Monday, June 29, 2009

The Weekend's Films 2

Last minute Hugo reading is keeping me both busy and quiet, though I hope to have some more Hugo-related stuff by the end of the week. In the meantime, here are a couple of films.
  • Virtuality - Not a film per se but what was to have been the pilot for Ronald Moore and Michael "Unfinished Business" Taylor's follow-up to Battlestar Galactica, it aired this weekend as a standalone movie (which was quite unfair of Fox as the pilot by no means stands alone). Taking place aboard the spaceship Phaeton as it approaches the point of no return in its journey outside the solar system, Virtuality's chief virtues are its looks--Phaeton's interiors and its CGI exteriors, some nicely done action scenes, and the judicious integration of surveillance footage into the show's traditionally shot scenes. Other than that--and the fact that space-set television has become an endangered species--I see no reason to lament Virtuality's early demise. The pilot feels several drafts short of completion--or, to be less charitable, it feels lazy, as though Moore and Taylor didn't feel any obligation to hook their audience with a coherent story or a discernible direction for their show. Instead, they seem to have written the first chapter of a story, which makes gestures towards several different plotlines and takes it on faith that viewers will tune in next week to see which one of them the writers are actually interested in telling.

    Virtuality is telling at least four different stories. At its most fundamental level, it is the story of an isolated, multi-racial, multi-gender, multinational crew on a years-long mission towards what may be humanity's last hope of survival (in its presentation of this story the pilot steals quite shamelessly from Sunshine, though not when it comes to visuals, which is really the only aspect of Sunshine you'd want to imitate). The mission, however, is being funded in part by a media conglomerate, and crewmembers are made to participate in a reality TV program, complete with a confessional chamber and cheesy promos interspersed with the show's action (besides being over the top, this storyline completely ignores both the transmission lag once Phaeton leaves the solar system and the strain that time dilation will place on program scheduling). Meanwhile, crewmembers entertain themselves in VR simulations, but one by one these programs are corrupted, turning violent and traumatic. Finally, frequently voiced suspicion of the mission's sponsors boils over when one of the characters is killed and another becomes convinced that they were murdered. Virtuality gets so bogged down in establishing each of these stories that it forgets to tell a story in its own right. When the credits roll, all we're certain of is that weird shit is going on. Between the proliferation of plotlines and the sheer size of the cast, the characters are given very short shrift--most of them are types (the tough as nails female pilot, the scientist who is grieving for a son he neglected for his work, the oily psychiatrist slash reality show producer) and those that aren't are simply tough to get a handle on--the mission commander careens unexpectedly from dourness to euphoria without ever letting us see his center, all while we're being told that he's a natural leader and the only person who can keep the crew together. There are one or two nice exchanges between the characters, but no exceptional ones, and hardly any really cool moments of any kind. These are all problems that might have been dealt with had the series gotten a season order, and it is true that odder and less coherent pilots, by which I mean Dollhouse, have been given that chance. The difference, of course, is that Dollhouse is made by someone who has earned my indulgence whereas Virtuality's creators are the main point against it, and in order to have developed any investment in the series, much less tolerance for its faults, I needed the pilot to be exceptional, not busy and underdone.

  • Coraline - Once again, this is a film whose chief virtue is its looks, though in this case that's clearly intentional. The stop-motion animation is stunning, and the use of 3D only intensifies its beauty and its creepiness (though on a personal note I have to say that 3D gave me a headache so bad that I was barely able to make it through the film's 100 minutes. I certainly won't be able to put up with it for 2+ hours of James Cameron's Avatar, so sign me up for the 2D version). The film sticks rather close to the plot of the original novel, but for the addition of a boy in the real world whom Coraline befriends (this is only annoying at the very end of the film when he rescues Coraline at the last minute). This faithfulness, however, is actually a problem, as much like the novel Coraline has a lot of dead space, moments whose purpose is merely to show off Gaiman's odd inventiveness. These work better in the novel where they take less time to get through (though the cumulative weight of their tweeness does get a bit wearying). In the film, we end up with several set pieces which do nothing to move the plot. This is where I think the decision not to make Coraline into a musical a la The Nightmare Before Christmas (according to IMDb They Might Be Giants had already recorded several tracks for the film before the change was made) serves the film ill, as the songs could have filled up this dead space. On the other hand, songs would certainly have undercut the creepiness of the second half of the film, in which the true nature of the other world is revealed. I never found Gaiman's novel particularly scary, but the film really is, both in its depiction of the Other Mother and in the way it captures the enormity of the danger and challenges that Coraline finds herself facing. The strong second half, and the beautiful animation, mostly make up for the film's slow buildup, but in the end I find myself having roughly the same reaction to the film as I did to the book--nice, and with occasional flashes of excellence, but ultimately too enchanted with its own weirdness to be much of a story.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Dramatic Presentation Ballots

Since I'm a Hugo voter this year, I thought I'd write about more than just the short fiction nominees, and since there's a mere two weeks left until the voting deadline, I might as well get the least time-consuming categories out of the way first. The best dramatic presentation categories get more votes than just about any other category excepting best novel, and perhaps as a result of that they tend to fall in line with popular tastes, giving nods to effects-laden blockbusters and big ratings hits. This is tolerable in the long form category, since it's a rare year that has more than a few decent genre films to choose from anyway (though for a contrasting opinion, see Jonathan McCalmont's alternative best dramatic presentation ballot. I'm frankly a little surprised that Let the Right One In didn't get a nomination, but I found Blindness underwhelming). But the short form category, which ought to act--as the best novel category does--as a counterpoint to the mainstream tendency to ignore worthwhile genre work, consistently fails in that role, and this year seems to have hit its nadir by ignoring the three best, and now all sadly defunct, genre series of 2008--The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, and The Middleman--in favor of the old standbys.

Not, to be fair, that the short form nominees actually matter, as it's been plainly clear since last summer that the 2009 category might as well have been renamed The Joss Whedon Award for Best Doctor Horrible Sing-Along Blog-ness for all that there's been any doubt about the winner. Which I don't really have a problem with--there were hours of genre television I liked better than Doctor Horrible in 2008, but not many, and none of them are among the nominees. I probably like "Turn Left" best of the remaining nominees, though having seen its two followup episodes I'm less positive towards it than I was when I first watched it (and anyway, I think "Midnight" should have gotten a nod instead). My least favorite nominee is Galactica's "Revelations," not so much because it was a bad episode but because the only memorable thing about it was its scorched earth ending (which anyway has been devalued by the abysmal series finale it led up to).

Which leaves Doctor Who's "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" and Lost's "The Constant." Both are decent enough, but I'm inclined to be harder on Who than on Lost. With three Hugos already on his mantel, I think that Stephen Moffat should be graded on a curve, and this was by far his worst story for Who, overlong and lazily plotted despite his clever lines and fun characters. I also think that "The Constant," the only one of the nominees I hadn't seen in its original airing, didn't really get a fair shake out of me when I tracked it down this morning, since by that point I'd already heard too much about it and its twists. That said, I don't really understand why this episode caused such an uproar in Lost fandom last year. It gets points for focusing on the only character I could still stand when I stopped watching the show and the only relationship I didn't find completely icky, but as a time travel story it relies mainly on handwaving, and as a piece of storytelling it uses the sweetness of its central romance as a crutch. It was very touching when Penny answered Desmond's phone call, but really, was that it?

My votes, then:
  1. Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
  2. "Turn Left," Doctor Who
  3. "The Constant," Lost
  4. "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," Doctor Who
  5. "Revelations," Battlestar Galactica
The long form category is similarly dominated by a single nominee. Wall-E is a great story, a great film, and great science fiction, and it was obvious to me as soon I saw it that it should win the Hugo (and though the short form category is letting down the side in this respect, at least by nominating Wall-E the long form category is picking up a tiny bit of Hollywood's slack, as the film was criminally left off the best picture ballot at the Oscars). The next best film on the ballot is clearly The Dark Knight, but I'm inclined to give it a low rating seeing as it's not actually a genre film. As The Dark Knight plainly demonstrates, superhero stories don't necessarily equal science fiction, and neither is it a fantasy or horror story. This is a film that simply doesn't belong on the Hugo ballot, and is probably only on it because of its huge popularity among genre fans. Of the remaining two films on the ballot, Hellboy II and Iron Man, I'm having trouble deciding which one I like better. Both are enjoyable but deeply flawed--Hellboy II is visually stunning and has a fun story, but the characters are non-entities; Iron Man is energized by its central performance and has some nice SFnal moments in its emphasis on technology and engineering, but its plot is entirely predictable and falls apart in the third act. Right now I'm inclined to give Iron Man the edge, but that could easily change.

Which leaves what is probably the most interesting nominee on both dramatic presentation ballots this year, the audio-anthology METAtropolis, in which editor John Scalzi and contributors Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder jointly imagined the city of the future and then wrote stories set in or around it (the anthology is available for free download here, though you'll have to sign up for Audible). It should be said that I don't feel like the best judge of this nominee, since on the one hand it's difficult to compare an audiobook to a film, and on the other hand I'm not a big fan of the audiobook experience, which demands enough of my attention that I can't do anything else while listening, but doesn't monopolize it, leaving me feeling idle and restless. With that caveat, I have to say that I was rather unimpressed by METAtropolis. The stories themselves are exposition-heavy, with very little action or meaningful conversations--Farah Mendlesohn sums them up quite well in her Strange Horizons review when she says that "for too much of the time we are being given a tour of Utopia." This might have been tolerable in a written anthology, but as Farah also notes one can't skim or skip forward when one is being read to, so that what might have been slightly tedious on the page becomes stultifying in the ear. Listening to METAtropolis feels less like being told a story and more like a long lecture from a very enthusiastic Boing Boing contributor who keeps dropping buzzwords like creative commons license or open source technology as they explain how the city of the future will work. Which, obviously, is part of the project's goal, but it's pretty clear that with the exception of Scalzi none of the writers involved gave much thought to the difference between a written and performed work, or tried to tailor their stories to suit a dramatic reading (which is to say, more dialogue and action, only the bare minimum of infodumps and description). Which means that METAtropolis really doesn't work as a spoken word work, and thus gets my lowest rating on this ballot.

Once again, my votes:
  1. Wall-E
  2. Iron Man
  3. Hellboy II
  4. The Dark Knight
  5. METAtropolis
Next up, I think, will be either the Campbell or best related work nominees. I'm frankly so unenthusiastic about the best novel nominees that I'm not entirely certain I'll manage to read them all before the voting deadline, but one of the nice things about having a blog is that it gives you a reason to take on reading projects, so I may yet post about that category as well.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 22

  1. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia - Sedia's second novel centers around Mattie, a clockwork doll who has won a provisional freedom from her maker (he still keeps the only key that can wind her mechanism) and trained as an alchemist at a time when magic and mechanics are at odds. Mattie's commission from the gargoyles, her city's patron saints, to discover the reason they are turning into stone, is interrupted by civil unrest, as political struggles between the guilds of mechanics and alchemists boil over into riots, murders, and an uprising by the city's underclass. None of this is badly done, and there are some very nice notes such as Mattie's friendship with a foreign (and thus maligned and suspected) alchemist, or the character of the Soul-Smoker, who gathers up the lingering souls of the dead and is feared and reviled for performing a necessary act. But taken as a whole The Alchemy of Stone gives the definite impression of having been written to meet a checklist of modern fantasy tropes: steampunk, an urban setting, non-Tolkienian fantasy creatures, the intersection between magic and science, issues of class and racial prejudice mapped onto the fantasy world. There's nothing here that hasn't been done better elsewhere, and what Sedia brings to the table--her use of language and her characters--is again well done but unremarkable. It could simply be that I've read too many novels of this ilk to appreciate yet another entry in the subgenre, but I'm not so well read that this is likely to be an uncommon problem, and The Alchemy of Stone, enjoyable as it was while I was reading it, doesn't do nearly enough to set itself apart from the pack.

  2. Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott - Narrated by the empress Zhan from her deathbed as a series of letters to her exiled lover, McDermott's debut flits between different periods in Zhan's past, demanding our absolute focus as we piece that past together. Accompanied by her uncle Seth, a shaman, Zhan journeys from her remote mountain village to a great city in pursuit of her grandfather, who has murdered her whole family. Once there, she amasses a fantasy coterie--Seth's gypsy lover, a grizzled mercenary, and the paladin Adel, who is helping Zhan for her own reasons--and must race back to her home in advance of an invading army. All of this is to make Last Dragon seem very conventional, but even ignoring its jigsaw structure, the novel seems to be deliberately defying the conventions of epic fantasy by attempting to depict its characters and their situation as realistically and unromantically as possible. McDermott's focus is not on the few moments in which the characters confront their enemies head on but on the long, unheroic trudge to reach those moments--Zhan and Seth's miserable sea-voyage on their way to the city, the frozen wasteland the group must traverse on their way back to the village, the stinking prison cell in which they're held towards the end of the story--and he truly makes us feel the characters' misery and discomfort, the way that these overshadow their grand motivations of honor and duty even as those motivations keep driving them forward, so that victory, in the end, is simply a way of finally getting some rest.

    Last Dragon's tone of mingled determination and despair is so overwhelming that it's easy to simply get caught up in it, and in the pleasure of piecing together Zhan's story, but once the last page was turned I realized that as overpowering as I found the novel, I'm still not certain what McDermott was trying to do with it. Was the point nothing more than to give another whack to the epic fantasy subgenre, whose heroes often dedicate themselves, body and soul, to a cause, without suffering the soul-deadening effect McDermott so ably describes? Possibly, and if so then the point is well made, but it would be awfully disappointing to think that so much effort had been put into contravening the basic assumptions of a subgenre that most of the novel's target audience don't read (it has the whiff of condescension too). There are enough questions left unanswered by the novel's ending--mostly relating to Adel and her true motivations in helping Zhan, but also involving the gap between the end of the novel and the dying Zhan's present--that it could very well be that McDermott expects us to piece together an underlying story, one that I wasn't quite able to see. Or the underlying story might not be there, and the point of the novel could be that we're being told a partial narrative by someone who was only a minor participant in the proceedings--which, once again, is a rather flimsy point on which to hang a novel. Whatever the answer is, the end result is that Last Dragon feels a little underdone, and yet I'm not sure that this ought to matter. McDermott's writing is strong enough that the novel can be enjoyed simply for its tone and effect--not to mention for its plot, which is entirely riveting--and I'm willing to let that be enough for now.

  3. Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta - Niall, who liked this novel a great deal more than I did, compares it to David Mitchell's Ghostwritten--which like it is a novel made up of globe-spanning, linked narratives, in which the fantastic is used to highlight some of the aspects of modernity--but I was more strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales. Unlike Mitchell, and like Valente, Dasgupta--who strands a small group of airline passengers on their way to Tokyo in an unnamed Indian airport and has them tell each other stories to while away the hours until their flight--starts with familiar fairy tale formats and complicates them to the point of surrealism. Either way, the comparison is unkind. Tokyo Cancelled is a great deal more fantastic than Ghostwritten, but not completely steeped in the fantastic like The Orphan's Tales, and the midpoint it occupies does not seem, to me, particularly stable. It's never clear whether we're meant to anticipate realism or surrealism, whether fairy tale logic or real world logic will hold sway, and the result was that I could never quite immerse myself in the novel. It doesn't help that I wasn't particularly taken by any of the stories as stories. There are some nice touches here and there--a touching love story between a woman who has lost hope and a sailor she meets in a coffee shop, the billionaire who builds a tower in which to keep his daughter, who causes all organic matter to sprout and bloom, out of the hands of the ministry of defense, the tailor who buries a garment commissioned by a prince in the desert and returns to find it hailed as a precious antique--but every time, just when it seems that Dasgupta has hit on a compelling metaphor, or has built up a good head of narrative, he loses the thread. The central concept--marrying modernity and fairy tales--is a good one, but Tokyo Cancelled just doesn't manage that mix very well.

  4. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin - One of my reading projects for this year is to finally get properly acquainted with Le Guin, whom I've enjoyed well enough in the short form (and in her non fiction and reviews) but whose novels have never worked for me. I started with Lavinia, about which I may have more in the future, and having done reasonably well there felt brave enough to tackle The Left Hand of Darkness, which had already defeated me once in my early teens. I pronounce the experiment a limited success, in that I finished the novel (no onerous chore, to be certain) and liked parts of it very much, mainly the construction of the customs, language, history and folklore of the planet Gethen, and the last third of the novel, in which the human envoy to Gethen, Genly Ai, traverses an ice shelf with a disgraced Gethenian politician, Estraven. The matter of fact way in which Le Guin describes the danger and hardship Genly and Estraven face, as well as their attempts to deal with them, contrasts sharply with her descriptions of the landscape itself, and create an intense and utterly engrossing sequence.

    On the other hand, the actual meat of the novel, and the reason that it is so well known--Le Guin's description of the effect that genderlessness has on Gethenian society--left me somewhat cold. Partly, the problem is that the novel has dated rather badly. Jo Walton has a good post here about the difficulties of reading The Left Hand of Darkness in the more feminist era to which it no doubt contributed, and as she says it is hard not to be thrown by Genly Ai's simplistic assumptions about masculinity and femininity, not only because we'd like to believe that in the more advanced era in which he lives such assumptions would be a thing of the past (the fact that he has several female colleagues would certainly seem to support this expectation), but because those assumptions are so different from present-day stereotypes about men and women. Observing Estraven's careful calculation of their food intake during the ice crossing, Genly muses that such behavior would be scientific in a man and house-wifely in a woman, and though clearly Le Guin is making a point, that point is so over the top for our time (when was the last time you heard someone described as house-wifely?) that it is jarring. Beyond its datedness, however, I find it difficult to accept the notion of The Left Hand of Darkness as a feminist novel. Le Guin's point that, absent gender characteristics, Gethenians treat each other simply as people (which is anyway undermined by her choice to use the male pronoun for all Gethenians--a choice which I understand she reversed in several Gethen-set short stories) doesn't deal with gender but circumvents it, and in so doing implicitly reinforces Genly's sexism. If anything, The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about a challenge to Genly's masculinity, and has little or nothing to do with women, but because that masculinity is rooted in such dated notions of gendered behavior, it's hard to sympathize with Genly's ordeal. Not for the first time, therefore, I find myself admiring Le Guin's work but not really resonating with it, and though I'm glad to have read such an important piece of SF history, I don't think I'm going to become a Le Guin fan any time soon.

  5. No Name by Wilkie Collins - I like Collins better than Dickens, with whom he shares certain attributes and interests, but unfortunately the portion of his bibliography that's considered worth looking at isn't nearly as large. I'd already read his two best known novels, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which left me with his second tier, into which No Name was my first foray. Once again, my conclusions are mixed, but in a way that demonstrates just how important historical context is in determining which novels survive the test of time and which fail it. As a piece of writing, No Name is only slightly less successful than either The Moonstone or The Woman in White, and in its middle segment, which describes a battle of wits between the con man Captain Wragge and the housekeeper of the man he plans to swindle, Mrs. Lecount, it even surpasses them. But it's a novel rooted in assumptions I don't share, and it fails because it expects me to react in certain ways to its characters' actions when actually my reaction is the exact opposite.

    No Name's beginning creates the expectation of another Vanity Fair--when two sisters are left penniless after their parents' deaths by a quirk of the law and the cruelty of their relatives, the younger, Magdalen, vows to regain her fortune by whatever means necessary. But No Name quickly becomes a soppy, happy-ended Count of Monte Cristo--Magdalen debases herself and abandons her cherished ideals and beliefs in order to avenge herself on her relatives, but ends up alone and near death, and renounces her wicked ways. The problem, for one thing, is that those ways aren't that wicked. Vanity Fair works so well because Thackery, without losing sight of the real hurt she causes, recognizes that Becky Sharpe's offenses against society's mores are, objectively, meaningless, but Magdalen, despite hurting no one but herself--she tells lies, goes on the stage, marries for money--is described as the most wretched and evil creature in existence. Even worse, whereas The Count of Monte Cristo recognizes that a desire for vengeance is normal, and only then concludes that to pursue that desire is soul-destroying, No Name starts from the assumption that there must be something wrong with Magdalen for wanting revenge on the people who have hurt her, that she is perhaps even monstrous (though it's never stated outright, it's pretty clear that what Collins means is that desiring revenge is monstrous in a woman). Magdalen is no Becky Sharpe, whose wickedness is offset by intelligence and humor. All she has is a strength of character which Collins describes as being a manifestation of evil, and unlike Becky she isn't the author of her own life--the actual planning of her revenge is left to Captain Wragge, with Magdalen as the mute driving force behind him. A happy ending for Magdalen, therefore, requires that she lose her one defining attribute, which is what happens when she surrenders herself to a kind man who forgives her past crimes. All told then, a rather disquieting read, despite Collins's great skill at plot and character. I think I'll have to find another Victorian to be my Dickens substitute.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Weekend's Films

Isn't it just the way: months can go by without me seeing the inside of a movie theater, and then two films I want to see open on the same weekend. Here are my thoughts on both of them.
  • Terminator Salvation: As everyone has said, this is better than Terminator 3. It's not, however, so much better as to matter. Christian Bale is a plank of wood as John Connor, which allegedly shouldn't matter as he's not really the star of the film. That would be Sam Worthington (who is decent enough even if he can't seem to keep his Aussie accent in check) as Marcus, the secret Cylon, and of a secondary importance is Anton Yelchin (the best of the three, but also the one who's been given the worst lines) as Kyle Reese. The problem is that despite all the post-Judgement Day window dressing which suggests that Salvation is about the war with the machines, what the film actually does is regurgitate the previous two films' plots: a temporal threat to John Connor's existence--in this case, to the teenage Kyle, whom Skynet now knows to be John's father (probably because John mentions it at the drop of a hat)--which is forestalled by a friendly cyborg who also becomes a mentor, in this case to Kyle (and thus down the line to Sarah and John himself).

    So, once again, the film is about saving John Connor, which seems like a less worthy goal when John Connor has all the charisma of day-old bread and seems to have bought into his own myth so completely that he only challenges the order to destroy a Skynet base in which hundreds of prisoners are being held (orders from his evil superiors, of course) when he realizes that Kyle is one of them. Other than that, the plot is so dumb and contrived as to make Star Trek seem coherent in comparison, and the action scenes are frankly dull, completely lacking the excitement and terror of similar scenes in Terminator 2--perhaps because we're never in any doubt as to which of the three leads will live and which will die. The women are completely perfunctory--Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Brewster has so little to do that she makes the character's role in Terminator 3 seem nuanced and rich, and Moon Bloodgood, though allegedly the tough action chick, is really just a love interest for Marcus. The only bright spot is Helena Bonham Carter as the deliciously twisted Skynet designer and later the face of Skynet, who sinks her teeth so readily into her small role that you don't even care what a huge retcon this is. If number 5 happens, count me out.

  • The Brothers Bloom: It was hard not to feel nervous about Rian Johnson's follow-up to Brick, not simply because the bar had been set so high but because Brick was such a precarious masterpiece, constantly on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the seriousness with which it took its central gimmick--a danger from which it was spared mainly through Joseph Gordon-Levitt's searing performance. The Brother Bloom doesn't scale Brick's heights, but it does at least give the impression that Johnson is aware of his predicament, as he's chosen to tell a story about artifice, and the attempt to transform it into something more than a clever performance. The titular brothers, Stephen and Bloom, are not simply con-men but storytellers, criminal therapists who identify in their marks a need for narrative--revenge on an abandoning spouse, adventure after long years as a shut-in--and enact it, as melodramatically as possible ("Have at you, you fiend!" Stephen exclaims at one point). Despite its deliberate recalling of heist films such as Ocean's 11 or The Sting, the double crosses and reveals in The Brothers Bloom have less to do with money and more to do with whether or not the characters are actually feeling what they pretend to be feeling, and whether they can pretend their way into something real.

    The Brothers Bloom is therefore a film that draws attention to its over the top storyness as a way of defusing it, with only partial success--when the depressed, perpetually one con away from retirement Bloom says of Penelope, an heiress with a hidden talent for grifting, that she feels like a character, he is only partially successful at getting us to ignore the fact that Penelope is far too precocious and adventurous to be true (and at time too much the perfect girlfriend). There's also the fact that Johnson's total commitment to style works less well in a comedy than it did in the grim Brick--or at least, it makes him seem like nothing more than a Wes Anderson imitator (an impression which is not dispelled by Adrien Brody playing a very similar character to the one he played in The Darjeeling Limited). Still, for all its conscious artificiality it's hard not to be won over by The Brothers Bloom--it is, for one thing, an extremely funny movie, with several clever visual or verbal gags, and the characters are very winning. For all her precociousness, Penelope is a hell of a fun character, but it's Rinko Kikuchi as the brothers' demolition expert sidekick Bang Bang who steals the show. The silent Asian sidekick sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but Bang Bang is so clearly her own person, and has such a huge personality, that she completely tramples the stereotype, and to top that she and Penelope forge a friendship that transcends their roles as, respectively, Stephen's accomplice and Bloom's love interest, which is enormously gratifying. The Brothers Bloom is by no means a perfect film, but it does demonstrate that Johnson has more in him than clever gimmicks, and makes me very curious to see what he does next.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Pamela Dean's Tam Lin is a novel that gives the lie to the belief that readers should approach a novel in a state of purity, giving as little thought as possible to publicity, advertising, and the expectations they arouse. A reader who comes to this novel innocent of the impression formed by its cover, plot description, and even its title would probably find it utterly confusing, because Tam Lin creates its effect by frustrating the expectations that these create, by deferring not merely the reader's gratification, but the acknowledgment of its own genre, until only a few dozen pages before its end.

Part of a series of retold fairy tales edited by Terry Windling, Tam Lin is based on the Scottish folk ballad about a maiden who saves her enchanted lover from the queen of fairies (the ballad also formed the basis of an important subplot in Terry Pratchett's The Wee Free Men). Dean moves the story's action to a fictional Minnesota liberal arts college in the early 70s. Janet, the maiden, is Janet Carter, an English major. Tam Lin is an older student named Thomas Lane. The queen of fairies is the brilliant and remote Professor Medeous, head of the Classics department. As Janet makes her way through her first three years of college, occupied with her studies, with negotiating new and sometimes prickly friendships with her roommates, and with an affair with a Classics major name Nick Tooley, she slowly becomes aware of an undertone of weirdness centering around the Classics department and Medeous herself--rumors of debauchery, Nick's secretive behavior and occasional disappearances, the 1897 suicide of a student, whose ghost is said to haunt the college. Finally, the cumulative weight of all this oddness opens Janet's eyes to the reality of her world, just it time for her to act to save her now-lover Thomas.

In Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy of fantasy, Tam Lin would probably fall in the category of the liminal fantasy--works in which the very existence of the fantastic is in doubt, and in which the boundaries between the mundane and fantasy worlds are fuzzy and difficult to distinguish. Blackstock College is just such a dubious magical realm, whose inhabitants don't even realize that they have crossed into wonder. It has been intruded upon by Medeous and her court, but that intrusion has been so subtle, and its effects so easily folded into the general weirdness of campus life, that they are easily ignored until very near the novel's end. Dean's descriptions of college life, particular in the first half of the novel, which describes Janet's freshman year almost down to the individual lecture, emphasize its foreignness. It has its seasonal rites--registering for classes in the gymnasium at the beginning of the year, queuing for good dormitory assignments at its end--and its rituals, which sometimes rub right up against the occult, such as students stealing and hiding a bust of Schiller, or playing the bagpipes at midnight on Halloween. The effect is to make Blackstock seem like a world--a fantasy world--onto itself, however porous its boundaries, and thus to mingle the magic of fairyland, of the weirdness and rituals Medeous brings to the campus, with the magic of college life. (Of course, Dean's descriptions may have seemed especially odd to me, separated as I am from Blackstock not only by time, geography, and the difference between a liberal arts and polytechnical institution, but by the fact that most Israelis start university in their early twenties, not their late teens.)

The immersion in the mundane details of Janet's life on campus, even as the reader notices, and becomes increasingly frustrated by, hints of the wondrous, is Tam Lin's most impressive accomplishment, but it is paralleled by just as deep an immersion into Janet's academic career. The idiom of Janet's life is literary. She speaks and thinks in literary allusions, as do most of her contemporaries, and the plot is advanced as much by her academic progress as by her personal development. Which makes a certain amount of sense given the decision to cast the fairy queen as a professor. A running theme throughout the novel are the repeated attempts by Medeous's acolytes, chiefly Janet's advisor Melinda Wolfe, to get her to switch to the Classics department, and Janet's own experiences in Medeous's classes can be read as a sort of enchantment--the enchantment of literature, and of a brand new branch of scholarship opening up before her--to which her reaction is ambivalent, both tempted and repulsed.

It is also through literature that Janet's personal life is changed--the plot is underpinned by three theatrical performances, each of which heralds and sometimes sparks a major transition in her life. The first, a double production of Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead near the beginning of her freshman year, cements the relationships from which Janet spends the rest of the story trying to disentangle herself--Nick's girlfriend, Thomas's friend--and launches Janet into Medeous's outer orbit, from which vantage point she can observe her and her adherents' weirdness without truly understanding it. The second, a student production of The Revenger's Tragedy masterminded by Thomas in which he casts a Medeous lookalike as the villain, brings him and his conflict with Medeous more sharply into focus, and ratchets up the novel's tension. the last, a production of Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning (an earlier reading of which persuaded Janet she wasn't truly in love with Nick) at the beginning of her senior year, sparks Janet's romance with Thomas, and sets the stage for the novel's climax and Janet's confrontation with Medeous.

This, however, is the kind of observation that only occurs in hindsight. The plays themselves, and Janet's reaction to them, are so little signposted, so clearly of a piece with the rest of her life that they seem like just another entry in the litany of activities that makes up the bulk of the novel--Thursday: had lunch with roommates, Friday: went to a play, Saturday: wrote term paper. This is quite clearly a deliberate choice on Dean's part, one which suits the opaqueness which characterizes the whole novel. Tam Lin seems to beg a rereading, littered as it is by overheard snatches of conversation, cryptic comments, and private jokes, which only resolve upon the revelation of the precise nature of its fantastic aspect. That revelation, however, is repeatedly deferred. Several times--when she encounters another manifestation of the fantastic, or comes in closer contact with Medeous herself--we anticipate the opening up of Janet's world and the transformation of the plot, only to be disappointed. Through frequently mentioned, Medeous doesn't show up until 300 pages in, and even then it's in her guise as an educator. Frustrating as it can be, this deliberate confounding of expectations can have positive effects--the requisite scene in which the protagonist and her friends try to argue away the fantastic is missing, since by the time they recognize the kind of story they're in the situation is too real to be denied.

As hard as Tam Lin works to frustrate our expectations in its structure, it seems to work even harder to meet them in its substance, which is anticipated in a scene in which Janet is assigned to read the first chapter of Emma and guess its ending--"Janet had no idea; neither did Molly; but Tina consented to read the chapter and said, immediately, "Emma marries Mr. Knightley, of course"". The ease with which Janet couples up with Nick at the beginning of the novel, and her frequent confrontations with Thomas, leave no doubt as to which one of them she's to end up with, and the constant harping on the issue of birth control is like the gun on the wall in the first act. Despite Janet's own preference for poetry over prose, Tam Lin itself is quite clearly following in Jane Austen's footsteps. It is a comedy of manners, a romance driven by humor and wit rather than melodrama, and a very entertaining one at that, but it is lacking that depth of insight that made Austen's novels more than effervescent baubles. Clever and witty as it is, Tam Lin is a shallow novel, with little beneath its surface.

Janet is an unbelievable eighteen year old, not only too erudite but too worldly--too certain of her tastes and interests, too thoughtful in her interactions with others, too diligent and established in her scholarly habits, and much, much too confident. She seems more like a grad student than a college freshman, as do most of her friends. In scenes such as a party in which Janet recites "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" to an enraptured audience they create the impression not of a group of young people just beginning to separate their own likes and interests from the cultural morass in which they grew up, but of people who have already found their own subcultural bubble and have no interest in looking beyond it. Almost impossibly, it takes 200 pages for someone to mention popular music, and with the exception of a character who watches a Star Trek rerun once, contemporary movies and TV are never brought up, not because Janet and her friends are learning to like more rarefied things but because they seem never to have had any interest in popular culture to begin with. There are explanations for some of the characters' knowingness--Janet's father is a Blackstock professor, from whom she's learned her love of literature, and at least some of her friends are a great deal older than they seem--but not for all of it, and certainly not for their nearly uniform, penetrating understanding of human nature.
[The Lady's Not for Burning] contained two sets of lovers. If you were eighteen and had never been in love before, you could be excused for not saying or thinking or feeling the sort of things that Thomas Mendip and Jennet Jourdemayne said and thought and felt: Thomas and Jennet were entirely grown-up and had, so far as Janet could see, been through two separate versions of hell; no comfortable eighteen-year-old could expect to be as they were when they fell in love.

But the young lovers, Richard and Alizon, so silly and inexperienced that even Janet could smile at them and feel mildly superior--they, too, seemed to inhabit a country she had never visited. "Whenever my thoughts are cold and I lay them against Richard's name, They seem to rest On the warm ground where summer sits, As golden as a humblebee." When Janet's thoughts were cold, they stayed so. Nick was bright, but he wasn't warm.
Though it's in keeping with the novel's themes that Janet comes to this realization through literature, it beggars belief that she has enough insight into herself and into romance in general to express that epiphany so clearly (this also undercuts the pleasure of reading a novel whose characters so frequently express themselves, and are changed by, literature). The most realistic depiction of a college student in the novel is Janet's roommate Tina, who is intelligent and driven, but also self-centered and, which seems like a far greater crime to the other characters, conventional in her tastes and attitudes ("She's so damned romantic ... in the most prosaic way imaginable." Thomas says of her when they date). Tina is, as she should be at that stage in her life, an unformed person, and far too wrapped up in her problems to to understand herself, and express that understanding, as perfectly as the other characters do. The result of this tendency to constantly spell out the characters' state of mind is not a bad novel--in fact it might be the reason that Tam Lin is so effortlessly readable, as so little work has been left to the reader--but perversely enough it dehumanizes Dean's characters, who seem to be playing roles rather than simply existing.

Unsurprisingly for a novel so top-heavy with the effort of establishing and toying with its readers' expectations, Tam Lin overbalances when the time comes for its climax. The actual rescue of Thomas happens too quickly and too easily. In the ballad, Tam Lin tells Janet in great detail what she has to do to save him, and the next verse is essentially 'and that's what Janet did'--an approach that works well in ballads and fairy tales, but falls a little flat when Dean uses it. There's also too little made of Janet's uncertainty over whether to save Thomas, who may be manipulating her in order to save himself, and may have impregnated her for just that purpose (a pregnant woman is needed to break the spell). Having established that for Janet, this is an all or nothing choice--she's not willing to use her pregnancy to save Thomas and then terminate it--Dean spends too little time over Janet's deliberations, perhaps because by this point she's shed her coy pretense and committed to the story directing her characters' lives, which leaves her in a bind--she doesn't want Janet's choice to seem automatic, though clearly she could have made no other one. In the rush to the get to the ending, other characters' stories are left by the wayside. We never find out how things end up for Molly, who had been dating another member of Medeous's court, and Tina simply disappears with with no final statement on her fraught relationship with Janet--neither her selfishness nor her decency are given the chance to win through. The rushed, anticlimactic ending is not a fatal flaw--in a way it heightens our appreciation for the build-up that preceded it--but it does mean that Tam Lin ends not as the intriguing twist on the retold fairy tale trope but as the more conventional romance.

It's hard to know how to sum up Tam Lin--with its unconventional structure, or its conventional plot? The latter is by no means cause for complaint--it would be a curmudgeon indeed who would fault a novel for being a funny, charming, enjoyable romance (in that respect it put me very much in mind of Howl's Moving Castle, and I suspect that had I read Tam Lin ten or even five years ago I would have loved it unreservedly), and Dean has very clearly succeeded at writing the novel she was trying to write. But her intelligent use of genre tropes and her masterful playing on the readers' expectations build up the expectation of a novel that is something more, which never materializes. Tam Lin is a fun and engaging read, but it also feels a little like a missed opportunity.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Positive

Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics is a new group blog founded by author Andy Remic with the aim, up until yesterday, of "celebrating all that is positive in genre fiction." If that sounds rather vague to you, you're not alone--the good folks at SF Signal invited Remic and his cohorts to a Mind Meld about their new venture, but were so unclear about its purpose that they mistakenly assumed that the blog had arisen as a response to "an imbalance towards a negative futuristic outlook" in the genre. Responses to the Mind Meld make it clear that even SFFE's contributors aren't entirely clear what the new blog stands for. Though Remic himself was on hand, his attempts to shed some light on the issue only succeeded in further muddying the waters:
I believe there's a lot of people out there sick of the constant whining and moaning and tearing down - after all, it's much easier to destroy than create. That's why myself, and so many other brilliant authors, are involved with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics project (the SFFE) because we want to promote a positive attitude in the industry, and make and ethical stand against the constant poison and vitriol which, I think, has been invading and escalating for a long time.

I chose the name "Ethics" not because I wanted to explore the ethical contexts of novels or films, but because I wanted to make an ethical stand against the motherfuckers who, to my mind, are systematically ruining the SFFH genres. In short, I wanted to do what I believed was intrinsically, morally, ethically and intuitively right. I want to celebrate everything that is good in SFFH, because it's all subjective, right?? - and, hopefully, we can lead by positive example.
This, of course, begs quite a few questions, most notably: who are the motherfuckers? You can read some of the puzzled responses to Remic's statement in the Mind Meld comments, and a more vigorous discussion, with Remic himself and at least one other SFFE contributor in attendance, in the comments to this post by Martin Lewis. What you can't do is read an entry on SFFE itself titled "Some Confusion," in which Remic accused Martin and the other commenters on his site of "[hiding] behind their anonymous internet connections," because, as Alastair Reynolds points out in the Mind Meld comments and as Jeff VanderMeer notes in this post, it was deleted some time last night. In the interim, Remic has responded to further queries with tautologies ("We are out to promote the positive. Some people are out to promote the negative. We don’t do that."), requests to conduct further discussions in private e-mail, and a refusal to name names (from "Some Confusion": "I assumed people would make up their own minds as to who I was referring; after all, we all get annoyed by certain things, comments, sites, people, while other stuff goes over our heads"). The closest thing to a straight answer seems to be his response to Reynolds at SF Signal, in which he excuses his decision to delete "Some Confusion" with the headache-inducing claim that "the SFFE site just didn't seem the right place to having that sort of argument," and apologizes for the 'motherfuckers' comment by saying "Yes, I presented my views badly. Yes, I presented them after a few whiskies."

The Princess Bride jokes are left as an exercise to the reader.

As of this morning, the mission statement of SFFE has changed to "The aim of this site is to promote positive reviews of books, movies and comics" (the old mission statement can still be found on the group's old blog). This emphasis on positive reviewing as opposed to positivity in general is bolstered by comments by SFFE contributor M.E. Staton on her own blog--"It isn’t that we disagree that their [sic] should be criticism in the world but that it doesn’t always have to be negative and if you find you really love something the SFFE is someplace you can share that joy without the worry of ridicule." Which would be almost anticlimactic--a blog on which people can talk up the things they like, how novel--were it not for the continued emphasis on positivity and ethics. As Jonathan McCalmont puts it, "If you say “I think we should do more of X” then by definition you’re saying that there’s some kind of problem with not-X," and statements like Remic's and Staton's (or Neil Williamson's observations in the comments to VanderMeer's post) make it clear that there are specific people who have not behaved in a manner which the SFFE members consider to be positive and ethical, and whose effects the blog is intended to counteract. (Though it should be noted that Remic and Staton don't necessarily speak for all SFFE members; in the comments to Martin's post Jetse de Vries, for example, quickly distances himself from the fracas.)

Meanwhile, the issue of positive reviews was already on my mind due to a Torque Control post Niall made a few weeks back, in which he quotes a writer describing her experiences bumping up against a "Prominent SF Magazine"'s mostly positive reviews policy. In the comments, NYRSF editor Kathryn Cramer posts links to two essays on the subject: her own, titled "On why what people like about books is more interesting than what they don't like," and a 2004 editorial by David G. Hartwell. There are several assertions I find questionable in Cramer's essay ("There are all kinds of reasons one might react negatively to a book, many of them personal"--as opposed, one takes it, to positive reactions, which are entirely objective?), but it's Hartwell who takes the cake, with the following "hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing":
First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet, or a license to kill.
To which the most polite response I can make is: um, no.

I could go through this list point by point, but they all seem to boil down to the same thing. Hartwell, and Cramer when she says things like "We publish to promote the aesthetic advancement of the field and are not a buyers' guide," are working under the assumption that a reviewing organ should be oriented towards the industry. That a reviewer is writing for, perhaps even in service of, authors and publishers. That's not an unreasonable stance, but I don't hold to it. I don't write for authors or publishers. I'd like to say that I write for other readers, but that's not really the truth either. I write for myself, because I have thoughts in my head that are clamoring to get out, and for the pleasure of being able to express them clearly and beautifully, and in the hopes of finding someone else with whom to discuss and develop them. I am not a parasite. I am a reader.

Obviously, this approach can be taken to extremes, and lead to self-regarding wankery for the sake of nothing more than the sound of one's voice. As aggravating and overstated as I find it, Anton Ego's argument about the critic's responsibility to his material is sound. I do owe something to my readers, be they publishers or authors or just people who read, but it is no more and no less than this: honesty, clarity, and the best use to which I can put the English language. I don't owe anyone positivity, and it is this frustrated entitlement that I sense at the core of the SFFE's complaints about vitriol and ruination. Like Cramer and Hartwell, it seems to me that Remic and Staton think that reviewers write for the sake of the industry, and that negative reviews represent a reviewer's failure to live up to their side of the bargain and thus constitute a meaningful, and no doubt deliberate, blow against the genre. (Interestingly, this kind of reaction isn't limited to industry insiders--check out the irate, almost injured comments to Martin Lewis's negative review of Mark Charan Newton's Nights of Villjamur by fans of the book, as opposed to Newton's own cheerful response to it.)

At the close of his editorial, David Hartwell laments "reviewers who perform to entertain the reader rather than to illuminate the text for the reader." I was all set to become outraged over this statement as a reviewer (seriously, is it that difficult to believe that we genuinely and truly didn't like the book?) when I suddenly realized that I ought to become outraged as a reader. What the hell is wrong with entertaining readers? I like to be entertained. I derived a hell of a lot more entertainment out of John Clute's takedown of Brian Stableford's Streaking, or Adam Roberts's skewering of the new Star Trek movie, than I did out of the works themselves, and in fact those reviews offered me some small compensation for having slogged through Stableford's senseless, terribly written novel, or the brain-dead experience that is new Trek. Isn't that an achievement worth celebrating? For a reviewer, isn't it worth emulating? Insight and illumination are important--good reviewers crave them--but sometimes the only insight to be had is 'this is a lousy book.' If there's any meaning to be drawn from the muddled and self-contradictory statements made by Andy Remic and M.E. Staton, it is that this is an unworthy, perhaps even unethical sentiment, and they are more than welcome to pursue their goal of a blog founded on that philosophy. But I'm staying out here, where people aren't afraid of a little negativity.