Sunday, October 29, 2006

By Now You've Read the Six Word Stories

But have you seen these cool cover designs?

(If you haven't read the stories, check them out here. I'm not being very original, but my favorite is Margaret Atwood's entry: "Starlet sex scandal. Giant squid involved.")

Saturday, October 28, 2006

That's What You Get Folks, For Makin' Allegory

The person who pointed out this article in The American Prospect, which examines the reactions of conservatives to Battlestar Galactica--first latching on to the show as an emblem of right-wing thinking in modern media (“The more I watch the new Battlestar Galactica series, the more the Cylons seem like Muslims"), and now recoiling in horror as it supposedly makes an ideological shift to the left (one fan 'took exception to the use of suicide bombings, which he said wouldn’t work against Cylons because “terrorist tactics only work against the United States and Israel because we’re too good to wipe all of them out”'), takes its author, Brad Reed, to task for not delving into the complexities of Galactica's moral outlook, and for accepting unthinkingly the interpretation that these conservative fans attach to it. Which I think is a little unfair, as the focus of the article isn't Battlestar Galactica, but rather the alleged tendency on the part of right-wing politicians to draw comparisons to and inspiration from works of fantasy and SF when discussing real-world politics, the most famous example of which, of course, is GOP senator Rick Santorum explaining the US's policy in Iraq by drawing comparisons to the strategy devised by Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings.
"As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else,” said Santorum, who went on to explain that the Iraq war had drawn the “eye” of the terrorists away from America. “It’s being drawn to Iraq, and it’s not being drawn to the U.S. And you know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don’t want the Eye to come back here to the United States.”*
The question of whether or not Battlestar Galactica can be read as a simplistic political allegory isn't really within the purview of Reed's article, but in laying out his argument against Republican politicians, he does partake of the conventional wisdom, that to take advice from a work of genre fiction (here defined as an undifferentiated lump encompassing both Galactica and Star Wars) is an indication of an infantile outlook and an inability to face reality head-on. The cliché of the genre dork, in other words, extended to the beltway set. In that sense, it is, of course, only right and proper that he should be taken to task (although whether his greater crime is that he oversimplifies the mindset of his opponents, or whether it is that he offends genre fans by once again perpetuating the mouth-breathing, Klingon-speaking stereotype, is not entirely clear to me). As fans of all genres know, taking inspiration from art is only a problem if you reduce that art to suit your own preconceived notions, and use it to prop up whatever decision you had already made.

The Lord of the Rings, for example, can be taken as an allegory of WWII (although personally, I prefer Neal Stephenson's interpretation, which is that WWII itself was an allegory for a much older and more primal story), but only through a extraordinarily superficial reading. Tolkien himself famously shied away from that reading. He understood that, as M. John Harrison puts it, to explain something so completely is to explain it away, reducing it to a single, temporary significance and, ultimately, to an ephemeral half-life as the shadow of the thing it purports to represent. When Rick Santorum used Tolkien's work as a crutch for his government's policies, political commentators may have recoiled from the absurdity of his rhetoric, but Tolkien fans were sighing at yet another simplistic interpretation of a work that, although by no means unproblematic, deserves so much more care and attention than Santorum gave it.

The same, however, can't be said of Battlestar Galactica. The conservative fans quoted in Reed's article may have misinterpreted Ronald D. Moore's political affiliations (at least to begin with), but their brand of unthinking, politically blinkered viewing (and Reed's willingness to buy into it) is exactly the sort that Moore and his writers have been aiming for lately, and thus no more than they deserve. If Galactica's writers prioritize being "topical" and "daring" over the integrity of their plots and characters, then they should be prepared to be watched on that level and that level alone.

There are always going to be stupid viewers. Against every fan willing to surrender themselves and their real-world prejudices to the complexity of an invented universe, there will always be at least one other who believes that all fiction is a roman a clef. In its most recent installments, Battlestar Galactica has been speaking to this latter subset of its audience, willingly surrendering its complexity, and whatever chance it may have had to endure as a work of art, for the sake of causing controversy. For this choice, it deserves to be dismissed as unthinkingly as Brad Reed does in his article, and as blindly as the former fans he quotes.



* And by the way, I find it very interesting that so many of Santorum's political opponents have latched on to his admittedly fatuous comparison, instead of pointing out that, once the analogy is decrypted, what Santorum is saying is that the US plans to prevent terrorist attacks on American civilians by using Iraqi civilians and American servicepeople as a human shield.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Housekeeping Rides Again

I seem to have found a tentative fix for the problems with the site's LJ feed. Right now, the solution seems to be to switch the RSS feed to short entries instead of full ones. I personally find this less convenient when reading other sites, so I'm going to keep looking for a better solution.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 9

  1. Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers - the second Wimsey/Vane novel puts the two characters on a more or less equal footing, both in terms of their dominance over the narrative and in terms of their contribution to the investigation of the mystery--the murder of a professional dancer on a secluded beach. This is a more complicated story than Strong Poison, with a great many elements--eye-witness accounts, forensic evidence, common deduction--coming together to form a coherent picture of the murder like so many puzzle pieces (all the while, of course, Sayers is holding back the final, crucial piece). The result is clever, if at times too deliberately so--the timeline of events surrounding the murder is crucial right down to the minute, so Sayers makes all of the relevant characters compulsive about accurate time-keeping (three or four different characters take trouble to assure the detectives that they reset their watches every morning according to the radio clock, which, please)--to the point that one begins to see Wimsey and Vane as rather ghoulish creatures, more interested in demonstrating their intelligence than in solving a brutal killing. My only real complaint about the novel, however, has to do with its ending and the rapid tone shift it makes from chipper to grim. Two paragraphs from the end, we discover that, although the murder has been solved, there isn't enough evidence to arrest the killer. The end. There isn't enough room to process this miscarriage of justice, and I put the book aside feeling a bit whip-lashed.

  2. The Wrong Case by James Crumley - Crumley is the author of The Last Good Kiss, by far the finest mystery novel I've ever read, and I was therefore a little nervous about making another foray into his bibliography. The Wrong Case isn't quite as good as Kiss--not as focused in either plot or characterization--but it is a damn fine novel, and yet another example of how the noir detective genre can successfully be transplanted to a more modern era--in this case, the mid-seventies--and of how a canny writer can manipulate the genre's trappings to reflect his own moral and political agenda. The novel begins with the traditional noir opening--a beautiful, mysterious woman comes to our detective with a seemingly simple problem--and almost immediately derails. Crumley is more interested in sketching the portrait of a small town going to seed, and in describing its least fortunate inhabitants--drunks, aging hippies, runaways, failed mobsters--than in solving a mystery, and a significant portion of the novel is taken up with following the detective--Milo Milodragovitch, the unhappy, permanently drunk scion of an influential family--as he bounces from bar to bar, meeting up with friends and acquaintances, telling us their life stories (as well as the history of his own family) and making several half-hearted attempted to go straight and make something of himself. Most noir assumes that everyone is corrupt (including the detective) and damns them for it. In The Wrong Case, Crumley assumes that everyone is corrupt and pities them for it, and the result is a novel that is at the same time tragic and kind, a heartfelt, loving ode to weakness and despair and to the people overcome by both.

  3. Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks - it seems that third time was the charm for me and Mr. Banks. The Algebraist was fun but ultimately inconsequential. Consider Phlebas had plenty to say and went about saying it for several hundred pages longer than it had to. Feersum Endjinn strikes just the right balance between whimsy and seriousness, and describes its fanciful far future with an admirable economy of words. There's a tremendous wealth of detail here, including the greatest city on Earth, a castle built on a gigantic scale--the heads of gargoyles are hollowed out and made into houses, and wars are fought between the clan situated in the great hall and the one in control of the chapel--and a virtual reality as complicated and as unpredictable as the real one, which has grown dangerous and corrupt with the passage of time and which doubles as an afterlife for the inhabitants of the city. Banks introduces us to this strange future and its intricacies with an admirable elegance, all the time moving forward with an intricate plot--four, in fact, one for each of the novel's main characters. Feersum Endjinn proceeds towards its climax with an almost geometric precision, and therein lies the novel's only fault--after so much build-up, after so much careful work, we expect the coming together of the novel's plotlines to be explosive. Instead, it is clever, neat, and not a little bit mannered--satisfying, but not as much as it might have been. Nevertheless, Feersum Endjinn is a fantastic read, and I will definitely be picking up more of Banks' writing.

  4. Y: The Last Man, Volume 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughn and Lucifer, Volume 1: Devil in the Gateway by Mike Carey - it's been two years now since I finished reading Sandman and I think it's time, after several successful and not-so-successful forays into standalone graphic novels, to make another stab at a serial. Vaughn and Carey's work has been getting a lot of good press, and although both volumes have some obvious teething problems, I can definitely see myself continuing with both stories. I approached Y: The Last Man with some trepidation--one can only imagine the many ways in which a male comic book writer could make a story about a world populated (almost) entirely by women unspeakably offensive. For the most part, I think Vaughn dodges the bullet--although the choice to have the first woman to recognize that all the men on the planet have died do so as she's putting a gun to her head was, perhaps, an unfortunate one. In fact, in some cases I get the impression that he was trying to hard to avoid or actively contradict stereotypes, including those too obvious or too silly to warrant acknowledgment (are there really people on the planet who still think that all women are pacifists?), and his depiction of Israelis had me alternately cringing and laughing uncontrollably. What I truly liked about Y, however, were the characters--last-man-on-Earth Yorick Brown and his protector Agent 355--which, this early in the story, is what should be happening, and more than enough inducement to pick up the next installment in the series.

    Lucifer builds on a character introduced in Sandman--the lord of hell who packed up shop and went off to bum on beach in Australia and, later, play piano in a trendy LA bar. The first volume is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat Sandman-derived. Lucifer is sent on a quest by heaven, travels through realms of myth and mystery, and encounters creatures both magical and mundane while accompanied (somewhat unwillingly) by a young human who may turn out to have great power. There isn't yet the sense that the story is moving in its own direction, or trying to find its own tone. Still, being too much like Sandman isn't exactly the worst thing one can say about a story, and from what I've gathered the series takes on its own character pretty quickly.

  5. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt remains one of the most interesting, thoughtfully constructed alternate histories I've ever read, and the Mars trilogy, which charts the colonization and terraforming of the red planet starting in the early 21st century, is allegedly his masterpiece. There's a lot to like here--Robinson's vision of how transportation to an alien environment both alters us and makes us more ourselves than ever is intricate and carefully thought-out. In the novel's earlier parts, he carefully charts the intense bonds and enmities that form between the member of the 'first hundred'--the scientists and engineers who establish the first human settlement on the planet. Later on, as human presence on Mars explodes, these same characters embody various, sometimes conflicting, approaches to creating a new sort of human community--the revolutionary, the pragmatist, the liberal, the mystic, the visionary, the conservationist. Unfortunately, the interesting political and philosophical plotlines are interspersed with far, far too much information about Martian geography and geology, descriptions of technology, and some extremely silly generalizations about nationalities (it's one thing to say that the Swiss tend to be more detail-oriented and anal than other nations, but they're not all like that, and so on in that vein with regard to Americans, Russians, Japanese, and, of course, Arabs--who are, for the most part, treated as a block instead of a conglomeration of ethnic groups). From what I've read, it seems that the two sequels--Green Mars and Blue Mars--step up the info-dumps and move away from political questions and towards political answers, of a very specific stripe. I somehow doubt I'll get around to them.

Monday, October 23, 2006

One Tiny Observation About Russell T. Davies' Casanova

When I wrote about Russell T. Davies' 2003 miniseries, The Second Coming, I remarked that Davies and star Christopher Eccleston carried over a great many of the lead character's mannerisms and attitudes when they created the character of the ninth Doctor. Which, at the time, was rather amusing. Now that I've seen Davies' 2005 mini, Casanova (pretty good. Very funny. Not nearly as smart or as moving as The Second Coming, but then, what is?), starring David Tennant, I'm starting to worry. You see, Tennant's Casanova is the tenth Doctor.

It's not just a matter of the actor repeating some physical tics (and anyway, I've seen Tennant in one or two other things and, while he many not have the greatest range in recorded history, he's certainly got more than one character in him). When Tennant reads his lines, you can see him wearing a pin-striped suit instead of gaudy, quasi-period dress. And those lines are thoroughly Doctor-ish:
Casanova: I'm a spy.
Grimani: A spy?
Casanova: Yes, that's right, a spy. Of course, being a spy I shouldn't say I'm a spy or I could get spied by a spy.
Grimani: I suppose you can prove it?
Casanova: What? You want me to spy on something? Look, there's a canal, I spied it. Look, it's still there. Look, and again.
In Davies' hands, Casanova is a thoroughly good man whose default mental state is an almost overwhelming selfishness. A man with the attention span of a hummingbird who is capable of a terrifying single-mindedness ("Are you a magician?" Casanova is asked by a fellow prisoner when an unjust accusation lands him in prison. He thinks for a beat. "I can be"). A seductive innocent. Sound familiar? (Honestly, just see for yourselves.)

In many ways, this actually clears up a lot of the issues with Tennant's performance as the tenth Doctor (while, obviously, raising other issues with Davies' writing of said character). No wonder the two best episodes in Doctor Who's second season were "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "School Reunion," which both repositioned the Doctor as an interstellar lothario, engaged in an endless sequence of deeply meaningful romances with women whom he eventually abandons. Unfortunately, this characterization isn't a perfect fit, and whereas Casanova can be summed up as a pleasure-seeker who always wants more than he can get, the Doctor is--or should be--a little more complicated. The result, as I've noted elsewhere, is a character without a heart. Now we know why.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Return of the Bride of Housekeeping

Those of you reading this blog off its LJ feed might have wondered why I've been so quiet this past week. Apparently, LJ thinks I'm fat. Neither of the entries I posted this week--a joint review of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, and an entry about Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Heroes--have shown up on the feed, and the excuse seems to be that they are 'too big'.

Yeah, I'm sure that's not going to keep causing problems.

Look, Up on the Airwaves

I'm not a big fan of comics, and especially not the kind featuring superheroes, but even I took less time than your average studio executive to work out that if you're going to port superhero comics over to an audio-visual medium, cinema is your absolute worst choice. For more than half a decade (well, for several decades, but there's been a glut recently), some of the finest filmmakers in the business have been trying to crack the comic book film formula. Some of their results have been financially successful, others have been well-received by critics. With the possible exception of Pixar's The Incredibles (I say possible because I'm not convinced that it's entirely accurate to describe the movie as a comic book film, not because I don't think it's excellent), none of them have even approached the distinction of good cinema, or the even more elusive honor of faithful adaptations. Most importantly, none of them have managed to replicate the intricately detailed, densely populated universes that are the hallmark of a long-running comic series.

What the comic book industry has chosen to ignore, driven by either snobbery or avarice, is that the medium best suited to their product is clearly series television. In fact, the two media share a large number of similarities which make them ideal for cross-pollination: continuous, open-ended storytelling; a mixture of standalone and multi-part stories; large casts of characters; slowly accumulating backstories and ever-complicating settings. Perhaps most importantly, whereas film is ultimately ingested in solitude, television, like comics, is a communal medium, constantly engaged in a dialogue with its audience[1]. More interesting, however, than the question of how comics can use television are the ways in which television can learn from comics--by far the more innovative and experimental field--about its own capabilities as a storytelling medium.

Which is why NBC's Heroes, the first unmitigated success of the new fall season, is at the same time a delight and a disappointment. The show's premise is simple. For some undisclosed reason, ordinary people all over the world (for which read: in the US, with one exception) are discovering that they possess superpowers. It doesn't take a great effort to imagine the standard network treatment of this premise--bring the newly-minted heroes to a recognition of their powers and to the formation of some sort of group by the end of the pilot, and then start churning out the standalone stories. Throw in some character arcs and recurring villains if you're feeling flashy, and end the season on a cliffhanger. The same approach, in other words, that we've already seen applied to every single televised version of a comic book story.

Four episodes into its first season, Heroes doesn't seem even remotely interested in going down that path. The rapidly unfolding plot is so intricate as to defy description, but it already involves a shady organization targeting heroes, a psychotic supervillain, and a Las Vegas mobster. The main cast runs into the double digits, each with their own supporting cast, emotional issues galore, and a wealth of backstory. Visually, the show borrows shamelessly from the comic book artist's toolbox, right down to episode titles artfully superimposed on walls or the hoods of cars, but it also makes excellent use of television's unique capabilities as a cinematic medium. Not since Ang Lee's Hulk has there been anything this close to an on-screen comic, and Heroes is a hell of a lot more fun.

Unfortunately, 'fun' is about as far as the show goes, quality-wise. On almost every qualitative measurement, it aspires to mediocrity. The plot is made of swiss cheese. The characters are one-note, most of them getting by on the charisma of the actors portraying them (Greg Grunberg, for instance, is playing the same lovable sad-sack created for him by J.J. Abrams in 1998). Said actors range from competent (Grunberg, Hayden Panettierre as an invincible cheerleader, Adrian Pasdar as a flying congressional nominee) to hilariously wooden (Tawny Cypress, who plays the girlfriend of one of the heroes, is stunning but tragically incapable of simulating emotion). The dialogue runs the gamut between serviceable but ugly to overwrought (especially in the all-too-copious voiceovers). For all that it is comics-derived, there's a very real sense when watching Heroes that its creators aren't heavily immersed in comics culture. They use the traditional set pieces of the superhero story, but thus far seem to have very little interest putting their own mark on these trappings or in venturing beyond cliché. Comic books are cool right now, seems to be their thought process, so let's make a show that looks like one.

What's keeping the show afloat in spite of these failings is first and foremost its frenetic pacing--there's too much going on at any given moment for us to notice the wooden acting, the leaden dialogue, the egregious plot holes. Perhaps even more important is the sense of whimsy that permeates every second of the show--this is pop corn storytelling at its very best, and the lousy acting and embarrassing dialogue are almost required for it to properly work its magic. The result is a trashy, thoroughly enjoyable televised comic book, just self-aware enough to poke fun at its foundations through the delightful Japanese salaryman Hiro[2], who is alone among the cast in recognizing--and embracing--the genre of his own life story. Heroes is pushing the boundaries of what television is capable of and what it can demand of its audience--in every respect but quality.

It's somewhat amusing, therefore, that through an accident of scheduling, I usually end up watching the latest episode of Heroes back to back with another new show about uniquely gifted individuals swooping down to save us from an unspeakable menace. I'm speaking, of course, of Aaron Sorkin's by now not-so-triumphant return to television, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show which, among several others, has set itself the goal of discussing the capabilities, and the role, of television as an artistic medium.

The two shows make for an interesting juxtaposition since, even taking into account their very different approaches to plot, they have almost complementary strengths and weaknesses. I came across a brief review of Studio 60's latest episode yesterday morning, whose author commented that "I already feel, watching [Studio 60], like I'm watching the seventh season of a grand dame show which isn't nearly as good as it used to be, yet I have grown so close to the characters over the years that I just keep on hanging in there out of sympathy and love for them." Which strikes me as apt, and at the same time both a severe criticism of and high praise for Aaron Sorkin's abilities as a writer. What's keeping Studio 60 afloat are the technical accomplishments that the creators of Heroes expend so little energy on--dialogue, acting, characterization. Matthew Perry is a revelation as writer Matt Albie, and Sarah Paulson, for all that she's nearly bent over double by the weight of her 'sympathetic Christian character' plaque, is a delight. Nate Corddry is stealing every one of his scenes, and Amanda Peet is gamely doing her best with a plot device masquerading as a character. Only Bradley Whitford's character remains unlikable and, what's worse, underdeveloped. In the space of ten minutes in last week's episode, Whitford's Danny physically assaulted one of his employees and then publicly reprimanded an actress for being kissed by a man, and while there's obviously a story to be told about the kind of misanthrope who is only fully human around his creative partner, that's not the story the show seems to be telling. What's really weighing Studio 60 down, however, is its inability to settle on a direction, and to proceed towards its target with anything resembling grace and wit.

A canny publicity campaign created a great deal of internet buzz for the show over the summer, and the most frequently heard concern among Sorkin fans during that period was the fear that the creator of The West Wing would suggest, with his newest creation, that writing and producing a late-night sketch comedy show was as objectively important, as meaningful an accomplishment, as running a nation and leading the free world. Which, ironically enough, is actually the one hurdle the show seems to have cleared, and in fact its treatment of its setting has finally crystalized my understanding of the kind of stories Sorkin likes to tell. Alone among the seemingly endless parade of doctor, lawyer, cop, and other workplace shows, Aaron Sorkin's creations revolve around people who love their job, whose lives are their job, who are both fortunate and talented enough to be paid to do or talk about the things they love[3]. I still think Sports Night went too far in its use of hyperbole to describe the importance of making a sports news show, but even overwrought cheesiness is preferable to the tone Studio 60 is striking. Or rather, failing to strike. In spite of the fact that it obviously comes closest to Sorkin's heart, Studio 60 has yet to convey to its audience the joy of creation, the rush of accomplishment, that Sorkin's previous forays so effortlessly incorporated into their makeup. There have been a lot of complaints these past few weeks about the fact that the jokes and sketches in the show-within-the-show aren't funny. They're not, and this is serious problem, but not nearly as serious as the fact that the show-without-the-show isn't fun.

Which, of course, is directly attributable to the other great failing about which so many of its online viewers have been complaining, which is that Sorkin's primary objective in writing Studio 60 is to use it as a platform for his opinions about the future of television and of popular culture in general (with a secondary objective being using the show to settle scores with Hollywood enemies and aggrandize his own accomplishments). To my mind, however, the fact that Sorkin puts speeches in his characters' mouths isn't necessarily a problem--he did the same with The West Wing for four years. The real issue is that, when it comes to his own field, Sorkin has surprisingly little to say. Television should be better, it should challenge its audience and seek to raise the level of public debate rather than catering to the lowest common denominator. This is all very well and good, but what's the next step?

"There's nothing wrong with the medium, just some of the content," network president Jordan plaintively tells a young writer whose brilliant new show[4] she wishes to buy in Studio 60's most recent episode (which seems apropos of nothing, since the writer wants to make a television show--he's just planning to sell his script to HBO). Which is true, but also an oversimplification so profound as to render the discussion meaningless. The episode revolves around the coming together of opposites--secular Matt and Christian Harriet only caught fire as a writer and a performer when they started working together--and Jordan's argument is that it isn't right for those of us who seek high-brow, literate entertainment to hide behind a wall of privilege and disassociate ourselves from those consumers looking for silly entertainment, like the odious reality show she passes on.

Which is true enough, as such things go, but what Sorkin ignores is that there is no medium in which low-brow entertainment doesn't vastly outsell intelligent, quality material. The very best we can hope for from bestsellers in any field is that they be solid, hearty fun--early Beatles songs, Harry Potter, The Matrix. The problem with television is that unlike the other creative media, it doesn't give less popular but higher quality material room to grow. There is no fringe in television, no venue for independent creators, no experimental scene from which new ideas can percolate into the mainstream[5]. Jordan's right that there's nothing inherently wrong with the medium, but there's a hell of a lot wrong with the economic model governing it, and those problems are not addressed by the naive assumption that if you put good stuff on TV for long enough, America is going to get smarter.

In spite of their differences, Studio 60 and Heroes have in common a dual structure--they both operate on a story level and on a meta level, as a commentary on their medium. Both shows suffer from significant failings on both levels, but it is telling--and Aaron Sorkin would do well to draw the proper conclusions the next time he tries to talk about his medium--that Heroes--fun but soulless--is soaring, whereas Studio 60--earnest but unsophisticated--is crashing to the ground.



[1] This, by the way, is probably the reason why there are so few movie fandoms, and of those that do exist most are focussed on film series or on films derived from other media.

[2] Besides being funny, I think this choice of name perfectly illustrate my point about the writers' reliance on cliché. Yes, it's cute that a hero is named Hiro, but only to someone who isn't aware that Neal Stephenson went down this path fifteen years ago, and that he had the balls to give his character the surname Protagonist.

[3] His ability to appreciate and even celebrate obsessive affection for a single topic is probably why Sorkin's fans react with so much hurt when he lashes out at them for having a similar attitude towards his shows.

[4] Set--sigh--within the walls of an august political institution.

[5] Which is why, when television does innovate, it does so by mimicking other media--film, theatre, or even comics.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Saturday Afternoon Double Feature

There are several reasons why, in spite of the fact that I don't consider myself to be a fan of either Darren Aronofsky or Richard Linklater (or, for that matter, Philip K. Dick)*, I made the schlep up to Haifa yesterday afternoon to catch festival screenings of their latest films. For one thing, there's the fact that both films had incredibly cool trailers, or the fact that one of them has already been buried by its Israeli distributer and the other is likely to, which means that yesterday was probably my only chance to view these films in a movie theatre (over at his blog, Israeli film critic Yair Raveh has been collating a list of films purchased for distribution in Israel and then forgotten by their distributors. It's a terrifying collection, and includes such embarrassing oversights as Donnie Darko, Garden State, and Hotel Rwanda). But the most important reason for making time to see A Scanner Darkly and The Fountain was powerfully brought home to me only an hour after I'd finished viewing the latter. My friend Hagay, who accompanied me to both films, and a friend of his, tried very earnestly to convince me that neither film--the former of which takes place in the near future and features chameleon suits, omnipresent surveillance, and a drug so powerful that it can permanently distort the user's perception of reality; the latter of which takes place at least in part in the distant future and features a space voyage--aren't science fiction.

Few SF fans will be shocked to discover that the genre's cinematic definition is a great deal more conservative and constrained than its literary equivalent. Science fiction, for movie-goers and -makers, more often than not means spaceships, lasers, aliens, and, most importantly, gunfights. There can and have been some very fine and thoughtful films made within that subset of the genre, but a fan looking for slightly different, more subdued fare will wait a long time between offerings. It was precisely this hunger that brought me to Haifa yesterday, and as it turns out, Scanner and Fountain have more in common than just being atypical instances of a heavily streamlined genre. They both have a unique visual sensibility, are both best appreciated for their emotional ambience and not their plot, and can both be more comfortably described as interesting rather than successful.

Like its protagonist, Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover policeman whose pretense of being a drug addict is swiftly becoming a reality, A Scanner Darkly suffers from a split personality. On the one hand, it is a near-future dystopia about a nation at war with itself. In a desperate attempt to curb the proliferation of the dangerous drug Substance D, America has become a police state. Citizens are placed under constant surveillance and dissenters are snatched off the streets by shock troops in unmarked vans. A megacorporation called New Path offers a putative cure for addiction to Substance D, but it whisks its patients away to the one spot in America not under surveillance, and to an unknown fate. When interacting with his fellow policemen, Bob must wear a chameleon suit to hide his identity, with the bleakly humorous result that he is tasked with surveilling himself as a potential drug dealer.

When it moves away from Bob's professional life, A Scanner Darkly becomes an almost plotless study of the character's downward spiral. Along with fellow addicts Barris, Luckman and Freck (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane) and girlfriend Donna (Winona Ryder), Bob performs the standard stoner rituals--sitting around for hours musing about nothing, indulging in paranoid delusions, coming up with insane schemes that go nowhere, and denying that they have a problem. As the film progresses, Bob begins to suffer the effects of prolonged exposure to Substance D. He becomes disassociated from himself, and ultimately loses both of his identities.

Apart from being the first instance in 24 years of a work by Philip K. Dick being adapted into something other than an action film, A Scanner Darkly is probably best known for utilizing a rotoscoping animating technique, in which animation is superimposed over live film**. The effect is nothing short of stunning, and serves to both alienate us from Bob, who is something other than three-dimensionally, naturalistically human, and put us inside his head, in which the familiar has become slightly alien. Although some reviewers have taken the animating process to task for smoothing away the nuances of the actors' expressions, I think the film's overall texture more than makes up for this sacrifice. Of particular note are the chameleon suits worn by Bob and the other policemen, which project a constantly shifting image made up of the body parts of different men, women, and children. Both creepy and beautiful, the chameleon suits are a perfect visual expression of Bob's alienation and his increasing loss of self--by being everybody, he becomes a nobody, cut off from humanity by a thin but impermeable membrane.

Probably the toughest part of adapting A Scanner Darkly to the screen was the need to maintain a balance between tragedy and farce. There's very little that isn't funny--albeit a very dark kind of funny--about the notion of policemen so secret that they unknowingly spy on one other (was Dick reading G.K. Chesterton, I wonder?), and the interactions between Bob and his friends are also nothing short of ridiculous. It is to Linklater's credit, therefore, that he manages to infuse the film with a tragic undertone. We can laugh when Luckman, in the throes of a paranoid fantasy about invaders in his unattended house, asks, "What if they come in through the back door or the bathroom window like that infamous Beatles song?", but we will do so uncomfortably and in the knowledge that what we're actually watching is the criminal waste of minds and, ultimately, lives. Even more impressive than this transition from amusement to disgust, however, is the one that takes place later in the film, when our distaste for the characters turns to pity. The film ends with a coda by Dick, in which he dedicates the work (the book, I assume) to friends of his who were punished all too severely for their mistakes, and we can only nod in sympathy.

Ultimately, however, A Scanner Darkly fails as a tragedy of weakness and self-destruction, and this failure can be directly attributed to the film's dystopian, SFnal half. There's something winningly honest about the wording of Dick's coda, in which he acknowledges that, however terrible and disproportionate their punishment, his fallen friends were the authors of their own fate. Within the story, however, Dick chickens out (I haven't read the book, but from what I understand Linklater's adaptation is quite faithful). The Substance D plague turns out to be the brain-child of a single organization, a relentless and deliberate attack against helpless users, and the film ends with the suggestion that this organization can be defeated, thus freeing humanity from the bane of addiction. It's a facile ending, which traps the film between two emotional modes--too simplistic and upbeat for the naturalistic tragedy of drug abuse we had been watching, but also far too bleak for a feel-good story of good triumphing over evil. The audience is cheated out of their catharsis, and the film, however impressive in its parts, turns out to be unsatisfying as a whole.

It's quite a paradigm shift to go from Linklater's flattened and almost textureless suburban settings to the rich and hyper-detailed visuals of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. The film's interiors--apartments, palaces, offices, museums, tents, dungeons, labs--are carefully arranged, artful even in their messiness. Its exteriors are so heavily textured that even a blanket of snow becomes an assault on the senses. Space itself, in Aronofsky's hands, is crowded with visual stimuli.

As anyone who's seen the film's trailer (and if you have, you know the film's plot and can probably guess at its ending--this isn't a film you watch for the story) knows, The Fountain tells three parallel stories, which take place in the past, the present, and the future. In the early 21st century, a scientist named Tom (Hugh Jackman) battles valiantly to find a cure for the cancer afflicting his beloved wife, Izzy (Rachel Weisz). Izzy is a novelist, whose latest story (titled The Fountain) takes place in 16th century Spain. The reign of Queen Isabella is threatened by a ruthless inquisitor, who pronounces judgments of heresy against the Queen's allies and seizes their land. She dispatches the conquistador Tomas to the jungles of South America, where the dying Mayan civilization is said to conceal the tree of life. In the future, an unnamed man who may or may not be a now immortal Tom, travels with the dying remnants of this tree towards a nebula the Mayans christened Xibalba--the home of the dead, and a source of new life.

There's a great deal of fun to be had in tracking the ways in which the three plotlines loop around and echo each other. The dagger with which Tomas travels towards his destination is echoed in the shape of the quill with which Izzy writes her novel, and the tattoo needle with which the future Tom marks the passage of time on his own skin. When he first meets Isabella, Tomas glimpses her through an intricately patterned screen. A similar pattern appears on the glass door of Izzy's hospital room. The inquisitor notes his conquests of Isabella's land by daubing blood over a map of Spain, recalling all too powerfully the progress of a tumor as it swallows up healthy tissue. The effect of these recurring elements is strongly reminiscent of self-referential, post-modern puzzle novels like David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or Simon Ings's The Weight of Numbers, in which the reading experience becomes an active exploration. Aronofsky's use of this technique engourages us to believe that the film's disparate plotlines will eventually come together to form an overpowering, emotional crescendo.

There's no shortage of emotion to be overpowered by in The Fountain. The bulk of the film revolves around Izzy and Tom, but for all that they are our contemporaries, they are not naturalistic characters. Everything about them is operatic and larger than life: Tom's determination to find a cure for Izzy and his fear of losing her, Izzy's ever-increasing luminousness in the face of death, their love for one another. Izzy and Tom, and Isabella and Tomas, and the future Tom and the imaginary Izzy to whom he speaks, aren't characters so much as archetypes--the man the woman, the scientist and the artist, the searcher and the guide. This is the sort of artistic choice one has to be prepared for--to watch The Fountain expecting realistic characterization would make for a disastrous viewing experience--and to Aronofsky's credit he for the most part carries his audience along with him--the film teeters on the brink of overwrought melodrama, but never quite makes the plunge. We buy into the grandeur with which Aronofsky imbues his characters and their plight.

Unfortunately, the promised crescendo never truly materializes. At the risk of sounding flip, I have to point out that Aronofsky expends a terrific amount of energy, and demands an equally terrific emotional commitment from his audience, to express one of the minor themes of the Harry Potter books--that immortality is achieved not through the denial of death but through its acceptance, and through the transformative power of art and creation***. Even worse, he fails to convey this message convincingly. By the end of the film, the intricate interlacing of plotlines begins to unravel. The plot collapses in upon itself, leaving us only with the message. Unsupported by the story's invented cosmology, this message takes on the hue of fortune cookie wisdom--death is the path to immortality, OK, what's for desert? It's obviously unfair to criticize Aronofsky for not making a film which doubles as a spiritual eye-opener (although I'm not entirely convinced that he wasn't aiming for such an effect), but by failing to sustain the audience's emotional investment in his story, Aronofsky misses out on even the ersatz sense of revelation that can be wrought out of a well-told story (or, as I like to put it, I don't believe in Christ but I do believe in Aslan).

As I wrote at the beginning of this entry, neither The Fountain nor A Scanner Darkly are entirely successful works. Each of them, however, fails in interesting ways, and succeeds often enough in individual scenes, in certain images, and in their ability to keep me enthralled, if not entirely satisfied, to make the time and effort I took to see them worthwhile. After a long dry spell with no interesting SF films in sight--hell, no interesting films, period, in sight--yesterday afternoon's double feature made for an almost overpowering glut. If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend both of these films--an interesting failure is sometime a more worthy object than an uninteresting success.



* Full disclosure: I've seen Aronofsky's Pi and found it ambitious but ultimately a mess. Haven't seen Requiem for a Dream or any of Linklater's films. Of Dick's novels, I've only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which I liked but not enough to actively seek out more of his work.

** Which, by the way, makes the film a blow against cinematic preconceptions on two fronts--it is both an atypical SF film and an atypical animated film.

*** Yair Raveh's review of the film is in Hebrew, which unfortunately means that most of my readers won't be able to read it, but he very cleverly points out that, in spite of the obvious associations between the film's title and the mythical fountain of eternal life, the actual source of immortality in the film is a tree, not a fountain. Could the title allude, Raveh wonders, to an ink fountain, the means by which Izzy creates her own slice of immortality, the completion of which she leaves to Tom?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Oh, How Wonderful

Orhan Pamuk Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

I've only read two of Pamuk's novels--My Name is Red and Snow--but they were both magnificent, beautifully written and fiercely intelligent, compassionately but unflinchingly exposing the failures of East and West and asking vitally important questions about the viability of a meeting point between the two, and about the purpose of art itself. This is a fantastic choice.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Housekeeping, Redux

At Niall Harrison's request and with his kind assistance, AtWQ's comments feed has been syndicated on LJ.

Speaking of LJ syndications, I'm aware that the site's main feed has been spamming people's friends pages with an extended backlog. I apologize--I have no idea why this happened or whether the problem is with the RSS feeds or LJ. I'll keep an eye on the situation--hopefully these are isolated hiccups.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In Which Your Host Gets Angry and Other "Occupation"/"Precipice" Thoughts

I'm the sort of person who takes time to get angry. I need to think and work myself up to a good mad. As I write this, it's been a little over 24 hours since I sat down to watch Battlestar Galactica's third season premiere, "Occupation"/"Precipice," and in that time I've gone back to watch the episode a second time. I'd actually planned to lay off the Galactica reviews for a while, but about half an hour into the first half I knew I'd have things to say about this episode, and I've been trying to put them into a coherent form for nearly a day. It's only now that I've come close to succeeding.

It's only now that I've started to get mad.

This is not to say that "Occupation"/"Precipice" is a bad hour and a half of television. In terms of the quality Galactica is capable of, I rate the episode as comfortably adequate. There's very little about it that's bad, and quite a few things that are good. Starbuck's sub-plot in particular is horrifying and deliciously nasty, and there are some beautiful grace notes and fantastic exchanges between characters--Tigh's deliberate and almost joyful descent into madness; Ellen's refreshingly human self-loathing after prostituting herself to Cavil; Boomer and Cally talking at cross-purposes, constantly shifting between the personal and the political, constantly trading power and never finding a common language; Adama and Sharon's newfound closeness, and a similar camaraderie between Roslin and Zarek.

There are obviously some complaints I could offer about the episode's pacing and construction. Far too many plotlines are allowed to proceed simultaneously, and the decision to combine two standalone episodes into a single two-hour premiere is nothing short of disastrous. After a stunning first act which succinctly, and with a minimum of fuss, establishes the status of most of the main characters, "Occupation" becomes bogged in exposition--Roslin's voice-over, for instance, tells us almost nothing we hadn't already been told by the preceding act or had simply taken as read, given how heavily the show trades in the clichés of the occupation narrative. The plotline on Galactica/Pegasus ought to have been excised entirely, thus bringing us closer to the characters' headspace--knowing that the fleet is out there but not knowing when they might arrive or whether they're watching the planet--and Duck's suicide attack should have ended the second act instead of being dragged out for a further half hour.

Alternatively, I could point out, yet again, that the show has taken to making its points with a sledgehammer. It's not enough for Lee to have let himself go a little--he has to have doubled in size. The effect is laughable instead of disturbing. It's not enough for Casey to hurt herself when Kara leaves her unattended--she has to crack her head open on a concrete step. The focus immediately shifts from Kara's conflicting feelings towards the child to the almost unanimous assumption that Leoben orchestrated her injury (and that she may not even be Kara's daughter). It's not enough for the New Caprica Police to work for the Cylons--they have to operate primarily as a gestapo. Instead of presenting a viable moral dilemma, the collaborators are painted as monsters.

But honestly, I just don't have the heart to get into these issues. I'm tired. One of the reasons I'd planned to leave Galactica alone for a while is that it had recently occurred to me that I've been writing about the show for more than a year now, and in all that time I've pretty much said only one thing, again and again, growing louder and more upset with each repetition: that the show's writers consistently sacrifice the integrity of their characters, their plots, and their invented universe to the Moloch of political allegory. That they are so enchanted by the notion of being seen to ask 'tough questions' that they willingly resort to the most embarrassing sort of contrivance in order to arrive at those questions, which only serves to bleed them of their immediacy.

I don't like repeating myself. It bores my readers. Worse, it bores me, and it's taken me 24 hours to grow terribly angry with Ronald D. Moore for bringing me to the point where I am too bored to criticize his show. He has such terrific material to work with: a dedicated cast, talented writers, a network in awe of his accomplishments and critics ready to crown him the new king of television. But it's not the fact that he squanders these assets and produces lackluster television that angers me. It's the fact that the allegedly dark and edgy story elements for which the quality of his show has been sacrificed are so goddamn half-hearted and lily-livered that makes me quiver with rage.

You want to talk about suicide bombings? Then talk about them. I'll listen. I'll watch you try to convince me that there might be a time in which good men and women would manipulate desperate young people into throwing away their lives for the promise of a happier eternity, or just money for their families. I'll let you try to tell me that there might be a situation in which the only viable military strategy is to target civilians going about their lives, that this is a sensible tactic with practical military goals.

Ron Moore doesn't do this in "Occupation"/"Resistance." He loads the dice. Duck is an adult, and a soldier, and he goes to his death clear-eyed and certain. His target is a military target, and the second suicide bomber's a logistical one. Some lip service is paid to the notion of targeting the market, but it is soon swept away--it is clearly mentioned merely to shock us. When Baltar talks to Roslin at the beginning of "Precipice," he describes suicide bombings as I understand them, and as I believe we are meant to think of them--young men and women strapping bombs to their bodies and blowing themselves up in public places. What Tigh orchestrates, however, is a different animal. He sends soldiers to blow themselves up near strategic targets, and while there is an interesting argument to be had over whether this is a legitimate military tactic, that's not the effect Moore is going for--he just doesn't expect us to notice the difference.

I've watched the premiere twice now, and as near as I can tell this is the thought process Ron Moore envisioned for his viewers when he planned the suicide bomber plotline:
  1. Suicide bombings are something that bad guys do

  2. Our heroes are good guys

  3. Our heroes employ suicide bombings

  4. *Head explodes*
Note the missing stage 0, in which it is established why suicide bombings are evil. Moore never bothers to engage with that question. He relies on the effectiveness of the phrase 'suicide bombing' to get the work done. He's counting on his audience's visceral reaction to the words. He promised us ethics, and he's delivered semantics.

Imagine yourself at a bus stop. Your bus is coming down the street. You get up, swing your backpack over your shoulder, rummage in your pocket for money, and all the time in the back of your mind, not even entirely conscious, is the thought: in a few seconds, I might be making the last choice of my life. The specter of ugly, sudden death is a constant companion. When you go to school, or shopping, or out for a night of fun. It doesn't matter who you are or what you believe in. Simply being on the wrong side of a dispute makes you fair game to someone who is perfectly willing to send young people to die in order to cause your death. But far more important to that person are the people who won't die, who will watch your death on TV and wonder when their turn will come, who will hesitate for just a moment before going to see a movie, or walking into a shopping mall. Or getting on a bus.

That is why suicide bombings are evil. That and bodies ripped to shreds by shrapnel and organs liquified by blast waves (the next person who tells me "Occupation" is 'dark' is going to have to give me 500 words on why the episode's last shot wasn't a screen-full of hamburger). I was ready for Ron Moore to try to tell me that sometimes such evil is necessary, but he never even tried. I was ready for Ron Moore to challenge me, but he never challenged himself. He pulled a bait-and-switch, cloaking a lesser (and, in the context of his story, not very logical) evil in the guise of a greater one. It's dishonest, and manipulative, and cowardly.

After the shrill disingenuousness of "Occupation"/"Precipice"'s major storylines, the conversation between Roslin and Zarek near the end of the premiere, in which they both ruefully wish that Roslin had been successful in her attempt to steal the elections which put Baltar in office and have been the source of so much death and destruction, is a soothing balm. For once, the power of words is used wisely. Our visceral reaction to the notion of tampering with a democratic election crashes against the horror now facing people too honest (if only by a smidgeon) to engage in that act, and there is no discernible answer in sight--only a sad grin. What a pity that such genuinely challenging fare can only be found on the show's margins.

Monday, October 09, 2006

No, I Did Not Chain Dan Hartland to a Desk and Force Him to Write Deadwood Critiques

...but I probably would have, if I'd thought of it.

Happily, such extremes are no longer necessary--Dan has supplemented his excellent essays about the show's first and second seasons with some thoughts about the third:
Swearengen spends much of the season trying to marshal a force large enough to combat Hearst's own when the time comes for gunplay, but ultimately he is instead forced to kill an innocent girl merely to ensure his town's diminished survival. There is no fighting a man like Hearst, nor the sort of world his type of person brings. In that world, Swearengen will carry on much as before - there will always be pimps and drug dealers - but he will not be master of his own fate. Civilization has come to 'Deadwood', and it means the end of total libterty. The age of the cowboys are over - this is the true creation of a nation. The viewer has thought they were watching a battle, but they never were. They were watching a rout.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Going Some Way Towards Alleviating My Battlestar Galacita Bitterness

Hot off the official website, this amusing music video, A New Crew in Town, which reminds us that, if nothing else, the new incarnation of the show is 'so much better than the one with Lorne Greene.' And, more importantly, that there's at least one person involved with the show's production who still has a sense of humor.

Housekeeping

With no small amount of trepidation, I've made the switch to Blogger Beta: Everything Wordpress Can Do, We Can Do Better or At Least As Well (We Hope). There are several new features that I've been clamoring for, mainly post categories (see sidebar) and a comment feed. Also, obviously, a layout makeover, which I think we can all agree was long overdue.

I'd be very happy for some feedback. Is the new layout pretty/ugly/in need of some drastic changes (I can change the color scheme rather easily and may in fact end up doing so)? Are there any categories I've missed or that I should get rid of? Should I syndicate the comment feed on LJ? For that matter, which is preferrable--a site-wide comment feed or individual comment feeds for each post?

Just About the Only Thing That Might Get Me to Watch Lost Again

E! Online's Insider Community reports:
Sources confirm to me that Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly) has been cast on Lost! He starts filming the show next week in Hawaii, and will guest star in at least two episodes this season, from what I hear.
Of course, given how little the show's writers did with Wayne Pygram last year, I'm not sure this is worth getting excited over.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Conversation About In the Forest of Forgetting

A couple of weeks ago, Strange Horizons published my review of Theodora Goss's debut collection, In the Forest of Forgetting. Niall Harrison, SH's reviews editor, is also the editor of the BSFA newsletter, Vector (as well as blogging on Vector's editorial blog, Torque Control, and at the group-blog Big Blog of Cheese, and, for all I know, fighting crime) and had written his own review of the collection. Niall's review won't be published until January, but he let me take a sneak peak and we ended up discussing the collection and our very different reactions to it. The following is an edited form of our discussion (you should probably read my review first or this won't make much sense).

Abigail Nussbaum: I am, as usual, tickled by our differing responses to the same work, but especially in this case because so many of my favorite stories in the collection have ended up on your least favorite list, and vice versa. For example, you found the collection's opening story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals," brilliant, and wrote that "time passes before our eyes--not just fairytale time, but real time." I, on the other hand, called the story "clever and well-written but by no means ground-breaking," and also found it a little predictable--it's a format and an approach that I've seen done before (Neil Gaiman comes most prominently to mind, but there have been others), and coming first as it does, it rather put me off the collection.

Niall Harrison: You're right, but I find Gaiman's short fiction very hit-and-miss--it often feels too in thrall to its references. Something like "A Study in Emerald", for instance, I just found achingly obvious, and I think the only story of his I could say I really love is Coraline. With Goss, something about the angles she uses keeps the material fresh for me. I do think a lot of it is to do with the way the passage of time is handled--the perspective of the story zooms out, and then zooms back in again--but also it just seems more, well, graceful.

AN: I think our different responses boil down to our different reading histories. I've read so many stories that juxtapose fairy tale elements with our coldly industrial present (just recently there's been Sheri S. Tepper's Beauty) that the ending of "The Rose in Twelve Petals" struck me as, in your words, achingly obvious. Which comes back to what I wrote in my review--you have to work hard, these days, to stand out with a retold fairy tale. But I do agree that Goss's writing is graceful. I actually enjoyed "The Rose in Twelve Petals" a great deal more than I'm making out here right up until the final segment--the little details like the king choosing the vitality of his wool industry over his daughter's safety or the stray dog living out his life in the enchanted castle were quite lovely. As you say, they kept the material fresh.

NH: So what was it about the final segment that tipped the story over the line?

AN: I think maybe just the obviousness of it--it's so clear that Goss wants to do something different and unexpected (she clearly can't resort to the standard happy ending) and, after all, what could be more antithetical to the fairy tale mode than a literal-minded, uncouth, socialist tractor-driver? The story's ending felt crass--the opposite of the gracefulness that had preceded it.

In your review, you describe Goss's writing as neat and mannered, sometimes too much so. I agree with your description--I was troubled by these aspects of Goss's prose as well--but somewhere around the midway point I found myself feeling genuinely troubled and affected by her stories. For all their neatness, they were leaving a residue--usually a discomforting one. For example, another story we disagree about is "Letters From Budapest." It's my favorite piece in the collection, but you found it "marked by an awkward shift in register, of the kind that snaps us out of the moment, and leaves us looking at some props, and the wires that sustain them." I think the sudden tone shift at the end of the story is intentional and meant to cause discomfort, although it's possible that I'm reading too much into the story when I suggest that Goss intends to examine the issue of decadent art.

NH: No, I don't think you are. Goss strikes me as quite a conscious writer, in that I think she's very aware of what she's doing in her stories and how she's putting them together -- which is perhaps one reason why, above and beyond the idioms and settings she chooses to work with, her stories have the mannered feel they do. But in a story like "Letters from Budapest" it seems to me that that awareness works against her; she doesn't give up that sense of control enough for me to be disturbed or horrified. The writer I was thinking of here was actually Maureen McHugh, whose stories are often incredibly precise when you look at them closely, but who can layer emotion so effectively you end up looking the other way. Or someone like Joe Hill, who can almost convince you that he's lost control of his story entirely, that things are happening that were never meant to happen ("The Cape", in particular, had this effect on me) when in fact the opposite is true.

AN: I see what you mean about Goss holding on too tightly to her story for us to be horrified. When I read the story, however, I reacted to the sudden shift in ideology. Obviously we expect the main character to run into trouble in the big city, but the discovery that the decadent art really is decadent--that it will literally corrupt promising young people and suck the life out of them--was disturbing to me on the level of trying to work out Goss's agenda and political affiliations. Horrific creatures--vampires and lamias in particular - are often used as metaphors for mundane dangers. It was Goss's choice of metaphor in this story that left me feeling both intrigued and rattled. So, in a way, we might say that it's precisely because she keeps such close control of the story that it becomes effectively horrifying.

Were you also made uncomfortable by the way that the collection's introduction delved so deeply into Goss's personal history? I couldn't help but feel that I was being asked to appreciate the stories as expressions of Goss's personal issues first and as works of fiction second. Obviously, all fiction is ultimately rooted in the author's history, but the facts of that history aren't usually laid out so nakedly before the reader (coming even before the fiction itself). I got a very definite impression that I was being asked to appreciate Goss's stories on a whole new, superior, level because they were the result of such a difficult, traumatic journey, which I rather resent.

NH: I actually held the introduction over until after I'd read the stories, because I'm like that, but I agree with you that, having read it, it's impossible not to see her biography as informing her fiction. I was very aware, writing my review, that my take on the collection was quite an 'obvious' one--very in line with the story of Goss as a writer that's laid out in that introduction, in terms of being concerned with boundaries and movement and development of self and so forth. Which doesn't mean all those things aren't in there, but it makes it harder to look for other ways in to the stories--and I think the stories are probably good enough that there are other ways in, so the introduction almost does the collection a disservice.

AN: I actually ended up making a deliberate choice not to delve too deeply into the issues raised in the introduction when I wrote my review, mostly because I resented the fact that I had been so carefully led to examine them. As you say, the issues of boundary and movement are clearly crucial to the collection (and my reading, which prioritizes escape, is in many ways merely a half-twist on the more 'conventional' reading), but it would have been nice if we had been trusted to arrive at that understanding ourselves. I suppose this brings us back to the issue of control--not only are the stories in the collection tightly controlled, but an effort has been made to control the way in which those stories are read.

NH: Very true--and quite ironic, really, when you think about what the Interstitial Arts Foundation stands for.