Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 59 books in 2011, a bit of a drop from previous years which is mainly due to Strange Horizons and the SF Encyclopedia taking up a lot of my time, but also, as I mentioned yesterday, because commuting by car rather than pubic transport has cut into my reading time.  Probably the most interesting thing about this year's reading is that for the first time since I've been keeping track, I've read more books by women than men.  This is mainly due to my Women Writing SF project from early in the year (though a reread of the entire Harry Potter series in August, inspired by the release of the last movie, also helped).  If you look at the gender breakdown of best and worst books, there's a clear indication that I should strive to maintain, and even increase, this preference for women writers.

All told, 2011 was a good reading year but not a remarkable one.  I read many books I enjoyed, if few that I loved unreservedly, and not many that I hated.  Most of all, I didn't read nearly as many books as I wanted, and going into 2012 there are at least a dozen books that I'd like to be my next read, and that I would have loved to have gotten to this year.  Which is not a bad place to be in, I suppose.  Without Further ado, then, the best books of the year, in alphabetical order of their authors' names:
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

    Once again, NYRB Classics delivers the year's hands-down winner.  Bengtsson's invented Viking saga, which follows the adventures of the sardonic, cheerfully bloody-minded Red Orm as he is kidnapped into slavery, becomes a royal bodyguard in Muslim Spain, escapes and makes his fortune pirating, and returns to his home to become a great chieftain, is an effortlessly fun adventure story, full of wonderful characters--including some memorable and prominent female characters such as Orm's mother and love interest.  Bengtsson tells his story with enough of a straight face that it comes across like a Tolkien-esque recreation that chucks overboard the tools of modernist fiction in favor of plotty, adventurous fun, but he also has a sense of humor about his subject, and doesn't mind poking fun at either his characters or the conventions of their story.  A thought-provoking discussion of religious conflict in the story's era, with pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews vying, at certain points, for supremacy, and at others, for survival under an inhospitable regime, and constantly making the case for their own way of life, gives the story some heft, but even this is leavened by Bengtsson's sense of humor and Red Orm's practical approach to all matters, the spiritual included.  When I started The Long Ships, I worried that I would find nothing human enough in it to grab onto and interest me, but by the time I turned the last page I was heartbroken at the thought that I could spend no more time following the adventures of its wonderful characters.

  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

    At the very other end of the genre scale, Egan's literary novel par excellence is a reminder of why I continue to read literary fiction and of the pleasures that can be found in it.  A Visit From the Goon Squad is quintessentially literary--plotless and focusing on character and affect--but it uses its leaps back and forth through the lives of large cast of loosely connected characters, taking the old and dissipated back to their innocent youth, the young and hopeful forward to disappointed middle age, to land a hell of a punch.  Slowly and almost obliquely, Egan drives home that point that time and its ravages spare no one, and the characters she subjects to those ravages are so human and so relatable that by the time her scheme becomes apparent the novel is nothing short of heartbreaking.  The segment set in the future works less well than the ones in the present and past, but it serves as a reminder that time doesn't stop for those of us who are still young--like it or not, the goon squad is waiting for us as well, and just around the corner.

  • Gullstruck Island (The Lost Conspiracy in the US) by Frances Hardinge (review)

    I read a lot of YA in 2011, and enjoyed most of it, but Hardinge's novel puts the rest of her field--and a lot of novels for adults--to shame.  Most YA reaches for a sense of familiarity, through the characters' worldview and reactions, if not through its setting and premise.  Hardinge not only reaches for foreignness, but makes it the crux of her story.  The titular setting, a tropical island, has a rich history of colonization and cultural mingling that is a pleasure to discover, and the plot revolves around cultural differences and misunderstandings.  The heroine, Hathin, is as much a product of her culture as everyone else in the novel, which makes her slightly foreign to us, and her decisions sometimes a little hard to understand.  Over the course of the novel she struggles, first for survival, then for revenge, and finally for the future of Gullstruck itself, but the real struggle, for her and for the rest of the cast, is to find a balance between respecting tradition and being bound by it, and between holding on to one's own culture and trampling the culture of others.  It's a weighty subject, but Hardinge handles it as lightly as she does the novel's twisty plot, which sees Hathin escaping the massacre of her village and trekking across Gullstruck while other point of view characters slowly grasp the danger facing everyone on the island, and which makes Gullstruck Island an utterly engrossing read.
Honorable Mentions:
  • God's War by Kameron Hurley - The setting grabbed me more than the plot or characters, but it is original and clever enough to make this novel a highlight of the year.

  • Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (review) - A fittingly dramatic conclusion to the excellent Chaos Walking trilogy, though it sadly fumbles the theme of gender introduced in the first volume.

  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine (review) - Like God's War, more impressive for its setting than its plot or characters, but also a novel that does interesting things with the clichés of steampunk and its circus setting.

  • The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (review) - Not as impressive as Goodman's masterpiece Intuition, but the novel's depiction of the late years of the dot com boom has stayed with me, and resonated through much of my SF reading in the last few months--pretty impressive for an Austen-tinged romance about cookbooks.
A special, collective honorable mention goes to the Women Writing SF reading project and the authors whose science fiction I discovered through it for the first time: Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (strictly speaking, a 2010 author), Mary Gentle, and even M.J. Engh, whose Arslan remains one of the most frustrating and challenging books I read this year.  I'm planning a second project, probably a little later in 2012, and hopefully its results will be as engrossing and illuminating.

And, since you can't have the good without the bad, the worst books of the year:
  • The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

    I had planned to write a long post about Orringer's well-received debut novel and why it put me off so completely, but time and the complexity of the task put that project off long past the point where I could do it justice without rereading the book.  Still, I can't let 2011 come to a close without saying something about this book, which encapsulate, to me, the corner that Holocaust fiction has turned in recent years, from fiction aimed at illustrating the horror of the Holocaust to fiction that uses the Holocaust as a backdrop to an adventure, or a coming of age story, or, in Orringer's case, a romance.  Orringer has the excuse of basing her story, in which Hungarian architecture student Andras falls in love with an older woman, Klara, during his studies in Paris, and brings her back to Hungary just as the war kicks into gear, trapping them both in a Nazi-friendly country, on the lives of her grandparents, but whether out of love and family loyalty, or simple tone-deafness, she has cast those lives into the mold of an insipid romance.  Not only are Andras and Klara inhumanly perfect, never selfish or angry or craven or forced to do anything unsavory to survive, but Orringer so valorizes and prioritizes their love story that the awfulness of the Holocaust becomes the fact that it might tear these lovers apart.  One of the most horrifying crimes of the twentieth century is thus reduced to a romance trope, the obstacle that must be placed in the lovers' path so that their inevitable happy ending feels earned, while the deaths of other characters feel like dramatic necessities, heightening tension or sweeping a now-pointless character off the board, not the crushing blows they must have been in real life.  It's pretty obvious that Orringer thinks that she's honored her grandparents and acknowledged the horror of what they and their families experienced, but what she's created is so glib and so devoid of any real horror that I found it nothing short of disgusting.

  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

    As I've already written, Rachman's implausibly well-reviewed debut feels like the antithesis of Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Like that novel it moves back and forth through time and through the lives of reporters, administrators, and hangers-on at a Rome-based international paper, leading up to the paper's collapse along with the rest of its industry in the early twenty-first century.  But Rachman, instead of creating human and believable characters, trades in stereotypes and in crude, too-obvious jokes, reaching for dramatic irony--a character who has romanticized their free-thinking best friend discovers that he is now conservative and small-minded, a woman strikes up a romance with an employee she's just had fired only for their connection to turn out to be a cruel prank--but landing, again and again, on clomping, leaden, unfunny endings that only stress how unlikable and unsympathetic everyone in the novel is.  Rachman not only completely fails to sell the grandeur of print journalism and its vanished era or greatness, but by the time he reaches the end of his story, his elegiac tone feels so incongruous with the unpleasant, cliché-ridden stories he's been telling that one wants nothing more than to drive a final stake through the medium's corpse.

  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson (review)

    Strictly speaking, Reamde isn't entirely a bad novel.  The early chapters have some typically Stephenson-ian excursus on the relationship between MMORPGs and economics, and the middle chapters are essentially one long action scene spread out over several days and locations, but nevertheless quite exciting.  But the novel is too long, and by its end both the neat inventiveness of its beginning and the cool action of its middle have faded away, several hundred pages before the story actually shuffles to its close.  Still, what's bad about Reamde is less the novel itself and more the way that its failures as a piece of fiction lay bare Stephenson's limited, self-satisfied, ethnocentric worldview, which in turn spurred a, perhaps long overdue, reevaluation of his past fiction, which suffers from the same flaws.  Reamde is on this list, then, because it may very well have put me off Stephenson for good.
Dishonorable mentions:
  • Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber - What I had hoped would be a cool mystery starring a female scientist turned out to be a weepy romance with a self-absorbed protagonist and a nonsensical plot.

  • Snuff by Terry Pratchett (review) - Poorly written and harping too hard on themes already worn into the ground, this latest Discworld volume turns Sam Vimes into someone who is more concerned with his own image as a class warrior than with actually being a class warrior, and treats slavery with an infuriating glibness.
That's it for 2011, then.  Have a nice (and safe) New Year's Eve tonight, and happy reading in 2012.

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011, A Year in Reading: Kindled

Whatever the opposite of early adopter is, I'm it.  I tend to stick with what works, and am rarely in a rush to discover how a new gadget might improve my life.  I started this blog in 2005 when the format was already starting to get a bit stale (and am still plugging away at it going into 2012 when it's become positively antiquated).  I've only had a Gmail account for a year.  I got my first smartphone last week (and by "got," I mean that my mother, who is an early adopter extraordinaire, was first in line when the iPhone 4S became available in Israel and bequeathed me her old iPhone 3G).  Accordingly, it took a while for me to wrap my mind around the notion of an electronic reader as a viable alternative to paper books, and as something that I might enjoy and get a lot of use out of, and it wasn't until Amazon announced the Kindle 3, at a price point that seemed reasonable for what still felt, at the time, like a dubious endeavor, that I decided to take the plunge.  That was a year ago (in the interim Amazon has released a whole new Kindle, and the Kindle Fire), and the end of 2011 seemed like a good time to summarize my reactions to this device and the ways that it has affected my reading.

Before I say anything about my reaction to the Kindle, I should probably explain my choice of this particular device.  Even given that I prefer electronic ink to backlit displays, there were other options (albeit none that are as easily accessible in Israel).  Amazon is in such bad odor these days, both for its hardball tactics against authors and publishers, and for clinging to DRM in the face of the public's disdain, that one feels the need to justify buying into their model rather than anyone else's.  Or maybe I do, because though I do understand and accept that Amazon are now the Evil Empire, and that they may very well be doing real damage to authors and the publishing industry, I can't shake my love and loyalty to that company.  It is in no way an exaggeration to say that Amazon changed my life.  Without it and the access it gave me at a time when my local bookbuying options were severely limited, I would not be reading the books that I read today, and I would certainly not be writing this blog, or going to conventions, or editing the Strange Horizons reviews department.  Amazon made me the reader--and thus, the blogger and reviewer--that I am, so when the time came to pick an e-reader there was never really any question about which one I'd choose.  And it doesn't hurt that the Kindle is a really great device--comfortable to hold, easy to navigate and read from--and that the bookbuying end is as convenient as buying from Amazon has always been.  I'd be happier if Amazon had different business practices, but nothing they've done yet is enough to overcome the combination of my loyalty and their fine engineering.

On to the device itself, perhaps the biggest change that the Kindle has made to my reading habits is that it has made them more spontaneous.  I've been buying books from Amazon since 1996, but for most of that period, the costly, time-consuming physical process of getting those books to me imposed a calculated, bean-counting mentality on the way I purchased books.  Before the Kindle, I would hear about an interesting book, and if I couldn't find it in local bookstores (which was usually the case) it would go on my Amazon wish list.  The next time I placed an Amazon order (three or four times a year, usually), that book would vie with all the other books that had caught my eye in the previous few months, and the ones that had been on my wish list longer, to be one of the six or seven actually ordered.  Then several weeks would pass before I actually had the book in my hands--a procedure, all told, almost calculated to either cool my enthusiasm for a book, or stoke it so high that there could be no chance of satisfying it.  By removing the issue of shipping, the Kindle has short-circuited that entire process.  Niall Harrison started rhapsodizing about Kameron Hurley's God's War in early summer, and I was able to buy an electronic copy and see what all the fuss was about almost immediately.  Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad won the Tournament of Books, and instead of waiting two months for the paperback to appear in Israeli bookstores I just bought the Kindle edition.  Access and availability have been the bugbears of my reading life for the better part of twenty years, and even more than online bookbuying, the Kindle has helped to eliminate them.

There are several caveats that should be mentioned here, the first and most frustrating, to me, being that my access is still not complete.  Some books don't have Kindle or other ebook editions.  Worse, some have Kindle editions that are not sold in my region.  For newer books, stores like Weightless and Baen, as well as publishers like Angry Robot, help to plug some of the holes, but there are a lot of older and out of print books without electronic editions.  Especially with so many other books readily available to me, it's hard not to fly into a foot-stamping rage when the one particular book I'd like to read is still limited to dead tree form.  Another caveat is that for all that I'm pleased with my Kindle and enjoy reading with it, I'm still reading a lot of physical books as well.  In fact, only a third of the books I read in 2011 were ebooks.  Partly this is due to the fact that around the same time that I purchased a Kindle, I also bought my first car, which has made my commute infinitely more convenient but also cost me a lot of reading time.  And when reading at home, the Kindle found itself fighting for prominence with my TBR stack (seen here, amazing as it may seem, in its younger, smaller days).

This will change in future years, I'm sure, but I think that it will be a while yet before ebooks make up most, or even half, of my reading.  And that's because one of the strangest and most unexpected effects that the Kindle has had on my reading habits is that it has instilled in me a new respect for the book as a physical object.  I've never really cared what my books look like and what condition they're in.  I preferred paperbacks to hardcovers because they were cheaper, lighter, and easier to stuff in a bag and carry around.  For the same reasons, I preferred beat-up, used paperback to new ones.  And I let myself feel a little superior for having these preferences--I care about the words, not how they're bound and printed!  Then the Kindle comes along, and all of a sudden I'm saying to myself: maybe this book I want in paper.  Because as everyone says, when you buy an ebook, you've really just rented it.  This has nothing to do with DRM, by the way--as the old joke goes, the book is a format that has lasted for centuries, while computer platforms and file formats are lucky to live to be a few decades old.  And even if DRM or file formats or the obsolescence of your platform don't get you, the short half-life of electronic storage will, long before the books on your bookshelf have done anything but get a little yellow.

Which, given that I read most books only once, is fine for most of my reading, but I've found that there are certain titles and authors that I want on my shelves.  I could have bought Kindle editions of China Miéville's Embassytown and Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector, for example, but I preferred physical ones.  And conversely, after hearing less than stellar reports about Neal Stephenson's Reamde, I bought a Kindle edition so I could find out if it was as bad as all that without being left with a behemoth to clog up my shelves.  Even worse, having enjoyed God's War and A Visit From the Goon Squad immensely, I now find myself wondering if I should buy physical copies of them.  The end result of which will no doubt be a sort of two-tier system of reading, where physical books are still the primary format, and the only reliable means of storage.  As much as I enjoy my Kindle, then, and though I anticipate using it more and more in the years to come, I can't say that it has ushered me into a new era of digital reading.  If anything, it seems to have cemented my loyalty to the analog.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Recent Movie Roundup 15

A bumper crop of films as the year draws to its close--this write-up doesn't even include The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which I watched only a few weeks ago and already can't remember a thing about.  And there's more to come--the next month sees The Artist, Margin Call, Hugo, and We Need to Talk About Kevin opening in Israeli theaters.  My thoughts at this interim point:
  1. Moneyball (2011) - For brief moments in this tedious, inert film one gets a sense of the very interesting work it might have been, a darkly cynical anti-sports movie.  The film, which follows baseball manager Billy Beane (a typically good Brad Pitt in a run of the mill performance whose Oscar buzz is utterly baffling) as he tries to use statistics to get out from under the huge budget disparity between his team and the league leaders by identifying cheap but under-appreciated players, works to undermine the romanticism of the form.  Gone are the homilies about teamwork--Beane horse-trades his players with barely a thought spared for their fate or feelings--or about the power of heart or the magic of the game, replaced by pages upon pages of incomprehensible numbers and inscrutable acronyms.  This could have made for an interesting story, one that acknowledged that big sports is a business where money wins championships, and where a new business model can (temporarily) rock the boat.  But Moneyball, on top of being rather slack and taking too long to tell what is ultimately a rather thin story, doesn't quite have the guts to follow its premise to its logical conclusion.  It tries to be soulful and triumphant as it charts the "revolution" that Beane is leading in baseball and hints at the way that that revolution would go on to leave him behind--once the effectiveness of Beane's methods had been demonstrated, the bigger, richer teams adopted them and the same inequality that had relegated his team to the bottom of the league reasserted itself.  Which means that the film fails to acknowledge what is obvious even to someone who doesn't care a bit about baseball--that what Beane is doing is ripping the soul out of the game, prioritizing cautious, defensive point-scoring over athleticism.  The suggestion that this is all that baseball ever was--a mass of statistics and meaningless trivia, like the record for most consecutive wins that Beane's team breaks during the season charted by the film--is, like so many other Moneyball's interesting ideas, something that is hinted at, but quickly discarded.

  2. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) - For several years now I've been meaning to read something by John Le Carré, and the release of a star-studded and critically-hailed adaptation of one of his best-known novels seemed like the perfect excuse.  I liked the book well enough (though I can't help but wonder if it relies too much for its effect on associations with Empire and with the Cold War that I just don't possess), but reading it shortly before seeing the film turned out to have been a mistake.  As well made as the new Tinker Tailor is, and as stuffed with fine actors whom I like and who give good account of themselves, it is undeniably shoddy as an adpatation, not simply because there just isn't enough room in even a long film to do justice to the novel's twisty yet episodic plot, which is here alternately absurd and incomprehensible (and that as a result a large portion of the cast, including Colin Firth and Ciaran Hinds, are wasted), but for the less forgivable sin of filing away a lot of the novel's cynicism and despair.  So Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), the young MI6 agent who is recruited to help disgraced senior agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) ferret out a mole in the organization, is a callow youth instead of an older man gracelessly crossing into middle age and perhaps losing his edge, and Ricky Tarr's (Tom Hardy) recruitment of a Soviet spy is romantic rather than exploitative.  The disconnect between the film and novel's tones comes to a head in the former's ending, in which the discovery of the mole--in the novel a necessary but ultimately hollow victory that only reinforces the moral bankruptcy and exhaustion of the main characters--is a cheerful triumph.

    I was so disappointed in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the film, that I searched out Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the 1979 miniseries which has become the stuff of legend.  It addresses many of my complaints about the film, largely because the broader canvas gives the writers the chance to address the novel's complexity and its ambivalence towards the intelligence war between MI6 and Moscow Center--Ricky's romance with Irina the soviet spy, for example, is here given an episode to itself, which allows us to see the way that his initially mercenary pursuit of her grows into romance, and how that romance is nevertheless tinged with his fundamental selfishness and immaturity.  The miniseries also preserves the novel's episodic structure, with Smiley tracking down former agents who witnessed the events that got him chucked out of the service--events which, he is now convinced, were orchestrated by the mole--and listening to their narratives.  The film tries to rejigger these narratives into a standard three-act structure and makes a mess of them, and the miniseries is much more coherent (though oddly both the film and the miniseries move the failed overseas mission that sets the story's events in motion to their prologue, which makes for an exciting opening but undercuts the character of Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong in the film, Ian Bannen in the miniseries) when he turns up near the end of the story to tell his part in it and has little left to say).  Another interesting--and amusing--difference between the two adaptations is that the film is trying so consciously to be historical that it overshoots its period--set in 1974, its settings, interiors, and even costumes look more suited to the 1950s.  The miniseries, filmed only a few years after the book's events take place, feels freer to show us 1970s fashions--the billboards and neon lights of central London, or the horribly moddish decor of Smiley's living room.

    The one point that I will grant the film over the miniseries is that I much prefer Gary Oldman's Smiley to Alec Guiness's.  Guiness's performance is supposed to be iconic, and he's certainly very good, but I find his Smiley too cold and cerebral.  Oldman's Smiley is a man in the grips of depression, having lost the job that defined him and the wife he's never been able to hold on to, and the film is a chronicle of his slow escape from that depression as he rediscovers his purpose in life.  It's a more human performance than Guinness's (without being any less intelligent) and it gives the film around it, incoherent as it is, meaning and heft.

  3. Drive (2011) - In its opening act, Drive seems like little more than a well-made, slightly off-beat variant on a familiar theme.  Stunt driver by day, wheelman by night Ryan Gosling (whose character remains unnamed throughout the film and is referred to as Driver in the credits) forms an intense connection with his neighbor (Carey Mulligan) and her young son.  When her husband is released from prison, Driver agrees to help him pull once last job to pay off his former associates, and things naturally go very wrong from there.  The film's early scenes, which mostly revolve around Gosling and Mulligan gazing at one another with barely suppressed yearning, work hard to suggest the canonical form of this type of story, in which the criminal character is just dangerous enough to be appealing, but really a softie deep down.  As Driver's predicament deepens, however, it quickly becomes clear that far from being a rogue with a heart of gold, he is actually an angel-faced psychopath, whose sweet infatuation with a pretty girl and her cute son does nothing to diminish (and perhaps even intensifies) the violent impulses that lead to some truly gruesome and horrifying scenes of violence in which he works his way up the totem pole to the people responsible for the bungled robbery.  But Drive doesn't aim for full-on realism.  It plugs this increasingly scary character into a fairly standard action movie plot (underpinned by a healthy dollop of Western), in which Driver is the vector for several tense, thrilling, and impeccably shot action and chase sequences, as well as the only person trying to protect Mulligan and her son.  By the end of the film, it's hard to know whether to root for Driver or recoil from him, whether to wish for his happy ending with Mulligan, or his death.  The result is a film that manages to burn through many of the callouses I've developed where action movies are concerned, to deliver genuine thrills and make me feel truly anxious about its characters' ultimate fate.

  4. The Muppets (2011) - From the very first days of The Muppet Show there's been a level of metafiction to the Muppet concept, in which the show within a show, an old-fashioned variety show with celebrity guests, is created by the characters, who play themselves as Hollywood insiders.  The movies extended that gag by pretending that the Muppets were show business newcomers trying to get their big break by staging a Muppet Show-style variety show, and achieving fame and fortune.  In all the discussion surrounding Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller's revival of the Muppet franchise and whether it would capture the "essence" of the characters and show, I've found myself wondering whether the people involved hadn't fallen for that metafictional gag a little too hard.  How else to explain the pedestal on which they place the Muppets, which not even the original series and movies could probably reach?  In its first half hour, The Muppets seems to have fallen into the same trap.  It tries too hard to charm, and spends too much time telling us that the Muppets--who are here forgotten superstars trying to make a comeback--are awesome rather than showing us that they are.  A lot of this is down to the new Muppet character Walter, whose Muppet-mania sparks the events of the film but who comes off as annoyingly, even selfishly needy rather than sweet.  As Walter is the audience identification character and strongly positioned as Kermit's potential heir, this is a problem, and one can't help but wish that the film had focused instead of Segel's Gary and Amy Adams's Mary as its main characters.  But then, around the time that the old Muppet gang turns up and starts cranking the familiar Muppet movie "let's put on a show" plot, the magic happens, and what was a film trying too hard to tug at our heartstrings becomes genuinely heart-tugging, funny, and lovable.  There are some very good jokes (a sequence parodying The Devil Wears Prada, with Miss Piggy in the Anna Wintour role and Emily Blunt reprising her role from that film, is sheer brilliance), and some good songs (though all are slightly outshined by the reprise of "Rainbow Connection" from the first Muppet movie).  The Muppets will probably not make the Muppets into superstars again, but then that's never what they were.  It may or may not introduce them to a new generation of kids, but then that's not really what I'm interested in.  What it does is capture the sweetness and charm of the original characters and show, and do so for an entertaining, heartwarming 90 minutes.  Plus, Chris Cooper raps.  What more could you possibly ask for?

  5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) - The latest installment in this intermittently fun but consistently soulless series gets the first half of the equation gratifyingly right.  It's less a movie than a sequence of ingenious, outrageous, impeccably staged action sequences strung together with some very flimsy connective tissue masquerading as plot.  Someone in the writers' room even bothered to look at the title this time around, so the crisis in this film is quite a bit more than the characters can handle, and the set pieces are enlivened, and made extremely tense, by failures of planning, equipment, or just a lot of crap landing on our heroes' heads.  For all that, the fun does wear a bit thin about halfway into the film--how many times can you watch these people skate just out of harm's way at the very last minute before it becomes tedious?--and with Tom Cruise's charisma-suck of a character, Ethan Hunt, still at the center of the film, and encouraging this installment's Designated Girl, Paula Patton, to embark on tandem flights of emo over the deaths of their respective partners, there hardly seems to be anyone worth investing in.  Happily, the franchise brings in Jeremy Renner, a live wire where Cruise is inert, to play a character much more interesting and more amusingly human--he spends much of the film freaking out over just how close to the wire the team flies.  (Simon Pegg, as the team's tech, is also fun but doesn't get a lot to do.)  If I knew that the Mission: Impossible films were being handed over to Renner, I'd be excited about the next one developing a soul to go along with the fun action.  Judging by the end of Ghost Protocol, however, Cruise is staying in the lead, so I guess the series will continue to live and die by its directors and stunt coordinators.

  6. Melancholia (2011) - Lars von Trier's latest film is made up of two distinct segments that, seemingly quite deliberately, mesh with each other only haltingly and partially.  In the first and shorter of the two, new bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst) arrives at her sister's enormous estate for a lavish and expensive wedding celebration.  Though she initially seems radiantly happy, Justine's mood soon sours--which is partly due to the influence of her awful, awful family, but mainly because she is coming back under the sway of a depression that, it is strongly implied, has dogged her for her entire life.  Try as she might, and strongly exhorted as she is, to feel happy, Justine eventually can't fake it anymore, and the evening collapses into a disaster.  The second half of the film takes place some unspecified time later and concentrates on Justine's sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as a nearly prostrate Justine is brought back to the estate to be cared for.  Claire is also fretting about a rogue planet, Melancholia, which scientists say is going to pass by the Earth, but which Claire fears, and Justine insists, is going to hit it.  You could try to read the second half of the film, and the approach of the doomsday planet, as a metaphor for depression--inescapable, undeniable, crushing--but this doesn't quite fit (for one thing, Justine, who turns out to be far more capable than her "normal" relatives of dealing with her impending death, actually snaps out of her depression towards the end of the film and helps them to cope).  You could, on the other hand, take Melancholia as a literal-minded film about the end of the world, but this too is a creaky reading--who, for example, would name a planet Melancholia?

    The film is thus suspended between these two interpretations, at one end a story about depression, at the other a story about the end of the world, which both do and do not fit together.  The film works as well as it does because of this tension and slight disconnect, but--and I am probably showing my colors here--I prefer its second half.  Dunst is very good as Justine (and she can join Homeland's Claire Danes on the list of actresses who portray mental illness in all its offputting, exhausting glory without obscuring the real person whom the illness afflicts--trying as she is, Justine is smarter and more forthright than most of her family, and probably better company even when she's losing her grip on sanity), but unhappy families, in this case, turn out to be all alike, and the implosion of the wedding party is alternately too familiar and over the top.  The second half of the film is, for all its understated concerns and familiar beats--at one point, Claire tries to escape the estate to the nearby village, as though this will make any difference--something new, and its version of apocalypse is one of the most stunning, because so bleak and merciless, that I have ever seen.  (For this reason, I'm a bit baffled by the fact that Dunst is being talked about quite seriously for an Oscar nomination while Gainsbourg--who arguably has a tougher job as a normal person faced with abnormal circumstances, while Justine spends the second half of the film as a superior cipher who "just knows" that the end of the world is coming--has not been.)  Melancholia is worth watching no matter what reading protocol you apply to it, but I for one would be happy to see it on this year's Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo ballot.

Friday, December 23, 2011

No Place Like: Thoughts on Homeland

It's late December, which for the last few years has been the time for my annual Dexter write-up.  That's not going to happen this year or, I suspect, any year in the future.  If you've watched the last season of Dexter, you know why.  If you haven't, do yourself a favor and avoid it.  Watch Homeland instead!  One of the biggest problems plaguing Dexter's sixth season was that it aired on the same channel, and back to back, with what is by now widely acknowledged as the best new show of the fall, if not all of 2011.  The contrast between the two shows only served to highlight the fact that Dexter is over, and Homeland is where it's at.

The basic premise--CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) believes that rescued American POW Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis) has been turned by his captors and is part of a planned attack on US soil--is fairly well known, but Homeland is nevertheless hard to talk about as a piece of storytelling because it takes its story through so many twists and turns over the course of a mere twelve hours.  The season's opening episodes establish what seems like a framework for the rest of the story: Carrie has (illegally) placed hidden cameras and microphones in Brody's house (it's a little galling to refer to a female character by her first name and a male character by his surname, but hardly anybody on the show, not even his friends and family, calls Brody Nicholas) through which she searches for proof of his terrorist affiliations while observing his halting reintegration into his old life, and a family who have lived the last eight years of their lives without him.

These episodes establish Homeland as a sort of show-within-a-show, an espionage thriller coating surrounding a family drama interior.  The latter, incidentally, is one of the few shows on TV to use nudity and sex in an intelligent way that advances our understanding of the characters, an effective counterpoint--and challenge--to Game of Thrones's sexposition.  Brody's disastrous attempts at sex with his wife Jessica (Morena Baccarin) when he first returns home are graphically depicted--in one scene, she tries to seduce him only for him to become visibly distressed, then throw her on the bed and thrust into her for a few seconds, rolling away while the camera remains trained on her face, as it crumples with the realization that her husband has just used her as an aid to masturbation; in another, he rejects her renewed advances and instead masturbates in front of her, and an initially game Jessica slumps further and further as it becomes clear that she might as well not be in the room.  The dysfunction and emotional sterility of these encounters drive home both the psychological damage that Brody has suffered and the gulf between him and his wife.  Both are sharply contrasted with our first introduction to Jessica, in which she has enthusiastic, deeply affectionate sex with the lover she's taken in Brody's absence (who is also Brody's best friend), in the warm afterglow of which she receives the news that Brody is coming home, and with Brody's more intimate sex scenes, later in the season, with Carrie--whom the show positions from the outset as someone who understands his experiences because she's had similar ones, and has been similarly damaged by them--and act as a shorthand to our understanding of all three characters.  (All that said, it is no doubt telling that Baccarin is topless in most of her sex scenes, while Danes is not.)

One could easily have crafted a twelve-episode season out of this scenario--the Brodys struggling to become a family again as Carrie watches, half embarrassed and half fascinated, gleaning clues to Brody's true affiliation--without wanting for interesting events, so it comes as something of a shock when Homeland overturns it after only a few episodes.  Carrie's surveillance equipment is removed; Brody learns about Jessica's affair and leaves home; Carrie's pursuit of the master terrorist Abu Nazir heats up and she becomes part of a CIA task force pursuing him, her conviction that he and Brody are allies taking a back seat to more concrete intelligence.  Homeland is characterized by these lightning-quick shifts in its storytelling.  After she loses her insider perspective on Brody's life, Carrie strikes up a friendship with him, pretending to be a sympathetic ear, and this quickly turns into an affair.  Again, we might have expected the show to draw this story out for the rest of the season, with Brody's realization that Carrie suspects him of being a terrorist (and Carrie's realization that she has genuine feelings for Brody) coming in episode 10 or 11.  Instead, the show moves through all of these beats in a single hour, and remarkably, does so without feeling rushed and without shortchanging either plot or characters. Which is the season in a nutshell--a complicated, multi-stranded story with many different personalities and moving parts that constantly delivers shocking moments while building up towards a thrilling finale, and does all this so elegantly that it's easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment it is.

What grounds Homeland through all the twists and turns of its plot are its central duo, Carrie and Brody, two of the most complicated and fascinating characters to grace a television screen this year.  I've grown quite tired, in recent years, of the fashion for "unsympathetic characters," which too often feels like an excuse for throwing melodramatic, over the top bad behavior at the screen and treating it like high drama (while decrying viewers who recoil from it as children who can't cope and are only looking for shining heroes).  Carrie and Brody are something much rarer and more satisfying--they're deeply sympathetic people who do awful things for reasons that are depressingly mundane and understandable. 

Carrie is smart, determined, and very good at her job, but her confidence leads her to reckless, heedless behavior, a profound impatience with anyone who doubts her, and a conviction that any action, no matter how hurtful, that she takes in pursuit of that truth (her illegal surveillance of the Brodys being but a mild example) is ultimately justified.  Underpinning all of this the fact that Carrie suffers from bipolar disorder, which she self-medicates and has concealed from her employers in order to keep her security clearance.  I don't have enough real-life experience with mental illness to know how accurate Carrie is as a depiction of a bipolar person, but she feels real, and the show's treatment of her is respectful and compassionate without losing sight of the damage Carrie does, to others and to herself.  Homeland never suggests that Carrie's behavior is justified or mitigated by her illness, but it also doesn't allow us to dismiss her because of it.  In the season's early episodes, Carrie's demeanor verges on manic; her utter conviction that Brody is a terrorist, on irrationality (though all without obscuring the fact that she is very good at her job).  Later in the season, a head injury throws Carrie's brain chemistry out of alignment, and we get a glimpse at full-on crazy Carrie.  After the initial shock, it's easy to see where the two states shade into one another, and the full tragedy of Carrie's situation becomes apparent--for a person whose job requires them to make connections, spot patterns, and rely on their intuition to suffer from an illness that renders their intellect and confidence unreliable.  What the end of the season reveals, however, even as Carrie and the people around her become more doubtful of her abilities, is that she was always right--even in the grips of madness, she was making connections that no one else could see, and doing so despite the growing cost to herself, as her illness is revealed and she loses her job.  So a person who starts out the season profoundly off-putting becomes deeply heroic without amending their behavior.  Despite, in fact, growing more unattractive as they sink into their worst traits (Danes has taken some ribbing for Carrie's "ugly cry" face, but her work as Carrie loses her grip on sanity is the highlight of an all-around riveting performance).

What's most interesting about all this is, of course, the choice to make Carrie a woman.  Insanity, and particularly the kind of irrational, hysterical insanity that Carrie demonstrates towards the end of the season, is often linked with women and used to dismiss them and their opinions.  So much so, in fact, that perfectly sane women will work hard to suppress anger and high emotion, no matter how justified, knowing that these are often used as "evidence" of their irrationality.  And yet Homeland gives us a heroine who is irrational, who is not in control of her emotions.  What's more, it gives us a heroine who is tripped up by her heart and her sexuality.  The beats of Carrie's relationship with Brody--which begins as a calculated maneuver and grows into genuine feelings that she recognizes too late--are familiar from a million romantic melodramas.  Later in the season, Carrie pathetically yearns for Brody even as he reconciles with Jessica, and is then punished for their relationship when he uses it to discredit her with the CIA.  Homeland never goes so far as to suggest that Carrie is persecuted for her gender (though it is telling that most of her professional confrontations are with type A men who obviously resent having to listen to her input, while many of her professional achievements are the result of gaining the trust or sympathy of women--the paid consort of a Saudi prince, the wife of one of Brody's fellow Marines, the wife of a recalcitrant imam, Brody's teenage daughter).  What it does instead is create a character who revels in just about every cliché of the pathetic, irrational, emotionally driven woman, and makes her into a hero, who is very good at her job and who, by the end of the season, saves a lot of lives and is the only person willing to see the truth about Brody.

Brody's character arc, meanwhile, takes the opposite journey.  At the beginning of the season, it's hard not to pity him, not just for his ordeals in captivity but for the difficult welcome that greets him at home, and for the near-total lack of support he receives from his superiors, who seem eager to exploit him as a propaganda tool (though this part of the story strains credulity--I know that the lack of adequate support services for returning American soldiers is a serious issue, but is it really likely that a man who spent eight years in brutal captivity would not even receive counseling for post-traumatic stress?).  Lewis is an actor who knows how to elicit sympathy without being showily damaged or pitiable, and it's impossible not to want good things for Brody, and thus to hope that Carrie is wrong about him.  Which puts us into conflict with ourselves, because as viewers of Homeland we know that for Carrie to be proven wrong would be a bit of damp squib.  Still, when, at the season's midpoint, Homeland seems to confirm that Brody is innocent, it's hard not to feel a bit of relief.  Which is of course the perfect moment for the show to pull the rug out from under us yet again.  The brilliance of Danes's performance is that she is so demonstrative that we think we know everything about her, even as the true depths of her character, and her dedication, remain hidden.  Lewis does something similar with very different tools.  He's so reserved about such obviously hurtful things--his wife's affair, his children's estrangement from him, his government's exploitative attitude towards him--that we think we know what's going on beneath the surface.  The truth is that we have no idea.

Just as Carrie embodies a stereotype of damaged, hysterical femininity that belies her strengths, Brody performs a type of hyper-masculinity that conceals not just the extent to which he has been emotionally compromised by his captivity--during which, as we learn, he became attached to Nazir, who showed him kindness, a part of his household and tutor to his young son (he also converted to Islam, a potential pitfall that Homeland is clearly aware of and manages to sidestep by separating Brody's religious belief from his political ones, but which also stresses the ways in which he's rejected the all-American stereotype)--but also a shocking cruelty.  Homeland gives us some justification for Brody's choice to become a terrorist--when the boy he taught and grew to love was killed by an American drone attack, he swore revenge--but the truth is that blowing yourself up is so irrational an act that no rational reason can truly explain it.  This in itself is not a problem--the very fact that what Brody is doing is inexplicable justifies Homeland's failure to explain it.  But the smaller acts of cruelty that Brody performs as he prepares for his attack--the lies he tells his family and the manipulations he performs on them, and even worse, the way he steps back into the role of loving husband and father in the full knowledge that he is about to kill himself and destroy his family's lives--are hard to fathom.

Brody's greatest moment of hypocrisy comes at the end of the season when he meets Carrie for the last time and berates her for coming to his house, half-deranged, and confronting his daughter Dana (Morgan Saylor, who starts out as a typical annoying teen and becomes the season's breakout character) with the information that her father is a terrorist, in the hopes that Dana can contact Brody and dissuade him from going through with his plan.  "You broke into my house.  You terrified my daughter.  She's sixteen years old, by the way.  Sixteen."  What Brody knows and Carrie doesn't is that her plan worked.  Carrie not only saved the lives of Brody and his would-be victims, but she saved Dana--for the time being--from the shame and horror of living the rest of her life as a terrorist's daughter, the fate to which her now so-concerned father was willing to subject her to.  Carrie is so steeped in self-doubt at this point that she accepts Brody's censure, and Brody takes advantage of that to grind her even further into the ground--all in the service of his mission.

And yet for all that, it's impossible to hate Brody entirely.  We know that he loves his family, that for all that what he's doing is evil, he has non-evil reasons for doing it, and that he is genuinely conflicted about his choices.  I was talking up Homeland online a few weeks ago and someone replied that their hesitance about picking it up was rooted in the concern that "no possible outcome would really please me: either that the female lead is CRAZY or that the convert to Islam is a TERRORIST."  As I predicted at the time, what the show has actually revealed is that the truth is both and neither.  Carrie is crazy.  Brody is a terrorist.  But both are more complicated, and more sympathetic, than these one-word descriptions imply.  There's a hidden center to both characters--the line between who Carrie is and what her disease makes of her, the justifications that Brody gives himself for his terrible acts--that makes them more fascinating, and more human, than I could ever have expected.  At the end of the first season, Brody and Carrie are irretrievably opposed to one another--one's success will inevitably mean the other's failure, and probably their complete destruction.  It's a testament to how well Homeland has constructed and taught us to love both characters that it is impossible to know who to root for.

There is a danger, however, in focusing too much on Carrie and Brody--it can lead one to forget the fact that Homeland is a series about important, timely issues, and to ignore the question of how it handles them.  Homeland was created by Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon (based on the Israeli series Chatufim), best-known for executive-producing 24, and the series often feels not only like penance for that reactionary, torture-happy show, but as a deliberate response to it.  Some of Homeland's plot points seem lifted from Gansa and Howard's earlier show, but with a twist that thumbs 24's nose in its simplistic assumptions.  A mid-season plotline involves a possible associate of Nazir's, a Saudi-born academic, whose white, American girlfriend turns out to be the actual terrorist.  This recalls Marie Warner from 24's second season, but where her story ended with her sister sadly telling their father that there is no possible explanation for Marie's decision to become a terrorist, and with the show concluding that she is simply evil, Homeland's analogue, Aileen, turns out to have painfully mundane reasons for her actions.  Over the course of a long road trip with Carrie's mentor and sole ally Saul (Mandy Patinkin, in a performance that is a revelation, not least because it's a rare instance of a character whose Jewishness is neither downplayed--Saul looks more like a rabbi than a CIA agent, and one almost expects to see the fringes of his prayer shawl peeking out from under his shirt--nor the sum of who he is), Aileen first retreats behind sullen superiority, then slowly reveals that it was really anger at her father's racism, and sympathy for her Saudi boyfriend's impoverished background, that led her on a path that has destroyed both their lives.

Later in the season, Carrie tries to secure the cooperation of a Saudi diplomat who has been helping Nazir by threatening his children.  This was a familiar ploy from 24--one of the most shocking moments in the first season involved Jack Bauer killing a terror suspect's child, then revealing, once the man had broken, that the death was a fake.  What Carrie does is at the same time more civilized and more cruel.  She threatens to have the diplomat's daughter, a promising student at an Ivy League university, deported and made unwelcome at all Western institutes of learning: "We would make sure that she had no choice but to go back to Saudi Arabia, and get fat and wear a burka for the rest of her miserable life."  Even when it's not deliberately recalling 24 (though I dropped out of that show after two seasons so it's possible there are other references I've missed) Homeland repeatedly challenges its ethos--that people are either good guys or terrorists, that torture is not just an effective means of getting information but the best, that terrorists are an all-knowning, all-seeing menace who have penetrated to the very heart of Western civilization, lying in wait for the moment when their triumph will be at hand.

This is gratifying as far as it goes, but it also has the effect of making Homeland seem a little schematic, and worse, of its having little to say besides that counterpoint to 24.  When one considers how much of American entertainment in the last five years has concerned itself with doing just that and how uniform those responses have been--all hitting beats quite similar to Homeland's, most notably pointing the ultimate finger of blame at shady American politicians and their strong-arm tactics in the Middle East--it's hard not to feel that Homeland's distinction is not in what it says but in the fact that people are actually listening.  It is an undeniable hit after years in which film and TV dealing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the War on Terror, in a less than entirely gung ho way have failed to find audiences.  Which may mean that its points are landing on some ears for the very first time, and that is no doubt a worthwhile thing.  But for those of us to whom its arguments are not new, Homeland--for all that it is an excellent story and a truly magnificent character piece--seems to have very little to say about terrorism, the US's involvement in the Middle East, and global politics.

Perhaps it's asking too much, at the end of such a thrilling and successful season that got so much right on the plot and character front, for a show to also have a meaningful and original statement.  What I'm thinking of, however, is Homeland's longevity.  With the example of Dexter before me it's impossible not to be aware that brilliant series often devolve into terrible ones, and that this is a particular danger for shows that allow themselves to become consumed by a story, or a character arc, without a strong awareness of what they are actually about.  Homeland's first season ends as a chapter, not a complete story.  Carrie has lost her job, her reputation, and her confidence in her abilities, and discovers a concrete piece of evidence linking Brody to Nazir's son just as she's drifting into unconsciousness, about to undergo electroconvulsive therapy.  Brody has failed in his mission but has convinced Nazir that his burgeoning political career is an opportunity to sow even greater mayhem.  This is clearly just the middle of the story, and assuming that the writers can maintain their high standard of quality, the second season will probably be just as satisfying as the first.  But after that?  Will I be sitting here in five years' time, lamenting how far Homeland has fallen at the end of its sixth season?  Maybe that doesn't matter--most TV series die too soon or too late, after all--but I'd like Homeland to have a long, successful life, and in order to do that, it has to figure out what it wants to say.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reamde by Neal Stephenson

It would be both accurate and misleading to describe Neal Stephenson's latest novel Reamde as Cryptonomicon: The Sequel.  Accurate because, like Stephenson's 1999 breakout novel, Reamde is a multi-threaded, globe-spanning technothriller whose SFnal quality is derived not from invention but from a preoccupation with the role that technology plays in its present moment--the dot com boom and World War II in Cryptonomicon, the Facebook era and the War on Terror in Reamde.  Misleading because where Cryptonomicon was a thrilling, exhilarating reading experiences, whose segues and meanderings were as fun and fascinating as the meat of its plot, Reamde is rather mediocre, its fun moments offset by long stretches of tedium.  What's worse, Reamde is the sort of novel that makes you take a long, hard look at its author's previous output--even the parts of it you loved, like Cryptonomicon--and wonder whether it's Stephenson who has changed, or whether we're just now seeing him clearly.

Like many Stephenson novels, Reamde has a large cast of characters that only seems to proliferate over the book's thousand-page span.  Two characters, however, act as its lynchpins.  Richard Forthrast is a draft dodger turned marijuana smuggler turned ski resort manager turned MMORPG entrepreneur.  Zula Forthrast is his twentysomething niece, a recent college graduate who has taken a job with Richard's company.  Richard is the creator of the World of Warcraft-esque T'Rain, whose most unusual characteristic--and possibly the root of its success--is that instead of discouraging gold farming and persecuting the players who do it, it courts them and their business by incorporating economic and profit-generating activities into the game, and by making it very easy to convert game currency into the real-world variety.  This also makes T'Rain a popular vector for money-laundering, a deliberate choice by the somewhat shady Richard.  As Reamde opens, however, T'Rain is being rocked by the War of Realignment, a player rebellion in which the game-imposed conflict between Good and Evil is discarded in favor of a conflict between those players who have hacked their characters' appearance to display garish colors (the Forces of Brightness) and those who have stuck with the game's official, more sedate palette (the Earthtone Coalition).  Zula, meanwhile, is launched into a world of trouble by her boyfriend, Peter, a former hacker who has tried to get out from under a crippling mortgage by selling credit card numbers to mobsters.  Unfortunately, his contact turns out to be an avid T'Rain player, and the transfer of goods coincides with the outbreak of the virus that gives the novel its name, which encrypts every piece of data on the infected computer and holds them for ransom.  The numbers' intended recipient, a Russian called Ivanov, swoops in and kidnaps Zula and Peter, forcing them to help him track down the virus's creators.  These turn out to be in China, living next door to an Al Qaeda cell led by Abdallah Jones, the most wanted terrorist in the world, and when Ivanov's strike against the hackers accidentally rousts and destroys that cell, Zula ends up in Jones's clutches.

Just from that plot description, it's pretty easy to see what Reamde's core flaw is. One of Stephenson's greatest strengths as a writer is his ability to make the most minute details of the most mundane topics seem endlessly fascinating, but even he can't convincingly argue that we should feel equally fascinated by, on the one hand, operational hiccups in the running of an online role-playing game, and on the other hand, a character who is kidnapped by a terrorist and becomes part of his plan to carry out an attack on US soil.  What's interesting, though, is that for a significant portion of Reamde it's actually Richard's strand that is more engaging, more obviously Stephenson-ian.  As he delves into Richard's history and the genesis of T'Rain, Stephenson produces a familiar blend of outrageous (if, quite often, highly stereotypical) personalities and situations--a biker gang with the unlikely name of Septentrion Paladins, a home-schooled geology maven with (of course) Asperger's Syndrome. One high concept set-piece, which later becomes known as the apostropocalypse, involves a tense dinner table confrontation between the two fantasy authors whom Richard has engaged to craft T'Rain's mythology--Donald Cameron, a technophobic Cambridge don who writes the first drafts of his novels in the invented language spoken by their characters, and Devin Skraelin, his American counterpart whose prose is as inelegant as his output is prolific, and who is so fat he can barely fit through the door of his trailer--during which Donald ruthlessly extracts, on the grounds of their having no philological justification, most of the apostrophes that Devin has so liberally sprinkled through T'Rain's species and place names.  At the core of all this zaniness, however, are deeply practical and businesslike motivations, and when Richard stops to explain how T'Rain has been designed from the bottom up to appeal to gold-mining Chinese teenagers, and, more broadly, to allow its users to find their own applications for its money-changing capabilities, we get a strong sense of how an inherently silly enterprise like T'Rain can be deadly serious at its core

That bedrock of practicality is missing from the early portions of Zula's plot strand, which tries to hang a lantern on the irrationality of Ivanov's behavior--he could easily have ransomed his data for a piddling sum, but instead embarks on an international murder and kidnapping spree--but can't quite get out from under it, and this contributes to the imbalance between Zula's story and Richard's.  When Jones turns up, however, he raises the stakes to a point that seems to justify the absurdity of everything happening to and around Zula.  It's at this point, also, that Zula's plot strand fractures into several points of view--Sokolov, Ivanov's increasingly dubious security consultant who conceives protective feelings towards Zula and pursues her after she's kidnapped by Jones; Csongor, a Hungarian hacker recruited by Ivanov to help find the virus's creator; Marlon, that selfsame creator; Yuxia, a young Chinese peddler employed as a guide by Ivanov and forced to participate in his plot; Olivia, an MI6 agent on Jones's tail; and Seamus, an American ex-soldier and security wonk stationed in the Philippines, also in pursuit of Jones--who scatter in the wake of the disastrous attack on Marlon's operation and the (literally) explosive destruction of Jones's cell, each to their own involved adventure.  Even as Richard's story is winding down--we have, by this point, covered all of T'Rain's origin story and are just marking time making slow and desultory progress with Reamde and the War of Realignment--the China-set portion of the novel starts delivering attacks, escapes, chases, and fights, all of which are very well done.  It's hard not to resent being taken away from all this fun and derring-do to catch up with Richard who, still blissfully unaware of Zula's disappearance, is mostly concerned with things that now seem utterly beside the point. 

When he does realize that something has happened to Zula, Richard naturally drops these matters to concentrate on finding her, which has several unfortunate effects on the novel.  First, it means that everything that's happened in the T'Rain strand quickly becomes irrelevant.  Richard sets events in motion that might resolve the War of Realignment, but this resolution, if it happens, happens off-page, and what's more important, neither the characters nor the readers actually care about it.  Second, Richard, who in the novel's earlier chapters had been a wellspring of new, inventive bits of information as Stephenson introduced us to T'Rain and its storied history, is suddenly behind the curve.  He spends the rest of Reamde playing catch up, deducing Zula's movements hundreds of pages after we'd witnessed them (in one case, he is on the verge of flying to China, several days after Zula has left it, and Stephenson has to parachute Olivia in to inform him of this).  Third, and most importantly, almost everything that's fun and engaging about Stephenson as a writer fades from the novel.  As T'Rain and all other discussions of technology are sidelined, Reamde devolves from a technothriller to a plain thriller, and not a terribly thrilling one at that.  The China segment turns out to have been the highpoint of the novel.  As Zula and the other characters make their way back to North America the novel frequently becomes bogged down in long, tedious passages--a play by play description of Jones and his cohorts soundproofing a bedroom for Zula in an RV they've stolen reads like a home improvement manual; the frequent descriptions of the Canadian wilderness in which they camp, like particularly dull travel writing.  The novel's final sequence, in which the entire cast converges on Richard's old marijuana smuggling route, which Jones plans to use to get into the US from Canada, feels interminable--too many characters spread out over too many locations, all doing essentially the same thing, trying to stay alive and kill terrorists (and, along the way, indulging in some strange and completely avoidable continuity errors--Olivia, who introduced herself to Richard and his brothers under an assumed name, is greeted by them by her real one; Richard meets Seamus in real life and forgets that they met in T'Rain only a few days ago).  There's very little tension--even if Stephenson had given the impression of being willing to kill major sympathetic characters, he rarely puts them in enough danger to warrant that concern--and the only nagging question is who gets to kill Jones, which Stephenson takes forever to answer.  It's a damp squib of a conclusion to a story that has worn out its welcome by hundreds of pages.

Reamde's prevailing concern--and the only theme that seems to tie the T'Rain and kidnapping strands to one another--is with tribalism.  In the T'Rain story, the War of Realignment has divided those tribes along objectively meaningless lines, as Richard tries to argue to Devin--who, Richard suspects, has sparked the war in an attempt to wrest control of T'Rain's mythology from Donald.  Devin responds that it was the original division written into the game, between Good and Evil, that was meaningless--Good and Evil players, he points out, did exactly the same things but were still classed in different groups.  The current dispute, according to Devin, actually reflects a true, ingrained division between T'Rain's players.
you did it yourself when you saw the billboard at the airport.  "Ugh!  Blue hair!  How tasteless!" ... it has been the case for a long time that those people we have lately started calling the Earthtone Coalition have always looked at the ones we now call the Forces of Brightness and seen them as tacky, uncultured, not really playing the game in character.  And what happened in the last few months was the F.O.B types just got tired of it and rose up and, you know, asserted their pride in their identity, kind of like the gay rights movement with those goddamned rainbow flags.
That reference to gay rights aside, what Devin is essentially talking about is some strange commingling of class and the culture wars.  It's a division that the rest of the novel keeps returning to, whether in the familiar guise of the red/blue state divide--on her way to the American end of Richard's smuggling route in rural Idaho, Olivia passes through a town that "had all the indicia--brewpub, art gallery, Pilates, Thai restaurant--of a place where Blue State people would go to enjoy a high standard of living while maintaining nonstop connectivity and assuaging their guilty consciences in re global warming, fair trade, and the regrettable side effects of Manifest Destiny"--or in more exotic forms--musing about a split in his gold-mining group, Marlon reflects that "really it boiled down to pride.  Some of the miners were ashamed that they were living in crowded apartments and doing this kind of work for a living ... Marlon's group, on the other hand, was fine with what they were doing.  They saw it as no worse than any other occupation"--and ultimately serves to tie the two plot strands, however loosely, together.  Where T'Rain's players reject a division between Good and Evil for being arbitrary and choose to focus on cultural differences, the real-world strand--whose action scenes grow increasingly video game-like as the novel progresses--sees characters from disparate backgrounds, including Richard's survivalist brother Jake and his neighbors, setting their cultural differences aside to join together in the fight against Jones's evil.

Which sounds like a heartening message, but this is to ignore how muddled, and how frequently dismissive, Stephenson's handling of tribalism is.  What the intersection of class, cultural preferences, interests, and opinions that distinguishes approved characters from mockable ones boils down to is a distinction that Stephenson has made before, between Doers and Talkers, those who are concerned with concrete matters and those who natter on about meaningless ones.  But that's a false distinction that doesn't hold up very well, even in a universe that Stephenson has built to support it.  When she's first kidnapped, Zula muses that Peter and Csongor, having made their own way in the world
had a kind of confidence about [them] that was not often found in young men who had followed the recommended path through high school to college and postgraduate training ... This quality that she had seen in Peter and now saw in Csongor was--and she flinched from the word, but there seemed little point in trying to distance herself from it through layers of self-conscious irony--masculine.  And along with it came both good and bad.  She saw the same quality in some of the men of her family, most notably Uncle Richard.
Bear in mind, as Zula is thinking this, she's in the clutches of Russian gangsters, and has her confident, "masculine" boyfriend to blame for that predicament.  And yet despite her sop to the potential negative effects of "masculinity" (here defined as competence and confidence, even though there are plenty of competent, confident women in the novel), it is for the most part held up as a positive--when Peter, later in the novel, turns out to be a coward and abandons Zula, the narrative suddenly decides that he is stupid and lacks a firm grasp on his situation.  Zula is exasperated with him (and Csongor, who admittedly is portrayed more positively) for "trying to solve the technical problem of locating the [hacker].  Which might have been Ivanov's problem, but wasn't theirs.  Theirs was Ivanov."  And Sokolov muses that "Peter would, sooner or later, do something stupid and cause enormous trouble.  Peter would do this because he believed he was clever and thought only of himself."

What Stephenson is doing is trying to depict competence as a function of character.  When really it's almost always a situational trait--a person may be extraordinarily competent in one setting and helpless in another, may have a firm grasp of their situation in one instance, and a completely unrealistic confidence in their abilities in another.  Reamde, which valorizes confidence and the general competence that has been a hallmark of, yes, masculinity, in all of Stephenson's novels, doesn't quite know what to do when that confidence turns out to have been unfounded.  In Peter's case, its response is to decide that he must not have been terribly masculine--which is to say, competent, intelligent, possessed of a firm grip on reality--to begin with.  But in Richard's case, Stephenson's approach is to double down, to continue to insist that Richard is, as Zula thinks of him, the epitome of masculinity, even as he piles on the evidence to the contrary.

Most of the reviews I've read of Reamde have found Richard charming or heroic, but to my mind he is one of Stephenson's most aggravating creations, if only because it's not at all clear whether we're meant to be aggravated by him.  Richard is a perpetual fish out of water--a black sheep among his staid, law-abiding, Midwestern family, but too steeped in their values to fit in among West Coast liberals or his fellow board members.  In another man, this perennial ambivalence might have led to humility, a willingness to see the other guy's point of view.  Richard uses it as a justification for feeling superior to everyone around him--to his Red State relations and his Blue State colleagues, to the fuddy-duddy Donald and the trailer trash Devin, to the Forces of Brightness and the Earthtone Coalition, to his young, gadget- and Facebook-obsessed cousins and his old, computer-illiterate ones.  It is "a belief that had been inculcated in him from the get-go," we are told, "that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood."  But for Richard, that objective reality seems to mean whatever he thinks about the world, as when he loftily explains to Zula why T'Rain, a game aimed as much at Asian customers as Western ones, draws solely from Western mythology.
"Elves and dwarves, c'mon, how could you be so Eurocentric?" Zula said.

"Exactly, but in a way it's almost more patronizing to the Chinese to assume that, just because they are from China, they can't relate to elves and dwarves."
Something I haven't mentioned yet about Zula is that she was born in Eritrea, orphaned during the war with Ethiopia, taken to a refugee camp, adopted from there by Richard's sister and brother-in-law, and raised in Ohio where she spent a portion of her teenage years calling herself Sue.  So it's likely that she has a better grasp than Richard on the whole issue of cultural imperialism and its effects.  And yet she doesn't call him on the enormous straw man he just dropped in her lap.  Which is, in a nutshell, the core of my frustration with Richard--he is so obviously a buffoon that it seems impossible that Stephenson hasn't written him so deliberately, and yet the narrative never calls him on it.  What are we to make, for example, of Richard's repeated musing, in the novel's early chapters, that he doesn't want to come off as creepy in his attentions to Zula?  Surely Stephenson realizes that this is creepy in and of itself, and yet nothing is made of it after Zula's kidnapping, and Richard ends the novel by stepping into a more prominent parental role in her life.

Contributing to my confusion over how Reamde intends for us to see Richard is its treatment of Sokolov, who is in many ways Richard's opposite.  Where Richard has happily curdled into a middle aged complacency that mistakes his perspective for "objective reality," Sokolov is defined by his ability to sympathize with those who are different from him and get into their heads: "Sokolov owed his life--his survival in Afghanistan, in Chechnya--to his ability to see things through the eyes of the adversary ... This reversal of perspective was not always easy.  One frequently had to work at it for some days, observing the other, gathering data, even conducting little experiments to see how the other reacted to things."  (Richard, meanwhile, whose ex-girlfriend "had barely been able to make through a paragraph without invoking the O-word ... always writhed uncomfortably during O-word conversations, since he had the general feeling, which he could not quite prove, that certain people used it as a kind of intellectual duct tape.")  We get the chance to see Sokolov in action during the China chapters, in which the city is seen mainly through his constantly evaluating eyes, and conclusion are drawn about culture, social organization, and customs.  This helps him to become what is probably the most competent character in the novel, who can make his way out of a massive security cordon thrown by a decidedly unfriendly government, secure travel around the world, show up in Idaho in the time to save the day, and along the way kill a lot of bad guys in terrifyingly effective ways.  And yet it's Sokolov who is treated to Reamde's sole concession to the point that confidence is not a virtue in its own right, when he lambastes one of the goons he used in his original capture of Peter and Zula, who has stolen from their apartment and is now in trouble.
"Doing time.  Getting in trouble.  All very normal for a man who breaks into another man's house and steals his computer and his rifle.  If you had just followed my orders--"

"Why should I take orders from you, motherfucker?"

"Because I actually know what I am doing."

"Then how did you end up in this fucking situation?"

It was a fair question, and it rocked Sokolov for a moment.
By any reasonable standard, Sokolov is much more of a hero than Richard--who for all his posturing and gnashing of teeth spends the novel constantly scrambling to catch up, who contributes nothing to Zula's rescue besides his very existence, as Zula uses the promise of his money and knowledge of a bootlegging route to the US to buy her life from Jones after they arrive in Canada, and who, when he is inevitably captured by Jones, does the least of any of the novel's characters who spend time in captivity to resist, subvert Jones's plans, or try to escape--and a much better exemplar of Reamde's version of masculinity.  But not only is Richard's certainty that there is an "objective reality" on which he has a handle never punctured, while Sokolov's more (but by no means entirely) justified confidence is, in the novel's climactic battle between Jones and the rest of the cast, Sokolov makes good account of himself and is sidelined, while Richard, of all the many characters who have sworn vengeance against Jones--Zula, Yuxia, Olivia, Seamus, and Sokolov himself, most of whom have far greater reasons to hate him than Richard--gets to deliver the coup de grace.

It's possible that Richard's triumph at the end of Reamde is intended as a sort of ironic joke, a sly puncturing of the conventions of the technothriller which sees a hapless, self-satisfied, useless man lauded by those he has done little or nothing to save.  But that sort of irony has never characterized Stephenson's writing, and if that was his intention with Reamde then the rest of the novel, which does so little to question its core assumptions, and whose other characters, particularly Zula, are entirely earnest, can't support it.  So we're left with Richard as our hero, and the purveyor of what is presumably Stephenson-approved wisdom.

Which brings us back to that supposedly heartwarming climax in which British spies, Chinese hackers, and American survivalists band together to thwart a terrorist plot, and the realization that that erasing of cultural difference is cut from the same cloth as Richard's supercilious dismissal of Zula's accusation of Eurocentrism--I'm not being Eurocentric, I'm just giving non-Europeans the credit of assuming that they are capable of embracing my culture.  Stephenson wants us to realize that deep down, we're all the same, but that same has a suspiciously Western, technophilic, geeky cast (the sole outlier, Yuxia, is sidelined for much of the novel's second half).  Zula, for example, rarely draws on her experiences as a war orphan, or on her life before coming the US, for solace or guidance during her captivity, and it's probably no coincidence that so many of the novel's characters, even those who aren't connected to Richard and Zula, are either gamers at its outset or become gamers over the course of its events (and that all of them play T'Rain).  Genuine attempts to understand the other, as exemplified by Sokolov, are rejected in favor of the assumption that the other doesn't really exist, or that if they tried hard enough they could be just like us.

None of this, of course, is new.  In my review of Anathem, I took Stephenson to task for constructing a world in which the Platonic ideal of humanity consisted solely of Western civilization, and Cryptonomicon famously presages Reamde's casual dismissal, to the point of erasure, of anyone who is not technically- and practically-minded in an opening scene in which Randy Waterhouse (who feels a bit like a younger Richard, or rather Richard feels like one of the worst versions of what Randy might become) listens exasperatedly to his academic girlfriend's insufferable friends as they enact every cliché of the out-of-touch, ivory tower liberal intellectual.  In Reamde itself, we could also note the handling of women, which gives the definite impression that Stephenson has read the many accusations that he is unable to write women as actors (particularly in response to Anathem), and that though he wants to prove them wrong, he can't quite overcome his antipathy towards the people who voiced those accusations and their ideology.  So we get smart, strong-willed, level-headed characters like Zula, Yuxia, and Olivia, but also an incessant stream of snide comments about feminism--"Yuxia was not the type to deploy terminology like "feminist" or "matriarchal," but the picture was clear enough to Zula"; "Feminist thinkers might argue with social conservatives as to whether women's tendency to be extremely self-conscious about personal appearance was a natural trait--the result of Darwinian forces--or an arbitrary, socially constructed habit"; Olivia's casual assurance that Richard and his flunkies can call her "chick": "I shan't file a complaint"; Zula's rejection, noted above, of any reticence towards equating competence and masculinity as "self-conscious irony"--as if to assure us that women can be kickass without any of that silly feminism guff.  (Not helping matters is the fact that all three women end the novel in romances--two of them with much older men--which are seen solely through the eyes of their male paramours, all three of whom make decisions about the relationship without ever consulting or discussing matters with the object of their affection.)

The truth is, Stephenson's novels have always been characterized by a sort of snide condescension towards those who don't share his interests and worldview.  Which raises the question: am I so down on Reamde because Stephenson's crankiness towards anyone outside his narrow box of approved interests and attitudes has turned a corner, or because Reamde is poor enough stuff that there's nothing in it to compensate for that crankiness, or because this time around, it feels as if that crankiness is directed at me?  That's a question that I've found myself asking more and more often in the last few years, as artists I'd previously held in high regard--people like Aaron Sorkin and Steven Moffat--have started producing work that I've found risible and deeply insulting (judging by the trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan may be the next across that threshold, and no, I don't think it's a coincidence that these are all men known for clever, cerebral work, who have trouble writing well, or at all, for women).  Am I growing less indulgent, or are these writers growing more cantankerous, digging further into stances that originally gave me pause, and now stop me in my tracks?  Perhaps a more generous way of phrasing that question is, what is it that I saw in these men's writing that made it easy to look past its serious flaws?  In Stephenson's case, the answer is, to a great extent, fun--the sheer exuberant joy of inventing a new world or discovering an existing one, in all its glorious complexity.  It is that sense of fun and joy that is missing from Reamde and makes it so much easier to see Stephenson's limitations in other areas.  Perhaps he'll rediscover it in his next work, but who knows if I'll be able to keep turning a blind eye to what this novel has laid bare.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, November 28-December 2

William Mingin kicks off this week's reviews with a look at two collections of Robert E. Howard's non-Conan stories, Conan's Brethren and Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, concluding that they illustrate the breadth of Howard's interests and his still-potent appeal.  Marina Berlin reviews the art-house SF film Another Earth, and though she finds much to praise she is also disappointed by the film's ultimately glancing treatment of its SFnal premise and character interactions.  Sofia Samatar reviews Egyptian bestseller Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik, a bleak vision of that country in the near future, and comes away with mixed reactions, admiring the novel's aim and message but dubious about its use of rape to deliver that message, and of its construction of female characters.