Saturday, April 28, 2007

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Tomorrow morning, at an hour so ungodly that I shudder to speak it, I will be leaving on holiday to Brazil, where I plan to attend my cousin's wedding, do tourist things, and read many books. I'll be back on the 12th, so expect some report (possibly with pictures) some time after that.

I have no idea whether I'll have internet access during this time. It's possible that I'll be able to see comments to the blog, but unlikely that I'll respond. I definitely won't be reading e-mail.

Be good.

The 2007 Hugo Award: The Novella Shortlist

Overall, the novella ballot is neither as exceptional as the novelette shortlist nor as uniformly good, but unexceptional, as the short story shortlist. It may, in fact, be the worst of the three ballots, although to a certain extent this is praising with faint damns. Two of the nominated stories appeared on the 2006 Nebula ballot, and I reviewed them last month. To reiterate: Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe", about a boy who meets his parallel-universe counterpart, is amusing, but fails to explore the more interesting ramifications of its premise, including the question of how two versions of the same person could have developed completely opposed moral outlooks, as the protagonist and his alternate do; the protagonist of William Shunn's "Inclination"--a young member of a pseudo-Christian luddite cult living on a space station--is exteremely appealing, and his journey towards rejecting his upbringing is compelling, but the story suffers a crucial failure of nerve when it tells us that, once he chooses to reject the belief system he was raised in, the protagonist will be welcomed with open arms into a society eager to cosset and indulge him--I know people who have made a similar decision in real life, and I want to promise you that none of them encountered such kindness and consideration in the secular world, which only makes their choice more admirable and courageous.
Michael Swanwick's "Lord Weary's Empire" appears to take place in the same setting as that of Swanwick's 1993 novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter--an industrialized Faerie in which elves carry credit cards and technology stands side by side with magic as a tool for making life easier or more interesting. I found Dragon's plot aimless and its protagonist unappealing, and this might go some way towards explaining why I was disappointed by "Lord Weary's Empire". Or, it could be that I didn't connect to the story because it is part of a sequence, the second story starring Will, a village boy whose disastrous encounter with a dragon (a kind of magi-mechanical war machine, like a fighter jet with a personality) leaves him homeless and friendless in the wide world. In "Lord Weary's Empire", Will travels underground, into the sewers and service tunnels that lie below a great city. There he encounters the titular character, a fallen aristocrat, and is subsumed into his plan to gather an army of the disenfranchised and overthrow the above-ground ruling class. As it turns out, however, this is merely an interlude for Will, a distraction from his real story, which we don't get to see.

The primary reason, however, for my lukewarm reaction to "Lord Weary's Empire" is that the story is very, very badly written, veering back and forth between indifferent descriptions and cod-epic dialougue ("I have been cast out of my village and ill-fortune has pursued me across Fäerie Minor all the way to the Dread Tower"; "Long have I argued against this course of action as a mad notion and a dangerous folly"; "I fail to understand why you would buy so completely into a fallen elf-lord’s delusions of glory"). I've read enough of Swanwick's fiction, however, to suspect that the godawful purple prose is intentional. A major theme of "Lord Weary's Empire" is illusion--the kind forced on the characters through magic and the kind they force on themselves by buying into myths of nobility and glorious triumph on the field of battle (common fantasy tropes, in other words). It's possible that Swanwick's use--or misuse--of the epic style is meant to draw our attention to the thinness of these delusions, and, on a larger scale, to act as yet another criticism of the fantasy genre, much like The Iron Dragon's Daughter. In the absence of the prequel and sequel stories, and given that the framing segments of "Lord Weary's Empire" are so brief, it is difficult to determine whether my reading is correct, and if it is, Swanwick is still subjecting us to tens of thousands of words of turgid prose and dull story, just for the sake of making a point which he, and other authors, have already made more than once. That's a hell of a lot to ask from your readers, and to my mind there's little in "Lord Weary's Empire" to make up for our sacrifice.

The narrator of Robert Charles Wilson's "Julian: A Christmas Story" (available online through the efforts of Jed Hartman) spends a lot of time telling us about the stories he isn't going to tell. He won't--not at this juncture, anyway--tell us how his boyhood friend, Julian Comstock, became a famous revolutionary and heretic, challenged his uncle for the presidency, and championed the cause of Darwinism through the medium of film. What he tells us, instead, is how Julian's adventures began--how, on Christmas, 2172, Julian became aware that his idyllic exile to a sleepy town in the middle of nowhere had come to an end, and, with the help of the narrator and a loyal retainer, slipped through his uncle's clutches and set out into the great unknown. If this all sounds like a boy's adventure, I suspect that's very much the point. In spite of its futuristic setting, the society described in "Julian" would not be out of place in a 19th century novel--it is carefully stratified, with landed gentry, skilled tradesmen and servants, and peasant tennants each keeping to their own level--and Julian is clearly the plucky protagonist who comes into his own and avenges the injustices done to his family. As I've said, however, what we see is only the first, and least interesting, chapter of this story, in which Julian leaves his childhood home. We don't see what happens afterwards, and although, even more in this case than in that of the Swanwick novella, I am certain that this is an intentional choice on Wilson's part, I have no idea what he is trying to accomplish with it.

"Julian"'s narrator, Adam, whose childhood has been regulated by seemingly immortal customs, routines, and a theocratic government which upholds both, spends the bulk of the story coming to grips with the impermanence of everthing that surrounds him--just as the technologically advanced societies of the 20th and 21st centuries faded away in the wake of the oil crash, so will his civilization one day fade into nothingness. Wilson ties this realization to Adam's growing awareness of science--of evolution, in which Julian believes and which Adam initially dismisses as a myth, or of the technological accomplishments of the 20th century such as the moon landing. It's an interesting character arc, and well executed, but it seems a bit slight for the amount of time and effort Wilson dedicates to it, and is often overwhelmed by Julian's storyline, which, for all that it is predictable, is a great deal more exciting. Although I like it better than the Swanwick novella, I can't help but feel, once again, that "Julian" would have been a stronger story if it had been significantly shorter.

Robert Reed's "A Billion Eves" is the third story on the novella ballot about a young person learning to question, and ultimately finding a way to escape, the dogmas of a restrictive religious upbringing, and if "Inclination" was too simplistic, and "Julian" was too flabby, then "A Billion Eves" is just right. I was initially struck by how effortlessly and intelligently Reed builds a sense of menace, slowly clueing us in to the dysfunction at the heart of his story's society. The protagonist, Kala, is on a camping trip with her family when their car breaks down. A mechanic at the service station the family arrive at assures Kala's father that he has a 'Lady's Room' where Kala and her mother can be safe--a room that can bolted from the inside. Eventually, we learn that Kala lives on a parallel universe version of Earth, and that she is the descendant of 'colonists' who ripped through the fabric of reality to start a new life on a new world. Kala's religion revolves around the glorification of this process, equating the colonists to Adam and Eve, but there is an original sin at the source of this semi-nomadic way of life--the first man to colonize an alternate Earth did so accompanied by a hundred kidnapped women. His choice resonates through the millennia that have followed, and even the most progressive members of Kala's society accept almost unthinkingly the notion that women are, in the end, a commodity, a necessary tool when starting a new life. The kidnapping of unwilling 'wives' is therefore not an uncommon crime in Kala's society, and although it is officially frowned upon, when Kala's brother rescues her from such a fate and maims her kidnapper, the greater blame is placed on his violent actions.

Unlike Shunn and, to a lesser degree, Wilson, Reed isn't telling a story about a single progressive individual surrounded by fundamentalists. Kala's branch of the church is one of the more premissive ones--they don't practice poligamy, and acknowledge the existence of the first colonist's 'angry wives'--and Kala's family stand by her when she is shunned for her brother's actions. Kala herself pursues a career as a biologist, and lives a largely independent life--until a coworker betrays her to another kidnapper. Reed creates, in other words, something like an equivalence to our society, in which women have all the rights and freedoms that men do, but are still vulnerable to male-dominated institutions and prevailing mysoginistic mindsets. Even more interesting is Reed's choice to equate the commidification of women with the ecological destruction that colonists wreak on the worlds they populate, as the weed strains they carry along with them overwhelm these planets' vulnerable native breeds. The same urge to dominate that informs gender relations in Kala's world is also present in the impulse to remake the new Earths in the old Earth's image--a process which, Kala discovers, will inevitably lead to an ecological catastrophe--and it is up to Kala and her brother to find a way to escape their society's destructive attitudes towards gender and ecology alike. Although its characters are not as finely sketched as those in Shunn or Wilson's stories, "A Billion Eves" is by far the most interesting and successful of the novellas on the ballot, and my choice for the win.

I'm sure this came through loud and clear in my reviews, but by the time I finished reviewing this year's Nebula nominees, I was quite despondent--that this collection of bland, sentimental, underwritten pieces might be someone's idea of the best the genre had to offer gave me very little hope for either the future of short fiction or the ability of the field's major institutions to recognize quality when they saw it. This year's Hugo ballot was, therefore, a welcome antidote. In spite of the reservations I've expressed towards some of the nominated stories this is, by far, the strongest short fiction ballot I can remember. That said, the debate over whether the absence of women on the ballot indicates an institutionalized discrimation among Hugo voters continues, and I think that if we look at the history of the award over the decades of its existence, we will see a worrying trend. As this study of gender disparity in genre publications and awards shows, up until 2000 the Hugo was holding steady at a 1:2 ratio of female to male nominees (in itself not something to be overjoyed about), but over the last seven years the number of female fiction nominees has steadily decreased, and although, as I've said, this year's ballot is a fine one, the evidence of previous years suggests that shutting out women is not the same thing as prioritizing quality. For all that I'm happy to finally read an excellent award ballot, I can't help but wonder what these numbers bode for the award's future.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Every Day is International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day

(Context, and a sampling of available works, here.)

Following in the footsteps of Peter Watts, whose decision to make his novel Blindsight available online under a Creative Commons License may very well have been a major factor in getting said novel on the shortlist for this year's Hugo, fellow nominee Michael F. Flynn is allowing readers to download his novel Eifelheim (PDF). Flynn is also nominated this year for the novelette "Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth", which I greatly enjoyed, and as it turns out he is also the author of a very fine piece from the 2005 Hugo ballot, "The Clapping Hands of God." All that, plus an interesting premise--a first contact story set in 14th century Europe--makes me quite eager to give Eifelheim a try. (Link via SF Signal.)

In unrelated news, and coming as a surprise to, I suspect, absolutely nobody, Drive has been cancelled.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The 2007 Hugo Award: The Short Story Shortlist

I was a little reluctant to continue with this year's Hugo roundup after the remarkable--and, after a years-long drought, wholly unexpected--experience that was the novelette shortlist. It seemed impossible that the other shortlists would stack up, and in fact the short story ballot is nowhere near as exceptional as the novelette ballot. It is, however, a solid bunch of a stories, with no piece by Resnick or Burstein or someone equally unpublishable marring its overall quality.

The closest the short story shortlist comes to a bad story is Tim Pratt's "Impossible Dreams", and even in this case I'd be more comfortable calling the story slight and insubstantial. Pratt's story is a play on the familiar one about a mysterious disappearing, reappearing shop from which the protagonist purchases a magical object (to be fair, Pratt acknowledges the hoariness of his premise--through a Twilight Zone reference, no less). In this case, the shop is a video rental store from a parallel universe--one in which Orson Welles got to make his own version of The Magnificent Ambersons but never made Citizen Kane. For devoted film buff Pete, coming across Impossible Dreams Video is, indeed, a dream come true, and the bulk of "Impossible Dreams" is taken up with his attempts to take advantage of the golden, and fleeting, opportunity placed before him. Pete repeatedly tries to rent The Magnificent Ambersons, or any of the other films that, in our universe, never came into being--Tim Burton's Death of a Superman; Terminator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Kyle Reese; Stanley Kubrick's Artificial Intelligence--only to be defeated by some petty difference between our universe and the one from which Impossible Dreams Video periodically emerges: different credit cards, different money, different DVD encryption. "Impossible Dreams" might have been a more successful story if Pratt had played Pete's increasing frustration for a laugh, but the story is entirely earnest--a loving tribute, in fact, to Pete's fannish devotion to the film medium--and therefore not a little bit tedious, especially when Pratt introduces a rather predictable romance between Pete and the store's unwitting clerk. Nevertheless, the sheer exuberance of Pete's--and, I assume, Pratt's through him--affection for film is winning, even for someone like myself, whose primary fannish energies are directed elsewhere.

When I started reading Robert Reed's "Eight Episodes", I was immediately reminded of Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners", which was a little unfair to Reed, not only because it's a rare story that can stand up to a comparison with Link's exceptional novella, but because, although both stories use the device of describing a television series, they do so with very different aims in mind. Reed isn't playing metafictional games, or commenting on the divide between naturalistic and genre fiction, or observing the fannish experience. The television series at the heart of his story--the short-lived X-Files clone Invasion of a Small World--is actually a message from outer space. It's an interesting play on the first contact story, and I wish Reed had further explored the implications of aliens approaching us through our popular culture, and in particular through genre TV--would we recognize the genuinely alien amidst the ersatz kind? Instead, Reed focuses on the aliens' message--that life in the universe, though abundant, is separated by vast distances and even vaster stretches of time, and that Invasion of a Small World is probably the closest humanity will come to alien contact. Which, in itself, is turning the first contact premise on its head--we're used to fiction that tells us that we are (effectively) alone in the universe, but it's uncommon for first contact stories to make that point. Reed's choice lends his conclusion an unusual poignance, as does his slightly consoling ending, in which the aliens, in the TV show's final episode, urge us to look to one another and to the wonders of our own planet. For all that poignance, however, "Eight Episodes" is completely self-contained, a story that can be summed up in a sentence, that leaves no lingering questions behind it.

I was expecting good things from Neil Gaiman's "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"--the story has gotten a lot of positive buzz and I usually do better with Gaiman's short fiction than with his novels--which might be why the story left me slightly cold. Which is not to say that "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is bad. It isn't. It's a Neil Gaiman story--funny, well-written, mildly original. It is also, however, so thoroughly Gaiman-ish that, three paragraphs in, I was struck by the perverse conviction that it had been written by a clever impersonator, or possibly a Gaiman-bot. It was, I believe, the sentence "While it would be a lie to say that we had no experience with girls—Vic seemed to have had many girlfriends, while I had kissed three of my sister’s friends" that did the trick. That's a Neil Gaiman sentence, I thought. I've read that sentence, or some tonal of stylistic variant on it, several times before. It's an impression that persists throughout the story: here's the shy, clever but socially inept narrator; here's the narrator's wacky friend; here's the not-so-subtle setup ('"They’re just girls," said Vic. "They don’t come from another planet."'--you can write the rest of the story yourself from this point, can't you?); here's weirdness compounding itself around the oblivious narrator; here's the lucky escape back into normalcy. None of it is done badly, and it's not even the lack of originality that is my primary complaint against the story. I just prefer Gaiman when he's writing outside of his comfort zone, actually working to elicit genuine emotion from his audience rather than trying to strike that half-wistful, half-knowing tone that permeates so much of his fiction and usually puts me in mind of a clever teenager whose writing isn't nearly as profound as he thinks it is. "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" is smack dab in the middle of that comfort zone, and so, like a great deal of Gaiman's fiction, my reaction to it is a combination of admiration and distaste.

Bruce McAllister's "Kin" is a boy-meets-alien story that hits all the standard buttons of that form. The boy in question--Kim--approaches the alien for help; the alien first refuses but is later won over because it senses something special in the boy; the alien helps the boy and offers him the chance to travel the stars. What makes McAllister's version interesting and highly enjoyable is that the alien is a stone-cold assassin, and that the something special he recognizes in the boy are the nascent skills of an equally efficient killer. At the heart of the story is the interaction between Kim and the alien, whom the boy manipulates by playing on his cultural taboos and conventions, and for whom he feels equal measures of fascination, revulsion, and fear. McAllister could easily have fallen into the trap of making Kim sweet and uncomprehending--gee, Mister Alien, could you help me?--or unrealistically clever and calculating. Instead, he hits the perfect middle ground. Kim holds his own against the alien, but there's always a palpable sense of how close he is skirting to genuine danger, and, more importantly, of how incomplete his understanding of that danger is. One often hears readers complain that it is rare to encounter convincing aliens in fiction, but it's just as rare to encounter convincing--and interesting--children. In "Kin", McAllister manages both.

And then there's Benjamin Rosenbaum's "The House Beyond Your Sky", the only story on the shortlist I've read more than once, not because it's such a good piece--although it is--but because Rosenbaum's story was too rich and too heady for me to fully wrap my mind around it after a single read. After four pieces set, more or less, in our own universe, Rosenbaum's invented cosmology and vertiginous point of view, which hopelessly conflates the virtual and the actual, can bring on a bit of a head rush. The titular house is, more or less (and everything Rosenbaum describes in his story is a metaphor or an approximation--as the narrator is careful to inform us, the real form of the story's characters and events is beyond our comprehension) a library for virtual universes, the plaything of vast, God-like creatures distracting themselves with petty amusements as the heat death of their universe approaches, whose caretaker, Matthias, moved by pity for the inhabitants of his virtual charges--who live, die and suffer without understanding their true nature--creates a new, real universe, which he then has to defend from his masters. Half the fun of "The House Beyond Your Sky" is figuring out what the hell is going on at any given moment, penetrating the layers of metaphor and analogy (the other half is Rosenbaum's wordy, elaborate prose), so it's actually quite impressive that, in the midst of all this complicated worldbuilding there's actually room left over for a touching plot--even if Rosenbaum felt the need to involve an abused kid and her teddy bear to accomplish that effect. Ultimately, what Rosenbaum arrives at is a creation myth--his own trippy, confusing version of one, whose tangled plot is a joy to unravel.

It's commonly accepted that Neil Gaiman will win this year's short story Hugo--as he tends to do whenever he's nominated for one. Despite my reservations about "How to Talk to Girls at Parties", I don't think a win for Gaiman would be a great tragedy, but I'd rather see McAllister or Rosenbaum walk away with the award. The latter, in particular, would make me happy. It's one of the shortest pieces on the ballot, but it accomplishes more with 3,900 words than many writers do with ten times that number. It's rare, these days, to come across a short story that does more than make a simple point or put forward a single, and not particularly well-explored, idea. Short pieces that posit their own universe, with its own rules and history, vastly different than our own--as Rosenbaum does in "The House Beyond Your Sky"--are increasingly rare, and one more often encounters this level of worldbuilding in novelettes and novellas. I'd like to see some recognition of the fact that, in the hands of the right author, a few thousand words are enough to take us completely out of the familiar, and that this is an accomplishment worthy of celebration.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Running on Empty: Thoughts on Drive

This is just guesswork on my part, but I imagine that, had the creators of Lost been asked, back when the show was in its embryonic stages, to sum it up in a few words, they would have described it as a scripted Survivor, taking the reality juggernaut's premise--strangers thrown together in an unfamiliar setting--and imbuing it with the one quality that reality TV never quite manages to reproduce--drama. By the same token, Tim Minear and Ben Queen's new series Drive, whose first two episodes aired yesterday in Canada and which has its American premiere on Sunday, seems to be a scripted version of The Amazing Race, the series which seems to have taken Survivor's place in the hearts of reality fans. Like Lost, Drive provides its characters with a more powerful and compelling motive than the chance at a cash prize (although a fantastic payoff awaits the winner of Drive's race) and fifteen minutes of fame. A mysterious, all-powerful, all-knowing Them run the illegal, cross-country road race around which the show revolves, and they are not averse to driving contestants to their deaths, or even orchestrating those deaths. They also occasionally force uninterested bystanders to compete by kidnapping their loved ones--as is the case with the show's main character, Alex Tully (Nathan Fillion), whose wife (a, thus far, woefully underutilized Amy Acker) has been kidnapped by the race organizers.

As a visual artifact, Drive is quite impressive. The production drips with cash, and utilizes seamless CGI to get around the difficulties of shooting in and around moving vehicles. The camera swoops in and out of the various contestants' cars and storylines as they race one another to the daily leg's finish line in what is obviously going to become the show's trademark visual trick, the effectiveness of which is only slightly undercut by the fact that, fantastic premise or no, there's only so much a person can do while also operating a motor vehicle--most of the time, we catch the characters talking on their cell phones. Two episodes into the series, however, we have already witnessed two race scenes--in the pilot, Tully is nearly run off the road by an employee of the race organizers in pursuit of Corinna Wiles, who has inveigled her way into the race by hiding in the back of his pickup; in the second episode, newly-reunited half-brothers Winston and Sean Salazar flex their muscles against the straight-laced, middle-aged John Trimble, who is presumably competing to secure his teenaged daughter's financial future before he dies of a fatal illness--both of them kinetic, pulse-pounding, and almost, though not quite, enough to make us forget the absurdity of the show's premise. Why would anyone expend as much time, effort and money as the race organizers clearly are simply for the thrill of watching a race? There's clearly more to the matter, but after two episodes I still don't find myself intrigued enough to care.

Technically impressive though it is, Drive's look is primarily reminiscent of Pixar's Cars--lots of candy-colored, featureless, molded plastic and chrome; very little texture. I haven't seen Minear's The Inside, but the other two shows on which his reputation is based--Firefly and Wonderfalls--reveled in details. Their sets were cluttered and lived-in. Drive takes place on the open highway and in anonymous motels and public spaces, all sanitized to within an inch of their existence and with barely a grease stain or a fast-food wrapper in sight. There's a corresponding plasticity to the show's dialogue--it isn't until the end of the second episode that we hear a zippy, laugh-out-loud line, and even then it's mostly the actress's delivery that sells it--and even more so to its characters. I'm not a fan of reality TV, a genre whose primary appeal seems to be the self-satisfied thrill one derives from watching unpleasant people be nasty to one another, but there's no denying that your average reality contestant is more lifelike, more real (for a certain definition of 'real') than any of Drive's collection of vacuum-molded mannequins. Nathan Fillion appears to be playing a less emotionally damaged version of Mal Reynolds. In the short run, this is obviously a winning strategy--I can't be the only person who tuned into Drive because of Fillion and Minear's Firefly connection. Being emotionally damaged, however, was a substantial part of what made Mal appealing--the other part being his tendency towards clever quips. Absent both attributes, Alex is basically running on the fumes of Fillion's fan-appeal, and the character needs to grow a personality of its own before they run out.

Still, the bare outlines of somebody else's creation are still a far sight better than the kind of depth Drive's writers have given their female lead (and, I pray God, not Alex's love interest), Corinna. Kristin Lehman, for whom I have a soft spot in memory of her performance as the kickass hacker Esther Narin in the kickass, William Gibson-penned X-Files episode "Killswitch", does her level best to imbue Corinna with some semblance of personality, but the character boils down--as all strong female characters must--to a childhood trauma. Of the rest of the cast, only new mother Wendy Patrakas (Melanie Lynskey), apparently on the run from an abusive husband, stands out, but by the end of the second episode her nice-girl cluelessness (ordered to kill a fellow contestant, she hold the woman at gunpoint and then starts to explain herself, as if there were actually a chance that, once she hears Wendy's sob story, the intended victim will give her the go-ahead to pull the trigger) has already become annoying. The other contestants, who beside the ones already mentioned include an Iraq vet and his wife, and a mother-daughter team (the show's only characters of color and, perhaps not coincidentally, the ones with whom the narrative has thus far spent the least time) tend to run together into a sea of perfectly coifed, poreless faces. The women in particular suffer from this problem--not only do they not have distinct personalities, they don't even have distinct clothing styles. They all look as though they've walked off the cover of last month's Seventeen magazine, as if the show's costumers and stylists truly believe that there's only one way for a woman to be beautiful.

Drive is a Tim Minear show airing on Fox, which means that the odds of it surviving past six episodes are pretty slim. With that in mind, I'll probably keep watching, but unlike Firefly and Wonderfalls I see very little in the show to make its almost inevitable cancellation a tragedy--in the transition from reality TV to the scripted kind, the show's writers seem to have left real life by the wayside--and at least one good reason to hope for that cancellation's swift arrival. I realize that what I'm about to say will make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, and--even worse--like someone who complains when a product does what it said on the tin, but I live in a country with one of the world's highest rates of vehicle-related deaths per capita, so here goes: Drive's glorification of dangerous road behavior borders on the irresponsible. Car chases are a staple of both television and TV, but in Drive they take center stage, week after week, with, thus far, no acknowledgment of the dangers the race poses to its contestants and to innocent bystanders. Here is a brief reminder of what a little inattention, or the belief that a public highway is the same thing as a racetrack, can do to a human body. Wear your seatbelts.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Choose Your Own Adventure: Life on Mars Thoughts

It's been said before, but one of the things that made Life on Mars unusual is--was--that by its very nature it couldn't reveal its genre until its very last episode. Was the show SF--had Sam Tyler travelled from his, and our, time to 1973?--or fantasy--was Sam insane, fabricating memories of a reality that just happened to be identical to ours?--or mimetic--was Sam in a coma following his accident, hallucinating 1973 as an extended metaphor for his predicament? It doesn't help that the show's writers seem to have changed their minds halfway through the story. If the first season premiere--in which Sam changed the course of future events--prioritized the time travel reading, the second season as whole seemed eager to drop it. As the series came to its end, we were left with a choice between madness and hallucination, and between two different kinds of slightly unsatisfying endings. If Sam is in a coma, then everyone he's met and everything that's happened over the course of the series is a figment of his imagination, and his choice at the end of the episode is a choice to live out his life in a dream land, playing with himself. If, on the other hand, Sam is indeed Sam Williams and suffering from amnesia, then it is we who are not real, who are figments of Sam's imagination. His choice at the end of the episode is the choice to put us aside and live in the real world, into which we can no longer peer.

Except, of course, that it's not unsatisfying at all. Life on Mars's series finale is of a different breed from its first season finale, which so brilliantly assembled its many puzzle pieces into a seamless, rational whole, but it is of no lesser quality. From Roseanne to Pan's Labyrinth to The French Lieutenant's Woman, double and seemingly contradictory endings are an old trick. They are a way of knocking the audience about the head, forcing us to acknowledge the story-ness of the story we've been immersing ourselves in--as the little girl in the red dress reminds us when she turns us off in the show's last shot. Whatever solution is 'real', Sam Tyler isn't, and there's a giddy rush to be had in trying to encompass the contradiction inherent in our ability to both accept that fact and feel affection for him--which, after all, is the very essence of fiction. It's nice to be reminded of that every now and then.

And boy, do we ever feel affection for Sam. I've said this before, but John Simm--whose guest appearance on Doctor Who can't come soon enough as far as I'm concerned--is a marvel. He sells each and every one of the episode's emotional climaxes, of which there is no small number--cold detachment as he makes up his mind to think of Gene and the others as non-entities; longing as his resolve weakens and he starts to go after Annie; utter despair as he starts to believe Morgan's story and breaks down; a mixture of fear and determination melting into pure joy as he gathers speed for his leap. From its beginning, Simm has done for Life on Mars what Christopher Eccleston did for Doctor Who in its first season (and what David Tennant is still not quite managing)--give a show that might otherwise have descended into kitsch and melodrama a beating heart, and elevate it above its sometimes quite simplistic writing.

Nowhere is Simm's gravitas more desperately needed than in the series finale, which reduces the show's police procedural half, and most particularly its examination of the ways in which policing has changed, to a false dilemma--sticking by your mates: for or against? Loyalty to an individual, the episode tells us, should always be prized above adherence to a principle--even if that individual is violent and criminally stupid and that principle encompasses, among other things, the belief that chaining people up and torturing them is wrong.

When I first wrote about Life on Mars, I complained that against Sam's complexity, the show's writers had placed, in Gene, a flat character, which often shaded into caricature. I had no idea how good I had it back then. If, in the first season, Gene was allowed to bring something meaningful to the table--insight into human nature, good instincts, an understanding of his territory--in the second season he has either stayed out of Sam's way or been disastrously wrong, without ever seeming to acknowledge or learn from his mistakes. In the season's second episode, he fixates on Patrick O'Brien--beating him to a bloody pulp--as the perpetrator of a series of bombings, going so far as to put an unstable Ray back on the streets--which results in the death of an unarmed man--while Sam desperately tries to draw his attention to evidence pointing towards O'Brien's boss. In the fifth episode, we learn that Gene manipulated a young, possibly mentally impaired, boy into confessing the murder of his girlfriend while the real killer went free--forcing the girl's father to resort to kidnapping in order to bring his daughter's murderer to justice. An episode later, Gene is making deals with drug dealers, delivering up their competitor--in reality, an innocent man--for them to kill, and placing Sam and Annie's life in danger in the process. In the finale, Gene goes completely over the line. He uses a civilian as bait and gets him killed. He puts himself and his officers in terrible danger. He deserves to be fired.

But not according to the episode's writers. The greater crime, according to them, is Sam's, for turning his back on Gene, whose actions are somehow forgivable just because he faces danger along with his men. Even Annie, usually a source of wisdom and compassion, who has repeatedly criticized Gene over the course of the season, is silent when confronted with his mad schemes, and incensed at Sam's betrayal. The writers manage to sell us on the notion that it is somehow morally wrong to turn on your deranged boss before he gets your co-workers killed by making Frank Morgan even more cartoonishly evil than Gene, but more importantly, by substituting the moral, impersonal component of Sam's dilemma--how best to act in his capacity as a public servant--with a personal analogue--how best to live his life.

In both of the show's possible solutions, the life Sam leaves behind is empty and cold, and the life he embraces is full to the brim with friends, love, and a sense of purpose--combining his moral compass with Gene's determination to create a happy medium, turning a cancer into a benign tumor. It's Gene's character who suffers the most in the process of arriving at this happy ending--tumbled about by the necessities of plot, made first into a bogeyman and then into a fluffy, jokey version of himself who can't even be bothered to yell at Sam for betraying him--but we, the viewers, are also injured by being asked to believe that when it comes to the way policing should work, Sam's Starsky and Hutch fantasy is somehow superior to our modern reality simply because there's less paperwork and fancy words.

In the end, Life on Mars turns out to be both more and less than what we hoped for. The clever SFnal mystery fades away and the self-aware, parody-cum-homage to 70s cop shows is taken in by its own facade of earnestness. What we're left with, ultimately, is the metafictional exercise, which, even as it makes us aware of the fictionality of what we're watching, drags us further into the story by turning us into the authors. Which ending do we prefer? It's a tough call. Unlike the works I cited above, Life on Mars doesn't ask us to choose between a happy fantasy and a grim reality--loss and disillusionment are integral components of both solutions, for us as well as for Sam--which means that the choice, and Sam's pain when faced with it, lingers with us. At the end of its first season, I said that Mars's writers had earned my trust. I meant that I trusted them to come up with a satisfying solution to their central mystery, which would tie up the remaining loose ends and be just as neat as the revelation that Annie is the woman in the red dress. They didn't quite deliver on that expectation. What they did deliver, however, was a moving, thought-provoking drama that has left me both exhilarated and emotionally drained. That's something worth celebrating, no matter in what genre.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Not to Confuse Anyone With Facts

Ellen Kushner conveys a message from Geoff Ryman in which he offers his thoughts about the reasons for the gender imbalance on this year's Hugo ballot:

SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women. It is hostile to staying at home on Earth. It dreams, Peter Pan-like, of magic flights to a Neverneverland in the stars, full of pirates and mermaids and Indians. It is largely a land of and for Boys. Women love it too, perhaps because they also want to escape domesticity.

These days women's place in fantasy is not as Wendy. Women get to be guys now. They have a place in the SF dream, most usually toting guns or swords. I guess it's fun for women to shoot people , and men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies. I would say that the dream is hostile to the traditional place of women's power: home. Home is what you escape and Mother is who you hate. Can our stories only glance at child rearing, washing the dishes, building everyday relationships, and earning a living and not exclude women, at least to an extent?

An interesting discussion ensues, with many of the commenters taking Ryman to task (in a thoughtful and civil manner) for over-generalizations and faulty logic. None of them, however-- perhaps because of the larger definitional implications of Ryman's argument--seem to have taken the obvious step of reviewing the Hugo nominees to see if they bear out Ryman's thesis. They do not. I've only read one of the best novel nominees, and there are four short fiction nominees that I haven't yet read, but of the stories I have read--all of them written by men--an overwhelming majority are concerned with domestic matters.

In Paul Melko's "The Walls of the Universe", the driving force behind both protagonists' action is the desire to return home, to their bucolic farm boy childhood. The protagonist of William Shunn's "Inclination" may leave home at the end of the story, but he does so out of a desire to find his mother, and with her the sense of family and belonging that has been missing from his life. In Paolo Bacigalupi's "Yellow Card Man", the protagonist has lost his home and family, and strives desperately to gain a new one. Michael F. Flynn's "Dawn, Sunset and the Colors of the Earth" is made up entirely of domestic scenes--philandering wives, bereaved mothers, closeted gay men all dealing with the disappearance of their loved ones. Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife" is about the dissolution of a marriage (Niall Harrison even described it as a soap opera), and while it may not to be fair to use Ryman to rebut his own theory, his "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is about a girl finding love and inner peace. There's a little more pizazz in the short story nominees, but even here the domestic is never far away. In Tim Pratt's "Impossible Dreams", a lonely guy meets a cute girl and bonds with her over a shared love of movies. Robert Reed's "Eight Episodes" is about a message from aliens, but that message turns out to be 'there's nothing out there; stay home and kiss your children.' Bruce McAllister's "Kin" comes closest to the boy's-own-adventure kind of SF that Ryman claims we are regressing towards--in it, a human boy gains the admiration of a powerful, dangerous alien, finally becoming his heir. The impetus driving the boy's actions, however, is his desire to see his family made whole, and the story ends by concluding that, for a while at least, none of the alien's gifts, nor the promise of the life of space-faring adventure that he bequeaths the boy, are as meaningful to him as "five rooms in the northeast sector of the city, a better job for his mother, better care for his father’s autoimmunities, more technical education for the boy, and all the food and clothes they needed."

I still think my theory makes the most sense: the Hugo voters, men and women alike, voted for familiar names. This is by no means the first time a Hugo ballot has been biased towards past nominees and winners, nor, for that matter, the first time that it's been dominated by men. This year's ballot is unique only in that it is such an extreme example of both tendencies, as well as in its overall high quality.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The 2007 Hugo Award: The Novelette Shortlist

Once again, the novelette shortlist is the first to become fully available online (still missing: Robert Charles Wilson's novella "Julian: A Christmas Story" and Neil Gaiman's short story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"). 2007 will be the fourth year that I've reviewed the Hugo and Nebula nominees (I posted my thoughts at Readerville before this blog came into being), and this year's novelette shortlist is the strongest batch of nominees I've read in a while. There's only one story I'd lop off the list, and--miracle of miracles--I also find myself at a bit of a loss trying to pick the best story of the bunch. After the infuriatingly mediocre Nebula ballot, this is a welcome and refreshing change.

The sole turkey on the novelette shortlist is, surprise surprise, Mike Resnick's "All the Things You Are." For a Resnick story, however, this one is quite passable. The first half of it is even engaging--set some time in the future, it is narrated by a security officer who notices several instances in which people repeatedly put themselves in harm's way, performing near-suicidal heroics until their luck runs out and calling, from their deathbeds, for a nameless 'she'. A bit of research reveals that the dead men were all veterans, the sole survivors of a brutal skirmish on a remote alien planet. The security officer travels to that planet, is grievously injured, and rescued by a mysterious woman. Up until this point, Resnick's story is merely flat and unaffecting, made up of Resnick's trademark tell-but-don't-show prose--"with each day I became more obsessed with what could have turned otherwise normal men into weapon-charging suicides" is the closest he comes to explaining why his protagonist travels to the alien planet; when the narrator falls in love with his rescuer, we're merely told that "she seemed to mirror my every thought, my every secret longing". Once the mystery lady shows up, however, Resnick starts wasting our time. We've all read this story before (J.R. Dunn's "The Names of All the Spirits" is an excellent variant on this plot), and it is nothing short of infuriating to watch the narrator fail, again and again, to get the point, as he insists that his rescuer is a garden variety human and, in spite of knowing what happened to the other men stranded on this same planet, somehow doesn't put two and two together. It's nothing short of wankery. "All the Things You Are" ends exactly as we had surmised it would end halfway through--with the narrator about to put himself in the path of danger for the sake of another chance at seeing his beloved (which, by the way, is a fairly standard ending for Resnick). Once again, Resnick takes an overused plot and does absolutely nothing out of the ordinary with it, and once again, I am baffled as to how the result should end up on the shortlist of a major award.

Moving away from such unpleasantness, however, we find Michael F. Flynn's "Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth" (Flynn is also nominated this year in the best novel category for Eifelheim), in which the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of a passenger ferry off the coast of Seattle is examined through the eyes of many observers--fishermen, would-be rescuers, friends and relatives of the disappeared, conspiracy freaks, scientists, and the disinterested future. It's a familiar concept, and one that has gotten a lot of play in recent years in particular (in fact, given the occasional use of familiar catch-phrases and references to terrorism and New York, it's possible that Flynn intended the story to recall 9/11). Flynn veers a little too close to cliché on several occasions--an uneducated woman whose son was a mechanic on the ferry pours out her poorly-spelled grief on a newsgroup, only to be ignored by posters more interested in spouting conspiracy theories; blue collar workers assembled for a poker game reminisce about their absent friend and wonder who he was philandering with at the time of his disappearance, but the answer turns out to be among them--but for the most part his characters are winningly, and heartbreakingly, human. As time passes, Seattle becomes accustomed to a hole in reality--its own version of the Bermuda Triangle--and life resumes despite the knowledge that it can be disrupted, for no apparent reason and with no rational explanation, at any moment. As I said, this is an old concept, but Flynn carries it off exceptionally well.

Paolo Bacigalupi gets a lot of play on awards shortlists, but I've always been a little hesitant about him. I liked his stories, but couldn't quite love them. "Yellow Card Man" has made me a believer. It's set in a future similar to that of Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man" (nominated for a Hugo last year), in which bioengineered plagues have all but collapsed the market for natural crops, and Western corporations jealously guard the patents to disease-resistant strains. The protagonist is Tranh, a Malaysian-born Chinese, now a refugee in Bangkok. Once a prominent businessman arrogantly certain of his good fortune, Tranh lost everything when Muslim fanatics massacred the Malaysian Chinese community. In Thailand, his situation is scarcely any better. He and the other yellow card people--named so for the ID cards identifying them as refugees--live in squalor, scrambling for jobs and disease-free food, keeping their heads down for fear of the violent and xenophobic immigration police, and hoping for a chance at citizenship. Bacigalupi's descriptions of the desperation and horror of Tranh's everyday life are nothing short of wrenching. The story opens with a flashback to the massacre of Tranh's family and never lets up, perfectly capturing the ever-present, mind-numbing fear of people for whom one more loss, however insignificant in itself, will mean oblivion. Tranh himself is a very interesting character--from his descriptions of his previous life, we sense that he was never a very good man, and in his present he is almost pathetic, very nearly defeated not only by his physical losses but by the loss of self, the realization that he is a more timid, more frightened man because of the horrors inflicted on him. At the story's end, Tranh does something terrible for the chance of a new life, and Bacigalupi presents that choice in all of its complexity, as a moment embodying both defeat and triumph, despair and hope. It's an ending that guarantees "Yellow Card Man" a place in my thoughts for some time to come.

Geoff Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" (PDF) retreads some of the ground covered by Ryman's most recent novel, The King's Last Song. As the title suggests, the story's protagonist is the daughter of the man responsible for the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Cambodians. Of course, no such person exists--as the narrative itself takes care to remind us on several occasions, interposing an extra layer of story-ness between us and the characters, and reminding us that what we're reading is a fable, a fairy tale. Sith is 18, very wealthy and completely, deliberately shallow. She lives by a strict set of rules, most of which are calculated to ensure that she need never acknowledge her country's dark history, and most particularly her own connection to it. Instead, Sith lives her life in malls. She is, as another character tells her, nothing but a credit card. That character is Dara, a cell-phone salesman with whom Sith falls in love, a country boy with death and darkness in his family history, to whom Sith lies, claiming one of Pol Pot's enemies for a father. As Sith's feelings for Dara deepen, her desperate attempts to ignore the past out of existence become ever more ineffectual. The ghosts of the nameless dead print their pictures on her computer printer and call her on her cell phone. Sith has to figure out how to honor the past, accepting it without allowing it to consume her or tarnish her potential happiness. Like The King's Last Song, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is a fairy tale in which a magical balm soothes Cambodia's aching soul. It's easy to sympathize with Ryman's benevolent impulse--his writing, in general, tends towards conciliation--but I find his attitude as problematic now as I did when I read the novel. Taken on its own merits, Ryman's fable is beautiful and touching, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that he intends for it to have real-world implications, for its conciliating conclusion to point towards a possible solution for Cambodia's problems. Those problems, however, are real and hopelessly tangled. They can't be waved away with a few platitudes about forgiveness any more than they can be with a magic wand. That said, "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is, both in its descriptions of Cambodia and in its characterization, a beautiful and touching story, and perhaps because of the fairy tale terms in which it is couched (as opposed to The King's Last Song's more naturalistic tone), I find myself wishing that I could buy into its conciliatory ending (and since we're on the subject, check out this discussion of conciliatory fiction over at The Mumpsimus).

Ian McDonald's "The Djinn's Wife" returns, yet again, to the setting of his Hugo-nominated novel, River of Gods. I had reservations about the previous story set in that novel's universe, the novella "The Little Goddess" (which was nominated for a Hugo last year). Fascinating and beautifully written though it undoubtedly was, it felt to me like a retread of the novel, lacking enough fresh material to justify its existence. "The Djinn's Wife" is just as fascinating and just as beautifully written, and also answers my complaint. In the weeks and months preceding the events of River of Gods, as the Indian nation Awadh prepares to battle a years-long drought by building a dam on the Ganges which will effectively cut off its neighbor Bharat's water supply--a project for which it plans to gain American support by outlawing artificial intelligences of equivalent or greater complexity than humans'--the dancer Esha is courted by a program. All that stand between Esha and the slums she grew up in are her talent and her ambition, and the constant awareness of the precariousness of her position, as well as the constant need to please others either as a dancer or as a potential bride, have left her brittle and angry. When the AI A.J. Rao--diplomat and soap opera star--begins to court her, Esha sees him as her ticket out, a way of escaping constant struggle and fear. In her married life, however, Esha discovers that she has opted out of humanity, and when the full contours of Rao's inhumanity become clear to her, life with him becomes unlivable. As he did in River of Gods, McDonald superimposes Indian mythology and folk legends over a hyper-technologized future. The story of Esha's inability to accommodate her husband's alienness is moulded to fit the familiar Bluebeard story of a wife who steps out of the rigid conventions of her society in her choice of a mate and is punished for it, as a way of discussing, yet again, the viability of coexistence between humans and artificial intelligences--or the lack of same. There's an interesting discussion in the comments to this entry about whether McDonald's descriptions in River of Gods fetishize and exoticize India, which is obviously applicable to "The Djinn's Wife" (as well as Ryman and Bacigalupi's stories), but to my mind the novelette further clarifies that McDonald's emphasis on India's fantastic aspects is meant to draw attention to our inability to adjust to change, to accept the truly alien, without casting it into familiar forms.

So who should win? I'm delighted to say that I have no idea. Resnick is out, obviously, and Flynn would probably be knocked off in the first round, but between McDonald, Ryman and Bacigalupi, I am at a loss to choose the worthiest piece. I can't remember the last time I felt this spoiled for choice in a prose fiction category. It's unfortunate that such an excellent ballot should be overshadowed by, perhaps quite valid, criticism over the absence of female and Japanese nominees. To my mind, however, the composition of the ballot reflects not so much an institutionalized racism or sexism as a tendency to go with what the voters know. Of the fourteen authors nominated in the short fiction categories, only three--Paul Melko, William Shunn, and Tim Pratt--are first time Hugo nominees. Out of the remaining eleven, several have multiple nominations and wins to their name--Neil Gaiman, Robert Charles Wilson, Michael Swanwick, Ian McDonald, Mike Resnick--and two--Robert Reed and Michael F. Flynn--have two nominated works on the ballot. As it turns out, the resulting shortlist--in the novelette category at least, although the novella and short story ballots also look promising--is exceptionally strong, but this is not to say that worthy pieces by less known authors haven't been ignored, and that the shortlist's makeup wasn't influenced by a certain degree of insularity, especially when one considers that only 191 convention members nominated stories in this category.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Martha: A Few Thoughts

In general, I like. I do, however, wish that the episode had been a little more subtle in its attempts to make us like the character, or at least not recruited the Doctor for the job. I preferred the approach taken in "Rose," in which the Doctor is almost entirely dismissive of Rose even as we learn to appreciate her. With Martha, there was a palpable sense of the writers checking items off a list of good companion attributes--observant, inquisitive, smart, cool under pressure, willing to step up in a time of crisis--and making sure we noted each one by having the Doctor comment or at least react to them. Towards the end, it felt a little as though Martha's wonderfulness was being rammed down our throats, which is something that Rose managed to avoid for most of the first season.

I am, however, surprised at the reactions calling Martha a beacon of calm and rationality, specifically in contrast to Rose. I'm not sure I know which Rose most of these commenters are talking about. From her first introduction, Rose is singled out for being level-headed in a time of crisis, and all the way to the end of her run she deals with problems in a methodical, rational manner. She is also, by the way, the center of stability at the heart of her family group, although that group is smaller than Martha's. In fact, I'd say that most of the differences between Rose and Martha are differences of degree, not kind. Rose was rational; Martha is more so. Rose was the caretaker in her small family group; Martha is the peacemaker for an entire clan. The only immediately apparent and meaningful differences I can detect between the two women are that Martha is not, as of this point, in love with the Doctor (for whatever value of 'in love' you want to give to the relationship between the two characters at the end of the second season), and that she is educated and middle class. I'm rather hoping that it's the former, not the latter, that is at the root of the many effusive reactions to the new character--which usually end up disparaging Rose either implicitly or explicitly.

Much as I enjoy the character, I am a little concerned about the nature of her fledgling relationship with the Doctor. With Rose, there was a sense that both characters got something meaningful out of the relationship. The Doctor needed companionship, someone to help him overcome the trauma of the Time War (as others have noted, the corresponding trauma of losing Rose has given Ten a much needed sense of depth). Rose needed a sense of purpose, some direction in a life that had previously been stagnating. At the end of "Smith and Jones", I couldn't tell what, beyond the fact that no one in their right mind would say no to the offer, would compel Martha to join the Doctor--what does she need that he can give her?

After a second viewing, however, I'm starting to wonder whether, in this respect, Martha isn't Rose's exact opposite. If Rose's life lacked direction, Martha's has it to spare. She's overwhelmed with responsibilities - she has to pay the rent, pass her exams, smooth her family's ruffled feathers, become a successful doctor, marry a suitably educated and wealthy man and have smart, beautiful children. If Rose was expected to know her place and be satisfied with it, Martha is expected to strive. It's easy to imagine how the chance to step away from these responsibilities might be very appealing.

The problem with this character arc is that however much the Doctor and his companions would like to pretend otherwise, Doctor Who isn't actually a show about the time-and-space travel equivalent of taking a year off to bum on a beach in Phuket. Being around the Doctor is practically a master class in taking responsibility. I'm not sure how Martha and the Doctor's insistence that she can hop on for a quick jaunt on the TARDIS and then step back into her life, completely unchanged, fits into this ethos, although obviously it won't be long before their arrangement becomes open-ended. It just seems a bit strange to me to start with a character who had already accepted the responsibility of saving her own small corner of the world long before the Doctor came into her life, and for whom the opportunity to travel with the Doctor is a chance to put that responsibility aside.