Monday, May 30, 2011

Apocalypse—Why Now?

Why the recent spate of pop apocalypses?  I understood, after 9/11, why Americans wanted more Left Behind novels and Terminator films, but a decade later, we evidently face the same unmet desire.  Do the soft economy and ongoing wars really look that bleak?  And even if they do, does that excuse haphazard storytelling—or worse?

Darcy Pern shares a bed with her mother Sarah in a one-room flat on the title island in Anna North’s America Pacifica, an attempt to recreate American culture after the glaciers cover North America.  The money doesn’t always cover food, and they can seldom afford new shoes.  Sure, it’s squalid, but Sarah’s devotion makes it the only home Darcy knows.  So when Sarah doesn’t come home one evening, Darcy chucks everything to find her mother.

But first she finds decay and corruption so severe that her flat looks palatial.  While the island’s first families eat steak and rule the roost, those who reached the island on the last few rafts build shanties and cook seaweed on hibachis.  And, to Darcy’s alarm, it looks like Sarah took part in founding the island’s corrupt system.  That makes her a tempting ally when a last-boat survivor organizes a rebellion.

This book’s most frustrating trait is how good it almost appears.  Its promising premise and urgent conflict read like the first draft of something auspicious.  But North dedicates pages and pages to rococo science and narrative angst.  Our heroine feels like someone auditioning to play an emo girl.  And once North reaches a fitting climax, instead of pitching a rewarding denouement, she starts a whole new story thread, thirty pages from the end.

Perhaps, for a fulfilling apocalypse, we should ask people who actually believe in the Apocalypse.  People like theologian Leonard Sweet and teacher Lori Wagner, authors of The Seraph Seal.  Surely Christians could end the world with a bang.  Yet this attempt at liberal/progressive radical inclusivity feels, if anything, even less satisfying.  It seems strange to say about a book running over 500 pages, but this reads like an outline.

President Matthew Serafino and historian Paul Binder share a birthday, and a final destiny.  When a British philologist invites Binder to investigate a rare early Christian manuscript, Binder discovers his place in ancient prophecy, and reclaims his ageless Christian heritage.  But Serafino uses global power politics to his advantage, amassing a new kind of power that means more as the sky turns blood red and the seas turn swampy black.

Lutheran theologian Barbara Rossing demonstrates how LaHaye and Jenkins use gripping storytelling to slip shoddy theology under our noses.  Sweet and Wagner presumably want the same for their postmodern exegesis.  But not only do they display laissez-faire spirituality, they don’t tell much of a story.  It’s sweeping and synoptic, dependent on far more coincidences than readers would accept if God weren’t involved.

Eschatology looms in human myth.  When societies stopped believing God would end humanity, we created weapons and diseases to take God’s place.  Clear back in 1943, George Orwell claimed that Christianity was diminishing because fewer people felt we could really live forever.  If anything, that makes end-times literature more important, not less, and writers must show greater respect.

That’s why I like China Miéville’s Embassytown.  Unlike these others, this book knows what “world” means, and what “end” means.  It doesn’t mean destruction, blood, and abstract vindication—although it can mean these things.  But Miéville knows worlds end when our assumptions prove mistaken.  Worlds end when we change how we see them, and how we see ourselves.

On the edge of Immerser Space, humans establish an embassy to the Ariekei, a species that thinks like nothing we've encountered before.  Professional space traveller Avice Benner Cho returns to her homeworld among the Ariekei in time to see them fall before a human scheme that renders them defenseless.  But when the Ariekei won’t admit defeat, Avice realizes she's witnessing the end of her world.  The time comes to choose sides.

Despite a slow start, this novel proves most adept at demonstrating what happens when everything we hold inviolable collapses.  Its characters confront profound frustration, nihilistic gloom, and chaos before emerging renewed across the chasm.  Despite his secular inclinations, Miéville has crafted an essentially religious narrative, proven by his frequent theological terminology: prelapsarian, diaspora, teleology.  The Fall.

Perhaps Miéville alone understands that the world doesn’t stop when it ends.  And neither do we.  That makes his secular scripture uniquely satisfying among publishers’ recent tedious apocalypses.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Big Bang Theory Theory (Part Two)

The Penny Polarization

Kaley Cuoco as Penny
If Sheldon and Leonard drive The Big Bang Theory, they are likewise driven by their relationships with women, especially Penny, the pretty neighbor whose appearance in the pilot episode initiates everything following.  Theater teacher Keith Johnstone claims that drama occurs when something upsets somebody’s accepted world, and for these nerds, Penny certainly does that.  She not only puts Leonard and Sheldon’s natural drives at odds, but she seemingly transforms every man she meets.

Superficially, Penny draws Leonard from his cocoon of boyish activities, an effect she initially has on Sheldon too.  (The pilot hints that Sheldon is a compulsive masturbator, and he originally shows insights into human relationships, though this vanishes after the first half-dozen episodes.)  She also defines the other principal men, highlighting Howard’s theatrical libido and Raj’s pathological sheepishness.  Though the boys remain largely interchangeable in each other’s company, a woman’s presence upends everything.

However, Penny resists analysis because she exists largely as she is.  She has no surname, no significant recurrent relationships, and little narrative purpose except to define the boys.  Not that she doesn’t exist as such: she loves Nebraska football, for instance, and as noted last week, Leonard tries in vain to watch the game with Penny’s friends.  But Penny significantly speaks only to Leonard at this party.  Even this personal trait exists only to define Leonard; Penny’s “friends” are Leonard’s props.

In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl for a female stereotype who “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”  Penny possesses Manic Pixie Dream Girl (hereinafter MPDG) traits, but the open-ended series format doesn’t let her remain vacant of inner life as cinematic MPDGs do.  The MPDG only exists intact in small doses, because life has a way of revealing real people’s less pretty aspects.

Unlike movie MPDGs, Penny has a history: she describes growing up in Nebraska, and on occasion, her troubled relationship with her father scrambles her happiness.  She bewails her meaningless job, and makes stabs at relationships with men.  But these traits primarily reflect the men’s needs: she complains about her job when she needs to contrast with Sheldon and Leonard’s professional satisfaction.  Her father issues emerge primarily when Leonard gets his dreaded visits from his mother.

Notably, each male lead is defined by some deep maternal conflict.  Sheldon’s mother affects religiosity that defies his own empiricism, while Leonard’s mother displays starchy detachment against his need for acceptance.  Similarly, Howard’s mother infantilizes the son who considers himself quite the Romeo, while Raj’s domineering mother probably influences his muteness around women his own age.

Of the four men, only Raj has a present father: Sheldon’s father died, probably before the pilot, while Howard mentions that his father left the family, and Leonard’s mother casually drops the bombshell that she has divorced Leonard’s father (who never appears onscreen).  Though Raj’s father appears with his mother on their online video chats, he seems cowed by her outsized personality, and frequently shrinks under her harsh glare.  Women in this world are either empowering or emasculating.

Between those two, Penny is clearly empowering.  She has a perky vivacity that Leonard finds infectious.  But on consideration, she’s not happy about anything.  She disparages her work, her family, her dates, and the kitchen sink.  As complaints mount, we realize that, in classic MPDG fashion, she’s happy because she’s happy.  Which is unfair, considering she can afford a one-bedroom Pasadena apartment to herself on waitressing wages, and has CalTech’s smartest men fighting over her.

Penny seems outwardly normal, and perhaps that’s why Leonard likes her: she’s pretty, but that may matter less than his desire for approval.  And on Planet Sitcom, she certainly is normal, with hip cynicism about her job and socially approved idiosyncrasies—as Sheldon notes in Season One, Episode 14, “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” women may collect stuffed animals, but men shouldn’t keep collecting toys.  So she’s normal because her eccentricities have social approval that the boys’ don’t.

But Penny seems most congenial when she tempers her desire to change Leonard with a willingness to be changed.  This shows in the Season Three finale, when she admits, after dumping Leonard, that she can’t date dumb guys anymore.  She’s more discerning, and though she alienates the meathead demographic, she’s more human to us.  Hence, Penny brings the MPDG down to earth.  Despite her limitations, this makes her an engaging character in an interesting story.

Part One: The Leonard/Sheldon Disjunction
Part Three: The Raj/Howard Continuum

Monday, May 23, 2011

What Makes WordBasket Scream?

Owing to circumstances beyond my control, I am unable to present a new review this week.  Until next week, enjoy this 2009 classic from the archives of my newspaper days.

An open letter to youth fantasy publishers.

Dear Editors:
With deep regret I write begging you to resist the artistic bankruptcy of copying successful formulas.  I recognize the temptation, when a form attracts huge audiences, to pluck that fruit while the market is ripe.

Please don’t.

This plea arose when some books crossed my transom showing notable lack of insight on your part.  I’m staggered that you’d publish these books with straight faces.  Staggered and appalled.  Marlene Perez’s Dead Is a State of Mind and Beth Fantaskey’s Jessica's Guide to Dating on the Dark Side court Stephanie Meyer’s market.  But they do so in a low-calorie, eat-your-spinach way, mixing lukewarm romance with unscary horror.

Both feature high school girls confronting a world of magic and marvels.  With layers of secrets and generation-spanning conflicts, these books owe glaring debts to Meyer’s Twilight novels.  But Twilight succeeds by externalizing the psychological dread of adolescent love.  These novels fail by blunting such emotions, rendering them trivial.

Both feature entirely predictable romantic arcs.  That’s no problem.  For romance readers, the trip counts more than the destination.  My problem turns on how they handle the supernatural elements.  Or how they don’t handle them.

In Dead is a State of Mind, California girl Daisy Giordano inherits a heritage of psychic wonder.  Her mom helps the police investigate murders.  Ghosts, werewolves, and other bugaboos comprise her city’s council.  These scares supposedly are a closely guarded secret.  But nearly everybody is such a beast, or knows about them.  If a girl takes a ghost to her prom, and watches him dematerialize on the dance floor, that’s not playing it close to the chest.

For author Perez, one tumultuous school year is an afterthought.  She presents nearly seventy pages of knuckle cracking before we get the real conflict.  Then she drops clues so thick and furious that the characters must be truly dim not to realize who is guilty of what well before Spring Break.

No, this author is more interested in her characters.  But she’s not that interested.

In effective teen horror, shocks and terrors usually symbolize the turmoil of adolescence.  Perez takes that turmoil as written.  Her characters only change when the plot demands it.  One girl goes from “kind of” our protagonist’s friend to her “best” friend with no visible change in their relationship.  Likewise, Daisy’s boyfriend grows distant because the author needs him to.  Not what the story needs, mind you, since their relationship is a distracting subplot.

We want emotions!  Emotions like fear and joy!  Give us emotions!  Instead, Perez spends pages lovingly detailing effluvia like Daisy’s steps making dinner.  Pages she could spend on character and plot.  Beth Fantaskey, in Jessica’s Guide, offers copious emotions.  Big heaping piles of raw, jangling emotions.  Just none that use the horror potential persuasively.

Pennsylvania farm girl Jessica just wants to take her hunky neighbor to prom and survive finals.  Unfortunately a dashing Romanian vampire insists she’s a fellow bloodsucker heiress and they’re pledged to marry when she turns eighteen.  Wow, what a great concept.  Imagine the delicious directions such a novel could go.  Go on, imagine.  Are you imagining?

Good job: you’ve tried harder than Fantaskey.

There is absolutely no reason for a vampire in this novel.  No displays of supernatural prowess, no bone-chilling hunt, no blood drinking as family-friendly sexual euphemism.  Oh wait: there is a reason.  Because we’re courting Stephanie Meyer’s market.  Silly me.

The vampire is that romantic ideal, a bad boy with a heart of gold.  Jessica tames his wild side and unhitches his hidebound past.  But those traditions could be anything.  Our inamorato could be a Hell’s Angel, trust fund brat, or Mafia prince without changing the story one bit.  Fantaskey’s cross-genre audience likes horror to open doors for a wide range of emotions.  Completely ignoring that door for bog-standard emotions we could get in real life leaves me feeling ripped off.

Fantaskey and Perez should study Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia.  Though it proffers no bogeymen, this book taps emotions other authors vainly strive after.  These short urban fantasy yarns tingle with tension between deceptively timid prose and stunning illustrations.  That tension creates disquiet more powerful than any BOO a mere vampire could deliver.

And what illustrations!  A neighborhood sparkles with brightly painted tactical nuclear missiles.  A Raphael vision of the Peaceable Kingdom hides behind hanging laundry.  A young couple flees rampaging packs of carnivorous televisions.  My favorite shows two brothers hunting the edge of the map.  They solemnly cross an almost nuclear landscape of chicken shacks, gas stations, discount stores, and mini malls.  Suburbia as a Hieronymus Bosch vision of Hell.

This collection perfectly captures transition and inconstancy which the other authors miss.  This subtlety, so difficult yet so captivating, is what publishers should seek in youth fantasy.

Come on, editors, you want it as much as we do.  Don’t follow formula; hold out for the real thing.  We who love to read are counting on you.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Big Bang Theory Theory (Part One)

The Leonard/Sheldon Disjunction

Johnny Galecki (left) as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter;
Jim Parsons (right) as Dr. Sheldon Cooper
The success of CBS’s sitcom The Big Bang Theory, part of Chuck Lorre’s goofy pantheon, rests on its lead nerds.  Theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper is so supremely dedicated to his work that he has stopped trying to fit in with humanity or understand its complex and frustrating motivations.  Applied physicist Leonard Hofstadter would rather be liked, have relationships with women, and not be defined exclusively by his work and his idiosyncrasies.  It’s easy to regard Sheldon and Leonard as absurd comic stereotypes who “just don’t get it,” but their interactions reveal subtler drives.

I contend they represent not two conflicting dweeb types, but outward expressions of conflicting desires shared by anyone who has ever cared deeply enough about anything to let it separate themselves from others.  If audiences like Leonard because he embodies the part of us that yearns for freedom and normalcy, it follows that Sheldon embodies the part that would swear off distractions and vanish into whatever we most cherish.  Neither character represents science exclusively; anyone who has ever loved doing anything—rebuilding car engines, Italian cooking, raising our families—has felt these same conflicting desires.

Thus, we like Sheldon for the same reason we enjoy characters like Dr. House: we envy his liberty to disdain what others think, because we know we never can.  Though Jim Parsons plays Sheldon as plagued with excessive tics and tremors, his exaggerated manner only highlights the inner character.  Everyone struggles between wanting to fit in and be liked, and wanting to do what really animates us.  We know we’d dislike being at the receiving end of that arc.  Nevertheless, who wouldn’t rather throw off the pressure to fit in, be attractive, and let others impose themselves on is, in favor of painting, acting, gardening, or whatever we love?

Leonard understands why Sheldon is awful, and even occasionally comments on it.  Unlike Sheldon, Leonard seeks freedom to join other people, not ignore them: he wants the influences that bind others.  But that traps him.  He can never reject Sheldon because he needs Sheldon to like him, too.  That scientific immersion is part of him, too, which he must embrace, because he can’t be liked by others if he can’t simultaneously like himself.  Thus he continues to feed Sheldon’s superhero fantasies and play university politics when, at least sometimes, he’d rather abandon both and live free.

What, then, is freedom?  Leonard wants freedom to be liked by others.  But when he achieves that, he finds it unsatisfying.  In Season 3, Episode 6, “The Cornhusker Vortex,” Leonard tries to join his sweetheart Penny in watching football.  But he finds it ultimately frustrating and flees to join his friends.  Unfortunately, Leonard doesn’t just want others to like him, he wants others to like him as he is.  He cannot stop being Leonard, but he wants to be liked as Leonard, which proves not only frustrating, but the opposite of liberating.

During his courtship of Penny, Leonard’s inability to compromise causes conflict.  In Season 1, Episode 14, “The Nerdvana Annihilation,” the newest addition to Leonard’s science fiction memorabilia collection causes Penny to miss a day’s work, leading to confrontation.  The question arises: are Leonard’s toys part of him, or an attempt to flee the larger world?  Must he relinquish his simple joys in order to “put away childish things”?  Though the episode offers pat resolution, further consideration reveals that Leonard became a physicist for the simple joy of discovering how the world works.  His toys are part of that simple joyousness.

But in discovering how “the world” works, he’s isolated himself from daily living.  Quarks and mesons seem straightforward compared to the complexity of daily living.  Leonard can’t simultaneously observe the world and join it: he must make a choice.  In that way, Sheldon is freer than Leonard, because without the impulse to join, he has the liberty to stand outside and watch.  When the two halves of Leonard’s life come into inevitable conflict, Sheldon’s freedom from choosing must seem downright pleasurable.

Sheldon has freedom to disregard convention and follow whatever whims pull him.  Just because others don’t like or approve means little to him, because he’s forgotten more than most people ever know.  Indeed, others’ scorn gives him ammunition to delve further into himself.  Reality is a tedious imposition.

Thus Sheldon represents a part of anybody, not just smart people.  And Leonard exists because we need to resist.  We need other people to feel complete in ourselves.  We just—if we’re honest—would rather not.

Part Two: The Penny Polarization
Part Three: The Raj/Howard Continuum

Monday, May 16, 2011

Death to Passive Business: Long Live the Active Mind

Of the myriad explanations why the world economy has surged while America idles, my favorite is complacence.  Countries like India and China take an active hand pioneering technology, courting new manufacturing techniques, and cultivating a diverse workforce.  Meanwhile America maintains a post-WWII mindset that, if we make more stuff and manage our numbers, everything will flourish.  The last thirty years prove that doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did.

Business innovator Jack Trytten addresses that attitude in The G Point.  While corporate CEOs generally emerge from engineering or finance, these fields no longer have an unlimited hand in business.  To sell today, you can’t just make great stuff and wait passively for people to arrive.  The difference between success and failure lies in awareness, loyalty, and trust.  That is, today’s successful businesses run on marketing.

Customers are barraged by choices, many with little distinguishing them from one another.  If producers want to sell products, they need to woo customers, build rapport, and persuade customers to trust one company over another.  Trytten promises to turn businesses into “Growth Machines” if they nurture customer relationships, work to recognize customers’ values, and embrace change as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Growth through marketing, to Trytten, may mean sales.  But it more likely means service.  Products usually matter little to customers; instead, they buy something your product offers, like ease, prestige, or value.  As producer, you must know your customers and offer what they really want.  Whether by making superior product, demonstrating excellent customer service, or remaining loyal, you must actively offer what customers want

So it’s not enough to simply work to get rich.  Alan Sakowitz, author of Miles Away... Worlds Apart, warns against passively chasing after wealth.  After all, Sakowitz blew the lid off Florida’s biggest fraud case, Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.  When Sakowitz realized that Rothstein’s house of cards was worth billions, he had to step in, even though Rothstein had the governor, police chief, and half of Florida deep in his pocket.

But Sakowitz doesn’t just condemn a man who promised bottomless passive wealth.  People want to get rich; that’s hardly news.  Instead, Sakowitz contrasts Rothstein’s Fort Lauderdale corruption with his close-knit Jewish community in North Miami Beach.  This culture rewards people who take an active hand, do for each other, and act responsibly.  Sakowitz derives important lessons from his community on responsible business and ethical leadership.

Rothstein offered people passive opportunities to inflate themselves and get rich on paper.  Sakowitz’s community improves the world by putting others first and following the goals G-d offers.  Maybe people think they want the reward of wealth and prestige, but Sakowitz found that promise ultimately hollow.  His community works hard and makes do, especially in a down economy, but they have something worth working for.

Phil Cooke’s desires are less specific than Trytten or Sakowitz, but in Jolt!, he urges readers to take a similar active hand.  In a society where change has become commonplace, Cooke says you cannot stand pat.  But, like Sakowitz, he also rejects arrogance and greed.  Because of that, his standards sometimes seem contradictory: you’re responsible for your professional advancement, but you must also look out for others.  You need to follow your bottom line, but you also need to chase spiritual goals that leave a positive legacy.

But that very contradictory nature emphasizes Cooke’s point.  We can’t just accept his advice like placid puppies when life demands we take control.  Cooke says we need to think, take responsibility, and show ourselves active.  Cooke—a committed Christian, but also a self-made man and media tycoon—says we need to captain our own ships.

Importantly, Cooke doesn’t make lofty promises that effort makes us rich.  Leave that for the passive Rothsteins of the world.  Instead, Cooke says an active life gives us meaning.  I wish more executives focused on business as an active, ethical calling that offers purposeful life.  The epidemic passivity that crashed our economy three years ago hasn’t just speared our retirement funds; it’s stripped modern life of meaning.

I blame MBA programs.  I’ve written about this before, but schools reward people who memorize lists of solutions and regurgitate them for tests.  This provides solutions to problems millions of people have already faced, but renders us powerless before new and uncharted situations.  I’d like to think this isn’t deliberate, but I’ve taught too long not to see patterns.  We need to shirk this cultural passivity if we want to face the wild complexity of modern, active life.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Secular Piety on the BBC's Being Human

Left to right: Lenora Crichlow as Annie,
Russell Tovey as George, and Aidan Turner as Mitchell

Although the United Kingdom maintains state churches for each of its constituent countries, less than ten percent of its population regularly attends religious services.  The home of William Tyndale and John Wesley has become a manifestly secular society.  Yet Brits confront the same questions we all do about what we face when we die.  Writer Toby Whithouse presents an interesting secular mythology in his TV drama Being Human, a religion that provides shape but, ultimately, no guidance.

Set in Britain’s chilly southwest, Being Human follows vampire Mitchell, werewolf George, and ghost Annie as they struggle to maintain their souls against their encroaching supernatural natures.  This struggle proves tough going.  Yet as they share a house, they hold each other mutually accountable, which—like a Benedictine monastery—gives them enough discipline to retain vestiges of humanity.

The show sometimes explicitly uses religion.  In the first season, George repels vampires using his Star of David pendant.  In the second season Christian zealots are the primary antagonists, though they demonstrate little doctrine beyond vengeance.  Religion aids this show inasmuch as it recognizes faith’s value; but actual content matters little.  In season three, George significantly can’t remember the words to Shema Yisrael, and in the first season, a vicar, asked to say something religious, can only blurt out “Christ!”

Instead, this religion is self-contained.  Righteousness and sin both begin inwardly, not from any God or Devil.  That’s not to say the religion is egocentric: their primary sacrament is togetherness, while those outside their cloister suffer the full range of sins that stem from individualism.  Our ensemble bands together against forces of gluttony, pride, wrath, and the whole Big Seven.  Only unity keeps them strong.

The house, then, becomes a place they come together, share their lives, and fight for the same goals.  Notably, the kitchen serves as both chapel and confessional.  With its connotations of family and stability, the kitchen sees the characters express aspirations, frustrations, and love for one another.  Whenever the outside world intrudes, with its expressions of lust, guilt, and envy, the heroes inevitably find themselves hugging or crying at the kitchen table.

In the second episode of season one, Tully, a nomadic werewolf, directs a significant nod at Mitchell and intones: “It’s not many a vampire would break bread with a werewolf.”  With its Latinate diction and biblical composition, this sentence’s religious implications stand out prominently.  Communion, the act of sharing food, has long held prominence in Christian religious tradition, and continues into this new mythology as well.

The outside world forces them to practice duplicity, but in the kitchen, George and Mitchell repeatedly embrace one another, insisting that each only remains human because of the other.  In a telling deleted scene from the third season, after moving to a new house, Annie chooses the kitchen as the place where she calls Mitchell her “saviour.”  The characters resist direct action outside the kitchen—in season two, Annie’s living room meeting devolves into subtext—but the kitchen’s informal “prayer meetings” bind the monastery together.

In the second season, Mitchell, accidentally ascendant as vampire king, reorganizes the vampires as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  (Season one established blood-drinking as an addiction, not a biological need; vampires can swear off blood, but cannot go “vegetarian” like Stephanie Meyer’s vampires.)  Only the first of AA’s twelve steps even mentions alcohol, while five mention God, and others mention prayer, contrition, and evangelism.  Thus, though the effort proves doomed, Mitchell turns the vampires into a church.

Aidan Turner (right) as Mitchell, Jason Watkins (second from right)
as vampire king Herrick, and several supporting vampires.

But despite the religious implications in their relationship, our heroes show little interest in God.  They find deliverance in each other, then try to guide each other to that same deliverance.  Their spiritual discipline seems remarkably circular, and not surprisingly, the saved keep falling off the straight path.  The problem grows because, without a Christ to redeem them or a Buddha to guide them, each lapse into sin requires them to reinvent salvation.

Early in season three, Mitchell must retrieve Annie from the afterlife.  Once there, he revisits his most heinous transgressions, until he collapses in tears.  On his return, Mitchell calls that afterlife Purgatory: the place where contrition expunges sins.  Thus, Being Human’s secular religion promises guilt and penance, not hope.  Perhaps this explains why, as the series continues, the outside world looks ever bleaker and more decayed.

If, as Susannah Clements suggests, our treatment of vampires reflects our society’s ethical foundation, we can probably say the same about werewolves and ghosts.  And Being Human admits that secularized humans still feel impulses toward religious ritual.  Unfortunately, without guidance through our transcendent concerns, we finish our journey afflicted with questions and still starved for answers.

Monday, May 9, 2011

When Fantasy Fails—The Secondary World Hypothesis

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique obligation to say something nobody else could ever say.  This seems obvious, but bears repeating, because so much genre fiction goes through the motions.  Alternate reality fiction may bear hallmarks of familiarity, but if readers feel we’ve seen all this before, we tend to feel robbed.

On the one hand, parts of Val Gunn’s In the Shadow of Swords seem familiar, with its Arabic-based culture and power politics, but not so familiar that we feel we’ve been here before.  Gunn presents a world of secrets and invites us to join him in discovering them.  He gives us an opportunity to explore, like a kid in a toy store, hoping to find something profound and dazzling around the next corner.

On the other hand, Peter Orullian wastes our time with abject silliness like The Unremembered.  Running nearly 700 pages, experienced fantasy readers will never feel they’ve encountered anything new.  Orullian’s world is laid out perfectly beforehand, and you can accurately predict each new development well in advance.  Val Gunn leads us on a journey to a mythic otherworld; Orullian gives us a guided tour of Disneyland’s Fantasy Village.

What makes Gunn more effective than Orullian?  Gunn creates what Tolkein called a secondary world: one separate from our “primary world” yet subject to standards equally consistent.  It’s like visiting a distant land: we go so we can get lost in winding streets, meet interesting people, and order coffee in a strange language.  If English-speaking  tour guides show us vistas pre-screened and guaranteed safe, what do we gain?

Gunn tells us of Ciris Sarn, an amoral assassin djinn-bound to a Sultan who has fallen under his deputies’ sway.  When one such deputy orders him to make a kill he doesn’t want, he has no choice but to obey.  But the victim’s widow seeks vengeance, while Sarn wants only his freedom.  As two steely adversaries play out their dance, grim conspiracies threaten to destroy generations of stability in the desert kingdom of Qatana.

By contrast, Orullian tells us of Tahn Junell, starry-eyed youth who gets hit with cold reality when ancient monsters banished to a distant realm suddenly show up in his village.  A mysterious wizard, a Sheason, informs Tahn that he and his friends are the fulfillment of ancient prophecy and must now fight to save all reality.  If this sounds familiar, it is: this entire book nakedly plagiarizes Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

The Unremembered comes from a major label publisher, and has one of the biggest promotional budgets accorded to a debut author in years.  In the Shadow of Swords was published by an indie house, has a shoestring budget, and is unlikely to see the sales it deserves.  Which tells us everything we need to know about publishing in our time.

Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief exemplifies what I like in secondary worlds.  Sure, it’s science fiction rather than fantasy, but remember what Clarke said about sufficiently advanced technology.  The science is purely rococo; Rajaniemi creates a shifting dreamscape blending Hebrew myth, French and Russian literature, technological paranoia, and online RPGs into a stew that we don’t so much comprehend as osmose.

Jean le Flambeur, the solar system’s most ostentatious larcener, gets sprung from prison by posthuman acolyte Mieli, who now keeps him on a short leash and needs him to do a job.  But Jean has his own goals, which include recovering memories of his enigmatic past.  When Jean’s name falls into detective Isidore Beautrelet’s hands, the two find themselves on a converging path toward secrets neither realize they’ve been keeping.

But the story almost takes second place to the structure.  And I don’t just mean the story structure: the caper takes place in the Oubliette, a walking Martian city that rearranges its own street layout at seemingly random intervals.  That symbolizes the whole book, as alliances, identities, and history rearrange themselves constantly.  We’re constantly disoriented, caught on the back foot, just like getting lost in the distant land I mentioned earlier.

This constant shift makes the book resistant to summary, much less analysis.  But it means we never have an opportunity to get bored.  Sure, Rajaniemi appropriates classic literature and myth to tell his story, but it never feels familiar.  Every page, every scene creates something new.  And because of that, this book seizes your imagination long after you close the cover on the last page.

I believe that is the true difference between triumphant and exhausted genre fiction.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Myths, Moments, and Man-Made Misery

Over sixty years ago, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces used post-Freudian analysis to unpack traditions and demonstrate that mythology provides individuals and societies with instruments to express their most nameless aspects.  We all have features we cannot examine directly: those too shameful to accept, too subtle to distinguish, or too deep to locate.  Mythology lets us face our identities, individually and collectively, by confronting our sublimated selves.

But Campbell complained that we retain the same myths the ancients used to face their world.  Ancestral religions and philosophies don’t address modern needs—and, Campbell charged, nothing endures long enough to attain mythic status anymore.  Two Nebraska critics, David Whitt and John Perlich, disagree.  In Sith, Slayers, Stargates, + Cyborgs, and its follow-up, Millennial Mythmaking, attest that science fiction and fantasy fill that gap.

Fellow Browncoats, ask yourselves: Why do we continue watching Firefly, years after the show ended without completing one season?  Do we, as a society, struggle to maintain “independence” against a monolithic “Alliance” that dominates and marginalizes us?  As meaningful jobs give way to make-work and we struggle to find our way without a map, maybe we do.  We find ourselves alienated from our lives, struggling to comprehend a world changing without us.

Firefly appropriates the frontier mythology fundamental to science fiction, where “new life” awaits beyond the next star.  But notice that the ensemble never has a chance to settle.  This is no pioneer frontier; the Serenity crew has become guests in their own lives.  Despite references to “border moons” and urbane “core worlds,” there’s no sense that anyone will ever call the dusty horizon home.  Tumbleweed restlessness is not a transition here; it’s intractable reality.

Sci-fi and fantasy, more than any other genre, reflect the culture in which they originate.  That’s why they seldom translate across time.  Anyone who remembers the 1968 Planet of the Apes must recognize the cultural issues it brings to the surface.  Though its anti-war message has become axiomatic, the racial concerns—if it’s wrong for apes to discriminate against humans, it’s wrong for whites to discriminate against blacks—often goes unacknowledged.

Unfortunately, anyone who remembers the 1968 original understands why the 2001 remake fails so abjectly.  Unlike the original, which lets us face realities we can’t discuss openly, the remake addresses scientific issues by hitting us in the face.  It reduces racial concerns to Rodney King aphorisms (hey, did they give King’s line to an orangutan?!).  Essentially, it replaces myth with spectacle.  And audiences left theatres merely shrugging.

At root, these stories stagger because they never become culture-wide mythologies.  The term mythology comes from the Greek mythos: the oral narratives that linked Greek society.  But these narratives formed a larger single account.  From Hesiod to Homer to Sophocles to Apollonius, these storytellers shared their gods and heroes.  No one but George Lucas or his authorized agents can ever contribute to the Star Wars mythology.

Myth becomes proprietary.  We cannot exchange narratives or grow together.  No one really believes we’re trapped in the Matrix; no one expects to unearth a Stargate; and, while occasional fanatics adopt the Jedi religion, few sane people expect to use the Force to any effect.  In this environment of ad hoc myth, we can never unify society behind our mythology.  Society becomes fractionated, and Doctor Who fans feel self-superior in calling Battlestar Galactica groupies “nerds.”

Occasional mythic concepts transcend their story and become universal.  Cyborgs, for instance, occur in different settings, adapted to individual needs.  Ghost in the Shell is distinct from the Borg but both touch common human fears—and hopes.  Both examine, with optimism and dread, humanity’s potential merger with technology, dawning in modern medicine.  The cyborg becomes a cultural myth that, like God, grows so vague that we lack a common image or definition.

So mythologies spring up for a moment, address a purpose, and become complete in themselves (like Star Trek) or disappear (like Dark City).  Sure, the Internet nurtures fanfic communities, and occasional mythologies gain traction in their own right.  Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has life beyond its author.  But modern myths largely exist only as they are, with little room to appropriate or expand upon them.

Thus we continue to generate new myths.  Whitt and Perlich suggest that ours is history’s most mythically rich society.  Yet when we cannot make these myths our own, can they really answer our questions about ourselves?  Doubtful.  And without narratives to explain ourselves to ourselves, we risk becoming, in psychic terms, the poorest society in history.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Razor-Sharp Character Mysteries

I like mystery novels driven, not by a body as a puzzle to solve, but by characters facing challenges and their own inner demons.  Philip Marlow and Sam Spade reach me in was that, sadly, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes do not.  That’s why I like novels like Charles Todd’s A Lonely Death.  If Christie wrote psychological police procedurals, they might look like this.

Three rural workers have been killed in quick succession.  But all three served in the same unit in World War I, a war that still plagues Inspector Ian Rutledge.  As Rutledge unpacks the murder, hampered by his era’s rudimentary technology and his culture’s haughty attitudes, he also encounters his lingering guilt from the war.  We feel Rutledge may not survive this case, because his own sanity hangs by a thread.

To modern readers, Rutledge appears admirable for his dedication to justice, despite aristocratic intransigence.  He appears psychologically complex, with his conflicted loyalties to the past (embodied in “Hamish,” the dead underling whose voice lingers in his head) and his struggles in the present.  But to peers and superiors, Rutledge is a peon, damaged goods.  And they obstruct every attempt to exact justice because he doesn’t fit in.

Inspector Rutledge earns our trust because he perseveres against all odds.  PI Ray Quinn doesn’t face such intransigence in Mark Mynheir’s The Corruptible; his struggles begin inside himself.  But they’re compounded when a client hires Quinn to recover missing data, and hands him a check so large that it’s clearly hush money.  He asks himself questions about honor, professionalism, and why he’s in this business at all.

Like Rutledge, Quinn is damaged, but from an act of private violence that stole everything he thought he loved.  Now he struggles with the same wracking cynicism that pinioned Sam Spade.  But unlike Spade, he doesn’t fight alone.  His apprentice, Crevis Creighton, gives him something to fight for, while Pam Winters preaches hope in hopeless situations.  Ray Quinn doesn’t want to be on the outside anymore.  But moving back into the human race proves harder than he anticipated.

When Brigid O’Shaughnessy crossed Sam Spade, Spade hung the femme fatale out to dry.  But when Quinn meets his seductress, he keeps his head, steps back from his preconceptions, and puts together the loose ends.  That’s what makes him a good detective.  He doesn’t just question his world; he questions himself.  And more importantly, he trusts.  Not for him Bogart’s camera-friendly misanthropy.  Quinn’s greatest victory is over himself.

That same doggedness makes me care about Cici McNair.  Unlike Ian Rutledge or Ray Quinn, McNair is a very real person who has learned detective work the hard way, deep in the trenches.  And her memoir, Detectives Don't Wear Seat Belts, reveals a character as complex as any fictional heroine, but far more real.

McNair’s greatest enemy is the Old Boy Network.  Even after years in the game, she still struggles with the idea that women can’t really hack the private dick world.  She admits making some rash choices, starting with getting into the PI business without first learning the ropes.  Yet through persistence, skill, and old-fashioned brass, she made her way into the field, and completely changed the game for the men around her.

When her mentor sent her on her first assignment, he expected her to quit and not return.  But by using a journalist’s fact-gathering skills, a historian’s ability to make connections, and a novelist’s tenacity, she found the person no one else could find.  She closed the case no one could close.  She brought back the trophies the men in her office had given up on.

McNair’s keen eye for detail makes this memoir as lively and dramatic as any detective novel.  She draws readers into the sweaty tedium of tracking an adulteress through hot Mississippi nights.  She makes us believe in how she busted Chinatown counterfeiters by sauntering into warehouses wearing a wire.  She persuades us of how a Southern girl, making a midlife career change, did what nobody else thought she could do.

Yet she’s probably the most problematic character in this bunch.  She makes her own mythology and sells it to us by the fistful.  She gives up her secrets less easily than some fictional PI ever would.  And that’s what makes her gripping.  She doesn’t just solve puzzles.  She doesn’t just prove her quick wit.  She tells us a story with a compelling character.  And we drink every inch of her up because we love that character.