Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The 2005 Nebula Award: The Short Story Shortlist

Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" is still MIA on the internet. I just know that five minutes after I post this incomplete review, someone will make it available. Which means that posting the review now will not only gratify my twitchy posting finger--it can also be construed as a public service. Everybody wins!

Those of you hoping for another rant are in for a disappointment. The overall quality of the short story ballot is not exceptional--there are no "The Faery Handbag"s here--but it is nevertheless quite strong, with only one story obviously out of place. The highs aren't as high as the ones on the novelette shortlist, but the lows aren't as low--not an ideal situation by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly an improvement over last summer's embarrassing Hugo shortlist (how very pleased I was to discover that Mike Resnick's longlisted "A Princess of Mars" didn't make the cut).

As I wrote when I reviewed the Hugo nominees, however, it's hard to read recent award ballots and escape the conclusion that SFFH authors can't handle the length restrictions of the short story. Even the best pieces on the Nebula ballot don't always manage to create a fictional universe, inform us of the ways in which it diverges from our own, people it, describe those people believably, and tell an actual story in less than 7,500 words.

Probably the weakest story on the ballot, and the one I'd knock off if I were in charge of such things, is K.D. Wentworth's "Born-Again". There seems to be a run on disaffected teenaged narrators this year--Eileen Gunn and Lesley What's "Nirvana High" and Kelly Link's "The Faery Handbag" were also narrated by flighty teenage girls--and although Bailee, Wentworth's narrator, is less annoying than Gunn and What's, I didn't find myself feeling for her problems as I did for Link's, in spite of the fact that said problems are fairly dramatic: how would you like Jesus--the Jesus--as your baby brother? Apparently, in Bailee's universe, DNA extracted from the shroud of Turin made the cloning of Jesus possible. And people actually did it--their own personal Jesus to raise from infancy. Bailee's Jesus is currently fifteen, spotty and with bad hair, and is crushed by his failure to turn water into wine. Wentworth gets a lot of mileage out his premise--crossing teenage alienation in the mall culture with the life of a boy who believes himself to be the savior of humanity but is, in reality, just an annoying kid. Sadly, the neat joke can't carry the story across the finish line. There's a rather absurd twist towards the end in which a secret Jesus society tries to raise the dead and stops at nothing to procure its source material, but it is as unfunny as it is out of place. Ultimately, the story boils down to a rather basic tale of siblings bonding, hardly justifying the hoops we had to jump through to get to its end.

It wasn't until I read Nancy Kress' "My Mother, Dancing", that I realized how very few of the stories on the Nebula ballot were even close to hard, space-set SF. Kress' far-future tale about highly evolved post-humans arriving at the site where, a century and a half earlier, they seeded a planet with artificial life, seems almost anachronistic amidst the lyrical ghost stories and surreal fantasies that make up the rest of the short story and novelette ballots. This is largely a matter of personal preference--my tastes in science fiction have changed over the last few years, and I was never one for hard SF to begin with--but Kress' story doesn't make me regret that absence. In the future she describes, humanity was shocked by the discovery that they were truly alone in the universe. Their reaction was to seed the planets they discovered with nano-machines, leave them to their artificial evolution, and return to discover this new 'alien' life. It's a game that Kress' characters take very, very seriously--almost religiously, although these hyper-rationalists would be appalled to think of it in those terms. When first contact is established, the humans discover that their artificial lifeform thinks of them as its god, and that it is under attack by what may be genuine alien life. At this point, Kress' story diverges into two plots, each confusing and diluting the resonance of the other. In one story strand, the human travelers, allegedly in search of the new and the different, are terrified by the presence of the truly alien. In the other, the artificial aliens on the planet beg their creators to intercede on their behalf with their enemies, and are disappointed and left bereft when the frightened humans all but run away. It's hard to know which of the stories to pay attention to, and the ending doesn't bring the two strands together into a single whole. I also can't escape the feeling that Kress intends for me to mock her human characters--maybe even feel disdain towards them--but if she does she hasn't done enough to justify that reaction, and I ended up unable to either like or hate them.

Carol Emshwiller is a name that cropped up a lot when I was reading through the SciFiction archives earlier this winter (1,2,3,4,5,6), and I very quickly learned to avoid her stories. There's no question that she's a fine and intelligent writer, but she doesn't seem to be the writer for me (I have a similar problem with Ursula K. Le Guin). Invariably, I find her stories overwrought, and occasionally, overwritten. I usually don't have a problem with fantastic fiction in which surreal events and situations are dropped into the real world with no explanation and minimal description, leaving room for the characters to shine, but when Emshwiller does it I am always annoyed. Such is the case with "I Live With You", in which the narrator, who may or may not be a ghost but describes herself as an invisible person, at first haunts and then begins to alter the life of a similarly bland and unnoticed woman. From moving furniture and finishing the butter in the refrigerator, the narrator soon graduates to buying her host new clothes and trying to set her up with a lonely neighbor. Emshwiller uses the SF-nal trope of invisibility to talk about grey people who live lonely lives (which, in itself, strikes me as a slightly melodramatic trope), but while I can recognize her characters as real people, I can't care about them. They remain, throughout the story, as alien to me as Emshwiller's fantastic premise, with the result that I have nothing to hold on to in the story and nothing to invest my emotions in.

Anne Harris' "Still Life With Boobs" opens with what is probably one of the most amusing sentences I've ever read--"She could no longer ignore the fact that her breasts were going out at night without her"--and then delves even further into the absurd and the outright hilarious--"An assemblage of fruit; apples, pears, bananas and peaches, and among them two round, disembodied breasts, almost indistinguishable from the fruit until you looked at it a while. And then you began to wonder about that banana." Gwen, the story's protagonist, is stuck in a mind-numbing job, longing for her exciting and artistic ex-boyfriend, and oh yes, at night her breasts go out and have fun without her. Like Wentworth, Harris milks her absurd premise for all that it's worth, and unlike him/her, she manages to sustain that absurdity all the to the story's end. The result is amusing and at times laugh-out-loud funny, but I can't help but wish it had been more. There are hints throughout the story of the more disturbing, horrifying piece it might have been, and although I don't wish to criticize an author for not writing the story that I wanted to read, I can't help but be disappointed that instead of exploring the disturbing aspects of her premise, Harris chose to tell what is essentially a chick-lit story, complete with an arrogant boss, a nagging mother and a best friend who complains that the protagonist "[has] to get out of this rut". I would have liked to see Harris darken her humor--I think that this clever but ultimately forgettable piece could have been something very special.

I missed Richard Bowes' "There's a Hole in the City" when I made my exhaustive review of the SciFiction archives. With so many stories to read, I was ruthless in my selection process--if a piece didn't grab me within a few paragraphs, I dropped it. I'm glad that this review gave me a reason to read Bowes' piece, as it improves considerably after a slow start and is in fact a thoughtful and touching story. In the days following the World Trade Center attack, the narrator and his friend Mags wander the city and talk about old times. Aging hippies who have lived in Grenwich Village since before it was the cool place to be, they express their communal grief through an ancient, personal one--for the narrator, the memory of Geoff, an old friend who didn't make it through the years of drugs and hard living; for Mags, the ghosts of New York's victims, women who died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and children who drowned on a steamship, drawn back to the world of the living through the hole torn by the towers' collapse. Bowes' characters accumulate ghosts, and through the apparitions of these ghosts he describes New York (or any other human settlement, really) as a place in which the living share space with the uncountable, melancholy dead. Melancholy is a good word to describe the entire story, in fact, including a sub-plot about a young student whom the narrator takes under his wing and whose social circle mirrors the one disrupted by Geoff's death. Unfortunately, by its very nature melancholy isn't an emotion that can build to crescendo, and neither does "A Hole in the City". Bowes manages to sustain the story's emotional tone, but, however well-written, it doesn't amount to more than a mood piece.

Dale Bailey's "The End of the World As We Know It" is, unsurprisingly, a story about the end of the world. It is also, more surprisingly, a story about stories about the end of the word--I caught references to The Stand, On the Beach, The Postman, and Left Behind, not to mention plenty of real-world disasters--and about what the end of the world means for each of us. It's clever, and it's moving, which as far as I'm concerned is the ideal form of short genre fiction. Interspersed with the author's own thoughts about the end of the world and end-of-the-world fiction is the story of Wyndham, one survivor after what is actually, no kidding this time, the end of the world. Everyone is dead but him. He doesn't know why and he's not going to find out, and his reaction is as human and as heartbreaking as you might expect. Bailey manages a delicate balancing act between the tragedy of Wyndham's story and the narrator's jokey asides ("Here's one of my favorite end-of-the-world scenarios by the way: Carnivorous plants.") by ensuring that his narrative doesn't become inured to the horrors it describes on one hand, and doesn't succumb to sentimentality on the other--there's humor in Wyndham's story, albeit a dark kind that doesn't make you laugh, and a genuine sense of tragedy when Bailey recalls the destruction of Pompeii or (again) the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It's a highly skilled and impressive display of talent, and precisely what I look for when I read short stories in any genre--a demonstration of the author's ability to control their medium and work well within its constraints.

Bailey's piece is my choice for the Nebula (although I wouldn't be crushed if Bowes got it). By all rights, however, Margo Lanagan has this award cinched. I've heard nothing but good things about "Singing My Sister Down", and the excerpt on Amazon (the Look Inside feature lets you read the story's first half) is quite intriguing although not, to make a completely unfair determination, enough to tempt me away from Bailey. I'm not sure, however, that this shortlist indicates a step in the right direction--its overall mediocrity on the one hand and the nominated authors' apparent inability to create a complete world on a small canvas on the other give me very little hope for the future of this literary form.

UPDATE: What did I say? Here is information on how to read "Singing My Sister Down" online (thank you, Chance), and it is, I have to admit, quite as good as the press made it out to be. The story, as I suspect everyone knows by now, is about a family trying to make their daughter and sister's last hours, as she is executed by a slow descent into tar, as memorable and pleasant as possible. Lanagan keeps such a careful control of her story--this is a premise that so easily could have descended into melodrama, but Lanagan makes the readers feel the horror of the situation, the family's grief, and the sister's fear without overindulging in sentiment. It's a harrowing piece and, yes, better than Bailey's. I'd be shocked if it didn't win the Nebula.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The 2005 Nebula Award: The Novelette Shortlist

This is the first in a projected series of posts discussing the various categories on the 2005 Nebula final ballot (here, and here's the preliminary ballot if you'd like to make a comparison). By all rights, I should be starting with the short story shortlist, but I've yet to locate an online copy of Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" (I would appreciate any pointers AtWQ readers could give me in that regard). I should also point out that it may be a while before I can get to the novella category, the next few days being somewhat full of real life matters.

While hardly a travesty, this year's novelette ballot is a great deal weaker than the corresponding Hugo ballot, to the point that the weakest story on the Hugo ballot is actually somewhere near the middle of the range, quality-wise, of the Nebula list. Ideally, with so much good short fiction being published, an award ballot should feature no extraneous pieces, but there are at least two on the Nebula ballot that I could take or leave, and I'm frankly baffled by the absence of Christopher Rowe's "The Voluntary State" (although I suppose it's possible that Rowe's story falls out of the confusingly defined eligibility period).

Eileen Gunn and Lesley What's "Nirvana High" is a story that I read early last year when a friend lent me Gunn's collection, Stable Strategies and Other Stories. I think it probably says something about the piece's quality that, for the life of me, I couldn't remember a single detail about it and had to track down an online copy. The story centers on Barbara, a special ed student at Kurt Cobain High (a common catchphrase of both teachers and students: "Entertain us!"). Barbara's specialness manifests itself in an ability to see the future, and her fellow "speshes" can read minds and manipulate people to their will, which as one might imagine makes for a unique classroom experience. Over the course of the day described in the story, Barbara loses her favorite teacher (in an accident which she predicts but is unable to prevent), falls in love with a cute new student, and effects a subtle but profound change in the social dynamics of her homeroom class. Nothing, in other words, particularly unusual if you ignore the people walking on the ceiling and the substitute teacher who channels the dead. Sadly, these details are very easy to ignore. The ordinariness of Barbara's problems overwhelms the extraordinariness of their setting. Call me mean and say that I've lost touch with my youth if you like, but I have no interest in the tedious problems of a troubled teenager, and Gunn doesn't manage to force me into caring. "Nirvana High" is essentially plotless--just a day in Barbara's life, and that life didn't manage to hold my interest.

"Men are Trouble", by James Patrick Kelly, is another entry in the 'Marlowe-esque PI story with a futuristic twist' sub-genre that seems to crop up so often in science fiction. Kelly does an excellent job of recreating the hardboiled detective's voice and the details of their existence, and his twist is, if not particularly original, at least similarly well-crafted. His hardboiled detective is a woman, Fay Hardaway, which is hardly shocking because all of the people in Fay's world are women--several decades ago, before Fay's birth, a race of visiting aliens whisked all human men away. Through Fay's investigations into a young woman's disappearance, we gain insight into the shape of this new world--women impregnated without their knowledge or consent by their alien masters; robots who take over menial labor, and later more sophisticated work, until the remaining humans come to feel pointless and out of place; a rampant suicide sub-culture; older women, nicknamed 'grannies', who still remember a world with men in it, and the difficulty that women like Fay have understanding their grief and fear. Perhaps wisely, Kelly chooses to ignore blatantly feminist issues--this is a story about people, who just happen be all of the same gender. What point is there, after all, in discussing issues of gender relations or feminism when there is only one gender left? Kelly describes a wide and multi-layered world, and Fay is an insightful, observant guide. Unfortunately, this tour through a future existence is all that the story amounts to. Fay guides us through her world, but her investigations of it yield very little that's new to her. She achieves no revelations, and the mystery that drives the story has an unsatisfying and ultimately pointless solution. It seems that Kelly chose the detective format for purely aesthetic reasons, and possibly as a neat exercise in writing a Marlowe-ish character who gets her nails done, but to my mind this is doing a disservice to the readers. There are certain expectations that arise in the readers when they recognize the setting of Fay's story, and Kelly disappoints those expectations without offering much of value in return.

Paolo Bacigalupi's "The People of Sand and Slag" is a story I would have knocked off this summer's Hugo ballot. It works better in the weaker Nebula ballot, but I still worry that it's too gimmicky to truly deserve both nominations. Bacigalupi's story discusses weakness, and what happens to human beings when they become incapable of it. Jaak, Lisa, and Chen have been physically and biologically enhanced to the point of near-invincibility. They can regrow detached limbs, are impervious to disease, and feed off mud and sand. In a blasted and possibly post-apocalyptic future, they are employed as low-level grunts, guarding the perimeter fence of a mining operation and entertaining themselves with violent video games and equally violent games with one another. Bacigalupi draws a fascinating portrait of individuals who have moved so far beyond vulnerability that they can't even imagine it--towards the end of the story, Chen hacks off Lisa's limbs as a sexual game of trust. Without the capacity for weakness, the capacity for empathy and sympathy atrophies, as we discover when the trio are confronted with a truly helpless creature--a dog. Equally fascinated and disgusted by the dog's weakness, the three young people uneasily make it their pet. They are baffled by its constant needs--to be fed, to be cleaned after, to be protected--and only vaguely touched by its attachment to them. The ending isn't hard to guess, and it's that ending--or perhaps even the entire dog plot--that turns me off the story. There's something manipulative about Bacigalupi's use of the animal--this helpless, loving creature--to appeal to our sympathy. To his credit, Bacigalupi keeps the sentimentality of his premise largely in check--this isn't a cute animal story--but I can't help but wish that he had found some other way to contrast the new humans' invincibility with our own vulnerability, and to draw attention to their innate cruelty.

"The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link has already won the Hugo award. It's an excellent story, and in contrast to Gunn and What's entry it makes good use of the teenage voice, giving us a narrator who is believably young but not completely alien in her self-absorption and disaffection. Genevieve is looking for her grandmother's handbag, and her not-quite-boyfriend. The latter is inside the former, and so is the village of Baldeziwurlekistan, the birthplace of Genevieve's grandmother which was hidden away from a raiding party. Link's stories are often written in a matter-of-fact voice that makes even the most egregious events in them seem factual, and in "The Faery Handbag" she laces that voice with a jokiness that makes the entire story seem like an inscrutable cross between fairy tale and fact. Underlying Genevieve's childish voice is the voice of her grandmother, who may be telling a child a fantastic story, and may be reporting the stone cold truth--after all, the true magic of a fairy tale lies in the inability to tell the difference. "The Faery Handbag" is also a love story, and a story about dealing with the loss of a loved one--whether through death, abandonment, or leaping into a handbag. It deserved the Hugo (although I would have chosen "The Voluntary State") and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it wins the Nebula, but it also isn't nearly as difficult and as complex as most of Link's stories (which makes a certain amount of sense as it was written for a YA anthology). I can't quite decide whether I should be disappointed by the fact that Link is being rewarded for toning down her innate weirdness (which, and I can't stress this strongly enough, is not to say that the story is dumbed-down. This is a very smart piece).

Daniel Abraham's "Flat Diane" is a quiet piece that insinuates itself into the reader's thoughts--the best kind of horror story. Newly single father Ian is trying to reassure his young daughter Diane that the world is full of people who love her and wish her well. Together, they trace Diane's outline onto a piece of paper, which they christen Flat Diane, and send it out to Ian's family and friends. When photographs of Flat Diane on her travels begin to appear in the mail, the real girl's behavior begins to change. She begins fighting and lashing out at friends and family. She reports events she couldn't possibly have witnessed. When Flat Diane moves away from the circle of the family and falls into the hands of strangers, Diane begins exhibiting the symptoms of serious trauma. Ian is desperate to believe that he can protect Diane from the world, and "Flat Diane" takes this quotidian and familiar human situation--a father's terror and despair at his inability to maintain an imaginary perfection in his child's life--and laces it with the supernatural. To protect Diane, Ian must retrieve her counterpart, the piece of her soul that he has thoughtlessly cast out into the world where, as he really ought to have known, there are plenty of people who don't love her and don't wish her well. Abraham's story ends on an ambiguous note. Ian protects his daughter for the moment, but both he and she come to realize how fundamentally unsafe they are, and how little protection they can offer each other. It's a harrowing piece with almost no missteps (my only complaint is that Diane's mother is painted as a ghoulish person who genuinely doesn't understand how damaging her absence is to her young daughter).

I'd be very pleased to see either "The Faery Handbag" or "Flat Diane" take the Nebula, although I lean towards the latter. As I said, this is a weak shortlist--at least two stories that blatantly don't deserve the award and another one that I'm ambiguous about--but Link and Abraham's stories are very strong, and I think they'd both have a chance of carrying the day in a much stronger ballot.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Self-Promotion 5

Hebrew readers can now find my article Dogme 2005: Geoff Ryman and the Mundane SF Manifesto, originally published in The Tenth Dimension, online at the ISFFA website.

If you're coming here from there, welcome. The 'Posts of Note' section to the right contains some good places to start if you want to look around some more.

And also, as per the previous post, go buy Little, Big.

Attention Hebrew Readers: You Now Have No Excuse

Spotted at the Dizzengoff 101 Steimatzki's: Odyssey Publication's Hebrew translation of Little, Big, with, admittedly, a front cover so ugly that it even makes my Fantasy Masterworks edition look good by comparison. But it's the inside that counts, and a brief examination yielded no translation malfunctions.

So, if you're Israeli and prefer reading fiction in Hebrew, or if you have friends who read exclusively in Hebrew, get thee (and them) to a bookstore and spread the word. This is one of the finest, loveliest, most haunting novels I've ever read, especially if you're interested in unconventional fantasy.

Oh, and ISFFA members: this year's Geffen award is taken. I just wanted to be clear on that point.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 4

Look! Little rectangular things with printed paper inside! How novel!

I've been in something of a reading slump lately, which is expressed not simply by the fact that I'm reading less (and I am--11 books since the beginning of the year, as opposed to nearly 20 in the same period last year) but that I have less to say about the books that I do read. Hence the recent proliferation of film- and TV-related posts. In the interest of pretending that this is still something like a lit-blog, therefore, here's another roundup, and hopefully I'll have something more substantial to write about in the near future
  1. Viriconium by M. John Harrison

    Before I start talking about the book itself (or, more accurately, about the omnibus itself, which collects three short novels and a short story collection, published between 1971 and 1985) I just want to take a minute to be awed by the book as an object--gorgeous, embossed cover; french flaps; rough-cut pages--I wish I'd been a little happier with the interior. I seem to be moving backwards in time through Harrison's bibliography, and although there are indications in the Viriconium cycle of the themes that would occupy Harrison throughout his career--a genteel, unassuming, what's-it-all-about-really sort of nihilism, a disappointment with both quotidian reality and any attempt at breaking away from it--they are neither as well-developed nor as concise as they would come to be. Similarly, Harrison's prose has yet to develop the precision that allows him, in his more mature incarnation, to convey emotion, action, and atmosphere is a single brief and beautiful sentence. Viriconium the city, the hub of a post-apocalyptice empire ruled by half-mad monarchs and starkly divided between its Upper and Lower halves (where the nobility and the criminals, respectively, live and love), doesn't quite have the taste of reality to it--it feels like a metaphor, or a clever literary construct, rather than a real place. I probably liked the first Viriconium novel, The Pastel City, best, as it is a rather traditional story--an old knight is recruited by a young queen in peril--told with a typical Harrison-ian contravention of stereotypes. At the same time, however, I know that Harrison has gone on to do a better job of twisting and contorting fantasy clichés--to the point where he leaves the familiar tropes of fantasy behind while still skewering the genre's basic assumptions (not to mention that, in recent years in particular, there have been better examples than The Pastel City of the epic fantasy story retold in a sophisticated, thoughtful manner). I didn't care for the second novel, A Storm of Wings, and the third, In Viriconium, had an interesting premise but didn't quite gel (although I have to admit that I begin to appreciate the piece a bit more now that I've gained some distance from it). The short stories, with the possible exception of "A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium", didn't impress me, and even that story is overshadowed by Harrison's later novel, The Course of the Heart, which takes a grander and more sophisticated approach to the same theme. This is not to say that I'm discouraged in my journey through Harrison's back-catalog, but I think I'll avoid his earlier pieces and start moving forwards in time--maybe Climbers or the short story collections.

  2. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

    The only Jackson I'd read before this collection was The Haunting of Hill House, which left me cold--neither scary nor interesting. Given that novel's premise, however, I was expecting the stories in The Lottery to be concerned with horror and the supernatural, and it was with great surprise that I discovered what is essentially the feminine equivalent of John Cheever. Admittedly, instances of the supernatural or the horrifying crop up in some of the pieces, but they are often so subtle as to barely register, and what's left is suburban ennui and hard-working career girls wondering where their glory days went. There are some real gems here: "After You, My Dear Alphonse", in which a well-meaning housewife is skewered for her thoughtless racism; "Flower Garden", in which the inhabitants of a small town first embrace and then conspire to destroy an outsider who questions their codified social structure; "The Tooth", in which a woman loses herself, and perhaps gains something better, on her way to the dentist. Other stories are not much more than vignettes, explorations of the way in which a conformist, appearance-conscious society can grind an individual--women especially--down, although Jackson's crisp prose and cutting social observations often save even a plotless piece from irrelevance. Sadly, the infamous "Lottery" was a bit of a dud, largely because much like, I suspect, everyone else on the planet, I already knew what the twist was. Overall, a worthy collection, but like The Stories of John Cheever, which I read a few months ago, it suffers rather than benefits from its comprehensiveness.

  3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

    Finally, a novel that marries Jackson's sharp prose with a suitably eerie premise. Two sisters, Constance and Mary-Katherine, live with their invalid uncle in the house where, six years ago, their entire family died after sprinkling their blueberries with arsenic-laced sugar. The local villagers, taking a great deal of pleasure in dragging down a once-prominent family, believe the sisters to be murderers and torment them mercilessly, but the makeshift family finds pleasure in its solitude--until, that is, a long-lost cousin appears and upsets their careful routine. The identity of the murderer is sadly obvious about twenty pages into the book, but Castle also acts as a searching examination of how the individual defines normality and the many forms that that definition can take. Constance sublimates herself to the service of her sister and uncle. Mary-Katherine attempts to regulate her life through a series of invented rituals and sacrifices. Uncle Julian obsesses over every detail of his family's tragic death. Cousin Charles, the alleged representative of normal society, is scandalized by the sisters' ungoverned existence, and especially by their inattention to financial matters and to their own wealth. He attempts to dominate Constance and Mary-Katherine with his version of correct behavior, but finds it, and himself, overwhelmed by their unwillingness to conform. The local villagers, meanwhile, use the sisters as both talismans and scapegoats, underlying their rational existence with their own invented rituals and sacrifices. The issues of conformity to social expectations and the darkness that underlies polite society were clearly important to Jackson, and Castle is a brilliant exploration of both.

  4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

    I read very, very little non-fiction--I wouldn't be surprised if I didn't read another non-fiction book this year--and what little of it I do read tends to be essay collections, not reimaginings of gruesome true crimes. Perhaps because of this, and perhaps because of the recent scandals about truth in non-fiction, I had a great deal of trouble dealing with Capote's fictionalization of the events he describes. There's constantly an awareness in the book of Capote standing between me and the people he's writing about (and the fact that I had already heard quite a bit about the book's writing, and about Capote's alleged fascination with Perry Smith, was certainly a factor in my reactions here), but even more importantly, there's the knowledge of how well-intentioned, generally truthful people would be inclined to twist the truth in this case. Should I believe that Herb Clutter and his family were really the paragons that Capote describes? And does it even matter what kind of people they were, given that even horrible people wouldn't have deserved the Clutters' cruel fate? How accurate is Capote's psychological portrait of Perry Smith, and why does he seem so uninterested, dismissive even, of Dick Hickock? I found myself unable to read In Cold Blood as either a true historical account or a novelization of a true event, which made for an unsettling reading experience. On those occasions, however, in which I managed to shut down my questioning internal voice, I was able to appreciate that In Cold Blood is beautifully and compellingly written, and that although it can't answer the question that must plague every single person involved with the case--why were these senseless, almost motiveless murders committed?--it addresses it with intelligence and insight.

  5. The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

    My first Hardy (supposedly the one to start with--the least complicated and trying), which has left me uncertain about continuing with him. It is, of course, a beautifully written book with an interesting, topsy-turvy plot (I think this is the very first time that I've been surprised by a plot twist in a Victorian novel), but some aspects of it disturb me. Hardy does an excellent job with the main character, Michael Henchard, who is a tragic hero in the classical sense--he is clearly the author of his own misfortunes, and his attempts to make amends and turn away from immorality are constantly undermined by the deep-seated flaws in his character. The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the secondary characters--Michael's former mistress, a caricature of the fallen woman who dies for her sins, and the ever-so-perfect Elizabeth-Jane and Donald Farfrae. Casterbridge was also intended as a portrait of an English farming town, and as such I couldn't help but compare it to George Eliot's superior attempt at the same concept, Middlemarch. Eliot's novel moves effortlessly between the personal and the communal, and stresses the effect that the one has on the other. Hardy's communal portrait, in contrast, often veers towards the vulgar and the cartoonish, especially in his depiction of Casterbridge's lower-class citizens (although there is an interesting yet understated sub-plot in which these simple people take great pleasure in following the rising fortunes of the town's gentry, and later, an even greater pleasure in tearing them down when they are no longer scrappy underdogs). Hardy's narrative transitions clumsily between delicate character work, tedious historical lectures, and bits of local color which are obviously intended to amuse but, to a modern reader, are painfully condescending. Despite these reservations, there's clearly a great deal to think about and consider in The Mayor of Casterbridge. I'm still trying to puzzle out the various fake relationships in the novel--fake wives, fake husbands, fake fathers and daughters--and the way they parallel each other, and there's no question that Henchard himself is a fascinating, contradictory person. I suspect I will end up reading more of Hardy, although possibly not in the immediate future.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Granted, I Haven't Made an Exhaustive Review...

...but how is it possible that of the half-dozen "The Captain's Hand" reviews that I've read, only one acknowledges the inherent absurdity of Roslin's abortion dilemma?

First of all, unless the survivors in the fleet were mostly retrieved from retirement cruises, there is simply no way that 50,000 people don't make a self-sustaining community. Secondly, as history has shown us again and again, the natural human reaction to disasters, wars, and massive die-offs is to make babies. There should be--no, there are--dozens of seven-month pregnant women in the fleet. Which, and I feel a little embarrassed mentioning this since the writers only trot this issue out when it suits them, is actually a problem, since it's not as if there's going to be anything to feed these new sprogs, who will monopolize supplies, and the work force of at least one caretaker, without contributing anything to the fleet for years.

But most importantly, and this is something that Roslin as a woman (not to mention a woman who supposedly fought her entire career for a woman's right to choose) should know, abortion has existed for as long as women have been getting pregnant. For most of that time, it has been illegal. This fact has never stopped women from seeking and obtaining it, but it did mean that the women who underwent abortions did so in back alleys and frequently bled to death or were rendered infertile as a result of the procedure. Far from ensuring that its population increases, Roslin's ban will almost certainly work to decrease the number of fertile women in the fleet.

So, sorry, writers. I know you thought you could trot out this hot-button topic and get us all in a quandry over the fact that our current political leanings may not apply in a post-apocalyptic situation, but the reality of your setting doesn't actually support your invented dilemma. Which, granted, doesn't seem to be something you get too worked up about in general.

I could go on about how the episode was thoroughly predictable and how there really is no excuse for cramming deleted scenes in the previously when previous episodes have made such poor use of their running time, but I think my opinion can be summed up rather succinctly with this:

Two for seven, guys. Get your asses in gear.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Everything's Already Been Said About the Movie, Pride and Prejudice Edition

In particular, buckets of ink, virtual and otherwise, have already been spilled about the Bronte-fication of the story (and since I've recently been profoundly unfair to male film reviewers, I'll just point out that Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker is the definitive version of this argument), and about the poppycock that is the film's alleged 'gritty realism' (said realism, I noticed, didn't quite extend to the scene in which Elizabeth arrives in Netherfield after walking there. Keira Knightley looks as dewy and fresh as if she'd just walked out of the hair and make-up trailer, and the camera doesn't even bother to show us the infamous six inches of mud on the hem of her dress).

But I'll start with the good, which is that the minor characters are almost uniformly a delight. One of the problems with the BBC miniseries (and yes, I'll be comparing the film to the Ehle/Firth version as often as I compare it to the book. Deal with it) is its reliance on shrill caricature--it's a rare viewer who can stomach Alison Steadman's turn as Mrs. Bennett for extended periods of time. Wright's P&P tones down Mrs. Bennett's cartoonishness, but more importantly, it does a better job with the three younger Bennett sisters. I don't think I realized how much I dislike Julia Sawalha's version of Lydia before I saw Jena Malone's effortless performance. Malone, who takes to the role of 18th century English flirt as if she hadn't made a career of playing slightly disturbing middle-American girl-next-door types, probably makes Lydia a bit more sympathetic than she ought to be, but at the same time her performance is girlish enough to remind us of the character's very real limitations (and of Wickham's odiousness in taking advantage of her), while her behavior when she returns to Longbourn has just the right amount of vinegar to it.

Similarly, I enjoyed Wright and Moggach's take on Mr. Collins, who is both less ridiculous than David Bamber's Collins and quite a bit more disturbing--there's an unthinking imperiousness to the character, particularly in his way of ordering Charlotte around, that suggests an extra dimension of hell in her married life. Penelope Wilton, AKA Harriet Jones, PM, is so thoroughly right as Mrs. Gardiner that I don't think I'll ever be able to stand anyone else in the role. But the real revelation, of course, is Talulah Riley as Mary Bennett, who in Wright's version of the story is transformed from a spinsterish egghead type to a heartbreakingly awkward geek. She tugs at the heartstrings of any of us who have hugged the wall at a party, not knowing how to join in the fun but desperately wanting to. It's a tiny part, but Riley quickly comes to dominate the film--our eye is drawn to her when she appears on screen, and we keep hoping for more insight into this sad young girl's heart.

What a pity, then, than none of the main characters have been treated with this kind of delicacy. I can't think of a single one who hasn't been poorly cast, written, and directed. Bingley as an idiot. Wickham as a thoroughly charmless fop. Lady Catherine as a creepy mafia don type instead of a thoroughly spoiled, and ridiculous, woman (it shouldn't be humanly possible to utter the line "If I had ever learnt, I should have been great proficient", and not bring down the house, but Judy Dench manages it. The scene in which Elizabeth tells Darcy and the Gardiners about Lydia's elopement, on the other hand, had me in stitches).

It certainly doesn't help that the adaptation butchers Austen's dialogue, so that the narrative moves forward in fits and starts that aren't justified by anything the characters have said to one another. Frankly, it put me in mind of the most recent Harry Potter film, which kept trying to hit all the salient plot points without justifying the transition from one to the next. Since feature-length adaptations like Thompson and Lee's Sense and Sensibility and the Root/Hinds Persuasion have previously managed to squeeze Austen's plots into less than two hours and still maintain their narrative flow, I don't think it's at all acceptable to use the film's limited running time to excuse its frenetic pacing, and I genuinely don't understand why Moggach couldn't create an equally coherent narrative.

It's already been said that Wright's version reduces the film to its basic romance plot, casting off Austen's wit, her social and moral commentary, and her delicate character development (there is absolutely no indication that Darcy changes during the film's course, or that he learns anything from Elizabeth's rejection of him. His crime and Lizzy's are simply that they have been fools in not recognizing that they love each other), but I hadn't realized just how thoroughly he eschews period manners, and how desperately they are needed in order for the story to make sense. Austen may have mocked her society's manners, but they were also vital to her understanding of human relations. Manners were the signposts by which society navigated itself, and Wright and Moggach do away with them entirely. Sure, the ladies and gentlemen bob up and down like rubber ducks in a bathtub whenever they run into each other, but the more subtle forms of propriety and decorum are nowhere to be seen. In the macro level, this justifies such absurdities as Darcy and Lady Catherine intruding on people in the middle of the night, and strange men being in the presence of unmarried women who are, by their own standards, completely undressed. On a more subtle level, however, it leeches the story of nuance.

Knightley and Macfayden are to be blamed here as well. When Ehle and Firth are on screen together, the air between them crackles. Prevented by the proper forms of etiquette from saying what they really think of each other, they let their eyes, their facial expressions, and their silences do the talking. They speak volumes with an arched eyebrow or a subtle smile, both of them brimming with intelligence and intensity. Knightley and Macfayden have had all that subtlety and nuance brought up to the surface, and yet (or possibly, therefore) they can't seem to manage a sliver of Ehle and Firth's passion. Their Elizabeth and Darcy are blanks, who are attracted to one another because the narrative tells us so. There's no hint of chemistry or attraction between them, nor any indication of the ways in which these two people challenge and complete each other. Beyond the standard conventions of the romantic comedy, we have no true understanding of why these two people initially dislike each other, and why they come to love each other so intensely.

When I catch an airing of the Ehle/Firth P&P, or even a very brief glimpse of it, I am invariably seized by the urge to take down the book and reread it. Wright's version didn't make me want to do that at all, so little did it recall that well-loved book. I don't honestly have a problem with a director and a screenwriter who take a written source and put their own spin on it--I think my reaction to Peter Jackson's variant on The Lord of the Rings speaks to the truth of that statement--but at no point during my viewing of Wright's Pride and Prejudice did I gain an inkling of what Wright and Moggach's spin on the novel might be. What kind of story were they trying to tell, beyond a paint-by-numbers romance that's been done, and done better, a thousand times before? Wright's film isn't Pride and Prejudice, but neither is it anything else.

Monday, February 13, 2006

That Other High Concept Detective Drama With Mars in the Title

The BBC's new Life on Mars has been making the rounds in my corner of the blogosphere/LJ (check out Martin Lewis' write-up at Strange Horizons, and these discussions of a viewer's reverse culture shock and possible directions for the second season), and on the strength of so many positive voices I decided to give it a look. I've watched the first five episodes (out of eight--this is British television, remember), with the sixth airing tonight. The show's premise is that a modern Manchester police detective named Sam Tyler wakes up after a car accident and finds himself in 1973, still named Sam Tyler and still a policeman. Formerly a Detective Chief Inspector with his own department, Sam is now a Detective Inspector under the thumb of DCI Gene Hunt--as Lewis describes him, "an unreconstructed Northerner and dinosaur copper who has not yet been usurped by nimbler mammals like Tyler". Hunt is perfectly comfortable beating up suspects, planting incriminating evidence, and treating everyone who doesn't conform to his rigid standards of behavior (including reluctant and frightened witnesses) as if they were criminals. His approach to crime-solving is to follow his instincts (the first person to speak in a crowd of witnesses is the murderer is one of his more memorable rules of thumb), and he is both baffled and frustrated by Sam's insistence on proper protocol and his reliance on forensic evidence.

Cute and intriguing as it can sometimes be, Mars' storytelling often leans towards the predictable and the simplistic, with happy endings that are often unearned or unrealistic (Sam and Gene arrest a prominent mobster, but the narrative cuts away before he can call his bought political cronies or have the sole witness against him silenced). As detective shows go, Mars is very nearly a dinosaur itself--the unlikely pairing premise that was already getting stale around the time of the show's setting. It's John Simm's turn as Tyler that first clues us in to Mars' unsuspected depths. He brings an unusual energy to his portrayal of Sam, a man neither as naive as he is perceived nor as weathered as he would like to believe. Simm's performance combines intelligence and passion, and he does an excellent job of letting us see both the wheels turning in Sam's head and the juices boiling in his stomach. Mars' writers deserve praise here as well. Sam is a character who could very easily have been reduced to a stereotype--the unintuitive egghead who needs to be taught about old-fashioned policing; the emotionally connected 21st century man out of place in a time in which he's expected to be stoic and nonchalant; the bleeding-heart liberal brought face-to-face with the brutality of police corruption. To their credit, the writers never simplify Sam. There's an uncompromising toughness to the character that constantly confounds our (and Gene's) expectations of him. In spite of a few glitches--mostly the writers making Sam stupid and naive in order to further the plot--there is a believable human being at Mars' core, and he lends his depth to the entire show.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said of the contemporary characters, very few of whom achieve even a second dimension. That the secondary characters--DC Chris Skelton, a well meaning simpleton; DC Ray Carling, Sam's alleged but ultimately powerless nemesis within the force; WPC Annie Cartwright, the obligatory love interest--are one-note is bad enough, but as Sam's primary antagonist-cum-ally, Gene Hunt has failed to achieve the kind of complexity required to truly make Mars a worthy meditation on the nature of police work. Philip Glenister brings an appealing clownishness to his portrayal of Gene, and it's largely his doing that Gene is as likable as he is (a likability that is often unearned--I shouldn't like a person who makes fun of the disabled and accosts a female witness with crude jokes about her breasts, not to mention a man who is as casually and brutally violent as Gene is), but the writers have failed to give him Sam's extra dimensions. Partly, I suspect, this is due to the character's mandate--Gene may very well not be a complicated person. He has rigid notions of right and wrong, and equally rigid notions of how people should behave (men should be powerful, brave, capable of throwing and taking a punch, interested in sports, cards and drinking; women should be pretty and accommodating; everyone should be respectful of policemen). But when the writers give us a character who first characterizes himself as a 'deputy to the law' and then proposes railroading a suspect and taking bribes from a mobster (because he 'keeps his streets clean'), they should give some thought to tying these inconsistencies together into a coherent character.

Of course, the fact that the contemporary characters are relatively flat makes some amount of sense when we remember the more outlandish aspects of Mars' premise. Underlying the predictable detective drama is an eerie genre mystery--what has happened to Sam? Is he, as the opening voice-over puts it, insane, or in a coma, or traveling through time? Is he back in 1973 for a reason? Mars' writers do an excellent job of juxtaposing the familiar and the unfamiliar, in essence putting us inside Sam's head. Not only do we experience Sam's culture shock at being transposed to a completely different era (and this might be a good place to offer some well-deserved kudos to the show's production staff and their excellent set and prop work), but along with him, we also hear sounds that seem to be coming from a hospital room, have strange dreams (poor Sam hasn't had a decent night's sleep since his accident), hear voices coming from the television set, and are visited by a deeply frightening little girl who wants Sam to lie down and die. Mars' early episodes did a good job of marrying reality and fantasy--in the second episode, Sam is visiting a hospital room when all of sudden, the lights around him go out and he is trapped in the room as his nurses complain that his life support equipment has shorted out--without committing to any single solution. Recently, however, both the eeriness and the constant questioning have been toned down. Sam seems more comfortable in his new surroundings, less eager to leave, and the writers have taken to using the show's supernatural elements as a shortcut to character exploration. In episode four, Sam's dreams lead him to his mother; in episode five, the little girl's taunting has more to do with Sam's troubled relationship with his (apparently absent) father.

The previews for tonight's episode suggest a return to the show's central mystery--a hostage crisis parallels the upcoming shut-off of Sam's life support--but I'm still worried by the Mars writers' treatment of their show's genre elements. Is Life on Mars a detective series with a vaguely SF-nal premise, or a genre show that tells detective stories? I'm not asking this question simply out of idle definitional curiosity, but because I'm genuinely concerned about the show's direction. I've seen too many alleged genre shows (Early Edition and Joan of Arcadia come to mind, but there are many others) that used a fantastic premise as a jumping-off point but never bothered to logically explain or explore that premise in a way that wasn't desultory and unsatisfying. I've yet to be convinced that Life on Mars' writers are genuinely interested in solving or expanding their mystery or in creating a coherent alternate universe, and until I am convinced of this I'll have trouble giving the show my heart.

It certainly doesn't help that, of the proposed solutions to Sam's predicament, there isn't a single one that is both satisfying and logical. I think it's safe to assume that Sam isn't crazy--it would be very strange and quite a bit more adventurous than I think they're willing to be for the writers to reveal that their protagonist is a nutter (and that his madness perfectly mirrors our existence). The time travel solution, although compelling, doesn't hold water for the simple reason that if he is traveling in time, Sam has already cancelled out the circumstances of his accident--by capturing a murderer in 1973 and suppressing evidence of his insanity (thus sending him to prison instead of a mental hospital), Sam has negated the circumstances of his girlfriend's kidnapping, and it was his distress over that kidnapping that caused him to be hit by a car in the first place. The coma solution, which seems to be where the show is headed, makes the most sense but also cheapens the significance of everything that's happened in the show's run. The people Sam has been interacting with, whom he has come to care about, are figments of his imagination (which, admittedly, justifies the fact that they're rather flat characters). The good he's done by solving crimes and helping their victims doesn't matter. The jeopardy that he and the other characters are sometimes placed in is meaningless. Sam is, essentially, playing with himself, and although we could see his coma hallucination as a way for him to work out some of his own deep-seated issues, particularly about the kind of policeman he wants to be, the fact remains that as presented on the show, these dilemmas simply aren't sophisticated enough to excuse the fact that what's happening on the screen is just wankery.

With only three episodes left in the season, I'm hopeful that we'll see some resolution of the season's mystery (although a second season has already been ordered, which may make the writers reluctant to commit themselves to a solution). Certainly there's enough wit and intelligence in the show's writing to justify some cautious optimism, even from a jaded genre fan such as myself. I'll certainly be watching until the end of the season, and even if the ending turns Life on Mars into an Early Edition clone, I don't think I will have completely wasted my time with it. It's a fun and well-made show (not to mention a very funny one), and definitely worth a look.

The only downside is, now I've got that bloody David Bowie song stuck in my head.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

News From the Bizarro-verse and Other "Sacrifice" Thoughts

I didn't exactly plan to start a running Battlestar Galactica commentary, but I just had to sound off on this week's episode in order to share a scary statistic and an even scarier thought. The statistic is that thus far in its winter season, Galactica is two for six. Sure, "Resurrection Ship I" kicked off the season with a blast and last week's "Scar" was a brilliant mixture of character development and thrilling heroics, but in the interim, the writers have been feeding us a steady diet of mediocrity--The One Where, In Lieu of Plot, Here's Fifteen Cumulative Minutes of Jamie Bamber Shirtless; The One Where We Wave Our Hands and Roslin's Cancer Goes Away; The One Where, Instead of Using a Perfectly Good and Decently Foreshadowed Existential Crisis We Already Had Ready For Him, We Saddle Lee With Another Existential Crisis That We Pulled Out of Our Asses; and, of course, Friday's episode, The One Where the Only Person In the Fleet With More Than Two Brain Cells to Rub Together Ends Up Dead.

Seriously, has anyone sat down and worked out the sheer amount of dimness that was required to make "Sacrifice"'s plot work? First there's Sesha and her friends, who genuinely believe that they're going to get somewhere by taking people hostage and threatening to shoot them. Did they not have cop shows in the twelve colonies? Doesn't everyone with a halfway functional brain know how hostage situations play out? Those people were dead the minute they shot off their weapons, and it boggles the mind that they actually thought Adama would deal with them. The only question was how many of the hostages were going to end up in body bags. Then there's Starbuck, who has somehow forgotten that she's a pilot, not a marine, and doesn't have the expertise for armed combat outside of a cockpit (which, granted, raises the question of why she was put in charge of the assault team in "Bastille Day"). Ellen Tigh's stupidity in blowing Starbuck's cover is pretty much the reason that shooting breaks out (Starbuck may have been wrong to go into the room, but she was right to reach for her weapons once her cover was blown--she would have ended up dead or one of the hostages otherwise). And, of course, Adama and Sesha race each other to finish line to see which one of them can commit a greater act of idiocy--is it Sesha, who honestly needs to have it pointed out to her that the grey, frozen and slightly decomposing corpse of the first Boomer was not killed recently, or Adama, who pulls a switcheroo so obvious that a four year old would see through it and yet fails to demand a release of hostages before delivering the corpse, thus necessitating further gunplay (Roslin is right to blame Adama for Billy's death, but not because he wouldn't hand Sharon over but because he so thoroughly squandered this opportunity)?

Far more disturbing than the fact that they're borrowing tricks from the Stargate: Atlantis writing staff is the fact that, for all their talk about writing morally complex stories, Galactica's writers have consistently chosen, thus far in the winter season, to paint their characters' antagonists as one-note caricatures. The argument can be made that the fleet's bereaved civilians deserve justice, and that harboring a Cylon agent and lying to the fleet about it is a miscarriage of Adama and Roslin's responsibility to the civilian population. And since even Adama begins to suspect Sharon of manipulating and misleading him, Sesha's argument that Sharon needs to be killed in order to protect the fleet is clearly meant to have some merit to it. However, as presented in this episode, the woman is clearly deranged, and her motivation--grief over the death of her husband--is not only overstated but unappealing. As many commenters have already said, every single person in the fleet has lost someone, and the episode fails to make us feel for Sesha and her compatriots--the unfortunate flashbacks of Ray's death are simply overkill, and frankly do more to raise questions about the writers' priorities. They keep us completely in the dark about Dualla and Lee's burgeoning relationship, but they have time to repeat that ineffective flashback three or four times?

"Sacrifice" would have been a much stronger episode if we could have sympathized with Sesha or been swayed by her argument, but not since the death of Admiral Cain have Galactica's writers chosen to give us such a complicated villain. The pro-Cylon activists in "Epiphanies" are painted as deluded fools and terrorists, whose arguments are incoherent and under-explored. They are being duped by a Cylon agent, and their representative is a semi-psychotic who couldn't argue his way out of a paper bag and is playing the tired old 'we're the political arm' game that we all know is the universal identifier of someone who can't be trusted or reasoned with. The black marketeers, who characterize themselves as providing a necessary relief valve for the fleet, are actually nascent mobsters who steal medication, murder anyone who gets in their way, and, just in case we weren't sold on their evilness, run a child prostitution ring. There are arguments to be made for treating the Cylons like people and trying to reason with them. There are arguments to be made for allowing illegal trade in the fleet. None of these arguments are showing up on the screen, and the resulting stories are flat and simplistic.

If the hostage-takers are unappealing, the main characters barely even show up on the screen. Adama's lines seem to have been spliced together from snippets of previous episodes, and his interactions with Tigh and Sharon fizzle instead of crackling. Lee, who obviously wasn't going to die, doesn't have much to do beyond bleed, and although both Katee Sackhoff and Mary McDonnell hit the ball out of the park in, respectively, the scene in which Starbuck tells Adama about the botched reconnaissance mission and Roslin's breakdown in the morgue, they have little to do during most of the episode. The fact that the "Sacrifice" doesn't fail entirely can be directly attributed to Billy Keikeya, who in many ways is the episode's heart and soul. I understand that Paul Campbell's departure from the show was partly his own decision, as his relatively small role was keeping him from pursuing other work. It's the right decision for him and I wish him well in his career (and hell, if things don't work out, we can always discover that Billy was a Cylon), and there's no question that the character got a proper send-off.

In his last day of life, Billy is smart enough to realize that Roslin has to be honest with the fleet, and brave enough to say so to her and Adama's faces. He makes a bold move with Dee and, once he realizes how thoroughly he has misjudged her feelings for him, gives her a much-deserved dressing-down (I have no problem with the fact that Dee doesn't love Billy, but keeping him around as a fallback while she propositions Lee is tacky). In the bar, Billy is the only person who bothers to argue with the hostage-takers, and his response to their argument--"They're all good men"--is clear and precise. I don't believe that Billy's final act of courage was an attempt to be the soldier that, he thinks, Dualla desires, but a genuine expression of his willingness to stand up and fight. Billy took his vitamins the day he died and, although things didn't exactly work out for him, he spent that day being the best possible version of himself--smart, courageous, morally staunch, and dignified. I'm glad we had the opportunity to see him that way. But for fuck's sake, you can't put Billy Keikeya in the same room as Ellen Tigh, put a gun to both their heads, and have that fine young man be the one who ends up getting carried out feet first.

I understand that there are Galactica fans who genuinely enjoy Ellen's antics, just as there were fans last season who thought Six's All Vamp, All the Time act was appealing. I feel for these people and I hope they get the help they so obviously need, because Ellen Tigh is thoroughly, and deliberately, disgusting. In everything she does, in every single word that comes out of her mouth, she is despicable. Cowardly, lascivious, dishonest, disloyal, and, worst of all, criminally, painfully stupid, she is clearly an attempt on the writers' part to get our gorge rising, and I don't appreciate it. Ellen is a caricature who couldn't find a second dimension with two hands and a flashlight, with no appealing or redeeming characteristics. For all that the winter season has been problematic, Galactica should still be above her kind of character. I understand that the resonance of Ellen's death wouldn't begin to approach the tragedy of Billy's (hell, I would have been cheering in the streets if she'd gotten a bullet to the head), but the character needs to go, and her death would have been a perfect opportunity to drive a wedge between Adama and (the criminally underused, these last six episodes) Tigh. Instead, Billly's death precipitates a cooling of Adama and Roslin's relationship, and I'm sorry, but we've already done that and we know who comes out on top. Ellen's purpose in "Sacrifice" was to advance the plot through her stupidity and selfishness (if she'd stayed in the bathroom with Lee, it's likely he wouldn't have been caught and eventually shot, which as previously mentioned is also Ellen's fault), which, once again, is lazy writing. The character needs to be gotten rid of, and it pains me to see the writers squander such a perfect opportunity to do so.

I honestly don't understand where the Galactica writers' heads are these days. They seem to have cast character continuity by the wayside (did you know that they actually shot scenes of Starbuck having an empty and meaningless assignation on Cloud Nine? Did they not watch last week's episode?) in exchange for disposable plots that don't really work with the show's overarching plotlines. When I wrote about the summer season, I expressed concern about Galactica's standalone episodes, but it never occurred to me that the writers were so willing to sacrifice the overall feel of the show in order to tell whatever story had caught their fancy, or that they were truly incapable of marrying Galactica's mood and tone to a non-arc plot. Which brings me to the scary thought I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, and I want you to sit down or hold on to something before you read this: for overall entertainment value, Battlestar Galactica's winter season has been running a distant second to Stargate: Atlantis. Hell, I actually enjoyed Friday's Stargate: SG-1 entry more than I did "Sacrifice", and not just because it reunited Ben Browder with leather pants. Which, assuming that I haven't shifted into the bizarro-verse, is not a sentence that I ever anticipated typing. Even with four episodes still unaired (and, I suspect, with the arc about to heat up again), the winter season is already shaping up as the least successful block of episodes in the show's history. It's time for the writers to take their vitamins, remind themselves of the kind of show they're trying to make, and get back on track.

Friday, February 10, 2006

An Open Letter to Male Film Reviewers Writing About Pride and Prejudice

Dear male film reviewers writing about Pride and Prejudice (and, sad to say, at least one woman).

I want to assure you that I have no doubts with regard to your masculinity. I'm sure you're all big, burly men with thick and bushy beards as long as your arms. I'm sure you drink your weight in beer and belch hugely afterwards every single night. I have no doubt that you can pleasure a woman, and have done so consistently since you were old enough to tell women and livestock apart. Nothing you or anyone else can say will ever cause me or the rest of your readers to doubt your virility or your manhood.

So could you please stop prefacing your Pride and Prejudice reviews with some variant on 'being a man, I naturally hate Jane Austen and everything having to do with her. I've never read Pride and Prejudice and don't intend to, since it's a fluffy, girly book for fluffy girls, and is about love and feelings and all those things that men find icky and gross. Nevertheless, I'm certain I would hate this book, which only fluffy girls who like reading about icky love and gross feelings would enjoy, since I'm a manly man and therefore above such things. Now, about the movie...'?

I want to be clear that I'm not requiring you to read Pride and Prejudice before you offer an opinion about the film. I don't think everyone on the planet should love Jane Austen and I wouldn't be distraught to read a review prefaced by a declaration that the reviewer disliked the book (I hardly could, as I myself have been known to trash a well-loved author or two). Similarly, a reviewer who simply announced their disinclination to read Pride and Prejudice would probably get a pass from me--there are plenty of lauded books that I don't care to read simply because they don't appeal to me. It's the implicit assumption that you must distance yourselves from icky Jane Austen romance cooties that drives me up the wall. This is precisely the kind of attitude that causes mainstream reviewers to launch into a paragraph of 'aren't Trekkies funny and pathetic' before saying anything even remotely positive about genre. But while I can almost see the rationale in wanting to maintain a distance from Klingon-speakers, by trashing Jane Austen you're blithely distancing yourselves from half of humanity, or at the very least a large sub-group of them who read a well-received and highly appreciated classic author, and making proud grunting noises as you do so.

The fact that you feel justified in distancing yourselves from Austen's novel is either an indication that you truly are profoundly insecure in your masculinity, or, more disturbingly, that Austen's fiction is still perceived as girly stuff, romance novels that won't get you laughed at too much, but romance nonetheless. That one of the finest authors in the English language, the author of genuine gems full of wit, keen insight, cutting observations of human nature, and brilliant characterizations should still be on the receiving end of this kind of condescension, even if it's only from silly film reviewers, is deeply disheartening.

But crusading for Austen's position in the canon isn't my purpose today. I just want to make one thing clear, dear male film reviewers writing about Pride and Prejudice: the fact that you are either too insecure or too set in your ways to even make an attempt at one of the finest novels in the English language is not, I repeat not, something to be proud of.

So zip it, OK?

(For those of your wondering why I'm only going on about this now when the film has been out for six months, it was released in Israel this week, and the local review--in Achbar HaIr, for interested Israelis--is textbook male condescension.)

Thursday, February 09, 2006

And the Scary Thing Is, Still Less Disturbing Than the Sam-Raimi-Directs-The Wee Free Men Business

[David Jason,] the star of Only Fools and Horses, A Touch of Frost, and one-off dramas such as The Quest will play Death's servant, Albert, in the fantasy drama Hogfather, part of Pratchett's long-running Discworld series. The two-part film, which will run for a total of four hours, is part of Sky One's 2006 Christmas schedule. It is the first Discworld film to be turned into an action movie.
I assume that's supposed to be 'live action' at the end (since Wyrd Sisters and Soul Music have already been made into animated films).

On the other hand, I find the notion of a Discworld action film strangely appealing...

Link via Emerald City.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

I Would Pay Good Money To See This Happen, But Somehow I'm Not Holding My Breath

Starbuck Is Dead, Long Live Starbuck and Other "Scar" Thoughts

Update 3/07: Hello people searching for some variant on 'starbuck dead'! This post is about the episode "Scar", but if you'd like to read my thoughts about "Maelstrom", click here.

Reading over the various responses to Friday's Battlestar Galactica episode, "Scar" (there's a nice selection over at 13th Colony), I'm surprised at the negative tone that many of the reviewers are taking towards Kat. More precisely, I'm surprised by the fact that so few of the reviewers seem to have recognized the obvious and deliberate parallels that the episode draws between Kat's behavior and the kind we've come to expect--and, for the most part, enjoy--from Starbuck. Kat's attitude during Starbuck's briefings is a precise mimicry of many of Starbuck's own performances; the confrontation in which she claims that Starbuck has lost her edge and crawled into the bottle is very nearly a shot-by-shot recreation of Starbuck's own confrontation with Tigh in the miniseries; not to mention the numerous, nearly uncountable incidents of Starbuck being as belligerent, boastful, casually violent and unthinkingly competitive as Kat is in "Scar", if not more so.

There isn't anything that Kat does in "Scar" that Starbuck hasn't done already (and usually been called charming and daring for doing), and it seems to me that if the object of her scorn were someone other than Starbuck, the episode's reviewers wouldn't necessarily be giving her such a hard time (although it certainly doesn't help that, as directed in this episode, Lucianna Carro lacks Katee Sackhoff's effervescent charisma and movie-star good looks). "Scar" may be, as many commenters have said, an episode about Starbuck coming to terms with the reality of death, but to my mind a more powerful theme in the episode is a profound change in Starbuck's personality and priorities.

At the episode's close, Starbuck has vacated her role as the ship's hotshot, the top-gun pilot who is crazy enough to get any job done. Kat is the new Starbuck, by which I don't necessarily mean that she is Starbuck's equal as a pilot or tactician. The episode makes it pretty clear that Kat lacks Starbuck's experience and wits--Kat's eyes may have been sharp enough to spot a Raider before Starbuck, but it's Starbuck who realizes that Scar is luring Kat into a trap (and in so doing, almost certainly saves Kat's life). It's doubtful that Kat would have been able to destroy Scar without Starbuck's help. That Kat fails to acknowledge this is hardly surprising--after all, how often have we seen Starbuck be gracious in victory?--but what is surprising is Starbuck's willingness to walk away from glory and act, for the first time in our acquaintance with her, like a team player. What Starbuck comes to realize in the celebration scene and in her closing conversation with Helo is that Kat is welcome to her new role--Starbuck has moved on.

Katee Sackhoff deserves a tremendous amount of kudos for her physical work in this episode. Starbuck as we have come to know her is a live wire, a bundle of barely suppressed energy held together by skin and an infectious grin. She does everything--talk, walk, fly--loudly and hugely. In "Scar", however, Starbuck seems to be trying to retract into herself. She walks stiffly, talks in a barely-audible monotone, her face is expressionless and her eyes are almost dead. The woman who lit up a cockpit with her smile, who was always incandescently, manically joyful at yet another remarkable flying feat in which she snatched victory straight out of the jaws of certain death, is nowhere to be seen. In her brief moments of animation, Starbuck is a frightening parody of herself, a person moving because she knows that to stop moving will mean death and is terrified by that knowledge. Reviewers have called this physical and emotional transformation a downward spiral, and to a point they are correct, but the crisis that precipitated this downward spiral is, to my mind, a good and necessary one--a process of growth. In "Scar", Starbuck is desperately trying to hold on to a person she can no longer be. The tension we see during the episode is the pain of growing up while still trying to hold on to a younger personality.

My mother, who worked for most of her professional life at Israeli Aircraft Industries, likes to repeat a story related to her by a former test pilot. This man claimed to be able to tell whether a fellow pilot was married, and how many children he had, by the height at which the pilot buzzed the ground on his test flights. The unmarried, unattached young turks would hug the ground, but with each addition to their list of attachments--with marriage, and with the birth of each child--the distance they kept from the ground would grow. You can't have attachments in the world and still act as though you don't care whether you live or die. I'm not exactly pleased with the notion of Anders as the person who gives Starbuck a connection to the world, but if I accept it there's no denying that it makes perfect sense that once she realizes she loves Anders, Starbuck can no longer find it in herself to risk her life thoughtlessly (there's a reverse parallel here with Apollo in "The Hand of God"--the more grounded, connected pilot trying to recall his maverick instincts). Starbuck tells Lee that she's "hung up on a dead guy and it's driving [her] insane", but the truth is that Starbuck can't handle the dissonance between being the maverick, devil-may-care pilot, and being in love. As Helo--the only pilot we know who isn't fighting simply for the thrill of the fight--tells Starbuck, the very fact that she acknowledges her feelings for Anders gives her something to live for, and this both cripples her as a pilot and strengthens her as a human being.

Kat, who has nothing to tie her to the world beyond her role as a fighter, fears being forgotten. Starbuck, in contrast, fears forgetting--both the men and women she sent to their deaths and the man she left to his fate. But forgetfulness is actually Starbuck's refuge throughout the episode--she pretends to be able to move on, to let go of the people she's lost and still be the same person she was at the beginning of the day, but this disconnection has gradually become impossible. Starbuck is being crushed beneath memory and guilt, and the more she tries to drive them away--through drinking, through sex, through violence and simply through noise and movement--the more they haunt her. Starbuck regains her balance by rejecting forgetfulness, by remembering the names of her lost pilots and the love she shared with Anders. Instead of crushing her, these memories build her up.

I'm not entirely certain how I feel about the decision to humanize Scar to the point where his multiple deaths have caused him to hate humans, mostly because I think it's an important theme in the series that Cylons are just as incapable of cruelty and hatred as they are of kindness and sympathy (we might, however, choose to think of Scar as the Raider equivalent of Gina--both cut off from the Cylon commonality and forced to experience pain, through which they both achieve a measure of individuality, and humanity, which other Cylons are incapable of), but I do like the choice of Scar as a moniker and as a way of individualizing this Raider. Scars are a sign of experience, a record of our failures and successes, of the things we've gained and lost, and mostly, of the passage of time. The episode draws deliberate parallels between Starbuck and Scar--two grizzled old flyers most comfortable in a dogfight. Unlike Starbuck, however, Scar is merely an intelligent machine--it can learn, but it can't change. Kat is absolutely right when she tells Starbuck that Scar won't pull away in their game of chicken--it isn't capable of changing its inherent nature to the point where its life has a meaning beyond fighting. Starbuck is, and by choosing to accept that change, she saves her own life. I think the most moving image in "Scar" is the one in which Starbuck gazes out of her window at the wreckage of her former enemy. It's a moment of loss, as Starbuck surrenders her old roles and recognizes the change in herself, and, in some way, I believe that she both pities and envies the dead Raider for not being capable of that change.

Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Kara Thrace is growing up. I'll be very sad if this process of growth means that we'll never again see Starbuck burst into laughter in the cockpit of her Viper, in sheer exuberance at the joy of being alive and in motion, but maturity is a worthy accomplishment at almost any cost. A few weeks ago, in a discussion of Emma Bull's by now infamous essay about Galactica's treatment of gender, I wrote that despite my reservations about the writers' original concept for Starbuck's character, I'm enjoying the way that they've slowly been expanding and moving away from that concept. To quote Neil Gaiman, in life one must either change or die, and I'm tremendously pleased to see that Kara Thrace, and Galactica's writers, have chosen the former.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Eight Ways in Which the BBC Miniseries Has Inspired Me Not to Read Charles Dickens' Bleak House

I have a confession to make. For all the many Victorian (and slightly pre- and slightly post-Victorian) authors that I've read and enjoyed, Charles Dickens, that quintessential chronicler of English life in the mid-19th century, is one whose charms have consistently eluded me. Once I realized that relatively light entries in his bibliography such as A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities were boring me to death, I figured I'd give Dickens a wide berth. I find him sentimental and theatrical. He consistently chooses caricature over character, and his plotting is moralistic and predictable.

This week I made my way through the BBC's most recent and critically acclaimed version of Dickens' gargantuan Bleak House, starring Dana Scully and Suki Macrae-Cantrell. Unsurprisingly, the miniseries is fantastically well-made. The performances are engaging, the set design is impeccable, the cinematography is intriguing (although occasionally overdone. Still, it's nice to see a director realize that the fact that they're telling a period story shouldn't necessarily restrict their visual choices), and, as someone who hasn't read the book, the adaptation seems generous and faithful. Earlier this week, after watching the first few installments, I was mulling over the idea of picking up a copy of the book simply to see what happened next. It was my general distaste for Dickens that stayed my hand, and having completed the miniseries, I know that I made the right decision. Granted, I haven't read the book and it's possible that many of my complaints about the story and the characters should be leveled at Andrew Davies, but so many of my problems seem so quintessentially Dickensian that I suspect this isn't the case.

In no particular order, then, these are the reasons I will not be reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House:
  1. Even a reader unfamiliar with Dickens' more substantive novels knows to expect comic relief characters whose personalities can be summed up with a funny name and an unusual affectation. In all fairness, it does seem that Davies has gone to a great deal of trouble to minimize the roles of these characters in his version of Bleak House. I have no doubt that in the original work, characters like Mrs. Jellyby, who ignores her husband and children in favor of missionary work in Africa, Mr. Turveydrop, the mincing and effete dancing instructor, and the doctor who seeks to impress his guests by reciting the pedigree of his wife's former husbands, had far more prominent roles in the story. Davies reduces their appearances to a bare minimum, but there is one caricature whose presence is critical to the plot, and in the visual medium we can't help but notice that the person whom Dickens treated as laughable and pathetic is actually a human being, deserving of our respect.

    I'm speaking, of course, of Guppy, the law clerk who falls in love with Esther and uncovers her pedigree. A nervous, fidgety individual given to mimicking the behavior of polite society without truly understanding its codes and subtleties, Guppy is clearly supposed to be a figure of ridicule. When he proposes to Esther, we're meant to be appalled--how could a cultured, well-bred young woman like Esther Summerson even think of connecting herself to a social nobody, an upstart like Guppy? But the truth is that for all his social awkwardness (and in spite of a brief and ill-advised period stalking Esther), Guppy may be the most intelligent, ambitious, and pro-active sympathetic character in the novel. He has an inquisitive mind, a keen wit, and enough street smarts to work out how best to apply these qualities. While Esther idly wonders about her ancestry, Guppy actively investigates it and discovers a way to use that ancestry to better Esther's lot in life. It's true that Guppy is indirectly responsible for Lady Dedlock's death, by giving her the news that forced the unhappy lady off the ledge she'd been teetering on throughout the story, but in his actions on her behalf Guppy is tireless and indefatigable--when he fails to procure the letters, Guppy races to warn Lady Dedlock of his failure, anxious to assure her security. Guppy's actions, in short--his intelligence, his willingness to take action, his basic decency--would mark him out as a romantic hero if Dickens hadn't forced him into the form of clown. The character chafes against its creator's restrictions, and with an actual human being filling the character's shoes it's hard for the audience not to notice the dissonance between what the author's snobbery sees and what's actually on the screen.

    But of course, Guppy can't be allowed to walk off into the sunset with even a partial victory. The story's close sees him articled as a lawyer and about to open his own firm, but Dickens can't resist the urge to twist the knife one last time. Despite his previous rejection, Guppy returns to seek Esther's hand in marriage one more time, this time in the presence of his star-struck mother, who flies into a rage when her son is refused. For his efforts on Esther and Lady Dedlock's behalf, for his ability to better his own lot in life, Guppy is ridiculed and humiliated by his creator, when his only crime is to be socially awkward.

  2. For a while, it seems that Bleak House is blessed in its selection of villains. Mr Tulkinghorn in particular is both atypically handsome and polite and refreshingly pragmatic. Around the story's halfway point, however, Tulkinghorn descends into such nonsensical Evil Overlord behavior that I remarked that it was a shame that the actor chosen to portray him didn't have a mustache to twirl. Why does Tulkinghorn go back on his promises to Sergeant George and Mademoiselle Hortense? Why does he torment Lady Dedlock instead of leaving well enough alone as he originally says he plans to do (for the life of me I can't understand what the back-and-forth about Rosa the maid was all about--unless it was a power game between Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock) when they both know that he has no intention of exposing her to Sir Leicester? A smart man--which Tulkinghorn evidently is--would understand how unwise it is to create new enemies, and he would certainly live in a world in which the devaluation of his word would be a serious hindrance to his ability to do business. The only reason for this irrational behavior--which even Tulkinghorn characterizes as irrational, saying that he does these things "because [he] can"--is that Dickens wants us to hate a character which he had previously painted as carefully amoral, and that he wants said character dead and lacks either the skill or the patience to create a compelling, rational reason for someone to murder him. It's a waste of a fine villain, not to mention poor and embarrassing plotting.

    The less said about the disgusting and increasingly boring Smallweed, the better, except to say that surely Davies could have found some way to drastically reduce Smallweed's appearances in the second half of the mini--he shows up in every single episode towards the end and does the exact same thing in each one--act disgusting, berate his sedan-chair carriers, and demand that he be 'shaken up'.

  3. Even the straight, sympathetic characters don't always act in a way that is entirely human. John Jarndyce is supposedly an intelligent, worldly man, so could someone please tell me why he tolerates and even supports an amoral snake like Skimpole for even five seconds? Beyond, that is, the fact that the plot requires that Skimpole have ready access to Richard and the opportunity to sell out Jo. And why, oh why, do strays, waifs, small animals, and cartoon birds constantly gravitate towards Esther? She's a nice person, to be sure, but the way in which minor characters cast their problems in her lap after ten minutes' acquaintance and then hold her up as a model for everything good and pure in the world is somewhat baffling.

  4. The narrative consistently ignores complex and interesting character dynamics for the sentimental and the obvious. I can't be the only person who walked away from the miniseries curious about the future of Rosa, the village girl whose prospective father-in-law takes her away to be educated as a proper young lady. How will this former maid fare as the employer of maids, and will she be able to win over either her well-bred future sisters-in-law or her fiancé's formerly coarse parents? And what about Sergeant George, who obviously isn't happy about being allowed to return in shame to the site of his youthful indiscretions? Does he really want to spend the rest of his life in his mother's lap, and what about his no doubt fraught relationship with his now successful brother? It's possible that in the original work, Dickens acknowledges these complicated relationships, in which case I would really like to know what possessed Davies to ignore them in favor of more disgusting antics from Mr. Smallweed, but somehow I doubt that Dickens was ever genuinely interested in exploring any relationship that couldn't be easily summed up and categorized.

  5. Five minutes after meeting Esther and Lady Dedlock, a child would be able to work out their relationship. Five minutes after that, that child's younger sibling would be telling you how things were going to work out for Lady Dedlock. And lo! The plot, and the 'mystery', really are as predictable as all that.

  6. And while we're on the subject of the fate of Lady Dedlock, can I just point out that every single person in her life forgives her for what she did and the poor woman still ends up dying for her sins? I know that it's not entirely fair to blame Dickens for being a) a product of his time, and b) overly fond of melodrama, but in a sea of predictability, would it have killed him to make a slightly unusual plotting choice?

  7. When something as exciting as a murder actually takes place, the murderer is conveniently an annoying Frenchwoman. Gosh, isn't it nice when unpleasant foreigners kill off evil people so that decent English folk don't have to bother? Not to mention that the murderer is considerate enough to attempt a ham-handed frame-up, which naturally ends up providing evidence for her own guilt in the crime. I really do think Lady Dedlock ought to have sent Mademoiselle Hortense a fruit basket.

  8. The moral of the story, Dickens' so-called social commentary, can pithily be summed up as 'The legal system is broken. It swallows up money, property, and lives and shits out only more work for increasingly unscrupulous lawyers--never any justice. And therefore, we good English citizens who care about our own fate and that of our country should... leave it alone. We should go on with our lives without ever doing anything so coarse as going to court, because obviously we're all good upper-class people of means who will never end up in a situation so unsavory that we have to appeal to the law for justice and for the means to continue our lives in comfort and dignity--that's just a chump's game, and will leave us dying of consumption.'
For all its impressive performances and production values, I came away from the BBC's Bleak House curiously unsatisfied. It's a collection of alternately interesting and frustrating parts that come together into no whole at all. The story tries to be a morality play, a mystery, a character study, a romance, and a melodrama, and fails at every attempt. I realize that it is profoundly unfair to judge a work based on a secondary interpretation of it, but for the time being, I see absolutely no reason to give Dickens the benefit of the doubt.