Monday, June 28, 2010

Where's the Fun? Doctor Who Thoughts

For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to put into words just why I've found the most recent and just-concluded season of Doctor Who so underwhelming.  What's standing in my way is the fact that somewhere around the second season I lost the ability to think or write critically about the show.  Oh, I've produced the occasional piece, but what they've all had in common was an emphasis on a single character or plot arc that I could get a handle on, while the show as a whole seemed to elude my grasp.  From the moment it exploded onto our screens in 2005, New Who's defining characteristic seemed to be its cheerful and relentless determination to ignore all the rules of good writing in favor of spectacle and, as Jackson Lake so accurately put it in "The Next Doctor," wonderful nonsense.  Russell T. Davies came out and said that he wasn't interested in coherent plots or nuanced characterization or subtle moments, that what he wanted was to elicit wonder by any means necessary, and that is exactly what he did in his five years at the show's helm, constantly cramming more gunpowder into his cannons in order to achieve ever-greater explosions (and compensate for the audience's growing desensitization).  To criticize Who in its third or fourth season for not making any sense and for substituting bombast for coherent writing seemed not only pointless but hypocritical, because that's what the show had been doing from day one, and whether you thought this was brilliant or horrible depended entirely on where your personal threshold between wonderful nonsense and just plain nonsense lay, and whether Davies had already crossed it.

So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat's first season at the series's helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn't trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough?  Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong?  The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series's most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless.  At some point, I stopped caring about Davies's stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it's not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again.  Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show's saving grace under Davies's reign, have been allowed to fester.

These are both contentious points, so let's go through them one by one.  During most of Davies's run, Moffat was known as The One Who Could Plot.  Which I was on board with, because he'd written three of New Who's best stories, and even the Library two-parter had its moments.  Then I watched Jekyll, a miniseries that seems not to have been written so much as spewed onto the page, which changes the tenor, direction, and even genre of its story with each of its six episodes, and gestures at a dozen endings, none of which materialize.  It ought to be taught in screenwriting classes as an example of what not to do, and it made me take a closer look at Moffat's contributions to Who.  What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn't very good at plotting, possibly because he didn't tend to do it very often.  "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink" have only the barest hint of a plot, and it's the same one for both of them--the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor.  What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat's previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end.  "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead" is, plot-wise, a mess, piling nonsensical last-minute saves on fast-talking gobbledygook on utterly arbitrary rules and limitations ("Don't think you'll regenerate!" is, I still believe, one of the series's most risible lines) in the best Davies tradition, but with a bit of Moffat-ish flare.  The only really well-plotted story Moffat produced under Davies's reign was "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," which is an un-Moffat-like story in many other respects as well--it gives the companion something to do instead of sidelining her, the prominent guest star is a man and not fixated on the Doctor, there's no timey-wimey stuff--and is an achievement that he has yet to recreate.

So no, Moffat isn't a good writer.  He's a clever writer, and that cleverness is on display at certain points in the season--"The Eleventh Hour," River Song making sure that the Doctor will be where she needs him, when she needs him by leaving him messages on galactic landmarks he's sure to visit at one point or another, the time-traveling jumble that is the first half of "The Big Bang" (though personally I could have done without the explanatory recap halfway through the first act--honestly, if viewers haven't figured out the concept of time travel by this point, there's probably no hope for them).  But for the most part what we've been getting is the Russell T. Davies special--very loud, very bombastic nonsense.  I've seen a lot of references to this season as having taken Who into the realm of fairy tale and relying on fairy tale logic, and I just don't see it.  Fairy tale logic is still logic.  Martha using the Master's mind-controlling satellite network to beam a wave of rejuvenating faith into the Doctor is fairy tale logic (and I still maintain that that ending could have worked if its execution were not so sentimental and over-literal).  The resolution of season 5--the Doctor's enemies band together in an elaborate, galaxy- and time-spanning plan to imprison him all based on the false belief that he's the only person who knows how to fly the TARDIS, and to do so they create a trap from Amy's memories including Rory whom Amy doesn't remember because he was sucked into the crack and erased from existence, except that Amy has remembered other people who were sucked into the crack and erased from existence, and despite having been erased from existence and her memory Rory is able to make Amy remember him just in time to become an Auton and kill her, only then he's fine again and helping the Doctor, and it turns out the only way to save the universe is for the Doctor never to have existed, so he winds back his entire life but still manages to leave Amy with a memory of himself even though it never happened, which is enough of a germ for River Song, who shouldn't remember the Doctor either or have a TARDIS notebook because unlike Amy, she didn't grow up with a crack in her wall pouring the universe into her head, to prod so that Amy can bring the Doctor back into existence by the sheer force of her main-character-ness, which somehow causes Rory to not only remember the Doctor as well but also remember his life as an Auton, including the two thousand years he spent guarding a prison that shouldn't have needed any guarding because it was absolutely impervious to harm and also impregnable unless you happen to be the person who is already inside, which seems like quite a design flaw in a prison made for a time traveler--is not.  That's just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that the speed and sheer tonnage of your throwing will obscure the fact that you have no idea what you're talking about.

None of this, of course, was unexpected.  It's one thing to write a single mind-bending, brilliantly structured episode to break the routine of a season of traditional Who-ish running-and-shouting stories, and quite another to be in charge of the whole season, and given that Davies served up this kind of overcooked mess on a regular basis for five years and only truly lost me in the last of them, there's no reason why Moffat taking the same approach should have been so alienating.  Except, of course, that there is.  The other thing that Moffat's Davies-era episodes were known for was their memorable and instantly beloved guest characters--Captain Jack made a great companion (if a significantly less great series lead) and Sally Sparrow's name was bandied about as a possible fifth season companion within seconds of the announcement that Moffat was taking over the show.  When I considered what kind of Who Moffat would create, I didn't seriously expect him to deliver a season of "Blink"s or "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"s, but I trusted that he would write his Doctor, companion, and guest characters with the same wit and verve he had applied to the characters in these episodes, and that hasn't happened.  Or, to be more precise, the wit and verve are still there.  Moffat is still the best at writing characters that are instantly funny and appealing.  What he can't, or won't, do is develop them beyond that point.

You see this in the near-total lack of character continuity over the course of the season.  In "The Vampires of Venice" the Doctor happily sentences an alien race to extinction in order to preserve a single human city, while in the Silurian two-parter he's so invested in the notion of human-Silurian coexistence that he brushes aside the latter's genocidal tendencies and even the Dr. Mengele-like proclivities of one of their scientists, whom he embraces as a brother.  River Song was an Indiana Jones-like character in "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead," brash and secure in her own abilities, effortlessly in charge of her team.  In "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" she's more of a femme fatale, whose arrogance conceals insecurity and a deep fear that the Doctor will find out the truth about her past, but in "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" that fear and insecurity are gone, even though this episode is the earliest of the three in her personal chronology, and the event she doesn't want the Doctor to find out about has already occurred.  In "The Beast Below," which is only her first outing with the Doctor, Amy displays a deep and unearned insight into his character, just as Rory does in "Vampires of Venice" when, only hours after meeting the Doctor, he identifies the dangerous effect he has on his companions. 

It's even more blatant in the series's lack of interest in developing any of these characters--you could spin River's personality changes as character growth, but only if the series seemed to be interested in her as something other than a means of kickstarting the plot and moving it along.  Even worse is Amy, who actually grows flatter and less interesting as the season draws on.  There's a lot of potential in her introduction in "The Eleventh Hour"--both the courage and attention to detail that bring her to the Doctor's attention in the first place, and the horrible way in which he screws up her life over the course of the episode--but it's never explored.  Amy doesn't grow or change over the course of the season.  Like River, she's used to move the plot, and at the end of the season she's actually the McGuffin, not because of anything she chose or did, like Rose in "The Parting of the Ways," but simply by virtue of having slept in a particular bedroom.  The closest the season comes to developing Amy is strengthening her romance with Rory, which would be aggravating even if Rory were not such a non-entity in himself, who needs to be transformed into a millennia-old killer plastic robot to become even the least bit interesting, and actually ends up backfiring on Amy, because there's no groundwork laid to make me believe her when she tells me that she loves Rory in "Amy's Choice," and what actually shows up on screen is a woman who is dismissive to the point of cruelty to the man she's promised to spend the rest of her life with.

All of this, of course, comes down to the Doctor.  It was obvious even from his Davies-era episodes that Moffat envisions the Doctor not as a close personal friend who forms deep bonds with his companions, but as a distant trickster figure who upends their lives but doesn't really engage with them because he's too alien.  So far, so good, and if the season had focused on those upended lives I probably would have enjoyed it, but instead what happens is that the Doctor isn't distant.  He's in the center of the frame, constantly, relentlessly, and he simply will.  Not.  Shut.  Up.  Moffat's Doctor is a truckload of mannerisms piled on top of funny gags and witty catchphrases, and some of this is very enjoyable ("I wear a fez now.  Fezzes are cool." or the obvious-but-impeccably-done slow burn realization when Rory turns up in "The Pandorica Opens"), but it also sucks the oxygen from everyone else in the room.  One of the Davies's Doctors' most enduring traits was how easily they fell in love, not only with their companions but with guest characters, whom they would rush to praise and make much of.  They noticed people.  Moffat's Doctor has his hands full just processing the never-ending, deafening churn of his own thoughts, and his writers have their hands full trying to depict that churn.  That leaves very little space for other characters and is probably the reason why, though there have been some wonderful single-serving characters this season, there's been so little character development--because the moment another character becomes prominent enough to gain the Doctor's attention, Amy, and later Rory and River, get starved out.  The better episodes of the season have focused on the Doctor's intense, one-on-one relationship with a single character.  In "The Eleventh Hour" that character was Amy, which is why it's the most nuanced glimpse we get of her as a person rather than a plot device, but "The Lodger" needs to lock her away in the TARDIS in order to give Craig room to breathe, and "Vincent and the Doctor" tries to give both Amy and Vincent the room they need but doesn't have it to give, and ends up short-changing them both.

The problem is that the Doctor is not a person.  He's a mass of mannerisms.  Matt Smith is quite good at portraying them, and the sense that the Doctor is a very old creature in a very young body, but that's still not a character.  We have no idea what this Doctor wants or fears and the season seems entirely uninterested in telling us about these things--the closest it comes is "Amy's Choice," but if you really need to dredge up a psychic echo of the main character's darkest impulses to stand on the set and explain the character to the audience then something has clearly gone wrong.  This Doctor is, quite literally, the oncoming storm--a strange, uncontrollable, unpredictable event that changes everything--but that's not exactly an audience identification character.  Which leaves the season bereft.  There's no one to care about, and the most memorable moments are not the ones when Moffat and his writers brilliantly pull off a story or tug at our heartstrings, but the moments in which they are especially clever.  That's not enough for me.

I feel a little guilty coming off so negative about Moffat's first season because, again, there's not much that he's done wrong that's worse than anything Davies did, and in some technical respects he has written a better season than any of Davies's.  A lot of my complaints come down to taste and personal preference, and I can certainly understand fans (and especially Old Who fans, which I gather the season has come into closer alignment with than the Davies years did) who prefer the Doctor as someone distant rather than a potential boyfriend, and who have no need for weepy moments between the companion and her family.  It seems obvious that Moffat has successfully written the Who that he is interested in.  It's just not the Who I want to watch.  I kept on with Davies's Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn't, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it.  The last season of Doctor Who has not been a lot of fun for me, and I'm not sure whether I'll be back for more.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Pilots of Summer

Once upon a time, the summer months were a long, arid stretch bereft of new TV episodes, with only the occasional bit of counter-programming to break the monotony.  Then the whole concept of an October to May TV season proved unsuitable to the new, serialized paradigm, and cable channels discovered they could make a profit on a fraction of the networks' target ratings and could do even better if there was nothing else on, and before you knew it there wasn't one TV season but four, and no sooner does one batch of television series wrap up its season but another one starts up.  Which is distracting if, like me, you were planning to use the summer downtime to catch up on some older shows and maybe, you know, read.  Happily, hardly any of the pilots that have aired in the last six weeks have been any good, so my viewing schedule hasn't gotten much heavier (except, of course, for Futurama's welcome return, though I have to say that the first two episodes were only nice, and that they both featured a nearly-naked Leela much more prominently than I remember the show's previous incarnation doing).  Here are some thoughts.
  • Rubicon - I'm really not certain why AMC decided to preair the first episode of their new series, whose season won't start until August.  I certainly can't imagine it drawing in an audience, because this is not a pilot.  It's the first chapter in a story, and as such is slow, expository, and gives only the vaguest sense of what the actual story will be like (I'm not even clear on what the series's name means).  It's clearly the work of someone who is banking on pre-loaded viewer loyalty to carry them through at least the series's first few hours, which is not an unfair assumption given the show's description--a conspiracy thriller from the people who brought you Mad Men and Breaking Bad--but makes prereleasing the pilot a puzzling and possibly counterproductive move.  What's on display is not completely without potential--the production values are high and James Badge Dale, fresh off a fantastic turn as one of the leads in The Pacific, is also good as the protagonist here, an analyst at at government think-tank struggling with the loss of his family (bit of a low blow, though, making the cause of that loss 9/11--unless it feeds into the series's plot I don't see the reason for it, especially as the story we've been told, that the character's wife had taken their young daughter on a birthday trip to the World Trade Center at 8:30 in the morning, doesn't really make sense) who suspects foul play when his mentor and former father in law dies in a train accident.  But that's as far as the first episode goes (it also introduces some of the main character's colleagues and a potential love interest, but this is too low-key a series, at least thus far, for any of them to really pop from the screen).  The show's pedigree, and the fact that it is so obviously setting up a slow-burn story, are enough to keep me interested, but I suspect that Rubicon is a show best banked and then watched as a continuous story.

  • The Good Guys, Memphis Beat, and Rookie Blue - You can never have too many cop shows, I suppose, and to the credit of all three of these new series they each take a different and more or less original approach to their subject matter.  It's a shame none of them are any good.  The Good Guys won a lot of credit from me going in by giving Bradley Whitford a job, and a comedic one to boot, then squandered all that credit, and a hell of a lot more it didn't have, with its pilot episode, a broad, unfunny exercise in 70s nostalgia that only seems stranger when one considers that Whitford's character would have been a rookie cop in the early 80s.  The show is essentially a comedic Life on Mars without the time travel/coma angle--Whitford is the Gene Hunt character, a throwback who likes to bust heads and leap from moving cars, while Colin Hanks is his uptight, modern and polite partner.  The anachronism of the premise might be forgivable if the show were even remotely funny, or if the writing for the crime plots were tight and interesting, or if either character seemed like anything more than a caricature.  Sadly, none of these things are true.

    Rookie Blue is, as its title obviously suggests, a show about rookie cops, which is a concept with some potential (it nicely drove the pilot for Southland, another summer cop series from a few years ago whose viewpoint character was a rookie), but my heart sank when I caught a glimpse of its model-like cast--no series that casts policemen who are this beautiful, this well-groomed and this well-dressed is actually interested in telling cop stories.  And sure enough, Rookie Blue's pilot lays enough groundwork for love triangles and secret romances that its actual story, in which the main character mistakenly blows the cover of an undercover cop and then solves a murder, seems almost like a distraction.  Add to that a deeply unpleasant scene in which two rookies' confusion over which of them, the man or the woman, should search a transsexual woman, is played for laughs rather than the unfortunate reality it is, and I'm giving this show a pass.

    Memphis Beat is the best of the three.  It stars Jason Lee as (naturally) an over-involved maverick cop just trying to keep his home town together, clashing over his unorthodox methods with his new lieutenant (Alfre Woodard).  Both actors are good (Woodard in particular rescues her character from settling into the stereotype of the domineering black woman), and the show is clearly interested in giving its viewers a feel of Memphis as a city with its own traditions and history (something that, I've noticed, cop series show a particular affinity for: Justified may be the only series on TV to take place in the rural South, and The Mentalist acknowledges, as hardly any other show set in that state does, that there are parts of California that are nothing like LA).  But the pilot is slack and the actors can't make up for the inanity of the script, which quickly plumps for the cliché of the over-invested cop who is warned off a case, pursues it regardless, and suffers no consequences.  There's nothing really bad here, but also nothing good enough to keep watching for.

  • The Gates - I had perhaps unreasonably high hopes for this series given that it was billed as a supernatural Desperate Housewives, and even having watched the pilot, which is a complete dud, I find myself wishing that another writer had been given this concept to work with, because there is some potential here.  Or, more precisely, there's some potential in one of the stories told in the pilot, which sees a new police chief arriving at the titular community and immediately becoming suspicious of his neighbors, who are, unbeknownst to him, vampires, werewolves, and witches (no, this premise doesn't make the least bit of sense--you would think that such creatures would police themselves rather than putting an unwitting human in a position of authority).  Most of the characters, including, sadly, the policeman and his family, are forgettable blanks whose dilemmas--the policeman's son steps in the middle of a couple in his new school, unintentionally angering a werewolf, his mother buys herbal remedies from a witch who may be trying to control her--are either boring or badly written or both.  The one story that really works features Rhona Mitra and Luke Mably as a vampire couple raising a human daughter.  They're desperate to stay at The Gates because the child would never survive among their own people outside of it, but Mitra's character, bored with suburban housewifery, has been killing humans, which might get them expelled.  It's not only a nicely played family dynamic, but it hints at the existence of an underside to The Gates that the pilot doesn't let us see because it's locked in the policeman protagonist's point of view.  The series would probably have been stronger ditching him and the obvious mystery angle it's aiming at and telling a straight up story about a community of supernatural creatures who want to be safe from humanity, but aren't quite willing to let humanity be safe from them.  Alas, it was not to be, and I don't think I'll be bothering with The Gates just to see where Mitra's story goes.

  • Persons Unknown - Starting out with two major strikes against it--it is not only yet another attempt at crafting a Lost clone but its release appears to have been delayed to the summer (I saw a trailer for it as early as last fall)--Persons Unknown has, quite unexpectedly, won me over.  The premise sees seven strangers waking up in an empty hotel in an abandoned town, provided with food and clothing but prevented from leaving by various security measures (at present count, subcutaneous drug caches that release when the characters cross a specific barrier, microwave guns, and poisonous gas that is released when they try to tunnel out), observed by omnipresent cameras, and set various sadistic tasks--in one episode, a character receives a note in a fortune cookie promising her freedom if she kills another character; in another, the characters receive three gas masks to share between them, or fight over.  This is all sufficiently creepy that by the end of the pilot the associations I was making were more with The Prisoner than with Lost, and the show does Lost and most of its imitators one better by allowing its characters to talk to one another, revealing themselves and developing relationships through conversation rather than flashbacks.  Most of the cast is nicely drawn, if occasionally shading into stereotypes (the one black character is a devout soldier who witnessed torture in Iraq, but he's winningly portrayed and bucks slightly against his type by being a devout Muslim rather than Christian), and the lead, a woman desperate to get back to her daughter, who is now in the hands of her abusive mother, refreshingly avoids the trap of passive niceness that so many female leads on such TV shows fall into.  What I like best about Persons Unknown, though, is that it doesn't assume that its characters will immediately devolve into savagery.  Though we've seen them behave angrily and even violently towards one another, their baseline remains one of decency.  To my mind that's a more interesting kind of story than the ones that assume that in the absence of law enforcement and creature comforts, people will immediately begin raping and killing--it actually asks the question of how normal, moral people will behave when pushed to extremes.  Of course, this could all go to pieces (and may already be doing so--after two strong episodes, the third relied too strongly on most of the characters losing many IQ points, and even showed them trying to signal for help by building a bonfire on main street) and it's unlikely that Persons Unknown will make it past a single season, but for now I'm enjoying what I'm seeing.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Recent Movie Roundup 11

After a promising start to the year, it's been a dispiriting spring and summer at the movie theaters, and there's not much coming up that I'm looking forward to (well, Inception, of course, and probably Scott Pilgrim too though I doubt it'll have an Israeli release), but here are some of the films I've watched recently.
  1. Julie & Julia (2009) - I can't be the only person who would have liked this film a lot better as a straight-up biopic of Julia Child starring Meryl Streep as Child and Stanley Tucci as her loving and supportive husband Paul.  The juxtaposition of Child's early career as a chef and cookbook author--her introduction to French cuisine when Paul, a diplomat, is assigned to the American embassy in Paris, her studies at a Parisian culinary institute, her meeting with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she would write Mastering the Art of French Cooking--with the ballooning success of Julie Powell's blog and her struggles to meet the challenge she sets herself on it of cooking her way through the book in a single year, is profoundly unkind to Powell, but nowhere near as unkind as the portraits the film paints of the two women.  Child is, quite simply, a dame, a woman with a boundless and completely overwhelming zest for life, with enormous reserves of energy, generosity, and enthusiasm.  As portrayed by Streep, she doesn't simply make you want to cook and enjoy food, but to enjoy life and love and friendship as much as she does.  Powell, meanwhile, is an energy suck--a whiny, self-absorbed narcissist whose personal growth over the course of the film only seems to bring her to the point of being a functional adult (and it is anyway hard to feel much satisfaction at watching Amy Adams's version of Powell repair her troubled marriage when the real Powell went on to have an affair and wrote another book about that experience).  If Julie & Julia were trying to be an entirely different and much less frothy kind of movie (if it were, in other words, the harbinger of the upcoming trend of movies about the internet) it might actually have asked the questions that the forced comparison between Child and Powell raises--what, if any, is the value of a derivative work like Powell's blog (or this one) when set against an actual creative work like introducing a whole new way of thinking about food to a generation of Americans (or making a movie)?  One possible answer, of course, is that Powell's blog, and even more than that the movie itself, have helped to introduce Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking to a whole new generation (as a result of the film's release the book placed in the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in its fifty years in print), but that still doesn't make me any more interested in Powell's story.

  2. Iron Man 2 (2010) - the second Iron Man film suffers from much the same faults as the first one: unremarkable villains, action scenes rendered inert by the absence of recognizably human participants (and possibly the director's indifference), and a tendency to walk right up to a genuine engagement with the geopolitical issues the character is rooted in and then scamper back to a comic book, black and white mentality at the last minute. It also has the same strengths as the first film, namely Robert Downey Jr. as the title character and writers who recognize what an asset they have in him, and who, no longer hobbled by the origin story structure that made the first Iron Man a bit of a slog, have created something delightful. Realism has been both the holy grail and the albatross around the necks of most of the last decade's crop of superhero films, but Iron Man 2 comes rather close to it when it recognizes that being a superhero, especially for someone as narcissistic and immature as Tony Stark, is essentially the same thing as being a mega-celebrity. The film, in fact, is mainly reminiscent of the second half of most musician biopics, in which fame and fortune go to the subject's head, they alienate their loved ones, and have to be reminded of the days when it was all about the music. Downey's performance is sufficiently unsentimental, never surrendering Tony's arrogance, that unlike, say, Spiderman 3, his journey to rock bottom and back again doesn't feel trite. My only real problem with the film is its treatment of Pepper Potts, who after a promising start--she takes over from Tony as CEO of Stark Industries and breaks off with him when his behavior becomes too erratic--decides that the pressure of running a company is too much for her, quits after a week, and ends the film in Tony's arms. My favorite thing about Pepper in the first film is that she seemed to have too much sense to get involved with someone as high maintenance as Tony, and though I suppose I should have known better it's disappointing to see that the writers didn't stick to their guns, and to their source material, on this matter.

  3. Toy Story 3 (2010) - It's hard to even know where to start praising this film.  Should I begin by expressing amazement at the fact that Pixar have thoroughly beaten the second sequel curse, or at the even more astonishing fact that their films keep getting better and better?  Should I note how perfectly the film captures the magic and inventiveness of childish play, first in an opening scene that literalizes those flights of imagination, and later in a scene that simply shows us a child transforming the mundane into the magical?  Should I point out how the film deepens the dilemma that drives the first two films, of the toy protagonists' knowledge that their purpose is to provide the owners they love with the stimulation and support that'll help them outgrow their playthings and hasten their own obsolescence, and how it adds to it when Woody is forced to choose between loyalty to Andy and to his toy friends?  Should I talk about how, for the first time in this series, the feelings of the child characters are also given space, raising the question of the responsibility we owe to the childish things we've outgrown?  As usual for a Pixar film, there's meaty stuff here seamlessly combined with scenes that would warm the heart of a corpse and tug at its strings, and an impeccably structured, effortlessly involving plot featuring several incredible action scenes.  What's new to the franchise is the film's occasional forays into extremely creepy imagery--the monkey doll who stands guard at the preschool to which the dolls are donated, Mr. Potato Head's facial features wandering the playground while attached to a tortilla, a near-silent baby doll that deliberately evokes the uncanny valley reaction that early Pixar depictions of humans fell into unintentionally--that might make the film a tad too scary for its actual target audience.  But who cares about them.  Those of us who loved the original Toy Story as kids will find plenty more to love here.

    In fact, my only complaint against Toy Story 3 (aside from the fact that, like Up, it pays little attention to its 3D content and isn't worth the extra ticket cost) is that for the fourth or fifth year running Pixar has produced what is probably going to be the best film of the year, and that's a streak that paradoxically leaves me feeling a little dispirited.  I love Pixar's films, but every time I watch one it just reminds me of how poor and unimaginative most of Hollywood's other, adult-oriented, blockbusters are in comparison.  There's no reason why Star Trek and Avatar shouldn't have been as engaging and exciting as Wall-E and Toy Story 3.  Or rather, there is a reason, and it is that while Pixar encourages quality and fosters talent, in the rest of Hollywood creators have to struggle to bring some bastardized, watered-down version of their story to the screen, and the writers and directors who flourish are the ones who can best match some studio executive's notion of the cultural zeitgeist and best imitate last year's success story.  It's yet another manifestation of how poisonous the remake culture has become to the film medium, and while I'm glad there's at least one studio that seems immune to that poison, it would be nice if filmmakers producing material for adults could develop the same immunity.

  4. Agora (2009) - Alejandro Amenábar's film, about the mathematician Hypatia and her involvement in the struggle for supremacy between pagans and Christians in 4th century Alexandria, is remarkable for doing two things.  It tells a historical story, rather than treating history as the backdrop to a romance or an adventure--by which I don't mean that it is accurate, and in fact Agora takes copious liberties with history, most notably the circumstances surrounding the burning of the library of Alexandria and Hypatia's age at the time of her death, but that it refuses to impose a genre and a narrative on the past.  And it is a story about a female scientist whose choice to dedicate her life to the pursuit of knowledge is portrayed as valid and understandable, and who does not long for and is not saved by the love of a man (well, strictly speaking she is saved by love, but it's a gruesome sort of love and an even more gruesome sort of salvation, as Hypatia's infatuated former slave strangles her before the Christian mob can stone her to death).  These are both such rare attributes in modern cinema that it's tempting to praise Agora simply for existing, and ignore the fact that it is such a mess.

    There's a lot of good here--Rachel Weiss is quite fine as Hypatia, and does a good job of conveying both the fierce intelligence she applies to her scientific pursuits and the naivete with which she regards the political and religious upheavals around her, and the film strikes an impressive balance between conveying a sense of history (especially in its recreation of Alexandria, which is vibrant and yet deeply foreign) and of immediacy and familiarity.  But the plot simply doesn't work.  It's crammed with too much stuff--Hypatia's pursues a workable model of the solar system; her slave Davos becomes a Christian zealot; her former pupil Orestes, the Roman prefect, tries to reconcile the Christians' demands for ever-greater control of the public sphere, demands which are backed with violent displays, with his own civilian authority and with violence on the part of pagan and Jewish groups; another pupil, Synesius, becomes a bishop and tries to make peace in the city, but is also compelled by the epistles of Paul, which call for women to be meek and subservient, to question Hypatia's role as Orestes's confidant and adviser--and precisely because of its admirable resistance to genre and to a neat narrative structure, these elements don't come together into a meaningful whole.  One almost wishes that Agora were made in a different medium--the longer running time of a televised miniseries might have given the different plotlines and characters more room to breathe (Davos, who is in many ways the film's viewpoint character, would especially have benefited from this breathing space--Max Minghella tries his best, but he's not quite up to making up for the script's deficiencies in handling the film's most conflicted character), and the theater's more tenuous relationship to naturalism might have freed the story from the demands of a three-act narrative, leaving it to draw more impressionistic connections between science and politics, and between the different axes of privilege and oppression that drive its events.  The unsuitability of its own medium becomes particularly glaring as Agora draws to a close and tries desperately to wring some semblance of triumph or solace from Hypatia's unhappy end--by having her discover the Earth's elliptical orbit around the sun, by having her accept the inevitability of her death at the hands of the Christians, and by the above-mentioned mercy-killing--an attempt that seems a little pathetic if you know the historical record.  Still, though the film's greatest accomplishment is to create the impression of the greater work it might have been, I'm still inclined to praise it for making the effort to do something different and more sophisticated than the usual Hollywood fare, with history and with women in science.

Friday, June 11, 2010

All Hat: Thoughts on Justified

Of all the many pleasures that television offers me, the one itch it rarely scratches is eloquence.  I love a beautifully written piece of prose, but there's something so much more satisfying about beautiful speech.  We live in a society in which eloquence is a vanishing commodity, and public speech and conversation have become homogenized and diluted.  It's rare for any of us to have even a small fraction of our vocabulary at our immediate, unconsidered disposal, or for unrehearsed speech to have a cadence or poetry that reflect the speaker's personality and the full breadth of their intelligence.  This is, of course, because true eloquence is rare even when it's prized and nurtured, but that's exactly where the scripted media, which offer a marriage of the performance of spontaneity and pre-written and -edited words, should come in.  Alas, most television characters just talk the way most of us would if we didn't have to pause for thought or backtrack over our mistakes.  It's a rare series that actually tries to invent its own patterns of speech or highlight those that break the mold, and I tend to love these unreservedly.  It's why I fell in love with Deadwood and Firefly, and to a lesser extent one of the major draws of Joss Whedon's other series and Aaron Sorkin's work--because they give their characters and the settings they move in distinct voices.  And it's what won me over to FX's new crime drama Justified.  The series has other strengths, and several weaknesses, but what made me a fan almost from day one was that everyone talked so pretty.
BOYD: In your dark imaginings, Raylan, what is it that you think I'm up to?
RAYLAN: Given the talent pool you got here, I assume you're gonna do what you always done, steal money and blow shit up.
BOYD: We will not be robbing banks.
RAYLAN: Could you be any more vague?
BOYD: All of us here, every single one of us, repaid our debts to society.
RAYLAN: No, no, no, no.  Not you.  Not by a long shot.
BOYD: Well out here, in our church, we can begin to repay our debts to God.  By righteous living, righteous action.
RAYLAN: Gotta go now.
BOYD: Are you sure you don't want a meal?  Our food is simple, but it's good.
RAYLAN: No, I stopped at a Hardee's on the way.  I wouldn't mind addressing the congregation before I went.  Would that be alright?
BOYD: [to his followers] Excuse me!  We have us a guest speaker today.  Please, have at it.
RAYLAN: Yeah. [pauses, doffs his hat] Dear Lord.  Before we eat this meal we ask forgiveness for our sins.  Especially Boyd, who blew up a black church with a rocket launcher, and afterward he shot his associate Jared Hale in the back of the head out on Tate's Creek Bridge.  Let the image of Jared's brain matter on that windshield not dampen our appetites, but may the knowledge of Boyd's past sins help guide these men.  May this food provide them with all the nourishment they need.  But if it does not, may they find comfort in knowing that the United States Marshals Service is offering $50,000 to any individual providing information that'll put Boyd back in prison.  Cash or check, we can make it out to them or to Jesus, whoever they want.  In your name, we pray.  [puts on his hat]  Amen.
(What's missing here, of course, is the acting, and as much as that the Southern accents, which are a rare commodity on TV as anything but a curiosity or a means of marking a character out.  Unfortunately, most of the Justified clips online are behind Hulu's US-only walls.)

The two men here make up one side of the cross-generational quadrangle of friendship, enmity, and strained family relationships that drives Justified's first season.  Raylan is Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant, whose casting is either an attempt to cash in on his Deadwood cachet or karmic compensation for the way the writers of that series sidelined his character in its second and third seasons; either way he does good work here), who in the series's opening scene guns down a drug cartel captain in Miami.  The shooting is, strictly speaking, justified--as Raylan repeatedly points out, the other guy drew his gun first--but it's complicated by the fact that Raylan had targeted his victim, warned him to get out of town or else, and all but goaded him to reach for his weapon.  His career now a political hot potato and with the cartel hot for vengeance, Raylan's superiors decide to stash him in his home state of Kentucky while the shooting is investigated, which brings Raylan back in contact with places and people he had hoped and planned to leave behind forever: there's Boyd Crowder, a boyhood friend with whom Raylan used to dig coal; Boyd's father Bo, who ran protection in his and Raylan's home town of Harlan; Raylan's father Arlo, a crook who sometimes worked for Bo; Raylan's ex-wife Winona, now remarried; and Ava, Raylan's boyhood crush who used to be married to Boyd's brother.  No sooner does he arrive in Kentucky than Raylan tangles with Boyd, who runs a white supremacist group and commits the bombing and murder referred to above in the series pilot before being shot by Raylan and experiencing a spiritual awakening as a result of his near-death experience, and his entanglement with the Crowder clan deepens when Bo is released from prison and sets about trying to regain his criminal empire, recruiting Arlo for the task and partnering up with the same cartel now out for Raylan's blood.

Interspersed with the season-long power struggle between Crowders and Givenses--Raylan tries to puzzle out what criminal scam underlies Boyd's newfound faith, Arlo tries to get back in Bo's good graces, Arlo and Bo try to manipulate and control their sons--are its standalone crime stories, the fugitive criminals, reluctant witnesses, and other various scraps that Raylan stumbles into (frankly, given the Marshals Service's not-too-sexy purview of witness protection, prisoner transport, and court security it's impressive that the show's writers have managed to find so many exciting stories to drop Raylan in).  In both of its aspects, Justified delivers a lot of talking and a lot of shooting, both of which it handles admirably.  The standalone episodes are less crime stories as they are windows into the lives of the people perpetrating those crimes, and it's through their eloquence that we get to know these characters not as criminal masterminds or black-hearted villains but as people who are often short-sighted and dim-witted (a comment I encountered today about the show called it a catalog of human folly, which sounds about right) but who have more facets to their personality than their criminal one.

Raylan functions as a witness to these characters' stories.  With a quiet, unruffled demeanor, bemused but not judgmental, he lets them tell their stories and tries to give them as much of an out from the predicament they've landed themselves in as he can.  This is not what the series pilot leads us to expect, from either the character or the show.  The pilot (based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, who created the Givens character and featured him in two novels, though the series apparently retools him quite considerably) introduces Raylan as a maverick, a cowboy cop who plays by his own rules and his own sense of justice.  The man he kills in the opening scene, we learn, viciously murdered an innocent bystander in front of Raylan, and as he admits to Winona in the pilot's closing minutes, he doesn't know what he would have done if the man hadn't drawn his gun--would he have killed him anyway?  These scenes create the expectation of a Southern-set Life on Mars, with Raylan playing the Gene Hunt role and rebelling against a too-polite, too-impersonal notion of justice that leaves out the traditional Western-derived values of right and wrong.  Certainly the season's early episodes, in which Raylan's affectation of a cowboy hat and his Old West-inspired demeanor are constantly commented upon (most notably in a scene in which he and a man he suspects of wrongdoing discuss the mechanics of the quick-draw), sometimes in admiration but more often in dismay, suggest a character who is not simply a fish out of water but out of time, a throwback to a bygone and perhaps mythical era.

So it's a surprise when Raylan turns out to be a thoroughly modern policeman, comfortable with the tools that technology and bureaucracy provide him (as opposed to Bradley Whitford's Gene Hunt-esque character in the new cop comedy The Good Guys, a 50ish man who complains that in his day he didn't have all these newfangled forensics tests and computers) and unruffled by the PC craze that prohibits him from planting evidence or beating up suspects.  Partly this is because the show's writers have rethought the character since the season started--as they say in the link above, they've started downplaying the hat and all that it implies.  But it's also a way of subtly distinguishing between Raylan's notions of how to use violence and those of the people around him.  Raylan is a fearsome shot--so many of the season's episodes end with him coolly surveying the prone figures of his opponents and calmly calling for an ambulance that the season finale seems to be poking fun at itself when it shows him making the call, then pausing and asking for a coroner's van as well--but seems to lack any sort of bluster or bravado.  In a mid-season episode he's assigned to guard a judge, known for his harsh sentences and for wearing a gun under his robes, who has been receiving death threats.  It turns out that the judge asked for Raylan especially because of the incident in Miami, which leads him to believe that he and Raylan are birds of a feather, fellow travelers on a crusade to rid the world of evildoers by any means necessary and with no remorse.  You can see Raylan's distaste at being thought the equal of this overzealous person, and when he talks the judge's attacker down rather than kill him, the judge, who has finally had a taste of violence, thanks Raylan for stopping him from killing.  Nor does the show balk at emasculating Raylan--when he calls out a pair of loud drunks at a bar, we expect him to deliver an ass-kicking.  Instead the two men not only trounce him but steal his hat (the absence of which is, hilariously, commented upon by every character he meets for the rest of the episode).  Instead of coming back for revenge, Raylan apologizes nicely and asks for his hat back.

Of course, another way of looking at this is that Raylan's even temper (for all that the pilot concludes with Winona telling Raylan that he's the angriest man she knows, there's precious little evidence of this in the series) and measured approach to violence are actually an amplification of his role as Justified's Western-style lawman.  The man in the white hat knows how to use violence but will only do so when it's absolutely necessary, and he is the only one who can infallibly distinguish between necessary and unnecessary violence.  It's a bit amusing that I should have picked up Justified in the same TV season in which I became a fan of The Good Wife, because if that series is an examination of different ways of being a woman, Justified often seems to be concerned with the construction of masculinity, particularly among working class men.  Raylan is the prime example, but name a (white) TV character actor from the top two or three tiers and they'll have shown up on this show at some point in the season to give their take on how to be a man.

The white supremacist dogma that Boyd spouts at Raylan is rife with slogans about reclaiming America for (white) Americans, but it's also a way for men who feel that the world has gotten away from them to reclaim their manhood.  When Raylan lambastes Arlo for his criminal career, his father angrily retorts that "You'd have rather seen me down in the mines my whole life, dead of black-lung like my old man," suggesting that for men of his class and background, masculinity comes down to a choice between a hard, poverty-stricken honest life and the 21st century stereotype of the Southerner as a hard-drinking, meth-cooking redneck.  Characters who are not from a working class background, meanwhile, run the gamut between living uneasily with new-style masculinity and playing gender expectations like a fiddle.  A witness that Raylan lost several years ago worked as a mob accountant and has since retrained as a dentist, but with both Raylan and his former employers on his trail he finds his inner Capable Man--capable of both outwitting his pursuers and committing murder--but ends up carrying this newfound badassness to its logical conclusion of sacrificing his life to save his girlfriend.  The state's attorney Raylan deals with plays the beta male to Raylan's alpha to the hilt, deferring to his judgment in emergent situations and privately expressing sympathy for the shooting in Miami, but he turns on a dime, using the same deference and friendliness to put Raylan at his ease, and then on the spot, when questioning him about another dubious shooting.  When Winona's husband Gary finds himself in trouble with gray market moneylenders he turns to a friend, a former footballer now living in luxurious retirement, to play the heavy with his creditors.  The friend, eager to recapture his past glory, quickly agrees, but when he returns home to decant a bottle of wine and prepare a gourmet meal for his family, the real tough guys are waiting for him.  Most interesting is Gary himself, who Winona defends to Raylan in that same episode as a man with vision and dreams.  This seems like a paltry defense in an episode that up until that point has portrayed Gary as foolish and even craven, but when Raylan catches up with him Gary tells him about the shopping area he was going to develop on the land he bought with the borrowed money, and something wonderful happens--the project sounds genuinely inspiring, the sort of place you'd like to be able to visit in your own town, and Winona's reasons for choosing Gary suddenly become clear (which makes it all the more disappointing when at the end of the season she out of the blue separates from him and starts pursuing Raylan).

(Of course, between its setting and this emphasis on masculinity one can't help but eye the show suspiciously when it comes to women, and that suspicion is sadly repaid.  With almost no exception women, both recurring and regular characters, are portrayed as driven by the men in their lives and making choices based on their relationships with men.  One-off criminal characters are almost invariably brought into the crime by the men in their life, and on two separate occasions they betray one lover to another, realize that the first lover will be killed because of their actions, and help Raylan in order to save him.  On the main cast, Raylan has a female colleague who is also black and who in a mid-season episode complains that he gains professional status by playing on the cowboy image that is unavailable to her because of her race and gender.  He dismisses that concern, which is very nearly the last we see or hear of this character for the rest of the season--one senses that the writers knew that they needed a professional women on the cast but had no idea what to do with her.  Raylan's stepmother has tolerated and even enabled Arlo's criminal activities for years, not because of greed or criminal tendencies on her own part but because she loves him.  Winona I've already spoken about, but Raylan's other love interest over the course of the season is Ava, who had the potential to be a very interesting character.  In the pilot episode Ava kills her abusive husband, which causes not an eyelash to bat as everyone agrees that he was a bastard who needed killing, and the state's attorney quickly makes her a deal for a suspended sentence.  But--and I say this with a full awareness of what a delicate subject this is and in the hopes of not sticking my foot too deep down my throat--Ava does not seem at all like the sort of woman for whom the battered wife defense was created.  She is spirited, independent-minded, and furious in her own defense and in the defense of others.  It's hard not to conclude that rather than being so emotionally tormented and so terrified for her life that the only recourse for Ava was to kill her husband, she simply had enough and killed him out of anger and wounded pride.  So it might be said that Ava embodies the concept of Old West justice much more powerfully than Raylan does, and much could have been done with this point.  Alas, she spends most of the season pursuing Raylan, and even gets kidnapped twice by people who want to get his attention.  It's possible to enjoy Justified despite its troubling treatment of its female characters because, like the men, these women are so vividly and vibrantly brought to life, but one almost wishes that the show's writers had given up on writing women entirely if they couldn't come up with more varied roles and motivations for them.)

Justified pokes and prods at its characters' concept of masculinity, but it leaves Raylan's alone.  This has the unfortunate consequence of suggesting that Raylan's is the true masculinity, the one to which all other men can merely aspire--unfortunate because Raylan's version of manhood is so very tenuous, based on a fictional construct probably garnered from TV shows, rooted in a culture a hundred years gone to which he has no personal connection (I don't know if they have cowboys in Kentucky, which is not a Western state, but they probably don't have them in mining towns), and quite obviously arrived at due to his burning desire to leave Kentucky and Arlo Givens in his rearview mirror. As I've said, Raylan often acts as the silent witness to other men's struggles with their manhood, only coming out of his shell when the season's overarching plot, involving the Crowders and his father, heats up.  It's only in these scenes that we see Raylan's polite exterior crack, and only in his interactions with Arlo that he comes close to earning Winona's characterization of his as the angriest man she's known.  But it's also in these scenes that the cowboy persona is most tamped down, so that the question of Raylan's anger and his relationship to violence is never really addressed.  The result is to make both the character and the series feel more than a little centerless, and the conclusion of the Crowder-Givens arc, which is essentially an hour-long shoot-'em-up, has much the same effect.  It feels like the endings to the season's standalone episodes writ large--a chance for Raylan to show off his cool head, quick draw, and superior marksmanship skills, and for the rest of the cast to show off their folly.  None of this is badly done, of course, but given the season-long buildup to the confrontation between fathers and sons, former friends and former enemies, one would have expected a bit more.

It's hard not to wonder whether Justified can't simply be summed up as a show with a lot of talking and a lot of shooting, both very well done.  Or, to put it another way, whether it isn't a series with more style than substance, whose writers are more successful at writing perfectly-crafted, quirky one-off characters for Raylan to smile indulgently at for a single scene or episode than they are at constructing a season-long arc.  That's not a bad thing, of course, and there's a lot that Justified does, and does well, that is all too rare on our screens--the fact that it is set in the rural South, that it depicts working class characters, that it's giving work, and good, meaty work at that, to so many character actors, that its writers know what pleasure can be wrought out of a story that lingers on the humanity of even its most incidental characters, and of course, that very eloquence that won me over.  But there's is constantly a sense that the series could do more--with Raylan, with the women in his life, with his notions of what a man is.  As I said at the beginning of this post, eloquence is a good way to win me over, but to truly win my heart you have to have something to say with all those pretty words.  Here's hoping that Justified finds it.

A Real New Coat of Paint

No sooner do I wish for more variety in Blogger's available templates than they create a new tool to do just that and stock it with quite a few fancy-looking options.  The result of my tinkering is before you, which for me is a feeling not unlike the experience of leaving the hairdresser's five minutes after getting a shorter-than-you-expected cut.  Good?  Bad?  Somewhere in between?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

With Both Feet in the Clouds: Fantasy in Hebrew Literature, edited by Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch

This isn't something that I think about very often, but I live half my life in a foreign language.  It's the language I'm writing in right now.  My actual, physical life, is lived in Hebrew.  It's the language I work in, the one I shop and bank and commute in, the one I use with friends and acquaintances and people on the street.  But it's not the language I write in, because it's not the language I read in.  I'm not sure when exactly it happened, but somewhere around the point that I transitioned from children's books to adult fiction, I stopped reading Israeli writers, for reasons that I suspect will be familiar to many Israeli genre fans--because the books that caught my fancy, the Asimovs and Tolkiens and Pratchetts, were foreign.  Unlike many of my fellow fans, I had the command of English that allowed me, eventually, to read free of the mediation of Israeli translators and publishers.  So from a very early age I learned to gravitate to the English section of the bookstore, and when my literary horizons broadened beyond genre, that's where I looked for reading material to scratch my new itches (and then online bookselling happened and I all but abandoned the Israeli bookstore).  These days my tastes are varied enough that if I had the proper introduction I could probably read quite happily in Hebrew, but the reason I stepped away from it in the first place was that no one was writing genre in it.  That's changed somewhat in the last 15 years (right around the time that I was discovering English-language fantasy and science fiction), but Israeli genre works are still thin on the ground.

The question, of course, is why, and it's one that Hagar Yanai and Danielle Gurevitch have tried to address in their essay collection With Both Feet in the Clouds, from the Israeli genre publisher Graff.  As Yanai puts it in her introduction, how is it possible that in a country that garnered the inspiration for its very existence from a piece of utopian science fiction, the fantastic has been all but exiled from the cultural scene?  This is a question I'd been thinking of in slightly different terms since the Jewish fantasy conversation exploded all over the internet this winter, spurred on by Michael Weingrad's essay "Why There is No Jewish Narnia" (in which Yanai, who has written two volumes of a YA fantasy trilogy, is one of two authors discussed).  My interest was in the Israeli aspect of the question, and when I became involved with content planning for this year's ICon convention it was the first topic that came to mind.  Which is when I was made aware of Yanai and Gurevitch's book, which Rani Graff was kind enough to send me a copy of. 

With Both Feet in the Clouds is geared, as its editors and publishers freely admit, at the non-fan, mainstream-reading Israeli audience, and frequently functions as a work of advocacy.  Look, its essayists seem to be saying, this is fantasy!  And this too!  To this end the book opens with two essays that seek to define the genre.  One, by Gurevitch, is academic and taxonomic (and flies the colors of that camp of genre scholarship that sees science fiction as a subset of fantasy), while the other, by translator Emmanuel Lotem (best known for translating The Lord of the Rings and other Tolkien works), is fannish and offers a more traditional definition of the genre, dividing it into the secondary world and urban types.  A reader with some background in genre scholarship will find both essays a bit thin, but they are followed by one of the best pieces in the collection, Gail Hareven's "Thinking About the Unthinkable" (all translations of titles and texts in this post are my own).  Hareven, winner of Israel's premier literary prize for her 2002 novel The Confessions of Noa Weber, is also the author of the science fiction collection The Way to Heaven (a story from that collection, "The Slows," was translated and reprinted in The New Yorker last year).  In a wry, energetic essay, Hareven considers the absurdity of a literary establishment that casts out the unthinkable in a country where the unthinkable happens so very often.  It's not simply, she argues, that the fantastic is rejected from Israeli literature in favor of reality, but that that reality is so carefully, narrowly mundane: "Most Israeli authors--though certainly not all of them--focus on the domestic scene, and even when they depart it they tend to tread lightly, crafting plots that move safely between the kiosk and the army base, between a "psychological problem" and an easily solved "dilemma." ... I do not know of a single Israeli author who would dare to inflict, as T.C. Boyle does in The Tortilla Curtain, a car accident, a robbery, a rape, a fire and an earthquake on their characters".

Hareven's persuasive answer to the question of Israeli literature's aversion to the fantastic and even the melodramatic is that rather than be amazed that the country that was inspired by Altneuland has failed to produce new flights of fancy, we should be looking to that book for the reasons for our stolidness.  Israelis, she argues, are still (or were, until the last couple of decades) in the process of bringing Theodore Hertzel's vision to life, and while that real life worldbuilding effort is ongoing it is both difficult and potentially dangerous to immerse ourselves in the building of a fantasy world.  "To dedicate himself to a task that seems 'unrealistic,' a person must believe that he himself is 'realistic.'  He must assume that he understands reality and the ways in which it works"--fantasy, in other words, is the privilege of those whose reality is solid and secure, while the retreat to the quotidian and predictable in fiction is a defense mechanism employed by those whose real lives are lived on shifting sands.

After these introductory essays, With Both Feet in the Clouds dedicates a chapter to instances of the fantastic in contemporary Israeli culture.  It's here that the collection makes its most damaging blunder, already commented on by several Israeli reviewers, of ignoring the halting but undeniable emergence of fantastic Israeli literature in the last 15 years.  The absurdist novels of Orly Castel-Bloom, for example, are mentioned in asides in several of the articles in the collection, but no single piece is dedicated to them.  Etgar Keret, Shimon Adaf, and others who have been introducing fantastic elements into the Israeli literary fiction scene for years are hardly even mentioned, and neither are instances of more traditional genre writing in Hebrew (such as Yanai's own novels).  In online conversations with their critics, Graff and Yanai have explained this absence not as an oversight but as a conscious decision, made to prevent scaring off mainstream readers who have learned to associate Keret, Castel-Bloom, and their ilk with a strange and incomprehensible mode of fiction.  That's a defensible choice, but also an unfortunate one, as many of the articles deemed non-threatening enough for inclusion in this chapter are also unpersuasive.

Menachem Ben's "The Messiah Won't Stop Calling--Fantastic Poetry in Hebrew" breathlessly makes its way through nearly a century of Israeli poetry, with stops for luminaries such as Nathan Alterman, David Avidan, and Yona Wallach among others, but his argument seems to be that any instance of metaphor and poetic imagery counts as fantasy.  In contrast, there is no question that the children's novels of Nurit Zarchi, covered in Noa Manheim's "The Grand Witch of Dreams," are fantastic, but looking for instances of the fantastic in the children's section of the bookstore feels like reaching for low-hanging fruit.  Far better is Mirit Ben Israel's "Fantasy and Science Fiction in David Grossman's The Book of Intimate Grammar," a close reading of the novel whose protagonist, a preteen in early 60s Jerusalem, tries to gain control of his changing body by inventing scientific experiments and magical rituals meant to halt its growth, and imagines an interior world into which he can disappear when these fail, leaving behind his now-adult husk.  Ben Israel does a good job of selling me on the book, but is less successful at arguing that it constitutes a work of fantasy or science fiction.  Her descriptions remind me of Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, another novel whose protagonist tries to control their world by inventing rituals and creating totems, and one that I would never have thought to call a fantasy because Jackson makes it clear--as Grossman apparently does--that these are the manifestations of the character's mental instability.

It's probably telling that the most convincing article about literature in this section, Yanai's own "The Demons Who Didn't Make Aliyah: Thoughts on the Fate of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hebrew Literature" discusses an author who, as the title notes, made the conscious choice not to become an Israeli, and concludes that this choice was necessary for his literary success.  Yanai discusses Bashevis Singer's fiction but also wonders what would have happened to him had he chosen a life in Israel, concluding that his brilliant literary career, which culminated with the Nobel prize, could never have occurred in an environment that was not only hostile to the Yiddish that Bashevis Singer wrote in, but which couldn't tolerate the type of fantasy he wrote, in which characters are at the mercy of supernatural powers beyond their understanding or control.
Passivity very nearly led to the destruction of the Jewish people in the Holocaust, and it is therefore destructive, dangerous, and not to be permitted in Israel.  In a literary context, it seems that one could argue that an excess of imagination leads to helplessness, as with Don Quixote. ... Bashevis's characters are buffeted by the external forces of fate and history and the internal forces of lacerating passions.  At best they can choose how to meet their fates, but choosing, shaping, or steering that fate is beyond them.  This dangerously passive approach could not be reconciled with the effort to create a new Jewish state in Israel.
Happily, the section on contemporary Israeli fantasy also includes two articles about non-literary media, both of which present a much more optimistic outlook than the articles about literature.  Film reviewer Shmuel Duvdevani is somewhat ill-served by the placement of his essay, "Magical Realism in Israeli Cinema," right after Hareven's piece, in which she pointedly argues that fantasy is permitted in Israeli culture only if it serves an elevated purpose--"Fantasy should have a moral; it should have some correlation to 'the fiery reality of our lives'; it should examine some degraded national symbol and generally, in the words of Gogol, be 'of use to the state.'"  Duvdevani's choice to take precisely this approach--he argues that magical realist elements in Israeli cinema are a means of undermining the dominant, moneyed, Tel Aviv-dwelling Ashkenazi class--thus seems a bit like self-parody (it is also a little over-argued).  But he supports this approach with close readings of the films he's chosen to focus on--Sh'Chur (1994), The Flying Camel (1994), The Appointed (1990), Forbidden Love (1997), New Land (1994), Saint Clara (1995), and Life According to Agfa (1992)--which use fantastic elements to discuss the Israeli establishment's fraught relationships with Sepharadic Jews, Palestinians, the ultra-orthodox, and immigrants, along the way creating a portrait of the Israeli film scene as vibrant and multifaceted.  It is a shame, however, that the essay includes almost no discussion of the films of the aughts, a decade in which Israeli cinema is widely considered to have come of age.

Another excellent essay comes from theater reviewer Eitan Bar Yosef.  In "Dybbuk, Husband, House: Shmuel Hasfari and the Fantastic Tradition in Israeli Theater," Bar Yosef gives an overview of Hasfari's deliberately fantastic plays, which include such elements as Moses traveling in time to the present day ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim, the devil bringing about the apocalypse while camped out with messianic settlers, and angels who crash an Israeli family's Passover seder (Hasfari, who also directed the Israeli production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America at the Cameri theater in 1993, describes his shock at discovering that another playwright had "already developed the style I was thinking of, with the same universal Jewish associations").  It's a window to a world of Israeli letters that I'm entirely unfamiliar with, and made me very eager to discover Hasfari's work for myself.

In its third section, With Both Feet in the Clouds discusses cross-pollination of fantastic elements between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.  Gurevitch, for example, in "The Kingdom of David in the Arthurian Legends," suggests that Geoffrey of Monmouth and Robert de Boron, the earliest known compilers of the Arthurian legends, consciously modeled the image of the once and future king on that of the Biblical David: "a military leader, a wise strategist who doesn't act alone but is accompanied by a respected religious authority figure, a determined, decisive but charismatic king who can deliver fair judgments, victory on the field of battle, peace and security, and most of all, who can unite a divided people into a single, strong nation."  It's a convincing theory on the macro level, though Gurevitch's evidence on the micro level often seems a bit strained.  Hananel Mack stretches the point a little in "The Christian Use of Jewish Fantasy" when he describes the co-opting of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan's messianic writings by the 13th century priest Raymondus Martini for his work Pugio Fidei (the dagger of faith), as it seems clear that Hadarshan was writing theology, not fantasy (in general there is a tendency in With Both Feet in the Clouds to conflate the two) and that he was simply a messianic Jew.  Happily, this segment also includes Ilana Gomel's "The Alien With the Yellow Star of David" and Yael Sela-Shapiro's "Fantasy--It Sounds Better in English?", two of the best pieces in the collection.

Gomel, who emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, delivers a fascinating and all-too-brief history of Jews in Communist Russia and their transition over the second half of the 20th century from the heart of the revolution to its discard pile, and interweaves it with a discussion of the science fiction novels of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky--which, she argues, deliberately reflected the Soviet Jew's dilemma, their growing realization that they were different but that, having lost much of their cultural heritage, had no idea what that difference entailed.  Gomel describes the Soviet establishment's efforts to remove Jews from public and professional life by establishing ethnic quotas, and to erase their part in history (the memorial at the site of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar describes the victims as 'Soviet citizens,' not Jews), and she describes Soviet Jews' conflicting feelings of superiority over the unwashed, uneducated masses and inferiority before the state's persecution of them.  All of which, she argues, is reflected in the Strugatsky brothers' novels, who provided Soviet Jews with an outlet for their frustrations and a consoling fantasy of their intellectual superiority triumphing over the maliciousness of their persecutors.  Just about the only thing wrong with this article is that I would have liked it to be twice as long.

Sela-Shapiro, a translator who has rendered Pullman's His Dark Materials and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire into Hebrew, discusses the difficulty of translating fantasy, and particularly the Tolkienian, medieval-set variety, into Hebrew, a difficulty rooted not only in the absence of a shared linguistic and cultural heritage, but in Hebrew's unique status as a revived language.
During its long period of dormancy Hebrew was used primarily for ritual purposes and as a Lingua Franca between Jewish communities in different countries, while the day-to-day lives of these communities were lived in their local language.  As a result, the development of the Hebrew language skipped over nearly every historical, social, cultural and technological advance made during this period, and no new words were invented to describe these advances.  The revivers of the Hebrew language invented and repurposed thousands of words, but their limited resources were dedicated to adapting Hebrew for the modern world.  What is the point, they may have asked themselves, of inventing appropriate Hebrew analogues for obsolete terms when contemporary ones remain untranslated?  As a result, the terms introduced into modern Hebrew were those relevant for the 19th century and onwards.
The difficulty of translating fantasy into Hebrew, Sela-Shapiro goes on to explain, is rooted in 'semantic voids'--cultural and environmental concepts for which there exists no analogue in Hebrew, such as types of weapons (arquebus, stiletto), gradations of social class (manservant, lady in waiting), and fantastic creatures (daemon, harpy).  She goes on to describe some of the techniques used by herself and other translators to nevertheless produce an accurate and satisfying translation, which include commissioning new translations of poetry (the existing translation of Paradise Lost, a line from which is used as an epigraph for Philip Pullman's books, translates the phrase 'his dark materials' into the singular), and, in one of my favorite examples, substituting Jewish cultural references for European ones, so that Harry Potter's Wizengamot becomes the magical Sanhedrin.

In its final section, With Both Feet in the Clouds discusses instances of the fantastic in Jewish history and tradition.  Some of these articles needed quite a bit more editing.  Ruth Kalderon's "The Cave," a comparison of two versions of the story of Honi HaMeagel, an important figure in Jewish myth, is somewhat too focused on academic minutiae, and doesn't do enough to invite lay readers into the topic.  Dov Schwartz's "Notes on the Limitations of Messianic Imagination in Jewish Thought," which discusses theological hair-splitting between different messianic thinkers in the time of the Rambam (who was deeply opposed to, and tried to stamp out, messianic fervor), feels like too deep a discussion of too trivial a topic (the central question seems to be whether, after the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead, there will be eating and drinking), and once again seems to conflate theology with fantasy.  Hagay Dagan and Anat Aderet offer two too-short pieces, the former on the tale of Rabbi Yosef Dela Rena, a Kabbalist who decides to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people by taking the devil head-on (in a rather unpersuasive parallel, Dagan calls Dela Rena a "Jewish Frodo Baggins").  Aderet offers a much more interesting report on a 17th century Yiddish travel narrative describing a trip to the holy land, concluding with a fantastic description of the traveler encountering the ten lost tribes of Israel, and finding them living in peace, prosperity, and most importantly, self-rule (making the narrative a sort of proto-Altneuland).  As Aderet says, "it is plain that [the author]'s visit created a nearly irreconcilable gap between the reality he encountered and the image of the holy land embedded in the collective consciousness of his readers in the diaspora," hence the resort to fantasy.  It's an interesting corner of history, but Aderet does little more than mention its existence.

Happily, Ido Peretz's "Ghost Stories in the Medieval Jewish Folktale, an Examination of Two Story Collections: Sefer Hasidim and Shivchei HaAri" is both interesting and suitably comprehensive, reproducing several stories from each collection--the former a 13th century work of moral instruction whose stories seek to encourage correct behavior in all walks of life, the latter a work of hagiography in praise of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who founded his own stream of Kabbala--while comparing the different treatment of ghosts in both stories, and the different uses to which the two collections put their ghostly characters.  In Sefer Hasidim, the ghost stories are cautionary tales.  They describe how Jews who failed to show proper reverence and humility in life are punished in the afterlife--a woman who hurried out of prayer while others lingered in the synagogue is constantly harried after her death; another woman who would weave linen instead of preparing for the Sabbath is afflicted with burning linen--while those who were devout are rewarded--a man who sang his prayers particularly beautifully is granted an eternal reward.  In Shivchei HaAri, meanwhile, the purpose of the stories is to extol the Kabbalist, and they therefore describe him saving Jews from damnation (a butcher who accidentally served treif meat to the congregation is reincarnated in a goat, and his kosher slaughter secures him his rest) or condemning them to it (an evil tax collector begs the Rabbi, in the form of a raven, to help him, but Luria sends him away). 

It is inevitable that a collection like With Both Feet in the Clouds will have its high points and low points, but with the exception of the flaws I've already pointed out--the absence of any discussion of modern Israeli fantasy, and the tendency to conflate theology with fantasy--Yanai and Gurevitch have produced a fascinating collection of essays.  Though there is room for expansion, both in individual essays and in the book's overall scope, this is only to highlight the necessity of such a work, which casts a light on instances of the fantastic in Jewish tradition that the modern Israeli reader might not be aware of, and tries to puzzle out the reasons for Israeli culture's weakening but still-present antipathy towards the fantastic.  I don't know whether an English translation of With Both Feet in the Clouds is likely (and if it is, I hope that is is of a revised edition that includes a discussion of the missing modern Israeli fantasists), but I hope that I've done a good job of summarizing it for English readers, and maybe whetting their appetites for it.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

The 2010 Hugo Awards: The Novelette Shortlist

Yet another reason that this year's Hugo shortlist reviews are going to be on the brief side: my thoughts about this year's novelette shortlist are almost exactly what they were last year.  To wit, that one of the worst consequences of taking one's Hugo nominating duties seriously enough to read through a substantial portion of the year's genre short fiction output is that it becomes a lot harder to enjoy the novelette ballot, which is usually the highlight of my award-reading season.  Though this year's ballot is, as usual, much stronger than the one for short story and in fact contains two of my favorite stories of the year, it's hard not to be upset at the presence of stories I liked well enough, or didn't like at all, instead of the ones I loved.  In previous years, I always looked forward to reading the novelette ballot, certain that the stories on it would surprise and delight me.  This year and last, the good stories on the ballot had already surprised me months earlier, while the stories (story, actually) I hadn't read turned out to be only pleasant.

I'm not sure whether Charles Stross's "Overtime" left me so cold because I'm not a big fan of his writing, or because it's a comedy about subjects--Christmas and the British civil service--that don't resonate with me.  Probably a little of both.  "Overtime" is one of Stross's Laundry stories, which take place in "that part of Her Majesty’s government that deals with occult technologies and threats," and is narrated, as were the other stories I've read in this sequence, by Bob, a junior-but-rising member of its bureaucracy.  Bob has drawn the short straw for the Christmas holiday, and has to remain on duty during the long weekend in case some Earth-shattering catastrophe should occur.  He's just settling in for four days of reading and playing computer games at triple pay when, of course, an eldritch monster from the beyond interrupts him.  What little plot there is is in thrall to the story's Christmas theme--I'll give you three guesses who the monster of the week pretends to be, and the first two don't count--so the appeal of "Overtime" is presumably rooted in Stross's juxtaposition of bureaucratic obtuseness, office politics, and workplace culture with Lovecraftian horror.  It's a rich seam that better comic fantasists like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams have mined for material funny enough to cross the cultural divide separating me from much of the experiences described here (the tradition of the Christmas party, for example), but Stross's jokes are leaden--"when you stare into the void, the void stares also; but if you cast into the void, you get a type conversion error. (Which just goes to show Nietzsche wasn’t a C++ programmer.)"--and his attempts to inject horror and urgency into the story are crushed by its jokiness.  "Overtime" comes off like a bit of seasonal fluff, a Christmas gift for the fans, and it's a bit sad to see in on the Hugo ballot in June--though given that this is the same fandom that keeps nominating and even awarding Connie Willis's Christmas stories, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised.

Like "Overtime," Paul Cornell's "One of Our Bastards is Missing" (PDF) is part of a series, following up on "Catherine Drewe," from Fast Forward 2.  The two stories take place in an alternate universe in which post-singularity technology has been developed in a feudal, vaguely 19th century setting.  The protagonist of both is Jonathan Hamilton, a soldier who also moonlights as bodyguard, assassin, and spy, and whom Cornell has quite obviously envisioned as a sort of Great Game-era James Bond.  I first read "Bastards"--in which Hamilton, working as part of the British crown princess's security detail, starts an investigation when a foreign diplomat disappears into thin air from the princess's engagement party--before reading "Drewe," and was sure that I was missing details provided by the previous story.  It's an enjoyable piece--more for the details of the alternate universe, which include space-folding technology whose uses are as mundane as corsets and as sinister as secret hideouts for kidnappers, and a very rigid and stratified social structure against which Hamilton, who is in love with the princess, struggles not to rebel, than for the plot, which is actually pretty simple once you get a sense of where the story is happening and what the rules of the world are.  But there was clearly a lot of missing information--the full nature of the entanglement between Hamilton and the princess, a cryptic comment made to him by a priest.  It turns out that "Catherine Drewe" doesn't answer any of these questions, and Cornell's comment on his website that he hasn't yet revealed the jonbar point between the Hamilton universe and ours but will in an upcoming story confirms me in my feeling that these are pieces that will make a lot more sense, and have a lot more weight, as a fix up novel than as individual works.  It's hard, therefore, to know just how to rate "One of Our Bastards is Missing."  It suggests a lot of potentially interesting avenues of story, but doesn't go down any of them.

Rachel Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape," and Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" are both stories that have gotten a lot of critical attention and praise (Foster has already won the Nebula award for her story), and have both generated lively discussion.  They also both leave me a little cold.  "Eros, Philia, Agape" is well-written (though for my money not as nicely done a story as Swirsky's other publication from 2009, "A Memory of Wind") but also somewhat on the unexciting side.  It tells the story of Lucian, an android purchased by the rich and damaged Adriana to be her lover and companion.  After his personality has molded itself to suit hers and to love her, Adriana decides that she wants a free partner.  She marries Lucian and gives him the freedom of his personality-editing capabilities as a wedding present, after which they also adopt a child.  As the years pass Lucian has a growing sense of how much of himself is defined by Adriana's needs and desires, and decides to exercise his freedom.  My ambivalence towards "Eros, Philia, Agape" is probably rooted in the fact that its every plot twist feels obvious and foreordained--in one sense, literally, as the story begins by telling us that Lucian leaves his family and then flashes back to its beginning, but also by hammering in Adriana's blinkered self-centeredness and Lucian's emotional dependence on her (for example, the slightly trite parallel drawn between Lucian and Adriana's pet bird, who believes himself to be her mate, and is heartbroken, and later dies of his grief, when she replaces him with Lucian).  The only part of the story that doesn't feel signposted is Lucian's decision to not only leave Adriana but leave humanity entirely and learn what it means to be a robot.  It's an interesting idea, but nowhere near sufficiently set up.  The result is a story that feels stately, like a dance with carefully laid out steps, but that is nowhere near weighty enough in its subject or central ideas to justify that stateliness.

The Foster story is an entirely different matter.  It is anything but stately or predictable, and may feature one of the most inventive fantasy premises I've encountered in some time.  In the story's world, people literally wear their personalities in masks, choosing a new one every morning that determines who they are and what story they will be playing out.  It's a richly, vividly described story, which seems appropriate for one in which personality is determined by props.  The protagonist gets a peek behind the curtain when they're invited to be the consort of the day to their queen, and even more so later when an unmasked woman teaches them about the history of their way of life.  "Sinner, Baker" is one of those stories that are remarkable more for their worldbuilding and its inventive central concept than for anything that happens in them.  The second half of the story, in which the protagonist learns the truth about the origins and purpose of masks, is a little underwhelming, following too closely in the footsteps of other stories about rebellion in restrictive, closely-regimented societies.  The unexpected twist ending saves the story a little, though at the same time it also feels unearned--it's meant to be a revelation of who the protagonist is without their mask, but up until that point they are such a blank, reactive character that their sudden emergence into brutal action isn't really believable.  Much as I admire the flight of imagination that drives "Sinner, Baker," and Foster's evocative writing, I can't help but wish that the story had a bit more substance to it.

One of the reasons that I was underwhelmed by Swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape" is that I read it after reading Nicola Griffith's "It Takes Two," (PDF) which touches on many of the same subjects in a way that is, to my mind, much more exciting and thought-provoking.  Like the Swirsky story, "It Takes Two" deals with the artificial creation of emotional attachment, with the protagonist, Cody, hacking her own brain and paying to have the brain of a stripper named Susanna similarly hacked so that they can fall in love at first sight.  As I wrote in my 2009 short fiction roundup in Strange Horizons, the story's premise doesn't quite work, particularly Cody's motivation of wanting to seem like one of the guys when a prospective client takes her to a strip club.
Even leaving aside just how convoluted and tenuous a method this is of securing a deal (are there really executives, even Atlanta good ol' boys, who will sign a deal with someone because "I like the way you handle yourself . . . no boasting, no big words, you just sit quiet then seize the opportunity"?) the structure of the story is off: story, story, story, exposition, exposition, exposition, dilemma—as Cody has to decide whether to take what Griffith rather cleverly dubs "RU486 for the brain" and destroy her artificial feelings for Susanna, or embrace them.

Why then, do I still think that "It Takes Two" is a brilliant story? Because it is just so damnably creepy. We all know, even if we don't like to be reminded of it, that even the loftiest of emotions are chemical fluctuations in our brains, and that those chemicals can and are being manipulated on various levels and with various degrees of finesse. What makes "It Takes Two" disturbing is not so much that it adds love to the list of reactions that can be externally, medically controlled, but that it takes the obvious next step of assuming that once that ability is achieved it will be commodified, that the next step in prostitution will be whores who really do mean it when they say "you're special, I wouldn't do this with anyone but you" (in that sense "It Takes Two" covers much of the same ground as Joss Whedon's recently cancelled Dollhouse). "It Takes Two" doesn't shy away from the fact that Susanna has sold herself in the most profound way possible, and that Cody has bought her, but at the same time it encourages us to root for a romantic ending. The resulting tension between romance and revulsion is what makes the story, what makes it possible to ignore the problems in its premise and structure, and what makes its ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying.
Peter Watts's "The Island" (scroll to chapter 2) feels almost like the odd story out on this shortlist.  It isn't the only piece of science fiction on the ballot, but it is the only space-set, hard SF story on it, and it feels almost quaint besides Swirsky's semi-allegorical future or Cornell's steampunkish one.  The premise, as I wrote in my post about 2009's best short stories, is a familiar one: road crew discovers that they are about to pave over a rare lifeform.  In this case, the road crew is on a spaceship that left Earth hundreds of years ago to seed the galaxy with hyperspace gates.  Watts does a great job of making us feel, through the voice of the narrator, Sunday, the disaffection and ennui that this kind of life breeds--long stretches of cryosleep punctuated by brief builds, short, low-maintenance relationships with people who may not be awake or even alive the next time you're defrosted, and most of all a sense of disconnection from humanity, which has changed and evolved in the years that Sunday has spent frozen.  Complicating that is the fact that the ship's crew are engaged in a centuries-long cold war with its semi-deranged AI, who resents their unwillingness to conform to its rigid protocols, and has set about creating a second generation of engineers under its thrall.  Into this messed up dynamic comes the titular island, which Sunday believes is an intelligent alien life form but which the AI insists is just a piece of space junk.  A lot of the pleasure of this story comes from watching Sunday learn about the alien, trying to communicate with it and demonstrate its intelligence, in the process waking up from her emotional stupor, becoming, for probably the first time in her life, an explorer rather than a glorified road-cutter.  Of course, this being a Watts story, a happy ending is not on the cards, though not in the way that one might expect from the story's premise, but rather in one that reinforces the typically Watts-ian ethos that people, be they human, AIs, or weird aliens, are all shits.  Despite this, "The Island" is too exciting and interesting to be a downer story.  The sheer pleasure of learning Sunday's world and discovering the alien with her outweighs the shittiness of that world.

I'd be happy with either Watts or Griffith taking the Hugo, and, despite my ambivalence towards their stories, not deeply saddened by either Swirsky or Foster's victory.  I suspect that the actual winner will come down to either Stross or Watts, with personal associations bolstering both their chances--Stross is a perennial Hugo nominee but an infrequent winner, and Watts has gained a lot of attention and sympathy from genre fandom due to his infuriating tangle with the American immigration and legal system last year.  As I say above, it's hard not to be underwhelmed by a Hugo shortlist when you've already read most of the nominees, but if I set that disappointment aside there is the usual pleasure to be had from this year's novelette ballot, and even more so from the fact that, though I wouldn't have nominated all of the stories on it, there are no pieces here that were an actual chore to read.  That may sound like damning with faint praise, but given how uncommon an event it is when it comes to the short story or novella ballots, I think it's something to be celebrated.