Friday, December 31, 2010

2010, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

Calendars are arbitrary things, and the milestones they force on us occasionally get in the way of the ones we'd like to note.  This was the case with me as I prepared to sum up the year's reading.  In terms of my reading, the calendar switch finds me in the middle of too many things: for the last month I've been engaged in a reading project that will take me into the next month at least, which I'd rather not write about until its completion, and the biggest change to my reading habits in 2010 was the purchase of a Kindle, but as I've only had it for a few weeks I'd like to wait a while longer before discussing my reaction to it.  It would be a lot more convenient for me, in other words, if 2010 could keep from ending for another month.

Alas, that's not to be, so--with an apology if I seem not quite as into the whole list-making process as I've been in previous years--let's look at 2010's reading.  I read 63 books this year, a slight uptick from last year's count but a measurable improvement in quality.  My project for 2010, as I told several people in the beginning of the year, was to get un-caught up.  I'd spent sizable portions of 2008 and 2009 reading with an eye to nominate and vote in the Hugo awards, and that hunt for worthy nominees left me feeling harried and, to be honest, not too thrilled by the quality of work I encountered.  2010 was about indulging my own tastes, not necessarily within genre, and not pushing myself to meet deadlines or schedules.  Not surprisingly, that strategy has had a positive effect, and though I'm sorry to have read so little short fiction this year (the reason there hasn't been a best short stories post), on the whole I think I made good reading choices in 2010.

Before I get to the year's best books, I'd like to take a moment to praise NYRB Classics.  They've got one book on the list, and it is already widely acknowledged that their list, which brings deserving but forgotten works in a broad and eclectic range of styles and sources back into the public eye (and clad in some of the sharpest and most attractive covers in the business) is fantastic.  But in 2010 the editors' tastes and mine seem to have come into alignment, and my reading plans for 2011 feature their books quite heavily, so thanks, NYRB Classics!

Without any further ado, then, here are the best books of 2010, listed in order of their author's surname:
  • Life by Gwyneth Jones

    This book is part of the reading project I'm planning to write about next month, and I haven't even had a chance to cover it in a recent reading roundup, so my thoughts would be a little disordered even if there were not so much to talk about here.  Life is a slim volume whose setting is, at first, deceptively mundane, following the early career and personal life of a female scientist around the turn of the twenty-first century, and her dogged pursuit of a discovery in human genetics, specifically the genetics of gender, that has enormous political and social implications.  What makes this novel remarkable is how much it accomplishes in such a short page count and with such a simple, even restrained premise.  Life discusses feminism, women in the sciences and the politics of scientific research in general, gender relations in and out of sexual relationships, and the very meaning of gender, but at the same time it builds a fascinating, flawed, brilliant but frustrating character in its protagonist, Anna (and does good work with supporting characters, such as Anna's husband and her radical feminist best friend), and takes its world from a familiar recent past to an SFnal alternate present, wracked by global plagues and political upheaval even before the significance of Anna's discovery is understood.  If there's one flaw to Life it's that there may be too much in it, that any discussion of it or attempt to comprehend it will necessarily leave out vast portions of the novel out of simple necessity, but that also makes it a novel worth chewing over and coming back to.

  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

    Like Life, this is a novel that won me over by doing so much in such a short span of pages and in such a relatively low-key setting and premise.  The protagonist is, again, a scientist, a representative of an egalitarian, utopian society traveling back to the planet from which his ancestors emigrated in order to further his research and bring back word of his society's philosophy and accomplishments.  Le Guin builds both civilizations, and describes the events that led to their separation, and spells out their good and bad points, and lays out a blueprint for the construction of a believable--and believably flawed--socialist utopia, and weaves into all of this the coming of age of her protagonist, Shevek, and a story of political intrigue as he gets caught up in social unrest on his host planet, and is pursued for the technology his research might enable.  All of this is accomplished with such grace and with so little fuss that is seems almost impossible to credit.  The Dispossessed is a quiet, low-key novel whose characters face trials and upheavals with an equanimity that conceals powerful emotions, and Le Guin makes both those emotions and the struggle to calm them keenly felt.  No one, I'm sure, needs me to tell them that Le Guin is a magnificent writer or that The Dispossessed is a masterpiece, but here's me adding my voice to both claims nonetheless.

  • The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning (review)

    Comprised of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, Manning's sprawling, strongly autobiographical account of a newlywed British couple's life in Romania in the early years of WWII, their flight from the Nazis to Greece and later Egypt, and their journeys in the Middle East as the course of the war turns against Germany, is far from perfect.  For one thing, it's my personal belief that it is missing its final act, which would have resolved the issues in Guy and Harriet Pringle's loving but dysfunctional marriage and seen Harriet embarking on a writing career that mirrored her alter-ego's.  And besides that, it is on occasion unfocused, and doesn't always balance its descriptions of the war and the Pringles' marital strife as well as it could.  Nevertheless, this is one of the most unusual and shocking depictions of life during wartime that I've ever read, effortlessly slicing through the images, which are by now clichés, that we've come to associate with WWII and giving us characters who cling to normalcy--to gossip, to the silly squabbles and feuds of their social set, to prejudice based on class and wealth--even as the war rages, in part because of desperation, and in part because the events unfolding around them are so great and so complicated that it is often hard to tell what the difference between war and peace, safety and danger, is.  If that were not enough, Guy and Harriet themselves are fantastically well-written characters, simultaneously ill-suited to marriage and perfectly suited to one another, and it is hard to know whether to wish for their marriage's success or failure, and the glimpse the novels, in particular The Levant Trilogy, give of the Middle East during wartime, from the perspective of its soon-to-be-former colonizers, is utterly fascinating.

  • Far North by Marcel Theroux

    I was a little underwhelmed by this year's Arthur C. Clarke shortlist, which struck me as strong but a little on the predictable side.  But if it hadn't been for the Clarke (and if a copy of the book hadn't been available during my reading week holiday) I probably never would have given Marcel Theroux's Far North a look, and I would have missed the year's finest read.  When I first heard about it I dismissed Far North as yet another novel trying to follow in The Road's footsteps--a bleak, frozen post-apocalypse (whose cause is only vaguely described) traversed by a laconic and hopeless protagonist who isn't quite ready to lie down and die.  What I discovered instead was a novel that shows The Road up in almost every respect.  Where McCarthy's novel lapsed into a fable-like style in its attempts to describe the magnitude of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed humanity, and the destruction wrought on nature and human endeavor alike, Theroux stays grounded in reality.  His descriptions of the destruction--and of its human toll, as refugees begin fleeing into previously uninhabited locales--are precise and down to earth even as they continue to conceal the exact nature of the catastrophe.  If McCarthy reconfigured the struggle to survive in straitened circumstances as one between good and evil, Theroux gives us the more thorny and heartbreaking question of how far one compromises one's ideals in order to survive.  His characters are complicit, either actively or passively, in evil, and yet most of them are sympathetic.  And if the acknowledged flaw of The Road, even by its greatest proponents, was the near absence of women from its story, Far North gives us its narrator, Makepeace, who is both tough and vulnerable, stalwart and craven, hopeful and hopeless.  Which is to say, entirely human--a woman who recognizes the dire situation she's in, but can't help but hope for better, and whose actions reflect both pragmatism and wishful thinking.  In a year that has already featured so many indelible protagonists, Makepeace stands out from the pack, and will probably continue to do so for years to come.

  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield (review)

    I came to In Great Waters with a lot of baggage.  On the one hand, it was a book that had received rapturous praise from many reviewers whose opinions I valued, and on the other hand, I'd been rather disappointed by Whitfield's first novel, Benighted.  It's probably all the more impressive, then, that In Great Waters managed to live up to my expectations, and live down the memory of its predecessor.  A first contact story set in the royal courts of 17th century Europe, a meditation on the meaning of human and animal nature, and a chilly and refreshingly unromantic love story, In Great Waters combines fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction and grounds them all in two prickly, defensive, quite literally cold-blooded protagonists, Henry and Anne, a human-mermaid hybrid with designs on the English throne and the princess he means to unseat.  Along the way it discusses morality, religion, and the storytelling impulse, giving us a decidedly inhuman perspective on these three quintessentially human activities and weighing their benefits and drawbacks.  This is a rich--and richly told--novel that gives no quarter to sentimentality or romanticism, and is all the better for it.
Honorable Mentions:
Another indication that 2010 was a good reading year is that I don't really have a list of worst reads.  No book I read this year infuriated me or made me feel that I had completely wasted the time and mental energy I expended reading it.  The following list, again presented by order of the author's surname, is more a list of the year's greatest disappointments.  None of these books were truly bad, but they all failed to live up to my expectations of them.
  • Breathers by S.G. Browne (review)

    The lifecycle the genre trend--be it vampires, superheroes, zombies, or whatnot--starts out with pulp, continues with mainstream penetration, segues into over-saturation, and finally ends up grasping at respectability with allegedly literary works that deconstruct, and usually render inert and pointless, the very quality that launched the trend to begin with.  2010 saw an absolute deluge of literary zombie novels, and maybe some of them were worth a look, but Browne's debut, subtitled A Zombie's Lament, was not.  Perched uncomfortably between the comedic (it opens with the zombiefied narrator debating how to cook his parents) and tragic (zombies have no civil rights and the narrator has been prevented from seeing his still-living daughter) tones, the novel doesn't know quite where to fall.  It expects us to take the narrator's pain and suffering--at the end of his life, but also at being considered inhuman by living society--seriously, but to look at the horrible things, include multiple murders, he does as a joke.  As a result--and due to Browne's at-best serviceable prose--Breathers fails to elicit either laughs or sympathy.  It's horrifying, but not, I suspect, in the way that Browne intended.

  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

    This book is on the list less because of its own flaws--though they are considerable--than because it forces me to reevaluate my positive reaction to Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall, and the credit I gave her in that novel for making believable human beings out of the major players in Henry VIII's succession crisis and England's subsequent break with the Catholic church.  A Place of Greater Safety, which tells the story of the French Revolution from the perspective of three of its instigators, has a similar, perhaps even tougher task--how to make sympathetic the people who, for all their good intentions, created a tyrannical state that butchered its own citizens by the tens of thousands?  It's a tall order, but the problem with A Place of Greater Safety is that Mantel doesn't really try to answer the question.  She concentrates instead on the characters' marriages and friendships, as if the problem with The Terror was that it put an end to the epic bromance between Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre.  In light of this, it's hard not to take an even dimmer view of Mantel's choice to end Wolf Hall before the events that would tarnish its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell's, legacy.  Even with a promised sequel, dealing with Cromwell's enabling of the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn as well as other crimes, in the works, it's hard not to wonder whether a similar shift in focus to the domestic will be used to make sympathetic a person who is a lot more complicated than Mantel would have us believe.

  • The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

    The original literary vampire romance from the pen of the author of The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard should have been everything that Breathers--not to mention the raft of My Vampires are Different novels we've been inundated with--wasn't, a fresh (for all that it is two decades old) take on a hoary trope.  And the premise, which sees the romantic poets--Byron, Keats, Shelley--pursued by vampires, who grant them creative powers at the cost of their lives, sounds like a crackerjack one.  But the whole thing is just so boring--the vampires, and the rules of how vampirism works and can be defeated, are boring, the poets are boring, the original characters are really, really boring.  The dullness of the novel would be bad enough on its own, but when one considers how promising its premise was, how easily it should have worked, it becomes downright infuriating.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Strange Horizons Reviews, December 20-24

The last 2010 issue of Strange Horizons (the magazine will be on hiatus next week) features Tanya Brown's double review of K.J. Parker's novel The Folding Knife and novella Blue and Gold, two works that Brown describes as historical fiction set in a world not quite our own, and centering on a pseudo-Roman Empire.  Tony Keen reviews the anthology The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates, which he finds comprehensive, as well as a good way of exploding the perception of alternate history as being obsessed with stories about Hitler and/or the Confederacy winning their respective wars.  Finally, Hannah Strom-Martin reviews Ken Scholes's Antiphon, the follow-up to Canticle and Lamentation (also reviewed by Hannah), and finds that though it has its strong points, on the whole the book is a disappointment.

Have a good holiday, those of you celebrating, and the rest of you, have a good weekend.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Coming out of a screening of Tron: Legacy on Saturday evening, I realized that I'm desperate need of better bullshit detectors when it comes to science fiction film.  A decade of superhero films has trained me pretty well to tell the fun romps from the hot messes--it's pretty easy, for example, to see that The Green Hornet is going to suck, and that we're all going to wish it had been about Cato rather than Seth Rogen's character.  But it's only in the last two years that science fiction has returned to the movie screens in a big way, and I still haven't developed the proper buzz filters, or adopted a protective cynical attitude.  Of the truly impressive number of science fiction films released in 2009 and 2010, I've liked a grand total of one, Moon, and even that was with some reservations, and yet every trailer with a spaceship, or an alien, or anything vaguely cyberpunkish in it, manages to erase that knowledge from my memory and get me excited all over again.  So when the reviews for Tron: Legacy started pouring in on Friday morning with a decidedly negative slant, even the ones from fannish sources, I was genuinely surprised.  The second most anticipated science fiction film of the year!  The sequel to a beloved cult classic!  Groundbreaking CGI!  Standing ovations at Comic Con for three years in a row!  How could it possibly have gone wrong?

So I went through a brief, preemptive mourning period and even considered not going to see the film, then set my expectations at about the sub-basement level and decided to just have a bit of fun.  Maybe it was that, or the fact that I haven't seen the original Tron and am not invested in its characters or plot, but I actually found myself enjoying the film.  Don't get me wrong--Tron: Legacy is an awful, awful movie.  It has great visuals and a fantastic soundtrack, but other than that it's a slow, clomping mess, combining a muddled plot, barely-there characters, buckets-full of New Age claptrap, and a pathetically earnest belief in its own profundity to create one of the most self-important yet incomprehensible films I've ever seen.  The film starts with Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the original Tron's protagonist Flynn (Jeff Bridges) getting sucked into the same computer program, known as The Grid, that has trapped his father for twenty-one years, a program that is now under the control of Clu, Flynn's digital copy (Bridges again, de-aged through the magic of CGI) who has followed his core directive of perfecting the system to its illogical conclusion.  Clu has cemented his hold on the Grid by promising the other programs freedom from users, which is strange a) because the computer in question has been sitting unused for two decades, and b) because this construction of "free software" acts as a bizarre and thematically confusing pun on the film's opening scene, in which Sam steals the new operating system developed by his father's now-evil software company (think Apple taken over by the staff of Microsoft) and distributes it for free online.  For some reason Clu thinks that he can achieve both of his (somewhat contradictory) goals by leaving the Grid--though as the film concludes by revealing that the digitization process works in reverse, Clu would have emerged as nothing more dangerous than a man, and a legally dead one at that--to which end he's lured Sam in, hoping to draw Flynn out from his hideout in the badlands (...of a piece of software).  Sam is rescued by Flynn's disciple, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who he later learns is the last survivor of a race of artificial intelligences calls isos, who appeared spontaneously in the Grid, and which Clu viewed as an imperfection to be weeded out.  Flynn insists that the isos could revolutionize "medicine, religion, science," but as Quorra is no different from any of the anthropomorphized programs we meet in the film this seems hard to credit.  There's a pretty typical reckless son/cautious father dispute between Flynn and Sam over whether and how to reach the only way out of the system, which is closing due to a randomly-imposed countdown, then they, with Quorra, sort of halfheartedly and without really meaning to start to proceed in that general direction, pausing only for infodumps.  Quorra tells Sam that Flynn could have merged with Clu at any time but that this would destroy him, which again seems random, and anyway after two decades in a computer I think I'd be tempted nonetheless.  At any rate, this is the gun on the mantelpiece, because Flynn does just this in order to buy Sam and Quorra time to escape, which means that Quorra becomes human and loses the very qualities that made her so vital to both Flynn and Clu.  The end (or is it?  Yes, it probably is).  The original Tron shows up at some point, perverted by Clu and later redeemed for no particular reason, and this might be significant to fans of the first film but felt entirely extraneous to the story as far as I was concerned.

So yeah, this film is a shapeless mess, and to add insult to injury the action scenes are as stately as patterned dances and a lot less exciting, with Sam winning or losing various games in order to suit the needs of the writer--or the animator--which also determine the games' rules and the physics of the virtual world.  The plot is revealed through lengthy infodumps that halt the already-glacial pace of the film, seem designed to show off the design crew's work rather than move the story, and emphasize all the wrong plot elements.  The two questions that underpin the film's plot, and which would have given it urgency if properly answered--why is Clu dangerous?  Why is Quorra important?--are glossed over and treated as incidentals, while long minutes are spent explaining why Flynn can't leave the system or how his and Clu's lightvehicles work.  On one level, then, I enjoyed Tron: Legacy simply for its unapologetic badness.  It's simply hilarious that so many people, on both the creative and business ends, were so certain of this film's success that they even planted blatant hooks for a sequel in its ending.  The film's plot is so muddled, and its characters are so faint, that they hardly interrupt one's amusement at this total lack of perspective--or of the groovy visuals and music.

There's another reason, though, that I can't hate Tron: Legacy as it deserve to be hated.  It's become accepted that effects-laden science fiction films are more about spectacle than substance, and at first glance it might seem that this is what scuttled Tron: Legacy.  When I started thinking about the film's plot description for this post, however, I realized that its basic story--Clu tries to access the open network; Flynn tries to stop him and also to get Quorra outside to safety--has the makings of a good, meat-and-potatoes SF adventure.  You'd have to handwave away the notion that a man cut off from the world since 1989 would understand just how disastrous it would be for a creature like Clu, obsessed with perfection and order, to be unleashed on the internet in 2010, and to get rid of Quorra becoming human (which seems intended solely to enable, or possibly just make less weird, her faint-to-the-point-of-nonexistence romance with Sam), but it sounds like a film I would have enjoyed watching.  Though the vague contours of this story can be dimly discerned in Tron: Legacy as it was released, they are obscured by a fug of Stuff--infodumps, beautiful compositions, explanations of how the system works and what its rules are, and mostly cod-philosophy and -religion, which reposition Flynn as a cross between The Dude and a Jedi knight, and attainment of mastery over the Grid as enlightenment.  Tron: Legacy doesn't fail because its writers didn't give any thought to its plot, but because they gave it--as well as their worldbuilding and themes and philosophy--far too much thought, and felt compelled to spew the results of that process all over the screen.  Which, oddly, is the reason that the film charms me.

If I were attached to the Tron story or its world, the decision to sacrifice story, coherence, and anything resembling fun on the altar of a false profundity would probably outrage me, the way it has in the past when a similar choice destroyed stories I cared about.  Coming to the film as a more dispassionate observer, I can't help but view its choices as quintessentially geeky, and thus a little bit lovable.  When you've spent so much time loving and thinking about a story, and making it more complicated and intricate in your head, it might be hard to accept that what it's actually about is action figures and video games.  It has to be deep, man; it has to be meaningful.  And really, why wouldn't people who truly love Star Wars want to know how the Imperial Senate works?  Why not stop the action of The Matrix: Reloaded for a ten-minute speech about free will versus predestination?  Why isn't it more important to discuss the abnegation of the self than to learn how to win a disk-battle?  Tron: Legacy feels like a film made by science fiction fans, for science fiction fans, and this is the source of its finest moments, when its visuals achieve the trippy combination of wonder and alienation that is found in the best science fiction stories, as well as its lowest, when it becomes steeped in a clomping earnestness that seems to validate every stereotype of nerds as pasty, detail-obsessed, anorak-wearing weirdos who care more about technical minutiae than human emotion.  Even Quorra, the most vibrant character in the film (not, to be fair, a particularly tough category to beat) embodies these two warring aspects of geekdom, the charmingly inept and the offputtingly inhuman.  On one hand, she's a geek fantasy girl, ridiculously hot and decked out in skintight spandex.  But on the other hand, she's a geek herself, and the one character in the film who seems to be having any fun, to be genuinely enjoying the chance to play around inside a video game.  Whether she's gleeful about getting to break out a new set of wheels in order to rescue Sam, or nervously explaining that Jules Verne is her favorite writer, it's hard not to see a little bit of ourselves in her.

It often seems to me that science fiction films boil down, almost inevitably, to geekish wish-fulfillment fantasies.  They might be ruthlessly skewering that fantasy, as in Watchmen, or conferring it upon a non-geek who never wanted it to begin with, as in District 9, but at the end of the day the science fiction films that Hollywood makes are the ones driven by their creators' inner eight-year-olds, the ones who want to be Han Solo and Kevin Flynn.  I'm no more immune to these fantasies than the next geek, which may be why I haven't managed to develop bullshit detectors for science fiction films.  I know that I should know better, but I can't help but hope that the next new film will sweep me away the way that only a very few have managed to do.  In the past I've found myself breathtakingly angry with some of these curdled fantasies--when they've bought into their inflated sense of coolness or importance, or propagated vicious and hurtful messages--and maybe the reason that I'm so indulgent towards Tron: Legacy is that its version of the wish-fulfillment fantasy is so benign (which is not to say that this film is unproblematic--of the two female characters, one is a good love interest and the other a bad one, and with only a few very minor exceptions the cast is lily-white).  Sam Flynn doesn't want to be a warrior or a starship captain or a hero.  He doesn't want his heroism to be enabled by a native people facing genocide, or a spaceship full of more qualified, more experienced officers, or a woman who is way out of his league.  He just wants to play video games with his father, and gently flirt with a gamine-yet-secretly(-but-really-not-that-secretly)-hot girl.

For all its pretensions to wisdom and philosophical profundity, for all its New Age cladding, Tron: Legacy is still a kids' film, with a kid's aspirations, and a kid's fascination with meaningless minutiae.  It's ridiculous that it was made at all, much less with the expectation of attracting a large audience of ordinary, non-geekish adults who, quite reasonably, go into an effects-laden wannabe blockbuster expecting things like story and characters and fun action scenes to take precedence over the muddled philosophy of machine sentience or a perfect motion-capture recreation of 35-year-old Jeff Bridges's face.  No one who cares about moviemaking should put the latter ahead of the former, and I wouldn't want to create the impression that Tron: Legacy is a stealth masterpiece too esoteric to be appreciated by the muggle horde.  As I said at the beginning of the this post, this is an awful, awful film.  But it's awful in ways that I recognize, and for reasons that I think I can sympathize with, even if I've outgrown them myself.  So I can't help but be a little bit charmed by, and maybe even grateful for, its existence.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Strange Horizons Reviews, December 13-17

This week's Strange Horizons reviews kick off with Dan Hartland taking a look, and then another look, at the Jonathan Strahan-edited anthology The Best of Larry Niven, who surprises Dan by alternately validating his reputation as a purveyor of Analog-esque hard SF and complicating it.  Niall Alexander reviews YA author Michelle Paver's "arctic chiller" Dark Matter, which he lauds for its setting and for constructing an atmospheric yet ambivalent ghost story.  Finally, Richard Larson tackles not one but two zombie novels, this time on the literary end of the scale, with his review of Alden Bell's The Reapers are the Angels and Amelia Beamer's The Loving Dead, and in so doing makes only a tiny dent in the number of zombie-related books that have arrived on the magazine's doorstep since I've started as reviews editor.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Standing in Place: Thoughts on Dexter's Fifth Season

In my write-up of Dexter's third season, I concluded that the lesson the show kept driving at, the one it wanted its main character to learn, was that in order to be loved by the people whose love was worth having, he would have to hide his true nature.  Anyone who could look on Dexter as he selected, stalked, ritually murdered, and dismembered his victims without recoiling in horror wasn't worth Dexter's time or devotion.  In the show's superb fourth season Dexter tries to live by this lesson, only for the full tragedy of his existence to become apparent: he alienates his loved ones by hiding behind a mask of normalcy, and his attempts to learn how to make that mask more believable ultimately lead to the murder of his wife and the disintegration of the very family he's worked so hard to hold on to.  Perhaps in an attempt to counteract that tragedy, in the show's fifth season its writers try to imagine Dexter's perfect match: someone monstrous enough to accept and even participate in his murderous activities, but human enough to be worth loving.  The results, perhaps inevitably, are decided mixed.

The character who matches Dexter so perfectly is Lumen Pierce, played by Julia Stiles.  In the immediate aftermath of Rita's death, which includes Dexter's stepchildren deciding to live with their grandparents, Dexter finds himself unable to draw solace from murder.  Lumen, whom Dexter discovers, having been raped and tortured for weeks, in the home of one of his victims, gives him a reason to kill again.  On her behalf and finally by her side, he tracks down the men who brutalized her and dispatches them one by one,  ending with a creepy motivational speaker named Jordan Chase (Johnny Lee Miller, convincingly terrifying despite being a lot less central to the season's plot than previous antagonists).  Plotwise, the fifth season is a mixed bag, combining a typically pulse-pounding finale with a slower-than-usual opening and problematic pacing throughout, and spending too much time on secondary storylines that end up going nowhere--vicious, ritualistic killings in Miami's Venezuelan neighborhoods, marital strife between Dexter's colleagues, a threat to his sister Deb's career.  That the season works at all is down to Stiles, Lumen, and her chemistry with Dexter. 

Dexter's relationship with Lumen is the most open and honest he's had with anyone since the death of his adoptive father Harry (and maybe not even that--the Harry we know is, after all, a manifestation of Dexter's subconscious and perhaps not as perceptive as the real Harry; at any rate, it is telling that as Dexter and Lumen's relationship deepens Harry's appearances as Dexter's guide and confessor taper down to almost nothing).  Even the people in his life who knew that Dexter was a serial killer--his brother Rudy, his lover Lila, his friend Miguel--failed to see some core part of him, either his monstrousness or his humanity.  Lumen, who first glimpses Dexter as he's plunging a knife into her jailer's chest, and who a few episodes later is shopping for his murder supplies and babysitting his infant son, sees the whole package, and as she recovers from her ordeal and gains strength and independence she cycles through roles that mirror the central relationships of Dexter's life.  She's childlike in the episodes immediately following her rescue, when Dexter has to remind her to sleep and eat, and tries to convince her to return home to her real parents.  When Lumen decides the pursue the men who abducted her on her own, then calls Dexter when her attempt to kill one of them goes wrong, their sniping and squabbling has a whiff of sibling rivalry.  Later in the season Dexter finds himself unexpectedly in charge of his son and stepdaughter, and Lumen steps in to play the role of wife and caretaker, which leads to the role of lover after she kills for the first time.  In each of these roles, Lumen creates a more harmonious version of the relationships that in Dexter's real life have become fraught with tension or have simply been destroyed--with Rita, with Deb, and with his stepdaughter Astor, who blames Dexter (irrationally, as she thinks) for Rita's death, and instigates her and her brother Cody's departure from his life.

Stiles plays Lumen with a matter-of-factness that grounds what could have been (and very nearly is anyway) a wish-fulfillment fantasy.  The ease with which Dexter and Lumen fall into a partnership, first as killers and later as lovers, could have been taken as a condemnation of Dexter and Rita's marriage, especially coming on the heels of the fourth season, which worked so hard to vilify Rita--another victim of rape whom Dexter initially connects with because of her damaged soul, but whose recovery forced him to stretch his ability to sham humanity, and finally to exceed it--for no greater crime than not knowing the man she married.  But Lumen is never just Dexter's perfect woman.  From the moment of her introduction it's clear that she's a point of view character, with a journey of her own--a point that is perversely but effectively brought home by having Lumen spend her first episode after being rescued and then jailed again by Dexter, who fears that she will turn him in for the murder she witnessed, trying to escape from his clutches.  This leads to several wrongfooting scenes that force the audience to sympathize with Lumen by recalling a million and one films in which a young women tries to evade a serial killer--which is in fact exactly what's happening.  Later on, Lumen completely sidesteps the types that vengeful rape victims tend to be sorted into--she's neither contorted by rage nor made tragically beautiful by her suffering (in fact both Stiles and the production make great efforts to downplay Lumen's beauty and femininity, and to create the impression that her indelicate mannerisms and sedate wardrobe are an expression of her personality rather than a reaction to sexual assault).  Instead, Lumen exudes, even in her most unreasonable and angry moments, a core of ordinariness and sensibleness.  Her feelings of fear, anger, and hate, though real and turbulent, are on a human rather than operatic scale, brought down to earth by the same mixture of impatience, frustration, and finally humor that has been used to humanize Dexter from the series's beginning.  There are serious problems with the way the fifth season handles rape and its aftermath, most notably the fact that Lumen embarks on a sexual relationship only weeks after enduring vicious and repeated rapes, but it also avoids a lot of the clichés of the rape vengeance story, and in so doing both humanizes the rape victim and questions their need for vengeance.

Two problems mar Lumen's contribution to Dexter.  The first is that her presence undercuts the series's second most important character, Deb, even as she undergoes what may be the defining moral crisis of her life.  I haven't spent a lot of time talking about Deb in my Dexter write-ups, which is a shame as she is one of the most intriguing female characters on TV today.  Deb is a tough-as-nails, foul-mouthed tomboy in a man's profession, with a lot of loss and pain in her past.  There are many characters like this on TV, but unlike most of them Deb is a supporting character in her own life story, which means that she doesn't get to be a tragic heroine.  She is frequently denied closure and catharsis for the tragedies she's experienced--she doesn't know why her father seemed to prefer Dexter to her; she spent four seasons wondering why the first season's villain, Rudy, targeted her, before learning that he was Dexter's brother; she managed to capture the person who murdered her lover, Frank Lundy, but as far as she knows the serial killer Lundy was pursuing at the time of his death, who also killed her sister-in-law Rita, is still on the loose.  If Deb were a main character these failures--if they were even allowed to occur--would be a source of angst and drama, but because she takes a second seat to Dexter she has to grit her teeth and move on like the rest of us, which makes her an unusually ordinary heroine.  If you want an example of Hollywood's unfairness, look no further than the fact that Stiles has been nominated for a Golden Globe for her work on Dexter, and will probably get an Emmy nomination as well, while Jennifer Carpenter, who has been doing similar, and no less excellent, work as Deb for five seasons has gone unrecognized. 

In the fifth season, the cumulative weight of these tragedies finally starts to take its toll on Deb.  As one blow after another lands--Rita's death, a difficult case that forces her first to witness a civilian almost being murdered and later to take a life, her colleagues' betrayal when a sting operation goes wrong--Deb sinks further into depression, and when the bodies of Lumen's fellow abductees are discovered, and later recordings of their hellish experiences, Deb is utterly devastated by the depths of evil and misery with which she's confronted.  In one of the most important scenes in the season, she and Dexter discuss whether some people deserve to die--an idea that would in the past have been anathema to the stalwart Deb, but which chimes with the reasoning her father Harry used to train Dexter into a killer of killers.  The season's end sees Deb coming closer than she ever has to the truth of Dexter's existence--she theorizes, though can't prove, that the vigilantes who are killing the men who raped and murdered the women whose murders she's investigating are a surviving victim and her lover, and even catches Dexter and Lumen in the act, though she doesn't see their faces, and decides to let them go.  This is a huge step--either backwards or forwards, depending on your point of view--for Deb, who has for years been the show's moral compass, the person whose unerring sense of right and wrong could always be used to puncture Dexter's, and the viewers', self-righteousness about the 'public service' he performs by committing murder.  For Deb to accept that there are times when murder is forgivable or even desirable unbalances both the character and the show, and this is a shift that deserved the writers undivided attention.  Instead, Deb's relationship with Dexter is downplayed as Lumen becomes more important to his life (the scene I describe above is a rare moment of connection for the two of them), and her moral crisis is shoehorned between an investigation that goes nowhere and an unconvincing romance with her oily partner Quinn.

The second problem with Lumen's story is how it ends.  Throughout the season Dexter tries to walk the same fine line with Lumen as it has with Dexter--she's a person who does terrible things, but she's still likable.  This has always been a difficult balancing act with Dexter's character, as the writers carefully weeded out any aspect his proclivities or killing rituals that might disgust viewers (sympathy for television characters is after all hardly ever a matter of right or wrong, but of attraction or revulsion).  With Lumen, the strain required to maintain this balance is more apparent, and the act is less successful.  For all that Stiles plays Lumen's rage against them well, the sheer awfulness of the men who abducted her and the murders they committed is clearly an attempt at manipulating our sympathy--the camera lingers over the blank eyes and decaying faces of Lumen's predecessors, electrocuted and dumped in barrels of formaldehyde, and the recordings of their torments are treated by Dexter's fellow cops as windows into hell.  More importantly, whereas in previous seasons we've met characters who accepted Dexter's proclivities on an academic level but couldn't stomach the actual sight of them--after years of training Dexter to kill, Harry's first glimpse of the reality of those murders so appalls him that he commits suicide, and Doakes is rendered catatonic by the sight--by the time Lumen comes around Dexter's murders are almost sterile.  She's never in the room when he dismembers his victims--or rather, logic dictates that she must have been in the room, but the camera isn't, and doesn't show us her reaction.  Like Dexter, Lumen is damaged enough to consider murder both normal and right, but nothing else about her is off-putting--she's wholesome enough for Dexter to leave his children in her care within a few episodes of their first meeting. 

Throughout the season I thought I could see hints that the writers were subtly undermining their presentation of Lumen--the obviously sexual pleasure she took in killing her first victim (which is also the catalyst for her starting a sexual relationship with Dexter), or the rage with which she continues to hurl invectives at Jordan even after she's killed him.  These seemed to suggest that Lumen and Dexter's belief that vengeance and murder could be healing was mistaken, and that Lumen, rather than saving herself, was irreparably tarnishing her soul.  The season's ending, however, shows that I was mistaken.  Having killed Jordan, Lumen realizes that she's lost her "dark passenger"--the name Dexter gives to their killing urges--and can no longer be Dexter's partner.  It's supposed to be a bittersweet ending because though Lumen is healed, Dexter has lost his perfect match, but to me it just comes off as dishonest, to both the character and to fundamental human truth, in its claim that one can draw peace from vengeance.

More disturbingly, both Lumen and Deb's storylines in the fifth season seem to suggest that Dexter has become ambivalent, perhaps even positive, towards the murders that Dexter commits.  If in the past the show has rejected the idea that Dexter is a vigilante--though he has a sense of right and wrong, and only kills people who are themselves killers, it's not a love of justice that compels Dexter to kill--season five seems to embrace it.  Through Deb and Lumen's reactions to him, it romanticizes his actions, turning him into a faithful knight who avenges Lumen, and later helps her to avenge herself.  In fact, romanticized is a good word for Dexter and Lumen's relationship all around, and this seems wrong in a show that, in the past, was so fastidious about adding a dash of vinegar to even the most heartwarming scene between Dexter and his loved ones--Dexter cribbing lines from a murderous stalker in order to successfully propose to Rita, who had rejected his previous proposals as too clinical; Dexter's blood staining Rita's white dress as they dance at their wedding.  It was this unwillingness to view either Dexter or the people around him through rose-colored glasses that I most appreciated about Dexter, the reason that, despite the fact that it was a show about a serial killer who murders murderers, I've always thought of it as the most moral show on TV.  I don't know if something has changed in the production or if I've just been wrong all these years, but either way I'm unhappy, if for no other reason than that reconfiguring Dexter the show into a story about a vigilante leaves Dexter the character with nowhere to go.  You'll have noticed that I've said almost nothing about Dexter in this post, and that's because there's nothing to say.  The last four seasons have each seen Dexter grow and change, and take small but definite steps towards letting his own dark passenger go, but the fifth season finale finds Dexter at almost exactly the same place he was at the end of the fourth season--alone, convinced of the necessity of hiding who he is, wanting human connection but fearing that he can't have it.  We haven't learned anything new about Dexter and he hasn't learned anything about himself, nor has he changed--and why should he?  If Dexter is righteous, then it's the people around him who need to change, to arrive at an acceptance that what he does is right, and that they should love him regardless.

From day one, Dexter has been a character defined by paradoxes and irresolvable dilemmas.  He's a monster who is just human enough to prefer the company of humans to that of monsters like himself.  He's beloved by his family, in no small part because of the support he lends them in times of need, but he is also the cause of most of the pain and turmoil in their lives.  For as long as the show has been running, fans have speculated on where this story would end and how the writers would resolve the difficulty of Dexter's existence, his inability to show his true self to the people whose love he desires.  With death?  Imprisonment?  Redemption?  Season five suggests that the answer may be stagnation, that instead of changing either Dexter or his circumstances, the show will change the people around him, make them less than they were (while making Dexter more noble) so that they can look on Dexter's works without recoiling.  That may be an exaggeration--it could simply be that after the tragedy of season four, the show's writers wanted to give Dexter a win, to reaffirm our conviction that he is, if not a good man, then at least one deserving of our love--but what is certain is that it's a season that's brought us, and Dexter, no closer to that solution, which to my mind means that there's very little justification for its existence.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bah, Humbug: On Community's Christmas Episode

Jack: What Christmas card did we end up sending out?
Avery: [reads from card] Happy Holidays [turns page] is what terrorists say.  Merry Christmas, Avery and Jack.

30 Rock, "Christmas Attack Zone"
I love Community.  Who doesn't love Community?  People who haven't watched it yet, that's who.  I love it because it manages to be funny and zany and clever and soulful, and manages to cram all those feelings into 22 perfectly-formed minutes almost every week.  "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," this year's Community Christmas episode, is no exception.  What you may have heard about it, even if you don't watch the show, is that it's a stop-motion animated, musical episode of what is usually a more-or-less realistic show set in a community college and among a cobbled-together family of students who attend it.  What you probably will not have heard is how the show handles this shift in medium.  For most series, a musical or animated episode hangs on either a thin hook (in Scrubs, a patient suffers from an illness that causes her to hear singing instead of speech) or the characters' sudden and entirely temporary inability to notice that the rules of their story have changed.  In other cases, such as Buffy's musical episode or Angel's puppet episode, the characters will notice that something is off, but the shows' universe allows for magic that can cause such strange events as characters bursting into song, or a man turning into a felt puppet.  "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" doesn't take either of those approaches, and makes no bones of the fact that we are watching its title character, the group's resident weirdo, undergo some sort of psychotic break.  When Abed informs his friends that they are all stop-motion animated, they react with either bemusement or concern, both of which signal to the audience that suspension of disbelief is not what's called for here.

So on top of being funny and well-done, "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a clever episode, because it has to pull the double-duty of showing us the events of the episode through Abed's fantasy, which involves a journey through a winter wonderland to find the meaning of Christmas, while also making it clear that what's actually happening is that the characters are gathered together in a library study room, either enthusiastically joining in Abed's play, half-heartedly going along with it, or desperately trying to bring him back to reality.  And it's a disturbing episode, because even though Abed, by his own admission, has one foot out of reality in the best of times, and even though the episode reveals that his latest escapade is driven by serious trauma--a letter from his absentee mother informing him that she's choosing to spend Christmas with her new family--it's not a good sign that his response to this blow is to sink into such a detailed and stubborn fantasy.  It is therefore a bit of a disappointment, but also a profound relief, when Abed is saved by his friends' choice to join in his delusion.  Christmas, they declare, is after all a shared delusion, one of togetherness and family triumphing over pain and disappointment, and if Abed needs to spend his Christmas being stop-motion animated, they're willing to go there with him, and even sing a song to that effect.  As Abed puts it: "the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning, and it can mean whatever we want.  For me it used to mean being with my Mom.  Now it means being with you guys."  The episode ends with the group, now in stop-motion by choice, watching Christmas cartoons together, taking over Abed and his mother's Christmas ritual.

Which is a lovely sentiment, of course, and a true one, as far as such things go.  But if you're watching it in a country that isn't dominated by Christian culture, it also rings very false.  To me, that falseness is brought home by details like Annie, who is Jewish, singing that "Christmas can also be a Hanukkah thing," or the presence of a menorah alongside a Christmas tree in the college's "designated holiday zones," the only place where students are allowed to acknowledge that the month of December has any cultural significance (one of the uncomfortable undertones of "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is the fact that, in its rush to reconfigure Christmas as a universal holiday of family and friendship, which no one in their right mind could possibly object to, it ends up utilizing a lot of the rhetoric of the "Christmas is under attack!" crowd).  Both of which would seem to suggest that Annie and Jews like her also celebrate Christmas, but just happen to call it Hanukkah.  Others have said this before me, and others will say it after me, probably to no effect, but let's give it another shot: Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.  Again: Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas.  Once more, with feeling: HANUKKAH IS NOT THE JEWISH CHRISTMAS.

You think that did any good?  Me neither.

That Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas should be pretty easy to spot in 2010, a year in which the vagaries of the Jewish calendar have plopped the holiday so early that it had in fact ended several hours before "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" aired.  By the time December 25th rolls around, we Jews will have already forgotten about Hanukkah and started planning for the next holiday, Tu B'shvat.  But even in years in which the two holidays coincide, it should be pretty easy, for anyone who knows anything about them, to see that they have nothing in common.  They may both spring from the winter solstice, but the meanings that have become attached to them in the intervening millennia are very different.  Hanukkah is a very minor holiday, one of several "they tried to kill us; we survived; let's eat" celebrations.  In Israel in particular, its associations are less with family and gift-giving than with courage and triumph over an oppressor, which is why the official ceremonies that mark Israel's independence every spring borrow Hanukkah imagery quite heavily, explicitly comparing the independence fighters with the Maccabees, and culminating with the lighting of beacons set to a traditional Hanukkah song.  What's more, in a desert or near-desert region, the winter solstice doesn't mean what it does further to the North.  Winter isn't a cold, dead period during which one desperately hopes for the return of the life-giving sun, and tries to replace its warmth with the warmth of friends and family.  It's a period of birth and renewal, whose rains guarantee survival during the hot, dry months of summer.  Last week's Carmel forest fire, which raged for five days and claimed the lives of more than 40 people, is an example of what happens when winter fails to come--at the tail end of one of the hottest years on record, and following a rainless October and November, there was so much dry underbrush that a single neglected blaze was enough to set an entire region on fire.

I'm focusing on the Jewish aspect because that's what I know, and because Hanukkah is the Christmas-alternative that "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" references explicitly, but I'm sure that there are viewers of other faiths who would say that, as positive a message as spending time with your loved ones is, it doesn't reflect the meaning of their solstice-adjacent holiday either (in particular I'd be interested to know how Muslim viewers took the episode, given that Abed is Muslim and had previously been portrayed as relatively entrenched in that faith).  To say that Christmas is a universal holiday, and that we can choose to give it a meaning--the importance of family and friendship--that appeals to people of any faith or none is, however generous and well-intentioned a sentiment, also an expression of Christianity's dominance over American culture.  Hanukka became reconfigured as the Jewish Christmas as a defense mechanism, a way for Jews assaulted from all corners by one of the most important holidays in the Christian calender (and by the marketing extravaganza that has transformed it into a six-week event) to assert that they too were doing something meaningful around the end of the year.  The only reason you'd need to come up with a universal, secularized, entirely inoffensive version of Christmas that is really about telling the people you love that you love them is that the actual, Christian version of Christmas is so firmly entrenched in your culture that it can never be removed, and the only way to accommodate the people in your society who don't celebrate it is to turn it into something it isn't--which is just as unfair to the people who celebrate it as marking the birth of Christ (for example Shirley, a devout Christian who is expelled from Abed's fantasy for believing that she owns the holiday) as it is to the people who don't.  What "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," with its entirely kind-hearted conclusion that even people who don't celebrate Christmas, or any holiday, can be included in it, fails to take into account is that there are people all over the world for whom Christmas means absolutely nothing.  Who, because they haven't grown up in a society that fetishizes that date, and haven't had to make their peace with it, view December 25th as just another day on the calendar.

Community is an American show, featuring American characters, and aimed at an American audience, so it makes sense that when it discusses Christmas, it should do so in a way that reflects American experience--for example, in this episode we learn that Jewish Annie and Muslim Abed both come from mixed backgrounds, and each have a Christian parent whose religious influence was less dominant in their lives, but who has nevertheless left them with personal associations with Christmas.  What "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" means when it says that Christmas is universal is that it's universal in the US, which is probably still not true but less objectionable.  It's not the show's fault that a viewer in Israel feels so left out of what it clearly intends to be an inclusive and inviting story.  But I can't help but think back to last year's Christmas episode, "Comparative Religion."  In that story, Shirley is nonplussed to find herself, for probably the first time in her life, with close friends who don't share her Christian beliefs and her associations with Christmas.  She tries to impose those beliefs on them, and ends up gently but firmly rebuffed, as the other members of the group make it clear that while they're happy to celebrate their togetherness, and to set aside a time for that celebration that just happens to coincide with a major Christian holiday, what they're celebrating is not Christmas.  That may seem like the same lesson learned in "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas," but there's a subtle yet crucial difference.  "Comparative Religion" allows every character their own holiday celebration--or, in the case of the militantly atheist Britta and just plain cynical Jeff, its absence--and separates that holiday from their family celebration.  "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" folds that celebration into Christmas.  I prefer the former lesson.  It's true that you can take Christmas and make it mean whatever you want it to mean, but I'd like a story like "Comparative Religion," which even within the confines of Christian-dominated American culture, allows you to take Christmas, but also to leave it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Strange Horizons Reviews, December 6-10

This week's Strange Horizons reviews are dedicated to women writing science fiction: Farah Mendlesohn reviews Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn, Duncan Lawie reviews Jaine Fenn's Guardians of Paradise, the third volume in her Hidden Empire series, and Matt Denault reviews Kaaron Warren's Walking the Tree.

This is in honor of Niall Harrison's project to spotlight women in SF.  Sparked by an interview with Tricia Sullivan in which she discussed her sense that there is a growing inequality between men and women in the SF field, Niall posted his own thoughts to Torque Control, which led to a long conversation, and later to a plan to spend the first week of December discussing science fiction by women.  You can find the posts from this spotlight week here: they include several reviews of recent books, links to other reviews and discussions of SF by women, and the results of a poll conducted by Niall to name the top ten science fiction books by women of the last decade.

I Come to Praise and Bury: On Rubicon and Terriers

It's been a dismal fall for new TV.  While a lot of returning shows have come back strong (The Good Wife, Community, to a lesser extent Dexter and How I Met Your Mother), most of the fall pilot slate was dire, and even promising and prestigious series like Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead have proven underwhelming.  Amidst this dross and disappointment, however, I still managed to find two new series to get excited and even fannish over.  Naturally, they've both been canceled.

Of those two cancellations, the one that rankles less is Rubicon's.  There are a lot of things this show did well, and in some cases these are things that no other show on TV is doing, but it wasn't good TV, and for a substantial portion of its run it was even quite bad.  A lot of this is down to bad luck--originally conceived as a modern callback to 70s conspiracy thrillers, in which Will Travers (James Badge Dale) an analyst for a government think-tank, investigates the seemingly accidental death of his mentor, Rubicon was heavily retooled shortly into its production run, and its creator, Jason Horwitch, was replaced with Henry Bromell, who shifted the show's focus from conspiracies to workplace drama.  This was entirely the right move, and the episodes that downplay Will's investigation in favor of his colleagues' actual work are among the best in the show's run, but the change came too late.  Having established its central mystery, Rubicon was yoked to a story, and a main character, that were both significantly less interesting than what was going on in their background.  I don't know if Rubicon would have been a ratings success if it had debuted as a drama about intelligence work, but it certainly would have been a stronger and more successful show.

Before I get too far into Rubicon's strengths, I should be very clear on its weaknesses, chiefly the fact that the first five episodes of the show's run are terrible: slow, moody hours in which characters lapse into Meaningful Silences so often that the whole exercise threatens to topple into self-parody.  It's common by now for cable series with relatively short seasons to start with slow episodes that set up the season-long story, then build up a head of steam and start barreling down towards an explosive season finale, and viewers will therefore often indulge a series that starts slowly, especially if it has a pedigree as impressive as Rubicon's, which comes from the producers of Mad Men and Breaking BadRubicon abuses that trust, however, and there's something almost insulting about its obvious certainty that viewers will keep tuning in for the weeks it takes Will to realize what we will have worked out simply by knowing the series's genre--that his mentor was murdered for knowing something he shouldn't have.  One of Rubicon's core goals--the only one that carries over when the show's emphasis shifts around episode 6--is to demystify its genre, make it mundane and familiar (you see this most clearly in its villains, who are hammily, mustache-twirlingly evil and yet suffer from the ordinary indignities of modern life and old age: one of them tries to reason with his spoiled daughter over her car insurance and complains that he can't smoke indoors, another pays his secretary for sex and, on a day when he isn't in the mood, lets her bully him into giving her money nonetheless), and it therefore makes sense that Will doesn't immediately leap to the conclusion of a murderous government conspiracy behind what initially seems like just a tragic train derailment.  But five whole hours of watching him discover hidden clues in gifts given just before the accident, or puzzling over codes, is not only stultifying but makes it harder and harder to believe all the other characters' insistence that Will is brilliant and intuitive.

Rubicon starts to work when it opens up its world, moving away from Will to his colleagues and to their work--synthesizing the cumulative output of dozens of intelligence agencies into a picture of what is going on in the world and where the next threat to America's safety is coming from.  These characters--Will's boss, Kale Ingram (Arliss Howard), and his team Grant (Christopher Evan Welch), Miles (Dallas Roberts), and Tanya (Lauren Hodges)--are for the most part shown doing what all of us do when we go to the office: talking about their home-life, being goaded into working harder by their superiors, complaining about working late.  The difference being that these people have the safety of millions in their hands, and one of Rubicon's greatest accomplishments is to make it clear how even this vocation can sometimes be the same as any other job--tedious, difficult, and frustrating--and how, despite their best intentions, these qualities can distance the characters from the real-world implications of their work, the lives that it saves and costs, leaving them to obsesses over their relatively quotidian problems.  Grant is spending too much time away from his family, and his government work doesn't pay enough to support them in the style to which, he believes, his intelligence and education should allow them to become accustomed.  Miles spins himself into a tizzy over catastrophes that he is helpless to affect, and won't admit that his marriage has ended.  Tanya, the newest member of the team, is having trouble adjusting to the emotional rigors of the work (for example when the team is asked to determine whether intelligence about the location of a terrorist is sufficiently trustworthy to justify an air-strike in a populated area), and medicating with drugs and alcohol.  I've seen some viewers complain about Rubicon's look, the fact that the characters work in cramped, decrepit offices and use outdated technology like dial phones and IBM workstations--a far cry from the smart-screens and glass walls that have become ubiquitous in cop and spy shows--but this seems like part and parcel of the show's efforts to make intelligence work seem ordinary.  Anyone who's worked in an office, much less a government office, will know that unlike on TV, you never have the latest technology at your fingertips, and that grime and mess are what you get when a lot of people spend a lot of time working hard in a place that belongs to none of them.

I found myself thinking about Rubicon a lot when I was writing my post about Stargate: Universe, because I think that at their core the two shows are trying to do very similar things--taking an occupation, either real or imaginary, that we tend to think of as glamorous and heroic, in part because the stories that are told about it usually fall on the pulp end of the scale, and trying to make it mundane, bringing home the fact that the people who engage in that occupation are, just like the rest of us, often too preoccupied to be heroes and adventurers.  But while Universe falls into every trap laid by modern television's fascination with the dark and the transgressive, and can only defuse the heroism inherent in its story by giving us characters who are petty, self-absorbed, and unqualified for their jobs, Rubicon quite reasonably assumes that anyone working for the organization at the show's center would be smart, motivated, and willing to sacrifice quite a lot for the greater good.  It gives us those characters, and then shows us how, for all their good intentions, they fail, simply because they're human beings living in the real world, not characters in a James Bond novel.  Like Universe, Rubicon tries to emphasize its characters' ordinariness by having them speak 'naturally,' pausing to find the right word and sometimes failing to do so, but in this show, the writing and acting are both strong enough that a brief silence, or a look, can convey volumes.  In one wordless scene, Kale, who until that point had been the closest the show had come to fielding a Bond-ian super-spy, is enjoying a domestic moment, reading in bed beside his sleeping partner Walter.  Something troubles him, and for the next few minutes he silently sweeps their apartment for bugs.  Having found and disposed of the device, he gets back in bed, pauses to collect himself, and lays a hand on the still-sleeping Walter's shoulder, protective, but also seeking comfort.  In another moment, Miles is working with another analyst, Julia, with whom he'd previously flirted and gone out for a drink.  The season-long crisis is heating up and there's clearly no time for the two to discuss their fledgling relationship, but in a momentary lull Miles smiles at Julia and reaches for her hand, and all our questions about where they stand are answered.  Not all of this low-key characterization works--when the team recommends the air-strike that so troubles Tanya, Grant's journey to his superior's office to deliver that recommendation is interrupted by a symbolic and unsuccessful attempt to flick a speck of dirt off his shirt--but on the whole Rubicon manages to make its characters seem entirely human and sympathetic, and to bring across both the challenges involved in their chosen line of work, and their reasons for choosing it.

Except when it comes to Will.  Even as the office storylines, both professional and personal, get more and more interesting, Will remains mired in his investigation.  He pursues this investigation doggedly, ignoring advice, warnings, and threats.  This should make him seem heroic and principled, but instead Will comes off as stubborn, inconsiderate, and ridiculously, improbably lucky--during an FBI lockdown of his building, for example, he manages to sneak unseen into his office, which allows him to discover that a listening device placed there had been removed, and to conclude that whoever placed it there works in the building.  In some ways this is another example of how seamlessly Rubicon transplants the conspiracy story into the real world--when the hero of a standard conspiracy thriller is told by a source that to give him classified information would jeopardize their jobs or lives, they are usually throwaway characters we don't care about, but Rubicon draws these characters well enough that we can't ignore the risks they're taking.  The problem is that Will does ignore those risks, and that he himself is so closed off that while we're sympathizing with the people who put themselves on the line for him, he is hard to sympathize with.  Dale came to Rubicon fresh off what should have been a star-making turn on HBO's The Pacific, where he managed to convey his character's intelligence, humor, and passion with a single look, so the fact that Will is such an emotionless blank is clearly a choice, and one that should have worked.  Will has been emotionally shut down since the deaths of his wife and daughter (on 9/11, no less), and his investigation forces him to engage with the world--in positive ways, as when he starts a relationship with his bohemian neighbor, and less positive ones, as when he deals with the aftermath of killing an assassin in self-defense.  But there's something very arrogant and off-putting about Dale's performance.  He never really sells Will's grief for his dead loved ones, his anger at the perversion of justice happening around him, or his determination to prevent further loss of life.  It's hard not to conclude, finally, that the events of the season are nothing more than an intellectual puzzle for Will, a protracted and costly expression of his need to understand, to know, to be right and in control, and yet the show doesn't commit to that reading of the character either, leaving an empty hole at its center.

In the season's final two episodes, Will's investigation dovetails with the team's pursuit of a terrorist named Kateb, who is planning an attack on US soil.  There are some very bold choices in these episodes--doubly so, as they both frustrate viewers' expectations from this kind of story, and clearly demonstrate the writers' belief that, despite its terrible ratings, Rubicon would be granted a second season.  Even if the renewal had happened, I'm not sure I would have said that the season ends well--reintroducing Will into the office storyline allows him to take over it, and overshadow the more developed characters, and the season doesn't so much end as stop--so for all the praise I've heaped on Rubicon, I can't offer it any but the most qualified recommendation.  I'd like it to be watched, and not just by television writers eager to embrace the fashion for 'realism' who maybe need a few pointers in how to do it well.  There are characters here, like Kale, Grant, Miles, and Tanya, who I would have loved to spend more time with and that I'd like other people to get to know (if only because the actors, Howard and Roberts in particular, deserve recognition for their work).  I can't feel too sorry for Rubicon as it aired, but I do regret the show that might have been, the workplace drama about people with an unusual, challenging, important job who are not always the superheroes they need to be to do it well.

Terriers, on the other hand, is a show whose cancellation leaves me full of regret.  Its single season is one of the most perfectly-formed seasons of television I've ever seen, and it quickly became one of the highlights of my TV-watching week.  Which makes it a little embarrassing that I have so little to say about it.  The show's ardent fans--particularly the writers at the AV Club, who have been lobbying for its renewal and greeted the news of its cancellation with wailing and gnashing of teeth--have expended a lot of effort trying to understand just why a show this good should have so thoroughly failed to find an audience.  It's not as if the story, which follows unlicensed private investigators Hank Dolworth (Donal Logue) and Britt Pollack (Michael Raymond-James) as they tramp around the Southern California town of Ocean Beach, solving, and sometimes committing, petty crimes and getting in way over their heads when they stumble upon a shady real estate deal that leaves several people dead, is particularly highbrow, and unlike Rubicon Terriers courts its viewers, dropping them into the action of the season-long mystery in its pilot, interspersing that investigation with well-crafted and engaging standalone stories over the course of the season, and delivering plenty of laughs, most of them rooted in the rapport between Hank and Britt, who are as deeply devoted to yanking each other's chains as they are to looking out for one another.

There's no reason why Terriers shouldn't have been at least a modest success, and attempts to figure out why it instead became one of the new season's lowest-rated shows have concentrated on the show's title and what was apparently a confusing publicity campaign that led some potential viewers to conclude that this was a show about dog-fighting.  To my mind, however, the problem is much simpler--Terriers has no hook.  For just about every series that I love, and quite a few that I don't care for, I could come up with a single sentence that encapsulates what the show does well and why it's worth watching: The Good Wife has the best female characters on TV; Dexter actually gets how to maintain a moral distance from a sympathetic character's immoral actions; Glee has Sue Sylvester.  If I had to come up with a one-sentence pitch for Terriers, the best I could do would be: it's really good.  Which is as true as it is unpersuasive.  When TWoP recapped the series pilot, they likened Terriers to Veronica Mars, which I think gets at the heart of why this show is unsellable.  If Veronica Mars is Southern California-set noir with a twist--that the main character is a teenager girl and the show's action takes place in a high school--Terriers is Veronica Mars without that twist, just plain old Southern California-set noir.  My reaction to the pilot, meanwhile, was that it was well done but familiar, and though I'm glad I stuck with the show I think that this was an accurate assessment.  There was never anything new or original about Terriers, no standout quality to the show.  It was simply very good in almost every respect--the stories, both standalone and season-long, the characters, the dialogue--and though this is both admirable and, sadly, unusual, it's also very hard to sell.

So what did win me over to Terriers?  Mainly, I think, it was the characters.  Logue has made a career out of playing amiable (and sometimes not so amiable) slackers, mostly in comedies, and it's a shock and a thrill to find him digging beneath the surface of that type to create Hank, a well-intentioned, principled man who somehow manages to destroy everything good in his life.  A former cop whose alcoholism cost him his job and his marriage, Hank initially seems to be disaffected and cynical.  In the pilot, an old drinking buddy hires him to find his missing daughter, which leads Hank and Britt to a real estate developer, and eventually to the friend's death.  Enraged, Hank vows to uncover the developer's shady deal and bring him down, which seems to set up a very familiar noir story about an antihero who rediscovers his love of justice.  What the rest of the season reveals is that Hank is proud, self-righteous, and often blinded by his prejudice against the rich and powerful.  All of these flaws lead him to misread situations, bite off more than he can chew, and to vastly overestimate the amount of control he can exercise over the world around him.  Hank is often admirable and heroic, but that heroism comes at a price that he somehow never ends up paying himself, but takes a terrible toll on the people around him.  What's most interesting about this portrait is that it leaves us, like Hank, looking at the damage he's caused and wondering where the wrong turn was.  Every step that Hank takes makes sense at the time, and each is motivated by a desire for justice, and yet they often lead to terrible destruction.  It's a wonderfully slippery take on a character that initially seems so simple, and I would have loved to spend more time puzzling it out.

Britt is a great deal more straightforward.  A former burglar turned straight under Hank's influence (and that of his girlfriend Katie (Laura Allen), whose own attitude towards Britt's criminal past is sometimes disturbingly ambivalent), Britt starts the season as Hank's sidekick and spends it coming into his own, developing his PI skills and his understanding of Hank's limitations and fatal flaws.  Despite his criminal past, Britt is sweet, lovable, and always ready with a joke, and Raymond-James could have coasted on these qualities.  Instead he imbues Britt with intelligence and a bit of a dark side.  He doesn't downplay Britt's lack of maturity, his recognition that he's done terrible things, or his capacity to do them in the future.  Still, Britt is most interesting when he's playing opposite other characters.  He and Katie are deeply in love, but the relationship has reached the point where it needs to either get a lot more serious or collapse under its own weight, and one of the season's central questions is which way it will fall.  There's a lot standing in Britt and Katie's path--he's not quite ready for serious commitment, and she may not be able (or willing) to act as the calm moral center of his tumultuous life--but also a lot to be gained, and the uncertainty of their fate quickly becomes as nail-bitingly tense as the season's central mystery and Hank's journey towards both salvation and damnation.  Britt's partnership with Hank, meanwhile, is the one entirely positive force in his life, and for Hank it is the one relationship where he is doing good rather than damage (for now).  It's the crux of the characters' lives and of the show.  With typical thoughtfulness (and demonstrating the sort of subtlety that probably got them canceled) Terriers's writers avoid the most common trope of partnership-based shows.  Britt and Hank are not the most important people in each other's lives.  There are people that they love more than each other and relationships that matter more to them than their partnership (I do not, for example, think that they make a particularly slashable couple, though I'm sure there are those who disagree).  But that partnership is what makes all those other relationships possible, and when they falter--when Hank burns his last bridge with his ex-wife, or when Britt and Katie flame out--it's there to support them.

Unlike Rubicon, Terriers ends well--there are some false notes in the resolution of the central mystery, but not many, and the season's storylines are tied up so well, and yet in a way that leaves an opening for further adventures, that one can only assume that the show's writers were preparing both for the possibility of renewal and cancellation (the show's final scene, in particular, seems to gesture at the two possibilities).  Which is yet another example of how this show shot itself in the foot by being too clever, too low-key--I'm sorry that Terriers is dead, but the season ends at such a perfect stopping point that even my sorrow is muted.  On the other hand, this means that I can recommend it without reservation--you will absolutely fall in love with Hank, Britt, and their world, but you won't be left too heartbroken when their story ends and it sinks in that there will be no more of them.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Strange Horizons Reviews, November 29-December 2

Matt Denault kicks off this week's Strange Horizons reviews with a very interesting discussion of Darin Bradley's Noise, which he concludes is less interested in the post-apocalpytic setting that's been trumpeted in the book's promotional material than it is in its narrator's crumbling mental stability, and then makes some observations about Bradley's construction of that narrator that reminded me of my own reactions to The Social Network.  Chris Kammerud talks about feeling and cookery in his review of Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.  And Jonathan McCalmont explains, in no uncertain terms, why Robert Rankin's The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions is "an utterly lamentable piece of writing."