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.