Monday, June 22, 2015

Jurassic World

Jurassic World is a pretty bad movie.  What's interesting about it, however, is that the reasons for its badness are, for the most part, the reasons it should have been good.  With only a few exceptions, the ideas that went into Jurassic World, the fourquel-slash-reboot of Steven Spielberg's paradigm-defining 1993 blockbuster, are solid and interesting.  The basic premise of the movie--that twenty years on, people have come to take resurrected dinosaurs for granted, forcing the titular park's managers to concoct new, scarier hybrid species--is not only believable, but carries on the entertaining meta-component of the original movie.  In 1993, the embryonic CGI with which Spielberg brought dinosaurs to life was a shocking technological development, but nowadays filmmakers take abilities he couldn't even dream of as a matter of course.  Jurassic World's executives, then, stand in for every Hollywood producer who thought they could make up for the absence of a coherent story and interesting characters by throwing bigger explosions and more elaborate action scenes at the screen, but where the original Jurassic Park undercut its criticism of Hollywood by being a top-notch action-adventure film in its own right, Jurassic World plays right into the metaphor.  It is precisely the soulless monster that its scientists cook up in the lab--a hodgepodge of pieces from better, more exciting movies, without much personality of its own.

Jurassic World takes place in a world in which the dinosaur amusement park has been functioning perfectly for nearly two decades, the teething problems of the original movie swept under the rug to present an image of smooth control and good family fun.  This initially feels like an intriguing turn of the screw--the fact that instead of only a handful of people running from dinosaurs on Isla Nublar there are instead twenty thousand people in danger obviously creates enormous potential.  Jurassic World could have been a nerve-wracking disaster film, its characters concerned not only with saving their own lives but with protecting the thousands of people who are so inured to the film's premise that they don't even realize they're in danger.  Instead, the film largely ignores the park-goers.  Except for one scene in which they're attacked by a swarm of pterosaurs, they serve no function in the story, and in fact disappear for long swathes of it.  The climactic battle, between the genetically engineered Indominus Rex, a herd of velociraptors, and the T-Rex from the original movie, takes place mere meters from where all the park-goers are supposedly sheltering, and yet we never see or hear anything from them.  The meaty questions one anticipates, of the responsibility that the park's managers have towards the visitors they have invited, are never even raised--largely because they conflict with the film's central character arc, in which administrator Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), has to learn to care less about her work (read: abandon the tens of thousands of men, women, and children whose lives she is responsible for) and more about her two nephews, who happen to be visiting the park.

Claire is another point on which Jurassic World's writers had excellent initial instincts, and terrible execution.  On paper, her arc is quite compelling.  A workaholic who doesn't know how to relate to children that she's been forced to care for, but who steps up when they're endangered?  Not only is that a thoroughly engaging story, it makes for a nice echo of Alan Grant's character arc in the original movie.  But where Jurassic Park wanted us to like Alan even before he decided not to let two innocent children be eaten by dinosaurs, Jurassic World seems to want us to hate Claire simply for not dropping everything to be with her nephews 24/7 (and let's recall, Alan genuinely dislikes children--he's introduced frightening one half to death--something that only a male character would ever be allowed to do while still remaining sympathetic).

A lot has already been written about Jurassic World's sexism, but its genuine dislike of Claire goes beyond a disgusting message (though it is undeniably that) and into incoherent writing.  The film can't seem to decide whether Claire is its heroine or its villain.  Her actual failures--signing off on the Indominus project to begin with, not evacuating the park at the first sign of trouble, abandoning her post to look for two children when she's responsible for the lives of thousands--are so severe as to seemingly make her irredeemable (the fact that Howard spends the movie wearing an impractical white business suit feels like a direct reference to the original movie's John Hammond, who is at best a misguided fool, and Claire lacks his redeeming visionary zeal).  But after introducing them, the movie largely ignores these flaws, either excusing them by telling us that Claire was merely following orders (so on top of being incompetent, she's a powerless incompetent) or, in the case of running off after her nephews, pretending that they are strengths.  Claire's actual problem, we're quickly told, isn't personal but professional, her need for control.  Again, in principle this is a good idea--the false belief that they can control nature is the besetting flaw of most Jurassic Park characters--but it's scuttled by its execution, and by the film's inability to settle on a tone where Claire is concerned.  On the one hand, Jurassic World genuinely dislikes Claire and wants us to feel the same.  Rather than a valuable lesson, her loss of control takes the form of humiliation, with multiple characters repeatedly informing her that she is incompetent and untrustworthy (despite the fact that she actually gets quite a lot done, including risking her life to finally kill the Indominus).  But on the other hand, she is its heroine, so even though, by the time the film ends, it feels as if the only way for Claire to redeem herself is to die, she rather unsatisfyingly survives to further confuse us in the sequel.

The reason for Claire's bizarre handling is that, for all the film's carping on relinquishing control, what Jurassic World actually wants her to do is to cede it--to a man.  Claire's fault isn't believing that she knows and can do things, it's believing that she knows and can do more than the film's hero, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt).  Once she submits herself to his judgment, she becomes a good character and thus worthy of salvation.  As infuriating as that is in itself, it only becomes more so the more we get to know Owen, who feels almost like a caricature of the masculine ideal--a brusque Competent Man who knows so much better than everyone else that he's incapable of communicating in any form except grit-toothed condescension, and whose emotional reactions are restricted to subtly different gradations of annoyance and anger (in one particularly striking scene, Owen watches as a park employee is eaten a few meters away from where he's hiding, and somehow manages not to express a single emotion in response).  And yet Jurassic World expects us not only to take Owen seriously, but to embrace him as a hero, despite the fact that he doesn't actually get anything done.  Claire tasks him with rescuing her nephews, but except for getting her lost in the woods searching for them, he accomplishes nothing--the boys actually rescue themselves.  And every actual progress against dinosaurs--killing the pterosaur attacking him, siccing the T-Rex on Indominus--is achieved by Claire, a fact that the film really does not want us to notice.  After Claire rescues Owen, for example, her nephews run over and inform her that they feel safer with him, even though they've only just met him and literally the only thing they know about him is that their aunt saved his life.

The fact that Owen is all talk did not, in itself, have to be a fatal flaw in the film.  Cinema is riddled with lovable rogues who are actually far less competent than they pretend to be (Han Solo, anyone?).  But, for reasons unfathomable to human logic, the filmmakers of Jurassic World cast Chris Pratt--an actor best known for taking a character who should have been insufferable and turning him into a lovable goof--and asked him to play a humorless tightwad.  Having done that, they then try to address the problem by pitting Owen against an even more humorless tightwad--Vincent D'Onofrio as the park's security chief Hoskins.  Hoskins is so impressed with Owen's ability to train the park's velociraptors to follow commands (which, for all the film's best efforts, never rises above a ridiculous idea that looks thoroughly unbelievable on screen--though it did yield up a delightful internet meme) that he wants to weaponize this ability, and is convinced that he can use Indominus as a weapon of war (again, so ridiculous that it's not even worth discussing--it's probably not a good sign that the only genuinely bad ideas in Jurassic World's story are the ones that have to do with the actual dinosaurs).  What this means is that the film's final act sidelines Claire, her nephews, and the twenty thousand people whose lives are still in danger in favor of a dinosaur-on-dinosaur fight.  And while, for the nth time, this seems like a good idea on paper, the execution is just a mess.  For all the film's best efforts, it doesn't manage to get us emotionally involved in a bunch of CGI velociraptors, and the fact that Owen himself is incapable of expressing emotion--even when his pets turn on him or are killed--makes the entire final third of the film utterly inert.

There's a very good movie buried somewhere deep in Jurassic World's heart, scratching desperately to get out.  Sexism is a big part of the reason why we didn't get that movie--when you genuinely dislike one of your heroes and are so invested in the other's awesomeness that you never allow them to behave like a human being, you're probably not going to produce a good work no matter what else you do.  But running even deeper than that sexism is an unwillingness to accept what the Jurassic Park films have always been about.  Jurassic World claims to be about relinquishing control, but it's afraid to do the same--like Claire, it wants to hand over control to a manly man, instead of recognizing that he's just as powerless as the other characters.  Without that loss of control, Jurassic World never achieves the tension, the fear, the horror of the original movie.  It's never in any doubt that our heroes will survive their ordeal--but whether we'll care if they do is a very different question.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Revengers' Tragedy: Thoughts on the Fifth Season Finale of Game of Thrones

Yesterday afternoon, before I'd watched the final episode of Game of Thrones's fifth season, I read this essay by Aaron Bady about the show, in which he argues that it has overshot its natural ending point, and therefore no longer has anything to say:
What has changed, I think, is that tragedy has become pornography. Not literal pornography, of course, because very specific forms of gratuitous sexual titillation have been consistent throughout. Put some boobs on screen is one of the boxes each episode needs to check off, and consistently does. But what is the point of evoking terror and pity by hurting characters like Sansa or Cercei? Watching Ned, Catelyn, and Rob die was horrible not only because they were good people, but because we were watching the patriarchal fantasies of Good Kings dying with them. They represented something, the possibility of a return to the way things should be: the tragedy was coming to realize its impossibility. The Starks were the tragic heroes, because, from Ned on down, their heroic qualities were what doomed them, made their deaths inevitable. George R. R. Martin's innovation was to suggest that "Goodness" is a tragic flaw. 
After writing three books in four years, Martin lost the plot; since the Red Wedding, basically, he's written two books in fifteen years, and they're a hot mess. He'd written himself into a corner, and it will be interesting to see if HBO can write him out of it. I suspect he's totally stuck, and here's why: one way to end the thing would be with the Return of the King (google "R+L=J" if you want to know how it could happen), which would make A Song of Ice and Fire into a tragedy with a happy ending. But a tragedy with a happy ending is not a tragedy, and this is Martin's dilemma: if the King returns, and all is well that ends well, then we have returned to the narrative that he so devilishly skewered in the first three books. If we watched a nightmarish horror, in which good guys finish last, we'll wake up to discover that it was all a dream: actually, good guys finish first!
This is not only close to what my take of the show has been for a while, it actually neatly captures the reasons I felt so unmotivated to keep reading the books past the first one: it was clear that Martin was writing a crapsack world in which everyone sucks and no one deserves the throne, so why should I care who wins it?  More importantly, in the background of this story, Martin was setting up an epic battle for survival between humanity and ice zombies, which would inevitably belie the cynicism of his main story by delivering a foretold hero to save the world--so why should I even respect him for being a cynic?

Bady's argument feels particularly apt at the end of this exhausting fifth season, in which the show seemed finally to have been snowed under by the sheer volume of the conversation about it.  As if subliminally sensing that Game of Thrones had long since run out of anything to say, its commentators seemed determined to fill the void by saying everything possible about it--about its use of rape, about its gleeful embrace of violence against the innocent and helpless, about the odd but completely predictable phenomenon of an adaptation outpacing its source material, about the increasing tensions this is causing for fans of the books, and, inevitably, about what it means that we can't stop talking about Game of Thrones.  Every Monday morning for two and a half months, twitter has been full of people ranting about the latest depravity to happen to a beloved character, people swearing off the show forever (until next week), and people mocking the first two groups for not noticing the kind of story they were watching.  As someone who for years has been saying that Game of Thrones is little more than a well-made soap opera with no one worth rooting for except the servants and peasants, I ought to feel some sympathy with the latter group, but what I've mainly been feeling is overwhelmed, and increasingly unclear why I'm still watching the show.  It's not that I don't like it anymore--I mainly watch to find out what happens next, and on that level the fifth season delivered a fair bit of progress--but that I'm increasingly feeling the pressure to be invested, either for or against, in something that surely doesn't deserve that investment.

This was my feeling yesterday afternoon.  And then I watched the fifth season finale, "Mother's Mercy," and something really strange and unexpected happened--I found myself thinking about Game of Thrones as a story that was trying to make a point.  To be clear, "Mother's Mercy" is not a very good episode.  Even by the laxer standards on which we judge this show's premieres and finales, it is bitty and scattershot, barely giving any character their due in its rush to tie up all their stories.  It's full of deaths and trauamtic events that barely get a chance to land because as soon as they've been established, the episode rushes off to the next one.  In one particularly tone deaf example, the character of Sansa Stark is last seen jumping off the battlements of Winterfell.  Common sense, and Sansa's behavior in the scene immediately before, in which she announces that she would rather die than submit to any more brutal mistreatment by her sadistic husband, Ramsay Bolton, would suggest that this is a suicide, but the scene isn't shot or treated like the final exit of a beloved, important character (and, of course, there has been no announcement that Sophie Turner has left the show).  And yet it's impossible to imagine how Sansa could have survived.  In a nutshell, this is the problem with all of "Mother's Mercy."  In the guise of wrapping up this season's stories, it's actually setting up an endless number of cliffhangers for the next, but--partly because of their sheer number, partly because of poor execution--very few of these cliffhangers manage to create suspense.  The season ends less with tension, and more with confusion.

And yet, looked at from another perspective, "Mother's Mercy" is a shockingly coherent hour of television.  Much has been made of the truly epic number of main character deaths in this episode, but a more accurate way of putting it would be that these deaths are merely the outcome of its actual preoccupation, revenge.  In almost every one of its subplots, the fifth season finale shows us charactes getting their longed-for revenge.  And in every one of those stories, that revenge turns out to be futile, self-destructive, and pointless.  Take, for example, Ellaria Sand, who in this episode finally achieves her season-long goal of killing Myrcella Lannister in revenge for the death of her lover, Oberyn Martell, at the hands of a Lannister knight.  The futility of this gesture is baked into its very description--Ellaria has murdered an innocent child who had nothing to do with Oberyn's death (which was anyway as much of his own making's as anyone else's).  In so doing, she's doomed herself, and probably also her daughters, to death or exile, and probably started a war between Dorne and King's Landing, while handing the Lannisters a valuable hostage in the form of Trystane Martell, Myrcella's oblivious fianc√©.  Even the murder weapon speaks to the madness one sinks to when plotting revenge--seemingly contrite, Ellaria kisses Myrcella goodbye while wearing poisoned lipstick, which, when we last see her, begins to take its effect on her as well.  Ellaria has literally taken poison in the hopes that someone else will die, and though unlike Myrcella she has an antidote, the self-destructiveness inherent in that gesture speaks volumes.

Or take the episode's final scene, in which the erstwhile, quietly heroic Jon Snow is murdered by his fellow Night's Watch members, in revenge for his choice to bring their mortal enemies the Wildlings past the Wall.  Aside from the fact that Jon has for some time been one of the few truly positive characters left on the show, and that the ringleader of this betrayal, Alliser Thorne, is a petty, mean-spirited man motivated as much by political jealousy as genuine conviction (he was heavily favored to be named as the new Lord Commander of the Night's Watch before Jon swooped in and got the job), this is an extraordinarily foolish, destructive act.  Jon is one of the few people on Westeros to understand that the real threat to the kingdom isn't its civil wars, but the coming army of ice zombies.  Allying with the Wildlings was absolutely the right move--it gives the Night's Watch a much-needed increase in numbers, and denies the White Walkers, who can resurrect the dead and make them fight on their side, their own increase.  By killing the only Night's Watch member the Wildlings trusted, Thorne may have doomed the Watch--and much of Westeros--to a fate worse than death.

But if Myrcella and Jon's deaths are events the audience can be trusted to root against, what about acts of revenge we've been fervently rooting for?  For several seasons, Arya Stark has been keeping a list of people who have hurt her or her loved ones, and whom she intends to kill.  In "Mother's Mercy" she gets the chance to cross off one of those names, Meryn Trant, who killed her beloved fencing master Syrio Forel.  Trant is an all-around terrible person--he beat and stripped Sansa on Joffrey's orders, and Arya is able to get to him because of his fondness for raping young girls--and yet when Arya returns from killing him to the House of Black and White, where she has been training to become a faceless assassin, she's chastised and punished.  To be sure, the Many-Faced God's philosophy doesn't bear much scrutiny--Arya killing her own target out of her own thirst for revenge is bad, but killing the target assigned to her by the Faceless Men, who were commissioned by a supplicant on their own quest for vengeance, is good--but there's no question that what Arya does to Trant is more destructive to her than to him.  She doesn't just kill him (as she has already done to other names on her list); she butchers him, torturing him while she explains exactly why he deserves to die at her hand.  It's certainly a more horrible death than the quick poisoning intended by the Faceless Men for the swindling insurance agent who was Arya's actual target, and the fact that she's able to deal it out so calmly suggests that she's on her way to becoming a far greater monster than Trant ever was.  When Arya's story ends with her receiving some supernatural punishment that includes losing her sight, it's hard not to feel that this is what's best for everyone.

Or take Cersei Lannister.  Unlike Arya, Cersei has never been someone the audience was meant to root for.  She's a bad person who has done terrible things--strictly speaking, the entire war that has consumed Westeros for five seasons is of her own making, as she killed her husband rather than allow him to find out that their children were actually her brother's--and she makes truly terrible decisions.  The predicament she finds herself in in "Mother's Mercy"--imprisoned by the fanatical religious sect the Faith Militant, who have accused her, quite rightly, of adultery, incest, and murder--is her own fault, since she empowered the Faith in the first place, in a misguided, thoughtless power play against her new daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell (whose fate, as of the end of the season, remains unknown).  So if anyone wants revenge against Cersei, it's probably the audience, who have been waiting for her comeuppance for years.  And yet when that punishment arrives, it's horrible.  Shaved and stripped naked, forced to walk through the streets of King's Landing while the commoners (who, again, have every reason to hate her) pelt her with rotten vegetables and manure and shout obscenities at her, Cersei, who has never been less than entirely human even when doing and saying the most appalling things, is heartbreakingly sympathetic, the camera remaining fixed on her face as she tries, and fails, to endure her ordeal with dignity.  The punishment she receives says more about the sadism and judgmental glee of the people who force her to endure it than it does about Cersei, and, unsurprisingly, its effect is not to make Cersei contrite or reflective, but to confirm her in her belief that everyone is against her, and that she's right to resort to violence and cruelty to get her own way.  The audience may have been wishing for Cersei to get what she deserves for as long as they've been wishing for Arya to kick ass and take names, but in both cases, getting what we want tastes like ashes.

(Having said all that, we might also stop to consider how blatantly sexualized Cersei's punishment is.  We might consider the fact that at the same time that she's being punished for her crimes, her brother Jaime, who committed all the same crimes as her and also raped her, is receiving forgiveness and acceptance from his daughter-by-incest Myrcella.  True, the scene ends with Myrcella dying in Jaime's arms,  which can be taken as a punishment, but then we might consider that while Cersei's punishment is humilating, Jaime's is grandly tragic--and, more importantly, does not actually happen to him but to a woman he cares about.  And we might consider how typical this is of this episode in general, in which, for example, Theon Greyjoy finally breaks the hold that the sadistic Ramsay Bolton has on him--by killing Ramsay's slightly less sadistic and certainly less powerful girlfriend Myranda.)

The most powerful statement that "Mother's Mercy" makes about the futility of revenge comes from the most honorable, sympathetic character in the series, and from an act that no one--in or out of the show--will take as cruel or unjust.  The stalwart knight Brienne has spent the fifth season staking out Winterfell, waiting for a sign of trouble from Sansa.  In the opening scenes of the episode, she's disturbed from her watch by the news that Stannis Baratheon--whom she has sworn to kill in revenge for his murder of his brother, a kind and decent man whom she loved and swore allegiance to--is marching on Winterfell.  Stannis comes to "Mother's Mercy" as one of the most hated characters on the show, having sacrificed his sweet, affectionate daughter Shireen to the fire god R'hllor in the previous episode in exchange for favorable weather.  The unsurprising result of this is that half of Stannis's men desert (and his wife Selyse takes her own life), turning his planned siege of Winterfell into a rout.  By the time Brienne gets to him, he's defeated in body and spirit and calmly accepting of death.  Brienne, meanwhile, isn't cruel or sadistic.  She gives Stannis a quick death and explains why she's killing him, to which his only response is that she is doing her duty.  Of all the many deaths on this show or in this episode, this is probably the most just and the most kind.

And yet, because Brienne chooses to pursue vengeance, she misses it when Sansa is finally able to call for help, lighting a candle in the window of Winterfell's tallest tower as Brienne instructed her to.  To be sure, this is more than a little silly and over-literal: has Brienne been standing watch on the same spot for all the weeks of the fifth season?  How short a span does Sansa's candle burn, anyway?  But there's no escaping the very simple message: by choosing revenge, Brienne abandons her duty to Sansa and leaves her without a protector.  Brienne kills Stannis with the sword she named Oathkeeper, given to her by Jaime as a symbol of her oath to Catelyn Stark to protect her daughters, and of Jaime's own quest for redemption (which, to be fair, Brienne embodies far more than he does).  By choosing revenge, even on someone who truly deserves it and who even welcomes death, Brienne breaks her oath to both Catelyn and Jamie, and, however unwillingly, dishonors herself.

As Bady writes, the first three seasons of Game of Thrones have a single, simple, perhaps simplistic message--that the righteous do not triumph simply because they are righteous; that goodness, far from being a path to success and power, is actually an impediment to them.  And, as he writes, the next two seasons of the show suffered because once that message had been well and truly hammered home with the Red Wedding, there was nowhere for the story to go except to nihilistically repeat it.  "Mother's Mercy" suggests that there is actually somewhere to go from this point.  The natural response to learning that goodness leads to suffering is to hope for comeuppance--for the good guys to become powerful enough to punish their oppressors, and for the bad guys to get what's coming to them.  What "Mother's Mercy" tells us is that this, too, is not a good philosophy of life.  That revenge, even if it's deserved and dispassionate, is an evil that blows back on the people who deliver it, perpetuating and increasing the amount of suffering in the world rather than achieving justice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Game of Thrones is suddenly a good or meaningful show--it's still a well-made but overrated soap opera about unpleasant people whose main appeal is finding out what happens next.  But I find it terribly exciting that, years after I'd given up hope of ever seeing such a thing again, the show is actually trying to say something.  That what it's saying happens to be a hard but important truth, rather than the juvenile glibness of "goodness is a weakness," is just more icing on the cake.

That said, it is worth noting that the answer the show gives to the futility of vengeance is the same answer it gave to the vulnerability of the good.  Or rather, the same person.  Daenerys Targaryen is one of the few characters on the show who does not spend "Mother's Mercy" committing or experiencing vengeance.  Having fled the city of Mereen, which she conquered in the fourth season, on the back of one of her dragons, she finds herself captured by Dothraki raiders.  For any other woman on the show, this would herald a lot of attempted (or completed) rape.  For Daenerys, it probably means she'll be in charge of the khalasar by the second episode of season six.  The rules have never seemed to apply to Daenerys, not because she's a particularly good leader or politician--her reign in Mereen was marked by toppling the existing, evil power structure and customs and offering nothing to replace them, which unsurprisingly led to resentment and eventually rebellion; it's almost a relief when the episode ends with the more pragmatic, politically savvy Tyrion and Varys taking over the city, even if this represents one female white savior being replaced by two male ones.  No, Daenerys is special because that's how she's been written.  Becuase her role in the story means that she doesn't face the same moral hazards as the other characters.  She can experience trauma and humiliation without becoming embittered or damaged.  She can take revenge without losing her soul.  She can embrace power without being corrupted.  In the end, we come back to the problem Bady identifies--Game of Thrones, and Martin before it, try to tell a story in which real stakes and consequences are injected into a fantasy world, but in the end it's all in the service of the return of the queen.  Perhaps the example of "Mother's Mercy" means that this story has more life in it yet, but, as much as this episode surprised me, that seems like too much to hope for.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Iain M. Banks Master List

As I wrote earlier this week, my review of The Hydrogen Sonata completes a decade of reading and reviewing Iain M. Banks's science fiction, and it seemed appropriate to put together a master list where all of these reviews can be found in order.  Not all of these are full-length reviews (though most are) and there are several books I might end up revisiting, in which case I'll update this post.

The next obvious step, however, is Banks's non-genre writing.  I don't know if I'll be as inspired to write about those books as I was by his SF--I've never gotten the sense that his mainstream writing was as groundbreaking as his work in genre--but time will tell.

The Culture Novels
  • Consider Phlebas (published 1987, reviewed 2006, full-length review) - Part of me wants to revisit this novel, which isn't very good but is so very important to setting the tone and preoccupations of the Culture sequence.  The other part of me remembers what a dour slog it was.

  • The Player of Games (published 1988, reviewed 2010, full-length review) - In hindsight I think my review of this book, though generally positive, ends on a more negative note than it deserved.  It's a fantastic novel with a great plot, and a necessary counterpoint to the negativity of some of the other Culture novels.

  • Use of Weapons (published 1990, reviewed 2006, full-length review) - I wrote recently that Use of Weapons is a perfectly-formed novel undermined by a ridiculous final twist.  That's undeniably true, but this is still one of the most important, and best, Culture novels.

  • Excession (published 1996, reviewed 2008, short review) - Of all the Culture novels, this is the one that probably most deserves a second look.  In hindsight its importance to the overall tone of the series (and particularly the later novels) seems obvious, and I'd like to revisit it and maybe give it the consideration it deserves.

  • Inversions (published 1998, reviewed 2014, short review) - This, on the other hand, has probably gotten all the consideration it's going to get.  A stealth Culture novel, it's an interesting experiment but doesn't do much that the other books don't do better.

  • Look to Windward (published 2000, reviewed 2013, full-length review) - It's hard to call this my favorite Culture novel since it is so bleak, but it's definitely one of the best, and this is probably my favorite Banks review.

  • Matter (published 2008, reviewed 2009, full-length review) - The first of the three later, and lesser, Culture novels, and in hindsight the best of the unimpressive bunch.

  • Surface Detail (published 2010, reviewed 2011, full-length review at Strange Horizons) - The only time I've reviewed Banks for an outside publication.  I wish it could have been a review of a better novel, but Surface Detail is baggy and unfocused.

  • The Hydrogen Sonata (published 2012, reviewed 2015, full-length review) - The last of the Culture novels and, sadly, the worst.  There's still a lot here to enjoy but it's not the ending the sequence deserved.

  • The State of the Art (published 1991, reviewed 2016, short review) - Banks's only short story collection, which mainly demonstrates that he wasn't really suited to the short form. Valuable for completists, and for the title novella, but most of the interesting ideas in his work are explored better elsewhere.

Non-Culture Novels
  • Against a Dark Background (published 1993, reviewed 2013, short review) - This was the first Banks I read after his death, and that perhaps fueled an overly-negative reaction.  It isn't great--it revels in its bleakness and is much too long--but the knowledge that there were only so many of his books left for me to read made it seem worse than it was.

  • Feersum Endjinn (published 1994, reviewed 2006, very short review) - Like Inversions, this feels like an experiment, and though it's probably a more successful one, there's also not much to say about it.  There's a giant castle.  It's neat.

  • The Algebraist (published 2004, reviewed 2005, full-length review) - Where it all started.  My first Banks, and in hindsight my favorite of the non-Culture novels.  I don't know how well it would stand up today, now that I'm more familiar with the tropes of his writing (in fact looking back I'm not certain why Banks felt the need to create a new universe for this story; perhaps he simply felt the existence of the Culture would make the novel's events impossible).  I might end up revisiting it as well, though that feels less urgent.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Review: Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman

Over at Strange Horizons, I review Rachel Hartman's Shadow Scale, the sequel to Seraphina, one of my favorite books of 2013.  One of the things that most impressed me about Seraphina was how it managed to juggle so many characters, plotlines, and worldbuilding details without ever seeming overstuffed or rushed.  Shadow Scale doesn't quite manage that trick--it's longer, more episodic, and less focused than the previous volume.  That said, there's still a lot in it to love--the novel's world, characters, and ideas are as fresh and interesting as they were in Seraphina, and Hartman still combines an exciting fantasy plot with a smart exploration of issues of gender, race, and identity.  She's one of the more interesting writers currently working in YA fantasy, and I look forward to whatever she does next.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Whichever book ended up being the last stop in my meandering progress through the SF novels of Iain M. Banks--a journey that began nearly ten years ago--it was bound to be a bittersweet experience.  That that book has ended up being The Hydrogen Sonata only makes it more so.  Banks could not have known, when he sat down to write this novel, how little time he had left, or that it would turn out to be the last entry in the Culture sequence.  And yet The Hydrogen Sonata is suffused with death, with questions about the meaning of life, of how (and when) to leave it, and with anxiety about what comes after it.  If the book itself is not quite the capstone that the Culture sequence deserved, then the coincidence of its timing and subject matter lends it significance and weight.

Like the other recent Culture novels, Matter and Surface Detail, The Hydrogen Sonata is not properly a story about the Culture, which plays a supporting role only.  The focus here is on the Gzilt civilization, a contemporary of the Culture, who very nearly became a founder race but instead chose to strike their own path.  Now, ten thousand years later, the Gzilt have decided to Sublime, ascending to a higher dimension where the truly advanced civilizations of Banks's universe live an enternal but only dimly-understood existence.  It's a time of celebration, of settling accounts, and accordingly the remnants of the long-Sublimed Zihdren, a race who shepherded the Gzilt onto the galactic stage, send an emissary to reveal that the Book of Truth, the religious text which has strongly shaped the Gzilt's worldview, was actually an experiment by a Zhidren scientist.  The reactions to this revelation are swift and extreme--the forces loyal to the Gzilt leadership, represented in the novel by Septame Banstegeyn, the most powerful Gzilt politician and the man most directly responsible for the decision to Sublime, ruthlessly seek to suppress it, killing the Zihdren emissary and even going so far as to murder thousands of Gzilt citizens.  A group skeptical about the Subliming project, meanwhile, recruits one of its members, the musician Vyr Cossont, to track down Ngaroe QiRia, a Culture citizen who claims to have been alive at the time of its creation, and find out from him whether the Zihdren's claim is true.

The Hydrogen Sonata's story proceeds in several concurrent plot strands.  In one, Vyr is rescued from an attack by Banstegeyn's forces by the Culture ship Mistake Not..., who takes it upon itself to help her with her mission.  In another, a Contact agent who knew QiRia is reactivated in the hopes that she can find him.  The third follows Banstegeyn as he goes to increasingly extreme and immoral lengths to keep the Subliming on track, while also revelling in his own power and the fruits of it.  The fourth largely revolves around the discussions of the group of Culture Minds who have witnessed the destruction of the Zihdren ship, and who form a cabal dedicated to investigating the matter and deciding what, if anything, should be done.  There's a lot of zipping back and forth between the various planets in Gzilt space, a few space battles, and the requisite feats of Banks-ian invention--I was particularly fond of the hedonist Ximenyr, who has been preparing for the Subliming by throwing a years-long party, and who has modified his body to give himself fifty-something penises, with four hearts to power them.

What's oddest about The Hydrogen Sonata's structure, and about the book in general, is how closely it mimics that of Surface Detail.  As in that novel, there is a plucky but clueless woman from outside the Culture who teams up with a sardonic and unexpectedly lethal ship's avatar; a Contact agent who ends up doing a lot less than we'd expect; a villain whose evil is signposted by making him arrogant, vain, and sexually rapacious; and a group of Culture Minds who are trying to manage the situation from afar (this plot strand recalls Excession as much as Surface Detail, and indeed that novel's Interesting Times Gang is even namechecked).  But then, perhaps this mirroring is less surprising when one considers that the two novels' subject matters are themselves mirror images.  Surface Detail was a novel about a manmade hell--about civilizations that try to manufacture justice by condemning the stored mind-states of their deceased citizens to virtual torment.  The Hydrogen Sonata is a novel about an actual, provable heaven--even if, as the novel is at pains to note, no one knows what the Sublime is like, and all attempts to study it have failed.  Both are, fundamentally, stories about death and what comes after it.

The problem with The Hydrogen Sonata--which becomes even more glaring when you notice its similarities to Surface Detail--is that the subject of the Sublime isn't actually very interesting.  Especially in comparison to the elaborate, baroque hells in Surface Detail, and to the chewy questions they posed--what does it say about a society that it chooses to enact justice through torture?  Is revenge ever justified?  What level of violence can be excused in the pursuit of justice?--the Sublime, and the decision to end one's existence in this plane and ascend to another, are frustratingly vague.  (To be clear, I didn't think Surface Detail did a particularly good job of answering these questions, but merely raising them made it more interesting than The Hydrogen Sonata.)  Partly that's by necessity--describing heaven is a lot trickier than inventing hell--but even when Banks has the chance to write around the problem, by discussing the attitudes of those about to Sublime, he doesn't seem to know how to handle the question.  Our windows onto Gzilt society are Vyr, who is conflicted about Subliming but seems content to go along with it; Banstegeyn, who is as far from an evolved consciousness as one might imagine and who seems to have instigated the Subliming largely because it flatters his sense of self-importance (in one scene, he extracts a bribe from the representative of a species hoping to gain access to Gzilt planets and technology in the form of a promise to name a star after him); and various military officers, who have no qualms about committing atrocities (among other things, causing the real deaths of thousands of fellow citizens who were days away from living forever) because they're just following orders, and anyway, soon none of it will matter.

All of this points to a larger problem with The Hydrogen Sonata, and with the later Culture books in general: Banks never managed to create another alien civilization as interesting as the Culture.  The Gzilt are extremely undeveloped, unconvincing as a civilization distinct from the Culture but equal to it in technological and cultural complexity, and not particularly interesting.  They're meant to have reached a civilizational pinnacle--to have decided, as a culture and by popular vote, to leave this plane of existence, and yet it's never clear why.  A civilization that made this decision should, it seems, have something special or different about them.  Its citizens should behave differently--tired of life, inward looking, excited about the future, anything.  Instead, the Gzilt feel like placeholders, their existence justified merely by the fact that the Culture would never make the choice they are making, so another species has to be invented in order for Banks to tell a story about it.

Late in the book, someone finally says what any sensible reader will have been thinking for hundreds of pages--that whether or not the Book of Truth is a lie doesn't actually matter.  If the Gzilt have truly made the monumental decision to Sublime, this revelation (which many of them will anyway surely have guessed) isn't what's going to stop them.  But because we have no idea why the Gzilt wanted to Sublime in the first place, the fact that the central question of the novel turns out to be meaningless only makes the novel as a whole feel even more so.  In his review of the novel, Adam Roberts suggests that the Gzilt's ordinariness is part of the point--that Banks is poking fun at the SF trope of ascending to a higher plane of existence (and of the religious concept of the Rapture) by making the people about to achieve it as ordinary as we are, and perhaps even less admirable (for one thing, none of the villains of the novel are ever punished or even exposed, and no one in Gzilt society seems interested in an accounting for the thousands of deaths that result from the novel's events).  But the kind of satire he's suggesting, if it was indeed Banks's intention, requires a much sharper, more focused novel than The Hydrogen Sonata, which like most later Culture novels is baggy and meandering.

Of course, all Culture novels are ultimately about the Culture.  Surface Detail's fixation with the hells offered a contrast to the Culture's decision to address injustice in the here and now, before people die, and offered yet another opportunity to muse on the costs of that determination.  If The Hydrogen Sonata doesn't have much of interest to say about Subliming, that's probably because the Culture itself isn't interested in it.  And in the absence of that final frontier, what's left to it?  What's left to anyone, in fact, in a post-scarcity society, where life can be as long as you like?  The answer that Banks has always given, where the Culture is concerned, is "self-satisfied do-gooding," and The Hydrogen Sonata offers a particularly cynical take on that truism when the Minds who have been pursuing the answer about the Book of Truth--and who have caused, albeit indirectly, a great deal of damage and death in that pursuit, as they compelled Banstegeyn's forces to use ever more extreme force in order to suppress it--decide to do nothing with it, and leave Gzilt space, congratulating each other on a job well-done.  Like everyone, The Hydrogen Sonata seems to be saying, the Culture is just filling up time, and if its actions aren't leading up to a grand act of good (or evil), who cares?  It's something to do.

Perhaps the reason that The Hydrogen Sonata has left me so unsatisfied is that it's impossible to read it without being aware of the counterpoint to that conclusion.  In the world of Banks's novels, everyone can live forever.  In the real world, so many people live shorter lives than they deserve.  Some people die when they still have so much left to give to the world.  Some get a prognosis of a year, and then die two months later, robbing them and their loved ones of even those brief, paltry months.  For a Culture novel that is so much about death to have so little to say about this heartbreaking truth, especially now, feels like a waste.  The Culture has always been a civilization that did not have to deal with our problems, but rather with the ones that emerge when poverty, suffering, and inequality are eliminated.  For once, that feels insufficient.

I didn't expect The Hydrogen Sonata to be very good--the buzz was against it, and none of the recent Culture novels have been on the level of the earlier ones.  But I hoped that it would have more meat on it, more that it wanted to say or do.  I wanted to have more to say about it, even if it was all bad.  Instead, the most cutting criticism I can make of the novel is this: in my paperback edition, there is a publisher's interview with Banks.  In it, he refers briefly to his future plans for more SF books, to further ideas about the Culture that he'd like to write about.  In an entire novel about death and leaving the world, there is nothing that moved and saddened me as much as that interview, and the knowledge that its promise will never come to pass.