Sunday, May 31, 2009

Please, Make Them Stop

So, Buffy-less Buffy sounds like a terrible idea, but it'll probably never happen. And Heathers 2 is utterly superfluous, but what else are Winona Ryder and Christian Slater going to do? But now we have an Alien prequel on the horizon, because apparently neither Alien: Resurrection nor the two Alien vs. Predator movies were bad enough, and at this point I just have to wonder: if I take a ten year break from contemporary blockbusters, will there actually be enough decent original material at its end to fill up a weekend?

Oh well, at least the Toy Story 3 teaser looks promising.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Novella Shortlist

This post has been a long time coming, partly because I was waiting to see if Ian McDonald's "The Tear" was going to be posted online along with the other nominated novellas. I waited so long, in fact, that I ended up losing one of the other stories--Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Prisoner" is no longer available. Both stories can still be found on the Hugo voter packet, and as much as I like the idea of the packet, and am deeply grateful to John Scalzi for envisioning it and everyone who worked to make it a reality, I'm a little concerned that it so easily enables authors and publishers to make their stories available only to Hugo voters. Now, obviously I am coming to this issue with a distinct bias, as it'll probably be some time before I'm a Hugo voter again. And just as obviously authors and publishers have every right to do whatever they want with their intellectual property, and to make it available to as many or as few people as they like. The tradition of making the Hugo-nominated shorts freely available is just that, and not an obligation. But it is, I think, a fine tradition, one that allows the fannish community at large to keep up with what is supposed to be the cream of the year's crop of genre short fiction, and to remain in touch with and gain a greater understanding of Hugo voters' sensibility (if only so that they can decry it). So I hope that "The Tear" and "The Political Prisoner" are aberrations, and not a sign of things to come.

On to the stories themselves. Nancy Kress's "The Erdmann Nexus" is set, like her Hugo-nominated novella from last year, "Fountain of Age," among the elderly and retired. This is a relatively uncommon setting, so it's a shame that "Erdmann," though marginally better than "Fountain," is still a rather unimpressive story--Niall Harrison sums it up quite well by invoking Joanna Russ's RUMIR (routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable). Set in a present day retirement home, and moving between the points of view of the protagonist, former physicist Henry Erdmann, and his fellow residents as they begin to experience moments of transcendence, "The Erdmann Nexus" put me very strongly in mind of Connie Willis. Like so many of Willis's stories, it is overlong and mired in minutiae, achieving characterization by pounding clichés into the wall--the gabby grandmother who simply will not shut up, the born again Christian whose every other utterance is a Bible quote, the hippie who drops terms like satori and trishna in casual conversation and offers her guests green tea. Just about the only multi-dimensional character is Carrie, an attendant at the retirement home, whose tirelessness in pursuit of an explanation for Erdmann's predicament stands in stark contrast to her inability to break away from an abusive relationship, but she quickly becomes mired in a predictable (and, again, rather Willis-like) romantic subplot. And, as in a Willis story (and as many of the reviewers quoted in the Torque Control discussion post have noted) the solution is heavily telegraphed and takes forever to be revealed--or maybe it just seems that way because there are so many painstakingly detailed stereotypes to wade through before we get to it. Obviously, writing a story that recalls Connie Willis is hardly a losing proposition as far the Hugo is concerned, but for my money one of her is more than enough.

Charles Coleman Finlay's "The Political Prisoner" is a sequel to "The Political Officer," which was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 2002 and nominated for the Hugo and Nebula. I liked "Officer," despite the fact that as Niall notes it is essentially a submarine story set in space, with very little that was genuinely SFnal about it. "Prisoner" continues in that vein, but is to my mind a much less successful story. The title character from "Officer," Maxim Nikomedes, returns from his assignment in that story and reports to his boss, an upper-echelon apparatchik in a society that is a hellish cross between communism and religious fundamentalism, just as a major political upheaval takes place, leaving Maxim with no patron. In short order he and other newly designated undesirables are rounded up and sent to work camps, where they are subjected to the by now familiar litany of dehumanizing, grueling treatment. Finlay spares no ugly detail in describing Maxim's predicament, but his efforts pale before the vast ocean of literature devoted to capturing the essence of life and death in work camps, death camps, and gulags. Responding at Torque Control to complaints that "Prisoner" isn't SFnal enough, Finlay suggested that an SFnal setting is the only one in which such dehumanizing enterprises can be lifted out of their historical context and treated as universals, a contention which I find, quite frankly, bewildering, and which is belied by his inability to truly tap into the horror of such places in a way that writers writing about Auschwitz or the Siberian gulag have done so memorably.

What keeps "The Political Prisoner" from achieving the effect created by historical narratives of man's inhumanity to man is not that Finlay isn't as strong a writer as K. Tzetnik or Solzhenytzin, but that he doesn't seem to have been willing to break his main character. Stripped of his not inconsiderable power, starved, beaten, worked to exhaustion, Maxim should be worn to the bone, made monstrous by his deprivation, or humble by the realization that the pain he's caused others is now being visited on him. "Prisoner" gestures in both directions but never commits to either, and Maxim remains fundamentally inviolate--there's even a sense that his ordeal is an improving experience, teaching him compassion towards a group prisoners from a reviled minority group who take him in. As a result, we never feel that Maxim's work camp is, as K. Tzetnik said of Auschwitz, another planet, whose inhabitants "did not live - nor did they die - according to the laws of this world." We never doubt that Maxim will leave the camp, nor that he will leave it more or less the person he was when he came in, and this strikes me as being fundamentally dishonest to the kind of story Finlay was trying to tell.

Ian McDonald's "The Tear" is a major departure from his habit, over the last few years, of writing offshoots to his novels River of Gods and Brasyl. A far-future space opera, it follows the character Ptey from his childhood and early adulthood on the planet Tay and into space, where he is first the guest of an alien race visiting Tay, then a fugitive from their enemies, then the alien visitor of another race, and finally the prodigal son returning to his ravished home world. Except that all of these aliens are humans--evolved or artificially altered into radically different forms--and that Ptey is only Ptey for the first few pages of the story. His people have a tradition of 'manifolding'--creating new, subtly different, aspects of their personality within themselves, different people sharing the same body and carrying on their own, separate lives--and later on Ptey transforms again through exposure to alien technology. The multiplicity of personalities who are all essentially the same person is obviously intended to track with the multiple forms humanity takes in the story, from Tay's socially-mandated schizophrenia to its visitors' virtual existence to the accelerated aging of the inhabitants of a generation ship Ptey hitches a ride on. This is an interesting point, but it seems a little flimsy for such a long story, especially given the thinness of the its plot--Ptey leaves home, Ptey comes home. Even more problematic is the fact that McDonald doesn't quite pull off the feat of making Ptey's different iterations feel like different versions of the same person--they either come off, in the first half of the story, as completely different people, or, in its later parts, as the same person playing different roles in different social settings. "The Tear" is interesting and well written (though McDonald's prose often veers from merely ornate into baroque, which occasionally made for a tough slog) but since the whole story hinges on the device of Ptey's transformations--it is even divided into chapters according to the changes in his aspect--the unconvincing execution of that device renders "The Tear," if not quite inert, then at least seriously underperforming.

Like "The Political Prisoner," Robert Reed's "Truth" uses an SFnal premise to tell a mundane story about present day ills, but with a great deal more success. Carmen, a high ranking CIA interrogator, arrives at a top secret facility deep under the Kansas prairie to take over the interrogation of Ramiro, the US government's most dangerous and valuable prisoner. Captured while crossing the Canadian border with a trunk full of uranium, Ramiro has revealed himself, through knowledge and quirky biology, to be a time traveler, a member of an army of 'temporal jihadists' bent on world domination. The story's action is mainly a series of mind games Carmen plays, not only with Ramiro but with her superiors and underlings, through which Reed paints a portrait of a world in the grips of a terrifying, dangerous paranoia, and which has been driven--in part, but not solely, due to the threat represented by Ramiro--to even greater excesses and atrocities than our own. "Truth" is obviously Reed's reply to the 24 scenario of a terrorist who knows the location of a ticking time bomb, but his answer isn't as simple as decrying torture so much as it is to suggest that absolute truth is inherently unknowable, that neither the most brutal torture nor the most delicate psychological probing can lead to a full comprehension of another person's character and motives (an observation which is nicely, and for the most part subtly, reinforced by recurring references to quantum phenomenon).

Given this obvious bias, the true nature of Ramiro's mission is pretty easy to guess (though the story's final twist took me completely by surprise), but his interactions with Carmen, and her bitter observations about the state of her world, are so intense and well crafted that the inevitable ending is a pleasure to get to. Unlike Finlay, Reed isn't afraid to let his main character be stupid or wrong, and unlike Maxim Nikomedes, or, indeed, her own bosses, Carmen doesn't assume that her experience and jadedness give her a complete understanding of her world--an understanding which, Reed concludes, is impossible. It is probably no coincidence that Carmen is a woman in a male-dominated environment, surrounded by men who believe that they can achieve, or already possess, such an understanding, and who keep hammering away at Ramiro and making short-sighted decisions based on the information he gives them and the belief that they can act intelligently on it, instead of stepping back and looking at the big picture. "Truth" is a clever, and surprisingly vicious, skewering of this illusion of control.

A literary collaboration between Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum seems, at first glance, like a dubious proposition, but I congratulate whoever it was--the authors themselves, or Fast Forward editor Lou Anders--who came up with the idea, because the result of this marriage, "True Names," is a complete triumph. As I said in my Hugo ballot post, it combines both authors' strengths and favorite topics--Rosenbaum's penchant for surrealism and literary pastiche, not to mention the basic building blocks of his Hugo-nominated short story "The House Beyond Your Sky," and Doctorow's fascination with the way that social structures and conventions both shape and are shaped by politics and economics, and with post-singularity concepts of self (of course, now that I've spelled out which parts of the story I think were contributed by each author, it'll probably turn out that I've got them completely backwards). This, no doubt, is to make "True Names" sound extremely strange, which it is, dizzyingly so at points. But it is also, fundamentally, a swashbuckling adventure, complete with sneering villains, threats of world domination and destruction, doomed love, a prince on the run from his guardian with his wise tutor, and battles to the death. In what I assume is a sly meta-reference, near the middle of the story one of the characters performs in a play which recasts her life into its canonical form, and has her swinging a cutlass on the deck of a pirate ship.

"True Names"'s actual setting, however, can best be described as, but is probably much more complicated than, a computer. In the vastness of space, two entities, Beebe and Demiurge, fight for dominance and for the raw material they can convert into processing power. Demiurge is monolithic, all its subroutines guided by a single agenda. Beebe is chaotic, with different sub-entities taking on lives of their own and vying for control, spawning new and subtly altered copies of themselves on a whim. And, it soon becomes apparent, both Beebe and Demiurge have the power to model each other, and sometimes the whole universe, in order to predict their enemies' actions. We end up, therefore, with several different iterations of each character, only some of whom exist in the 'real' world. Like "The Tear," then, "True Names" is a story about individuality in a world in which personality is easily edited and copied, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow pull off the trick McDonald wasn't quite up to, and easily distinguish between different versions of their characters while maintaining a coherent core for each one. This is, however, far from their greatest accomplishment with this story, which on top of being a genuinely exciting adventure is both clever and cleverly put together--the sheer mass of information required to fully grasp the rules under which the characters operate is nearly overwhelming, but Rosenbaum and Doctorow not only make it easy for us to learn their world, they make it fun. Perhaps most importantly, it is the only story on the ballot which feels truly, meaningfully SFnal, telling a familiar story in a setting that is so strange that it forces us to see that story through new eyes.

My votes for this category will be:
  1. "True Names" by Cory Doctorow and Benjamin Rosenbaum
  2. "Truth" by Robert Reed
  3. "The Tear" by Ian McDonald
  4. No Award
I can't quite decide whether I think this year's novella ballot is a successful one or not. The excellence of "Truth" and "True Names" is somewhat counteracted by the presence of "The Erdmann Nexus" and "The Political Prisoner" on the ballot, especially as it seems very likely to me that the latter will win (though I think Reed also has a decent chance; Doctorow & Rosenbaum, unfortunately, are probably a long shot). This kind of schizophrenia is fairly common on novella ballots, however, which I suppose means that this year is no worse than many others.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Seasonal News

Right on the heels of this weekend's announcement that Dollhouse has been renewed for a second season comes the sadder but slightly less surprising news that The Sarah Connor Chronicles has been canceled. (Also, Chuck gets a third season, but, you know: formula + the geek equivalent of frat humor + half-naked ladies = not a terrifically long shot.)

This is, of course, very upsetting, but unlike Niall I'm not convinced that, if the decision actually did come down to only one of these two shows, the wrong choice was made. It's true, Sarah Connor is the better show (though this says more about Dollhouse's problems than Sarah Connor's strengths), and you don't need to work very hard to read an uncomfortable statement into the fact that the show about scantily clad, brainwashed sex slaves has been renewed while the one about the difficult warrior woman who only takes off her clothes to treat one of her frequent bullet or stab wounds has been axed. But it seems to me that after two seasons, Sarah Connor has had the chance that Dollhouse has now been given to find both its footing and its audience, and has, for the most part, squandered it. Yes, the second season finale was excellent, and raised the possibility of several very interesting future plotlines--John making his way in a future in which his destiny no longer hangs over him, Sarah and Ellison on the run in the present, Savannah Weaver as an intermediary between the two periods--but it did so by razing the structure of the second season to the ground, and in so doing acknowledged how problematic and, frankly, how boring and listless that season was.

Both Dollhouse and Sarah Connor are shows with interesting concepts and deeply flawed executions, but the creative team in charge of Dollhouse has a proven track record of not only producing excellent shows but of producing excellent shows with deeply flawed first seasons. Whereas when the Sarah Connor writers were given the chance to take their show to the next level, they buried it in the mud, getting mired in navel-gazing and drawn-out, poorly plotted storylines that didn't do nearly enough in terms of character development to justify their running time. If you're going to gamble on either one of these shows making the transition into excellence, it seems to me that Dollhouse is clearly the one to go with.

Of course, in an ideal world I'd have liked to see both shows get the chance to improve, as even deeply flawed SF has become a rare commodity on our screens. And really, the true shame isn't that one of these shows was chosen over the other, but that they both have to scramble to survive while Heroes, whose vaunted return to form fizzled into something only slightly less disappointing than its previous two volumes, has got a seemingly endless lease on life.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Trek-Dump, Addenda

A few more interesting links and then I'm done with this movie, I swear.
  • Adam Roberts hits it out of the park with his review.  The whole thing is quotable and also very funny, but this is the point that floored me, which hits on something that niggled at me throughout my viewing but which I wasn't able to put into words:
    Trek09 is a text so absolutely incapable of representing a collective—a functioning group, a society—that it strays into rank idiocy. It is teenage wish-fulfilment bang-zap-frot fantasy all the way through. But (and this, I’d say, is what people celebrating the Star Warsification of the Trek franchise in this film, are missing) precisely what made Trek so notable in the first place was its creation a communitarian world. Not an ensemble cast all vying for screen time; a knit-together group of people. The Star Wars universe is an open-ended, malleable space for individual adventure. The Trek universe is about having a place. It is, really, about belonging.

    So Trek09 grandly misses the point. My problem was not that Kirk, in this film, is a tool at the start and a tool at the end. He is, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that Star Fleet is so toolish: so completely, dysfunctionally unbelievable as an organisation. ... The Enterprise, as a group of individuals functioning together to crew a space ship, is—in this film, and for the first time in the Trek franchise—Not Fit For Purpose. It's a wholly unprofessional bunch of people squabbling and vying. It's dysfunctional.
    As I said in my review, Star Trek as a story is wholly oriented towards placing Jim Kirk in the place God intended for him, the captain's seat on the bridge of the Enterprise, but because of the dysfunction Adam notes the film's notion of what a captain is boils down to 'the guy who gets to tell everyone what to do.'  Kirk is never a leader.  His Enterprise functions not because of any action on his part but because he happens to have been lucky enough to end up with a band of under-qualified cadets who figure out, all on their own, how to work together.  I never got the sense that Kirk cared whether his crew got along or respected him so long as they enabled him to be captain, or that the film cared about any relationship that had more than two people in it.

  • Nick Mamatas is an utter wronghead about the Star Trek franchise, but probably right on the money when it comes to this observation:
    And the J.J. Abrahms movie? Well, it's...not bad. Not great, but not bad. Actually, it isn't even a Star Trek movie. I swear to God, it's Galaxy Quest: The Motion Picture. There are inexplicably Willy Wonkaesque architectures for the characters to get stuck in, the captain and his alien buddies aren't really friends though they are somehow supposed to be, a monster is replaced by a bigger monster during a planetside interlude, the transporters don't seem to work right, the first captain is tortured by the villains (ooh, waterboarding!), and the end of the movie involves Spaceship A turning around and rushing Spaceship B. Plus the baddy snarls his lines five inches from the camera lens, a la a heel pro wrestler threatening to destroy Hulk Hogan on a Saturday morning. Just like Galaxy Quest. But not played for laughs.
  • As with the presence of women, lots of people have talked about the lack of diversity in Star Fleet and on the Enterprise (I note that the film took the standard Trek approach of having a mainly white cast and a black admiral), but Rachel M. Brown really gets to the heart of the difference between emulation Star Trek's form and emulating its spirit:
    The point of Chekhov in the original was not that he had a funny accent. It was that he was a proud citizen of a country that, at time of airing, was America's # 1 enemy. The modern USA equivalent of Chekhov would not be Chekhov, but a crew member from Iraq or Afghanistan.
  • A Fox News commentator takes Abrams's overturning of Roddenberry's message to its logical conclusion:
    The new "Star Trek" film shows Captain Kirk's Starship Enterprise making good use of photon torpedoes and force fields. So the question comes to mind: Would Israel be safer if it could shoot down enemy missiles and rockets with such photon torpedoes, or block them altogether with a force field? Of course it would.
  • A report from a Q&A session with screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman, in which they try to justify the film's numerous plot holes.  The whole thing is quite delicious, but this is undoubtedly the money shot:
    In the minds of the creators, the focus of the plot is that Nero’s destruction of the timeline has altered history to the point that the all important friendship of Kirk and Spock is now threatened. If these two don’t come together, the fabric of space and time itself is endangered (as we have witnessed by the universe itself being saved countless times over the last 40 years). Kirk “coincidentally” running into Spock Prime is an example of fate itself trying to bring these two together. That’s how important it is.
    Also, apparently Kirk was only sleeping with Uhura's Orion roommate in order to gain access to the computers running the Kobayashi Maru scenario.  What a prince.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Trek-Dump

One of the ways in which this summer's testosterone-heavy action-adventure flicks are falling short of last summer's crop is that they're not generating nearly as much, or as diverse a range of, discussion.  I mean, The Dark Knight alone kept the internet going for weeks.  This year, the consensus establishes itself pretty quickly--by the end of its opening weekend, everyone knew that Watchmen was a faithful adaptation, but perhaps a little too faithful for its own good, and that was that.  When it comes to Star Trek, you've got a whole lot of people who liked it, and a few like me who didn't, but everyone seems to have pretty much the same reasons for their opinions.  Here, however, are a few posts that make interesting points or make them particularly well.
  • Niall Harrison and I are pretty much opinion-twins when it comes to this film, which happens so rarely that it's noteworthy in and of itself.  He makes a surprisingly rare comparison between the film and New Who, which is something I wanted to touch on in my review but had neither the space nor, just yet, the coherent thoughts for.  After all, when it comes to Doctor Who, I'm exactly in the position of all the newly-minted Star Trek fans who have been brought to the franchise by the movie, and I think it's worth pondering just what, if any, are the differences between J.J. Abrams's reboot and Russell T. Davies's.  (See also in that same post: thoughts on Dollhouse, with which I'm less congruent--I'm not as certain as Niall that an interesting concept makes up for the show's serious failures in plotting--while still agreeing that it has potential and deserves time to find its footing.)

  • There have been a lot of essays about the limited number of female characters in the film and their even more limited roles, but my favorite comes from Sady Doyle at the Guardian's Comment is Free (though as usual for a feminist article in the Guardian, you should probably avoid the actual comments).  This is also a good opportunity to mention Doyle's blog, Tiger Beatdown, a recent discovery which I've been greatly enjoying trawling through.  Her focus is mainly real world feminist issues, on which topic she is trenchant, intelligent, and extremely funny, but she also writes about pop culture from a feminist perspective, and I'm particularly fond of these posts about Dollhouse, Sense and Sensibility, and the similarities between Mean Girls and Mad Men.  The whole blog, though, is worth a look.

  • Still on the topic of women in the film, Meghan McCarron asks "couldn't they have Starbucked somebody?"  To which my answer is, depends on who you mean by 'they.'  I can't really imagine the creative types in charge of this film taking a move as gutsy as this, nor their studio bosses allowing it.  More importantly, I'm not sure that Starbucking (and as annoying as I ultimately found the character I do like the idea of using her name to describe this action, even if the need for such a verb does reinforce my conviction that we've become a remake culture) would have suited this film.  With the exception of Kirk and Spock--who clearly never would have been considered for such a transformation--the rest of the Enterprise crew have rather limited roles in the film, and their characterization consists mainly of recalling established facts about them (Sulu fences, Scotty and Chekov have accents).  I don't think making Sulu female, for example, would have made a significant statement given how little we got to know the character.  On the other hand, I find myself wishing that some of the secondary, non-canonical roles had been played by women, and in particular I'm wondering why the parent Kirk lost on the Kelvin had to be his father instead of his mother.

  • John Rogers, creator of the silly but utterly charming Leverage, writes about Kirk's character arc, or lack of same:
    He starts as an arrogant sonovabitch, and becomes a slightly more motivated arrogant sonovabitch. He does not learn to sacrifice, he does not learn to work well with others -- he takes over the goddam ship. He's right all the time, he never doubts he's right, and the only obstacle he occasionally faces is when other people aren't sharp enough to see how frikkin' awesome -- and right -- he is as quickly as they should.
    This is, obviously, a great deal more positive than I was about Kirk, but I do think that Rogers has hit on the essence of what the character was trying to be--the smug bastard who is all the more infuriating because he actually is the best guy for the job.  Unapologetic arrogance can be an extraordinarily appealing character trait, but only if it's warranted, and Kirk's assholish actions throughout the film are, to my mind, insurmountable obstacles to his claim for leadership.

  • Two lists of introductory facts about Trek, ostensibly for new fans who have started writing fanfic, but at least some of these details seem to have escaped the attention of the filmmakers themselves.

  • God bless Anthony Lane, whose New Yorker review of the film is typically sharp, funny, and merciless.  Despite the delicious snark, Lane ends up a great deal more positive about the film than I was, but before reaching that conclusion he gets a good dig in at the present craze for reboots and prequels
    In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained. Shakespeare could have kicked off with a flashback in which the infant Hamlet is seen wailing with indecision as to which of Gertrude’s breasts he should latch onto, but would it really have helped us to grasp the dithering prince? Or, to update the question: I know it’s not great when your dad dies a total hero and leaves you orphaned at the same time, but did James T. Kirk have to grow up such a cocky son of a gun?
  • This last one is for Hebrew readers: Raz Greenberg reviews the film for Fisheye, expertly capturing the site's distinctive style, and concludes that Abrams's Star Trek is an excellent Star Wars film which just happens to be set in the Star Trek universe.  There's certainly no denying that Kirk's journey, at least, follows Luke Skywalker's quite closely (though like most Star Wars imitations, Star Trek has taken the admittedly wise step of jettisoning Luke's personality and replacing it with Han's), though I think this is probably more an expression of the fact that the Star Wars story--fatherless boy with great destiny is urged by mentor figure to take his place in the universe, triumphs over adversity, defeats villain and wins glory--is still the template for the overwhelming majority of our blockbuster entertainment than a deliberate or even unconscious imitation.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek

You couldn't say that I've been looking forward to the new Star Trek film. When it was first suggested, the very concept of a reboot going back to the setting and cast of the original series conjured up images of extruded Hollywood product: conventionally attractive actors, the women skeletal and painstakingly permed, the men shiny and boyishly handsome, buckets of money poured into special effects that add up to a film that looks like every other special effects extravaganza of the last half-decade, a few callbacks and famous quotes to appease the diehard fans, and lots of pop music on the soundtrack. Then J.J. Abrams got the directing gig, and I threw my hands up and gave up on the whole endeavor. Abrams is not entirely talentless, and he's produced a few fine hours of television in Alias and Lost, but as a storyteller his palette is extraordinarily limited, and as a director he was responsible for Mission: Impossible III, a jangly, underwritten mess with not a shred of charm or wit for all its desperate attempts to court its audience with big explosions and kinetic, if conceptually leaden, action scenes.

So I was doubtful about the film, but mainly because it sounded like yet another generic action flick. The notion that Abrams and Transformers scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman were getting their filthy mitts on one of the cornerstones of my fannish life was less troublesome to me, mainly because I've never considered myself a particular fan of original series Trek. I like the characters well enough, but I know them mostly from tie-in books and the movies. I've seen very little of 60s Star Trek--a few episodes as a young child, when I found them trippy and enjoyable without really understanding what was going on, and a few more in my early teens, when I found them cheesy and shabby-looking, and promptly went back to my true Trekish love, The Next Generation. It was something of a jolt, therefore, to discover myself reacting to the deluge of enthusiastic reviews and squealing blog posts with a kneejerk sneer at their repeated insistence that Abrams had infused the franchise not only with new life and a sense of fun and adventure but with relevance. When Saxon Bullock said of Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman that they "[have] done what seemed like an impossibility. They've actually made Star Trek matter," I found myself turning, completely unwilling, into the butt of an Onion joke.

On one level, I do understand what Bullock and others like him are saying. The last Star Trek film grossed a measly $18M and was watched only by die-hard, and by that point rather embittered, fans, who promptly decried it as the travesty that it was. I know, because I was one of them. To have made a Star Trek film that not only breaks the box office, not only gains critical acclaim from fans and mainstream critics alike, but introduces Trek to a whole new generation of viewers and places the franchise back at the center of the pop culture maelstrom, is no mean feat. A cultural phenomenon lives only as long as it is loved, and Abrams's Star Trek has resuscitated the series long past the point where this seemed even remotely likely. So I do understand why people feel that Abrams is to be commended, and I freely admit that the financial and critical success of his film has taken me completely by surprise, but at the same time I find it almost galling that after 43 years, 29 seasons of television and ten feature films, Star Trek still needs to prove itself, to keep up with the times and stay relevant.

There are ways in which Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek mattered which Abrams's version could never have emulated, such as the first interracial kiss on TV, or a black woman playing a fleet officer (how many actors can say that they received personal praise for their work from Martin Luther King Jr.?), or the presence of Chekov on the Enterprise bridge at the height of the Cold War. There are ways in which Star Trek tried to matter, and which Abrams doesn't seem to have considered emulating, such as Roddenberry's original idea of a female XO. Most of all, Star Trek mattered because it was the foundation, the template, the touchstone, for American science fiction television for the next four decades. Even writers who have rebelled against everything it stood for have, in their own way, reinforced its primal position. At the risk of sounding like the dorkiest and most out of touch of fans, Star Trek doesn't need to be fun. It doesn't need to be watchable or even any good. It doesn't need to pander to the tastes of a twenty-first century audience and alter itself to suit their needs. It's Star Trek, the well from which everything else--the spin-offs, Babylon 5, Farscape, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, and countless others--springs.

It seems to me that far from regaining the franchise's relevance, a film like Abrams's Star Trek relinquishes it. Casino Royale is a hell of a good film, but it reinvents James Bond on others' terms, and in so doing acknowledges that the Bond franchise, which once defined the concept, look and feel of espionage films, is now merely a follower, emulating newer and more innovative series. There's something sad about a once-vibrant cultural artifact becoming first venerable and then a forgotten relic, but not nearly as sad as not allowing that artifact to die a dignified death, and more importantly, not allowing its successors room to grow. Every generation comes up with its own stories, but ours seems content to slap new coats of paint on the old ones so that it can keep telling them again and again. I'd much rather boldly go where no one has gone before.

***

The above was written earlier this week, before I'd seen the new Star Trek film, and though I stand by my words they are missing the caveat that none of them would have mattered if the film were any good. Having seen it, I can confirm that Abrams's Star Trek is, indeed, fun and enjoyable. It is also, however, painfully, spectacularly dumb. Some films--Star Wars, Back to the Future, Iron Man--are dumb in a way that you don't really notice while you're watching them because you're too swept up in the adventure. It's only once you've left the theatre and the high of vicarious thrills and pleasure of having been immersed in a really fun bit of storytelling have worn off that you notice all the flaws and plot holes and inconsistencies. Star Trek's dumbness, on the other hand, is inescapable. It suffuses every scene, leaps off the screen and repeatedly rubs our faces in the patchiness of the film's plot and the dimness required of its characters. This doesn't make the film any less fun or enjoyable, but it does render it unengaging. Every time I found myself on the verge of surrendering to spectacle and pop corn adventure, something egregious would happen and I'd find myself slammed back in my seat, thinking 'my God, that was stupid.'

Star Trek's dumbness kicks in about ten minutes in and never lets up. The film's prologue is relatively dumbness-free, if only because we don't really understand what's going on, but once we segue to James Kirk taking a joyride in a vintage sports car, it's bye-bye brain cells. In fact, our first introduction to Kirk is so dumb that its dumbness extends to the meta-level. Within the story, it's dumb that Kirk is so intent on his thrills that he drives the car into a ravine, but it's even dumber that we're expected to believe the acrobatics with which he saves himself, and even dumber than that that this absurdly over the top stunt is supposed to endear the character to us rather than make him seem inhuman, and perhaps a little psychotic. And the dumbness keeps on coming. Starfleet command is so understaffed that cadets are pressed into service on all its ships. Pike names Kirk, a disgraced cadet, as his first officer. After acquitting himself admirably as acting captain, Spock misplaces his brain and orders the Enterprise away from the fray even though Earth hangs in the balance. Kirk just happens to be marooned within walking distance of the cave in which, after a not only dumb but bizarre interlude fighting CGI wampas, he just happens to find the equally marooned future Spock. The villain, Nero, a cut-rate imitation of Star Trek: Nemesis's Shinzon held together with tattoos and clichés, is dumbness personified. And as a final bit of dumbness, at the end of the film Kirk is made captain of the Enterprise before even properly graduating from the academy.

What makes Star Trek's dumbness so unendurable is that the film itself is often so joyless. Young Kirk's joyride ought to be the equivalent of Marty McFly strumming his electric guitar and getting launched across the room--stupid, but endearingly and believably childish. Instead, the actor is curiously emotionless, arrogant but not particularly happy at his illicit adventure or his narrow escape. Other action scenes are, similarly, well put together but perfunctory and predictable: Kirk is dangling from a precipice, so in a minute Sulu will rescue him; Kirk is threatened by a CGI beast, so someone's going to shoot it from off-screen. Most egregious is the climactic assault against Nero, which is painted as a last-ditch, Hail Mary effort even though it involves ramming Nero's ship with another ship carrying a container full of the film's McGuffin, red matter, a single drop of which is enough to implode a planet. There's not even a hint of last-minute, "what you fail to realize is that my ship is dragging mines!"-style cleverness to leaven the obviousness of this resolution.

The film does quite a bit better with its characters. The cast embody their inherited roles well, and though most of them aren't given much to do, just about everyone has a standout scene in which they are allowed to be, undeniably, the characters we know and love: Bones sneaking Kirk onto the Enterprise and making him sicker and sicker with his cures, Sulu keeping his slightly flustered cool as he fails to take the ship into warp, Chekov and his ridiculous accent repeatedly coming to the rescue, Uhura keeping her old job even as the plot invests it with added importance and keeps it, and her, from devolving into Gwen DeMarco-ish insignificance, and Scotty, well, all of the time, though I was especially fond of his comment about disintegrating Archer's dog (that said, surely most Enterprise survivors would have preferred that Scotty test his theory on the dickhead admiral himself). I like the concept, if not the execution, of the Spock/Uhura romance--a romance with Vulcans needs to be handled delicately, and Star Trek makes Enterprise's depiction of a similar relationship seem positively subtle in comparison.

The heart and soul of the film, though, are Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto commit fully to their roles, and quickly come to inhabit Kirk's swagger and Spock's sharpness. But in its depiction of the growth of the characters' friendship, and their coming to assume their respective roles on the Enterprise bridge, Star Trek makes some rather curious and aggravating choices. My Kirk was first and foremost the one from the movies. The one who got old and fat, who paid the wages of his youthful womanizing with a son who wanted nothing to do with him, and of his meteoric career with an admiralty he loathed. This Kirk was shocked, simply flabbergasted, at no longer being that brash young man who could do no wrong, but in a way he never stopped being that person. Even dying he was full of wonder and a sense of adventure. The child who is the father of that man, who hasn't yet experienced loss and learned humility, is a less interesting character, and I was expecting to be a little put off by Star Trek's Kirk. But I was still thrown by the film's decision to make Kirk not only arrogant but a complete tool.

Abrams's Kirk is the kind of guy who won't stop trying to chat up a girl even after she's made it clear she's not interested, and who doesn't even have the decency to pretend that he's not interested in his officer's girlfriend. He's the guy who doesn't just tweak the parameters of the Kobayashi Maru simulation, but who sits through it, smirking like a kid who's figured out how to enable God mode on Halo 2, until it hands him his victory (and who, in keeping with the film's recurring theme of dumbness, expects to get away with this blatant cheat). Most of all, he's the guy who publicly humiliates a man by goading him with the memory of his recently murdered mother, so that he can strip him of his command. Kirk's character doesn't have a journey in the film. It's the rest of the world that has to journey from thinking him a screw-up to accepting his right go command, and the film validates his dickish behavior through the reaction of the crew and later Spock, who accept Kirk's superior claim to the captain's chair, through his promotion at the end of the film, and most of all through old Spock, who urges Kirk to bully his younger self so that they can take the roles God intended for them as alpha and beta males. Because heaven forbid the brainy, level-headed guy should be captain and the gutsy thrill-seeker should be the XO, even though that arrangement actually makes a lot more sense, and worked pretty well in seven seasons of The Next Generation, the first couple of years of Deep Space Nine, and the first half of this very movie.

In the end, I find that my main objection to J.J. Abrams's Star Trek isn't that he's changed too much but rather than he, Orci, and Kurtzman are continuing the trends that made the last days of Rick Berman and Brannon Braga's reign over the franchise so unbearable. As they did in Enterprise and to a lesser extent in Insurrection and Nemesis, Abrams abandons Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Federation as a force for peace and civilization, and valorizes strength of arms over intellect. Kirk's raw-knuckles fury, Pike tells us, is something the Federation is missing, and when Kirk offers a defeated Nero and his crew aid (an act he describes, with superior detachment, as very Federation) even Spock demurs. Most of all, Abrams continues Berman and Braga's policy of denigrating intellect by marginalizing and vilifying the Vulcans, whether by painting them as vain and bigoted, or by destroying their planet and relegating one of the founding races of the Federation to a rag-tag band of refugees, or by having both Sarek and his older self urge Spock to ignore logic, listen to his heart, and embrace Kirk's ethos of cheerful violence and bloody revenge.

After pointing out so many of its flaws, it'll probably seem strange for me to conclude by saying that Star Trek is still fun and enjoyable. Ultimately, the film is too inconsequential for me to stay angry at it. The frequent comparisons to Iron Man seem apt, though perhaps not for the reasons the people making them intended. Both films are entertaining bits of fluff elevated by good performances (though Pine and Quinto lack either the talent or the chutzpah to walk away with their film as Robert Downey Jr. did with his) but in no way deserving of the wildly overblown praise lavished on them. After the roller-coaster of heightened and lowered expectations, J.J. Abrams delivered exactly the film I thought he would--shiny, fast-paced, and desperately striving for a coolness it can never possess precisely because it wants it so badly. There are worse ways to spend a couple of hours, but far from restoring it, Star Trek is the last nail in the coffin of the franchise's relevance.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Benighted by Kit Whitfield

Kit Whitfield's second novel, In Great Waters, has been racking up a lot of praise, including from people whose opinion I value. Since it's not out in paperback yet, I picked up a copy of her first and also very well received novel Benighted. Now I need someone who's read both books to tell me that Whitfield has improved substantially as a writer in the three years gap between producing them, because though Benighted (Bareback in the UK) shows promise in certain areas, it is ultimately a failed novel: slow-paced, overlong, rather poorly written, and not doing nearly as much as it should with its excellent premise.

Said premise offers a fascinating twist on the by-now common trope of combining the supernatural with noir mystery, as well as on the idea of supernatural creatures such as vampires or fairies living openly among humans. In Benighted's world, werewolves not only live among humans, they are human--all but a tiny fraction of the population are lycanthropic, lycos for short. Humans, or anmorphs, are actually suffering from brain damage, a brief oxygen deprivation during childbirth which renders them incapable of transforming into wolves at the full moon. The tiny population of 'nons' is tasked with keeping order during full moon nights, under the auspices of DORLA--the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. It's their job to patrol the streets and round up people who haven't properly sequestered themselves, to prosecute offenders, and to provide shelter and medical assistance to those who have found themselves stranded outdoors.

Our protagonist and narrator is Lola May Galley, a non working as a public defender, dealing mostly with winos and homeless people caught outdoors in the full moon. Her latest case, a wealthy man who mauled one of her DORLA colleagues, seems equally open and shut, but then the victim turns up dead, Lola and her partner are deliberately targeted during a full moon, the suspect in another operative's mauling is allowed to escape from a lyco hospital, and his DORLA interrogator is shot dead, giving every indication that Lola, the suspect's other interrogator, might be next. Interspersed with her investigation are Lola's ruminations about a non's lot in life--the special schools in which they train only for DORLA jobs, the alienation from their werewolf families, the poor pay, the constant risk of death, and most of all the naked resentment of the werewolf population. DORLA operates with no oversight or regulation, and their methods are brutal and unethical, including rounding up suspects and holding them indefinitely without trial or access to the outside world, or making use of violence and psychological torture in their interrogations. When Lola is accused of unconscionable behavior by a civilian lawyer, however, she explains to him the wider framework in which such an organization is allowed to exist
"People do get publicly punished here; it's good for the government to make sure it happens. But they'll never overhaul us. That would be too close to backing us up. Moon night's too insoluble a problem, and we're too good a scapegoat. It's easier to punish us at intervals than to make us properly accountable."
Nons, in other words, are simultaneously marginalized--kept out of most professional and social circles, rounded up together in the shabbiest, poorest parts of town, underpaid, overworked--and feared for their power over lycos. They are forced to perform a necessary public service which places their lives and health in significant danger, and reviled for doing so. Though there are obvious parallels between anti-non sentiment and racial prejudice (most particularly the slurs with which Lola is frequently met--bareback, skin), this situation, of a society creating and reinforcing the existence of a marginalized caste which it both benefits from and fears, seems to me to more closely parallel the situation of Jews in Europe during most of last millennium. It's an uncommon tack for stories about prejudice to take, and Whitfield does a good job fleshing out the ways in which the relationship between the two groups is self-sustaining. The more the lycos marginalize the nons, the less resources DORLA has, and the more likely it is to use expedient but unjust methods to get its job done, thus stoking resentment against its members and ensuring that the two groups separate even further and that nons have even less reason to act humanely.

Unfortunately, Whitfield's premise doesn't quite support this scenario. For one thing, she never truly makes us believe that DORLA is necessary. Getting ready for patrol on a full moon night, Lola darkly muses that some lycos think that it's nons who should sequester themselves and they who should be allowed to roam free, and though this sentiment is clearly intended to recall the frequently voiced complaints whenever a majority is forced to take the desires of a minority into consideration (why do we have to have kosher food in the cafeteria? Why should they be allowed to wear a headscarf in their driver's license pictures?) it also, given the disparity between werewolf and non populations, makes a lot of sense. The fact is, we never see any indication that werewolves pose a danger to anyone but nons. The only injuries we see werewolves sustain during moon nights are caused by their catchers, or by being kept in too close quarters once they've been caught, and families often transform together with no danger to children or the infirm. When Lola's boss recollects an incident in which a malfunctioning security system trapped dozens of lycos in a building during the full moon, then released them onto the streets, he describes the results as "Mass tranquilization, packed cells, major property damage" but says nothing about deaths or injuries.

But even if we were to assume that unchecked lycanthropes represent a major problem, doesn't the solution to the nons' plight suggest itself? Lola tells us, for example, that in the countryside werewolves attack livestock, but that in some rural areas "locals hunch their backs and put their heads together and don't speak to nons at all", and I'm sorry, but a pretty obvious way to address this problem is simply not to go out hunting werewolves one night and see how things change (Isaac Asimov wrote a story, "Strikebreaker," with almost exactly this premise). The result might be catastrophic--lyco society is highly motivated to keep nons subservient, and no struggle for civil rights has ever been easy or quick--but it beggars belief that no one has ever tried it. Lycos need nons a great deal more than nons need lycos, and the fact that no one in the novel, no one Lola has ever met or heard about, realizes this, is jarring. What I missed most in Benighted was a sense that Lola was part of a society that, like all societies, was in the midst of change and social upheaval, and that people were thinking and talking about the role of nons and DORLA within that society. We know that the concept of civil rights exists in Benighted's world because DORLA is so frequently castigated for ignoring them, but there's no indication of a non struggle for their own rights, or a werewolf struggle against the existence of DORLA. People react to nons and to DORLA on an individual level, not a communal or political level. There are no newspaper editorials, no public protests, no slogans, no landmark court cases, no Malcolm X or Nelson Mandela figures speaking out against injustice.

On one level, this is me criticizing Benighted for not being the novel I wanted it to be, and therefore unfair. Whitfield's topic is clearly not so much the fact of prejudice as the effect that living within a prejudiced system has on a person's soul, and how being oppressed can drive people to violence and to oppressing others. Though Lola had previously been aware that her colleagues were using violence against prisoners, over the course of the novel she draws closer and closer to that darkness. After the first murder is committed and her client, the victim's original attacker, becomes the prime suspect, Lola watches as he's beaten by his interrogators. When her partner is attacked, she herself beats the werewolf who mauled him. Later, she participates in a campaign of physical and psychological torture against a group of detained werewolves, who include her lover, and finally manipulates them into perpetrating the same kind of torture on a fellow inmate in order to extract information from him. Each step is justified, in Lola's mind, by her anger at anti-non prejudice and the cheapness with which non lives are held by werewolf society and authorities, both of which are further hammered in with each attack and murder.

The problem with Whitfield's emphasis on the personal effects of prejudice and violence is that it forces us to concentrate on Lola and her internal monologue, both of which are incredibly annoying. It's customary for a noir anti-hero to be cynical, hard-boiled, self-destructive and self-loathing. Lola is all of these things, but she's also neurotic to the point of being nearly incapable of dealing with the world, often finding herself overwhelmed by simple tasks such as speaking on the phone or getting up from a couch. She's also a pretty lousy cop, incurious and prone to jumping to conclusions, which means that Benighted commits the cardinal sin of mystery fiction by letting the readers feel significantly smarter than the detective (or perhaps significantly smarter than the readers Whitfield anticipated. On several occasions she has Lola recap events which occurred on page--"William Jones sits at the desk. I've met him once before, when I was warned about Seligmann's escape," but we were there at that earlier meeting and know who Jones is).

The emotional lynchpin of the novel is a scene in which Lola and her new lyco lover, Paul (the one she later arrests and has tortured) have a fight when she comes home from work, frustrated by her life and her job but unwilling to be comforted by Paul's suggestion that she put the burdens of being a non aside. It's almost a word for word reenactment of a similar argument in the film Something New, in which a wealthy, upper-class black professional, Kenya, falls in love with her white gardener, Brian. The film is a slight romantic comedy, but this scene feels real, mainly because we can sympathize with both characters: with Brian's desire to keep politics out of his relationship with the woman he loves, and his frustration at the fact that no matter how much she loves him he will always, on some level, be the enemy, and with Kenya's inability to simply put 'the black thing' aside for an evening, and her anger at Brian cavalierly suggesting that she do. When Lola and Paul have the same argument, however, we can't split our sympathies in the same manner, because as justified as Lola is in her feelings it's pretty clear that her inability to express them to Paul has more to do with the fact that she is much too far gone to cope with the intimacy of a romantic relationship than with his inability to put himself in her shoes, and it simply beggars belief that Paul is willing to put up with her craziness. As, in fact, it has since the moment they met--when Paul approaches a sloshed Lola at a bar and continues to pursue her despite the fact that she hurls insults and self-deprecating comments at him throughout their conversation. There's never any indication in the novel of what Paul sees in Lola, what she does or is that makes him love her, which makes him seem more than a little creepy--the guy who likes to fix broken women--but, since Paul is the only person who gets to know and like Lola over the course of the novel, also doesn't give us much to like about her.

Aggravating Lola's unlikability is her narrative voice, which is rife with purple, melodramatic self-aggrandizement by way of self-loathing, clearly aiming for hard-boiled but achieving only a tone-deaf, emo imitation of it:
... haven't I myself beaten a man bloody? We all of us have our own impulses to prowl. A prowler is the insects in your mind, the whispering demon that makes you own little wishes gigantic and imperative, worth hunting for. Every thief, every killer, every father with a leather belt and assassin with a loaded gun. This is why I can't give him the world.

Someone threw a Molotov cocktail at the DORLA building. A half-full bottle, a crash of glass, a spreading ball of flame. Liquid goes so far, a spilled cup covers the floor, a single teardrop spreads as wide as a penny. Half a liter of alcohol is enough to burn a lot of people.

All the time before Paul, there was space around my body, not blank space but resilient, elastic, crackling with static, keeping me inside it. It feels so much better to be defused. His hand on my hand is a consolation I did nothing to deserve, and I owe him something for that.

The memory of Paul's skin possesses me moment to moment, and I can't predict when it will come. When I look in the bathroom mirror, though, I don't think he'd recognize my face. There are no smiles now, no concessions, my eyes don't close. It's a face that I recognize, the hollow sockets, the damaged teeth, all the ugliness that I spent a lifetime trying to hide, that I knew in the end I would never escape.
And this, in turn, is aggravated by the fact that we spend far too much time in Lola's company. Benighted is much longer than it needs to be, the mystery plot allowed to go slack for dozens of pages so that we can watch Lola's relationship with Paul blossom and then curdle, or see her repair her relationship with her sister and bond with her new nephew, or find out about her colleagues. Mainly, though, Lola's digressions have to do with the burden of being a non--the prejudice she faces and the crimes she commits and hates herself for. There's obviously some justification for Whitfield stressing these elements, but by the end of the novel she's repeating herself (one speech, in which Lola raves at lycos' simultaneous marginalization and fear of nons, repeats almost word for word in two points in the novel), and I think that a judicious editor would have cut Benighted down to two thirds or half its page count and lost very little of what Whitfield was trying to do with it.

That Lola is so miserable and self-pitying, so steeped in the helplessness of her situation, is obviously part and parcel of the noir format, as well as reinforcing Whitfield's theme of man's inhumanity to man. And here, I think, is where my complaint about the novel's missing political component gains credibility. Because of her choice to focus on the dehumanizing effects of prejudice rather than the struggle against it, Whitfield makes her novel a discussion of stasis, of people learning to live in a bad situation, and more importantly, learning that there's no point fighting it--"Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown." That's a satisfying (for various values of the term satisfying) ending only if you believe that the protagonist has actually done their best to make a difference, that they have some power--strength of will or intelligence--which might have carried the day if only the system weren't entirely corrupt. Lola doesn't possess these qualities, nor does she fight particularly hard for justice. Her giving up at the end of the novel, and her unwillingness to make some effort towards a meaningful change in her society, say more about her weakness than they do about her enemies' strengths.

The classic noir story is driven by class differences, by the rich abusing the poor (or, in Brick, the popular kids abusing the unpopular ones) and getting away with it because the system is built to favor them. Racial prejudice is not the same thing as class prejudice, however, and though there's something tolerable, in the sense that it is at least depressingly honest, about a noir ending which tells us that there's nothing we can do about the corrupting influence of money, it's something quite different for a noir novel to end, as Benighted does, by telling us that there's nothing we can do about prejudice, if only because history has decisively proved otherwise. (In fact it occurs to me that I know of at least one noir detective series with a black protagonist which spans the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and I strongly suspect that though novels in this series often show the detective accepting and learning to live within the restrictions placed on him by prejudice, they also show him observing and perhaps even participating in the civil rights movement.)

The fact is that Lola is given the opportunity to make a difference, and she lets it slip through her fingers. At the end of the novel Lola discovers that DORLA and the werewolf government have been colluding in a program to artificially create nons during childbirth in order to fill DORLA's ranks. To keep her quiet about this discovery, Lola's superiors offer her a raise and threaten to reveal that she shot an unarmed man before arresting him for the murder of her colleague, and to let her stand trial for attempted murder in werewolf court, where she will surely be given the harshest possible punishment. By this point, however, it's pretty clear that Lola hates her life even more than she hates herself, and for a moment I believed that Whitfield was going to make Lola a whistleblower, and that the frequent appearances of a renowned defense attorney throughout the novel were a precursor to him taking her case in order to allow her to expose the injustices nons live with from the witness stand, thus perhaps sparking some change in her society. Instead, Lola takes the deal, then orchestrates an elaborate performance intended to make the one doctor she knows is guilty of damaging babies feel bad ("That's how it feels on the other side." she triumphantly tells him after making him think she was going to shoot him) and walks away with her head held high as though she's accomplished something meaningful.

Benighted's ending is happy in a way that feels entirely unearned. Terrorizing someone who actually deserved it seems to have been the solution to all of Lola's problems, as she leaves the doctor's office happier and more emotionally stable than she's been at any point throughout the novel. Never mind that she's found a capacity for great cruelty in herself, and unleashed on an innocent man who loved her. Never mind that as a result she's lost that man. Never mind that she sold her principles and let a huge miscarriage of justice take place, or that new babies are being doomed to life in an underclass every day. Never mind that nons are still doing the job that nobody wants to do and catching hell for it. Lola's got a bit more money, and a stronger relationship with her sister and nephew, and that's enough for her. People have lived, and are living, happy lives in the shadow of prejudice, but Benighted's ending doesn't show us a woman strong enough to rise above her misfortune and become more than the sum of the injustices committed against her. It shows us a woman who is willing to let empty gestures and a few shiny baubles distract her from the realities of her life, just as Whitfield is trying to distract us from the emptiness of her ending by making it consoling. It might be unfair for me to criticize Whitfield for not making Benighted an overtly political novel, but with its ending she has abandoned even her non-political commentary about the effects of prejudice, and left us with nothing but a main character I never cared for feeling inexplicably happy. That hardly seems worth all of her, and our, effort.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Women Women Do See

There are many ways in which I've changed as a reader over the last few years, and one of them is that I've become more political. If even a few years ago I read with only a vague awareness of issues of race and gender, nowadays I find that I apply clearly-defined yardsticks to most of the fiction I read--for example, the Bechdel Test. Now, all the Bechdel Test does is give us an indicator--if a writer is capable of envisioning women interacting with each other for reasons not related to a man, then it's more likely that they see women as people in their own right. It isn't a yardstick for feminism, and it's certainly not a yardstick for quality, nor was it intended as either one. In fact, I'd say that the test probably has less to do with individual works and more to do with with the entertainment industry as a whole, and the fact that so few works produced by it actually pass this simple, seemingly obvious test. Nevertheless, once your eyes have been opened to this fact it's hard not to apply the test to any new film or TV show you encounter, and to think less of the overwhelming majority that don't pass it.

By the same token, I've found myself keeping a running tally of female characters and their roles in the books I read, most recently in The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris. I picked up The Dart League King after reading the enthusiastic raves of Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner, organizers of this year's Tournament of Books, as well as those of commenters who had read the book on their advice. Though I found The Dart League King less engaging than Guilfoile and Warner did--in fact, contrary to their experiences, I found the novel strangely putdownable, even in its more intense later segments--there is no denying that it is an impressive accomplishment. Taking place over the course of a single evening in the small town of Garnet Lake, Idaho, The Dart League King shuttles between the points of view of five characters--Russell Harmon, founder and two time champion of the Garnet Lake Dart League, about to face his toughest competition for the title in the form of a former professional player; Tristan Mackey, Russell's teammate, recently returned from college; Vince Thompson, the local drug dealer to whom Russell owes more than two thousand dollars, who has decided to kill Russell for fear that his former client will shop him to the cops in order to escape paying his debt; Brice Habersham, Russell's opponent but also an undercover DEA agent, who is planning to arrest Russell in order to start a chain of testimony leading through Vince to his suppliers; and Kelly Ashton, Russell's former girlfriend and, unbeknownst to him, the mother of his child, now on a date with Tristan.

What makes The Dart League King special is the profound sympathy it extends to each of its characters, transforming familiar stereotypes--the small town loser, repeatedly narrowing down his options through shortsightedness and laziness; the violent, mercurial drug dealer; the girl who just wants to get out of a dead end life in a dead end town--into fully realized, entirely human people. Even more compelling is the sympathy the characters have for one another--Russell's admiration of Brice's skill at darts, Brice's pity for both Russell and Vince, Vince's hurt feelings at what he perceives as Russell pretending to be his friend in order to score drugs, and his unwillingness to take a life, Kelly's love for Russell and for her daughter. The Dart League King is a deeply compassionate novel. Even as it approaches its climax and the tension begins to ratchet up, as several of the characters' lives and freedom hang in the balance, its primary concern is their affection and love for one another, and how these feelings manage, for an instant, to drive them to be better, braver, and stronger than they've ever been before. And yet I finished The Dart League King not with a sense of Morris's compassion for his characters but with the feeling that he had slammed a door in my face. Then I went back and reread Guilfoile and Warner's recommendation and boggled at it, thinking: but, but... didn't they see? Didn't they see the women?

Aside from Kelly, there are two female characters in The Dart League King (three if you count the frequent mentions of Kelly's mother, a drunk who can barely be counted on to watch her granddaughter while Kelly goes out for the evening). The first, Liza Hatter, is a former classmate of Tristan who on the eve of his graduation from college he brought out to his parents' lake house at Garnet Lake and joined on a nighttime swim, during which she got a cramp and drowned while he watched and did nothing to help. Morris clearly expects us to recoil from Tristan, who at the time of Liza's death was already dangerously detached from humanity and has only descended further into anti-social tendencies in the weeks since. It is surely telling that of all the novel's characters he is the only one never to express a hint of sympathy or compassion towards another person, and his confession that "when it came right down to it he didn't find people all that interesting, as they all seemed more or less to have the same kind of thoughts, perform the same kind of actions" is clearly antithetical to the approach of a novel which works so hard to transform even the most familiar character type into a complicated and fully realized individual. But the fact remains that because we only ever see Liza through Tristan's disdainful, dismissive eyes, she never gains the three-dimensional humanity that Morris extends to the novel's main characters, Tristan included.

We are invited to sneer with Tristan at Liza's obvious crush on him, at her suggestion that they spend the evening snuggling on the couch watching videos, even at her foolishness in swimming farther than her strength could carry her, and without the counteracting effect of her point of view there's never a sense that Liza, like the novel's other characters, was a world onto herself, that despite being silly and having mundane desires she was a person who wanted, and deserved, to live. We're horrified by Tristan's actions because the only emotion he seems to feel about taking a life is the desire to look at his victim's decomposing face after her body washes up near the lake house, not because he destroyed Liza, who means so much less to us than he does.

The second female character is Brice Habersham's wife Helen, a sickly hysteric who demands his near-constant attention and care, and who is prone to embarrassing outbursts if she believes him lax in his duties: "if the match continued long enough it might even lead her to pick up the phone from the bedside table and, claiming later that she had forgotten his cell phone number, dial 911 to talk to the police." Such has been the nature of Brice and Helen's marriage for all its twenty seven years, beginning with a breathtakingly awful wedding night on which Brice's fumbling advances met not merely with resistance but with shrieking, swearing, and finally the revelation that Helen only married him to get back at her no-good, married lover, in the wake of which the two have never made love.

Brice and Helen's marriage bears great similarities to the marriage of the title character in John Williams's Stoner. Like Brice, Stoner is a quiet, thoughtful, socially awkward man who falls in love with a woman who reveals herself, after their marriage, to be shrewish and manipulative, using her weakness and neediness as weapons against him and denying his physical desires. (In fact, given the similarities between the Habershams and the Stoners, and the fact that, like The Dart League King, Stoner is a novel about seemingly uninteresting people who are revealed, through the author's unflinching yet compassionate descriptions, to be complicated and fascinating, one wonders whether The Dart League King wasn't written at least in part as an homage to Williams's novel.) The problem with this depiction in both novels is that the issue in both Brice and Stoner's marriages isn't sex, it's love. Both men have married women who don't love them, who have entered into the marriage under false pretenses, in order to get away from a bad situation, and who, now that they have what they want, have no intention of giving any thought to their husbands' feelings or desires. Helen Habersham and Edith Stoner are both terrible people, users whose husbands ought to have left them right after the wedding night (and though this would obviously have been difficult for Stoner, who got married in the early 20th century, I'm not sure what was stopping Brice from doing so in 1980), but by depicting the marriages' core dysfunction as sexual rather than emotional, both authors play on our justifiable sympathies for Brice and Stoner, using them to manipulate us into the conclusion that the two men have the right to demand sex from their wives, despite the fact that neither marriage would have been improved by such behavior.

Still, Helen and Liza aren't point of view characters, and given the complexity with which Morris imbues even a sociopath like Tristan one would expect Kelly, at least, to fare better than the other two women. To a certain extent, she does, in that we never dislike her the way Morris encourages us to dislike Liza and Helen. Kelly desperately wants to leave Garnet Lake and escape the lackluster future she sees stretching out ahead of her. To that end, she's latched onto Tristan, who as a teenager represented her hopes for escape and whose relative sophistication in the present day--he's a college graduate and has some money--has led her to think of him as her ticket to a more glamorous life. To her credit, Kelly is smart enough to see that something is not quite right with Tristan, and to suspect that he has no long term plans for her. She also still has strong feelings for Russell, and over the course of the evening she reconnects with him and tells him that he is the father of her child. Near the novel's end, Kelly is faced with a choice between waiting for Russell at the bar and going to the lake house with Tristan. Though she longs for Russell, she also sees him for what he is--a well-meaning but weak-willed man who will probably never have more to offer her than the life her parents lived and which she is desperate to escape--and concludes that her desire to wait for him
... was weakness talking. The thing to do was get in the fucking truck. This was the moment when the losers were born, when the could-have-beens and should-have-beens were made, when the fault was exposed in the underlings. This was the moment when, facing the mirror, one averted one's eyes, denied oneself and all the plans that had been laid.
So Kelly gets in the truck with Tristan the murderer, who takes her to the lake house to show her the body of his victim. And here she might still have escaped with her dignity, because she shows great courage in a crisis. For a time her strength of character overpowers Tristan, whom she finally sees as the overgrown child that he is rather than the savior she wanted him to be. But when Kelly demands that Tristan call the police, he rebels and, deciding to leave the country, comes at her with a knife.

Is there any way to interpret this development but that Kelly is being punished for rejecting Russell as not good enough for her, for having dreams that go beyond the life he could have offered her? And what are we to make of the fact that we never learn the end of her story, that the narrative cuts away just as she's preparing to fight for her life, but that her survival simply isn't important? The novel's ending is clearly trying to be consoling, showing us Kelly's daughter lying peacefully in her bed early the next morning (and given that her sleep hasn't been disturbed by either her mother's return or a call from the police station, it seems unlikely that Kelly survived) and Russell happily preparing for work and planning to introduce himself to his daughter later in the day, and the only way I can read this, especially given that Kelly's last thoughts are that at least, if she dies, her daughter will have a parent who loves her, is that Morris expects us to feel that Kelly's death is not much of a tragedy because Russell and the baby have each other.

At the end of The Dart League King, three of the four male point of view characters have gained something, gotten a chance at a new beginning and found a new, better direction for their lives. Russell has held on to the dart league championship, and gained a baby daughter and the desire to be a better person for her sake, as well as making amends with Vince. Vince has put to rest some of his inner demons, and is finally leaving the town where he will never be anything more than a hoodlum for a life that offers so much more. Brice has realized that he feels at home in Garnet Lake and decided to retire from the DEA, which he never liked working for, and to cap it all off he finally gets to make love to his wife, who suddenly decides that she loves him. And Kelly? If she survives, Kelly has learned a valuable lesson about the dangers of thinking she could do better than her coke-snorting, uneducated, barely-employed childhood sweetheart whose sole positive attributes are that he's a really sweet guy and good at darts. The men get to spread their wings, the woman either gets to find out she's better off at home, or she gets a knife to the guts.

It's pretty obvious, reading my reaction to The Dart League King side by side with Guilfoile and Warner's, that we all brought very different baggage to the novel. It's a safe bet, I think, that unlike myself they didn't keep a running tally of female characters and their roles as they read the novel. I'm not saying this as a criticism of Guilfoile and Warner (though in the future I will be taking their recommendations with a grain of salt), and I do still agree with their assessment of The Dart League King as a work of literature--it's beautifully written, and the male characters, at least, are delicately drawn and completely engaging. This, however, is purely an intellectual reaction. On the emotional level, my strongest reaction to the novel is dismay at Morris's treatment of his female characters, which completely overpowers my admiration for his writing. And that, quite obviously, has more to do with how I approached The Dart League King and the type of reader I am right now than it does with the novel Morris intended, or managed, to write.

I make no apologies for bringing a certain point of view to the novels I read, nor for my reaction to this specific novel, but it gave me pause when I realized that I had translated a failure in ideology into a failure in quality. On the other hand, there's something very wrong about Morris's novel, and I would hate to go back to being the kind of reader who doesn't see that wrongness. As reviewers we're repeatedly exhorted to approach a book with no preconceptions or expectations, to read and judge the work as it was written, not as we wanted it to be, but what if what we wanted was a novel that wasn't racist or misogynistic? To what degree we are justified in bringing ideology to our reading, and how much weight we should give that ideology in our reviewing? I'm asking the question seriously, not looking for validation or jeers. There are things I believe in, and it hurts me when in order to take pleasure out of a reading experience I have to set those beliefs aside. I also think that the only way to increase the number of novels that don't force me to make this choice is to loudly point out the ones that do. On the other hand, I also believe that a work of fiction shouldn't have to pass a purity test to be worth reading, and that you can't sum up the worth of a novel with a tally of its female characters and their roles, or by applying the Bechdel Test. I'm genuinely uncertain about where to draw the line.