Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Epic Wrongness of the Day

Now that Comic-Con is over, the folks at io9 can get back to their regularly scheduled mix of quirky science stories, film and TV news, off the wall lists (best TV robots! is actually a rather unremarkable example), and opinion pieces. I'm fond enough of io9. I wouldn't like it to be the only source for genre news and commentary around, and it's certainly not my first stop when looking for same, but I do tend to read it most days. Which is how I ended up, at an ungodly hour this morning, being confronted by a television piece by the blog's editor Annalee Newitz, in which she muses that "There are a lot of cool ways this underrated show could return to TV as something darker, less campy, and more socially relevant, just like Battlestar Galactica did."

The show in question? Farscape. Which, Newitz goes on to opine, could be made into "a potential hit" by deepening the moral abmiguity of its characters (Rygel as a former genocidal despot, Zhaan as a ninja assassin, Chiana as a political activist with violent tendencies), remaking Scorpius into a smooth-talking politician, and sinking Crichton and Aeryn even further into tragedy ("Perhaps their son was killed by the Peacekeepers").

Let's do Newitz the courtesy of assuming she's not simply trying to rile up Farscape fans (though if she is: mission accomplished), and that she truly believes in what she's saying. Similarly, let's assume that when she talks about giving Farscape "a Battlestar-style reboot," Newitz is aware that from a technical standpoint--dialogue, character development, plotting and plot arcs, worldbuilding, just about everything, in fact, but the quality of the shows' respective space battles--Farscape pisses on Battlestar Galactica from a great height (the overall acting caliber on Battlstar Galactica is probably higher than Farscape's, but its actors are given so little that's worthwhile to do that the difference is hardly noticeable), and that the emulation she's hoping for is strictly in the realm of tone and theme. She's still dead wrong.

Newitz calls Farscape campy, and this is simply not true. Camp, the dictionary tells us, is "banality, artifice, mediocrity, or ostentation so extreme as to have perversely sophisticated appeal." Something is campy, in other words, when it is so knowingly and deliberately bad that that badness becomes enjoyable. Farscape could be silly and over the top, and occasionally it was plain bad, but it was never campy--winking at its viewers, urging them to mock it as it mocked itself. In fact, if Farscape had a crowning virtue, it was that it took its premise, setting, and characters utterly seriously. Which is not to say that the show was afraid to laugh at itself or just be funny, but its writers never stopped believing in the reality of their universe. When they told a story, no matter how outlandish its premise or how absurd the events within it, they told it with complete earnestness, and took the time to imagine how real people would react to these unreal circumstances, even if those people happened to be muppets. This gravitas is the reason that Farscape, and Farscape alone, could take a shlocky and embarrassing premise like the characters being exposed to a chemical that makes them horny, and make of it not only a great episode--one of my all-time favorites--but a genuinely thoughtful and resonant hour of television.

What Newitz wants, what she's calling a reduction in Farscape's campiness, is to change the show's tone to match the bleak naturalism of Battlestar Galactica. That's not what Farscape is. Farscape's tone, from day one, was operatic. It was an epic. An adventure. A grand love story. There's nothing inherently wrong with Battlestar Galactica's more sombre tone (though I liked the show a great deal better when both it and its characters still had a sense of humor), but Newitz's approach seems to be that it is, in fact, inherently superior. That television shows, and science fiction shows in particular, would be better if they steered clear of space opera and stuck to telling as grimly realistic a story as they can.

That's the kind of unimaginative attitude I've come to associate with mainstream reactions to Battlestar Galactica. Viewers who couldn't look past the makeup, prostheses, and funny names to see the wit and intelligence that made other science fiction shows worth watching flocked to it, convinced that it was the absence of these elements that made the show witty and intelligent, and its characters believable as human beings. Just this morning, Andrew Rilstone posted an essay about the Buffy episodes "The Body" and "Forever" (Andrew Rilstone! Writing about Buffy!), in which he points out how that series, as operatic as Farscape ever was, told a story about grief that cut him to the quick without surrendering that tone or its fantastic elements, because it believed in both its characters and its universe. It is profoundly disappointing to discover that a science fiction blogger like Newitz is incapable of seeing how Farscape, week after week, achieved that same marvel, but what other conclusion is there to be drawn when she calls Scorpius a "campy leatherboy zombie guy" and states that his ultimate goal is to take over the universe?

Newitz goes on to spin potential plotlines for the revamped Farscape, some of which I've mentioned above. What she's doing, essentially, is writing fanfic. There's plenty of fanfic out there that makes fundamental changes to the original work's tone, setting, and premise, to the personalities of its characters and their relationships with one another, and it's not uncommon for fanfic writers to feel that in doing so they are improving on the original (and in some cases they are quite right). It's entirely possible that this show--this bleak re-envisioning of Farscape in which a bereaved Crichton and Aeryn roam the universe in Moya, trying to stop Scorpius the politician's plan to implant the population of the whole galaxy with neural chips, while Zhaan performs political assassinations, Rygel waxes fondly about the death camps he built as Dominar, and Chiana spouts Marxist rhetoric--could be good. It just wouldn't be Farscape, nor do I see any reason why this show would automatically improve on the original. (As for being socially relevant, anyone who's been reading this blog for any amount of time will know just what I think about Galactica's so-called social relevance, but regardless, it takes a lot of nerve to suggest that Farscape, the series that gave us Aeryn Sun, a character still unparalleled in the annals of strong heroines--for all that Newitz calls her merely a "perfect pre-Sarah Connor Chronicles beautiful, hard-bitten hero"--needs lessons in social relevance.) Worst of all, what distinguishes Newitz from many fine fanfic writers is that I have no idea what kind of story she wants to tell. She's mixing a little bit of Farscape with a bit of Battlestar Galactica, but what, beyond her insistence on making the show 'dark' (as though the original Farscape were lighthearted, and as though darkness were a virtue in its own right), does she want this new show to be? What qualities does it have that are all its own, that justify its existence?

Newitz seems to have arrived at her thesis by noting certain superficial similarities between Farscape and the original Battlestar Galactica, and concluding from them that a Galactica-style reboot could only do Farscape good, but in so doing she's lost sight of both the qualities that made Farscape special and the flaws that afflict Galactica. We should be grateful, therefore, that her shiny new vision of Farscape will never get farther than a post on io9. As I've said in the past, I fully expect, as the years transform me from a young fan into a not-so-young and eventually an old one, to see the holy relics of my youthful fannishness manhandled by fandom's next generation. There may very well be a reboot of Farscape some day. Let's hope whoever is in charge of it has a better ear for the original show's strengths than Annalee Newitz, and more importantly, their own ideas about where they want to take it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Dark Knight

When Batman Begins was released and the entire internet was falling over itself, going on about the best superhero film ever and My God, the Realism, I found myself left out of the celebrations. I liked the film well enough, but I thought it was held back from greatness, or for that matter even very goodness, by the same flaws which, earlier this year, marred my enjoyment of Iron Man. The dialogue was atrocious, the villains forgettable, and the plot trapped in the well-worn grooves of the superhero origin story, and thus completely predictable. It was only at its very end that Batman Begins--again setting an example that Iron Man would later follow--made me sit up and take notice, in a scene in which Gordon uses the Bat Signal for the first time and makes a tentative alliance with Batman. Even as he chooses to tolerate Batman's presence in the city, Gordon notes that that presence is an escalation in the terms of the battle between law and lawlessness, and that its consequences will be that the other side will match it--producing the Joker's calling card as an example.

This scene was a rare example of a superhero film actually delivering what most of them claim to be trying to envision--realism, an actual exploration of what it means to be a superhero in the real world, and of what it is like to live in a world that is much like ours but also has superheroes in it. Most superhero films take these two elements--the superhero and his accouterments, the real world and its troubles--and treat them as two discrete layers. So that we get a Tony Stark who is shocked, shocked to discover that the vicious weapons he makes have ended up in the hands of America's enemies and yet also lives in the same world as the rest of us, in which America has for years been arming groups in one decade only to fight them in the next. When the tropes of any particular superhero show up in these films, they often feel like fanservice, or like the filmmakers unthinkingly ticking items off a list--Superman has to moonlight as a bumbling, four-eyed journalist; J. Jonah Jameson has to have ridiculous hair and a hate-on for Spiderman. What struck me about that final scene in Batman Begins is that it imagined the Joker growing organically out of the universe it had created, striving not for realism but for internal consistency, commingling Batman's familiar elements and the ones familiar from our lives into something new and all its own.

And now comes The Dark Knight, which the entire internet has already fallen over itself to crown the best film ever, period, and I have to admit that I'm impressed. The dialogue is still atrocious, though only at points (especially towards the end of the film), and these are counterbalanced by a few truly delicious lines (Alfred's dry 'You have no idea!' to Harvey Dent, and Lucius Fox's bemused response to attempted blackmail by a lawyer who figures out Batman's secret identity). The villains are anything but boring, and the plot is certainly not predictable--in fact, I could have done with a little more predictability, or perhaps simply a little less plot, as around the two hour mark it starts to feel as if things are happening on the screen simply for the sake of throwing even the kitchen sink at the audience.

Best of all, this is a film that manages to imagine the rise of two major Batman villains as believable responses to the events of the first film, to Batman himself, and to the bleak and corrosive environment in which they all move. The Joker, as the first film promised, arises as a response to the challenge issued by Batman, a madman to fight another madman (which is why I'm perplexed by the constant references to The Dark Knight being a crime drama, when surely the point of the film is that ordinary criminals, the kind Batman was created to destroy, are being replaced by beings of the Joker's ilk--as the film quite rightly calls them, terrorists). Two-Face is the result of the curdled idealism of a man who believes wholeheartedly in his ability to shape and control the world until a more powerful force shows him just how powerless he is. Both are successful not simply because they're believable portraits of their own particular brand of madness (as opposed to the campier Nicholson and Jones versions of previous Batman films) but because they make sense within their environment, because the film works so hard to show us Harvey Dent and the things he wants and cares about before it destroys him, and because it delves so deeply and devastatingly into the Joker's madness, never backing down from its vision of him as a man who wants nothing more or less than complete anarchy.

(One wonders which of the remaining Batman villains can withstand this kind of treatment. The only one I can think of is Catwoman, though if you thought Nicholson's Joker was a hard act to follow... That said, this is a series that could desperately use the infusion of powerful female characters. The tally for The Dark Knight comes to Barbara Gordon, who spends her screen-time weeping--for, admittedly, a succession of very good reasons--Detective Ramirez, who sells out to the mob but only for the heart-tugging reason that her mother is sick, and Rachel, who is blown up--the mind, incidentally, boggles at the kind of person who would let a character live when she's being played by Katie Holmes, then kill her off when she's played by Maggie Gyllenhaal.)

So, yes, The Dark Knight is an excellent film for supervillains, but what about its superhero? As my brother pointed out when we were leaving the movie theatre, Batman himself is almost absent from the film. The Dark Knight is the story of Jim Gordon and his attempts to clean up his city, the story of Harvey Dent and his tragic downfall, the story of the Joker and his war against anything decent or good. Batman observes them all, reacts to some of them and acts in service of others--the first half of the film has him dedicating his tactical and operational genius to the cause of Gordon and Dent's strategy; the second half, to securing their safety. Against the other characters' complicated negotiations between what is right and what is expedient, Batman's moral dilemma boils down to the same old same old--should he continue to be Batman? And is being Batman doing more harm than good? Given that no matter what the answer to the second question is, the first one will always be answered with a resounding yes, there's really not to watch for in the film's main character--I was most interested by the film's conception of him as playing not a double but a triple role, wearing, as the occasion merits, either the Batman's mask or that of a shallow and selfish billionaire playboy, but this is a minor note and hardly something to hang a film on.

It is possible, I suppose, to read The Dark Knight as describing the next chapter in Bruce Wayne's evolving commitment to life as the caped crusader. He spends the film, after all, thinking that an unmasked man is going to take his place, allowing him to hang up his cape, and ends it with the realization that this can't happen, and that rather than acting as another man's instrument he needs to take up the mantle of heroism in his own right. To my mind, however, this reading is undercut--firstly, as I've said, by Batman's reduced presence in the film, but more importantly by its ending, in which Batman agrees to become the scapegoat for Harvey Dent's crimes so that 'the people' won't be disheartened by Dent's fall from grace, and will still be able to embrace him as a symbol for everything that is good and pure in the world. Which is really just another way of saying that people need a handsome, white man to lead and inspire them, even if his perfection and goodness are a lie. This LJ post does a good job of articulating just why this is a pernicious and distasteful attitude (it also applies the same judgement to Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, though in that case I think the author misreads Whedon's intentions):
what kind of person still seriously believes that Saving Us is some kind of legitimate job, and we just have to pick the guy who’s best at it? ... at best, it’s a hyperconservative worldview that seeks a return to some kind of imaginary top-down utopia, be it the family patriarch, the philosopher-king, or Caesar single-handedly defending the gates of Rome. To buy into the Dark vs. White Knight, you have to be the kind of person who can swallow the whole concept of “the hero Gotham needs and/or deserves,” in order to get to the paramount importance of preserving Gotham’s faith in that hero *even if said faith is built entirely on misinformation and lies.*
It's a particularly strange attitude for the film to take given that it comes right on the heels of what is, to my mind, the best and most moving sequence in the film, the two passenger ferries enacting the prisoner's dilemma. In it we see ordinary, petty, terrified people, some of whom are hardened criminals, who are faced with an impossible choice and rise to the occasion, showing true greatness of spirit even without a shining white knight to inspire them. The idea that these people now need Jim Gordon to promalgate the lie of Harvey Dent's perfection in order to achieve heroism--which is what Batman comes to believe, and which not only motivates his choice to assume the responsibility for Harvey's crimes but also helps to determine the kind of hero he choses to be--is downright offensive.

(It is also somewhat amusing to observe this scene and note its similarity to the climaxes of the first two Spiderman films, a series which, with its bright color palette, penchant for horrible puns, and overall silliness, stands for just about everything the new Batman franchise is trying not to be. This is not even to mention that the ending of The Dark Knight, in which Batman chooses to preserve the reputation of a flawed man in order to spare those who loved him, and ends up earning their enmity with that act, is merely a larger scale recreation of the ending of the first Spiderman film, and that given The Dark Knight's obsession with forcing its characters to make impossible, life and death choices, its theme might as well have been the Spiderman films' ubiquitous 'with great power comes great responsibility.')

I've levelled a lot of criticism here at a film that, at the beginning of this piece, I claimed to have been very impressed by. As a piece of cinema, I found The Dark Knight deeply enjoyable, but I'm not sure that it has achieved that gold standard of being a dramatically and thematically satisfying look at the idea of superheroism (otherwise known as the Incredibles standard). Though I find the article I quoted from above somewhat overstated (mainly because it doesn't seem to acknowledge the grain of fascism that lies at the heart of any superhero story), it is correct to argue that there are unexamined assumptions at the heart of The Dark Knight that a smarter, more savvy film ought to have taken a long, hard look at. It's one thing to argue, as Batman Begins did, that Gotham is awash with crime and depravity and only desperate measures will serve to clean it up. The Dark Knight, however, goes on to argue that Gotham's need for a hero is spiritual rather than practical, and then fails to ask itself whether this is really true, and what that need means, preferring instead to fixate on just what kind of hero--white or dark--the city needs or can get. That's a disappointing failure, and one that I'm not entirely certain the filmmakers are aware of. There is, however, enough intelligence in evidence in the film's other parts to give me hope that this question might be addressed in the series's next installment.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Two things you will have no doubt heard by now about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: that it is crazy good, and that it takes geek chic to the next level by not only making its title character a card-carrying, Klingon-speaking, D&D-playing, Tolkien-loving, hardcore nerd but by narrating his tale in a voice savvy to the ins and outs of geekery. These things are both true. Díaz's first novel is one of the finest I've read this year, well deserving of all the awards and critical praise heaped upon it. An irresistible, compulsive read that goes down as smoothly as a drink of water, and almost as fast, so untenable is the notion of putting the book down. And the novel is indeed told in a voice that shifts effortlessly from Spanish-tinged patois to references to the stalwarts of geek culture--The Dark Knight Returns, The Matrix, The Stand. This is a novel in which a handsome, fair-skinned Dominican is described as 'melnibonean.' In which the terror of living under the thumb of a megalomaniacal dictator is expressed through a comparison to the Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life." And in which real-world politics are interlaced with Lord of the Rings references.
At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron's evil was taken away by "a great wind" and neatly "blown away," with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after his death his evil lingered. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok--fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengeance. A great darkness descended on the Island and for the third time since the rise of Fidel people were being rounded up by Trujillo's son, Ramfis, and a good plenty were sacrificed in the most depraved fashion imaginable, an orgy of terror funeral goods for the father from the son.
The title character is Oscar de León, the child of Dominican immigrants who is born and comes of age in a forgettable New Jersey suburb during the late seventies and early nineties, where almost from birth he is drawn to the geeky and SFnal--Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who, Akira, and of course Tolkien. And though the intensity of his interest is unparalleled, it is shared by other characters--his fierce and independent sister Lola, and the novel's narrator Yunior, Lola's on-and-off college boyfriend and an aspiring writer, who is probably acting as Díaz's alter-ego.

Díaz, in other words, is telling the literary fiction equivalent of Minister Faust's The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad--a story about nerds of color. But whereas Faust's novel presented the best possible version of such characters--conscientious, clear-eyed young people with a deep connection to their cultural heritage and an even deeper commitment to their community--Díaz hews closer to reality. Lola and Yunior are relatively normal--both struggling with their immigrant roots, with an upbringing that pits their parent culture against the one that surrounds them, and with difficult family histories, all of which leaves them with very little time to be superheroes-slash-community-activists (though Lola comes close). And Oscar--Oscar is a mess, every single stereotype about the genre geek rolled into one fat, pimply, socially inept package. This kid can barely make it through the day without being verbally or physically abused--he's not saving the world any time soon.

Though much of a the novel takes place in the recent past and in the US, the heart and subject matter of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao are the Dominican Republic during the early and mid-twentieth century, a period during which the former Spanish colony suffered through the standard South American cocktail of indignities and upheavals, dictators and police states, atrocities and revolutions (Díaz helpfully provides several informative primers on the country's history and its prime movers and shakers, wryly dedicating them to readers who "missed your mandatory two seconds of Dominican history"). After introducing us to his main character in his modern, familiar setting, Díaz travels back in time to tell the story of his mother and grandparents, and the calamities that played a part in his creation. Díaz is such a prodigiously gifted raconteur that it is easy to simply be carried along by these stories, by his careful unfolding of Oscar's family history, and through it the bloody history of Santo Domingo. It's only once the last page is turned and the spell of his narrative voice is broken that we look up, shake off the last of Díaz's fairy dust, and wonder just what, beyond all those spectacular literary gymnastics, the novel amounts to. What does a portly New Jersey nerd have to do with a wealthy Dominican landowner, even if they are grandson and grandfather?

It certainly doesn't help that unlike his courtly and intellectually curious grandfather (and, to a lesser extent, his strong-willed though shallow mother), Oscar, though eminently pitiable, is an extremely unappealing character. We're trained, as genre geeks and as consumers of popular culture, to side with the underdog, with the picked-on and unpopular kid. We've read too many books and seen too many films in which that kid turns out to be the hero, the diamond in the rough whose qualities and skills are unappreciated, but who blossoms into someone quite special, not to expect that same transformation here--a transformation which Oscar, himself a voracious consumer of such stories, clearly hopes for. But, though influenced by genre, The Brief Wondrous Life is not a genre novel, and the transformation Díaz is concerned with is one of perception, in which the lesson of these books and movies curdles into something awful--from 'just because you're unpopular in high school doesn't mean you're not a great person' to 'if you're unpopular in high school, you must be a great person' to 'anyone who is popular in high school must be a horrible, evil person.' No one deserves the cruelty and abuse that Oscar endures throughout his adolescence and early adulthood, but neither does he do anything to deserve kindness, friendship, or love, and he never learns the lesson that these things have to be earned, that having suffered doesn't entitle him to have them. "He was turning into the worst kind of human on the planet," Yunior says, "an old bitter dork."

I'm sure most of us have known at least one example of a person similarly twisted by their frustrated sense of entitlement, so it can't be said that Díaz's portrait is a cliché or a stereotype (certainly not when it's as painstakingly, and painfully, drawn as Oscar's is), but at the same time it's hard not to wonder why he went to so much trouble. Yes, such people exist in geek circles, but does he have to air our dirty laundry in public, among people who all too often assume that this kind of half-formed humanity is all that geekdom amounts to? And what does any of this have to do with the sad history of the Dominican Republic? These are the questions I asked myself upon finishing The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and then I realized that the answers were one and the same. Oscar exemplifies the sad truth that people who have suffered are rarely made better, or more likely to recognize and try to prevent the suffering of others, through their pain, and that having suffered makes one no less likely to inflict suffering. And this, in a nutshell, is Díaz's history of the Dominican Republic, a nation that goes from colonial rule to tyranny to a police state that "out-Stasi'd the Stasi," in which neighbors inform on one another for material gain or to avenge petty slights, to the corrupt modern era in which brutality is the order of the day. And, continuing unabated through all these upheavals, a deep-seated racism that runs the gamut from the valorization of light skin to anti-Haitian genocides, and a misogyny that permeates every aspect of Dominican life.

If, that is, misogyny is even the right word. To hate women, after all, one must first acknowledge their personhood, if not their right to express it. In Díaz's Dominican Republic, and in the immigrant neighborhoods in which Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up, women are things, objects of desire, whose worth is measured solely by their attractiveness to men. And they all buy into it. The internalized racism on display in the novel is scary (Oscar's dark-skinned mother is self-conscious of her skin color, and as a girl will only date light-skinned boys), but not nearly as terrifying as the internalized misogyny that every single female character--even the indefatigable Lola--drinks down with her mother's milk. Oscar, fat and unattractive, at least survives his childhood, but when a neighborhood girl is similarly afflicted, she goes crazy with self-hatred. Nearly every female character in the novel has a boyfriend who slaps her around, and to whom she goes back again and again. Not a single one of them seems to consider that she doesn't need a man in her life. The seeds of Oscar's family's downfall are sown when the dictator Trujillo hears of the beauty of their eldest daughter, whom Oscar's grandfather refuses to make available to him. And, of course, there's the defining characteristic of the Dominican male--his promiscuity. "It's against the laws of nature for a dominicano to die without fucking at least once," Yunior tells Oscar.

But then, the great tragedy of Oscar's life is that he seems set to defy those laws, and in his quest to find that elusive holy grail he develops the characteristics of that most odious specimen, the Nice Guy. The man who believes that kindness and friendship should be offered only in expectation of sexual favors, who enters into one friendly relationship with a woman after another expecting just this kind of quid pro quo and becomes enraged when it doesn't materialize (there's a similar dynamic at play in Joss Whedon's recent online musical, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's easier to ignore because Neil Patrick Harris is so winning as the geek in question, but there's no denying that he imposes his own idea of what she's like on the woman of his dreams, and is moved to murderous rage when she falls for someone else). Oscar falls hard and fast, for women he hardly knows, whose only appeal is that they're willing to sit still long enough to become his friends, but who clearly want nothing more than friendship from him. Though he's far from the prototypical Nice Guy (he's more likely, after getting the 'I just want to be friends' talk, to slink off in despair than rant and rave), there's never a sense that Oscar sees these women as anything more than a means to an end. And this, Díaz strongly implies, is what he's been taught from childhood--that to be a worthy man he must have as many hot girlfriends as possible, preferably at the same time. It's certainly the mentality that other Dominican males embrace, including Yunior, who despite being deeply in love with Lola can't seem to keep it in his pants.

So pervasive is the objectification of women in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and so matter of factly does the narrative--by which I mean Yunior--treat it that at first one might almost assume that neither he nor Díaz are aware of it, that the emotional pummeling that the book delivers to female readers (and, one hopes, male readers as well) is unintentional. The more I think about the novel, however, the more obvious it seems that nothing could be further from the truth, that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is Díaz's screed towards his native culture, an mirror held up to reflect its ugliest and most vile aspects. You thought Díaz was airing geekdom's dirty laundry in public? Try being a Dominican and reading this novel. "Ten million Trujillos is all we are," Lola bitterly says towards the end of the novel, but by the same token she might say of Dominicans that they are a nation of Oscars, too caught up in their own pain to ever think of others.

Though he obviously references the role that colonialism, and later on US interventionism, played in bringing Dominican society to where it is today, Díaz isn't particularly interested in white people or white American culture. Oscar, Lola and Yunior grow up in an immigrant enclave, dominated by the culture and norms their parents left behind. There are no white characters in the novel, and when white people are mentioned it's usually as an undifferentiated lump--they are "the chief tormentors" of anyone non-white in Oscar's high school, in college they treat him with "inhuman cheeriness," but mostly they're in the background, unimportant and unacknowledged. On the one occasion where Díaz takes a serious look at white people's role in so much of the suffering that Dominicans have endured, however, it feels like a knife to the heart:
He read The Lord of the Rings for what I'm estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and greatest comforts since he'd first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here, try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line "and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls" and he had to stop, his head and heart hurting too much.
As I've said already, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao isn't a genre novel, not even by association or attitude in the way that William Gibson's latest entries have been. It is, however, steeped in genre, and clearly written by a man who loves these artifacts, these books, movies, and TV shows. Which is why he gets to say such things, and to paint as painful and unflattering a portrait of the genre geek as Oscar's is. He's part of the family, and is therefore allowed to criticize it. For the same reason, Díaz gets away with his ugly portrayal of Dominican society, with saying things about it that an outsider simply can't. It's not just that Yunior loves his parent culture even as he excoriates it. What he feels for it runs deeper than love. Dominican is what Yunior, and Oscar and Lola and their parents and grandparents, are, a part of themselves that they can never leave behind or overcome. What's left for all of them--and, I believe, for Díaz--is to hope for better, for some healing of the wounds that have gone on to cause so much suffering.

At the beginning of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, we're introduced to the twin concepts of fukú and zafa--the curse and its redress, the evil eye and the force for good that frustrates it. A powerful fukú, Yunior tells us, has been laid on Oscar's family, but as he unfolds the tale of that family's misfortunes we realize that the fukú lies on all Dominican society, that it is the cruelty, racism, misogyny, and most of all the inability to give without expecting anything in return that he has been describing for 300 pages. Towards the end of the novel, Yunior comes to believe that Oscar may have discovered the zafa that will heal this wound. When Oscar finally, finally loses his virginity, what sweeps him off his feet isn't the act himself but "the little intimacies that he'd never in his whole life anticipated, like combing her hair or getting her underwear off a line or watching her walk naked to the bathroom or the way she would suddenly sit on his lap and put her face into his neck. ... He wrote: so this is what everybody's always talking about!" But of course no one ever talks about it. Not a single male character--not even Yunior, who knows that through doing so he might save his relationship with Lola--ever talks about intimacy, ever rates it above the physical aspect of sex. That Oscar, of all people, can find the path to this deeper well of feeling gives Yunior hope that he, and others like him, can too. So, in his own way, Oscar may very well have saved the world.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Wall-E

Well, it's a shame about the rampant fat-phobia, but other than that Pixar's latest offering is an utter delight, and one which reaffirms my conviction that this is a company whose name ought to be synonymous not with dazzling computer animation but with the increasingly rare art of good storytelling. Someone should send a gift package of Pixar films, and most particularly Wall-E and The Incrdibles, to Russell T. Davies, as a demonstration that it is possible to tell a planet- or galaxy-spanning SFnal action-adventure story--for kids--which is chock-full of moving and meaningful character moments and also smartly and satisfyingly plotted and paced. For that matter, the rest of Hollywood should be in on that memo as well, as I can't think of a single recent blockbuster that demonstrates even a fraction of Pixar's commitment to story. Wall-E tells a very simple story--not for Pixar the for-its-own-sake convolutedness of the later Pirates of the Caribbean films--but as is always the case with Pixar films, does not confuse simplicity with stupidity, or with the stupidity of its audience. There isn't a minute of Wall-E that doesn't move its plot along, and though the film is never afraid to slow down in order to allow the characters to get to know one another or show off their idiosyncracies, neither does it use these character moments as an excuse for lazy plotting--there is none of the predictability of Iron Man to be found here, for example, for all that the film's plot has been seen many times before.

Of course, a great deal of Wall-E's expert blend of plotting, pacing, and character exploration can be laid at the feet its parent genre. If you've seen any of the million and one trailers for the film, you'll know that it tells the story of the robot from Short Circuit, who falls in love with an iPod (as, really, who wouldn't?). What isn't as clear from the trailers, but which becomes blazingly obvious from almost the moment these two meet, is that, SFnal, animated, and set centuries in the future, Wall-E is nevertheless a remake of old-fashioned Hollywood musicals. The one referenced repeatedly in the film, both in music and image, is Hello, Dolly!, but really the plot is almost universal to the form. Small town boy meets big town girl. She's got smarts, sophistication, and power, and all he's got is a heart the size of a planet and the determination to match. At first she ignores him. Then she's charmed, and a little intrigued, though still aloof. Then she's annoyed by his uncouthness and relentless pursuit. And finally she sees just what devotion and courage are being laid at her feet, and is won over. (And yes, this is plot that could turn creepy as easily as romantic. It all depends on how it's told, and Wall-E is told expertly enough that one never feels out of step with the writers' intentions.)

All of this, of course, is expressed through the charcters' garbled speech synthesizers, sounding somewhat like less homicidal Daleks, and through the few moving parts they possess. For Wall-E, these are mainly the servos on his eye-pieces (though there's also a lot of physical comedy to be wrung out of his tendency to fold himself into a tiny, shivering box whenever something happens to frighten him), whereas the slick, egg-shaped Eve has only her animated baby-blue eye-analogues with which to express emotion. And yet somehow--call it the Gromit effect--emotion pours off these two. At one point Wall-E loses his personality and become just another mindless, garbage-compacting drone, then gains it back, and for the life of me I can't figure out how this was accomplished, but somehow the Pixar animators manage to show life and personality returning to a face that isn't a face at all, which is made up of plastic and metal surfaces with only a handful of moving parts. It shouldn't come as this much of a shock, since these are, after all, the people who managed to imbue a lamp with personality, but it's still a little mind-boggling when your heart melts.

And your heart will, absolutely, melt. If you don't walk out of Wall-E with a spring in your step, a big smile on your face, and a flutter in your chest, then you've been dead for at least a couple of hours, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one to walk into the movie theatre half-expecting an overdose of cuteness. The trailers for the film, after all, were characterized by their increasing (and increasingly successful) attempts to get their viewers to go awwwwwww, and it was hard not to wonder whether this appeal to the squeeing center of our brains was all the film amounted to, and whether, at feature length, it wouldn't prove overwhelming and ultimately tedious. Well, there is no denying that Wall-E is cute and quite deliberately capitalizing on that cuteness, but the film also proves to be the animated, child-oriented equivalent of Pushing Daisies--though you keep thinking that now, finally, the writers are going to lose the thread, fall so completely in love with their own accomplishment on one level that they'll lose themselves in it, Wall-E remains, throughout its entire running time, smart, well-plotted, and well-characterized, with cuteness a powerful and frequently used tool for getting under the audience's skin, but never an end in its own right.

For all that I do believe that Pixar's films are driven by strong stories rather than strong animation, there is no denying that Wall-E is a computer animated film from a company that is at the forefront of this technology, and certainly there are some breathtaking and, from a technical standpoint, impressive accomplishments on that front. This is a film whose latter half takes place in deep space, and the Pixar animators have a lot of fun painting solar flares, planetary rings, and nebulae. And, as is standard for their products, the film is lovingly and obsessively detailed, so that the audience is sometimes bombarded with so much information that it's hard to take in (though never when it comes to important plot points). Much like The Incredibles, however, the visual genius of Wall-E lies not in artistry but in design. I don't know if any of the animators, artists, or concept designers working on the film ever had jobs designing real-world user interfaces or data presentation systems (given Pixar's connections with Apple, this might very well be the case), but having seen the film I want someone to hire these guys to remake just about every such system on the planet. Imagine a combination of Edna Mode's fully automated house from The Incredibles and the stylized yet instantly comprehensible animations through which Bob Parr receives his instructions from Syndrome in that film, and you'll get something that approaches the elegant complexity of the Axiom, the spaceship upon which the latter half of Wall-E takes place.

The Axiom is run and maintained by robots, humans having been reduced to mindless and almost shapless blobs lounging about on hover-chairs, IMing and drinking down their lunches to their hearts' content (hence the fat-phobia I mentioned at the beginning of this review). When Wall-E and Eve arrive on the ship, they are folded into its complex dance of routine and protocol, everyone moving along predetermined lines. Quite literally, in fact--the Axiom's floors light up, describing paths along which every device and person on the ship navigates. Everything in the Axiom is in constant motion, robots and humans whizzing back and forth at breakneck speed, maneuvering infallibly along these paths, which redraw themselves instantaneously in response to obstructions or unforseen circumstances, which is what Wall-E is. This, of course, is a perfect metaphor through which to express the film's message, with Wall-E's innocent and well-intentioned ignorance of the system acting as a spur for humans and robots alike to look around, step off their predetermined course, and discover their nascent individuality, but to a science fiction fan (and someone who works in computers) it's just as much fun to observe the complexity and intelligence of the autonomous system the Pixar artists have envisioned. (There is, however, in the midst of the film's techno-, and more specifically Apple-, philia, an undertone of disdain for the cult of the new and shiny. Wall-E--beat up, obsolete, and decidedly unpretty--has survived because he self-repairs, scrounging spare parts and prioritizing functionality and practicality over form, an attitude which the flawless Eve finds utterly bewildering but which ultimately saves the day. There's as much love of bare-knucled engineering in this film as there is for industrial design.)

If there is a single serious complaint to be levelled at Wall-E (apart from the fat thing), it is, as others have noted, that this is a perhaps inappropriately cheerful and uplifting movie for one whose premise is that Earth has become overrun with garbage due to our wasteful, consumerist lifestyle. While watching Wall-E, I was reminded of an observation voiced in the Iron Man fanfic I linked to yesterdy, that America, and probably all of the developed world, is enamored with hardware, and with the idea that any problem caused by technology can be solved with even better technology. For all that Wall-E breaks with so much of the stupidity coming out of Hollywood these days, in this respect it, like Pixar's other films, is utterly conservative, and perhaps even more so than Iron Man--this is a story, after all, about humanity being saved by machines, albeit machines with personalities who can fall in love. At least Iron Man restricted himself to fighting terrorism--even he didn't think he could do anything about global warming. It is, however, unfair to demand so much out of what is, ultimately, a product of the Hollywood machine. Wall-E is a good story, impeccably told and beautifully put together. This is no minor accomplishment.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Two Links

  1. Further to my last: Niall Harrison reviews Night Shade Books's The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 2, and coincidentally ponders the fluid definition of fantasy as expressed by that anthology's editor, Jonathan Strahan.

  2. Further to my comments on Iron Man being, fundamentally, just another dumb superhero film: The Kids Aren't All Right by Christine Everhart, a phony Vanity Fair profile of Tony Stark which imagines events in his life and on the global arena in the year following the end of the film.  I suspect that this story is going to be to fanfic what the Supernatural fanvid "Women's Work" was to that form last year: a work that appeals even to those not generally interested in fan art, and which mercilessly skewers the unthinking and simplistic assumptions at the heart of the original work.  If any superhero film ever came close to dissecting its character and premise as finely as this piece does, I might not dismiss them as easily as I do.

Rhetorics of Best American Fantasy

Last winter I wrote about the Stephen King-edited volume of Best American Short Stories, and more generally about the discussion that that anthology, and King's introduction to it, kick-started about the future and viability of the short form, a discussion which was enhanced within genre circles by Jeff VanderMeer's thoughts on editing, with wife Ann, the first volume of a new series from Prime, Best American Fantasy (the second volume of which is forthcoming; table of contents here). After my post went up, Jeff e-mailed me and kindly offered to send me a copy of Best American Fantasy, mischievously noting that some in-genre reviewers had found it a hard slog (for a mixed but overall positive review, see Gwyneth Jones at Strange Horizons).

The first volume in a projected series of anthologies, and especially a best-of-year series, of which there is a glut, is essentially a statement of intent. The VanderMeers, and series editor Matthew Cheney, seem almost to be girding themselves for battle in their introductions to the anthology. Does fantasy, Cheney writes, mean
Swords and dragons? Dreams and portents? Nonsense? Does fantasy have to include magic, or can it simply hint at strangeness? Is it a genre or a lens? Is it subject or object? Can it live within the structure of a story, or must it emanate from the content? Where does fiction end and fantasy begin?
The VanderMeers are even more forceful in their introduction, seemingly warning off the wrong sort of reader:
What you will not find is a set definition of "fantasy." If you enter into reading this volume eager for such a definition or searching for the fantastical event that you believe should trigger the use of the term, you will overlook the many other pleasures that await you. These are the same pleasures you can find in non-fantastical stories: deep characterization, thematic resonance, clever plots, unique situations, pitch-perfect dialogue, enervating humor, and luminous settings. The extraordinary depth of imagination in the best stories affects not merely their content but their form, the form shaping the content, until we realize the two are not separate, that they are, in the best writing, united by the same imaginative act.
The definitional argument, which crops up so often with regards to SF that anyone who's been in fandom for longer than a few years has come to dread it, is less common when it comes to fantasy. And when it does crop up, it seems to still be in its infancy, still asking the question 'is X fantasy?', rather than the more advances stages at which its SFnal equivalent currently hovers. (What are the characteristics of SF? What are its goals?) See, for example, Niall Harrison at Torque Control just yesterday, kick-starting an argument over whether having a dead narrator means that a work of fiction is a fantasy. (To which I say no, or at least, as Niall himself concedes, that it may be possible to say that a dead narrator makes a work fantastic but that this is probably not be the most useful or informative way of discussing the work in question.)

It's the bi-polar nature of the fantasy genre, I suspect, that discourages in-depth discussions of its definition. One the one hand, we have a rigid and restrictive concept of fantasy familiar from most bookstores shelves--Tolkien-derived, and featuring a relatively limited palette of character types, settings, and tropes. There's a lot of fine work to be found within this subset of fantasy, but its stiffness and conservatism can mean that what gets called avant-garde and boundary-pushing from within it can seem, from a distance, a little staid. I suspect that to an outsider looking in, the qualitative differences between the kind of fantasy China Miéville writes and the kind that Robert Jordan wrote are easy to miss. This is not to put down Miéville's fine and intelligent novels, nor the very real innovations within 'traditional' fantasy that he is in large part responsible for, but there's no denying that he is writing very much within his subgenre.

At the other end of the scale, we have a fantasy as a catch-all term for anything counter-factual or tinged with unreality. As an example of this approach, the VanderMeers quote from Carol Bly's The Passionate, Accurate Story a hypothetical situation in which a little girl announces to her parents that a family of bears has moved next door. In a naturalistic story, the parents assume that the girl is lying or making things up. In a fantastic one, they take her words at face value. This strikes me as the flip side of the observation made by Michael Chabon in his introduction to McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, which I quoted from in my Best American Short Stories piece, that the commonly accepted definition of short story, within literary circles, has come to mean a "contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story." If fiction, per Chabon, has been reduced in definition to stories that are naturalistic, plotless, and focused on mundane details familiar to their readers from their own lives, then everything else--historical fiction, comedies, adventures, romances, melodramas--must be fantasy.

It should come as no surprise that I find neither definition particularly appealing or satisfactory. And, more importantly, as a veteran of one too many SFnal definitional arguments I've long ago imbibed the truism that, when seeking to define a genre, description, rather than prescription, is the key. But even then fantasy proves an elusive specimen. In discussions of the definition of science fiction, one often finds an attitude of equal-but-separate taken towards the genre's tropes and its themes. It's how novels like The Handmaid's Tale, The Carhullan Army, and Never Let Me Go can be categorized as science fiction even though the former two are only interested in the future as a purposefully exaggerated cautionary tale about the possible consequences of a present-day evil, and the latter not at all, and how novels like Pattern Recognition and The Baroque Cycle can be obviously SFnal despite taking place in the recent or distant past. It's this distinction, I believe, that Cheney is referring to when he asks whether fantasy is a subject or an object, but this is no less manageable a question. What are the tropes of fantasy? What are its central themes and questions?

Farah Mendlesohn has just recently published a book, Rhetorics of Fantasy, which moves the discussion even further into the descriptive realm. I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but several reviews and commentaries have noted Mendlesohn's central argument, a taxonomy of fantasy--a division of the genre into four types. Immersive fantasy takes place completely in an alternate, counterfactual world (Perdido Street Station). Intrusive fantasy features the fantastic impinging on the mundane (War for the Oaks). Portal/Quest fantasy, as its name implies, takes a mundane individual into a fantastic world (Un Lun Dun). Liminal fantasy posits a border realm between reality and unreality, across which individuals from both sides cross and influence each other (Lud-in-the-Mist).

My reason for taking a gigantic detour through the fantasy definitional argument before finally coming back around to the contents of Best American Fantasy is that, even with Cheney and the VanderMeers' introductions (and Jeff's needling e-mail) notwithstanding, it is impossible to crack open this volume without the question of the definition of fantasy being prominent in one's mind. Everything about Best American Fantasy--right down to its design and layout, which are all but identical to those of Best American Short Stories--demands it. It's an anthology that screams 'this is not your Datlow, Link, & Grant's best-of-year collection,' as well as, depending on your reading predilections, either 'help! Pretentious literary-genre fans appropriating everything non-mimetic in sight!' or 'finally! Salvation from yet another third-rate Tolkien ripoff!' (Myself, I had both reactions in more or less equal amounts.) For all that Cheney and VanderMeer's introductions caution against it, it is only natural, while reading Best American Fantasy, to keep an eye out for their personal definition--or perhaps preferred variety--of fantasy.

Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy seems sensible and exhaustive, but it is nevertheless designed to describe traditional, in-genre fantasy, and it was therefore not very surprising to discover how few of the stories in Best American Fantasy fit comfortably within one of her four categories. What was surprising, however, was the fact that so many of the selections in the anthology seemed to fall into the same gap between them. Many, and perhaps most, of the stories in Best American Fantasy can be described as a cross between what Mendlesohn describes as Immersive and Intrusive fantasy. These stories take place in worlds very similar to our own, into which the fantastic emerges, only to be treated as something matter-of-fact. These are stories, in other words, in which Dad asks 'well, what kind of car do the bears drive?' and then asks Mom to pass the potatoes and muses the they ought to invite Mr. and Mrs. Bear for dinner. Stories that achieve their effect by creating a single incongruity between the way their characters view the universe and the way their readers do.  (EDIT: in the comments, Farah points out that my presentation of her categories is incomplete, and that the type of fantasy described here is covered by and discussed in the liminal fantasy chapter of Rhetorics of Fantasy.)

Tony D'Souza's "The Man Who Married a Tree," a lovely piece and my favorite in the anthology, does exactly what it says on the tin. The title character is a loner, a veteran who drifts into town, gets into a bit of trouble, straightens out, and marries a tree. The story is narrated by outsiders who observed the relationship--everyone from the local sheriff to the brook alongside which the two met--most of whom regard it with a mixture of distaste and resignation.
Even so, when the wedding was first getting rumored, some of the womenfolk got their feathers up. They complained about it at the Elks, at the Eagles. They said, "Now every Tom, Dick, and Harry is going to think he can up and run off with a tree." We just shrugged our shoulders and looked at one another over our beers. Even if in our hearts of hearts we wanted to, who's to say there was a tree out there for us? For a while after that, you'd hear about this fella or that going off for a long walk in the woods, about how his wife or girlfriend had marched out there to haul him back in. But as far as actually marrying a tree? Time went by and no one else ever did.
It's an odd thing, to be sure, but not, in the world of D'Souza's story, which otherwise completely resembles our own, an impossible thing. At first it is tempting to read "The Man Who Married a Tree" as an allegory--the cross-species marriage standing in for gay marriage, a mixed-race marriage, or even (given the townspeople's old-fashioned views) a marriage between a local and an outsider--but just as one of these interpretations begins to seem right, D'Souza's squirms out of it. In the end there is simply no avoiding the fact that he's told a story about a man who married a tree.

Meghan McCarron's "The Flying Woman" is another story that wears its fantastic conceit on its mundane sleeve. Once again, the title character lives an ordinary life in an ordinary world. One day in a school assembly, we're told, she simply began to float, and then fell to the ground and broke her back. Now she floats around with a collapsible wheelchair strapped to her back, and by day works as a supermarket checkout girl. The narrator is her best friend, and she tells us how the flying woman discovered her ability and developed it, and what kind of life she lives (at one point, she dates a cyclist, and flies above him to warn him of upcoming road hazards). Kelly Link's "Origin Story" treads similar ground. Its protagonist is another flying woman, the girlfriend of a superhero who works odd jobs and has trouble getting a babysitter. Both stories are well done, but I'm going to commit sacrilege and say that I prefer the McCarron, Link's fondness for non-sequiturs having crossed just over that invisible line into smugness this time around. McCarron's story, though driven by the same matter-of-factness that sustains "Origin Story," as well as much of Link's fiction and so many other stories of this variety in Best American Fantasy, has more heart.

Sumanth Prabhaker's "A Hard Truth About Waste Management" is a darkly comic story about a family who find a novel way of getting around strict restrictions on garbage disposal. After first hiding garbage around the house and even in their food ("The father finally put this diet to a stop when he noticed a Christmas card stuck inside a leftover flan.") they take to flushing it down the toilet, which they find so satisfying that it becomes a popular pastime. The impression that we're reading a nonsensical farce, whose author is deliberately avoiding any tangible connection to reality even as he purports to set his story in something quite like it, is sustained until the last few paragraphs, when the story, almost in an instant, turns serious and weighty, and leaves a palpable impression in the readers' minds. This is not to say that in those final sentences, Prabhaker gives the readers a decoder ring--the story remains nonsensical and counterfactual--but he ties its fantastic elements, however loosely, to real life. There's a similar, and similarly faintly acknowledged, weightiness to Tyler Smith's "A Troop [Sic] of Baboons," in which a family living in South Africa are driven from their house by invading baboons--who take over it in order to stage theatrical productions.

Roughly half of the stories in Best American Fantasy could be described as taking place in this sort of perverted and unremarked upon normalcy, and the rest are a mix of other styles and approaches. A few are clearly science fiction: Elizabeth Hand's "The Saffron Gatherers," Geoffrey A. Landis's "Lazy Taekos"*, Brian Evenson's "An Accounting." One--"The Last Corpse Collector" by Ramola D.--isn't even, in any measurable way, a genre piece. "The Ledge" by Austin Bunn and "The Warehouse of Saints" by Robin Hemley are historical pieces (the past being so much hospitable towards the unreal than the present) in which the characters' superstitions take flesh (in the former case) or are proven false (in the latter).

Sarah Monette's "Draco Campestris" and Nicole Kornher-Stace's "Pieces of Scheherazade" are arguably the closest the collection comes to old-fashioned, commercial fantasy, in that in both stories there is a sense that the authors have put a great deal of work into creating a fantastic universe which incorporates elements familiar from the clearly delineated pool of traditional fantasy tropes. Monette's piece in particular stresses her imaginary world's construction to the exclusion of all other considerations, including plot and character. It is a series of glimpses into the inner workings of a museum (specifically the dragon gallery) in a fantasy world, through which we gain intimations of political upheavals and simmering rebellion. Kornher-Stace, meanwhile, as the title of her story suggests, revisits the One Thousand and One Nights. It would be accurate to say that she tells the story from Scheherazade's perspective, but at the same time also a vast oversimplification, as her narrative, like Monette's, flits back and forth within the character's, in the process considering the power of fiction and taking a more jaundiced view of it than the one suggested by the original tale.

If Monette and Kornher-Stace deliver traditional genre fantasy--or at least as close as one gets to it in Best American Fantasy--the volume's most traditional narratives come from Kevin Brockmeier with "A Fable With Slips of White Paper Spilling From the Pockets" and Nik Houser with "First Kisses From Beyond the Grave." In Brockmeier's story, a man buys God's overcoat at a thrift store, in whose pockets there constantly appear slips of paper with people's prayers written on. Though it bears some resemblance to the normalized abnormality that dominates Best American Fantasy, Brockmeier and his protagonist acknowledge the oddness of what has happened, and are only matter-of-fact about what happens next. Houser's story is the most traditional piece in the anthology, falling squarely in Mendlesohn's Portal/Quest category, and funnily enough by the time one gets to it the attitude that the fantastic is something that even real-world characters ought to take in their stride has become so pervasive that when its protagonist, a teenager who has mistakenly been transferred to a high school for children in purgatory, feels terror and disbelief at his predicament, he seems almost uncouth--Jeez, kid, don't you know what kind of story you're in? (It doesn't help that both the story and the writing are on the predictable side, and that Houser takes far too long to move the plot along to its conclusion.)

Though it ultimately features a broad selection of approaches to the fantastic, one comes away from Best American Fantasy with the sense that one--the Link-ian, surreal, one--has been prioritized, not only because of its numerical prominence but because most of the memorable stories in the anthology, for better and worse, belong to it. Best American Fantasy is not an exciting collection--I probably felt indifferent or vaguely positive towards more stories than I either liked or hated--but when it managed to excite either my vehement approval or my vehement disdain** it did so through one particular approach to the genre.

This is not, I think, a bad thing. Though it is obviously a good and necessary approach for anyone who doesn't want to become mired in a superficial and over-literal definition of the genre, there's something missing from the VanderMeers' broad-minded and all-inclusive assertion that the pleasures of fantasy can be "the same pleasures you can find in non-fantastical stories." Yes, it's true that fantasy can feature competent, adventurous, and even experimental writing, that it doesn't have to prioritize plot or plot-driven storytelling, that it can have literary qualities, but where, in all of this, is the fantasy? The VanderMeers make much of the importance of imagination, but it seems to me that imagination is a prerequisite to any act of storytelling. Even ponderous, plotless mood pieces about unhappily married, middle-aged insurance adjusters contemplating infidelity are, in the end, acts of imagination. What is it that sets the good, literary, experimental stories the VanderMeer's selected apart from non-fantastic stories with the same qualities?

As I said at the beginning of this piece, the first volume in an anthology series is a statement of intent. To my mind, this statement is almost more important than the overall quality of the resulting volume (which, just to be clear, is good but not stellar--there are several stories I liked, and one, the D'Souza, that I absolutely adored--though it is pretty much a given with such projects that only a rare few will walk away from them wholly satisfied). Best American Fantasy makes that statement. It lays out the kind of fantasy the series, or at least Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (who remain as editors for the second volume; Kevin Brockmeier has been announced as guest editor for Best American Fantasy 2009) are interested in--perhaps the kind of fantasy they think of as fantasy. Not everyone will agree with that definition, and even those that do won't love every story in the style the anthology favors, but so long as the series and its editors are honest and upfront about the kind of fiction they're serving up, I don't see this as a problem. Going by its first volume, Best American Fantasy offers up an interesting alternative to the more traditional and familiar best-of-year fantasy collections. Perhaps more importantly, it acts as an additional point of view in the ongoing, and now apparently strengthening, debate on what, exactly, fantasy is.



* This story, presumably, made it into the collection because it is told in the style of a fairy tale and within the structure of one--the title character, though living in the future and in the possession of gene-modification and holographic technology, is trying to win his beloved from a stepfather who has set him a series of impossible tasks--but if that's the case then why isn't Ted Chiang's "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" on the table of contents for Best American Fantasy 2008?

** The very worst piece in Best American Fantasy being Ann Stapleton's "The Chinese Boy." In saying this I am no doubt causing Cheney and the VanderMeers palpitations, as they speak highly of this piece in both their introductions and later blog posts, referring most particularly to the beauty of Stapleton's prose. I found her sentences overworked--quite consciously so, in fact--and, in what is a rare occurrence for me, couldn't even bring myself to finish the story. I was also aggravated by Daniel Coudriet's "Geese" and E.M. Schorb's "An Experiment in Governance," two short-shorts which, regardless of where one stands on their genre, are not actually stories.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

And Now For Something Completely Different

Warning: the following post contains writing of a confessional nature, of precisely the type which regular readers of this blog will have learned not to expect. If that's not of interest to you (and honestly, why would it be), move along. I should have something book-related by the end of the week. This is just something I needed to post.

When my father died, everyone said how young he'd been. At eight years old, forty-six doesn't seem very young, and so, like so many other aspects of his loss, this one crept up on me as the years and decades accumulated between us. The older I get, the more untenable it seems for a person to die with so much of their life unlived, and so much left to accomplish. In a month my family and I will mark the nineteenth anniversary of my father's death, the amount of time it takes for the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars to synchronize with one another, so that the Jewish and secular anniversaries will both fall on the same day.  Nineteen years is also the midway point between the age I was when my father died and the age he was. These are all meaningless facts and figures, of course, but sometimes that's all you have left.

Yesterday, the day before what would have been my father's 65th birthday, I was stopped coming out of a meeting by one of the project managers in my company. Was it possible, she asked, a little nervously, that my father was the Gideon Nussbaum who worked for Israel Aircraft Industries? As it turns out, he was her boss on her first job out of university.

When someone's been out of your life--out of all life--for as long as my father's been out of mine, they take up very little space. You have to work hard, make a little area that's all their own--the framed triptych my mother made of some of her favorite photographs of him, the kind of picture one keeps only when the person in it is no longer around to remind you of their face, which hangs above the Shabbat candlesticks in the house he bought but never lived in; the photo albums my aunt made as gifts for my Bat Mitzvah and my brother's Bar Mitzvah, which follow my father from infancy to adulthood; the ancient, shabby writing desk that was once his, and which none of us are willing to throw out because, chalked on its underside, is a heart with his name and the name of a high school sweetheart inside. But in my everyday life, my father is a rare figure. I can't honestly imagine my life, more than two thirds of which have passed in his absence, with him in it. There is simply no room for him--my family and I have grown and changed to fill the void he left. To encounter him so unexpectedly, almost as though we'd met by chance on the street, was therefore inexpressibly moving, and all the more so for the obvious affection and admiration with which this person spoke of him.

And it was also, at the same time, terrifying. My father's former subordinate spoke about his qualities as a superior, repeating the praise I've heard from my mother, from my aunt, and from his friends: his natural leadership and authority, his ease and friendliness. All qualities I wish I could find in myself but so seldom do. It's quite scary to think that someone who sees me several times a week will, from now on, think of my father and of those qualities whenever she does. And at the same time it's exhilarating. To know that the place I walk into every day, a huge part of my ordinary, mundane life, is connected to a man so completely lost to me that special days and times are set aside for his remembrance--in a way this is a greater motivation to excel at my job than any salary, bonus, or performance evaluation ever could be.

About a year before my father died I was speaking to another girl at school, having a serious discussion about people we'd known who had died, when she decisively trumped my deceased grandparents with her own dead father. I was shocked. Parents weren't supposed to die. Orphans belonged in storybooks, not ordinary life. For several years after my father's death I was the subject of the same curiosity with which, on that afternoon, I surveyed this girl. Classmates and younger children who, not out of any cruelty but simply out of the same horrified fascination I had once felt, would shamefully sidle up to me and ask a few indelicate questions. As time wore on, sadly, more and more of my contemporaries got to experience death firsthand, and soon my loss was overshadowed by that of classmates and friends, whose grief was keener and more recent than my own. From my observation of them, and from my own experiences, I've come to realize that what shocked me that afternoon twenty years ago was not so much the fact of a father's death, but the matter-of-factness with which it was reported. That my friend could speak of an unspeakable thing as if it were ordinary, because to her it was, just as my father's death quickly became to me. A fact of life, and soon not even a very prominent one. People die, and even when they're remembered, life goes on without them, and the pain of their loss becomes part of the huge tapestry of happy and sad events that make up a life. Yesterday, for a brief moment, my father reentered my life--a rare occurrence in the nineteen years since he's left it, and one that is likely to grow even rarer. I'm truly grateful, therefore, for this opportunity to meet him again.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Second Verse, Same as the First: Doctor Who Thoughts

And thus, the Russell T. Davies era ends. Well, there are three more Davies-penned specials (the teaser for the 2008 Christmas special is already circulating) in the tube, but both the evidence of years past and the fact that in the fourth season finale Davies obviously worked hard to give Steven Moffat the closest thing possible, on a show with four decades of continuity, to a fresh start suggest that these will be largely self-contained regurgitations of past stories, and also not very good. So, really, the Davies era wraps up with Saturday's episode, "Journey's End," and like him or hate him, esteem his abilities as a writer and producer or despise them, there is no denying that this was an era, with its own tone and character, its own themes and focal points, its own recurring settings and characters, now brought to a resounding and definite close.

So really, there are three endings we could talk about: the episode, the season, and the four seasons that make up Davies's oeuvre. It presumably comes as no surprise to anyone that it's on the first count that the result is weakest, with Davies, as ever, substituting bombast, shouting, dark foreshadowing and impossible-to-live-up-to buildup, as well as, yes, some nice character moments, for anything resembling a decent plot. On the plus side, no giant reset button, which is almost impossible to credit given how inevitable it seemed last week (though admittedly the method by which the need for a reset button is avoided--the gobbledygook-driven proclamation that the Doctor can regenerate into himself--is unworthy), and though the plot device which has come to be known, lovingly and otherwise, as Total Bollocks Overdrive is used repeatedly, for once the excesses of the plot feel organic to it rather than something slammed into our heads in the hopes that we'll be too stunned to notice just how stupid the whole exercise is. Which is to say: nothing on the level of Floating Tinkerbell Jesus Doctor. The balance between ridiculousness, melodrama, and genuinely good writing (or genuinely good acting masking the flaws in indifferent writing) has, for once, been struck, making for a satisfying episode--at least while it's being watched.

On the season level, I'm still trying to decide where I'd rank the fourth season within Davies's offerings. Near the top, certainly, but I'm not sure whether I like it better or worse than the first season (the last two slots go: three, two). As with most of new Who, the season operates on two levels which seem almost incidental to one another: the plot, and specifically the overarching, season-long plot which begins with faint hints, advances into blatant foreshadowing, and finally explodes all over the screen in the season-ending three-parter; and the character interaction, mainly the relationship between the Doctor and his companion but also her relationship with her family and the world she's left behind. On the former count, season four is very much of a piece with season three--weak, forgettable standalone episodes (and a horrible two-parter) in its first half, and strong, inventive standalones (plus a much better two-parter) in its second half, culminating in a no holds barred three-part season finale. Though nothing in the fourth season had the power of the one-two-three punch that was "Human Nature," "The Family of Blood," and "Blink," I still found the latter half of the season impressive, and as a result the fourth season as a whole feels much stronger and more worthwhile than I would said just a few weeks ago, when all that was keeping me coming back to the show was the interaction between the Doctor and Donna.

It's on the character level that the fourth season shines. Donna is by far my favorite companion, but more importantly, her relationship with the Doctor--teasing, bickering, uncompromising, and deeply affectionate--is the most satisfying of any of the four (Rose/Nine and Rose/Ten being two different relationships) long-term Doctor-companion relationships we've seen. It avoids all the pitfalls previous seasons fell into. The Doctor and Donna aren't caught up in an all-consuming romance, thus leaving both of them open to other people while still grounding one another. Neither one of them is pining for the other in a way that can never be satisfied, and which becomes self-destructive. Perhaps most importantly, Donna clearly gets something out of the relationship. Of all of the new Who companions, she's the one who most noticeably grows and evolves under the Doctor's tutelage, the one who gets the most out of the experience of traveling with him--which of course makes it all the more gutting when she loses everything he's given her in "Journey's End." Rose could go on, having forgotten the Doctor, and live a perfectly happy, albeit ordinary, life. Martha would live a fabulous, exciting life even in his absence. Donna, in losing the Doctor, loses a part of herself, perhaps the best part.

What's missing from the fourth season is the integration between plot and character development that the first season managed handily (if not always subtly, in general resorting to foregrounding the Doctor's grief and damage). As in the second and third seasons, the season's big bad exists primarily as convenient prop, a catalyst for the show's soapier elements, and is rather forgettable in his own right. Even more importantly, the season is missing the sense of newness, of an approach to SFnal TV and TV in general that was, to me at least, entirely different to anything I'd seen before, which permeated Who in its early episodes. It was perhaps inevitable for later seasons to lose that freshness, as the show's trademark combination of absurdity and melodrama began to seem familiar, but Davies seems to have had a deliberate policy of recycling plot elements, character types, and emotional notes, which to my mind is his greatest failing during his tenure at Who's helm. "Smith and Jones," for example, and for all its superficial differences from "Rose," is so clearly trying to ape that episode, and specifically to highlight the same qualities in Martha that made Rose an ideal companion, that it comes to seem hectoring. "The Unicorn and the Wasp" is a retread of "The Shakespeare Code" which is a retread of "Tooth and Claw" which is a retread of "The Unquiet Dead." "The Voyage of the Damned" is a patchwork of bits of better episodes with no personality of its own.

Nowhere is this tendency towards repetition more apparent than as the fourth season approaches its ending and the climax of its central theme, which is actually the central theme of the entire new show, the one quality of the Doctor that Davies keeps returning to--his capacity to inspire and influence others, and make them, for better or worse, more like himself. There is arguably no episode in the new series's run that doesn't touch on this theme in one form or another, but it is especially prominent in the fourth season. "Partners in Crime" breaks with the format of both "Rose" and "Smith and Jones" by having a former companion seek the Doctor out. Donna has clearly been changed by her encounter with the Doctor in "The Runaway Bride," but she needs him around to keep effecting that change and inject wonder into her life--which he does, and as I've noted Donna's growth over the course of the season far outstrips Rose's or Martha's during their time with the Doctor. The Sontaran two-parter draws deliberate parallels between the Doctor and the twisted teenage genius Luke Rattigan, who is inspired by the Doctor to self-sacrifice. In that same story, the Doctor and Donna marvel and are somewhat put off by the effect he's had on Martha, turning her into a soldier. Both his genetic heritage and his parental influence help turn the Doctor's daughter Jenny into someone who rejects mindless soldiering and joyfully embraces a Doctor-ish lifestyle. "Midnight" explores a rare instance in which the Doctor fails to influence those around him. And then, of course, there are the three episodes which conclude the season, a veritable orgy of companions past and present joining forces with each other and the Doctor to save the universe.

Which is all very well and good, but long before the fourth season ends this all begins to seem rather samey and repetitive. Yes, it's affecting when Luke Rattigan sacrifices himself, but not as much as it would have been if Astrid hadn't done it before him in "Voyage of the Damned," and Jabe before her in "The End of the World," and probably others that I'm not remembering right now. And though I enjoyed the three-part finale, there is no denying that it keeps saying the same thing over and over again. "Turn Left" shows us the Doctor's former companions stepping up in his absence to save the world as he would have done. And then in "The Stolen Earth," the Doctor's former companions step up in his absence to save the world as he would have done. And then in "Journey's End," they... step up in his absence to save the world as he would have done.

Admittedly, there are nuances that distinguish the three stories. In "Turn Left" the companions work separately, and their victories are partial and often come at a high price. In "The Stolen Earth" the companions band together and work to contact the Doctor and bring him to Earth. In "Journey's End," a darker tone permeates the story as the companions threaten to take genocidal action, emulating the Doctor but also raising his ire and despair at the thought that he has created murderers. All of these variations, however, have shown up on the show before, and their louder and more insistent repetition here only cements my conviction that the season-ending three-parter has enough story in it for maybe two episodes. Though I like it the best of all three episodes (possibly because I like Donna much better than the Doctor) "Turn Left" contributes nothing to the season's overarching plot, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the storyline of "The Stolen Earth" and "Journey's End" was spread out over two episodes mainly because Davies wanted to break on a regeneration (which is a particular shame as, had he resisted the impulse to yank the viewers' chains, and introduced the botched regeneration and its consequences in the middle of an episode, the cop-out resolution he used might have been a great deal more palatable).

All of which is to say that the handover from Davies to Moffat comes not a moment too soon, not because Davies is a bad writer who has produced a bad show (he isn't and he hasn't, and I remain deeply impressed with some of his first season episodes, as well as "Midnight" and large parts of the fourth season three-part finale) or because Moffat is a flawless one (though I don't entirely agree with this article at io9--most particularly its claim that Sally Sparrow and River Song are bad characters--its core claim that Moffat has some definite and worrying issues, particularly when it comes to gender, is sound), but because Davies has clearly said what he wanted to say. Steven Moffat will take the Doctor in his own direction, good or bad--from his episodes it already seems clear that he is less interested in the Doctor as a buddy, as someone with whom companions have a deep, long-term relationship, and prefers to tell stories about people who see the Doctor from afar, for a moment, and who view him with awe, though this may very well change when he has to plot and people an entire season--and he will bring his own strengths and weaknesses to the show. But however the Moffat era turns out, it is plain that the show is ready for it. It's time for a new tune.

Friday, July 04, 2008

So Close and Yet So Far

So, you're the production team parachuted in to save the American Life on Mars, scrambling desperately to turn its laughable pilot into something watchable.  You've just landed The Sopranos's Michael Imperioli.  Who do you cast him as?  Imperioli is not really the right physical type for Gene, but with a little tweaking of the character he might work, and he could certainly pull off the combination of vulnerability, toughness and intelligence that made John Simm's Sam so winning, not to mention the character's working class background.  But no, apparently if you're producing the new Life on Mars and have been lucky enough to cast Michael Imperioli, you cast him as Ray.  I can hear the Italian stereotypes from here.

This is yet another dispiriting choice on the part of the new production team, like the one to move the show's setting from LA (admittedly an awful decision) to New York.  One of the things that made the original Life on Mars special was that it wasn't set in London but in Manchester, a working class, industrial town going through major upheavals but still possessed of a distinct character which is deeply important to its inhabitants.  There any number of cities like this in the US, but the new production team doesn't seem to be interested in telling that kind of story, and instead have plumped for yet another cop show set in New York. 

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Who Is the Final Cylon?

I don't care.

No, really, I just don't. Granted, my level of interest in Battlestar Galactica has plummeted over the last year and especially over its last half season (funny how that works. When the show was meeting my expectations in its first season, or falling tragically short of them in its second and third, I couldn't shut up about it, but now that I've come to expect mediocrity and gotten just that, I find myself with little reason to care), but I'd like to know how the show ends, and there are questions I'd like to see it answer and issues I'd like to see it acknowledge and resolve. It's just that the identity of the final Cylon is pretty far down that list. I'd be annoyed if it weren't revealed, because the show's writers have made promises, and piggybacked quite shamelessly on the tension created by keeping the final Cylon's identity secret, but on my rapidly dwindling list of reasons to watch Galactica, this revelation doesn't rate a spot.

And the thing is, I just don't get people for whom the identity of the final Cylon is crucial. I can understand being eager to know the solution to a mystery, or the revelation of a secret, on an intensely- and well-plotted show. I've experienced that eagerness myself, as the first seasons of Veronica Mars or Dexter drew to a close. These seasons were impeccably constructed and delivered mysteries, and they revealed the solution to their central puzzles with an awe-inspiring flair, and just the right combination of surprise and inevitability. The satisfaction derived from such denouements comes from being able to say that you couldn't have guessed the solution to the mystery, but that it makes perfect sense now that you know it. Nothing I've seen from Battlestar Galactica in three and a half seasons leads me to expect the same level of competence when the final Cylon is revealed. In fact, when Galactica delivers revelations, they tend to be plucked out of thin air, neither foreshadowed by previous events, nor congruent with the show's themes or character arcs.

For all that, whenever I come across discussions of the show these days, the question of the final Cylon's identity seems to be paramount. io9's Galactica discussions seems almost monopolized by it, for example, and just yesterday Strange Horizons published a review of the fourth season by Roz Kaveney that boils down to speculation about this very question. As disenchanted as I am with the show, even I'm not willing to reduce it to this question. That kind of attitude is fine when discussing a show like Lost, which is basically a sequence of 'wow!' moments strung together, but Galactica was supposed to be more than that--a show that told a story, that asked interesting questions about the human condition. That said, it's been a long time since I truly believed Galactica could deliver on the latter count, and there is no denying its writers' fondness for yanking major twists out of nowhere. As Dan Hartland put it when discussing the second season finale, Galactica has a penchant for eviscerating itself, sacrificing--or never even bothering to deliver--months of careful plotting for the sake of a few minutes during which the top of the audience's heads come off.

So, really, I have no idea who it is that's supposed to care about the identity of the final Cylon. People like myself, who don't think the Galactica writers can plot worth a damn, have no reason to expect anything different from what we've already seen--a nonsensical revelation parachuted in with no grounding in the plot, and perhaps even in direct contravention of established facts (see, for example, Tyrol's son, and the utter lack of fuss at yet another Cylon procreating in spite of the species's alleged obsession with the issue in the second season and the continuing importance of Hera). As for people like Kaveney, who are still in love with the show (though she is frustratingly vague about the reasons for that love. She says, for example, that the show "turns Starbuck, for a while, into an obsessed seeker for whom [Earth] has become less a possible home than the White Whale of the novel from which she takes her name," but doesn't bother to support the implicit claim that this character arc was successful or convincing, which leaves people like myself, who found it, and just about every other character arc in the fourth season, tedious and poorly done with no room for argument), surely there are more important aspects to the show to obsess over?

Perhaps not, as Kaveney's essay begins with the proclamation that "We watch Battlestar Galactica for the space battles and the sudden revelations and reversals, of course" (the over-inclusive first person plural voice setting a record for the number of words a review takes to put my back up, though I admit to being quite fond of the space battles), and when she goes on to speculate about the identity of the final Cylon she demonstrates just the kind of deafness to theme and successful plotting that an obsession with sudden revelations and reversals fosters. Her top candidates for the last Cylon slot? Roslin, Adama, and Baltar. Now, Baltar went through a period during which he wondered whether he was a Cylon, eventually hoping to discover that he was one in order to shed the guilt of having betrayed his species. In the end, he was forced to accept that such an easy escape wasn't in the cards for him--one of the only successful and interesting character arcs in the third season, and just about the only time I've found Baltar appealing. For the show to reverse that conclusion now would gut that arc's significance. Similarly, Adama being a Cylon would undermine his breakdown upon discovering that Tigh was one, and surely the question of Roslin maybe being one of the final five was definitively dealt with in "The Hub" (in a moment that, to my mind, is one of the series's highlights, right up there with Galactica breaking atmo in "Exodus II" and the camera panning to Chip Baltar in "Downloaded," if only because, let's face it, if you were in D'anna's shoes, wouldn't you have done the same thing?). Not to mention that we've already observed four main characters come to terms with being secret Cylons and really don't need to go through that process again, and that having yet another Cylon in the fleet and in a position of power would be over-egging an already quite eggy omelette.

But then, none of this would stop the Galactica writers. It would be unsatisfactory and contradictory to everything that's come before, but they would totally pull any one of these rabbits out of their hat just to make the audience's hearts race for a few minutes. In the final accounting, I think Roz Kaveney is probably watching Battlestar Galactica as its writers mean for it to be watched--not as a coherent story, an exploration of issues and characters, but as a sequence of space battles, sudden revelations, and reversals. I just don't see why anyone would be interested in that show.