Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006, A Year in Books: Worst Reads of the Year

As I wrote in yesterday's best books roundup, this is not going to be an very long list--it might just be that I'm developing a better bullshit detector, but I didn't read many genuine stinkers this year. Which might seem like something to be grateful for, but I've found that a truly terrible book can be a blessing in disguise--few things are as fun as a no-holds-barred rant against a novel that offends one's sensibilities simply by existing in the universe. Which is what the year's worst reads roundup is all about--it's how I compensate myself for having read these books in the first place. As it was last year, this list is presented in ascending order of horribleness.
  • Misfortune by Wesley Stace

    I think Wesley Stace must live in a cave. How else to explain the fact that, in his debut novel, Stace chose a premise all but identical to that of Jeffrey Eugenides's sublime, Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex--male child raised as a girl--and then sat back and did nothing with it, smugly certain that the sheer neatness of his core idea--and of the choice to set his story in the 19th century--would sustain a 500 page novel? Whereas Eugenides used his central character's predicament to explore questions of identity and of the meaning of gender, Stace--whose setting leaves him a natural opening to explore the gap between social and biological gender--has nothing to say about his chosen topic, and to make matters worse, his main character is a ninny whose single decisive action over the course of her entire life is to try--and fail--to commit suicide, and who otherwise relies on others to come to her rescue while she bemoans her sad fate. She chooses to live as a woman even after she learns the truth about herself, but at no point do either she or the narrative come to any conclusions about what being a woman means. The result is a novel that does nothing--doesn't entertain, doesn't make us think, doesn't convincingly recreate its era--except sit there for 500 pages feeling secure in its innovativeness.

  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

    It's hard to avoid the suspicion that if it weren't for the 'lesbians in period dress' angle, no one would have paid Waters's tepid, underperforming debut the least bit of attention. The novel follows the rising and falling fortunes of Nancy, a small-town girl who follows her heart to the big city, as she bounces from one girlfriend to another--a gallery of lesbian stereotypes painted in the coarsest and broadest strokes imaginable. Nancy herself is a thoroughly unlikable character--she's rather dumb, is capable of a breathtaking selfishness, and is frequently whiny, needy, and vain. Worst of all, she's boring. Waters seems to have been aware that her main character wasn't earning the happy ending she was clearly headed towards, and some 50 pages from the novel's end she sets out to remake Nancy's soul by confronting her with social inequality and having her embrace socialism. It is through the latter that Nancy achieves redemption and earns the love of a good woman--in a scene so corny it would have raised a Harlequin romance editor's eyebrows. Waters has written at least one enjoyable novel since Tipping the Velvet's publication, but it's a great pity that she felt the need to inflict this unbaked first effort on an unsuspecting public.

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Never Let Me Go was one of the first books I read this year, and in a way I suppose that was a blessing, as everything that followed this dull, poorly-written, self-important little novel was pretty much an improvement. Ishiguro's novel is an attempt to grapple--through the device of a half-baked SFnal allegory--with human mortality and the ineffectual methods we employ to ignore it or bargain it down, and I'm willing to stipulate that criticizing it for being bad--and by 'bad' I mean 'horrendously, embarrassingly bad'--science fiction isn't being fair to Ishiguro, whose focus was on the novel's philosophical aspect, not its SFnal premise. But it's still a bad novel--boring, peopled with boring characters, and written in the boring voice of a person who, for some inexplicable reason, seems to think that anyone with more than half a brain will care about her insipid, rambling reminiscences of schoolyard adventures and childhood crushes. Which they won't, because those reminiscences are--you got it--boring. Which is all clearly intentional on Ishiguro's part. He means to stultify his readers. He means for his main characters to be unappealing. He means to write at a level only slightly more sophisticated than that of your average sixth grader's book report. It's all part of setting the novel's tone. It is this tone, however, that renders Never Let Me Go completely inert--why should we care about the novel's philosophical core when we can't be bothered to give a damn about its fictional surface or the characters who people it? Never Let Me Go isn't a bad novel because of its stylistic shortcomings, but because of its rhetorical ones.
Dishonorable Mentions:

Friday, December 29, 2006

2006, A Year in Books: Best Reads of the Year

Another year gone by. The time for listmaking is once again upon us (or, as those overhasty folks who were posting year-end summaries at the beginning of the month or even, I ask you, in November would have us believe, already long past) and the news is not good. I've mentioned on more than one occasion that 2006 was not turning to be a great reading year for me, but it was only when I sat down to compile this list that I realized how dire the situation truly was. This is not to say that I read a great many bad books this year--tomorrow's worst reads of the year list is as anemic as this one. Rather, what 2006 was short on were remarkable reads--remarkably good or remarkably bad--with the result being that I can come up with more candidates for the honorable mentions list than for the year's best reads list. Which is probably the main reason for the massive drop in the number of books I read this year--75--compared to previous ones--106 in 2005 and 99 in 2004. When you put a book down and for the nth time can't think of anything more substantial to say about it than 'that was nice, what's next?', the impetus to crack another cover is severely diminished.

It's difficult not to wonder, in light of this repeated disappointment, whether the novels I'm about to list as the year's best reads would have stood out as prominently in a stronger year. For the most part, I believe the answer is yes, but here's hoping that 2007 doesn't give me cause to second guess myself.

(As it was last year, this list is presented in alphabetical order.)
  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

    Joe Hill's stunning debut collection wears a lot of hats. At its most basic level, it is as effectively creepy a collection of horror and dark fantasy stories as one could hope to read. It is also, however, a meditation on the very nature of the horror genre, on the reasons and justifications for its existence. Is there something wrong with people who write horror, or with the people who read it? Is either activity harmful, either emotionally or (through the process of metaphor taking flesh so ubiquitous to the genre) physically? Is it possible to write moral horror fiction, or is horror by its very nature a rejection of morality? Which is more horrifying, the supernatural menace or the mundane one, and why can't we have both? In the collection's opening story, "Best New Horror", Hill offers both a thrilling piece of fiction and a manifesto, whose ramifications he proceeds to explore in 15 fantastic stories.

  • Climbers by M. John Harrison

    I'll probably get a lot of raised eyebrows if I say that M. John Harrison's Climbers is the closest thing I've read to a modern-day To The Lighthouse, but it's true. Like Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, Harrison's semi-autobiographical portrait of the obsessive world of rock-climbing is essentially plotless--just a sequence of loosely connected scenes in which the main character interacts with fellow climbers and (less and less often as he becomes consumed with his new hobby) with outsiders to the sport, delving momentarily into their lives and examining the tools they create in order to grapple with, and sometimes obfuscate, the appalling meaninglessness of their existence. And, like To The Lighthouse, what sustains Climbers is the breathtaking beauty of Harrison's prose, the precise and cutting observations he makes. Harrison uses words like no author since, well, Woolf, and there are instances of description in Climbers so perfect that you can't imagine any author will ever need to describe the same thing--a climbing rope, a garbage strewn quarry, an overcast sky--again (Harrison also has the gift of writing interesting technical descriptions, so that even an outsider to the sport will be thrilled by the various climbs described in the novel). Best of all, although Climbers is unsentimental about the possibility of beauty and achievement in modern life, and treats climbing as an attempt to artificially fabricate meaning and triumph in a life that seldom offers opportunities for either one, it does so respectfully. The climbers may be wasting their lives on an endeavor that ultimately means nothing, but that single-mindedness, and the pleasure they take from their accomplishments, are accorded some sympathy.

  • From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

    Alan Moore's portrait of London in a single, defining moment in its history is panoramic in its scope and intimate in its depth. This recreation of the Jack the Ripper murders--complete with an imaginative, not to say absurd, theory about the identity of their perpatrator--uses the gruesome murders as a launching point for a discussion of the ills of modern society at the moment at which some of them--modern serial killers and the modern media obsession with them--came into being. Eddie Campbell's deceptively simple artwork--black and white pen drawings usually restricted to a simple 3x3 grid, highly reminiscent of 19th century newspaper illustrations--is a synthesis of classical and modern approaches, and creates an oppressive, at times quite terrifying, atmosphere which permeates the novel. As the Ripper murders grow more frequent and more gruesome, as Inspector Abberline grows more frustrated with his inability to track down this new breed of killer, as the Ripper's final victim grows more and more certain of her impending death, and as the Ripper himself loses touch with his era and his humanity, becoming subsumed into his city's history, the novel's tone approaches a frenzied pitch that makes it quite impossible to put down.

  • Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

    I haven't read Julie Phillips's biography of James Tiptree Jr. yet, but I'm already charitably inclined towards it for creating the resurgence of interest in Tiptree's work that inspired me to pick up this collection of her stories. As it turns out, everyone was right--Tiptree truly is a fantastic author, full of fascinating ideas about life, love, sex, gender, politics, and nature, and possessed of a deft authorial touch that effortlessly combines solid character work with equally solid worldbuidling. "The Man Who Walked Home" joins that tiny group of truly excellent time travel stories. "A Momentary Taste of Being" might just stand with "Great Work of Time" and "Story of Your Life" as a perfect novella. "The Screwfly Solution" and "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" are terrifying and heartbreaking. As I wrote when I reviewed "The Screwfly Solution", a significant part of Tiptree's appeal is her ability to hijack the reader's common sense and preconceptions and sublimate them to her own agenda and outlook. The result feels a little like having one's brain colonized by a tiny, extremely persistent parasite, whose entirely convincing--and at the same time entirely mad--worldview colors one's perceptions of reality for quite a bit of time after turning the last page.

  • Saturday by Ian McEwan

    Here's another Virginia Woolf comparison: in Saturday, Ian McEwan has created a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway that, unlike a certain overrated novel which shall remain nameless, is actually worthy of the distinction. Saturday's protagonist, Henry Perowne, lives a charmed life--financially, professionally, and personally, he has everything he could wish for, and to top it all off, he has the rare sense to recognize and appreciate his good fortune. That McEwan chooses to impinge on this idyllic existence by confronting Perowne with his polar opposite, a man to whom life has offered nothing but disappointments, would hardly surprise even those readers unfamiliar with his penchant for nastiness, but nothing could have prepared me for the novel's climax, a brutal, harrowing scene in which the safety of Perowne's home is shattered and his family is endangered. In the hands of another author, Saturday might have amounted to nothing more than a shrill morality play--the rich, privileged man being confronted by the ugliness of a world he has chosen to ignore--but McEwan is playing a more subtle game. Are we to be disgusted by Henry Perowne, who is happy to ensconce himself in the trappings of a luxurious Western lifestyle and not think too hard about issues that might disturb his comfortable existence? Or should we recognize that for all his faults, Perowne is a good and decent man, capable of responding to cruelty with kindness, whose acts of personal benevolence might just make up for his unwillingness to think critically about the larger issues of his time? McEwan refuses to commit to either viewpoint, and such is the strength of his prose that both seem equally valid and true, with the result being that Saturday, and the questions it raises about the viability of the Western lifestyle, linger in the mind and the imagination.
Honorable Mentions:

Monday, December 25, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 10

Not so sure if there's any point posting anything on Christmas day, but here are some of the last books of 2006. I'll have some year-end thoughts later this week.
  1. Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman - on a Friday afternoon nearly ten years after they last saw one another, unemployed teacher Simon kidnaps the young son of his ex-girlfriend Anna. The boy is soon recovered and returned home, unharmed, but the kidnapping causes an upheaval in the lives of a large group of people, some of whom--Simon and Anna, Simon's psychiatrist and his daughter, Anna's husband and his business associate, a young prostitute in love with Simon--emerge in this novel to narrate the events preceding and following Simon's reckless, inexplicable act. Seven Types of Ambiguity bills itself as a Rashomon-ian synthesis of conflicting perspectives, but there are two major problems with this description. The first is that the seven characters--who come from different social backgrounds, have different levels of formal education, are of different ages and genders--all speak in the same voice, one that is entirely unbelievable even for those of them who aren't supposed to be stupid or uneducated. The narratives are meant to be, for the most part, spoken utterances, journal entries, or conversations, and people simply don't talk the way these characters talk (Perlman also has an unfortunate tendency to write "as you know..." dialogue and to dumb his characters down in order to convey information to the reader--Anna's husband, a stock broker, has to have it explained to him, in small words and with a great deal of repetition, that health insurance companies will make more money out of privatized, HMO-style medical care than they do from socialized medicine). The second problem is that the seven narratives never contradict one another. They operate as distinct puzzle pieces - put them all together and you get a clear enough picture of what happened - but at no point does one narrative give us a different perspective on information from a previous narrative. Different characters may have incomplete information, but when two characters recall the same event, their recollections are almost identical (which creates an unfortunate problem of repetition).

    I think if I'd had these flaws described to me before I read the book, I would have been put off it completely. Which would have been a shame, because despite--and perhaps even because--of these stylistic problems, Seven Types of Ambiguity is an exhilarating, intense read. For all that the narrative voice is unbelievable as a real person's voice, it is compelling, and Perlman keeps sprinkling hints about upcoming plot developments that make putting the book down quite a challenge. Perlman's subject is the human tendency to tell ourselves stories about our lives, and the trauma that ensues when these easily digested narratives are stripped away to reveal the more complicated, more painful reality underlying them. What keeps the novel going is Perlman's ability to keep just the right distance from his characters. We understand why they would cling to lies about their lives even when those lies are painful, but we are never tempted to believe those lies ourselves. The result might have been a cold, clinical novel, but is instead warmly human--all of Perlman's characters are pitiable, and by the story's end we can't help but hope that they will find a way to reconcile reality with a story they can live with.

  2. Blindsight by Peter Watts - it's actually quite impressive that Peter Watts's Blindsight--a sort of demented Rendezvous with Rama--is as riveting as it is, seeing as by most of the stricter definitions of the word, the novel doesn't actually have a plot. Our heroes--a motley crew of genetically and cybernetically altered individuals, who include a person who has carved their mind up into four distinct personalities in order to make better use of its processing time, a scientist whose sensory organs have been replaced by scientific equipment which allows him to see, taste and smell lab results, and a vampire, as well as our narrator, a professional observer and interpreter--arrive at an alien artifact lurking menacingly at the edge of the solar system. There follows a series of increasingly nasty and ill-advised attempts to study it which essentially amount to poking something very scary with a sharp stick. The inevitable ensues, although not before our heroes deduce the novel's Big, Neat Idea, a revelation about the nature of intelligent life in the universe. As the novel's coda reveals, however, whether or not our brave heroes defeat the invading alien horde is of very little significance in the grand scheme of things. The real menace to humanity was lurking back on Earth, and although the above-mentioned revelation ties into the nature of this menace, it is a useless insight. By the time anyone from the ship arrives on Earth to tell their tale, the whole mess will be over.

    Ultimately, Blindsight is not much more than a delivery system for Watts's Big, Neat Idea, as well as a host of smaller, only slightly less-neat ideas that shore up his world-building and explore facets of his central conceit--ideas about the gap between perception and reality, about the ways in which the brain tricks itself into constructing a model of reality that might be only dimly related to what's actually out there, and the ways in which that sophisticated system of self-delusion can go catastrophically wrong. This isn't actually a bad thing. The sheer tonnage of cool ideas is enough to carry the novel over the finish line (especially in its second half, when Watts lays off the technical jargon), but Watts has the presence of mind to use his characters as walking, talking illustrations of his concepts in such a way as to make us care for them. The novel's narrator, Siri Keeton, prides himself on his objectivity, but as we, and ultimately, he, learn, he is in fact the most unreliable narrator imaginable. Siri's veneer of detachment, his faith in his own inhumanity, are stripped away through contact with something genuinely inhuman and fundamentally detached. Siri isn't exactly a sympathetic character, but his slow progress towards acknowledging and embracing his humanity, even as the rest of his race loses it, is, if nothing else, utterly fascinating. (Watts has made Blindsight available online through a Creative Commons License.)

  3. Lucifer, Volume 2: Children and Monsters and Volume 3: A Dalliance With the Damned by Mike Carey et al - when I first wrote about Carey's Sandman spinoff, I remarked that it was, perhaps inevitably, derivative of Neil Gaiman's work. I still think Carey is working hard to replicate Gaiman's tone, but as his story gets its legs under it this quality has become less objectionable. I liked Sandman, after all, and Carey is doing a good job of playing around in Gaiman's universe, replicating many of the qualities that made that series such a great success, most notably a palpable sense of breadth to the story's world. Like Gaiman, Carey frequently veers away from the story's ostensible protagonist to develop minor characters into major players. Children and Monsters revisits 12 year old Elaine Belloc and explores the source of her tremendous powers, as well as her infatuation with Lucifer. A Dalliance With the Damned introduces Christopher Rudd, a soul condemned to eternal torment who is made the plaything of a demon and uses his wits and determination to become a duke of hell. I can only assume that these characters will have greater roles to play as the story progresses and Lucifer's plan comes closer to fruition, and I look forward to spending more time with them.

    Unfortunately, Lucifer himself remains a cypher. He can be described in a few words--arrogant and selfish--and he seems to be putting together a grand design that starts with creating his own universe, but that's about all we know about him. Sandman's main character was similarly faintly sketched, but this was a reflection of the character's own lack of self-awareness--the readers didn't know Dream very well because he didn't know himself at all (on a conscious level, that is. On an unconscious level, he understood himself perfectly, didn't like himself very much, and set out to do something about it). The story was aimless because Dream didn't have a consciously stated goal. Lucifer has a plan, and that plan paradoxically serves to distance him from the readers and hollow out his story--so long as we don't care about Lucifer as a person, there's very little reason for us to root for him or care if he achieves his dimly-defined goals. Meanwhile, the more interesting minor characters are made subservient to this less-interesting major storyline, thus flattening out the entire series. All of which is not to say that I won't be continuing with Lucifer, but I suspect that sub-Sandman is about as good as it's going to get.

  4. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - I've had problems with Moore in the past--most of the stuff of his that I've read I've found preachy (Promethea), self-consciously clever (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), or just too much of its own time (Watchmen)--but as it turns out, From Hell truly is his masterpiece. Most of what I've read by Moore operates on two levels--as a work of genre and as a commentary on that genre--and From Hell is the first instance in which I've felt that the two levels have meshed instead of interfering with one another. Probably this is due to the choice of subject matter, since, as Moore points out in the novel's afterword, the story of Jack the Ripper has never truly been about the actual murderer but about the myth that emerged, that was erected, around him even as he was still killing. In that sense, the real Ripper can never be found because he never existed in the first place, and Moore therefore chooses to turn his version of the Ripper (for whom he chooses the most sensational suspect and motivations, and whose identity is revealed to the readers even before the murders are committed) into something metaphysical, an integral part of London history whose brutal actions bring him closer and closer to a sick sort of apotheosis.

    Moore comes dangerously close, in my opinion, to glorifying the Ripper, or at the very least bleaching his actions of their moral component--if the Ripper was never a man and always a story, a necessary part of our culture and folklore, then he can't, in himself, be said to be evil. It's a good thing, therefore, that From Hell goes into a great deal of detail about the wretched lives of the Ripper's victims, and makes certain to point out that before they were victimized by a ruthless killer, they had spent decades being victimized by an entire social order which held them in contempt for being poor, uneducated, and without options. There are numerous sub-plots to the novel, some of them only tangentially related to the Ripper's story, which also help create a panoramic view of London in a single moment that has come to be associated with the last century and its atrocities. Moore works pretty hard to connect the Ripper murders to the 20th century's greater crimes--at the moment of his conception, Adolf Hitler's mother dreams of a deluge of blood drowning Whitechapel, and in his guise as a respectable member of society, the Ripper is responsible for bringing to the British Museum a cursed sarcophagus colloquially connected with the first World War. To be honest, I think Moore is belaboring his point, and is perhaps as guilty as the Ripperologists he lampoons of being star-struck by his subject. That said, there's no denying that From Hell is a stunning accomplishment, and that the presentiment of doom that it works so hard to instill in its readers is not easily shaken off.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Once and Future President

Strange Horizons's reviews section published a piece yesterday that I've been looking forward to for quite some time: Graham Sleight's retrospective on The West Wing, in which he argues that Aaron Sorkin's political drama can and should be read as science fiction.
On one level, of course, the claim is silly: there is nothing in the series outside the canon of current political or scientific possibility (or what we as outsiders might imagine those to be.) The West Wing is entirely mimetic. Of course, in another sense, it's trivially true that The West Wing is sf. It's a piece of alternate-world science fiction: presidential elections take place in 1998 and 2002, not in leap years; the September 11th terrorist atrocity does not take place; and global events in general follow a different track from our recent past. I want to argue, though, that it's sf in a more profound sense, the Roger Rabbit sense. It makes an argument, as sf does, about possibility, about what can be done, and it does so by presenting us with a world already showing a change from our own. (One might call this technique cognitive estrangement.) Science fiction has always, I think, been a peculiarly American genre because of its allegiance to a belief in possibility. Once this was geographical: a new frontier, somewhere out west, was always there to be discovered by anyone smart and brave enough. (And anyone who happened to be living there already might find themselves getting effaced from the story, like dumb aliens in a pulp magazine.) Sf moved this frontier out into space, the potentially infinite worlds out there to be discovered. But as the difficulties of space travel become more and more apparent, it might be better to say that sf's frontier is now temporal. It tells stories about what might be done with tomorrow, starting today.
I'm actually just in the right mindset to be reading about The West Wing right now. A local channel has been spinning the show's first three seasons again and again in daily strips, so that every couple of weeks I can catch an airing of "Noël" or "Bartlet for America". Which, as you might imagine, has given me an opportunity to think about the show, not to mention a unique perspective on it (there probably aren't a lot of people who know that "17 People" still hurts like hell on a fourth viewing). I don't disagree with Graham's reading, and certainly not with his assertion that The West Wing is unique for thinking about the future--an observation that is made quite poignant by the realization that so little of overt genre TV seems even remotely interested in this topic. Where Graham observes the show's themes and storylines, however, and notices an SFnal aspect, my repeated forays into The West Wing have caused me to pay greater attention to the interactions between its characters. On that level, I think the argument can be made that The West Wing is a work of fantasy.

Well, not really. Or rather, only in the trivial sense that Graham notes at the beginning of the paragraph quoted above--if we give undue significance to the marketing decision that folded alternate history into science fiction, The West Wing can be read as SF. By the same token, fiction that takes place in an imaginary, pseudo-medieval setting is usually packaged as fantasy even if there are no magical or supernatural elements in the story, and there is something downright medieval about the relationships, the exchanges of power and allegiance, between the show's characters. They'd call it loyalty, conviction, political idealism; I call it vassalage.

Aaron Sorkin is by no means the first person to equate an American white house with a royal court. The last time someone presented the American people with as coherent and complete a fantasy of goodness and idealism holding sway within the corridors of power as the one Sorkin created, they did so by drawing a direct comparison to Camelot, and in Jed Bartlet, Sorkin has created a character of Arthurian grandeur. A remarkable man, uniquely capable of taking on the burdens of leadership, Bartlet is driven by a deep-seated sense of purpose and the belief that he has been divinely intended for his role ("a boy king" and "blessed with inspiration" are two phrases used to describe him in an episode that flashes back to his youth). At the same time, Bartlet possesses a breathtaking capacity for arrogance and self-centeredness, qualities that allow him, for example, to dither until nearly the last moment before accepting a congressional censure that will spare his oldest and closest friend from a career-ending public humiliation, to obliviously insist until almost that same last moment that his choice to lie to the electorate about a degenerative illness was somehow not a terrible and inexcusable mistake, and to dismiss, with enormous cruelty and terrible wrath, a long-time advisor who had betrayed him over a matter of principle. When the time comes to choose Bartlet's replacement, the process is frequently portrayed as a Tolkien-esque passing of an age of giants. The two nominees who emerge out of a posse of contenders who scrabble for the crown are capable but somehow uninspiring--the grizzled veteran who shares some of Bartlet's gravitas and experience but lacks his integrity, and the young upstart, Bartlet's ultimate successor, who possesses vision and moral character, but is ultimately a less substantial, less heroic man--Telemachus taking over from Ulysses.

In itself, the fact that its central figure is lionized isn't sufficient to support my reading of the Bartlet white house as a feudal system. For that, we have to look at the relationships between Bartlet and his closest advisors, which are most frequently characterized by a complete, unquestioning loyalty that takes precedence over the characters' individual wants and priorities ("This is the most important thing I'll ever do ... more important than my marriage" Leo explains to his soon-to-be ex-wife in an early episode). The West Wing pays lip service to the notion that what brings its characters together are shared ideals and a mission to which they can all contribute, and this may very well be how they each came through the door. What keeps them in the west wing day in and day out, however, is individual loyalty, a sense of belonging to a team, a side, an 'us', and the terms in which that belonging is expressed seem, in many occasions, to have been lifted out of Shakespeare, or Dante's descriptions of the quarrels between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (it doesn't take a great stretch of the imagination to picture Josh, Toby and Sam cruising the capitol hill, biting their thumbs at Republican congressmen).

"I told Leo McGarry that we could trust you, and Toby backed me up," Josh tells relative outsider Joey Lucas before revealing a closely-held secret. Translation: he and Toby vouched for Joey's honor, for her worthiness to be allowed into the inner sanctum. In that same episode, Abbey Bartlet petulantly accuses white house chief counsel Oliver Babish--a nominal insider--of blowing the potential ramifications of revealing the President's MS out of proportion "because defending the President in primetime looks good on a resume." Translation: no matter who signs Oliver's paychecks or what his job description is, he isn't part of the in-group, and his motives are therefore suspect. And then, of course, there's the end of the first season episode "Let Bartlet be Bartlet", in which Leo turns to each of the staff as they recite "I serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States." He isn't leading a pep rally; he's reminding them of their oaths of fealty, and reminding Bartlet, who is standing just outside the room, of the courage and devotion of the men and women he commands.

In Aaron Sorkin's hands, the west wing isn't a place for cold professionalism, and, whatever he may claim to the contrary, change isn't achieved solely through idealism or conviction. In Sorkin's west wing, everything is personal, and it is that capacity to personalize the impersonal, to sublimate their individual identity to their identity as members of a group, that allows his characters to do good. The only modern setting in which this kind of mindset is common is the war story, and it is fairly common for stories set in high-stress, male-dominated environments to make use of that genre's vocabulary, to reference foxholes and encampments or refer to the characters in military terms. Sorkin repeatedly avoids this device even when it might seem appropriate--when Bartlet's administration is besieged by enemies either foreign or domestic. Instead, he consistently turns to the terms of the medieval drama (even going so far as to include references to Henry V and The Lion in Winter in the show).

I was concerned, when I started writing this piece, that it might come across as a parody of Graham's article, or at best an attempt to devalue his argument by positing a parallel one. I'd be saddened if this happened, not only because I think Graham has written an excellent and compelling essay, but because I don't see the two readings as being at all incompatible. Rather, I think they bolster each other. In a response to a comment I made in this LJ discussion of Graham's essay, which showed up in my inbox just as I was getting ready to compose this paragraph, Niall Harrison suggests that all utopian stories evince a tension between fantastic and SFnal elements, and although we could go back and debate whether my choice to equate a feudalistic mindset with fantasy is legitimate (although that would bring us perilously close to the definitional argument--it's the third rail of genre discussion. Touch it, and you die), I think if we accept a more general description of utopian fiction being characterized by a tension between hope for the future and nostalgia for a past that may never have existed, we might come close to an accurate description of The West Wing, and of why it worked so well at both conciliating and uplifting its viewers. Yesterday was golden; tomorrow will be bright. How can today be anything but glorious?

Friday, December 15, 2006

On the Other Hand, 'Rogue Landscaper'?

Nathan Fillion joins Tim Minear's new show Drive:
The show, from 20th Century Fox TV and executive producers Tim Minear, Ben Queen and Greg Yaitanes, chronicles an underground race across America.

Fillion will play Alex Tully, a charming, rogue landscaper who is coerced into joining the race to search for his wife who had been abducted.
Let's all just cross our fingers and hope that the Firefly/Wonderfalls/The Inside curse has run its course.

Via. There are a few brief scenes from Drive in this self-made Minear fan video.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose

Peter Boyle has died.

It's something of a shock to discover that even ten seasons of Everybody Loves Raymond aren't enough to tarnish his performance in that single, magical X-Files episode.

UPDATE: A few reminders of the past.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"The Screwfly Solution" by James Tiptree Jr.

With impeccable timing, Showtime's Masters of Horror anthology series chose this last friday to air an adaptation of James Tiptree Jr.'s short story "The Screwfly Solution". I say impeccable not only because Julie Phillips's extremely well-received biography, James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, has brought Tiptree back into the limelight in recent months (Niall at Torque Control has an excellent list of Tiptree-related links, including several stories), but because it was only this last week that I finally got around to reading Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which collects eighteen of Tiptree's short stories, including, yes, "The Screwfly Solution". With the eerie, disturbing piece still fresh in my mind, I was quite curious to see what writer Sam Hamm (interviewed here about the task of adapting the story) and director Joe Dante would make of it, and the adaptation, in turn, gives me a chance to discuss some of my reactions to Tiptree's story.

You should read "The Screwfly Solution"--in fact, you should read Her Smoke Rose Up Forever--it's not long and it's quite scary. If you get a chance, you should also watch Hamm and Dante's adaptation, which is faithful both in the sense that it follows the story's plot and replicates its themes, and in the sense that it creates a similar sense of menace, one that lingers even after the last page is turned or the credits have finished rolling. "The Screwfly Solution" posits a world in which misogyny has suddenly become viral--as wind currents carry air particles around the planet, previously normal men begin to murder women, claiming to be acting on God's commands but actually motivated, the story tells us, by biological imperative run amok--the aggressive impulses at the root of male sexual response overtaking the sexual component, so that men become driven to murder rather than mate.

At a first glance, it's tempting to conclude that Tiptree is positing a male imperative towards misogyny. Sam Hamm seems to think so, as his adaptation on several occasions draws connections between the viral form of misogyny and real world instances of it--"Women nurture; men destroy," the protagonist's loudly-feminist friend announces near the beginning of the episode; when attacks on women intensify to the point that survivors are placed in refugee camps for their own protection, an abused wife calmly tells the protagonist's wife "all those months, I thought you were normal and I was odd. But now you see, don't you? I'm the normal one. I was the normal one all along"; a deliberate attempt is made to tie the religious attitudes of affected men to Sharia law* and other forms of misogyny rooted in religion.

To my mind, this interpretation is slightly to the left of what "The Screwfly Solution" is actually saying, albeit no less problematic. The question of intelligence at war with biological determinism recurs quite frequently in Tiptree's stories (most particularly the sublime "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death"): can a sentient being overcome the dictates of their biological nature--be they natural and necessary to the survival and continuity of the organism such as the urge to eat, defend oneself and one's family, or procreate, or perverted by outside forces as in "The Screwfly Solution"--or are we merely animals who think? "The Screwfly Solution" draws a comparison between humanity and the titular bug, which was all but exterminated in the 1950s through an interruption of its reproductive cycle, and the story's protagonist is a scientist who devises another sort of pesticide that compels male cane-flies to mate with the females' heads rather than the right way around, just as human males are compelled--by a 'pesticide' of extraterrestrial origin--to kill potential sexual partners rather than procreate with them. The victims, in other words, aren't just the women, but the entire human race--it's just that the women's destruction is overt and violent, whereas the men's will come through natural attrition a generation or two down the line.

The problem with this premise is that humans can, and do, overcome their biological urges on a daily basis. We feel the urge to propagate, but many of us choose to defer having children or not have them at all. We can ignore hunger or thirst, and yes, we can overcome our sexual urges. The average man may become aroused dozens of times a day, but the overwhelming majority of men do not try to have sex with every women they're attracted to. And yet, once they're afflicted, the men in Tiptree's story attack nearly every women they see. Why should the urge to kill be so much more powerful than the urge to mate? The only conclusion is that Tiptree is arguing that men, rather than being biologically hardwired for misogyny, are biologically hardwired for violence**.

Alongside the viral misogyny at the heart of the story's premise, Tiptree also posits an institutionalized misogyny. When attacks on women begin happening in the States, afflicted settlements cordon themselves off and defend their actions under their right to religious freedom. This argument is, for some inexplicable reason, accepted by authorities, who treat refugees coming out of the outbreak zones but don't attempt to curtail the violence. Media reports on the scope of the epidemic are suppressed in order to avoid causing a panic. Women protesting the government's inaction are arrested--"They seemed to have started a fire in an oil drum, which was considered particularly heinous." The Vatican refuses to condemn the murders of women, and only goes so far as to repudiate the murderers' conviction that they are acting on God's commands. For the most part, these are meant to be the actions of unaffected men, and the only reasonable conclusion is that the men at the top simply don't care about mass murders so long as the victims are women. This is the first of two instances in which it becomes glaringly obvious that "The Screwfly Solution" is a product of its own time, and that its attitudes have been belied by history. I don't mean to say that clearly the still male-dominated institutions of our culture would leap to the defense of women, but that it's not misogyny that is at the heart of their indifference. The women of Afghanistan didn't get any less attention from the Western world than the men and women of Rwanda or Darfur. The problem isn't that the victims are women--it's that they're far away and don't look like us.

Hamm's screenplay goes some way towards bringing the story into the 21st century by having the protagonist explain his theory of an epidemiological root cause to a room full of Old White Men--generals, politicians, and other people interested in doing something, even if they don't comprehend the severity of the situation--whereas in the original story the epidemiological theory is dismissed and the UN's solution to the problem of 'femicide' is half-hearted at best. Hamm even has his characters suggest that all law enforcement personnel dealing with refugee women be chemically castrated, which is a neat addition to the story in that it creates another point of conflict between the male characters' intellectual understanding of their predicament, and of the danger they pose to their loved ones, and their biological nature--ultimately, only the most conscientious and clear-eyed male character chooses the treatment***.

Another, and far more problematic, point at which Tiptree's story bumps up against the realities of modern life is the question of women's response to the attacks on them. Or rather, the lack of same. "Isn't it strange how we do nothing? Just get killed by ones and twos. ... Like hypnotized rabbits. We're a toothless race" the protagonist's wife concludes in the story's final segment, and by 'we' she means women. Even taking into the account the fact that the trend towards tales of female physical empowerment in popular culture is, to a certain extent, unrealistic and not representative of the realities of our society, this is tough one to swallow, especially when we take into account that there are female members of the armed forces, there are policewomen and firewomen. Maybe not enough to prevent every murder, but certainly enough to create some sort of female militia, a safe zone for women. Whether or not the girl power trend is realistic, modern viewers expect to see it, but this is obviously the one point on which Hamm can't diverge from his source material, or he risks losing the very horrifying tone that makes "The Screwfly Solution" compelling in spite of its problematic assumptions about gender and gendered behavior.

By this point I've raised several meaningful objections to the underlying assumptions of "The Screwfly Solution"'s premise, and if you haven't read the story (but clearly you have, right?) you might be forgiven for wondering why you should. The picture I've painted is of a piece that makes vile, insupportable generalizations about male behavior, and isn't too kind to women either. What sustains the story, however, is its unwavering commitment to this very premise, and the unrelenting grimness with which it advances towards that premise's logical conclusion. The power of Tiptree's storytelling overwhelms the reader's logical and ideological objections, and I can offer Sam Hamm no greater praise than to say that his adaptation of the story is similarly compelling****. It is precisely because of the significant problems in its premise that "The Screwfly Solution" is a perfect illustration of why Tiptree deserves to be read--an author who can so thoroughly convince her readers to believe in something they know to be untrue, even if it's only for as long as they're turning the pages, should be on every devoted reader's reading list.



* 'So-called Sharia law,' according to a news anchor who shows up on screen near the episode's beginning, and I've got no more love than the next person for people who think women should be stoned for adultery or have to cover themselves from head to toe in order to be allowed outside, but can we at least use the terms correctly? Sharia is a real code of laws. The question isn't whether it exists but whether it should be applied.

** Something that Tiptree never bothers to explain, and which Hamm's adaptation wisely downplays, is that from day one, attacks on women come hand in hand with attacks on children of all sexes. Towards the end of the story, young boys are also being targeted. Both story and TV episode briefly acknowledge that afflicted homosexuals are likely to target men rather than women, but nothing in Tiptree's premise explains the attacks on children.

*** On the whole, however, it was probably a mistake to introduce this wrinkle. There are, after all, impermanent ways of suppressing the male libido--hell, dumping Prozac into the water supply might have worked as a stopgap measure--and Hamm makes his characters look stupid by drawing attention to this fact.

**** Although I think he fudges the story's very last scene by allowing us to believe that the aliens who orchestrated the demise of the human race were motivated by ecological concerns instead of, as Tiptree concludes, a desire to have our pretty planet for themselves. The moralistic tone of Hamm's ending is, in my opinion, far less affecting than the last twist of the knife that is Tiptree's final sentence.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Previously on AtWQ's adventures with Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist started out very strong but then descended into silliness (see review). Consider Phlebas maintained a serious tone throughout, but was ponderous, overlong, and badly written (review). Feersum Endjinn was a hell of a lot of fun, not to mention very imaginatively constructed, but built up expectations of an explosive crescendo which it never paid off (no review, but check out item 3 on this recent reading roundup).

I'd like to report that Use of Weapons, by far Banks's most lauded SF novel, is Just Right, and in many ways it does answer my complaints about my previous forays into his back-catalogue. Unlike The Algebraist, it has the courage of its convictions, sustaining its theme of social commentary all the way to its end. Unlike Consider Phlebas, it is just about the right length, much better written, and manages to develop its characters and themes without stalling the narrative. Unlike Feersum Endjinn, it arrives at its promised climax. It's a very good novel, in fact--probably my favorite of the Bankses I've read (although Feersum Endjinn comes a close second)--and highly recommended. It is not, however, a great novel, and it falls short of that greatness by a tragically slim margin.

Like Consider Phlebas, Use of Weapons takes place in a universe dominated by the Culture, a post-scarcity communist utopia governed, for the most part, by artificial intelligences orders of magnitude more insightful and capable than any human. Consider Phlebas raised the question of whether such a pampered society could endure--in the absence of absence, of hunger, poverty, injustice, social inequality, of the words 'no' and 'can't', wouldn't human society simply degenerate and stagnate? The answer that Consider Phlebas gives, and which Use of Weapons builds upon, is that there is one thing that life in the Culture's paradise won't provide--purpose. The Culture's citizens therefore assign themselves the task of bringing enlightenment to the rest of the galaxy, with the result being a covert, secular crusade to spread democracy, egalitarianism, and social justice wherever sentient life exists. Tasked with this transformation is the department of Contact, and its vanguard division, Special Circumstances, who through careful manipulation of governments, ruling houses and religious institutions work to slowly transform brutal, war-mongering societies into peaceful democracies. It's a dirty job, one that often requires horrific compromises and a very long view--millions of people might die because of a dictator the Culture put in power, simply because he was the lesser of two evils, and might, in the long run, help bring his planet closer to a just society.

Use of Weapons is composed of two alternating narrative strands, which advance in opposite chronological directions. In the forward-facing strand, Special Circumstances operative Diziet Sma and her AI associate Skaffen-Amtiskaw are tasked with retrieving and ending the retirement of Sma's most troublesome asset, Cheradenine Zakalwe, a Culture outsider recruited for his skills as a soldier and military strategist. Over the course of a career that has spanned more than a century, Zakalwe has been dropped into military conflicts on dozens of different worlds, has acted as military advisor and general to kings and tyrants--sometimes with the purpose of shoring up their rule, and sometimes in the hopes of ending it (although his handlers are often tight-lipped about distinguishing one situation from the other). Sma needs Zakalwe to locate Tsoldrin Beychae, former president of a cluster Zakalwe had helped to stabilize, and convince him to come out of retirement in order to prevent a looming war.

In the backwards-facing strand, we move further and further into Zakalwe's past. We see him on assignment for the Culture, leading armies on half a dozen different planets, sometimes successfully, and sometimes ending up in a tremendous amount of trouble and pain--including, but not limited to, being decapitated. We also see him make several attempts, none of them successful, to retire into a life of leisure and contemplation, and learn that this mercurial, furiously intelligent man is driven by a profound self-loathing, an equally profound guilt, and a pathological fear of chairs. As the backwards-facing narrative delves further into Zakalwe's past, we catch glimpses of the defining moment of his existence, the great failure that made him who he is, from which he tries, but never manages, to escape.

A hell of a lot happens in Use of Weapons, but none of the events coalesce into a plot. The quest to retrieve Tsoldrin Beychae in the forward-facing plot strand is treated, even by the characters, as a matter of course. It's important--the well-being of millions hinges on Beychae's safe extraction and on his willingness to return to the political arena--but at the same time all in a day's work. Like doctors in an emergency room, Sma and her superiors treat the task of stabilizing the region as something important, perhaps even exciting, but not grand. They have a profoundly unromantic mindset--after all, there's always another empire out there on the brink of total war, so what makes this one so special? The journey into Zakalwe's past cements this impersonal mindset--after a while, the besieged palaces and holy wars begin to run together. On an abstract level, Zakalwe cares about his role in the universe--he need to believe that he is an instrument of progress, doing good--but he's seen too much, been to too many places, to truly become part of any of the environments he's dropped into. He can't connect to the king he's currently serving because he's served too many kings, and ultimately, he may be too damaged to care.

It is precisely this plotlessness, however, that makes Use of Weapons such a powerful novel. Plenty of authors have uncoupled the war narrative--even in its most romanticized iterations such as the deposed heir reclaiming his throne or the oppressed minority rising up against a tyrant--from its moral dimension, but when Banks does it in Use of Weapons, his purpose isn't to highlight the horrors of war, but rather to make a more subtle, and a great deal more horrific, point. In his invented future, war is never grand or just, but it is sometimes a useful--and necessary--tool, the only way to ensure a better future for at least some people. In the face of such horrific necessities, Use of Weapons asks whether it is right to act at all. When doing good in the long run means doing evil in the short run, is there any point in doing anything at all? And how does one justify making the choice? What hubris, what unspeakable arrogance, could lead a society to believe that it has the answer, and the right to alter the universe to suit that answer? On the other hand, if one has the power to affect events on a galactic scale, how can it be right to stand back and do nothing? Best of all, for all their claims of disinterest and benevolence, how trustworthy are the Culture's motivations?
"They want other people to be like them, Cheradenine. They don't terraform, so they don't want others to either. There are arguments for it as well, you know; increasing species diversity often seems more important to people than preserving a wilderness, even without the provision of extra living space. The Culture believes profoundly in machine sentience, so it thinks everybody ought to, but I think it also believes every civilization should be run by its machines. Fewer people want that. The issue of cross-species tolerance is, I'll grant, of a different nature, but even there the Culture can sometimes appear to be insistent that deliberate inter-mixing is not just permissible but desirable; almost a duty. Again, who is to say that is correct?"
Use of Weapons ultimately amounts to a tug of war between two competing viewpoints, neither of which ever gains the upper hand. Are the Culture imperious meddlers, blindly persuaded of their own inherent superiority, remaking the universe in their own image? Or are they a force for good, shining a light into the darkest corners of the galaxy, bringing hope for a better tomorrow to its weakest and most benighted citizens? The tension between the two viewpoints is paralleled and given a human dimension in Zakalwe's ambivalence about his own nature. Whatever terrible crime is in his past, Zakalwe hopes to wash it away by doing the Culture's bidding, becoming a force for good. At the same time, however, he is deeply cynical about the Culture's motivations and methods, and can't help but be aware that for all that his actions might ultimately amount in the betterment of many people's lots, in the short run he is sending people to their deaths and slaughtering enemies whose only crime is having been born on the side opposite to the one he was assigned to. Only once, at the very end of the novel, does Zakalwe allow himself to take sides, to become emotionally invested in the outcome of a conflict. It is at this point, of course, that Sma orders him to throw the fight as a way of ensuring peace on a larger scale, and his choice to acquiesce cements the novel's representation of him as less a person than a tool--a weapon--to be guided and governed by others. A weapon, of course, has no moral identity, and so Zakalwe once again fails to convince himself that he is a force for good, even as his actions supposedly promote justice and peace.

As a rule, I don't go in for spoiler warnings on this blog, but in the case of this novel I'm going to make an exception: Use of Weapons ends with a massive twist which I am about to give away. If you're planning to read the novel--and once again, I do recommend it--you might want to stop reading now. In fact, I would advise it, because I read the novel expecting the twist--I wasn't spoiled, but it just seemed to make more sense than the story Banks was selling--and I believe that my enjoyment was compromised by the increasingly certain knowledge of what was coming (I had a similar reaction to the movie The Illusionist, which I saw this weekend, although it ought to be said that Banks does a much better job than the movie's writers of laying the foundation for his bait-and-switch, and of making sure that once the twist is revealed, the new perspective on past events makes sense). Consider yourselves warned.

About halfway through the novel, we learn that Cheradenine Zakalwe was the heir to the throne on a fairly insignificant planet outside the Culture's sphere of influence. His childhood was spent with two sisters, Livueta and Darckense, and a cousin, Elethiomel, the scion of an impoverished aristocratic family, with whom Zakalwe had a deeply conflicted relationship that only grew more fraught when he learned that Elethiomel was having an affair with Darckense. When they grew older, Elethiomel betrayed his benefactors, the Zakalwe family, and claimed the throne for himself. As a way of debilitating and demoralizing Zakalwe, he kidnapped Darckense and held her in his stronghold, hoping that fear for her life would prevent an attack. In the final chapter of the backwards-facing plot strand, Elethiomel grows tired of the standoff this hostage situation has created, and uses a particularly gruesome method to end it--he sends Zakalwe a chair made of his sister's bones, an act which sends the general into a spiral of guilt and self-recrimination culminating in a suicide attempt, and a futile attack on Elethiomel's fortress.

So far, so gruesome (and, also, not a little bit ridiculous. Sending your enemy the body parts of their loved ones is a time-honored tradition, but who the hell decides to make an arts and crafts project out of it? Not to mention that in all the sturm und drang of the chair's delivery, no one bothers to explain how Zakalwe and his surviving sister know whose bones they're looking at. How many people can look at a skeleton and go 'yup, that's my sibling'?), but in the novel's final chapter, as Zakalwe receives his payment by being allowed, yet again, to visit the aged, furious Livueta, we learn just how thoroughly Banks has tricked us. The man we knew as Cheradenine Zakalwe has stolen the name. The real Zakalwe succeeded in taking his own life, and it is guilt over that death, as well as the death of Darckense, that drives the protagonist of Use of Weapons, who is, in fact, Elethiomel.

This revelation, which ought to be the novel's crescendo, is actually the point at which the whole thing falls to pieces. For one thing, the revelation of Zakalwe's (the fake Zakalwe, I mean) driving force divorces his defining dilemma from the philosophical one that underpins the novel. For the Culture, the question is whether one should do good, and if so, how, and what constitutes a good act anyway. Once we learn who Zakalwe is, we also learn that he is driven by a different question, or rather by the urge to prove that he can be good. The real Zakalwe is horrified by the mindset that would use anything--even a loved one--as a weapon, that considers nothing sacred but victory. It is precisely this mindset that makes Elethiomel an asset for the Culture, and precisely this capacity for detachment that is at the core of his self-loathing. Elethiomel repeatedly tries to prove to himself that he is more than a monster, more than a weapon, and he fails--because, the novel strongly suggests, he isn't either of these things. But even as the novel's psychological theme is brought home, its philosophical one becomes untethered--Zakalwe doesn't care whether the Culture is right to act as it does. He doesn't have the moral standing to judge them. He needs them to be right, even as he questions that rightness--which is why he throws the fight at the end of the novel even though he has come to care for his side--and the result is that we are either disassociated from Zakalwe or from the novel's central dilemma.

Even worse, just at the moment at which Banks supposedly gives us the final insight into Zakalwe's psyche, the last puzzle piece that will make sense of the entire picture, we lose sight of him completely. How does a man capable of doing what Zakalwe has done become so wracked with guilt that he slinks away from his home under an assumed name and spends a lifetime trying to make amends? For that matter, what possessed Elethiomel to do what he did in the first place? What did he hope to accomplish? Presumably, he though that the death of Darckense would destroy Zakalwe, and precipitate an ill-considered attack which Elethiomel's forces were likely to win. When we next (or rather, since this is the backwards-facing plot strand, previously) see Elethiomel, however, he is running away. Did his side win the war? If so, how did he manage to slip away? As it turns out, Banks doesn't provide us with the defining moment of his protagonist's life. That would be showing us the decision to use Darckense as he did, and more importantly, the moment at which he realized that to do so was a terrible mistake. Without that moment of transformation, Zakalwe ceases to make any sense--we can't reconcile the monster with the irreparably damaged man.

This is the tragically slim margin that keeps Use of Weapons from greatness--what should have been a moment of triumph instead turns the novel into an unholy mess. In spite of this last-minute failure, however, Use of Weapons does make for a very good read. It's a rather impressive balancing act on several fronts: between the familiar and the fantastic--most of the societies Zakalwe visits are bog standard replicas of 19th or 20th century European settings, but when Tsoldrin Beychae's political opponents run on an anti-environmentalist platform, we discover that the environment they propose to destroy belongs to a nearby gas giant, which they plan to strip for its component minerals; between narrative and world-building--like Consider Phlebas, a great deal of Use of Weapons is given over to a travelogue that bounces from one society to another, but Banks never overstays his welcome or allows his inventiveness to overwhelm the novel's purpose; and, right up until the disastrous ending, between character development and the development of a philosophical argument. I can't help but feel that Banks was more interested in shocking his readers as they turned the very last page than in writing a novel that hangs together as a character piece and a social critique, although perhaps if I hadn't guessed what was coming, I might have felt that this shock made up for the damage being done to the novel's themes. This isn't the first time I've observed Banks stepping away from true achievement for the sake of entertainment--The Algebraist did something very similar--but I suppose there are worse things to say about a novel than that it is entertaining. I enjoyed reading Use of Weapons, and I'll certainly be reading more of Banks's fiction, but I have yet to find the novel of his that is Just Right.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Have We Learned Nothing From Torchwood?

Dark Horizons links to this article:
According to an exclusive source to Dreamwatch Magazine the BBC are presently in negotiations with Kudos Entertainment about doing a follow up series, which will be set some time in the 1980’s and is being pitched as ‘Ashes To Ashes’, which is also a David Bowie song title. The new show should it go ahead will likely feature several of ‘Life On Mars’ more established characters only further on in their careers. As to which characters will return for this spin – off remains shrouded in secrecy.
It should probably be noted that this is pretty fuzzy news, and Dark Horizons has certainly been known to repeat unsubstantiated rumors.

Self-Promotion 11

My review of M. John Harrison's most recent novel, Nova Swing, appears in today's Strange Horizons. If you're coming here from there, you might also be interested in this essay, which discusses my reactions to three of Harrison's previous novels--Signs of Life, The Course of the Heart, and Light.