Saturday, June 25, 2011

Game of Thrones, Season 1

I read George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, the first volume in his Song of Ice and Fire sequence, in 2005, and came away feeling that it was rather poor stuff.  The post in which I listed the reasons for my disappointment received a fair share of peeved comments, but the one that's stuck in my mind these six years came from a commenter who wondered how I could say that A Game of Thrones didn't diverge from the conventions of epic fantasy nearly as much as I'd been led to believe.  Wasn't the fact that Martin had killed his main character, Ned Stark, in the first book a huge deviation from those conventions?  I remember feeling baffled at this question.  Far from surprising me, Ned's death had seemed to me both predictable and, by the time it finally happened, long overdue.  It had been signposted early in the novel; the book's YA tone and its emphasis on Ned's young children all but guaranteed that he would be done away with; and it took forever--most of A Game of Thrones's 800 pages--to come about.  I was reminded of this exchange last week, when I watched the penultimate episode of HBO's adaptation of A Song of Ice and Fire.  I knew, going into the episode, that it would most likely end with Ned's death, and yet I was nervous throughout the hour and, though obviously not surprised at Ned's death, somehow shocked by it.  I can think of no response that more thoroughly encapsulates how much Game of Thrones improves on Martin's novel--the same death that left me yawning on the page when I only suspected it was coming, riveted me on screen when I could expect it with certainty.

The most obvious reason for the superiority of television series to book is rooted in the shift between mediums.  Martin's novel alternates between the points of view of less than a dozen characters, most of whom are young children.  It's locked into their perceptions and their limited opportunities to observe their world.  A television series can't allow a single character's consciousness to dominate it to the extent that a book can, but the creators of Game of Thrones could still have chosen to follow only the characters that the first book does.  Instead, they widened the book's universe, adding scenes in which none of the point of view characters are present and complicating the presentation of many of the characters who, in the first book, are presented as flat-out villains.  A lot of the responses to my post about A Game of Thrones pointed out that my complaints about the novel--the stark division between good and bad characters; the absence of any acknowledgment that the novel's wars of succession were being fought over the backs of the common people, who would suffer equally no matter who was on the throne--were addressed in later books in the series (to which my response was and remains that the book is 800 fucking pages long; no author should need longer than that to come to their point).  The series injects this complexity into its world from day one, and is better for it.

Game of Thrones gives us better sense of Westeros's history and the horrible wars that have led to its present state.  With that information at our disposal, it's easier to see that the war between the Starks and the Lannisters is just one more succession battle in a long list, and that none of the people who have sat on it or aspire to it truly deserve the throne, because in the end no one deserves to have that much power.  That impression is compounded by the view the series gives us of the people who have no chance of ever sitting on the throne of Westeros--prostitutes, commoners, wildlings, warrior tribes--and how they're exploited or destroyed by our main characters, whose consciences are only rarely troubled by this suffering.  Maybe the later books in Martin's series make all these points, but why wait?  We're all smart people; we all know the conventions of epic fantasy.  Why not start exploding them from the first minute?  If there's a single theme to A Song of Ice and Fire, in any medium, it's disillusionment--with ideas of chivalry, honor, and rightful kingship, with love, friendship, and loyalty.  My impression of A Game of Thrones was that Martin wanted to make sure that I had been well and properly illusioned before he pulled the rug out from under me.  The series seems to have more respect for me.

I see this also in the way the series handles its villain characters, most notably Cersei.  She's still, as she was in the book, an evil schemer who sanctions--requires, even--the murders of children and puppies, is having an affair with her brother, and will stop at nothing to put her psychotic son on the throne and make herself de facto ruler of Westeros.  But Game of Thrones (and Lena Heady's performance), without ever compromising Cersei's wickedness, also gives us a very good sense of how she got to that place.  We see the coldness and cruelty of her marriage to Robert, and its juxtaposition with the hopeful, yet just as clearly doomed, beginning of Sansa and Joffrey's betrothal speaks volumes about the limited options that were placed before her, and how little thought was given by the men who directed Cersei's life to her happiness.  Perhaps most importantly, we get a sense of Cersei as a human being--when she befriends Sansa, or sympathizes with Catelyn's fear for Bran's life.  This is rank hypocrisy, of course, especially in Bran's case, but it's a human sort of hypocrisy.  It shows us that, no matter how many terrible things she's done, Cersei doesn't think of herself as a villain.  Again, I just don't see why this wasn't in the book to begin with.  Why was it so important to hammer in for 800 pages that Cersei is a Bad Girl--as if incest and child-murder weren't enough to establish this--before revealing that there's another side to her?

The second way in which Game of Thrones improves on the book is by sidelining the child characters and condensing their storylines in favor of the adults'.  A Game of Thrones suffered from many of the flaws of a YA novel without possessing any of its positive attributes.  It was mired in too-familiar bildungsroman narratives--Jon, the unappreciated child with Special Qualities who goes off to A Special School and finds A New Family and A Destiny; Robb, the Heir to the Throne who is Forced Into a Leadership Role; Bran, who must Overcome Disability; Arya, the Tomboy; Sansa, the Fairytale Princess.  Worse than that, it was mired in the oversimplified terms in which a child--and particularly these children, who have been raised to believe in Ned Stark's ideas of honor and chivalry--views the world.  And yet it lacked the lightness, brevity, and humor that make YA novels worth reading.  It was obvious that all of these children were headed for a rude awakening, but did we have to spend so much time on the preamble?  (I realize that I'm repeating myself, but something like 90% of my complaints about A Game of Thrones would have been nullified it Martin had gotten through its events in 300 pages instead of 800.)

A story about disillusionment needs children in it--we need to see Jon and Sansa learning that life is very different from fairytales, Robb, Bran, and Arya learning that their position doesn't guarantee that they will be obeyed or protected.  But it doesn't need to be told at a child's level.  The series shows us the selfishness and thoughtlessness that underpins the children's behavior--Jon's inability to grasp that he's privileged compared to his fellow Night Watch conscripts; Bran's thoughtless expectation that he will be waited on hand and foot after being crippled; Robb casually promising Arya's hand in marriage to the son of a lord whose lands he needs to pass on his way to battle, then balking when the same promise is asked of him.  It also shows us how a combination of innocence and pernicious education can produce a monster like Joffrey, or a helpless victim like Sansa.  More importantly, Game of Thrones recognizes that though children are necessary to a story about disillusionment, they are not the most interesting part of it--that adult characters who have experienced disillusionment and been stunted by it, like Tyrion, Robert, and Cersei, and the rarer kind who refuse to accept it, like Ned, are a lot of more interesting, and more varied, than the child who is just learning for the first time that life isn't fair.

Game of Thrones clearly has its flaws.  As everyone has noted, the series is too fond of exposition and too convinced that no exposition scene isn't made better by the presence of a naked woman or two cavorting in the background.  The one plotline in the original book that actually proceeded from one end of an arc to another, Daenerys's story, is rather horribly shortchanged here, flattening her growth and, more frustratingly, thoroughly Othering the one non-white character in the novel.  More interestingly, people I know who are watching the series cold are making the same complaints about it that I made about the book.  My mother doesn't understand how I can call Cersei a complicated character when she's so clearly drawn as evil.  Niall Harrison had the same FINALLY response to Ned's death on screen that I did when it arrived on page.  I wonder, therefore, whether I'm not more forgiving of the series than I ought to be simply because it's such an improvement on the book.

That's a question that will presumably be answered next season.  I'm very curious to see how I'll respond to Game of Thrones now that I'm, minus a few spoilers here and there, ignorant of how the story is going to proceed.  More importantly, I'm just curious.  I want to know whether Arya will make it to the Wall and unite with Jon, whether Sansa will find some way to rebel against Joffrey or sink into despair, and whether Daenerys will cross the sea with her dragons before or after the Stark, Lannister, and Baratheon armies tear Westeros apart.  I felt no such curiosity after finishing A Game of Thrones, no eagerness to know what happens next, no desire to pick up the next volume.  And that, even more than my response to Ned Stark's death, is really all I need to say to make it clear how much better I like the series than the book.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, June 20-24

It's alternative steampunk week at the Strange Horizons reviews department.  Brendan Byrne kicks things off with his review of Angry Robot's reprint of Infernal Devices by K.W. Jeter, one of the first steampunk novels, which Brendan views as a glimpse of what steampunk might have been without its propensity to view the past through rose-tinted glasses.  Chris Kammerud looks at another reprint, Fantagraphics's translation of Jacques Tardi's early graphic novel The Arctic Marauder, a work of "icepunk."  Finally, Adam Roberts reviews Jean-Christophe Valtat's Aurorarama.  Valtat is an author of literary fiction who responded to Charlie Stross's broadside against steampunk soon after it was posted, and Adam finds his approach to the subgenre more palatable than most.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that John Clute's column Scores also appears this week.  This time, John's topics are the Jonathan Strahan-edited anthology Engineering Infinity, which he finds disappointingly backwards-looking, and J.M. McDermott's Never Knew Another, which he praises, but with the caveat that it's the first volume in a trilogy and therefore defies definitive judgment.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Footnote

In the last decade the Israeli film industry has experienced a dramatic renaissance.  More films are being made; more tickets are being sold; and, internationally, Israeli films have been acclaimed at prestigious festivals and in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.  I have to confess that I've let most of this new wave pass me by, mainly because so few of these films piqued my interest with their premise or subject matter.  Israeli filmmaking often seems to be cleanly divided between family dramas and examinations of the Arab-Israeli conflict in its many forms, to the extent that the recent film Rabies billed itself--quite correctly, from what I've gathered--as the first Israeli horror film.  What excited me about Footnote, Joseph Cedar's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated Beaufort, when I first heard about it, was that it seemed like such a departure from this narrow range of subjects, and the film itself has more than lived up to that expectation.  Footnote is a film about the search for knowledge, about scholarship and academia, and about the politics of both.  I can't remember the last time I saw anything like it.

Eliezer and Uriel Shkolnik are, respectively, father and son Talmud scholars at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a philologist who spent thirty years gathering evidence for the existence of alternate text of the Jerusalem Talmud, only to be simultaneously proven right and scooped when a copy of this theorized text was discovered and publicized by one of his rivals.  Since then he has spent his time in solitary study, cut off from even the small world of Talmud scholarship and publishing nothing.  His greatest achievement is having been mentioned in a footnote to one of the canonical reference texts in his field.  Uriel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a rising star--quick to publish, politically savvy, and eager to address the general public through books and lectures.  As the film opens Eliezer is seething over the fact that Uriel has been invited to join the Israeli Academy for Sciences, a body to which he himself was never invited.  His long exile seems to be over, however, when he's informed that he's been awarded the Israel Prize--given out every year for outstanding achievements in arts, sciences, and culture (Cedar's own father, Professor Chaim Cedar, is himself a recipient of the Israel Prize for biochemistry)--for which he has been nominated, and passed over, for sixteen years.  The next day, Uriel is summoned to the Ministry of Education to learn the awful truth--the call to Eliezer was made by mistake, and he, Uriel, is the real winner.

In a tense, meticulously directed scene that is one of the film's highlights, Uriel argues with Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), the chair of the prize committee and the man who scooped Eliezer all those years ago, over the issues that are at the heart of the film.  Should the Israel Prize go to Eliezer simply to spare his pride and hurt feelings, or is this a betrayal of the award's integrity?  Are Eliezer's erudition and keen insight into his subject reason enough to reward him, or is the salient point the fact that he hasn't made any meaningful contributions to his field?  Is Grossman maliciously persecuting Eliezer out of envy and curdled guilt, as Uriel insists, or is he making a stand for intellectual rigor?  And what of his dark hints that there are skeletons in Eliezer's closet that Uriel knows nothing about?  As Uriel struggles with these questions, Eliezer takes advantage of his newfound fame to lob his own grenade into the fray.  In an interview with Ha'aretz he declares that the only worthy scholarship is his kind--painstaking, thorough, and focused exclusively on the text--while the kind that publishes every half-formed thought and uses the text as a jumping-off point for discussions of social and historical issues is dismissed by him as "folklorism"--or worse, populism.  This, of course, is precisely the kind of scholarship that Uriel engages in, and he views the interview, correctly, as a personal attack.  The question raised by Uriel's dilemma and Eliezer's behavior is: which is more important, truth or love?  Uriel chooses the latter, telling himself that he's giving his father the Israel Prize out of love, but Grossman admonishes him that for all his flaws, Eliezer is not the man who would sanctify a mistake for convenience's sake, and as the film draws on its suggests that it's not love driving Uriel but fear of confrontation, the same fear that keeps him from investigating Grossman's allegations against Eliezer.  Can a man who is afraid of the truth ever be a worthy scholar?  And on the other hand, is pure scholarship for the truth's sake worthwhile if it's disconnected from all other disciplines, and shared with nobody?

Footnote is written, acted, and directed as a comedy, and at points it is very funny.  But what the comedic tone conceals is that this is a very dark story.  Bit by bit, Eliezer and Uriel damn each other and themselves.  Uriel realizes that the emotion that has been poisoning his relationship with Uriel isn't jealousy but contempt, and that he may deserve it.  Eliezer, by accepting accolades he knows weren't meant for him, loses his soul.  In this sense, the film reminds me of Martin McDonagh's In Bruges, another literate, multilayered comedy that is ultimately about damnation.  In Bruges, however, is told from within a Christian framework, so its concept of damnation is tied up in the idea of an afterlife.  Footnote is, fundamentally, a Jewish movie, so the hell that Eliezer and Uriel trap each other in is corporeal and mundane, and the crime for which they're consigned to it equally mundane--their desire for recognition and acceptance.  Neither Eliezer's alleged purity of purpose, nor Uriel's success, are enough to inoculate them against this thirst for accolades, and the film leaves us wondering just how, or whether, a scholar can balance their integrity with this desire.  (In a sort of unintended corollary to the film, Cedar played out the artistic counterpart of this struggle when he transformed an interview with Ha'aretz's film reviewer Uri Klein into an ambush in which he attacked Klein for his--to my mind, entirely wrongheaded--negative review of the film.)

You'd think that with all this weight of thematic material, with such an emphasis on the life of the mind, as well as a very talky script, there would be little attention paid in Footnote to the technical aspects of filmmaking.  But Footnote is a striking piece of cinema, with several beautifully composed shots (most notably the opening scene in which Uriel gives a speech upon his acceptance into the Israeli Academy of Sciences entirely offscreen, while the camera slowly moves in on Eliezer's stony expression) and a strong sense of the film's setting of Jerusalem and its landmarks.  There are points where Cedar's visual sensibility borders on over-stylized.  He piles long shots over misdirected cameras over split screens over on-screen text, and around the middle of the film this all seems like a bit much.  Similarly, the insistent, dramatic soundtrack by Amit Poznansky (which many reviewers have compared to Bernard Hermann's work on Hitchcock's films) occasionally overstays its welcome.  But as the story draws to its climax, these devices seem more and like tools being used--quite expertly--in furtherance of a cause, rather than an end in their own right, and Footnote is ultimately as engaging visually as it is intellectually.

If I have one caveat about Footnote, it is that I'm not sure how much non-Israelis, and particularly non-Hebrew speakers, will get out of it.  Footnote is rooted in Israeli concepts and institutions, such as the Israel Prize, whose prestige presumably doesn't cross borders.  When we're introduced to Uriel, for example, we're told that on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot he gives six lectures in a single night.  This refers to the fact that the religious custom of studying through the night on Shavuot has been transmuted into a secular event, with many cultural centers holding all-night sessions to which prominent lecturers are invited.  To Israelis, the fact that Uriel is so busy on Shavuot marks him out as a populist, a glory hog, and probably a bit in love with the sound of his own voice, but viewers unfamiliar with the custom might be lost.  In fact, some of Footnote's terms are so niche-driven that even I wasn't entirely clear on all the nuances of the film's milieu--I've seen comments by academics in the field of Jewish studies who have noted details in the film's portrayal of that field that went entirely over my head.

Even more important is the matter of language.  Footnote is in many ways a film about language, the subject of Eliezer's studies, and, fittingly for a story about people whose lives are devoted to the study of manuscripts, that preoccupation is expressed less through speech (though the film's dialogue is well-crafted, and I wonder whether translation will do it justice) than it is through text.  One of the film's most crucial scenes intercuts Eliezer's damning Ha'aretz interview with Uriel writing the judges' notes for Eliezer's award, a task delegated to him by the disgusted Grossman.  As the reporter writes down Eliezer's harsh words, the camera lingers on each stroke of the pen as if they were slashes of a knife.  At the same time, Uriel copies the judges' notes for his award and tailors them to suit his father.  It's an act of invention that simultaneously validates Eliezer's judgment of Uriel as lightweight who cobbles disparate facts together into a pleasing but inaccurate whole, and proves both to us and to Uriel that Eliezer doesn't deserve the award, the camera focusing tightly over each typed word on the computer screen as Uriel considers it, deletes it, and replaces it with fainter praise.  Later in the film, Uriel's trickery is unmasked through textual analysis, and the final twist of the knife is delivered through a play on words.  All of this text flies so quickly across the screen that it's hard to imagine how a non-Hebrew speaker, even aided by subtitles, will be able to make anything of it.  More than this, it's hard to imagine that someone who doesn't have a Hebrew reader's connection to the language will feel the visceral importance that it has in the film.

But what do I know?  The Cannes jury recently awarded Footnote the festival's best screenplay award, and it has received some enthusiastic reviews from foreign critics.  My hat is off to all of them for their ability to surmount the barriers of language and culture, and I'm hopeful that this ability presages wider acceptance.  It's gratifying to see a film about so esoteric and so quintessentially Jewish and Israeli a topic gaining wide acceptance overseas--as pleased as I've been for the Israeli directors whose films have gained international acclaim in recent years, the ubiquity of the Arab-Israeli conflict within those films has made it impossible not to wonder whether the international community doesn't have a very narrow concept of what Israeli films should be about, and it's nice to see a work that lies outside that narrow band and recognizes that Israel neither begins nor ends with the conflict gaining recognition.  The truth, however, is that films like Footnote are uncommon not just in Israeli cinema, but in cinema in general, which rarely pays any attention to erudition, study, and scholarly disputes--and more's the pity, as far as I'm concerned.  I'm very proud that one of the few films to buck that trend has come from Israel, and despite my concerns about its accessibility to foreigners, I hope that many of you get the chance to see it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, June 13-17

As well as my own review of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks, this week's Strange Horizons sees Niall Harrison discussing The Colony by Jillian Weise, one of the novels selected for this year's Tiptree honor list.  Though Niall is impressed by Weise's treatment of the subject of sexuality, he's dubious about her approach to science.  Rounding out the week is Alexandra Pierce, making her Strange Horizons debut by reviewing a debut, Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves, which Alexandra finds lackluster.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Review: Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

My review of Iain M. Banks's latest Culture novel, Surface Detail, appears today at Strange Horizons.  My reaction to this book is almost the exact opposite of my reaction to X-Men: First Class--if the film frustrated me by suggesting that the desire for vengeance is never justified, the book is so busy decrying what it views as greater evils that it stakes out a positive attitude towards killing for revenge that I ultimately found quite disturbing.

If you're interested in my other reviews of Banks novels, they can be found here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, June 6-10

Andy Sawyer kicks off this week's reviews with a joint look at the revised edition of The Search for Philip K. Dick, a biography of the author by his first wife Anne, and The King of the Elves, the first volume of Subterranean's new edition of Dick's collected stories.  Though he's impressed, with some reservations, by the biography, Andy is disappointed with the new edition of the stories, which offers little additional to justify its price.  Martin Lewis is more pleased with Frances Hardinge's Twilight Robbery, the sequel to Fly by Night, though he finds flaws in the novel that are, perhaps, inevitable given its YA focus.  Chris Kammerud rounds out the week with a review of Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, a literary fabulist novel that Chris is very impressed by.

Monday, June 06, 2011

X-Men: First Class

The first installment of the modern film incarnation of the X-Men franchise came out in 2000, and is generally held to have been the harbinger of the following decade's deluge of superhero and comic book films.  I remember going to see the film several weeks after its US release had been greeted by effusive reviews, which praised it for taking the comic book adaptation an enormous step forward, and wondering what all the fuss was about.  Even knowing next to nothing about the comics, it was clear to me that here was a complex setting that had been shoehorned into the standard Hollywood template of a single hero backed by a team.  The creakiness of that process's result was only exacerbated by a dull story, thin characterization, and lackluster action sequences.  I liked X-Men 2 a little better, but the third film was terrible, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine was even worse.  The franchise, which never seemed to have much life in it to start with, was clearly on its last legs, so I wasn't particularly looking forward to the fifth installment, and when I heard what form it would take--a prequel (boo!), which would reboot the franchise (hiss!), featuring younger, less expensive actors (shades of the new Star Trek), and cash in on the 60s obsession sparked by Mad Men by centering its story around the Cuban Missile Crisis (and casting January Jones as one of the main characters)--I was sure that X-Men: First Class would be an unmitigated disaster.

Then the intriguing trailers were released, followed by a trickle of very positive reviews, and by the time I sat down to watch the film last night my expectations had been properly raised, and then met.  With First Class, the X-Men franchise finally escapes the gravitational pull of Hugh Jackman's star power (though Jackman shows up in a brief and very funny cameo), and tells a story about an actual ensemble.  There is a huge amount of story in this film--the backgrounds of established characters Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), as well as several unfamiliar ones; the roots of Xavier's foundation and the conflict of ideologies between him and Magneto; and an alternate history in which the Cuban Missile Crisis is precipitated by a former Nazi scientist and mutant (Kevin Bacon) and nuclear war is averted through Xavier's mutants' intervention.  First Class manages to deliver all of this story with a lightness that is almost impossible to believe.  It's fast, but never rushed.  There are choppy moments--the montage in which Charles and Erik recruit young mutants is a lot of fun, but a later training montage is mired in too-familiar tropes--and questionable decisions--bad enough that the only mutant to die other than the villain is also the only black man, but who thought it was a good idea to end the film with all the remaining non-white mutants, and all of the mutant women, on Magneto's team, and the sole human woman mind-wiped by Xavier?  But the finished product is almost effortlessly engaging.  It also manages to balance all that story with several affecting and well-drawn character arcs.  The friendship between Charles and Erik, and their partnership's dissolution, is of course at the film's heart, but First Class also leaves space for several other characters to come to the fore and struggle with their feelings about what they are and how society sees them.

In short, X-Men: First Class is a very impressive film that breathes new and previously unsuspected life into the franchise.  I'd recommend it wholeheartedly--if only it weren't for the Holocaust thing.  The previous X-Men films prioritized the reading of mutation as a parable for homosexuality ("have you tried... not being a mutant?") with a few references to the persecution of Jews and other minorities.  First Class reverses that approach.  Though there are several instances in which mutants are treated as crypto-homosexuals--Mystique's repeated slogan "mutant and proud!"--for the most part the film hammers in the parallels with Jews, and particularly Jews during the Holocaust.  The film opens with an almost shot-by-shot recreation of the first X-Men's opening scene, in which a young Magneto, separated from his parents by Nazi guards in a concentration camp, bends a metal gate with his mind in a futile attempt to reach them.  Instead of jumping forward half a century as X-Men did, First Class carries on from that point, introducing us to the villain, Sebastian Shaw, as a Mengele-like figure who experiments on Erik in an attempt to understand and develop his powers.  It then jumps forward to 1962 and to an Erik who is pursuing Shaw.  Throughout the film, Erik's distrust in humanity is filtered through those vividly-depicted experiences at Shaw's hands, and the fact that Shaw is working with key figures in both the American and Soviet governments (as former Nazi scientists did in reality) only serves to validate that distrust.

The use of mutants as a metaphor for Jews is problematic in several ways.  At the most basic level, it's a problem because, no more than homosexuals, Jews are not a separate species with superpowers.  It's been the core flaw of the X-Men films that even as they deliberately recall various real-world instances of prejudice and persecution, they provide concrete evidence for the danger that the mutants pose--they possess extraordinary powers that, when left untrained or simply placed in the wrong hands, allow them to commit crimes with impunity, destabilize the foundations of society, or become unstoppable killing machines.  That society reacts to mutants with sweeping, indiscriminate persecution may be unjustified, but the fear that drives that reaction is, as the films repeatedly show us, entirely reasonable.  This was hard to swallow when the metaphor was that mutants were homosexuals, but in a film that not only parallels mutants with Jews but whose story exists so completely in the shadow of the Holocaust, it becomes something deeply disturbing (I say that, of course, as someone who has personal associations with the Holocaust and only academic ones with homophobia; someone with different life experience might have found the earlier X-Men films equally hard to watch).  First Class explicitly parallels the Nazi extermination of Jews with the American and Soviet governments joining forces, at the film's end, to take out all the mutants, good and bad alike.  Which is to say that it reduces Nazi antisemitism to fear of the other.  Not revulsion, not tribalism, not scapegoating, but fear--a fear that is entirely justified, even if the actions it precipitates are not.

Much worse than this, however, is the way the film constructs Erik's story and his descent into supervillainhood.  We're introduced to the grown-up Erik as he follows Shaw all over the world, a sequence that is a highlight reel of the post-war complicity of governments and institutions in the escape from justice of former Nazis--first a Swiss banker who has laundered Shaw's Nazi gold, then a trip to Argentina where former true believers are lying low, courtesy of a sympathetic government.  If it weren't for the mutation angle, Erik would be instantly recognizable as a Mossad agent on the trail of a war criminal, and in fact the film's events take place shortly after the kidnapping--from Argentina--of Adolf Eichmann by Mossad agents and his trial and execution in Israel.  In the film's final scene, the moment at which Erik chooses to become Magneto, Charles tries to dissuade him from destroying the ships which, only a few moments ago, had tried to kill all of the mutants, claiming that the people on those ships were "just following orders."  Erik replies that he has been at the mercy of people who were just following orders, and vows, "never again."  So Erik is not simply a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, but a crypto-Israeli.  His attitudes--that those who persecute mutants must be hunted down to the ends of the earth; that mutants must never again leave themselves at the mercy of those who might turn on them--are familiar from post-war Zionism, and continue to form the foundation of the Israeli self-image.  And in First Class, they are the attitudes of a villain.

Up until he decides to destroy the American and Soviet ships and vows enmity against humanity, Erik's goals are largely sympathetic--he wants to kill Shaw, who not only killed Erik's mother in front on him and experimented on Erik, but is a former Nazi scientist, Hollywood's go-to for unambiguously evil boogeymen.  But because we know that Erik is on his way to becoming Magneto, who will himself attempt genocide on more than one occasion, it's inevitable that we view him with distrust.  First Class plays up that distrust through Charles, who repeatedly urges Erik to give up his quest for revenge.  In fairness, First Class doesn't entirely validate Charles's point of view--his classically assimilationist belief that if only mutants can prove that they are model citizens, humanity will embrace them is dealt a hard dose of reality at the film's end when the people he's just helped save from nuclear war band together to kill him--but on the point that killing Shaw is wrong, and that for Erik it represents the moment when he, essentially, transforms from Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, the film never wavers.  It even hammers this in when it reveals that Shaw is a proto-Magneto, bent on destroying humanity so that mutants can thrive.  Even Magneto's famous helmet turns out to have been a legacy from Shaw.

What's wrong with X-Men: First Class isn't that it's anti-Israel, which I don't actually think it is.  Rather, what troubles me about the film is that it feels like yet another expression of an attitude that I've been noticing more and more often in Western, and particularly American, popular culture as it struggles with the topic of genocide and national trauma--a crucial failure of empathy, imagination, and, finally, perspective, that leads to a blanket condemnation of anger.  I saw this in Battlestar Galactica when human characters who refused to make peace with the Cylons--the people who had destroyed their civilization--were made into villains.  I noticed it a few weeks ago when I watched an old Star Trek: Voyager episode, "Jetrel," in which Neelix is urged, and eventually agrees, to forgive the person who designed the weapon that depopulated Neelix's home colony and killed his entire family.   And I see it in the increasing prevalence of vengeful victim characters, who are condemned not for the choices they make in pursuit of revenge, but simply for feeling anger.  There is in stories like this a small-mindedness that prioritizes the almighty psychiatric holy grail of "healing"--letting go of one's anger for the sake of inner peace--over justified, even necessary moral outrage.  First Class condemns Erik not for targeting innocents and embracing the same prejudiced mentality as his Nazi tormentors, but for wanting to kill Shaw.  It places two choices before him: either he takes the life of the person who killed his family and tortured him, in which case he's a villain, or he relinquishes not only his quest for revenge but the anger driving it (the alternative of putting Shaw on trial for crimes against humanity is never suggested).  As if to add insult to injury, the latter option is presented by Charles--a rich, privileged gentile who has not only never experienced a day of hardship in his life but who, as Mystique points out, has no problem passing for human--with a glibness that belies the film's claim that he has seen Erik's memories and fully comprehends his pain.

The key scene of X-Men: First Class has been repeated in all its trailers: Charles tells Erik that killing will not bring him peace; Erik replies that peace was never his goal.  This is the moment that's meant to define them as hero and villain--Charles, the man of peace; Erik, who embraces killing.  To my mind it's actually the moment that sums up the film's moral bankruptcy.  Charles is the hero because he thinks peace of mind is more important than punishing a mass murderer.  Erik is the villain because he can't stop being angry at the person who murdered his mother in front of him.  Scratch just a little bit beneath that surface and you'll find the ugly truth that underpins most of Hollywood's attempts to grapple with the Holocaust and atrocities like it.  Erik is a villain not because of what he does with his anger, but because bad things happened to him.  Charles is the hero because he's lucky enough not to have been victimized.  The fact is, Hollywood--pop culture in general, actually--doesn't like victims.  It's willing to feel sorry for them, but it won't quite accept them as heroes.  We want our heroes to be strong, inviolate.  Victims--those who haven't passed through fire unscathed, or somehow worked their way back to the exact same person they were before their ordeal--are suspect, damaged goods, defiled.  We'd rather believe that there's something wrong with them for how they react to their experiences than to accept that we too might react the same way.  So we consign them to villainy, and embrace as heroes those who are simply fortunate.  There was space in X-Men: First Class to buck against this trend, but instead it reinforces it.  It bills itself as the story of how Charles and Erik became a hero and a villain, but the answer that it ultimately reveals is: because that's how they were written.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, May 30-June 3

In honor of Carol Emshwiller's recent 90th birthday, this week's Strange Horizons issue is dedicated to Emshwiller's work.  The reviews department kicks off the focus week with L. Timmel Duchamp's review of the recent Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller, Volume 1, in which she charts the development of Emshwiller's voice and prevailing themes through her short fiction.  Paul Kincaid reviews Emshwiller's first novel, Carmen Dog, a work of feminist SF, and Maureen Kincaid Speller reviews the novels Ledoyt and Leaping Man Hill, Emshwiller's forays into the Western genre.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Novella Shortlist

And now we come to the last of our shortlist reviews.  After the disappointing and even infuriating short story and novelette ballots, it would be nice to report that the Hugo-nominated novellas are an exciting and worthwhile bunch of stories.  Instead, the shortlist (minus Alastair Reynolds's "Troika" which is not online) is solid, by no means a slog to get through and at some points quite good, but hardly enough to save this year's short fiction nominations from the condemnation that should be heaped upon them.

On the other hand, there's only one stinker on this ballot. Geoffrey A. Landis's "The Sultan of the Clouds," (PDF) a pulpy wannabe adventure whose narrator, David Tinkerman, travels with his employer, the brilliant terraforming scientist Leah Hamakawa, to Venus at the invitation of the title character, the heir to a vast fortune.  "Sultan" is one of those stories that puts most of its eggs in the worldbuilding basket, so it spends a lot of time explaining how the ruling clans of the solar system developed by essentially cornering the market on spaceflight, how human beings can live on Venus by constructing flying cities, and how the societies of those cities function.  Unfortunately, Landis has a bit of a tin ear for description, and David is the guy who needs to impress you with how much he knows, so far too much of the story is taken up with flat, almost aggressive infodumps.  Despite the pulpy setting, there's almost no wonder in David's voice, not even the wonder of a technophile examining an impressive and innovative use of technology, which the Venusian cities are full of.  The best he can manage is to make constant references to how expensive everything around him must be.  And when he discovers social customs that flummox him, such as the Venusian "braid marriage," in which an older partner marries a much younger one, whom they raise, train, and initiate into sex, and who will, in their turn, take their own younger partner to do the same to, David's reaction is a blanket condemnation and, in his own bland, affectless sort of way, disgust.  With no indication in the narrative that we're meant to see David as unreliable or question his reactions, "Sultan" seems to expect us to sympathize with a narrow-minded, unimaginative, judgmental character and, when it turns out that Leah, with whom David is in love, has been invited to Venus so that her host can propose to her, to root for him.  Once the proposal scheme is revealed, the story treats Leah as an entirely passive creature who must be rescued, despite the fact that she is neither being tricked nor forced into marriage, and in fact chooses on her own to say no.  David's complete inability to consider that Leah might be fully capable of considering a marriage proposal and making an informed decision to accept or decline it is only one of the ways in which Landis--entirely unwittingly, it seems--paints him as a creep, and his triumphant ending is thus a bitter pill to swallow.

Elizabeth Hand's "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon" is the sort of low-key story, naturalistic but with the faintest hint of the fantastic, that I've come to associate with her, going all the way back to "The Least Trumps" in Conjunctions 39, my first encounter with her writing.  As in that story, the narrator of "Bellerophon" is middle-aged, banged about by life, and uneasy in the company of others.  After the death of his wife, Robbie crawled into the bottle and lost his job, and though he seems to have reached a point of equilibrium, his life--and that of his teenage son Zach--is rather joyless.  When two old friends from Robbie's days as a young security guard at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum (which Hand, for some reason, calls the Museum of American Aviation and Aerospace) contact Robbie to help them recreate the title film, the footage of a failed, pre-Wright attempt at manned flight, as a gift to one of the museum's former curators who is dying of cancer, Robbie agrees mainly for lack of anything better to do.  Which rather describes the tone of the entire story, in which Robbie is mostly carried along by others' plans and desires, an observer rather than an active participant, because he's still too crushed by grief and alcohol to break through his passivity.  Though I can respect Hand's decision not to write "Bellerophon" as the story of Robbie and Zach's miraculous healing and return to life--they experience some moments of joy and closeness as they help to recreate the footage, but whether they can hold on to those feelings and build on them is not only left ambiguous but is not truly central to the narrative--that choice leaves the story a little inert.  It seems to rely too much on our sharing a fascination with the Bellerophon and the entire early history of manned flight, in a way that is all too reminiscent of the nostalgia that scuttled my enjoyment of so many of this year's nominated novelettes, and the touch of fantastic that is introduced near the story's end feels a little too disconnected from its tone and events.  "Bellerophon" is well written, and though its melancholy tone overstays its welcome that is also well done, but it feels less whole and less affecting than other Hand stories I've read.

I read Ted Chiang's The Lifecycle of Software Objects a little more than a year ago, while on holiday in Wales with a large group of friends.  As the week wore on and each of us got our turn with the book, you could see the same reactions playing across the face of each reader: first excitement, then dismay, then disappointment, and finally a sort of resignation.  It's not that Lifecycle is bad, we all agreed at the week's end, but it's certainly not up to the quality we've come to expect from Chiang.  A year later, I find that Lifecycle's strengths linger more than its weaknesses.  As an exploration of that quintessentially SFnal theme, the effect of technology on humanity, it is unlike anything I've ever read, and yet an entirely relevant, even necessary approach to that subject that too many other writes ignore--the fact that so much of technology is used for silly, mundane things like hobbies and entertainment, and that economics and market forces play a huge role in how technology develops.  Lifecycle's protagonists, Ana and Derek, are employed by a company that makes digital pets, called "digients," for users of a Second Life-style virtual environment.  As part of their efforts to make the digients more lifelike and interactive Ana and Derek adopt their own copies and become attached to them, developing a friendship in the process.  When the company shuts down, they and other devoted digient owners form a community to help their pets survive and continue developing without technical support.  The story spans a period of more than a decade during which the technological landscape around Ana, Derek, and the digients changes--fashions fade away, the virtual environment the digients were written for shuts down--making the human characters who scramble to find a way to keep their digients running the equivalent of Atari enthusiasts, but with an added weight of emotional attachment and almost parental responsibility, and, of course, the central question of the story--are the digients genuine artificial intelligences or simply sophisticated pets, and is Ana and Derek's investment of time, money, and emotional energy in their well-being justified?

Chiang handles these questions with his typical deftness, but where Lifecycle fails, the reason that so many of us on that vacation found it, ultimately, disappointing, is in its handling of the human characters.  Over the course of their acquaintance and friendship Ana and Derek fall into and out of relationships (which often fail because their partners don't share their enthusiasm for digients) but eventually Derek falls in love with Ana.  The story's conclusion hinges on his belief that he needs to choose between her and the digients.  Unfortunately, Chiang never sells Derek and Ana as people, and there's a flatness to Lifecycle's prose that leaves them inert even as it sharply dissects the story's technological themes.  Their story is rife with clichés--Derek's wife's resentment of his devotion to digients, which she suspects is a blind for an affair with Ana, Ana's boyfriends' belief that they come second to the digients--and Chiang doesn't overcome them.  It's hard to know which aspect of The Lifecycle of Software Objects--the brilliant approach to technology or the indifferent handling of characters--wins out.  Though, as I said, it's the former that has stayed freshest in my mind, the latter keeps me from being able to unreservedly praise the story.

Rachel Swirsky's "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window" feels almost like Lifecycle's mirror image.  Like the Chiang, this is a story told in brief installments over a long period of time (though in Swirsky's case this period spans eons, not decades) during which one observes the development of a certain branch of technological know-how.  On the other hand, "Lady" is a fantasy (and the "technology" in question is actually magic), beautifully and almost poetically written, and features some very well drawn characters.  The narrator and title character is Naeva, a sorceress in the court of queen Rayneh who, at the moment of her death, is bound by magic and kept from oblivion.  She's recalled into the world by the queen, her heirs, the people who overpower her nation, and representatives of the civilizations that follow in order to give advice and help create powerful spells.  Swirsky does a good job with Naeva, who is proud and ruthless, as well as with the settings she visits and the gradual change of the societies within them.  On the other hand, what bothers me about "Lady" is the absence of a strong common theme to tie these interludes together.  There are a lot of different themes that "Lady" touches on--Naeva's society is strongly matriarchal, even dividing women into full citizens and "broods" whose job it is to bear children, and her disdain towards men and disgust and the notion of their learning magic is challenged at first when she is summoned into patriarchal societies, and later when a female scholar she befriends tries to stop a plague with a cure that will require teaching magic to men and women alike; another challenge to Naeva's worldview is the perception that later generations have of her people as being harsh, while she thinks of them as "lawful" and "unflinching," and compares their cruelty to the barbarism she's exposed to by her later summoners; finally, there is the question of what Naeva is and what destiny she's bound for as she traverses centuries and millennia.  It doesn't, however, delve deeply into any of these themes, and ends up feeling a little bitty--another way in which this story and The Lifecycle of Software Objects feel like mirror images.  I walked away from "Lady" feeling satisfied by its parts but a little dubious about its whole.

If I had to choose this year's novella winner, I'd have a hard time picking between The Lifecycle of Software Objects and "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window."  Both have profound strengths and equally profound flaws.  In the end I think I'd pick the Swirsky, though I suspect that Hugo voters will choose the Chiang.  It's interesting to note that unlike the short story and novelette shortlists, this year's novella ballot has no dominant theme or prevailing mood.  It features pulp SF, an almost naturalistic character piece, near-future technological speculation, and high fantasy.  This might be taken as a reflection of the strength of the field, or of its weakness--with fewer novellas being published, there's less room for authors or fandom to express their current preoccupations.  The fact that the resulting ballot is, as I said, solid but unexciting leads me to suspect that the latter is true, so that despite being the strongest of this disappointing year's three short fiction Hugo ballots, it still leaves me feeling rather dispirited.