Saturday, December 12, 2009

You never get past it, it just becomes a part of you: Dollhouse thoughts

Having been kicked out of my non-blogging funk by the !Peter Watts! madness, I thought I'd get back to talking about Dollhouse. Many spoilers, etc.

So many highs, so many lows.

I've been talking about the show a lot with my girlfriend, She Who Is Awesome, and we've come to slightly different conclusions. I like Dollhouse a lot, in spite of its flaws. She's been feeling more ambivalent about it. In fact, before last night's back-to-back episodes of "Meet Jane Doe" and "A Love Supreme," she was pretty much not even going to buy the DVD of the second season.

I see her point. Dollhouse has been wildly uneven, even compared with the first and second seasons of Buffy and Angel. And Firefly, when looked at in proper order is remarkably low on filler episodes and/or craptastic ones.

So here are my complaints about Dollhouse's second season, in particular:

• Slow start. Boy, it didn't exactly get going at a good pace. It felt like we were back in client-of-the-week mode there.

• Lack of focus. After the slam-bang ending to the previous season, plus "Epitaph One," it felt like the show was on track. It wasn't a hint of what was going on, it was a friggin' roadmap. And it was a map to very cool places. The fact that we didn't immediately jump into the "Epitaph One" storyline was a bit of a letdown.

• Echo? What Echo? This is only partly a complaint. Having a blank slate as your main character is, well, kind of a weird choice. But in the first few episodes, and even in some of the better, later ones of the season, Echo is either marginalized or bounces back and forth between various states. It doesn't feel like a linear evolution from doll to fully realized person. In fact, in the first three or four episodes, it sometimes felt like they were being shown out of order, with Echo farther along in earlier shows than later ones.

But I think these flaws are compensated for by both the good that's made it onto the screen, and by the potential the writers are finally starting to mine.

Ah, potential. It's been the show's bete noir in some ways. Defenders like myself point out what an awesome, mindblowing concept the show is playing with. Those of a more critical bent point out that the potential has often been squandered in favour of "Echo's a dominatrix" jokes.

But the potential, and the way it's being realized, is the core of my defense of Dollhouse. In SF novels, you often see a single idea worked out in full, with all its myriad implications fleshed out. In TV SF? Not so much. Remember that transporter malfunction on ST:TNG that turned Picard, Guinan, Ro, et al into teenagers? Fountain of youth, or single-episode plot device never to be mentioned again? Just Star Trek alone will give you hundreds of dropped SFnal threads.

Dollhouse, however, is rigorously working out the implications of its technology. We start with programmable dolls, the Swiss army knives of the doll world. Since then we've seen post-imprinting dolls, multi-persona dolls, dolls with their own persona, upgraded. We've seen the awesome "Epitaph One," which dragged everything to its dystopian conclusion. We're seeing the technology advance, from slow imprinting to faster, all the way to distance imprinting and wiping, and how that changes the balance of power between those who control the technology, and those who are its victims.

Perfect television? No. But Dollhouse is arguably the most well thought out SF premise on television in the past several decades.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holy shit! Peter Watts gets a beatdown!

So Peter Watts may have made the mistake of arguing with some US border guards. According to Cory Doctorow, they then gave Watts a beating, charged him with assaulting a federal officer, and sent him packing into Canada in his shirtsleeves in the snow.

Now he's facing a federal felony charge in the US. Watts, for those who don't know, is the author of the fabulous Blindsight, a bleak but mindblowing novel that was nominated for a Hugo a few years back. It's available as a download thanks to its Creative Commons license.

The folks who like to grovel before authority are predictably already turning up in Boing Boing's comments. We don't know what happened, maybe he was at fault, blah blah blah. You know what? I don't even care if Watts argued with the guards, if he verbally provoked them, if he refused to follow their orders immediately. I don't for a minute believe that an SF author and former marine biologist in his forties just lunged at a border guard.

I do believe that border guards have an absurd amount of power over people. When you have that much power in one place, you've created a job that attracts bullying assholes. Not all of them, but way too many are just there to push people around and feed their piggy little egos.

I've donated $20 to Watts through his PayPal account on his website.

If, like me, you've ever been treated like dirt by some jackass of a border guard, kick in a few bucks. Free Peter Watts!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

io9 responds

So after I posted my little rant below about io9 and their banning Abigail Nussbaum of Asking the Wrong Questions, I sent off an email to them about the matter.

Here's the text of my message:
To the editors,

I've just read on Abigail Nussbaum's site, Asking the Wrong Questions, that she and another io9 user were banned immediately after they posted comments questioning whether the articles on District 9 were biased because it was io9's ComiCon sponsor. The link to at least one user's profile seems to show that her last comment before being banned was criticism about District 9.

I'm hoping you can provide an explanation. Until you do, I'm going to trust that Ms. Nussbaum has it right, and I won't be reading your site.

Sincerely,

[My real name]
So apparently, Charlie Jane Anders headed over to Asking the Wrong Questions and posted this:

Hi Abigail, thanks for writing about io9. Sorry I only just saw this, after someone sent us the link. To answer your points in order: We banned Oliver because he was being abusive. We have a clear policy that says that if you attack us or accuse us of not believing what we write on the site, then we will ban you. Your comment never actually appeared on the site -- when I read your comment, I thought it was Oliver coming back under another name. Someone may well have responded to your comment -- sometimes starred commenters can see unapproved comments and respond to them -- but you were never approved.

As for District 9, we saw this movie at SDCC and it blew us away. And we really did think it came into SDCC with the least buzz, and came out with the biggest increase in buzz. It would be hypocritical of us, in the extreme, not to say what we think about this movie because it's advertising on our site. We've never had any pressure to say nice things about our advertisers, and if we had, we'd ignore it. We assumed anyone who visits io9 regularly would know that we don't give special treatment to our advertisers. We hadn't been hyping District 9 much until we saw it and realized how great it was.

Thanks again for commenting about io9, and for helping keep us honest. We love your writing over at StrangeHorizons.

All best,
Charlie Jane Anders
io9.com
This doesn't really satisfy me. Whether Olliver was banned for good or bad reasons, I don't know; I do know that the last post he put up about Tron 2 and District 9 was not what I would consider remotely abusive. So it looks weird that that's the last thing he posted.

But my main problem is the io9 policy of banning people who attack them or don't believe what they read on the site. You've got to roll with the punches, if you're going to run any kind of media outlet. Right now, they just look thin-skinned and petty.

At the newspaper I work for, if someone sends us a letter or an email accusing us of bias, we run it. If we think it's particularly egregious, the editor might append a note or write a rebuttal, saying essentially what Ms. Anders said in her comment: we stand by our views, we aren't pressured by our advertisers, we call them like we see them. And if io9 had done that, openly and immediately in that comment thread or on their main page, I'd say more power to them. I believe they liked District 9. I just can't believe that they think quashing any criticism, removing posts or banning people, is the way to defend their journalistic integrity. It's not.

Oh io9, no!

So I was just dipping a toe in Asking the Wrong Questions, and I find that its proprietor has become embroiled in a wee bit of a controversy with i09. Short version: i09 is promoting the hell out of District 9, a movie which actually looks pretty interesting. i09 also gave it a rave review and named it the most buzzworthy thing at ComiCon.

A couple of commenters (possibly not so politely) pointed out that this looked an awful lot like a conflict of interest, and were promptly banned.

Wow… just wow.

John Scalzi weighed in on the comment thread there and noted that it is possible for media outlets to review things that are paying their salaries. This is entirely correct. What io9 is doing, however, is the exact opposite of the way you're supposed to do it.

But let's give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that their opinions about District 9 are entirely on the up and up and not influenced by the wads of cash their advertising folks are getting from the film's promotion team. You do not ban people from commenting because they have noticed the possible conflict of interest.

I normally avoid any hint of my real life on this blog, but I'm going to now. I'm a reporter at a smallish suburban newspaper. This means I have many jobs, including writing a weekly column, covering local politics and crime, and sometimes writing the editorials (we sign our editorials, as they do in Quebec, by the way). When you piss people off (and you will piss people off) and they send you an angry letter, YOU PRINT IT!

Oh, I'm sorry, did I just yell? Well, maybe I'm a little ticked that io9 doesn't understand the basic rule of running a media business that says disagreement is actually good. Sure, you can delete posts and ban users, and no one will be left after a while to criticize. They will tell you how awesome you are and stroke your ego. And slowly they will slip away, and you will be an irrelevant joke.

I actually like io9. I know it exists mainly to be all ZOMG NEW IRON MAN TRAILER!!!!1!, but I like that they actually write about books on a regular basis. They even interviewed Samuel Delany a while back. It's refreshing to see a site that gets 99 per cent of its hits from people interested in the next cheap pseudo-SF blockbuster, and devotes 10 to 20 per cent of its time to talking about stories printed on dead trees. Considering how often they update, you actually get more book reviews, recommendations and author interviews out of io9 than out of almost any other SF-related site on the web.

If io9 would like to explain how their actions are anything less than petty protection of their sponsorship, I'd love to hear it.

Friday, July 31, 2009

"Caroline"

This little review of Echo, the original pilot for Dollhouse, contains spoilers. Back away now and nobody gets spoiled.

I never read the script for the original pilot that was floating around out there. I guess it's part of my own spoiler-averse nature to avoid reading a script like that. Besides, what-might-have-been is profitless when it comes to TV. We have what the creator ultimately gave us, network bungling or not. So when I sat down to watch Echo last night, it was with the view that I was seeing an experiment, an early draft put down on film, an alternate world version of the characters.

Boy, I was not wrong about the alternate world part.

The basic plot sysnopsis is this: we get a whole big chunk of exposition right up front, with DeWitt narrating as we see Echo go through several missions: a pro bono drying out a young woman, a jealousy-inducing date at a wedding, and as a negotiator in a million dollar drug deal. Once that's out of the way – and we're talking a good long part of the episode here – we get into the main plot, which is once again Ballard's search for the Dollhouse and its attempts to throw him off.

They're not exactly subtle on this first draft of the plan. They have Victor/Lubov send him astray, and when the Caroline photo draws him right back in, they try to use Echo for the same project. When that fails, she tries to kill him, twice. Meanwhile, Topher is worried about the actives already, especially Echo. Apparently she's already developing somehow, and he has several talks about the issue with Boyd, and an awkward confrontation with Dr. Saunders.

DeWitt and Mr. Dominic, however, are notable mostly by their near total absence. DeWitt seems in control when dealing with the client and serving up spoonfuls of exposition near the opening of the show, but when we see her later she's being yelled at by her superiors over the phone (re: Ballard) or ordering his failed killing. She's less of a mighty and mysterious ice queen here.

In fact, while DeWitt is one of the major ensemble cast members by the latter part of the first season, in this pilot I'd have to say there are two protagonists: Ballard and Topher. Yeah, Topher. He gets a lot of screen time, and he's actively moving a chunk of plot forward. Echo/Caroline, on the other hand, feels sidelined.

A lot of things feel rushed, including the Doll/handler relationship, the imprinting process itself, and the question about where they get their "volunteers."

After watching Echo, my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful, said that Ghost, the in-continuity pilot, was better structured. In many ways, I have to agree. There was more show and less tell, we saw the original Caroline before she was wiped, and we saw Alpha rather than simply hearing him mentioned. Of course, Ghost is saddled with a boring procedural kidnapping plot weighing it down.

I'm going to say that Echo is not a great pilot, not in the way that Serenity was for Firefly for example. It's flawed in more interesting ways than Ghost, however.

Ghost gives viewers a straightforward explanation of the show's central idea, and introduces the characters and their traits fairly well. Echo is all over the place. It's like an excited puppy, fun and cute and really packed with energy, but scattered. It feels like Joss Whedon had been sitting on his cool ideas for so long he couldn't not let them out all at once. Fly, my monkeys, fly! He takes the show almost to the place it was at the end of the first season in less than sixty minutes, but the ride is a little rough.

So I'm going to say something weird here: I understand why Fox ordered a second pilot. This pilot would have snagged me, but it is weird and frenetic and talky. Ghost is not a better pilot, but it's a much more conventional one. It has the kind of flaws that networks seem to think make for good TV. Echo has the kind of flaws that might signal greatness if the writer can rein him or herself in.

And having seen Whedon's other work, and the latter half of the season, I'd say greatness is still possible.

Oh, season two, where are you when I need you?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"I hope we find me alive"

Warning: for the purists out there who have not yet put their money down for the Dollhouse DVD set, this contains spoilers for the final episode, Epitaph One. Reading any further will sour your enjoyment not only of the episode, but of life itself. Food will be as ashes in your mouth, and your lamentations will drive nearby squirrels to commit seppuku.

Okay, the lightweights are gone? Good.

Like everyone else, I heard the basic plot outline of Epitaph One months ago: Felicia Day (Mag) and an intrepid band of survivors whose names I never quite picked up, are trying to survive in the far-off future of 2019 after Dollhouse technology has made everything go kerblooey.

The basic plot is this: the survivors stumble into the Dollhouse while taking a shortcut through the sewers, trying to avoid the signals that can turn you into a reaver killer angry person. Realizing it is the origin point for "the tech" that's driven the world into its current zombie apocalypse/rise of the machines state, they use a mindwiped refugee they're dragging around as a template for a series of memories they find programmed into the chair. So we get a series of sequential flashbacks, showing events both before the first episodes of Dollhouse, and later, possibly up to just a year or two before 2019. Meanwhile, someone is killing off the survivors one by one, and a spooky, Dollish Whiskey, sans facial scars, shows up to offer them some help.

This is another Dollhouse episode that feels far, far longer than its actual running time (in a good way). There's a lot going on here, and each flashback is crammed with both exposition and character development. In general, it's extremely well done, and if it were just a vehicle for a "Days of Future Past" style storyline, it would get an A+ just on that score. But the main plot thread isn't bad either, even if it does revolve around the "and then there were none" contrivance of having the survivors killed off one by one. This is another way the show is good: who is killing the characters should be an obvious twist, but I didn't have even five minutes when the show slowed down to let me actually try to puzzle it out.

So this brings the number of really good Dollhouse episodes up to seven, meaning the first season was more than 50 per cent awesome after all! Hooray!

Up next, a review of the original pilot, and some of the special features.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underworld: Why did I rent this movie?

Well, mostly because I thought there must be a Rifftrack for it. Sadly, there is not. I had to make up my own jokes, and after a while mocking the ridiculous gothy/bondage outfits of the vampires, the endless blue-black darkness of every shot, and the repeated script failures grew difficult. At two hours long, Underworld is a movie that will make you believe in immortality, because it seems to go on for three or four hundred years.

This is a movie about vampires in which we never see them feeding. It's a movie about werewolves in which we never see them mauling innocent townsfolk. We're told about both of these things, but considering how much money they spent on a half dozen FX-laden battles, you'd think they could have fit that in.

This is a film in which the most important distinction is between vampires and werewolves, and yet they're almost impossible to tell apart. It's all long sweeping dark coloured coats. You can tell the costumer took a shot at making them distinct, only to have the directed call for more darkness, more rain, more shadows, making it a moot issue.

This is a film in which characters have only two modes: lack of affect and snarling scenery chewing.

This is a movie in which werewolves claw their way along walls and ceilings, rather than running faster on the floors. Even though Spider-Manning their way through the world means they are easier to shoot.

This is a movie in which six hundred-year-old vampires get up and say, "Hmmmm... what to wear... leather fetish gear again? Uncomfortable corset? Something with a stiff, high collar? Maybe something that seems both highly weird looking and is impractical if I'm attacked by giant hairy monsters." Nobody wears jammies and bunny slippers.

This is a movie in which the action seems to continue for three or four days, but it is never daylight.

This is a film which Bill Nighy cannot save. No Bill, you tried, but nobody can spit out that dialogue and not look like a total headcase.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

But what does it all mean?

Thomas Harlan's House of Reeds is in no way a bad book. But it is not a book that made me want to jump up and down in glee, either.

House of Reeds is apparently the sequel to Wasteland of Flint, and the story of its protagonists will continue in Land of the Dead (which, according to Wikipedia, is out next month). I haven't read Wasteland of Flint, because my library doesn't have it, and neither do my local used book stores. With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the meat of the book.

Harlan is a good goddamn worldbuilder. He's apparently written a whole whack of alternate history/fantasy epics for Tor, as well as working as a game designer, and it shows. In this series, he's merged alternate history with space opera and military SF, creating a weirdass background that sucked me right in. The basic story is this: sometime around the 1500s, the Aztecs conquered the world. They could do this because a few hundred years earlier, a big fleet of Japanese refugees, fleeing the Mongol invasion of Japan, washed up on the shores of North America. So Aztecs got to learn all about things like steel and horses and gunpowder, and then they went and beat the crap out of most of Europe. Take that, Columbus! Flashforward a few hundred years, and the joint Aztec-Nipponese space navy is still kicking ass and taking names. Our heroes are all either members of the Aztec-Nipponese empire, or they're on its fringes trying to survive.

The story takes place almost entirely on the planet Jagan, where the Aztec secret police/priesthood is planning to deliberately incite a small brushfire war, a flowery war. They want to throw one of the younger sons of the Aztec emperor into the mess. He's a drunken idiot, so he'll either man up and cover himself in glory, or die and please the gods that way. His Scottish bodyguards will have to try and make sure it's the former. Meanwhile, Gretchen Anderssen, the xenoarcheologist and hero of the first book, has been ordered to Jagen to study a possible ancient and powerful artifact, and Captain Mitsuhara Hadeishi of the Imperial Navy has just come into orbit after a long patrol, looking to resupply and refit his battered ship.

The elements of a great epic story are there, but Harlan never quite makes them gel. Characters are defined well to start with, but we don't get below the surface of most, probably because there are so many conflicting plot threads – there are at least four viewpoint characters that I can recall just from Hadeishi's ship. Then there are Anderssen and her team, the bodyguards, the wicked old spy pulling everyone else's strings, diplomats, the various alien locals, and so on.

A word on those aliens: Harlan can't do original alien critters. We get a cat-alien, a whole bunch of lizard aliens, and a brief cameo by bug aliens and a super shapeshifer alien. They all fall into categories such as fierce predator, wise old mystic, or barbarian warrior. The fact that they come off like the clich├ęs of how other races were portrayed in Victorian fiction isn't a good thing.

Just when it seems things are settling down in the plot, Harlan suddenly pulls out the big guns, ignites the war, and turns the last third into one long chase scene/gun battle. It's not that I don't like action sequences, but these go on and on and on. They're also disturbingly colonial. Almost every fight involves small numbers of well armed humans holding off hordes of less-well-armed local lizard people. It's like Rorke's Drift, one of the battles of the Sepoy Revolt. Or maybe I'm going too far back, and it's just a Black Hawk Down homage. Harlan lovingly describes how the massively overpowered weapons of the humans chew up hundreds of lizard guys at a time.

The plot about the alien device of great power also never comes together. I'm not actually sure what it did, in fact. I think it did something, and there was some attempt to explain exactly what near the end of the book, but it seemed sort of inconsequential by then. Another key plot, a thread involving a hidden alien and the prince's bodyguards, seemed to be deliberately leading into the next book in the series, and was left dangling.

For fans of well-written military SF or space opera, I'd say give it a try, especially if you can find the first book in the series for background. But it just never quite came together for me.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Things I learned from 300

Coming late to this party, but I finally watched Zack Snyder's/Frank Miller's 300 on the weekend, and boy, did it stink.

Not to rain on the parade of thousands of fanboys who claim to enjoy it ironically, but that was one of the worst movies I've seen in years. And I watched The Rocker the same weekend. It also makes the achievement of Watchmen even more amazing; Watchmen isn't great but it's far from bad, and where it modifies the original story it usually does so carefully and in a not-moronic way.

Not 300. I felt like every addition to the Frank Miller comic went in the wrong direction. You have a comic that's already ludicrously stylized? Let's make the film adaptation even more stylized! There's basically no female roles in the comic? We'll put one in the move, so she can be raped! Some of the dialogue sounded cheesy and lame the first time around? A big spoonful of that please!

Seriously, 300 is one of those milestones in Frank Miller's career, the kind labeled "25 miles to Suckville." The guy's been going slowly insane for decades, and 300 was written at the point where he was just starting to move away from his Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns projects and beginning to walk the road that would take him to "I'm the goddamn Batman!" So it sort of works, but it's also loaded with the kind of stuff that would mark Miller for the rest of his career: enough testosterone to make a rhino explode, a style that is so extreme it constantly calls attention to itself, loads of blood, the valorization of violence, a lack of good characterization, and a big ol' Girls Not Allowed sign on the front door.

Politically, the movie was painful. I think calling it fascist is a little unfair. Even fascism, as a political philosophy, is more nuanced than 300. The movie was more a blend of unthinking nationalism wrapped up in some default American values. (Freedom be good!) Of course, those values are left undefined and unexamined, so we never question why the people fighting for freedom have a king, for example. Who orders them to cheerfully murder wounded soldiers while he eats an apple. Ha ha! It's funny because in any other movie that's how you'd be able to tell who the bad guy was!

Now, things I learned from watching 300:

• The ancient Persians were mostly African-American or east Asian in origin.

• "Phalanx" means everybody runs around slicing up people in slow-mo.

• Athenians were gay. Not the Spartans.

• The Persian army included the Uruk Hai and Sloth from The Goonies.

• In a related note, you can put ninjas in anything!

• Ancient Greek oracles were really just nude interpretative dancers.

• When going on a long mission, all you need to carry as a Spartan warrior are you weapons, shield, and red cloak. Food is not necessary, probably because you'll just murder and eat anyone you run across.

• Physically disabled people are inherently evil.

• Breastplates are for sissies.

• But not shaving your chest. A smooth, hairless torso, much like a Ken doll's, is super-manly.

• Gerard Butler has huge fucking teeth!

• Peasants don't really exist. Probably because if they ever showed up, the movie might have had to talk about how the Spartans ritually declared war on their peasants yearly, and murdered the troublesome ones as an initiation ritual for young men.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The seas are red because they're full of blood, get it?

Scott Lynch's follow up to The Lies of Locke Lamora is the almost as good Red Seas Under Red Skies. Two of the protagonists from The L of LL are back, Lamora himself and his good buddy Jean Tannen. They've relocated to a new city, two years after the bloody denoument of the last book, and are working a long, long con.

The first half of the book is split between the con itself – they're trying some complicated theft/swindle targeting the richest and most dangerous casino owner and gangster in town – and the back story of how they got there. At the end of Locke Lamora, the title character was half dead and Jean wasn't in much better shape. Lynch shows Lamora diving into a big pool of self pity, with Jean forced to repeatedly fish him out. Lamora puts himself back together slowly (in the movie version, there'll be a montage of him re-learning card tricks) until he's ready to take on the big con.

Just as the con gets going, however, it's derailed. The military dictator of their new home town decides to press the two Gentlemen Bastards into service. He's on the verge of a civil war with the town's wealthy merchants. He wants a fake pirate scare, so he has Locke and Jean given a crash course in seamanship and sent out with a crew. They'll ravage the annoying merchants and give the dictator the excuse to make his army and navy even bigger.

Then there are mutinies, battles at sea, numerous assassination attempts, new love, betrayal, more sea battles, more betrayal, and Jean and Locke are squeezed tight between so many clashing factions they're almost squished. The book concludes with an orgy of finales – to the con, the pirate wars, and the fates of half a dozen characters.

On a page to page level, the book is almost as good as LoLL. Locke and Jean are still compelling characters, and the pirates, casino owners, various henchmen and others are colourfully drawn. The new city – I still can't remember the damn place's name – just isn't as lively or as fully realized as Camorr, however. The pirate ships prove a better setting.

My key complaints with the book are twofold. First, the flashback structure doesn't work as well here as it did in The Lies of Locke Lamora. In that book, we were learning about the education and allegiances of the Gentlemen Bastards as we watched them doing their job in the present day. In Red Seas, an enormous amount of time is spent in the first few flashbacks on Locke being miserable, but we already know he gets over this in time to jump into the big con game. It all feels too drawn out, and it hurts the book's forward momentum. Second, the grumbling and personality conflicts between Locke and Jean feel a bit contrived. They seem to constantly be offending, disappointing or annoying one another. It never amounts to anything, though. There just isn't enough conflict to tear the duo apart.

Oh, and yet again the love of Locke's life is referred to, but does not appear. Two books running is a bit much to drag out such a key plot point.

Still, it's very deserving of the label swashbuckling. Fun characters, a fun world, and a fun adventure. If you liked the first book, by all means read it and move on to this one.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Video games vs. story

I finally went and did it. I dropped a few hundred dollars on the weekend to upgrade to the current generation of gaming consoles. (PS3 if you're wondering.)  

Already, I'm a complete convert to the Portal Worship Cult. Funny, brain-teasing, creative, simple in an elegant and clean-lined way, it's also set me to thinking about storytelling in videogames.

I'm not what you'd call a hardcore gamer by any stretch of the imagination. But when I do buy games, I tend to avoid any game that has a story element. I mostly stick to straight up shooters that allow me to blow stuff up real good, or to weird puzzle challenge games, like Katamari Damacy. I've tried to play other types of games, like JRPGs and the more narratively dense shooters. Usually, I'm disappointed. The story elements feel like intrusions into the gameplay at the best of times. 

For example, I played a lot of Killzone on my old PS2. Killzone was supposed to be this great Halo killer when it was in development. What actually came out was, for its time, a pretty solid but not spectacular shooter. I played through it a couple of times, but every time I was groaning when the cutscenes come up. 

The game starts out in such a promising way: Brian Cox, playing the Hitlerish leader of the bad mutant humans, exhorting his troops with cries for revenge, while a montage displaying the brutal thuggery of his reign unfolds. It's actually pretty good. Unfortunately, that's the last you'll be seeing of Mr. Cox. I can imagine him coming into the studio, flipping through the script, rattling off his lines in his best Early Hannibal Lecter voice. The guy in the studio gives him the thumbs up, he gets his cheque and he's off to his next gig. See ya later, quality.

Every other cut scene is a babble of military and action movie cliches, with some ethnic stereotyping thrown in. The four main characters, all of whom supposedly live on a colony world somewhere light years from Earth, are from USAmerican central casting. There's the square-jawed, square-headed white male central hero, the female assassin, the Hispanic tough, profane, heavy weapons guy, and the half-mutant spy. Both he and the woman have British accents, because they're smart, right? The characters swear and bitch and have minor conflicts, none of which make a damn bit of difference to the gameplay, which is of the highly linear "Go to A and kill everybody there" variety.

Compare this to Portal. No cut scenes. No other characters, really, if you discount the Weighted Companion Cube and GlaDOS. Just this acerbic running commentary from a crazed computer, and the little-girl voices of the killer robots. But there is a story. It's hidden, literally, in the cracks of the game. Aside from GlaDOS's darkly funny instructions and misinformation, there are little hidden rooms in the game. As you go through the tasks, you find hints left behind by a previous test subject. He's apparently spent time living in the walls to avoid going through some of the more dangerous rooms. In some places he's scrawled things on the walls. It's dark and atmospheric, enhanced by the soundtrack. 

Now I'm almost finished the story. Will there be resolution to this bit of story? I don't care. Portal has dropped me into a world and is giving me enough information to make myself the central character. They aren't forcing bad versions of movie dialogue down my throat. If I want plot and character in depth, I don't reach for a video game, I find a book or a movie or a TV show. Video games aren't good at depth. They're good at atmosphere and setting, and immersion.

Portal gets the way to storytell in a video game is to get out of the way. 

Friday, May 22, 2009

Locke Lamora is stealing your wallet right now

I'm a little late to this party, but I finally got around to reading The Lies of Locke Lamora over the last few days. And by "reading" I mean "absorbing as fast as my eyes would allow." This is one of those books that, if you like it, you will stay up until 3 a.m. reading the damn thing, just to find out what happens next. And you'll stay up until 4 a.m. to find out what happens after that, sleep and an early workday be damned.

The title character is a street urchin when we meet him, with a gift for thieving and deceit. He's so good at it, in fact, that he's being sold by his current owner/unsuitable parental substitute, the Thiefmaker, to a crooked priest. While the Thiefmaker runs a sort of wholesale Fagin-style operation in training orphans for crime, the priest, Father Chains, is running a boutique business. He needs clever apprentices who can be trained for the long con.

The story follows Locke through intercut scenes, part in the present as he and his band of thieves try to gull a rich nobleman and avoid a brutal gang war, and part in the past as we see how he and the gang grew up and trained together.

All the characters are vivid, particularly Father Chains, a priest of "the thirteenth god," the god of thieves and swindlers. There's also Jean Tannen, Locke's portly best friend who happens to be lethal with a pair of hatchets, the card sharking Sanza twins, and Bug the adolescent apprentice of the gang. Their gang moves through the city of Camorr, a Venice-like creation peopled by nobles, gang leaders, thugs, merchants, assassins, shark-fighters, priests, and guards. Camorr itself is one of the most memorable characters, with its numerous islands and canals, and its mysterious glass-like structures left by a vanished elder race. (I'd say it has about 700 milli-Crobuzons.)

Locke's character, or lack thereof, is at the centre of the story. He's physically a little short and slight, with a forgettable face, no particular skill with weapons or hand to hand combat, no magical ability, and no noble title or destiny handed down by the gods. He's just too clever for his own good, and very skilled at deception and fast talking. Part of the time, he reminded me of a trickster figure like Loki or Coyote, morally ambiguous and talking his way in and out of ever problem he encounters. In modern speculative fiction, Locke most closely resembles Miles Vorkosigan, from Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series. It's refreshing to see characters in genres (fantasy and military SF, respectively) who usually rely on brawn and machismo using their brains and mental toughness, instead. (And if you liked Locke Lamora and you haven't read any Vorkosigan books, boy, are you in for a treat. Get yourself to the library right now. You'll thank me for this.)

Are there problems with the book? Yes, of course. There's the love of Locke's life, who is mentioned frequently but doesn't even get a cameo in one of the flashbacks, which makes the book feel less than whole. If you like moral characters, you may be troubled by Locke's utter lack of most ethics; his primary motivations are loyalty, revenge, and a need to outsmart people. There are also moments that stretch believeability thin, even in a novel like this; a sequence in which Locke tries to infiltrate the same building three times in three different disguises in one day comes to mind. 

Still, those are minor problems compared to the book's primary virtue: it is fun. This book is swashbuckling, an updated successor to the novels of Sabatini or The Princess Bride. Looking back over the past half dozen SF and fantasy novels I've read, the number that is just fun is sadly small. Books that inspire a grin should be treasured.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I long for the quiet dignity of William Shatner: A Star Trek movie review

I didn't like original Trek when I was a kid. I was born in '78, which means that by age 10 I'd seen all three original Star Wars movies. By age 11, thanks to my neighbourhood pushers local librarians I'd read Heinlein, some Asimov and Clarke, and dozens of more forgettable names. Compared to what George Lucas could do, and especially compared to the images authors were pumping into my head, Star Trek looked slow, cheap, and lame. (Even 10-year-old Ouranosaurus thought miniskirts on female crewmembers was stupid.) I didn't get into the franchise at all until TNG came along, with better special effects and a captain who didn't chase women in beehive hairdos.

But I saw a fair bit of original Trek, regardless. It was on in endless reruns on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, or in the summers when there was nothing else to watch. And it was nominally SF. So I caught an episode here and an episode there. I learned about flat-foreheaded Klingons, energy beings, pon farr, styrofoam rocks, evil computers the size of Buicks, and "show me this Earth thing called 'kissing.'"

Now that I'm older and (theoretically) less easily distracted by shiny objects and big explosions, I've come to appreciate that there was often solid storytelling behind original Trek. In preparation for seeing the movie on the weekend, I've collected the whole series from my local pushers library and I've been watching season one.

Holy crap, is that a contrast to the original movie.

I know the movies are another animal compared to the TV show, but the more episodes I watch the deeper the gulf seems. The film is all about proving there's no such thing as a no-win scenario. It starts with Kirk cheating his way through the Kobayashi Maru test. It ends with him recapitulating the events that led to the death of his father – except that he saves the captain and the ship and Earth and all the important cast members and gets a promotion and a medal. He never learns a damn thing about loss. He never faces loss.

Compare that to original Trek. I just watched "Space Seed," the famous Khan Noonien Singh episode. It has some egregious bits of 1960s stuck in there, especially the sexist plot about the female crewmember who falls so hard for Khan she'll help him take over the ship after 20 minutes in his presence. 

But – there's a scene in which Khan has seized control. He needs the crew to help him steal the Enterprise. He locks Kirk in a decompression chamber and starts pumping out the air while the senior crew watches. If one of you will join me, Khan says, I'll let him live. They all sit there, impassive. Khan points out that he'll throw them in there one by one until someone cracks. Still they sit there. They're prepared to let the captain die, and then die themselves, because helping Khan is against everything they stand for.

That keeps coming up again and again in the original series. Characters stand for things. They stand for them because they think they're right. Spock opposes killing hostile aliens in "The Galileo Seven," for moral reasons. Kirk wants proof that an actor really is a genocidal dictator in "The Conscience of the King," he won't just go in guns blazing. Characters argue about logic, reason and ethics.  

Can you imagine the film's Kirk and Spock having a discussion about ethics not conducted at full volume, ending with a fistfight?

Every action by Spock and Kirk in the film is undertaken for personal reasons. Neither joins Starfleet because they believe in its mission. And saving the Earth? Well, I think we're pretty much all in favour of that.

I've said this before, but people do sometimes act based on ethics and ideology they've arrived at on their own. That's why original Trek, for all its cheese, is growing on me. It's why I'm tired of the modern trend of having every character action be motivated by nothing but selfish, petty, personal concerns. I don't care of Kirk gets over the death of his father. I care that he has some goddamn ideals.

As a couple of hours light entertainment, the movie is fine. There are shiny objects and big explosions, and the folks playing Spock and McCoy and Uhuru did a good job. Simon Pegg was hilarious as Scotty, and in a film so inconsequential, he could have been introduced earlier. But really, you'd get more storytelling out of two or three hours spent watching Shatner and Nimoy dodge styrofoam rocks.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer reading for Dollhouse fans

Ahhhhhhhh... Dollhouse has been renewed. I admit, I didn't think it would happen, while my girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) always kept the faith. It'll be nice to see some more episodes, hopefully of the interesting variety, and not of the "Echo has an assignment as X" style.

But what to do for the next five or six months before we get another fix of Dollhouse? We go to the library and the video store, of course. For my fellow Dollhouse fans, a selection of stories that cover the same themes: body swapping, identity, reality when the mind is a commodity.

Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan. I've already mentioned this one, but both this book and its sequels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, explore the possibility of wholesale body swapping and immortality through cloning and downloading. It's dark, grim, noirish post-cyberpunk with lots of sex and violence. The politics become more explicit with the follow up books, but they never take over the story.

The Anubis Gates, On Stranger Tides, and Last Call,  by Tim Powers. Again, body swapping and dark quests for immortality, but in Powers case using magic. The best of the bunch is probably The Anubis Gates, although my favourite will always be On Stranger Tides for its sword fightin', piratical ways. Far, far superior to any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas. A year before The Matrix came out and everyone started talking about bullet time, there was a much quieter, much better film that covered the same territory and then some. Dark City is about a man who wakes up next to a murdered woman, seemingly her killer. But he can't remember anything. He flees through a shifting city that never sees dawn, and in which people are swapped from home to home and role to role much like... dolls in a dollhouse? With its synthetic personalities, it's the closest analogue to Dollhouse you can find. Plus, a chance to see Keifer Sutherland before he got all annoying as a torture-monkey on 24.

Diaspora, by Greg Egan. This staggeringly brain-twisting novel concerns both AI and uploaded personalities. In similarly-themed short stories, Egan has also explored creating multiple copies of oneself, in some cases to undertake suicidal scientific research, such as travelling into a black hole.

The City of Lost Children, directed by Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. A mad scientist kidnaps children in order to harvest their dreams and save him from his nightmares. A steampunk setting with clones, blind radar-enabled cultists, and Ron Perlman with a bizarre hairstyle, speaking French.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Lend a hand, get a gift

It's that time of year again. No, not the time when all my favourite SF shows are cancelled. I think that's tommorow. No, it's Relay for Life time. So you're going to have to indulge me in a little public service announcement that has (almost) nothing to do with science fiction and nerdism.

This will be the third year I'm participating in the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay for Life. It's a twelve hour event, in which teams take turns walking around a track. No big deal, really, but the money we raise goes towards cancer research, prevention, and support for cancer patients and their families. This year's Relay in my hometown is on May 22, so there's a little more than a week left.

I'm going to pester my friends and family for pledges, but I like unusual fundraisers too. Last year I raised money by promising to have my legs waxed if I got $500, and I got more than $1,000. It was well worth three months of not being able to wear shorts in the scorching heat.

This year, my legs are still too tender (and some of our local politicians have offered the same thing, for $10,000). So I thought I'd turn to the Interwebs instead.

Here's where the science fiction comes back into the picture. If you donate to my cause, you can make me do tricks. It's like throwing peanuts at monkeys in the zoo. Only less cruel. And there are multiple prizes for different donation levels! 

Here's my list:

• $10 donation: I'll write and post five haiku about dinosaurs, zombies, pirates, ninjas, or any combination of the above.

• $25 donation: I'll write and post a flash fiction story on the SF topic of the donor's choice and post it on the blog. (Limit one per customer.) I used to be pretty good at writing SF.

• $30 donation: I'll write you into the novel I'm working on. You can get eaten by a dinosaur in print! Well, someday it'll be in print...

• $50 donation (plus shipping): I'll create and send you a tee shirt with my Rudy the Undead Hound logo on it. Who wouldn't want their chest emblazoned with an obscure geek reference to a non-existent 1980s cartoon show! I'm never going to sell these or make any more after this month because I'm pretty sure any intellectual property rights reside with Wil Wheaton and/or the Dungeons & Dragons folks. Limit ten, so order now!

• $100 donation: I'll dance like a monkey, while wearing a gorilla mask, and post the results to YouTube. 

• $500 donation: I'll wax my legs again, damn you! And send you pictures. You sick bastard.

• $1,000 donation: I'll do 100 push ups in a row. If I throw up, I have to try again.

• $2,500 donation: I'll write and publish online, and under my own name, a 40,000 word fanfic in which you team up with Harry Potter to save the world from the cyborg Nazi Yetis of Ultima Thule.

• $5,000 donation: I'll walk over hot coals, and send you the video. And possibly the medical reports.
 
To donate, click this link. Select the option in which your chosen name and donation scrolls in the donors box. Then email me at ouranosaurus at hotmail.com with the details of your donation and any other information I'll need.

This is one of the most important things I do all year. It would be great if you could help out.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I love you, John Bellairs

One of the best things about having a mother who works in a school library is getting discards, the books that are too old or grubby or beat up to keep in circulation anymore. This was obviously really cool when I was a bookwormish nine-year-old, but even as a bookfanaticish 30-year-old it's pretty neat.

So this Mother's Day, after doing some mildly backbreaking yard work to thank Mom for bringing me into the world, she gave me a sack of books. Well, most of them are intended for my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful and will be a teacher soon. But I'm calling dibs on the two John Bellairs books.

Back in the 1990s, there was this big craze for horror novels for kids. R.L. Stine novels in particular. Well, I spit on your R.L. Stine novels, do you hear me! They cannot hold a candle to the fiendish works of Mr. Bellairs!

Do your Stine novels have covers by Edward Gorey? I think not! Do they build their horror slowly, using realistic settings and character development? Do they weave a tapestry of horror from commonplace items – a ring made from a bent nail, a cheap Egyptian-style souvenier? Do they leave the reader certain something is wrong but not entirely sure what? I think not!

Mostly, I've read the Johnny Dixon novels, so I'm eagerly re-reading The Curse of the Blue Figurine for the first time since I was about 12 years old. I'm struck by some of the details – the intensely Catholic background of the main characters, the blunt attitude toward death and injury – that I didn't recall. I did recall that Johnny was a fairly nerdy, bright kid with glasses. I have no idea why he appealed to me as a young reader. None whatsoever. There's also the crotchety and eccentric professor, who frankly puts Dumbledore to shame as a weird old mentor figure.

I've also got a copy of The Dark Secret of Weatherend, which stars Anthony Monday. I don't think I've ever read any of the Anthony Monday books so this will be an interesting little treat.

About a year ago, I re-read what must be the most terrifying of Bellairs books. It's a Johnny Dixon book, and the premise is both bizarre and unforgettable. A realistic baseball-playing automaton has been created by a mad scientist. But it only works if human eyes are inserted in its head. Go. Go now and find a copy of The Eyes of the Killer Robot. It's high octane nightmare fuel for 10 year olds.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"I know who I am."

It seems like the consensus around Omega, the penultimate-but-last-to-air episode of Dollhouse, is that it wasn't quite as good as last week's stellar outing. I'd agree, but I'd like to see the parts of this episode that were left on the cutting room floor before making a final decision.

Spoilers ahoy.

From last week's cliffhanger, everyone's running around like chickens with their minds wiped. It only takes DeWitt, Boyd, Ballard, Topher and Whiskey/Saunders to put together Alpha's whole scheme, but by then Echo's gone, and all the data wedges containing her previous imprints, including her original Caroline persona.

The plot threads play out, with flashbacks showing how Alpha changed from being just another doll to letting threads of his original personality slip through – something we've seen all season with Echo, and even with Victor.

Boyd and Ballard wind up teaming up, buddy-cop style, to hunt down Alpha. Dr. Saunders finds proof that she's a doll, and we see that her face was carved up even before Alpha went totally batshit. (About five minutes before, but still.)

Alpha pours more than 30 personalities into Echo's mind using his homebrew imprinting chair, and she promptly (and not particularly surprisingly) beans him in the head with a pipe. Alpha, it turns out, was a psycho on his way to serial killer status before he ever became a doll, while we know that Echo/Caroline has deep reserves of empathy and personal strength. She tries to save the hapless waitress Alpha's kidnapped and loaded up with Caroline's mind. She fails, but between her efforts and those of Ballard, she does save her original Caroline wedge. Alpha scampers like a bunny.

Of course, there was also that plot thread in which November and Sierra were made into badass bounty hunters to help chase down Alpha, too. And they just... what? Went for coffee instead? We never see them after they're imprinted.

That's the main problem with this episode. There's at least five minutes, maybe more, that didn't make it onto the screen, and I think that contributes to the anticlimactic nature of the ending. There's no final throwdown with Alpha; he simply disappears after dropping the Caroline wedge. I suspect the edits are also partly responsible for the suddenness with which Ballard finds himself working at the Dollhouse as a contractor to track down Alpha. His turnabout on Mellie/November doesn't seem warranted based on what we saw.

Criticism aside (please, please, Fox, release an extended version of this on the DVDs!) there's a lot to like about this episode. Among other things, we see three different reactions to a doll realizing its true nature. Alpha becomes an egomaniac. Echo just feels empty, despite having so many personalities to choose from, and rejects the artifice of her personas. Whiskey/Saunders reacts partly with despair, and partly with a strange acceptance. I think that last is the most interesting. Saunders as Saunders knows that the dolls are often fleeing something horrible. She must know that she is there for some similar reason. Does she think that being Saunders, a good person and a healer, is preferable to the alternatives? Or is she just broken down?

Plenty of fodder for the next season. Now let's just hope we get there.

ETA: It's just before midnight Pacific time, and the Dollhouse DVD is number 18 and climbing on Amazon's bestsellers list. Not too shabby. A few tens of thousands of sales might be the only thing now to convince Fox not the axe the show.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Killing the Hollywood orcs

Most of the Internet, at least the nerdishly-inclined parts, have now probably seen The Hunt For Gollum, the 40 minute fan film created by a pack of crazed Brits. And boy, was I surprised as I watched the trailer and the film itself.

Yeah, it's pretty good, especially for something that apparently cost just 3,000 pounds, or about $4,400 US. You couldn't do the catering for a movie in Hollywood for that little. But, as a fan film, no one drew a salary and the producers begged, borrowed and stole before they shelled out money. That's just standard.

What's not standard is the overall quality. It's only a degree less professional looking than Peter Jackson's films. The orcs look like orcs, not like guys with Halloween masks. The Rangers are wearing realistic weapons and gear. The beautiful scenery is lovingly filmed. There are aerial shots of snow-capped peaks which they got from... where? Who cares? It looks damn good.

The plot is drawn from the appendices to the Lord of the Rings, and it's briefly referenced within the films itself. Gandalf warns Aragorn that there's this nasty little post-Hobbit thing called Gollum and that it's making its way towards the Shire, searching for its lost ring. Meanwhile, Sauron's troops are massing and may be looking for Gollum. Gollum can't be captured by the orcs, or the enemy will know where to find the ring.

Aragorn heads out and tracks Gollum, first by rumour, then by luring him into a trap. Gollum spends most of the rest of the film in a burlap sack, because no matter how well funded the film is, you just can't motion capture Andy Serkis for 30 minutes. That's going to blow your budget.

The remainder of the film is orcs hunting Aragorn while Gollum tries to escape. There are several moments of real tension, the acting is creditable, and the director clearly knows more than which way to point the cameras. And there's a massive fight scene in which Aragorn takes on a patrol of about a dozen orcs and kills them all.

The fight scene needs a little more attention. I'm actually going to argue that the fight scene in The Hunt for Gollum is slightly better than most of the fight scenes in the actual LotR films.

Whoa, whoa, hold up! It's not about the skills of stuntmen or the ability of the fight coordinators. It's about directorial choices. With a few cool exceptions, Peter Jackson belongs to the quick cuts school of fight direction. You will occasionally see a cool moment, like Legolas stabbing an orc with an arrow, then shooting it into the next orc, or Aragorn jamming a torch into a Ring Wraith's face. But more often, you get a bunch of guys running at each other and then there's some sword swinging, some quick cuts, sound effects and screams, and an orc keels over. You don't see move-countermove very often. The Hunt for Gollum has just one big fight scene, and it has several cool fight combos packed in, including the skewering of two orcs, and the final boss fight with the patrol leader. It's a good fight scene for any movie, let alone a fan film!

It's only in one way that The Hunt for Gollum disappoints, and that's in the way it falls into the fanfic trap. This part of the tale, Aragorn's search for Gollum, really isn't necessary. It's filling in a blank spot in the story that could have been left blank. We already know how everyone's story here ends. I'd frankly rather have seen a story from another chunk of Middle Earth's history, maybe with original characters. Still, it made my geeky heart glad, and I was quite happy to let it entertain me for 40 minutes.

On the other hand, this film should have Hollywood quaking just as much as the Pirate Bay does. The entertainment industry's been so focused on cracking down on illegal downloading that they haven't bothered to look at the other side of the equation: what happens when anyone with a dream, a couple of credit cards and a gaggle of willing volunteers can make something that looks this damn good?

In the past, Hollywood wasn't threatened by people who made legendarily cheap films. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000, but his goal was to become a professional film maker. So Hollywood could deal with him. He wanted to join the club. 

What do you do with people who have no interest in joining the club? I'm sure some of the folks in The Hunt for Gollum want to move on to "real" acting, makeup, or stunt work, and probably some of them already are in the field. But a lot of them just did it because they love LotR. There are fan film communities for every big cult property out there, from Star Wars to Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And time I spend watching fan films is time I spend not watching professionally made, for profit stuff. Eyeballs equals money.

Hollywood keeps telling us they're struggling to make money because of piracy (and we're not far from the point where every shack in the Sahel can download and watch Wolverine and Transformers 2). Meanwhile there are gangs of film makers who learned their trade as unpaid volunteers and do it for the love of making a movie. If the quality of amateur film rises while the financial rationale for professional film plunges, it could really upend the entire Hollywood system. I doubt that we'll ever see a day when nobody makes money off of films. But we could be close to a day when fewer people make a lot less money, even as we get a lot more movies available to us, the fans.

The next 10 years are going to be really interesting.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

"My prince"

Briar Rose, last night's episode of Dollhouse, could best be described as kick ass. But before we go any further...

SPOILERS!

Oh, sorry I shouted there. No, don't worry. I'm just excited because it turns out that freakin' Wash is Alpha! 

Yeah, I did not see that happening. I watched the ep with three others, and our surprised gasps at the reveal would have sent a barometer spinning. We knew Alan Tudyk was in the episode, from the trailers. We knew that Alpha was in the episode. Did we put those two things together? No. Because he's Wash! He plays with dinosaurs and gets speared! He doesn't slice people up and kick ass!

Well played, Ms. Espenson and Mr. Whedon. Well played.

Aside from that, it was also a taut and well-written episode on just about every level. The bit where Echo is trying to help the sexually abused kid, which could have been cringe-inducing in so many ways, turned out to be well written and well acted. It dealt with its awful subject matter head on and without histrionics – the moment where Echo talks about how she would plan escapes and then give up was very well done. It also introduced the Briar Rose/Sleeping Beauty theme, which would have its own twist at the end of the hour.

We got to delve deeper into the creepy and messed up psyche of Agent Ballard as well, when he refuses to rescue November/Mellie. Why? It's not really been spelled out well, but I'm thinking he doesn't consider Mellie a real person, and he's been too personally hurt by that. He's built a tower in his mind, and at the top there's a real princess named Caroline. 

But that gets at one of the central questions Dollhouse asks. Mellie is undoubtedly a synthetic person, programmed to love Ballard. But what she feels is plainly no less real to her. That's the crux of it; Ballard doesn't think Mellie is real, so she doesn't count. Caroline does. I don't think he's right. The Dollhouse committed a moral crime when it created Mellie and fixated her on Ballard, but Millie herself is a victim as surely as the young girl in the group home. She couldn't run away either. They'll find you, after all. They're bigger and stronger.

Then there's the ongoing plot about Dr. Saunders, who I'm now almost certain is a doll named Whiskey. I don't think Mr. Dominic wanted a drink at all, there. Alpha seems to know it too. I'm almost certain that "Saunders" is either the memories of a dead person, or is a synthetic persona. When Alpha escaped, he sliced up Whiskey and left her alive, probably killed the doctor. The Dollhouse looked at their dead doc, and their doll who wouldn't be going on too many more tricks dates and said "Waste not, want not."

Problems with the episode? I'm just going to mention the implausibility of Alpha and Ballard's easy access to the Dollhouse. Come on, people, no alarms in the only external systems access point? Not even a lock on the grate, for Christ's sake!

Let's review, shall we?

The Top 100 Things I'd Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord

1. My Legions of Terror will have helmets with clear Plexiglas visors, not face concealing ones.

2. My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.

Come on! It's number two on the list, right there! DeWitt, you are not doing your homework. The guys at the Centre are going to be pissed.

Not as pissed as I am when the show is cancelled, though. One to go, and one extra episode on the DVD boxed set with Felicia Day. Then, that's all she wrote.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Ends of the World: Notes toward a taxonomy of apocalypses

Riley: Buffy. When I saw you stop the world from, you know, ending, I just assumed that was a big week for you. It turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.
I just finished Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (short review: good!) and it only occurred to me about halfway through the book that I was reading a completely new kind of post-apocalyptic novel.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it concerns the lonely sexbot Freya, who was activated shortly after the death of the last living human being. Indeed, a wee accident with the biosphere and global warming has boiled the Earth and left nothing alive in the inner solar system. Robots – thousands and thousands of conscious, human-equivalent robots – have formed their own society in the absence of human life. Much of the plot concerns various robot factions trying to clone and bring back human beings. This would itself be a kind of apocalypse for the robot society, because with their Three Laws conditioning, they would be enslaved anew.

Science fiction and fantasy are the only genres that regularly deal with the end of the world, outside of religious fiction. Naturally, they've come up with more than one variation on the idea. I thought I'd try to break them down by type. At first I thought it would be easiest to divide them up by the way the world ends, but I soon realized that it's the kind of stories the authors tell in the aftermath that are most distinctive. Here's a partial and incomplete list.

• Rebuilding from the ashes

Everything's broken, probably because it got nuked or maybe hit with an asteroid. But don't worry! Our intrepid heroes are going to make it all okay again. It'll just take some common sense, a little engineering know-how, and probably at least one fight with a group that wants chaos and madness. Before you know it, we'll all be growing crops in USA 2.0! This type of story allows authors to give citified 20th and 21st Century characters the pioneer/survivalist spirit. It has much in common with stories of colonizing uninhabited planets.

Classic Example: Lucifer's Hammer, by Niven and Pournelle.

• We're doomed!

The grim counterpart to the novel of rebuilding is the story in which it seems that no recovery is possible. More common in short fiction, this is the story that often stars the last few humans on Earth. Maybe some of them will make it, but it's not likely. Themes are more personal and literary, with a focus on moral choices.

Classic Example: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

• Biker barbarians from Hell

Adventure stories in a post-apocalyptic setting often borrow more from the Mad Max films than from previous novels. These stories are about conflict, especially conflict between a remnant of civilization and the ever-present goons who want to loot it, burn it, and piss on the ashes. 

Classic Example: The Road Warrior
Not So Classic Example: Waterworld (Christ, that was like a punch to the groin.)

• Inhuman hordes

Most people are familiar with this story thanks to George Romero's movies, but it doesn't have to be zombies that swarm over civilization. Vampires, mutants, infected folks, even aliens or demons will do just as well. Stories are about the survival of small groups, often thrown together. Interpersonal dynamics are key, and the threat from within the group, or from other surviving humans, is often as important as the threat from without.

Classic Example: I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

• The quiet end

Sometimes the apocalypse isn't so bad. Some stories step back and take a surprisingly relaxed approach to the death of 99 per cent of the population. These stories often include dreamlike descriptions of cities returning to nature, and human survivors determined not to make the mistakes of their ancestors. By necessity, these are often plague stories, so as not to have to deal with too much radiation or nuclear winter.

Classic example: The City, Not Long After, by Pat Murphy

• The replacements

Humans are entirely gone, but something else has come to take our place. Maybe it's aliens, or maybe chimps have evolved intelligence, or maybe it's robots and AIs. Often, these stories are about the protagonist's attitude towards the vanished human species.

Classic Example: Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross

• The surreal aftermath

Sometimes the end is just weird. Maybe magic comes back and causes chaos, as in Sean Stewart's excellent Galveston books. Maybe consensual reality actually breaks down, as in The Gone-Away War by Nick Harkaway. Whatever happens, all bets are off. Strangeness and coming to terms with a new and fantastic landscape is the order of the day, and elements of horror and fantasy slip into the tales.

Classic Example: Pollen, by Jeff Noon

• Earth is gone, but we're okay

In some tales, Earth is a talisman, a land that is now cut off from humans, even as they move off-planet. Dan Simmons Hyperion stories and even the Cowboy Bebop series both explored an Earth that was destroyed or seriously damaged, even as human life thrived elsewhere. The destruction of the Earth in these stories is often a symbolic touchstone, rather than a plot point.

Classic Example: Steel Beach, by John Varley

Monday, April 27, 2009

Aw, poop

You can't tell anything from action/SF trailers. Really. Just watch the trailers for, say, Wolverine. You'd know that A) Hugh Jackman has claws and B) lots of stuff blows up really good. 

Same with Star Trek. I know Simon Pegg's in it, Sulu's that stoner from Harold and Kumar, and Kirk rides a motorbike, and they're building the Enterprise, and some bald guy with tattoos has serious Ricardo Montalban envy, and, um... that's about it. I had no idea what the plot was about. None.

I did have a pretty strong opinion, as you may recall.
I swear to god, if Kirk becomes captain of the Enterprise because he's mad at his father, I'm going to burn down a movie theatre.
Harsh words? Pointless hyperbole? Or shocking prophecy! From Paul McAuley's early review:
And it would good, too, if we could finally get away from the plot cliche in which the hero has to prove himself worthy of his father - in Kirk's case, not only his dead father, but the father-figure of Captain Pike, and the uber-father of the Academy. Been there, done that, got theStarship Troopers T-shirt.
Oh, J.J. Abrams, no!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Regency Madness!

How many stories does it take to make a trend?

One of my friends, the Infamous Lisa, has already bought and is tearing through Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the new super-high-concept book by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith. If you haven't already heard about it – perhaps you've been living under a rock, or busy with the smoldering embers of RaceFail '09 – it's a literal re-writing of Austen's book to include hordes of the undead. And also ninjas. Two out of three of a nerd trifecta isn't bad. If the next book is a re-writing of Persuasion that includes pirates fighting ninjas who are also robots and zombies, it will have covered every possible nerd base.

Then I heard (via Torque Control) that one of the novelettes up for the Hugo this year is "Pride and Prometheus," a tale of when young Mary Bennett met Victor Frankenstein. (Just won the Nebula, too.) And hey, I already downloaded the whole Baum Plan for Financial Independence collection, so I'll read that this week. 

These stories are directly Austen-derived, but the 900-pound gorilla in this burgeoning sub-genre is clearly Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. Set during the Napoleonic wars, in a slightly alternate England, it is one of the better fantasy novels I've read in the past decade. 

And a few years before Clarke was dipping into Austen's stomping grounds, Jasper Fforde was meddling with early Victorian literature with The Eyre Affair. It's set about 20 to 30 years later than Austen's works, and it is considerably more metafictional, so should we include The Eyre Affair in this list?

Personally, I've always felt that Jane Eyre was a story that needed a re-write of its own. Think about it – a mysterious Gothic mansion, strange noises in the attic, madness, fire, gypsies, fears of miscegenation. The first two thirds almost read like an H.P. Lovecraft story already. Now we just need to twist what's up in that locked attic room a little bit. Perhaps it's a white ape, or a woman slowly transforming for the dive past the reef at Innsmouth.

Are we really seeing the birth of yet another new sub-genre? Austenpunk doesn't really sound right, somehow. Maybe we should call it Regencypunk? Or is the -punk suffix completely inappropriate? 

All I know right now is that I'm shortly going to tackle reading Pride and Prejudice, so I can properly understand Kessel's story and the tale of zombies and upper class society. Who says reading SF doesn't broaden your literary horizons?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"You're dead"

Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers.

Dollhouse's latest episode, Haunted, didn't do much for me on the level of basic plot. The idea was good – someone who's brain has been scanned comes back from the dead to solve their own murder. But the execution felt like an episode of Murder She Wrote more than anything as cool as the last couple of episodes.

Really, the best part of the main plot was Boyd's comment that this really means the end of the world. If the rich can buy themselves new bodies when they die, what's to stop them from going on and on forever, erasing the poor but young once every twenty or thirty years? 

I don't normally mentally re-write episodes, but last night I was fervently hoping that the murder would turn out to have been a suicide. If you knew that a friend would bring you back, and temporarily store you in the body of a super-healthy 25-year-old, wouldn't you be tempted to kill yourself and then hijack the new body? Sadly, no.

Side note: anyone interested in these plots from a more SFnal perspective should read some of the British SF that's come out over the past few years. Charles Stross and Ken MacLeod have both written several stories over the past few decades about downloadable, copy on demand minds. However, the best of the British brain-scanners is probably Richard Morgan and his Takeshi Kovacs series. Altered Carbon, the first in the loosely connected trilogy, is about an ex-soldier and ex-con who has to investigate a millionaire's apparent suicide. The millionaire – backed up from a copy – doesn't believe he killed himself. It's a world where the rich are immortal, and where bodies can be swapped around like cars. No synthetic personalities, but it's a very good, very grim look at similar technology.

Back to Dollhouse. The episode's saving grace was its two sub-plots. Predictably, Agent Ballard can't stop himself from abusing the privileges of the Dollhouse. It's also becoming clear just how vile the programming of Millie was; she's his willing slave without even being aware of it.

Topher's creation of a friend for his birthday was even more interesting. This seems like it was intended to showcase the positive side of the Dollhouse. What if you are alone, and strange, and no one gets you? Who do you turn to? Topher made a friend (someone who was probably 80 to 90 per cent based on himself) for his birthday. It was both heartwarming and creepy at the same time. I'm so glad they didn't have sex.

Not too many episodes left now. Fox is apparently going to announce the show's cancellation or renewal mid-May.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The True Story of Rudy the Undead Hound


Excerpted from
Toons for Breakfast: A history of the 1980s from 7 to 10 a.m.

...but one animator who didn't die in a Santa Cruz opium den was Fletcher Krall. Krall came to Hollywood in the early 1930s and managed to find work as an in-betweener for several studios, including Terrytoons. He did good work when sober, which usually, according to those who employed him, lasted from about 8 a.m. on Mondays to Wednesday afternoon. By mid-week, Krall would be starting a bender. Sometimes he'd be back the following week, and sometimes not.

After being fired by several studios, Krall surprised his peers by launching his own studio. Where he got the money was hotly debated at the time. Some claimed it was the inheritance left by a distant spinster aunt. Others claimed that a string of bank robberies in Arizona, which coincided with one of his lost weekends, were involved. When he'd had too much laudanum, Walt Disney was prone to claiming that Krall had made a deal with the devil. He claimed Satan had appeared to Krall in the form of a morbidly obese woman wearing a leopard print overalls and pink house slippers.

Regardless of the source of funding, it was sufficient to get Krall Kreations up and running. Within a few weeks, Krall had begun knocking out shorts and peddling them to the studios and distributors. It took just a few months before Krall got into trouble. His characters were both derivative, and, even for the time, deeply offensive. His most notorious was Mick the Drunken Irish Mouse, which prompted a lawsuit from Disney and an assassination attempt bankrolled by Joe Kennedy (see "The Many Murders of Old Joe Kennedy," Jules Bernstein, Oxnard University Press, 2003).

Krall's one success was Rudy the Undead Hound. The short was briefly packaged with a series of morality tale films including "Oh No! Marihuana!" and "Don't Put That In There" which were funded by an Episcopal church operating out of Santa Barbara. The church deacons were apparently under the impression that the shorts were about the dangers of Satanism. The deal briefly gave Krall enough capital to hire more animators, and a dozen Rudy shorts were finished between 1939 and 1941. Most prints are now sadly lost, although "Rudy, don't eat the kid!" was located on a Betamax tape in Muncie in 1991.

Bankrupted by the Disney lawsuit, Krall sold his characters one by one to buy money for Sterno. He disappeared in 1943, and recent research suggests he was one of the last victims of Hans Schernwink, the so-called "Sausage Monster" of Fresno. Likely Schernwink lured Krall with a bottle of cooking wine and then turned the animator into K Rations under his contract with the US Army.

Rudy the Undead Hound was the last character Krall sold. It passed through several hands, including a number of children's book publishers. No one managed to bring Rudy back to unlife, although Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) entertained his friends for years with the story of how he was once approached to create a Rudy book. He suggested it be called "The Hat Made of Kiddie Fat" and his publisher never brought it up again.

Finally in 1963, Rudy was resurrected, this time in comic book form. Competing with other funny animal books of the 1960s, he lived a shadow existence in the back pages of a number of titles, from Animal Funtime to Noah's Wacky Ark to Laugh 'Til it Hurts, all owned by Jollo Comics. Jollo's workaholic cartoonist Ed Franks wrote and drew most of Rudy's stories. In his new environment, Rudy very seldom ate children or invoked the powers of the unholy host, but his sidekicks, Lil Azathoth and Eyeless Ed were still part of Rudy's world. The backstory about Rudy being brought back from the dead by a friendly necromancer (Doc Koschei) was added during the comic book years, as was his propensity to howl "Ru-ru-ru-ru-rudy!"

Carl Barks famously despised Rudy, and would fly into unpredictable rages about "that fuckin' zombie dog" if it was mentioned in his presence. Franks, in turn, hated Barks, which led to their duel at The Oaks in New Orleans in 1969; Barks would later make the resulting scar on his arm "dance" as a party trick.

Rudy got his own title in 1972, (written by Anton LaVey, drawn by Jack Kirby) but it folded after four issues. The last and most famous of these, the so-called Black Issue, was rejected by the Comics Code Authority. The final report released by that body was heavily censored, but rumour suggested the issue had included detailed instructions on how to summon demons and make pacts with unholy forces, as well as a set of blueprints for a cheap electric car. The entire run was pulped, but at least three copies have surfaced over the years; all are believed to be owned by Donald Rumsfeld.

As a character, Rudy was scrapped, except for infrequent reprints in back pages.

During the 1980s cartoon boom, NBC needed a new property in a hurry to meet the burgeoning demand. Rudy was dusted off, slightly modified, and 66 episodes were made for the 1985 season. Principal animation was done by four separate Japanese studios, with the in-betweening done in North Korea by animators undergoing state-ordered Re-education Through Illustration. Rudy proved a surprise hit, and within months toys based on Rudy, Eyeless Ed and villain Grumblkin the Troll were flying off the shelves. There was a breakfast cereal (Rudyums) and a line of collectible cards. Some toys were so popular they caused problems when supplies ran short that Christmas; the RCMP had to break up a riot at a Winnipeg Eaton's when parents fought over the last Glowin' Red Eyes Rudy toy.

By the spring of 1985, Rudy was under attack. The Parents Television Council made Rudy the Undead Hound part of their weekly Hour of Hate, and listed it as the third most likely program to induce Satanism, after The Cosby Show and My Secret Identity. The PTC ignited a media storm with their claim that during episode 47, "The Graveyard of Hopes and Dreams," a nude sketch of Ladybird Johnson was briefly visible on the side of the tomb. NBC was forced to apologize and pull the episode from subsequent repeats; they blamed the North Korean animation staff. After the mass executions, the incident blew over, but Rudy was not renewed for a second season.

Rudy has not been forgotten by '80s animation fans, and the property was recently optioned by Michael Bay...


[So, if you're wondering what all this was about, go here. Read. Listen.]

Update: Want a Rudy T-Shirt? I'm doing a charity fundraiser, and this is your one and only chance to get one.