Thursday, May 29, 2008

Braaaaaaains

In 2001, I attended a performance of David Auburn's Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Proof in New York. The play follows Catherine, a young Chicago woman, in the days immediately following the death of her father Robert, a renowned mathematician whom she has nursed for years through a mental illness. She is joined by her older sister Claire, who wants to take the nerve-wracked Catherine away and take care of her, and by Robert's former student Hal, who discovers a major mathematical proof among Robert's papers. When Catherine claims the proof as her own, Claire and Hal have to decide how to validate that claim, and whether such validation is even possible. Proof is a smart and well-written play, but what struck me most powerfully about it was that, as I wrote after watching the well-made film version, "[it] acknowledges the fact that for those inclined to it, mathematics (and other sciences) can hold the same beauty and emotional significance as art or religion, and the same promise of salvation." Though Catherine fears that her mathematical ability may presage the same mental collapse that befell her father, as the play draws on it becomes clear that math has actually saved her sanity, by giving her an outlet for self-expression in the midst of a stifling and exhausting routine.

Since then, I've been on the lookout for other works which, like Proof, feature characters whose lives are lived primarily in the mind, and who view the world, and interact with it most fully, through their intellect. It's most common, in fiction, to encounter depictions of these characters which paint them as villainous or at best pitiable--stunted and detached people, incapable of meaningful human relationships and more comfortable interacting with inanimate objects or abstract concepts. Arrogant and immature monsters, who need to be cured of their intelligence in order to live a full and happy life. When I asked some friends for examples to use in this post, Graham Sleight suggested Robert Hichens's 1900 horror novella "How Love Came to Professor Guildea," which perfectly exemplifies this approach. The title character is a brilliant scientist who has no use for emotion, tenderness, or companionship. His closest relationships are a caustic friendship with a soft-hearted priest and a detached ownership of a pet parrot. Though the priest cautions him that his manner of living will leave him vulnerable at any sort of extremity, Professor Guildea ignores him until he becomes the object of supernatural affections, as his home is infested by a spirit trying to force its love on him--an experience with which Professor Guildea is utterly incapable of dealing, leading his friend to conclude that he is being punished for living a loveless life.

There's no denying the danger of living entirely without emotion (though it may pale next to the danger of living entirely without intellect), but what stories like "How Love Came to Professor Guildea" seem to be saying is far deeper. They present a view of human nature in which the fundamental building block of the human psyche is emotion, with intellect being something that is layered on top, almost an artificial appendage. Which is true in extreme cases--a person in fear for their life, or experiencing great pain or pleasure, will react purely on an animal level. But in our day-to-day lives most of use both emotion and intellect to experience the world, process our experiences, and express ourselves. Some of us prioritize one of these tools over the other, and what I've been looking for since that performance of Proof are works that try to imagine what it's like to be an intellectually-oriented person, without assuming that such a person is damaged or less human for that orientation. This is what I've come up with.

An obvious starting point, since we've already mentioned a play about a scientist, would be works that try to imagine the origins of science. Neal Stephenson in the Baroque Cycle books, James Morrow in The Last Witchfinder, Iain Pears in the first segment of An Instance of the Fingerpost, try to bring to life the people who defined the scientific method, and set among them fictional characters who, like Newton and Hooke and Boyle, are shaken to the core by this new way of looking at themselves and at the world, unmade and made anew by this new set of concepts and terms with which to describe their environment. For these characters, a distinction between their intellectual pursuits and their emotional life is just as impossible as a separation between the scientific and political-economic ramifications of their discoveries--the latter being, of course, the point that Stephenson and Morrow (and to a lesser extent Pears) are trying to make with their books.

Moving from the origins of science to modern science, the last time I mentioned Proof on this blog was in comparison with Allegra Goodman's Intuition, a novel about a scandal that erupts in a medical research lab when one researcher accuses another of faking his results. Like Proof, I wrote
Intuition insists on treating research as a form of self-expression that is just as meaningful and just as personal to the people who are drawn to it as painting and literature are to artists and writers, but Goodman does Auburn one better by refusing to romanticize the process of scientific research, as he does with his shut-in mathematical genius of a protagonist. Intuition's plot hinges, in fact, on the primal importance of precision and attention to detail in the experimental process, and on the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when scientists surrender their detachment and skepticism in the face of potentially good results.
The scientific mindset seems ideally suited to the kind of stories I'd like to highlight in this piece, which in turn brings us to science fiction--Niall Harrison, for example, has suggested that Intuition is the mainstream analogue of Gwenyth Jones's Life. Just recently I reviewed two stories by Greg Egan which both center around mathematicians--"Dark Integers," whose protagonists find themselves at the vanguard of a mathematical cold war, and have to struggle with the weight of responsibility for the planet's survival where previously they had expected to find only cold numbers, and "Glory," which is told from the point of view of a mathematician trying to extract an important mathematical proof from a war-torn alien planet. This latter story in particular stresses the importance of the proof not as a means to new technological innovations (which the mathematician's alien hosts assume must be her goal) but as an end in its own right, an expansion of the sum total of understanding and, in its own way, a work of art. For "Glory"'s protagonist, the proof is an object of almost spiritual significance, and towards the end of the story she begins to wonder whether her society might not be dispirited by its retrieval, and by the loss of the great mystery of pursuing it. Ted Chiang touches on a similar theme in "Division by Zero," in which a brilliant mathematician discovers a flaw underlying the foundations of all mathematics, and can't deal with the realization that the discipline she's dedicated her life to is predicated on a lie.

Of course, there are other kinds of science, and since we're talking about Ted Chiang let's not forget his most famous story, "Story of Your Life," whose protagonist, a linguist, is transformed into an alien being by opening her mind to an alien language. Chiang's story is exceptional for many reasons, and among them is the attention it lavishes on the linguist's profession, on her affinity for language and her fascination with it, at the same time as it explores the more prosaic aspects of her life--a burgeoning romance, her relationship with her daughter.

Moving on to the humanities end of the scale, we have Norman Rush's Mating, narrated by an American anthropologist in Botswana in the same dry, detached tone in which she might compose a doctoral thesis. Her subject does, at first, appear to be a worthy topic for one--a women's commune in the Kalahari desert--but the narrator arrives there searching for something more personal, and finds it when she falls in love with the commune's founder, a philosopher and human rights activist. Throughout their relationship, and her deepening involvement with the commune, her voice remains acerbic and distant, her scientific inclinations informing her personal relationships and weighing them with her experience of both anthropology and politics as she constantly second-guesses her actions and choices. The result, rather than being remote, is a funny, warm novel about a woman who overthinks everything, and who is never, ever made to consider that this is a flaw or something she needs to change about herself.

Less clinical, if no less linguistically complex, is A.S. Byatt's Possession, a novel which juxtaposes the lives of 19th century poets with those of 20th century scholars researching them. Much of Possession is concerned with the struggle to strike a balance between passionate appreciation of an artist's work and cool dissection of it. For the main characters, Roland and Maud, the poets Ash and LaMotte are important because, as Maud puts it, their work "survived our education," remaining vibrant and alive under layers of scholarship and analysis. At the same time, Roland and Maud are also consumed with the need to know, to understand Ash and LaMotte's work more fully and to know the secret details of their lives--a desire towards which Byatt is quite ambivalent, arguing at several points that the poets' work ought to stand on its own. Other characters in the novel fall on different points on the spectrum between emotional and intellectual appreciation of the poets. Mortimer Cropper has so thoroughly fetishized Ash that he places a higher premium on a lock of the poet's hair than on the substance of his poems. Roland's colleagues have become immured in scholarship and ancillary material, barely able to recall why they loved Ash to begin with, and Maud's friend Leonora Stern is interested in LaMotte first as an example of a female, lesbian artist and only secondly as a poet. Though Byatt is more critical of some of these approaches than she is of others, she doesn't argue that it's only on the emotional level that the poets' work can be appreciated, that a more cerebral approach to them is inherently flawed. Underlying Possession is Byatt's acceptance and even celebration of her characters' choice to make their life's work the study of another's.

Then there are novels in which the scholarly mindset is independent of any specific topic, whose characters are driven by the love of knowledge, any knowledge, for its own sake. Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is narrated by the teenage Blue, a bright and fearsomely overeducated girl whose narrative is peppered with annotations, learned digressions, and references to scholarly texts (though oddly enough, no footnotes). What's most appealing about Blue is her unwillingness to compromise--though she's surrounded by people who aren't smart or energetic enough to keep up with her, she never dumbs herself down or doubts the appeal of her interests in the face of others' indifference to them. Unfortunately, though Blue is amusing, she is more a performance than a person, and as the novel draws on and the flaws in its plot are revealed, that hollowness becomes a fatal flaw.

For a truly successful variant on the hyper-educated narrator, we need to turn to Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai. In its first half, it is narrated by Sybilla, an American single mother living in England after dropping out of Oxford. Furiously intelligent and yet utterly incapable of making the compromises necessary to succeed in academia or the world outside it, Sybilla ekes out a living doing typing while caring for her young son Ludo, a genius whose thirst for knowledge is starting to tax her intellectual resources. In the novel's second half, eleven year old Ludo sets out to find his father, making his way through a list of geniuses, celebrities, adventurers and humanitarians before he find one worthy of the title. Whereas Pessl played the meeting of an uncompromising genius with the mediocrity of the wider world for laughs, DeWitt acknowledges the inherent tragedy of Sybilla and Ludo's situation, the impossible choice they face between staying true to themselves in isolation and living a worthwhile life by playing according to the rules of a society which doesn't value knowledge. DeWitt presents this as a moral choice, and ultimately The Last Samurai is a moral novel, which examines the ways in which people who love knowledge for its own sake can function in a world in which knowledge is a means to an end.

Slightly different, and perhaps a little more functional, than the scholarly mindset as described in these novels is the geeky mindset--the difference, to put it very broadly, being that the geek is obsessed with practical, worldly knowledge, and its applications. The webcomic XKCD has for some time been doing a fantastic line in juxtapositions of geekiness with real life, but the seminal work on the geek mind remains Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Though in its historical strand Cryptonomicon treads similar ground as Stephenson's later Baroque Cycle, setting the fictional mathematical genius Lawrence Waterhouse (whose classification as a halfwit by the US navy after he treats a oversimplified physics question as a complicated fluid dynamics problem would not have been out of place in The Last Samurai) alongside Alan Turing and in Bletchley Park, the novel's present-day strand focuses not on geniuses but on craftsmen--engineers and programmers for whom knowledge is a tool with which to take the world apart, see how it works, and try to make it better. Much of Cryptonomicon is spent cycling through the clichés of geekish behavior--social awkwardness, especially around women (of course all of the geeks in Cryptonomicon are middle class white men), a desire to appear superior as a way of concealing an inferiority complex--but most of its characters are sufficiently self-aware to have come up with strategies for dealing with their shortcomings and making an accommodation with the mundane world. Cryptonomicon is a novel about geeks, but more than that it is a novel about grownups, who refuse to be limited or defined by either their shortcomings or the common perception of them.

Some geeks, of course, are geekish about subjects for which there is very little real-world application, and very few opportunities for fame and fortune. I haven't read it yet, but Juno Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao appears to be a novel about just such a person. The examples on my list, meanwhile, offer characters of this type a sort of wish-fulfillment--rare instances in which people manage to parlay their hobby into a meaningful, widely recognized accomplishment. Walter Tevis's The Queen's Gambit is a novel about that classically brainy activity, chess. Its protagonist is Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy growing up in an orphanage, and later under the care of an adoptive mother who is, if not exactly neglectful, then certainly not nearly as caring as Beth needs her to be. Chess is all Beth has, and the only thing she's good at--her life outside of tournaments is a mess, characterized by empty relationships and substance abuse. Which, at first glance, seems to make The Queen's Gambit precisely the sort of book I was hoping to avoid, and it is true that Tevis at times seems more concerned with Beth's chess career than with her mental health and happiness. Whatever strides Beth makes towards these two goals, however, she makes through chess--by finding a reason to overcome her addictions when they begin to compromise her skill, and by forming a community with other chess players.

Possibly the most famous intellectual hobbyist is Sherlock Holmes. Though it might be argued that solving murders is, unlike chess, an objectively important activity, as far as Holmes is concerned the two are interchangeable, as he is motivated to solve crimes mostly out of intellectual curiosity. The Holmes stories are exquisite intellectual puzzles, but they also paint the portrait of a man whose intellect is his salvation, as it provides him with his most meaningful relationship, and, like Beth Harmon, an escape from substance abuse. Of the slew of Holmes pastiches that appeared on the scene a few years ago, Michael Chabon's The Final Solution and Mitch Cullin's A Slight Trick of the Mind both build on that quality, imagining a frail, aged Holmes forced to face the decrepitude of his mind and body, and struggling to comprehend atrocities far greater than the murders he once solved.

For some characters, intellect is not an alternative to emotion but a stand-in for it, a meticulously constructed system with which they compensate for an inability to process emotion or emotional cues. The most famous example is Christopher Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, though to my mind Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark is far superior. Both tell the story of autistics trying to function in the world by laying out patterns, routines, and rules through which they can navigate the chaotic system that is human society. Both novels reveal their narrators to be limited in their capabilities, not their essence as human beings. (Pat Murphy tells a similar story, albeit on a smaller and simpler scale, in "Inappropriate Behavior"). Somewhat less successful is Peter Watts's Blindsight, which, though a clever and thought-provoking novel, didn't quite manage to convince me that its narrator, Siri Keeton, who underwent a hemispherectomy as a child, is a 'Chinese box'--a machine which processes input and produces output without comprehending either. It seems incredible that a person could be rendered so inhuman, and then actively seek to sham humanity as Siri does, when they no longer possess the mechanism by which they might feel a desire to do so.

Finally, we have Flowers for Algernon, a novel about learning to live with intelligence, and the effect that intelligence has on personality, effectively transforming the dull, childlike Charlie into a brilliant and completely different person, and presenting the loss of that intelligence as a tragedy comparable to death.

Anything else?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Many, Many Doctor Who Fans Just Punched the Air

The BBC press office reports:
Steven Moffat will succeed Russell T Davies as Lead Writer and Executive Producer of the fifth series of Doctor Who, which will broadcast on BBC One in 2010.
While this is obviously good news, I think it's a good idea not to let expectations run too high.  Though the plotting of all of Moffat's episodes thus far has been strong, I still haven't forgotten the spectacular implosion of Jekyll in its second half, in which Moffat's strong characters stood around spouting his incredibly clever and funny dialogue while nonsense of Torchwood levels happened to and around them.  It's also worth remembering that it's one thing to write a standout episode in a season, and quite another to oversee the entire season.  Though I'm sure that this is a step in the right direction for Who, we shouldn't expect the result to be thirteen weeks of "Blink."

And at any rate, there's the latter half of season four (in which I have been enjoying the Doctor-companion relationship almost as much as I did the one between Rose and Eccleston's Doctor, and all but ignoring the plots), and four Davies-penned specials to go.  It seems rather unkind to Davies--who is not a bad writer when he puts his mind to it, and who is ultimately responsible for bringing Who back to life--to make this announcement now.  As though it wasn't bad enough that so many fans have been actively wishing for Moffat to take his place for years, now he has to be a lame duck showrunner for another year, catering to a fandom which will, for the most part, be counting down the days until his term is over.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The 2008 Hugo Award: The Novella Shortlist

So, we've had a not-so-great short story ballot, and an excellent novelette ballot--both as expected. The novella ballot, as I've already said, is the wild card. Though I've never read an excellent one, some years offer an impressive crop. This year, sadly, is not one of them. There's only a single story on this ballot that I'd like to see win the award, and it almost certainly won't. Of the remaining four, I found two completely unengaging and two actively bad, and it's in the latter camp that we find the story that is, I'll be any amount of money, going to walk away with the statue. At the beginning of this year's Hugo roundup I wrote that I couldn't imagine feeling the same level of aggravation and rage towards a shortlist that I once felt towards the 2005 short story ballot, but this year's novella shortlist came close to proving me wrong. I suppose that's something to be pleased about.

"All Seated on the Ground" is a Connie Willis story. A Connie Willis Christmas story, to be precise. Which, if you've read her short fiction, and specifically her Christmas stories (and if you follow the Hugo and Nebula nominees, you will have, as they inevitably receive nods), tells you everything you need to know about it. All of the standard Willis elements are here: the no-nonsense protagonist forced to deal with many, many foolish people who don't appreciate her, the cute love interest who does, the secondary characters who are each obsessed with a specific topic, won't stop talking about it, and keep cutting the protagonist off mid-sentence when she tries to tell them something important, a plot which is driven (and made an order of magnitude longer than it needs to be) primarily by this failure to listen, and, most importantly, an obsession with a specific area of knowledge which is expressed through a seemingly endless barrage of details about it. In the case of "All Seated on the Ground," this area of knowledge is Christmas carols. The narrator is part of a committee attempting to communicate with alien visitors who have arrived on the planet but refused to respond to human overtures, until one day they're taken to a mall and promptly sit on the ground. The narrator, with the help of a cute choir-master (check), figures out that the aliens responded to a verse being sung by his choir, but the other members of her committee ignore her findings (check) and each run around trying to prove that the aliens responded to their pet subject (check).

Realizing that many Christmas carols describe murder and mayhem and fearing that the aliens might respond to those lyrics as if they were suggestions, the narrator and her love interest scour the annals of Christmas choir music. And that is what "All Seated on the Ground" primarily consists of--paragraph upon paragraph of one of them offering up the title of a Christmas carol and the other one coming up with an inappropriate action verb that appears in it. And, you know, I get that I don't get Connie Willis. I get that her fiction is Not For Me. I get that there are people who find her idea of humor hilarious rather than tedious (actually, it was tedious in the mid-90s; by now it physically makes me squirm) and her romances affecting rather than predictable and trite. I certainly get that there are people for whom Christmas is a big deal and Christmas stories a pleasant tradition. But I simply do not get how a story made up almost entirely of lists of Christmas carol titles gets published, much less nominated for the most respected literary award in the field. Still, this is a Connie Willis story, and as they say if you like that sort of thing then this is the sort of thing you will like. A lot of people do, which is why Willis keeps getting nominated for awards and why she'll probably win the Hugo this year.

Much as I might wish otherwise, I can't deny that Connie Willis is an SFnal institution, but what's Kristine Kathryn Rusch's excuse? "Recovering Apollo 8" isn't quite as tedious as "All Seated on the Ground," but certainly not for lack of trying. Apollo 8, for those of you who weren't glued to the screen by the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, was the first lunar mission to orbit the moon, a maneuver that carried with it the risk, should the astronauts' calculations be even a little bit off, of the capsule crashing into the moon or being flung off into space. In the alternate universe in which Rusch's story takes place, the latter happens--Apollo 8 drifts irretrievably away from Earth as its inhabitants use their last breaths to exhort those on the planet to continue its exploration. Which, in that universe, is exactly what happens, as manned habitats are erected in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars. The protagonist, Richard, is an industrialist at the forefront of this movement, and since childhood he has nursed an obsession with Apollo 8. When the capsule's orbit brings it back into Earth's reach, Richard launches a mission to retrieve it, and, upon discovering that the doomed astronauts launched themselves into space rather than die in in a tiny tin can, resolves to retrieve their bodies as well. Which he does. "Recovering Apollo 8" boils down to four repetitions of the same sequence: Richard discovers the location of the capsule or one of the bodies; Richard retrieves the capsule or one of the bodies in a delicate and complex operation; Richard feels inexpressibly moved. At a few thousand words, "Recovering Apollo 8" might have been a sad and stirring piece about bringing fallen heroes to their final resting place, but as the word-count mounts, the story comes to seem maudlin, and then macabre--as though space were nothing but a vast mausoleum, and the only value of exploring it lay in the possibility of discovering the astronauts' bodies--and finally simply tedious.

Well, actually, I'm not sure I would have cared even for the drastically shortened version of "Recovering Apollo 8," not so long as it still centered around a real event. In real life, Apollo 8 and its crew of three--Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders--completed its mission and returned safely to Earth, and yet the more Richard rhapsodizes about the story's fictional alternative, about the astronauts' courage, their willingness to lay down their lives, and their calm stoicism in the face of death, the more difficult it becomes to avoid the conclusion that for Rusch, the real, happy, ending is just not good enough, not heroic enough, not poetically satisfying, not good fiction. Borman, Lovell, and Anders are real, living people, who forty years ago risked a terrible, lonely death in order to advance the cause of human knowledge and human endeavor. Rusch seems to feel that this does not make for a good enough story, and prefers to imagine, with a fascination that borders on prurience, that they did die that terrible and lonely death, and that that death helped launch humanity to the stars. I'm by no means a stranger to the appeal of the detached sadness of memorials and heroes' funerals, but "Recovering Apollo 8" is melancholy-porn, and all the more abhorrent for concealing that fetishization of death under the guise of Apollo Program fannishness.

I read Nancy Kress's "Fountain of Age" a few months ago when it was nominated for this year's Nebula award (which it went on to win). When the time came to review the Hugo-nominated novellas, I found that I could remember very little about it beyond the barest outline of its plot. Having gone back to review it, I can report that "Fountain of Age" is narrated by an old man, Max, who for his entire life has pined for a young prostitute named Daria with whom he had an affair while stationed on Cyprus during his tour with the military. Years later, discharged and unhappily married, Max discovers that Daria is the wife of a millionaire. When he finally manages to see her and tries to convince her to run away with him she refuses, and instead gives him money and a stock tip that turn him overnight into a rich man. In the decades that follow, Max becomes a shady businessman while Daria becomes humanity's cure for aging--tissue from a tumor discovered in her body freezes its recipient at their present age for twenty years, at the end of which they die. At the age of 86 Max, having lost his only memento of Daria, decides to procure another one, and signs up for the treatment.

I'm at an utter loss to determine what "Fountain of Age" is actually about. A lot of time is spent on Max's career as a crook, and on his relationship with some rather stereotypically sketched gypsies, but this seems to be not much more than filler. Of more interest is his difficult relationship with his wife and son, though this too is rather by the numbers. In between, Max details the reactions--generally violent--to Daria's promise of eternal youth (or eternal whatever-age-you-are-presently), but there's no real exploration of how D-treatment, as Kress calls it, affects human society. Most obviously, "Fountain of Age" is a tragic love story, at the end of which Daria is more lost to Max than she ever was. It's only on this level that Kress's story comes alive, but that's not much payoff (and certainly not much SFnal payoff) for tens of thousands of words of story.

Gene Wolfe's "Memorare" (and his fiction in general) has been highly praised by people whose tastes I respect. I was surprised, therefore, at how unpleasant I found "Memorare," and can't help but wonder if I'm missing something. Set among the asteroids and space debris orbiting Jupiter, "Memorare" is the story of March, a documentary filmmaker chronicling the phenomenon of space mausoleums, erected in memory of those who died in space. Some of these are simple floating monuments. Others house holograms of the dead who tell visitors about their lives and the manner of their deaths. Some are death-traps, erected by cults who believe that those who die in their tombs will serve the dead in the afterlife. It's an intriguing setting, but it's soon shunted aside by the arrival of Kit, March's girlfriend and a TV personality whom he has hired to narrate his film, and her friend Robin, who claims to be fleeing an abusive husband and turns out to be March's first wife, from whom he had a bitter divorce marked, so he claims, by false accusations of abuse on her part. What follows, especially when Robin's husband, determined to win her back through words or strength of arms, arrives on the scene, is not just a soap opera but a trailer park soap opera (it's surely no accident that the characters' spaceships are repeatedly compared to mobile homes), full of rough men, simpering women, and repeated threats of violence by both.

It's hard to imagine that Wolfe isn't deliberately catering to every stereotype of trailer trash life in existence, but this knowledge does not make his pastiche any easier to read. His prose is cloying and consciously folksy--" You're a star, and I'm a washed-up producer who was never terribly big anyway. Knowing all that—because I know you know it, too—will you marry me?"--and his characters are shrill and crudely drawn. It is particularly difficult to read about Robin the harridan, who hounded March during their marriage, drove him to bankruptcy, and is now driving her new husband to distraction as well, or about Kit's lapse into infidelity with that same husband as soon as March's back is turned. For all that, I can't dismiss "Memorare," and not simply because of Wolfe's and the story's fervent admirers. Reading the story, most particularly its latter part in which the four characters venture into a large tomb which March has noted as particularly dangerous and find within it a seductive paradise, it's clear that there's a layer to it that I'm not getting, an extended metaphor to which I do not have the key. If anyone would like to make an argument for "Memorare" being more than the mean-spirited, misogynistic, indifferently written mess it appears to be, I'd be happy to hear it, but I found the experience of reading the story too unpleasant to try to find that second level myself by delving into it again.

Like "Memorare," Lucius Shepard's "Stars Seen Through Stone" is primarily concerned with a soap opera-derived story. This time, it's the small Pennsylvania mining town full of curdled ambitions, populated by has-beens and future has-beens, where every generation promises themselves that they'll be the ones to get out of Dodge, but only a few ever do. Unlike Wolfe, and every other author on the novella shortlist, Shepard transcends the cliché, and produces a touching piece of work whose characters are not only believable but lovable. The narrator, Vernon, is a small-time music producer who sifts through piles of crude and derivative demo tapes for the occasional diamond in the rough. At the story's beginning, he seems to have found one, a blues musician called Joe Stanky who comes to live with Vernon as they work on his sound and cut a CD. Stanky soon reveals himself to be the worst variant of geek--unpleasant, socially maladjusted, made bitter and mean by his frustrated sense of superiority--but he appears to be a musical genius. Genius, in fact, seems to be in the air as the frustrated ambitions of Vernon's friends and neighbors begin bearing fruit--the wannabe cartoonist who begins drawing a new, hilarious strip; the woman who finally writes her novel; the aimless young girl who discovers her intellectual focus--and Vernon himself seems to be touched with the genius of love, as he and his ex-wife Andrea rekindle their relationship. At the same time, mysterious artifacts begin to appear in town--the titular stars--and some townspeople seem to be driven not to genius but to suicide or madness.

While it isn't exactly true to say that Shepard prioritizes the soapy, relationship aspects of his story over the SFnal ones--the two are, after all, inextricably linked, and Vernon and Andrea, for example, spend much of their time together musing about the outside influence that may have been the cause of their renewed affections, and wondering whether that makes their love less real or more transient--"Stars Seen Through Stone" is a great deal more interesting when dealing with the mundane. Shepard's characters feel real--Vernon and Andrea are sweet; Stanky is disgusting; the frustrated cartoonist, who realizes the truth of what's happening to the town and is driven insane by it, is pitiable. What's more, their predicament is familiar. We all know what it feels like to give up on our dream of stardom and renown because it's too hard, because we can't afford it, because we're not good enough, and the idea of an outside force unleashing that bottled up well of creativity is both seductive and terrifying. It was a particular stroke of brilliance on Shepard's part to choose a setting that is, as I said, synonymous with shattered dreams, and then imagine the effects on it of those dreams coming true. Even Shepard's narrative voice seems better suited to the story's naturalistic aspects--he develops an irresistible rhythm when describing, for example, Stanky's music, or Vernon's fishing expeditions in the town's polluted river, or his and Andrea's conversations, but his prose turns purple when describing the otherworldly apparitions. It is therefore unsurprising that "Stars Seen Through Stone" ends on a slightly unsatisfactory note, as the supernatural element is foregrounded. Shepard is skilled enough, however, to knit the SFnal and mundane together even at the very end, and though the end result isn't perfect it is nevertheless extremely fine.

In a perfect world, Lucius Shepard would win this year's Hugo. In an even more perfect world, he'd win over competitors who deserve to be on the shortlist. But we don't live in a perfect world and Connie Willis's "All Seated on the Ground" is going to take the prize. This is a very dispiriting note on which to close an award overview that had previously been going quite well. Here's hoping that next year's novella shortlist makes for a more pleasant surprise.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 7

A catch-all post encompassing films watched months ago and just this weekend, at theaters and at home.
  1. Charlie Wilson's War (2007) - Forget about director Mike Nichols or star Tom Hanks, this for me was an Aaron Sorkin movie, his first chance since the abysmal failure of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip to demonstrate that the man who created The West Wing was still in there. Charlie Wilson's War has all the stylistic hallmarks of a Sorkin work--breakneck dialogue, wry humor, and, most refreshingly, the sense that here, for once, is a film that expects a certain level of intelligence from its audience--and certainly the subject matter--the true story of a senator who orchestrates a covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by arming the mujahadeen--seems to play to Sorkin's strengths. It gives him the opportunity to return to one of his most beloved themes--the belief that with power in their hands, smart, well-informed, driven people can make the world a better place, but whereas in The West Wing Sorkin was free to create a universe in which such well-intentioned actions nearly always bore fruit, in Charlie Wilson's War he has to contend with the consequences of the US's actions in Afghanistan.

    I think Sorkin tries to acknowledge the grim results of Wilson's actions when he tells us that that US 'screwed up the endgame' by abandoning Afghanistan to fundamentalists when the Soviets were defeated, but to me this smacks of just the same blindness that the film supposedly excoriates. For one thing, this article argues that the film presents a biased and inaccurate version of events, and that even as the war was raging the US was funding internal disputes between different Afghan groups, favoring the most anti-communist, and most fundamentalist, among them over their more moderate counterparts. More importantly, Sorkin's thesis, that with full knowledge and comprehension of a situation one can achieve complete control of it (leaving aside for a moment the question of whether full knowledge and comprehension are even possible--in Aaron Sorkin's universe, they always are) strikes me as old fashioned to the point of being almost imperialistic. Charlie Wilson's War ultimately says that we're in our present predicament because the US failed to act correctly, but isn't it possible that in some situations, all action, including inaction, is incorrect? That's not a possibility that exists in Aaron Sorkin's invented universes, but when he tries to apply that mindset to the real world the result feels inauthentic.

  2. Sweeney Todd (2007) & The Darjeeling Limited (2007) - I'm listing these two films together because both fail for the same reason--because they were made by set designers who also happen to direct. Tim Burton's been heading down this path for a while, which is a particular shame as, for all his obsession with grime, soot, and shadows, there's something undeniably plastic about his visual sensibility. Much like the recent spate of computer animated films, his historical recreations seem to squat resolutely in the uncanny valley between completely realistic and deliberately stylized, and their emotional impact is dampened because of it. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd--which in its theatrical incarnation is performed on what is nearly a bare stage--can't survive this treatment. Burton's insistence on setting the film in something resembling reality highlights the ludicrousness of its plot, and the film is further undermined by his failure to make that reality fully real. All of this would still be fine (Sweeney Todd is not, after all, a show one watches for plot; it doesn't even have much of a theme or a central point) if the musical performances were worthwhile, but though Johnny Depp is surprisingly good as Sweeney, the show really hinges on Mrs. Lovett, and Helena Bonham Carter simply doesn't have what it takes for that role, which demands pipes, and plenty of them. The only way Bonham Carter can control her voice is to keep it tightly under wraps, which is completely unsuited to her character--compare her thin and reedy rendition of "The Worst Pies in London" with Patty LuPone's brassy performance.

    The Darjeeling Limited is by far the more successful movie--funnier, more engaging, and much, much prettier to look at. It is also without a doubt the least of Wes Anderson's films, a retread of many of his favorite tropes--privileged yet dysfunctional families, strained sibling and parent-child relationships, absurdist humor concealing deep loneliness and pain--that does nothing to develop them or do anything with them that Anderson's previous films haven't done better. This story of three brothers, still reeling from their father's death and reluctantly trying to become a family again, is short, funny, and sweet, but ultimately effervescent--the most interesting and significant aspects of the film are the visual, the painstaking work Anderson clearly put into scouting locations, dressing sets, and making props. Anderson's films have always been characterized by an obsession with things, which often wormed its way into the plot as well (in The Darjeeling Limited the dead father is represented by a gigantic and hideous set of matched luggage, and the brothers squabble over monogrammed belts, bottles of perfume, and cars), but in The Darjeeling Limited it seems to have crowded out all other considerations.

  3. In Bruges (2008) - Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. After dozens of films about wise-cracking, likable assassins who escape their cruel employers and their business and make a new, decent life for themselves, there finally comes a film that acknowledges the inescapable moral stain that tarnishes such characters, and the great difficulty of overcoming it. All of which makes In Bruges sound grander and more serious than it actually is, but then I can't think of any way, short of laying out its entire plot, of describing this film without creating a false impression of it. At its most basic level, it's a comedy about two assassins sent to cool off in a picturesque Belgian town after a job gone wrong. But the film isn't a barrel of laughs, and in fact starts out rather slow and meditative before taking a turn into drama when the full extent of the bungled job is revealed. For a while, it seems that In Bruges is a naturalistic tragedy about guilt and our ability, or lack of it, to cope with it, but then religious, surrealistic, and fantastic elements start creeping into the plot, and by its end In Bruges might be a morality play, a fable, or a waking nightmare. Whatever it is, this is a surprisingly good and meaty film, anchored by strong performances (Ralph Fiennes is particularly enjoyable as the assassins' boss) and a smart script.

  4. Iron Man (2008) - Lots of fun, though not nearly as clever or as different as the trailers had encouraged me to hope. I keep hoping that one of these days I'll watch a superhero film whose characters actually make sense as human beings with an IQ above 80 (and no, Batman Begins did not meet this criteria), but, with the exception of The Incredibles, all I get is just more irony, more half-embarrassed jabs at the conventions of the genre mixed with soapy personal interactions, more characters so boxed in by their role that they never manage to be people. Iron Man very nearly escapes this fate because Robert Downey Jr. is so much fun and is given leave to just be himself (or rather, the character that Downey has been playing non-stop for the last five years) for much of the film, but ultimately it is undone by the need to adhere to the familiar progression of the origin story. Between the trailers and the fact of having watched one or two films before, I could probably have storyboarded Iron Man before I even bought a ticket for it. There are quite a few fun and exhilarating moments in the film (none of them, sadly, during the climactic battle with the rather forgettable villain who is made only barely serviceable by Jeff Bridges's performance), but not a single surprise until just a few seconds before the credits roll. I can certainly see interesting places this franchise could go, especially if someone smart, or willing to demand smartness from their audience, takes over the writing for it, but right now Iron Man is just another fun summer film.

  5. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) - This film, about an out-of-work governess who lies her way into a job as the social secretary of a frivolous lounge singer in 1930s London and immediately starts setting her life in order and steering her towards the right choice between her three suitors, tries to be a hell of a lot of things. A screwball comedy, a romance, a feminist story about women who sell themselves, however genteelly, to survive, an elegy for the days just before the outbreak of the second world war and the cheerful, carefree world that war put an end to. In the end, all these different films work against one another. Just as we think we've settled into one of them, the film's register shifts and we're shuffled into another. Nevertheless, though it isn't a complete success, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is utterly charming. The performances have a great deal to do with this--Frances McDormand and Amy Adams are fantastic as Miss Pettigrew and her employer, Delysia Lafosse, and Ciarán Hinds and Lee Pace are so appealing as their respective love interests that, though the script doesn't work quite hard enough to persuade us of either the couple's attraction (in the case of Delysia and Pace's character, a penniless pianist with a dubious English-or-perhaps-Scottish accent) or the obstacles placed in their path (in the case of Miss Pettigrew and her admirer), it's impossible not to be won over by both pairings and deeply pleased by their fruition. As if that weren't enough, Shirley Henderson shows up as a bitchy boutique owner, and her perfect line readings and catty vulnerability very nearly enable her to walk away with the film. Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a lesser film than it might have been, but it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

Friday, May 09, 2008

On the Other Hand, Can This Be Any Worse Than Southland Tales?

UK-based sales company Velvet Octopus will be launching sales in Cannes for S. Darko, billed as the sequel to the 2001 cult hit Donnie Darko. Fox has already taken North American rights.

Daviegh Chase reprises her role as Donnie's younger sister. The cast for S. Darko also includes Ed Westwick (Son Of Rambow, Gossip Girl), Briana Evigan (Step Up 2) and Justin Chatwin (Dragon Ball).

... Producers have spoken to Richard Kelly about the project but he is not involved in any official capacity at this stage.
Empahsis mine. Full release here. Link via Yair Raveh.  Oh dear.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

The 2008 Hugo Award: The Novelette Shortlist

As I said in the short story review post, the novelette ballot tends to be strong, often the strongest of the three short fiction categories. Short stories, though in my opinion a format with great potential, seem to encourage glibness--a resort to clever 'gotcha!' moments, or overbearing sentimentality. Novellas are hard to get right--when they work, they're fantastic, but often they're simply flabby and overlong. The novelette length, it seems, is Just Right--enough room to tell a proper story, and not enough to screw it up. Even allowing for the general high quality of this category, however, the 2008 novelette shortlist is impressive. There isn't a single bad story on it, and though my choice of winner is very clear, every nominated author has persuasively made their case for the award.

The closest this year's novelette shortlist comes to a bad story is Greg Egan's "Dark Integers," and even in this case the story is not so much bad as not to my taste. A sequel to Egan's 1995 story, "Luminous," "Dark Integers" catches up with that story's mathematician protagonists a decade later. During that time, they've been acting as clandestine defenders of the Earth, maintaining the peace in a mathematical cold war against a parallel universe in which mathematics is underpinned by different axioms than ours. Each universe has the power to assert its own math in the other, and thus destroy it. Or, at least, so Egan tells us. "Dark Integers" is very high density hard SF, with a great deal of math talk that quickly went over my head and left me scrabbling desperately through incomprehensible paragraphs in search of the one or two sentences that actually advance the plot. Though I'm sure that readers with a more thorough grounding in mathematics will have a field day with "Dark Integers," the ratio of gobbledygook to plain text was too high for my enjoyment. I was left with too much time to notice the paucity of Egan's prose, and though "Dark Integers" by no means shortchanges its characters--the story is primarily about the conflict between their acknowledged inadequacy as representatives of and warriors on behalf of the entire planet, and their distrust of what government and big business might do with the weapon they've discovered--Egan's treatment of these issues is almost perfunctory, especially when compared to the care and attention he lavishes on the science portions of the story.

Far more impressive is Egan's other nominated novelette, "Glory" (PDF). It starts off with what is quite possibly the most enjoyable sequence I've read in some time, and, in sharp contrast with "Dark Integers," an effective and exciting use of science-speak, as Egan describes the method by which two representatives of a vast intergalactic empire arrive at a planet tens of light years away from their home. (Niall Harrison goes on at greater length about the neatness of this sequence, and of Egan's use of science in the rest of the story, here.) The two, Anne and Joan (and isn't it nice that both are women, and that Egan is so matter-of-fact about this fact?) have taken the form of the local species and presented themselves to the two major (and warring) governments in an attempt to gain access to the relics of an ancient, extinct alien species, who may have achieved some important and revolutionary mathematical proofs. The actual story of "Glory" never quite lives up to the pyrotechnics in its opening paragraphs--though Egan's writing is a great deal better here than it was in "Dark Integers," he ceases to strive for the gosh-wow-neat effect in the body of the story, and both his characterization of Anne and Joan and his descriptions of the alien culture they've arrived in are on the mundane side. The dilemma that ends up driving the story, and the choice that Joan ends up making, are also comparatively dull. Nevertheless, "Glory" is a good, meat and potatoes piece of SF writing, and the opening segment is spectacular enough in its own right to set it out from the herd.

David Moles's "Finisterra" drips, all the way through, with the neatness that characterizes "Glory"'s opening paragraphs. It's a dense, wordy, almost intoxicating piece, a marvel of SFnal invention and description, so intricately detailed that I found myself doubling back and rereading some of its segments in order to gain a proper appreciation for Moles's worldbuilding. "Finisterra" takes place on Sky, an artificially constructed gas giant with a breathable atmosphere that is home to the 'zaratanes'--living creatures the size of mountains that float on internal hydrogen sacs, and are host to vegetation, wildlife, and sometimes people. The protagonist is Bianca, an aeronautical engineer hired by zaratan poachers to find a way to lift the largest and oldest of these beasts--the title character--into space, where it can be sold to wealthy offworlders. The plot that follows is entirely by the numbers--Bianca is horrified by both the butchery of the zaratanes and the proposed death or displacement of Finisterra's inhabitants, but chooses to bury her head in the sand because she has problems of her own and needs the money this job will bring her, until she sees one atrocity too many and can't look away any longer. Most of the blood in this story is flowing towards its worldbuilding (not just Sky--Bianca's life on Earth, bound by tradition and restricted by her gender and religion, is also lovingly detailed), and the result is so spectacular that the predictability of "Finisterra"'s actual events hardly registers--we just want more time to spend in its setting.

Daniel Abraham's "The Cambist and Lord Iron: A Fairy Tale of Economics" is very nearly "Finisterra"'s opposite. Like Moles's story, it is beautifully told and takes place in an imaginative setting (in this case, a quasi-parallel-universe fantasy world with elements of the Renaissance, the 19th century, and the present day all mixed together), but Abraham concentrates the bulk of his efforts on plot, and on turning a familiar story into a fresh and exciting one. The title's cambist (money changer) is Olaf Neddelsohn, a gray yet good-hearted man who crosses paths with Lord Iron, a bored and amoral aristocrat who tries to turn Olaf into his plaything, and forces the little man to use all his wits and courage to outsmart him. "The Cambist and Lord Iron" was one of my favorite stories from 2007 (along with Susanna Clarke's "Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower"). In my year-end short story post, I wrote:
Both of these stories are variants on the folk tale convention of a simple, unimportant person triumphing over a great and powerful ruler. They struck a chord with me because in both cases, the protagonist is slightly geeky person living a quiet, perhaps even dull, life, who triumphs over adversity not by rejecting either their geekiness or their dullness, but by embracing it--by using their brains and the knowledge they've accumulated. ... It's not just good that triumphs over evil in both stories, but ordinariness coming face to face with wonder and making a compromise with it--one that leaves both Mr. Simonelli and Olaf Neddelsohn altered, but still fundamentally geeky, quiet, and utterly admirable.
A new Ted Chiang story is a hotly anticipated event among genre readers, not least because they are so rare, and yet no matter how stratospheric the expectations from it, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" must have demolished every single one. It's a time travel story, a sub-category where the pieces that work tend to be cunning and elaborate, impossibly clever works that encourage multiple readings and a careful puzzling-out of their non-linear plots. Chiang, instead, has written an elegiac, mournful (though at the same time somehow hopeful) story about the inevitable consequence of time travel that most stories try to ignore or get around--predestination. His choice to tell the story in the style of a tale from One Thousand and One Nights at first seems like a distancing device, a way of signaling to the readers that this is just a fairy tale, but it soon becomes apparent that Chiang is using it to get around the sharp cleverness that tends to characterize time travel stories, and get in touch with the very real pain that drives his characters to travel into their pasts and try to change it. Their realization that they can't do so might, in another story, have been played for a tragedy, but Chiang undercuts it with the characters' own (religious-tinged) acceptance of their fate, and with the compassion that they learn to feel towards one another and themselves because of it. Though it presents itself as a simple, albeit SFnal, fairy tale, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is so much more, and like Chiang's best fiction it continues to resonate long after we've finished reading it.

There isn't a single author on the novelette shortlist whom I would be sorry to see win the Hugo, though I wouldn't like "Dark Integers" to take the prize. All of the other pieces have done enough to earn their spot on the shortlist and maybe even a win, but in the end "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" is in a league of its own. This isn't just the best novelette of the year, but one of the best pieces of genre short fiction in several years, and probably destined for classic status alongside Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (and John Crowley's "Great Work of Time," another contemplative time travel story which "Alchemist" strongly reminded me of). I have no doubt that Chiang, who has already gathered up a Nebula for "Alchemist," will triumph at the Hugos as well, and this win will be an even greater credit to him for being over such a strong and impressive field.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The 2008 Hugo Award: The Short Story Shortlist

If you make your way through the short fiction Hugo nominees for long enough (which is not very long at all--I've been doing it for maybe five years), you'll start to learn what to expect. The short story ballot will be a mixed bag. The novelettes, generally strong. At least one nominated story (usually a short) from either Mike Resnick or Michael A. Burstein, for our sins. Connie Willis, if she published that year. Ted Chiang, if he published that year, though this is, sadly, less likely. Not a lot of women, and usually the same names (Willis, of course, and Nancy Kress is also a frequent nominee). The overall quality fluctuates, of course--we've yet to see another dip to the depths of 2005, happily--but in broad strokes there are rarely any surprises. Though I have yet to read this year's nominated novellas, the one shortlist whose overall quality can go either way, the short story and novelette ballots have lived up, and down, to my expectations. This is not exactly a bad thing--we have other awards, after all, to stir up controversy and debate--but when I look back at the white-hot rage that fuels my review of the 2005 short story nominees (which was written some two months after I first read those stories), I have to admit that I'll probably never feel that kind of enthusiasm, positive or negative, for a Hugo shortlist again. C'est la vie.

Still, surprises are still possible, even if only on the micro level, and so I must report that Mike Resnick's nominated short, "Distant Replay," is, well, not good, because that would be a sign of the coming apocalypse, but surprisingly decent, for what it is. It's short, for one thing, and the prose, though hardly beautiful, is less awkward and sophomoric than the kind Resnick usually delivers. Most importantly, though this is yet another story about an old man pining for his dead wife and finding some fantastic way to be with her again (what is this now? Three, four iterations of the same premise on the Hugo and Nebula ballots alone?), Resnick's trademark sentimentality is kept to a respectable minimum. Narrated, as usual for Resnick, by the male protagonist, "Distant Replay" describes a chance meeting with a young woman who is the spitting image of his wife, who died several years earlier, an old woman. Further encounters reveal that this woman has the same name, same occupation, and same likes and dislikes as the narrator's wife, and to the surprise of absolutely no one the narrator ends the story by steering her towards the second coming of himself, thus perpetuating their love story. Apart from the fact that it's one of the better Mike Resnick stories I've ever read, the greatest compliment I can pay "Distant Replay" is that it manages to downplay the downright skeevy aspects of its premise--that two completely different women can have precisely the same personality, and exist solely to be matched up with two versions of the same man.

For all that, Resnick's is still the worst story on the ballot, especially when one considers how little substance there is to it. A man meets a woman in a restaurant, notes her resemblance to his wife, and fixes her up with a man similar to him. The end, and with no explanation for either doppelganger except for a misty-eyed romanticism. I'm by no means an unabashed fan of every other story on the short story ballot, but there isn't a single one of them that doesn't strive to do so much more than "Distant Replay" does--inventing new worlds and civilizations, coming up with neat and reasonably detailed SFnal premises, relating their events in a distinctive and imaginative voice or manner. I've said, again and again and again, that Mike Resnick is a bad writer, whose constant presence on awards shortlists is an embarrassment, but with "Distant Replay," for all that it is a not-too-horrible story, he seems to have reached a new low--being nominated for a story that is only barely a genre piece.

Stephen Baxter's "Last Contact" is not much more stylish than "Distant Replay" (like Resnick, Baxter is at best an indifferent prose stylist, though he's certainly better at writing plainly and transparently), but it is undeniably a work of science fiction. It describes a series of encounters between a middle-aged woman and her mother, who has retired, post-widowhood, to a cottage in the country, and is eager to discuss its renovation and her gardening plans with her daughter. The twist is that the daughter is a scientist who has just proven that the world is going to end very soon, and in between planting tips and serious discussions about where to put the gazebo, the two women matter-of-factly discuss their impending demise and the breakdown of civil order that precedes it. It's very clear what Baxter is trying to do here--tell a low-key story about an enormous and momentous event--but in the end he's simply trying too hard. A more subtle writer might have been able to achieve the effect that "Last Contact" is clearly aiming for--breaking our hearts with its descriptions of two ordinary women desperately clinging to their ordinary lives in the face of an unavoidable catastrophe--but in Baxter's hands the story comes to seem cynical and manipulative.

Michael Swanwick's "A Small Room in Koboldtown" (PDF) is an extract from his recent novel The Dragons of Babel, a fix-up of stories about the character Will Le Fay and his adventures in the industrialized fairyland first introduced in Swanwick's novel The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I reviewed another such extract, the novella "Lord Weary's Empire," in last year's Hugo write-ups, and was not at all impressed by it. "A Small Room in Koboldtown" is much better, especially when it comes to its prose--there are no instances of the gratingly bad high-falutin' dialogue that made reading "Weary" such a chore here. The story's setting is also a great deal more interesting than "Weary"'s. It takes place in the fairy city itself, where Will is employed by a 'haint'--a racial minority looked down upon by the city's other denizens. Will's employer is an up-and-coming politician, and when a haint is arrested for murder he assigns Will to prove--or fake, if necessary--his constituent's innocence. What follows is basically a Law & Order episode of the 'racial tensions in the big city' variety--you could replace every mention of 'haint' in the story with 'black' and you'd have what is pretty much a by-the-numbers naturalistic crime story. That Swanwick was clearly aiming for just this effect doesn't make the resulting story any less clompingly obvious, and the story is further undercut by the fact that locked room mysteries just aren't that mysterious in a world where magic exists and the writer can invent a magical creature to get around any physical restriction. Though it makes for a pleasant and quick read, "A Small Room in Koboldtown" doesn't do much that's worth noting.

Unlike the Resnick, Baxter, and Swanwick stories, Elizabeth Bear's "Tideline" takes its simple, well-worn premise--in this case, a boy and his alien (or rather, sentient war-machine) and, though it doesn't do much that's new with it, tells it so well and with so much heart that it comes to seem new. Told from the point of view of Chalcedony, a damaged robot hanging on to her last power reserves after the death of the rest of her platoon (and possibly the end of the world, as the story is set in a bleak and perhaps post-apocalyptic landscape), the beginning of "Tideline" finds her combing the beach for shells and flotsam and encountering Belvedere, a boy scavenging for food. The two develop an impromptu family, with Belvedere helping Chalcedony with her beach-combing, and Chalcedony protecting Belvedre, teaching him to survive, and imparting to him her memories of her lost platoon, through which we learn the purpose of her activities. This is an incredibly sweet, kind-hearted story, and a truly great example of how a slight SFnal buff can rejuvenate even the most familiar tropes.

Ken MacLeod's "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" has been showing up on best-of-year lists for months now, and boy does it ever deliver on all those promises. Written for the collection The New Space Opera, the story more than lives up to that title by featuring a far-future, post-singularity, post-scarcity, post-mortality human civilization underpinned by a massive shift away from one of our core paradigms. At least half the story is spent circling around this crucial difference between the story's society and our own, and the rest of it, naturally enough, describes what happens when someone decides to bridge that gap. It's all far too clever and far too much fun for me to spoil here (much like MacLeod's Clarke-nominated novel The Execution Channel, to which the story is, I believe, superior because in a shorter work there's less time for that cleverness to become hollow, as it does in the novel) but I will say that, alone among this year's Hugo nominees, MacLeod's story feels properly SFnal--not just set in the future and in space but actively concerned with trying to imagine how we might get from where we are to that future, and what might happen next. Add to that some fantastic storytelling, and an intriguing framing story, and you get an utterly delightful piece.

Unsurprisingly, I'd like "Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" to win the short story Hugo this year, though I would also be happy with a win for Elizabeth Bear. I suspect, given both the story's SFnal content and the praise that's already been heaped on it, that I'm going to get my wish, which allows me to close this year's shortlist review on a happy note in spite of the fact that most of the nominated stories are not very good. Which, I suppose, means that this year's short story ballot performed better than expected.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Further Thoughts on Black Man

I've written already about Richard Morgan's Black Man (Thirteen in the US), which on Wednesday was the highly deserving winner of this year's Arthur C. Clarke award, in my review of the Clarke shortlist for Strange Horizons. I left some of my thoughts on the book out of that review, partly because I wanted it to be roughly the same length as my write-ups of the other nominees, but mostly because Strange Horizons didn't feel like an appropriate venue for discussions that include massive spoilers. This piece, therefore, isn't precisely a review of Black Man, but more a continuation from and expansion of the one from Strange Horizons. This means that I'm not going to repeat the points I made in that review, and that in order for this post to make sense you should probably read the Strange Horizons piece first (and, as I am going to be revealing major twists and plot details left, right, and center, that you should have already read Black Man--which indeed you should do anyway).

To briefly recap, however, Black Man is Richard Morgan's fifth novel, following the Takeshi Kovacs series (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) and Market Forces, a standalone novel. It takes place in about a hundred years, in an America broken up into two nations along the red/blue state divide, and with forays to South America and Turkey. Carl Marsalis is a variant thirteen--a lab-made throwback to pre-agrarian, pre-civilization, humanity, an ultra-type-A male prone to violence and sociopathic behavior, and constitutionally incapable of cooperation or empathy (and, Morgan tells us, religious belief--presumably under the assumption that human morality, and our willingness to accept hierarchies, are rooted in our ability to believe in a judgmental deity, which is only one example of Morgan tossing off the kind of interesting and controversial observation which in another novel might be the meat of the entire endeavor and in Black Man is nothing but an aside). He and others of his kind were bred and raised to be super-soldiers by the world's industrialized nations, but years later those projects have been shut down and their products disavowed. Thirteens are now forcibly relocated to Mars or rounded up into camps, and it's Carl's UN-sanctioned job to track down escapees and make sure they do either one, or die trying to escape him. When a Martian thirteen returns to Earth and embarks on a killing spree, Carl is recruited by representatives of the Martain colonial initiative (COLIN), former cop Sevgi Ertekin and her partner Tom Norton, to track him down.

I started thinking about expanding on my Strange Horizons review when Niall Harrison returned his edited version of it to me with the observation that I had written so little about Sevgi. As he pointed out, so did most of the novel's reviews, and when I started thinking about why this was I realized that I had a lot more to say about the novel's treatment of gender. Sevgi is, as Niall wrote, an important character, in certain lights almost a secondary protagonist. Sizable portions of the novel are told from her point of view--it's about a hundred pages before she and Carl even meet, during which she is our point of access to the investigation of the escaped thirteen and his killing spree. There's also a lot of effort spent on exploring her history and developing her issues--as a former policewoman now working for a corporate and amoral organization, as a Muslim woman who often finds herself attacked from without by a hostile Christian- and male-dominated society, and from within by a religious establishment that disapproves, sometimes violently, of her life choices, and as the former lover of a thirteen, who was killed by a SWAT team sent to apprehend him once his genetic status was revealed.

More importantly, Sevgi is an enjoyable character. In her review of Black Man at Eve's Alexandria, Nic Clarke points out that Sevgi is introduced to us through her appearance--we find her scrambling to locate her 'profiler cups' (the bra of the future--to which I say kudos for the effort but I remain unconvinced) and regarding herself critically in the mirror, but from that point on it's all uphill. There are times when it seems that, when creating Sevgi, Morgan was checking items off the 'strong female character' checklist--she's smart, good at her job, tough, capable of and good at physical activities, including violence, and sexually assertive--but he infuses the end result with enough life and personality to make her appealing in her own right. And even if she weren't, surely characters of this ilk are not so common as to have become a cliché? Aside from Black Man, the only other Clarke nominee that makes the effort to portray women positively and non-stereotypically is Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army (once again, Daughters of the North in the US) an explicitly feminist work, and even in that case I had issues with the novel's attitude towards feminine strength. Ultimately, Sevgi is the kind of character who ought to be celebrated, and her execution is deft enough to make her more than a type.

And yet for all that, it was hard for me to think of Sevgi as a character on par with Carl, and when I tried to understand why this was I realized that it is precisely because she has so many important roles in the novel that it's hard to think of her as a person. Playing a role is what Sevgi exists to do. She's a point of view character early in the novel, providing the readers with access to events that Carl can't witness. Once she and Carl meet, she's a foil for him, challenging his assumptions about human society and allowing him to challenge her assumptions about thirteens. She's a window into early 22nd century American society, and a way of exposing the prejudice that still underlies it--as she tells Carl, she's experienced many varieties of prejudice that he hasn't, as a woman among men, as a Turk among Greeks, as a Muslim among Christians, and as the lover of a thirteen and the mother of his unborn child. When she becomes Carl's lover, she provides him with an emotional anchor, which is of course nothing but a way of setting both him and the readers up for a fall. Two thirds of the way into the novel, Carl comes face-to-face with the thirteen he's been chasing and is about to be killed by him when Sevgi steps in, saves his life, and pays with her own. For the rest of the novel, Carl is driven by the desire to avenge her death.

There are very few instances in Black Man in which Sevgi is allowed to simply exist, to be a person independent from either her many functions in the novel's plot or her relationship with Carl Marsalis. These usually occur when Carl is sidelined--when Sevgi discusses her fraught relationship with her religion, and her attempts to remake it into a feminist, humanist creed, with a Turkish official--or when she and Carl about something that isn't directly related to thirteens or the investigation. At one point, Sevgi launches into a rant about the division of America, complaining that the right-wing, chauvinistic, homophobic, fundamentalist heartlanders "got exactly what they wanted" when they seceded from the union. It's a subject on which Carl has little or no opinion, and as he just stands back and lets her talk Sevgi comes to life. Most importantly, Sevgi is blazingly herself in the period before her death. Though the bullet that hits her causes only minor damage in itself, it comes from a Haag gun, which infects its victims with an AIDS-like virus, to which Sevgi succumbs after weeks in hospital. For about 50 pages, Sevgi becomes the focus of the novel, as she struggles to come to terms with her impending death, and finally, overcome with pain, accepts it.

Even this final shifting of the novel's focus, however, is ultimately in service of Carl's characterization. As I wrote in my Strange Horizons review, Morgan is working very hard here to pervert one of the most common tropes of the testosterone-heavy action thriller, the death of the protagonist's loved one.
Usually, in these kinds of stories, the hero will do one of two things—kill the villain, thus satisfying the audience's bloodlust, or recognize that vengeance is futile, thus satisfying their sense of morality. Carl does both, and the marvel of Black Man is that by the time he executes his revenge we, the readers, feel the conviction that is so often stated, but so rarely believable, in these stories—that it's futile, that it will accomplish nothing and help no one—while simultaneously realizing, on that same visceral level, that Carl's nature compels him to take it anyway.
The realization that vengeance is futile is achieved primarily through the careful construction of the circumstances of Sevgi's death. The man who kills her, a thirteen called Onkebend, isn't targeting her, either as a person in her own right or as someone that Carl cares about (the point is made, later in the novel, that he doesn't realize how important she is to Carl). Sevgi simply gets in his way, and it's just dumb luck that he grazes her with a weapon that's lethal at every hit. As Carl later recreates the events of that night, Onkebend was shadowing him in the hopes of killing him and making it look like a suicide--hence the Haag gun, the only weapon even a thirteen might be afraid of. When Carl picks a fight in a bar, Onkebend sees a chance to orchestrate his death in another way, making it look like the result of a brawl, and leaves the Haag gun in his car, where it's the first weapon to hand when Sevgi interrupts him in his attack on Carl and pursues him.

It's a stupid and tragic coincidence, and I have no doubt that Morgan created the Haag gun precisely in order to bring about such a stupidly coincidental death, and in order for Sevgi's death to take as long as it does. Her protracted death puts the readers through the stages of grief, so that by the time she's gone we're sad, not angry. When, after Sevgi's death, Carl announces that he plans to take revenge on her killer, we, like the other characters who cared about her, don't see the point. We can see that revenge won't make Sevgi any less dead or the people who loved her any less heartbroken, and Onkebend isn't evil enough for us to want him dead for his own sake. Obviously the whole exercise would all fall apart if Sevgi weren't an appealing character, but what's impressive about this sequence isn't directly connected with her. In the final accounting Sevgi is more a plot device than a person.

There's a similar utilitarianism about the novel's other major female characters, both of whom are, like Carl, the products of genetic engineering. One, Detective Rovayo, one of the cops who contact Sevgi and Tom Norton when the thirteen's escape from Mars is first discovered, is half-Bonobo--submissive, subservient women created as sex slaves. She spends the night with Carl, and later reveals her genetic status to him and goes on to say
'You know what it feels like, Marsalis? Constantly testing your actions against some theory of how you think you might be supposed to behave. Wondering, every day at work, every time you make a compromise, every time you back up one of your male colleagues on reflex, wondering whether that's you or the gene code talking. ... Every time you fuck, the guy you chose to fuck with, even the way you fuck him, all the things you do, the things you want to do, the things you want done to you. You know what it's like to question all of that, all the time?'
Which is, of course, a major theme in Black Man. Carl constantly runs up against people--even people who know and sort of like him, like Sevgi and Tom Norton, who thoughtlessly reduce him to his genetic tendencies, and repeatedly assume that his emotional reactions are derived from thirteen qualities, not Carl Marslais qualities. That they may, at least some of the time, be right doesn't change the fact that they are expressing a social tendency, an unspoken assumption that underlies their society--that nature triumphs over nurture.

In a conversation with Sevgi's father while his daughter lies dying, the older Ertekin discusses this very issue with Carl, and proposes an unusual definition of communism: the belief "that you can make of a human anything you choose to. That humans can become what they choose. That environment is all. It's not a fashionable view any longer." Carl himself refuses to take a stand in this discussion (which may, in itself, be the result of a genetic predisposition against introspection, or of simple fatigue after a lifetime's struggle with the question of what he is), but it's one that the novel keeps bumping up against, both as an SFnal issue and as an offshoot of its exploration of prejudice. Black Man isn't Gattaca--even as she laments her situation Rovayo points out that she has an absolute right to secrecy about her genetic status, and that discrimination because of it is illegal--but unlike that film it refuses to comfort us with platitudes about the triumph of the human spirit over biological limitations, and Rovayo's primary function in the novel is to offer another slant on the nature vs. nurture debate.

The third and least important of the novel's female characters is Carmen Ren, who appears several times throughout the story to perform a mysterious function somehow connected with Carl's investigation, encounters him briefly--and makes a strong and confusing impression on him--and then shows up towards the end of the novel to drop the last piece of the plot puzzle in his lap. She'd be nothing but a plot device if it weren't for the revelation, in that final conversation with Carl, that she is also a variant thirteen. All of the thirteens encountered up to that point have been male, and the variant's core qualities are repeatedly linked, in the minds and words of most of the novel's characters, with masculinity. It's even stated that no one ever tried to make a female thirteen--Ren is the result of a top secret Chinese project. Apart from a few largely stereotypical observations about the difference between her and Carl, however ("Has it occurred to you that just maybe cramming gene-enhanced male violent tendency into a gene-enhanced male chassis is overloading the donkey a little?" "you're a male thirteen. I'm a little smarter than that. ... I don't have to be there and smell the blood."), Ren doesn't have much to add to the discussion of genetic tendency versus personality and upbringing, or for that matter the issue of gender, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that this is because Morgan couldn't come up with a persuasive idea of what a female thirteen would be like.

All of which leads me back to the conclusion I reached in my Strange Horizons review, that Black Man is ultimately a novel about masculinity, and that its female characters therefore serve to highlight that topic rather than exist as people in their own right. Which, in turn, leads me to conclude that Sevgi isn't nearly as important a secondary character as her partner, Tom Norton. Tom's role, for most of the novel, is to act as an observer--of Carl and his interactions with humanity, of Sevgi and her relationship with Carl, of his brother Jeff's troubled marriage, of COLIN's internal politics--but what he's actually doing is being educated in masculinity. Tom starts out the novel unformed--a nice guy, but with very little idea of who or what he is, content to toe the line, follow the rules, and believe what he's been told. Over the course of the novel, Tom is exposed to proof of his government's corruption, and to various facets of masculinity. The most obvious example is Carl, but Tom also spends long interludes in conversation with Jeff, with whom he has had a fraught relationship ever since Jeff confessed an affair with a Bonobo female, a lapse for which he refuses to apologize, claiming that it is simply the result of his male wiring (it certainly doesn't help that Tom is guiltily in love with Jeff's wife, and still haunted by their single encounter). It's Jeff who attempts to explain to Tom the rationale for creating the thirteens, in the wake of what he terms the 21st century's plague of 'virilicide,' the loss of traditional masculinity.
'America split up over a vision of what strength is. Male power versus female negotiation. Force versus knowledge, dominance versus tolerance, simple versus complex. Faith and Flag and patriotic Song stacked up against the New Math, which, let's face it, no one outside quantum specialists really undestands, Co-operation Theory and the New International Order. And until Project Lawman came along, every factor on the table is pointing towards a future so feminised it's just downright unAmerican.'
Most of the reviews I've seen of Black Man have highlighted this passage as one of its core statements, but only Nic Clarke recognizes it for the slanted, revisionist history that it is. How, she asks, can any clear-eyed examination of either history or of our present society (which the society in Black Man very closely resembles), dominated as both are by male hierarchy, male-oriented institutions, and the celebration of traditionally male qualities such as aggression and ambition, result in the characterization of either one as 'feminized'? It's an observation, she concludes, that says more about Jeff, and his infatuation with thirteens (who, he tells Tom, "gave us back our manhood") than it does about society.
It becomes increasingly apparent, though, that what Jeff is talking about is a disenfranchised (i.e. no longer automatically dominant) man's dream of the thirteen; that, like the florid-faced bigot moaning about "political correctness gone mad", what he really wants is an excuse to be a bastard, and he sees the opportunity in the genetic destiny of the thirteens. (Even though little idiots like Jeff would probably be the first to get squashed in such a world.)
Jeff's obsession with explaining the world to his brother (the conversation quoted from above is only one of several in which he tries to argue that human behavior is determined strictly by wiring, and that said wiring leads inevitably to games of dominance), much like his unapologetic admission of infidelity, stems from the bitterness of an entitled man who is still shocked that the world wasn't handed to him on a platter. He desperately wants to prove to Tom that he has the world worked out, that he understands its system--and the ways in which it is biased against him, the ordinary, unenhanced man not gifted with the thirteens' genetic advantages--even though he hasn't been able to make it work for him. He presents Tom with one possible version of masculinity--defeated, and using that defeat as an excuse for all sorts of immoral acts. Another is offered by Ortiz, Tom and Sevgi's COLIN superior and a prominent politician on the verge of becoming the UN secretary general. According to Jeff, Ortiz is an example of the kind of man who replaced and drove out the thirteen genetic variant when agrarian civilization started taking off--the charismatic leader, the kleptocrat, the man who can inspire others to risk their lives while he remains safely in the rear. (Another facet of masculinity is briefly, and only somewhat jokingly, alluded to when Tom, in a press conference, states that "Hypermale genetic tendency is, to put not too fine a point to it, autism.")

After Sevgi's death, Carl and Tom, who had previously been at each other's throats, team up. Though Tom is less interested in avenging Sevgi's death by tracking down Onkebend (he has undergone the same grieving process as the readers, and, being human, has come, like them, to see the futility of such revenge), he wants to find the people responsible for the killing spree and for placing Sevgi in Onkebend's path, who turn out, not surprisingly, to be Jeff and Ortiz. Tom takes the lead in dealing with both of them, with Carl acting almost as his muscle--though later on he helps Carl track down Onkebend, and takes a supporting role in Carl's quest for vengeance. In their last encounter, Carl muses that "Something had happened to Norton since he'd seen him last ... like a driven athlete with pain, he looked to be learning to enjoy the power he'd been handed. In the vacuum vortex created by the death of Ortiz and his brother, Tom Norton was the man of the hour, and he'd risen to it like a boxer to the bell, like the reluctant hero finally called to arms."

Tom, in other words, is no longer unformed. The novel's survivor--perhaps its sole survivor, as the ending is ambiguous about Carl's fate--he is the one who learns its lessons and applies them to his society, which he is now in a position to shape, the new face of masculinity. What kind of man Tom has been shaped into, however--a warrior like Carl, a user like his brother, a kleptocrat like Ortiz, or some combination of all three--is unclear. Which may very well be Black Man's final statement on manhood and its changing definition.