight into one of Practhett's most interesting characters--albeit one that largely repeats the Gonne plotline in Men at Arms--but sadly it comes swathed in hundreds of pages of cod-philosophy.
"I don't habitually beat up prisoners, if that's what you're suggesting," said Vimes.

"And I am sure you would not wish to do so tonight."

Vimes opened his mouth to shout the grag out of the building, and stopped.

Because the cheeky little sod had got it right slap-bang on the money. Vimes had been on the edge since leaving the house. He'd felt a tingling across his skin, and a tightness in his gut, and a sharp, nasty little headache. Someone was going to pay for all this... this... this thisness, and it didn't need to be a screwed-up bit player like Helmclever.

And he was not certain, not certain at all, what he'd do if the prisoner gave him any lip or tried to be smart. Beating people up in little rooms... he knew where that led. And if you did it for a good reason, you'd do it for a bad one. You couldn't say "we're the good guys" and do bad-guy things. Sometimes the watching watchman inside every good copper's head could use an extra pair of eyes.

Justice had to be seen to be done, so he'd see it done up good and proper.
As an infrequent occurrence, a way of hammering in a point at the book's climax, this sort of over-the-top rhetoric works, but Vimes goes on in this fashion for the better part of 350 pages, and has been doing so for three or four books. Whereas the earlier Watch books charted changes in Vimes' personality--from a broken-down drunk, he learns to believe again in the ideals whose bankrupcy broke his heart, and becomes a major player in the city--recent books in the sub-series have simply made Vimes more Vimes-ish, and as a result the character and its voice are at the cusp of becoming parodies of themselves. The fact that Pratchett doesn't seem to notice this suggests that he may have committed the humorist's cardinal sin--that of taking himself too seriously. Vimes' politics, which at this point we can only assume are also Pratchett's politics, are not enough to support the novel, especially when one considers how unoriginal they are. Surely, most Pratchett readers above junior high age don't need to be told that race wars are stupid and hurtful?

While Pratchett has no problem conveying Vimes' anger, and does a decent enough job of sketching the outlines of his deeper feelings for his family, he still can't quite manage tender emotions, which only contributes to the devaluation of Vimes as a person. Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett has demurely turned away whenever his characters came close to expressing earnest, delicate emotion--romance, heartbreak or grief. Pratchett is of the Douglas Adams school of humorist writing, which means that he doesn't quite know how to marry his laugh-a-minute style with genuinely human characterization. Ten years ago, when I first started reading him, Pratchett was the only game in town if you were looking for intelligent, thought-provoking, original fantasy and didn't know where to turn outside of the mainstream, and you took his lumps with his delightful sugar. The intervening decade has seen a sea-change in the fantasy genre. Pratchett is no longer the only name to call up when asked to suggest intelligent, well-written fantasy, even within the mainstream, and in a year in which Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys so believably married humor and realistic emotions, a book like Thud! seems almost anachronistic. Like many Pratchett fans, I've long been thoroughly invested in the notion that Pratchett is worth looking at, that he says important things and says them well, but it occurs to me that as time passes, I can find less and less ways to justify this argument. I can still see myself handing a reluctant, slightly snobbish reader a copy of Wyrd Sisters or Mort with the full expectation of blowing their minds, but the later Discworld books strike me as lesser and more ephemeral efforts--half pop-culture references, half unsubtle moralizing.

The most fun I've had in Discworld in recent years has been with the YA Tiffany Aching novels, The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, which match delicate psychological portraits with exciting plots, a less strident form of Pratchett's trademark political thinking, and genuinely funny humor. Possibly the best thing about the Tiffany books, however, is the way in which they give us a fresh perspective, or rather two fresh perspectives, on Granny Weatherwax, Pratchett's second most recognizable and beloved character. The books, which might as well be subtitled The Young Esmerelda Weatherwax Chronicles, chart Tiffany's growth into what is almost certain to be the next witch of witches, the most powerful and most influential witch in her region--the next Granny Weatherwax, in other words. They give us a glimpse of the making of a Granny Weatherwax, and although in some cases they repeat storylines and ideas that we've already seen from Granny's perspective (both books owe a great deal to Lords and Ladies), there's enough freshness in them to counteract the repetition. Perhaps more importantly, through Tiffany's eyes we see Granny as others see her. Instead of living inside Granny's head, as the adult witch novels forced us to do, we see her from the outside, and although Pratchett can't quite resist the urge to give Tiffany the 'correct' attitude towards Granny, by enforcing a distance from the character he allows us to see her world more completely, without being overwhelmed by her philosophy of life.

I'd very much like to see Pratchett give the Watch novels the Tiffany treatment. It's time to get out of Vimes' head and find a new point of view character, and I have to say, the character I'm currently most curious about is Young Sam Vimes. I can't help but wonder how this young man will avoid the twin pitfalls of becoming his father and moving so far out of his father's shadow that he no longer recognizes himself (I think it's safe to assume that, with Sam and Sybil Vimes for parents, being spoiled is not something this kid has to worry about). I think it would be interesting to see Vimes through his son's eyes, but whether or not Pratchett does this I hope he moves out of Vimes' head. I've been a Discworld fan for 12 years, and Pratchett remains the only author whose books I simply can't not read, but I would dearly love to see him return to the series' glory days, and remember that it was the stories, not the sermons, that made his world great in the first place.