Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Wash: That sounds like science fiction.

Zoe: You live in a spaceship, dear.

Wash: So?
(Objects in Space)

Joss Whedon’s Firefly is just about the definition of a cult classic: a show beloved by fans but cruelly abused and then cancelled by network executives, a show whose history is filled with heroic fan attempts at revivals, and even, in recent history, dreams of a resurrection by the show’s star, Patrick Rothfuss, and boatloads of others. Is it worth all of that? Yes and more, even if what we do have isn't flawless.

In the show’s first aired episode (and the second episode on the DVD), The Train Job, we open with three of our main characters in a bar filled with dust, oriental decorations, and six shooters. It’s the anniversary of the Alliance’s victory, and the patrons are toasting the end of state’s – sorry, planet’s – rights and the awesomeness of a central authority that helpfully, as captain Mal Reynolds later puts it, That sounds like the Alliance. Unite the planets under one rule. Everyone can be interfered with or ignored. Equally. (The Train Job) Mal, never one for common sense, decides the best idea is to engage in a bar fight laden with underhand tricks. Humorous lines, however, prove to be not quite enough, and Mal’s thrown through the bar’s holographic window. Right there, you’ve got just about every element of Firefly: idealism, brawling, closely knit characters, witty dialogue, and a mixture of grit and grandeur.

Firefly is centered around the eight member crew of the smuggling ship, Serenity, and the relationships between them. Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds is the show’s soul. Part of the reason that Fox network executives disliked the original pilot episode – Serenity – was evidently that Mal was too “dour.” Because of this, Whedon made Fillion’s character more jocular in episodes like Train Job and others. But that makes the dour accusation so strange is that the two aspects of Mal’s personality aren’t separate at all. His downbeat humor gives the show its levity, and it’s his fierce loyalty to his crew and daredevil rage that give the show its tension.

There’s a feeling one gets at times while watching that Whedon is trying to portray Mal as some kind of antihero, a crook as ambiguous as he is honorable. None of this has much effect. Mal is a pure white character, someone who never goes against his moral code and has the viewer behind him from his first words on screen. Mal returns stolen medicine, protects the week, and has a strong aversion to murder, even when it would seem to be the most beneficial option for him and his own. Mal is, essentially, the perpetrator of a victimless brand of smuggling, where we never see so much as a single soul hurt by his actions that is not either, A. immediately recompensed by him and his crew, or B. the Alliance government.

But the character's goodness is certainly not a negative. Mal is charismatic beyond belief, and Fillion's performance is the kind that could carry a show alone (though it certainly doesn't have to). Mal is a character mired in our past and our future, a man obsessed with every man's ability to do what's right and for every state world to make its own choices. The rebellion he fought for is gone, and he can only find solace in space, constantly fleeing beyond the reach of corrupting civilization. Save a few friendships too warm and distrustful to be injured by anything as cheap and commonplace as mutual betrayals, Mal's crew is all that he has left, and, as the show and Whedon make very clear, they are his family, the last bastion of his perfect world, and the lengths that he goes to to protect those around him are both inspirational and horrifying.

One of the show’s more controversial aspects is its treatment of women and sexuality. Whedon’s world seems, for the most part, post-sexism. Women are shown performing just about every societal role from soldiers to leaders and back again. The best example of this is probably Kaylee, the honest, warm, and utterly open ship’s mechanic. The innocence of demeanor contrasts with her first chronological scene with the crew in episode six, a scene that is likely the show’s most explicit and least passionate sex scene. Kaylee is a character equally interested in engines and pretty dresses, and actress Jewel Staite brings enough charm to the role to make every one of the character’s contradictions a strength.

Gender roles get more complex, however, when the subject of paid sex comes up. Inara – played by Morena Baccarin – is a Companion, a position that consists of nothing but high class prostitution, yet is so prestigious that it can “bring respectability” to even a crew of beat up smugglers and spring people from prison. When we’re given glimpses of the elite, it’s clear that having a Companion for a date is a sign of status, not ineptitude. Furthermore, Companions are recruited from the highest echelons of society, from a group of women who evidently decide that living pampered lives has nothing on meaningless intercourse. Judging from what we know of Companions, it would seem safe to assume that Kaylee’s open attitude to sexuality is shared by the ‘verse at large, and that prostitution is a perfectly acceptable – and honorable – profession. Somewhat strange, but okay, it’s Whedon’s world and all.

But that viewing doesn’t hold up, because standard whores and doxies abound, and what we see and hear of them paints a picture disreputable and brutal. The episode Heart of Gold brings us to a house of standard whores, and finding the difference between them and Inara’s difficult once one moves past the superficial differences of their sets being dirty and hers clean. A distinction between prostitutes that can chose their clientele makes some degree of sense, I suppose, but the amount of honor that they’re given is rather bizarre and an avenue that Whedon never chooses to fully explore.

In addition to being post sexism, Whedon's Whedon's universe seems one devoid of racial discrimination, though it might have helped reinforce the combination of Western and Chinese cultures if there had been a single prominent Chinese character. Mal’s second command and former army buddy is Zoe, played by Gina Torres. Zoe’s well written and acted, but, while memories of her and Mal in the army or her marriage with Wash might be the center, she herself is never the emotional core of an episode. Alan Tudyk’s Wash, too, is memorable but rarely the center of attention. He takes a starring role in a select few episodes – War Stories, primarily – but is always enjoyable due to his goofiness and infective good humor. Jayne, meanwhile, is just as funny with none of Wash's charm. Jayne's a crass, rude, and often hilarious fighter character that isn't the deepest of the show's cast but is certainly one of the most fun.

Simon and River Tam are the catalyst that sets the pilot in motion and the cause of much of Mal and crew’s importance. River spent several years in an Alliance “Academy” where she experienced a hell that drove her insane and made her brilliant, a hell that she’s still unable to disclose. After realizing the horrors his sister was being subjected to, Simon left a prosperous career as a doctor in the Alliance Core to spring her from prison, and the two find themselves on the run aboard Serenity.

Simon and River don’t fit in with the crew of Serenity and the backwater worlds that the ship trades between. While Inara and Book chose exile from the Core, Sean Maher’s Simon was pushed into it, and his struggle to keep his propriety about him in an environment that views his kind as, at best, ludicrous and, at worse, devils, is the core of his character. It’s clear from the first few episodes that Kaylee finds Simon attractive, but their relationship struggles to survive his sense of culture. As he says to her: I mean, my way of being... polite, or however it's... Well, it's the only way I have of... showing you... that I like you... of showing respect. (Jaynestown)

His sister, Summer Glau’s River, is, after being torn apart again and again by Alliance scientists, a nervous wreck who also happens to be supremely competent at just about everything. Her character, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Now, don’t get me wrong, Glau gets across just the right mix of vulnerability and terrifying otherworldliness, and River is often an interesting element. But she spends just as much time as a gibbering mess, petrified by dreams of “hands of blue” and other gloomy visions. This would be fine if it built to something, but, as the show never gets around to giving us the reason for her condition or the motivations of her oppressors (easy as the latter might be to guess), River often ends up an empty enigma rather than a fascinating secret.

The final character of note is Book, a Shepherd or priest. Ron Glass plays the character with a fantastic level of warmth, and the clashes and intersections of ideologies between Book and the captain are very well done, as are Book's interactions with the rest of the crew. Like so many of Firefly's characters, Book has a secretive and dark past, one connected with the Alliance and clearly far more violent in nature than one would think a Shepherd's. Like so many of the show's secrets, however, the revelations about Book are not forthcoming.

That brings me to perhaps the largest segment of Firefly’s plot: what goes unresolved. Now, I think that everyone’s aware about the show’s unpleasant history with Fox, and, as this review no doubt makes clear, I would love to have new seasons and would probably pay DVD price for each episode if I had to. But, when it comes to leaving huge aspects of the characters unexamined, I don’t think it’s fair to give Fox all of the blame. It’s true that, given more seasons, Whedon would have no doubt answered the various questions he’s posed, but there’s still no denying that the pacing of Firefly’s overall arc is very, very slow, even while each individual episode may zip along.

Clearly, Whedon viewed Firefly’s concept as more of a set up for numerous different plots and situations than as an urgent plot in its own right. This is fine and has obviously been used by a huge number of highly successful shows. A balance always needs to be made between the large and small scale, especially in a medium like television, and it’s the creators choice where their show falls in the spectrum. But, for Firefly, Whedon creates a dozen enigmas, each of which demands a revelation, and then, over the course of fourteen episodes, proceeds to not reveal a single thing. What was done to River? Who are the men with hands of blue? Who was Book? What role do the Reavers play in all this? What’s the fate of Mal’s relationship with Inara or Kaylee’s with Simon? These questions and more are left by the way side as the crew embarks on a multitude of different – albeit excellently executed – adventures.

The show's pilot, Serenity, introduces all of the characters and covers the first meeting between the crew, Simon, and Book. Whedon and co manage to bring in almost all of the show's central elements in just two hours, successfully exploring the relationships that make up the crew, the histories that drew them together, and the world that they find themselves in. When first shown the pilot, Fox balked at its bleakness, and the episode was only shown much later. The source of the darkness Fox saw is obvious, but it's missing the point to describe Serenity has a dark episode. The backdrop of the action is dark, and the characters often come from very dark places, but the nobility of the crew still shines through, and the jokes that are present have more impact coming, as they do, amidst so much tension.

The second episode, The Train Job, is a snappier, more colorful affair. Hired by jovial and menacing super criminal Niska, Mal and crew rob a train, only to discover that the goods they snatched were, in fact, much needed medicines. This is a fun episode through and through, but feels oversimplified compared to both the pilot and later episodes. All the elements are here – larger than life villains, criminals with a heart of gold, and so on – but they’re assembled, after the marketing fiasco of the pilot, in such a way that the connections are impossible to miss and the subtleties are often pushed out of sight.

Bushwhacked focuses on the Reavers. Each member of Serenity's crew has entered space and left who they were before behind, and they've each changed. The Reavers, too, changed, but their change was all a descent. The Reavers are those who, when confronted with the darkness of the infinite, snapped. Though we never get a full on glimpse from one, their mythos are so powerful when explained and explored through other characters and glimpses that the episode is often downright terrifying. The best part, however, may come later, when the crew is interviewed by an Alliance officer. The answers that they give are each hilarious and deeply revealing.

Shindig is one of the show's most focused episodes and perhaps the most successful to utilize the show's Western elements. Both Mal and Inara find themselves at a high class ball, Inara acting as a Companion and Mal attempting to arrange a smuggling deal. While there, however, Mal overhears what he takes as a slight on Inara's honor and ends up in a duel against a master swordsman. Mal, of course, has never fought with a sword in his life. This is one of the two or three episodes where Mal and Inara's relationship is really developed, and though it's difficult to figure out the totality of Mal's position – and, as discussed above, all of a Companion's role in society – it's an affecting and interesting arc.

Safe is the weakest episode of the show's life and exhibits almost every negative quality of Firefly, managing to take just about every part of the formula and failing at executing it. During a stopover, Simon and River are kidnapped by villagers in need of Simon's medical expertise while, back at the ship, Book is wounded. Missing his doctor, Mal is left with the decision of whether to look for Simon or to look for help. The dilemma with the crew, and the near direct clash of the show's Science Fiction and Western elements could have made a convincing episode, but the two are transitioned between with all the subtlety of a strobe light. Mal's decisions are grand and decisive, but constantly revoked. After his first decision to abandon Simon and River, the only thing that saves the episode from violating everything we know about the character is him reneging with nary a mention of his earlier fury. All of this gives the episode a half dozen feels of false finality and, ultimately, a feeling of extreme pointlessness. Back in the village, however, things are even worse, as the villagers prove themselves dumb hicks one and all and prepare to enact a clichéd witch burning.

Thankfully, things get back on track with Our Mrs. Reynolds, the episode that perhaps best expresses the show's attitude towards cliché. Firefly is not concerned with blazing wholly new paths but with, rather, twisting the old. After saving a backwater town from bandits, Mal finds himself given a wife as payment. The first half of the episode is a mixture of marital jokes and the classic Science Fiction concept of faux paus in an alien culture – though the faux paus does, admittedly, result in marriage as opposed to ritualistic combat in this case (the combat angle, of course, having just appeared in Shindig). After getting an enjoyable but not spectacular opening out of that set up, Whedon twists things about and the sweet and culture shocked wife turns out to be a sleeper agent out to slaughter them all and steal their ship. Simply put, Whedon is a master of having his cupcake and eating it too.

Jaynestown is an episode with an interesting concept that doesn't quite work. The crew returns to a planet where, long ago, Jayne made his mark as a thief. However, due to a heist went wrong – where the money ended up quite literally falling from the sky out of Jayne's damaged ship – the populace worships him as a hero. The premise is intriguing, and it could have been the grounds for a far deeper explanation of one of the show's most enjoyable but shallowest characters. Instead, it's mostly played for jokes. Each of the cast reacts in exactly the same way to this fact, and the whole thing is never mentioned again in later episodes. Apparently, being worshipped as a savior is something very easily forgotten. The climax is decently well done, but not incredible enough to redeem the faults.

Out of Gas, on the other hand, might just consist of the best forty odd minutes ever aired. This is one of the rare things that’s essentially pitch perfect, so taut and engaging that you can’t turn your head away. In a rare experimental move, the episode is divided among three timelines: Mal, stumbling around a deserted and crippled Serenity while the air runs out; the disaster that so damaged the ship; and the recruitment of the crew. The introductions contribute to the characters and often either highlight aspects of their personality or – as in Kaylee’s case, described paragraphs above – form interesting contrasts. While this is going on, the juxtaposition of plots keeps the tension almost painfully high.

The following episode, Ariel, is on par with its predecessor – which is to say fantastic from start to finish. Simon, desperate to help River, comes up with a plan to break into an Alliance hospital deep in the Core and gets the crew to go along with the promise of untold riches from the medicine that they can lift. The show’s justification of stealing medicine – Government run facility. They'd have it restocked in a matter of hours. – is too black and white to be particularly convincing, but the drama of the crew’s plan and its execution more than make up for the line. As things go wrong (who’s surprised?) we’re given our first – and, unfortunately, only – glimpse of the men with “hands of blue.” And god damn it, they’re terrifying. The best part, however, is the test that the potential catastrophe puts on the camaraderie of the crew and Mal’s dedication to each and every one of them. The final minutes are at once horrifying and passionate, something no viewer is likely to ever forget.

War Stories focuses on the relationship between Mal, Zoe, and Wash. Wash, jealous and hurt by the way that his wife seems to respect the captain more than him, challenges both of them on it and tries to take Zoe’s place on a mission. Wash is able to successfully mix concern with his usual goofiness without weakening either. Niska returns here, and the crews attempt to stop his abuse of their captain in the episode’s climax is powerfully done and filled with unsettling revelations about the combat prowess of several crewmembers.

Trash features the return of the villainess from Ours Mrs. Reynolds, now attempting to have the crew aid her in a big steal. The actual heist is well done, if not quite on Aerial's level, but the episode suffers from the gullibility of the crew. While they did have a backup plan, it's ludicrously dependant on things working out precisely as thought and seems about as reliable in a crisis as parachute pants.

The Message brings us back to form again. Mal and Zoe find themselves in the possession of the corpse of their old army buddy, a corpse desperately wanted by a group of alliance cops. The episode centers not only on the people and events of Mal's and Zoe's past but on the morals that they live by now and then. Though seemingly focused on the newcomer and the past, this is quite possibly the episode that delves deepest into Mal's psyche, exploring the differences between weakness and sentiment, strength and the willingness to harm others. Whedon and the cast found out about the cancelation during the filming of this episode, and, in lesser hands, the funeral that precedes the credits might come off as melodramatic – here, however, it's an emotional high that most works of art can only dream of attaining.

Heart of Gold delves into both the Firefly universe's treatment of prostitution and, also, Mal and Inara's relationship. The episode's plot climaxes in a battle between the crew of Serenity and a local warlord of sorts over a whore's child, but the real core of the show is the final minutes. Though nothing except the ending is particularly surprising, the conflict is well portrayed, and both Mal and Inara are depicted with enough dignity and flaws to make their interactions feel both human and doomed.

Objects in Space closes the season and the show. Outwardly, everyone seems far more open, far closer. Characters discuss their past lives, and even Simon seems relaxed. But, while River walks through the halls, she sees their inner thoughts and their hatred and resentment. Or does she? The divide between fantasy and quasi-psychic reality is never made clear, and her visions end with her holding a loaded pistol. As River's dementia worsens, the crew meets to discuss the problem  that she poses. Into this comes Jubal Early, a bounty hunter coming to capture Simon and River. Early is bizarrely and fantastically strange, a mixture of philosophical musing and sadistic violence. Though the plot doesn't advance far in this finale, the conflict on display is both fabulously depicted and thought provoking.

Firefly is the unfinished first chapter of a fantastic novel, a cliff hanger without even water to splash into below. This is a mature television show with fully realized characters, a fascinating world, and a writer capable of bringing both comedy and horror to the screen in the same breath. No, there isn't an ending, but what there is still demands to be watched.

Standouts: Serenity, Out of Gas, Aerial, and The Message

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Quest for Martin

George RR Martin's best known as the author of the monolithic and superlative A Song of Ice and Fire, but he'd be noteworthy even if he'd never set pen to paper and given birth to a young boy witnessing a beheading. Before A Game of Thrones, and before the television career that preceded that series, Martin wrote four highly regarded novels, edited and participated in the shared world Wild Cards series, and penned enough solo shorts to fill six collections, accumulating on the way a list of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. And yet many of the Martin fans that I talk to haven't read a word of his non-Westeros fiction, and I'm not all that much better. I've read about half of Martin's early work and, as of yet, reviewed none of it, always believing that I'd visit the rest (and revisit what I'd read long ago) at some time in the future.

Well, with A Dance With Dragons breathing delicious fire on our necks, I believe that time has come. For a few months I'd done a passable job of cutting down on my book buying, so, as my inner collector broke out of his cage, I ended up spending all that saved money (and then some) on a set of limited, first, or hardcover editions of (almost) all of Martin's work. In the next few months – perhaps, as long time readers go, more than a few months – I'll be reading through Martin's bibliography and reviewing the entirety of his work, trying to both understand the works and the man and to see if it's even possible for me to ramble on for longer than I did in my Ligotti reviews. Who knows, I might even throw up some Larry-esque, sexy, sexy book porn.

The only books I won't be covering are, for now, the graphic novels and the Wild Cards series, not because I dislike either (I've not yet read them), but just because I had to give in to wallet's weeping and pleading at some point. For the books I will be reading – seventeen to my count, as well as the three Dunk and Egg novellas, and, of course, A Dance with Dragons – I was intending to go in chronological order but abandoned that plan after seeing how beautiful the Subterranean Press edition of Fevre Dream was. The series, however, will likely be saved for last, along with A Dance with Dragons.

And no, I won't change this reading project's phenomenally epic title. A Quest for Martin this shall be, as painfully cheesy as those words are to even type…

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Robert Aickman - Cold Hand in Mine

Shortly after 3 A.M., when the September air was thinly strewn with drizzle, the young Prince Albrecht Von Ellendor, known as Elmo to his associates, because of the fire which to them emanated from him, entered the Tiergarten from the Liechtensteinallee, leaping over the locked gate; then found his way to the shore of the big lake to his left; and there, in the total darkness, made to shoot himself. (p. 44, Niemandswassser)

Cold Hand in Mine is the fifth collection of legendary author Robert Aickman, and it's one of his only volumes still available to the fan without a six figure book budget. Reading Robert Aickman is stepping into a dream. His tales are ephemeral and powerful, filled with disquieting oddities and hints of impossibility. These are subtle tales. They are not horror, but it is clear that they do not belong in the realm of the comfortable or the mundane.

Cold Hand in Mine opens with The Swords. Our narrator is adrift on his uncle’s pay, stopping mid shipping route to stay at lodgings he doesn’t chose for himself. A carnival swings on the other side of the town, and in a grimy tent, our protagonist finds men indulging in sadism and lust. The tale builds to its crescendo from Aickman’s careful handling of his protagonist, the contrast between the narrator’s measured narration and the primal desires and hesitations he’s filled with. The Swords isn’t unique in its focus on character. Aickman’s stories are about people coming, or failing to come, to grips with themselves, and his narrators’ catharsizes are bizarre and grotesque intrusions that forever alter lives. Aickman is, too, conscious of setting and its impact on characters. The Real Road to the Church shows the protagonist's increasing disconnect from her surroundings, and all surroundings. Amidst ominous hints and portents, the reader is grounded by Aickman’s ear for dialogue and the richness of localities depicted. Most of Aickman's characters have his skill at maintaining the line between profundity and pretentiousness, and they manage to discuss important concepts while retaining human warmth:

"I come here daily," he said in the end. "I like to contemplate the immensity. There is a lack of immensity in the world. Do you find that also?"

"Yes," said Rosa. "I suppose I do. but I don't look very much for it. I don't look very much for anything."

"It is perhaps odd," he continued, "that we have not met until now. I believe that you too walk along the cliff."

"Yes," said Rosa. "And I may have passed you without noticing. I do that often."

"I should think I should have noticed you," he said, as if seriously thinking about it. (p. 35, The Real Road to the Church)

The Real Road to the Church is not the only story where isolation plays a role. Many of the tales here are supremely melancholy, and many feature protagonists cut off from the main part of society. The key difference from the works of an author like Ligotti is that, in Aickman, there clearly is a world to be cut off from. There is happiness and beauty in Aickman's stories, even if we can only glimpse it from the periphery.

These are all deliberately paced, building stories. Pages From a Young Girl’s Journal and The Hospice in particular focus on the steadily accumulation of minor details. The former is, if you only look at the plot, one of the most traditional tales here, focusing on a young girl’s encounter with a vampire in an exotic locale. In actuality, however, almost none of the tale’s power comes from the direct contact with such a creature. It is, instead, a story of homesickness and adopting to one’s present conditions, and the fashion that the protagonist’s twisted love gradually overtakes the rest of the narrative is disturbing to watch. As the transformation continues and grows more obvious, the other characters shy away from the narrator, but they seem to do so more out of shame and disgust than terror as the girl’s newfound love dissolves her sense of duty and decorum. The Hospice, however, is the star of the collection. The narrator is a married man that, in the midst of his lengthy drive home, is forced to stop at an unfamiliar lodge. What’s so remarkable about the story is how disconcerting it becomes despite the total lack of obvious action. By the tale's end, every word feels prophetic, every action menacing, yet it's difficult to recall a single concrete threat in the whole thing.

The occasional tale is too deliberate. The collection’s two final pieces – Meeting Mr Millar and The Clock Watcher – are both too drawn out to retain their power. In Meeting Mr Millar,  A business moves into the building where the main character lives, and, though its employees seem supremely busy at all times, they never accomplish anything at all.  It is a coy tale that introduces hints but never connects the dots. Such an approach could work, but in a forty page story and without any particular climax, it just adds up to an unsatisfying piece. The Clock Watcher is meatier but suffers badly for its length. The narrator’s foreign wife’s obsession with the strange clocks of her homeland is an interesting concept and metaphor, and Aickman creates several unsettling scenes with the chiming of those clocks, but by the time the tale reaches its expected conclusion the reader’s become desensitized to the idea.

The prose throughout the collection is excellent and surreal, but it’s also surprisingly logical. The strangeness here comes from the oddities in the events depicted, not from any haziness depicting them. The Hospice is perhaps the best example of this, as it consists entirely of clearly described and mundane actions that add up to something that is, somehow, existentially terrifying. Near the story's beginning, our narrator describes a curious bowl of soup:

There was an enormous quantity of sup, in what Maybury realized was an unusually deep and wide plate. The amplitude of the plate had at first been masked by the circumstance that round much of its whole rim was inscribed, in large black letters, THE HOSPICE; rather in the style of a baby's plate, Maybury thought, if both lettering and plate had not been so immense. The soup itself was unusually weighty too: it had undoubtedly contained eggs as well as pulses, and steps have been taken to add "thickening" also. (p. 101)

Aickman’s characters, too, are often exceedingly rational in their approach to the impossible. After being driven away from his adult life, the distraught Prince Albrecht Von Allendorf in Niemandswasser returns to his memories of childhood and seeks to finally understand the experiences that formed him. To understand the lake that inexplicably injured his friend, NAME consults maps and testimonies before heading out to confront – and, potentially, be consumed by – his past.

Robert Aickman reads like no other writer I've yet experienced. Throughout this collection, he's far more concerned with atmosphere and character than any sort of storytelling in the traditional sense, but his skills at both of those and his urbane but effective prose keeps his stories gripping. While I can't say that every piece in Cold Hand in Mine performs flawlessly, I can say that they're all well worth trying. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One

Everyone has, no doubt, heard of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I think it’s safe to say that everybody has some handle on the plot. Buffy Summers, high school student, is the Slayer that stands between the world and all kinds of unseemly evil. Oh, and there’s a love story between a girl and a vampire, ala Twilight. Still, as much as the two line summary makes me cringe and flee, the show was created by Joss Whedon (of my beloved Firefly) and is often hailed as a classic by a whole host of people whose opinions I respect. So, praying that Whedon could breathe life into dead-from-birth clichés like vampiric love, I slipped the first DVD into my laptop.

The show’s two episode opening storyline had me convinced that all my fears were insufficient to the horror that awaited. Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest possess clever moments, but that’s drowned under generic vampires, unexplored characters, and an unexciting plot. Not only is the story shown generic, it’s not well told. To be perfectly honest, if I hadn’t purchased a DVD of the entire season, I would probably have stopped here. Thankfully, the third episode – Witch – heralds a massive increase in the quality and intelligence of the show. And there’s not a vampire to be seen. Though the title might be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the shows strengths are actually when it strays from those overdone beasts of the night and ventures into fresher territory. When the writers let their imaginations roam, we’re treated to interesting creatures enmeshed in more complex and surprising plots. The show’s core is, as it turns out, not the generic save the world tale of the opening, though that’s a part of it, but rather a series of supernatural metaphors for life and, especially, life’s teenage years – a rather more interesting proposition, at least to this viewer.

Unfortunately, the show’s believability and monsters are often crippled by the special effects. Shallow a complaint as it might be, the effects here are, by and large, awful. The actors in vampire masks look like people in vampire masks, the Master looks like a more generic rendition of Lord Voldemort (alright, that’s not the show’s fault), and a fair number of the show’s one off villains look downright silly. Teacher’s Pet, judging by the concept and the first half, should have been a quite good episode, albeit not a great one. The entirety of a science class falls for an attractive young teacher, who happens to be a Praying Mantis siren luring them to their deaths. Unfortunately, all tension departs like a fart noise from a popped balloon the second we glimpse the teacher in Mantis form. Simply put, she looks like a comedy prop.

That is nothing, however, to the menace in I, Robot…You, Jayne, which proves to be perhaps the weakest episode not focused on vampires. We focus on the internet and how teenagers react to it, which would be fine if the show’s conception of the internet wasn’t so ludicrously outdated by this point. That’s not, admittedly, the show's fault, but it’s difficult to accept the premise of a demon taking over the internet in 2011. The true final nail in the coffin, however, is how that demon looks, as pictured left. That shot’s from the show’s theme, which means that the creators were – somehow – convinced that the generic joke they’d spawned looked anything but laughable.

But the problem of effects is, thankfully, not universal. Many episodes manage to use more modest effects to far greater effects. Witch, mentioned earlier, is one of the best examples of this and my favorite episode from the season. A mother, desperate for her daughter to relive her glory years, uses black magic to enforce her daughter’s place on the cheerleading team. The spells are restrained in their depiction and all the more effective for it, and the episode features a fantastic plot twist and several moments that are genuinely creepy. Out of Mind, Out of Sight; The Pack; and Nightmares all function similarly, and all come off strong. Of them, Nightmares has the grandest scale of, perhaps, any episode in the season, showing the residents of the town’s nightmares coming to life. The premise is familiar, but Whedon and co manage to keep things interesting and even frightening while the show’s leads play their parts with enough daring and skill to render anything believable and gripping.

The season’s overall plot does manage, over time, to develop a shade more depth than is exhibited in the first two episodes, but never by all that much. The reason that so much Weird Shit goes down in Sunnydale is that it’s sitting on the Hellmouth, a portal to – you guessed it! – hell. The vampiric Master, played by Mark Metcalf, is trapped in the Hellmouth and struggling to get out. At times the Master seems like a dark god, at others like an even more overdramatic vampire grunt, and his plots to escape are often a tad roundabout. The much vaunted Anointed One makes his debut to help the Master in episode five, but rarely does anything of note. The final episode of the season, Prophecy Girl, brings the conflict between Buffy and the Master to a head. The episode is indeed a climax for Buffy’s character, and the emotional impact of some scenes is fantastic, but the vampires are – as expected, by then – rather disappointing, and certain aspects feel more cheap twist than climax. Overall, the vampire portion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the least interesting by far, varying from weak in comparison to the show’s other elements to just weak.

Sarah Michelle Geller as Buffy successfully plays Buffy as both an exuberant and cheerful teenager and as a determined woman willing to risk everything for what she thinks is right. Buffy’s main conflict throughout is balancing the duties of being a Slayer with attempting to live a normal life. The dichotomy is explored often, but perhaps most directly in Never Kill a Boy on the First Date, where Buffy attempts to coordinate dating Christopher Wiehl’s Owen with not being slaughtered by a newly risen vampire, the Anointed One. The episode’s amusing, and laden with Whedon’s standard wit, but this is one of several cases where humor deflates the scene of tension. That being said, the concluding lines are excellent. After glimpsing the “excitement” of Buffy’s life, Owen tries to join her as a daredevil accomplice. Buffy turns him down, drawing a line between her and the rest of her age group. She may be young, but she’s mature enough to realize the seriousness of her situation.

David Boreanaz plays Angel, the vampire that Buffy – surprise! – ends up falling in love with. It’s difficult to view this with anything but gut wrenching terror in our post-Twilight world. Whedon can’t really be blamed for later abominations, though, and Angel is, so far, an interesting character in his own right, an enjoyable mixture of aloof mystery and humanity. At the close of the season, it still remains to be seen whether his relationship with Buffy will grow into something interesting or merely cringe worthy. Hope can be found in the fact that the show is aware how close such a love story dwells to the melodramatic. As one character remarks: A vampire in love with a slayer. It's rather poetic...in a maudlin sort of way. (Out of Mind, Out of Sight)

Nicholas Brendon’s Xander and Alyson Hannigan’s Willow form Buffy’s social circle, and the friendship between the three of them is warm and believable. Willow is the nerdy, computer and book focused girl, but the character is sweet, and well acted, enough to draw us in anyway. Xander is a joker who wears his Social Outcast tag proudly and loves to mock his own flaws: I laugh in the face of danger, and then I hide until it goes away. (Witch) He’s also, as comes up several times, a moderately charming mixture of sex-crazed and incompetent with the opposite sex. In the first two episodes, there was a third friend, Jesse, who’s dead by the third and never mentioned again. In fact, the inhabitants of Sunnydale – and of the high school in particular – have an incredible gift at moving on. In every school I’ve been in or heard of, a death would be a fairly major event, but here we’ve forgotten about serial murders on campus by the next day. Of course, forgetfulness is needed for the show’s mélange of monsters to work – or everyone would have caught on after the first mass murder – but it does remain somewhat disconcerting throughout.

The final important student character is Charisma Carpenter’s Cordelia, a school bully and bitch of the highest order. Whedon, however, is well aware of how clichéd her role is, and so he pushes her well past any sane measure. After a murder, she says: Oh please. I don't mean to interrupt your downward mobility, but I just wanted to tell you that you won't be meeting Coach Foster, the woman with the chest hair, because gym was cancelled due to the extreme dead guy in the locker. (Welcome to the Hellmouth) Cordelia may not always be believable, but her every line is hilarious.

Giles, played by Anthony Stewart Head, is Buffy’s Watcher and the school librarian. He’s an urbane, intelligent, British man who happens to be a technophobe and occultist. Throughout, he’s used for both laughs and drama, and he proves adept as both. The rest of the school’s administration is largely irrelevant, present at most for a single episode, with the exception of the dictatorial Principle Snyder (Armin Shimmerman), who comes to Sunnydale midway through the series.

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a mixture of the excellent, the overwrought, and the cheesy. That being said, almost every episode has enjoyable parts, and, when the writers allow their imaginations to run unconstrained by unconvincing vampire masks, the show almost always improves drastically. So far, Buffy seems a show that’s enjoyable but not essential. Season two will, in large part, decide whether I keep going.

Standout episodes: Witch; The Pack; Out of Sight, Out of Mind


My review of Season Two
My review of Season Three

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Historical Lovecraft Reviewed

Historical Lovecraft has been reviewed again, both on Amazon and a few times on Goodreads. The Amazon review, written by Tristan J. Tarwater, mentions my story by name. To quote: My personal faves were 'Black Hill,' an interesting take on an oil operation, 'Deus Ex Machina,' especially as an ex theatre geek, 'Shadows of the Deepest Jade,'...honestly, there wasn't a story that I didn't enjoy, though there were ones I definitely preferred over others. (Emphasis mine) Click through to read the rest. Certainly a bit of a morale booster.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Patrick Rothfuss - The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear is the second day of Kvothe's story, the second part of what the marketing blurbs refer to as "the story of a hero told in his own voice." Rothfuss's trilogy is a legend's life revealed to be ordinary and an ordinary man revealed to be extraordinary. The combination of the epic and the mundane is the novel's greatest strength (excluding, for the moment, the prose), but it's also the source of its flaws.

The Wise Man's Fear is much like a standard RPG. The novel has an overarching plot. When Kvothe was a child, the Chandrian slaughtered his family, and he's out for revenge. But as every player of Grand Theft Auto, Dragon Age, and Oblivion knows, it's never as simple as walking up to the evil doers and punching their leader in the face. To tell you the truth, describing The Wise Man's Fear as a book about the Chandrian is as inaccurate as saying that The Lord of the Rings is the story of a volcano. The Chandrian do, certainly, play a role, but that role is to be a motivation from the distant past and a goal in the distant future. The Chandrian do not once appear in the novel, and the number of revelations about them can be counted by the fingers not on either hand. If The Kingkiller Chronicles is the story of a man's struggle with the Chandrian, then a reader of this novel would probably be right to assume this is the second or third of a dozen book epic.

This is the story of a man's life, with the Chandrian as only a single aspect, and that autobiographical structure leads to that one aspect feeling diminished beyond repair. In an epic, it's fine for characters to fixate on a single goal. Hell, it's practically the foundation of the form. In real life, though, people are more complex, more undecided and inconsistent, than that. Kvothe is a multifaceted character. He has too many sides of his personality, too many likes and dislikes, hopes and fears and dreams, to be summed up in a sentence or two. And yet he drops everything, time after time, at the slightest mention of the Chandrian. This would be fine in a work of a smaller scale, or at least of a smaller focus. Here, though, when Kvothe disregards everything for the slightest reference of the Chandrian at page five hundred, the reader has not seen a Chandrian for over a thousand pages and has no prospect of seeing one, or even of one bearing a particularly large role in the plot, for about that long. The formless nature of the novel makes for a book that does not start with the Chandrian,  and does not end with the Chandrian, but expects us to quake at the merest hint of the Chandrian in the middle.

In the same way that a summary of the book's plot that starts and ends with the word Chandrian written in magical blue fire would barely scratch the surface of the novel's plot, the above barely scratches the surface of the novel's pacing problems. This is a book that, like every self respecting RPG, devolves and deviates into a myriad of side quests that, in turn, spawn other side quests. That's all fine, except that the side quests themselves are in no way shape or form paced. They begin and end at whim, and the events within don't so much build to a climax as meander to and fro until they get distracted and run off to do something else.

A respectably novel sized chunk of the book's middle is devoted to Kvothe's hunting bandits. Kvothe and a team of mercenaries get to the bandits' general location and begin their search in a methodical fashion. Rothfuss does not go for an abrupt kind of pacing; they do not find the bandits right away. He also does not attempt to push the confrontation to the last minute; the characters do not find the bandits in the last square inch of the chosen search area. Instead, the characters search while Rothfuss explores sub plot after sub plot. Then, at around the point when the reader has forgotten entirely about the bandits, they're simply stumbled across.

This is not an isolated incident but rather the pattern of development for every one of the book's plotlines, large and small. One of the sub plots that abound during the hunt for the bandits is the growing tension between the members of the group, as expressed in the stories that they tell to each other at night. A situation is set up: the members cannot work together and are increasingly relying on Kvothe to pull them together. This situation is then ignored while we go look at some other shiny plot tangent. Then a solution pops up: Kvothe purposely tells an ambiguous story to get them to stop bugging him. The problem does not resurface.

Providing you are the statistically impossible reader who is reading this blog but has not already read at least three dozen glowing reviews of The Wise Man's Fear, you are likely concluding right now that this is a mess of a book best avoided. Well, as the reader who has read three dozen reviews that got to the point quicker than this one could tell you, you wouldn't be quite right there. The Wise Man's Fear is bloated and aimless. Perhaps even a mess. But it is a mess brilliantly told.

Patrick Rothfuss is not a poet. The language in this book will not make you want to weep. He is not an architect. This book's structure is not sound. He is not a philosopher. You will not rethink your life after reading this. But Patrick Rothfuss is a storyteller, and he is such a powerful storyteller that you will forget every single one of the faults I have just elaborated on for so many words while reading and be unable to tear your eyes from the page.

The University that Rothfuss writes about for so much of the beginning may not be a section of the book with a hook in its opening and a climax in its closing. It may meander and linger. But the students that Kvothe jokes with feel like your friends, as well. The music that he hears sounds in your ears. The feel of a Lute string under his fingers is felt by you, you can feel the grooves in the wood when he feels a barrel, you can feel the elation of his victories and the sorrow of his defeats, you can feel the clink of coins in your pocket and the lonely sound of a night's silence. When Kvothe sings a song, it does not feel like a Wisconsinite putting pen to paper, jumping back a millennia or so, and pretending to be a bard. When Kvothe tells a story, every image leaps to our mind like we're as surrounded by his tale as he is. When Kvothe is furious, the reader's heart pounds along with his. Every moment of The Wise Man's Fear is felt, not read about, and each page feels unforgettable.

The Wise Man's Fear is too flawed to be masterful and too masterful to be flawed. Rothfuss is a charging stallion oblivious to the best paths or the most efficient routes, but he's too powerful to be stopped before he reaches his destination. The Wise Man's Fear could be more polished and more effective, yes – and I hope that one day Rothfuss writes a novel constructed well enough to be a match for his storytelling skill – but it is a powerful read nonetheless, and Rothfuss is as gifted as he's so often claimed to be.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reading in April

Yes, I'm aware that this is a tad late. As is probably fairly obvious, I've been quite busy lately, but, on the upside, my summer's shaping up to be filled with nothing but hot air and writing, redundant as the combo might prove to be. Future articles might - might - be a shade more on the timely side. In the meantime, let's bust out a time machine and figure out what I was reading two months ago.

Tau Zero boasts shallow characters, lax pacing, and a hard Science Fiction core so incredible that I'm still shaken a week after reading it. For the first time, I understand Hard Science Fiction. As it happens, there really are ideas strong enough to carry novels entirely on their own.

There's no denying that Aickman is a masterful writer. His prose is elegant, his atmospheres pervasive, his ideas fascinating. And yet I'm not sure that we're always on the same wavelength, to speak (as Robert Aickman certainly would not) in clichés. The Model felt like one of the lesser stories in Cold Hand in Mine. Masterfully done and subtle, certainly, but composed of a subtlety too urbane to bother with meaning or gratification.

Classics are always an odd experience. The light jokes of the time are, when looked at from six decades' distance and through a classic's deific airs, bizarre. The Martian Chronicles feels dated in parts, and some of the stories felt too reliant on unbelievable actions to me. That being said, there's no denying the brilliance of several of Bradbury's pieces here, including There Will Come Soft Rains, Usher II, and The Million-Year Picnic. This was my first Bradbury, but I'll be reading more for sure.

Crass, rude, and absurd, Exponential Apocalypse is a hilarious read. Review here.

Daniel Kraus's YA horror novel is equal parts grave robbing and coming of age, and both are pulled off with skill and wit. There are a few discolorations here and there, but they do little to damage the whole. Review here.

Death Poems is one of Ligotti's rarest works and getting it probably serves as a good road sign of the purchaser's loss of sanity. So, is Death Poems worth the exorbitant price (while I won't quote what I paid, I will say that most editions go for over a dollar a page)? In an objective sense, no, it's probably not. Death Poems is interesting and often highly amusing, but it is not Teatro Grottesco. This is the kind of work that's enjoyable, perhaps even thought provoking, but is certainly not life changing. And, for that price, life changing would be a fair expectation. Then again, if you're at the point where you're even considering such an insane purchase, I can almost guarantee that you'll find yourself sliding into it, wise decision or not. Ligotti becomes a bit of an obsession like that.

Like most Ligotti, I read Death Poems twice.

Kafka on the Shore has talking cats, jobs in the library, murderous corporate icons, teen runaways, and gateways to isolated dimensions, and it’s all painted in Murakami’s beautiful but understated prose. This book feels like the fulfillment of much of the man’s style, complete with the bizarre ordinary world of After Dark and the questions of identity and humanity filling Hard Boiled Wonderland. If I can ever wrap my mind around this properly, there will be a review. In the meantime: highly, highly recommended.

Black Halo improved on many of Tome of the Undergates’ flaws and proves a damn entertaining read. Review here.

Valente writes with imagery so thick it would be suffocating if it weren’t so deftly handled. Almost every paragraph here is filled with wonders, but Deathless is not just great prose. Valente manages to create a gripping plot of bizarre creatures and circumstances out of folklore and dreams. This is the rare book than can – and should – be called magical in every sense of that word.

Simply written but awesomely imaginative, Scott Westerfeld's YA steampunk novel is an engrossing read. The ending is rather abrupt, but Westerfeld twists world war one into a shape both amusing and fascinating. Recommended.

The Picture of Dorian Gray’s an interesting horror-style concept wrapped around a book of witty dialogue and fascinating ideas. There’s the occasional moment that drags – such as the seemingly endless chapter describing the minutia of our dubious protagonist’s life – but Wilde proves equally adept at making the reader laugh and think.

I won't be reviewing Historical Lovecraft due to the whole being in it thing, but I will say that it's filled with excellent stories, including Tobler's If Only to Taste Her Again, Meikle's Inquisitor, Reiss's The Chronicle of Aliyat Son of Aliyat, Joshua Reynolds' the Far Deep, and Tanzer's The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins among others. You know you're interested...