Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Coherent Plots are Overrated and Other "Dirty Hands" Thoughts

I surprised myself by enjoying this week's Battlestar Galactica entry, "Dirty Hands." By the standards of television in general, the episode was no great shakes, but compared to the level that Galactica has been striking in recent weeks, especially in its 'issue' episodes, it was quite an improvement. It certainly helps that Aaron Douglas is one of the few younger cast members who can hold his own against Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos, and that appearances by Starbuck, Apollo, and the love quadrangle that will not die were kept to a bare minimum. Liking the episode, however, doesn't mean that I accept its premise. Even as I was watching and enjoying "Dirty Hands", I found myself listing the ways in which the episode's plot doesn't make sense. Here are but a few:

The story hinges on the existence of a deep-seated prejudice against poor, rural colonies, extended to the fleet's post-colonial reality. It's not impossible for me to accept that such a prejudice exists--although the references made, way back in the first season, to the exploitation of certain colonies were quite vague--but am I honestly supposed to believe that people need Baltar to point out its existence? The working class in particular, having been confronted with them since early childhood, should have a keen awareness of the limitations of their options in life. If the idea that only people from rich colonies become officers comes as a surprise to Tyrol, then there can't be that much truth to it--otherwise, it would be an accepted fact of life.

Within the fleet's post-apocalyptic setting, the episode tells us, the prejudice against poor colonies is expressed by using their survivors as manual labor while the former rich colonists live comfortably. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete and utter crap. I'm willing to believe that doctors, scientists, and engineers--professionals from Caprica and other rich colonies--would find a place of honor in the fleet. The folks who, before the apocalypse, worked as accountants, however, or regional sales managers, or directors of personnel, will have by now either learned a usable skill or been put to work pushing a broom. I'm perfectly willing to believe that there's an underclass in the fleet, but under no circumstances would it be comprised of skilled laborers, whose knowledge and experience are vital to humanity's survival.*

For neither the first nor second time, the writers are trying to map a real-world issue onto their invented universe without ensuring that the two situations overlap, counting on the audience's preexisting emotional associations to compensate for an incoherent plot. The two characters who cross the class divide in this episode are a case in point. It's very sad that Danny the college student is forced to work in an unfamiliar environment and nearly maimed, but has the kid been living in a bubble for two years? How is it possible that he's learned no new skills since the Cylon attack? Similarly, Seelix's promotion at the end of the episode is very stirring, but what's actually happening on screen is that the fleet loses a talented, experienced engineer and gains a rookie pilot--hardly a profitable trade.

As my mother pointed out this morning, "Dirty Hands" would have made sense had it been set early in the first season, several months after the Cylon attack. Coming as it does more than two years after the attack--two years during which the fleet's makeup was even further shuffled when a sizable portion of it left to colonize New Caprica--without any explanation as to how the institutions and attitudes of the old Colonial system could have had such an unnaturally long afterlife, the story beggars belief. Are we honestly supposed to accept that for two years there has existed an upper class within the fleet whose members have spent their time twiddling their thumbs because they have no usable skills in a post-apocalyptic situation? Not only that they would have been allowed to live in such indolence, but that they would choose to do so, doing nothing all day but contemplating the fact that their life might come to a brutal end at any minute?

On the character level, at least, the episode works as an extension of what came before it. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of Roslin and Baltar's attitudes towards the fleet, but I wish someone had pointed out to Roslin that the kind of behavior she exhibits in this episode is precisely the reason why she lost the election to Baltar in the first place. Baltar is a liar. He doesn't care about the people and his book is merely an attempt to garner sympathy before his trial (although frankly, it's quite astonishing to me that it should be successful). When he lies, however, Baltar tells the people to speak out and think for themselves. Roslin, with perfect conviction, tells the people to shut up, do as they're told, and leave the thinking to her. I think there was room in the episode for some acknowledgement that Roslin is trying, yet again, to herd rather than lead.

Still, at least Roslin is still a likable character. With "Dirty Hands", Adama completes the transition he began at the beginning of the season, and becomes a thoroughly despicable person. I'm not talking about the threat to shoot Cally**, but about the reasons for it. Adama isn't Cain. He doesn't have it in him to shoot a crewmember for threatening the crew's cohesion. He will, however, do a hell of a lot worse to you if he thinks you've turned your back on him, which is why Cally nearly ends up in front a firing squad. Worst of all, once Tyrol caves, Adama all but pats him on the head and proffers a reward--the meeting with the president--gazing deep into the Chief's eyes as if to say, see what a good guy I am, deep down? Well, no, Bill, you're not a good guy. You're a control freak, and dangerously psychotic to boot, and I would much rather work for someone who would shoot me for impersonal reasons than for you. I truly wish the episode had ended with Tyrol taking his family off Galactica.

But other than that, it wasn't a bad episode.

* As usual, it's more interesting to imagine the stories that might have been written for this show then to consider the ones that actually were. Wouldn't it have been cool if the protagonists of this Norma Rae story had been former white-collar workers, now exploited by the people they had previously looked down on?

** There seems to be a profound dislike of this character in fan circles which I simply don't get. People seem to resent her murder of Boomer, but since Boomer has turned out to be either a horrible person or not a person at all, I'm inclined to let that slide. The beginning of her relationship with Tyrol was indeed a bit creepy (although I can't help but feel that the writers don't mean for us to find it so, but that they couldn't be bothered to show us the characters falling in love), but in the present they seem to have a good marriage--there's a sense of partnership, of camaraderie, between them. It's not high romance, but given the way other married couples are depicted on this show, I find the quiet ordinariness of Cally and Tyrol's marriage is quite sweet.

Not Dead

The tumbleweeds have been blowing through AtWQ lately, for which I apologize. I could blame work--and I will--but also February has turned out to be something of a dead month, culture-wise.

Happily, March is already shaping up quite nicely. The final Nebula ballot is online, and you all know what that means--look for my reviews of the short fiction nominees in the near future.

A few observations on the ballot:

  • Michael A. Burstein has a piece in the novella category. Oh, joy.

  • M. Rickert's "Anyway" didn't make the cut from the preliminary ballot, which is a crime. On the other hand, Rickert has a story on the novelette ballot.

  • The Nebula jury added Battlestar Galactica's "Unfinished Business" to the best script category, thus cementing its irrelevance.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Holy Crap

Scroll down to the bottom of the interview for some Doctor Who casting news almost as exciting as Christopher Eccleston's guest role on Heroes.


Saturday, February 10, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 11

It's been a mainstream fiction sort of month (to counteract which, I am now rereading The Lord of the Rings), and here are some thoughts about the books I read:
  1. The Russian Debutante's Handbook by Gary Shteyngart - The cover of Shteyngart's debut novel is plastered with so many accolades, award notices, and effusive blurbs that there is hardly any room for the title, and for the life of me I can't figure out what these reviewers, award committees and authors were thinking. This is not to say that Handbook is a bad novel. It's well written, and quite funny--laugh-out-loud funny, at points. The novel describes the coming of age of twenty-something, Russian-born, Jewish Vladimir Grishkin, who emigrated to the United States as a child and finds himself, in the early nineties, aimless and identity-less in New York, desperate to escape his past as a foreigner and his present as the scion of bourgeois, money- and status-conscious parents. Over the course of the novel, Vladimir makes several attempts to reinvent himself--as the boyfriend of a beautiful, neurotic Upper East Side sophisticate; as the henchman of a Russian mobster in the fictional Eastern European country Stolovaya, just coming out from under soviet rule; as the ringleader and financier for a group of bohemian American ex-pats in Stolovaya's capital Prava; and finally, as a responsible, middle-class suburban husband and father--which have the increasing ring of desperation, and ultimately form the image of a personality so consumed with getting away from a semi-imaginary menace that it forgets to consider where that heedless escape might take it. This is, I suspect, the effect Shteyngart was aiming for, but he goes about achieving it in some decidedly strange ways.

    As I said, Handbook is a funny novel, but its humor is steeped in crass cultural stereotypes. The Americans Vladimir meets are air-headed poseurs bent on repudiating their middle-class upbringing and enchanted by the vestiges of socialism they encounter in Prava. The Stolovayans, meanwhile, are obsessed with American capitalism and with emulating American culture. None of the characters are allowed to breathe on the page, to amount to more than their ethnic or national identity (in Prava, Vladimir meets and falls in love with a women who briefly seems to be an actual person, to have a personality rather than a social agenda. Sadly, she quickly develops the latter, which causes her to lose the former). Vladimir himself, though not without abilities--he's smart, determined, self-aware, and good at bullshitting people--is so consumed with self-loathing, so obsessed with becoming someone other than himself, that occupying his headspace is quite unpleasant. One quickly comes to the conclusion that the purpose of the novel is to get us to pity Vladimir--a character who, objectively, has very little to complain about. Shteyngart's attempts to elicit this reaction become increasingly frenzied as the novel progresses--towards the end, he has Vladimir beaten up by a group of skinheads in the employ of his mobster boss--to the point that he almost seems to be bullying his readers into reacting to his character as he would like them to. To pity a character, however, we have to be invested in it, and Vladimir is rarely interesting and almost never likable. Instead of feeling pity for Vladimir, therefore, I just found him pathetic, and I found the experience of reading about him--and of being asked to feel for him because of the lingering scars that life under communist occupation had left in his psyche--a bit like being badgered. I'm not quite sure what the point of the entire exercise was.

  2. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller - Heller's short, restrained novel doesn't try to do a great deal. It is a character sketch of two women--Sheba Hart, a slightly unhappy teacher just entering middle age who has an affair with a fifteen year old student, and Barbara Covett, Sheba's friend and confidant, who narrates the novel, chronicling Sheba's downfall as the younger woman awaits her trial following the affair's discovery. With lucid, unobtrusive prose, Heller brings her characters to vivid and undeniable life. Sheba is not precisely a bad person--in fact she's capable of great kindness and decency, taking no part in the popularity contests and petty squabbles that permeate the teacher's lounge at the school where she and Barbara work, and welcoming Barbara into her life. She is, however, very, very weak--the kind of person who has never made her own decisions, and who genuinely believes that someone will always turn up to solve her problems. That person turns out to be Barbara, desperately lonely, but so rigid in her expectations from the people around her that she walks around consumed with hatred and disdain, incapable of loving anyone who isn't perfect, or at least perfectly willing to sublimate themselves to her will. Notes on a Scandal could easily have ended up a rather simplistic story--the novel's main thrust, after all, is the shock of discovering that Sheba, who has done a terrible thing, is not a terrible person, and that the upright Barbara is in fact a monster--but Sheba and Barbara are so convincingly human, and both so pitiable, that the absurdities and contrivances of the plot (such as Heller stacking the deck for Sheba by having her be the more vulnerable, more involved party in the affair with the student) barely register. Notes on a Scandal may not try to do very much, but the things it does do it does exceptionally well.

  3. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx - After reading Proulx's short fiction, I thought I might enjoy her novels, and decided to start with the Pulitzer-winning Shipping News. At least one of these decisions was a mistake. The Shipping News is a pleasant novel, and quite beautifully written, even if Proulx's distinctive style--short sentences, usually peppered with odd, perhaps even invented terms and adjectives and missing as many verbs, nouns and prepositions as Proulx could lop off without rendering them completely unintelligible--begins to grate after a while, but it's also a fairly unremarkable effort. The protagonist is Quoyle, an unhappy, defeated man who after the death of his no-good wife moves his family back to his ancestral home, a tiny speck of a town on the island of Newfoundland, and there makes friends, discovers in himself abilities he had never suspected, and finds true love. Which is the plot of about a thousand TV movies with the gender of the main character reversed, and Proulx doesn't seem interested in doing anything out of the ordinary with it. The characters are well-drawn, but none of them leap off the page. There are no interesting themes or literary tricks with which to dress up this rather maudlin story, and although the novel shines on those occasions in which Proulx steps away from her main characters and describes the invented history of Quoyle's adopted home, complete with whalers, pirates, and numerous characters sent to the bottom ofthe ocean by a treacherous sea, these interludes aren't enough to give it personality (in fact, one too many of them and the novel starts sliding towards twee). I don't exactly regret reading The Shipping News, but neither do I understand why it won such a prestigious award, or in fact why Proulx bothered to write it.

  4. The Portable Dorothy Parker by Dorothy Parker - Look, it's another early-to-mid twentieth century short story writer. Much like the Cheever and Jackson collections I'd read before it, The Portable Dorothy Parker suffers from its comprehensiveness. Parker simply doesn't have that much to say. Her women are invariably passive-aggressive, her men are oblivious, and many of the stories can be summed up with a single concept--why doesn't he call me, did he ever really love me, etc, etc. There are a few gems here (although far fewer than in the Cheever or Jackson collections)--"The Lovely Leave", about a couple being torn apart by the husband's military service; "The Standard of Living", about a what-if game that makes the lives of two office drones bearable; "Mr. Durant", in which a married man callously disposes of a pregnant mistress--and Parker's famous wit is matched by an impressive facility with words and descriptions. The collection also includes some of Parker's poetry (a newer edition also collects essays and reviews, but my copy is an ancient thing I picked up at a used bookstore and doesn't include them), which is where it is weakest. 'Poetry' probably isn't even the right word. Nonsense verse might work if one didn't get the sense that Parker was being entirely earnest writing about doomed love and longing for death and generally being far too maudlin than is really good for anybody. In spite of a few famous and still-amusing pieces, the poetry segments are best skipped in favor of the far superior stories.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

There Aren't Any Respectful Ways to Say 'Your Computer Sucks'

Charlie Brooker's anti-Mac rant on the Guardian blog, inspired at least in part by the UK version of the 'I'm a Mac; I'm a PC' ad campaign, has been ruffling some feathers (on the other hand, it also inspired Alison to track down this Mac/PC slash site). I love my Mac dearly--even more so now that I'm working and forced to use a Windows machine most of the day--but Brooker's screed is so obviously calculated to enrage that I can't be bothered to react to it. It's the equivalent of a middle-schooler shouting 'poo!' at the top of his lungs, and Brooker's irate--not to say hysterical--anti-Mac and -Mac-users arguments are so absurd that the entire piece goes right through aggravating and out the other end into funny.

Where Brooker does have a point, however, is in his criticism of the ad campaign. I haven't seen the UK version, but even though I find the US originals quite funny (although their effect might have been lessened had I known that John Hodgman, who plays the fuddy-duddy PC, is a cast member on The Daily Show), there is something almost cringe-inducing about the smarminess with which the Mac and PC present their various strengths and weaknesses (PCs are good for work stuff, Macs are good for creative stuff is both a vast oversimplification and not actually true, and if I never hear the 'there are less computer viruses for Macs' argument again, it'll be too soon). Funny as it is, the campaign associates Mac use with condescension.

The only problem is that, much like Brooker's suggestion that a proper operating system should be cumbersome and hard to figure out, this is an argument from another decade. Mac ads have always been smarmy and condescending (and as for being simplistic: they're ads. They're trying to sell you something. Specifically, these ads are trying to get you to replace a cheap appliance with a more expensive one which will, in the short run, cause you some trouble as you scramble to track down equivalents to your existing software and deal with compatibility issues with the rest of the PC-using world. Simplistic is baked right in). Their basic gist is that the only reason to use a PC is not knowing any better (or, alternatively, being afraid), and since this is the thrust of the company's argument, it's hard to get away from a condescending tone. The best you can hope for is to cloak that condescension in the kind of humorous tone that the 'I'm a Mac; I'm a PC' campaign has been consistently hitting.

Not to mention that anything that follows up on this is almost automatically an improvement.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

It Never Rains But It Pours

Seven years after the publication of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and a good four or five years since he first described the general gist of its plot, Michael Chabon is finally about to publish another (adult) novel, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, due this May. To tide us over that last stretch of Chabon-less months, however, the New York Times is serializing another new novel by Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road.

And, in other highly-anticipated-book news, J.K. Rowling.com reports that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be published on July 21st. Time to make that Amazon order.

UPDATE: More good news: season 2 of Life on Mars begins on February 13th.