Friday, October 24, 2008

The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow

Several months ago, around the time that the debate on the viability of the genre short fiction scene was having its semiannual resurgence, I participated in an SF Signal Mind Meld on the subject. Most of the other participants were authors and editors, which left me as the lone representative of readers, from whose perspective, I wrote, the short fiction market seemed not endangered but fragmented, no longer dominated by three magazines but by a whole host of on- and off-line markets and an ever-growing original story anthology scene. As a possible reason for this fragmentation and for the increasing popularity of these anthologies, I suggested that for younger genre fans
a magazine subscription isn't an automatic, or even reasonable, choice. People who want more bang for their buck are more likely to plop 12-15$ for an anthology published by a recognizable name, and featuring at least three or four authors they know and like, than they are to pay 50$ for a year's subscription that essentially boils down to a monthly gamble.
I had a spontaneous demonstration of the difference between magazines and original story anthologies just last week, when my reading of the Ellen Datlow-edited The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy coincided with that of the September issue of Asimov's. The latter contains one good story: Stephen Baxter's "The Ice War," which takes place in the early 18th century and describes an alien attack through the eyes of a young Englishman who falls in with Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, and Daniel Defoe, and therefore reads a little like a cross between The Baroque Cycle and War of the Worlds. Another story, "Usurpers" by Derek Zumsteg, is stylish and harsh, but the rest of the magazine is dull and underperforming, with the exception of Ian Creasey's "Cut Loose the Bonds of Flesh and Bone," which may very well be the worst story I've read this year that wasn't a major genre award nominee. The Del Rey Book, meanwhile, though obviously not entirely to my taste, is a meaty, impressive anthology, with something to recommend almost every story within it.

The standout story in the anthology, and the one you'll most likely have heard of, is Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle," a sequel of sorts to "Hansel and Gretel" which shot to public attention when Dave Truesdale excoriated it in his review of The Del Rey Book, calling it pornographic and complaining that its darker elements--the story finds Hansel returning to the witch's cottage as the sex slave of a drifter and con man, who engages the witch in a battle of wits while Hansel uncovers evidence of her depravity and the Black Death rages around them--were introduced solely for their 'shock value.' Niall Harrison has already done an excellent job of explaining just how wrongheaded Truesdale's critique is, so I will simply echo the point he makes, that "The Goosle" is a terrifying and absorbing examination of abuse from the victim's perspective, which stresses the importance of isolation and loneliness in perpetuating the abusive relationship. Lanagan's Hansel is starved for affection, and has no one left in the world but his abuser. What keeps him in his situation is not force or even fear, but the willingness to put up with pain and humiliation for just a few moments of what he can pretend is love.

I do, however, have a vague sympathy with Truesdale's accusation that "The Goosle" shocks for the sake of shocking, as at several points throughout the story I found myself thrown out of its world, and its overpowering emotional tone, by Lanagan stepping up the grand guignol--having Hansel lay his head against what he believes to be a pumpkin only for it to turn out to be the skull of one of the witch's victims, or the description of the witch dismembering her latest kill. Elements that should have sunk me further into the story's horrific mode instead came off as over the top, and had me shaking off the story's effect to go 'oh, come on.' This is, however, a minor complaint. "The Goosle" soon recaptured my attention, and its ending manages to introduce a new horror without being hysterical, making for a grim (and yet, in its own way, almost hopeful) conclusion to Hansel's story that is entirely of a piece with the pages preceding it.

Other standout stories in The Del Rey Book include "The Elephant Ironclads" by Jason Stoddard, an impressive and immersive alternate history in which the ubiquitous zeppelins actually have a reason for floating in the sky. Stoddard builds on the urban legend that Siamese king Mongkut offered to provide Abraham Lincoln with elephants with which he might win the civil war (in reality, the elephants were offered to President Buchanan as beasts of burden, but the offer was only received after Lincoln took office) and posits a world in which those elephants were accepted and, after winning the war and being left to wander in the American south-west, rounded up by Native American tribes and used to run white people off their land.

In the present day, the Diné still rely on elephants as beasts of burden, and prefer airships to airplanes because they don't disrupt the landscape with noise and smoke. The society Stoddard describes is dedicated to preserving the status quo--culturally and environmentally--disdaining members who gravitate towards the mechanized, progress-oriented US. Stoddard's juvenile characters find themselves caught in a struggle between those who want progress and those who want to preserve their way of life, and the story emphasizes the thorniness and complexity of this choice. I was also impressed by Maureen McHugh's "Special Economics," in which a young Chinese woman eagerly accepts a job in a factory only to find herself trapped in a modern-day feudal system. It's the sort of story that Paolo Bacigalupi and Geoff Ryman have specialized in in recent years, and therefore feels a little derivative, but McHugh is no less gifted a storyteller than either of them, and no less capable of conveying both the foreignness and familiarity of her characters.

Other stories in the anthology are impressive but somehow unsatisfying. In some cases this is my fault for lacking context or a common cultural vocabulary with the author. Colleen Mondor was blown away by Elizabeth Bear's "Sonny Liston Takes the Fall," in which the titular boxer and one-time opponent of Muhammad Ali is recast as the hero of his tragic life story, which ended with his death from a drug overdose. The problem is that it wasn't until I read that post that I even knew Liston had been a real person, and I certainly don't have the background in either boxing or American race relations in the 60s and 70s that made the story so irresistible to Mondor, a boxing fan (and which the story itself sketches in only faintly). Similarly, Richard Bowes's "Aka Saint Mark's Place" takes place, like his Hugo-nominated story "There's a Hole in the City," in the counter-culture scene of the East Village in the 60s, which is not a setting that speaks very strongly to me.

In other cases, I found myself too close to the subject matter. Lavie Tidhar, an author whose work I've greatly enjoyed in the past, here serves up a piece about a Jordanian scholar who, in a post Arab-Israeli conflict 21st century, travels to Haifa to research a late 20th century Israeli poet. The story makes an unfortunate left turn into cliché when it resolves the protagonist's obsession with her subject by having her go to bed with him, but even more frustrating to me was the fact that "Shira" manages to be simultaneously too Israeli--one of the fictional poet's poems quotes from Hannah Szenes's "Blessed is the Match," but Tidhar's translation completely misses out on the harsh, almost martial cadences that make that poem so powerful in the original Hebrew--and not Israeli enough--Szenes, a writer of doggrel whose poems remain in the public consciousness mainly because of the heroic myth that's sprung up around her and the stirring melodies to which they've been set, is mentioned in the same breath as Yehuda Amichai, possibly the most important Hebrew poet of the 20th century.

The majority of the stories in The Del Rey Book, however, are ones that I'd categorize as 'good, but.' There are only two stories I disliked (Lucy Sussex's "Ardent Clouds," which manages to be dull when talking about people who chase volcano eruptions, and Nathan Ballingrud's "North American Lake Monsters," which is all too obvious in hammering in the point that its protagonist, recently paroled and working hard to alienate and make miserable his entire family while deciding what to do with the creature that's washed up near his house, is the real monster), but the remaining stories do one thing well, and everything else poorly or not at all. Christopher Rowe's "Gather" is set, like his most famous story, "The Voluntary State," in a world that's pitched halfway between futuristic SF and 19th century fantasy. His characters are hemmed in by rigidly defined codes of behavior but, spurred by scientific curiosity, find themselves pushing against the boundaries imposed on them, in the process taking us on a tour of their proscribed world and giving us glimpses of the larger world outside it. It's a great piece of worldbuilding, and its characters are appealing, but not much happens in it. Jeffrey Ford and Carol Emshwiller both deliver enjoyable, whimsically surrealist pieces (though with a dark undercurrent in the latter case) about, respectively, cities in bottles and a shipwrecked librarian, but that whimsy never coalesces into anything substantial. Laird Barron's "The Lagerstätte" is a horror piece about a woman being haunted by either the ghosts or the memory of her husband and son. It successfully describes the stifling despair of a character being forced to choose between accepting her loss and destroying herself through grief and memory (though Barron's frequent recourse to gore achieved the same effect of throwing me out of the story that I experienced when reading "The Goosle," and unlike Lanagan, he wasn't as skilled at luring me back into the narrative), but doesn't go beyond establishing that emotional pitch.

Overall, The Del Rey Book is a good, but only occasionally great, collection. That said, even the worst pieces within it are more professionally put together than so much of what graces the pages of your average Big Three issue. It's obviously unfair to compare an anthology that was probably the better part of a year in the making with any one issue of a magazine which, over the course of that year, publishes four or five times the amount of material Datlow needed to put together, but there's a thinness that characterizes some magazine stories, a willingness to settle for mediocrity on all levels--prose, characterization, plot, worldbuilding--which is entirely, and refreshingly, absent from the anthology. Writing about the slipstream anthology Feeling Very Strange earlier today, Martin Lewis wrote that it is "much like every other SF anthology I have read: a couple of good stories, a couple of rubbish ones and an awful lot of filler," but though I only loved a few of the stories in The Del Rey Book I wouldn't characterize any of them as filler. Each is trying to do something new or interesting or just plain good, and even their failures or incomplete successes are preferable to entries by writers who are either not making that effort or lack the skill to do so creditably, which is the kind of filler one tends to find in magazines. Despite what I said in the SF Signal Mind Meld, it's not cost that makes original story anthologies more appealing than a magazine subscription. I payed for my copy of The Del Rey Book, and was given the September issue of Asimov's, but I resent the time I spent wading through pointless, underwritten pieces to get to the one or two worthy stories.

There's a flipside to this, however, which became apparent when I scanned the author bios in The Del Rey Book and discovered that not a single one of its contributors was a first time writer. The reason that the genre short story scene is still vibrant is that there's a relatively low threshold for entry, with new writers making sales and putting their material before an audience every month. Just as the investment of time and money in original story anthologies dwarfs that afforded to any month's issue of a magazine, so, presumably, do the hurdles first time writers have to clear before they're published in those anthologies become tougher, perhaps even impossible, to overcome. I rarely read magazines for just the reasons stated above--because there's so much dross to wade through, and I'd rather wait for other readers to do that work and discover new voices for me. But if magazines and other venues like them become an endangered species, and original story anthologies become the dominant delivery system for new short fiction, those new voices might peter out. This should not be construed as a specific criticism of Datlow, who as I've said has put together a strong anthology whose table of contents is by no means dominated by heavy hitters, but it is telling that all but two of the contributors to The Del Rey Book were published in SciFiction, and that several of them published their best-know stories and made their reputation there. If it weren't for the webzine, would Datlow have had as varied and talented a stable of authors to approach when she made up The Del Rey Book?

There's been a lot of talk in the last year about the financial realities of publishing in general and short fiction in particular. It's those realities, one assumes, that are the reason monthly magazines pad their issues with forgettable and sometimes unreadable pieces, and which demand that original story anthologies skew towards recognizable, bankable names. When I replied to the SF Signal Mind Meld, I was writing as a reader, who wants the most payoff for the least investment of money, effort, and time. It's hard for a reader to look at a delectable table of contents like that of The Del Rey Book and wish for less familiar, less reliable names on it, but just as we've accepted that it is our role as readers (and consumers) to voice our displeasure at gender and racial inequality in both magazines and anthologies, it should also be our role to encourage editors and publishers to take the long view and foster new voices. The future of short genre fiction may very well be in books like The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but if it is then it falls to us to make sure that that future consists of more than the names we already know.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Good News on a Saturday

The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been picked up for a full second season.

Of course, this would be even better news if the show gave any signs of improving, but five episodes into the second season, the flaws that marred it in its first are still going strong: great acting, great character work, great individual scenes, but the plotting, in both individual episodes and the overarching save the world arc, is nonsensical.  The next to last episode aired, "Alison from Palmdale," is a perfect example.  Summer Glau is incredible as three different people in the same body who combine into whatever the hell Cameron is right now, but the notion that Cameron has enough empathy to become Alison--who understands and feels emotions, like fear, grief, and anger, which in the past have left Cameron baffled--is too much to swallow.  We've already got one show about a genocidal war between dirty, sweaty humans and immaculate machines confused by these things we call 'feelings' in which the actual nature and capabilities of those machines have been kept too fuzzy for too long.  We don't need another.  Sarah Connor is still the most interesting and complex SF on TV right now, but that's mostly because of its parts, not its whole.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Life on Mars US, Take Two

If I were a particularly cynical person, I'd wonder whether the first, abysmal pilot for the US remake of Life on Mars had been intentionally released online once the decision was made to completely retool the show, as a way of lowering expectations and making the new, actual pilot look good by comparison. Most of the buzz I've been hearing in the last couple of weeks, after all, has tended towards the surprised discovery that the new, new Life on Mars doesn't completely suck, which in today's degraded television market is almost the same as saying that a show is good. (Seriously, is it just me or are things rather dismal on the TV front? The best I can seem to hope for is for shows to hold their ground, which in some cases--Pushing Daisies, Dexter, How I Met Your Mother--is good, in others--Sarah Connor, Chuck--is not nearly as good as I'd like, and in other still--Heroes--is grounds for dropping a show. And when the best new show of the fall season is Fringe, well, you know you're in trouble.)

So, yes, to get the obvious out of the way, the new Life on Mars pilot is light years better than the broad, quasi-comedic, indifferently acted travesty unleashed on the internet this summer. But is it as good as the original show? There I'm on shakier ground. The new remake is more stylish, and has a sharper and more distinctive look than the first US pilot--a cold, bright color palette and crisp, clean interiors for the 2008 scenes; warmer colors in 1973, but interiors which are grimy and cluttered. But then, that's exactly what the UK version did, and therein lies the problem with the US remake. Whenever it does something good or eye-catching, it does so in imitation of the original series, and though on occasion it does things as well as the UK version, I can't think of a single instance in which it surpasses it. Which, obviously, begs the question: why bother? Why make a US version of the show if it's only going to cover well-trodden ground, and more importantly, why should viewers who have seen and loved the UK original bother with the remake?

As so many people have said, what elevated the original Life on Mars from an at times well-written, at times simplistic cop show with a twist its writers didn't truly have a handle on was its cast, and it was this that was, arguably, the first American pilot's chief failing. There's a lot of improvement on this front in the second pilot, but again, there's a sense that we're seeing a good version of a great original. The American cast is good but lacks the UK cast's spark. Jason O'Mara, the only survivor from the original pilot, hits all the right notes--Sam's fear for Maya when she's kidnapped, his incomprehension when he first transitions to 1973, his despair once he realizes how trapped and alone he is--but at the end of the day, he's a stud and a beefcake, everything that John Simm's Sam wasn't, and his performance is missing the depth with which Simm imbued the character, the palpable sense that Sam's unexceptional exterior concealed everything important about him--his intelligence, his strength, his determination--all qualities which were always on the verge of boiling over. Gretchen Mol's Annie is, similarly, winning and compassionate, but lacks Liz White's vivacity and earthiness (there's also an unfortunate scene in which Annie has to spell out for Sam why it's not a good idea for him to bring her or her skills to the chauvinistic male detectives' attention, which makes her seem preachy and over-analytical, though this is hardly a complaint that can be laid at Mol's feet).

And then, of course, there's Gene. When Colm Meaney was cast in the original US remake, I was intrigued. Then I rewatched Deep Space Nine and came away from it with a vastly reduced opinion of Meaney's range as an actor (she said, fearing the wrath of the O'Brien lovers), but still reasonably hopeful that he had the right energy and physical presence for the role. I'm still not sure where the first pilot failed with Gene, and whether that failure was entirely Meaney's fault and merited his replacement--certainly the choice to give him jokey lines like "this completes your orientation" didn't help to ground the character--but what showed up on the screen was a cartoon, not a character, a antagonist for Sam to rail against, not a foil who would counterbalance him. When Harvey Keitel was chosen as the new new Gene I thought that here, at least, was an actor who would be certain to create a Gene with heft. But no.

Despite the fact that when it comes to his lines and actions, the new remake hews far closer to original, Gene still comes across as a cardboard cutout, a set of attitudes, prejudices, and outrageous opinions, not a person. The only conclusion I can draw is that, as the character is written, Gene was never more than a cipher, and that it was Philip Glenister's performance that brought the character to such vivid, three-dimensional life, the larger-than-life sun around which every other character on the show revolved (though it has to be said that the original Life on Mars often went too far into the realm of Gene-worship, and that one of Ashes to Ashes's biggest problems is the fact that it has transformed Gene from a man who takes up more than his physical space in the room into a mythical, perhaps even magical, figure). I'm sure that there are actors who could create this character on the American remake, and maybe Meaney and Keitel are in that group, but neither one seems to have been called on to perform this task. Possibly because, as in the first US pilot, the theme of policing and how it should be carried out, and of the constant tension between Sam's disgust and horror at Gene's methods and Gene's unflagging determination to do what he believes is right, is downplayed in favor of the coma/time travel/insanity dilemma, thus undermining Gene's importance to the show.

As was the case with the first pilot, the US remake's slavish adherence to the original pilot's plot makes the differences between the two even more glaring. The most aggravating change the first US pilot made--giving the two insights into the murderer's identity and motive, which were originally arrived at by Maya and Annie, to Sam--has been reversed in the second pilot. Only slightly less infuriating was the absence, from the first remake, of Sam's choice to suppress evidence of the murderer's insanity in the past in order to prevent him from murdering in the future, which sets the tone for the entire series, in which Sam is repeatedly forced to make compromises with his conscience and the letter of the law. The second pilot doesn't restore this plot point, but replaces it in a way that I found extremely odd. Instead of being an admirer of the killer, Sam's suspect from 2008 is now a copycat. By arresting the killer in 1973 Sam does nothing to stop the murders in his own time or Maya's kidnapping, which leads him, at the end of the pilot, to consider killing the nine year old future serial killer. He decides against this course of action when he hears Maya's voice calling to him from his hospital bed, having presumably been rescued without his interference.

This is problematic on two levels: first, because no one who has ever watched TV before would believe for a minute that Sam was going to kill a child, so the whole thing smacks of the writers walking right up to something transgressive and (how I've grown to hate this word) dark without ever having any intention of following through with it, and second because, though it's very nice for Sam that his girlfriend is safe, that doesn't do much for the other 2008 murder victim, for whom he doesn't seem to spare a thought when he decides not to take the killer's life in 1973. The new pilot also does away entirely with the UK original's final scenes, in which a friend of Annie's nearly manipulates Sam into taking his own life. I don't know how I feel about this change. On the one hand, that plot point always felt to me like the show going a bit too far, taking both Sam and Annie (not to mention her friend) into the realm of irrational behavior far too quickly. On the other hand, if there's one attitude that characterizes the new US pilot, it is clearly the desire to file off the original's rough edges and make it more palatable, and I can't help but think that the new version could have stood to go a little way off the deep end.

In the end, however, these are minor deviations in a whole that still feels like a lesser retread of the UK original with no personality of its own. The only point at which the US Life on Mars does something truly original is during Sam's transition to 1973, when the strangeness of his situation is brought home by him looking up, gaping with astonishment, at the recently completed Twin Towers. It's a uniquely American--uniquely New York-ish--touch, but also a lonely one. That said, it seems to me that we won't get a sense of whether and how the American Life on Mars is going to develop its own personality until we get a little further into the season, moving away from a pilot which we have, at this point, seen three versions of, and into standalone episodes which will hopefully take advantage of the new show's American setting to tell its own stories (and, according to some reviews, suggesting a new spin on the original series's choice between coma, time travel, and insanity as the solution to Sam's predicament). For the sake of this possibility, I'm willing to give the US Life on Mars a bit of leeway, but what I need from it now is a spark--of personality, of originality, of life--to justify its existence.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Recent Movie Roundup 8

It's fall, which means that it'll be some time before I feel the urge to write a full-length film review again, mainly because I haven't been inside a movie theater since the middle of the summer. Nevertheless, I have been watching films on DVD, and here are some thoughts.
  1. Waitress (2007) - An underdone romantic comedy with a somewhat misleading title, as the main character not only waitresses at a diner but also bakes the pies which are its chief draw and whose preparation frequently punctuates the film's action, to mouth-watering effect. Waitress starts out from a rather bleak premise--Keri Russell's Jenna is trapped in a (chillingly portrayed) abusive marriage, a dead-end job, a pregnancy that she is at best ambivalent towards, and, worst of all, a bitterness about her life that rejects any hope that things might get better. Comedies have been built on grimmer foundations than this, but where Waitress falters is its inability to decide just where on the spectrum between realism and fairy-tale it wants to fall. On the one hand, Jenna's slow and hesitant blossoming, sparked by an affair with her married gynecologist (Nathan Fillion) which is no less tender and affectionate for both its partners' realization that a happy ending is not on the cards, feels complex and true to life. On the other hand, the subplots involving her fellow waitresses, her horrible husband, and the diner's patrons, are almost cartoonishly over the top, and the film's ending feels pat and too good to be true. Either of these tones would suit the movie, but the combination of the two is jarring. Still, Russell and Fillion are good and have good chemistry with each other, and the film, however uneven, is enjoyable and sweet.

  2. Enchanted (2007) - Six years on, Disney tries to make Shrek with only a fraction of its humor and sarcasm. Amy Adams is great, and James Marsden, though under-utilized, is also a lot of fun, but whenever they're on-screen it's impossible not to think of what they could have done with a smarter, funnier script (and what Adams could have done with a leading man who, unlike Patrick Dempsey, had a personality or even a pulse). Instead, it turns out that the film's trailer contained just about all of its good jokes (and that a few of them are a great deal less funny in expanded form), and what little wit the film directs at Disney's standard template is tepid and hesitant. I remember a lot of complaints, around the time the film came out, at Adams's character's empowerment-through-shopping, but surely the bigger problem is the ending the film gives to Dempsey's character's girlfriend (played by the criminally underused Broadway superstar Idina Menzel), who selflessly gives him up (OK), falls in love at first sight with Marsden's character (still OK) and walks away from her flourishing New York life and career to be his fairy-tale princess (facepalm).

  3. United 93 (2006) - When I wrote about The Bourne Supremacy, also directed by Paul Greengrass, last year, I complained about his penchant for jittery, faux-documentary camera work. Was this, I wondered, a deliberate attempt to wring all the fun out of the action genre? As I suspected at the time, it's a style that suits a story like United 93 much better. This is not a film that's supposed to fun, and you can see Greengrass, even as he emphasizes their courage and determination, straining against the urge to glorify the doomed passengers and crew of United flight 93 and contort their story to fit the standard action flick template (most blatantly, the phrase 'let's roll,' which became a slogan after September 11th, is uttered as an aside). The film alternates between the plane and military and civilian authorities on the ground, juxtaposing the latter's incomprehension of what was happening with the abductees' dawning realization of their situation and growing determination to take action, and the disjointed camerawork serves to emphasize both of these situations.

    United 93 is a tense, riveting film, and an uncomfortable trip back in time to that terrible day seven years ago, but it is precisely its obsession with realism (right down to casting some of its on-the-ground roles with the actual people who performed those roles on the day in question) and its dogged determination to resist the lure of narrative that leads one to wonder why the whole exercise was attempted in the first place. Why bother to make a feature film if everything that characterizes such films--plot, character arcs, themes--has been left out? And isn't the insistence on realism hypocritical given that so much of the film is speculation, right down to the hijackers' target and the question of whether the revolting passengers breached the cockpit? As affecting as I found United 93, I can't help but wonder whether it isn't another artifact of the popular obsession with 'reality'--which is to say, a story no more real than any other, but with pretensions to realism--and whether, in the mad scramble to avoid being disrespectful, the film ended up being something far more unwholesome, which lays claim to, and borrows significance from, a realism it doesn't actually possess.

  4. The Fall (2006) - Director Tarsem's follow-up to the visually stunning but emotionally hollow The Cell is, unsurprisingly, visually stunning and emotionally hollow. Still, it's a step in the right direction in that it is, impossible though this might seem, even more beautiful to behold than The Cell and, more importantly, because Tarsem has cast people who can actually act--Lee Pace as a 1920s Hollywood stuntman with a broken back and heart, and child actress Catinca Untaru as Alexandria, a precocious migrant worker hospitalized after breaking her arm while picking oranges (whether Untaru can actually act is yet to be seen, but Tarsem made the brilliant choice of casting an actress who, like her character, didn't speak English, so that her conversations with Pace's character, Roy, have an authenticity to them, sounding very much like the disjointed, scattershot conversations one has with young children who only understand a fraction of what they're hearing). Bored and curious, Alexandria discovers Roy while exploring the hospital, and is drawn into a story he concocts about a group of bandits eager to take revenge on an evil count.

    Though gorgeous, The Fall is unmistakably a film directed by a designer. Its emphasis is on creating stunning tableaux (and occasionally, though less often than one might expect considering Tarsem's career as a video clip director, on beautiful kinetic scenes), while letting the characters and the actors get lost in the shuffle (a similar problem afflicted Dave McKean's MirrorMask, which got so lost in admiring its sets that it completely forgot to show us its actors' faces). In addition, the story Roy spins is thin and nonsensical, clearly not much more than an excuse to film in as many exotic and beautiful locations as possible. The result is that The Fall only comes to life in the hospital segments, in which Pace and Untaru get a chance to interact and show emotion, but for a story about the importance of stories and the effect they can have on reality, this imbalance is a fatal flaw. The crux of the film is that Roy and Alexandria are bound together by the story they create, but, having failed to create a fantasy world worth immersing oneself in, the film becomes unconvincing, not an ode to the power of the imagination but an example of what happens when it fails.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 18

  1. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve - As the reprinted Martin Lewis review that first got me interested in this book points out, Mortal Engines kicks off with one hell of a first sentence: "It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea." The first in a quartet of YA novels, Mortal Engines takes place in a post-environmental collapse future in which mobile cities roam the blasted landscape, hunting and consuming one another for their resources. It's a great setting (and one that seems to crop up rather regularly in science fiction) which is matched with an equally intriguing premise--London apprentice Tom chases an intruder into the city's bowels after she attacks a prominent citizen, but instead of being hailed as a hero he finds himself banished from the city, forced to partner up with his former prey and to learn the ugly truths underlying the false history he's been told.

    Unfortunately, all this promise is undone by Reeve's tone and characterization choices, and while it's obviously unfair to criticize a children's novel for being just that, I've encountered too many counter-examples to believe that the simplicity and naivete that characterize the novel are prerequisites of the field. All of the characters, juvenile and adult, are painfully stupid, taking far too long to lose their innocence (I lost count of the number of times a character encounters an injustice, is shocked by it, and announces that "once I tell [shady and obviously not all-powerful authority figure who almost certainly knows all about said injustice and doesn't give a damn] they'll put a stop to this!" about halfway into the book), and their emotional reactions are too simple to be believable, a problem which is exacerbated by Reeve's tendency to tell us that characters are feeling things rather than show that they are. It's been suggested that some of these problems are addressed in subsequent books in the quartet, but I can't say that I feel motivated to seek them out.

  2. Kaaterskill Falls by Allegra Goodman - Goodman blew me away with Intuition, a novel about a scandal at a cancer research lab, so I was a little surprised, when I went to see what else she'd written, to learn that most of her previous work had had a more traditional focus on dysfunctional families and close-knit communities. Still, she's too good a writer for me to leave any of her work unread, and so, with some hesitation, I picked up Kaaterskill Falls, which takes place on three consecutive summers at the upstate New York retreat of a Hassidic Jewish sect in the late 70s. Goodman's writing is as beautiful as ever, as is the sharp, incisive way she describes and builds her characters--a young wife and mother eager to give her life some meaning beyond these roles; the ancient rebbe's two sons, one dutiful but lacking in insight, the other brilliant but lacking in faith; a bitter holocaust survivor and his increasingly observant young wife. Most interestingly, Kaaterskill Falls perfectly captures the complexity of what seems, from the outside, to be a uniformly conformist society--the way that different members tolerate different levels of observance, have wildly differing attitudes towards religion, faith, and custom even within the strict confines of the community, and place different emphases on observance and study. For all that, Goodman's portrait is obviously aimed at complete outsiders, and as a reader with some familiarity with the Hassidic way of life I found it less exciting and revelatory than I was probably intended to, and therefore found it easier to notice that the novel is also shapeless, made up of several brilliant character portraits and plotlines that don't amount to much of a whole. It's a beautiful novel and I'm glad I read it, but for my next foray into Goodman's bibliography I'll probably go for her most recent entry--a post-apocalyptic YA novel--rather than giving her back-catalogue another try.

  3. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff - There's so much promise in Groff's premise--a disgraced anthropology student slinks back to her home town (closely modeled on Groff's real home of Cooperstown, founded by the father of Last of the Mohicans author James Fenimore Cooper and home to the Baseball Hall of Fame) on the same day that the corpse of a monster surfaces in the town's lake, is told by her single mother that her father was not, as she'd previously been told, a random encounter at a San Francisco commune but a Templeton native and, as a way of discovering his identity, travels back up her own family tree, all the way to the town's founder, the rakish Marmaduke Temple. It seems that, with just a bare minimum of talent, Groff would almost have to craft something meaty and satisfying from these ingredients, but The Monsters of Templeton falls flat.

    The present day segments are told in the first person by the heroine, Willie Upton, but Groff makes the all-too-common mistake of assuming that her choice of a first person narrator makes it acceptable for her to use infodumps in lieu of character development, telling us about Willie, her family and her neighbors instead of letting us learn about them at our own pace. It certainly doesn't help that Willie is an annoying character, selfish and not particularly interesting, and that the rest of the contemporary characters feel like types out of a TV movie--the quirky yet ultimately down-to-earth mother; her seemingly dull yet devoted boyfriend; the heroine's exciting, bohemian best friend; her townie love interest, bitter about being left in her dust but concealing greater depths. The historical segments are more successful overall--particularly the ones which incorporate the plot of The Last of the Mohicans into the fictional Templeton's history--but still a mixed bag. The Monsters of Templeton is a novel about history and its weight and influence on the present, but both the past and the present that Groff has crafted are too insubstantial, too riddled with stereotypes and lazy clichés to be persuasive.

  4. Rhetorics of Fantasy by Farah Mendlesohn - I was sent a copy of Mendlesohn's critical work after referencing it in my Best American Fantasy post in a way that, she claimed, misrepresented her thesis. Having read the book, I can see that this is entirely true, but I'm not sure what the moral of the story is--if the consequence of saying stupid, inaccurate things online is that I get sent intelligent, thought-provoking works of nonfiction to read, what's my motivation to stop? Seriously, though, I think the greatest error I made in considering Rhetorics of Fantasy before I'd read it was not that I misrepresented the four subcategories Mendlesohn posits within fantasy--portal-quest fantasy, immersive fantasy, intrusive fantasy, and liminal fantasy--but that, with a genre reader's love of taxonomy and categorization, I assumed that this subdivision was the point of the book. As Mendlesohn's introduction makes clear, her focus is less on justifying her categories or classifying works into them, and more on identifying their attributes and, in so doing, raising questions about the genre in general. One might almost say that Rhetorics of Fantasy takes the existence of Mendlesohn's categories as a given, and, having stipulated that fantasy can and should be so subdivided, goes on to ponder just what unique qualities each of the categories possesses.

    Rhetorics of Fantasy is divided into five essays, one each for each of the four categories and another for works that combine qualities of more than one of Mendlesohn's types. Each essay alternates between theoretical discussion and discussions of representative texts, and each one is laid out in a way that best suits that category's characteristics. The chapter on portal-quest fantasy--the type most closely associated with the term 'fantasy' and the marketing category of that name--is laid out chronologically, which allows Mendlesohn to address the influence of Tolkien and Lewis on this subgenre in the context of their antecedents and followers. On the other hand, when discussing immersive fantasy Mendlesohn divides the chapter by the different attributes of the subgenre, and the discussion of intrusive fantasy opens with several pages in which Mendlesohn gives a blow-by-blow account of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Wolves in the Walls as an illustration of how a work in this subgenre achieves its effects. The result is a series of fascinating essays, which lucidly analyze and diagnose the ways in which fantasy works on its readers, and the reasons for its failure or success.

    The further I got into Rhetorics of Fantasy, however, the more problematic Mendlesohn's choice to subdivide fantasy without first articulating--to her readers, if not to herself--a definition of fantasy as a whole became, especially when one considers that the implicit definition of fantasy Mendlesohn seems to be using encompasses all of the non-mimetic genres. The chapter on immersive fantasy repeatedly compares the subgenre to science fiction and even uses several science fiction novels as examples of the attributes Mendlesohn identifies, and the chapter on intrusive fantasy is actually about horror, and hardly discusses any examples of fantasy until it gets to the early 80s. In itself, this assumption--that SF and horror are subsets of fantasy--is not inherently objectionable, though I can see as many arguments against as for it, but its being left unstated means that there's a missing bedrock to Rhetorics of Fantasy that leaves it somewhat untethered. Despite this reservation, I found Rhetorics of Fantasy fascinating and insightful, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in pondering how fantasy works.

  5. The Ant King and Other Stories by Benjamin Rosenbaum - Like John Kessel's The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, this collection has been made available under a Creative Commons License by its publisher, Small Beer Press (and it has now been followed by Kelly Link's second collection, Magic for Beginners, though sadly without the title story). Like Kessel, Rosenbaum seems to enjoy switching styles and genres. About half of the stories in The Ant King are surrealist pieces told with Linkian matter-of-factness, such as the title story, in which the protagonist's girlfriend dissolves into a million yellow gumballs but has actually been kidnapped underground by the titular king, doomed to watch Charlie's Angels reruns with him for all eternity. With the exception of "Other Cities," a series of vignettes about imaginary cities, some familiar and some strange, I found these stories somewhat trying, but the other half of the collection highlights Rosenbaum's love of referencing, riffing, and pastiche. There's the romantic adventure "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, With Air-Planes' by Benjamin Rosenbaum," or the Jungle Book riff "On the Cliff by the River," or the Biblical pastiche "The Book of Jashar," or the utterly insane and indescribable "Sense and Sensibility," and even a couple of relatively straightforward SF shorts. Each is so different from the others that it's sometimes hard to believe they're all by the same author, but the one quality they all have in common is Rosenbaum's admirable control of voice and style, which makes The Ant King a supremely enjoyable collection.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Self-Promotion

Happy 5769, and sorry about the prolonged period of silence recently--a combination of work and the holidays is keeping me a little busy.  Today, however, Strange Horizons has my review of Paul McAuley's The Quiet War, and there's some stuff in the pipeline for the near future.