Saturday, June 28, 2008

Reading: You're Doing It Wrong

I've been meaning for several days to post about this Times Online article by Rod Liddle, linked to by Bookslut, about highly acclaimed books that don't survive their era, and whose popularity comes to seem, only a few decades after their publication, inexplicable:
The columnist Catherine Bennett chose “the entire Virago imprint”, bemoaning the fact that, for political reasons, she had felt duty-bound to plough through Rosamund Lehmann and the like when there was Philip Roth waiting there, unread. ... Meanwhile, the historian Michael Burleigh suggested all “angry” black novelists (along with Herbert Marcuse and EP Thompson). Here’s a bunch of stuff we were all told we had to read by the political and cultural climate of the day; because it would be good for us and because, way beyond this, it was our responsibility to start patronising writers from minorities because it was only the oppressive white male cultural hegemony that kept them in an ethnic- or gender-defined ghetto.


What draws these nominees together? They perhaps captured a certain spirit of the age in which they were written, replete with its fashionable literary conceits, its political leanings (or lack of them), its mannerisms. And this is what characterises almost all of the books that were nominated. They were not so much deemed to be shocking at the time, or too difficult, or experimental – there is no Henry Miller on the list, or Robbe-Grillet, or Sartre. Instead, they seem to be books that fitted in far too comfortably with the sensibilities of a certain chattering-class elite when they were published.
There's a valid point hidden somewhere deep within this article, in that there are books whose popularity is very much a matter of capturing the zeitgeist, of being at the right place at the right time, and therefore ephemeral and puzzling to anyone looking back at it. Fashion also plays a major role in this process, and like shoulder pads there are some book fashions that people will look back on and cringe. But for the most part the problem here seems to lie less with the books in question and more with the people reading them. Leaving aside the point made by that Alison Bechdel comic strip that everyone has been linking to, that telling someone that a certain book will be good for them is a great way to ensure they won't enjoy or even read it, anyone who chooses books in order to make a statement about themselves, in order to be seen as progressive or even in order to support a political agenda, in short, anyone who makes reading choices based on anything other than their tastes and interests, is being very silly, and deserves exactly what they get.

It's a foolishness that goes entirely unacknowledged by the article--even as the people interviewed within it lament their misguided choices of decades past and the vanity that led to them, Liddle assumes that present-day readers are motivated by the same vanity. I wasn't terrifically impressed with it myself, but I'm fairly certain that most of the people who liked Zadie Smith's White Teeth did so for reasons that went beyond the fact that it was written by "an articulate, photogenic half-black writer." We're often told that the books we read reflect on our personality, but sometimes our reasons for reading, or not reading, them, are just as telling.

Funny Pages

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have, at best, an ambivalent relationship with comics and graphic novels. I can see the potential in the medium, and I've read works within it that I've admired or even liked a lot, but only very rarely do I truly love a graphic work (really, I think it's just the later volumes of Sandman). So that when a graphic novel gains praise and acclaim, I tend to file its name away for future reference. Then once or twice a year I go on a comics-buying binge, which is how I ended up, over the last week, reading three of the best-received graphic works of the last couple of years. Here are my thoughts.

The earliest of the three is Charles Burns's Black Hole. The compilation was published in 2005, but individual issues were published over a period of a decade. Burns's slow and meticulous work tells in the finished result, which is illustrated in stark, black and white drawings that flit effortlessly between realism and surrealism. A wound in a character's foot becomes a portal into another world, a deserted beach becomes a nightmare realm peopled by worms with human faces. The style is reminiscent of that used by French artist David B. in his magnum opus, Epileptic, but to my mind Burns is the better illustrator. His people are, if not quite photorealistic, then at least real-looking, as opposed to the slightly cartoonish look that the characters in Epileptic (and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, also illustrated in a similar style) come to assume, as are the inanimate details of his world--buildings, lanscape, greenery, and interiors. He also has a knack of conveying a lot of information with what has to be a very limiting palette. Several of his characters undergo profound emotional upheavals, going from healthy and happy to heartbroken, or vice versa, and despite working exclusively with pools of black and white space (and very little in the way of pen-strokes to convey grey), Burns is able to effortlessly convey the change in their circumstances, so that only a single panel is necessary for us to know that this character is in trouble, and that one has found some happiness.

Unfortunately, though it's plain to see how the artwork in Black Hole could have justified a decade of Burns's life, the story is slight and all too familiar. The book takes place in a 1970s American suburb in a world in which a sexually transmitted disease causes bizarre deformities in the people--mostly teenagers--who contract it. Some grow a tail, skin flaps, or an extra mouth. One girl sheds her skin. Others are completely transformed into monsters or half-beasts. The infected teens are treated with suspicion and disdain by healthy society, and most of them retreat into the woods. The main characters are Chris, a former A-student and class queen who falls in love with the boy who gives her the disease, and Keith, a borderline nerd who is in love with her and tries to help her before becoming infected himself. Both become involved with the society of misfits and freaks that grows in the wooks, simultaneously rejecting and reenacting the high school cliques they've been ejected from.

So, basically, Black Hole is a cross between an AIDS metaphor and a high school story, and though Burns's visual inventiveness is enough to carry the story along, when I turned the last page I couldn't think of a single thing Burns had said with Black Hole that hadn't been said before. It doesn't help that the narrative appears to be missing its third act--Chris and Keith start out as innocents being drawn into the underworld of those already infected, get sucked into it through, respectively, tragedy and salvation, and then the book ends without, to my mind, telling us the most interesting part of the story--how these two kids will manage in the great wide world to which they've escaped. A week after finishing Black Hole, its imagery is still vivid in my mind, but the story has left no impression beyond this troubling conviction that, for all of Burns's work and attention, it is unfinished.

If Black Hole prioritizes art over story, then Shaun Tan's The Arrival, which has no text at all except for an invented alphabet, would seem to take that approach to an even further extreme. And yet Tan's short and devastating book is more strongly and effectively plotted than many prose works. It tells the story of a man who leaves his home and family to work in a distant land, send money back to his wife and daughter, and hopefully make enough to bring them to him. It's a familiar story, if only because so many of us can look back a few generations and find someone in our family who did just this (for me, it was my great-grandfather, who left Belarussia and worked as a builder at the St. Louis World's Fair for several years to pay for passage for his wife and five children; my grandmother was the product of their reunion), but like M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, The Arrival takes dry history and transforms it into something heartbreaking and immediate. I've been hearing effusive praise for this book for several months, but nothing prepared me for the overwhelming experience of reading it.

Tan's central conceit is that the country his protagonist emigrates to is as foreign to us as it is to him. I've already mentioned the invented alphabet in which every document, poster, and newspaper in the book is written, but there are many other details that reinforce this foreignness while recalling elements from the real world. Arriving at their destination by boat, the immigrants are greeted by a gigantic harbor statue, but one entirely unlike the Statue of Liberty (see above). They are subjected to the standard Ellis Island barrage of health tests and questionnaires, and then transported to the city via hot air balloons. Tan's inventiveness, however, amounts to more than a facilitator for his story. He clearly had a lot of fun inventing this magical, alternate New York, as well as his protagonist's place of origin (a city overgrown with huge, dangerous looking vines) and the places where the other immigrants he meets come from. All of these imaginary nations have obvious paraellels in the real world--the couple who barely escaped the conquest of their city by giants who sucked its inhabitants into tubes are probably a reference to the Holocaust, or perhaps any other instance of ethnic cleansing--but all of them are convincing, and stunning, in their own right.

My only complaint about The Arrival is that it is too hopeful and too kind-hearted. Tan's drawings tug at our heartstrings so effectively that we desperately want his protagonist to have a happy ending--as so many of our ancestors did after undergoing the same process--and are deeply gratified when he gets it, mostly because of the benign attitude of the city he arrives in and its inhabitants. But the story The Arrival tells is out of date. Nowadays, economic immigrants often have little reason to believe that they'll be able to make a new home and a better life for their families, and refugees from persecution and horror are no less likely to be sent back to it than they were at the height of the second World War. And this is not even to mention the scores of people who perish every day attempting to cross borders and make a better life for themselves. Lovely as it is, The Arrival presents a conciliatory fantasy about a subject whose reality is grim and terrible.

One of my greatest complaints about graphic novels is that very few of them are novels at all, by which I don't mean that it is ridiculous to call a memoir like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home a novel, though clearly it is, but that the amount of narrative material in most graphic works barely amounts to a novella. Black Hole may have taken Charles Burns ten years to put together, but I read it in a little more than an hour. It's hard for a work that demands so little of a reader's time to develop the breadth and heft that I associate with novels (or novel-like works of non-fiction). Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is the exception. Not only is it long, but it is so exhaustively--and exhaustingly--detailed that, in an event unprecedented in my history as a comics reader, I found myself taking several sittings to get through it. There's so much information here, both written and graphic, that it is simply too overwhelming to take in at a single stretch.

Like Fun Home, Alice in Sunderland is not a novel. It is Talbot's love song to his home town, the titular Sunderland, a former shipbuilding center in England's north-east, and its history stretching back thousands of years. It is his love song to Alice in Wonderland, its author Lewis Carrol, its inspiration Alice Liddel, and the enduring image of the little girl who falls down the rabbit hole in our culture. And it is his love song to his medium, comics. Told in a psychedelic collage incorporating Talbot's line drawings and paintings, homages to comics stalwarts from Tintin to the caricatures in Punch, historical documents, photographs, and portraits, and modern photography (sometimes presented straight up and sometimes photoshopped), and within a a framing story that is either a dream or a theatrical review, Alice in Sunderland moves frenetically back and forth between these three subjects, and touching on many others. It's a display of geeky enthusiasm run amok, and done so effectively that it is hard not to be won over by Talbot's fascination with his subjects.

If there's any complaint that I can level against Alice in Sunderland, it is that this sprawling, digressive work is too huge to linger as more than a vague impression in the reader's mind. It isn't that, like Black Hole, Talbot's point seems too simple to have been worth all his efforts. Rather, Talbot has so many points, so many pieces of information in so many subjects that he wants to impart to his readers, that they end up forming a bubbling, fizzing mass of idea far too momentous for any mind to contain. Turning the last page of Alice in Sunderland is like walking away from a spectacular theatrical review knowing that one has seen something wonderful, but so overwhelmed and overstimulated that very few of its details have been retained. The only solution is to go again, to dive once more into Talbot's maniacal history and try to get a distinct impression of it beyond 'Wow.'

So, all things considered, not a bad foray into comics-land. Of the three, I probably love The Arrival the best and am most impressed with Alice in Sunderland, but all are worth a look even for people who don't read a lot of comics (people who do have probably read all of these books, and others far more esoteric, already). More importantly, such an impressive array of talent and accomplishment is surely a sign that I ought to get around to reading comics more often than once or twice a year.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Self-Promotion and Promotion of Others

My review of James Morrow's The Philosopher's Apprentice appears today in Strange Horizons.

This is also my opportunity to plug Strange Horizons's annual fund drive. The magazine, all of which--fiction, poetry, articles and reviews--is offered free of charge, pays all of its writers (though not its staff), and pays professional rates for fiction. They're trying to raise $6,000 this month, and with less than a week left are less than half way there. So if you'd like to help support what is, in my admittedly biased opinion and with my own contributions utterly notwithstanding, one of the best sources for criticism of genre writing (and film and TV), on- or off-line, now's the time to do it. As a further inducement, all donors are entered in a raffle for some pretty cool prizes, and there's an additional prize drawing for anyone who plugs the drive on their blog, with new prizes every week (this week's prize is a pair of books by Tim Pratt). More information can be found at the Strange Horizons blog.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

When Pilots are a-Leakin'

There's a long, hot slog through the dull summer months yet to go before there's much of anything worth watching on TV, but as has become traditional in the last few years, a few of next year's pilots have started to leak online. Whether they were deliberately released as a way of generating buzz and creating an interested group of viewers, or simply made it online through some less kosher means, they give us a taste of what we have to look forward to. Here are my thoughts on two of them:

Fringe - Let's be honest: 'J.J. Abrams does X-Files' is no-one's idea of a winning formula. Take one television auteur whose name has become synonymous with big build-ups and poor follow-through, combine it with the second coming of a series that strung its viewers along for the better part of a decade promising a conclusion which it was ultimately incapable of delivering, and you're almost guaranteed a show that'll steal your heart and then break it. Except that, in the case of Fringe, the first part doesn't seem to be happening. Abrams's previous two shows had exceptionally strong, plotty pilots with irresistible hooks--spy discovers that she's working for the wrong people, swears revenge; plane crash survivors band together, realize that they're stranded on a very weird island. Though it is undeniably stylish and well-paced, less than an hour after watching the Fringe pilot, I could barely remember what had happened in it, and the premise of the show seems to be the rather amorphous 'weird shit is happening, and improbably pretty people have banded together to investigate it.'

Anna Torv is winning if a little on the bland side as a tough and determined FBI agent. She has a definite advantage on Sydney Bristow in that she lacks the latter's penchant for whiny self-centerdness--though the pilot revolves around her scrambling to find a cure for a disease that is melting her lover's tissues (a truly gross special effect, and in fact if the pilot makes one thing clear it's that grossness is one thing this show is not afraid of), she doesn't put herself or her fear for him at the center of the story, and is refreshingly adult about her predicament. Joshua Jackson has the thankless role of playing the callow young man who is this show's Scully. He's clearly intended as Torv's love interest, and no attempt has therefore been made to imbue their relationship with anything unique to it or to their characters' personalities--it is simply another iteration of Young People Hitting It Off. More interesting are his interactions with his father, played by John Noble and currently the show's greatest strength, a veritable mad scientist who spent most of the last two decades in a mental institution. He's entertainingly off the wall, but in the long run his character needs to amount to more than amusingly batty. The plot seems deliberately geared at confounding the expectations of long-time Abrams fans who have learned his rather limited repertoire by heart (the story does not, for example, start in media res and then flash back to X time-units earlier) but in the process Abrams seems to have forgotten to tell a story that is more than pedestrian. The result is not unwatchable, and since Abrams is involved I'll probably watch a few more episodes come fall, but right now I'm dubious that this show will ever get the chance to break my heart.

Life on Mars - Strictly speaking, this isn't a leaked pilot, as, with producer David E. Kelley off the show and rumors of it being heavily retooled (characters recast, the setting moved from LA to New York), it's unlikely ever to air in its present form. And with good reason. I'd been prepared, by the ubiquitous comments on this issue, for the disparity between the US and UK versions' acting caliber. The actors are arguably what made the UK Life on Mars work, and none of US castmembers hold a candle to the original cast. What I wasn't expecting was that the other strength upon which the original Life on Mars's success hinged--the show's look, from its meticulous set design to its lush visuals--would also fail to make the trip across the Atlantic. Props- and set-wise, the remake does reasonably well, though it's missing the tiny details--the crazy patterns on Sam's shirts, his horrible wallpaper and furniture, the griminess and shabbiness of most of the locations he moves in--but it looks washed out and uninteresting, and the camera-work doesn't pull the viewers along as the UK version's inevitably did. The sequence in which Sam has his accident and wakes up in the past is recreated almost shot-by-shot, but the US version doesn't come close to the dizzying beauty of the original.

The remake's pilot is quite a faithful copy of the original's, and so the instances in which the two diverge are not only glaring but telling. In the original, it's Maya who insists that the murder suspect, who turns out to have an airtight alibi, must know the murderer. Sam dismisses this idea, but it turns out to be right. In the remake, it's Sam who has this brainwave and Maya who doubts him. In the original, Sam calls Annie up in front of the bullpen so she can tell him why the killer didn't gag his victim. In the remake, Sam asks Annie up front so she can act as a silent visual aid while he explains to the other detectives that the killer needs to see his victims' mouths because he wants to kiss them (an experience she later describes as 'thrilling'). Perhaps most crucially, the crux of the episode, and of the entire show, is missing--Sam never has to decide whether to suppress evidence of the killer's mental problems in the past in order to stop him from killing in the future. Other annoying differences include a deliberate dumbing down of the episode--in the original, we didn't have to be told how frustrating it was that Sam needed six people in the room before he could talk to a suspect, it was enough to show him reciting the endless list of their names and titles; in the remake, we have a funny-looking lawyer crowing loudly that his client has rights--and the ill-fated decision to make Gene Hunt into a source of metafictional jokes by having him make cracks like 'this completes your orientation' or 'let's have a strategy session.' Gene's core characteristic is that he is completely lacking in self-awareness, and that his prodigious force of will makes up for this lack by bending the world around him, ensuring that he only sees what he wants to see (which is why the decision to make him aware of Sam's claim of time travel in the remake makes no sense). This, like so many other things that made Life on Mars special, seems to have escaped the remake's writers' attention.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Total Eclipse

The story thus far: last year Niall Harrison published a LJ post in which he commented on the cover of Eclipse 1, an anthology of original genre shorts and the first in a series edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Night Shade Books. In spite of the fact that the volume's table of contents was split evenly between male and female writers, Niall noted, only male names were chosen to grace the front cover. There followed a lively and civil debate--with participants arguing on the one hand that the five names chosen represented the top five bestselling authors in the table of contents, all of whom just happened to be male, and on the other hand that this argument was self-perpetuating, and that Night Shade Books were making the perennial mistake of ignoring the existence of women as a buying demographic by pitching their product only at the traditional (white, male, middle-aged) SF-reading market--which unfortunately turned sour the minute representatives of Night Shade Books turned up on the scene.

It should be stressed: the bias against women in genre publishing (and in publishing in general) is an industry-wide problem, and it is profoundly unfair that Eclipse 1 should have been singled out as its representative, especially as the actual contents of the book were gender-balanced. But from day one, the people involved with publishing the anthology seem to have been going out of their way to make the discussion uglier and less civil. Their responses to the criticisms raised in the discussion following Niall's LJ post were belligerent, condescending, and most of all dismissive--they repeatedly, for example, returned to the argument that the cover design had been strictly a marketing decision meant to maximize sales for the book, as though this were a magic bullet that would somehow make the discussion go away, ignoring the fact that this argument had been raised, and found fault with, long before they joined the fray. The Eclipse team's commitment to making a bad situation worse was apparently still in force this spring, when Strahan, upon learning that the feminist SF convention WisCon was planning to dedicate a panel to the Eclipse cover discussion and the wider issues of gender and marketing it raised, actually urged readers of his blog to boycott it (this post has since been made unavailable, with Strahan recognizing that "It’s not something I should have engaged with, and I regret that I did"). (Micole has a good write-up of the panel here, which also neatly sums up the issue and the arguments and counter-arguments involved. EDIT: Graham Sleight points out in e-mail that Jeremy Lassen from Night Shade Press was on that panel as well, which somewhat counters their earlier dismissiveness towards this issue.)

And now: earlier this week, SF Signal published the table of contents for Eclipse 2, featuring fourteen stories and only one female contributor. As I noted in a private e-mail, that's one way of making sure no one can argue that your front cover isn't representative.

The discussion has already started to heat up, with Strahan explaining the behind-the-scenes process in the comments section of the SF Signal post, and the Feminist SF blog reacting to this explanation with sneering disdain (as well as other responses here, here, and here). And, though on the issue of last year's cover I fall rather squarely on the disapproving side, this year I don't feel that the criticism of Strahan, or at least the volume at which it's already being pitched (a volume which almost certainly has something to do with the still-simmering rancor at the tone of the cover debate), is justified. When we complain about gender inequality on awards shortlists or in short fiction magazines, we have decades of data to rely on, all clearly indicating a bias--almost certainly unconscious but no less real for being so--against women. Two anthologies and less than thirty stories are not a big enough sample to constitute such incontrovertible, or even compelling, evidence. If, in five years' time, we look back on five Eclipse volumes (and I certainly hope the series makes it that far, as aside from the unpleasant cover discussion the first Eclipse volume was, by all accounts, an excellent anthology), and see a disproportionate number of male contributors then criticism of Strahan might be valid, but after only two volumes? With only one example of allegedly biased behavior? No way.

Every time the gender bias discussion rears its head, publishers and editors trot out the straw man of affirmative action. What criticism of the gender balance in their anthologies and magazines boils down to, they claim, is a demand for a communist-tinged tyranny of political correctness in which artistic considerations are trampled in the quest for a committee-approved notion of fairness, whereas really they are simply being 'gender-blind' in their selections (and if you haven't read it already, see here for a discussion of why "I'm X-blind" is not an appropriate response to accusations of bias). I don't think it does any good, in either the ongoing Eclipse debate or the wider campaign to make people aware of their unconscious biases, for feminists to use this argument in earnest, as Feminist SF blog correspondent K. Tempest Bradford seems to be doing when she says that "it’s just unacceptable to have an anthology with 13 of 14 stories by men."

All that said, and while still acknowledging that is profoundly unfair for the Eclipse series to remain at the center of this tempest when so many other publishers and editors are just as problematic if not more so, I'm glad that this discussion is starting up again. When SF Signal first posted the Eclipse 2 table of contents there was very little response in the genre blogosphere, and I thought we were in for a repeat of the Hugo gender gap debate: in 2007, a huge brou-ha-ha because only two out of nineteen nominees were female; in 2008, almost no response to four female nominees out of nineteen. Sometimes these discussions just seem to burn themselves out, any maybe become so fractious and unpleasant that people just can't stand to get into them again. I'm glad that that doesn't seem to be the case this time around, and I hope (frankly, against hope) that the tone of this discussion can avoid alienating its participants. In the grand scheme of things I think it ought to be an automatic reaction--on the part of both readers and editors--to scan a table of contents for gender balance, and wonder when a publication consistently fails to supply it, and I think discussions such as this one are as good a way as any to get us to that point.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Too Little, Too Late: Battlestar Galactica Thoughts

Last year, when it was announced that Battlestar Galactica's fourth season would be its last, I responded to the show's producers saying that "This show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end" by quipping "Good luck trying to cram all three into a single season." I wasn't expecting Ron Moore and his writers to take me up on the challenge.

Alright, so that's overstating the matter, but there is no denying that in the first half of its fourth season Galactica, which for a season and a half has seemed, not even aimless, but deliberately mired, has regained its momentum. In terms of the show's story--not the Law & Order-style ripped-from-the-headlines political allegory, not the perfunctory issue-of-the-week-in-space anthology show, not the execrable soap opera starring impossibly pretty people behaving like total assholes, not the woo-woo New Agey drug trip, but the actual story of humanity's struggle to survive a genocidal attack and find a new home for itself--there's been more, and more definite, movement towards a conclusion in the last ten episodes than in the thirty episodes preceding them. If we combine the show's first season and the first seven episodes of season two, we get an intense, incredibly compressed, and very nearly self-contained story about the weeks and months immediately following the apocalypse. A first chapter in a saga, in which the characters get to know one another, discover their commonalities and differences, and clear the first hurdles towards developing some sort of working relationship. The first half of Galactica's fourth season isn't exactly the next chapter after this one, but it's a hell of a lot closer to it than the intervening season and a half ever were.

In fact, if one examines the major developments in the first half of the fourth season (surely there's a less cumbersome name? Given that the second half apparently won't air until 2009, and that the mid-season finale provided a very definite stopping point, doesn't it make more sense to call the ten episodes just completed the fourth season, and the upcoming ten the fifth?) it's startling to discover how many of them could easily have followed the mid-second season "Pegasus" arc, or at least the second season finale. Lee leaving the fleet and entering civilian politics was clearly the logical next step after his crisis of faith in "Resurrection Ship II." The questions of Cylon individuality which became prominent in the fourth season premiere, and have driven the Cylon civil war ever since, were clearly indicated in the show's first season and a half, and would have built well on the appearance of the traumatized and individualized Cylon Gina (and later on the events of "Downloaded"). The humorous tone of "The Hub" seems to call back to "Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down," and other instances in the show's first season when its writers acknowledged that even in the grimmest of situations there is always something to laugh about. Most of all, the recurrence of Roslin's cancer seems to invalidate the events of "Epiphanies," and given that the solution that episode provided for her cancer was contrived and tecnobabbly, it might have been better to keep her sick.

With very few alterations, many of Battlestar Galactica's episodes during the second half of its second season and the entirety of its third season could be jettisoned, and the result would not only make sense as a story, but would probably be tighter and more compelling. I'm not talking merely about the throwaway 'issue' episodes like "Black Market" or "The Woman, King," but about entire plot arcs. The settlement and occupation of New Caprica? Made for some interesting (and then infuriating) television for four hours and was then rolled right back, with very nearly every character returning to their previous position in the fleet and the aftermath of occupation only haphazardly dealt with in the ensuing episodes. The trial (and, earlier in the third season, trials) of Baltar? Seem to have little or no bearing on the show's plot, and to have existed primarily in order to give Lee a chance to give yet another big speech. Starbuck's downward spiral? Was a horrifying, retch-inducing arc which transformed a character for whom I had felt at least some sympathy into one of my least favorite characters, not only on this show, but on all shows. And then it was simply done away with, as Starbuck regained some semblance of normalcy only to die. In fact, the only necessary element in all of Galactica's third season is the revelation of the existence of the final five Cylons, and the identities of four of them.

When I wrote about the fourth season premiere "He That Believeth in Me," I noted hopefully that "there's almost a sense that season 3 and its histrionics have been swept away, and that season 4 is picking up from season 2 and maybe moving in a direction that might make the show watchable again," and while, as I've just finished saying, the first part is indeed true, I'm not sure I'd call the result much more than watchable. A big part of the problem is that a sizable portion of the season 4.1 was given over to Kara Thrace and her now-you-see-'em-now-you-don't shenanigans. Once again, Starbuck behaves in a manner that is not only self-destructive but destructive to others (and this time around, she's also being stupid, such as when she threatens Roslin in "Six of One"), only for the writers to hit her 'act like a human being' button right as she's crossing the line from exasperating to Ellen Tigh, at which point she suddenly remembers how to comb her hair, wear clean clothes, and do her job. None of which, incidentally, does anything to advance the plot of even the fourth season--it's Leoben who ultimately leads the fleet to Earth, by suggesting the alliance between humans and Cylons, not Starbuck's hunch about where to go, which comes to nothing.

But beyond the fact that Kara Thrace is now my least favorite character on the show (with Adama a close second; that said, I don't think there's anyone in the main cast I still like except for Tigh, and that only because of his gruff heroics in "Revelations"--I was ready to give him up when he took up with Caprica Six), there are other problems with the story delivered by the first half of season 4. For one thing, now that the plot is actually moving, it's easier to notice that the show's writers don't seem to know too many interesting ways to get it where they want to go. When the stories the writers are telling are as forgettable or ill-conceived as "Unfinished Business" or "Black Market," it's easy to assume that the episodes are failing because no one, no matter how talented, could spin gold out of this dross. But take an episode like "The Hub"--probably the best hour in the recent bunch, and a far sight better than most if not all of season 3--and the predictability and tiredness of the writing shines through. "The Hub," with its mystical visitations from a no-nonsense ghost/spiritual guide who hands the main character some painful-yet-necessay home truths, feels like a second-rate retread of better Buffy episodes (the most obvious parallel is "Intervention," another Jane Espenson-penned episode in which Buffy goes on a vision quest to meet the first Slayer because she fears that she's incapable of love, but there are also similarities to "Conversations With Dead People"). There's nothing clever or new or unique about it except for a format that's been done better by others. It's as though Galactica were taking a page out of the Stargate handbook, and regurgitating some common SFnal TV trope (repeating the day, main character wakes up in mental asylum and is told she hallucinated the entire series) without bothering to make it its own.

But for the greatest failing in Galactica's fourth season, the real reason why the show hasn't climbed further than watchable, why it has in fact tragically settled into the mundane valley and is fast losing its grip on my interest, look no further than the title of this post. It's all very well and good for the fourth season to behave as though the third season hadn't happened, but it did. More importantly, all of the developments that should have taken place in order to bring us organically to where we find ourselves at the end of season 4.1 didn't, in fact, take place.

Lee should have resigned his commission after "Resurrection Ship II," but he didn't. Instead, he hung around getting handed ever more inane stories like "Black Market" or the infamous fat suit, so that when the writers finally realize that the character works much better as a politician than a soldier, they have half a dozen episodes to make him president--a feat which they manage only by driving Romo Lampkin insane (a derangement which is, yet again, executed in a painfully pedestrian manner) and having Lee make a stirring speech, thus apparently demonstrating his worthiness for high office. The effect that Roslin's unilateral and secretive decisions has on the fleet's morale is something that we should have seen building up for months, but instead it's dropped on us in such a way as to make the Quorum of Twelve (and this isn't really relevant right now, but I've made this complaint so many times already I might as well repeat it here--why are we only seeing the politicians? In a population as tiny as the one in the fleet, why aren't we seeing actual civilians interacting with their government? "Sacrifice" and "The Woman, King" don't count) look like whiny brats nipping at Roslin's heels, and Lee needs to stand up and speak for them when their justifiable despair and valid criticism ought to have been obvious and palpable. Most of all, why did we spend a year dicking around with Cylon mysticism instead of getting to the meat of what they are and whether they can be moral beings, as season 4.1 finally got around to doing?

This isn't a case of the show building on what came before it, gradually constructing plot arcs, character arcs, and themes. Instead, Galactica's season 4 is giving off the whiff of Friends's season 10, when the writers realized that there was finally nothing stopping them from putting Ross and Rachel together permanently. It's hard to escape the conclusion that a similar reticence tied the hands of Galactica's writers in season 3 and the latter half of season 2--a crippling fear of changing the show's format, of doing anything too drastic or too new, of veering too far from the status quo. Knowing that the end is nigh has obviously freed the show's writers from this fear, but now they have to contend with the mess they've made. For all my reservations there's no denying that Galactica has measurably improved in its fourth season, and the shocking-yet-not-surprising ending of "Revelations" sets the stage for a potentially very interesting conclusion. It may well be that Galactica's strong beginning will be matched by a strong ending, but I will always think sadly of the show we might have had if its writers had been willing to give us a worthwhile middle.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 16

It's been quiet here, I know, and in the near future the only thing I've got planned, and that tentatively, is a piece about the first half of Battlestar Galactica's fourth season once that wraps up this weekend. But for now, have some books.
  1. Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger - I don't read nonfiction, I don't care about football, and I have a great deal of trouble translating verbal descriptions of physical actions, such as football games, into mental images. So by all rights I should have given Bissinger's book, well-regarded and influential though it is, a wide berth. I'm very glad I didn't. In 1988, Bissinger spent a year in Odessa, Texas, following its high school football team and the town's all-consuming obsession with its fortunes. The picture he paints is both grand and tragic. Odessa, seen through his eyes, is a town that both worships its young football players and sacrifices them--their education, their health, their very futures--in order to bolster its own floundering self-image. A town whose deep-seated racial prejudices are overcome only on the football field. It's a disturbing and ugly picture, but at the same time Bissinger manages to bring across the appeal of both the game and the town's infatuation with its team. Most of all, he manages to make us fall in love with the players on the 1988 team, and hope against hope that they manage to survive their ordeal--not only that they triumph on the football field, but that they learn to live, and have something to live for and a decent chance at a good life, once the season is over.

  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead - I picked this book up after reading Micole's effusive reactions to it last year, in which she praised it for being a shrewd and insightful allegory of race relations in the US. This is clearly true, but as a genre reader I was struck first and foremost by the assuredness of Whitehead's worldbuilding in The Intuitionist, which takes place in a world in which elevator design, maintenance, and inspection, are a prestigious and exclusive field. There isn't a note out of place in Whitehead's construction of this world, and he effortlessly combines the real-world history of elevator manufacture with an alternate history in which elevator inspectors wear fancy uniforms and drive special cars, in which colleges are dedicated to the discipline's study, and deep and lasting schisms are formed over philosophical differences in inspectors' approaches. At the core of Whitehead's success at this endeavor is his accurate observation that elevators are what makes modern cities possible, and cities, in turn, are where civilization happens and is transformed.

    Which brings us to The Intuitionist's actual topic, race. Its protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black female elevator inspector, and if that weren't enough she follows the intuitionist approach towards elevator maintenance--a controversial philosophy that eschews mundane observation for a holistic sensing of the elevator's state, which has been slowly gaining traction within the elevator community, and which is dealt a crippling blow when an elevator crashes soon after Lila Mae inspects it. She immediately finds herself at the center of a political maelstrom in which race and the internal politics of the elevator inspectors' guild are inextricably linked, with different factions eager to scapegoat or exploit her. The Intuitionist stumbles a little towards its end, when Lila Mae's own investigations take a turn into the wholly philosophical that finally manages to overwhelm Whitehead's worldbuilding, but up until that point it is a stunning novel, beautifully written and conceived and chock full of ideas about race, politics, and the modern world, and in spite of this minor flaw it is one of the finest novels I've read this year.

  3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. I: The Long Way Home by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty - once the idea was floated, it seemed perfectly natural to extend Joss Whedon's Buffy into the comics medium. Whedon has been writing a successful run of X-Men, after all, and Buffy, with its wide, lovingly detailed universe, myriad recurring characters and institutions, its emphasis on continuity and well-defined plot arcs, had a comics sensibility even when it was still a television show. And, after all, working in comics frees Whedon from the tyranny of network executives, and from so many of the factors that affect and restrict a television writer's choices--actor availability, paltry effects budgets, the restrictive structure of the American television season and the constant threat of cancellation. So I was reasonably hopeful about season 8, in spite of the at best limited success I've had with comics in the past, but though I can't point to anything that's actually wrong with its first volume (which encompasses the season's first plot arc, establishing Buffy and the gang's current locations and statuses and introducing several new villains, as well as a standalone story) it just doesn't feel like Buffy.

    The absence of the actors hit me a great deal harder than I expected (it probably didn't help that Jeanty's artwork is competent at best, and at its weakest when he tries to draw facial expressions), but really what's bothering me is the absence of all those restrictions I just listed. I've gotten used to Buffy being served up in a certain structure (and in a certain setting, though obviously any story that followed the end of the show was going to have to be set somewhere unfamiliar), and the comics-friendly one that Whedon is serving up, in which the overarching plot slams into the reader on the first page and never lets up, needs to be a hell of a lot more compelling to make up for the absence of the less plot-oriented standalone episodes that used to characterize the beginning of a Buffy season. Instead, it feels almost perfunctory--the glimpses we got of Buffy's post-"Chosen" life in the corners of Angel's fifth season broadened into more or less what we'd imagined, but not lively or clever enough to make me curious about this new incarnation of the show. Given that this is a complete reboot of the story, I'm willing to give the season another chance, but right now my personal Buffy cannon still stops at the end of season 7.

  4. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas - this was recommended to me as a more intelligent version of the story told in Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts (which I reviewed in my roundup of the Clarke award nominees and found pleasant but profoundly unimpressive). There's no question that Thomas's novel is better than Hall's, and a more intelligent exploration of its core concept--the idea that human consciousness is sharable, a metaphysical plane to which humans can travel and, once there, use to manipulate the real world--but it's still not very good. The protagonist is Ariel Manto, a doctoral candidate whose topic is 19th century thought experiments, and whose thesis advisor has gone missing. When a copy of an obscure and presumed lost work--the title text--that touches on her subject falls into her hands, Ariel discovers that it describes a method of traveling into the 'troposphere,' the aforementioned realm of shared consciousness, and that it can be used to possess others and even travel in time. Unfortunately, though The End of Mr. Y is strong in its mundane aspects, most particularly its depiction of the self-loathing, knowledge-hungry Ariel (some of the novel's most compelling scenes involve Ariel talking about books she's read and the connections she draws between different disciplines, and if the book as a whole weren't so disappointing, I might have included The End of Mr. Y in my brainy books list), its fantastic elements are awkward, and the thriller plot that emerges once Ariel begins her forays into the troposphere is contrived.

    For all of the imagination Thomas pours into the troposphere--the way it appears to Ariel, the way she navigates it, the creatures she discovers there and her process of learning to understand both them and it--it never feels like more than an elaborate video game, and as such it is utterly familiar from so many other novels in which the protagonist travels to a meta-realm that appears as a literalized metaphor (when Ariel has the option of surfing another creature's mind, for example, she sees them as an apartment of a shopfront). The only points at which The End of Mr. Y is actually surprising is when Thomas focuses on Ariel herself, who has apparently survived a hellish childhood and young adulthood (though Thomas is refreshingly cryptic on this topic and resists the urge to tell a sob story) and developed some unusual coping mechanisms as a result, most prominently the ability not to care about any of the traditional hallmarks of adulthood, such as regular meals or a heated flat. Buried beneath Thomas's third-hand fantasy plot, there's an interesting naturalistic novel trying to claw its way out, about a damaged young woman making her own, idiosyncratic, place in the world, and it's a great shame that it never manages to fully take flight. Thomas's fantasy setting allows her to give Ariel a happy, but ultimately weightless, ending by allowing her to find a back door out of reality, but I would have liked to see Ariel come to some sort of understanding with the real world. I think that would have made for a more interesting novel.

  5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - Ferris's extremely well-received first novel starts out slow and shapeless as it describes a typical workday (any workday and all of them) at an ad agency in the late nineties. Told in the first person plural, its protagonist is an amorphous blob made up of the agency's workers, each of whom comes into focus in turn to tell some silly or insignificant story--a juicy piece of gossip, a tense confrontation with the office manager, an elaborate prank--in order to make their day go by faster. At first, as I said, this plotless description of time-wasting is a bit of a slog, but it quickly builds momentum and becomes a painfully accurate portrait of office life--the stultifying periods of dead time, the painstakingly detailed time-wasting rituals, the weighty question of where, and with whom, to lunch, the insular and almost intimate community one forms with people one hardly knows and probably wouldn't choose to associate with, and most of all the knowledge that huge portions of one's life are being spent doing something at best tolerable. Though the novel does have something resembling a plot--the company is struggling and laying off workers, one of whom may be planning violent retaliation; one of the executives is ill, and another is the subject of a vicious harassment campaign--Then We Came to the End is most powerful in its plotless moments, in its uncomfortably accurate recreation of the office mentality and the compromises we make with it. Like far too many workdays, it is made up of insignificant moments that somehow, almost tragically, build up into an overwhelming whole.

  6. The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente - like Then We Came to the End, Valente's novel starts out slow and not particularly engaging, and builds up steam, finally becoming almost impossible to put down. And there the similarities end. Valente's novel (the first in a doulogy--the second half, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is already on my Amazon wish list) starts by telling the story of a mysterious orphan in the sultan's palace, cursed with dark rings around her eyes which contain, as she reveals to the only child brave enough to confront her, tales tattooed in impossibly small text. She begins to tell one, as a character in an Arabian Nights pastiche should, but then the protagonist of that story encounters another who tells another story, and within that story another one begins to unfold, recursing almost endlessly and, inevitably, tying into one another. What finally emerges is an intricate and well thought out mythology with some very definite themes--the restrictive roles of women in fairy tales (several stories revolve around girls sold or stolen into marriage or slavery) and the marginalization of those who are different (many of the characters are monsters, and as a result usually disowned by their parents and disdained by their communities)--which finally crescendos with the triumph of the disenfranchised and exploited, who sail off into the sunset together (though given the existence of a second volume, and the hints that the girl's stories have their parallels in the sultan's palace, the story is clearly far from over). Valente's prose is not as fine as I'd wish, and too often she aims for the yarn-spinner's compelling and unmistakably human voice and ends up with nothing more than purple wordiness, but her elaborate construction more than makes up for this deficiency, and I almost can't wait to get my hands on the concluding volume in order to find out how the story ends.