Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Serenity In 2000 Words or Less

TEACHER: We're the Alliance. We're good and noble and only want to help everybody, and we'll totally kick your ass if you dare say different.

YOUNG RIVER: I don't care, you're meddlesome and you poke things into people's heads.

TEACHER: No we don't. *Pokes pen into River's head*

You get the idea. Now I'm suddenly reminded of a similar condensation of Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I desperately want to reread it.

Spoilers, obviously (I particularly like the way the author distinguishes between the reactions of non-Firefly fans, Firefly fans who are seeing the film for the first time, and Firefly fans who are seeing the film for the nth time).


The Best of SciFiction: 2003

And, of course, 2003 is the year in which Micael Swanwick completed the Periodic Table of Science Fiction, which is one of the cleverest pieces of experimental fiction, or just plain science fiction, that I've ever read.

Monday, November 28, 2005

He's Had a Very Bad Year

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a television show with a female lead, be she ever so kickass, will invariably begin diverting an increasing amount of time and storylines to the male supporting characters. It happened to Alias and Dark Angel and even Buffy, and it's happening now to Veronica Mars.

Not, admittedly, without good reason. Show creator Rob Thomas has said that the strain of appearing in nearly every scene in the show's first season was too much for star Kristen Bell. Given that most of the supporting characters on Mars are male (a topic for another rant on another day, which I'm delaying because I so enjoyed watching Veronica interact extensively with Mac in last week's episode), storylines that don't directly involve Veronica would pretty much have to focus on male characters, which in some cases has been quite successful. It was interesting, for example, to see Wallace elevated from faithful sidekick to a complex young man with his own problems.

But the focus, especially since Wallace's departure, has been on Logan, and for all that Jason Dohring is a superb actor who brings tremendous energy to a challenging role, I have to question the direction in which Mars writers are taking this character. The problem isn't so much in the amount of time spent on Logan as in the storylines he's been getting. Logan's an intriguing character because the writers, instead of trying to use Dohring's charisma to win the audience, do their damndest to fight against it by making Logan an unrepentant jackass. They then turn around and keep the audience from turning completely against Logan by constantly knocking the poor kid down. As a result, Logan's life has turned into a litany of woe, one hit after another.

Logan's parade of misfortune is strongly reminiscent of where Veronica was in the series pilot. A common reaction to that episode was that 'everything has happened to this girl'--her boyfriend dumped her, her best friend was murdered, her father lost his job, her mother skipped town, she suffered a severe drop in financial and social status, she was raped--and it was wise of the writers to tone down the tragedy during the season itself. Veronica experienced problems and setbacks--untrustworthy boyfriends, fake purity tests, teasing and ostracism--but none of them on the scale of what she'd already endured. More importantly, she rose to these challenges and overcame them with grace and strength.

Logan, in contrast, seems to be in a downward spiral, and when disaster strikes he either compounds it by giving in to his self-destructive impulses or calls on Veronica to help him. And although, in the short term, it's amusing to watch this character get pummeled, in the long run it gets tedious and, which is worse, distracts from the show's actual main character. How can we give our attention to Veronica's boring relationship with boring Duncan if Logan's on the outs with Irish mobsters? Whether or not Veronica makes Logan's cause her own, he's threatening to take over the show without having the smarts, the initiative, or the emotional resilience to handle the role of main character. Whereas Veronica Mars is a show about a girl who's actively trying to fix her problems, Logan Echolls is a pity party, a show about a kid who complains and makes funny jokes but is ultimately ineffectual.

In a way, I think the writers have written themselves into a corner. If they keep piling more crap on Logan's head, they'll sink into absurdity and compound the problem of the show's errant focus. If they have Veronica solve all of Logan's problems, they'll eliminate a significant amount of the tension on the show and any interest we might have in Logan's developing character. To let Logan solve his own problems, at least in part, would probably be the best approach, if only the writers hadn't made it abundantly clear that the poor kid can't work his way out of a carnival maze without making things worse for himself.

I'm exaggerating the problem, of course. Mars hasn't lost its way yet--in fact, the second season has gotten into its stride in a big way and the last few episodes have been stellar--but I'm definitely beginning to feel that the Poor Logan storyline has played itself out. Let this last disaster--being kidnapped and tortured by Weevil--be Logan's rock bottom. Let him finally come to his senses and and start making positive changes in his life. The characters in Veronica Mars can rather starkly be divided into actors and reactors. Veronica and Keith, who actively seek to understand and change their world through investigation, are actors, whereas Logan and others like him simply react to events without understanding them. If Logan is to have a truly prominent role on the show, let him start acting, making an informed and deliberate attempt to change his life for the better. Otherwise, stop torturing the kid, and bring the focus back to Veronica, where it belongs.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

What The Third Policeman Can Tell Us About Lost

Among the many declarations they release into the stratosphere on a daily basis (a recent favorite: 'it boggles my mind when people ask me, "What do the numbers mean?"'--executive producer Damon Lindelof*), the Lost producers announced that Flann O'Brien's 1967 novel The Third Policeman--seen half-open on the bed of crazy-guy shut-in Desmond in the second season's third episode--would play 'a key role' in the show. Your intrepid host immediately set out to read the book, eager to better serve you, her beloved readers (and not, I hasten to point out, because she's a sheep who allows a stupid television program to dictate her choice in books. Not even a bit).

So, one fortuitous used bookstore find and 172 pages later, what can The Third Policeman tell us about Lost?


No, seriously. In terms of plot, The Third Policeman has about as much to do with what we're seeing on the screen as last year's similarly overexposed Watership Down--which is to say, a vague and superficial similarity (both books center around a group of refugees who set out to establish a new society) overpowered by significant differences between the texts (the rabbits in Watership Down leave their home voluntarily to escape a disaster, the survivors on Lost are brought together against their will because of a disaster; the rabbits have known each other their entire lives, the survivors are strangers; the rabbits travel around, the survivors stay still. Frankly, I agree with the TWoP recapper who pointed out that Battlestar Galactica has more in common with Watership Down than Lost).

The plot of The Third Policeman, to use the term generously, revolves around a rather foolish and self-centered man, the narrator, who has dedicated his life to studying the works of an even more foolish and possibly insane scholar named De Selby. The narrator's hired man, who has obviously been cheating the narrator for some time, convinces him that in order to get the money necessary to publish a monumental critical work about De Selby, they have to kill a reclusive old neighbor for his money box. Which they do, but the hired man promptly hides the money box and for three years refuses to reveal its location. Finally, the hired man leads the narrator to where he says the money box is hidden, but says that he himself will wait outside while the narrator retrieves the money (look, I said the guy was stupid, didn't I?).

No prizes for guessing what happens next, except that the narrative seems genuinely convinced that we wouldn't guess it. For the rest of the book, the narrator explores an illogical world in which everyone speaks to him in riddles, he sees impossible things, and far too much time and space is expended on the love that a man can feel for his bicycle. It's obviously meant to be a surprise when we discover, at the book's end, that the narrator has been dead and roaming around (a rather ineffectual, almost benign) hell**, but in fact it's been blazingly obvious, which is part of what makes The Third Policeman such a frustrating and ultimately unrewarding read.

In short, The Third Policeman is a not-particularly-well-written novel with a twist ending so hackneyed that it is only a step or two above 'Betty's been dead for twenty years!' As such, it makes a perfect accompaniment to Lost. In fact, to read The Third Policeman is to experience in miniature the entire emotional life-cycle of a Lost fan. First there's confusion, quickly followed by excitement as you try to piece together the various odd and mysterious discoveries that the characters make. As the irrational events compound and overtake each other, however, excitement quickly gives way to numbness and apathy. You come up with a blazingly simple solution--nothing makes sense because nothing is actually happening--and then quickly dismiss it because the writers would never do anything that trite. Which of course leads to a profound sense of disappointment when you discover that yes, yes they would, and then stare at you like four year olds who have come home from kindergarten with a lopsided, half-baked ashtray as a gift for a non-smoking parent, wondering why you haven't told them how brilliant they are.

But what I find most interesting about the connection between show and book is the fact that The Third Policeman is only a small part of a huge synergistic campaign. It's not just that if you search for the book on Amazon you'll be offered searches for Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time, and A Turn of the Screw--all books that have been featured prominently on the show (and isn't it just a perfect metaphor for the changes that the show has undergone that last season's featured books were so good and this year they're both underperforming and dull?). There's also Oceanic Airlines, a website apparently as full of cryptic clues and mysteries as the show itself. Two tie-in novels are already available, centering on the experiences of survivors we haven't met on the show, and the producers are planning to publish a mystery novel supposedly written by one of the dead passengers (the book's publication date coincides with the air-date of the episode in which the survivors find the author's manuscript). A series of cell-phone shorts also centering on survivors we haven't met on the show is also in production.

Now, in themselves, novelizations and tie-in novels and websites full of puzzles aren't unheard of or even uncommon for a mega-successful franchise like Lost. Star Trek novelizations, to name but one example, have existed for decades, catering to fans who want to spend more time in that invented universe. But right there is what's interesting about these various expansions--the fans who consume them aren't interested in spending more time on the island. They probably don't even want to spend more time with the characters. They're reading the tie-in novels and exploring the website and watching the mini-episodes because they hope to glean clues that will help them solve the show's main mysteries.

Which seems to me to be an approach dependent on the truth of three very dubious assumptions: one, that the answers exist, two, that the questions exist, and three, that the writers have any intention of revealing either one.

What we're seeing here is a mindless consumption of information, with no regard given to whether it's of importance to the story. It's a tragic inability to tell the difference between signal and noise; the same mindset that convinces the writers that it's vitally important to reveal whose shoes those are in the corridor and how they got there, but not what happens when you don't press the button.

There have been a lot of complaints over the last year or so about the Lost writers' parsimony with information--I've made some of those complaints myself--but the more I think about it the more I'm convinced that the problem isn't that the show isn't giving us enough information but rather that it's giving us too much, none of it interesting or relevant.

So, to sum up, what can The Third Policeman tell us about Lost?

That the writers have bad taste in literature. That they also have a well-developed sense of irony. That they have zero respect for their viewers. That we should all be watching Veronica Mars instead.

Oh, and that people who let stupid television shows dictate their choice in books deserve exactly what they get.

* In all fairness, I'm not sure that this is as bad as it sounds. It all depends on what Lindelof means when he talks about the meaning of the numbers. If he means that the specific numbers don't have any significance--in other words, no 'eight is the number of King Jeroboam's handmaidens' then I'm fine with it, in the same way that 'Bad Wolf' doesn't have any significance of its own. On the other hand, I would consider it completely unacceptable for Lindelof not to know why the numbers are recurring on the island and in the survivors' pasts--for the numbers to be, in other words, Lost's equivalent of 47 on Alias--a number that recurred everywhere the characters went without anyone noticing or commenting on it, as a 'clever' 'joke' by the 'writers'.

** Now, the obvious conclusion here is OH MY GOD THEY'RE ALL DEAD!!!1! but the Lost producers have spoken rather strongly against this interpretation. Of course, these days I wouldn't believe the Lost writers if they told me the sky was blue, not because I think they'd try to confuse me but because I suspect that, as is the case with so many other things, they honestly don't know.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Best of SciFiction: 2002

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Read It And Go WHOA

A trip through LiveJournal brought me to this freaking awesome analysis of Veronica Mars, touching on Meg, Weevil, but mostly concentrating on Logan and Lamb. I want to make it clear that you should read the entire thing and then go check out this brief addendum, but here's a small taste:
Some of the ways in which Lamb mirrors Logan have to do with his attitude towards Veronica; some don't. The obvious ones include the industrial-grade snarking they do at each other, the open hostility over points on which they differ, and each party's refusal to back down in the face of the other. But aside from Veronica, Lamb and Logan share other characteristics. They're both, to be frank, assholes, and Veronica isn't the only person they treat poorly. They're both pretty heavy on the machismo, and are both arrogant as hell. Moreover -- and here's the interesting thing -- they both have this belief in and insistence on their own rightness (NOT righteousness, mind). Logan thinks it's okay to burn down a community pool because the PCHers shot at his car. Lamb thinks he's a great sheriff and proceeds to blackmail Terrence Cook for charity money. Both of them, notably, are taking the law into their own hands (over and above the strictures of his office, in Lamb's case.)

Gloriana by Michael Moorcock: Being A Positive Bad Review or A Negative Good Review

I understand that at some point in the last 20 years Michael Moorcock released a new version of Gloriana, or The Unfulfill'd Queen in which the heroine doesn't achieve orgasm for the first time in her life as a result of rape. I commend him on his choice. I actually picked up Gloriana expecting to dislike it precisely because of what I'd heard about the ending (it didn't help that I didn't know which ending my 1986 edition would have, although it did lend an air of suspense to the proceedings), but I think I would have had trouble with it regardless. Gloriana is, after all, a book about an alternate Elizabeth I--Gloriana, queen of Albion, daughter of the villainous and mad King Hern--who presides over a Golden Age of justice, mercy, artistic and scientific advancements, financial prosperity, and peace, but can't achieve orgasm no matter how hard she tries (and boy, does she try. With practically every animate and inanimate object she can get her hands on). I mean, gosh, Mr. Moorcock, you sure weren't going for subtlety with your sexual politics, were you, even without the sledgehammer to the head that is the closing rape scene?

But to my very great surprise, I found myself enjoying the book immensely. In between the absurd sexual subplot and the appalling ending, there's a superb book here. Gloriana is obviously Moorcock's homage to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast series (the book is dedicated to Peake's memory), but Moorcock has a lighter touch than Peake--he's less long-winded, writes more compelling characters, and has the knack of making descriptive scenes as exciting as narrative ones. The book is set primarily in Gloriana's castle in the center of London, a warren of bricked-over passages and roofed-over rooms that is obviously meant to recall Gormenghast castle in all its unknowable complexity. Also borrowed from Peake is the society of misfits, forgotten criminals and victims who live between the castle's walls, and who emerge to wreak havoc and grant kindnesses, a reminder of the past that can be papered over but never done away with. Into this city-within-a-city comes Captain Quire, the Steerpike character, who uses the castle's secret passageways against its legitimate inhabitants by spying on them, committing crimes for which they accuse each other, and marshaling the forgotten wall-dwellers into a terrifying army.

Unlike Steerpike, who attacks the ancient Groan family in order to place himself in a position of power and gain the respect denied to him by his common ancestry, Quire acts out of a sense of aesthetics. He considers himself an artist, and his medium is human suffering. He accepts a commission from the Shah of Arabia--to destabilize the court, forcing Gloriana into a marriage with the Shah who will drag Albion into war for, we are told, its own good (all this 'womanly peace' weakens the state and allows immorality to fester within its citizenry and institutions)--out of a desire to prove himself a consummate artist. With his almost hypnotic charm--within the book's first fifty pages, he overcomes the virtue and honesty of a young servant and her over-protective fiancé--Quire might almost be a caricature if the readers weren't so revolted by his immorality.

Opposing Quire is Montfallcon, the queen's oldest advisor and a former servant of her father, power-mad, violent Hern. Almost from the moment of her birth, Montfallcon has trained Gloriana to be Hern's antithesis. To Montfallcon, Gloriana represents everything that is good and pure in the world, the shining beacon of virtue that blesses all that it touches. Behind Gloriana's back, of course, Montfallcon uses underhand and immoral means to secure Albion's safety, including employing a man like Quire. He conceals these acts from Gloriana because he believes that to allow her to know the evil that exists in the world would tarnish her light, and bring a corresponding fall from grace to all of Albion. Not surprisingly, Montfallcon's house of cards crumbles at Quire's lightest touch, and the old councillor grows increasingly frustrated, eventually devolving into insanity. As the book ends, Montfallcon turns on Gloriana herself, whom he sees as irredeemably stained by the knowledge she's gained of the world's ugliness.

Gloriana herself is the book's lynchpin, and sadly the character isn't quite up to the task. To put it bluntly, the girl is a ninny. Our own Elizabeth, while obviously not single-handedly responsible for the golden age that bears her name, was by all rights a clever, cunning, politically savvy person. The best thing that can be said about Gloriana, in contrast, is that she's super-nice. She spends her days crooning over her servants, her councillors, her seraglio, her courtiers, her illegitimate children, and various foreign ambassadors. Her fondest ambition, it seems, is to live in a world of uninterrupted pleasantness, where no one is ever unhappy, everyone is always polite to one another, and all disputes are resolved in a sensible fashion. It's difficult to understand how such a boring, milquetoast woman could become the focal point of an entire nation's hopes and dreams--she lacks the force of personality to dominate a knitting circle. In fact, it isn't quite right to say that Gloriana is a ruler--her role seems to be largely ceremonial, greeting delegations and presiding over seasonal celebrations, and although her position carries with it a great deal of actual power, she refrains from using it. Only towards the end of the book do we begin to see a hint of Gloriana's strength of character, but even then it comes in fits and spurts, rarely guided by intellect or reasoned decision-making. Gloriana seems genuinely resentful of her own position and duties--far more than the 'heavy is the head that wears the crown' stereotype would seem to justify--but she doesn't dare relinquish them for fear of failing her realm and the burden placed on her by Montfallcon.

Within this context, it's easy to guess the reasons for Gloriana's sexual dysfunction. If we accept the book's take on sex as a zero-sum game of power, in which one party--the male, penetrating, one--gains something from the sexual act and the other party is diminished by it, it's only natural to conclude that a woman with a great deal of temporal power (however little she may actually use it) would baulk at surrendering that power in her bedroom (although it's worth noting that Gloriana has plenty of sex--she just doesn't take any pleasure from it). Complicating the issue is the fact that Gloriana has been taught from infancy to think of herself as more than a person. She is, as Montfallcon has drilled into her, the embodiment of Albion, not only in the actions and decisions that she makes on its behalf but in her behavior, which must always be the personification of the ideals she stands for: justice, purity, and virtue. Gloriana crumbles under this perception of herself as an institution, not a person, and she naturally views the act of taking personal physical pleasure as an abdication of her role and of her virtue.

The rape, in other words, achieves twin goals. Instead of waiting for Gloriana to willingly surrender her power, Quire takes it from her by force (which, we're meant to believe, is what she wanted all along). And, by tainting her with his crime, staining the rape victim with her own victimhood, Quire releases Gloriana from the suffocating bonds of her own public image--redeems her, as she says, from her own virtue, by taking it away by force.

Excuse me, I have to go throw up now.*

While reading Gloriana, I often found myself thinking of Angela Carter's hilarious, picaresque adventure, Nights at the Circus, and the interesting accompaniment that it makes to Moorcock's novel. Like Gloriana, Carter's novel deals with a woman in an unusual amount of power and autonomy, who is troubled by the notion of giving a part of herself up to love. Fevvers, the winged woman who was raised from a hatchling in an East End brothel and is now the star of an internationally renowned circus act, falls in love with the journalist Jack Walser, who attaches himself to the circus in the hopes of proving her a fraud. Their courtship is a rocky and uncomfortable one, neither one of them willing to surrender their own power and independence. Fevvers is appalled at the notion of letting someone in--physically and emotionally--fearing that such an act would diminish her. Walser, a typical 19th century white male, is unwilling to consider an egalitarian relationship with a woman, and the possibility of his own vulnerability doesn't even occur to him--as Carter tells us, Walser is 'unhatched', a man who's experienced much but who hasn't allowed any of his experiences to truly affect him.

Unlike Moorcock, Carter recognizes that weakness and vulnerability are, for both genders, a prerequisite for love, and that sex, if it isn't treated as a simple fulfilling of a bodily desire, diminishes and enriches both partners at the same time. In order to be together, Fevvers and Walser both have to work up the courage to be weak, and Walser has to be practically rebuilt from scratch into a man who won't rebel at the notion of a sexual partner who has power over him**. It's a benevolent, loving approach to games of power and sex, and one that Moorcock might have benefitted from reading.

When dealing with the issue of powerful women in fiction, rape is a recurring motif, from Fevvers and Gloriana to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a reflection of our society's discomfort with powerful women, and of women's own fears for the power they've accumulated, which can be rendered meaningless as they lose autonomy over their own body. That Moorcock chose to portray rape positively as a part of his parody of Spenser's The Faerie Queene (which I have not, admittedly, read, but I understand that it involves a virtuous knight gaining the favor of the queen of virtue) is troubling. It shows, at the very least, a profound over-simplification of the politics of sex, power, personal relationships, and possession, all in the service of a clever point--that on their own, the romantic ideals of justice, purity, duty, and goodness are insufficient to sustain any endeavor, and that they must be tempered with pragmatism, cunning, and a certain amount of ruthlessness--the rape as a metaphor overwhelming the rape as a rape. As I said above, I managed to enjoy Gloriana in spite of its disturbing undertones and frustrating ending--it's an exciting, beautifully written book, often humorous and at times horrifying***, and even without the sexual component it raises interesting questions about the price of maintaining a just kingdom--but I think it would be best for potential readers to go into it with their eyes wide open.

In summary, don't be ragging on J.R.R. Tolkien, Mr. Moorcock, not while your sexual politics make his look downright egalitarian and progressive in comparison.

* From what I've gathered, the alternate ending does away with the rape and has Quire seduce Gloriana instead. Moorcock has said that he changed the ending because he didn't want to be seen as encouraging rape. This leads one to wonder a) just where his fine sentiments were when the novel was originally published, and b) whether he's genuinely so naive as to think that the problem with the rape scene is simply that it 'encourages rape'.

** It's worth noting that there is an attempted rape in Nights at the Circus, which Carter treats with all appropriate horror.

*** Although, as a clever Amazon reviewer pointed out, for a book so concerned with sex and sexuality it is curiously lacking in eroticism.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

“I just work here. I write the books, and other people tell me what genre they are.”

my editor started saying things like “dark fantasy.” This turned my head completely around. Sure, I was a little surreal, funky, even, but I felt “fantasy” was taking it a bit too far. My husband very gently poured me a cup of tea, sat me down and told me that, strictly speaking, animals don’t talk, mazes are cute little things made out of cardboard they put up for Halloween carnivals, and angels are supposed to be androgynous and sexless, so they can’t really be queer. Oh, and there’s no such thing as angels, anyway.

You are not a realist, he said. Realism doesn’t have alligators preaching the gospel.

Then realism is stupid, I said, and it was a crocodile.

Link via Mumpsimus. You should read the whole article, which is not only funny but makes a very important point: the term 'fantasy', which should by all rights refer to unbridled imagination, to worlds that exist outside the recognized boundaries of reality, to anything and everything that is impossible and strange, has come to mean a very specific, very rigid form that follows in the footsteps of one (monumental, deservedly influential) work. It isn't just writers who are concerned with labeling their work as fantasy--it's readers. Only last week I saw a poster on Readerville trying seriously to make the point that China Miéville and Susannah Clarke aren't fantasists.

It's a world askew.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Self-Promotion 2

My appreciation of Simon Ings' "Russian Vine" is up at the ED SF Project. Go read it, and the other fascinating pieces Dave has put up. Then go read Ings' story, which is really quite superb.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Babylon 5: Addenda

Some scattered thoughts, having finally managed to watch the end of the fourth season:

I suspect I'm alone in this, but I really do think that out of the show's three main 'battle arcs'--the original break from Earth ("Messages From Earth" through "Ceremonies of Light and Dark"), the final battle against the Shadows and the Vorlons ("The Summoning" through "Into the Fire"), and the fight to liberate Earth ("No Surrender, No Retreat" through "Endgame")--it's the last one that is the most successful and the best made. There's a darkness and a complexity to the storyline that simply wasn't there before. Sheridan is leading a partly alien fleet to attack his own home planet, in a decision that, while ultimately correct, is still questionable. The face of the enemy is not only familiar, it is our own (in sharp contrast to the Shadows and the Vorlons, who have no faces). The stakes are higher on a personal level, too--Sheridan is captured and tortured, Garibaldi betrays Sheridan and then discovers that he's been used by Bester, Ivanova is mortally wounded, Marcus dies[1]. And, of course, when the whole thing ends, the aftermath isn't fireworks, parades, and dancing in the streets, but recriminations, back-room deals, and unsavory political machinations. It's probably the most successful storyline in the show's run, the one that came closest to truly affecting me, and a good high point to end the story on.

Which is not to say that the arc didn't have its weaknesses. I realize that once you get into the battle episodes, character exploration gets left by the wayside, but for most of the latter half of the fourth season the show is shedding sympathetic characters, so that by the time the great victory comes around, there's no one left to root for. Sheridan becomes cold and thoroughly unlikable[2]. Delenn, apart from a rather boring interlude on Minbar in which Neroon steals all her scenes, is given nothing to do. Ivanova and Franklin are sidelined. Lyta gets shoved into a closet and only taken out when a really strong telepath is suddenly needed (which, in all fairness, was pretty much her character arc from day one, and Talia's before her). Londo and G'Kar, after going through an unearned, quickie reconciliation, are reduced to comic relief.

The only character who remains even vaguely compelling is Garibaldi, who practically from day one was the most interesting member of the cast for the simple reason that he constantly confounded the viewers' expectations[3]. Sure, he was the paranoid, hard-boiled detective who often had more in common with the criminals he chased than the masters he served, but he was also the guy who resigned his commission rather than stand by and watch as Sheridan violated Morden's rights; the only one of Franklin's friends who noticed that the good doctor was sinking into substance abuse, and the only one to make serious efforts to reach him and offer him help[4]; the man who, instead of an afternoon of casual sex with an attractive woman, would rather have a frank talk about his feelings. Throughout the fourth season, we see Garibaldi in a deep crisis--he loses a significant amount of time, alienates himself from his friends, becomes disillusioned with their cause, and is the only credible person who dares to suggest that there might something unwholesome about the cult of personality that rises around Sheridan.

But, of course, as we discover at the end of the fourth season (and as, in all fairness, we probably should have guessed beforehand), Garibaldi hasn't been in control of his actions. The crisis was not of his own making and the emotions he felt weren't his[5] and therefore we shouldn't give any credence to the legitimate points that he raised in his altered state. Even more disappointing is the fact that, once Garibaldi is cleared of responsibility for his actions (quick! Break Lyta out of that packing crate!), he interacts with his friends as if nothing's happened. The next time we see him, he's trading quips with Franklin, and although Sheridan throws him a nasty look when they next meet, the two of them have no meaningful interaction, no discussion of Garibaldi's actions and any residual guilt or resentment there might be on either side[6]. This lack of communication persists not only until the end of the fourth season but until the end of the show. In other words, Garibaldi's slide into darkness, the only meaningful character arc of the season, has neither significance nor consequence, and as a result the entire battle-for-Earth arc seems flatter and less engaging.

The argument could be made here that there's no time for heart-to-heart talks in the final episodes of the fourth season, crammed as they are with, you know, the battle for Earth. This argument crumbles when you notice that much like the rest of the show, these episodes are padded like an attack-dog trainer. I've often wondered why Babylon 5, with its emphasis on multi-episode and even multi-season storylines, never instituted a permanent 'previously on Babylon 5' segment before each episode. Then I realized that if they had done this, the writers would have found many of their most pivotal episodes clocking in at about 25 minutes. For example, the 'In the beginning, the ancient races bestrode the stars like giants' spiel is repeated about half a dozen times during the two years in which it is relevant. In "Endgame", the penultimate episode of the fourth season battle for Earth arc, the fourth act begins with a newscaster showing us several minutes of the gigantic space battle we just finished watching at the end of the third act. Even better is the revelation, in that same episode, of Marcus' decision to sacrifice his life for Ivanova's--first we see Marcus watching Franklin's MedLab reports and realizing that an alien device exists that will allow him to give Ivanova his life energy; then we see Franklin watching that very same recording[7]; then we get a flashback of the scene to which the recording refers--all told, maybe five or six minutes that could have been used to, say, show us how things are now between Sheridan and Garibaldi.

For all their flaws, however, there was enough in the closing episodes of the fourth season to make me sorry that the story was ending, which means that it was very considerate of J. Michael Straczynski to end the season (and, as far as he knew at the time, the show) with the assiest hour of television he's ever put his name on, "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars"[8]. Seriously, what it is with the mockumentary style? Over the show's lifetime, Straczynski uses it three or four times, never to any great effect. I realize that he was working ten years ago, but surely, even then, people knew that mockumentaries always sound like a good idea and are only rarely successful[9]. As a final statement about the show, "Deconstruction" seems to determined to concentrate not on Sheridan and Co.'s accomplishments but on the fact that later generations doubted their motives, their morality, and their very existence. This emphasis can be taken as a reinforcement of one of the show's most powerful themes, introduced all the way back in the pilot and constantly reiterated--that no matter what you've been taught to believe, one person can fight the system, make a difference, make the world a better place--by showing us how even after Sheridan's victory, those who follow him can't quite wrap their minds around the magnitude of his ambitions and accomplishments. I see it as a rather mean-spirited, in-your-face attempt to garner just a bit more sympathy from the audience[10]--see how unloved, how unsung my characters are by their own contemporaries, and even by the generations that followed them! But in the end, they were right! They created something that will last a million years and bring humanity to its rightful place in the stars! How dare anyone doubt them!

To understand just why the tone of the episode makes me uncomfortable, here are some of Straczynski's comments about "Deconstruction" on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5:
That, and the truth that in 10 years the naysayers will be forgotten, and made irrelevant...but the show, the *show*...goes on. And will be around long after they and I have gone to dust. And all people will know when they see [a title card at the end of the episode, which reads "Dedicated to all the people who predicted that the Babylon project would fail in its mission. Faith manages"], 50 years from now, was that some jerks said it couldn't be done, and they were wrong, because they are *always* wrong.
Straczynski is comparing his own accomplishment--getting a television show made and appealing to millions of viewers worldwide, which is by no means an insignificant accomplishment--to that of his characters, and he bashes his own detractors by having cartoonish villains nip at the heels of his larger-than-life heroes. What he fails to acknowledge, here or at any other point during the show's run (except rather obliquely during "Comes the Inquisitor") is that faith, confidence and determination, while necessary for the success of any great undertaking, are not sufficient to ensure that success. Believing in yourself is a good thing, but only if you're right to do so--somehow it isn't surprising to discover that Straczynski has missed that half of the equation.

[1] A moment of silence, please, for Jason Carter and his beautiful hair. Between them they brought more energy and charisma to their performance than the rest of the cast put together.

[2] Not to mention his completely untenable and immoral use of unconscious people as living weapons.

[3] The only other character of which this can consistently be said is Lennier, and he didn't get anything near the amount of screen time and storylines that Garibaldi did.

[4] And boy, wasn't Franklin just there to pay the favor back when it was Garibaldi's turn to fall off the wagon in The Season That Must Not Be Named.

[5] This isn't made entirely clear. According to Bester, Garibaldi's programming simply accentuated already-present qualities--paranoia, distrust of authority figures, irritability. A few minutes later, however, he tells us that subconscious commands quickly overrode Garibaldi's own personality, leaving the original Garibaldi trapped in his own head and powerless to act on his own desires. There might have been an interesting discussion of the degree to which programmed Garibaldi's actions tracked with Garibaldi's own impulses--surely he wouldn't have betrayed Sheridan, but what does it say about him that a simple tweak can bring him to the point of becoming a traitor? Sadly, the show never dealt with these questions in any meaningful way.

[6] And I think there's a case to be made for Sheridan feeling guilty and Garibaldi feeling resentful.

[7] In a storytelling device only slightly less hackneyed than the detective who plays a certain segment of a recording over and over again because he's got an idea, dammit!

[8] It's possible that the fifth season episode "A View From the Gallery" might be able to wrest this crown away from "Deconstruction", but some other, braver soul than I is going to have to rewatch it and make the final determination.

[9] The only decent one that comes to mind is the X-Files episode in which Mulder and Scully stumble upon a taping of Cops.

[10] Also, it could be Straczynski trying to get just one more dig at the journalism profession, which he seems to hold in slightly more contempt than he does politicians. Journalists on the show ran the gamut from shallow and insensitive (we know the journalist in "And Now For a Word" is evil because she makes Delenn cry) to cynical propaganda-mongers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The Best of SciFiction: 2001

Dave Schwartz is organizing a tribute to SciFiction. He's collecting appreciations--anything from a paragraph to an essay--of each of the stories. Go here to see the stories already claimed and stake out your own.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Best of SciFiction: 2000

Gwenda Bond inspired me to do this, although since I read so few of the stories when they were originally published, I thought I might as well make an exhaustive review. I have no idea when, or even if, I'll have time to complete this, but for 2000 these are the stories that stood out:
In happier news, Ellen Datlow, commenting at Mumpsimus, says that the archives will remain available for at least a year.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Surely, by this point, no one is surprised by the news that the Sci Fi Channel doesn't give a damn about science fiction?

By now you've probably heard from about a dozen sources about the death of Ellen Datlow's SciFiction. I'm not a big fan of reading fiction on the computer, so I never became a regular visitor of the site, but the news still rankles. That said, whenever I visited SciFiction it was always with the sense that the site's days had to be numbered--a completely free resource for new and classic science fiction, offering authors four or five times the next highest rate-per-word in the genre, sponsored by the same people who pulled Farscape off the air and replaced it with cheesy monster flicks and an armada of psychic-phenomenon reality shows?

I imagine someone out there is organizing a write-in campaign and I wish them luck in their efforts (as someone who lives outside the US and couldn't subscribe to the channel if she wanted to, I can't imagine my contribution would be of any help) but right now what I'm really wondering is whether SciFiction's archives will remain available after January 1st.

And, just in case the news wasn't bad enough, any opinions on what this means for the future of Sci Fi Wire and Science Fiction Weekly? I'm not a regular reader of either, but any platform that offers free access to the reviews of John Clute and Paul di Filippo is an invaluable resource.

If you're looking for a pick-me-up, read this delightful article (link via The Leaky Cauldron): Severus Snape: One Teacher's Hero
My students receive a happy, free-of-charge smile face sticker on exams scoring 95 percent or above, whereas if you scored an A with Snape, you might be rewarded with merely a medium-sized withering glare rather than the usual Super Sized one. I have much to learn from his methods, as I doubt that Snape is often besieged with students screeching at him that of course they should have gotten an A on this essay, as they have gotten As on every single possible evaluation since gaining the ability to breathe independently. Their mothers scored 100 percent in Lamaze classes! Thanks to their own excellence as a fetus! None of this would work on Snape, who majored in Being Sinister and seems to fear the sun and all its evil, melanin-producing properties.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Being Bertha Rochester: Three Novels

One of the many remarkable things about Jane Eyre is the way in which, even caught between those two powerhouses--steely, unbendable Jane and passionate, self-involved Rochester--the madwoman in the attic manages to hold her own. Properly speaking, Jane Eyre is a love triangle, and despite the fact that we barely even see her, Bertha Rochester, Jane's dark reflection, makes an indelible impression. Bertha is consumed by the same passions that Jane is able to master, which tracks with Charlotte Brontë's 19th century outlook (although it's important to point out that Jane is hardly prim and proper--she feels passion, but she doesn't allow it to overcome her reason and morality), but in the 150 years since Jane Eyre claimed its place in the canon, authors have gone back to the madwoman in the attic, sometimes in an attempt to tell her side of the story, and sometimes in order to give her a happier ending. The three novels I'm about to discuss each deal with Bertha in a unique way and shed a light on our continuous struggle with depictions of wicked, promiscuous women.

The most conventional approach to Bertha's story comes from Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea. Rhys' Bertha, here called Antoinette Cosway, is a Creole heiress in the West Indies, whose family, having fallen upon hard times, marries her off to young Englishman. According to Brontë, Bertha's insanity is the result of her promiscuity and (she not-very-subtly hints) her non-white lineage, but Rhys turns the tables by stridently insisting that it is Rochester and the English society he represents who drive Antoinette (Rochester even strips her of her name, claiming that Bertha is more proper) to madness, of which promiscuity is only a symptom. Antoinette becomes a representative of generations of subjugated women, sold into marriage by a white, male establishment, and then told to be ashamed of their femininity and their sexual impulses. The sexual politics are conflated with race politics--Antoinette's family home is surrounded by disgruntled former slaves, who reject Antoinette for her whiteness just as thoroughly as Rochester derides her for not being white enough. Caught in the middle of several conflicts, without friends and allies, treated with indifference and eventually cruelty by her uncomprehending husband, Antoinette's mind snaps, and her removal to cold, wet England after a lifetime spent in the jungle only serves to further her deterioration. The book ends with Antoinette fantasizing about her final release--burning down the house that has become her prison.

Although powerful and compellingly written, Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre seems to have borrowed from Brontë her tendency to use her fiction as a pulpit. The book is strident and often shrill. Rhys piles the tragedy and melodrama on with a shovel, but unfortunately she is neither as talented as any of the Brontë sisters, nor does she have the excuse of writing during the first century of the novel's existence. Wide Sargasso Sea often slips away from Rhys' control, becoming the very book she was trying to lambast. (There's also the question of whether reading Bertha Rochester as a victim of the patriarchy is even remotely original or shocking for modern readers, although a quick look at the book's Amazon reviews reveals many readers who complain that Rhys has ruined their enjoyment of Jane Eyre by damaging their opinion of Rochester.)

Taking an opposite approach to Rhys was Daphne du Maurier in her most famous novel, Rebecca. Where Rhys' Bertha was a victim, du Maurier's is a victimizer, far worse than Brontë's. Bertha Rochester was insane--she couldn't help making Rochester's life a living hell, and she certainly suffered more than he did. Du Maurier's Rebecca de Winter, on the other hand, is perfectly sane and perfectly evil. She uses people--mainly men--for her own purposes and cares for no one but herself. She torments her husband, Maxim, with her infidelities, but also with his inability to dominate her and make her love him as much as he loves her. When she discovers that she's dying of cancer, Rebecca plays one final trick on Maxim by goading him into killing her, thus ensuring that even after her death, she will blight his existence (don't be fooled by the Hitchcock version, in which Maxim is innocent. Excellent as it is, the movie so thoroughly soft-pedals the ending as to completely change the story).

According to du Maurier, Rebecca is triumphant even after death. Whereas Brontë's Bertha never had a hold on Rochester's heart (and whereas Rhys' Antoinette briefly manages to entice her husband but quickly loses him), du Maurier assures us that Maxim will never forget Rebecca. He marries the novel's narrator, the unnamed Jane character who is thoroughly unlike Rebecca--meek, quiet, young and impressionable--because he hopes she will make him forget his pain, not because he loves her. Throughout the novel the narrator finds herself overshadowed and overwhelmed by Rebecca's memory, and as the novel ends we find her and Maxim living in seclusion the quiet, bland existence of shell-shocked soldiers or penitent hermits. The destruction of Manderley--which in Brontë's version of the story and in the Hitchcock film is a release for Jane and Rochester--is here presented as Rebecca's final, irrefutable victory, one last twist of the knife from beyond the grave.

Probably most intriguing about du Maurier's version of Jane Eyre is the fact that, having unapologetically sided with the bad girl (although Maxim, an unrepentant murderer, and 'Jane', who unhesitatingly helps him cover up the murder, can hardly be said to be 'good'), it is now being subjected to the same rethinking as Jane Eyre itself. Sally Beauman's Rebecca's Tale retells du Maurier's story from the dead woman's point of view through Rebecca's journals. As Beauman writes in her introduction to Virago's 2003 edition of Rebecca:
One way of reading Rebecca is as a convention-ridden love story, in which the good woman triumphs over the bad by winning a man's love: this version is the one our nameless narrator would have us accept, and it is undoubtedly the reading that made Rebecca a bestseller. Another approach is to see the novel's imaginative links, not just with the work of earlier female novelists, such as Charlotte Brontë, but also with later work, in particular Sylvia Plath's late poems. Rebecca is narrated by a masochistic woman, who is desperate for the validation provided by a man's love ... This woman, not surprisingly, views Rebecca as a rival; what she refuses to perceive is that Rebecca is also her twin, and ultimately her alter ego. The two wives have actually suffered very similar fates. Both were taken as brides to Manderley ... Both were marginalised within the confines of the house ... The difference between them lies in their reactions: the second wife gladly submits, allowing her identity to be determined by her husband, and by the class attitudes and value systems he embraces. Rebecca has dared to be an unchaste wife; she has broken the 'rules of conduct' Maxim lives by. Her ultimate sin is to threaten the system of primogeniture. That sin, undermining the entire patriarchal edifice that is Manderley, cannot be forgiven--and Rebecca dies for it.
The third reexamination of Bertha Rochester comes from Michel Faber's gargantuan Victorian potboiler, The Crimson Petal and the White. Crimson is not simply a retelling of of Jane Eyre but a remixing of it, with a healthy dollop of Victorian sexual politics mixed in. The Jane/Rochester/Bertha triangle is recreated in the novel through Sugar, a successful prostitute who, in her spare time, writes a violent novel about woman who murders men; William, a failed author whose cosmetics business is transformed into an empire with Sugar's help; and Agnes, William's wife who is being driven slowly insane by a brain tumor. Faber tells Jane's story in reverse--Sugar starts out a common prostitute (which is probably where Jane would have ended up after leaving Rochester with no money or references), becomes William's mistress, is brought into his home as governess to his daughter Sophie and finally leaves him, going out into the world as a proper young lady.

Faber references and plays with our received notions of the Jane Eyre story in many ways (one of the joys of reading The Crimson Petal and the White is discovering these subtle jabs at the novel) but the most interesting one is the way in which he commingles the Jane and Bertha characters. Sugar, the Jane character, is the sexually promiscuous one, whereas Agnes is not only chaste but in complete denial of her sexuality. Agnes is in many ways infantile, almost a child. She sublimates her sexual nature and even her adulthood in religious hysteria, and her only sexual contacts come when William forces himself on her. In Faber's tale, Jane/Sugar's responsibility is not to Rochester/William but to the women he hurts--Bertha/Agnes and Adele/Sophie, both of whom she rescues from William's obliviously damaging clutches. Faber's Bertha is once again a victim, but for once she is treated to something resembling a happy ending.

For Charlotte Brontë, Bertha Rochester was a hurdle to be placed in her lovers' path. If she thought of Bertha's life at all it was to condemn her for her choices, for being the slave of vice and lust and for dragging a fairly innocent Rochester down with her. In one form or another, the authors I've mentioned here (and, I'm sure, others I've yet to read) have challenged that view. I've listed them here in the order of my opinion of them as novels--I disliked Wide Sargasso Sea, enjoyed Rebecca, and loved The Crimson Petal and the White. But regardless of my personal feelings, I have to wonder what it says about us that for more than 60 years, we have struggled with the fate of Bertha Rochester--was she a victim, a villain, or something in between? Did she deserve her fate, and did her husband and her successor deserve theirs? This fascination with a little-seen character is a testament to Charlotte Brontë's strength as a writer, I think, however little she may have intended it.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Alas, Babylon

At my brother's prompting, my family and I have gone back and re-watched that seminal 90s SF phenomenon, Babylon 5. Now that I'm nearly at the end of the show's four-season run* I find myself having to rethink my assessment of it. Up until now, I've always thought of B5 as a better-than-average show with a poor first season, an execrable fifth season, and three deeply flawed yet ultimately successful middle seasons. And as it turns out, I was wrong, because Babylon 5, from beginning to end, both sucks and blows.

I suspect this is something a lot of people already knew--people who watched the show when they were older than 15, the age I was when I became a fan, and people who have gone back to it in the intervening years. More than anything else, Babylon 5 is a show for teenagers. The overblown dialogue, the broad humor, the melodramatic plots, the frequent monologues and speeches, and just in general the show's palpable sense of its own profundity must have been irresistible to the teenage set--to viewers looking for something grand and inspiring who weren't too interested in, or capable of, noticing the bad writing and obvious plotting. Who but a teenager, after all, could watch an EarthGov representative, who has just negotiated a non-aggression treaty with the patently evil Centauri, blissfully announce that "we will finally have peace in our time" without rolling their eyes? Who else would put up with entire paragraphs from 1984 being turned into dialogue for Night Watch representatives?

Come back to the show ten years later, however, with a bit more experience under your belt and with the genre television landscape having undergone a profound change (one that Babylon 5 was at least partly responsible for) and the whole thing looks rather pathetic. When I went looking for negative opinions about B5 I naturally started with that pithy curmudgeon of genre television, Andrew Rilstone, but sadly he went the succinct route. He did, however, point me towards this intriguing critique of the series by Nick Eden (written near the end of the fourth season):
The problem is that there is a single mind driving the entire show. That single mind, belonging to J. Michael Straczynski, is thinking up every idea, overseeing all the production and writing every script. And that single mind isn't up to it. The single mind that should be providing creative vision to the show is doing everything. The single mind is trying to see both the fine detail and the big picture at the same time, and as we all know, trying to do that means you don't get to do either very well and you get a splitting headache out of it.

What's actually happened is that the big picture dominates everything, drives every episode, every sub-plot, but at the same time there hasn't been enough time to make that big picture work when you get down to the detail. A conventional writing arrangement probably does things better - if the single guiding intellect is able to just get on and guide then he's got the time to make sure that the stories being told by the individual writers work as stories and fit into the bit picture.

But that's not how it goes on Babylon 5, because everything's being done by one man. One man who lacks either the time, the ability or the vision to see any single episode of Babylon 5 as anything more than a tiny segment of a five year story. He doesn't see stories, or characters, just pawns that are part of a greater whole. Individual characters are routinely sacrificed because the Plot demands that they go and do something, never mind that it doesn't fit with what they were doing a couple of weeks ago. Episodes don't have beginnings or middles or ends. They are just scenes in a tapestry. If you've not been watching from the start then you'd better not risk starting now. There are no jumping on points, only "bugger this for a game of soldiers, I'm going to bed" points.
Which, when I come to think of it, is fairly accurate. Take "In the Shadow of Z'ha'dum", one of the most important episodes in the second season--Sheridan discovers the connection between Morden and his wife, and Delenn and Kosh are forced to reveal to him the upcoming conflict with the Shadows. In the episode's final act, Sheridan is faced with a dilemma: if he releases Morden, he might lose his only chance of discovering exactly what happened to his wife, but keeping Morden in prison might cause the Shadows to attack sooner than they had planned, before the army of light can marshall their forces and mount a defense.

Sheridan's choice to release Morden is a pivotal moment for the character--by doing so, he is committing himself to the fight against the Shadows and making the first of many painful sacrifices to that cause. It's a decision reached with the help of a history lesson: as Sheridan tells Zack, during WWII Churchill chose not to evacuate a city he knew was about to be bombed by the Germans in order not to reveal that the Allies had cracked the German codes. If we're to believe Straczynski, Sheridan's situation parallels Churchill's--both men were forced to make a painful sacrifice in order to ensure the greater good. But, of course, the two situations aren't even remotely comparable. Churchill was forced to choose between the certain death of thousands of his citizens if he didn't order the evacuation and the possible subjugation of his entire country if the Germans changed their codes and the Allies lost the war. Sheridan is forced to choose between personal vengeance and the fate of the entire galaxy. Neither decision is easy, but only Sheridan's has an obvious right choice. In other words, Sheridan makes one of the most important choices of his life because he's a bad historian, and the fact that Straczynski expects us not to notice this--the fact that he seems not to have noticed it himself--indicates a sloppiness in his writing that tracks with Eden's view of him as a big picture man who can't, or won't, erect a proper foundation for the towers in his mind.

Or take Londo Molari, one of the most important characters on the show. According to Straczynski, Londo is a tragic figure--motivated by the desire to see his people regain their place as a major galactic power, Londo gives the Shadows a foothold on his planet and in its government, and soon finds himself in over his head as they begin setting up his species for a massive fall. And I'm sorry, but that's not what's showing up on screen. The Londo we see is a horrible person, who knowingly does horrible things for reasons which are, OK, vaguely honorable** but still not a sufficient excuse, and his exploitation by the Shadows can only be explained by his having the political instincts of a stunned wombat, which is plainly not the case. Londo is a mass of contradictions--one moment he's cringing at the bombardment of the Narn homeworld, and the next he's congratulating Vir for personally orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Narns (in reality, Vir has smuggled the Narns to safety, a grave disappointment to Londo)--which in the real world would suggest not a complicated personality but a sociopathic one, but in Londo's case is yet more evidence of a lack of attention to detail on the writer's part.

But I think it's giving Straczynski too much credit to suggest that there was something inherently wrong with the way Babylon 5's production was organized--to suggest, in other words, that any other person, working under the same restrictions as Straczynski, would have produced sup-bar work. Because J. Michael Straczynski is not only a talentless hack, he's a talentless hack who truly believes himself to be God's gift to the writing profession (go read some of his comments on The Lurker's Guide to Babylon 5--just pick an episode at random. I dare you not to come away from them feeling that Straczynski has an ego the size of China). In almost every respect, Straczynski failed Babylon 5.

He failed as a writer of dialogue. His humorous scenes were as wooden and posed as an episode of Gilligan's Island, his dramatic scenes invariably descended into monologues, and both were as far from realistic as it's possible to get. He failed as a director--apart from the CGI battles, B5 had a static, lifeless look. It's probably not fair to blame him for the show's paltry effects budget and for working at the very forefront of CGI (although some of the Vorlon ships look like they belong in a screen-saver), but he certainly failed to make Babylon 5 look like a real place--inside and out, it was textureless. He failed in his casting decisions***, and, having cast his actors, he failed to give them believable character arcs or decent direction****.

And yet.

If I hate the show so much, why did I love it ten years ago, and why have I breezed through it again now, constantly eager for the next installment of the story? Why does the fifth season make me so angry if I think so little of the previous four? For all its many failures, there is something to Babylon 5. I can't put my finger on it--maybe it's just that unearned sense of profundity, getting to me as thoroughly now as it did when I was a callow teenager--but I care about this world. I may be cracking snarky comments every five minutes, but when it comes down to it, and the music swells and the heroes strike their pose and the lovers are reunited, I'm touched, and I want more. I can't stand any of the parts, but I still love the whole.

Maybe it's nostalgia. Maybe Babylon 5 is like a piece of marching music--you know you're being manipulated, but the drums bypass your brain and head straight for your stomach and your legs and your heart. Maybe, in the midst of all the crap he poured into that show, Straczynski concealed a heart of gold without even knowing how he did it.

It occurred to me recently that, in about 20 years, I'm going to start seeing revivals and reimaginings of shows that were seminal to my adolescence. Farscape: The Next Generation, the new Friends, a gritty, realistic X-Files. Maybe, in much the same way that Ronald D. Moore has extracted the beating heart of something as campy as the original Battlestar Galactica and transplanted it into a better, smarter body, someone will come around one day who can take whatever it was about Babylon 5 that worked, the core of the story that's still bringing me back, and give it the treatment that J. Michael Straczynski couldn't.

It was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. We deserved better, but I can't quite write it off.

UPDATE: Some more thoughts about the end of the fourth season.


* Fifth season? What is this fifth season of which you speak? Oh, you mean the fifth season in which Ivanova was dumped and replaced by Cat from Lois and Clark, who just happened to be Sheridan's heretofore unheard-of first wife? The fifth season in which Lyta acted like a complete ninny over some over-bred, long-haired Marcus-wannabe? The fifth season in which G'Kar finally made the transition from fascinating would-be saint to bloviating bore, who couldn't give you the time of day without making a speech out of it? The fifth season in which Garibaldi, still traumatized from having been mind-raped in the previous season, crawled back into the bottle and none of his so-called friends even noticed? The fifth season in which Lennier went from an interesting, multi-layered character to your standard best friend who loses the female lead to the virile male lead, and because he is an intellectual and a weakling, uses violence inappropriately (of course intellectuals can't be trusted to use violence responsibly) to get revenge, just so that he could redeem himself by dying nobly in the 'David meets the Drakh' arc which we're never going to see because it happens fifteen years in the frikking future? That fifth season? Never happened.

** Inasmuch as "the Narns have offended my sense of racial pride and therefore they should be subjugated, oppressed, killed off by the thousands, humiliated, and generally made to suffer" can be considered an honorable motive.

*** Although, admittedly, it would have been a rare thespian who could have made something watchable out of Straczynski's dialogue--only Andreas Katsulas and Peter Jurasik consistently managed to weave gold out of the straw they were given--let's not forget that this is the man who thought Michael O'Hare could carry an entire series on his back.

**** My personal favorite is the Ivanova/Talia relationship. I'm willing to stipulate that between the beginning of the first season and the end of the second season, when Talia's dormant spy personality was activated, overriding her own, these two developed a friendship. But a romantic relationship? Where the hell did that come from, and how are we supposed to buy it when the two actresses look as if they're making small talk in the DMV line?

Saturday, November 05, 2005

If You're In the Neighborhood

If you've visited or are planning to visit Israel, you may already know what Israelis sometimes forget: that the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is one of the finest in the world. It has a spectacular collection, concentrating mostly but not exclusively on archeology, some lovely gallery spaces, and a diligent, clever staff. I was reminded very forcefully of this last fact when I visited the museum two weeks ago to see how the new Shrine of the Book looks (as it turns out, the renovation changed nothing about the Shrine's appearance except that the Deuteronomy scroll is no longer on display--which is a shame, because I used to get a kick out of taking visitors there and reading aloud from it) and ended up checking out some of the rotating exhibits while I was there. Utilizing mostly artifacts from the museum's own collection or from other Israeli museums, the curators have come up with a fascinating exhibit, In the Beginning, about the origins of religious practice in the Middle East region.

Highlights include some of the earliest known examples of decorative art, such as a 233,000 year old (!!!) figurine, or "Adam and Eve", the earliest (10,000 years old) known image of lovers, believed to be a fertility icon. Further down the line are 9,000 year old ceremonial masks, and the familiar big-hipped fertility images, 8,000 years old. Did you know that for several centuries about 10,000 years ago, the custom existed of plastering over the skulls of certain deceased members of the community, painting them with stylized faces, and worshiping these images?

From the exhibit booklet (an actual catalog is forthcoming, in cooperation with the Israeli publisher MAPA):
Influenced by the universality of the phenomenon, scholars in the field of the study of religion used to assume that religious belief has existed since the emergence of humankind. The archeological evidence, however, suggests that religious behavior appeared relatively late in human history and is principally characteristic of our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. It is possible that the rise in religious practice, like the significant increase in the manufacture of personal ornaments and works of art, is related to the cultural change called "the sudden revolution", which took place in the later stages of the Stone Age, 40,000 years ago.
40,000 years. We like to think of ourselves as advanced beings. We enjoy comparing ourselves to humans living only decades and centuries ago and deriding them as primitive and backwards (alternatively, some of us enjoy looking back decades or centuries and lamenting a lost golden age). Living in Israel is a constant reminder that the basic structures of human civilization, the fundamental ideas of what humans are and what humans do, have existed not for millennia but for tens of millennia. We are old, and we haven't changed nearly as much as we think--something that, I have found, Americans and even Europeans can have trouble grasping.

The exhibit will remain on display until the end of May 2006.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Just When I Thought It Was Safe to Get Back in the Water...

I was coming around to the notion that the Keira Knightly Pride and Prejudice might not suck as badly as I had feared, so naturally the universe hadto come up with some other way to make me lose all hope in humanity:
Anne Hathaway ("The Princess Diaries", "Brokeback Mountain") confirmed to Empire Online that she is set to play author Jane Austen in "Becoming Jane".

Austen is the author of such legendary books as "Persuasion," "Emma," "Mansfield Park," "Pride and Prejudice" and "Sense and Sensibility".

The film is written by Kevin Hood and will take a portion of Austen's life that reflects the wild romanticism of her novel.

Television Without Pity's Got Competition...

Sure, TWoP's two Farscape recaps (of the premiere and of the second season episode "Crackers Don't Matter") were hilarious, but we all know that it's the show's fourth season that deserves a touch of snark. Enter Danny at ToughPigs, whose recaps are solely responsible for the fact that I've been getting a lot of funny looks today as I remember really funny bits and start snorting and laughing.
The theme of today's episode, really, is that Technology Of The Future Is Not Any Better Than The Technology We Have Today. After the whole hands-in-vomit thing, then Chiana and Sikozu spend minutes and minutes trying to figure out what complex sequence of buttons operates the cannon. They're smart people, and clearly very experienced shooting weapons at things, but it takes them forever to figure out how to do it. Isn't there a Big Red Button somewhere marked LASER CANNON? I mean, my laser cannon has one of those, and I got it on sale at Best Buy. You'd think the Big Red Button would be pretty much standard on any laser cannon in the universe, but not on D'argo's ship. Even a spaceship constructed by Microsoft would at least have a little animated paper clip come out and say, "It looks like you're trying to fire a laser cannon at an electrostatic barrier. Would you like help?"
Go. Read.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

It's Almost Obligatory: Mundane SF

The following is a translated, reduced, and slightly reshaped extract from "Dogme 2005: Geoff Ryman and the Mundane SF Manifesto", an article I recently contributed to The Tenth Dimension, the Israeli SFF Society's quarterly. A large portion of the original article was concerned with introducing the reader to Ryman's new movement, which I assume online readers would already be familiar with (but if not: here is the manifesto and an Infinity Plus interview with Ryman in which discusses Mundane SF. Here are a few reactions to the manifesto and movement). Also removed is some discussion of the books and television series mentioned in the extract.
Ryman's stated goal--encouraging readers and writers to think of the Earth as a precious and limited resource, not to be squandered in the vain hope of an easily available replacement--is hard to object to, and yet there's something about the manifesto's wording and ideology that is troubling. What to make, for example, of the Manifesto's recognition of "The relief of focusing on what science tells us is likely rather than what is almost impossible such as warp drives. The relief will come from a sense of being honest"? What, beyond the emotional sort of honesty which hardly requires a doctorate to be able to gauge, does honesty have to do with the writing of fiction? There's something troubling about the use of such a loaded term to describe what is ultimately groundless speculation. Even more troubling is the manifesto's underlying assumption, that unlike all other literary genres, science fiction has an ideological agenda. Ryman's social platform is commendable, but it fails as a yardstick for literary quality.

The Mundanes seem to oppose the use of SFnal tropes as metaphors for contemporary social phenomenon. They define science fiction not as a forced allegory but as a plain-spoken story about futuristic technology. There seems to be an attempt here to penetrate the definition of science fiction--how much weight do we give each side of the equation? To emphasize science is to reduce the genre to a series of exercises in future-prediction. To concentrate on fiction, on the other hand, is to transform SF into technological fantasy. I see these two opposing concepts as two sides of the same coin, neither of which can exist without the other, but the Mundanes' decision to prefer one is not simply an expression of personal preference. They've attached moral values to 'science' and 'fiction', and determined that the former is better, more honest, more useful to society. Those who don't embrace this approach can produce, at best, "harmless fun".

I can't accept the underlying principles of the Mundane SF movement, and yet when I examined my reading habits over the last few years I discovered to my surprise that most of my favorite science fiction--the books that have interested and excited me--have fallen rather squarely into the Mundane SF camp: books such as David Brin's Kiln People, Elizabeth Moon's Speed of Dark, Maureen F. McHugh's China Mountain Zhang, and Ryman's own Air: Or, Have Not Have. To a one, they take place on or around Earth, in societies largely the same as our own, and their scientific MacGuffins are suitably 'believable' (although we might stop here to talk about a certain heroine's stomach-pregnancy and esophageal birth). Outside the literary medium, there's been a drift towards science fiction that's been denuded of its identifying characteristics, whether its Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the best film of 2004, or television's naturalistic Battlestar Galactica taking over from the operatic Farscape (yes, I know that Galactica doesn't answer all of the Manifesto's requirements, but it comes closer to doing so than any televised SF in the last decade or more).

Whatever significance Ryman and the Mundanes might attach to them, I see these changes as aesthetic rather than ideological. I define science fiction as literature that concerns itself with two questions: how will technology alter our lives? And how will we use technology to do the same things that human beings have been doing for millennia--love, hate, start families, and dream of the future? I've ceased to feel the need for the accouterments of the genre--spaceships, funny aliens, far-off worlds--so long as these questions are being addressed in a thoughtful, original manner (not that I find any or all of those accouterments are inherently objectionable). The Mundane SF manifesto, to my mind, isn't spearheading a new movement in SF so much as describing a change already in effect and attaching ideological significance to it. In all likelihood such an agenda was far from the intentions of the creators of many of the works we might now classify as Mundane, but which might more accurately be described as subtle.