Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Common roadsigns of Arrakis

Because sometimes I'm just bored. And while I can't draw, I can Photoshop. 

My next project? WorkSafe warnings for the gom jabbar.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Have you seen my drawer of inappropriate starches?

Everyone's inappropriate drawers get opened in this week's episode of Dollhouse, Echoes. Wow, that's a metaphor you won't see too many other places.

Many, many, many spoilers. Shoo. Go and get the ep on iTunes if you haven't seen it.

This was another episode that was actually good. Damn good. (I've seen reaction that suggests some liked it better than last week's. Me, I prefer episodes that have kung fu kitchen fighting, but your mileage may vary.) It had everything I want – a mixture of use of the dolls, behind the scenes stuff at the Dollhouse, science fiction stuff, drugs, comedy. 

So our plot starts with a college kid hallucinating in a lab. When his friends come in and try to help him, they get the giggles. He smashes his head against a plate glass window until he's dead. Okay, show, you've got my attention.

We also learn a little more about Caroline becoming Echo. DeWitt had apparently pursued her for about two years before she finally pinned her down and convinced her to sign a five-year deal to become a doll.

From there, we segue into a plot about a stolen memory drug – clearly the drug that killed Kid A in our opening sequence – nabbed from the Rossum corporation. Ah, I believe we have a nerdkenning there. Topher says the dolls will be immune to its effects because of the way their memory has been blocked. So a big old herd of dolls is sent out, (as with flock of birds and pod of whales, may I suggest an amnesia of dolls?) with Victor in charge as an "NSA" agent, Sierra as a "CDC doctor," and Dominic as their surly minder. They'll check out the university campus where Rossum's lab is located, where the drug is apparently spreading among the student population.

Is Echo with them? Why no, she's off for a date/prostitution engagement with the young millionaire from way back in episode one. As Alice, she is a very innocent young thing, who likes wearing six inch heels and thigh-high lace stockings. Thanks for driving home the skeeviness of the whole operation there, guys. Of course, she's just tied her client to the bed when she catches a news report about the mess over at the university. She suddenly has to go. She's remembering...

And that's where the whole thing comes together. Boyd trails Echo to the campus, where he quickly becomes infected with the hallucinogen. It's spreading by touch, which we soon learn as Topher and DeWitt both also become infected. And it does affect dolls, it just does so in a different way, giving them flashbacks, memory glitches to either their previous lives as false personalities, or to their real lives. Echo remembers Caroline, and remembers her boyfriend being shot by Rossum guards. Sierra remembers being raped. November remembers being Mellie, and almost remembers being a killer assassin while she's three feet from DeWitt. Victor remembers being a soldier somewhere in the Middle East.

Everything gets tied up, more or less, with just a few loose ends flying around regarding the dolls and the imperfect nature of their brainwipes.

One of the most important developments of this episode is that the drug affects dolls and regular humans differently. So we now know (say to 90 per cent certainty) that Boyd, Dominic, DeWitt and Topher are not dolls. Because they were just hilariously tripping.

We're also getting more about the links between the Dollhouse and outside organizations. Rossum is supposed to be the biggest pharmaceutical firm in the world. But after meeting its CEO, DeWitt remarks off-handedly to Topher that it's CEO is more or less the runner up for her job. Rossum is a junior partner of the Dollhouse, and apparently one of their research divisions.

So that's two pretty damn good episodes, five that are a bit shaky. The average is improving.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why are all the good shows mid-season replacements?

First there was Dollhouse, which finally shook off the shackles of mediocritude to stand revealed as awesome, and now there's Better Off Ted.

Better Off Ted (or BOT, as true afficionados will doubtless call it) is about, um, Ted, who manages the research division at Veridian Dynamics. They do everything. Seriously, everything. Drugs, materials, food, highly dubious weapons experiments. It's like they're a combination of 3M, Pfizer, Enron and Lockheed-Martin.

You could not have picked a better time to satirize corporate America. The closer companies get to taking a dirt nap, the more insane the behaviour of the higher-ups gets. (Not that I've been getting increasingly cheerful emails from my glorious leaders while the company stock price plumets like a solid-lead lemming.) So there's more of a built-in audience for this than there was a year or two ago.

It's also actually funny. It's a sort of rapid-fire, off-kilter show, with lots of weird little surreal touches and SF bits. It's not designed as a real SF show, but the science fiction components (cryonic freezing, meat grown in a lab) are actually fairly good and realistic ones. They're not as funny as the TowelMiser, but you can't ask for too much.

Better Off Ted is growing on me. Growing like a hunk of throbbing artificial lab meat. Growing like the pile of stolen coffee creamers. Growing like killer mold on a weaponized pumpkin.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fine, push all my nerd buttons at once

So I was just thinking to myself the other day, man, it's been a while since I've done any serious RPGing. I really need to slay a dragon or use psychic powers to fight space vampires or something. But what sort of game?

And then I get the news, (via Torque Control) that China Miéville's New Crobuzon trilogy is being turned into an RPG.

"The city of New Crobuzon is an incredibly rich setting," said Adamant Entertainment owner Gareth-Michael Skarka. "We're extremely proud to be producing a game that gives it the level of detail and attention that it deserves."

"I grew up on RPGs," said China Miéville, "And the idea of a Bas-Lag game is incredibly exciting and humbling. That people might want to play in the world of my books is a tremendous honour."

The game will also feature a special treat for Miéville's fans – the original map of the city of New Crobuzon, drawn by the author, as well as his own illustrations of some of the creatures found in the world of Bas-lag.
So yeah, I might just be buying that. 

This is probably not the first RPG to be created at least partly by a socialist, but it may be the first American RPG to be based on material that's openly pro-revolution. I wonder if it'll come with a Coles Notes version of the Communist Manifesto?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"There are three flowers in a vase..."


Warning: many, many spoilers for "Man on the street."

Ah, it's like the gods of television heard my prayer last week. I said Dollhouse was promising, very promising, but it needed to actually do something to live up to that promise or it would stagnate. We'd had five episodes in a row in which Echo and/or the other dolls went on jobs, and there was a bit of behind the scenes machinations/mytharc stuff, but mostly they were one offs. The best of the bunch, to my mind, was the heist episode. And even that one was just pretty good for a Joss Whedon show.

This week, as Boyd pounded one of his fellow handlers through a plate glass window, I looked at my watch, thinking so much had already happened, the episode must almost be finished. We were just 30 minutes in. Still to come was the kung fu kitchen fight, the revelation of multiple dollhouses, the further revelation of a spy within this Dollhouse, the further further revelation that Agent Helo's next door neighbour is, in fact, a cylon doll. Which I totally called, by the way. Anyone who doubted me? You all owe me a Coke.

This is what Dollhouse can do well. It can turn everything we know about the world upside down. Anyone could be anything. I've speculated before about how many of the Dollhouse employees are actually actives. Boyd? Mr. Dominic? DeWitt? Topher? We don't know. Although Whedon himself has suggested, in an interview with TV Without Pity, that it won't just degenerate into PKDian weirdness.
"Yes, we talked about that – the different possibilities that we could tweak, the pasts that people have, and how many layers of unreality you can have in somebody's identity. And, to an extent, we get very excited. We have to pull ourselves back and say, "If we make this a lie within a lie within a lie within a lie, people are just going to start slapping us."
This whole episode gives me hope that this can be the show I want it to be: a mix of well-thought-out SFnal ideas, character, and kick ass fight scenes. So I'm totally on board now.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Me Teesa, you... seriously expect me to buy this dialogue?

I started S.M. Stirling's The Sky People with all the enthusiasm in the world. I'd enjoyed Stirling's alternate British Empire in India novel The Peshwar Lancers, and this book promised to be even better. Dinosaurs! On Venus! And cave people and sabretooths and US/Soviet Cold War shennanigans! Awesome!

Well, it could have been awesome. In truth, it was only adequate. Stirling doesn't promise more than he can deliver here: it's an adventure novel that deliberately harkens back to the early- to mid-20th Century planetary romances and Golden Age SF novels in which life is abundant on both Mars and Venus. The Edgar Rice Burroughs novels are an obvious source of inspiration, but plenty of other well-known authors, from Asimov to Heinlein, have stocked Venus with life.

Stirling updates this trope by creating an alternate world which is very similar to ours, but in which life is identified by the 1950s on both of Earth's nearest neighbours. The Cold War cools down as the Soviets and Chinese compete with the Americans and Brits to build ships and eventually bases on the two planets. By the last couple of decades of the 20th Century, they've both accomplished their goals, and they're trying to figure out why there are recognizably human (and neandertal) people on Venus, along with the aforementioned dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters.

From this point on, there are spoilers. You have been warned.

Our hero is Marc Vitrac, an American lieutenant (of course) with the military/science outpost on Venus. Marc is about as dull a hero as you could have. He's brave and stalwart, young and handsome and square of jaw, and just a little bit too headstrong for his own good. He came from Planetary Adventure Central Casting, which may have been a conscious choice on Stirling's part. His only distinguishing features to my mind are his constant musings on how the Earth people sent to Venus are both physically and mentally top notch, the best of the best (which a cynical person could interpret as making him a closet eugenicist) and his constant use of Cajun dialect. Marc's from the bayou, you see.

Which fits him in perfectly with all his fellow Earth-human characters, every one of whom is distinguished by their national/racial/linguistic tics. There's Cynthia, the black scientist from New York. There's Christopher, the totally not French English toff, ("I say, dear boy!") there's the Lithuanian-Soviet Binkis, and there's Teesa, of the Cloud Mountain People. Stirling's characters are types, rather than people. If you were hoping to develop a deep and sustained interest in them as well-rounded folks, forget it. This is an adventure novel.

Well, it's an adventure novel after the first 150 pages or so. The opening portion of the book, which is in many ways my favourite part, is an extended tour through Stirling's worldbuilding. Cynthia goes fossil hunting, Marc shows the others around the bronze age Venusian city near their base, we see dinosaurs and giant wolf-critters. Marc tames a giant feral wolfoid puppy. It's all very relaxed and plot-free. The most significant bit of info is that Venus was obviously terraformed, starting 200 million years in the past, by something that then periodically dumped Earth species there. Which explains the dinosaurs, cave people, etc. It's that mysterious alien presence, which starts interfering with Binkis, the neandertals, and Teesa's Cloud Mountain People, that will eventually kick start the plot.

Binkis has crash-landed with a shuttle in a remote part of the Venusian outback. A joint American-Soviet expedition heads off to find him, with our main American/Brit/French characters and Binkis's wife aboard an airship. They also crash (there's a cool, if unlikely, attack by giant pterosaurs) fight some neandertals who have scavenged Soviet AK-47s and are being led by Binkis/holding him hostage, meet Teesa's people and form an alliance with them. Marc, who has been mooning over Cynthia the whole book, gives up on her and starts chasing after blonde space princess Teesa. Teesa is painful to read. She's a classic Planetary Romance/Jungle Girl character, prone to saying things like this:
"Who are you, warrior, that you walk my dreams and hurl thunder?" she asked. "You are not the one who now leads the beastmen against us – you are his enemy, is that not so?"
And yes, she does wear a fur bikini. Everyone changes into fur bikinis and/or briefs for the finale, which involves a dinosaur-mounted attack by our heroes on an army of AK-toting neandertals, and a confrontation with the computer that the mysterious aliens left behind to run the Venus terraforming project.

The Sky People isn't bad in any particular way. As I said, Stirling doesn't advertise it as a transcendent novel or a reinvention of old tropes. This book is built out of the solid, old tropes of Burroughs and Heinlein, renovated a bit with better science. But it could have been so much more.

Just look at Our Hero. Burroughs and Heinlein and a hundred other authors sent white, male, handsome, competent, American heroes zipping off to Venus for half a century. In Stirling's update, we get exactly the same guy. Just imagine if he'd made Cynthia the protagonist, instead of what feels increasingly like the obligatory minority/female sub-hero. That alone would have been an interesting change. (Some of the Venusians keep slaves, and the Americans do not interfere. It's quickly forgotten, and barely mentioned by our descended-from-slaves character.)

It's useless, really, to talk about the book you'd wished to read. The book I read was okay: competent adventure, dinosaurs in space, exactly as advertised. It just makes me worry that we aren't moving forward at all in a lot of areas of SF. This book is like the softer side of RaceFail: it's not overtly racist by any means, and Cynthia isn't treated as a moron or incompetent. It just puts white males in the top spot, with everyone else holding down the supporting roles.

There are a lot of books out there now like The Sky People, which look backward to SF's roots, failing to innovate in plot, or character, or writing style. They thrive on nostalgia and the frisson readers get when that nostalgia is given a modern update. Frankly, I don't need to read any more of that.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Annointed by who exactly?

Warning: many, many spoilers.

Kings' two-hour premiere was a retelling of the Biblical story of Samuel, Saul and David. The most interesting thing about the big-budget kick off was how it deviated from the story, and how it deliberately tried to piss off some of its potential core audience.

If you look at the pilot as nothing more than two hours of television, it was fairly solid, but not without flaws. The opening hour was quite strong, introducing the quasi-New York city of Shiloh, capital of Gilboa. Gilboa was unified from three warring states by its current king Silas Benjamin, played by Ian "Awesome" McShane, also known as Al Fuckin' Swearengen. (He's been renamed from Saul for no reason I can discern.) He's surrounded by a group of advisors that includes enough solid character actors to guarantee some good sub-West Wing level political intrigue. (In truth, it was nice to see a political setting where the characters are supposed to be flawed and tyrannical. Unlike on Battlestar Galatica, there's no attempt to pretend that the leaders are democratic.) If anything carries this show, it'll be McShane. He's the best actor in the bunch, with the most complicated character.

Not too long into the program and we meet David Shepherd, youngest of seven sons, auto mechanic, all American all Gilboan boy. In other words, he is boring. While the rest of his family is watching the dedication of a rebuilt Shiloh as the new capital, David has to mind the family auto shop business, and repairs the car of Reverend Samuels. Samuels significantly gives David a broken watch with the kingdom's butterfly symbol on the back, and touches David on the forehead with one thumb. Which would be creepy if it didn't have deep religious significance. No, wait, it's still kind of creepy.

Jump ahead two years and David's joined the army to fight the neighbourhing nation of Gath, which has a whole lot of tanks called Goliaths. After some soldiers are captured and taken prisoner, David sneaks out at night, rescues the two hostages, and blows up a couple of Goliaths for good measure. He has, of course, rescued the king's son Jack. David becomes a hero, is feted in the capital, is promoted, meets the king, his daughter and our other principal characters. Machinations ensue, and there's a sub-plot about a lost cell phone, and Jack possibly being court martialed, and David dances with and smooches the princess. The war with Gath ends, starts again, and finally ends again when David histrionically walks onto the battlefield carrying sheets soaked in his just-deceased brother's blood, calling for peace and brotherhood and blah blah blah.

At the closer, Silas is facing rebellion from within, because his nasty corporate brother in law wants the war to continue, so he can keep making profits (he runs Crossgen, which I assume is intended to be a Haliburton analogue). The brother in law also plots with Jack for a generational coup. Meanwhile, Silas is pissed when he's told by Samuels that he's lost the favour of God, and sees butterflys landing on David's head as a living crown – exactly the sign that showed Silas was to be king years before.

The story, as a story, mostly works. There are a few false notes.

The battle scenes are dreadful, filmed on the cheap and without a hint of the realism that pretty much every audience expects post-Band of Brothers. The rows of Goliath tanks just sit there, a few hundred yards from the Gilboan lines. Even I know that's stupid. Can't you just smash them all to bits with bombs or artillery if they're nicely lined up for you like that?

The romance between David and Silas's daughter was reasonably done well for such an obvious hook, but her role as an earnest would-be health care reformer is dull. Jack is much more interesting. He's a deeply closeted gay man, a soldier and a leader who acts like spoiled Eurotrash when he's off the battlefield. One of the best scenes (in which Ian McShane gets to display his trademark awesomeness) has Silas confront his son: he knows Jack is gay, and he doesn't care. But he does demand that Jack hide it, crush it out of his life, or he'll never be king. It's in many ways just as savage as if Silas had been painted as an out and out homophobe. He's consumed with the need for power, and he expects his son to destroy everything that matters to him in pursuit of the same goal. There's also more than a little textual support in the Bible for a gay relationship between David and Saul's son Jonathan. Though I doubt the show will go that direction.

One of the worst moments is when David breaks down and tells his dying brother that he's a coward. First, it's a cliche and second, it's obviously not true. Surrendering to overwhelming force is not cowardice (he was facing two tanks alone and in no man's land) especially when you've just finished a solo rescue mission. The supposed cowardice and David's role as a peacemaker is also at odds with the Bible, in which David is a warrior who rises to prominence by wiping out the Israelites' enemies, not by making speeches to them. Legitimate update, or boring and preachy? So far the execution suggests the latter.

Still, there's enough decent writing and strong acting to keep me watching for at least another episode. Whether the show will appeal to its potential core audience is another question.

Biblical epics and retellings have always worked well in America, which is freakishly churchgoing compared to every other wealthy western country. Religious TV programming, including as Touched by an Angel, Joan of Arcadia and 7th Heaven, has been successful in recent years. I can't imagine a program that mixes elements from each benefits from poking the religious right in the eye with a speech endorsing evolution (delivered by Silas apropos of a chicken-or-egg question over breakfast). Maybe the producers intend to appeal to religious moderates only.

Evolution aside, there's a big difference between showing bad behaviour in Kings and bad behaviour in a modern Christian family. Hollywood has waffled between cloying depictions of Christian families (see the deeply disturbing 7th Heaven) and attacks. The Book of Daniel was not so much a poke in the eye as a kick to the groin of the religious right wing. It was also painfully obvious that it was intended as such, so that between the religion and the attacks on same, it wasn't any fun to watch for a poor old atheist.

What Kings has going for it is that murder, adultery, warfare and backstabbing here are rooted in the original text. The Book of Daniel or Joan of Arcadia had fluffy, loving, hippy-style Jesus and God interactions. The Old Testament, as a source, has more dramatic potential. It has wrath and killing and lust and vengeance.

Which makes for better TV.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

"I prefer man-reaction"

You know, I don't have a lot of time to sit around and watch TV. I've got a stack of library books I could be reading. I'm getting the complete collection of Yes, Minister on DVD from the library. I'm twitching from worrying about possible future unemployment (like we all are).  So I don't watch a lot of pretty good TV. It's got to be great or so godawful it's funny.

So Dollhouse had another pretty good episode last night. I'm just waiting for great to kick in.

The actual episode, True Believer, has Faith Echo being blinded and turned into a religious fanatic named Esther (seriously, aren't there any religious fanatics named Britney or Tiffany?) so she could be a human camera for the ATF. Echo infiltrates cult with ease, and practically trips over all the guns they've got stockpiled there. So the ATF decides to barge in before Boyd can safely extract her, and complications ensue. Echo/Esther Meanwhile, Victor has a thing for Sierra, and we get yet more evidence that the whole brain-wipe thing is not quite as effective as Topher claims. At the end of the episode, we get the now-obligatory hint that Echo is remembering things from her engagements.

And that's the real problem with this episode. It's at least the third or fourth time we've had this hint. And while that's entertaining for an episode or two, waiting for the payoff is getting more frustrating. I don't know if the fault is in the writers room or with the Fox executives meddling, but I need this show to start moving forward right away. Echo needs to wake up. Sierra and Victor, too. They need to become real characters. Because the one-off episode plots are only fair to middling. They're executed better than average, but I've seen heists, and hostage rescues, and bodyguarding pop stars, and the most dangerous game, and I've definitely seen cults before. A lot. Those fairly mundane plots are not what this show could be good at. This show can be about paranoia and identity on a really, really weird and awesome level. 

Whedon's made it deliberately harder for himself in some ways with Dollhouse. With all three of his previous series, he built a core group of likeable, funny characters who acted as a family unit. Even a bad one-off episode from Buffy or Angel is watchable because of the humour and character moments, not to mention the ongoing plots. But with Dollhouse, the plot demands a group of people who are somewhat alienated from one another. The dolls are being forcibly denied that kind of bonding (although they're trying, like bison). The rest of the characters are functionally villains or outsiders. Whedon's definitely trying something different, something less viewer-friendly than his previous outings, and it's always good to see a creator stretching himself. Because the alternative would be repetition and boredom.

So, it's been five episodes. Which calls to mind the Five Ep Rule I instituted after episode two, ie, you should give every show by a respected creator at least five episodes to get off the ground.

So the judgement is, this show has a shitload of potential. But so far, that's about all it has. And that potential will keep me watching for a while longer. Hey, it's still better written than the average action/SF show that does plots like this. (Have you tried to watch Knight Rider? It's like gargling with broken glass and hydrochloric acid.) I love that this is an SF story about neurology and identity. I don't love that it's going nowhere fast right now. 

If it dies right now, Dollhouse will be the least among Joss Whedon's TV shows. If it gets moving in some direction, it could be better than Buffy or Angel. 

Friday, March 13, 2009

A backhanded compliment

I'm sure this will be in next month's Ansible, but I squirmed when I read one of the comments in this NY Times piece on the sale of Audry Niffeneger's forthcoming second novel.
Joe Regal, Ms. Niffenegger’s agent, said: “There are going to be people coming to the book with claws out. That’s just reality. It’s for reasons completely unconnected to the book.” He added that even “The Time Traveler’s Wife” faced naysayers. “There were lots of people who dismissed the first book because it sounded like romance or science fiction or said because it sold so well, it can’t be good,” Mr. Regal said.

Goddammit, The Time Traveler's Wife was SF, and it was a romance, and both were done well and thoroughly intertwined with the characters. Remove the love story, and you're left with the clinical details of a man whose disability is that he travels randomly in time. Remove the time travel and it's a boring and predictable tale of two clever young things in the city. But together, the elements of a tragedy come together. It's damn good, which has nothing to do with what genre it falls into.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Gaeta was so goddamn right!

Because some arguments should be done with stick figures.

I'm so gonna put this thing on a T-shirt in time for this fall's VCon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Gaeta was right

Just watched the wrap up to the Gaeta Mutiny story arc on Battlestar Galactica, and to the surprise of absolutely no one, he lost and got gunned down.

My main problem with the whole scenario has been summed up better than I ever could over at Asking the Wrong Questions. Here's the relevant portion, in which she first floats the idea of a USA-Al Qaeda alliance.
Or, you know what, that's not bad enough. Imagine that the people in question are members of the SS Einsatzgruppen, the ones who used to walk into Eastern European villages, march the local Jews to a freshly dug pit, and start firing. Imagine that the citizenship they were demanding was Israeli. How would you feel if your government decided to acquiesce to such a demand? Appalled? Offended? Like you wanted to take to the streets, and vote the people who supported this decision out of office?

Neither of these scenarios even approach the awfulness of the proposition that sparks the recently concluded mutiny arc on Battlestar Galactica, because neither the Holocaust, which the series has never attempted to recall, nor 9/11, which it recalls constantly, approach the awfulness of what happens in its opening episodes.
So, Gaeta was right. And at least the writers let him die with some dignity. But I'm not sure if he was meant to be morally ambiguous. It seems to me that, compared to Adama, he's an out-and-out hero. (Zarek, not so much.)

All Adama's frothing (which inspired some seriously bad scenery chewing by Olmos) about traitors and loyalty and blah blah blah just serve to remind careful viewers that Adama has a long history of betrayal. He led a military coup, he ignores civilian rule whenever it suits his purpose, and right before the mutiny, three of the most powerful people in the fleet were him, his son, and his girlfriend. He's at the centre of an incestuous knot of power that's crushed all opposition, from rival political factions to striking workers. His first answer to everything is force. He's Robert fuckin' Mugabe. He's the Greek colonels. He's every righteous-sounding military strongman in history. And the writers don't seem to have noticed this. 

Writers have asked us to root for the bad guy before, from Richard III to Al Swearengen, but Ron Moore's not giving us a lot of overt cues that he actually considers Adama bad. All the other main characters line up behind him. 

One final, unrelated note: in my experience, people with prosthetic legs do not cut off one leg of their pants short so you can see the special effect at all times. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Racefail 2009

About which you can read more here, here, here, or even here.

As I understand it, (and I only heard about it two days ago on Torque Control and Whatever, linked above) the whole thing started off with a post by Elizabeth Bear on how to write "the Other," whether other races, genders, sexual orientations, etc. I've since read the original post, and it was an honest attempt to grapple with the question. More of a public mini-essay than any attempt to be definitive about it. Somewhere in the comments thread, things got a bit snippy. There were posts in response. It turned into a general discussion of people of colour in SF/Fantasy fiction in general, and within fandom as well. Then there were open letters, and more posts, and things got ugly. About which ugliness, see Scalzi's blog. Someone tried to use one of his comment threads to out an anonymous blogger's identity. And there'd been no discussion about the debate on Whatever about the topic, which had been confined almost entirely to LiveJournal, and flying under a lot of folks' radar.

The only thing I have to add to the whole mess is that it seems like it's the progressive end of the SF/Fantasy blogosphere that's tearing itself to shreds. I wandered over to John Ringo's site earlier today, he of Oh John Ringo No fame. Anything going on there? No, all's quiet in his forums. Now, if there's anyone who could benefit from a little consciousness raising in SF, you'd think it would be him. Go on, click that link. It's a review of Watch on the Rhine, a John Ringo collaboration in which rejuvenated Waffen SS soldiers save the Earth from an alien horde. 'Cause they're just misunderstood good guys.


And Racefail started because a writer was trying to talk about how she goes through the process of trying to get characters from another background right, about how she tries to make them real and whole characters. And among the mess of screeching (which I do not have the patience to entirely sort through) I've found some good posts by pros and fans about those issues, and about race and gender in SF in general.

SF does contain overt, and unconscious, racism. John Ringo's bizarro novel was just the first one that popped into my head, and I used it here as an example, not to encourage anyone to extend the messy discussion to his place. But the people savaging one another in this thing? I'm thinking 99 percent of them are not part of the problem. The people who are, aren't even aware that it's going on.

ETA: cleaned up some of my messy sentence construction Wednesday at noon. It is better to write when wide awake.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Writing your way out of your own mythology

This week, my girlfriend (she who is both wise and beautiful) and I are going to sit down and watch about four or five episodes of Battlestar Galactica back to back. We have the bare minimum cable package, and here in western Canada, that does not include anybody broadcasting BSG.

We've had the tapes for a week now, and we haven't exactly been in a rush to finish them off, despite being in the middle of the Gaeta Mutiny. (I like Alessandro Juliani better in live theatre. We referred to him as Romeo for the first season, because we've seen him do plenty of Shakespeare in Vancouver over the years.) 

My love for BSG, in full flower after the mini series and the first season, has now withered and could blow away in a strong wind. I just don't have any confidence that there's a mythology there that's going to make sense.

The whole term mythology or mytharc started showing up a lot when The X-Files was ramping up. I watched that series from the get go. Then, around season seven, I just stopped. I've never seen the finale. I don't care. There was no way to fix what was wrong, not in two hours, not in two years worth of episodes.

The field of science fiction and fantasy TV is littered with series that showed early promise and then crashed and burned under the weight of their own myth building, and their creators total inability to untie the knotted plot threads.

The X-Files is the template for all these shows, for good and ill. It was fairly innovative in its day for attempting to create a serialized show out of a cop/supernatural format. Almost every other cop show of the day relied on one-off episodes, as did most SF shows of the 1980s and early '90s, such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and the remake of The Twilight Zone. Continuity was for soaps and teen dramas.

When The X-Files hit it big, almost every copycat show attempted to follow its paradigm of mixing one-offs with mytharc elements. Just from Fox in the 1990s, I remember Strange Luck and VR.5, the latter a show so terrible I would saw open my own skull and pour in lye rather than watch it again. Anthony Stewart Head notwithstanding.

The serialization started to become more and more prevalent, not just on SF shows, but on a lot of the programs on HBO. Check out Deadwood, The Wire, or The Sopranos. A new generation of SF shows dove even further into serialization. The later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer don't make sense at all if you haven't been paying close attention for about five or six years. 

The problem isn't the serialized format; I love a good ongoing story. It's that too many SF showrunners learned how to do it from Chris Carter, and not enough from J. Michael Straczynski or Joss Whedon. (Say what you will about his dialogue, Stracznyski knew how to plan.)

You can almost always tell whether there's a plan within the first half dozen episodes of a program. Any one problem won't kill a show, but if you pile them one on top of the other, things get problematic fast. Bad signs include:

Deliberate withholding of information from the audience and characters. My girlfriend pointed out that in The X-Files, Mulder and Scully usually knew exactly as much as the audience. At best, audiences saw a tiny glimpse behind the curtain – they'd see Cancer Man popping some evidence away in a vault, or conferring with some other suits. Compare to Lost, in which we are constantly confronted with A) characters seeing something and reacting with shock, while the audience is in the dark or B) the audience sees something that's supposedly significant, but none of the nine hundred or so main characters knows about it. (I know, they're trying to create tension, but the technique only works if used sparingly.) The tendency to withhold information is linked to

Deeply incurious protagonists. At least Mulder and Scully were always trying to figure things out. I watched the first season of Carnivale in open disgust of the protagonist, who was constantly being approached by people who wanted to explain his powers and the quasi-Biblical weirdness that surrounded him. And he'd run away, fingers in his ears shouting "La la la la, I can't hear you!" As a viewer I feel like I've been slapped in the face when a character openly refuses information. At that point, the writers are just being dicks. Compare this to BSG (both were headed by Ron Moore) in which it seems like no one is asking the Cylons a lot of pertient questions. How did they know about the Final Five? Who created their religion? How are they different from normal humans, anyway? (These may have been answered by now, I'll know when I check the tapes. But I doubt it, and the questions should have been asked much, much earlier in any case.)

Dropped plot threads. This is Lost's favourite trick. Go on, start to count up all the plots and hints that have just fallen by the wayside. Smoke monsters, slave ships, four-toed statues, a second island, immortal guys, baby-killing diseases, voices in the forest. And where did all the wild boars go, anyway? If there isn't a coherent plan, dropped plot threads will strangle a show, like they did the X-Files. I'm sure somewhere there's a fan with a giant wall chart that explains all the conspiracies and aliens in Chris Carter's first show, but it's all fanwanking. You cannot reconcile all the alien species, from greys to black goo to clones to baseball players to transgendered Amish sex vampires.

Constantly revolving cast. How many main characters does Lost have? Outside of the fairly large core of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Hurley, Jin and Sun, and Locke, there have been at least two dozen significant characters, all with their own backstories and motivations. Most of them are dead, while others have been pushed to the side. Some show creators eventually get bored with their core cast and their stories, so they add new people. Lots and lots and lots of them. Often they replace the main characters, or some of them, expecting fans to go along with it. It almost never works. Ask poor Robert Patrick.

Expanding universe. This afflicted The X-Files to a certain extent, but also Lost and even Buffy and Angel. The show starts out with a simple concept: girl kills vampires; FBI agents investigate a hidden world of conspiracies and aliens; plane crashes on mysterious island. Then more and more and more elements are added, until the original plot thread is in danger of being forgotten. Which leads us to

No ending. How was The X-Files supposed to end? With Mulder and Scully blowing the lid off all the conspiracies and revealing aliens to the world? And Lost? Half the main cast has already escaped from the island. What's the central premise of the show now? Where's it going? I don't believe that The X-Files was ever meant to have an ending, a finale that would wrap it all up. But the fans were certainly expecting one. Everyone expects an ending to a narrative, a wrap up linked to the central premise, and being left hanging leaves the viewers feeling cheated. Again, look to Straczynski, who introduced the Vorlons and Shadows in the first season of Babylon 5. A more obscure example may be the werewolf/murder mystery show Wolf Lake. It was cancelled pretty quickly (not without cause, the writing was wildly uneven, from great to dreadful) but you got the sense that at the end of the first season, we'd at least know who had killed the town patriarch. There was an end goal in sight. Buffy's last episode wrapped up the central concept that was first mentioned in the opening of the first episode: that there was a chosen one. Joss Whedon wrapped up the show by changing the rules.

So it's possible that BSG has an ending planned, and it may even answer many of my questions. It's far from the worst offender when it comes to meandering plots (I'm looking at you, Lost). But I've seen far, far too many shows crushed under their own mythology, and I wouldn't be surprised if the next decade produces a few more.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

No such thing as a blank slate

Well, that was a pretty good episode. Last week's Dollhouse, with the stalker fan and the pop star, was burdened with a forgettable plot. This week's episode, "Gray Hour" (yeah, spoilers) went with a much more interesting heist story. What can I say, I'm a sucker for heist plots anyway.

Most notably, this episode felt like it was balanced well between the competing strands of narrative, character and central premise that supports the show. We got a good one-off episode, with double crosses and the traditional screw ups that accompany any heist plot. We got back story seamlessly interwoven into that plot, with Topher and DeWitt having their little chat about Alpha, and DeWitt's boss making a phone appearance. We got the SFnal side, with Alpha remotely wiping Echo, and with Taffy being replicated across two dolls to try and clean up the mess. And we finally got to see Echo developing as a character.

That last was always the big concern – how would we ever care about someone who's different every week? But this episode's main arc began and ended with the focus on Echo, not a persona. They may wipe her memories (seemingly imperfectly) and they may program her, but there's something under there all the same. Echo sits with the same people every day. Echo wants to be better, to do well, and shows some strength and judgement when trapped in the vault. All the wipes are doing, maybe, is holding Echo back from becoming a real personality of her own.

I can't help but wonder where this could go if the show gets a long enough run. If Echo becomes a fully realized person, can she ever re-integrate with Caroline, her original personality? Or would recreating Caroline (presumably stored somewhere on one of Topher's cassettes) wipe out Echo? And would Echo allow that?

My only complaint with this hour of TV: How the hell did Echo and the injured techie get out the back door? I watched my tape again this morning, and I can't figure it out. If they could go out the back way, why didn't they do it earlier? That's a fairly important plot thread that got dropped there.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The (non)story of the end of the world

You can't accuse Bruce Sterling of shying away from the consequences of his ideas. He hasn't really ever written what you'd call a happy ending into any of his novels (I've not read The Zenith Angle, so perhaps it ends with the main characters frolicking with puppies, but I doubt it.) Holy Fire ended with the main character finding some peace, I suppose, but also terribly estranged from humanity. Heavy Weather killed off the bad guys, but left the plains states devastated by the world's largest supertornado. Islands in the Net saw the protagonist kept hostage for years, her husband married off to her best friend. Distraction, in some ways my favourite of Sterling's novels, also left its main characters damaged by experimental neurological treatments and floundering after having waged months of cynical political battles.

Sterling seems to often write about the utter randomness of the universe. Justice, for him, is not something that occurs naturally to neatly wrap up a story.

The Caryatids, his latest novel, doesn't even wrap up at all, really. Not only does it not tie up any of its three major strands, it doesn't even let us know if the world is saved. Or if anyone can save it.

The titular caryatids are four clone-sisters, Vera, Radmilla, Sonja, and Biserka. The first three each take a turn narrating the novel, which concerns efforts to recover from a global environmental catastrophe. Global warming is the chief, but not the only, cause of the mess. The collapse has seen millions die, and wiped out most of the world's old nation states. (It's implied, but not stated, that they've been largely replaced by smaller local governments, so it's not exactly a libertarian or anarchist wet dream.) While China survives as the last and most totalitarian of the world's governments, the other two big powers are what we'd call non-governmental organizations. The Dispensation are glamour-obsessed capitalists, trying to charm and buy their way out of environmental apocalypse. The Acquis are earnest quasi-socialist greens - all about hard work, sacrifice, and mind-blowingly weird technological fixes. China, too, is trying to save the world, or at least it's corner. Each of the narrating clone sisters is affiliated with one of the three factions, giving us a tour of their respective world views.

That's about it for the novel, actually. It's a tour of the world, and a lightly sketched one with little backstory. We never find out how the Acquis or Dispensation were founded, or what happened to the old nation states, or even why, exactly, the four (formerly seven) clones were created. There was some grand plan about them saving or conquering the world using ubiquitous sensor systems, but it seems to have collapsed before they even grew to adulthood. Those sensor systems give us a Sterling neologism: everyware. Despite the lack of back story, the technology and world building, the evocation of a damaged world, are the book's strongest suits.

When it comes to characters, I wish I could say I liked anyone in this book. Vera, the Acquis cadre who narrates the first section, comes closest to being a likeable character. But like all the clones  she's deeply emotionally wounded, prone to crying and outbursts, and seemingly incapable of doing anything to save herself. Sterling's characters have been growing more and more depressing since Heavy Weather. Some sequences are like being stuck in an elevator with a depressed person. After a while, you just want to slap them and tell them to crack a smile, dammit. The clones don't have much of a sense of humour.

Yet they're surrounded by madness that should make you laugh. Radmila distracts the proles by dancing on top of a giant Martian tripod-style robot that smashes quake damaged L.A. buildings so the Dispensation can start rebuilding. The entire Dispensation seems to be run by half-witted celebrities, a clan of Ronald Reagans and Britney Spearses that has propagated itself, each one making the expected metamorphosis from actor to politician. Sonja marries a young Gobi-desert bandit who's name translates as Lucky. Vera even manages a bit of slapstick screwing up in the first chapter, although she's very serious about it, of course. As is everyone else. It's not just clones who don't laugh.

The novel also comes to a crashing halt in the early part of the China segment, as Sterling infodumps a lecture about what happened to China. He also goes on an extended rant about how heroes packing guns never save the world, how it's only saved by serious management, about getting people together and making them work towards a common, sane goal. Then Sonja and her husband strap on guns and go looking for trouble. 

So what does it all come to? I really wish I knew. There is deliberate craft in its non-ending – it isn't that Sterling simply ran out of steam. He wanted it to end this way. Loose ends lash about madly, just like in real life. In that sense, despite the exoskeletons and giant robots and attacks of the clones (and yes, there is an attack by clones, using robots) it's the most realistic SF novel to come along in a while. It suggests that we not only face catastrophe of our own making, but that the natural catastrophes of the universe aren't going to give us a break either.

When Anathem came out last year, a lot of reviews noted that it was the most Stephensonian of Neal Stephenson's books. The Caryatids is in the same boat. If you like Sterling – if you like people declaiming to one another, with italics, if you like wild yet eerily plausible near-future speculation, if you like clones and robots and weird politics and oblique satire – you'll enjoy it. 

Monday, March 2, 2009

Get your squid hats ready

Margaret Atwood has a new novel coming out soon, The Year of the Flood. It is, of course, not science fiction. From Amazon:
Adam One, the kindly leader of the God's Gardeners - a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, the preservation of all species, the tending of the Earth, and the cultivation of bees and organic crops on flat rooftops - has long predicted the Waterless Flood. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have avoided it: the young trapeze-dancer, Ren, locked into the high-end sex club, Scales and Tails; and former SecretBurgers meat-slinger turned Gardener, Toby, barricaded into the luxurious AnooYoo Spa, where many of the treatments are edible. Have others survived? Ren's bioartist friend Amanda, or the MaddAddam eco-fighters? Ren's one-time teenage lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the CorpSeCorps, the shadowy and corrupt policing force of the ruling powers Meanwhile, in the natural world, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo'hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue.
I liked The Handmaid's Tale, and it certainly needs no additional defense from me among science fiction fans. It won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Governor General's Award, was shortlisted for a Nebula, a Booker, and a Prometheus Award (an odd collection of awards and nominations if ever there was one).

Handmaid's Tale belongs in the great pantheon of dystopian novels of warning, and Atwood's second proper SF novel (we're not counting The Blind Assassin for these purposes) left me decidedly cold. I never got past the first few chapters of Oryx and Crake, and it was not well treated by SF reviewers.

This new book, from a rather short description, looks to have replicated many of the things that are wrong with Oryx and Crake. Atwood's prose is often sublime, but when she turns to post-apocalyptic satire, her use of ham-fisted neologisms is painful.

So I probably won't be reading it, unless the reviews are much, much better than I expect. Instead, I'll probably go read her last book from the Massey Lecture series, Payback. Written just before the current economic upheaval, a book about debt and indebtedness looks like a pretty good warning of dystopia about now.