Monday, March 23, 2009

Doomed to Repeat It: Battlestar Galactica, Thoughts at the End

I truly do believe that if Moore and his writers don't find a way to tell a story that mirrors present-day events without being overwhelmed by symbolism, Galactica will flounder. In all forms of writing, story must come first: the characters need to be real, the plot needs to make sense, you can't demand too much suspension of disbelief from your viewers. Place story second to ideology, and you'll soon find yourself with neither.


I think Moore is going to slide into the realm of metaphysics and go completely insane and I want to be there when it happens, not because I think the end result will be moving or awe-inspiring or even any good, but because I think it's going to be really, really big.


Oh, God, it's totally going to end in mass suicide, isn't it?

Private e-mail, January 19th, 2009
Battlestar Galactica has been a recurring theme on this blog for three and a half years, nearly its entire existence. Going through my post-episode, mid-season and end of season posts from earliest to latest is like watching my fannish enthusiasm for the series curdle and die in stop motion: from a generally positive if somewhat cautious note, to mounting dismay as the second season unravels in its latter half, to exasperation and disdain during the third season, and finally to a dull rage and grim bemusement as the series draws to a close. I expected as much when I made such a review yesterday evening before starting work on this post, but what startled me was the realization of just how early on in my writing about the show I had expressed my main criticism against it--in my very first essay-length post about Battlestar Galactica, quoted above. Everything I've written about the series since then has been an expansion on, a distillation of, or additional examples supporting, this one single criticism.

So, for me, the important question as I come to make a final (though how many times have I told myself that this one post was going to be the final one?) statement about Battlestar Galactica is not whether it was a good series--it wasn't, not since the middle of its second season at the very latest--and not why it failed--I've gone over that ground too many times, most recently and, I think, most comprehensively just a few weeks ago--but why I kept coming back. Why did I keep watching a show that did nothing but disappoint and infuriate me? Why did I keep writing about it when all I was doing was saying the same thing over and over again in slightly different ways?

Popularity is a big part of the answer. It's doubtful that I would have been as invested in debunking the perception of Galactica as the best science fiction series of the decade, and a smart, well-written show in any genre, if these were not such commonly held and frequently voiced opinions both in and out of genre circles. Rage is another component. You can drop a show that bores and fails to engage you, but it's a lot harder to walk away from a series whose writing infuriates you, and whose every plotting and characterization choice seems calculated to belittle your intelligence. Galactica's mistakes were all driven by the same core flaw, but every time it made one I just got angrier, and when I get angry, the only way I can regain my equilibrium is to write about it. But most of all I kept coming back to Galactica because of fear. Fear that the plaudits and awards and (utterly inexplicable) invitations to speak at the UN had tapped into something true, or rather that they were creating truth simply by being repeated so often: that Galactica is the shape of science fiction television to come.

The general reception of "Daybreak II," and particularly its post-space battle segments, has been negative. People more knowledgeable about these subjects than myself have spoken about the dodginess of its evolutionary history and the plan it charts for Colonial humanity's survival as subsistence farmers, and many have expressed dismay at the show's sudden shift to an anti-science position. As problematic and disappointing as these elements are, they pale, to my mind, beside the fact that in its final episode Galactica once again, to borrow Dan Hartland's phrase, eviscerates itself. From its earliest episodes the show prided itself on being about the messiness of the human condition, about our tendencies toward war, violence, racial and religious strife. After four seasons of this the conclusion the show comes to is not that we should strive to be better, not that we should learn from our mistakes, not even that such betterment is impossible and that these blights are the unfortunate cost of being human, but that we should just walk away from the whole mess. History is rife with examples of man's inhumanity to man? Then end it.

There have been many complaints about the lack of an overarching plan to Galactica's plotting, but "Daybreak II" reveals that its political storytelling was just as haphazard. After so much time spent on tortured real-world analogies, so much of what made the show worthwhile sacrificed so that its writers could pat themselves on the back for asking the 'tough questions,' it turns out that the only answer they could come up with is one that even the most pretentious undergraduate would find painfully dumb. Don't learn from your mistakes, and don't repeat them either. Don't face up to the crimes and guilt in your past, and don't deny them. Don't forgive your enemies, and don't continue to make war on them. Don't come up with new ways to govern, and new ways to subvert those governments. Just forget. Forget about cities. Forget about communities. Forget about recording history for future generations. Forget the quest for knowledge. Forget about learning to understand your surroundings. Forget everything that makes us more than mere animals. We all made a big mistake coming down from the trees in the first place.

In a way, this is mass suicide. Not only of individuals, few of whom will survive long in small, isolated groups without the medical, agricultural, and industrial tools that the show so blithely dismisses as 'creature comforts' (one wonders whether the writers realize what they're implying when they say that the unearthed body of Hera is that of a young girl--that Hera not only died young but had children young, the latter possibly causing the former) but of Colonial civilization itself. Its history, culture, art and science lost forever, willfully and deliberately destroyed by its last few survivors. There's something almost laughable about the scene in which Adama decides to name the Colonials' new home Earth--as if it matters what these people call their planet when every hint that they ever walked upon it is going to be lost forever. By taking the fleet to Earth, Kara Thrace is the harbinger of Colonial humanity's doom, but it is her fellow Colonials, led by Lee Adama, who with Stepfordian gladness finish the job the Cylons started.

I might almost have respected the show if its writers had faced head on the implications of the ending they'd written, but with typical Galactican cowardliness they try to sugarcoat it. They pretend that a genetic legacy is the same thing or even better than a cultural one--because we all feel a deep personal bond to our great-to-the-nth-power-grandparents, but absolutely no connection to the people who shaped our national, ethnic, and religious identities--and decide that by some magical process Colonial society manages to shape modern American society in its image despite having been wiped away entirely--in the process all but saying that American civilization is the truest, most ancient civilization on the planet. Of course, these are the same people who have concluded their story by telling us, of every major question, coincidence, and plot twist, that God did it, but are so terrified of the religiosity of the resulting story that they desperately shoehorn in an escape clause at the last minute by suggesting that it's not God pulling the characters' strings, but a god-like alien.

Far worse to my mind than Galactica's ending being anti-science is the fact that it is anti-science fiction. Science fiction is the literature of change. It's about imagining the future--which things get better, which get worse, which stay the same; what new systems we come up with to live our lives, and how they fail under the weight of the same basic human flaws. Far from imagining it, with its final episode Battlestar Galactica has shown itself to be a series about ending the future. Everything that's happened in its four seasons, everything its characters have experienced, seen, or done, has been calculated to bring them to a point where they take their future apart, leaving nothing behind but their genetic code. And all this is so that we can arrive, not at an analogy or at an allegory of it, but at the actual, real-world present day and say 'we don't know what happens next.' Well, of course we don't, but that's just what science fiction is for--to say 'what if?' and then imagine the answer. And that is just what Battlestar Galactica has been desperately opposed to doing almost from day one.

What bothers me about this is less that Galactica itself isn't science fiction--I came to that conclusion at the end of the third season--but that there are still plenty of people who can't tell the difference between its stasis-oriented brand of pseudo-SF and the real thing. More importantly, it worries me that there are people, in and out of genre, who think that Battlestar Galactica represents a model of what science fiction television should be like--allegorical, present-oriented, cowardly and unimaginative. For better and mostly for worst, Galactica has been the dominant genre show of the last half-decade, and it has inspired and will continue to inspire other creators. Kings is very obviously taking its cues from Galactica when it neglects its worldbuilding and comes up with an imaginary world that doesn't suit its premise. Judging from its teaser trailer, the upcoming Stargate: Universe is desperately trying to ape the show's dark visuals and emotional tone (not to worry: the Stargate: Atlantis pilot was similarly a departure from its parent show, and that series bounced back to the SG-1 template before the first season was half over). When even Joss Whedon, a man who's forgotten more about good worldbuilding than the entire Galactica writing room ever knew, is reported to have said that "he aspires to make television like [Galactica]" you know there's trouble ahead.

I've been contemplating what I'd write about Battlestar Galactica's final episodes for weeks, wondering how best to sum up my feelings about it and its ending. For a while, I was toying with the idea of leading with a joke about our long national nightmare being over, but now I'm wondering, what if it isn't? I'm OK with Galactica itself ending badly, and not even a grand, bombastic bad but a dumb bad that hardly anyone can find it in their hearts to defend, because that's the kind of show it was--lots of buildup, very little payoff; lots of self-aggrandizement, very little justification; lots of talk, very little substance.  But that's because up until now I'd been assuming that the show would end and that would be that. We'd get The Plan (the title and concept of which never fail to make me laugh) and however many episodes Caprica managed to last (all the soapy allegory of Galactica, none of the space battles--I'm guessing not many), and that would be it for this universe on our screens. But what if the series and its failings have an afterlife? What if the next big thing, the next genre series to dominate the television landscape, isn't another Buffy, or Farscape, or Deep Space Nine, but another Battlestar Galactica, because that's what people--creators, producers, critics, even some of the fans--want?

Galactica's writers can so cavalierly imagine the end of Colonial history, and paint that ending as a happy one, because that history was never real to them in the first place. In that sense, they're like the mainstream writers who write post-apocalyptic SF novels because it's so much easier to end the world than imagine it different. For all its SFnal pedigree, Galactica is the television equivalent of these novels--a science fiction series desperately striving to get away from everything that makes science fiction special and fun (and unlike at least some of these novels, it doesn't compensate for its shoddy worldbuilding in any way--beautiful writing, compelling character arcs, coherent plots). I'm terrified that there are writers out there who have learned all the wrong lessons from the protracted catastrophe that was Battlestar Galactica's rise and fall, and that in a few years' time all of this will have happened again: the cautious optimism, the dismay, the exasperation, the dull rage. Which, I suppose, is my reason for coming back to this show even though all I can do is say the same thing over and over again. Because I'm baffled, and angry, and worried, and the only thing I can do to exercise what miniscule amount of power I have to affect what gets produced for our screens and what the reaction to it is is to keep hammering in the same point: this is not science fiction. This is not good television. We deserve better.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

More Saturday Afternoon Sci Fi

I'll probably have some more substantial thoughts about Battlestar Galactica in a day or two, but in the meantime it's worth noting that it was a big weekend for science fiction all around, with several interesting developments.
  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "The Last Voyage of the Jimmy Carter" - a strong conclusion to last week's equally strong episode, which brings the Jesse-Riley storyline to a satisfying close. There are lots of good character scenes, and the flashbacks-to-the-future aboard the doomed Jimmy Carter are tense and quite creepy, and do more than the rest of the season put together to make Jesse sympathetic while stressing that she's caused as much suffering and horror as was caused her. On the other hand, the plotting is still middling-to-poor, most notably in the first and only encounter between John and Jesse, when the two of them have to pause what is otherwise a riveting conversation in order for John to spew exposition, alternately telling us things we've known for ages and retroactively altering the plots of preceding episodes by revealing that he knew about Riley's deception for months. It is also presumably an unintended irony that in an episode that is all about John confronting the burden of leadership and stepping a small way into that role, we learn that this whole tragedy--Riley, the submariners, and perhaps Jesse's deaths, John and Derek's hearbreak, the destruction of the Jimmy Carter, the loss of a potential T-1000 ally (who is presumably Weaver--her comment in the present about humans being a disappointment seems to suggest this)--was caused by an abject failure of leadership on future John's part (as well as, to a lesser extent, Jesse).

    Still, on the whole this two-parter was the best story the show has produced in a long time, which perversely enough aggravates me, because it is also the story that's given Sarah the least to do. This after a stultifying sequence of pointless Sarah-centric episodes that did nothing to advance either the plot or my understanding of her character. Is it really too much to a ask that this show's writers come up with interesting and exciting stories for their main character?

  • Dollhouse, "Man on the Street" - this was the episode that was supposed to win us all over to the show, and while that would certainly be taking it too far, it's a definite step up in quality. Most notably, the episode moves away from the assignment of the week format that's been so unsatisfactory (though steadily improving) these last few weeks, and instead delivers a heaping plateful of plot and revelations (some--such as the identity of Sierra's abuser--were painfully obvious, while others--such as the truth about Mellie--were predictable but still a lot of fun to have confirmed). After several stories that seemed to be deliberately moving away from the idea of the dollhouse as a high-tech whorehouse, this episode returned to the sexual angle in force, and hammered in the skeeviness of what's being done to the dolls by both their handlers and their clients. I like this approach better, but at the same time it brings us right back to the difficulty that all the preceding episodes have tried, and mostly failed, to get around--that even the richest, most jaded, most particular people would probably be just as happy with a garden variety high-class call girl as they would with a programmable person. Add to this the man on the street interviews, which while not terrifically interesting seemed to be trying to imagine what effect the existence of dolls would have on the world, and it just becomes painfully obvious that Dollhouse should have been an out-and-out, future-set science fiction show about a world in which doll technology is commonly accepted (per the last interview about such technology changing the meaning of what it is to be human), not a crypto-SF present-day story.

  • Battlestar Galactica, "Daybreak, Part II" - it's hard to imagine an episode that would better encapsulate the complete bankruptcy of this show's plotting and character work. The senselessness of last week's setup is compounded this week when Adama and Lee hand over the leadership of the military and civilian portions of the fleet to, respectively (and I'm still chuckling as I write this) Hoshi and Romo Lampkin, just so that the entire main cast can participate in one last huge space battle regardless of how much sense this makes for their respective characters. Of course, it isn't entirely fair to complain about this since, as I've often said in the past, huge space battles are what this show does best, and indeed the attack on the Cylon colony and rescue of Hera is a tense and well-done sequence, but it's a little sad that a show that's prided itself, with however little justification, on its political storylines, sidelines them in its finale first by concentrating on pyrotechnics, and then by dismantling its political system, in an ending so mind-bogglingly dumb, so steeped in airy-fairy New Age bullshit that even though I truly believed that I was long past being angry at this show I barely managed to make it through the (drawn out and tedious) ending segments of the episode. This is not even to mention the present-day coda, which tries to make some gesture towards a sad statement about man's inhumanity to man, but ends up suggesting that what we really should be worrying about in the real world right now is the possibility of a killer robot attack. Good fucking riddance.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Hugo Season

The Hugo nominations are also out this week, somewhat sooner than I had expected. In all the fun and exasperation of trying to figure out what my own nominees were going to be, I sort of lost sight of the fact that the shortlist would be what it has always been--stodgy, middle-of-the-road, and old-fashioned. So I'm probably a little more disappointed than I ought to be by a ballot that does include a sizable proportion of stories I liked. Niall has the whole ballot, but here are my thoughts on the categories I can speak knowledgeably on (by the way, I note that Niall reprints the nominations in the order listed on the Anticipation website, which is not alphabetical by either title or author's name; should we draw conclusions from this about the number of nominations received by each work?):

Best Novel:
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson
  • Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
  • Saturn's Children by Charles Stross
It was pretty obvious that this year's shortlist was going to be dominated by YA and YA-tinged fiction, and I had resigned myself to Little Brother being on it (I'm being a little unfair--I haven't read the book yet--but everything I've heard leads to believe I'm going to hate it) as well as The Graveyard Book (though I thought there was a chance that Gaiman might refuse the nomination as he did for the vastly superior Anansi Boys). I was hoping, however, that some of the more impressive genre YA novels of the year--Nation, Tender Morsels, by all accounts The Knife of Never Letting Go and Hunger Games--might get in as well.

Best Novella:
  • "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum (Fast Forward 2)
  • "The Political Prisoner" by Charles Coleman Finlay (F&SF, August 2008)
  • "The Erdmann Nexus" by Nancy Kress (Asimov's, October/November 2008)
  • "The Tear" by Ian McDonald (Galactic Empires)
  • "Truth" by Robert Reed (Asimov's, October/November 2008)
I was unimpressed by both the Finlay and Kress (what is it with her nursing home novellas and their inexplicable popularity?) when I read them for my Hugo ballot, but "True Names" and "Truth" were the two best novellas on it, and I've heard good things about "The Tear," so all told this is a strong ballot.

Best Novelette:
With the exception of the Resnick (sigh) all of these stories were on my second tier of potential nominees. So while it certainly can't be said that this is a bad list, I am disappointed that none of the more exciting stories I read are on it. I'm particularly baffled by the love for Gardner's story, an enjoyable piece which has nevertheless been wildly overpraised.

Best Short Story:
  • "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang (Eclipse 2)
  • "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson (Asimov's, July 2008)
  • "Evil Robot Monkey" by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Two)
  • "Article of Faith" by Mike Resnick (Baen's Universe, October 2008)
  • "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, February 2008)
Hurray, more Resnick. The Johnson is another story that readership seems to have gone crazy over this year. I liked it better than the Gardner, but still not enough to understand what the fuss is over (I had a similar reaction to Johnson's similarly well received "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change" last year). Of the remaining nominees I've only read the Chiang, so it's too soon to say whether this is a strong ballot or not. I was hoping Margo Lanagan's "The Goosle" would get in, but I think its popularity might have been blown out of proportion by the crush to stomp on Dave Truesdale's wrongheaded criticism of it.

I note, by the way, that it's been a very good year for Asimov's, and somewhat less so for original story anthologies, but not such a good year for the other print magazines. This despite the fact that Asimov's was the most wildly inconsistent market I read in 2008--quite a few outstanding stories, lots of terrible ones, and very little in between.

The Best Dramatic Presentation: Long Form ballot is too boring to discuss except for the presence of the audiobook METAtropolis, though I suspect that's mainly due to the Scalzi effect.

Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form:
  • Battlestar Galactica, "Revelations"
  • Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
  • Doctor Who, "Silence in the Library"/"The Forests of the Dead"
  • Doctor Who, "Turn Left"
  • Lost, "The Constant"
Not terribly exciting, but pretty much as I expected. I'm a little surprised to see the wildly divisive "Revelations" up here as the Galactica nomination, but I suppose the show didn't have many standout individual episodes in 2008. "The Constant" was a shoo-in given the enthusiasm for it, and the Doctor Who contingent is still out in force--I'm more pleased by the "Turn Left" nomination than the underwhelming library two-parter, though I still wish "Midnight" had gotten a nod. And, of course, Dr. Horrible is going to take the award in a walk.

Rather shockingly, no one seems to have done this yet: in the fiction categories, there are 21 19 nominees, of which 4, or 19% 21%, are women (UPDATE: fixed because I can't count). Not as bad as recent years, but still not very good. There's also only one woman on the Campbell ballot.

I'll probably wait until all the nominated stories are online before I start posting my shortlist reviews. I think I need a short Hugo break right now.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Kings

I've been simultaneously looking forward to and dreading Kings since I first heard about it in the fall. Its premise--a retelling of the Biblical story of the first two Israelite kings, Saul and David, set in a modern-yet-monarchic alternate reality--is completely off the wall, especially for network television, and though I had to believe that anyone crazy enough to dream up such a story would also have a very specific vision of how to realize it and what they wanted to do with it, there's often a gap between what writers want to create and what their skill allows them to. The pilot episode, "Goliath," leaves me very intrigued, and absolutely planning to keep following the series. It's extremely well-made, with a strong cast, wonderful production values, and good direction (the scene in which David defeats Goliath--in this version, an enemy tank--in order to rescue some prisoners of war is especially impressive, a tense and engrossing sequence). At the same time, I can't escape the impression that strong acting and visuals are doing a lot, but not nearly enough, to obscure the fact that the script was several drafts short of done.

To get the really bad stuff out of the way first: I am profoundly aggravated by the fact that in a retelling of a Jewish story, about Jewish people, describing one of the pivotal moments in the development of the Jewish nation, the only overt religious signifier is Christian. Religion and God are mentioned quite often in "Goliath"--King Silas of Gilboa (Ian McShane, on his own about 50% of the reasons the pilot so appealed to me) had a vision from God which inspired him to unite his people under his rule and lead them to greatness, and he is closely advised by the religious figure Samuels, who anointed him as God's chosen instrument. Beyond the fact that it exists, "Goliath" gives us no details about Gilboa's religion, with one exception--Samuels is addressed by the specifically Christian title of 'reverend.' So not only is the Jewish story of Saul and David Christianized, by positing a 'generic' religion and making its one identifying characteristic Christian, Kings falls into the trap of assuming that Christianity is the default religion and all other faiths a special case. As part of the still-ongoing 2009 iteration of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom, there were several posts by Jews discussing their discomfort with the way that a Christian culture appropriates and tries to swallow up their distinct religion and history. Having lived my whole life as part of Jewish majority, I was fascinated by these accounts but couldn't sympathize with them, but Kings is a brief glimpse into what these writers experience regularly.

Even more problematic is the show's treatment of Jonathan, here called Jack. The relationship between David and Jonathan is the most fascinating aspect of the tangled family drama that underlies the story of Saul's downfall and David's rise to power. After David kills Goliath and comes to Saul's attention, he and Jonathan become fast friends, and Jonathan eventually sides with David when Saul turns on him--betraying his father and his tribe, and relinquishing his claim to the throne--out of love, and the belief that David has been chosen by God. The Kings writers have instead chosen to make Jack and David enemies, with Jack resenting David's place in the people's and the king's affections. This is a boringly familiar approach, but it becomes something different and quite disturbing when you add the show's decision to play up the none-too-subtle homosexual subtext of David and Jonathan's friendship by making Jack gay. In the episode's standout scene, Silas angrily tells Jonathan that until he can totally suppress his homosexuality he won't be worthy of the throne, which sends Jonathan straight to his uncle William, who is plotting to undermine Silas's reign. So not only is the only gay character in the show a villain, he is a villain precisely because he's gay and unwilling to deny his nature in order to get what he wants, and thus stands in stark opposition to the self-controlled, straight David.

Less objectionable, but probably more problematic in the long run, is the show's worldbuilding. Like Battlestar Galactica, Kings posits a fantastic setting in which one huge thing is different from our world, but everything else is the same. Though there are some amusing and inventive juxtapositions of the modern and the archaic, such as the scribe who records Silas's deeds in archaic language on his PDA, for the most part Gilboa is a thoroughly modern Western nation. People drive cars, watch TV, call each other on cellphones, surf the net. The Gilboa military's gear and uniforms are familiar from dozens of contemporary war films and documentaries, and the civilian clothes are just what you'd find on Grey's Anatomy or CSI. As I've often said in my discussions of Galactica, this approach can result in a flimsy, unconvincing secondary world, but this is an even bigger problem for Kings, whose deviation from our norm is so much greater than the existence of spaceships and killer robots--a modern world in which the commonly accepted system of government is absolute monarchy.

There is no indication that the Kings writers have given any thought to how different our lives would be if we had no power over those stationed above us, no law to bind their hands, no courts to turn to, no elections with which to replace rulers who displease us. Such systems--we see this in historical monarchies as well as recent and current dictatorships--inevitably breed a rigid class structure, nested spheres of influence and patronage which are an individual's only method of social advancement. There's no sign of this in Kings. Silas doesn't have an aristocracy or a royal court. His advisors are politicians and greedy corporate fat cats. There's no indication that the people, or even just a small portion of them, are displeased with the order of things, or want anything more than for Silas to rule them well.

This is particularly unfortunate because the Biblical story of Saul's rise and fall (Samuel I, ch. 8 - Samuel II, ch. 1) might as well be subtitled 'Kings! What Are They Good For?' Before Saul, the Israelites are ruled by priests and prophets, with military leaders, called judges, called forth when the nation is threatened. In the time of the high priest Samuel these judges are Samuel's sons, who are described as venal and corrupt. The people turn to Samuel and demand that he choose for them a king like all the other nations, to which Samuel angrily responds (Samuel I, 8:11-18):
And he said: 'This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: he will take your sons, and appoint them unto him, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and they shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint them unto him for captains of thousands, and captains of fifties; and to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and the instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be perfumers, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and all of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your men-servants, and your maid-servants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not answer you in that day.'
Of course, the people insist and Saul is chosen, but he loses God's favor soon after when he declines to wait for Samuel's presence before starting the sacrifices before a battle, and later when he refuses to obey the edict to completely destroy Amalek, and claims some of their people and belongings as spoils of war. Both of these transgressions are indications that Saul has stopped thinking of himself as God's emissary and started to believe that he has an absolute right to rule, and while it's probably going way too far to argue that the Biblical author is a republican, they do seem to come to the conclusion, with David as well as Saul, that when a person is handed absolute power a natural consequence is that they start thinking they have a right to it, and are above any law, either God's or man's. "Goliath" comes close to discussing the corrupting influence of power, but it veers off course when it concludes that the problem is that the wrong person has been handed that power and identifying his replacement.

Of course, one possible reason for Kings's apparent disinterest in discussing the questions and issues inherent to a monarchic system is that despite its premise and even its title, it isn't trying to tell a story about kings. The politics of the show's invented universe are deliberately trying to recall ours. Silas locks horns with bleeding heart liberals and wicked bankers. Health care reform is a hot issue. At the beginning of a speech, the king laments that "it's not popular to talk about God." The show's vibe is less Rome, more The West Wing (even the sets and directing style seem to be trying to recall Aaron Sorkin's series) but a side effect of this choice is to give the impression that the writers think there's no difference between a king and a president, between the politics of a monarchy and the politics of a republic. This is a debatable opinion--though I find it cynical and ill-informed--but it's not something that can simply be dropped into the show's makeup and left unacknowledged, which is what "Goliath" does.

It's likely that upcoming episodes will deal with at least some of the issues I've raised here, but it seems to me that a pilot should be a statement of intent about the questions that interest a show's writers and the direction they intend to take with them, and in that sense "Goliath" is frustratingly vague on the question of monarchy, as well as other questions aroused by the show's worldbuilding, such as whether the depiction of Gilboa as potentially not only homophobic but also racist (the main cast is entirely white except for the black priest, the queen's black assistant, and the king's Indian mistress) and sexist (though the king's daughter Michelle is active in politics, she's not considered a potential heir to the throne, and seems to have no desire or expectation of inheriting it) is an intentional statement, a thoughtless oversight, or a result of the writers assuming that that's just the way it works in monarchies? So I'm not sure yet whether the series plans to engage with these issues, and consequently whether I should look forward to or dread its upcoming episodes. You might be wondering why, despite all these reservations, I'm still planning to stick with this show and recommending it to others, but any series that gets me arguing so vociferously with it, and spilling nearly 2,000 words to do so, a mere two hours into its run is worth sticking with. Despite its wacky premise, there's still a good chance that Kings will turn out as unimaginative and hidebound as most mainstream forays into genre, but I'm sufficiently excited by what I've seen so far to give it the chance to surprise me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Clarke Season

Another cool thing that happens in the spring is the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the most consistently entertaining, interesting, and, judging more by its winners than its nominees, rightheaded major genre award. Torque Control posted the list of novels submitted for the judges' consideration last month, and today has the shortlist (with many links to reviews of the nominated novels):
  • Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod
  • The Quiet War by Paul McAuley
  • House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds
  • Anathem by Neal Stephenson
  • The Margarets by Sherri S. Tepper
  • Martin Martin's on the Other Side by Mark Wernham
I had already decided to take a pass on writing a Clarke shortlist review this year before the nominees were announced (mainly because I suspected that Anathem and The Quiet War would be on it, and felt that I'd already said all I had to say about both novels), and the actual shortlist isn't making me regret that decision. Of the two novels I've read, The Quiet War is well-done but underwhelming (an opinion in which I am joined by practically no one, as it's been lauded by most of its reviewers and has appeared on several best of the year lists). I enjoyed Anathem very much, though its spell has faded rather quickly. Only a few months after finishing it, I can more easily recall Anathem's flaws--its flat characters, its by-the-numbers plot, its frequent infodumps--than I can the qualities that made me enjoy it despite them. Also, as Jonathan McCalmont points out in the comments to the Torque Control post, giving the Clarke to Stephenson would be a safe and predictable choice, especially given that he's already won it for the vastly inferior Quicksilver.

I haven't heard much about the other nominees, but I'm not particularly inclined to read either Song of Time or The Margarets, having had previous bad experiences with both their authors. I found MacLeod's The Light Ages stiff and overwritten, with barely an appealing character or an interesting plotline in sight, and none of the short stories by him that I've read since have shown an improvement on any of these counts. Tepper's Beauty was preachy and hectoring, and Strange Horizons's review of The Margarets suggests that she hasn't backed away from that dogmatic tone. I'm also not terrifically interested in Alastair Reynolds, and I'll hold off on reading the Wernham, this year's off the wall literary selection, until I can get a better idea of whether it's the 2009 equivalent of The Carhullan Army or The Red Men.

What this means is that I'm probably not going to be as involved in the Clarke award this year as I've been in the past. I do, however, look forward to the traditional Clarke brouhaha--as Graham Sleight puts it "The Clarke has a reputation for a) crossing over into "the literary" for its own sake more than other sf awards, and b) annoying the sf community because of a)" and this is always fun to watch. Plus, the publication of the shortlist is the starting pistol for back-seat judges to start forming the consensus on which novels were criminally left off it--this year the front-runners are Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go and Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World--which similarly makes for good entertainment, though it is probably too much to hope that the award will be boycotted by Ain't It Cool News for the second year in a row. All told, then, this is the beginning of a fun time for me, even if this year I'll mostly be watching from the sidelines.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The End is Nigh? Thoughts on Serialized Television

It's spring, a time when, in recent years, a television aficionado's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of new pilots, and the faint but ever-present hope that unlike the fall selection, this batch will include at least one that doesn't suck. So far, the prospects are not good. The jury is still out on Dollhouse, but let's be honest: if the show had anyone's name but Joss Whedon's stamped on it, we'd all have dropped it by now. Nathan Fillion's new series Castle is fine in the sense that it'll keep him on our screens for what I suspect will be a much longer time than either Drive or Firefly managed, but if the pilot is any indication it's a cross between House and The Mentalist with both of those shows' already not very prominent rough edges filed off. Last night saw the premiere of Kings, quite possibly the highest concept non-genre series since Dexter hit the airways. I haven't watched the pilot yet, but it would be nice to think that Kings has both the intelligence and the guts to do justice to its premise. Even if it does--and if it survives longer than half a dozen episodes--the television landscape around it will still be bleak, a vast desert of reality TV, talk shows, cop, doctor and lawyer series, and, in lieu of genuine oases, the occasional Lost or even Heroes.

Only a few years ago, there was a whole slate of series that I felt excited about, both for the stories they were telling and for the new uses to which they put the television medium. These days, there isn't a single show that engages me that way. There's a natural turnover to fannish affections--some series end, either prematurely or past their time, and others keep going but lose their freshness and originality--but up until a few years ago I could always count on new titles replacing the ones that dropped away or faded in my affections. If I look at my television viewing habits today, I find a few series, such as Dexter or Doctor Who, that I like but am no longer thrilled by, and a whole bunch--30 Rock, Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, The Sarah Connor Chronicles--that I follow but am not very attached to. The closest thing I feel to genuine fannishnes these days is the anger and exasperation aroused by Battlestar Galactica or Heroes, and their failure to be the next step in the evolution of television storytelling I'd hoped for. I don't think this is just me. Every year there are fewer and fewer interesting, groundbreaking new series on the air, and more procedurals and tired retreads of last year's success stories.

It was with these glum thoughts in mind that I happened upon this LJ post by cryptoxin, and through it these two articles, by Maureen Ryan at The Chicago Tribune and Jeff Jensen at Entertainment Weekly, about the fading glory of what Jensen calls the second golden age of television.
There have been harbingers of The End for a while, but the death knell came with the writers' strike; it demonstrated how tenuous our relationship is to a TV show: How quickly it can disappear! In the strike's aftermath, viewers became both reluctant to re-engage with the old shows that left them hanging and wary of the new shows that promised unique vision or quirky cool. While J.J. Abrams' hipster sci-fi series Fringe is attracting just 9 million viewers a week, its time-slot rival The Mentalist, a conspicuously old-fashioned CBS crime procedural, was the No. 1 show the week of Dec. 9, with almost 19 million. And if viewers didn't abandon dramas with continuing story lines in 2008, they certainly found them less essential. (Prison Break, down 23 percent; Grey's, down 12 percent; Heroes, down 26 percent.) With demand for edgy entertainment shrinking, so is supply. Media industry volatility and recession economics are pushing TV networks toward the safest, sanest options possible. Sopranos wannabes are out; Bones clones are in.
Ryan, like Jensen, thinks that television has 'lost its nerve,' and that a weaker economy means that networks are less likely to take chances on esoteric, demanding entertainment. While there's doubtless some truth in this, I'm struck by Ryan and Jensen's assumption that scripted television can fall into one of only two categories, episodic or serialized, and that thought-provoking television will almost inevitably belong in the latter. Take a look at the series that, in Jensen's argument, are suffering from the after-effects of the writers' strike: Prison Break, Grey's Anatomy, Heroes. I don't follow the first two, but it's been impossible to miss the increasingly loud carping of their fans as both series have delved further and further into ridiculous plot twists and soapy shenanigans, and as someone who is still watching Heroes, I know firsthand that those viewers who have given up the show in disgust did so with good reason. Being serialized isn't the same thing as being good TV, and when a serialized show goes bad it usually does so far more spectacularly than its episodic counterparts, in the process souring its viewers on other shows like it.

Jensen and Ryan are, however, right when they say that we've been experiencing a golden age of television. A decade and a half (Jensen calls it a mere decade, but he's ignoring ER as well as, predictably, most of the groundbreaking genre series of the early 90s) in which writers and directors stretched and tested the capabilities of the medium, most notably the serialized and even novelistic form. Whether that period is at an end or whether we're simply experiencing a lull, this is an opportunity to look back and learn some lessons about what does and doesn't work on television, and from where I'm standing, serialized television doesn't have a great track record.

Most heavily serialized or novelistic television series collapse under the weight of their own structure--Babylon 5, so enslaved to J. Michael Straczynski's five year plan that it imploded the moment its structure was altered; Carnivalé, doggedly persisting in its slow, meandering plot progression despite its obvious creative stagnation; Veronica Mars, which produced a stellar first season and then went to pieces as its writers desperately scrambled to tell yet another story with characters they had no further use for and a setting they'd played out. This is not even to mention the shows like Alias and The X-Files, which pretended to be serialized only to devolve into nonsense, or the sheer tonnage of series that never made it past a season or two and left fans waiting for an ending that would never come. It's not the writers' strike that soured viewers on televised novels, but the novels themselves, and the realization that to become invested in one is almost always a losing proposition.

All of which is not to say that I'm abandoning Dexter for The Mentalist and its ilk. Both Ryan and Jensen use the term serialized to encompass anything not formulaic, and end up lumping very different series under the same umbrella. Lost and The West Wing. Prison Break and Battlestar Galactica. Heroes and The Sopranos. It seems to me that there aren't, as both of them insist, two distinct kinds of television series, but three:
  • Formula shows - most episodes are self-contained and follow roughly the same basic plot. Characters and settings may be replaced but always with someone or something that performs the same function. The characters' roles and importance in the show remain fixed--secondary characters stay secondary, main characters stay in the main cast. The status quo rarely changes, and if it does it's in order to temporarily wrongfoot the audience and then quickly return to normal.

  • Serialized shows - one single overarching plot drives the entire series. Individual episodes rarely stand alone or have their own self-contained plots. Each character has a predetermined role which carries it through the story, their personality and prominence either changing or remaining the same as the plot demands. Settings and characters are replaced in order to advance the series-long plot.

  • Soaps - open-ended on the macro level, but often comprising self-contained plot arcs. Episodes will usually perform the double duty of telling individual stories and advancing the current arc. Character and plot interact--changes in setting dictate changes in the characters' personalities and roles, and vice versa. Secondary and tertiary characters can become more prominent and advance to main character status, and main characters can fade into the background.
At first glance, it might seem that the distinction I'm drawing between soap and serialized show is merely an arbitrary line on the spectrum between purely episodic and purely novelistic television. After all, from the viewers' vantage point, is it really that important that Londo was always intended to play a major, tragic role, but that Lorne only became a main character because both writers and audience were enchanted by him? To my mind, however, there is a crucial difference between these two types of shows--the difference between plot- and character-driven storytelling. For all their differences, formula and serialized shows share the attribute of being oriented towards plot. Whether the characters and their roles change or stay the same is dictated by the plot--individual episode plots in the case of formula shows; overarching, series-long plot in serialized shows. Soaps, in contrast, are character-driven. They can have strong plots, but whereas in formula and serialized shows the plot is the point and the characters merely the engine that drives it, in soaps the characters are the point, and the plot something that happens to them.

Complicating the issue is the fact that no television series belongs solely to only one of these types. Most series combine attributes of at least two, and over their lifetime may shift from one type to another. The X-Files was a formula show with serialized elements that slowly took over it. The Sopranos was a soap, but constantly created expectations of serialized storytelling by teasing the audience with the possibility that it would devolve into any number of mobster film clichés. Buffy and Angel both started out as formula shows, then became soaps, and in its fourth season Angel made the transition to fully serialized show. Farscape was also formulaic in its first season, soapy in its later ones. House uses its formulaic plots for the soapy goal of showcasing the title character and his antics, in much the same way that the Sherlock Holmes stories are a delivery method for that character's inimitable shtick. Lost started out a soap with serialized touches, but fans rebelled at what they rightly perceived as the writers yanking their chains with no intention of delivering a satisfactory payoff, and the show was retooled into a fully serialized story.

Most importantly, as cryptoxin noted in the LJ post that started me down this line of thinking, the serialized storytelling model has so thoroughly permeated the television landscape that even the most rigidly formulaic procedurals take care to include serial elements--the hunt for the serial killer who murdered the main character's family in The Mentalist, an unsolved crime which spurred the female lead in Castle to become a cop. Which, I believe, is one of the factors contributing to the resurgence of procedurals on the TV landscape, as these serial-tinged formula shows offer viewers no longer satisfied by pure formula a hint of overarching plot without requiring the loyalty and attention to detail that true serialized shows demand from their audience. And that, I think, is the reason we may truly be at the end of the golden age of TV, and why there are so few fannishly engaging shows on our screens these days--it's not that serialized storytelling has failed, but that it succeeded too well. It's become an industry standard, and as a result television is becoming increasingly plot-driven. You've got a lot of people making serialized shows, and a lot of people making serial-esque formula shows, but hardly anyone is making character-driven soaps.

Which is a problem, because if the last fifteen years of experiments with novelistic television have shown us anything, it's that TV is a medium much better suited to character-driven stories than the plot-driven kind. It's intimate, continuous, open-ended (especially in the American model)--great qualities if you're trying to get to know a character or an ensemble, but often a hindrance to telling a self-contained story. It also occurs to me that fannish enthusiasm tends to accumulate around series with strong, appealing or interesting characters more often than it does around strongly plotted shows, and in fact some of the most popular fannish shows are ones with great characters and poor plotting, which leave enterprising fans with a lot of room to play and improve on the show's invented universe. A self-contained, plot-driven story is also one that leaves less room for such playful exploration, as most deviations from the canonical plot have nowhere to grow, and viewers are thus relegated to a passive role. This is not to say that plot is unimportant--most of my favorite series have engaging plots and premises, and I have no interest in shows like Grey's Anatomy or Brothers & Sisters, whose goal is simply to explore interpersonal relationships--but I can enjoy a series with good characters and indifferent plotting (such as the supernatural soap Being Human, which recently concluded its first season) whereas an impeccably plotted show whose characters are blank will usually leave me cold.

The last fifteen years have been characterized by attempts to port cinematic tools over to television (visually as well as narratively), and these have resulted in some tremendous successes and a revitalization of the medium. Used in self-contained 'events' or British-style mini-seasons, these tools can continue to enrich the television landscape, but if the unspoken aim of the industry becomes to make television indistinguishable from film, then--well, then we'll end up pretty much where we are right now. I think it is right to say that we're at the end of the second golden age of television, not because serialized television is at a wane but because the innovations that sparked that golden age have been fully digested and incorporated into the medium's makeup, for better and worse. What we need now is the next big thing, the next new tool with which writers will shake up an inherently conservative, risk-averse industry. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Self-Promotion and Other Stuff

Michael Froggat and I do a double review of Adam Roberts's Yellow Blue Tibia in today's Strange Horizons.

Also, I haven't said anything about the Recent Unpleasantness because I honestly don't feel either qualified or sufficiently well-read to add anything to an already voluminous conversation. Fortunately, Niall has posted a short but characteristically lucid post on the subject (which also provides a handy primer for those of you who, perhaps mercifully, have no idea what I'm talking about) to which I can point and say "Yes. That."

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Watchmen

In hindsight, it seems strange to have given so much credence to the conventional wisdom that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen was an 'unfilmable' comic book. As Zack Snyder's version proves beyond doubt, the book is its own screenplay, not only in the sense that it storyboards its action scenes and provides an aspiring adapter with a wealth of memorable images and set pieces, but because its narrative is a step by step guide to weaving together its interlaced plot strands of past and present into a single coherent, comprehensible story. All that was required to bring Watchmen faithfully to the screen was a filmmaker with sufficient courage to do just that, not to mention a judicious sense of what to cut away.

This is not to downplay Snyder's accomplishment. For one thing, to have had that courage, and what must have been a monomaniacal dedication to the original work, to undertake such a task is no small thing. More importantly, Snyder's Watchmen is a stunning visual achievement, on par with Peter Jackson's recreation of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings films. Vividly and faithfully detailed, it perfectly captures the visual sensibility of the graphic novel, the clutter of objects through which Moore and Gibbons convey the alienness of their alternate history and the effect that superheroes have had on it. It's hard to imagine the effort, dedication and attention to detail that had to have gone into transforming Gibbons's relatively small windows onto this world into a fully-realized, three-dimensional version, or the amount of work it took to capture on film even a single one of the novel's kinetic scenes. Still, this seems to be paying a greater compliment to Watchmen's producers, set designers and art directors, as well as to Snyder's technical skills as a director, than it is to the film as a work in its own right. It can't have been easy to bring Watchmen to life as faithfully as Snyder did, and his success in this endeavor is to be lauded, but at the same time, there's nothing in his version of the book that persuades me that such an effort was necessary, or that it brought anything new into the world.

If I look at some of my favorite literary adaptations--Andrew Davies's Pride and Prejudice, Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility, Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence--I find that beyond bringing their source novel faithfully to the screen, they also add some ineffable component of their own that makes them more than the novel translated into another medium. Partly, this is due to the wider gap between written fiction and the filmed or televised kind. The fact that actors, sets, lighting and music are used to bring a story to life rather than words on a page and our own imagination means that any adaptation, no matter how faithful, is a creation in its own right. What sets The Age of Innocence--or even Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, for all the liberties it takes with original novel--apart from faithful yet lifeless adaptations like the Harry Potter films is that a good screenwriter has an idea of what it is that makes a novel special, and of how to convey that specialness with completely different tools than the ones used to achieve it. It is here that the character of the film, as distinct from the original work, is established. Scorsese's The Age of Innocence is joined in the small and rarefied group of successful Edith Wharton adaptations by Terence Davies's The House of Mirth, and though the two films are based on the work of the same author and set in similar surroundings, they are completely different in their emotional tones, in their visual palettes, in their directorial style, even in their musical choices. They represent two different, and equally successful, approaches to bringing Wharton to the screen, each the labor of love of a different reader with different ideas of how to convey that love.

There haven't been many adaptations of self-contained graphic novels so far, but the one that immediately comes to mind, Marjane Satrapi's animated version of her own comics memoir Persepolis, also came under a sort of half-hearted criticism for being essentially a moving version of the book. Which leads me to wonder whether the problem isn't baked into this scenario. When not only plot but visual sensibility are dictated by the original work, where can a director and a screenwriter leave their own mark, and make the work more than an homage to someone else's vision? There's only one sequence in Watchmen in which I felt Snyder's hand, rather than Moore or Gibbons's, at the tiller, and it comes depressingly early--in the credits, in fact. These are made up of tableaux which chart important moments in the rise and fall of superheroes in Moore's alternate America by showing us iconic moments being captured in photographs. It's a brilliant use of the film medium, which seems to promise to take the original work's static images and build upon them. The first Minutemen stand stiffly for their official portrait, smiling widely and fixedly. Then the flashbulb pops and they all relax. Silk Spectre laughs, looking every bit the 40s dame, while The Comedian leers at her. The scene of Silhouette's gruesome murder is shown. Then the camera pulls out, and we see policemen milling about, setting up lights for a crime scene photo, going about the mundane details of their job. (The use of music in this sequence is also inspired. For the most part the film's use of contemporary-or-earlier popular music is a little on the nose--"All Along the Watchtower" when Dan and Rorschach travel to Veidt's stronghold, etc.--but the choice to use Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin" in the credits is different both from what you'd expect from an ordinary superhero film and from the type of music that Watchmen itself seems to call for.)

Unfortunately, the promise of these credits is belied by the rest of the film. When Snyder does give us the connective tissue between Moore and Gibbons's panels it is never any more or any less than what we'd come to expect from the novel itself. Just about the only places in which Snyder expands upon the novel after the credits are the fight scenes, but these are frankly a disappointment, technically superb but devoid of thrills or neat visual moments except for an over-reliance on quick changes in the fight's speed, the better to focus on a single image such as The Comedian's tooth flying out of his mouth after a punch. This, of course, is a trick the movies borrowed from comics, and which has already become an overused cliché.

All of which is to say that Watchmen is so faithful an adaptation that I'm frankly at a bit of a loss to imagine why it was even made. This faithfulness is particularly unfortunate because it means that, like the original graphic novel, Watchmen is good without actually being very good at all. Ever since the film became a palpable, coming-soon-to-a-theater-near-you reality, I've been telling myself that I ought to go back and reread the graphic novel, to refresh my memory of it and maybe gain a greater appreciation for it. I never got around to doing this, and Zack Snyder's Watchmen is a pretty good illustration of the reasons for my reluctance. There are a lot of things that the original Watchmen does incredibly well. First and foremost, it is a groundbreaking examination of the whole idea of superheroes, and of the primarily negative effects they would have had on the American century had they actually existed. Secondly, it is a masterful evocation of a time and place, a grimier, meaner, more violent and more reactionary mid-80s America on the brink, and utterly terrified, of nuclear war, which is brought to life as much through talk radio, television interviews, newspaper headlines, and conversations between people on the street as it is through the novel's actual plot. Thirdly, it is a master-class in narrative construction, moving from past to future, from plot-driven to character-driven, all its elements synchronizing perfectly into one plot.

As I wrote just a few months after reading Watchmen for the first time, there's a problem coming to it in the mid-aughts, at a time when its ideas about superheroes have been so completely subsumed into popular culture, and when its hysteria over the imminence of nuclear war seems almost quaint. What's left once these elements have been devalued is the still-superb construction, and the story itself, which isn't really that good. The plot is trite (again, because it relies so heavily on the fears prevalent in the mid-80s), the dialogue is indifferent, the characters, with the exception of Rorschach and possibly The Comedian, are barely even there, and the ending is so absurdly over the top that it seems almost intentionally humorous. And that, more or less, is what's wrong with the film Snyder has produced (except that he's cut out most of the background detail that establishes the story's nightmare world, such as the conversations between the newsstand salesman and his customers or most of the talking heads). He hasn't taken the opportunity to update the original story's fears to something more relevant to the present day, or make the characters a little more rounded. His film recreates Watchmen's flaws as faithfully as it does its strengths while leaving out sizable chunks of the original novel.

(Actually, there is one point in which Snyder's Watchmen deviates from the novel, and that is that the film's ending isn't nearly as cynical and hopeless as Moore's was. I'm not talking about the absence of the giant squid--see my previous comment about its absurdity--but about the note on which the story ends. In the novel, the best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity. Dr. Manhattan stands idly by while Adrian Veidt kills millions, and Dan and Laurie, after making some token objections, walk off to make love and fall asleep in each other's arms, abdicating their responsibility to the world in exchange for mundane pleasures. Even if you think that Veidt was right, the fact that Rorschach's journal is about to be discovered makes all of the deaths he caused meaningless. No matter how you spin it, there's no pleasure or triumph to be wrung out of this ending. Snyder keeps more or less to the form of Moore's ending but desperately tries to transform it into something feelgood--mainly by reversing Dan and Laurie's abdication of their roles and ending the film with them excoriating Veidt and resuming their superheroic duties. The imminent discovery of Rorschach's journal is thus a hopeful note--the truth is about to come out and justice will be served.)

All of which is to sound a lot more negative towards the film than I actually am. Whether you're a devoted fan or hadn't even heard about the book before the film became news, there's no reason not to go see Watchmen. You'll probably have a good time--though, I suspect, less than you might have expected given the obvious care and effort that have gone into making the film a one-of-a-kind spectacle. It is, ultimately, a good film--how could it help but be, given that it so closely follows a book that, despite all my problems with it, is also quite good? There is, however, nothing in Snyder's film that wasn't there in Moore and Gibbons's original novel, and a great deal that's missing. And that, to me, is an even greater tragedy than the film being terrible would have been. It means that all that effort, all that time, all that skill and love and attention to detail, were wasted in the attempt to create something we already had. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars recreating it shot for shot, couldn't we all just have read the book?

Friday, March 06, 2009

Matter by Iain M. Banks

It is surely one of the chief pleasures of making some substantial inroads into the bibliography of an author as prolific and imaginative as Iain M. Banks that one can debate, vociferously and at great length, the question of which of his books are good and which bad. Somehow, any discussion of Banks's novels tends to include a debate of this kind. It happened in the comments to my review of The Algebraist, and in those of Gwyneth Jones's review of Matter for Strange Horizons, and, perhaps inevitably, in the 20 best SF books of the last twenty years discussion at Torque Control. You would think that the further I get into Banks's catalogue--Matter is the sixth of his ten SF novels that I've read--the more inclined I would feel to join in these deliberations, but instead I find myself moving further and further away from the question, feeling less and less certain about the differences that make some Banks novels good and others bad.

I've enjoyed some of Banks's novels and disliked others, but the more of him I read the less significant the differences in my reactions--and in the books themselves--seem when held up against the uniform feeling of ambivalence I get whenever I turn the last page--a mixture of admiration and dissatisfaction. I've been reading and writing about Iain M. Banks for three years, and the only conclusions I've come to about him is that he's almost certainly got a great novel in him, and that he's almost certainly never going to write it. Those books of his that I've liked--The Algebraist, Feersum Endjinn, Use of Weapons and now Matter--are the ones that made me want to run out and pick up another one of his novels as soon as I finished them, not because the books themselves were so good but because they came so close to goodness that surely the perfect Banks novel was just over that next hill. The ones I've disliked--Consider Phlebas and Excession--are the ones that had me swearing him off for good, not because they were terrible but because clearly he is never going to get his act completely together.

All of which is to say that saying that I liked Matter is perhaps not quite the compliment it might seem to be. It displays the standard Banks-ian strengths--it is an enjoyable, funny, not unintelligent space opera which utilizes Banks's powers of SFnal invention to great effect--and his traditional weaknesses--it is overlong, episodic, rather weak fare as far as its political component is concerned, and somewhat cowardly in its ending. In other words, it's an Iain M. Banks novel. Still, if Banks's novels seem to fail and succeed in entirely predictable ways, he has at least never written the same book twice. Like the other Culture novels, Matter is an attempt to wrestle with the contradictions and difficulties inherent in that fantasy of an ultra-liberal, post-scarcity, self-righteous socialist utopia, but each takes a slightly different approach to the question. Consider Phlebas laid the groundwork when it established that the only need the Culture couldn't answer within itself was its citizens' need for purpose and meaning in their lives, hence its dedication to remaking the galaxy in its own egalitarian, tolerant, peaceful image, using any means necessary. Use of Weapons and Excession are complementary pieces which deal with cost of such a policy--in lives, in honesty, and in the souls of the people who implement it. Matter views the Culture not simply from the outside but from below--through the eyes of individuals whose societies are on the lower rungs of the developmental ladder, being shepherded and guided upwards by the Culture and civilizations like it.

Matter is told through the eyes of three siblings who grew up in such a society. In one plotline, Ferbin, the foppish heir of a warrior king, is surveying the field of his father's latest and most decisive battle when his escort is attacked and killed and he's forced to flee for his life. Taking shelter nearby, he witnesses the murder of his father by his most trusted adviser, Loesp, who thinks Ferbin dead and announces his plans to rule as regent until he can do away with Ferbin's younger brother Oramen. Lacking the power base to challenge Loesp directly, Ferbin, with the help of his servant Holse, tries to make his way off-world in the hopes of amassing it and returning to claim his throne. A second plotline follows Oramen in the weeks and months after his father's death as he steps into the spotlight as heir to the throne and begins to realize that there may be a plot against him. In the third storyline, Ferbin and Oramen's sister Djan, who was talent-scouted by the Culture as a teenager and now works for Special Circumstances, receives news of her father and brother's deaths and makes her way home to pay her respects, along the way learning both the truth about Loesp's actions and that there may be greater issues at stake than one throne. These are highlighted in the chapters told from the point of view of Loesp, who like his former master is solidifying his position and winning his war with the help of a more powerful alien race, whose ulterior motives he is aware of but can't puzzle out.

A great deal of ink has been spilled in praise of Banks's powers of invention--the species, histories, power structures, customs, languages, struggles and wars with which he peoples his galaxy. Reading Matter, it occurred to me that though Banks is imaginative, he isn't wildly imaginative. Though his SFnal invention is a chaotic patchwork, constantly slapping another species, another Big Dumb Object, another bit of arcane history, onto the gigantic mural that is his future galaxy, in his best novels he avoids the temptation of spinning neatness for its own sake, and his feats of imagination act in service of plot and theme (meanwhile, my chief complaint against Consider Phlebas and Excession is that both read more like travel guides than novels). Without being either orderly or planned out, his inventiveness is tightly controlled. Even more impressive is Banks's ability to scale that inventiveness--to write about individual characters and their immediate surrounding, then pull back and view them from the perspective of an older, more advanced civilization, then pull back again and view that society from the point of view of one that dwarfs it, without losing sight of the complexity of any of them. Banks's novels frequently set individuals against landscapes, edifices, or organizations gargantuan in their size and complexity, and it is perhaps his greatest achievement as a writer that he can make both believable, both important and influential players in his plots.

Scale, in fact, is an important theme in Matter, and the constant shifts in it a method of bringing the novel's point across. Matter begins in a very tight focus on Ferbin, describing mainly his emotions and attitudes and only briefly illuminating his locale through his impressions of it. It takes some time, therefore, for us to realize that Ferbin's home isn't your bog standard planet, for the cryptic allusions to towers, rollstars, or the fact that he refers to his home as Eighth and that of his father's enemies as Ninth, to pile up and become sufficiently disorienting for us to wonder just where we are. At that point, the novel literally zooms out, and gives us a view of Ferbin's home, the shellworld Sursamen, a megalithic structure of ancient origins and unknown purpose made up of spheres within spheres, each terraformed and populated by a different species or nation. This is a brilliant choice on Banks's part, as it highlights the smallness of Ferbin and his nation against their surroundings in a way that a natural environment never could. We're used to the hugeness of planets, but the fact that the landscape Ferbin moves in is constructed, that he and millions of others can live their lives inside the chinks of a machine somehow makes the differences in scale between individuals and their environment more glaring. (Banks has used this device before in Feersum Endjinn, which took place in a castle built on a gigantic scale, whose inhabitants divided themselves into tribes according to whether they lived in the chapel or the throne-room.)

The shellworld is also a rather blatant metaphor for the novel's obsession with hierarchy. Each time we zoom away from Ferbin we become aware of another level of control and influence over his life. His people, the Sarl, were relocated to Sursamen by an alien race called the Oct, who control some of the shellworld's levels and vie for control of others with a race called the Aultridia. Sursamen itself is under the control of the Nariscene, who in turn are part of the Morthanveld empire, a civilization on roughly the same level of advancement and influence as the Culture. At each of these levels, we encounter examples, both benevolent and malevolent, of interference in the affairs of the people in the levels below. The Oct manipulate Ferbin's people and the inhabitants of Sursamen's ninth level for their own ends, going so far as to instigate a war between them. The Nariscene have hired a former Special Circumstances operative to orchestrate a war for their amusement. The Culture has been meddling on all levels, introducing Ferbin's father to modern theories of warfare, dispatching Djan back to Sursamen after the Oct's activities become suspicious, and none-too-subtly nudging the Morthanveld towards Culture-like values and institutions. At the same time, non-interference also has its costs--Sarlian society is deeply class-conscious, and the induced advancement of their military might has the effect of making it more egalitarian, as skill and intelligence become prized over noble birth, and when Ferbin reaches Sursamen's surface and asks a Morthanveld official for help or at least to send a warning to Oramen, she refuses, citing Prime Directive-like laws against such an act.

This is the question that all Culture novels boil down to--is interference in the affairs of less developed nations imperative, or imperialistic?--but Matter further complicates it by constantly moving up and down its nested spheres of influence and highlighting how what looks like an injustice on one level seems right and proper on another, and vice versa. Banks keeps this effect of perspective shift constantly in the readers' minds by having his characters repeatedly discuss the scalability of attitudes, relationships, and social constructs as one moves up and down the civilizational ladder, but it is also a prominent aspect of Ferbin's plot arc. Ferbin repeatedly refers to his father's murder as an abominable, unconscionable betrayal (though it's never explicitly stated, one gets the impression he views regicide as more serious than any other kind of murder), but the further from home he gets the less persuasive his protestations are.

"I would have thought that the brutal and disgraceful murder of an honourable man--a king to whom all in his realm save a few jealous, treacherous, murderous wretches paid grateful, loving homage--would seize at the heart of any creature, no matter how many layers and levels distant from such humble being as ourselves they might be" Ferbin stiffly announces to the Morthanveld official when she refuses to help him, but he is repeatedly proved wrong in this assumption, not only because to beings on other planets the king's murder is a distant and academic fact, but because the injustice of it begins to seem less clear-cut the further one gets from Sarl and Sursamen. As Djan realizes once her Culture education gives her a broader historical perspective, her father was "just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous." The further one gets from Ferbin's frame of reference, the more it seems that his father lived by the sword and, however regrettably, died by it, and that this is no great tragedy when compared to the deaths he himself caused or the vast amounts of injustice and cruelty in the galaxy.

Ferbin himself, however, never changes his frame of reference. No matter how far he comes from his home, how much he sees, and how much he changes, he never loses his fundamental assumptions about how the world works--that it is in the interests of justice and morality that his father's murder be avenged, that he has the right to claim his father's throne, that he is inherently superior to his subjects and servants. This is because, in addition to scaling between different levels of civilizational development, Matter scales between genres. Above and beyond the fact that space opera shares many similarities with that subgenre, the Sursamen-set scenes in Matter read like an epic fantasy, and the three main characters' plotlines--the prince forced to flee the scheming of the evil vizier and fight to reclaim his throne, the young monarch plotted against by his guardian, the unappreciated princess who discovers that she possesses great power--are staples of YA fantasy (this is now the second time, after Neal Stephenson's Anathem, that I've noticed an ostensibly SFnal novel luxuriating in the tropes of YA and epic fantasy). Sarl itself is a medieval fantasyland only just beginning its journey towards modernism--though the Sarlian army uses artillery and projectile weapons, some of the more rustic noblemen still show up to battles in chain mail, and lament the lost romance of the battles of old, which were fought on flying steeds--and its inhabitants speak in a highfalutin' poetic manner completely at odds with the more naturalistic speech prevalent outside Sursamen.

Once the narrative leaves Sursamen, however, Matter's world becomes SFnal, and the underlying assumptions of epic fantasy and the fantastic bildungsroman no longer hold true. When Ferbin leaves the shellworld, the genre of his life changes, which he never notices. Far more observant is his servant Holse, whose eyes and mind are opened as he gains greater understanding of the forces controlling his life, and who over the course of the novel grows from a man content to waste his skills and intelligence in the service of a less worthy aristocrat to a man willing to claim his own share of destiny. In her review of Matter, Gwyneth Jones calls the relationship between Ferbin and Holse Frodo-and-Sam-ish and the fantastic segments of the novel a jab at Tolkien, and though she's probably going a bit far with this--as several commenters point out, Ferbin and Holse map just as well if not better to other airheaded aristocrat/cunning servant duos such as Jeeves and Wooster or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza--there's no doubt that both the epilogue and the appendix which close the novel are blatant Lord of the Rings references. In Banks's hands, however, the departure of wonder with which the novel ends is the departure of the monarchic system, as all three heirs to the Sarlian throne are disposed of and the Culture steps in to guide the nation towards a more egalitarian system of government.

What makes this victory of socialism unsatisfying is first the way in which it is brought about. For most of its 600 pages, Matter is a meditative, meandering story whose plot is largely a justification for giving its characters room to pontificate, to muse about their pasts, the societies they grew up in and the ones they've visited, and the power dynamics that are the novel's ultimate subject, while simultaneously learning about themselves and figuring out what they want from life (which, for the three Sarlian heirs, means deciding whether they want to be king and how they might go about ruling). It's not terribly exciting stuff, but it is funny and engaging, succeeds in raising some interesting questions, and the characters are, for the most part, appealing enough that their social studies-like internal monologues don't grate too much (there is, of course, some variance on this front--Ferbin, Oramen and Holse are extremely likable, but Djan is a little flat, too much the perfect and omni-competent Special Circumstances agent, and though Loesp starts the novel with some intimations that he might have had complicated reasons for betraying his king, he soon devolves into a stock villain). Then, less than a hundred pages from the novel's end, a Big SFnal Menace is revealed, paving the way to a tense, race against the clock finale with the fate of Sursamen itself at stake. It's a fun ending, but it doesn't belong to the novel preceding it, and it's hard to escape the conclusion that it comes instead of a more thought-provoking, less clear-cut ending that Banks was either incapable or uninterested in writing.

It is by making Matter's ending so clear-cut that Banks once again manages to miss out on writing a great novel. Though its beginning and middle raise questions about the rightness of the Culture's actions and its right to meddle with less developed societies, these are steamrolled by its ending, in which the Culture's willingness to meddle and its operatives' willingness to lay down their lives saves the day while the Oct, the Nariscene, and the Morthanveld either stand idly by or actively make matters worse. And if the class-bound structure of Sarlian society is meant to map onto the nested spheres of influences outside Sursamen, then surely the fact that Matter ends with the Culture taking the first steps towards eliminating that structure in Sarl is an indication that its actions outside Sursamen are also justified, and ultimately in service of bringing about a more just, more peaceful way of life. I don't necessarily object to Banks coming down, ultimately, on the Culture's side, nor do I entirely disagree with this conclusion (while still feeling that the near-infallibility of the Culture renders it useless as a metaphor for corresponding behavior in the real world), but the manner in which he reaches that conclusion, and tries to take his readers there, feels dishonest. We're supposed to root for the culture not because we've come to an ethical decision that its actions, however imperfect, are preferable to inaction, but because its representatives beat the evil alien.

The impression I got while reading Matter was that Banks not only recognizes but is playfully referencing the sameness of his novels, their repeated reliance on the same questions, situations and plot tokens, such as when Djan expresses irritation at the whimsical names Culture ships give themselves, or when her drone partner is refused entrance into Morthanveld space because "SC agent + combat drone was a combination that was well known far beyond the Culture." Which to me suggests that he's found his comfort zone and isn't too interested in exploring the realms beyond it, and that, however enjoyable, however clever and funny and thoughtful, his novels will never amount to more than admirable yet unsatisfying. It is perhaps admirable in itself that a writer who has yet to provide me with a single great reading experience, whose finest achievements are the components of his work--a scene here, an alien species there, a clever observation about human nature followed by a good joke over here--rather than the work itself, as well as a fresh and perhaps unique spin on space opera which he has nevertheless consistently failed to fully develop, is still so fascinating to me, and his work still so appealing. Even now, realizing that I will probably never truly love any of Banks's novels, I'm tempted to pick up another one. Not because I'd like to categorize his remaining novels into good and bad, but because I'm hoping that one more dip into his bibliography will finally help me to decide whether Iain M. Banks is a good or a bad writer.