Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Major Problems with the new Ghost in the Shell

As a quick preamble, I became aware of the new Ghost in the Shell series via Women Write About Comics, where they are doing a great multi-part series on The Major, Motoko Kusanagi, the female lead of all the GITS incarnations. You should go check it out.

And in a likely vain and futile attempt to fend off whatever comments might come about not appreciating the origins of the characters, I am well aware of Shirow's original GITS work, and many of his other works, in which there is ample display of, to put it mildly, sex. That, however, is a whole other set of issues, and I'm not up for tackling tentacles and the issue of consent in anime/manga today.

Now, on with the main post...

Normally I'd save this kind of post for a Saturday, as it is partially a review. But there were so, so many issues with what I saw in the first episode of Ghost in the Shell: Arise, that it really warranted it's own discussion. Heck, it warrants a lot more than I can discuss in a single post, which is why I intend to also live tweet my rewatch of it. Which would be a terrible sacrifice of my time and sanity, were it not also a tremendous opportunity for snark.

I have to believe Arise was meant to be snarked at. The only other explanation is that the animators were all a bunch of teenage fanboys who can't get dates of their own and wouldn't know a real interaction with a woman if she came and yanked them out of their dark, underground cubicles. Lest you think I'm exaggerating or being cynical, I could have titled this post "The Major's Boobs" and it would have conveyed one of the primary motifs of the first episode. ... And calling it a motif is being generous. 

There are good points to Arise, which is clearly meant as a prequel to any of the original GITS material and, more specifically, to the last GITS on television (as far as I know), GITS: Stand Alone Complex. It's even being produced by the same studio, though I can only surmise there have been some changes in executive decision making in the intervening years.

There are callbacks to GITS: SAC right from the opening credits, and it's a promising sign that they even go so far as to replicate the skyline. As in a standard prequel, there's the introduction of characters, the bringing together of the team, and there are hints of some of the complex plots that made SAC such an enjoyable series to watch.

Even the clear decision to represent the Major in a younger body is in keeping with her backstory from both the original manga and SAC, and present opportunities for some interesting character development and psychological discussions. After all, in a truly cybernetic body, what governs the decision to "age?" What are the decisions the Major makes to upgrade from where we see her here to where we know she's going.

Only I get the distinct impression that with Arise, it will mostly be the opportunity for TNA. In fact, there was so much gratuitous nudity, partially nudity, and blouse-popping cleavage, I feel the acronym for Arise ought to be GITS: TNA.

Maybe the whole point of the title is meant to be innuendo?  Though that would imply a certain meta-level of cleverness that I don't think we're going to see from the rest of the series.

Which is a shame, because there are moments of some smart storytelling, and some glimpses of what could be some great explorations of the issues raised by the very premise of the show. There's a potential here for some real imagination in the storytelling.

But I think mostly what, or rather who, we're going to get glimpses of are the women, in outfits - or the lack thereof - that will leave little to the imagination.

Some exhibits for the prosecution:

The shower scene. Ignoring the thinly-veiled attempt to portray this new Major as vulnerable by resorting to the cliche tactic of having her naked, there is absolutely no reason for the behind-the-frosted-glass-door strip that occurs before it.

Commander Busty, or alternatively, the Breasts With No Name. The Major's commanding officer is not, so near as I can tell, even given a name. Instead, she's given cleavage, and a shirt that apparently cannot be buttoned above her navel. Or maybe the army just doesn't have shirts that fit her.  Granted, my own experiences with the military are limited to four years of JROTC and a year on scholarship, but I seem to recall more staid uniforms being regulation. Again, she is not named. She is just the BWNN who commands the Major's unit.

Motoko's bra. This should almost be it's own character, it's on screen so often. When she's not naked in cyberspace - which she is in every single such scene, knees clasped to chest, probably again meant to invoke "vulnerability" - she apparently has no clothes to wear aside from her uniform. (Wait, maybe this also explains the BWNN's own outfit issues. Future Japan's military doesn't know how to provide clothes to it's female soldiers.) So when she's not in uniform, she's in her underwear. This leads to a number of fan-service scenes. 

I might object less if it was at least a sport bra, but it's clearly some strappy black thing. Okay, again, the animators are teenage boys who know nothing about breasts or bras, but still, a quick Google search... actually, come to think of it, that's probably what caused this problem in the first place.

Also, and it may just be me, but I swear the Major's breasts are bigger when she's just in a bra. Maybe her uniform is really binding? Hard to say.

The Lolita landmines, or rather the mobile, robotic landmines, that from a military purpose seem absolutely useless for the battlefield unless you're fighting a war at a lollicon convention.

And those are just the things that stand out on the first viewing...

Admittedly, Stand Alone Complex had it's own issues with the Major and sexuality, to say nothing of the original manga, and in the first season of GITS: SAC she was dressed in that same ludicrous outfit you'll see if you bother to Google-search her. And there were the highly sexual overtones of that episode with the nurse, just to name a particular incident. But by the second season, they'd dressed her in a more practical outfit, and by and large it did not seem a series devoted to fanwank.

Arise, on the other hand...

It's sloppy storytelling, needless hyper-sexualizing, and unfortunately symptomatic of larger cultural problems within a number of communities, from comics to games to movies and television. (Star Trek: Into Darkness, I'm looking at you.) Maybe I'm just more aware of the gratuitous placement of women in skimpy outfits now that my daughter is nearly at her teen years, or maybe it's just that it's become such an overwhelming tide that it's impossible not to notice it anymore.

Anime and manga are probably the wrong places to look to start stemming that tide, but as this version came out of the same studio that, in the last incarnation, had the audacity to (in the second season, anyway) clothe the Major in not the thigh-high boots and garters but an actual functional outfit and an overcoat, of all things, there was at least a precedent to hope for here.

While it may not be fair to hold Arise to higher expectations than the culture, as a whole, and anime in particular seems incapable of lately, it has to start somewhere. And maybe starting in an arena that has a bad reputation for how it handles (or more accurately manhandles) women, might send the message that this is something that has to change.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Kat & Mouse: The Interview

Time for something a little different. I generally don't do guests - because, let's face it, this is basically the local cable channel equivalent of the internet - but this one made an exception for me. I'm not sure why, though I'm guessing his stylish fedora was on a bit too tight. 

Anyway... Abner Senires is the author of the Kat & Mouse books, which aside from satisfying this writer's own personal sci-fi craving, also reinvents/pays homage to some "classic" ideas, some more classic than others.

S: Welcome, Abner.

A: Thank you, Sean, for having me on the show today.

I see you have questions for me. Have at them, sir.

S: Indeed I do. So, first of all, where did the name come from? And if you say Tom & Jerry, know I'm going to be torn between disappointment and geekish applause.

A: It came from, you guessed it, Tom and Jerry.

(waits for disappointed applause)

S: I think we all knew that was coming. But, seriously...

A: Real answer: I had other names I was playing with. In one version of my notes, Kat was originally called Blackwolfe and she went solo. In another version, they were a duo, Kat was still called Blackwolfe and Mouse went by the name Boomer. All handles, of course, just as they are now.

And then one day the phrase "playing a game a cat and mouse" popped into my head. I think I might've been watching something or maybe read it somewhere. And it stuck. I thought, "Why not call them 'Kat' and 'Mouse,' to play off that phrase?"

Hence the name.

S: And has to be easier to type than Blackwolfe & Boomer, I imagine. Kat & Mouse are serialized fiction, a form that hasn't been done much since the days of Dickens, at least for literature. What led you to write Kat & Mouse in that manner?

A: When I decided to write Kat & Mouse, I had the notion the stories would be told in a specific sequence. I could have just written the stories, submitted them for publication, and had them appear that way. But the possibility arose that I would, say, write and submit stories 1, 2, 3, and 4 but have them end up being released as 4, 1, 3, and 2.

Which would defeat the purpose of the sequence, especially if I had a connecting storyline running through and connecting one story to the next.

So I decided I'd do it as a serialized story. This way, I could control the sequence of the stories and, in terms of the overarching storyline of each season, control when and where I'd drop clues and hints and foreshadowing.

S: Speaking of old-fashioned forms, Kat & Mouse seem very much a throwback to the cyberpunk days of the late 80's and early 90's. Which, as much as I adore it, is a sub-genre that seems to have already had its heyday. So why resurrect it? What about that setting appealed to you and made you say, "Hey, I want to set stories here?"

A: The appeal for me was the intersection of the modern and the near-future. The fact that cyberpunk was rooted in a very recognizable world – today's world – but had bits of slightly advanced tech that wasn't too far removed from the now. It wasn't Star Trek or Star Wars tech. No transporters or warp engines. But people had robotic prostheses and self-driving cars and the ability to insert a program chip into a slot in your head and instantly know, say, Conversational Italian or Japanese or the equivalent knowledge of a graduate in Corporate Law.

And since I wanted to feature modern weapons in my stories, writing cyberpunk was the best way to do that. I already had experience in weapon use and I'm familiar with some of the typical techniques of our military special warfare operators. And these were the types of skills that Kat and Mouse use in their adventures.

Another thing about weapon use--at one point I wanted write sword and sorcery. But I'm not well-versed on fighting with swords, particularly techniques of that era. I didn't want to portray a swordfight between my mightily-thewed hero and the evil sorcerer's henchman and have those in the know say "Bullsh*t! You're doing it wrong." There's a part of me that wants to depict those kinds of things realistically. Or at least as realistically as you can get in a dramatic portrayal. Yes, there are creative licenses a writer could take but I really wanted to keep things firmly rooted in some kind of verisimilitude. I'm kind of a stickler for that sort of thing. Writing cyberpunk made more sense in that department. I could use modern weapons and not worry that my descriptions of their use would offend those in the know.

I suppose you could say "Why not write a techno-thriller instead?" But much of techno-thriller writing is rooted in today's world and dealing with the geopolitics of the day. I wasn't interested in that sort of thing. What I was interested in was the stuff I saw from Robocop and Terminator and Terminator 2 and Demolition Man.

Cyberpunk. That was the field I wanted to play in.

S: I can't believe you just cited Demolition Man as an influence. Though, admittedly, it was a fun film.

Again, I've not quite worked my way through the first volume, but there were to my mind definite echoes in this of not only William Gibson, but also various Japanese anime, and maybe even a little – minus the fantasy elements – Shadowrun RPG. Any of those influence you, and if so, how much? Or were there other influences elsewhere?

A: All of it. Gibson. Anime, specifically Gunsmith Cats, Dirty Pair, Bubblegum Crisis, Appleseed, and Ghost in the Shell. And, yes, Shadowrun minus the fantasy elements, as well as another RPG from the early 90's called, appropriately enough, Cyberpunk 2020.

And the influence was huge.

My template for the visual aesthetic of the serial was Blade Runner. Of course. Classic film cyberpunk. Hopefully I've captured some of that in what descriptions I've written in the stories.

S: I think you have, yes.

A: From Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 I essentially borrowed world-building details, particularly when I wrote out the timeline of the world of Kat and Mouse.

From Gibson, specifically the short story "Johnny Mnemonic", I borrowed the voice. That minimalistic style. I also cribbed a little of that from Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker and from James Cameron's screenplays.

The influence from anime resulted more in the desire to write about kick-ass female leads. And you get a lot of that in anime, especially in the titles I mentioned.

S: Would you rather see a live action movie, a television series, or a Japanese anime (or even comic book/manga) adaptation?

A: Yes. To all.

While I did write a Kat and Mouse screenplay (which I then adapted as the Season 1 episode "Easy Money") I would love to see a television series.

S: If I had the money to be a producer, I would see this happen. ... Dream cast for the above?

A: I don't watch too much current TV (I'm a few seasons behind and only get my fix via Netflix and Hulu), but from actors I've seen so far I would realistically cast the TV series as follows:

  • KAT: Meghan Ory (Ruby/Little Red Riding Hood from Once Upon A Time)
  • MOUSE: Allison Scagliotti (from Warehouse 13)
  • REVELL: Anthony Stewart Head (Giles from Buffy)
  • FAST EDDIE: Dominic Monaghan (from Lost and Merry from Lord of the Rings)
  • SPECS: Lee Arenberg (Leroy/Grumpy from Once Upon A Time)
  • JAKE STEELE: Sam Witwer (Aidan from Being Human)
  • CONNOR MURPHY: Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost)
  • JADE: Emily VanCamp (from Revenge)
  • SAKURA: Kelly Hu (from Warehouse 13 and Lady Deathstrike from X2)
  • ABSINTHE: Amy Acker (Fred from Angel)
  • VALKYRIE: Felicia Day (from The Guild)

S: I'm sad to say I only recognized about half those names. Clearly, I too, am behind in my TV watching. Because I read a lot, he says. Moving on...

Last but not least, aside from serialized fiction, you also do your bit for radio drama, another arguably archaic art form (say that 10 times fast) that has made something of a comeback in podcasts and the like. What got you into that?

A: Several years ago I had it in mind to get into voice-acting. You know, for video games, cartoons, animated films, that sort of thing. I took classes for about a year or so and started looking into possible work. Somewhere in my Internet searches I ran across an open audition call for voice actors. Someone was producing an audio drama as a podcast, it happened to be unpaid, totally volunteer, and they were looking for people. I decided "Why not? It might be unpaid but I'd get some experience performing on the mic. And the credit wouldn't hurt." So I auditioned and got the part. Small supporting one but a part nonetheless.

And it was a fun experience.

So I went looking for other opportunities and found this niche of folks writing, directing, producing, and acting in audio drama podcasts. Tons of people. So for about two or three years, I was auditioning and getting cast in a whole bunch of audio dramas. At last count, I think it was about forty-something appearances. Some were one-time roles. The majority were as a recurring character over several episodes.

It's been a while since I last did audio drama, though. Other things cropped up. Plus, I wanted to put focus back into writing in general and Kat and Mouse in particular.

S: Any projects we can look forward to, either of your own or someone else you want to give a shout out to?

A: There are more Kat and Mouse stories on the way. I've sketched out the overall arc for Season 3, sketched out the episodes, am revising the first 2 episodes and have outlined and started episode 3. I'm hoping to start "airing" them at the serial site by mid- to late-November, depending on how things work out over the next several weeks.

S: Excellent. I won't hold you to that calendar, though. And other things?

A: There are a couple of other writing projects in the hopper. One is a space opera piece. The other is a story that actually takes place in the world of Kat and Mouse, about the members of a cyborg SWAT team. Both of them are still in the pre-writing phase. No idea yet when they'll get to being written. Right now the focus is on the Ladies.

As for shout-outs, there's some great comics I recently ran across that I think everybody should be reading. RACHEL RISING by Terry Moore, RAT QUEENS by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch, and LAZARUS by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. Excellent stuff. I believe RAT QUEENS and LAZARUS have two trade collections out at this time and RACHEL RISING is on trade collection number four. So go and get them. Now.

S: You heard the man, folks. And if you haven't read Kat & Mouse yet, you need to do that, too.

Abner Senires writes sci-fi pulp adventure and probably drinks far too much coffee. He lives just outside Seattle, WA with his wife and a pair of rambunctious cats. WEBSITE:
BLOG: TWITTER: @abnersenires KAT AND MOUSE, GUNS FOR HIRE: PAYBACK Things are heating up for near-future female mercenaries Kat and Mouse as they tackle even more hair-raising jobs for shadowy clients and run afoul of terrorists, freedom fighters, hired assassins, a Japanese crime syndicate, and warring punkergangs. And smack in the middle of this, an enemy from the past is back and wants revenge on the duo. Now these two sassy sisters-in-arms must fight back and survive...and still get their jobs done. Available from:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Saturday Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

You know which Mission Impossible movie is my favorite? (Trust me, this is relevant.) The first one. Before they got too action-oriented and just plain ridiculous (though the 4th one was enjoyable), there was the first one, that, if you were paying attention, dropped little bread crumbs along the way. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is like that, only without the part where Tom Cruise rips off his face.

(This book has zero face-ripping, in case you were looking for that sort of thing.)

This is the first book in what is now part of a trilogy, and as the third one is out - or due soon - it seemed like a good time to write the first one up. Gladstone's created a brand new world here, with it's own mythology and blend of fantasy and science fiction and even a little steampunk, and though there isn't a lot of the usual world-building that would go into a more traditional sci-fi treatment of the piece, there's enough there so the reader doesn't get lost wandering in and out of both the alleyways and the politics of this new world. Part of me wishes there had been a little more, as there's clearly a class divide at work in this world, and an even greater divide between the cities that run on magic and the outer areas that don't, and that's mostly left unexplored other than the bits the reader is introduced to as character development. Perhaps that's what the sequels will help do.

As for this one, there's a murder mystery of sorts at the heart of this story. Civilization is built around various gods, each one providing the life-force - or just the utilities - that keep their individual cities going. One of those gods has been killed, and it's up to a young lawyer/witch to help her boss figure out who and why. The novel does a great job of blending the legal aspects of having a city and a world that runs a lot on magic with the more down to earth practicalities off it. A great deal of thought went into how it all works, and though a legal drama might not sound like the best thing to blend magic and science with, it works very well. Even when the scene shifts into a courtroom, in a scenario that, minus the trappings, would be at home in a John Grisham novel, it never loses it's sense of action.

There's also some philosophical/theological explorations here, which is fitting when the other main character is a priest whose job it was to watch over the god, and who therefore has a vested interest in solving the mystery. Again, like the courtroom material, what could have been a heavy-handed or even boring exploration of these weightier issues is deftly woven within the action of the main story, and never feels out of place or makes the story slow down.

The characters were well-thought out, the machinations of all involved sufficiently complex without being overwhelming, and the world just gritty enough to feel lived-in yet still retaining its sense of being something new. A blend of Grisham and perhaps Mieville, with just a dash of Gaiman around the edges, this is a world well worth taking the time to explore.

As for that Mission Impossible thing? If you're paying attention, Gladstone drops clues as to the ultimate reveal, like any good mystery writer does. Some of them you may not catch until the end, but they are they throughout and they make for a satisfying puzzle. While you can't solve everything from the clues, there's a big part of the mystery that's waiting for you to figure it out.

Only without the face-ripping.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Reactions

I've been trying to decide whether to write this one for a while, so as a consequence of that this isn't very timely, except for one particularly relevant detail. And although I am not going to speak to specifics, please note that this will deal with the issue of abuse, and the public consequences of that within the broader community (in this case the writing/artistic and film communities). So if that's going to be a thing for you, come back next week. It'll be less serious here, I swear.

Or read another post. There's lots here, even if there hasn't been much here recently.

For those of you who are still with me, Woody Allen has a new film out. It's not made a big splash, so I'm assuming the critics aren't raving over it, but still, Woody Allen has a new film out. And I'm not quite sure how that happens.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I don't understand the Hollywood process, because I do. I just don't understand how people still work with Woody Allen. The sexual abuse allegations that have come out against him are so quickly dismissed, so quickly tossed aside and ridiculed, you'd think there was concrete proof the allegations were false. Now, I understand how the presumption of guilt works, and I understand Allen claims it never happened. I also understand how quick the Hollywood community is to accept excuses, blame the victim, and express sympathy for the person who may very well have molested a 7 year-old girl. (Not just in Hollywood, either. I'll get to that in a moment.)

Maybe it's because I know enough about accusations of abuse, and counter-accusations of false-allegations, to understand how underreported the former are, and over-estimated the latter are. Or because I understand how hard it is to come forward, how difficult it can be to say what happened, even when the immediate consequences don't include a national spotlight. Or because I understand that it's easier to make excuses for an "artist" everyone admires than it is to wrestle with the uncomfortable truths and the consequences therein.

And yet, as a counter-example, there is Marion Zimmer Bradley. The woman is dead. She is no longer writing books. There is no worry that buying one of her books will, in any way, express support for what she did. Even so, when the allegations about the abuse she perpetrated came out, I watched the entire SFF community struggle with what to do. I watched friends decided whether they would keep her books on their shelves, simply because of what they now know. Books that were already bought, by an author who is already dead. By and large, the voices I respect in the SFF community all seemed to come to the consensus that, keep them or toss them, a conversation needed to be had. Not about whether the accusations were false, not about the reputations of those involved, but about the fact that it happened in the first place, and is in all likelihood still happening somewhere.

None of which I have seen regarding Mr Allen, who is still making films, still making money, still revered.

Why the different reactions? Does this mean the SFF community is better than Hollywood? (Possibly, but I'd argue that anyway.) Does it mean we're only comfortable accepting horrible truths when they impact people who are already dead, so we don't have to make hard choices? Does it matter that one of them is a well-known director and writer, and the other a name largely unknown outside a certain community? I certainly didn't see Stephen King writing an opinion that any of the accusations against Bradley were because the accuser was being "bitchy."

[I can forgive King, to a point, because people are allowed to be assholes. They are allowed to be jerks. They are allowed to take the more comfortable route out of a tricky situation. It does not make them good people, and while I will continue to read King (there's a review of Joyland sitting in the queue here), I do think less of him. Pretty sure that doesn't matter to him.]

Maybe some of this just comes down to separating the art from the artist. Lots of artists, in lots of fields, were less than stellar human beings. No questions there. But what happens when those lesser qualities are revealed and the artist is still putting work out? I'm pretty sure Woody Allen does not need the money, but even so, maybe if people stopped going to his films, stopped accepting parts in his films, stopped, in general, saying "it doesn't matter, it's not worth really looking into" in actions if not in words, maybe that would matter a little. Maybe not, but maybe we'd sleep a little less troubled for not having given Mr Allen whatever percentage of our money he gets from ticket sales.

So... Woody Allen has a new film out. I'd say I'm not going to see it, but honestly I've never understood the appeal of Woody Allen, anyway. I don't like his films, so there's no choice for me. I don't read Bradley, either, so that's an easy choice, too, even if the woman is dead. I'd like to believe that, had she not died, her career would have been over this year, and that would have been the end of it. But maybe not. Maybe when you're famous and popular, it's easier to overlook the allegations, easier to sweep it under the rug, and just proceed as usual.

Of course it is.

But maybe that should also be a reason to have a harder conversation.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Saturday Review: Deeply Odd

I think this is the second book of Koontz's I've reviewed here this year. (Well, maybe this year. I know it's been ... a while... since I've been regular here. ... Do they make an equivalent of writerly prune juice to keep the ideas flowing? Only that leads to an easy and uncomfortable metaphor, doesn't it? Never mind on that one.) This one is going to go much the way of that last one, and if you'd rather not sort through the rest of this, here's the final verdict up front: meh.

That's an official "meh" as in: I didn't quit half-way through but seriously, seriously thought about it and only really finished it because I was sufficiently mildly interested in how the train wreck would resolve itself. I gave it three stars on Goodreads only because they don't have a half-star system, and two seemed a little too harsh.

This is a "read if you've got nothing else better on your TBR list or there's nothing better in the library. Or on TV." I mean that. There's better storytelling on television. Even on the networks.

As for the details...

When I started thinking about how to best summarize my feelings on this, I was going to devise a "Deeply Odd Drinking Game." Only I realized it would more likely be the "Deeply Odd Sure-fire Path to Alcohol Poisoning" which doesn't really sound like anybody's idea of a game. Least no one I want to go drinking with, at any rate. So, instead, I've devised a game we'll call "Spot the Plot." Here's how you play. Open the book, anywhere, at random. Read a paragraph. Does it have anything to do with the plot?

Odds are, no. (Pun not intentional.)

Try again.

Odds are, the next one won't, either.

As you could be at this a while, let me tell you what you will find, in no particular order:

Odd reminisces about his dead girlfriend

Odd tells someone to call him "Odd" - and the they don't. Or vice versa as in someone tells Odd to call them "X" and he insists on saying "Mr X" or "Mrs X" or some such.

Odd ruminates on the nature of evil and evil people, which, frankly, he does so often I figure he's got more stomachs than a cow.

Someone tells Odd how special he is, how much he's going to do. Bonus points for it being random characters who more or less exist in the book solely to tell Odd how special he is.

Odd then goes "gee aw shucks." (This is a separate point because he does this a bit.)

While I normally write spoiler-free (as much as possible) reviews of the things I read, please be aware I have now spoiled half the book for you.

Yes, half. I wish I was making that up.

Koontz is one of those authors who is largely hit or miss for me. Either I really like the book, or I don't, and the reasons why I don't have become somewhat predictable over his long and very prolific career. I have thought, in the past, that some of his prolificness may be what hurts certain books, and why, in more recent years, he's become a bit more miss for me than hit. I've learned to read the book jackets, anticipate the plot, and know beforehand whether I want to give it a go. Occasionally I'm wrong - his "Shadow Street" book fell flat for me despite my hopes - and so far the Odd series had avoided Koontz's more problematic pitfalls.

This one, by contrast, was a study in them. (The only thing it was missing was a dog. I mean, there was a dog, of course there was, but it was a much less precious and precocious pooch than the usual canines that show up in Koontz's books. Oh, and the precocious "special" child was missing from this one. Sort of.) I figure there was only about enough plot in this, as written, to sustain half the total pages. This could have been a novella, and a much more satisfying one than it was as a novel. Moreover, although the series is clearly building on things, you could easily skip this one, as now doubt all the things you really need to know will be gone over in great depth and far too much detail in the next installment. Or, better yet, they won't be, and this little escapade in Odd's tales will be written off as a bad dream.

I'm really hoping this doesn't mark a turning point for the series, though I have reasons to fear it does. I started off liking Koontz's Frankenstein series, though that series went off the rails much, much faster. The first book held so much great promise, and the second one mostly spent its time breaking that promise by partially or wholly abandoning most of the premises that made the first one so good. (And by slipping into the standard Koontz cliches. Though I think it avoided the dog, there was the child.) By the end of the Frankenstein books I was so thoroughly unimpressed that I read them mostly for completion's sake.

If the Odd series keeps going the way of this book, I may not be able to even muster that much effort.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Saturday Review: Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore

Been sitting on this review a while, but as the sequel to this is due out soon, I figured I ought to get around to writing it. I've been sitting on it because while I liked the book a lot, overall, especially the world-building that goes on in the first book of any series, and the novel approach to the mythology the author is utilizing (both of which I will address in a minute), I had a problem with the ending ... and I'm not sure exactly why.

But I'll get to that.

First, the world-building. This is a novel where, if the characters and the places hadn't been rattling around in the author's brain for a long, long time, it certainly felt that way. This was a cast of characters with history, much of it broken, and if the reader doesn't know all of it to start - or even by the end - it doesn't matter because you can still feel the weight of that history bearing down on them, some more than others. It's almost an in media res (if I may channel my high school English classes) set up, save for the initial event that gets the plot rolling. But there's a lot going on with these people (well, most are people, a few are... other things), and it gives them an added depth that not every initial novel manages. The rules are quickly laid out, the roles defined, and more importantly a layer of grime and dirt is smeared over everything, letting you know that not only is the world a lived-in one, but that's it's often not a nice one.

Part of that hinges on the depth to the mythology that's being plumbed here. I will not claim to read a lot of urban fantasy, as that genre's gotten way too big for me to catch up with (and I rarely delve into the side alleys of romance and the other related areas), but the authors I stick with are the ones that can do something new and different with the established mythos. (One can only take so many fairies who are clearly borrowed out of Tolkien (and mistaken for elves), Shakespeare, or Barre.) From the cold-opening, readers are treated to a different pantheon, and it's quickly made clear that there are multiple frameworks at play in this world. Not only does this make a nice change of pace to be dealing with Mayan deities and Vodou loa, but it also opens up the possibilities for future novels in the series. You get the early feeling that there isn't anything that's not on the table. Moreover, the different gods/spirits are given distinctly different feels. This isn't just a cut and paste approach to the various mythologies; Blackmoore's done his homework, or at least doing a good impression of it.

Which brings me to the only problem I had with this: the ending. It wasn't quite as satisfying as I had hopes for, in part because by the end it's clear that one aspect of the plot was little more than a MacGuffin to set up another aspect. And that second aspect doesn't quite deliver, in some ways reading mostly as a set-up for future novels. Which I'm fine with a first book doing, so long as something in the first book is properly resolved. Dead Things doesn't quite do that, and worse for me was that it felt like to get there, the lead had to do something rather... well, stupid. With plenty of other characters telling him it was not only stupid, but unnecessary. Granted, there's likely not a one of us who hasn't done something in our own lives with those same parameters, and there are explanatory circumstances so it's not as if he's handed an idiot ball, but, still... it didn't feel quite right, and worse, seemed to shut the door on one of the more interesting side players we'd been introduced to.

Bottom line is, I really liked it, up until the last few chapters, and those weren't enough to deter me from the next book (which, as I mentioned, is either already out or out soon). There's a lot of promise in the premise, and I want to see what Blackmoore does with it.

I will say that, even though it fits in the UF genre (or however the heck you want to categorize that), it is a lot grimmer, a lot darker, and a lot grittier than other series. It reminded me some of Richard Kadrey's Sandman Slim books, only less humorous (which is saying something). Blackmoore reads like a cross between Jim Butcher and Andrew Vachss, and that may not be to everyone's taste. It is to mine, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next book goes.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Saturday Review: X-Files, Season 1

First of all, to those of you asking why I'm "reviewing" a series that is now 20 years old (yes, you read that right) here's the thing: I had money last year, and like any good American, I splurged some. Including buying the complete series of the X-Files. (Amazon had it on sale, okay, so don't judge me.) As I started to watch it I was curious to see whether it would hold up, being 20 years old, or whether it would, like many cherished things from my childhood, fall flat. And by "childhood" I mean college years, because let's face it, most of us aren't really adults those first few years in college. And by "fall flat," I mean turn out to be much, much more horrible than I ever realized it was, like Flash Gordon, which, let's face it, could not be saved even by the combined powers of Queen, Brian Blessed, and a future James Bond.

The X-Files did not have a catchy theme tune by a popular, possibly even god-like, rock band. If it features a role starring a future James Bond, it was not in Season 1. And nowhere did anyone even begin to approach the levels of scenery consumption that Brian Blessed achieves solely by walking on set. It was, however, just as good as I remembered it being.

Some things do not hold up, of course. It was a product of the 90s, and the first on-screen appearance by a boxy-nosed car was a little jarring, mostly because I associate those with a much earlier and more primitive era. (The 80s.) In certain respects you have to regard the X-Files as something of a period piece, harkening back to a time when women still wore shoulder pads to rival NFL linebackers and you could use a portable phone to bludgeon someone to death. Any scene featuring a computer is almost comedic.

There are also certain actors whose immediate presence automatically screams early 90s - such as Amanda Pays, who I had a huge crush on ever since her roles in The Flash and Max Headroom, both of which I would also buy if Amazon put them sufficiently on sale because I am weak like that, as well as some who are still around, like Mark Sheppard of BSG and Supernatural fame. (Who has also freakishly not aged in the intervening 20 years. Made me wonder whether his role as Crowley is really an act.)

That said, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that everything I loved about the early years of the X-Files still held up. Although there is a distinct low-budget quality to the first half of Season 1, probably due to concerns about whether the series would survive past mid-season, it's clear that Fox knew they had a hit on their hands and started shoveling more money toward the show in the second half. Starting with the death of Scully's father, there's a decided upswing in the effects and the locations that is rather noticeable. Yet this change in resources doesn't mean that the first half of the season is, from a story standpoint, weaker than the first. Indeed, the first half of Season 1 features one of the more memorable villains from X-Files lore.

I was also surprised to see that many episodes I thought were in the first season are, instead, in the second season, with the exception of one of my all-time favorite episodes, "Darkness Falls," which still managed to creep me out some. Indeed, many of what would become staples of the later seasons were conspicuously absent here: there is no black oil, Skinner is only introduced late in the season, and the Cigarette Smoking Man is less adversary and more just nameless face of the conspiracy.

There is obvious chemistry between Mulder and Scully from the start, and it was interesting to watch as their roles of believer and skeptic solidified some. I can see why I kept watching the show, and why I still maintain that the show was often strongest when it wasn't dealing with its core mythos of aliens and UFOs and abductions. Most of the stand-out episodes of the first season are the ones that have nothing at all to do with extra-terrestrials.

That said, the first season did manage to set the stage for things to come. The conspiracy hinted at in the first episode was slowly expanded on, and a sense of menace imbued to the key players.  There is the appearance of the "establishment" trying to shut down the X-Files (which of course they manage to do by the end of the season, as would happen a couple of times throughout the series run).  There were the supporting players like the Lone Gunmen, who remind the audience that as far out there as Fox Mulder might seem, he wasn't the craziest one out there.

There were also things that, if memory serves, got lost a little bit in later seasons. Certainly when aliens became more the focus there was less "weirdness of the week," but almost all long-running shows with similar themes have to eventually outgrow that if they are to survive (see Supernatural, for instance). And I think there was less made of the fact that Fox was, in fact, quite the brilliant agent at the FBI who chose to dedicate his career to weirdness, and as such respected for his talents if mocked for his beliefs.

All in all, I enjoyed re-watching the first season, and am looking forward to watching Season 2 now, which has some more of the episodes and themes I more clearly remember (like the one with the submarine and the fluke man). Although parts of Season 1 did feel dated, I did mange to recapture the things that got me hooked on the X-Files way back in my freshman year of college, and that alone was worth the cost.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Throwing the Sacred Cow to the Wolves

I am not watching "Bitten." This is despite the fact that I have had a crush on Laura Vandervoort since Smallville. This is also despite the fact that I read and - at the time - enjoyed the books. I'd like at some point to finish the Otherworld series, which I never got around to doing, but know that as this point I'd have to reread in order to catch up, and I've been putting that off for the same reason I'm not watching the show.

I have a problem with the central relationship of the show (and the first such relationship in the books). A big problem, that I think gets glossed over far too frequently in the genre. It comes in two parts, the first one being the idea that the two people in the relationship, Clay and Elena, are "meant" to be together. I know this is a standard trope, especially in paranormal romance, but I viewed many of the Otherworld books as leaning more towards straight Urban Fantasy than its romantic subset. And to be fair, I don't remember it being as strong a push toward them as a couple as it usually is in what I have heard referred to as the "fated mates" trope.

Instead, to the best of my recollection, it's more of a "the author has decided this couple should go together, so they will, and damn any uncomfortable repercussions." (Not too very different from JK Rowling's recent pronouncement about Harry and Hermione. Which, being in the middle of rereading the Harry Potter series, I take issue with. But that's another post.) But we'll get back to the fated mates thing. And there are some unsettling issues that arise from that push. Oh yes indeed there are.

Clay assaults Elena. And yet they end up The Couple. Because, of course, Clay is hot. And this makes up for the fact that he is a Class 1 Jerk ... and that he assaults her. Now, I know, some of you out there are at this point screaming at the monitor that he does not do any such thing. He "just" bites her.

That's crap.

And not only is it crap, it's recognized as crap in the book. Clay, in biting her, does something he is not supposed to do. Something that is treated - in the book - as a major offense. Something that gets him punished, severely. Only later on is seemingly all is forgiven when Elena falls in love because, hey, Clay's hot so it's okay.

Which is still crap. Even leaving out the arguments laid down in the novel itself about why it is very much NOT OKAY, think of it from this perspective. He bites her. That, by itself, in human context, is an assault. If someone just came up to you and bit you, you'd be pissed. If a dog just came up to you and bit you, they'd put it down. Beyond that, not only does she get bit, but it completely upsets her life, results in her questioning who she is, forces her out of the life she had been living (quite happily, mind you), and all for the sole reason that Clay can have someone like himself. Because let's be clear here, being a werewolf in that universe is not seen as this great thing, especially not from Elena's standpoint.

Clay's action is violent, selfish, self-serving, and puts Elena through real physical and psychological trauma. ... And yet, they end up the couple. Take away the werewolf bit, and would anyone out there argue that this is right?

Nor is this the only example. I started reading another series of books. (I'm leaving this one nameless, because unlike the Otherworld books the central POV does not switch people, so this incident pretty much damns the whole series for me.) I liked them. Up until the main heroine is forced into marrying the Alpha Male - which is a ridiculous and wholly manufactured concept anyway in wolves - immediately after she'd been raped.

Yes, you read that right. The assault in question this time at least comes from the bad guy, at the end of the previous book. And at first, with the next book, the aftereffects of this are taken seriously. The heroine is having issues with simply being touched, where it's setting off anxiety attacks and making her physically ill. Even when she's touched by someone she likes - including, specifically, the aforementioned alpha male who has, until this point, been competing for her affections with someone else. (Remember that point, too.)

And then the big bad of the new book rears its head. And, to "keep her safe," this same alpha - who, remember, she just got sick when he went to just hug her - forces her not only to choose him as the person she loves, but also to immediately be married to him.

And it's treated as being entirely okay. Because, again, he's attractive and charming and hey she had a thing for him anyway. So who cares that she's just been through something where she was forced into something against her will? That was different, because that was the bad guy. This is the good guy, so his taking the decision from her, forcing his relationship on her, because he decides it's in her best interest, that's okay.

Remember, he wasn't even her only romantic interest. She had pointedly still been unsure of which guy she wanted not ten pages earlier, and still reeling from the assault. But, again, it's okay that the alpha forces her, because that's the way it's meant to be.

Look, folks, I'm sorry, but it does not get to be okay when a guy forces a woman to do anything along these lines, no matter what argument you make about him being the "right" guy. Because under any other circumstances, the very fact that he forces this on her would most definitely not make him the "right" guy and would, in fact, make him the opposite of the right guy. But because it's a romantic trope, because the guy is hot and charming or suave and dangerous, that somehow makes it right.

No, no it does not.

Fantasy or not, there is no circumstance under which something like that is all right. As a trope, it needs to go, and there needs to be a harder look at this idea that force is an acceptable way to ensure a relationship when it's the "right" guy. This isn't about fantasy, anyway. These characters weren't playacting a role (which is different). These were two men forcing two women into a way of life without giving them the option to choose.

Find me any other setting where that is something that should be condoned, and maybe then I'll start watching "Bitten."

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Saturday Review: Windup Girl

I am a big fan of William Gibson. The novels of The Sprawl were my first introduction to "modern" science fiction (for as valid a term as that is), and over the intervening decades since I first stumbled across them, I have eagerly awaited each of Gibson's new novels. Which, as anyone who is a fan of Gibson knows, is a usually a pretty long wait. And while they are always worth the wait, I am not very patient. Fortunately, there is The Windup Girl.

If I called this book Gibsonian, that would probably sum up it's basic premise better than anything else. TWG is not cyberpunk in any traditional sense (a quick look at blurbs describes it as "biopunk," but that seems too easy a label), but the nature of the world the characters lives in has that same streetwise neo-noir future. Only where Gibson and others delved into the realm of the computer and the technological, Bacigalupi's future is more organic, and one that seems a much more impending future. The set-up is simple: this is a post carbon-crash world, one where fossil fuels have either run out or run sufficiently short to amount to the same thing. Bioengineering is a way of life and has been for a while, with the consequence that there are genetically modified foods in the market, strange new artificially created life forms, and frightening new viruses and plagues.

At one part steampunk in it's approach to getting around the problems created by a lack of combustion engines (there are airships, of course), unlike stories in that genre this is no alternate future or reworked past. This is a serious look at what such a new world would mean not only for the world economy and the great nations, but smaller nations as well. And if it is one part steampunk, it is also one part dystopian disaster fiction. Climate change is a harsh reality in this world, all the more so for nations that live close to sea level, including Thailand, where the story is set. The sea is kept just barely at bay, and at great expense. Just as real are the results of bioengineered crops and animals more keenly felt in smaller, less powerful nations. Eating the wrong food from the market can expose yourself to all sorts of unpleasant consequences, and people are always on the lookout for past food stores and genetics that offer purer alternatives.

We meet several characters, each of them compelling in their own way if not all equally likeable. One is a company man, a "Calorie Man" working for what seem to be the big movers and shakers in this new world: biotech companies. Here, too, the author draws on a familiar theme, that of the mega company of the future that is the ultimate mover and shaker in a world where old political and economic boundaries have fallen. But, again, TWG does something a little different with it, and gives us the perspective of the smaller nation having to compete and defend itself against companies that would have felt right at home in a William Gibson novel. 

Another character is the titular Windup Girl, a creation straight out of Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (though perhaps owing more to Bladerunner than the novel itself), an artificial woman struggling with the nature of who and what she is. Then there are government rebels, and self-serving refugees, and a host of smaller characters, all at once both familiar and new. All as equally plausible, as equally believable as the setting itself.

This is a novel that draws heavily on past materials, then interweaves them with new ideas and points them in new directions, all masterfully written with a style that was as compelling as it was innovative. Once started it was hard to put down, as I kept wanting to spend more time in this world the author has created, even if parts of that world aren't very pleasant.

In fact, if I had one complaint about this novel, it is that it is so far the only novel set in this world. Bacigalupi has written two short stories set in this universe, but The Windup Girl is the first full-length novel. (Which was a bit surprising. I expected "Calorie Man" to be another novel, given how fully formed this world he's created is, and it took me a bit of searching to discover it was in a book and not a book itself.) Just so long as it's not the last, I'll be a very, very happy reader.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Problem of Ernest Frankenstein

It's nice to know even the classic authors made mistakes. Not little typographical mistakes, either, but large, "how the heck did that happen" mistakes.

Take, for example, Ernest Frankenstein.

Now, at this point I expect half of you are going "Ernest who?" and protesting that the protagonist's - or, depending on your point of view, antagonist's - name is Victor.

The other half of you are going, "It's Franken-STEEN." (Actually, I hope all of you were doing that, first, then splitting into two factions.)

Now, for those of you who either haven't read it, or haven't read it in a while, a great refresher read on the classic novel has been put out by Gris Grimly (whom you can find here). Grimly gave Shelley's novel the graphic novel treatment, and it is GORGEOUS. If you haven't yet read Frankenstein, and have always wanted to, but argue you don't have the time, this is the version for you. If you have read it, this is still the version for you. So go, read, now, and then come back so we can continue.

[I know I joke about this all the time, but on this one I mean it. Even if you've read Frankenstein before, you've not seen it like this. Go, get it from your library, and read it. Or better yet, buy it. Or even better still, buy it for me, because you missed my birthday and Christmas. I shall wait anxiously by the door for the Amazon drone.]

I picked it up from the library, and before I could finish it, my 9 year old daughter picked it up and finished it first. Took her two days, and she enjoyed it immensely. But then she asked me something.

"What happened to Ernest?"

And, because I had not yet gotten that far, I said, "Who?"

So, in case you did not take my instructions seriously, Ernest is Victor's younger brother. Not THE younger brother, however, because that would be the youngest brother William (looking in Grimly's version like a creepy Pillsbury Doughboy). It is William who plays the role of the Monster's first victim. It is William who gets all the press. It is William whose death sets many horrible things in motion.

Ernest is the other brother. The middle brother. And if ever there were an argument for the middle sibling being overlooked between the eldest and the youngest, Ernest would be the poster child. In the first version of the book, which is the one Grimly adapts, Ernest just... disappears. Something is mentioned about him becoming a farmer in a letter and then... nothing. He's just gone.

Meanwhile, the Monster continues the roaring rampage of revenge through the rest of Victor's family and even friends. No one is left untouched. Heck, no one else in Victor's circle is left alive by the end of the book.*

Except Ernest.

Now, in fairness, Shelley wrote the novel quickly, by hand, and seemed to realize what she had done with regards to poor Ernest after the first version was published. By which I mean instead of relegating him to some farm, she sent him off to join the military.

And then forgot about him. Again.

He doesn't get mentioned again. Not for the wedding, not when the father dies... nothing. Again. I'm presuming that it was easier to simply ignore him for the latter sections of the book than somehow rework him in, but the attempt to explain his absence only highlighted it further. Ernest is the only Frankenstein to survive the book, but even in subsequent editions he's never mentioned again once William the Creepy Doughboy dies. I think it might have been less obvious if Shelley had just continued to ignore him.

In this modern age of computers and searchable files, it's all too easy to sit here and poke fun at Shelley. She could not, with the press of a few keys, discover she had created a character in the beginning of the novel that she then subsequently forgot about. I cannot even begin to imagine writing a novel by hand (though I know some still do), let alone everything it took for a woman to get a book published back then.

Still, I find myself asking why, in subsequent editions, she just didn't take him out completely. He adds nothing to the story, serves no discernible purpose, and other than arguing that he just takes on a life of his own (Frankenstein's Monster-like) once he's in that first edition, there's no rationale for his being there.

And it makes me wonder how many other unaccounted for characters are out there in classic fiction. Did Long John Silver have a brother? (Short Tom Bronze, maybe?) Was Ahab avenged by a cousin we didn't know about? Was there a fifth rabbit besides Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail who is not perpetually at the mercy of Farmer McGregor? Maybe the literary world is littered with the likes of Ernest Frankenstein.

In the end, the only answer I could give my daughter was, "Ernest lives."

And maybe someday, someone will write his story.

*(I am not putting a spoiler warning on a post that talks about a 200 year old story. If you don't know it all ends badly at this point, someone neglected your literary education. Possibly you.)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Saturday Review: Helix

Details matter. Details can make or break a story, because if the writer can't pay attention to details, you have to wonder about the rest of it. Now, I know some things get overlooked. Mistakes happen, and I'm okay with that. There's also a certain amount of suspension of disbelief required in almost any story, no matter how "realistic" it is. The less grounded in reality, the greater the suspension, but details can be key to holding that suspension in place.

It's in the details where Helix fell apart for me. I'm disappointed by this, because I wanted to like the show. There's certainly a lot to like about it, including the cast, but I couldn't help feeling they overlooked too many things. Maybe this is nitpicking, but when it gets to a certain level the nits start unraveling the whole.

(A couple of spoilers in this, so just be forewarned.)

I'm going to break these down into a couple of categories, starting with


Point #1: Okay, did anyone in charge of this show remember that the Arctic, unlike it's southern cousin, is an ocean. I know one person did: whoever did that gorgeous matte that was under the helicopter on approach to the facility. Did you see those cracks? They were great. They were there because, again, the Arctic is an ocean, and the ice there does very different things than ice on solid land. There's a reason there aren't the kind of bases in the Arctic that there are in the Antarctic, and one of those is that sea ice isn't anywhere near as stable.

Even when it isn't melting. Which brings me to

Point #2. Now, they did a nice job on the map situating it in a place where there is still not open water in the summer in the Arctic, but whoever sank the probably millions if not billions of dollars into this thing (I mean, did you see that head office? Wood floors, spacious enough to park a couple of cars in, and that massive window? In the Arctic?), I hope they designed it to float in the long term.

Now, judging by the day/night cycles it's somewhere between summer and winter (because they are, according to what they said, above the Arctic circle), so we can't expect it to be at the height of summer,  and we're not yet to open water in the entire Arctic in the summer, but if I were building something like that, I'd be worried about it.

Point #3: Speaking of temperature, what idiot walks out into that kind of cold without a face covering? Idiots who spend their lives in LA and don't actually have any appreciation for cold weather, that's who. This one should have been a matter of common sense. Again, even allowing that it's not the dead of winter, there was serious blowing snow and cold. Enough cold to freeze the monkeys solid, and rather quickly by the looks of it.  And yet, the army guy, and the scientist trying to escape, are out there dressed no more warmly than if they're trying to build a snow fort on a Saturday afternoon.

Contagion Protocol

If these are really the people working at the CDC, I'm suddenly a lot more frightened. I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. And even I know that those suits they wear are not just about airborne pathogens. Even I know that you don't take off the thing that protects your face when you have infected rats right in front of you. For something that they know is so deadly, they are awfully cavalier about it in certain scenes.

Beyond that, it looks as though new people will be showing up. I'm sorry, but what part of "quarantine" were they unfamiliar with? New people cannot come in, just as the old people cannot come out. That's what it means to be quarantined.

Even before the outbreak, why are there such big air vents? Why aren't there more filters that would make it harder for the bad guy to move around in the vents in the first place? This is a lab dealing with various pathogens, some of which had to be potentially airborne, and yet there seem to have been zero precautions in place. Maybe this will be explained as part of some nefarious scheme, but still...

Common Sense

This to me is the most damning part. Okay, they're playing fast and loose with the CDC stuff. Not like it hasn't been done before. Okay, it was clearly written by people who only see snow in snow globes. Not the first time there, either. But then there were these things:

You have a dangerous, contagious man on the loose. And yet, near as I can tell, the job of head of security is to stand around behind the others. Everyone seems to forget to look for the biggest threat.  What else does security have to do at this point other than conduct a manhunt for the number one threat to them all? Because clearly security isn't doing other things they should be.

Then the bad guy takes the hand of one of his victims. We know the chip in the hand allows access to the locks. Why not immediately rescind the dead guy's access? If I could figure out that's what he wanted a hand for, the guy who's job it is to keep everyone secure should have. Heck, even if it wasn't what the bad guy wanted the hand for, this does not seem an unreasonable precaution. Yet no one even suggests it, even after it's been demonstrated that access can, in fact, be restricted.

Also, what's the number one rule of any horror film? DO NOT GO ANYWHERE ALONE. This is not just a question of the characters being less genre-savvy than the audience, this is common sense. You have a bad guy who is traveling through the air vents, vents that lead everywhere and cannot be sealed off. (I'll grant them that one, seeing as the bad guy demonstrates serious strength.) Why is anyone, ANYONE, traveling through the facility or working alone at this point? I don't care if you're taking a shower, you don't go alone.

Speaking of which, tracking a person through a metal air vent should not be hard. It makes an awful lot of noise. Although in this case it only seemed to do so when necessary to build suspense. Though I suppose that falls under the convention of having big enough vents to move around in anyway. Look, I bought it for Die Hard - which they had the good grace to name drop - but, in the intervening decades, I thought we'd all become savvy enough to know that in real life, these vents aren't big enough for that.

I'd like to nitpick having to manually search for the guy in the vents in the first place, but it's not entirely implausible that there isn't so much as a Roomba in the entire facility. Though, really, someone or something has to be keeping that gorgeous hardwood floor clean and shiny.

So, where does that leave me with the show?

When all is said and done, I really, really wanted this to be good. And parts of it are. Parts of it - and some of these are narrative things that I did not address here - are not. The lack of attention to detail worries me, from the small details to the big ones that seem to be driving the story.

I may tune in next week, but I really think they've lost me just by not paying enough attention.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Too Far vs Not Far Enough

I put down two books in a row last week. Both books looked promising; yes, I judge a book by its cover. And the book flap. So do you, so let's not quibble over this. One book was even by an author I have heard of, who has a good reputation.

That said, I got no more than three and a half chapters into the first book, and about ten pages into the second. Which in both cases turned out to be more than enough. The books were plagued by different problems on opposite ends of the storytelling spectrum, but both were deeply flawed enough for me to put them down.

Well, let me rephrase that. "Deeply" flawed makes them sound like the offspring of someone's high school project and a vanity press. These were not. Under different expectations, they might have been good, and I'll say honestly that had I picked up the second book when it was published in the late 80's, teen me would have probably loved it.

Teen me also liked hot pockets. Tastes change.

Both books were science fiction, which is the extent of what they have in common. The plot of either isn't really important to this post, save that, again, both looked interesting. The first book collapsed under the weight of it's own characters. Specifically, the first three chapters dealt with three separate characters, and sadly only one of them was interesting. There was also head-hopping, wherein the POV changed character mid-scene as two of the characters interacted. That's a particular pet peeve in my case, but it happens, and I've kept reading despite it before. (Michael Crichton was guilty of this at least once.) Only the first chapter, the one with the interesting character, dealt with the science fiction premise of the book. The other two could have been at home in books of any genre. They were stock, they were cliche, and because of it they were boring.

I got the impression the book was the first author's foray into science fiction, and that the author is primarily a writer of literary-esque fiction. There's probably an argument in there about sticking to what you're good at, but as the late Iain Banks demonstrated, you can be good at both. (The entire argument about genre vs literary could actually be buried under the weight of Banks alone, but I'm sure it'll pop up again zombie-like sometime soon.) That said, I think the author needed more practice. Or at least more time spent brainstorming a character sheet.

The second book had the opposite problem. There was too much science fiction all crammed into a small space. What I mean by this is that there was not a single piece of equipment used in the first set piece that the author hadn't renamed. The gun, the plane, the outfit, the ammunition. A few had been confusingly renamed, as it took me a bit to figure out he was referring to some sort of vision enhancement thing. I know there's a fine line in science fiction about these things. You are going to have to create terms, at least beyond "thing," which as I've just demonstrated only gets you so far. But there's a limit. You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you design a car, after all.

Some of this I think is more a product of the book's time than anything else. I seem to recall a lot of science fiction doing this in the 80's, and perhaps if I went back and reread some of the books I loved then, they wouldn't make the cut, either. Yet I have a strong suspicion the really good ones would make it. (I am tempted to re-read Neuromancer just to see.)

Neither of these two problems, on opposite ends of the genre spectrum as they are, would be inherently fatal to the books for everyone, I am sure. It was for me, though, and I have enough other books waiting to be read without spending time on a bad book no matter how strong the premise.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Fictional Conversations?

If you have not read any of the exploits of Harry Dresden, as penned by Jim Butcher, than much of the following may not make sense to you. So, go read. It's only 13, maybe 14 books at this point? You can catch up. I'll wait.

Ready? Good.

So, this happened.

Yup, that's me.

No, not the wizard, the question. I know, I know, it's anonymous, but trust me, it's me. (I made a Gattaca reference. That, by itself, has to limit the number of people it could be. Although it's a seriously underrated movie.) And it made me inexpressibly happy. Squee-worthy happy.

Now, I've been retweeted and responded to before on the internet, by some pretty heady company. Car Talk, NPR Books, Think Geek (I think it was about the monkey), and even Neil Gaiman.

(I'm not humblebragging. I'm just bragging. There isn't a humble bone in my body.)

This is not to say Neil Gaiman replied to me. I was merely retweeted. It was sufficient.

[Although someday I hope to meet Mr Gaiman. Not for a book signing, but in a drink line or a bar at a convention or something.

Yes, yes, I hear you. You're saying, "Surely someone of Neil's" - because I presume those of you objecting are the kind who would put yourself on a first-name basis with him - "Surely someone of his fame and stature has people who fetch his drinks. He must have drinks people, he's won awards." And while that may be true - the drinks people part, not the awards part which is definitely true -  I expect that he is the kind of person who fetches such things himself.

... I feel compelled to quickly point out that the first two words in the "drinks people part" are an adjective and a noun, not a verb and an object. Important distinction, that.

I also expect nothing more than to perhaps maybe shake his hand, gush profusely, and stammer semi-coherently. Which is pretty much what I did when I met Jane Goodall. (Not bragging this time. I'm sure she doesn't remember me, even above and beyond the minor inconvenience of no longer being among the living.) And now that I have sufficiently digressed...]

And yet - and this is a sizable "and yet" - the reply from the wizard made me as happy if not slightly happier than all of the above. I'm not entirely sure why.

Sure, it was an awesome response. I could read entire books of that magic geek stuff, because I find that kind of minutiae fascinating. (I have issues, I know.)

And yes, I'm a fan, obviously. But I am not an obsessive fan. I do not play the game. I do not watch the fan films. This despite being assured both are awesome. And while I do own the DVD of the short-lived tv series, I also seem to be one of the few fans who doesn't have too many problems with it. In fact, if you ask me, the more hard core fans shot themselves in the foot by getting all nit-picky about the tv show and are responsible for its premature death.

But, beyond that, I think my response to this gets at the core of some of the meta-ness of having fictional people on Twitter and elsewhere on the internet. A trend for which Harry isn't even the poster child, but just one of many. Although I give the people behind it full credit, and they have done a sizable job bringing a large chunk of the Dresden universe into an interactive environment where it's not just fans the characters interact with, but each other. However the people behind the scenes were cast, they've done an excellent job of it.

This should be separated from the use of fictional aliases that are used for non-character purposes. Let's be honest, there are so many Drunk Hulk Twitter personalities that, were it really Hulk, he'd never have time to get drunk. Dunk Hulk is a shorthand for getting somewhat vociferous and forgetting to turn off the caps lock.

Harry and his ilk are different. These are the "actual" characters. Yes, I'm going to put that in quotes, because despite addressing my question directly to Harry, I know full well that the illusion only works so long as we don't peer behind the curtain. I have no little dog for that, anyway, and my cat certainly couldn't be bothered. My willingness to participate in that illusion, however, does not equal a blind acceptance of the underlying conceit, and I doubt anyone who interacts with any of the characters online feels differently.

Though I have learned not to underestimate the internet. No doubt someone out there does believe. Which, so long as it's harmless, is fine with me. I believe in Santa Claus, after all. (Me and Frank Sinatra, by the way, so that's pretty damn good company.)

I wouldn't want the characters to be actual people in the first place. Leaving aside the issues that arise from the "author as agent" concept, I don't want Harry's world to be real. Because that would be terrifying. Although it might be worth it for the T-rex incident. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, then you didn't read the books like I told you to at the beginning. You've got to follow directions, people.)

All of which gets me back to the unbridled elation I felt upon seeing my question answered. It's not just that it's a neat little trick, it's the willingness on the part of the author to sign off on this and say, you know what, let's give the fans a little something extra. It's the willingness of the fans of the author to buy into it, to accept the idea that we're talking to the characters. We go along with it not just because it's fun, not just because it tides us over between books, but also because it brings an extra dimension to the experience. It deepens our interaction, adds layers that can't exist elsewhere, and, yes, gives us a place where we can get our geeky little questions answered.

Although that last part may just be me.