Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Oh Goody, Time to Start Reading the Aegypt Books

Nick Antosca has a great interview with John Crowley, AKA the author you should all be reading (start with Little, Big). As one might expect from Crowley's Readerville visits and his posts on his new livejournal, all that's really required to get beautiful and evocative thoughts about his career in particular and life in general out of Crowley is giving him a platform from which to speak--I couldn't pick a pull-quote if I wanted to. He does, however, have good news about the fourth and final Aegypt novel:
I'm not able to make the official announcement yet – the publisher wants to prepare his/her own press release announcing this momentous thing – but the book is, three years after its completion, at last going to be published, late next spring, from a surprising source. More on my Internet Journal [see below] when this is closer to actuality.
(Via Bookslut)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2006

Last month, when I was reviewing the Hugo short fiction nominees (1,2,3), I kept expecting someone to pop up and ask why, if I had such strong opinions about the nominees and, quite often, their unsuitability for major awards (and on more than one occasion, publication in a professional market), didn't I buy a voting membership in WorldCon and try to get some worthy stories on the ballot. I dreaded the question, too, because the sad truth is that I don't usually keep up with short genre fiction. I'll read author collections and, more rarely, anthologies, but I've never been up to date with the newest short fiction in the field, online or in print media. This was one of my reasons for taking Gordon Van Gelder up on his offer when he came up with a unique promotion scheme last month--free copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction's July issue for bloggers who agreed to write about them. I wanted to get a taste of the fiction that professional editors were putting out there, as opposed to the stuff that voters were putting on award ballots. I was impressed with what I found--of the nine stories, novelettes and novellas in the issue, only one is a true clunker, and the others represent a broad range of topics and styles.

In fact, my only real complaint against the magazine is that its non-fiction segments were mostly pointless. Charles de Lint reviews several novels--a couple of pulpy fantasy mysteries and the new Stephen King--but doesn't do much more than to sum up their plots and give a brief thumbs up/down. This issue's movie segment seems to have been dedicated to films about nannies--Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee, primarily--which seems oddly disconnected from the magazine's mandate. Most surprising is James Sallis' review of Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Excellent as it is, McDonalds' novel is nearly two years old, and has already gotten quite a bit of attention, not to mention a Hugo nomination (which Sallis does, in fact, neglect to mention). Sallis doesn't have anything new to say about River of Gods, either. He admires McDonald's prose and the way that his future India is grounded in contradictions, but these are all things that have been said many times before. I'm surprised by the magazine's laid back approach to genre criticism, especially given the proliferation, in the last few years, of online venues for SF criticism which offer thought-provoking and fascinating essays, reviews, and articles. If all the editors are going to offer in the way of non-fiction is unexciting, predictable fare, wouldn't it better to do away with these segments entirely and make room for at least one more short story?

The first short story in the magazine is Steven Popkes "Holding Pattern". It's not the best-written piece of fiction ever--it features some painfully awkward turns of phrase and dialogue. For the most part, however, Popkes' prose maintains a level of mediocrity that is just unobtrusive enough to let the story's intriguing plot shine through. Our protagonist is Tomas Cabon, who may have once been a genocidal South American dictator. On the other hand, he might have been one of the dictator's victims--his face altered by plastic surgery, his memories erased and replaced with the dictator's, as a way of making sure that the real man never had to face trial for his crimes. Popkes uses this premise as a launching point for a brief but thoughtful discussion about the nature of identity--is it defined by memories or by the physical being, and can an identity be taken up and discarded at will?

Terry Bisson's "Billy and the Unicorn" is a baffling piece. In the author bio, Bisson calls the Billy stories "an attempt to capture in words... the joy and the nightmare of being young." I'm not sure that "Billy and the Unicorn"--in which Billy encounters a unicorn and brings him home, where it reads porn magazines, poops precious jewels and skewers people who are mean to Billy with its horn--achieves either. It seems to be trying to be both absurd and mundane at the same time, failing at both and settling for an uncomfortable midpoint. It's the sort of story that one is probably intended to laugh at, but the nonsensical events that occur in it go through funny and out the other end into bizarre--which may very well have been the point.

Its unfortunate title notwithstanding, Matthew Hughes' short story "The Meaning of Luff" is one of the best pieces in the issue--a quiet, beautifully written variant on pulpy horror stories like "The Monkey's Paw", in which a magical object guaranteed to grant its owner riches and fame is actually the instrument of their destruction. Hughes has apparently written several stories set in the same universe as "The Meaning of Luff", but whereas this would usually indicate a steep learning curve for the uninitiated reader, here it means that Hughes can rely on the fact that his world, Old Earth, is already complete and wholly real--he doesn't need to overwhelm either us or his story with extraneous details. He concentrates, instead, on his characters--sad and desperate for both material success and spiritual meaning--and on his sing-song, nearly poetic prose.

In his short story "Republic", Robert Onopa begins from a familiar SFnal premise--human explorers encountering an alien species and fumbling in the attempt to make contact with a culture so thoroughly different from their own--with obvious roots in human history (there are numerous references in the story to the Spanish conquistadors' encounters with the Aztecs). The story ends precisely as we might expect it to end--precisely as the characters themselves seem to have expected it to end all along--and yet Onopa effortlessly creates a sense of tension and of mystery. Like the human explorers, we are intrigued by the questions that the aliens pose, by the mysteries that the story suggests but purposefully leaves unresolved. "Republic" is an intriguing story, one that I think I'm going to continue to puzzle over for a long time.

Jerry Seeger's "Memory of a Thing That Never Was" (what is it with these titles?) also starts off from a science fiction cliché--this time, humans engaged in a secret war against alien invaders--and takes it in strange directions. Seeger is more interested in exploring his protagonist's personality, and in the sadness of his situation--an old soldier left over from a war that never really managed to get started--than he is in the war itself. Again, there are obvious real-world parallels being drawn here--the crux of the story is a meeting between our human protagonist and one of his alien opponents, which is obviously meant to recall the kind of bittersweet, post-Cold War meetings between old enemies that have become a staple of spy films--but Seeger doesn't belabor them. "Memory of a Thing That Never Was" wraps up too quickly--there's almost a sense that part of the story was accidentally left out when the issue went to print--but in spite of this flaw, it is a taut and intriguing piece.

Wrapping up the issue is Heather Lindsay's "Just Do It", one of those stories that tries to get us to think about the evils of X by positing the exaggerated, dehumanizing, patently absurd grandchild of X--a neat approach when you're a teenager, but one that I've become rather tired of. In this case, X is the prevalence of advertising in our culture, and Lindsay extrapolates a world in which companies attack random people with darts that chemically force them to crave certain food products. Lindsay has the good grace not to take her premise too seriously, and to alleviate the preachiness of her approach with a fun plot and an enjoyable main character--a young woman trying to beat the system from within by taking a job at the company that makes the darts and simultaneously dating its founder. In spite of its elegant surface, the fact remains that "Just Do It" is an alarmist screed that seeks to sidestep our logical faculties by positing an outrageous premise. It is the worst kind of manipulation--the kind that doesn't work.

The only truly disappointing piece in the magazine is the novelette "Kansas, She Says, Is the Name of the Star" by R. Garcia y Robertson. It starts out as a poorly-written, unimaginative dystopia, about a rural community in which girls are sold into marriage on their thirteenth birthdays, but quickly devolves into a seemingly endless string of Wizard of Oz references--our heroine's name is Amy, but her young half-sister calls her 'Auntie Em'; she encounters an alien visitor called Dorothy, who falls from the sky; they are saved by a robot and a genetically engineered human/lion hybrid. It's all very cute, but pointless--the Oz references do nothing but conceal the paucity of Garcia's plot, the flatness of his characters, and the insufficiency of his prose. They don't manage to do this for very long.

Like "The Meaning of Luff", the novella "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire" by Ysabeau S. Wilce a continuation of a previously published piece, and this time it shows. Wilce's protagonists, the young prince and wizard in training Hardhands, and his four-year-old niece Tiny Doom, have a wealth of history that Wilce can't, or won't, convey in this action-packed story, in which Tiny Doom wanders off into the night on her city's Halloween analogue, and Hardhands is forced to drop everything and retrieve her before the ghoulies and beasties who roam the streets on a night when magic is potent and powerful can gobble her up. Hardhands and Tiny Doom are delightful characters, and Wilce is a fantastic writer. Appropriately for a story in which the characters are constantly confronted with objects of physical desire, her prose is sensual and rich in detail--she painstakingly describes everything from the flavor of a piece of chocolate melting on Hardhands' tongue to the interior design of the witch's castle in which he and Tiny Doom are captured. Ultimately, however, there is a palpable sense that "Lineaments" is only part of a much larger tapestry, a place-holder piece, to be followed by the actual story of which we are still entirely ignorant.

I'm not quite sure that the folks at F&SF got their money's worth out of me--rereading this entry, it seems that I can't quite stop myself from being critical. I did enjoy the July issue, however, and I thank them for giving me this opportunity to catch a glimpse of their corner of fandom.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sooner or Later, Something Good Had to Come Out of The Da Vinci Code

...and now it has--Anthony Lane has reviewed the film:
Help arrives in the shape of Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer. She turns out to be the granddaughter of the deceased, and a dab hand at reversing down Paris streets in a car the size of a pissoir. This is useful, since she and Langdon are soon on the run, convinced that Fache is about to nail the professor on a murder charge—the blaming of Americans, on any pretext, being a much loved Gallic sport. Our hero, needing somebody to trust, does the same dumb thing that every fleeing innocent has done since Robert Donat in “The Thirty-nine Steps.” He and Sophie visit a cheery old duffer in the countryside and spill every possible bean. In this case, the duffer is Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), who lectures them on the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. We get a flashback to the council in question, and I must say that, though I have recited the Nicene Creed throughout my adult life, I never realized that it was originally formulated in the middle of a Beastie Boys concert.
Read and love, my friends.

Misfortune by Wesley Stace

Misfortune is to Middlesex as Carter Beats the Devil is to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. That was the Readerville adage last year, when Wesley Stace's debut novel was making the rounds. Which is to say: both novels deal with very similar subject matter (magicians and escapist acts in the case of Chabon and Gold's novels, male children raised as women in the case of Eugenides' and Stace's), but whereas the former novel is frothy and adventurous, the latter is meaty, thoughtful, and psychologically astute. In other words, Chabon and Eugenides' novels are steak dinners, and Gold's is a nice sandwich. Which is perfectly alright--an eclectic palette should have room for both--but sadly enough Misfortune doesn't even live up to these reduced expectations. If we were to continue the food analogy, Misfortune would be a stale packet of crisps. With no dip.

Misfortune takes place in early 19th century England, and opens with the discovery, by Lord Geoffrey Loveall, of an abandoned infant, left to die on a London garbage heap. Geoffrey takes the baby home, to the palatial Love Hall, and presents it to his imperious, domineering mother as his daughter and heir. Haunted since childhood by the early death of his younger sister, Geoffrey is only too pleased to see in this foundling child the image of his beloved Dolores brought back to life. The only problem is, of course, that the baby is a boy, a fact to which Geoffrey reacts with tantrums and nervous excitement. Eager to preserve the young lord's health and sanity, the staff at Love Hall humor his delusion, and agree to raise the child as a girl. Instrumental in this charade is Anonyma Wood, Love Hall's librarian, who agrees to marry Geoffrey in order to create a facade of legitimacy for the baby, named Rose. Anonyma's motives for ignoring the child's true sex are largely experimental--her head full of neo-Platonic theories about the unity of the sexes, Anonyma believes that combining male sexuality with female socialization will lead to the creation of the perfect human being, combining within itself the best qualities of both genders.

One would expect even the least thoughtful author to realize the wealth of potential inherent in these two characters--loving parents, carefully and deliberately skewing and tormenting a child they both claim to wish the best for. One driven by madness, the other by an unwillingness to see how poorly her philosophical theses suit the realities of flesh and blood. Stace, however, is invested in a stark division of his principal characters into good and evil, with the Love Hall family falling squarely in the former category. Geoffrey is treated with pity; Anonyma, whose kindness and good intentions had the potential to make her into the most fascinating kind of monster, is for the most part lauded for her wit, beauty, courage, and superior research skills. This is only one of the many ways in which Misfortune falls flat. Stace seems almost eager to avoid any device--exciting plot twists, believable character arcs, compelling descriptions of setting or era--that might make the novel even a little bit interesting. Misfortune is apparently meant to stand or fall with its sensational premise--a boy raised as a girl.

Misfortune's plot, once the pieces are set in place (this takes an unconscionably long time, and involves several lengthy and soporific expositive chapters), can be roughly divided into two parts. In the first, Rose grows up in bucolic splendor, encountering nothing but love, affection and good will from her family and their faithful retainers. I've said this before and I'll say it again now: authors, if your novel's plot is primarily concerned with events that take place during the protagonist's adulthood, do not, for the love of all that is good and pure, delay that plot by prefacing it with hundreds of pages full of slow, tedious, unremarkable descriptions of the protagonist's childhood. In spite of the secret that underlies it, Rose's childhood is perfectly mundane. She spends most of her time playing with Stephen and Sarah Hamilton, the children of her father's steward. Stephen is Rose's protector; Sarah her wise older sister, for whom Rose harbors some decidedly un-sisterly feelings (for about five seconds, it seems possible that Stace has decided to subvert our assumptions of both siblings' sexual orientation--otherwise known as the fun Twelfth Night reading--but they soon assert their heterosexuality). This idyllic existence is brought to a close when Rose discovers the truth of her gender (300 interminable pages into the novel), a revelation that roughly coincides with her father's death. The family's evil, grasping relatives descend on Love Hall and use Rose's confused gender identity and the fact of her illegitimacy to force her and her mother into a genteel exile. Forced to dress as a man, miserable in her own skin, quietly resentful of the thoughtless experiment that made her what she is, Rose runs away from home.

Which would, presumably, kick-start an adventure, right? Wrong. The novel quickly glosses over anything exciting that might have happened to Rose during her travels, and rejoins her several months later, on her way to a melodramatic and particularly ill-planned rendezvous with death--she plans to kill herself at the spring of Salmacis, where the mythical story of Hermaphroditus was supposed to have taken place (there are a few clunky references to this myth, and several others, over the course of the novel. They unfortunately do nothing more than recall Jeffrey Eugenides' delicate layering of myths both ancient and modern in Middlesex, and are best ignored). Rescued by her loving family, Rose returns to London, chooses to live as a woman, and her fortune is soon made with the help of a plot contrivance. The end. The biggest problem here is, of course, that whatever her gender, Rose is a complete ninny. Like the novel itself, her only distinguishing characteristic is her confused gender identity--she has no skills, no abilities, no interesting personality traits. Her one decisive action over the course of the entire novel is to try to kill herself--which she botches ('I'm going to go to Salmacis to lay myself down and die'--who thinks like this? For God's sake, bring a rope with you, fill your pockets with rocks or something). Everything that happens to Rose over the course of the novel, whether for good or for evil, happens because someone else does it. Her enemies plot against her; her family and friends work tirelessly to help her; Rose sits back, enjoys the show, and fantasizes about Sarah. Why we should care about this self-involved, lazy drip is completely beyond me.

Stace made a deliberate choice in Misfortune to set the novel in the 19th century but not to write it as a 19th century pastiche. His reasons for the former are obvious--Stace needed an era in which the definition of gender was almost completely divorced from physical sex. As a child, Rose defines herself as a girl because she, like Sarah, wears dresses, whereas Stephen is trousered. None of the children seem to have any comprehension of what the difference between the sexes actually is--they mistake the accouterments of gender with the fact of gender, which, at least in theory, is Stace's topic. The latter choice, to write a period novel in a modern voice, might have been a very interesting one, along the lines of the BBC's recent adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, which was shot using the kind of visual tricks--quick pans, partially-obscured or out-of-focus shots--that we'd expect from shows like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica. If, that is, Stace had actually followed through on it. Misfortune's narrative voice isn't the voice of an author who has deliberately eschewed period trappings. It is the voice of an author who can't be bothered to get any but the most obvious details of his setting right. Stace makes a few occasional and half-hearted attempts at replicating 19th century speech patterns or narratives, but they only serve to highlight the insufficiencies of his prose--it would have been better to leave them out entirely. They also work against his period-inspired plot. The novel's resolution is a plot twist so contrived (and so obvious) that even Dickens or Collins would have looked askance at it. Related in a period voice, however, Stace might have gotten away with it. In Misfortune's more modern ambience, the ending destroys what little indulgence the novel might still have retained.

And the sad truth is that Stace doesn't even make very good use of his period setting, and of the one advantage it offers him--the separation of gender and sexuality. None of the characters' reactions to Rose's confused sexuality have even the vaguest correlation to the very rigid codes that that era enforced on gendered behavior. When Rose's relatives mistreat her, they do it out of greed, not because she offends their deeply ingrained notions of propriety. Her family unquestioningly accepts her choice to dress as a woman (with a tasteful mustache), and doesn't even react when she has sex with two different women--good, middle-class girls--who are not her wife. After her return to England, Rose defines herself as a woman, but at no point does she give us any insight into what, beyond her choice of clothing, that definition means. At one point, Rose bristles at being mistaken for a cross-dresser, but Stace never enlightens us as to the difference. Worst of all, Stace steadfastly ignores the palpable difference in way that the 19th century treated, and thought about, men and women. There is no era in history in which being a man has not been preferable to being a woman. As a man, Rose could own property in her own right, she could vote, have a profession, travel unchaperoned, engage in any number of semi-legal activities which for a woman would be reputation-killers but for a man would be thought of as nothing but high spirits. As a man, 19th century society, which truly believed that women were weak and intellectually inferior, would accord Rose respect and grant her power. Rose never stops to consider any of these advantages when choosing her gender--Stace doesn't seem to think that they are worth considering, or even bringing up. He doesn't, in short, seem to have anything to say on the subject of what it is that makes us male or female, and how we define and distinguish the two.

There are novels that I finish in a white-hot rage, motivated solely by my desire to tear them apart in a review. Misfortune isn't one of them--I doubt it could ever elicit so violent an emotion from its readers. It isn't exactly a bad novel but more a bland one, and not so much underperforming as un-performing. It doesn't seem to do much of anything--tell an interesting story, describe complicated characters, comment intelligently on a topical issue. In the end, it is a completely empty novel--520 pages of nothing at all.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Here's how you know that you've fallen in love with Jason Taylor, the narrator and protagonist of David Mitchell's fourth novel, Black Swan Green: about halfway through "January Man", the first of thirteen stories which each chronicle a month in Jason's life, he sits down to lunch with his parents and older sister. The older Taylors are distracted, primarily by a slowly-escalating cold war in which new kitchen tiles and secret mortgages are lobbed across the dining room table like ballistic missiles. Jason's sister Julia contents herself with deriding him ("Thing is being grotesque while we're eating, Mother"). The burning resentment which this brief scene elicits towards the Taylors is proof enough that Jason has caught us in his net. We have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for his point of view. We don't stop to consider that Mum and Dad are tired and that thirteen year old boys can be a pain (especially to older sisters). Within a few short pages, we are inhabited by Jason Taylor, by the power and believability of his voice.

David Mitchell has become famous for, among other things, a facility with voice. His previous, almost universally well-received novel, Cloud Atlas, made dazzling, mid-air transitions between different genres and styles, as well as dashing back and forth between different eras and locations and tying its characters together in a tangle of coincidence and happenstance. Black Swan Green is by far a more subdued novel. It concentrates on a single character, in a single location, over a relatively brief period of time, and is told in a single style--the coming of age novel.

It seems strange, however, to suggest that this reserve indicates that Mitchell is finally writing in his own voice, as several reviewers have done. It certainly doesn't make for a very satisfying reading. Accomplished and erudite as Mitchell's forays into different genres in Cloud Atlas were, there was also an element of artifice about them, an over-reliance on trope and cliché. The price Mitchell paid for successfully imitating the works of others was the inability to add anything of his own to the text (at least, not when it came to style), lest his ventriloquist act collapse in on itself. That same artificiality permeates Black Swan Green. It is too much a quintessential novel of a boy's adolescence. Jason is too perfect a protagonist--ordinary enough to be lovable and unusual enough to be interesting; heartless enough to be believable and kind enough to keep us from turning away; just the right level of popular, neither a superstar nor a complete pariah. His experiences over the course of the novel--his parents' crumbling marriage, bullying at school, his first kiss, a growing closeness with his sister--are also too obviously drawn from a template. It is not at all surprising to discover that many of the reviewers who assume that Mitchell has cast away genre and voice in Black Swan Green come away from it largely disappointed, complaining about Jason's ordinariness. They have missed the point--concentrated on Jason's voice rather than on the things he, and Mitchell, say with it.

In spite of the frequent comparisons to Cloud Atlas, the novel that Black Swan Green most closely resembles is Mitchell's second, Number9Dream. Its protagonist, Eiji Miyake, is a twenty year old raised on an island off the coast of Japan. He arrives in Tokyo searching for his absent father and soon finds himself embroiled in a series of adventures, of which an entanglement with a Yakuza war of succession is only the first. As a boy, Eiji thoughtlessly defines himself in accordance with the way that others--relatives, teachers, employers--perceive him. His internal narrative is couched in the terms of his dominant cultural influences--technothrillers and superhero comics. Eiji achieves maturity by defining himself, and by discovering his own narrative voice.

In Black Swan Green, Jason undergoes a similar process of self-discovery. At the novel's beginning, Jason is desperate to conform. Everything that makes him what he is has the potential to destroy him--to mark him out as a weirdo, or a social outcast, or 'gay' (activities that are 'gay' include being nice to girls, going on walks, calling things 'beautiful', and possibly the entire range of human behavior except for smoking and fighting). Jason tailors himself to suit his environment, seeking to be the kind of person that others want him to be--he takes down his Middle Earth poster when his super-cool cousin comes to visit, and is very careful to note the expiry date of certain playground catchphrases. At the same time, Jason is desperate to be noticed--he writes flowery, overwrought poetry under the pseudonym Eliot Bolivar, which is published in the parish newsletter. Maturity for Jason is found in embracing his unique personality, along with its potentially embarrassing idiosyncrasies, and in abandoning the mimicry of others' literary style for a voice of his own.

Which, on the face of it, brings us to a contradiction. On the one hand, we have Mitchell the ventriloquist, reveling in the tropes of genre, refusing, even with his most subdued novel, to remove his mask and show us his true face. On the other hand, both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream are all about the importance of abandoning trope and cliché, and of creating art in one's own voice. The answer, of course, is that life and art are two very different things--as different as meaning and style. This is the lesson that Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, a Cloud Atlas refugee, attempts to teach Jason in the story "Solarium", and the lesson that Mitchell seems to be imparting to his readers. Jason, according to Eva, uses words carelessly, trusting that their beauty will imbue his poems with a meaning that he has yet articulate. In almost everything he does, he mistakes style for substance--right down to his choice of pseudonym, which was made under the assumption that Jason Taylor is too qutidian to be a poet's name. Eva advises Jason to abandon his beautiful words until such time as he works out what he wants to do with them--until the meaning of his poems becomes apparent to him. Then, and only then, can Jason begin to use words intelligently. It is the same for personality--Jason, and Eiji, first have to come to an understanding of who they are. Only then can they adopt or abandon the affectations that will best express that identity. In both Black Swan Green and Number9Dream, Mitchell lays out a straightforward path towards becoming a mature artist (and a mature human being)--work out who you are; figure out what you want to say; find out how to say it. In his fiction, Mitchell works to disentangle these three stages, stressing their individual importance.

In his thoughtful review of Black Swan Green, Niall Harrison points out that the stories that makes up the novel are works of Jason's composition, written after the fact and incorporating elements and thought processes that Jason had yet to develop while they were taking place. Jason, in other words, is not Black Swan Green's narrator--he is its author, writing from a distance of months or even years and obviously manipulating the 'truth' of events. The novel becomes intriguingly recursive--an author whose novels frequently stress the difference between identity and voice, writing in the voice of a young man who has come to comprehend that difference, describing the process by which he came to that comprehension. Mitchell is deliberately stressing the story-ness of his story, highlighting the distance between the artist and his readers, just as the slight plasticity of his genre imitations is meant to remind us of the artificiality of all literary voices.

I believe that Black Swan Green is a response to reviewers who complained about Cloud Atlas' cleverness concealing its meaning, but I do not believe that it is meant to be an acquiescence to their criticism. Mitchell's answer to these critics is to remind us, once again, that words on a page are just as artificial and as imperfect a means of communication as pigment on canvas, or the notes of a sextet. He would also like to remind us that that distance does not diminish the work or its meaning. What if, rather than treating Mitchell's use of genre as a mask, we thought of it as a musical instrument? The sound of a flute isn't the voice of the person playing it, or of the musical piece's composer, but it expresses the feelings of both. The fact that the musician or the composer might later switch to another instrument doesn't render the music any less authentic. With Black Swan Green, Mitchell seems to be inviting us to consider the artificiality of all art, and the impossibility of puzzling out the truth of the artist's personality through that veil of artifice. The real David Mitchell (whose motivation for writing Black Swan Green may have been completely different than the one that I, his imperfect reader, have ascribed to him in this review) is not discernible through his work, any more than any artist can be truly perceived through their art, but the meaning of the work can be perceived. That meaning, in Black Swan Green and in the rest of Mitchell's novels, is anything but artificial.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Girl Detective On Her Second Outing: Scattered Veronica Mars Thoughts

Coming a distant second on my list of reasons for being glad about Veronica Mars' renewal is the fact that, had the show been cancelled, I probably wouldn't have had the heart to post this entry. Praising the season's strengths would have been too painful, and listing its faults would have felt cruel and pointless. And, let's be honest, there are faults to list. When judged against any other standard but the impossibly harsh one it had set for itself, Veronica Mars' second season is unquestionably a stunning accomplishment, and still the best show on TV. That impossible standard, however, is the one that matters, and in their second outing the show's writers have clearly failed to meet it.

But I'd rather start with praise than with censure, and in one case at least I believe that fans' complaints against the show are thoroughly unjustified. Pacing has been on the top of most fans' complaint list throughout the second season--the investigation moved at fits and starts, Veronica didn't seem interested in finding out who crashed the bus, entire episodes went by without any reference to the overarching mystery. Even ignoring the fact that the season hangs together quite well when viewed in quick succession[1], I think this complaint is unfair. The season's aimless progression is, in my opinion, a deliberate choice on the writers' part, and one intended to prioritize character development over plot.

Like most fans, I had assumed that, in choosing the second season's overarching mystery, Rob Thomas and his writers would attempt to replicate the emotional resonance the the Lilly Kane murder investigation had for both Veronica and the show's viewers. The writers, however, deliberately provided us with a mystery that could do neither. Horrified and bereaved as she is by the deaths of eight people, Veronica is not motivated to investigate the bus crash--nor is there any realistic reason why she should be. The fact that we expect her to immediately launch into an investigation is indicative of a dissonance between the way that the show's viewers see Veronica and the way Veronica sees herself, which in my opinion is the root cause of many of the second season's problems. In other shows whose premise revolves around the main character's occupation or ability, the audience and the characters are on the same page. House knows that he's a doctor. Buffy knows that it's her destiny to save the world from monsters. Veronica doesn't know that she's a detective. She thinks of herself--perhaps quite accurately--as a teenage girl who sometimes does detective things, whether for money or in order to help her friends or simply to sate her curiosity, but it doesn't follow that she will investigate any mystery that crosses her path.

In the past I've called Veronica an instrument of justice, but I now think that to do so was to project my own wishes for the character on a person whose motivations for investigating her friend's death were largely selfish. Some unknown person had, with a single action, demolished Veronica's entire existence, robbed her of everything that made her who she was, and then vanished. Veronica's quest for Lilly's killer was not a pursuit of justice, but of vengeance, and also an attempt to assert control over her life by understanding the reasons for its alteration. The bus crash doesn't affect Veronica's existence in any meaningful way, and she is therefore not compelled to seek vengeance for it.

In the show's first season, Veronica and her peers investigated the past as a way of understanding how they had come to be themselves. In the second season, these same characters seek to escape the past, and to make their own determinations about the kind of people they want to be. The redefinition of the self is a recurring theme throughout the season. Weevil abandons the accouterments of the PCHers, and transforms himself both physically and emotionally from a leader of men into a lone wolf. Jackie seeks to alter not only her bitchy personality but the way in which others perceive her (and as we discover in "Not Pictured", this is actually her second attempt at reinventing herself, the first having taken place before the season started when she went from messed-up inner city kid to spoiled princess). Troy has apparently renounced his evil, duplicitous ways and become a chivalrous good guy. And, of course, the bus crash takes place because Beaver believes that the revelation that Woody molested him will undercut his desperate attempt to remake himself into the powerful, intelligent, sexually functional Cassidy.[2]

Veronica, however, has already undergone this process of redefinition, and in the second season the character is engaged in reevaluating that transformation. Fans dubbed the trusting, virginal Veronica in the first season flashbacks Veronica 1.0, and the aggressive, determined detective she had become Veronica 2.0. The second season's Veronica is somewhere around version 2.4, attempting to reconcile her hard-won, hard-bitten maturity with the more open, more normal person she'd like to become. Whereas her peers accomplish their transformations (and in Beaver's case, fail to do so), Veronica spends the season trying to decide whether she wants to change at all, and if so, into what. "Normal is the watchword," she tells us when we rejoin her after the summer, ostensibly indicating that she has abandoned her role as a detective, but of course money, friends, and curiosity soon draw her back into the detective life, at which point we discover just how thoroughly terrified Veronica is by the person that she has become. "Sometimes when I know someone is bad I do improper things," Veronica tells Father Fitzpatrick in one of her rare moments of emotional honesty--probably one of the most important scenes in the season. The second season's frustrating plot progression is both a mirror and the result of Veronica's uncertainty and fear--the investigation into the bus crash is aimless, unfocused and ambivalent because Veronica is all of these things.

It takes quite a bit of work to spot this character arc because, as I've said before, Veronica Mars is a show that speaks loudest by not saying anything. Veronica is closed off emotionally from almost everyone in her life except her father and to a lesser extent Wallace, but she also shuts out the show's viewers. As Joss Whedon so accurately put it, "There is a distance to her, a hole in the center of Veronica's persona." Mars' writers deepen the gulf between the character and the viewers by refusing to spell out, in either dialogue or action, the character's inner turmoil. As in the real world, Veronica's act of transformation is half-hearted and largely unconscious, and she takes a step back for every two that she takes forward. At no point does she spell out her inner feelings for either the viewers or her fellow characters to understand, and at no point does she achieve an epiphany that enables her to leapfrog the long and difficult process of growing up[3]. Understanding Veronica Mars is a process nearly as difficult and as complicated as understanding a real person. We have to watch her carefully, and catch subtle hints and seemingly insignificant acts--something as simple Veronica choosing not to copy Meg's files, but then turning around and sabotaging her relationship with Duncan by repeatedly questioning him about Meg[4].

The second season's penultimate episode, "Happy Go Lucky", is also the climax of Veronica's emotional arc. At the moment when she discovers that the verdict in Aaron Echolls' murder trial is in, Veronica is faced with the opportunity to turn her back on an investigation that consumed her for an entire year, and focus on leaving Neptune, its depravities, and the person they forced her to become, behind. The first season's Veronica 2.0 never would have considered that her place was anywhere but in that courtroom. The person Veronica keeps trying, however half-heartedly, to become would focus on her exam and on the bright future ahead of her. By giving up on the Kane scholarship and choosing to stay in Neptune, Veronica at some level accepts the person that Neptune has made of her. It remains to be seen whether this choice is a permanent one, and what effect Aaron's acquittal will have on Veronica's acceptance of herself.

An obvious problem with the theory that the second season's aimlessness is meant to mirror Veronica's is the fact that Veronica spends most of the season convinced that she was the bus crash's intended victim. Surely we could count on Veronica--any version of her--to be roused by what she perceived as an attempt on her life? Surely if anything could get her to focus on the bus crash and dedicate herself to finding its perpetrator, it would be the knowledge that they had targeted her? I felt this way throughout most of the second season, and even during most of my repeat viewing of it. It wasn't until I re-watched "I Am God" that I realized that Veronica's belief that the bus crash was an attempt on her life is in fact at the core of her unwillingness to investigate it. Veronica must be aware that her decision to investigate Lilly's murder was motivated primarily by selfish considerations--by her desire to "prove to the world that [the guilty party is] bad and get them punished." If the bus crash was intended as a retaliation for putting Aaron behind bars, then Veronica's selfish quest for vengeance cost the lives of eight innocent people. Is it any wonder that Veronica takes a dim view of her detective skills? Is it any wonder that she refrains from embarking on yet another investigation?

The only instance in which we see Veronica actively and determinedly investigating the bus crash is in "I Am God". Why does she suddenly choose to investigate the crash? Because for the first time she is seriously considering the possibility that it might not have been her fault. Veronica runs herself ragged trying to exonerate herself from the responsibility for her classmates' death--even going so far as to read Meg's e-mails, which she had previously left untouched, and Peter's online postings, which she had promised to burn. At no point during the course of the second season is Veronica's behavior as reminiscent of Veronica 2.0 as it is in this episode--she is snappy, belligerent, single-minded, and even seems a bit younger, more like the first season's combative teenager. Once the investigation peters out, however, Veronica returns to her conviction that the bus crash was her fault[5], and once again leaves the task of discovering its perpetrator to others.

I admire the Mars writers for the subtle, intricate character arc they gave Veronica this season. I admire their willingness to prioritize character over plot, and their boldness in choosing to tell a detective story whose protagonist doesn't want to be a detective. That said, I am not at all convinced that their experiment has been a success. Just because a thing is done intentionally doesn't mean that it was done well, or that doing it was even a good idea. Psychological realism is not necessarily a worthy end in its own right, and the writers' determination to stick to a realistic portrayal of a teenager's behavior while still enforcing a distance between Veronica and the viewers made it very difficult to understand what they were trying to do with the character. It shouldn't have been necessary to watch the season twice in order to understand something as simple as Veronica's guilt over the bus crash, but it was. Furthermore, the sad fact is that, innovative as the decision to have Veronica avoid acting like a detective was, it didn't make for a very good story. Most viewers won't work very hard--certainly not as hard as the Mars writers were expecting us to work--to puzzle out the character arcs of a show whose plot progression is leaving them thoroughly frustrated.

And it's with plotting, not pacing, that Veronica Mars' second season failed. The writers persisted in undercutting their otherwise superb character work with at least one character whose purpose and appeal failed to materialize. Last season it was Duncan, the world's least charismatic femme fatale. This year it was Jackie, the tofu character, who took on the flavor of the plot lines she was given but never managed to demonstrate a personality of her own[6]. I'm frankly surprised that the Terrence and Jackie plotline wasn't dropped entirely, given that the season was crammed with extraneous information and littered with red herrings that sent us, and Veronica, on numerous avenues--boulevards, highways, autobahns--of investigation that ultimately led nowhere. For all its complexity, the first season's mystery eventually coalesced into a single story, the various plot strands linking into each other and forming a single narrative. In the second season, the plot fragments into a million strands, only a few of which end up having any significance to the bus crash investigation. The others are left flailing, or simply ignored out of existence--such as the strong implication, early in the season, that the bus crash was motivated by class tensions[7]. The plot is riddled with holes, and relies on an endless stream of contrivances and coincidences.

And, of course, there's the roof scene in "Not Pictured", and the writers' decision to turn Beaver into a psychopath. Having re-watched the episode and the season as a whole, I think I was quite a bit too harsh in my original reaction, and that said reaction was partly motivated by disappointment that the show wasn't following the script that I had already laid out in my head. The episode actually hangs together quite well, and the only part of it that truly rings false is the few minutes between the end of Veronica's recitation of Beaver's crimes[8] and Logan's arrival on the roof. I can accept coldly calculating Beaver, the person who ruthlessly kills for reasons of expediency, and for whom we and Veronica can have very little sympathy. I can't accept Beaver's sadism towards Veronica and the pleasure he takes in her pain and in her impending death. I have a sneaking suspicion that the scene was written with the sole purpose of arriving at its conclusion--Veronica about to commit murder and Logan demonstrating a glimmer of mensch-liness by talking her down--and that the only way that the writers could come up with to get to that point was to turn Beaver into a sadistic monster[9].

Perhaps the most significant and troubling problem with the second season's plotting, however, is the fact that throughout the season the viewers almost always know more than Veronica. Whether because we know that we're watching a detective show--it takes Veronica several episodes to realize that the bus was sabotaged, whereas we had assumed as much at the end of "Normal is the Watchword"[10]--or because we are privy to information that Veronica isn't, or because she simply isn't interested in investigating the crash and therefore takes longer to arrive at certain conclusions about it, the show is constantly in contravention of the cardinal rule of detective fiction--the detective should always be smarter than us. Even more disturbing is the fact that the story ends with Veronica completely oblivious to entire plotlines that we know everything about--she doesn't know about Phoenix Land Trust[11], she doesn't know how Weevil killed Thumper, she doesn't know how Aaron managed to implicate Duncan in Lilly's murder, or who orchestrated Aaron's death, or even something as simple as why her father was visiting the school and going on dates in "I Am God". The detective should be our window to the world, but throughout the second season, Veronica is the least inquisitive and the least knowledgeable of an entire army of detectives--Keith, Logan, Weevil, Beaver, Duncan. Given that she's also the least emotionally available, the audience could be forgiven for wondering why this character is still the show's protagonist.

I suggested above that there existed a dissonance between the show's characters and its viewers, but now I wonder whether it isn't the writers who are not quite on the same page as the rest of us. I've been watching Veronica Mars under the assumption that it was a detective drama, but in the second season, Rob Thomas and his staff seem to be writing a drama about a girl who does detective things. This is not necessarily a bad choice, but I do feel that the writers should have worked harder to indicate this shift in their focus to the audience, and to bring the viewers into the main character's head. I remain hopeful, however, that the teething problems that plagued this season as the show transitioned from a single, standalone concept to a continuous story (I've said before that the first season was a novel, and that the second season is an attempt to see whether that novel's main character was compelling enough to support a series) will be dealt with. As I said above, Veronica Mars is still the best show on TV. No other series packs as much into 42 minutes, and does so as effortlessly. No other show can get my heart racing one minute, and break it the next. Few other shows have a cast as uniformly talented, and very few other shows are as willing to challenge and frustrate their viewers in the quest for a good and meaningful story. I don't know if Rob Thomas can strike a balance between subtle, realistic character work and the rigorous demands of a detective plot, but I have every intention of coming back next year to see him try.

Only, if it's not too much trouble, could we bring back Backup?



[1] Like, I suspect, many of the show's fans, I discovered the series late in the first season's run. As a result, I watched most of the first season--18 episodes, if I remember correctly--in quick succession. I suspect that a lot of the disappointment that fans have been voicing about the second season is rooted in the fact that very few of them had previously experienced the show with a week, and sometimes more than one, separating one episode from the next. This is not to excuse the writers, however. Like it or not, their medium is a television serial, and they should tailor their work so that its appeal is not diminished when viewed at lengthy intervals.

[2] Of the main cast, only Wallace and Logan don't make an attempt at redefining themselves over the course of the season. Wallace, who in the first season was a locus of stability, spends the second season playing catch-up--it's his turn now to investigate his past as Veronica and the other characters have already done. Logan, on the other hand, has no character arc to speak of. A great deal happens to him, but these events do not accumulate into a coherent narrative. Before the second season started, fans were expecting Logan to spiral downwards or to rise above his difficulties, and although he has made some movement in both directions, the end of the season finds him roughly the same person as he was at its beginning. This is my main reason for disappointment at the reconciliation between him and Veronica. Logan is still an arrogant jackass. Veronica is still emotionally unavailable. We already know how a relationship between them turns out, and I see no reason to experience it again.

[3] I'm ignoring the 'epiphany' that leads Veronica to sleep with Duncan in "Driver Ed" because a) there really wasn't anything stopping her from sleeping with him before and b) Duncan is boring.

[4] Although sometimes the writers take pity on us, and sprinkle helpful hints in the soundtrack. In "Rashard and Wallace Go to White Castle", Veronica is inspired to help Logan and Weevil by the karaoke singer who serenades her with Elvis Costello's "Veronica", which includes the lyrics
Well she used to have a carefree mind of her
own and a delicate look in her eye
These days I'm afraid she's not even sure if her
name is Veronica
[5] One question that I haven't been able to answer is why Veronica sticks so steadfastly to this theory, even in the face of convincing alternate theories offered by Keith.

[6] For an interesting comparative study of successful and unsuccessful characterization on the show, contrast the emotional reactions ellicited by Jackie on a repeat viewing of the second season with the ones that Logan elicits when re-watching the first. Logan's excesses early in the show's run are a great deal worse than Jackie's cruel pranks, but the nuance and complexity that he gains in the season's later episodes permeates the viewer's perception of him--we can't hate him as completely as we did before getting to know him. Jackie never gains that level of humanity. As much as I liked her towards the end of the second season, when I went back to its beginning I found myself hating her just as completely as I had done the first time around.

[7] Perhaps we should have worked out that the class issue was a red herring in "Ahoy Mateys!", when Keith blithely announced that "most crime is personal, not these weird conspiracies."

[8] You know, I was so pleased last season when the writers avoided the let-me-tell-you-what-you-did cliché. Sigh.

[9] I still believe, however, that the rape retcon was an awkward and unworthy storytelling device. As the saying goes, it's alright to con your audience, but not to lie to them, and by turning Beaver into the rapist the writers cross the line into outright lying.

[10] I think the writers must be aware of this issue. They've already taken the time to establish the third season's first mystery--the serial rapist on the Hearst campus--so that Veronica and the audience can go into the story with the same amount of information.

[11] My best guess about the contents of the suitcase is that it has something to do with Phoenix Land Trust. In "The Quick and the Wed", Cassidy is quite certain of his ability to control Kendall, and even tells her that he's counting on her being his adversary, which to me suggests that he left a surprise for her in the event of his death.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Hallelujah

TV Guide's Michael Ausiello reports:
Straight from the horse's mouth, Rob Thomas just e-mailed me to confirm that Veronica Mars has been renewed for a third season. The show got a 22-episode order that, depending on ratings, can be reduced to 13.
Expect my thoughts on season 2 some time tomorrow.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Self-Promotion 7

My review of Simon Ings' The Weight of Numbers (which, as I've already said, is a novel that more people should be reading and talking about) appears in this week's Strange Horizons.

In honor of this momentous occasion, I've inaugurated a new segment on the sidebar, with links to reviews and articles of mine elsewhere on the web.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks

I read Iain M. Banks' most recent novel, The Algebraist, in December (review here) and up until its midpoint, I was thoroughly convinced that the book would turn out to be one of my favorite reads of the year. Following that point, however, Banks' intriguing combination of social SF and hyper-imaginative space opera gave way to a humorous but ultimately repetitive adventure story, and the book eventually amounted to a minor work. That first half was still enough to whet my apetite for more of Banks' fiction, specifically his Culture novels, and being a completist I started with Consider Phlebas, Banks' first science fiction novel. This, I now suspect, is a mistake on par with starting to read the Discworld series with The Color of Magic--the talent and the good ideas are there, but they've yet to be developed. Consider Phlebas suffers from many of the faults one might expect from a new writer who has yet to cement and take control of his voice (my awareness of the deficiencies in Banks' prose was certainly heightened by the fact that I had recently read his latest, and stylistically quite accomplished, novel). A greater disappointment, however, was Banks' treatment of the social questions which make up the meat of the novel.

In The Algebraist, Banks juxtaposes the hyper-organized yet cruelly authoritarian Mercatoria with the E-5 Disconnect, a religious cult ruled by a hedonistic madman. The opponents in Consider Phlebas are quite a bit more subtle. In one corner, the Culture--a technologically advanced society of plenty, a Communist utopia, a society made up of morally conscious hedonists, powered and largely governed by artificial intelligences orders of magnitude more advanced and complicated than humans could ever become. The Culture has picked a fight with the Idirans, a race of aliens in the midst of a religious Jihad, who view humans and other alien species as weak and unworthy. Banks never for a moment allows us to entertain a black and white interpretation of this conflict--the Idirans aren't the violent alien menace; the Culture isn't being taken over by machines for humanity's own good. The novel's protagonist is Horza, a human in the employ of the Idirans who nurses a burning hatred of the Culture. Horza's thesis is that by eliminating hunger, scarcity, and injustice, the Culture is doing away with the necessities of human evolution, that its machine masters are either ignorantly or deliberately directing their biological citizens towards stagnation. The Idirans may be murderous invaders, but according to Horza they are still 'on the side of life', messy and violent as it is.

Consider Phlebas is essentially a protracted debate between the pro- and anti-Culture points of view (the Idirans exist mainly as a catalyst for this debate. Their argument for galactic domination is not seriously considered). In Banks' hands, the Culture is an intriguing mix of simple-mindedness and sophistication. It is at the same time as virtuous as its propaganda claims, and quite a bit more messily human than its detractors would have us believe. According to the novel's coda, the Culture goes to war because "The only desire the Culture could not satisfy from within itself was one common to both the descendants of its original human stock and the machines they had ... brought into being: the urge not to feel useless. The Culture's sole justification for the relatively unworried, hedonistic life its population enjoyed was its good works". The Idirans, and with them a sizable portion of the galaxy, believe that the Culture is incapable of sustaining a prolonged military effort, that its pampered citizenry will rebel at the first suggestion of sacrifice or discomfort, as opposed to the Idirans who view sacrifice and service as a way of life (and yes, the real-world comparisons come in hot and heavy throughout the novel). What they, and we, discover, is that life in every form must always find reasons to struggle, and having found them, will pursue that struggle relentlessly.

The terms in which Banks couches this debate--the question of whether human society can thrive, and maintain its humanity, in conditions of plenty, or whether scarcity and conflict are necessary for human advancement--are quite a bit more sophisticated and nuanced than I am used to seeing, but the substance of the discussion remains unchanged, as does its conclusion. Life, in the end, is life. Messiness and violence can't be bred out of it, nor can repurposing or retitling them alter their fundamental nature. The Culture-Idiran war claims a fantastic toll in lives (the number is purposefully absurd, and its off-hand mention is clearly meant to shock the readers), and yet it is ultimately a minor, insignificant conflict, an exercise in vanity and self-justification on both sides. That is, ultimately, what the novel boils down to--war is bad and wasteful, but ultimately a human endeavor, and death awaits us all no matter the rightness of our cause or the purity of our ideals (a quotation from Eliot's "The Waste Land", 'consider Phlebas' is apparently the phrase one turns to after 'memento mori' throughly percolates into the cultural consciousness and becomes unusable as a title). 471 packed pages is quite a bit of effort to go to in order to say something that most human beings work out by their late teens, especially if the novel doesn't do much beyond expressing this philosophy.

And indeed, some of you may have noticed that although by now I've gone on about this book for four paragraphs, they've all dealt with topic and theme, with the plot nowhere in sight and the characters only briefly mentioned. This is, frankly, in keeping with Banks' approach. The novel's beginning sees Horza tasked with the retrieval of the AI core of a Culture vessel, which made a daring escape from an Idiran attack and hid itself on Schar's World, a neutral and heavily protected planet. Before he can go about completing this task, however, Horza is dumped into space in the middle of a space battle, captured by pirates, captured again by cannibals, caught in the crush to escape a soon-to-be-destroyed orbital platform, and forced to punch his way through a gigantic spaceship in order to escape the Culture's clutches. Will he survive all of these ordeals? Yes, of course he will, as the plot obviously requires that Horza make it to Schar's World, and yet nearly 300 pages are spent in this bouncing from peril to peril. Their purpose is obviously to showcase both Banks' ability to invent bizarre races, exotics customs, and magnificent technological edifices, and more importantly, to act as a backdrop to the ongoing discussion of the Culture. By showing us how the galaxy perceives the Culture, and how Horza reacts to this perception, Banks complicates our understanding of that society. Unfortunately, with no inherent tension to hold our interest, and with Banks pausing frequently for yet more info-dumps or yet more social philosophy, the novel's first 2/3 drag.

As I've already said, Banks' prose isn't up to the level I had come to expect from The Algebraist. In that later novel, he had learned the invaluable skill of making the info-dump interesting and unobtrusive, and much more importantly, he had learned the importance of humor. The frequent use of humor is one of The Algebraist's most compelling qualities--we can trust an author who won't take himself too seriously, and who recognizes the absurdities inherent to his premise and chosen style. Consider Phlebas' topic is, admittedly, a more serious and sombre one than The Algebraist's, but that difference doesn't excuse the earlier novel's humorlessness. Even in the most difficult, most hopeless situations, people make jokes--it is a fundamental human fact. There are almost no jokes in Consider Phlebas (actually, there are four. And none of them are particularly funny) and the novel's tone is unrelentingly tragic. Without humor to leaven it, that tragedy soon comes to seem ponderous and self-important. The characters, never particularly rounded, are further flattened by Banks' choice to deprive them of an important aspect of their personalities.

Unskilled, humorless prose, indifferent characterization, preachy and obvious philosophy--by almost every criteria Consider Phlebas is a flawed, perhaps even a failed novel. Even taking into consideration my unfairly heightened expectations, is there any point in continuing with Banks' back-catalogue? I think if the problem were only with the prose, I'd be perfectly willing to move on to one of his later and highly-praised novels--Use of Weapons or Look to Windward. As I've said, the talent is clearly there, and I already know that Banks develops it. But looking at summaries of the other Culture novels' plots, I get the distinct impression that ideologically, Banks never moves far away from Consider Phlebas' rather simple point. The Culture is virtuous and simple-minded; no, the Culture is decadent and inhuman; no, the Culture is subtle and bent on shaping the galaxy in its own image; no, the Culture is all of the above, and so entirely human and, in its own way, no different than any other empire. This is the not-too-surprising conclusion that Consider Phlebas reaches, and I don't get the impression that the other Culture novels do more than explore its ramifications in greater detail. Am I wrong, and if not, is there still something to read for in Banks' oeuvre?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Preliminary Veronica Mars Thoughts

Ha!

And I say again ha!

Ha-ha!

Which is not to say that I'm pleased with what we got. My reasons for picking Beaver as the killer were that I hoped that by making the bus bomber a teenager the writers could avoid the cliché of the mustache-twirling villain, the seeming good guy who turns out to be a cackling criminal mastermind. As you might imagine, I am not thrilled with what we got--I think I could have lived with Beaver killing the kids on the bus because he wanted to keep his 'secret', but his sadism towards Mac and Veronica (dear God, did we have to bring up the rape again? Wasn't it a bad enough idea the first time around?), and for that matter the entire grand guignol of a climax felt over the top and unearned.

I'm planning to write a longer post about the season as a whole, but that's going to take a while. For one thing, I'd like to rewatch the season and see if it hangs together a little better when viewed as a single block. Also, I'd like to know that the show has definitely been renewed for a third season before I tear into the very serious problems that plagued its second. For all that I thought this episode was a disappointment, Veronica Mars remains one of the few truly engaging, exciting, enrapturing shows on TV, and I for one am already making an appointment for next fall.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Piping Hot Nebula Results

Via Emerald City and blogger Jayme Lynn Blaschke. It's not terrible--in spite of his recent sweep of major awards, I had my doubts about Geoff Ryman carrying the Nebula, although I expected Susanna Clarke, not Joe Haldeman, to win. I'm certainly pleased that Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" was recognized for the excellent novella that it is, and I hope this bodes well for Link's chances with the Hugo, where she faces stronger competition. I think I would have preferred a different novelette winner, but realistically speaking, "The Faery Handbag" had the award in a lock, and it is by no means an undeserving story. The only real and surprising disappointment is that Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" didn't carry the day. I've said already that Emshwiller's appeal escapes me, but I know that she has many admirers. Here's hoping the Hugos treat Lanagan better.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Veronica Mars: Good, Ambiguous, and Potentially Splendiferous News

Via Gwenda, this article about Veronica Mars' as-yet-unconfirmed third season.

The good: Rob Thomas wants to make Mac a regular next year. About bloody time.

The ambiguous: the writers are moving away from a single mystery that underlies the entire season and writing three mysteries, each lasting 7-8 episodes. This has been rumored for quite some time, and given the show's problems with pacing during the second season, it might be a good idea. I'll miss the grandeur of the season-long mystery, though--I enjoyed knowing that the writers had the guts to demand such an extended commitment from their viewers.

The potentially splendiferous: Rob Thomas is very, very certain of a third season. The official announcement won't come until May 18th, which gives us all time to sacrifice a black goat at the north end of a graveyard at midnight on a full moon, just to be on the safe side.

Counting the days until Tuesday--I'm sticking with Beaver as my pick for the bus bomber, by the way.