Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Alastair Reynolds - Deep Navigation

Though I haven't had the opportunity to discuss his work as often as I'd like, I've never made a secret of my absolute love for Alastair Reynolds. As such, I rather unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to read this collection of fifteen of his stories (dating from all through his career, including his very first published piece) when it was rescued from its horrific price tag on the used market by a second edition.

One of the things that most struck me about Alastair Reynolds' work, reading him for the first time since Terminal World in early 2010, and after having spent much of that interim immersing myself in the Weird Fiction of Thomas Ligotti and others, is Reynolds' own connection with the weird. Of course, I'm hardly the first to raise such a connection. Reynolds himself discusses it in the now-famous initial internet discussion of the New Weird, archived here. He writes that The New Space Opera, as he calls it, can't ever be as weird as the NW [New Weird] unless it becomes the NW itself. This is because the New Space Opera will always exclude anything it can't rationalise.

Now, I'm always a bit hesitant to disagree with a great man like Reynolds, especially when it's about his own work, but I don't think that's accurate. It's true that The New Space Opera can never be as aesthetically or superficially weird, yeah. It can't ever directly visit hell. But, that's not to say that it can't be just as intellectually and thematically weird as anything written by China Miéville, Lovecraft, or any other; it just approaches it from the opposite direction. Instead of birthing nigh unimaginable strangeness through the fantastic, as is the standard approach, what Reynolds does (to tremendous effect, I might add) is follow the rational to its logical conclusion, or farthest extrapolation, and then show us the thousand fold variations and seeming impossibilities, the things that are simply too big or strange for us to ever understand. For an illustration of this, one need only turn to the ending of Reynolds' Pushing Ice and the sheer awe it inspires, the feeling of (as Lovecraft might put it) cosmic irrelevance it forces on us, the forced expansion of thought and perspective until our own lives and worlds are just a distant, nigh invisible glint in the night, and all of that without necessarily needing to violate rationality.

To turn to the stories in this collection, it's stunning how closely Reynolds' descriptions and writing can at times be to those supreme fantasists and horror writers already mentioned, no matter how opposed their methods of reaching those moments of collapsing reality are. In the Fixation, Reynolds explores the idea of multiple dimensions and a method to exploit that multiplicity. The consequences of this are, in all their vivid and disorienting glory, familiar in style to anyone familiar with tales like Ligotti's Nethescurial or Lovecraft's The Colour out of Space: The door has vanished, leaving only a sagging gap in the wall. The floor is made of stones, unevenly laid. Halfway to her bench the stones blend together not something like concrete, and then a little further the concrete gains the hard red sheen of the flooring she has come to expect. On the desk, her electric light flickers and fades. The laptops shut down with a whine, their screens darkening. The lines of change in the floor creeps closer to the desk, like an advancing tide. From somewhere in the darkness Rana hears the quiet, insistent dripping of water. (p. 65) The same kind of insidious change dominates Byrd Land Six, twisting and destroying the humans caught in its path: Cookie had become ice, literally merging with the landscape. His clothes and exposed flesh were glistening and colourless. He was sleek, lacking detail, barely recognizable. (p. 161)

Not every story, admittedly, is successful at establishing or utilizing these expansions of perspective and reality. The Receivers is an alternative history of a world war where faint music can be heard over the British sonic detection systems. But this never goes anywhere, never coheres into some thematic revelation or some practical event, and the pudgy story – which somehow manages to be genteely tensionless even as bombs fall – takes forever to even get that far. The Sledge-Maker's Daughter spends a fair part of its length showing us a fantasy setting before the main character learns the Science Fiction backdrop of her world and the epic war that's taking place around its edges. But nothing ever comes of it. The tale's opening may've given us some feel for the fantasy world, but the Science Fictional revelation comes entirely through a multi-page infodump utterly lacking in emotional punch, and then the piece ends before the interesting parts of the story can even get started. And then there's the bizarre case of Soirée, a tale whose absolutely superb twist is only spoiled by it being a complete rip off of another Alastair Reynolds story (Beyond the Aquila Rift from Zima Blue, to be precise).

All of that's not to suggest, however, that Reynolds' strengths lie solely in that effect. He's at his best when he not only utilizes the strangeness of the weird but melds it with his other great talent, his skill and penchant for large scale, high stakes plots. The Star Surgeon's Apprentice; Fury; Tiger, Burning; and the aforementioned Byrd Land Six all successfully combine out there and thought provoking ideas with gripping plots and well drawn characters. The Star Surgeon's Apprentice's twists are a tad predictable, but that does little to diminish the tale's strength. Tiger, Burning is one of the collection's strongest pieces, a far future detective tale with a Vingian backdrop and an excellent core. Fury, meanwhile, is a distance- and time-spanning tale that perfectly captures the grandeur and feel of the interstellar empire it depicts. It also contains of the collection's greatest images, that of the emperor morphing and growing with his territory, swelling as each new territory – be it a planet, system or entire glittering star cluster – was swallowed into his realm. (p. 76)

Fury's morality, though, is rather more questionable. The narrator is the emperor's bodyguard, but grows horrified when he learns that, at the empire's beginnings, the emperor killed his brother, and that he, the bodyguard, played a role in that killing. As our narrator says, Every glorious and noble act that [the emperor] had ever committed, every kind and honourable deed, was built upon the foundations of a crime. The empire's very existence hinged upon a single evil act. (p. 100) Understandable indignation and horror, but rather harder to understand when one takes in the early wars of conquest that the narrator fully acknowledges: There might once have been a time when [the emperor's]  expansionist ambitions were driven by something close to lust, but that was tens of thousands of years ago. (p. 77) Just in case you think the difference is one of time, that those wars are too far gone for him to be held accountable for, the narrator helpfully says in relation to this one murder: So what if it happened thirty two thousand years ago? Did that make it less of a crime than if it had happened ten thousand years ago, or last week? (p. 100) So galactic wars of conquest, no doubt killing untold millions, aren't a big deal, but when one guy you know bites it, why, that's "unspeakable"! (ibid) Glad to know.

Not every story in the collection, mind you, is of the same Weird-esque cut. Stroboscopic shows us the future of gaming. It's a story somewhat reminiscent, for not too surprising reasons, of Iain M. Banks' Player of Games, in that a seemingly innocent hobby takes on monumental importance, but here that emphasis is not only internal; we're shown a system covered in an icy, brittle peace, where antagonism's only vent short of war seems to be these barely ruled competitions. Not all of it's supremely plausible, but it is inventive and enjoyable. On the Oodnadatta feels a tale of two hearts, the one lightly comedic, the other a horrifying and even disgusting look at the future, at rights, and at exploitation. The disconnect hurts it, but the latter part's more than strong enough to overcome the former, leaving this a memorable and vivid piece.

Viper is a supremely cynical tale (The designers had recognized that a system not amenable to corruption was of no use to anyone. (p. 263)) that seems to be building up to a twist, even shows the twist as it might go, but then backs away. Still, it's a strong read and a thought provoking one as well. Monkey Suit, the collection's only slice of the Revelation Space universe, alas, doesn't fare so well, a simple tale that only gains impact by alluding to (without in any way furthering) elements of other works in the setting. Finally there's Nunivak Snowflakes, the author's very first story. Though filled with developments and clever parts, the Reynolds of its time lacked the skill and finesse to weld them together, leaving it more interesting (both in ideas and from a biographical perspective) than well done.

Much of what I love about Reynolds' writing can be traced back to its blending of art and science, of emotion and intellect, elements of beauty and the vastness of reality. Though often dealing with dense scientific elements (though, even to a non scientist such as myself, the groundedness of those elements varies wildly), the stories here never got bogged down with explanations or grow overly confusing.  Occasionally, though, Reynolds does go too far in the other direction, evidently determined to explain simple things to the most determinedly dull, inattentive reader, like when he clunks out: I looked like a man, but in fact I was a robot. (p. 80) Adding insult to injury, there, the following two sentences (My meat exterior was only a few centimeters thick. Beneath that living shell lay the hard armor of a sentient machine. (ibid)) not only get across the same facts, but do so with immeasurably more style.

The effects of all this go beyond just the prose, though. Art's a vital part of viewing the world in these stories, a means of understanding and interacting with the world, as exemplified by eighteen 'stanzas' of a much longer epic 'poem' written in commemoration of the collapse of part of the polar region of [a race's] Dyson sphere about 1.2 million years ago, an accident that resulted in the deaths of  ~5.6 X 10^12 sentient beings. (p. 69) More personal horrors, too, are rammed home by similar means, as when the murders of a serial killer are described as the formalized sculpture of living meat. (p. 252) Then there's Fresco, one of the collection's two flash pieces, a quietly but grandly beautiful and haunting tale of slowly-shifting art that charts the rise and fall of civilizations. As the caretaker knows: Art is long […] And life short. (p. 245)

All of Deep Navigation doesn't live up to Alastair Reynolds' best work, though it does have several extremely interesting and well executed pieces. Any fan of the man's work is sure to find much to love here, and much, like his first story, that gives interesting perspective on the rest of his oeuvre. For the newcomer, though, this is best saved until after an exposure to Zima Blue, the Revelation Space series, Terminal World, or one of the man's other masterpieces.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Caitlin R. Kiernan - The Drowning Girl

“I’m going to write a ghost story now,” she typed.

"A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,” she also typed.

I also typed. (p. 1)

There are, indeed, ghosts in the pages that follow those fantastic opening lines. As well as a mermaid and a wolf, and the sharp dividing line between the two that can also blur. There're also the narrator's first person digressions and conversations, her wrestling with herself and her inner demons in dialogue and in open view. Before any of that, though, before even the first page of the novel proper with the promise of a mermaid and a wolf, Kiernan warns us that: This is the book it is, which means it may not be the book you expect it to be. Oddly enough, the warning's not so unexpected. After 2009's acclaimed and award nominated The Red Tree, Caitlin R. Kiernan's become the kind of writer with the reputation of doing the unexpected, the unexplainable, and the darkly, beautifully brilliant. The Drowning Girl shares some of that prior novel's techniques – its intertextuality and its particular style of first person narration, to give just two examples – but its results are quite different, abandoning the strong sense and confines of place that dominated The Red Tree, taking on a farther reaching and harder to pin down mantle, a story about need and change and our reality and our escaping it.

When delving into something so multifaceted and amorphous, it's probably not a good idea to begin by admitting I don't understand the book I'm reviewing. But, as I seem to have done just that, I should explain what I mean. In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer, Kiernan said: Over and over, I get the “But what happened?” people, and I think it causes me actual physical pain that they’ve so missed the point. Most of the timeand this is the truthI don’t know what happened! I don’t want to know what happened! As I’ve said again and again, one good mystery is worth a thousand solutions. I don't think that The Drowning Girl is meant to be understood. It's meant to be experienced, of course, to be delved into and wrestled with, to creep into our psyche and twist and smash what it finds there, to make us think and feel – but not for something so simple and pat as understanding.

Imp, as the main character's friends like to call her, is schizophrenic. This is not, though, solely a story about schizophrenia, containing insights only applicable to those afflicted. No, as Imp says: There's always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Some of us may be more susceptible than others are, but there's always a siren. (p. 101) Still, Imp's schizophrenia is vital to the tale, allowing and forcing her to face the mermaid, the werewolf, and the reality that binds us. Early on, she draws a sharp distinction between what is true and what is factual (p. 6), and so discerning what actually happened and what's impossible, what's real and what's fantastic, is wholly beside the point. The Drowning Girl is a narrative of thoughts and emotions, desires and implications, and not at all one of concrete occurrences.

Separating true and factual, though, is a difficult thing, and Kiernan often mines the gap between them, spinning out inconsistencies that we and Imp can become mired in if we don't keep our thoughts on what really matters. Imp, too, can play the game. This is her story, as she types it out on her grandmother's typewriter, and the doubts and hesitations of Imp the Storyteller are right there alongside those of Imp the Character. The distinction between true and factual is a double edged sword, and, in the scenes that cut too deep, Imp often retreats into a barrage of dates and trivia and facts that obscures all possible truth.

I won't be blowing your mind if I tell you that The Drowning Girl is a story here, but it doesn't stop there. This is a narrative of stories within stories, art within art, and layers folded tight and wrapping round their kin. Innumerable artists and writers, bits of legend and of history, are described, quoted, and alluded to within these pages. There's Phillip George Saltonstall and his haunting painting The Drowning Girl, Albert Perrault and his explorations ofviolence and the mythology of Little Red Riding Hood, Seichō Matsumoto and his suicide-invoking novel Kuroi Jukai, the grisly murder of Elizabeth Short that was later called The Black Dahlia Murder but first the Werewolf Murder, and even Imp's own stories and paintings.

These mentions of and creations of real and unreal art are not hollow pretension. The clues are scattered in each of these sources, and the truth at The Drowning Girl's heart lies somewhere where all of this art meets and blends. Art, here, is a source of spreading ideas. And of spreading ghosts. Hauntings are memes, Kiernan writes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways. A book, a poem, a song, a bedtime story, ad grandmother's suicide, the choreography of a dance, a few frames of film, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a deadly tumble from a horse, a faded photograph, or a story you tell your daughter. Or a painting hanging on the wall. (p. 12) And, of course, it doesn't end there. The Drowning Girl itself contains a haunting, and it seeks to spread itself beyond the 336 pages of its binding. It is an infected document, just waiting to spread its load of plague. (p. 88)

As all of this has no doubt made clear, Imp's story is not a straightforward one, and neither is its telling. Midway through the novel, Imp says: I didn't set out to appease the Tyranny of Plot. Lives do not unfold in tidy plots. (p. 171) Imp is full of digressions, often advancing through the past by sliding from one isolated event to another in a path that will only make sense afterwards if it ever will. That our narrator is a character, a human and very much at the center of all the misery she must unfold, is never lost, and she skirts around the most difficult parts before darting back to confront them head on. At times, when the connections are particularly obscure and when the climax of the chapter or incident is held away for one approach too many, this approach can grow irritating. At others, the easy shattering of chronology unmoors the events of the story from their specifics, leaving them feeling timeless and all around us.

The Drowning Girl is very much a work of Weird Fiction, that strange subgenre of horror and fantasy and more crystallized by H.P. Lovecraft (who Imp is "distantly related" to (p. 169)) that shows how the world is so much larger than what we see. It is not at all, though, a typical work of that genre. The world is vaster than we can grasp here, yes, greater than can be glimpsed through our "counterfeit sanity," (p. 285) and all the impossibility beyond may be damaging and deadly and potentially destructive, but characterizing it as simply malevolent is a hopeless oversimplification. Roles are reversed here, what's beyond the pall often being savaged by us and our world. It's not Elizabeth Short's murderers but the victim herself who is, in five stages, turned into a werewolf here, and its's not the siren but Imp who is the "author of abrasions" (p. 282) on that siren's perfectly soft skin.

Imp remembers Eva Canning coming to her twice, once in July and once in November, once as a mermaid and once as a wolf. Only one of these recollections is true, but, not knowing which is, she has no choice but to tell both tales. These two appearances, of the siren and of the predator, of seduction and of violence, are often sharply differentiated in the novel, with memories of one eventually coming clear as a manufactured self defense mechanism against memories of the other. But, like most such dividing lines in the novel, the mermaid and the wolf, the women walking into the water and the women slain by claws, come together.

All these come down to changelings, don't they? (p. 158) Imp writes, and so much of it does. The Drowning Girl is a novel about change, or at least the desire for it, a novel about mutability and collapsing boundaries, about being held prisoner by flesh and wanting to be free so badly that death finally becomes an option. (p. 151) These transformations play into every part of the novel, from transsexuality to the wolf in a girl's skin, but it's the border of reality that's most frequently railed against, cowered behind, and penetrated. Normal is a bitter pill that we rail against, (p. 65) Imp tells us, and insanity becomes a siren (p. 101), but things aren't that easy.

Insanity and the supernatural is here countered with Imp's humanity, both in its greatest aspects and also in its least glamorous. I pissed, she writes, and so I knew I must be alive, because I don't think dead women piss, do they? (p. 292) It's not, of course, limited to piss. Abalyn is Imp's girlfriend and lover, and the relationship between the two of them is one of the novel's strongest aspects. Their history together is meshed in with Imp's uncertainties about Eva and the world, but the two's interaction is rich with personality, hesitation, and, eventually, love. Besides which, showing Imp's vulnerabilities outside of the context of the purely impossible – showing how, after just meeting Abalyn, she wanted her to say yes so badly I probably had my fingers crossed. (p. 19) – goes a long way towards humanizing Imp.

Kiernan achieves all this with excellent prose that lives up to her reputation as a peerless wordsmith, but that's not to say that it, like the story, is exactly what you'd expect from her. The majority of the writing here is somewhat similar to that found in The Red Tree, at least insofar as it is as conversational as it is erudite, a mixture of insightful and vulnerable, traumatized and cutting. In marked contrast to the all out assault on every sense that defined so much of Kiernan's earlier prose, many of The Drowning Girl's descriptions and scenes read with the easy fluidity of dialogue, the unnatural rendered ethereal with suggestions and self examinations. All of that only adds to the impact of the barrage of images and emotions when it does come at the peaks of Imp's madness and the impossible's hold. The seventh chapter is the height of this, made up of pages of long paragraphs that snake and twist every which way and filled to the bursting and beyond with meaning and absolutely stunning writing, like: Dead wolves are sin-eaters. She was nailed with iron spikes to a smokehouse wall and gawkers came from all around to bear witness to laid low Christ Wolf in her mock Calvary tribulations. (pp. 210-1)

As I said in the beginning, I can't claim to fully understand The Drowning Girl. Then again, I'm not sure if such questions about sanity can ever be properly understood. I was, though, totally enthralled by this book. This is a novel about a haunting and about hauntings and about telling the stories of hauntings, and its characters and images, its words and power leave its page and haunt you as you read. But, though it hits you hard, The Drowning Girl is not a book of one note doom. It is a book about drowning, but it's also a book about learning to swim.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Six

When reviewing the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I said that: "the pattern for season openers is rather clear, now: Buffy is in a bad place psychologically, and, by the episode's end, she's pretty much reverted to normal." To be fair, season five had nothing to do with that, but we're back to it in force in season six, even if the bad place she's returning from psychologically is quite literally death. Most of these openers don't work so well for me, because, while Whedon and Co are generally masters of metaphor, these starting episodes are often played too sentimentally, too focused and without enough depth and complexity yet built up to support the emotions they try and get from you right at the gate. The two part Bargaining is, I'm sorry to report, the worst yet in that respect, though the return from the bad place here is stretched over episode after episode. That dragged out feeling is one that comes to characterize a lot of season six, and it's made so much worse by the fact that, like in Bargaining, the villains simply don't have the power to keep the plot moving enough to contrast and explore the characters' emotions. There are strong episodes in this season, but I'm sorry to say that they're few and far between, and the rest of the show's weak, messy, sometimes maudlin, and oftentimes simply silly.

Yep, these look like good villains.
Of course, one of the pressing questions going in was just how the writers were going to top having had a literal god as the prior season's villain. The answer? Three douchebags in a van. No, really. Previously, Tom Lenk's Andrew, Adam Busch's Warren, and Danny Strong's Jonathan were one off characters or, in Andrew's case, simple failures. Now they're back, and they've got the big billing, the writers having evidently gotten their comic relief and antagonist flash cards mixed up. The results are stupid. Not flashingly so, not daringly so, not even humorously so. Just fucking stupid, and stupid villains make for a stupid plot. The fact that, come the halfway point, the Trio all turn out to be masters of magic, technology, and manipulation to an extent that the Mayor and even the just-shown God would sell their souls to be doesn't redeem them but just cheapens everything that came before. And when, in Dead Things, the Trio kidnaps, attempts to rape, and murders a woman, it doesn't make them any less ridiculous, just makes the joke disgusting.

The main thrust of season six is Buffy's coming into adulthood (I specify Buffy's, mind you, because every other character made this transition into maturity some time ago). Admittedly, the writers had no real choice but to go here. After Dawn's entrance into the picture, Buffy's becoming Dawn's guardian, and Buffy's simple rise in age, this was an inevitable shift, and I suppose I should give the show some credit for not simply oozing along in a time freeze. But the arc oscillates between being boring and being a disaster.

The chief early episode of all this is Life Serial, where Buffy attempts to grow up and either work or go to college and fails, handily due to magic. At the end, her early season rise to adulthood is completed by Giles simply writing her a check to handle all of her money problems. Wow, what maturity! What self sufficiency, independence, and general competence! Later in the season, once Giles' left (he spends the entire season dramatically departing for England, coming back, sitting about a bit, and then dramatically departing again (before, once again, coming back)), Buffy decides to pay for her expansive California house with a job flipping burgers at the Doublemeat Palace. Yep, that sounds workable.

Besides her so-gripping monetary woes, the other half of Buffy's coming adulthood is her parenting of Dawn. Let's not shy back here: Buffy is a terrible parent. She basically leaves Dawn to do what she will, with no idea what's going, and occasionally stops in to apologize profusely for how bad at the whole thing she is. To be clear, though, I don't want her to become a good parent. The few times she tries are incredibly boring. The problem is that motherhood is not the most dramatic thing in a show about vampires, dark gods, and Three Douchebags in a Van (alright, it's better than the last of those), and, though the show's writers badly worked themselves into this corner, it doesn't make it any better a place to be in. Admittedly, however, this arc does lead to one (and only one!) good thing, the episode Older and Far Away, where Dawn's accidental wish leaves Buffy and all her guests trapped in the house.

Just so you know, I don't need you,
and we're going to break up after this.
By far the most interesting thing that Buffy gets up to this time around is Spike. In the course of the season, the relationship between the two grows and grows twisted, and its fundamental dynamics – her need for him and disgust with him, his love and dedication to her and his cruelty – are definitely the highlights of the season. Unfortunately, there's no  variance to be found in this plot. The same few elements are hit over and over, and they're hit in the same way, as when – for episode after torturous episode – the two fight, kiss (or fuck), and then Buffy says that she doesn't need him, that they're done, and that she's never going to talk to him again until they do it all over again in the next forty-plus minute segment. Change only comes towards the end, when, after one of Buffy's many, many break offs of their relationship, Spike attempts to rape her. The scene is horrifying, clumsy, and painful in marked contrast to the majority of the show's fight scenes, and it's likely to leave the viewer feeling more than a little sickened. Afterwards, horrified at what he's done, Spike flees Sunnydale, heading to try and, in the final episodes, succeed, at getting a soul.

Is it too late to break up?
Then there's Xander. After a relationship with almost no shown problems, and after an ungodly long buildup before Xander finally reveals to the group that he and Anya are engaged, the two are set to be married. And then he leaves her at the altar. Really, I wish I could be kidding as I type that. It's not a grand, I-am-evil-incarnate kind of betrayal. It's just him being an asshole, and, no matter how much he tries to play it off and act charming, and then later act like he's the moral high ground here, he's completely at fault for it all.

Willow's plotline is arguably more important to the season's overall course than Buffy's, and it's the plotline that contains the lion's share of the season's best aspects, even if it, too, has its manifold faults. Through the first third or so, we see Willow gradually using, and abusing, more and more of her magical abilities, culminating in what is essentially the mind-altering of her lover, Tara, and also the absolutely hilarious episode Tabula Rasa, in which she accidentally wipes the mind of the entire cast.

Her arc's middle, however, breaks up the building tension of this. Magic becomes a metaphor for drug addiction, and she tries to break free from it. The emotions on display here are quite effective, but the comparison itself falls apart at the most cursory glance. A drug like cocaine makes you feel invincible, yet it actually weakens you. Magic, on the other hand, actually gives you all the powers it feels like it does, leaving the simple addiction language that's used to describe it, and the scenes of magic-caused weakness that come out of nowhere, feeling simply false.

Not what drugs do to you...
But so totally badass.
The climax of Willow's arc and the season, though, is fantastic. After two of the three Van Douchebags are arrested, the final one, Warren, goes after Buffy with a gun. This, contrary to expectations, works just fine (why has no other villain ever tried this?), and, though he doesn't do more than wound Buffy, he does hit and kill Tara. That's when things get rather more than interesting: Willow goes full on badass, becoming – to use the fan base's nomenclature – "Dark Willow." She sets off, fully utilizing her magical powers, consumed with hate, and bent on slaughtering the Trio.

And so we come to what is the thematic heart of this season, as it is of so many others: the weight of consequence and the possibility of redemption. Willow, needless to say, comes down on the side of vengeance, of punishing and slaughtering the killers and monsters of the world at all cost. Buffy, meanwhile, believes that the human authorities should be left to deal with this human villain and his human means. She claims that, much as he is deserving of all flavors of hell, it's not up to them to administer it, saying that she "can't control the universe." The consistency of that position, though, is just a tad questionable, in light of a whole slew of past events, not the least of which her certainly outside the law methods of dealing with Faith's murder in season three (and, even though Faith did eventually go to jail at the close of the Angel episode Sanctuary, Buffy actively opposed the idea), not to mention her defense of multiple murderers that were, even if innocent in intent, responsible for countless deaths (Angel not the least among them). The argument seems to be the natural nature of Warren's final crime, but I'm not sure how much of a moral difference is made by his use of a gun or a spell. Then there's the fact that the idea of jailing a supernatural threat, essentially a prison stay enforced only by the consent of the theoretically imprisoned, is just a tad absurd, and, though Warren may not possess any literal powers, his season's run of quasi-magical and quasi-technological trickery certainly seem to put him into that category.

But, despite my reservations, there is something to be said for the question, something that does cut close to the heart of the character of Buffy and the entirety of the show's thematic. Which is why it's so infuriating when Willow's debatably justifiable drive for a magical (and fatal) solution to magical problems is shot right over as Willow, seemingly without cause but grief, reaches the heights of every previous end-the-world aiming Big Bad. I suppose that her progression to such destructive nihilism isn't completely farfetched in terms of her actual development, but it does remove any and all complexity from the season's climax. Still, the action is enjoyable, and Willow does remain darkly magnificent. The end of it all, with Xander only just managing to draw her back from the brink by showing his love, is hardly surprising, but is quite hard hitting and effective. But the world's continued existence – something never in doubt more than two episodes back – is only the most superficial of resolutions, one that quite literally lets the moral complexities of the arc, embodied in the Trio's two surviving members (both, let me remind you, guilty of kidnapping, attempted rape, and murder), slink off stage unpunished.

Vampires, Slayers, Demons, Gods...
and SONG!
Still, the main plot, here, is a stop and go thing, with everyone's (least) favorite nerds often dropping out for episodes at a time with little reason, and as in seasons one and four, many of the season's strongest episodes are stand alones. But, even if Warren and Co aren't present, the damage they and their arc did and does to the characters and the show's atmosphere remains, crippling a fair few of the side stories that they're nowhere near. I've already mentioned Tabula Rasa (excellent) and Older and Far Away (quite good), but there's Once More With Feeling and Normal Again to consider. The former is the show's famous musical episode, an idea that, like the silent Hush, should have failed spectacularly but doesn't. It's not deep, but it is incredibly fun. The latter, meanwhile, shows a Buffy tormented by visions of herself in a mental hospital, told by the doctors to confront her inner delusions, the vampires she battles and the friends that keep her in the fictional Sunnydale of her psychosis. The idea that it's all been a dream's rather unacceptable after six seasons, but it's an effective episode nonetheless.

I've seen a fair few internet apologists try and claim that some of this season's bad reputation just comes about because it's dark, but that's bullshit from episode one to episode twenty-two. The problem here is not that the events are dark but that they're all too often poorly written and poorly executed, and don't try to tell me that I don't know dark fiction. There are some great episodes in season six, but they're not nearly enough to save it. I hope that Buffy's seventh season can redeem the show, but, after this, I have to wonder if it might not've been better if Buffy had, at season five's close, stayed dead…

Standout Episodes: Villains, Tabula Rasa, Once More With Feeling

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Charles Stross - Glasshouse

Glasshouse is a tightly written and ambitious Science Fiction novel that's made up of dazzling and complex world building, an exploration of how memory makes us who we are, and a commentary on the prejudices and oddities of our current lives from the vantage point of the future looking back. All of those aspects are intriguing, but none of them are wholly successful, or even particularly close to it, ultimately leaving Glasshouse far more memorable for what it could have been than for what it is.

We begin in the Invisible Republic, one of the many polities that make up Stross' future, and our narrator has just erased his memories. From what he does remember, though, he knows that someone's chasing him. As a result, he takes refuge in an experiment designed to simulate the dark ages that so little is known about, a simulacrum of our very own 20th century. Before long, though, ominous hints begin to appear that the experimenters may not only be connected to the people the narrator (Robin, Reeve within the experiment) is running from but may be connected to one of the greatest disasters in recorded history.

All of this is intriguing and inventive, particularly Stross' countless clever uses of wormholes; all of it, also, is soon strangled by the weight of the novel's uncountable inconsistencies and nonsensicalities. Some of these can, perhaps, be explained by how hazy the future is, much as that's just swapping one problem for another (debatably worse) one. An example along these lines is how, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, the future's ultimate fighters do battle with swords. They're rather fantastic swords, mind you, but if there's any reason at all why their foes don’t sit out of range, mayhaps on top of a wall, and blow them away, we're not treated to it.

But the problem of inconstancies goes as deep as the character's essential motivations, as L. Timmel Duchamp shows in her excellent Strange Horizons review. The participants in the experiment are enticed in with the promise of a huge payout, and the experimenters twist them into conforming through the use of an omnipresent, in-their-heads, always watching points system that drags them on with the promise of "bonus money" (p. 32). Stross seems to be combining social and financial incentives into a force for conformity. Okay, that could prove interesting. Except for one rather fatal flaw. This future is post scarcity (this is never said explicitly, but because the experiment is emulating a pre-acceleration scarcity society (p. 31), and because the Invisible Republic is post-acceleration, it undeniably is implicitly post scarcity). For all their constant musing about money, we never see a single character actually use or need it for anything outside of the experiment.

Stross' failure to think through the implications of his own world building is not limited to large-scale decisions but gets right down to the prose level. In this world where A-gates can make absolutely anything one might ever require, we still hear about a "failed business venture" (p. 3)  (what kind of business could exist post-scarcity? how did/could it fail?) and a character is "paid handsomely," (p. 18) without a mention of what that might entail or to what end. Lest it seem like this is a problem solely related to economics, a character whose first thought upon hearing 20th century is "hunt[ing] mammoths with a spear," (p. 30) still senses danger in terms of a metaphorical "warning bell(p. 5). The one exception to all this is time, which is related through a timescale based around the second that primarily results in the reader just having to constantly flip back to the page with the conversions.

The nightmarish quality of life in the experiment is frequently discussed, how it's just like a prison, how it's all one fearful panopticon (p. 223), and so forth. But that's nonsense. In the beginning, Robin/Reeve's snooping is allowed due to the highly questionable idea that the experimenters, dedicated to the validity of their  experiment, wouldn't use modern (meaning, for us, future) surveillance techniques in it. Their dedication to the experiment's validity is later shown to be utter tosh, but, even granting that they want to stick to the 20th century, it's still rather questionable that these evil masterminds evidently don't have the basic technology that you, dear reader, probably use to protect your house this very moment. The dastardly and so-technological villains don't even have an alarm on their door. And as for the more general aspects of surveillance, we're told again and again that someone might always be listening, that there's, at the very least, keyword monitoring (p. 307), but that just makes me wonder why none of the following trigger any of these keyword alerts: the walls have ears, (p. 303) [the experimenters] are war criminals, (p. 288) and Team Green's job is to secure the hall, drop any armed support the bad guy's have, and kill as many [of the experimenters] as we can find (p. 314), to just name a few.

Even leaving aside the innumerable inconsistencies and questions of its security and existence, the experiment proves a poor tool for Stross to give us any actual insights about our actual world. There are the occasional amusing moments when post-human liberties run up against 20th century barriers, but the majority of Stross' creations are far too exaggerated to actually show us anything at all. The majority of it is just Stross hammering on about our close minded sexual politics, which would be fair game if it weren't twisted so far to make his points. In the point system, Adultery […] gets minus one hundred while rape isn't mentioned [and] murder loses you just seventy points. (pp. 194-5) But… no. Arguing that modern day, or even 20th century America (which, I should point out, is all of the past that's ever interacted with) considered adultery worse than murder and rape not even a crime is simply stupid.

Then there's one of the novel's most interesting elements, at least on paper, the memory-erasure that colors so much of the background. Stross doesn't shy away from the potentially cataclysmic, personality-effacing implications of such things, and the technology becomes vital to the novel. As the narrator says at one point: If I forget, then it might as well never have happened. Memory is liberty. (p. 224) The first person perspective allows Stross to weave this deep into the character and plot of the novel. Deprived of any distance from Robin/Reeve's own fractured recollections, sureness is difficult, and a calculated disorientation of absence leads to some of the novel's best scenes.

But, though the idea is utilized, it's never wholly successful. The memories that the narrator's lost are specific ones, and what we do know limits us to a limited number of plausible truths: I'm a tank; I'm a dissolute young bioaviator with a death wish: Maybe I'm a sad gamer case instead, or a deep-cover agent. But all of these possibilities are a whole lot sillier and less plausible than what everything around me is saying, which is that I'm a small-town librarian who's had a nervous breakdown. (p. 250) That may be the most plausible explanation, but it's of course not the right one, because it would make for a horribly boring story, while the idea of him/her being a gamer would make for a silly one. The fact that Robin/Reeve is a deep cover agent/tank is never in doubt, in part due to the copious multi-page flash backs (that often verge more into the territory of info-dumps) that elaborate on that past.

Leaving aside all of my issues with its themes and the consistency of its world building, Glasshouse still runs into serious trouble as just a fun read. The majority of this is due to the pacing, which lags badly once the experiment begins, picks up for a bit, slumps to nothing again after the main character's escape attempt, and then finally starts to climb up again before we reach the novel's utterly absent climax. At the end of the last proper chapter, the tension's at its height, and both victory and defeat seem equally possible. Then things cut away. The first line of the epilogue? To cut a long story short, we won. (p. 329) Thank God Stross cut the story short, it's not like I'd paid eight bucks to read it and had just gone through three hundred and twenty-eight pages of buildup. Maybe next time he can perfect this so-great formula and, for his next book, simply publish that sentence.

I really, really wanted to like Glasshouse, and not only because of the author's high profile, repeated Hugo nominations, and interesting blog. Unlike so much failed Science Fiction, Glasshouse doesn't stay where it's safe, throwing us the same tired storyline we've seen so many times before. Stross is an author of vision and daring. Unfortunately, at least here, he seems to lack the skill required to bring them off. Still, better an interesting failure than dull mediocrity, and I'll likely give Stross another chance to pull things together better some time in the future.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Publication v5

The good folks over at Earthbound Fiction have snapped up my story "Hope Immortal" for their upcoming Dark Stars anthology of Science Fiction. This is really, really cool for a number of reasons. First, and by far the most important, is the obvious I-just-got-published-and-soon-people-I-don't-know-will-be-reading-and-hopefully-enjoying-my-work thing. This one, though, does have some nice bonuses. "Hope Immortal" is the first story I've sold that is not horror, nor flash (I love horror and flash fiction, of course. Just nice to branch out a bit.). And it's actually the oldest story I had up on submission, the first one that, looking back, was all there. I'm looking forward to getting to link to its published form.