Sunday, February 28, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: My Draft Hugo Ballot

The deadline for submitting Hugo nominations is still two weeks away, but following in Niall's footsteps I thought I'd put my preliminary choices up as a way of encouraging others to give them a try and maybe nominate them as well, or to try to talk me out of them and into others.  I'm not quite done with my reading yet: there are several novellas I still want to get to, and in the best related book category my reading has been as paltry as usual, though I'm hoping to manage Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr.'s The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction and Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James's A Short History of Fantasy before the nominating deadline.  For other perspectives, you might want to take a look at ballots by Joe Sherry, Martin Lewis (1,2,3), Rich Horton, and Rachel Swirsky (1,2,3, though as these are Nebula nominations not all of her choices are eligible for the Hugo).

Best novel:
Of these, I suspect that the Miéville is a lock, and wouldn't be surprised if the Bacigalupi gets a nomination as well.  The Whitfield, about which I hope to write a bit later this week, strikes me as a longer shot, which is a shame because it's one of the more enjoyable and inventive books I've read in some time, and should especially appeal to the contingent of Hugo voters who are crossover historical fiction fans.  I'm debating replacing either Palimpsest of Yellow Blue Tibia with Stephen Baxter's Flood, but I think that I will end up sticking with those two (somewhat amusingly, given Valente's recent comments on Roberts's novel).  I liked Flood, but in a chilly sort of way, and as I am planning to nominate Baxter in the novella category I feel OK about giving it a miss here.

Best novella:
  • "To Kiss the Granite Choir" by Michael Anthony Ashley (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Oct 8-22, 2009)
  • "Earth II" by Stephen Baxter (Asimov's, July 2009)
I've read very few prospective nominees in this category, hence the short ballot.  In the next two weeks I'm hoping to read another Baxter novella, "Starfall," as well "Sublimation Angels" (PDF) by Jason Sanford, "Wives" (PDF) by Paul Haines, "Horn" by Peter M. Ball, and "The Language of Dying" by Sarah Pinborough.  I'd like to read Ian McDonald's "Vishnu at the Cat Circus," from Cyberabad Days, but I doubt I'll be able to get my hands on it before the deadline.

Best novelette:

Novelette is the category in which one usually makes painful concessions, but startlingly I found myself falling short of five beloved nominees this year.  I've written already about the Keeble, Griffith and Watts stories, but I'd be open to replace Eugie Foster's Nebula-nominated novelette, or the Kosmatka/Poore.  Both are impressive but not quite on the level of the other three.  One prospective replacement is "The Armies of Elfland" by Eileen Gunn and Michael Swanwick, from the April/May 2009 Asimov's (Gunn and Swanwick seem to have hit on a winning formula--their collaboration in Tor.com, "Zeppelin City," was also quite successful).  Another is "Kreisler's Automata" by Matthew David Surridge, from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Best short story:
In this category, meanwhile, I'm pretty sure I have my final ballot.  I've written about the Stueart story already, and will have some more about the Jemisin and McIntosh next week in Strange Horizons.  Cashier had two interesting stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies in 2009, but in the end I decided I liked "Hangman," a nicely done Western fantasy, the best of the two.  "Blue" is a darkly funny story about two astronauts on a dying ship, the last surviving members of their crew, who spend as much time sniping at each other as they do trying to keep from being swallowed by a black hole.  The personalities of the two characters are perfectly sketched.

Some thoughts on short fiction venues: Strange Horizons isn't as well-represented here as I would have liked, but for overall quality and breadth of genres and topics it remains the best magazine in the field, on- or offline.  Beneath Ceaseless Skies is nipping at its heels, though it's aided by its narrower focus on epic and secondary world fantasy.  I found Fantasy Magazine extremely variable--some of its stories were excellent, some barely publishable--and Clarkesworld, though a great deal more professional, not usually to my taste.  Tor.com is the big disappointment of the year.  I don't know whether the site reads slush or accepts unsolicited submissions, but there must be good money in publishing there, and yet the stories one offer are depressingly samey--literally so, as the site published its second Charles Stross Laundry story in two years in 2009, and two stories in a single year by Harry Turtledove, both about has-been baseball players in the first half of the 20th century.  So far its only real excuse for existing is having also published two Rachel Swirsky stories.  In print, Fantasy & Science Fiction did not have a good year.  The magazine switched to a bi-monthly format this year, and also, in celebration of its 60th anniversary, set aside a portion of each issue in order to reprint some of its editors' favorite stories.  A nice idea in theory, but in practice these stories tended to overshadow the already reduced original offerings.  Asimov's, meanwhile, improved on me quite a bit in 2009, with quite a few stories on my ballot and even more importantly, much higher overall quality.

Best dramatic presentation, long form:
  • Moon
  • Up
This is the category I'm least interested in because the ballot is already so easy to guess.  Avatar, Star Trek, District 9 and Coraline are locks.  The fifth slot could go to either Moon, Up, or Torchwood: Children of Earth.  None of which would be terrible choices, though I'd obviously prefer Moon, but as I'm already a little depressed at having to choose between them in order to make room for Star Trek and Avatar, I'm choosing to think about the category as little as possible.

Best dramatic presentation, short form:

Lots of people I know are nominating Dollhouse's "Epitaph One," but even before my crushing disappointment with the show's second season, and particularly with "Epitaph Two: The Return," I wasn't planning to do this--taken on its own it simply wasn't a very good hour of television.  Not that most of these are much better.  The Sarah Connor finale was magnificent and I loved the Middleman table read, but the other three are compromise choices.  It simply wasn't a very good year for individual TV episodes.

Campbell award:
  • J.M. McDermott
  • Felix Gilman
  • Erin Cashier
  • Alice Sola Kim
  • Patrick Ness

Friday, February 26, 2010

Self-Promotion

My review of Jesse Bullington's The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart appears today at Strange Horizons.  Some of you may recall that Grossbart received one of the dishonorable mention slots in my summary of 2009's worst reads, and though I stand by that judgment as it relates to my own reading experience, my review is somewhat more ambivalent--possibly the most ambivalent I've ever written.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fantasy and the Jewish Question

Farah Mendlesohn pours out her wrath on Michael Weingrad's article "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" in the inaugural issue of Jewish Review of Books, and its assertion that Weingard "cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little."  Allegedly a review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians and Hagar Yanai's HaMaim SheBeyn HaOlamot (The Water Between the Worlds), the second volume in an Israeli YA fantasy trilogy, Weingard treats only briefly with his two subjects and mostly uses them as a backdrop to his theory of Judaism being a far less hospitable environment than Christianity for the development of a fantastic tradition, of "all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth."  Farah responds by listing a dozen Jewish fantasy authors off the top of her head, and commenters to her post contribute quite a few more, but though it seems likely, reading between the lines of Weingard's article, that these authors are either wholly unfamiliar to him or that he would be surprised to learn of their Jewishness, I'm not sure that this listing accurately addresses the point Weingard is trying to make.

It seems clear to me that the essay's title is meant in earnest, and that Weingard is specifically hunting for Jewish authors of the same caliber, fame, and influence over the genre as Tolkien and Lewis, of which there are indeed none.  More importantly, when Weingard calls for a Jewish Narnia, he is calling for "works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian".  As Jo Walton says in the comments to Farah's post, "I think it's more useful to ask what Jewish fantasy stories there are than what Jewish fantasy writers," and again the answer would be that there are precious few.  The most well-regarded, famous and influential Jewish fantasy writer working today is probably Neil Gaiman, but Jewish elements in his fiction are few and far between, and the folklore and myths he draws on in his work are mostly Christian or pagan, with some forays into various Eastern traditions.  Which is understandable when one considers that Weingard's argument about the relative paucity of the Jewish fantastic tradition is undeniable.  It's a religion and a culture that is not only less rooted in and concerned with the numinous than Christianity is--the afterlife, for example, is treated in Judaism almost as an afterthought, and receives very little attention in the halacha or in Jewish scholarship--but whose folk tales and traditions seem to have almost no fantastic component.  There's a reason that the golem and the dybbuk get so much play whenever the Jewish fantastic is mentioned--because there's not much else out there, and very little that is common currency even among Jews.

None of this is to say that I don't sympathize with Farah's exasperation with "Why There is No Jewish Narnia."  Weingard's essay is riddled with so many staggering assumptions, sweeping generalizations, and plain untruths that even its most self-evident arguments come to seem suspect.  Chief among these is the fact that though he deftly analyzes the philosophical differences between Christianity and Judaism which render the former so suitable to the Tolkienian mode of fantasy by noting that Christianity is rooted in a dualism between good and evil, whereas Judaism balks at placing any power on an equal standing, or even in opposition, to God, Weingard touches only lightly on the real-world factors that discouraged Jews from exploring the fictional avenues that Tolkien and Lewis did.  To put it bluntly, there is no way that a Jewish writer working in the early decades of the twentieth century could have produced The Lord of the Rings, a work steeped in a yearning for a lost pastoral world that Jews, who have for various reasons tended to congregate in urban and commercial centers, would have had little or no experience of.  Similarly, the naked didacticism and unabashed proselytizing of the Narnia books is entirely antithetical to Judaism, an anti-missionary religion.  One might as well ask why there is no Jewish Divine Comedy.

Neither do issues of geography or national identity play any part in Weingard's analysis.  He tries to argue that Jews are more likely to be drawn to science fiction than fantasy, that Judaism is in fact "a science fiction religion ... collective, technical, and this-worldly" (a point on which he might contend with Adam Roberts, Paul Kincaid and John Kessel, who have just today been arguing, in Martin Lewis's post on Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," that science fiction is rooted in a Christian theological problem from the 17th century).  To which end he trots out a list of Jewish science fiction greats to which fantasy can offer no riposte, though given that there is no single figure that bestrides science fiction the way Tolkien does fantasy, their importance may easily be drowned out by an even larger contingent of non-Jewish writers.  Weingard completely fails to acknowledge, however, the famous geographical divide between the two genres, the fact that science fiction emerged in the US and fantasy in the UK.  It's easy to imagine young Jewish writers in America gravitating to science fiction in its golden age, because its core ethos of rationalism, progress, and can-do attitude was rooted in exactly the same social changes that allowed them to live entirely different, less proscribed and less ghettoized, lives than their European parents and grandparents.  But it's America that plays the crucial role here, not Judaism.

If any proof is needed of this, just take a look at the Israeli genre scene.  Weingard notes that Yanai's trilogy is the first of its kind in the history of Israeli publishing, and laments that it sits "on a very short shelf of recent Israeli fantasy books."  Is he unaware of, or simply failing to note, the fact that the Israeli science fiction shelf is equally bare?  Speculative fiction of any variety has little room in the Hebrew literary scene, and in fact I can call to mind more works of modern Israeli fantasy (albeit, most of them, of the literary variety rather than the more overtly generic, Tolkien-derived kind that Weingard, who blithely dismisses writers like Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer as irrelevant to his argument, is interested in) than I can Israeli science fiction. 

Ultimately, what's most frustrating about "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" is that Weingard is so unclear on what he's looking for, what his definitions of 'Jewish,' 'fantasy,' and 'Jewish fantasy' are.  Tolkien and Lewis (and many other, less frequently mentioned writers like Hope Mirrlees and Lord Dunsany) were trailblazers, creating a new mode which was deeply informed by their religious preoccupations but which very quickly became dissociated from them in all but its deepest levels, leaving room for unobservant Christian, atheist, and even Jewish (or Muslim or Buddhist or what have you) writers to play around in and sometimes bring their own cultural heritage into.  But the core shape remains Christian, and one can almost sense Weingard recognizing this when he expresses his disappointment with The Water Between the Worlds, which despite utilizing Jewish and Middle Eastern elements "draws only superficially" on Jewish folklore.  There's nothing wrong, of course, with introducing Jewish window dressing to traditionally non-Jewish genres--Michael Chabon has done so twice, to great effect, in recent years with The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Gentlemen of the Road, and I'd like to see more Jewish elements appearing in and out of fantastic literature (in particular I'd like to see more depictions of Jewish worship--I'm tired of devout characters always being Christian)--but that's not Jewish fantasy, and Weingard, who ends his essay with the hopeful conclusion that "We will probably see more Jewish writers producing fantasy, as younger Israeli writers seek to follow global trends," does not seem to acknowledge this, or the fact that, as Farah demonstrates, there are already plenty of Jewish writers producing the kind of fantasy he's talking about.  A Jewish Narnia, meanwhile, will be nothing like Narnia, and the real question raised by "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" isn't whether such a work will ever exist--it's whether Michael Weingard will be able to recognize it.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Recent Movie Roundup 10

I'm actually not a very enthusiastic consumer of movies.  When it comes to filmed fiction, TV does a lot more of what I'm interested in, and months can sometimes pass without me seeing the inside of a movie theater or even sitting down with a DVD.  But somehow, since the beginning of the year Israeli film distributors (and in one case, a local movie channel) have ladled out a whole raft of movies I've wanted to see, and I'm not even done--I'm still hoping to catch An Education, Fish Tank, The White Ribbon, and The Lovely Bones.  Here are my thoughts on 2010's movie-viewing thus far:
  1. Bright Star (2009) - The first film I watched in 2010, Bright Star set a very high bar that has yet to be cleared by any other movie.  A slow, meandering sort-of biopic, the film follows the doomed romance between the romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor Fanny Brawne (a very fine Abbie Cornish).  This is a film that is steeped in the romantic--both the 19th century mode, which Keats and his compatriots are in the process of creating, and the modern concept of it.  This is, after all, a love story between a pragmatic woman with no interest in or understanding of poetry, whose self-expression, through the dresses Fanny designs and sews, is rooted in the material (it's a cliché that women watch period films mainly for the pretty dresses, but the costuming in Bright Star is one of its chief delights, perfectly capturing the essence of Brawne's character), and a spiritual, almost fey genius who teaches her to see the world in a new way, which is cut short by his tragic and early death from an incurable illness.  And yet Bright Star is almost miraculous in its ability to avoid the pitfalls that trip up most modern romantic stories.  It strikes just the right midpoint between a sweeping, swoon-inducing depiction of the romance between Keats and Brawne and a clear-eyed view of how such an all-consuming first love looks like from the outside, mainly because both characters are so clearly and vividly their own people before they come together, and the film stresses the fact that as much as their love uplifts them, it also chips away at who they were and the things they cared about before they came together.  In its depiction of Keats's death and its aftermath, Bright Star resists the urge, so common to tragic romances, of modulating the sad ending by giving it a moral or a meaning, and manages to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of this type of story, being neither a story about how Fanny Brawne surrendered her silly interest in fashion to become the handmaiden to John Keats's genius, nor one about how John Keats died in order to give Fanny Brawne a character-building experience.  Instead it simply allows both the romance and its tragic ending to happen with almost no commentary, a chronicle of joy followed by grief (though I do find myself wishing for a bit more closure for Brawne, who ends the film not only bereft but, having dressed in mourning, separated from the skill that had so defined her).

    Coming out of the film, I found myself comparing it to the last film I'd seen, Avatar.  This may seem, if not a strange comparison, than at least an unfair one going both ways, but both Avatar and Bright Star are films that are as much, if not more, about their visuals as their story, and whose look is dominated by luxurious, vividly colored natural settings--in Bright Star, the natural scenery that inspired and influenced Keats's writing and whose appreciation is an important component of the romantic mindset.  (If you really want to stretch a point, both films are also stories about a pragmatic, materialistic person coming into contact with a more spiritual worldview, falling in love with the person who introduces them to it, and losing themselves in it.)  Avatar's visuals are kinetic whereas Bright Star's are static, but even so--or perhaps precisely because it doesn't seek to make the appreciation of beauty such an in-your-face experience--I think that Bright Star is the more beautiful film of the two. 

  2. Where the Wild Things Are (2009) - I was dubious about this project when it was announced, and the end result mostly validates that reaction.  There are things that this 'adaptation' does very well, such as thoroughly debunking the romantic myth of childhood--Max is a total hellion, and not only does it seem entirely reasonable for his mother to send him to bed without his supper, but one would be hard-pressed to blame her for lacing the still-hot plate she leaves him with Ritalin--and capturing the way that children play, with total commitment and abandon, and the ability to transform even the most mundane environment into a land of adventure.  On the other hand, Dave Eggers's famed expansion of Maurice Sendak's original picture book (which also spawned a 300-page tie-in novel) is rather weak sauce.  It introduces interpersonal dramas between the different Wild Things, which mirror Max's issues with his parents' divorce and his desperate desire to hold on to childhood even as it slips away.  Nothing we haven't seen before, in other words, and rather broadly drawn--that Max is acting out because he feels abandoned, for example, was more than sufficiently spelled out by a few scenes in the beginning of the movie, and didn't require the explication that his interactions with the Wild Things provide, and especially for a film that is so refreshingly ambivalent about the magic of childhood, the script's harping on the Wild Things' sorrow at its end felt overdone.  Visually, the film was also a disappointment.  The designers seem to have borrowed Sendak's designs for the Wild Things, but not his busy, heavily-inked scenery, and though there are some nicely done props and sets--a model that one of the Wild Things builds, or the fort that they and Max construct--for the most part the film looks empty and brown.  All told, I don't really see the point of this experiment, and will stick with the picture book.

  3. The Box (2009) - Like many wannabe auteurs before him, Richard Kelly flared brightly with his first effort, Donnie Darko, then flamed out with his follow-up to that film, the gonzo and incomprehensible Southland Tales.  The next chapter in that narrative, as Hollywood defines it and as it has played out many times, is a penance film, proof that the enfant terrible can do respectable, meat-and-potatoes work.  No one actually expects these films to be good.  They just have to better--and more importantly, more mainstream-friendly--than the disastrous, outre flop that preceded them, and in fact the less distinctive they are, the less redolent of the qualities that brought the penitent director his fame, the better.  At first glace, that's exactly what The Box seems to be--a stretched out Twilight Zone episode, old-fashioned both for its 70s setting and its premise of a couple who are offered a million dollars for pushing a button that will cause someone, somewhere, to die.  In its first half, The Box offers little more than this, albeit that it is very well-made--tense and creepy, and suffused with an obvious love of science fiction.  Based on the story "Button, Button" by Richard Matheson, The Box feels like a 70s-era science fiction story about 70s-era science fiction fans, complete with yellowing copies of Astounding and Amazing in the main characters' basement, references to Arthur C. Clarke, and Apollo program fannishness.

    At some point, however, hints of the same weirdness that made Donnie Darko such a delight and Southland Tales such a chore start to creep in, and by its end The Box mostly surrenders to this weirdness, and seems entirely of a piece with Kelly's previous two films--better than Southland Tales, not as good as Donnie Darko, but clearly carrying on their themes, and particularly that of the desperate search for meaning, for destiny, and ultimately for God.  In fact, taken together, the three films, which often seem to be concerned mainly with expositing their invented cosmology, strongly suggest that Kelly is less interested in making movies than he is in starting a new religion, or evangelizing for an old one--The Box combines Donnie Darko's Philosophy of Time Travel with a healthy dollop of Christian imagery and concepts, and the entire film can easily be read as a retelling of the fall of Adam and Eve and Christian salvation.  None of this is exactly news--Donnie Darko was by no means innocent of Christian imagery--but either Kelly has lost the knack of making his ersatz mysticism feel meaningful, or I've outgrown it, because the ultimate religious message of the film is blunt and obvious where Donnie Darko's was stirring.  It's good to see that Kelly is staying true to himself even as Hollywood takes him through his paces, and even more heartening to realize that he is, all other considerations aside, simply a very good director, but I'm not sure I'm that interested anymore in what he has to say.

  4. Let the Right One In (2008) - I came to this extraordinarily well-received vampire film rather late and with my expectations well and truly built up, which is part of the reason it's left me so thoroughly underwhelmed.  The other, larger part is that I'd already read the book, so that what's remarkable--or at least unusual, in this Twilight-infested climate--about Let the Right One In as a vampire story was already familiar, and what stood out were the changes, compromises, and elisions the adaptation made to the original material.  In that respect, I had much the same reaction to Let the Right One In as I've had to the Harry Potter films--I think it's rushed past the point of comprehensibility and is missing most of the novel's character work.  Given that so many people have gotten so much out of this film, that can't be an accurate judgment, but I still found myself missing the book's more ambivalent treatment of Oskar, the teenager who falls in love with his vampire neighbor, who in the film is very nearly a romantic hero and in the book is something much sadder and creepier even before he meets Eli, or the more thorough exploration of the lives of the kids who bully him at school.  I wasn't crazy about Let the Right One In, the novel, but I admired its determination to be unpleasant, to paint mid-80s suburban Sweden as something no less ugly and no less hopeless than the death that Eli offers her victims.  The film seems to tone that ugliness down, and is thus a much lesser work.

  5. Up in the Air (2009) - This is an enjoyable, very well-made film.  George Clooney is good as ever as a man who has deliberately cut himself off from all human connection, whose greatest pleasure is the smooth and successful navigation of America's business flier infrastructure.  He makes the character believably, even warmly human without ever downplaying the monstrousness of what he believes and how he behaves.  (That said, I think that Clooney's Oscar nomination for this part is overkill, and that the best supporting actress nominations for Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick--though both are good as, respectively, Clooney's love interest and his colleague--are unwarranted.)  The film's plot, which sees Clooney's jet-setting lifestyle endangered by Kendrick's plan to move his job--firing people on behalf of their employers--online, is predictable but well-structured, and there are several extremely well-done set pieces--Clooney and Farmiga's meet-cute, a gruesome scene in which Kendrick remote-fires a middle aged man who breaks down crying, the slickly directed sequences in which Clooney glides through check-in at various airports and his initiation of Kendrick into the brotherhood of frequent fliers.  You'll no doubt have sensed the hesitation looming at the end of all this praise, and here it is--there is, ultimately, nothing in Up in the Air, nothing the film says or tries to bring across, no reaction it tries to evoke, that isn't contained in this two-minute teaser.  This was also the case for Jason Reitman's previous film as writer-director, Thank You For Smoking--both are single-concept films, mostly concerned with delivering riffs on that concept.  (A slight exception is that Up in the Air is also, and quite topically, a film about joblessness and being fired, but this feels almost extraneous to the characters' story, and indeed when they're firing people Clooney and Kendrick seem to fade into the wallpaper as the, mostly non-professional, actors playing the fired workers take the stage.)  I'm torn over whether this is a bad thing--Up in the Air is by no means a chore to watch, and as I said some of these riffs are very well done, but I wish that Reitman would take the next step as an artist, and write a film that can be summed in more than two minutes.

  6. A Single Man (2009) - I was going to write at slightly greater length about this movie, but Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian, sums up my reaction so completely that it would be pointless to belabor it.  A Single Man is two films--a fantastic, heartbreaking performance by Colin Firth as a middle aged gay man grieving in secret for his recently-deceased lover, going about his day as usual even as he plans his suicide at its end, and, as Bradshaw puts it, "an indulgent exercise in 1960s period style," which too often recalls a perfume commercial.  The latter is hardly a punishment--and it is refreshing that the artistically naked, slightly dehumanized bodies on display are men's rather than women's (this is a wonderful film for male beauty, and aside from his great performance Firth is to be admired for more than holding his own alongside men twenty and thirty years his juniors)--but Firth's character study is so affecting that it's hard not to feel a little angry at director Tom Ford for constantly interrupting and very nearly obscuring it with yet another beautifully staged montage set to slow orchestral music.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Yes, Even Worse Than the Enterprise Theme Song

After three episodes, I remain agnostic about the Battlestar Galactica prequel series Caprica: interested enough to keep watching, but not so interested that the show's by-now all-but-guaranteed cancellation bothers me overmuch.  The one conclusion I have come to, however, is that this series has the very worst opening titles sequence ever aired on television.



The images are far too on the nose--Joseph Adama is kneeling before a tombstone (which conveniently bears his name) because he's mourning for his wife and daughter; Sister Clarice hands the symbol of the monotheistic cult to Lacy because she's indoctrinating her--and the Blade Runner-esque visual sensibility (with the zeppelin at the end adding a slight steampunk touch) is entirely at odds with the actual show's look, which can best be described as Naturalism Askew--familiar interiors and exteriors made strange through delicate touches of futuristic technology or unfamiliar design choices.  Most of all, the plasticity of the animation recalls pulp SF, not the respectable image that Caprica is obviously trying to project.  One gets the sense that the core concept was something along the lines of opening credits to Carnivalé or Rome--distinctive, richly imagined and realized credits that definitively established the show's emotional tone and visual palette--but there was either not enough talent or not enough money at work to do the job, and what results is the exact opposite of the sophisticated, mainstream-friendly show that Caprica is trying to be.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 24

I've been posting these less often because most of my reading has either been for reviews or has ended up in longer posts, but I've finally worked up enough of a backlog to make up a post.
  1. Scar Night by Alan Campbell - the first in the Deepgate Codex trilogy (followed by Iron Angel and God of Clocks), Scar Night is busy, complicated, and unrelenting.  This is quite a bit of fun for a couple hundred pages, as Campbell doles out more and more bits of information about his fantasy city and fantastically complicated premise.  A crumbling empire, Deepgate hangs by ancient, allegedly indestructible chains above a chasm that allegedly contains hell itself, and is ruled by an ancient religious order dedicated to providing the dead, whose bodies are tossed into the chasm, a way of navigating to salvation, in pursuit of which goal it rules the city with an iron fist.  There's a lot of blood, gore and destruction involved--in the wars between Deepgate's rulers and the rebellious colonized tribes that pay it tribute, in the pursuit of a serial killer (a fallen, or rather risen, angel), and in several quests for vengeance that give the novel its (rather floppy) shape.  Campbell does a good line in all of these, and if nothing else Scar Night is enjoyably and unapologetically over the top, but the sturm und drang start to become a bit wearying well before the novel's 550 pages are up, and other than them there's not much here to hold onto.

    Scar Night suffers from a very bad case of main characters I couldn't care less about, minor characters I really enjoyed but who either got very little screen time or were killed off unceremoniously.  The two leads are Dill, the last scion of a line of angels who are at the center of the Deepgate church's religious ritual, and Rachel, his bodyguard.  Dill starts out as the hapless, wimpy heir to a warrior throne, a familiar fantasy trope, and it's to Campbell's credit that he doesn't go down the obvious route and end the novel with him as a hero, but neither does he do much else with him--Dill's purpose seems mainly to be an easily-threatened plot token whom Rachel can obsess about protecting, which begs the question why Rachel, who is criminally underexplored, wasn't made the novel's main character to begin with.  Some of the villains--mainly Carnival, the fallen angel-slash-serial killer--are fun, though perhaps a bit more fun than they ought to be, but others--mainly Mr. Nettle, a bruiser looking for vengeance for the death of his daughter--feel a bit more like plot devices than characters.  The one character I really liked was the church official Fogwill, who alone among the cast seemed to be planning ahead, thinking around corners, and trying to understand the events slowly bringing Deepgate closer to destruction, so naturally he's killed off-page 2/3 of the way into the book, leaving us with either villains or completely reactive characters to root for.  Despite its imaginative setting and the near-gothic grandeur of its set pieces, this absence of interesting characters flattened Scar Night for me, and I doubt I'll be looking into its sequels. 

  2. Shelter by Susan Palwick - Palwick's novel starts off slow and then picks up, ending up a twisted and satisfying family saga in a fully-realized future world that put me very much in mind of David Marusek's Counting Heads.  Like Marusek's novel, the pleasure of Shelter is in the way it describes a livable future--wonderful in some ways, appalling in others, but still a world in which people can live, recognizable but altered both by new uses of technology and, which seems far more important to Palwick, by new assumptions about morality, civility, and the difference between right and wrong.  Unfortunately, my experience of reading Shelter was very nearly scuttled by a fundamental mismatch between the assumptions Palwick wanted me to accept about her world and my take on it.  The novel centers around two women, Meredith and Roberta, who cross paths when they're both quarantined while sick with a super-flu (which claims the lives of Roberta's parents and Meredith's father) and whose lives continue to shadow one another's until they collide when Roberta becomes the teacher, alongside an AI named Fred, at an experimental nursery school designed by Meredith's husband and attended by her son Nicholas.  Together, Roberta and Fred figure out what Meredith already knows, that Nicholas is demonstrating nascent psychopathic tendencies, and that if the authorities catch wind of this he'll be mind-wiped.

    Leaving aside the question of whether I believe in an otherwise functional and allegedly free society that would perform such a procedure on a child against the wishes of its parents (and which apparently imposes the same punishment on people diagnosed with 'excessive altruism') the simple fact remains that the bulk of Shelter seems to operate under the assumption that I will sympathize with Roberta, Meredith, and Fred's efforts protect Nicholas--who is described as incurably damaged, piteously terrified of his own dark urges, and already quite dangerous--from the only treatment that might give him a chance at a normal life, despite the fact that the novel itself ultimately concludes that mind-wiping was the best thing for him.  Even worse than that is the way the novel seems to revolve around Meredith--whose selfish and unthinking determination to hold on to Nicholas ends up costing Roberta and Fred years of their lives and even leads indirectly to a man's death--and concludes with a touching scene in which all the other characters urge her to forgive herself.  As I said, Shelter works because it is a twisted family saga, and the characters' dysfunction and unlikability is at least partially excusable on those grounds--certainly by the end of the novel I found myself caught up in their soapy shenanigans--but I can't help but feel that Palwick expects me to root for the wrong people and the wrong conclusions.  I didn't want Meredith to forgive herself (or rather I did, but only because her shame spirals inevitably hurt other, blameless people much more than they hurt herself) and I wanted better for Roberta than to be caught up in Meredith's family drama.  The ultimate mismatch between myself and Palwick was that she ended the novel on both of these notes, and seemed to think that she'd delivered a happy ending.

  3. The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan - Morgan shot very near the top of my list of genre authors to watch with the Clarke-winning Black Man, and then decided to take a much-publicized left-turn into fantasy with this novel, about which two things were widely known for quite some time before it was even published--that the protagonist is gay, and that Morgan intended to blow the lid off the epic fantasy genre.  As far as delivering on those promises, The Steel Remains scores, respectively, a hit and a miss.  The protagonist (actually, the most dominant of three), Ringil, is indeed gay (though I have to say I'm surprised by the complaints that gay sex is so prominent in the novel, as there is actually a lot less gay sex in The Steel Remains than there was straight sex in Black Man or indeed Altered Carbon, whose middle segment is essentially one long sex scene punctuated by some dialogue and a few scenery changes), and what worked best for me about The Steel Remains was the way Morgan envisioned a fantasy setting in which, refreshingly, everyone is not totally cool with homosexuality, and Ringil has to develop multiple coping strategies to reactions to his sexuality that range from polite disdain to inquisition-style persecution by religious authorities, strategies that sometimes involve threatening to chop someone's head off with his huge sword (yes, really) and sometimes just chopping that head off without bothering to threaten.  It's not terribly subtle, and as Adam Roberts notes there's something terribly 80s about both the way that Morgan fashions Ringil's out-and-proud gayness and the way he builds the world around Ringil in general (which may account for some of my disconnect from the novel, as between age and geography I experienced the 80s Roberts describes only through works of fiction), but as usual one can't help but admire Morgan's audacity.

    Less successful is The Steel Remains's send-up of epic fantasy conventions, and when I say less successful what I mean is that I'm not even entirely certain what Morgan was trying to do.  The Tolkienian analogues in Morgan's fantasy world (which turns out to be an SFnal world seen through uncomprehending eyes--both the elf and dwarf analogues in the novel are aliens, and their magic is misunderstood technology) are unmissable, and at times it seems that Morgan is going for a straight-up reversal of Tolkien's moral universe--the villains of The Steel Remains are the elf-analogues.  At other times he seems simply to be sending Tolkien up--after all, a half-human, half-dwarf woman who has been left behind in the human world by her people as they returned to their ancestral home, and whose name is Archeth Indamananinarmal, can't be anything but a gag, right?  The problem is that both of these elements have been done so many times, and done better (most notably by the last fantasy writer to deliberately and volubly take a public stand against Tolkien, China Miéville), and that the epic fantasy field itself has so clearly moved on from all the elements that Morgan is either subverting or parodying, that both the subversion and the parody come to seem like very weak sauce.  The Steel Remains is, in the best Morgan tradition, an enjoyable, high-octane adventure, but it's hard not to feel that it would have been a stronger and more interesting novel had Morgan been less determined to slaughter cows which very few people still consider to be holy.

  4. Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett - As I've mentioned on more than one occasion, I continue to read Pratchett mainly out of nostalgia and fondness.  His later Discworld novels have a sort of sameness about them that at some point, I suspect, will render the actual act of reading them redundant.  Unseen Academicals had two additional strikes against it for being not only an X Comes to Ankh-Morpork novel (the X in this case being football as a professional sport)--a format which has informed most of the later Discworld novels--but an Unseen University novel, which generally number among the series's less successful outings.  Though it's not quite possible for me to say that Unseen Academicals subverted these low expectations--the plot was indeed predictable, the wizards of Unseen University still trapped in their Oxbridge-parody roles (though I was pleasantly surprised by the novel's treatment of Ponder Stibbons, who finally gets to graduate from callow junior staff member to a harassed, but surprisingly on the ball, middle aged middle manager)--but there are some interesting elements in it, and a sharpness I haven't seen in a Discworld novel in quite some time.

    Unseen Academicals plays more directly with questions of class than most recent Discworld novels, particularly through a new character, Glenda, who spends the novel realizing, on the one hand, how much of her lower class upbringing was designed to keep her in her place and to shut down any attempt to get out of her old neighborhood, and on the other hand resenting attempts by the city's rulers to take that neighborhood's customs and traditions and 'improve' them by, for example, turning football from a violent, tribal street sport into something codified.  To be fair, Pratchett stacks the deck quite heavily in favor of upward mobility, and somewhat scuttles the more nuanced questions of class that underlie his premise, but it's still a more ambiguous statement on the subject than I'm used to seeing from a Discworld novel.  Even more exciting is the fact that, for what is probably the first time in years, Pratchett takes Tolkien on, this time by wrestling with one of the most troubling aspects of The Lord of the Rings, the fundamental evilness of Orcs.  Especially in light of the many authors (including Richard Morgan above) whose response to The Orc Problem is to try to darken and grim Tolkien up, Pratchett's approach--to port the Tolkienian Orc into Discworld and, without getting rid of Tolkien's starting assumptions, infuse it with the same humanistic ethos that informs the entire series--is both refreshing and thought-provoking.  Neither of these elements are quite enough to elevate Unseen Academicals above the predictable, later Discworld novel that it is, but they demonstrate that Pratchett is still thinking about his imaginary world, his genre, and the real world, and finding new ways to engage with all of them, which is something to be celebrated.

  5. Flood by Stephen Baxter - Though I've liked some of Baxter's short fiction, this is the first of his novels I've read (actually, the second following the Clarke-nominated YA novel The H-Bomb Girl, but I'm willing to ignore that abysmal effort as being hugely unrepresentative), and it cements my impression of him as being that cliché of a science fiction writer--great with ideas, lousy with characters.  For the most part, this is not actually a problem for Flood, which as its title suggests is a climate change novel (though not exactly a global warming novel) in which sea levels rise dramatically and then continue rising, driving humanity towards higher and higher ground.  Following a cast of some dozen characters--four former hostages of a Spanish terrorist group, their friends and families--over the span of several decades, Flood charts the end of the world, the slow and halting realization of this fact by governments, corporations, and individuals, the largely ineffective methods of curtailing or surviving the Earth's transformation they come up with, and the global conflicts that emerge as high ground becomes the planet's most precious commodity.  Flood works best when it simply stands back and describes events.  It's a mechanical novel, in the sense that what interests it is the process of the Earth's undoing, and it would not be entirely uncharitable to describe it as a series of infodumps strung together by character scenes and As You Know, Bob conversations.  The pace of the novel is swift enough, and the events it describes are scary enough, however, that Baxter pretty much gets away with this tack, and in fact I find myself wishing that he'd committed to it completely and done away with his characters and their family dramas, because it's these that most undermine the novel.

    Flood is essentially a hyper-SFnal version of disaster stories like 2012, and Baxter quite deliberately, and refreshingly, avoids the driving convention of stories like this, that the purpose of the disaster is to bring lovers together/heal a broken family/give the main character the chance to be a hero.  This is a story told by humans, but it isn't about them, which is fine except that at some point Baxter's choice to avoid almost to point of pathology any acknowledgment of the scale of death that occurs in the novel--for example in a scene that describes the final destruction of Manhattan, and lingers in almost pornographic detail on the destruction of buildings while hardly mentioning the people in them--becomes creepy, and then untenable.  I found myself comparing Flood to World War Z, which made the point that people are the window onto the event that is the novel's focus, not the focus itself, by not having any characters, merely a rotating cast of interviewees.  Baxter, by choosing a more conventional model for his novel but still using his characters as windows, inevitably calls our attention to the fact that these characters are unbelievably, inhumanly OK with the amount of death and destruction they've witnessed, and with the fact that they've spent the last few decades of their lives figuratively (and at one point literally) rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Flood is a compulsive, scary novel (though, because of its avoidance of death and its emphasis on the mechanics rather than the humanity of the destruction it describes, not a horrifying one), but it's hobbled by Baxter's choice to stick to the form of a conventional novel.  Given all the special pleading that tries to tell us that good science fiction doesn't need well-drawn, well-rounded characters--special pleading which Flood, to a certain extent, justifies--it's a shame that Baxter didn't go whole-hog and jettison character entirely.

  6. Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx - Proulx's third Wyoming Stories collection worked far better for me than her second, Bad Dirt, in part because I've finally learned to accept that she will never write another story as good as "Brokeback Mountain" (and that in fact, a single "Brokeback Mountain" is more than most writers can hope for in their careers), but also because of its focus, on the hardship of Wyoming living both in the homesteading era and in the present day.  There are some brutal stories here, from "Them Old Cowboy Songs," in which an unprepared teenage couple buy a plot of land and are ruthlessly defeated by an unforgiving, isolating landscape, to "The Great Divide," in which a couple somehow manage to keep just ahead of good fortune, buying up farming land just as the rich years of WWI give way to the buildup to the Depression, then going into mining just ahead of strip-mining technology, to "Testimony of the Donkey," in which a lone hiker is injured and stranded on a deserted path, and finally the harrowing "Tits-Up in a Ditch," in which lingering misogyny keeps thwarting a young woman's attempts to get away from her rural upbringing.  Throughout all, Proulx's greatest strength as a writer continues unabated--her unmistakable, yarn-spinning voice, which makes of even the most plain-spoken recitation of facts something both musical and irresistible.  If there isn't a story here to rival "Brokeback Mountain"'s simplicity and directed force (though both "Them Old Cowboy Songs" and "Tits-Up in a Ditch" try) there is certainly still much to read for.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

All Votes Are Equal, But, Well, You Know the Rest

This whole thing started in the summer of 2008, when Neil Clarke reported the results of that year's Locus award poll, as published in the July 2008 issue of the magazine, and noted with alarm a retroactive change to the award's vote counting system.  "Non-subscribers outnumbered subscribers by so much," the magazine's writers explained, "that in an attempt to better reflect the Locus magazine readership, we decided to change the counting system, so now subscriber votes count double."  The new weighting system (which was only disclosed in the print version of the magazine) changed the winners of at least two categories and unleashed a flurry of angry and resentful reactions, both for the system itself and for making the change only after the votes had been cast and the results tabulated.

The backlash was not long in coming.  As reported, again, by Clarke, the 2009 Locus poll (which continued the vote-weighting system) saw a dramatic drop in participation, from just over a thousand votes in 2008 to 662 in 2009--a drop attributable directly to a 50% reduction in the number of non-subscribers voting in the poll.  "We inadvertently alienated a lot of the online community last year when we decided to double subscriber points last year--particularly by doing it without notice," the Locus writers admitted.  It also seems likely that the award controversy played a part in Locus's losing the 2009 best semiprozine Hugo to Weird Tales--an award it has failed to win only five times in the twenty six years that the category has existed (prior to 2009, the two most recent losses--to Ansible in 2005 and to Interzone in 1995--were both to UK-based magazines in UK-based conventions).  In light of this reaction, and of their own recognition of it, I expected the Locus staff to quietly roll vote-weighting back in the 2010 poll.  Instead, as the fine print in the recently posted poll page says, they have quietly continued it. 

It should be said, in the strongest possible terms, that my problem with this choice has nothing to do with perceiving it as censorship, or with being angry that Locus isn't interested in the online community's input, or with the belief that they have somehow deprived online voters of their rights.  The question here isn't whether Locus had the right to change the poll's vote-weighting system in favor of its subscribers, which of course it did, but whether in doing so it did the right thing.  There's nothing wrong with wanting the Locus award to reflect the tastes of Locus subscribers.  If the decision had been to close the poll off to non-subscribers entirely, I would have had no complaints.  It would have been disappointing--as Niall Harrison says, "The big selling point of the Locus Awards is, or always has been to me at least, their representativeness, precisely the fact that anyone can vote and that they are thus the best barometer of community-wide opinion that we have."--but most popular vote awards, in and out of genre, limit their voter base in some way--the Nebula awards are voted on by members of SFWA, the Hugos and other convention-based awards by members of the convention--and it would have been entirely valid for the Locus award to follow suit.

That's not what the Locus staffers did.  Instead of politely telling us that we are not welcome in an award that doesn't seek to reflect our tastes, they've made the far more insulting choice of giving us half a vote each--we're welcome, in other words, but not equal.  A slightly cynical reading of this policy would be that Locus wants to hold on the perception that its award is the most open and representative in the field, and to the cachet that comes with that perception, without actually being open and representative, and that its staffers are hoping that by not drawing attention to the vote-weighting policy, it will be quietly forgotten, and eventually accepted as the new status quo.

I don't think that should happen.  With apologies to the authors I would have voted for, and particularly the ones I would have given write-in votes to, I don't plan to vote in this year's Locus award, and if you're not a subscriber, I urge you not to vote either until its administrators agree to give every ballot its equal weight.  I hope that the Locus staffers will take a long, hard look at what they're doing, and make one of two equally valid choices--open the award equally to all voters, or close it off to magazine subscribers only.  But as it stands, I see no reason why we should invest our time and energy helping to legitimize an institution that considers our opinions to be less legitimate than others'.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Heroes and Villains: Dollhouse Thoughts

Dollhouse in its second season was not at all the same show it was in its first.  As far as the internet is concerned--or at least that infinitesimal portion that watched the show to its end--this is very much a good thing, and there's no denying that from a technical standpoint the show was massively improved.  The first season's tedious and contrived personality of the week stories quickly gave way to major upheavals in the show's premise as it raced towards the post-apocalyptic future glimpsed in the tantalizing, unaired first season finale "Epitaph One."  Still, I find myself missing first season Dollhouse.  I didn't like that show, but I thought it had the potential to tell an interesting SFnal story.  The second season tries to tell that story, but does so in a way that is so rushed, so heavy-handed, and most of all that so thoroughly tramples the creepy ambiguity of the first season's character work, that it hardly seems worth the effort.  The improved plotting--which anyway is well below what I've come to expect from Joss Whedon, and mostly copied, none too elegantly, from better works like The Matrix and The Manchurian Candidate--doesn't do nearly enough, to my mind, to compensate for how thoroughly Dollhouse bungled its central concept.

When I wrote about Dollhouse last summer I quoted Sady Doyle's reading of the show as a metaphor for 'rape culture'--the notion that women are victimized not by evil, sexist individuals but by the culture as a whole, which encourages or forces them into roles defined and limited by their femininity, and treats their bodies as a public commodity (see also Doyle's follow-up post about the second season premiere)--but noted that "Epitaph One" weakened this reading.  How, after all, can one talk about rape culture, or culture of any kind, when civilization itself has been brought to its knees?  Dollhouse's second season bears out this observation.  Though it addresses rape culture--the college professor whose seduction technique involves persuading Echo's imprint that being defined by her sexuality is empowering; the psychiatrist imprinted on Victor who notes that being a doll frees Echo to be both virgin and whore while Adele is forced to renounce both roles; the Priya-centric episode "Belonging"--in the second season this is no longer Dollhouse's point, if it ever was.  Niall Harrison's reading of Dollhouse as a "story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow)" is probably closer to the mark, but as I say in the comments to that post, I like the show he describes better than the show we actually got.  It may be that Dollhouse was intended as a story about the construction and destruction of identity, but in its second season that story is drowned out by the need to sufficiently set up the "Epitaph One" future, and then advance from that future to a too-neat happy ending.

What's lost from Dollhouse once the second season gets into gear is the sense of complicity, the recognition that all of the characters, victims and victimizers, evil and righteous, are part of the system that makes the dollhouse possible--Doyle's rape culture expanded to the commodification of self, regardless of gender.  Dollhouse's first season showed us the rationalizations through which ostensible villains like Topher and Adele tolerated and even justified their monstrous actions, drawing pencil-thin lines between different shades of rape and slavery in order to be able to place themselves on the right side of those lines, while alleged good guys like Ballard and Boyd, who claimed to abhor the dollhouse, ended up enabling and participating in it.  The second season sweeps away this complexity, dividing the cast into heroes and villains (though perhaps the initial failure was in the transition from a story about people who are cogs in the machine to one that has heroes and villains to begin with).  Ballard's obsession with Echo, which the first season painted as disturbing and slightly pathetic, becomes romantic.  Boyd's deluded image of himself as Echo's protector and father figure is given credence by Adele and by Echo herself (and then he turns out to be the Big Bad).  Adele, after a brief but interesting interlude which pointedly questions the ideals she claimed to hold in the first season by having her sell them out to further her ambition and self-preservation, turns out to have been playing a deeper game and becomes the general of the side of light.  Topher gets the closest thing the second season offers to a genuine progression towards moral awareness, but even in his case there are lapses--his self-righteousness when he believes that Adele has sold out to Rossum is never punctured--and most of all I distrust it.  Topher is the type of character Whedon has written many times before, usually as an audience identification character, and as Doyle notes it was one of Dollhouse's main accomplishments in its first season that it made him so thoroughly unlikable.  His woobification in the second season thus feels less like character development and more like the writers working less hard against their ingrained habits.

The second season does build on the first season's character work by focusing more on the dolls, and stressing the fact that, as with Echo and Caroline in the first season, these characters are often more appealing as blank slates than as the flawed people who got themselves in such dire straits to begin with.  I particularly liked the fact that November's original personality, Madeline, was written in such a way that as to recall Mellie, but with a core of hardness--especially her willingness to erase her grief over her daughter's death--that made her humanly unappealing where Mellie was inhumanly sweet.  But as the buildup to the brainapocalypse speeds up, these stories are rushed past the point of comprehensibility.  By the end of the season Madeline is shunted aside in favor of Mellie, whose realization that she is an imprint, acceptance of that fact, and proof-by-suicide of her personhood are so lightning-quick as to be almost unnoticeable (and anyway, both Mellie and Ballard's struggles with their doll state are dwarfed by Claire's similar but more nuanced struggle in the season premiere, which is itself undone by Whiskey's transformation into a plot device in "Getting Closer" and "The Hollow Men").  The Tony-centric "Stop-Loss" takes the character through so many transformations in a single hour--no sooner is he out of the dollhouse than he signs his personhood away to another shady organization, and no sooner has he done that than he's backed out because of his love for Priya--that they become meaningless. 

None of these characters, however, fare quite as badly as the show's ostensible heroine.  There's been a lot of griping about Eliza Dushku's acting ability or lack thereof, and it's true that she isn't the chameleon that Enver Gjokaj, Dichen Lachman, and Amy Acker are, but ultimately I don't think she needed to be.  The writing for Echo should have stressed the core of self that made her so dangerous both to Rossum and to the people who get swept up in her crusade, but instead the writers did a lot of telling and very little showing.  When Echo says that she is all her previous imprints but none of them is her, what does that mean?  When she swallows Caroline's original imprint with nary a ripple (after an entire episode that made so much of the danger of reintegrating them), what are we to make of her?  Dushku may not have Olivia Williams's presence, but in the scenes like Echo's breakdown in "Epitaph Two: The Return" she proves that she can sink her teeth into meaty material, and yet for most of the second season the writers do little more with her than make her into the worst and least interesting kind of superhero--the kind whose awesomeness is expressed by using her McGuffin-derived powers to swat aside the McGuffin-derived hurdles the writers set before her.

A lot of the problems I've complained about here can be blamed on Dollhouse's compressed running time.  Except inasmuch as he made the show he made, and that he made it for Fox, Whedon can't be blamed for having so little space in which to write a satisfying ending to his story, and unlike Firefly, which could be capped with the chapter-ending Serenity while still leaving room for a lot more story, Dollhouse was hobbled by the existence of "Epitaph One."  No ending that didn't address the coming apocalypse would have worked, hence the need to vault over the steps leading to that apocalypse.  Even if we take the second season as nothing but the blueprint to the show Whedon would have written had he been given his leisure, however, I'm not sure I would have cared for that show.  "We split the atom--we make a bomb.  We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy," Ballard tells Victor-as-Lubov early in the first season.  This is true, but the unstated corollary is that for all the piles of science fiction stories about nuclear war bringing about the end of the world, in reality what happened is that the world changed.  Some of those changes were terrible and deadly, but humanity and human civilization marched on (so far, anyway).  This is an overgeneralized distinction, but I think that one of the reasons that written SF is so much better than the filmed kind is that there are more SF authors who get that it's so much more interesting to imagine how technology changes the world than to simply end it (which is why I like to recommend Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon to disappointed Dollhouse viewers).  Last summer, I was so excited by the fact that "Epitaph One" laid out a clear direction for the story Dollhouse wanted to tell that I let myself ignore the clearly spelled out end point of that story, which marked Whedon out as the less interesting kind of science fiction writer.  And once you get to apocalypse, you can really only tell the plucky-band-of-survivors story.  These can be fun in the right hands, but in Dollhouse's case what we got was "Epitaph Two: The Return," a cluttered, perfunctory hour whose indifferent plotting only adds insult to the injury of the reset button ending it tacks on to Dollhouse's story.

In the end, what's worst about Dollhouse's second season is that its final episodes rob the show even of the dubious honor of being an interesting failure.  I don't, ultimately, know what kind of story Whedon was trying to tell with this show--the critique of rape culture, the story about stories, the tale of technology dismantling our understanding of personhood--and I don't know what kind of show he would have come up with in a perfect world in which television auteurs are given free reign to create whatever they like (though his own comments about the changes Fox mandated to the series aren't promising), but if "Epitaph Two: The Return" is any indication of where he wanted to get to, I'm rather glad I was spared the ride.