Thursday, September 23, 2010

Stargate: Universe, Season 1

In the eighth episode of Stargate: Universe's first season, "Time," the characters discover, on a planet they've never been to before, one of the recording devices used on their ship, Destiny.  On it are images of themselves experiencing events that never happened, and eventually being killed by aliens.  Eli Wallace (David Blue), a math whiz only recently introduced to the concept of traveling to other planets through the stargate, incredulously asks whether they are looking at images from an alternate universe, but the other characters respond only with derisive silence.  It's a moment that neatly sums up the wrongfooting strangeness of the third Stargate series.  Alternate universes, after all, were commonplace in the two previous installments in the franchise, Stargate: SG-1 and Stargate: Atlantis.  Characters traveled to and from them, whole episodes were set in them, a ship was even constructed to travel between them.  Why then do the other scientists and soldiers on Destiny, all of whom are veterans of a decade and a half in which the strange and fantastical have surrounded the stargate and other forms of alien technology that humans have learned how to use, roll their eyes at Eli's suggestion of such a fantastical explanation to this puzzle (especially when the actual solution, time travel, is no less unscientific)?

The answer is the complete shift of tone and focus that Universe executes from its parent series.  SG-1 and Atlantis were lighthearted, formulaic space opera, telling adventure stories in a setting where morality was usually a simple matter of black and white--the opponents the characters faced in these series were mind-controlling aliens, false gods, and space vampires, who sought nothing less than galactic domination and sometimes even destruction.  Universe, which sees the military and scientific contingents on an offworld research station, plus Eli and Chloe Armstrong (Elyse Levesque), the daughter of a visiting senator, forced to evacuate through the stargate to a decrepit alien spaceship billions of light years away from Earth, moves away from the space opera mode, preferring introspection and gloom to adventure (there have been no exciting space battles, no scenes of badass single combat, in the first season), internal disputes to battles between good and evil.  As part of this shift, Universe rejects, subverts, and ignores many of the tropes and formulas that have become synonymous with the Stargate franchise.

On one level, one has to respect Universe's willingness to break with its roots, especially given that so many of the ways in which it achieves this break are deliberate callbacks to some of the most beloved elements in the previous two Stargate series.  Unlike both SG-1 and Atlantis, the series features no core team, a group that transcends military/civilian, human/alien divides and becomes as closely-knit as a family, and in fact there is hardly any emphasis in the show on friendship, which was arguably the core relationship type of both SG-1 and Atlantis (for both of these reasons, the series also has no obvious slash couple).  The idyllic cooperation between civilian and military groups--the former hardworking and eager to contribute, the latter easygoing and friendly--which smoothed the workings of the Atlantis mission is here replaced with a tense and occasionally violent squabble for supremacy between whiny and demanding scientists and uncomprehending, inflexible soldiers.  In SG-1, characters O'Neill and Carter nobly sacrificed their love for the good of the mission, and because to act on their desires would have been against Air Force regulations.  In Universe, the forbidden romance is not only consummated, but made seedy.  Colonel Young (Luis Ferreira) is married, and old enough to be the father of his paramour, Lieutenant Johansen (Alaina Huffman), who becomes pregnant and resigns her commission as a result of their affair.  Atlantis's writers kept telling the audience that the show's resident genius, McKay, was selfish, asocial, monstrously arrogant and deeply unpleasant to be around, but the character that turned up screen (and as portrayed by the charming David Hewlett) was funny, loyal, and often very brave.  Universe's genius character, Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) is the person McKay was supposed to be, and compounds those flaws by being secretive and manipulative, and by working constantly towards his own, not entirely sane, agenda.  On both SG-1 and Atlantis, the warrior characters were aliens from warrior cultures, and both shows were thus able to use the warrior poet exception to avoid dealing with the unpleasant implications of having characters whose greatest achievement in life was to become fearsome killers.  Universe's warrior character, Sergeant Greer (Jamil Walker Smith), is an Earth-born human, and thus not immune to the allure of violence and its corrosive effects on the soul.  He is frequently shown threatening and intimidating other soldiers and even civilians, expressing a distasteful joy in violence and killing, and preferring these resorts to more civilized ones.

On the other hand, it's hard not to suspect that it's not a desire to examine the story, characters, and fictional universe they've been building for fifteen seasons and two TV movies that's motivating Universe's writers, but fashion.  The show's setting, its appearance--Destiny is dark and gray, space scenes are shot in the by-now overused 'found footage' look, the camera in indoor scenes is often jittery or partially obscured--its emphasis on conflicts between military and civilian authorities, interpersonal strife, and unwholesome relationships, are all so reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica--a series that may have single-handedly killed the televised space opera, the mode to which both previous Stargate series belonged--that one feels that the writers are imitating the cool kids.  It also seems disrespectful to the fans to so thoroughly jettison the franchise's direction and tone, as though the writers are passing judgment on their audience for developing a taste for their own product, and such a sense of disrespect is entirely in keeping with the ambivalence towards their own setting and style one sometimes sensed from both SG-1 and Atlantis, an ambivalence that bordered on disdain.  The SG-1 episode "200," an hour-long meta-commentary on the Stargate franchise and science fiction TV in general, ends with an Asimov quote which argues that though science fiction may seem trite and childish--may, in fact, use trite and childish tropes, stories, and styles--it is grappling with serious issues, and with the very question of what it means to be human--the writers' way of justifying the mediocrity of their product by claiming to be part of a grand literary tradition.  Atlantis's penultimate episode, "Vegas," took place in an alternate universe in which the show's main character, Colonel Shepherd, was a Las Vegas policeman, and crafted a CSI-inflected mystery around his discovery of the existence of aliens.  It was the first time the Stargate franchise broke away from its sterile, unimaginative look and consistently likable characters (Stargate characters might commit genocide, but by God they didn't develop gambling addictions), and both writers and director seemed to suffer from some sort of hysterical fit, cramming the episode with one visual device after another--fade to white, body organ cams, grainy shots, slow motion, fast motion, switch to black and white, switch to stills--like a child overdosing on candy.

Both of these episodes, and now Universe, create the definite impression that the Stargate writers have been deliberately crafting their product to be safe and crowdpleasing, and that they were very much aware of its mediocrity.  Now that they've been given the chance to cut loose with Universe, they want the same Peabody-winning prestige that Battlestar Galactica achieved.  What's missing in all this is any acknowledgment that it's not style or tropes that determine the quality of a work, but how these are used.  Space opera is not inherently inferior to, or of lesser quality than, space-set political allegory.  A show that features sex scenes and unplanned pregnancies is not inherently better than one that doesn't.  Stargate: SG-1 wasn't a trite, childish show because it told space adventure stories, but because it was poorly written, and Universe's gloomy appearance and unpleasant tone are not a guarantee of quality.  The question one must ask, when confronted with the Stargate franchise's makeover, is: once you strip away the new tropes, the shift in appearance, the move towards soapy personal stories, is the writing there?  Are the Stargate writers hacks, or competent writers who pretended to be hacks in order to make a buck, or hacks who only think they were pretending?

Universe is trying so hard to break with SG-1 and Atlantis that it sometimes seems that its writers should have started from scratch with another fictional universe.  As it stands, the show often sits ill with what we know of the franchise and of humanity's exploration of space within it.  Universe is essentially retelling the same story that Atlantis started out telling: a joint scientific and military expedition travels through the stargate, which has been reconfigured to dial a point much farther away than it has ever reached before, knowing full well that they may be taking a one-way trip.  The twist in Universe is that rather than an orderly, planned expedition, the characters arrive on Destiny by necessity, and much is made of their lack of preparedness and unsuitability to the mission.  A lot of character moments in the first season are dedicated to highlighting these deficiencies.  People grouse about the poor conditions and insufficient food on the ship, whine about their heavy workload and the impossible demands made on them, pine for their families, and despair of ever seeing home again.  All of these reactions are natural and to be expected, but they are allowed to dominate the characters' reaction to their predicament, the show's tone, and its plots (already in the first season there have been two episodes, "Life" and "Pain," whose overarching theme was the difficulty of life on Destiny and the characters' fraying tolerance for it), to a degree that seems incongruous with the Stargate franchise and its established history.

In the Stargate universe, the existence of the stargates, of aliens, and of regular interstellar and intergalactic travel, are a closely-held secret known only to relatively tiny number of humans.  It stands to reason--and previous Stargate series have held this to be true--that it takes a special person to work in the Stargate program, someone who not only possesses a great deal of skill and intelligence, but the right psychological profile to accept that everything they know about the universe is wrong, to be willing to keep that knowledge secret, and to tolerate the privation and danger that come with venturing further than almost any human being has done.  Within the Stargate universe, a story about how "ordinary" people would "realistically" respond to being flung as far away from home as Universe's characters have been doesn't make any sense, because ordinary people shouldn't be working for the Stargate program to begin with.  Geniuses, madmen, workaholics, loners, adventurers, explorers--these are the people you'd expect to find working on an alien planet and trying to crack the secrets of a piece of alien technology.  These are the people you'd expect to have arrived on Destiny, however unprepared and untrained.  For all the hardships of living on the ship, and for all the difficulties involved in surviving on it, you'd expect Universe's characters to be passionate about their work and thrilled by the opportunity to explore the ship and a distant part of the universe.  But the only characters who express an enthusiasm for exploration--and that only faintly and infrequently--are Eli and Chloe, the outsiders to the Stargate program, and the only character who seems to feel that learning about Destiny is more important than who's sleeping with whom and who's having an affair is Rush, who is treated as a dangerous lunatic even by the other scientists.

There are ways that Universe could have explained, and even made an important theme out of, its characters' indifference to exploration.  The show could have made the point that the Stargate program is overextended, and forced to recruit people who aren't the right stuff.  Or that Rush was considered so hard to work for, and his project's success viewed as so unlikely, that only the second and third tier of Stargate employees ended up working on it.  Or that the Stargate program has been running for so long that the thrill and sense of danger have gone, and explorers and adventurers have been replaced with 9-to-5 workers who think nothing of the fact that their day job takes place on an alien planet but still expect three square meals a day and no mortal peril.  (Each of these explanations, incidentally, could have given the writers something to do with the character of Camille Wray, the HR director for Rush's project, whose appearances and role on the show are so limited that it's hard not to view her main character status and ubiquitous presence in the show's promos as a cynical attempt to cash in on Ming-Na's ER cred.)  Alternatively, Universe could have told a story about the difficulties and dangers of exploration.  Even Columbus and Magellan, after all, must have had days in which they were exhausted, terrified, and wished they had never left home, and Universe's characters too could have started out with zeal and excitement at the opportunity for exploration they'd been given, only to be smacked in the face by how dangerous their new environment was, and how much tedium and drudgery were involved in just staying alive long enough to explore it.  Instead, the show chooses to believe that living in space is so commonplace to its characters that finding themselves on the other side of the universe is cause only for complaint and consternation, never wonder or joy. 

It may seem like quibbling to complain that Universe's premise doesn't suit its franchise, and I admit that at least part of my dismay at this mismatch is driven by the feeling that the choice to set the show in the Stargate universe was motivated mainly by the desire to cash in on a preexisting audience.  But there's something more sinister, and more unfortunate, happening here than yet another instance of Universe falling in line with Battlestar Galactica, whose characters did live in a setting in which space travel was commonplace (my favorite line from that show is a character telling someone that they signed up to work on a spaceship in order to save enough money to pay for dental school).  By making its characters ordinary, office workers and jarheads who just happen to be in space, Universe is participating in the homogenization of genre TV, a subtle but growing shift that sees science fiction subsumed into naturalism, and characters in science fiction stories made ordinary and given ordinary concerns like strained love lives and quarrels with their children.  But some people aren't ordinary.  Some people are so passionate about their work that they don't want love lives or children to distract them from it.  Some people would rather live a short, adventurous life than a long, ordinary one.  Science fiction used to be where you'd meet these characters, and it would have been wonderful if Universe tried to ask the question of what it's like to actually be the kind of person whose eyes are permanently fixed on the stars, who longs for adventure, in a world that seems to place a million distractions and impediments on the path to achieving these goals.  Instead, we get soap opera and workplace drama in space.

What makes the ordinariness of the Universe characters' interests even more frustrating is that it is only one aspect of the show's disappointing character work, which is as inspired by Lost as the rest of the series is inspired by Battlestar Galactica.  One of the most toxic--and, sadly, enduring--consequences of Lost's success was that it taught writers to aim for the moment of revelation, not only when plotting but when writing characters.  In its early seasons, Lost's character arcs were all pointed backwards.  What mattered about the characters were the mysteries of their past--what was Kate's crime?  How did Locke lost the use of his legs?--which the writers drew out long past the point of reason.  The result of this fascination with the past was not only that, in the present, the characters stagnated, but that they failed to develop relationships with other characters.  The audience learned about the characters through their flashbacks, but they never talked to one another long enough, or at great enough depth, to learn about each other.  Universe is written very much in this vein.  The show employs an almost frightening array of devices--flashbacks, video diaries, dreams, hallucinations, visits to Earth (using a body-swapping device) that isolate one character from the rest of the cast--in order to tell us about the characters' past in isolation, but features almost no instances in which they get to know one another.  And if Lost's flashback were, sometimes, good stories in their own right, Universe tends to use them, and other devices of their type, as infodumps, inelegant recitations of information with very little in the way of plot or form.  "Time" takes the series's "tell, don't show" approach to character development to almost metafictional extremes.  The recording the characters find, which ends with their deaths, also shows them having the kind of conversations that don't occur throughout the rest of the season--Johansen tells Eli about her family, Eli and Rush discuss their attitudes towards death.  But in the timeline in which the episode's events occur, these conversations never happened, and the characters watch them at a remove.  At the episode's end, this timeline too is erased, and two recording devices are left on the planet for the characters in the next timeline to discover--to observe, but not experience.  Conversation--the kind of conversation that sheds light on characters, builds relationships, and conveys real meaning--is in fact almost entirely absent from Universe.  What we get instead are shallow and dull exchanges of information, filled with meaningful silences, which put me in mind of the kind of inexperienced prose that's made up mostly of short, declarative sentences and lots of paragraph breaks--the work of a writer who knows that silence has power, but hasn't figured out that it's what limns and shapes the moments of silence that gives them that power.

So, Universe's characters rarely talk to one another, and when they do it's rarely to say anything of importance or develop relationships, and as a result fully half the cast seems to serve no function on the show.  Eli and Lieutenant Scott (Brian J. Smith) were established in the premiere as, respectively, an amiable underachiever capable of rising to the occasion when properly motivated, and a sweet, unaffected do-gooder struggling with heavy responsibilities, and they have not budged from these definitions all season.  Johansen gets a lot of screen time in her capacity as a medic, but if she weren't pregnant she would have no emotional presence at all.  Worst of all is Chloe, who is on screen almost every episode despite the fact that she seems to have no thematic or narrative function besides being a love interest (she's Scott's girlfriend and Eli is in love with her) and being traumatized (to date, her father has died, she's been kidnapped by aliens, and in the season finale she is shot).  It's understandable that given these ordeals and her lack of preparedness for them Chloe would retreat into childish passivity, but her persistence in this state throughout the season, and the other characters' tolerance of it, make no sense.  You'd expect a person from Chloe's privileged background to be either a spoiled princess or a Rory Gilmore-ish overachiever.  At the very least, you'd expect someone who was the daughter of a US senator, a Harvard graduate, and an employee in the senate, to have a bit of polish.  But Chloe is instead a vaguely Midwestern, carefully inoffensive, childish blank, whose helplessness and passivity the otherwise fractious and intolerant crew treat with a nearly inhuman degree of consideration and patience, never expecting that she extend herself or learn new skills, which she indeed doesn't feel compelled to do.

You might think that I'm expecting a bit too much from what is only a single, twenty hour season--was there really time to depict the characters' curdled ambitions of exploring the universe, and force Eli and Scott to lose their innocence, and confront Greer with the dark underbelly of his violent temper, and make Chloe grow up, and give Wray a main character's share in the show's plotlines?  The answer is yes, there was time for all of this and more.  Universe is slow and slack, and diverts very little energy to telling interesting, exciting stories.  In the first half of the season, episodes revolved around the characters scrambling to get hold of something necessary for their survival--water, a chemical for the air filters, power for the ship's engines.  These are not inherently dramatic premises--the writers were clearly not going to kill the entire cast three episodes into the show--and very little work was done to make them into compelling stories.  In a particularly odious example, the characters spend an entire hour believing that the ship is going to fly into a star, glumly and solemnly contemplating their upcoming deaths, only to discover that this is how the ship recharges its batteries.  Later episodes tell more complicated stories, but still pay too little attention to plotting and pacing, with more than enough dead space in which the writers could have built up characters and relationships, had they so chosen--the musical montages, which seem to turn up at least once an episode, would probably have yielded 20 or 30 minutes of usable screen time over the course of the season.  The two-part season finale repeatedly cuts away from the action of the ship's invasion by aliens to follow Chloe and Eli, who have run away from the battle, as they wander around the ship, and an earlier two-part story, "Human"/"Lost", could have made an excellent one hour episode if both hours were not intercut with overlong, not particularly well done flashbacks to Rush and Greer's painful pasts.

The one place where Universe's writers do seem to be directing their energies towards both character and story is Young and Rush's struggle for supremacy and control over Destiny.  The second half of the first season begins with an abortive civilian coup, and the following episodes deal with its aftermath, with lingering tensions between Young and Rush, and with their tentative efforts towards cooperation.  Overall, this is the season's most successful story, mainly because it concentrates on Rush, who is both the series's best character and best actor (not, I suspect, a coincidence).  It is undermined, however, by Rush's counterparts in this story, Young and Wray.  Wray's position, both before the move to Destiny and after it, is never made clear.  Sometimes she's referred to as the civilian authority, and sometimes as the HR director.  If she was in charge it's unclear whether her purview was only the civilians or whether Young also answered to her--at different points in the season both behave as though either might be true.  When Rush makes his move against Young, he sometimes seems to be taking orders from her and sometimes to be giving them.  During the coup, Young interacts only with Rush, but after it he acknowledges Wray as his opponent.  Whether Wray is trying to regain her old position or carve out a new one, however, it's clear that she's unfit for either--she's indecisive, passive, whiny, and has no command presence.

Young, meanwhile, is a controlling martinet with a short and dangerous fuse--twice over the course of the season he responds to challenges to his authority with either the threat of murder or an actual attempt.  It's actually quite a successful portrait of an unpleasant, unlikable man, but just why this person is in the Stargate program, much less in the US Air Force, becomes less and less clear as the season draws on.  Young doesn't like civilians and doesn't know how to deal with and motivate them, so why was he placed in charge of a base where his job was to secure and facilitate their work?  And why is he a full colonel when he's such a bad soldier?  Young is shown finding out about Rush and Wray's planned coup at the end of episode 11, "Space," but in the next episode, "Divided," he has neither confronted the two, nor taken steps to prevent or curtail their efforts.  When the ship is invaded in the season finale, Young has a plan in place that will kill all the invaders as soon as they step foot on Destiny, but he holds off on it in order to save two lives--leading to a lecture from O'Neill about the responsibilities of command that would have shamed a green lieutenant.  Later on he fails to hold the ship against the invaders despite the fact that he has the home court advantage, control of the ship's systems, and better trained personnel.  The choice between the three characters in this struggle, therefore, is a choice between Young, who is bad at his job, Wray, who is bad at either her job or the job she wants, and Rush, who is good at both his job (science) and his vocation (making trouble) but is also an agent of chaos.  There's no one to root for, and though ideally we'd root for cooperation, this is clearly not that sort of show.  The three characters only cooperate when an outside threat appears in the form of the invaders, but this is simply to extend the same game, and to introduce another, equally incompetent, player in the form of the invaders' leader, Kiva, who boards Destiny despite knowing that her spy on the ship has been discovered (and ignores the overwhelming evidence that he has turned on her) and that Young, were he not an idiot himself, could kill her as soon as she set foot aboard it.

So, Stargate: Universe has an unconvincing premise, underdeveloped characters, bad dialogue, slack plotting, and a central conflict that is intriguing but driven mostly by the incompetence of its participants.  And this is not even to mention the typically shoddy treatment of female and non-white characters.  In other words, for all the sex scenes and dim lighting and loud arguments, this is still Stargate--still mediocre, unimaginative, desperately imitating smarter and more innovative series.  I kept watching SG-1 and Atlantis despite all these flaws because their modest ambitions suited the level of talent driving them--they were never great TV, but they were occasionally entertaining and that, coupled with inertia, was enough to keep me coming back.  Universe aims higher, but the same talent is at the helm and it's not up to the task, and I find myself with no reason to keep watching--after all, for all its aping of Battlestar Galactica, Universe isn't as culturally important, and now that it's moved to the fall there's plenty of other stuff to watch instead (for instance, Caprica, which is by no means perfect but still a million times smarter and more interesting than Universe).  Ambition is always laudable, but ambition without talent to support it usually just leads to heartbreak.  Stargate's writers might have been better off staying at the shallow end of the pool.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

ICon 2010: My Events

As I may have mentioned here in the past, I've been involved with the planning of ICon TLV, the Israeli science fiction and fantasy convention that will be held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque over Sukkot week, 25-30 September.  It's been a fun and somewhat exhausting experience, and I've ended up with some interesting events.  If you're in the neighborhood, consider stopping by.

All links go to the official ICon website.  All events are in Hebrew unless otherwise noted.
  • Interview with author Lavie Tidhar
    Sunday, September 26th, 15:00-15:30, at the Tzomet Sfarim booth

  • Jewish Fantasy: A Panel Discussion
    Based on the internet brouhaha of last winter, an Israeli perspective.
    Participants: Prof. Ortzion Bartana, Dr. Hagay Dagan, Rabbi Adi Cohen, Shimon Adaf, Abigail Nussbaum (moderator)
    Sunday, September 26th, 17:00-19:00, at the Cinematheque veranda tent

  • A Guide to Biblical Monsters
    Paired lectures by Dr. Hagay Dagan and Asaf Asheri, introduced by Abigail Nussbaum
    Monday, September 27th, 19:00-20:30, at the Cinematheque veranda tent

  • International Science Fiction: A Panel Discussion
    Participants: Nicholas Seeley, Andrei Sapkowski, Lavie Tidhar, Abigail Nussbaum (moderator)
    This event will be in English
    Tuesday, September 28th, 14:00-15:30, at the Cinematheque veranda tent

  • Next Year's Reading List: A Book Recommendation Panel
    Participants: Liat Elkayam, Henry Harel, Didi Chanoch, Abigail Nussbaum (moderator)
    Tuesday, September 28th, 15:30-17:00, at the Cinematheque veranda tent

  • How to Write an Israeli Future: A Panel Discussion
    Participants: Shimon Adaf, Lavie Tidhar, Nir Yaniv, Abigail Nussbaum (moderator)
    Tuesday, September 28th, 17:00-18:30, at the Cinematheque veranda tent

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Moonstruck

Over the last few days, the science fiction blogosphere has united in entirely justified outrage over author Elizabeth Moon's LJ post "Citizenship," in which she claims that "When an Islamic group decided to build a memorial center at/near the site of the 9/11 attack, they should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people."  Smarter and more knowledgeable people than myself have combed through the post, in its comments (now deleted by Moon, though there are screencaps of some of them) and on their own blogs and LJs, to point out its errors, its thoughtless and erroneous assumptions, and the bigotry that underpins such statements as "many Muslims have all the virtues of civilized persons" and "Muslims fail to recognize how much forbearance they've had."  I won't try, therefore, to repeat or belabor their points, but I am struck by the number of otherwise quite critical commenters who have nevertheless praised the first half of Moon's post, in which she discusses the responsibilities of a citizen towards the state and her definition of good citizenship, and who have propagated the meme that the post only goes south in its second, more overtly racist half.  To my mind, "Citizenship" makes as many troubling statements in its discussion of citizenship in general as it does when it turns to the subject of American Muslims, and in fact I would say that the same objectionable philosophy underpins both halves of the post.

"Citizenship" fails, in my eyes, in its third paragraph, in which Moon explains that "the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation."  Though this is somewhat understandable in light of the more incendiary arguments that follow, I'm shocked that such a statement, which so cavalierly reduces one of the fundamental questions of modern democracy--perhaps even of human civilization--to a glib axiom, was passed on with so little comment, and even with approval, by its readers.  The business of the citizen is the welfare of the nation?  One might just as easily say that the business of the nation is the welfare of its citizens.  Both statements are equally right, and equally wrong.  More precisely, how you respond to them depends on the kind of society you live in, whether it prioritizes the individual over the community, or the community over the individual.  There are merits, and flaws, to both approaches.  A society that views the individual as the servant of the state can devolve into tyranny and totalitarianism, stifle creativity, art, and science, and encourage the proliferation of a corrupt and unaccountable bureaucracy.  But it can also answer the basic human craving for meaning, purpose, and the desire to belong to, and work towards, something greater than ourselves, all of which are more difficult to come by in societies that prize individuality, which allow and even encourage their members to place their own wishes above the needs of the state.  Those societies can descend into hedonism and unsatisfying selfishness, rewarding greed and short-sightedness, but they also give space to those who are different, who don't belong, who have new ideas and new ways of seeing the world, in which they can flourish.

These are, of course, very reductive descriptions, if for no other reason than that humans gravitate towards community-oriented organizations precisely because of that need for meaning and a sense of belonging I talked about, so that even the most allegedly individualistic of societies has strong community-oriented currents running through it, and often there are hierarchies of communal affiliation, or affiliations that overlap--a person can belong to a faith, a race, a locality, a sexual orientation, an ethnicity, and several other types of groups before they belong to a nation.  But the fundamental question--is the business of a citizen the welfare of the state, or is it the other way around--is sound, and the answer we give to it, as individuals and as communities, defines the civilizations we live in.  To pretend that this question has a right or an easy answer is to mark oneself out as, at best, a shallow thinker, and at worst, a demagogue.  To ignore the atrocities that have been committed against individuals in the name of the state's welfare is inexcusable.

Moon writes:
What distinguishes the unsuccessful citizen?   Some old-fashioned vices:  greed, dishonesty, laziness, selfishness, cruelty, anger/resentment/, refusal to take responsibility for his/her own acts and their consequences.   Anything that degrades the resources of the nation--including the human resources needed for a healthy society--anything that harms the nation--brands those who do it as unsuccessful, bad, citizens.
She goes on to give examples of bad citizenship that will probably strike most of her readers, including the ones who were later outraged by her anti-Muslim comments, as unobjectionable--substandard construction, prison rape, outsourcing employment--but can she really be ignorant of the rhetoric she's using, and of its associations?  Can it really have escaped her notice that accusations of laziness, selfishness, and refusal to take responsibility for one's actions are used the world over to deny the state's responsibilities towards its citizens, to argue against welfare, unemployment benefits, and health care?  How can she--the mother of an autistic child--lose sight of the fact that within living memory, people deemed worthless or unproductive were sterilized and even euthanized, in order to keep from degrading the resources of the nation?  Does the fact that Moon's definition of what is in the best interest of the nation rings true for many of us outweigh the fact that the system, the philosophy, that that definition is being plugged into is dangerous, easily exploited, and prone to abuse?

If you believe, as Moon claims to, that the business of a citizen is the welfare of the nation, then her objection to the Park51 project is entirely reasonable.  By outraging the majority, the project's instigators have upset and thus harmed the nation, and their actions are therefore inexcusable (never mind that the immediate community actually responded to the project with either support or indifference, and that the outrage over it was only fanned by politicians who often had no connection to New York).  Take this approach to its logical end, and you'll have to conclude that an individual has no right to protest injustice or even the status quo, because in so doing they are upsetting and distracting the majority, dividing the commonality, degrading the resources of the nation.  As several commenters on Moon's post have pointed out, despite her starry-eyed claim that fighting for justice is one of the definitions of good citizenship, very few governments have adopted this definition.  Crusaders for justice--abolitionists, suffragettes, pacifists, civil rights activists, anti-war protesters--are almost invariably denounced as traitors, disturbers of the peace, enemies of the nation.  That's because, in a way, they are--they are seeking to change the nation, to uproot the injustices in which some of its citizens' privilege is rooted in, in some instances to end one nation and erect another in its place.  By Moon's logic, they have no right to do this, and it is only her intellectual dishonesty that allows her to claim that her definition of a good nation--one in which the individual works for the welfare of the state--is one in which injustice can also be vanquished.  To put it another way, Moon is assuming that the starting position of her hypothetical nation is a just one, and that anyone disturbing the status quo must be doing so for insidious reasons.  The reality is that privileged individuals always think their societies are just, and resent those who draw their attention to the injustice in which their privilege is rooted, often denouncing them as enemies of the state.  In much the same fashion, Moon also resents the imposition on her privilege to dislike and distrust Muslims, and to paint them all with the brush of terrorism and fanaticism, and therefore decides that the Muslims trying to build a community center two blocks away from ground zero are being bad citizens.

I have some sympathy, as I think a lot of people must, to the notion that Western civilization has placed too great an emphasis on the individual, that we've lost a sense of community and our responsibility for it, and that that loss is as harmful to us as individuals as it is to our nations.  At the same time, however, I can see the dangers of sublimating oneself to a group--all too clearly, from my vantage point.  A Jewish proverb asks: if I am not for myself, who is for me?  And if I am for myself, what am I?  I think that this is a question that we all have to struggle with, and one that democracy was on some level invented to solve, though it has yet to succeed.  To assume, as Elizabeth Moon apparently does, that the answer is to decry individualism and prioritize the state, is to lose sight of all the injustices that brought democracy and free society into existence.  Such an assumption, and such an oversight, will inevitably lead to injustice.  In this case, it leads to the conclusion that there is something wrong and offensive about a Muslim community center near ground zero, and to an inability to grasp the outraged reactions to this opinion.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Thoughts on the New TV Season, 2010 Edition

Last year the fall pilot season just went on and on and on and on, so I appreciate that this year the pilots come in two convenient clumps--a small one this week and a tsunami of new TV on the week of the 20th (AMC's The Walking Dead is the outlier at the end of the October, but hell, they know we're all going to watch whenever it airs--did you see the trailer?).  I also appreciate that, with only one exception, nothing I've watched so far has been a punishment to sit through, even if I'm not ready to sign up for any of these shows just yet. 
  • Hellcats - Television Without Pity has spent the entire summer decrying this series as the worst affront to the television medium since Philo T. Farnsworth dreamed the contraption up, so it was a bit of a surprise to discover a reasonably watchable pilot.  I'm not saying that I'm going to follow the show, which seems intended mainly as an intermediate step for Disney channel starlets and their fans, but that's mainly because there's nothing here that interests me rather than that the show is terrible.  The pilot sees pre-law student Marti lose her scholarship and try out for her college's championship-winning cheerleading team--whom she, being a rebel and a free spirit (meaning she wears a leather jacket and lots of eyeliner, and rides her bicycle aggressively around campus), naturally reviles--only to reveal herself as a natural who will bring a fresh new spirit to the team and might win them the championship again.  In other words, this show is what you'd get if you threw Glee, High School Musical, and Bring It On into a blender, hence my lack of interest, but the characters are nice enough (the juvenile ones, at least--there's also a plot involving the team coach and her romantic history with the new football coach that is entirely uninteresting), and the pilot moves, despite, or perhaps because, of its frequent segues into dance sequences set to pop songs heavy on the shouting and power chords, which have the same appeal as the songs did on Glee before the novelty wore off and you noticed that the writing and the characters were both terrible.  The pilot does gesture in some interesting directions, such as Marti's conflicted feelings towards her Southern, working class roots and her frequently drunk mother, though it fails to go anywhere with them.  It also fails to ask the one question I would like to see a show about cheerleaders grapple with.  Marti's disdain for cheerleaders, whom she calls professional groupies, is answered by their insistence that they are athletes, and there's plenty of proof of this in the pilot's dance sequences, but no one asks the question of why, if cheerleading is a sport in its own right, is it still shackled to men's sports teams.  That's obviously not an issue that Hellcats, which is more interested in telling the much-told story about an outsider girl who joins an in-group and loses touch with her roots, is interested in raising.  Still, if you're in the market for another iteration of this story, there are probably worse options out there.

  • Terriers - Speaking of new iterations of much-told stories, Terriers is treading some familiar ground.  The main character, Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue), is a cop thrown off the force for alcoholism who is just starting to put his life back together, working low-level private detective jobs with his carefree young partner Britt Pollack (an extremely enjoyable Michael Raymond-James).  They stumble upon a real case when an old drinking friend of Hank's asks him to find his daughter, who has disappeared, and end up tangling with a powerful and connected real estate developer.  These are all very familiar beats, but Terriers handles them well.  Logue and Raymond-James have a nice rapport, and it's fun to watch them trade zingers or grouse at one another.  The mystery is not particularly mystifying, but the characters don't pretend otherwise, and the meat of the story is in watching Hank and Britt do the necessary legwork while playing off one another, then try to clean up the mess they've stumbled onto.  The other characters--Hank's ex-wife and ex-partner, both of whom have moved on with their lives, Britt's girlfriend, who is trying to push him towards greater commitment--are nicely drawn if, again, familiar types.  The establishment, at the pilot's end, of the developer as a season-long antagonist for Hank, who is stepping up to the plate in a big way, is probably its most surprising and unexpected touch, though it remains to be seen whether the series will concentrate more on standalone stories or on Hank's quest to bring this character down.  At this point I'm unsure whether I'll continue with Terriers--it's sufficiently well done that I don't think I'd be bored or wasting my time, but I've already seen enough shows about hard-bitten detectives, and for a series about a difficult but determined crusader for justice who will take the law into his own hands on occasion, I've already got the excellent Justified.  The next few episodes will tell whether Terriers has its own unique ingredient to add to a familiar, albeit well-crafted, stew.

  • Nikita - I didn't have high hopes for this series, given that it's a remake of a remake, and that neither the Bridget Fonda movie nor the TV series starring Peta Wilson won my heart (I haven't seen the Luc Besson original).  What I didn't realize is that this Nikita is not a straight remake but a sort of sequel.  It starts with Nikita having escaped her handlers, here called Division, after they killed her lover, returning three years later to bring down their operation, which she claims has been co-opted by business interests and no longer answers to the US government.  This makes the choice of Maggie Q, who doesn't possess Fonda or Wilson's vulnerability but is very good as a sarcastic, grungy Nikita, more understandable, though the rest of the cast is unremarkable.  Less persuasive is the parallel story of Alex, a 19-year-old recruit who enters Division's training program, which though an interesting touch in theory--it allows the show to retell the classic Nikita story at the same time as it takes it in a different direction--is peopled with so many young faces, and hits so many of the beats of the school story, that the show comes to feel like Assassin Hogwarts.  There's a nice twist involving Alex at the end of the pilot, but I'm not looking forwards to the inevitable storylines about her enmity with sassy fellow recruit Jaden, or her tortured romance with true believer Thom.  It's good that the new Nikita is trying to be something different from previous iterations, but the story it is telling is not particularly original (kickass female spy tries to take down her evil employers in revenge for the death of her lover is pure Alias, after all) nor so well told as to overcome that lack of originality.  I'm interested enough to keep going for a few episodes, but still not completely sold, especially as the show already has one black mark for replacing the first TV series's terrifying mastermind Madeline with a head female bad guy who is a glorified charm school teacher in charge of making Division's female recruits comfortable with their beauty--and with using it to kill.  In fact, there's probably a lot more to be said about the show's treatment of female bodies--the pilot is not shy about putting Q's on display, participating in her objectification even as it comments on it--but that can wait until the show proves worthwhile in other respects.

  • Outlaw - The first turkey of the season, this series, about supreme court judge (Jimmy Smits, making some unfortunate career decisions) who resigns to fight for the weak and disadvantaged, is clearly angling to be the next The Good Wife--a lawyer show that is as much about politics as it is about law, and whose main character is both an insider and and outsider to the legal profession.  The success, or lack thereof, of this imitation is thoroughly encapsulated in the character of the judge's investigator, who comes off like a tone deaf attempt to crack the success of The Good Wife's Kalinda.  Outlaw's writers have apparently decided that the secret to outdoing Kalinda is to toss her famous reserve out the window and make her as obnoxious as possible, so their investigator is sassy, overtly sexual, and constantly rubs the other characters', and audience's, faces in how awesome she is.  It seems to have completely escaped the writers' notice that Kalinda is, in a lot of ways, a comment on these kinds of characters, who despite their alleged awesomeness have nothing better to do with their time than enable their show's leads, work on their behalf, and scramble for their approval.  A similar tone-deafness informs most of Outlaw, most particularly its political aspect.  Smits's character is a conservative Bush appointee whose recently deceased father was a social justice advocate deeply critical of his son's beliefs and life choices.  His change of heart in the pilot is thus presented as a way of reconnecting with his dead father.  Political convictions have nothing to do with it, and indeed the character seems to have none, beyond mealy-mouthed platitudes about protecting the weak and not allowing legal procedure to take precedence over a man's life.  There is never a sense that this is a man with a great legal mind, or an understanding and love of the law and the constitution.  The quest for justice is instead reconfigured as therapy, a way for Smits to reconnect with his roots and become a better person.  To top it all off, the pilot isn't even a particularly good example of the legal story, choosing instead to play merry hell with just about every aspect of the legal system, including the supreme court's role and mandate within it, so that Smits manages to get his first client exonerated mainly by appealing to the sentiments of the presiding judge rather than through any legal or investigative footwork.  In other words, this is a show that manages to get wrong just about everything that The Good Wife got right, and it can't disappear from the screen fast enough.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Recent Reading Roundup 27

Happy 5771, everyone!  Let the year and its reading end; let the year and its reading begin.
  • Stone's Fall by Iain Pears - It's been nearly a decade since Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost blew me away, and during that period I experienced some disappointment trying to recreate to experience with his follow-up novels.  You can't help but respect Pears for moving away from such a successful formula and trying new things, but neither the meditative but opaque The Dream of Scipio, nor the brief but overdone The Portrait (some thoughts here) delivered the punch that Fingerpost did--a richly detailed historical mystery that both immersed its readers in its characters' pre-modern viewpoint and encouraged us to question it.  Pears's latest novel, Stone's Fall, suggested a return to form.  Beginning in 1909, its first part is narrated by journalist Matthew Braddock, who is hired by the widow of a just-deceased industrialist, John Stone, to discover the whereabouts of his illegitimate child, whose absence is delaying the execution of his will.  Instead, Braddock ends up discovering the depth of Stone's involvement in government and diplomacy, as an arms manufacturer who was steering Europe towards all-out war, while at the same time falling in love with Elizabeth, Stone's widow, who turns out to be a woman of surprisingly unladylike skills and intelligence, and quite a few secrets of her own.  The second part moves back to 1890 and is narrated by Henry Cort, a British spy who encounters Elizabeth first as a common French prostitute whom he uses to spy on French officers, and later as a celebrated courtesan whom he introduces to John Stone, while at the same time discovering and preventing a plot to cause a run on the Bank of England.  The novel's final part is narrated by Stone himself, as he describes a sojourn in 1867 Venice during which he laid the foundation of his business empire and made the mistake that would eventually lead to his death.

    What's most surprising about Stone's Fall is that despite their similar structures, it has much less in common with An Instance of the Fingerpost than with something like The Baroque Cycle.  Like Neal Stephenson, Pears's topic is economics, and the thrust of the novel is to translate all aspects of politics, diplomacy, and espionage into economic terms, while at the same time drawing deliberate and obvious parallels between Stone's near-messianic belief in the corporation as the purest expression of human will and endeavor, and his constant grasping at freer markets and greater profits, and the practices and mentality that have led to the current economic crisis.  Unfortunately, Pears doesn't manage to make economics as interesting as the early development of the scientific method, or the English Civil War, were in Fingerpost.  He tries very hard through Braddock, who is a complete naif in matters of finance and whose narrative consists of long chapters in which other characters explain to him, slowly and using small words, what Stone's business practices meant and what effect they had on England and Europe.  This is about as exciting as it sounds, even if, like myself, you're as economically illiterate as Braddock and could use the hand-holding.  The novel picks up quite a bit when Cort takes over the narrative, because even economic espionage is ultimately espionage and thus exciting, but the economic focus of the novel fades in his segment, and all but disappears in Stone's narrative.  Instead, the mystery of Stone's guilty conscience and Elizabeth's shady past take over, but Stone's overly sentimental, meandering narrative wrings much of the suspense out of them.  Perhaps more disturbing than any of these failings, however, is Pears's decision to ignore the history about to barrel down on his 1909 characters.  Stone isn't simply an industrialist but a weapons manufacturer, arming nations that will soon use those weapons to decimate one another.  The characters dismiss his complicity by explaining to one another that war is inevitable, but to a 21st century reader this feels like Pears twisting history to suit his own needs.  A parallel to the current financial crisis can't accommodate a looming World War (I hope), so he ignores that war and what Stone's role in it should tell us about the character.  Recognizing this manipulation made me less receptive to the points that Stone's Fall tries to make about the role of finance in government, and as the solutions to Stone's and Elizabeth's mysterious past were quite easy to guess, there wasn't much excitement left for me by the time the novel ended, especially as Elizabeth herself, though much talked about, is never given a voice in the novel, and remains a saintly, much-wronged image rather than a person.

  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer - Dan Hartland inspired me to read this novel, an early harbinger of the Holmes pastiche craze in which Watson, realizing that Holmes's heroin dependence has gotten the best of him, tricks him into following Professor Moriarty (in reality, a harmless math tutor) to Vienna, where he is treated by Sigmund Freud and then falls into an actual mystery, and the weeks just following the conclusion of another Holmes pastiche, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock, seemed like the perfect time to do so.  My feelings about the book mirror Dan's quite closely--it's an impressive pastiche, albeit one that is more concerned with playing The Great Game (as Sherlockians who pretend that Holmes and Watson were actual people call the attempt to square the various inconsistencies and contradictions in Conan Doyle's stories) than a casual Holmes fan like myself is interested in.  But there's really not much more here than a clever pastiche, and the novel is eventually overcome by its own self-awareness, the constant knowing winks Meyer delivers as he incorporates Holmes into a world that not only includes real figures such as Freud but also other Victorian literary characters such as Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda, which eventually become a bit wearying.  Ranked against other attempts to make a fallible human being out of Holmes such as The Final Solution or A Slight Trick of the Mind, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is quite thin, and its last minute revelation of a Deep Dark Secret that drives Holmes and is at the root of his addiction (and his fixation on Moriarty) is unworthy.  Still, for what it is--a clever piece of Holmes fanfic--Solution is a lot of fun and worth a look.

  • School for Love by Olivia Manning - an after dinner mint to cap off the six course meal that was Manning's The Fortunes of War, School for Love could very well have been a rehearsal for the final, unwritten part of that work, which would have followed Manning's alter-ego Harriet Pringle to post-war, pre-statehood Jerusalem.  The protagonist here, however, is teenager Felix Latimer, delivered to the home of his distant relative, Miss Bohun, after the death of his parents.  Felix is naive and young for his age, and desperate to regain the love he lost with the death of his parents, particularly his mother.  He clings to Miss Bohun, herself desperately grasping for human connection, using her power over the weak and displaced--a widowed Polish refugee and her son still dreaming of their days of glory before the war, a sickly and elderly former merchant marine whom she plucked out of a refugee camp, Felix himself--to try to force them to become her family.  She meets her match in Mrs. Ellis, a pregnant widow who takes a room in Miss Bohun's house on the understanding that she will take it over in a few months--a lie Miss Bohun has told in order to get Mrs. Ellis in her grasp.  The two are launched into a battle of wits and wills, in which Miss Bohun demonstrates a surprising and terrifying strength while Mrs. Ellis's facade of indifference to her landlady's attempts to insinuate herself into her life slowly cracks and reveals itself as nothing but a childish seflishness.  Felix, who starts out loyal to Miss Bohun, his surrogate mother, falls in love with Mrs. Ellis and ends up caught between the two women, in the process losing much of his innocence and immaturity.  Manning's gift for crafting complicated, multifaceted characters is on full display here: Miss Bohun is both terrifying and pitiable, Mrs. Ellis both admirable and disgusting, and their dispositions at the end of the novel are, in both cases, a wrench to read.  The only weak point is Felix, who is too blank and unformed to shoulder the large portion of the narrative that falls to him, and whose growth is nowhere near as interesting as the battle between the two women.

    Of course, another reason to read School for Love is for the glimpse it gives us of Jerusalem in the last days of the British mandate, with tensions between Jews and Arabs, and between both and the British, beginning to mount again after the respite imposed by the war.  This was a particularly fascinating glimpse for me because Manning's view of Jerusalem is dominated by foreigners--the English officials, hangers on, and soldiers, and the various European refugees.  Jews and Arabs only enter the picture when dealing with these foreigners--when Miss Bohun renews the lease on her house, rented from a local imam, or when Mrs. Ellis befriends a group of Jewish and Arab freethinkers in a cafe to which she takes Felix.  All of these characters--foreigners and locals alike--are focused on the outside world, and trying to get away from Palestine before it explodes.  A very different attitude than the one familiar to me from Israeli stories about the period immediately preceding statehood, whose characters were focused on the struggle for the Jewish state and had no desire to leave.  For both of these qualities, then--the pitch-perfect character work, and the window on a different aspect of Israel's history--School for Love is worth reading.

  • Wild Life by Molly Gloss - I seem to have developed a taste for slightly aimless, beautifully written stories of frontier life, and Molly Gloss is rapidly stepping into that niche (previously occupied solely by Annie Proulx)--alas, she's only published one more novel that I haven't read.  Wild Life, her second novel (followed by The Dazzle of the Day and The Hearts of Horses, which I wrote about here), is made up of the journals and writings of Charlotte Bridger Drummond, an author, feminist, and freethinker in 1905 Washington.  The mother of five whose husband disappeared several years earlier (Charlotte, in a fit of protective self-deception, chooses to believe that he has left her rather than died), Charlotte pays the bills by writing adventure stories about plucky, capable young girls (who are always, to please her audience, rescued by a man in the final five pages).  She sees an opportunity to have an adventure of her own when her housekeeper's granddaughter goes missing from the logging camp to which she had accompanied her father.  Charlotte sets off on an arduous journey to reach the camp and an even more arduous trek through untamed forest and lava beds in search of the girl, but is separated from her party and adopted by a pack of creatures, neither men nor animals.

    This might seem like quite enough to be going on with, but there's a lot more to Wild Life, which switches tones and emotional registers several times over the course of a mere 250 pages.  In its early chapters, Charlotte explains her life in great detail--the working of her community, the lives of her neighbors, the compromises she makes with art in order to make a living, the geography of her region of the Colombia river.  Some of this is over-detailed, but Charlotte's voice--intelligent, humorous, selfish and very much aware of and ambivalent about her selfishness--wins through.  The further she advances in her adventure, and the further she gets out of her comfort zone, the more contemplative Charlotte's voice becomes, until, lost and starving in the woods, there is nothing left of the wry, analytical writer (Gloss's choice to present even these chapters as Charlotte's journal entries, and to describe even her loss of self and inability to reconnect with human civilization once she's rescued in perfectly comprehensible and grammatical English, doesn't simply strain credulity but shatters it to pieces. Lucky for her, the story is sufficiently compelling and well written for us not to care).  In the final chapters of the novel, she has to start coming back to herself, and samples of her writing from the period after her sojourn with the beasts show how she's incorporated her experiences into a new level of artistry.  If there's a flaw in Wild Life it's that it is either overstuffed--the question of what happened to the missing girl is given more attention than it is ultimately due, for example--or simply not long enough to fully encompass both Charlotte's portrait of her life in its first half and her loss of self in its second.  Either would make a novel, but taken together they don't seem to have enough room to breathe.  Nevertheless, Wild Life is too beautifully written, and Charlotte's voice, in all its registers, is too compelling, for me to resist, and I will be gobbling up the last remaining Gloss novel as quickly as I can.

  • In Hazard by Richard Hughes - another short novel that, like School for Love and Wild Life, contains multitudes, but this time in a much narrower scope--the decks and holds of a 1929 cargo ship, the Archimedes, and the five days it spends trapped within a gigantic tropical storm, which carries the ship for hundreds of miles, battering it nearly to pieces.  At its most basic level In Hazard is simply an extraordinary disaster story.  The early chapters in which the ship's officers calmly prepare to face a normal-sized hurricane only to realize how monstrous the storm barreling on them actually is, the failure of each of their attempts to break free or keep the ship together, their slow realization of the damage that's been done to the Archimedes and the danger they're in, and finally the punishing strength of the storm itself, are simply terrifying.  Beyond this, however, Hughes's interest is in the crew and their reactions to fear and danger.  Whether they conquer their fear or are conquered by it, one by one the Archimedes's officers and crew start to lose their grip on sanity as they go for days without sleep, food, or water, seeing enemies in corners, hallucinating loved ones, regretting the choices that have led them to a life at sea, or learning some fundamental truths about themselves.  These portraits are expertly done, but they also stand in stark contrast to Hughes's descriptions of the ship's Chinese sailors.

    The novel was written in 1938, and though it's obvious that in many cases Hughes is commenting on the English officers' racism rather than participating in it, there are other instances in which the boundaries between the two states are less clear.  It is particularly notable that unlike the English officers, who are strongly differentiated within pages of the novel's beginning and whose histories and personalities are much discussed, the Chinese sailors are treated as an undifferentiated group until nearly the end of the novel--a group whose behavior, as compared to the English characters, is decidedly unheroic.  Though there are good reasons, which Hughes makes clear, for the sailors' fear and helplessness, the comparison between the two groups' behavior is troubling, so that when Hughes does get around to exploring the psyche of a Chinese character as he did the English ones--a bitter, resentful Communist who has boarded the ship using forged papers in an attempt to escape prosecution in China--it's hard not to look askance at this portrait, if only because it unbalances the novel, taking us away from the Archimedes and the storm.  This is a major flaw in the novel, suggesting that Hughes may have had an aim loftier than a pitch-perfect disaster story which he didn't quite manage to reach, but even taking it into account In Hazard is an impressive achievement, well worth a read for its early, storm-centered chapters, and ultimately successful despite the unpleasant treatment of its non-white characters and the shift of its focus towards its end.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: The Winners

The results are already available from many different sources, for those of you who weren't following Cheryl Morgan and Mur Lafferty's live coverage from Melbourne, which did an excellent job of building up excitement and anticipation for the results.  Some thoughts:
  • It's almost inevitable for any results to feel like a letdown at first, especially if, like myself, your taste diverges more than a little from that of the Hugo voters, so that even the best results feel like compromise choices.  Nevertheless, once that kneejerk reaction of disappointment wears off, this year's fiction winners are really quite heartening.  The only real disappointment is Doctor Who's win for "The Waters of Mars"--the worst of the three Who specials, none of which were particularly good--in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form category, but that's more than made up for by Moon's triumph in Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.  I haven't read most of the nominated novellas, but I can think of worse winners than Charles Stross in that category.  And though I would have chosen different winners in the novelette and short story categories, both Peter Watts's "The Island" and Will McIntosh's "Bridesicle" are good stories and worthy winners.  Finally, I'm immensely pleased by the unprecedented and entirely unexpected tie between China Miéville's The City and The City and Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl for the best novel Hugo.  Between them, these two ambitious, interesting, flawed but fascinating novels have split the genre award scene--Bacigalupi won the Nebula Award, Miéville won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and both won Locus Awards in different categories--and I was at a loss to choose between them or to imagine how the Hugo voters would do so.  To give them both the award is, I think, a perfect way of acknowledging what a remarkable achievement each represents, and how remarkable 2009 was for seeing the publication of both.

  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden, winner of the award for Best Editor, Long Form, has asked Hugo voters not to nominate him in this category for the next two years.  In this, he follows in the footsteps of former winners John Scalzi (Best Fan Writer, 2008), Cheryl Morgan (Best Fan Writer, 2009), and David G. Hartwell (Best Editor, Long Form, 2009) who have made similar appeals, some from the winner's podium.  I understand and applaud their motivations, and indeed when Scalzi first announced that he would decline any further nominations for best fan writer I thought that this was entirely the way to go, but now I'm having second thoughts.  I share the distaste that many Hugo voters have developed for perennial winners.  While one's first Hugo in the fan or editor categories might be thought of as a lifetime achievement award, in subsequent years I think that voters should take a "what have you done for me lately?" approach, and vote according to the nominee's activities in the award year.  Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to happen.  Instead, one gets the sense that the awards are given for personality, popularity, overall career achievement, and sometimes just inertia.  That said, I think that this is a change that should come from the voters, not as a gift, however well-intentioned, from the winners.  At this point, with a consensus building against perennial winners, it might be time to consider a change to the Hugo rules, making winners ineligible in their categories for two or three years after their victory.

  • The Aussiecon 4 website reports 1094 voting ballots.  During the ceremony, awards administrator Vince Docherty revealed that 40% of the convention's membership had voted in the awards, but given that Australian Worldcons tend to be more sparsely attended than North American ones (~1,500 attendees in the last two conventions) and that Aussiecon's attendance numbers were reported to be in line with this, I assumed he meant that 600-700 ballots had been received.  The large number of voting ballots (in line with the number of ballots received last year in Anticipation, a much larger convention) suggests that many came from associate memberships, presumably purchased for the express purpose of voting.  For this, I suspect, we can thank the Hugo voter packet, a great project that has proven itself a real boon for the award, but I think it also helped that this year's nominees captured fandom's interest--that the best novel category included some of the most talked-about novels of the year, and that 2009 was such a banner year for SF film.

  • Aussiecon has also posted the voting and nomination statistics (PDF) so let the Monday morning calculations and obsessing begin!  Last year I noted that nearly all the Hugo winners took their categories outright in the first round of counting.  This year is the reverse.  In best novel, The Windup Girl and The City and The City started out neck and neck, but the latter quickly took the lead and held it until the final round.  The best novella nominees played pass the Hugo, with John Scalzi holding it for the first three rounds and passing it on to Kage Baker, before it settled with Charles Stross.  In contrast, Stross was the lead in the best novelette category right until the final round of vote distribution.  Only Will McIntosh won his award for short story right from the get-go.

    Other interesting revelations include Avatar coming last in the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form race, cementing my feeling that this was a film more beloved by non-geeks than geeks.  Also, the Doctor Who block vote triumphed once again: Dollhouse's "Epitaph One" held the Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form Hugo all the way to the last round, but when the votes for "The Next Doctor" were redistributed, they went predominantly to "The Waters of Mars."

  • In the nominating statistics, what's notable is that in nearly every category there is a wide gap between the works that made it onto the final ballot and the next most-nominated work.  Helen Keeble's "A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc; or, A Lullaby," which I had been championing for a best novelette nomination, got twelve votes--less than a third of what it would have needed to make it onto the ballot, but still nice to see.  The series finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles was just below the cutoff point for a Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form nomination, which is saddening.  On the other hand, it scored two more votes than the Battlestar Galactica finale.  On a personal note, I received 19 votes for best fan writer, ten short of a nomination and, which is more important to me, the first time that I can't name each of the people who nominated me.  Congrats also to Niall Harrison for his 22 best fan writer votes, and for the ten votes for Torque Control in the best fanzine category.