Thursday, August 23, 2007

No Laughing Matter: Thoughts on Bourne

On the question of Paul Greengrass's direction in The Bourne Ultimatum, there seem to be no moderate opinions. People either love his action scenes violently, or hate them with an equal violence. I'm in the latter camp. The quick cuts, out-of-focus and off-center shots, the almost complete absence of continuity of space and motion, all come together to create an effect that I found not simply incoherent and vaguely nauseating, but downright alienating. By the end of the film, having given up on the possibility of making heads or tails of what was going on, I was simply waiting the action scenes out. In between the car and foot chases, I found a lot to like about The Bourne Ultimatum. Script-wise, it's an effective and well-put-together thriller, tense and unrelenting, and the central character strikes an excellent balance between toughness and vulnerability without going to extremes in either direction. Between this film and Casino Royale, 2007 has been an excellent year for intelligent action films, but I think the contrast between Greengrass's pseudo-documentary style and the more traditional look of the Bond film might speak to the director's attitude towards his genre.

In significant portions of the film, Greengrass's style is a savvy and effective choice. It conveys a sense of chaos, and therefore puts us in the same headspace as Bourne's pursuers as they are bombarded with information and forced to wade through it in order to figure out his motivations and next step. It's a masterstroke in the Waterloo Station pursuit scene--probably the film's most accomplished sequence. Like Bourne and the CIA agents, the viewers expect to be all-seeing and all-knowing. The camerawork brings home the impossibility of that omniscience, for characters and audience alike. Both Bourne and his pursuers are stymied by the complexity of the system they've entered, emerging from it with only partial victories, and Greengrass's direction brings that complexity across perfectly. The pseudo-documentary style is less suitable for the film's quieter, emotional scenes, in that it rarely faces the actors head on or gives them time to convey any but the simplest emotions, and it is downright disastrous in the action scenes. Here, as in the Waterloo scene, one senses that Greengrass is trying to put the audience in Bourne's head. The action scenes are chaotic and incoherent because that's what it feels like to be caught in the middle of a frenetic chase or a fight for one's life. Not having a sense of the overall layout of your surroundings, not knowing what's happening from one moment to the next--that's what being in those kinds of situations is really like.

Which, to my mind, begs the question: what's so great about realism, anyway? As fiction readers and viewers, we're not looking for reality--which is generally ugly, incomprehensible, and plotless--but for the illusion of reality. We want a story--which has components that reality doesn't, such as plot, theme, catharsis and resolution--but we want it to feel real (for various and ever-changing values of 'real', depending on the reader and the genre in question). When the pseudo-documentary style started showing up in mainstream entertainment (I think I first encountered it in Firefly and Battlestar Galactica), it caught on because it was visually striking--in the right setting, even ugliness can be beautiful--but mostly because it removed a layer of the audience's suspension of disbelief. We had all gotten used to handwaving the fact that there were somehow sweeping pans of the Enterprise as it went into warp, and here were shows that suggested an internal story reason for the footage we were watching--a security camera catches the crew of Serenity in the midst of committing a robbery; survivors of the Cylon genocide are filming their escape; a film crew is making a documentary about Dunder-Mifflin. The pseudo-documentary style, in other words, makes the viewing experience easier. When it's used as Greengrass uses it in The Bourne Ultimatum's action scenes, it has just the opposite effect. The audience has to work harder to follow events, and whether or not they succeed, their enjoyment is undercut.

But that is, of course, assuming that we're meant to enjoy the action scenes, or for that matter any part of The Bourne Ultimatum. I'm hard-pressed to think of a mainstream action film less humorous than this one--even the unrelentingly grim Children of Men had room for a few jokes in the face of certain doom--and there is simply no sense that the audience is supposed to come away from the action scenes excited or exhilarated, which are generally the reactions that an action film tries to evoke. The Bourne Ultimatum is far too serious for such frivolity. It is a Serious Film about Serious Issues, the most significant of which is a repudiation of violence, and one gets the impression that Greengrass thinks letting the audience have fun, or depicting violence in a pleasing, exciting way, would undercut those themes.

Which is a valid, if slightly condescending, approach, but one that is completely unsuited to the Bourne franchise and its inherent ridiculousness. Like Casino Royale, The Bourne Ultimatum (and The Bourne Supremacy before it) is an utterly serious film centered around an utterly ludicrous character. Casino Royale, however, had enough self-awareness to end by descending into the camp from whence it came. Bourne pats itself on the back for being transgressive, when in fact, after a mere three installments, each of which has had the exact same plot, it is just as formulaic as the Bond franchise (and a great deal more so than Casino Royale, which breaks with the Bond formula in several significant respects). Greengrass's earnestness--and his equally earnest camera work--might suit a story like United 93, which depicts real-world heroism and its tragic consequences, but if the Bourne films were truly interested in telling a realistic story, Jason Bourne would have been killed an hour into The Bourne Identity. The fact that he wasn't, that he emerges from that film and its sequels alive and triumphant, stands in direct opposition to the seriousness with which the films take themselves, and to their reluctance to enjoy his triumphs.

Like horror, action is a genre at war with itself. Politically and morally aware directors have to struggle to depict violence without glorifying it, to entertain their audiences without endorsing a worldview that divides us into goodies and baddies and sees violence as a genuine solution. There are, I believe, films that accomplish this: Casino Royale, within the confines of its formula, Children of Men, even Brick, which so viscerally conveys the punishing brutality of a single punch. None of them are perfect--the genre is still waiting for its 20th Century Ghosts--but I think Paul Greengrass's choice to eschew entertainment for the sake of finger-wagging is a step in a completely wrong direction.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Lost, Season 3: A Few Observations

I gave up Lost as a, well, lost cause at the end of its second season, but my brother's been itching to watch the third and there have been a lot of positive remarks, many of them from bitter ex-fans like myself, about the season's second half. So this weekend we mainlined the whole thing. The verdict? Eh. Admittedly, I'd been spoiled for most of the major plot twists, including the big revelation in the season's final minutes, and this obviously had an effect on the amount of pleasure I could take out of it. I also agree with everyone who's said that there's a massive improvement in the show's plot progression, with questions being raised, answered, and leading to more questions with a rapidity that conjures up images of the Lost writing staff huddled around a screening of your average episode of Heroes, slack-jawed with amazement, muttering 'I didn't know we could do that' while mentally compressing their planned storyline for the next two seasons into six episodes.

But therein lies the problem. Lost has been superseded. The standard for vaguely-SFnal shows with double-digit main casts, multiple and intersecting storylines and ever-proliferating mysteries is now Heroes (a shift which is neatly illustrated by Kristen Bell, who as of two weeks ago was negotiating for a role on Lost, instead choosing to join Heroes), and for all of its improvements in the field of plot progression Lost still hasn't matched the newer show's strengths in other respects. The plot still makes no sense; the characters are still idiots, and most of them are so morally depraved they make the good folks from Torchwood look like candidates for sainthood by comparison (John Locke, you soulless, pitiful excuse for a human being, I'm looking at you). Heroes is deeply flawed--possibly in ways that will lead to it unraveling in much the same way Lost did in its second season--but it hasn't squandered my goodwill yet, while Lost's writers haven't done nearly enough to earn it back. I'll take Heroes's strong season with its weak and disappointing ending over Lost's strong ending to a mediocre season any day.

A few other thoughts:
  • There's a flaw in the rendering of the main title sequence--the 3D 'LOST' floating towards the viewers--that's been bugging me since I started watching the show, and was even more aggravating when viewed more than twenty times over a single weekend. As the S floats past the bottom edge of the screen, you can see black pixels between the white front of the letter and its gray side. This is probably the result of a problem with the algorithm that simulates a diagonal line on a pixel grid--I had a similar result in a piece of homework for a computer graphics course I took a few years ago--and should have been pretty easy to fix. And yes, I do realize how silly I sound complaining about this.

  • About halfway through the season, it's revealed that women who conceive pregnancies on the island invariably fall ill and die before their third trimester. Can you guess which two words, one of them starting with an A and the other with a C, don't get mentioned in any of the discussions of this tragic malady? In a scene from a mid-season episode, a pregnant Sun weeps when she learns that her fetus was conceived on the island, and then reveals that she is weeping for joy because the baby is her husband's and not that of the man she was having an affair with before the crash. It's bad enough that we're expected to read this disturbing attitude as romantic, but how is it possible that she doesn't follow this touching display of spousal devotion by inquiring about termination options, especially once she learns that she has no chance of carrying the baby to term? Later in the season, chief bad guy Ben explains to his teenage daughter that he jailed and tormented her boyfriend because he didn't want her to become pregnant, and I don't care how evil he is, surely it would have been less trouble to give the kids a few lessons about birth control? I can't decide whether this is yet another example of the show's trademark idiot plotting, or whether the writers truly believe that dying along with your unborn child is preferable to terminating a pregnancy or even using contraceptives.

  • And since we're on the topic of dispiriting treatment of gender issues: there are almost no romantic relationships on the show that don't boil down to the male's obsessive need to protect and provide for his mate. Sun and Jin, Charlie and Claire, even Rose and Bernard, all fall into the protector/protectee roles by the end of the third season. Desmond and Penny's relationship falls apart because Desmond can't handle the fact that Penny doesn't need him to support or take care of her, and the narrative treats his choice to leave her as tragic but ultimately correct--his path to becoming the kind of man who might deserve her. Even Kate, the only female main cast member with anything approaching the male characters' agency, gets sent away from the action for her own protection not once but twice, by both of her love interests. What's interesting about this tendency is that there are strong female characters on the show, and some of them--Penny and Alex, mostly--protect their male mates. Once a romantic relationship stabilizes into a marriage, however (or, in the case of Charlie and Claire, leapfrogs romance entirely and arrives directly at a chaste, verging on asexual, marriage), it is invariably the man's role to take care of his wife and the woman's to wring her hands with worry.

  • Charlie's death is probably the first time that a main character's demise has been handled effectively by the writers, so it's a great shame that its execution is so flawed. It takes Charlie forever to reach and bolt the door that traps him in a rapidly-flooding room and saves Desmond's life--so long that he obviously had time to exit the room and bolt the door from the other side. Also, this could be a trick of the camera, but the porthole through which the room is flooded definitely looked big enough for him to swim through. Dominic Monaghan and Henry Ian Cusick do fantastic work in that scene, and it is tragically undercut by inattention or laziness on the part of others.

  • I'm curious to see how the flashback format gets used next season (by 'curious' I mean I'll read about it in the TWOP recaplets, and might watch the fourth season in its entirety next summer). The writers seem to have taken the step Veronica Mars should have taken at the end of its first season, and jumped forward several years (it's depressing to think that although both shows made the same mistake, it's Lost that's been given the chance to come back from it), which hopefully means that instead of regurgitating and needlessly complicating the characters' pasts before they came to the island, next season's flashbacks will bridge the gap between the survivors' escape and the finale's last scene. I have the sneaking suspicion, however, that the writers might not be committed to the future they presented in the finale (mainly because I think the person in the coffin has to be Sawyer, and I don't think the writers are willing to kill him off entirely), which means we might be in for more of Kate's wacky fugitive hi-jinks or more highlights from John Locke's horrible, miserable, no good life.
My overall impression of Lost's third season is that it reeks of fear--the fear of writers who lucked into a winning formula, scrambled to set it in amber, and then watched their subgenre whiz past them as more adventurous shows took that formula to the logical conclusion they had been too frightened to pursue. There's something almost desperate in the way the season's final episodes throw revelations, relationship developments, and character deaths at the viewer, as if the sheer tonnage of plot progression would make up for the lack of care and attention given to each individual development, or indeed compensate for two years' neglect. Nothing about the third season finale suggests to me that the show's writers have found the courage they need to write a truly worthwhile story.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Veritable Dilemma

On the one hand, the American Life on Mars is almost certainly a disaster waiting to happen. Above and beyond the fact that the American TV landscape is littered with the corpses of reworked British shows, the head writer is David E. Kelley, a man who never met a melodrama, or overworked sentence, he didn't like, and whose idea of humor is over the top shenanigans with CGI thrown in. I had pretty much planned on giving the show a miss.

On the other hand, Niall just pointed me to this SciFi Wire report that Colm Meaney is being considered for the Gene Hunt role.

I might actually have to watch the damn thing.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thoughts on a Film I Have No Intention of Seeing

Ever since it opened in Israel last month, I've been struck by the occasional urge to see Becoming Jane, for no better reason than that I want to know for certain whether it truly is as vile and offensive as the trailers and reviews make it out to be. The thought of subjecting myself to a two-hour version of the trailer is usually enough to bring me to my senses. It's not even as if I'm likely to get a blog post out of the experience--most of the salient points have been made time and again. AustenBlog has been pretty good about rounding up the sane reviews and skewering the silly ones, and the same objections I had when I first heard about the film keep cropping up: why is it necessary for a man to jump-start Austen's genius? And whence the belief that the creative process is nothing more than glorified stenography? This rather brilliant condensation of the film says it all quite nicely.
Maggie Judy Smith Dench:

Hello Austen! I am a cruel and haughty and one-dimensional snob, but I do lament that it is my misfortune to not be very funnym either. Miss Austen, there's a prettyish sort of wilderness over there.

Jane:

Stop! I must take a moment to crib your writing in a cheap gesture towards my observational talent. [writes it down] Okay, done! Heave, bosom, heave.
But it's the inimitable Anthony Lane, reviewing Becoming Jane for The New Yorker, who offers what I think is the most important criticism of the film:
the whole film, though dotted with passable jokes and packed—this being period drama—with long-gowned maidens hoofing about the dance floor, builds up to a climactic grief, with the middle-aged Lefroy encountering Austen and letting her know, through the moistness of his eyes and the graying of his whiskers, that he mourns What Might Have Been.

For any Austen reader, this sadness will be hard to share. Lefroy rose to become Chief Justice of Ireland, and the idea that Jane might have married him, and spent her days organizing soirées for the legal profession instead of sitting peacefully at home writing about Emma Woodhouse, is dreadful to contemplate.
And therein lies the fundamental fallacy of Becoming Jane, and of the 2005 Pride and Prejudice before it--the belief that Jane Austen wrote novels about romance and love, when in fact she was writing about marriage, and about the moral and practical considerations that go into making it. The endings of her novels are happy not simply because her heroines have found True Love but because they've been spared from spinsterhood and the poverty that would almost inevitably accompany it, and her stories are largely concerned with the question of where the right balance between sentiment and mercenary considerations lies--is Charlotte Lucas right, in other words, to accept Mr. Collins? If Becoming Jane were truly interested in depicting Austen's growth as an artist, it would show her coming to understand these hard truths, and realizing just how precarious her position as unmarried, female artist was.

Which, for all I know, it does--but no one seems to have said so.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan

I finished Hal Duncan's Ink--the second and final volume, after last year's Vellum, in his The Book of All Hours--last week, and promptly set about looking for the reactions of other readers. I was surprised to discover only a scant few--nearly six months after its publication I was only able to track down two reviews, one by Gwyneth Jones in The Guardian and another by Paul Kincaid at SF Site, and very few blog reactions, none of them substantial. Surprised, not merely because so much attention was heaped on Vellum last year, but because in my opinion Ink is by far the stronger work--so strong that it retroactively improves my opinion of Vellum. In fact, the two books should properly be a single volume[1], and I find it difficult to imagine how one could sensibly speak about one without having read the other.

The Book of All Hours is the kind of sprawling, digressive work best described not through its plot but through its structure. It is divided into four books--"The Lost Deus of Sumer" and "Evenfall Leaves" in Vellum; "Hinter's Knights" and "Eastern Mourning" in Ink--and further divided into alternating and intersecting plotlines. To say that Duncan's storytelling is non-linear is to vastly oversimplify it. Not only do we move back and forth within the various characters' timelines, and not only are the different plotlines taking place in different points in time relative to one another, but within those plotlines, characters encounter one another at different points in their personal chronologies, so that when a girl sets out to avenge the death of her brother, she arrives at the beginning of his story and ends up causing it. And then there are the characters, most of whom show up multiple times as different versions of themselves--sometimes because the story shifts between parallel realities, and other times because each character is an expression of an archetype that recurs several times throughout a single reality's history. Given this level of complexity, it's probably not surprising that I had an easier and more enjoyable time with Vellum when I reread it this week, knowing how the story would end.

Or perhaps a better way to describe the story would be to list its terms. There is the Vellum, the substance upon which reality--all realities, here called 'folds'--is written. There is the Cant, a language so precise that to speak it is to alter the world. There are the unkin, people who, through a traumatic or transcendent experience, become dislodged from reality, discovering their true name--their 'graving'--and becoming gods, angels and demons. And, in the near future, there is the battle between two groups of unkin--the Sovereigns, each carving out their own little fiefdom and vying for the top spot, and the Covenant, who seek to put an end to the despotic rule of any single god and impose the rule of law. The Covenant are led by Metatron--formerly known as Enki, the Sumerian inventor of writing--who has calcified reality by trapping it within the pages of The Book of All Hours, a description of everything that has and will happen in every fold of the Vellum, and who is now--at the beginning of Vellum, in the near future--rounding up the last of the unaffiliated unkin in preparation for the final battle between good and evil.

In "The Lost Deus of Sumer" we meet three such rogue unkin. Seamus Finnan is a self-described conscientious objector to the war in heaven. A veteran of the Great War, the socialist demonstrations in Glasgow in the late teens, and the Spanish Civil War, he comes by his aversion to violence honestly. In 2017, he instills his belief that the Covenant and the Sovereigns are prolonging their struggle indefinitely to his two young protégés, the siblings Thomas and Phreedom Messenger, to whom he also reveals their gravings. When Thomas is forced to flee Metatron's enforcers, Phreedom hatches a plan to secure both of them immunity by delivering one of the chief Sovereigns to Metatron. Through the execution of this plan, however, Phreedom binds herself to the story of a Sumerian goddess, Inanna, who becomes trapped in the underworld and can only escape by betraying her lover, Tammuz. Thomas becomes the lost deus of Sumer, constantly escaping his pursuers, constantly being caught and killed, and constantly returning to escape them again.

This is the point where things become hopelessly tangled. It is, in fact, all but impossible to describe the plot of The Book of All Hours because so much of it is made up of reiterations of the same story, with the plot emerging not through its events but through the slight variations on these events that each iteration offers. It's actually a lot easier to describe the story by listing the characters. Finnan is the war-weary soldier in the early twentieth century, and the reclusive wizard in the twenty-first, but at the dawn of time he's Prometheus, who tried to bring fire--enlightenment--to humanity, and to Metatron he'll always be the ultimate betrayer, the angel who said no to the very concept of a struggle between good and evil--Lucifer. Phreedom is Inanna, but she's also Anna, Seamus's sweetheart, for whose sake he goes off to war, to protect her idealistic little brother Thomas, who is sometimes Puck. And then there's Jack Carter, Seamus's commanding officer who orders Thomas shot for cowardice, but who is also Jack Flash, Phreedom's son, Thomas's lover, and the hero with a thousand faces. Joey Pechorin is the ice to Jack's fire, the villain to his hero in every reenactment of Jack's struggle against authority. Reynard, or Guy Fox, is the brains of the operation, the schemer and plotter, but also the writer through whose eyes much of the story is told, and Don MacChuill is the faithful soldier, Phreedom's sometimes-lover and sometimes-bodyguard. These seven characters recur throughout the two novels, loving and fighting each other, finding and losing one another, but always coming together, like a Buddhist jati, into a single soul.

Vellum finds these characters struggling fruitlessly against their assigned roles and against the destiny laid out for them in The Book of All Hours. When an iteration of Reynard finds the original book, he is jettisoned out of reality. He can travel between the folds of the Vellum, but the worlds he travels to empty on his arrival--presumably, because the closer one comes to the epicenter of the ultimate reality, the less freedom one has to interfere with it. At the beginning of Ink, the book in Reynard's possession has gone blank--for reasons that we don't learn until the end of the novel. Variants on it appear in different folds of the Vellum, and are promptly seized by sub-groups of the jati, each trying to write their own, better version of history, and specifically to sidestep the horrors of the twentieth century.

At this point, the timeline becomes almost impossible to follow. On top of the alternate and alternating realities in different folds of the Vellum, we now have several realities layered one on top of the other, each the result of a previous attempt to rewrite the book. In "Eastern Mourning", the jati makes a last-ditch attempt to gain control of reality when they discover the final draft of the book in 1929 Palestine, and write themselves into contemporary inhabitants in order to prevent the remnants of the Covenant from seizing it and reestablishing the old order. This is not even to mention the shifts in authorial voice, which in "Eastern Mourning" alone alternates between Neuromancer-by-way-of-V for Vendetta and Indiana Jones-with-a-heavy-dollop-of-Edward-Whittemore, and which towards the end of the book starts narrating the story as though it were being retold in pulp novels--a medieval romance, a radio serial, a hard-boiled detective story, a science fiction adventure, a Western, and finally a novel called Ink by Hal Duncan.

The bottom line is that, even after reading Vellum and reading Ink and rereading Vellum and going back to reread a few selected portions of Ink, I still have only a partial understanding of what was actually going on. In another work, I might find this obtuseness frustrating, but The Book of All Hours is oddly satisfying. First, because many of its component parts--the story of Finnan's lifelong struggle for justice and equality, Phreedom's escape from Metatron and her desperate, futile attempts to save Thomas, the 1929 segments of "Eastern Mourning"[2]--are appealing as stories in their own right, but mainly because I get the feeling that Duncan knows what the story is and that he's told it to the best of his abilities. For all that The Book of All Hours is probably best appreciated for its gestalt effect rather than its plot, I believe that the plot itself exists and that I've been given sufficient tools to work it out, which makes me feel a lot better about the time spent trying to do so.

Paul Kincaid's review of Ink opens thus:
So, you open the book, turn past the dedication to Koré, and begin. And your heart sinks. A first person narrator visits an uncle and his dog Koré, and the uncle tells him: you want to be a writer, here's a great story. And you think: Vellum doesn't deserve this. Vellum was a mess, a sprawling, swaggering, aggressive mess, but through the too-many stories there was still a thin, frail thread of Story leading you through. And it was a big enough book that it deserves to be about something more than the little metaphor of being a writer. Oh it has to be there -- Ink, Vellum, how could you hope to escape the metaphor of writing? -- but please, as part of a bigger, grander mix, not as the guiding principle of the book.

Fortunately Hal Duncan is too brash and arrogant a writer to tie himself down so lightly.
I found this observation interesting because it reminded me of another sprawling, digressive, multi-volume series I'd recently read--John Crowley's Ægypt. My review of the first volume in the sequence, The Solitudes, which appeared in Strange Horizons last month as part of Ægypt Week (to which Kincaid was also a contributor, writing about the third novel, Dæmonomania), ended up being more of a rumination about the entire sequence, and the ways in which having read the ending had colored my reaction to its beginning. Something that got left out of the review--because to keep it in would really be exceeding my purview--was my disappointment at Crowley's choice, in the final volume, Endless Things, to turn the series's central concept--that the history of the world periodically remakes itself, swinging like a pendulum between wonder and reason--into a metaphor for writing. Having expended so much time and energy trying to puzzle out the logic of Crowley's invented universe, I felt betrayed by his decision to deny me the chance to finish the job, and in fact to declare that there was no such logic for me to puzzle out[3]. Kincaid is right when he says that Duncan avoids this pitfall. Although The Book of All Hours occasionally uses the act of remaking reality as a metaphor for writing, it just as frequently turns the metaphor around, with writing acting as a metaphor, and sometimes just a plain means, to alter reality.

Like Ægypt, The Book of All Things is a story about the departure of wonder, but unlike Crowley, Duncan attaches a political significance to this process. At the end of the story, his characters have done away with both the Sovereigns and the Covenant. No more despots and tyrants, but also no more iron grip of destiny. The departure of angels and demons, and the destruction of the book, are a prerequisite for freedom. Which, in turn, reminds me of another sprawling, digressive, etc.--Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle. Structurally, there are some significant similarities between the two works. Like The Book of All Hours, The Baroque Cycle is broken up into sub-stories, many of them adventure yarns, and features a large cast of characters who move in and out of these stories in various configurations[4]. More importantly, the two works are ideologically similar. For Stephenson, the departure of wonder--in his case, the feudalistic mindset, which informs so much of fantasy fiction, and the restrictions of religious dogma, against which Duncan also rails--is necessary for the scientific era to begin, and it is through science the human race can finally escape violence and the yoke of tyranny. As I said when I wrote about The Baroque Cycle, Stephenson errs too far on the side of politics, producing a tract rather than a work of fiction. What puzzles and surprises me is that Duncan, miraculously, has not. This is a blatantly political work, one that I don't even agree with entirely--I happen to think that law and order are more often a necessity than a shackle--and one that is frequently given over to what can only be described as speechifying. Why, then, isn't it preachy?

I think the answer is that Duncan isn't trying to convert anyone. If The Baroque Cycle is a tract, The Book of All Hours is a manifesto. It's saying, this is how the world is. If you agree with me, great; if you don't, I don't care--put the book down if you feel like it but I'm going to keep going. Duncan isn't trying to convince the dubious and therefore doesn't feel the need to be reasonable or moderate, and by creating characters who are unreasonable and immoderate, he gives us--even the dubious among us--something to see. I may not agree with everything Finnan/Prometheus stands for, but his rage and determination are magnetic, as are Metatron's cold calculations and increasingly desperate attempts to hold a fracturing coalition together, or the injured superiority of Moloch.

Socialism and anti-establishment rhetoric are, at any rate, not truly where The Book of All Hours's political heart lies. This is a novel with, and I truly have no better way of saying this, a gay agenda[5]. The death of Thomas, the lost deus of Sumer, is quickly associated with the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd, the gay college student beaten to death in Wyoming, and throughout the novel there are parallels to this murder, in whom Thomas is always the victim. Both Kincaid and Jones take Duncan to task for these repeated murders, and there is indeed a sense that they are glorified, that Thomas is not simply the victim of a horrible, senseless crime but a martyr to the cause, whose death somehow bestows a significance on him he might never have achieved in life.

When the time comes to end the tyranny of the book, however, and to fix reality into the best possible version of itself, the most important criteria recognized by all members of the jati is Thomas's survival--"A million folds in the Vellum, Jack had said, and in every one of them Puck dies; but while neither of us will say it, we both suffer under the hope that perhaps there's one fold where he lives." In "Eastern Mourning", we once again encounter Jack Carter, Thomas's commanding officer and murderer. This time around, we learn that Carter's decision was motivated at least in part by a desire to deny his feelings for Thomas, and that it has haunted him ever since. He's given the chance to redeem himself in the form of Tammuz, a tribesman who becomes his lover, and with whom--along with the other members of the jati--he is pinned down in a city near the Dead Sea (it is surely not insignificant that the final battle for the soul of humanity takes place over the ruins of Sodom) as the remainder of the heavenly host close in, determined to regain the Book.

In the final chapters of "Eastern Mourning", Carter cycles through all the possible outcomes of their predicament and constantly encounters Tammuz's death. The only way of preventing that death is to sacrifice himself instead, and more importantly, to acknowledge the reason for that sacrifice. "They don't really need the words, but he mouths them anyway", we are told right before Carter and Tammuz's final separation, and in a novel in which written and spoken language has the power to remake the world, surely there is no other conclusion to be drawn than that Carter manages to free humanity from predestination because he's worked up the courage to say 'I love you' to another man?

I do, however, agree with Jones's confusion with the novel's epilogue, in which Jack and Puck are characters in Reynard's translation of Virgil's eclogues. While Reynard and his lover Anna enjoy a quiet getaway, Jack and Puck cavort in Reynard's imagination. It's almost as though Duncan is saying that the mundane realities of romance--marriage, children, washing the dishes and tolerating each other's hobbies--are to be left to heterosexuals, while homosexuals live on another plane, forever young and carefree. I leave it to those for whom it is a more immediate concern to decide whether this is, indeed, a desirable division.

I said at the beginning of this piece that I was surprised to find so little discussion of Ink, and of The Book of All Hours as a complete work. I hope this doesn't bode ill for Duncan's career, as he is too inventive, exuberant and enjoyable an author to lose so early. On a more selfish level, I just want people to talk to about this work. There's so much I haven't touched on or haven't explored fully, so many connections that I have surely missed. And that is, ultimately, the best compliment that I can pay The Book of All Hours--that it not only inspired me to go back and reread, but that I desperately want to talk about it with other people. So get cracking.



[1] I've complained about the book-splitting practice in the past, though I can't entirely fault a publisher for hesitating to unleash a thousand pages of experimental fantasy by an unknown author on the unsuspecting public. Also, there is a thematic distinction between Vellum and Ink that somewhat justifies the split between them, even if neither stands on its own as a novel.

[2] One should never underestimate the importance of a strong ending. I'd probably feel very differently about The Book of All Hours if Ink reversed the order of its two books and ended with "Hinter's Knights", which despite some strong ideas is too long, and probably the weakest of all four books.

[3] There's also the question of whether Ægypt as it was completed in 2007 is the Ægypt that Crowley envisioned in 1987. Let's not forget that, over that same period, Crowley's standalone novels made the transition from fantasy to naturalistic fiction, and that taken on its own Endless Things is, for the most part, a naturalistic novel.

[4] The two series are also similar in that each features only one female character of any importance. Stephenson, however, takes the 80s television approach to female characterization. Whereas the male characters get distinguishing traits--the rogue, the intellectual, the schemer, the villain--the female character is so unusual, simply by virtue of her gender, that she doesn't require much in the way of a personality. Duncan avoids this pitfall--on top of being the sole woman, Phreedom is also the embodiment of rage and vengefulness within the jati.

[5] And, now that I come to think of it, why does 'gay agenda' have such negative connotations? If I call a work feminist, well, there are negative associations to the word, but none of them quite as ugly as the ones attached to 'gay agenda'. I find this particularly odd given that feminist fiction does try to make feminists out of its readers, whereas I doubt many works that touch on gay issues do so in the attempt to turn straight people into homosexuals.

Friday, August 10, 2007

At Least The Time Traveller's Wife Didn't Make the Cut

The Guardian publishes a list of the top twenty romantic novels, selected by 2,000 respondents to a poll. The results are, to say the least, disturbing:
  • No. 20: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

    Because nothing says 'romance' like a story in which the male and female leads' most powerful feelings for one another are, respectively, an increasingly strained sense of duty and an overwhelming neediness.

  • No. 13: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    Because there's no better way to say 'I love you' than to dump the guy because he's not rich enough, drive him to emotional and moral ruin and ultimately to his death, and then go on with your life as though nothing had happened.

  • No. 7: Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

    Because what girl doesn't dream of being shackled for life to an emotional cripple who will never get over his evil, dead first wife?

  • No. 6: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

    Because the people who responded to this poll were obviously thinking about the film, not the book.

  • No. 4: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

    Because the best that a strong, intelligent woman can hope for is the choice between a needy man-child and an emotionless bully.

  • No. 1: Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

    Because...

    Yeah, I've got nothing.
Most of the other selections seems reasonable, though I haven't read many of them. Persuasion should be closer to the top, and I'm of two minds about the presence of Sense and Sensibility. It is, obviously, a good love story--two, in fact--but it's also downright hostile to the romantic mindset. Marianne Dashwood doesn't get to be happy until she surrenders her romantic worldview and realizes that the dashing man who sweeps her off her feet--and who genuinely loves her--is worthless because he has no moral qualities. The novel's ending even states that she marries out of respect and friendship, and only later learns to love her husband.

Some saner alternatives:

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Study in Contrasting Perspectives

Over at Strange Horizons, Adam Roberts reviews Doctor Who's third season. The first half of the review focuses on the season-ending three-parter, which Roberts criticizes for its myriad plotting malfunctions while ultimately concluding that
This question of puerility is, of course, the key one. As the Dobby-version of the Doctor was placed in a cage, I found myself wondering whether this was a deliberate allusion to the Sybil in Petronius's Satyricon, immortal but continually ageing, eventually so shrunken that she was kept in a bottle (this is the passage Eliot uses as the epigraph to The Waste Land: and when the boys come to ask her "what do you want?" she replies "I want to die"). But by the end of the episode it was clear that Davies was aiming at a lower age group. And that gave me pause. Had I so overwritten my experience of Who with pretentious adult expectations that any childishness in the show had become intolerable to me? Was I really criticising Who for being a kids' show?

When you put it like that of course it's obvious. Not only is Doctor Who a kids' show, its great glory inheres in that fact. In one sense the large adult fanbase it has accrued is an encumbrance to its proper functioning. My five-year old daughter watched "Last of the Time Lords" in a pleasurable agony of dramatic anticipation and excitement; only the fact that the sofa in our house is set against the wall prevented her from hiding behind it. She found the resolution thrilling and utterly satisfying. It ought to go without saying that fans—actual children or adults in touch with their childish hearts—will not be bothered by a Peter Pan ending, and are unlikely to mourn the fact that allusions to Petronius Arbiter and T. S. Eliot aren't more thoroughly worked through. Kids are not cynical jaded old hacks like me. There's a freshness to their spirits that the show captures precisely.
(While we're on the subject of Adam Roberts and Strange Horizons: if you haven't done so already, be sure to read Roberts's joint review of The Children of Húrin and Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. It's a very fine meditation on the differences between Tolkien-ian epic fantasy and the modern kind, as well as a heartfelt ode to Tolkien's frequently and unfairly maligned prose. Also, Strange Horizons's fund drive is ongoing.)

Even as Roberts chides himself for taking Doctor Who too seriously, Edward Champion is laying into Russell T. Davies for not taking the show seriously enough:
Russell T. Davies, you fucking wanker. How could you do this? How could you destroy a sizable chunk of the human population in the present day? How could you write scenes in which characters effortlessly infiltrate major executive scenarios? How could you write something so adverse to the show’s quirkiness, wit, intelligence, and charm?
I find myself, unsurprisingly, somewhere in the middle. I've always known that Ed judges Doctor Who more harshly than I do, and in spite of my problems with the third season--which, in my opinion, had a soporific beginning, an exceptionally strong middle, and a schizophrenic, yet ultimately enjoyable ending--I certainly wouldn't go so far as to call it, as he does, 'flamboyant tripe.' On the other hand, I'm wary of the 'but it's for kids!' defense. It seems to me that Roberts is equating complexity with quality. Even at its finest, Doctor Who has never been complex, but then neither are many of the finest and best-written works of entertainment out there. Roberts is right to conclude that we need to judge the show on its own terms, which generally means not looking for T.S. Eliot references, but by the same token there are universal yardsticks that apply to all fiction. The issue isn't what Davies is trying to do--it's perfectly valid for him to aim for nothing more than entertainment--it's whether he does it well.

The scene in "Last of the Timelords," in which the Doctor is restored through the hopes and prayers of all humanity, is a perfect demonstration of this distinction. The core concept is actually quite strong. Having established the existence of a telepathic field surrounding the planet, through which the Master has manipulated humanity, it is, I think, internally consistent to argue that humanity can turn that link around. It ties into some of the show's core themes and some of the Doctor's most cherished beliefs--celebrating humanity's potential, embracing unity and rejecting violence. It's the execution that is flawed--the floating Tinker Bell Jesus Doctor, which fails on every level, denying the audience the catharsis they've been expecting, throwing us out of the story and leaving us frustrated. Rather than calling adult fans jaded, isn't it more accurate to say that with our greater experience comes greater discernment, the ability to tell good writing from bad?

That said, I don't think we should lose sight of the important point Roberts raises in his review. Davies and his staff are writing a show for kids, and as viewers and reviewers, we need to figure out what that means before we can try to enjoy or critique the show. We need to work out where to cut the writers slack and where to hold them to universal standards (just for the record: gigantic plot holes such as Jack shooting up the paradox machine when we had previously been told that to do so might destroy the universe fall in the second category). It might not be fair to watch Doctor Who as rigorously as Ed Champion seems to be, but neither is it fair to dismiss the show--its accomplishments as well as its failures--as nothing more than kids' stuff.