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.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Who's your daddy? Lost's sad obsession

I've been an intermittent watcher of Lost for the past couple of seasons. It looked like things were getting better last year, and I started watching again regularly, only to have my hopes dashed this year. 

I've already written about how I don't expect Lost will ever make any goddamn sense at all. Today I'm going to rant about something even worse than the show's total lack of narrative coherence. Today we're going to talk about Daddy Issues.

Here's a brief list of all the characters I can think of who have serious issues with at least one parental unit.

Jack (dad)

Hurley (dad)

Sawyer (dad, plus Locke's dad)

Sayyid (dad)

Kate (dad and mom)

Sun (dad)

Jin (dad and father in law - bonus points!)

Ben (dad)

Walt (dad)

Claire (dad abandoned her, was also Jack's dad)

Miles (time travel dad)

Penny (dad)

Locke (dad - possibly the worst dad in the history of bad dads)

This list is by no means comprehensive. I'm sure we'll later find out that the smoke monster's creator never tucked it in at night, and also that the flight attendant who died on impact had a troubled relationship with her step father, and that the guy who gassed up the plane has always wondered who his sperm-donor father really was (it was probably Christian).

Last week we got the big reveal that Miles' dad had abandoned him, he never knew the guy, blah blah whatever. If I rolled my eyes any harder I'd detach a retina. It's just not interesting. It's not a surprise any longer, not after five seasons of bad dad whining.

John Locke is the standard bearer for this. While Jack's relationship has been given a massive amount of back story, Locke is the only character to lose not one, but two major organs to his father. 

I remember when my girlfriend and I watched the Locke loses a kidney episode. After a while, as his father kept screwing up his life, I started making a joke about it. "If his dad stole his spine too, you owe me a Coke," I said. Damned if I didn't get a Coke a season later. 

I don't hate this contrivance just because it's overused to a truly ludicrous degree. There are two reasons why I think this is more than simple bad writing.

First, I worry about what this says about the writers. Why is the only plot that ever recurs on Lost with any frequency, the only thread never dropped, the plot that suggests you've never really gotten over the time daddy didn't come to your little league game? To me, it says that Lost's writing staff doesn't actually know how to write an adult relationship. They don't have a lot of characters who are parents, or even in stable marriages. The bad-dad trope indicates a show by, and about, immature man-children who refuse to stand on their own. You know what? Some of us liked our fathers. Some of us are actually happy with how we were raised. If we had issues as kids, we've gotten over them. As audience members, we're just fucking baffled.

Second, I think it actually says something about American society at large that this is the sort of plot that not only gets trotted out on Lost constantly, but on a lot of other so-called serious dramas. (Battlestar Galactica was not averse to using it.)

I have a hypothesis that Americans no longer have any ideology. Sure, they think they believe in political causes. But America is one of the most politically homogeneous democracies in the world. In continental Europe, almost every country has far right parties and far left parties, and by right I mean "they have SS uniforms in their closets" and by far left I mean hard line communist. The middle of the spectrum is generally broader, with labour and social democrat parties competing with liberals, neo-liberals and conservatives who'd be more recognizable in the States. This means that there is a larger philosophical spectrum – people may have actually thought once or twice in their lives about the ethics of private property vs. public, about political economy, about nationalism.

Even in Canada, where I live, there is still a shadow of a social democrat movement. Britain also has a wider spectrum of political opinion.

Despite the fact that Americans generally only disagree with each other on a handful of issues, they take sides as though it was Nazis vs. Soviets. The divide is pretty wide. Weirdly so, to an outsider. 

What that means, in practice, is that TV writers don't have very strong opinions on a lot of issues, because on average, Americans don't either. And where they do have strong opinions – usually only on Culture War hot buttons – they don't dare risk slipping them into their stories. So they can't write stories about big ethical and political issues that are invisible to most Americans, and they won't write about the few issues Americans actually care about, because it would alienate too much of their audience.

So you wind up with a strange phenomenon on American TV: no character thinks about ethics. Characters seldom take sides over well-defined moral or religious positions. What are the differences between Locke and Jack, the differences that the writers yammer on and on about in interviews? Faith vs. Reason? Bullshit! 

Whenever possible, the writers use the flashbacks to show us that Character A took Action X on the island because Event Y happened to him in the flashback. Most often, this event was something involving a bad dad. So the characters aren't acting based on ethics or beliefs. They're automatons, mechanistically reacting to what has come before. It's like the whole thing is a giant trick pool shot, with one ball bouncing off another until the plot is resolved. It robs the main characters of agency, choice, and free will.

Do other popular SF shows employ this trope? I've mentioned that BSG does it from time to time, but not nearly as often. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is notable because the main character actually has a deadbeat dad – whom we almost never hear about. Buffy barely mentions him. She's over that crap. Fox Mulder famously had issues with his father, but they were a tiny fraction of his overall fucked up personality, and we didn't get episode after episode in which Scully and Skinner and Cancer Man and Krycek trotted out their daddy issues. The Star Trek franchise barely touches the issue. Deanna Troi's mom is mostly used for comic relief. If the other characters have issues, they're often resolved in the space of one episode. 

Which leads me back to J.J. Abrams again, and the upcoming Star Trek movie.

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.

ETA: It would be unfair of me to not mention Charlie, the only character who we know had a good relationship with his father. In his final episode with flashbacks, one of his favourite memories is being taught to swim by his father. This was also one of the best uses of the flashback structure since we learned that Locke was paraplegic, way back in season one.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Fringe-Gnome business plan

I've previously watched two (2) episodes of Fringe. The first was the pilot, which was meh. The second involved the mysterious albino boy in the sub basement last week. I was thinking of getting back into it. Hey, nothing else was on, Dollhouse appears to be on the verge of cancellation. I need my SF TV.

Anyway, the teaser for this week's episode, Unleashed, intrigued me. Frankly, I was hoping for werewolves. No such luck. Spoiler time now.

So a bunch of animal rights activists break into a lab, they find a dark and ominous door lit with red light bulbs, it's obvious bad news. Really, the only way it could be worse is if it contained the rage virus. Instead, it's a big scary thing that kills them and infests their corpses with larvae. The Steward of Gondor, Pacey, Token Black Woman, and Scully-the-Lesser are called in to investigate and decide it's some kind of chimera, created by putting lots of animals together in a blender and pressing "Evil." Denethor's all "Oh, boo hoo, maybe this terrible monster is based on my research," like he's the only mad scientist on the block. Nope. Turns out that a totally different group had the same idea he did. And they did more than draw awesome snake/scorpion hybrid sketches. Which will totally go on the cover of my first metal album, by the way.

Boring story short, FBI Agent Scully-the-Lesser tracks down the last of the animal rights activists and discovers his dad runs a local animal testing firm. Son decided to free the animals, stumbled on Dad's seriously ill conceived lab project. Our heroes kill the beastie in the sewers; there is angst and sexual tension, and it is boring.

Here's the thing: who in their right mind would create a hybrid wasp/tiger/snake/scorpion/bat? And how can I not comment on the impossibility of melding together creatures with such divergent basic bodyplans? No matter how much you know about Hox genes, I don't think you can just successfully weld a wasp and a bat together. They're not like multiple Lego sets; you can't just snap castle parts on the spaceship. 

And what was it for in the first place? It's like an Underpants gnome scheme. 

• Step 1: Create hideous, giant, violent, uncontrollable monster

• Step 2: ???

• Step 3: Profit!!!

What's worse, no one in the episode asks either Denethor (who's done this kind of work before) or the eeeeevil animal testing guy why they would want to do it. That's a pretty good question, yes? 

Possible answers:

• "The villagers were getting uppity. They needed a good scare. What do you want? I'm mad, mad I tell you, bwah hah hah hah!"

• "Dude, it's so fucking cool! Can we give version 2.0 retractable adamantium claws and teach it to say 'Bub'?"

• "I don't know, Blackwater ordered it. Crowd control for Katrina victims. We may have overdesigned it a bit."

• "Well, if you don't spend all the money the Pentagon gives you every year, they give you less next year."

You know the first thing people would actually create, if they could make crazy hybrids? They'd make real-life Turducken. And that would be way cooler than this episode. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You had me at 'dinosaurs,' Sims

Everyone knows that Chris Sims' Invincible Super Blog is the best place for out-of-context Silver Age comics panels, serious ruminations on Anita Blake and Wolverine, and kicks to the face. But did you know he also writes comics? Comics so deliriously over the top that they rival Dr. McNinja for silliness?

You didn't?

Then you need to click this link. Now. Go. Read about Solomon Stone, the half-vampire skateboarding champion and scourge of badness everywhere. Everything else on the Internet will keep.

There are dinosaur ghosts!

I've said enough. If you aren't going to check it out, you have no soul.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Belated thoughts on the BSG finale

The Cosmology of Ron Moore

The music of the spheres is the whiny, nasal, drone of Bob Dylan. 

This one is a ghost, a resurrected Jesus-figure, the one who will lead the Israelites Colonials to the promised land. She was never really there, except in spirit. And now, her mighty task done, she is free to move on to... whatever Ron Moore believes is on the other side. Presumably Starbuck and brain-damaged Anders are now kicking back with a god who cares so much about his people that he let 60 billion or so get nuked before he started to intervene. He's probably got a wicked sense of humour, that one.

Meanwhile, this pair below are angels. Angels, the emissaries of god. The messengers who've been helping to guide the fleet with visions. And their chosen prophets? One is a sex-mad egomaniacal atheist scientist, prone to creating harems at every opportunity, craven and easily manipulated, and almost as bad a political leader as Roslin and Adama (the Dick Cheney of Space). The other is a genocidal baby-killing fembot who, if you think about it for five minutes, really belongs in an Austin Powers movie more than in a serious SF drama. She's a religious fanatic who showed her remorse for her baby-killing ways by putting humans into concentration camps, because that was much more humane. Naturally, both are well qualified to be prophets of this brave new age.

And what will take place in this brave new age? Well, everyone has turned their back on all their sins and glories, all their technology, all their knowledge, all their accumulated written, artistic and manufactured culture, and they've decided to spend the rest of their lives dying of childbirth, animal attacks, malaria and chronic malnutrition. Yay!

Asking the Wrong Questions has put this better than I could when she called the ending cowardly and questioned whether you can, in any sense, call it a science fiction show. SF is supposed to look forward and suggest the way things might happen, whether as prediction or allegory. Battlestar turned its back on that and suggested that what everyone really needs to do is to wipe the slate completely clean every few thousand years and start over again, banging bits of chert into hand axes. At least you know that a stone axe isn't going to suddenly ask you tough questions about the role of government, the nature of humanity, or the proper atonement for past sins.

It's hard to either offer review or criticism of a television show in the way that it can be offered for a book or a movie. Both reviews (is this any good?) and criticism (what does this mean?) require seeing the whole text spread out before you. Yet television is reviewed on the basis of one to four episodes, in most cases. So an acclaimed series, like BSG, is acclaimed long before we know where it's going to end. Ultimately, our critical machinery for reviewing serialized drama is weak. 

If we could go back now and offer all of BSG to some past reviewer, to pick over, they'd probably say the mini-series and season one were pretty good, there were some real high points in season two, and it was downhill from there. Some aspects worked much better than others. It did space battles and action very well, not something to sneeze at. The dialogue and characterization was usually quite good. When it came to politics, it often fell flat on its face. It relied on mysticism and visions far too much. It confused pride with dignity, and it shamelessly took sides, elevating some characters (Adama, Roslin, Lee) and denigrating others (Baltar, Gaeta, Zarek) when in truth their actions were not that different. 

As my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful, put it, the best thing about the finale was the cute dancing robots.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

"We're pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way."

Everyone got to say what was on their mind about the Dollhouse this week, but no one asked Mr. Dominic the pertinent question before packing him off to the attic: was the chip in the chair his?

This week's episode (A Spy in the House of Love, nice title) played with time a little bit, starting off with blood on a window and looping back several times to watch as actives were imprinted and sent out on their various internal missions.

Yeah, yeah. Spoilers.

Every mission turned out to be internal this week. Sierra was made into a super spy, Echo became a top interrogator/sleuth, November/Mellie continued working for the Dollhouse, but was also having her strings pulled by the mysterious insider. Even Victor turned out to be working for the Dollhouse, sent off on his tenth Miss Lonely Hearts engagement with (dum dum DUM!) DeWitt

The plot all starts with Topher, tearing down the chair after Echo/Caroline pumped it full of lead last week, and he discovers the chip that has the grubby fingerprints of a spy all over it. Except not literally. Because that would have made for a shorter episode. I imagine gloves were involved.

Anyway, our core four actives are all dolled up and sent out. Sierra's picked for the infiltration, apparently because she resembles an NSA employee, and they suspect the NSA is behind the chipping. Echo comes to Topher and asks to be imprinted, because she's a keener that way. So now it's a race between the two dolls to see which one can come up with the spy faster.

Meanwhile, DeWitt is enjoying a weekend with Victor, who's been Britishified and knows all about the Dollhouse, so he's the perfect confessor/lover for DeWitt

About their little tryst: first, I'm going to indulge in a little, wee rant on fencing. No, no, FUCKING NO! 

Dear TV Writers: You cannot write fencing scenes. You do not know how to fence. You have not even seen it done, so you have no fucking idea what you are doing. People do not fence bare armed and faced. That's a good way to get covered with welts and lose an eye. Second, fencing gear is standardized, your tight-fitting corset thingies with low collars are not appropriate; you'd actually be better off wearing street clothes than those ridiculous garments. Third, you cannot cut anyone with a fencing foil. They are blunt of edge, as are epees and sabres. See above, re: welts. Fourth, while it is clear that some fight arranger spent five minutes teaching both actors how to stand (feet shoulder-width apart, right foot forward, left foot back and at right angles) this does not mean that we will forgive them for their jumping around like drugged frogs. You cannot change positions while fencing, and you do not cross blades and glare at one another. Such antics are best left in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

Ahem. Sorry about that. Just a little pet peeve of mine. Now, on to the more serious question raised by DeWitt's vacation.

I'm just going to ask: how is this different from what Sierra's handler, or any of Echo's or the others' clients do to them? How is it different from what the Dollhouse did to Mellie, by setting her up to artificially fall for Ballard? Informed consent is utterly absent from any of these couplings. Rape may be the only appropriate word, and Boyd is the one who comes closest to articulating that. If he and the doctor are both so cynical about the Dollhouse (although in different ways, as she says) why are they there?

Oh yeah, and there was a plot, too. 

Ballard welcomes Mellie back home with paranoia and door locks, and she tries to calm him down from his pursuit of the Dollhouse. It looks like he's following the money. Suddenly Mellie's gone, and Agent Helo's faced with the old My Girlfriend is a Cylon deal again. She tells him to keep investigating the Dollhouse's true purpose – and not to tell Mellie anything or act like anything's up. Adding another layer of creepy to the layer cake the show has already been stacking together.

So Sierra Aliases her way into NSA headquarters and sends back the info that the mole is Topher's assistant Ivy. But Echo's sussed out that the info was planted: Dominic was way too relaxed when he heard the news that Sierra had succeeded. He's the mole. There's some nice kung fu (much better then last week's, but it's no Chinese restaurant kitchen knife fight) and Dominic goes down. He's off to the attic, which is apparently a place where your every thought is just out of reach – a permanent state of mental fog. No wonder he tries to kill himself and gives DeWitt a flesh wound. Thus leading to the blood on the window.

The best moment in the episode, the one that sent a little chill through my spine, was when Echo and Dominic were alone for a moment in the back of one of the black vans. He's beaten, but he looks at her and says she'll erase them all, in the end.

Overall, another top episode for the show. Christ, if this gets cancelled, I'm going to be really pissed. Much more than I would have been if it had gone away after five episodes.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The (Old) New Weird: Martha Wells

In the beginning, was the weird tale. Like science fiction and fantasy, it's debateable when it first emerged, but we can all look back at H.P. Lovecraft and definitively say "Yep, that's pretty effin' weird right there." As with punk rock, it's much easier to point to a definitive example (the Ramones) than to root around looking for precursors.

So when we talk about the New Weird, it's easy to point at Jeff VanderMeer or China Miéville's work and say, "Yep, that's pretty new and pretty effin' weird." But like the Ramones, they did not emerge fully formed, and we can find examples of weirdness that may not even have influenced the modern practitioners directly, but which came before them.

The preceding is just a long way of saying that I'm going to be talking, occasionally, about some authors who wrote weird stuff. Starting today with Martha Wells.

In the 1990s, Wells wrote three fantasy novels for Tor, all pretty well reviewed, which chipped away at the conventions of fantasy literature. By 1993, when The Element of Fire was published, we were 16 years into Terry Brooks Shannara series, the first book of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series was three years old, and any number of people were starting to immitate those authors, rather than drawing inspiration directly from Tolkein or the original myths. Fantasy was settling into what it largely remains today: the realm of thick-as-a-brick books that come in lengthy series. All those books more or less mined from Tolkein's work, so you had a seemingly endless number of semi-European, quasi-medieval quests and knights and wizards and the whole fantastic cladogram of near-human species.

The Element of Fire has swords, it is true, but it also has firearms. Hero Thomas Boniface lives in an Elizabethan-style world, in the nation of Ile-Rien, whose capital Vienne is a mashup of Paris and London, circa 1550. And there are magicians, although they're usually addressed as Doctor, and they study at an analogue of Oxford. There are non-humans, but they're wild faeries, representing chaos and madness. Our second protagonist, Kade Carrion, is half-fey and the heir to great powers, and not entirely a good guy.

And there are fights with rapiers. I'm going to just take a minute here to say a personal thank you to Ms. Wells for this book. I fence. That is, I go to school gymnasiums and community centres, put on white jacket and gloves and a mesh mask, and practice trying to hit other people with analogues of 18th Century court swords. I am not very good at this. But even someone who is not very good quickly becomes frustrated by the boring descriptions of any kind of swordplay in a standard fantasy novel. Therefore, anything with actual rapiers, and with decently written fight scenes, and duels, is a breath of fresh air. Thank you, Ms. Wells.

Of course, I never would have guessed it's anything unusual from the jacket copy. Whoever was writing back-cover stuff for Tor back in '93 clearly didn't know what the hell they were holding. Check out the header: "Where high-tech wizardry meets fairy magic and a kingdom hangs in the balance..." It has wheel-lock pistols! This is high tech? It's like even gunpowder totally baffled the fantasy division.

As to the plot of the book, you can find it and read it yourself. (Again, ignore the back cover. The king's sister is not our for revenge, among other problems.) The Element of Fire is good, but her later two books would outshine it.

In 1997, Wells returned to Ile-Rien and the city of Vienne, this time several hundred years later for The Death of the Necromancer. It's now a city with steam engines and trains (which help keep the dastardly faeries away, all those iron rails, you know). And Nicholas Valiarde is the city's greatest thief, out for revenge on the man who caused the death of his adoptive father. Meanwhile, he's being pursued by the city's greatest sleuth, a consulting detective who keeps company with a medical doctor.

Yes, in the midst of some marvelous gaslight fantasy, we're treated to the Count of Monte Cristo/Moriarty being pursued by Holmes and Watson. Soon, of course, there is dark necromancy and even revenge has to take a back seat to preventing an apocalypse. Except for one section near the end where the action bogs down for several chapters, it's an almost perfect book.

Two things about the book always strike me. The first is that Wells implies a lengthy history for all her characters. There's a real sense that we're coming in on the fourth or fifth book in a series, that in some parallel world The Strand has been publishing Valiarde stories for years. If we could just dig up those older stories, we'd see how Valiarde met and recruited his band of thieves, eccentrics, wrongly-accused cracksmen and opium-addicted sorcerers.

The second I didn't realize until years later, because I read Death of the Necromancer before Element of Fire. This is the fact that Valiarde, the anti-hero of Necromancer, is actually descended from Denzil, the villain of Element of Fire. It's an odd but appropriate choice, because Valiarde is not your average good guy. At one point he notes that his first impulses are almost always wrong; he has to fall back on the moral teachings of his adoptive father and think about what's right and wrong. Valiarde at first pursues the story's true villain because the necromancer discovers his identity; after that it eventually becomes a vendetta for him. Justice and revenge, for Valiarde, are quite similar.

I've left City of Bones for last, although it was published between the two Ile-Rien novels. While Ile-Rien was one of many attempts by authors to tug fantasy out of Generic Medieval Europe, City of Bones is full-on New Weird, before there was any such category.

The main character is Khat, who lives in a city on the edge of a massive desert riven by steep canyons and infested by dangerous creatures. Khat is not human; instead he's some kind of near-human whose race was created in the distant past. And he has a pouch, like a marsupial. Oh, and the soldiers in the city of Charisat use rifles powered by brass air reservoirs, so they have to pump the pressure up between shots. And there are strange mind-magics and knife fights and racial politics. And I'm saying this from memory because I've been trying to find a copy of this book again for the past several years, and not only does it not turn up in my local used book stores, but my library has no more copies! Dammit! 

City of Bones has stuck in my mind since I first read it in the mid-1990s. If it were published today, it would easily be filed as New Weird, and people would compare Wells to other authors working in that tradition. But it was published too early; the reviews of it at the time couldn't even agree if it was fantasy, science fiction, horror or a combination of the three. These days, that's often how the New Weird is defined: as a melding of all three genres, much like the work of H.P. Lovecraft. 

There are plenty of Martha Wells books out there that I haven't even touched on, including a three-book cycle that features Nicholas Valiarde's daughter going on a dimension-hopping expedition. Check them out.

Next time on (Old) New Weird: Tim Powers.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


The April 3 episode of Dollhouse, "Needs," was another in the good column for me. I have a few quibbles, but this felt like a solid mid-range example of a high quality show. 

It's pretty clear now that we've been watching two shows. The first ran for five episodes and was a high-concept show about a girl who got a new personality every week. Fox loved that show, but its execution was sort of half-assed. Plots were often pulled out of the Big Bin O' TV Clichés, and while they were often filmed with verve and had a few nice twists, they were still nothing to inspire cultish adoration.

Then this second show started up. It's an ensemble drama, about people in a secret business where zombified volunteers get new personalities every week. Some of them have been brainwiped, some of them are doing the wiping, and some are trying to figure it all out. It's a much better program, because it can attack its subject matter from multiple angles.

My few little problems with "Needs"? Spoilers, hereafter.

First, while I liked the idea that they need to give the dolls some emotional closure, it seemed like the way they went about it was pretty dangerous. I don't know that the handler with broken shins and the one who was strangled half to death will appreciate DeWitt going with that plan. They should talk to their union reps.

Related to the broken shins, that fight scene was not nearly as well shot as the kitchen kung fu fight from a few weeks back. It was jerky and hard to follow. However, the final fire extinguisher to the knees moment went over well. I was watching the show with about 20 people (Go Browncoats!) and a collective "OHHHH!" was heard after the impact.

We also found out that Sierra was apparently not a willing conscript to the Dollhouse way of life, even if the rest of them were. Seriously, why did the show decide she'd be a perpetual rape victim? If she gets shoved in a refrigerator just to make Victor upset, I will not be happy.

Which leads to my final quibble. Sierra strongly implied that she didn't achieve closure at all: she wants to go back and get some real revenge. I doubt that Echo/Caroline can ever quiet whatever it is inside her that makes her want to set people free. And Victor? You don't get over being in love. Not just like that. So their little vacation may have given them some temporary closure, but for at least three out of four, I doubt they'll stay quiet for long. I'm not sure if this is a real complaint or not, because it may be intentional on the part of the writers.

On the plus side, it's always nice to see Amy Acker back, and her character represents another weird paternalistic face of the Dollhouse. 

So far we've seen DeWitt as this arch, patrician figure who seems to feel that what they're doing is in the dolls' best interests (despite seemingly knowing that Sierra was kidnapped?), a means justify the ends philosophy. Mr. Dominic sees them as pets, or machines; he's effectively dehumanized them. Topher doesn't think about it much, and when he's forced to he babbles and can't justify himself at all.

The doctor, on the other hand, wants to protect the dolls from the big bad world. She obviously feels it would be better for them not to remember things. As I'm sure she might wish for herself.

Outside the world of Dollhouse, the TV show, things are not going well. It was low in the ratings again. But I want to know something more basic: is Dollhouse profitable?

Battlestar Galactica had fewer viewers than Dollhouse for every episode it aired after the mini-series. It seems to have averaged around 2.5 million viewers a week. Meanwhile, Dollhouse has been averaging between 3.5 and 4 million viewers. I know the costs for maintaining an entire network are different from those involved in running a cable channel. But BSG also involved a very large cast, lots of specially constructed sets, explosions and a whack of CGI. Dollhouse, on the other hand, is cheap like borscht. It has fight scenes and gunfire, but only a handful of sets. No CGI. No elaborate prosthetic makeupe. No wirework. It's the cheapest show Joss Whedon has ever made. 

So here's the thing. I don't want to know if Dollhouse is beating its competition. I want to know if it's actually just breaking even or turning a profit for Fox. And I'd kind of like to know if it could do the same, say, at a cable channel whose name means venereal disease in Polish.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Good night, folks."

I was saddened yesterday to learn that Andy Hallett, who played Lorne on Angel for four seasons, died of heart disease. He was just 33.

As one of the people who brought the funny in a big way, he'll be missed.