Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Episode That Broke Me and Other "Crossroads II" Thoughts

In the podcast for Battlestar Galactica's first season finale, "Kobol's Last Gleaming II", Ron Moore talks about his original concept for the season-ending cliffhanger (end of act 2 and beginning of act 3):
[Baltar] comes into a room and he hears music and it's a recognizable Earth-tune ... It was Jimi Hendrix was playing, actually, and he goes, "God, I recognize that." And then somebody- or somebody s- a voice says, "You recognize that?" And he says, "Yes." And he turns and it's Dirk Benedict. (Laughs.) And Dirk Benedict said, "Hi. I'm God." And you just cut. We just cut out on that. ... that was gonna be the end of that whole storyline and at the episode. I liked it. I thought it was wacky. I didn't quite know what it meant. I thought- I was looking for a surprise.
I was still infatuated with Galactica when I watched this episode and listened to the podcast, and even so Moore's words gave me pause. I was troubled by the realization that he could so cavalierly discuss introducing such an absurd plot twist without knowing its meaning and resolution, and even more so by his willingness to jeopardize the integrity of his invented universe for the sake of a metafictional gag. At the time, I told myself that it was wrong to judge Moore by the crazy notions his hyperactive imagination spun out. He had, after all, dismissed the idea--his better impulses and the people around him had talked him out of it. The bullet had been dodged. Two seasons later, it seems to have swung around and hit us*.

The massive plot twist at the end of "Crossroads II" differs from both of the cliffhangers preceding it. It is not, like Boomer shooting Adama in "Kobol's Last Gleaming II", an organic extension of previous events. Neither is it, like the 'One Year Later' title card in "Lay Down Your Burdens II", a massive perspective shift, a moment in which, as Dan Hartland put it, the show eviscerates itself (although as it turns out Dan vastly overestimates the consequences of the leap forward in his essay. The third season wasted very little time in restoring the status quo, and the aftereffects of both the Cylon occupation and the year spent on New Caprica have been only fleetingly and half-heartedly explored). If these two previous cliffhangers had the audience going 'Oh no!' and 'Wow!', respectively, the end of "Crossroads II" is more likely to have elicited a 'Huh?'

The return of Starbuck is only surprising in that it happens so soon after her 'death'. The less said about the incongruous musical choice, the better**. Plenty of people are scratching their heads at the identity of the Cylons revealed--two of them decent, morally upright people; one of them a violent, self-destructive drunk; two of them serving at the respective right hands of the two most powerful people in the fleet; one of them older than the Cylon race; one of them a parent; three of them major characters; one of them a virtual non-entity; all of them key members of the New Caprica resistance movement--but I can't help but feel that we'd have a easier time accepting Tigh, Tyrol, Anders and Tory as Cylons if we had a better idea of what, exactly, a Cylon is.

I'm going to say this again because it's just so mind-boggling. At the end of Galactica's third season--if rumors are to be believed, three quarters of the way into the show's run--we have no idea what a Cylon is. What little information we've been given about them is spotty and contradictory. Cylons are biological, but they can interface directly with fiber-optic cable. Cylons can breed with humans, but their blood has a different molecular structure than ours. Cylons have a psychology similar to humans--they can be tortured and fall in love--but they have only a rudimentary grasp of individuality and can tailor their perception of reality to suit their moods and protect them from the harshness of the real world. Moreover, Tigh and the others aren't garden variety Cylons. They're Final Five Cylons, whatever the hell that means. Within this fog of uncertainty, the only thing we can safely say is that these four characters are not what we thought they were, but we might as well have discovered that they all have a rare blood type, or a supernumerary toe, for all that we can understand the ramifications of this discovery, much less of their choice not to let biology--or mechanics--determine their destiny.

At the risk of sounding like one of these people, I've been toying for a while with the notion that Galactica is not, in any meaningful way, science fiction. Most narrative genres take place in a universe that operates according to a set of rules. The difference between naturalistic and fantastic fiction is that, in the latter, the universe is not our universe, and the rules are not our rules. Nevertheless, they exist, and are comprehensive and coherent. When it comes to Battlestar Galactica's fantastic elements, I'm beginning to wonder whether there are any rules. For more than a year, I and a host of other Galactica fans have been screaming to high heavens about the show's shoddy worldbuilding. Halfway through the second chorus of "All Along the Watchtower", I started to think that maybe Ron Moore isn't incapable of creating a coherent alternate universe. Maybe he just doesn't want to. Maybe a story that I've been reading, with ever-increasing frustration, as fantastic is actually surreal.

I'm not saying this to let Ron Moore and his writers off the hook. There's a vast gap between Battlestar Galactica and Twin Peaks, and let's not lose sight of the show's failures on the character level, or when wearing its other genre hats--the action adventure and the political thriller. Surrealism eschews coherence and linearity for the sake of ambience, but when it's done badly--and sometimes, even when it's done well--that ambience can fail to materialize. The audience, in cases like this, is jettisoned out of the story, and left with no emotional hook other than a bewildered amusement. If I'm right, and Ron Moore is prioritizing the gestalt effect of his story over any of its individual elements, then he is tragically out of step with the vast majority of his audience, and likely to lose more and more of them as his show sinks further into weirdness. All that said, I've often wondered about the thought processes of the surreal artist. When the only purpose of the work's details is to come together into a certain kind of whole, how do you know which details to use when? How do you decide that the backwards-talking dwarf goes here instead of there? I imagine that the process must be largely intuitive--perhaps along the lines of a writer who thinks that Dirk Benedict as God is a good idea.

As far as I'm concerned, there was only one question that "Crossroads II" needed to answer--is there any reason for me to come back to this show in January? If the rumors turn out to be true and the fourth season is confirmed as Galactica's last, I suspect I will. I want to see what Ron Moore comes up with as an ending, because at this point there is no doubt in my mind that it will be absolutely deranged. I guess you could say that "Crossroads II" is the episode that broke me--at this point, I am no longer interested in analyzing this show or pointing out the faults in its worldbuilding. In fact, I find myself dangerously close to the 'but it's not supposed to make any sense' mindset that keeps people watching 24 and Lost. In my defense, I just want to see whether or not I'm right. I think Moore is going to slide into the realm of metaphysics and go completely insane and I want to be there when it happens, not because I think the end result will be moving or awe-inspiring or even any good, but because I think it's going to be really, really big. At least, I'd like to believe that it will be. There must be some kind of way out of here.



* Which, in a way, is fitting. Why shouldn't the ghosts of the first season's aborted plot twists cap off the third season, which in the general shape of its plot progression resembles nothing so much as the second season's deformed twin? Both seasons start with the main cast divided, several of them stranded on a planet and in need of being rescued from the Cylons. This situation persists for several episodes, at the end of which order is restored--the fleet is reunited, Roslin and Adama are reinstated in their old roles and relationship--just in time for the mid-season two-parter to challenge it by positing a thorny moral dilemma. Once that storyline is wrapped up, in a wholly unsatisfying manner, the season devolves into a sequence of tedious and ill-advised standalone episodes which, in their turn, give way to a finale revolving around a momentous public decision--which turns out differently than any of the characters could have reasonably expected--and is then capped off by a shocking event.

** According to the show's composer, Bear McCreary, this choice doesn't imply "that Bob Dylan necessarily exists in the characters' universe, but that an artist on one of the colonies may have recorded a song with the exact same melody and lyrics," and if this is true then I can only say that the episode misses its mark by a wide, wide margin.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Noted Without Comment

Jane too plain for publishers:
Helen Trayler, the publisher's managing director, said: "She was not much of a looker. Very, very plain. Jane Austen wasn't very good looking. She's the most inspiring, readable author, but to put her on the cover wouldn't be very inspiring at all. It's just a bit off-putting.

...

Publishers have traditionally used a portrait of Austen by her sister Cassandra, which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. This portrait has been now been digitally adjusted to remove her nightcap, give her make-up and hair extensions for a new edition of a memoir by Austen's nephew.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Fanny Price? Thoughts on Mansfield Park, Novel and Films

ITV kicked off its "Jane Austen Season" on Sunday with Mansfield Park, an indifferent adaptation starring a good but woefully miscast Billie Piper. Mansfield Park is probably Austen's most problematic novel, and possibly her most divisive (the other contender for that title is Northanger Abbey, about which there seem to be nothing but extreme opinions. Personally, I am at a loss to understand how I can be expected to enjoy a parody of a genre that no longer exists, and which I have never read in), and most of those problems can be traced back to its main character--the dull, timid, deferential, passive, self-abnegating goodie-two-shoes, Miss Fanny Price.

In Austen fan circles, one is often made to feel a little guilty for not liking Fanny. The very point of Mansfield Park, after all, is to stress the importance of character by pitting a heroine who has it--and almost no other virtue--against a romantic rival who possesses everything but. To dislike Fanny, we're told, is to put a higher premium on the surface of things--on stylishness, cleverness, wittiness--than on what lies beneath it. Fanny's victory over Mary Crawford, with whom she competes for the heart of her cousin Edmund Bertram, is the victory of substance over style.

On the other side of the debate, we have those who, like Alison, here writing in response to the ITV adaptation, feel that
The Crawfords are more fun than anyone else, and while they are cruel and destructive, they are redeemable, and it is part of the tension of the story that Edmund and Fanny could redeem them, but choose not to. It's very problematic to the reader. You do find the two goodies to be priggish. You do want to say to them - get together with the baddies, you'll give them a bit of depth, and they'll give you a bit of fun for the first time in your dull self-sacrificing lives.
I have problems with both approaches, but most particularly with the latter. The Crawfords--Mary and her brother Henry, who flirts shamelessly with Edmund's sisters, one of whom is engaged, and then turns his attentions to Fanny--are redeemable, of course--what would be the point of the novel if they were mustache-twirling villains (and I disagree with Alison's assertion that they are cruel--destructive, to be certain, and quite thoughtless, but one never sees them take real pleasure in the pain of others, or pursue that pain as an end in its own right)? And how much lesser would the glory of Fanny's victory over Mary be if Mary did not have good qualities as well as bad? The problem is that they do not wish to be redeemed. Mary in particular is almost beyond hope--unlike Henry, who realizes that to win Fanny's heart he will have to change and make sacrifices, Mary expects those changes and sacrifices to come from Edmund, whose career as a clergyman and life in a modest country parish she finds completely unacceptable.

Throughout the novel, Mary shows herself to be shallow and mercenary, her moral compass warped out of true, and even her deepening feelings for Edmund do not change her fundamental character. She begins to wonder whether she might not be able to tolerate a life of relative poverty for Edmund's sake, but she never learns to appreciate the value of that life for its own sake. Just about the only thing Mary does to recommend herself to the reader is strike up a friendship with Fanny (although Austen goes to some lengths to point out that she does so out of boredom, and only after the Bertram sisters leave the neighborhood), to whom she is very kind, but in her last letter to Fanny, Mary callously expresses hope for the death of Edmund's older brother, then grievously ill, as a baronetcy and a fortune might go some way towards making marriage to a clergyman tolerable. There can be no doubt--this is a completely shallow, completely hollow person.

Henry is a more problematic character. As previously noted, he changes--or at least tries to--to please Fanny, and I've more than once come across the opinion that, in having him run off with Edmund's by-then-married sister Maria just as Fanny starts to soften towards him, Austen is performing something along the lines of character assassination, getting rid of a what is by that point a worthy suitor because she wants Fanny and Edmund together at the end of the book. It's a persuasive argument, but for me it falls flat because the novel makes it quite obvious that Henry only ever tries to change to please Fanny. He never learns to love goodness for itself, although it's possible that, at the time of his slip with Maria, he was on the path to doing so. And a slip, albeit a disastrous one, is precisely how Austen describes the rekindling of the affair:
Had he done as he intended, and as he knew he ought, by going down to Everingham after his return from Portsmouth, he might have been deciding his own happy destiny. But he was pressed to stay for Mrs. Fraser's party; his staying was made of flattering consequence, and he was to meet Mrs. Rushworth there. Curiosity and vanity were both too strong for a mind unused to make any sacrifice to right; he resolved to defer his Norfolk journey, resolved that writing should answer the purpose of it, or that its purpose was unimportant--and stayed. He saw Mrs. Rushworth, was received by her with a coldness which ought to have been repulsive, and have established apparent indifference between them forever; but he was mortified, he could not bear to be thrown off by the woman whose smiles had been so wholly at his command; he must exert himself to subdue so proud a display of resentment; it was anger on Fanny's account; he must get the better of it, and make Mrs. Rushworth Maria Bertram again in her treatment of himself.
As we know that Henry's infatuation with Fanny is directly attributable to the fact that she didn't swoon at his advances, it doesn't strain credibility to imagine him, halfway between roguishness and respectability as he is at that point in the novel, falling victim to the same impulse where Maria is involved. Taken on its own, it is a trivial setback, but its consequences destroy his chances for redemption.

Most importantly, Austen doesn't really go in for redemption by proxy. A young person's character and ideas can be shaped by the guiding hand of a parent or a mentor, although one more often encounters examples of the opposite, of parents spoiling and ruining their children, in her novels, and Mansfield Park in particular is littered with victims of such bad education--the Crawfords, all of the Bertram siblings but Edmund, even Fanny's sister Susan is nearly overcome by her parents' coarseness and inattention--but once they reach adulthood, her characters are expected to better themselves. "We all have a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be," is Fanny's response when Henry calls her his moral guide. All of the redeemed characters in Austen's novels--Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse--achieve redemption on their own, and they seek it because they want to be good people and have had it pointed out to them that, in a certain respect, they fall short of that goal, not as a way of securing a lover. The notion that one might fix or elevate one's spouse is rarely given any credence in Austen's novels--one more frequently encounters examples of good people dragged down into ridiculousness or intellectual stagnation through the poor choice of a mate, and I can only imagine that this is what would have happened to Edmund if he'd persisted in his pursuit of Mary.

All of which is not to say that the anti-Fanny viewpoint is completely without merit. Fanny may possess an adamantium core of moral conviction, but it is surrounded by nothingness. Relentlessly beaten down by her more-or-less well-meaning aunt and uncle Bertram, who never fail to remind her of the debt of gratitude she owes them for taking her in, and who stop short of making her feel like a member of their family, and even further down by her inexpressibly evil aunt Norris, Fanny is almost bereft of personality. She is a keen observer of humanity--which is part of her protection against the Crawfords' charm, as she sees them as they are instead of as they pretend to be and as others wish to see them--but that keenness is only achieved through complete self-abnegation, a total absence of any opinions, interests, or desires of her own, of any identity not inextricably bound with the people around her. It is only through paying so little attention to herself--and thus ensuring that there is very little to pay attention to--that Fanny can manage to pay so much attention to others, and the end result is that, instead of opposing style and substance, the juxtaposition of Fanny and Mary ends up being a competition between two different kinds of substanceless-ness. While I would certainly agree that, when choosing a lifelong mate, one would be better off with Fanny's strength than Mary's capacity to amuse, it is hard to imagine how one could love a person who loves herself as little as Fanny Price does.

Even worse, in her dealings with the Crawfords, Fanny's deference and meekness soon become indistinguishable from hypocrisy. She allows Mary to make a friend of her even though she despises the other woman. She allows Henry to pursue her even though she despises him and is in love with another man. When Edmund and Sir Thomas mistake Fanny's unwillingness to accept Henry's proposal for a virginal panic which might be worn away at with time and kindness, we're expected to pity her, but the entire ordeal might have been over with in an instant if Fanny had only spoken out, and the longer she refrains from doing so the more she appears to be standing in silent, priggish judgement of those around her. One is reminded of Jane Eyre, another morally staunch, downtrodden young woman, but with a willingness to speak out when asked for her honest opinion. As the novel progresses, Fanny's lack of a similar courage begins to seem less and less like a pitiable character trait, and more like a moral failing.

As one of the commenters on Alison's post points out, the problem of representing Fanny in adaptations of Mansfield Park is usually dealt with by "turning her into someone else." The ITV version (with a script by Maggie Wadey) gives us a Fanny who is something of a tomboy, a girl amidst elegant females, either incapable of or unwilling to play the game of courtship, to flirt and bat her eyelashes and gently seduce. There is an argument to be made for reading Mansfield Park as a novel about Fanny's coming of age--coming to womanhood. Very soon after the novel's beginning, there is a lengthy discussion about whether or not Fanny is 'out'--a woman, and eligible for courtship and marriage--with the ultimate conclusion being that she isn't. After Maria marries and takes Julia with her on her honeymoon, Fanny becomes Mansfield Park's only young lady. She begins going out into company, starts wearing jewelry, has a ball thrown in her honor (essentially a coming-out), and eventually receives the attentions of a man. In Wadey's version, the experience of being courted by Henry prepares Fanny for Edmund's attentions, to which she responds with a gentle, teasing coquetry--a happy medium between her previous girlishness and Maria, Julia and Mary's artifice. As Edmund's falling in love with Fanny is, in the novel, done away with in a single line, this is one of the few places in which Wadey's version is superior to Austen's--she manages to persuade us, as Austen doesn't, that Edmund's choice of Fanny is more than a convenient one, that he longs for her as completely as she does for him, which goes some way toward justifying the anachronistic waltz at the end of the movie (am I the only one who had flashbacks to the Torchwood episode "Captain Jack Harkness" at that point?).

Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation went even farther than Wadey's in transforming Fanny's personality. Rozema's scoops Austen's Fanny out of the story entirely and substitutes her with Austen herself. Rozema's Fanny is an aspiring author, and examples of her fiction are in fact taken from Austen's juvenilia. Her letters to Susan are meant to recall Austen's close relationship and correspondence with her own sister Cassandra. The result is an enjoyable, well-made period romantic comedy with little but basic plot and character names in common with the novel. The only thing actually wrong with it, however, is its unspoken but ever-present underlying assumption, that this is the life Jane Austen ought to have lived--that a person who wrote so well about romance should have lived a romantic life herself--which rather trivializes both the author and her novels. Of course, nowadays Rozema's liberties with Austen seem almost quaint. There is a level of meta-fictionality--along the lines of the Stratford-upon-Avon souvenir mug placed prominently in the foreground of one of the opening shots of Shakespeare in Love--that cushions her Mansfield Park, and prevents us from taking her version of Austen's life as gospel truth. In spite of their softly-whispered acknowledgment that their film takes great liberties with the facts, the producers of the upcoming Becoming Jane seem interested in eliciting the opposite response.

There is a 1983 BBC version of Mansfield Park of which I've seen only a few scenes--it seemed faithful enough, and had horrible, horrible production values. Apart from these three adaptations, I'm not aware of any other attempts to solve the problem of Fanny Price. Wadey's version, in spite of the missing Portsmouth section, is more faithful to the novel. Rozema's is more enjoyable. Neither one of them captures the essence of the novel, which, upon a rereading, turns out to be sharper and great deal more cynical than I had remembered. None of the characters--not even Fanny and Edmund--escape the narrator's barbed tongue, and even the readers receive a lashing or two for their romantic expectations ("exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire," is her only concession to readers eager for a romantic climax between Edmund and Fanny). I can't escape the impression that Mansfield Park was written with tongue firmly in cheek, that Austen was very much aware of how ridiculously saintly she was making her main character, and almost daring the readers to put up with her. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into the matter. What is certain, however, is that neither Rozema nor Wadey, nor, I suspect, any writer on the face of the earth but Jane Austen herself, could ever do justice to that being of pure, unadulterated evil that is Mrs. Norris.

Friday, March 23, 2007

It's Not the Size, It's What You Do With It

Bad news for people who still believe Battlestar Galactica's problems have anything to do with season length:
SCI FI Channel has increased its episode order for the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica to 22 from the original 13, including a special two-hour extended episode that will air during the fourth quarter of this year and be released on DVD by Universal Studios Home Entertainment thereafter. SCI FI made the announcement at its upfront press event in New York on March 21.
If, like myself, you think the argument that Galactica's writing staff--which includes veterans of such shows as Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Roswell, Smallville, Dark Angel, The Dead Zone, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer--don't know how to handle a standard-length season has long ago lost whatever credibility it might have had, this could be yet another point against coming back to the show next season.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The 2006 Nebula Award: The Novella Shortlist

By all rights, reading and reviewing this year's Nebula-nominated novellas should have been a cakewalk. There are only four nominees, after all, the longest of which, James Patrick Kelly's "Burn", I read and reviewed last year. Nevertheless, I found myself hesitant to start, and not just because one of the remaining three stories was by Michael A. Burstein, he of 'but you can't extend the release date of individual census forms from 73 to 75 years! Think of the consequences!' fame. I like novellas. Done right, they combine the best qualities of the novel and the short story, but what I expected to find on this year's shortlist were stories that had simply been allowed to go on too long, and whose excessive length would exacerbate the flaws--sentimentality, flat characterization, indifferent prose, paper-thin plots--that had blighted the novelette and short story shortlists. It's probably going too far to say that I was pleasantly surprised by this year's novella ballot, but it certainly didn't sink to unrecoverable depths. I rate it a comfortable Not Bad--by which I mean that although I can't find it in myself to root for any of these stories, there are at least one or two nominees whose victory would not offend me as a thinking human being. Aren't low standards a wonderful thing?

I've already written most of what I want to say about James Patrick Kelly's impressive but ultimately unengaging "Burn" (PDF) in last year's Hugo novella roundup: "Kelly is far more interested in describing [his] future society than in telling a story ... having comprehensively introduced us to [its] present, [he] seems to feel no need to speculate about its future." Looking back a year later, Kelly's worldbuilding, and the parallels he draws to Thoreau's Walden, seem even more accomplished than they did when I first read the story, but the characters have receded into nothingness, reinforcing my original assessment of the piece--"a lovely still photo where I had expected a film."

'Not Bad', of course, means different things for different authors. For Michael A. Burstein it means a piece whose publication in a professional market--well, in Analog, at any rate--does not boggle the mind, a standard which Burstein's novella, "Sanctuary", (Analog has only made a an extract available online. Thanks to Chance for providing me with the full story) just barely manages to uphold. So, yes, the prose is indifferent, the characters are paper-thin, the dialogue is stilted, the narrative consists mostly of talking heads having tedious conversations (at one point, a rabbi--"harass, shmarras"--gives a priest a historical overview of the concept of sanctuary; at another, a bureaucrat reads from an official policy statement, pausing after every paragraph of legalese and doublespeak to ask whether her listeners want to hear more, which of course they do) and the central dilemma plaguing the characters is solved off-page, by characters we never meet. By any criteria, "Sanctuary" is a bad story. It does, however, have an interesting SFnal dilemma at its core--on a space station in the 24th century, an alien fleeing religious persecution asks a Catholic priest to grant her sanctuary--which serves to elevate the story, ever so slightly, above the kind of stuff Burstein usually produces. Which is not to say that the handling of this interesting issue is not fumbled. Burstein seems far more interested in the bureaucratic minutiae surrounding the concept of sanctuary than in the potential pitfalls of allowing the mundane and the ecclesiastical to intermingle in a mixed-species environment, and the closest his story comes to offering an opinion on religious activism is the bizarre--or, at the very least, criminally under-supported--assertion that Galileo was wrong to challenge the Church over geocentrism because, had he succeeded, he would have undermined the source of knowledge and learning in Europe and prolonged the dark ages. I'm also made uncomfortable by Burstein's choice to juxtapose a humanistic, tolerant Catholic church ("some in our culture who were opposed to abortion resorted to murder. Some of those, I regret to say, were Catholics") against an alien species who believe in forced conversion, deny women sovereignty over their own bodies, and cling to outdated customs and taboos long after they've outlived their usefulness. By projecting our greatest flaws on an invented Other, Burstein allows his readers an easy out--they can embrace his falsely conciliating fantasy that Things Are Better Now and shake their heads over the foolishness of these Others without ever acknowledging that, in the here and now, it is we who are being foolish.

As it turns out, however, neither its stylistic nor ideological shortcomings make for as persuasive an argument against "Sanctuary"'s presence on the novella ballot as the fact that the story is not, in fact, a novella. The SFWA's Nebula FAQ defines a novella as a story measuring between 17,500 and 39,999 words in length. "Sanctuary," title and author's name included, clocks in at a svelte 16,003 words. It's possible, I suppose, that the FAQ is out of date, but in that case it is Peter S. Beagle's "Two Hearts", nominated for the novelette award and some thousand words longer than Burstein's story, that has been miscategorized (and, to forestall the obvious question: because I am a nerd and I like to know these things). I have no idea what the rules are in situations like this--I'm quite frankly baffled as to how this mix-up could have occurred in the first place--but it's quite amusing to discover an objective, mathematically measurable criteria by which I can argue that a nominated story should be tossed off the ballot.

In Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe", Iowa farmboy and aspiring physicist John Rayburn meets an alternate universe version of himself in the pumpkin patch. The other John--John Prime, as he styles himself--has achieved trans-dimensional travel through the use of a device given to him, he claims, by yet another John, and has been traveling for months, observing the many permutations of his young life. John Prime none-too-subtly insinuates himself into John's life, with an eye towards taking it over and using information gathered in other universes to make a quick million or two. He convinces John to use the device without telling him that travel is possible in only one 'direction'--having left a universe, one can never return to it. Despite some decidedly awkward turns of phrase, "The Walls of the Universe" is an enjoyable piece, but like Jack McDevitt's "Henry James, This One's For You" from the short story ballot, it stops just as the good part is about to start. We know almost from the first moment--because he tells us--that John Prime is sizing John's life up for a potential grab, and it's not very difficult to guess why he would find it necessary to steal the existence of another version of himself. A significant portion of "The Walls of the Universe", therefore, is taken up with watching the characters arrive, ever so slowly, at conclusions we had come to many pages ago. As the story ends, John is only beginning the slow, arduous process of figuring out trans-dimensional travel for himself, with the goal of taking revenge on John Prime, which to my mind is by far the more interesting story.

Melko also fumbles--or at the very least fails to properly explore--the characterization of his two protagonists. John Prime repeatedly tells us that he was once as naive and kind-hearted as John, whose upbringing bears a great resemblance to his own, but that, having been tricked out of his own life and forced to fend for himself he finally resorted to the same sort of trickery played on him. John comes close to making the same decision--which would have turned "The Walls of the Universe" into an intriguingly circular story, in which different versions of the same person are fated to perpetually repeat the same crime--but at the last moment turns back, and the narrative is entirely silent on the question of why two virtually identical people, under virtually the same circumstances, should make such different choices. It seems that we're expected to accept that our John is the good guy, and the other John is the bad guy, simply because Melko has given one the white hat and the other the black one. Which to my mind is, once again, turning away from what's truly interesting about the story's premise.

Like Kelly's "Burn", William Shunn's "Inclination" describes a hyper-technological far future through the eyes of an outsider and a luddite. On Netherview space station, the Wheelies--a neo-Christian cult who reject, among other things, genetic and surgical modifications that would allow them to work safely in vacuum or directly access the station's computers--live in their own isolated segment, disdaining the 'Sculpted', who have allowed themselves to be corrupted and made, as the Wheelies see it, less than human. Nevertheless, the guild has debts to pay, and fifteen year old Jude is sent to work as a stevedore in the city of sin. I don't think it's necessary for me to note that Jude has been harboring some decidedly un-religious thoughts towards a boy in his class for you to guess just how this encounter turns out, but Shinn manages to paint his familiar tale with a veneer of freshness. Jude is a lovable, endearing character, and his confusion, the mixture of longing and loathing he feels when exposed to the wider world around him is almost instantly disarming. We want good things for this kid, and we desperately fear that the world is too complicated and too busy to let him have them. Unfortunately, the world Shunn describes is not our world. Against the restrictive, hypocritical, abusive Wheelies Shunn juxtaposes a utopia, a "pseudo-socialist post-scarcity paradise," as an AI information program puts it. Living in Israel, I've had far too much experience with religious fanatics who bind their children to a century-old way of life, denying them the freedom that is their birthright by hiding from them the fact that they possess it, to resent Shunn's crass representation of their fictional counterparts, but by making the world outside the Wheelie compound so perfect, Shunn devalues Jude's dilemma, and divests his story of any real-world significance. The people Jude meets outside the Wheelie enclave are, without exception, kind and welcoming, and there's every indication that once he chooses to leave his old world behind--in real life, a wrenching decision with often terrible consequences--he will be embraced into a life a great deal easier and more comfortable than the one he lived before. At the end of "Inclination", a recording of Jude's mother tells him that he has chosen "enlightenment over ignorance," but can a life of freedom without consequences really be called enlightened? As I said, Jude is an endearing character, and for his sake it's hard to wish for a more believable ending. For my sake as a reader, however, I wish Shunn had erred on the side of rigor rather than sentiment.

As I said at the beginning of this post, there is no story on the shortlist that desperately deserves to win. In a perfect universe, there would exist a happy medium between "Burn" and "Inclination", combining Shunn's compelling plot and characters with Kelly's more subtle moral outlook--his luddite society has a great deal to recommend it, and the choice to embrace or reject its tenets is presented as unique to each individual, some people being more suited to life outside this futuristic Walden and others preferring the simple life. In the real world, either one might be able to hold up the award with pride, although I suspect Kelly will be the winner.

Looking back on this piece, I'm struck by the fact that I took all four authors to task not for writing a bad story, but for failing to write a remarkable one--for choosing not to more rigorously explore their SFnal premises, for staying in the shallow end of the pool rather than asking interesting questions. Which, once again, leads me to wonder whether I'm not demanding too much from the field in general and the Hugo and Nebula shortlists in particular. I have to believe that I'm not, or at the very least I have to believe that someone should be making this demand. Otherwise, the very best we'll ever be able to hope for is Not Bad.

OK, bring on the Hugos.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The 2006 Nebula Award: The Short Story Shortlist

This year's short story Nebula ballot started out with a strike against it. It would have to be an exceptional bunch of stories indeed to justify the choice to lop M. Rickert's "Anyway"--a story which effortlessly introduces a dollop of the fantastic into the life of an ordinary woman, and then stands back as that life unravels under the weight of an impossible choice--off the preliminary ballot. Unsurprisingly, the final ballot is not such a group--although it is by no means exceptionally bad either--and any attempt to evaluate its individual members and overall quality must take into account the shadow that Rickert's story, and its absence, cast. I often wonder, while in the process of excoriating yet another award ballot for aspiring to mediocrity, whether I'm not simply giving too much credit to the overall quality of the year's short fiction crop. As Dan Hartland put it in his review of a whole slew of year's best anthologies a few months ago, the "year's best" is the "decade's largely forgettable." This year, I know for a fact that worthy fiction has been left off the ballot, and that the Nebula voters--the arbiters of one of the genre's most prestigious awards--have hopelessly confused the wheat and the chaff.

There's a much-maligned SFnal cliché in which the hero arrives on a distant planet and, after many trials and tribulations, discovers that this planet is Earth, unrecognizably altered by some catastrophe or simply the passage of a great deal of time. It's part of a larger subset of twist ending stories, and to my mind these stories are problematic not simply because their twists have become predictable from over-use, but because they stop where an actual story would begin. What if you did find out that your home had been irrevocably altered? What would you do? Telling a story for no reason other than to get to the twist at the end reduces it to a gag, a joy buzzer. If the twist is shocking enough, and the path leading to it is artful enough, stories like this can make for an enjoyable reading experience (if not a rereading experience). Unfortunately, Jack McDevitt delivers neither in his nominated short, "Henry James, This One's For You", in which the publisher protagonist discovers that the brilliant piece of fiction submitted to him was written by an AI, and promptly throws the program's writer and his creation into the path of an oncoming car. The end.

There is no sentence in "Henry James" whose purpose extends beyond getting the readers to the story's end, and McDevitt writes like a man who hasn't yet figured out that there's a vast middle ground between the protagonist telling the readers that he's just read the greatest book ever written and actually reproducing said immortal prose. Worst of all, McDevitt doesn't actually seem to understand the ramifications of his premise. "A few years ago they were saying no computer would ever compete with a chess master. You look recently to see who's world champ?", the AI's programmer offers by way of an explanation when the protagonist questions a machine's ability to write a great novel, and at the risk of sounding like one of those people who can't read SF set in their field because of all the factual inaccuracies, this is crap. Chess is finite--there's a fixed-size board and a limited number of moves from every possible configuration of it. As such, it is perfectly suited for the computer's advantages over humanity--speed, accuracy, a large and reliable memory. Novel writing--exceptional novel-writing, at any rate--requires several other skills, including creativity, and while it's obviously possible to posit a computer capable of being creative, there are questions arising from this premise (for one thing, I'd argue that a creative machine is no longer a machine in any meaningful sense of the word) that McDevitt is completely uninterested in exploring. What he offers instead is a splat--the twist having been twisted, there is no longer any point in going on. Just before I sat down to write this entry, I came across a copy of Nebula Awards Showcase 2007, which includes an essay by McDevitt titled "Why Nebulas Matter" (although it seems to me that the essay is more concerned with explaining why SF matters, and the answer to the titular question is that the award helps draw attention to worthy SF). McDevitt concludes the essay by stating that SF "is not so much a literature of the future as of discovery. It is a way to look past narrow horizons. To see ourselves in a different perspective." I couldn't agree more, but McDevitt should either find a way to express these lofty principles in his fiction, or stick to commenting on the sidelines.

I read most of the Nebula-nominated shorts in a single day. By the end of that day, it was a struggle to remember what Eugene Mirabelli's "The Woman in Schrödinger's Wave Equation" was about. Having gone back to take a look, I can report that the story is a fluffy but ultimately unaffecting romance (he's a physics doctoral candidate with a bitchy girlfriend. She's an artist who waits tables to pay the rent. He dumps the bitch and falls in love with her) with only a flimsy SFnal aspect--the assertion, made by The Girl, that Schrödinger was inspired to formulate the wave equations by a woman, whose identity can be determined by examining the math. Only, not really--the story is much too flimsy for such metaphysics, or for such romance. "Amy and John are together, that's certain," is Mirabelli's concluding sentence, which seems to imply that such an outcome should come as a great joy, a great relief, even, to his readers. Since the readers could not possibly have been in doubt--could not have felt any uncertainty--about this outcome, there hardly seems any point in reading the story. Certainly, there's no point in working hard to remember it.

A romance is also at the heart of Elizabeth Hand's "Echo." This time, however, the romance is a tragic, affecting one. Hand draws a parallel between her protagonist's desperate hope for a sign from her lover and the titular myth about a nymph incapable of expressing her love except by repeating her beloved's words, who languishes away waiting for him to respond to her, and sets both stories--the mythical and modern romance--in a post-apocalyptic future. The narrator is holed away in a remote location, sending out e-mails whenever the rapidly deteriorating satellite network allows her to do so, and hoping that her lover is still out there somewhere, alive and trying to contact her. Hand does a fine job tying together the three story elements, shifting from the mythical to the personal to the communal and then back again in the space of a few paragraphs, and establishing a palpable emotional tone--the narrator's warring feelings of hope and despair, her longing for contact. Unfortunately, a sustained emotional tone is all "Echo" amounts to--it ends precisely as it started, with no variation having taken place in between--and even on such a small canvas that uniformity, that lack of resolution or even change, eventually becomes wearying (I had a similar problem with Richard Bowes's "There's a Hole in the City"). For all of Hand's impressive construction work, "Echo" amounts to a great deal less than the sum of its parts.

Karina Sumner-Smith's "An End to All Things" (PDF) is unique among the nominated shorts for taking place in a universe different from our own. Alone among the nominated writers, Sumner-Smith has gone to the trouble of creating her own world, establishing its guiding principles, identifying a few of its institutions, and imagining how life in that world might work. Specifically, her imaginary city runs on magic--a quality with which its inhabitants are imbued, and which to them is synonymous with life itself. The story's protagonist, however, was born with no magic. She therefore can't take part in life, as the city doesn't recognize her as being alive. Doors won't open for her. Elevators won't carry her. Vendors won't sell her anything because she has nothing to give them in return. Worst of all, Xhea doesn't actually feel alive. She lives a drab, monochromatic existence, cut off from the intensity of feeling and experience that her magical contemporaries take for granted. What she can do, however, is see the dead, and sometimes perform services for them or for the people they haunt. It is such a customer who catalyzes the plot of "An End to All Things," at the end of which Xhea comes to an understanding of her abilities and her role in society. There's a very real sense, when reading "An End to All Things", of a writer making her first steps--a slightly unbaked quality to the prose, a tendency to prioritize exposition over action, and, ultimately, a resolution that is a great deal less meaningful or profound than the author would have us believe. Xhea's realization that she possesses a different kind of magic seals her universe off from our own--instead of pitting the mundane against the magical, Sumner-Smith turns out to have been pitting magical particle A against magical particle B, and although the story tries to paint this opposition as representing a necessary balance between life and death, Sumner-Smith's handling of this theme never rises above the level of platitude--“There must be an end to all things.” Nevertheless, it seems as though Sumner-Smith is trying to extend herself and develop her skills--as opposed to McDevitt and Mirabelli, who aren't even trying to challenge themselves--and for that alone she deserves praise. Her fiction may not belong on a major award ballot right now, but it's entirely possible that one day it will.

Esther M. Friesner's "Helen Remembers the Stork Club" is yet another entry in the 'immortal mythical creature living in modern times' subgenre. This time, it turns out that aging Manhattan socialite Helen is actually that Helen--the thousand ships, the city, the horse--a demigod who has spent millennia bouncing from one happening social scene to another while her looks ever so slowly fade. Now she's a woman of a certain age in a city full to the brim of thoughtlessly young and effortlessly beautiful mortals, forced to get her attention fix from gigolos and cosmetics-counter saleswomen. At first glance, it seems that Friesner has very little to add to a theme that has been practically done to death--between Sandman and American Gods, Neil Gaiman alone seems to have had the final word on ancient beings who immerse themselves in a modern lifestyle--but as the story progresses it becomes an extremely disturbing meditation on beauty and its value. Helen rails against the mindset that a woman's value is couched solely in her attractiveness to the opposite sex, and that her only power comes from her ability to entrance men with her looks and allure, but she also buys into it wholeheartedly. Friesner's tone is breezy, at times jokey, but as she takes us deeper into Helen's headspace the contrast between that tone and Helen's harsh perspective on gender relations creates an almost horrifying effect, until finally we understand how terrible it must be to believe that your worth is defined solely by your looks, and then spend an eternity losing them. It seems to me, however, that Friesner could have written a story about a 60-year-old mortal and achieved the same effect. "Helen Remembers the Stork Club" is weakest when it tries to veer into the realm of the purely fantastic--in part because, as I've said, this is such well-trodden ground and Friesner doesn't seem to have anything new to add to the subgenre. That said, of all the stories on the ballot Friesner's is the only one that is truly disturbing, and for that alone it should be lauded.

I first encountered Theodora Goss's "Pip and the Fairies" when I reviewed Goss's collection In the Forest of Forgetting. At the time, I thought the story was one of the collection's weaker entries, and although it fares better when consumed on its own, there are other eligible stories in the collection which, in my opinion, would have better deserved the nomination ("Lessons With Miss Gray" and "The Belt" were both published in 2005, and I'm serving notice right now that if "Letters From Budapest" isn't on this year's Hugo and next year's Nebula ballot, I am going to be very put out). Like "Helen Remembers the Stork Club", "Pip and the Fairies" starts with a very familiar trope--a grown-up returns to their home to discover whether the magical adventures they had as a child were real or a figment of their imagination--and like Friesner, Goss injects a much-needed dose of vinegar into this sugary premise by stressing the poverty that has haunted Pip since childhood and informed her adult choices. In order to make ends meet, Pip's mother transformed her daughter's tales of meeting with fairies into a successful children's book series, her art motivated by desperation, not inspiration. As we learn more about Pip, we discover that she has made a similar choice to sublimate art to commercial considerations--she's an actress, but has been working for a soap opera for years. Whether or not the stories Pip's mother wrote were based in fact, "Pip and the Fairies" argues that the choice to commercialize them, although necessary for Pip and her mother's survival, tarnished both of their souls, and the story ends with Pip reconnecting with her childish imagination, and perhaps even with real magic. "Pip and the Fairies"'s greatest asset is the strength of Goss's prose, but once again, I don't feel that the author's twist on a familiar premise is enough to claim it as her own, and ultimately the story is more saccharine than biting.

So, who should win? Mary Rickert, of course, but unfortunately that's no longer an option. Failing that, giving the award to either Friesner or Goss would not be a completely embarrassing choice, and Hand will do too at a pinch. I'm at a complete loss, however, to guess who will win, unless the pool of voters is made up of people whose tastes are diametrically opposed to mine and Jack McDevitt takes the award. I suppose, after the way "Anyway" was treated by those same voters, that wouldn't be such a great surprise.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Once Again, Good News, Bad News

E!Online's Kristin Veitch reports:
According to CW insiders, the network has not officially canceled Veronica Mars. However, here's the catch: It is currently considering a different format for the fourth season. From what I hear, that format would leap four years into the future and focus on Veronica as an FBI agent. Aside from returning star Kristen Bell (duh), the rest of the cast is yet to be determined, but it isn't likely that many of her current costars would be on hand.
Even before the show's first season was over, I was hoping that the second season wouldn't follow the standard format of high school-set series and rejoin its characters after the summer. It seemed obvious to me that if the writers hoped to repeat the first season's accomplishment and tell another compelling season-long mystery, they would have to give Veronica the chance to accumulate more backstory. Half the fun of the first season, after all, was discovering Veronica's past as we got to know her, learning new things about the person she used to be and the events that made her the person she had become. A few years' gap between seasons would allow Veronica to accumulate both backstory and a new obsession to follow.

On the other hand, there's no shortage of FBI-focused series, and coupled with Rob Thomas's recent assertion that he'd like to take the show to a completely episodic format, I can't help but wonder whether this change might not bleed Veronica Mars of everything that made it original. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Never a dull moment with this show, huh?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This is Not the Post You're Looking For and Other "Maelstrom" Thoughts

Monday was the busiest day in AtWQ's history. Nearly five times as many visitors as I get on a regular day visited this site, the overwhelming majority of them coming through web searches for some variant on the phrase 'starbuck dead,' and ending up at this post (lying, at the time of this entry's writing, in seventh place for that search string)--a year-old response to the second season episode "Scar". The pleasure of watching my stats climb through the roof is somewhat undercut by the certain knowledge that 95% or more of the people who clicked through to the post didn't read more than its first sentence before realizing that they'd come to the wrong place and hitting the Back button. On the other hand, maybe that's something to be thankful for. "Starbuck is Dead, Long Live Starbuck" may very well be the most wrong-headed thing I've ever written about Battlestar Galactica, a complete misapprehension of where the show's writers were taking the character and what they had planned for her.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Captain Kara Thrace is growing up," I wrote in the entry's concluding paragraph, convinced that Starbuck's choice to surrender the glory of destroying the Cylon raider Scar, thus saving her own life and defining herself as more than a hotshot pilot, was a harbinger of things to come. (Not at all coincidentally, "Starbuck is Dead" is one of the last overwhelmingly positive posts I wrote about Galactica.) In general, I have a tendency to make over-optimistic predictions about plot and character arcs on Battlestar Galactica. A lifetime of television watching has conditioned me to expect heroes who--eventually--learn their lessons, make peace with themselves and their loved ones, find their inner strength and do the right thing. Galactica is at the very far end of the scale in this respect, but as a whole television has been moving away from this template, experimenting with darker and less admirable protagonists. Most of the reactions I've seen to this transition towards morally grey--and sometimes just plain black--protagonists have been wildly enthusiastic, but I remain skeptical. I like The Sopranos as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that a vital ingredient of good storytelling is often lost in the shuffle.

To appeal to an audience, a character--I'm talking here about characters in all storytelling media, not just television--has to be one of two things. They can be likable: the kind of person you'd want to spend time with. Someone funny or sweet or cool or admirable in some respect. And they can be interesting: the kind of person you'd want to watch. Someone who says things you'd never have thought of yourself, whose actions are at the same time surprising and perfectly in accordance with the character's most fundamental traits. The best characters are both. Mal Reynolds is a good example: funny, irreverent, loyal and heroic in spite of himself but also capable of great cruelty and selfishness, a man whose choices are chaotic in the strictest sense of the word--impossible to predict but, once they've been made, clearly the only course the character could have taken. My own preference is for interesting characters--Al Swearengen (before the Deadwood writers gentrified him), Mr. Bennet, Lila Morgan--over likable ones (although where would we be without our Wallaces and Macs, our Xanders, our Chief Tyrols), but a character has to be at least one of the two. It's because its writers never grasped this fundamental truth, for example, that I never fell in love with House. The character is deliberately unlikable, and the parameters of his disfunction are laid out in the first episode and never exceeded. In general, I can't help but feel that a lot of television writers are ramping up their characters' unlikability--because that's what's cool these days--without even trying to compensate for it by making these lowlifes interesting.

Kara Thrace was interesting for about five cumulative seconds back in the miniseries, when she belied her carefree exterior to pray for the soul of a fallen friend, or to confess her culpability in Zach's death. The traits the character has accumulated since that point, however--aggression, ambition, promiscuousness, self-loathing--were predictable almost from the first moment of her introduction, and if Katee Sackhoff's not-inconsiderable charisma and talent were enough to give the character depth and appeal, they weren't up to the task of making Starbuck any less of a stereotype. Still, Starbuck was likable--lovable, even, in spite of her foibles, her tendency towards selfishness and self-destruction.

Clearly, something had to be done.

Carefully, with great deliberation, and for the better part of the third season, Battlestar Galactica's writers have worked to make sure that no one in their right mind could ever like Kara Thrace. By the time "Maelstrom" aired, the very sight of her on screen was enough to induce groans and a few calculating glances at the fast-forward button. She's the person who nearly killed Gaeta because she just wanted to hurt somebody. The person who self-righteously drove Kat to suicide. The person who married poor, lovable Sam Anders (if someone had told me, around the beginning of the second season, that one day I'd like Anders better than Starbuck, Apollo, and Dee put together, I'd have thought they were crazy) to get away from Lee, and screwed around with Lee to get away from Anders. Her self-involvement has transformed into an all-consuming selfishness, a black hole of neediness from which nothing, no compassion, no sympathy, no thought for the feelings of others, can ever escape. Because it derives from the same flaws which were so predictable back when the character was likable, this deterioration isn't even interesting to watch.

If you've spent any time online over the last few weeks and care even a little about this show, I don't imagine you managed to avoid being spoiled for Starbuck's death--or should I say "death"--in this episode. When I first read the news, I imagined that Starbuck's self-destructive behavior was finally going to catch up to her in one form or another, that her death would be the final result of the unbearable downward spiral she's been caught in all season (and no, I wasn't exactly broken up about the prospect of a respite, however brief, from the character). If "Maelstrom" had gone down this path, and been a bit better plotted, we might have been able to speak of Starbuck's tragic character arc--the first instance of such a device in I can't remember how many episodes. Instead, "Maelstrom" is taken up almost entirely with rewinding the past, bringing Starbuck back to where she was in the first season--Adama's surrogate daughter (the two haven't had a conversation since the one in which Adama knocked Kara to the ground and called her a cancer), Lee's sister (I've always liked these characters better as friends than as lovers, but it's hard to believe that, after everything they've put each other through, that's a state they can go back to), a lost girl who hurts herself more than she hurts others. For the first time in months, Kara looks outward. She sees that others care about her, and doesn't try to hurt them for it. She sees that they judge her by her actions, and doesn't seek to lower their opinion of her as far as it can possibly go. She recognizes that she is part of a larger organism, both personally and professionally, and tailors her actions accordingly. Even delusional and preparing herself for what I would have to call a suicide, Starbuck is more functionally human in "Maelstrom" than she's been all season.

So what I'd like to know is, why? Why drag the character through the muck only to turn it all around at the last minute, with almost no explanation of where her newfound sense of perspective came from? What "Maelstrom" offers by way of insight into Kara's psyche is a paint-by-numbers tale of abuse I might have jotted down after watching "Flesh and Bone," simply because I've watched television once or twice in my life, and all of this has happened before and will again. What it gives us in terms of catharsis is even less impressive--Kara gets a second chance at Closure, and stops being afraid of death (which, as Tigh points out, is actually a very stupid thing to do), and then... what? Who was Starbuck talking to? What is the meaning of the Eye of Jupiter? Who is waiting for her on the other side? What is her destiny, and how does allowing herself to die further it? I have no idea. A hell of lot happens in "Maelstrom", but none of it amounts to a plot.

So, is Starbuck dead? Of course not. At some point in the fourth season we're going to find out what the plot of "Maelstrom" actually was, what was happening behind the scenes--beneath the cloud cover--while we were occupied with Kara's mommy issues. Starbuck will return and the whole rigamarole will start up all over again (I suppose it's possible that Starbuck will return different, but I'd consider that something of a cheat, in much the same way that I still resent the choice to elide over Sharon's transformation from the kind of person who would justify rape camps to a loyal Colonial officer). That knowledge is the final nail in the coffin of "Maelstrom"'s emotional resonance. At the end of "Starbuck is Dead, Long Live Starbuck", I quoted from Neil Gaiman's Sandman--"in life one must either change or die"--and went on to conclude that the show's writers "have chosen the former." I was wrong, obviously, in my interpretation of "Scar", but if the the writers had simply chosen to go the other way--to kill the character rather than change her--I would have been happy to be wrong. With "Maelstrom", I can't help but feel that Galactica's writers have chosen to do neither.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Self-Promotion 12

My review of Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box appears in today's Strange Horizons. If you're coming here from there, you might also be interested in this post, which discusses Hill's short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts, as well as Sean Stewart's novel Perfect Circle.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The 2006 Nebula Award: The Novelette Shortlist

I'm starting this overview of the Nebula short fiction nominees with the novelettes because, as usual, one or two stories on the final ballot have yet to appear online. The missing pieces are Karina Sumner-Smith's short story "An End to All Things"--which is somewhat understandable as it was a jury addition and Sumner-Smith and her publisher have only had the news for a couple of days--and Michael A. Burstein's novella "Sanctuary"--which, as I've speculated in the past, may very well be a deliberate strategy on the part of Analog's editors. So, if any AtWQ readers have pointers to either Sumner-Smith's or (I can't believe I'm writing this) Burstein's stories, I would be very grateful. Meanwhile, thoughts on the nominated novelettes:

I first read Peter S. Beagle's "Two Hearts"--which returns to the universe of Beagle's cult favorite The Last Unicorn several decades after the novel's end--when I reviewed the nominees for the 2006 Hugo (which Beagle went on to win) last spring, and didn't think much of it. Coming back to it a year later, I find the story less objectionable. Although I still feel that, much as he did in the novel, Beagle spends more time talking about heroism, nobility, and grandeur in "Two Hearts" than he does showing them, the story feels less like an appendage to The Last Unicorn and more like a story in its own right. Unfortunately, "Two Hearts"'s main flaw remains unchanged--the narrative voice, and the narrator, are both unrelentingly twee. Nine year old Sooz, who sets out to find a hero to slay the griffin menacing her village, is the bestest, brightest, cutest, pluckiest little girl in the whole wide world. She earns the love and admiration of Schmendrick, Molly Grue, and Lir the hero, is blessed by Amalthea the unicorn, and has the world's greatest dog. It's one thing for Beagle to sham grandeur--that's a fairly easy trick to get away with. With Sooz, he attempts to sham ordinariness, to get inside the head of young peasant girl without having any idea of what actually goes on in there, and his failure to create a believable, flawed character leaves the story not simply twee, but hollow.

In Chris Barzak's "The Language of Moths", a family of four spends their summer vacation at a rural cabin. While their entomologist father searches for a new species of moth, fourteen year old Eliot does what young teenagers do in stories of this type--act petulant, make friends with the townies, get into trouble, and fall in love--and autistic Dawn does what mentally damaged children do in stories of this type--be a magical fool whose non-intellectual wisdom allows her to see past the mundane trappings of the physical world, and who uses that connection to the ephemeral to heal her family's hurts. Barzak's story is of a particular type of fantasy--feel-good wish-fulfillment fantasies in which in which the only thing more benign than the magic that does away with them are the character's emotional problems--whose existence and popularity continues to baffle me. There is barely a drop of tension or suspense in "The Language of Moths"--Barzak tries to tell us that Eliot and Dawn's father is desperate to find his missing moth, but we have trouble caring (we also know, because we've read fiction before, that Dawn is going to use her connection to the natural world to deliver the moth to her father), and although Eliot's infatuation and subsequent disillusionment with a local boy are moving, they are blatantly telegraphed. Is there really an audience, within genre circles, for stories so completely bereft of wonder, so bland and so thoughtlessly sentimental?

'Bland' might also be a good word with which to describe Delia Sherman's nominated story, in which a quiet, well-to-do suburban neighborhood is shocked by the arrival of two bohemian strangers, whose opulent Victorian house materializes overnight on a previously empty lot. Or perhaps a better word would be 'pleasant', and with a title like "Walpurgis Afternoon" it's hard to fault Sherman for delivering no more than what she promised on the tin. The problem is, however, that much like the narrator's 14-year-old daughter's obsession with Buffy, Sherman's choice to tell a story about witches who are benevolent, friendly, and, well, wicca-good-and-love-the-earth-and-women-power-and-I'll-be-over-here is so five years ago. (And really, would a contemporary 14 year old's primary cultural reference really be Buffy? I thought the fantasy-obsessed girls were all into manga these days.) Once again, tension and suspense are not in the cards--the narrator is invited to the new neighbors' (lesbian) wedding, discovers that they're witches (which, honestly, is something she might have suspected given that their house appeared out of thin air and their garden extends all the way to the ocean), and decides to become one herself. The only potentially interesting aspect of "Walpurgis Afternoon" is Sherman's exclusion of men from the witchy lifestyle. Once they embrace their abilities, the narrator and her daughter keep their husband and father carefully out of the loop, and another neighbor leaves her loud-mouthed, homophobic husband altogether and moves in with the witches. Sherman's treatment of gender issues, however, is all but reflexive--she takes it as read that men are a restrictive presence in women's lives, and that female empowerment requires either their absence or ignorance--which, once again, is in keeping with the story's primary objective, being pleasant.

Moving away from fantasy, we find Vonda N. McIntyre's "Little Faces". McIntyre invents an exclusively-female society, whose members live for millennia on organic spaceships. When these women take lovers, they have the option of accepting a companion--a male extension of their lover's body implanted in their own. When the time comes to procreate, a woman chooses one of her companions to fertilize her. At the beginning of "Little Faces", Yalnis, the protagonist, discovers that her latest lover, Seyyan, has killed Yalnis's oldest and most beloved companion, as a way of ensuring that Seyyan's companion will have the greatest chance of being the father of Yalnis's child. There follows a fairly straightforward story, in which a grief-stricken Yalnis exposes Seyyan's perfidy to the community and chooses a more worthy parent for her child. "Little Faces" is not, as one might expect, an attempt at writing Le Guin-esque anthropological SF, and nor does it try, in the vein of stories like Eleanor Arnason's "Knapsack Poems", to explore the ways in which biology, and gender in particular, affect personality and attitudes. Yalnis is recognizably human--recognizably female, in fact, and therein, I suspect, lies McIntyre's point. Attacking a prominent rival as Seyyan does at the beginning of a the story is, after all, a classic male reproductive tactic, and later in the story Seyyan responds to Yalnis's passive revenge--exposing the older woman's actions and shunning her--with violence. The companion Yalnis eventually chooses as the father of her child is the one who never strives for her affection or favor, a behavior she describes as gallant. Although it is better written, more inventive, and a great deal less benign, McIntyre's story boils down to the same message as Sherman's--that men, for the most part, are by their nature violent and destructive, and that women are better off without them and their way of thinking.

M. Rickert's "Journey into the Kingdom" put me very strongly in mind of Kelly Link's short stories, most particularly "Lull". As Link does in many of her stories, Rickert layers several levels of fictionality one on top of the other, telling stories within stories and then allowing elements from one level to infect the 'reality' overlaying it. There's also a similar juxtapositioning of the surreal, the magical, and the mundane--bereft widower Alex falls in love with Agatha, a waitress at a coffee shop, who may or not be a ghost who maintains her corporeality by stealing the breath of living people. I don't know whether Rickert was influenced by Link, or whether they share a common reference point, and I haven't read enough of Rickert's fiction to know whether "Journey into the Kingdom" is a departure from her usual style, but it seems to me that the surrealist tone she takes in this story is less suited to her talents than the strongly naturalistic tone of a story like "Anyway". As I've written in the past, Link's use of surreal elements often acts as an emotional barrier for readers trying to connect with her characters, and Rickert's writing lacks the dryly humorous tone with which Link sometimes manages to counteract this effect. Nevertheless, "Journey into the Kingdom" is without a doubt the most interesting story on the novelette ballot, and the only one that can't be easily summed up and dismissed.

So who should win? Flawed though they are, McIntyre and Rickert's stories at least make an attempt to take readers out of their comfort zone, and Rickert in particular succeeds in this attempt. I wouldn't be overjoyed by a win for either one, but at least I'd feel that wonder and weirdness--allegedly the underpinnings of the genre--had triumphed over ordinariness and sentimentality. My suspicion, however, is that Peter S. Beagle is going to walk away with a double whammy--there simply isn't another story on the ballot strong enough to challenge the potent combination of Beagle's status within the community and fans' affection for The Last Unicorn.

Over at Torque Control, there's been some discussion of genre awards in general and the reliability of the Nebula as an indicator of quality. I suspect that, by the time this overview is over, I'll have some thoughts to add to this debate as it relates to the short fiction categories.