Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fallout: New Vegas demo

Here's a couple developers talking about the game and showing actual gameplay. Including the exploding pants fun from the last Fallout game. I'm so excited!

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

I find cults fascinating. There's something very real and very scary about cults, their leaders, and their followers. Last night, the g/f and I watched a documentary about the Peoples Temple, and their sad and awful end at Jonestown, Guyana. This particular documentary won a couple awards, and its greatest claim to fame was uncovering new material, including unseen footage, and the FBI tapes of Jones during the actual mass suicide.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a talking head style documentary, in which there is no overall narrator directing events. All of the testimony comes from witnesses, members of the Temple, or relatives of members. I personally prefer this style, as it's less intrusive and lets the audience decide things for themselves.

While that measure of independence for the audience is good, certainly no documentary, including this one can be considered objective. What I found fascinating about the doc, mostly Jim Jones' life, growing up, and his systemic control of the temple, wasn't handled as fully as I had hoped it would be. The doc skips over some of the corruption in Jones' life, ie the sexual control he had. Although the doc does deal with it, it's not nearly as comprehensive as it was in reality.

One documentary cannot have everything, which I can concede, but the doc's specific inclusive and exclusion of specific things does tend to editorialize the subject. It seems that Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is about the victims, rather than the villain. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, I'm just pointing it out.

I enjoyed the documentary, as it was engaging, never boring, and at the end, extremely emotional. Anybody left unmoved by the end of this documentary must have some serious mental illness. The footage of the hundreds of corpses, including the children, is horrific, as it should be. But Jonestown doesn't want to make a statement against cults. If any such statement exists, it's implied, and I think the case of 900 plus deaths requires a stronger argument than simply an implication.

Friday, August 27, 2010


It's hard to believe that Delany published Nova when he was 25 years old. That's how old I am, and I couldn't conceive of something this complicated, and pull it off. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Let's take a look at the last of the "early" Delany novels, published in 1968 and nominated for the Hugo Award, losing to John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (which I've heard is amazing).

Captain Lorq Von Ray is hunting for a sun to go nova, which will release crazy amounts of a particular fuel source that is becoming scarce in the universe. He is being hunted by business rivals, who seek to thwart Von Ray from completely changing the current economic system. On his quest for this substance, he enlists a stalwart crew of mismatched miscreants, such as The Mouse, a damaged musician with only one shoe, Katin, a pompous windbag of a scholar, a set of twins containing one black and one albino, a couple who can read Tarot cards (which are taken as science in the future).

I said at the beginning that this is the last of the "early" Delany novels for a reason. Once he had published this, he didn't put out anything until 1975's Dhalgren, a novel extremely experimental and complex. But there's foreshadowing of that avant-garde with Nova, particularly how Delany relates his plot to greater, older more mythological plots, such as the quest for the Grail.

This motif of quest is fairly explicit in the novel, and rather than being annoying or obvious, it is used as a commentary on the art of writing. To be specific, Katin, the scholar, has been making notes for a novel for most of his adult life. He has collected over 5,000 notes to himself, and has never even come up with a subject to write about. He has a nebulous idea about writing a historical fiction. It's not until the end of the novel when Katin figures out his subject, and he immediately points out the Grail connection. This creates an echo effect. The reader sees that they're reading a novel written by a fictional character, and it is simply an echo of a really old story. There is nothing new - only history.

This barely scratches the surface of Nova. Whereas The Einstein Intersection is a set of post-apocalyptic tropes disguised by the myths of the classical era, Nova is a set of space opera tropes concealing a Grail quest, or a archetypal Quest.

Again, with Delany, you know almost exactly what kind of style you're going to get. Certainly nobody has ever described a physical confrontation over the open mouth of a mined volcano so beautifully. The dialogue is terrific, as always, and Delany's thematic wanderings never pull the reader from the action, the plot, the emotions.

However, an extended flashback near the beginning of the novel does appear to be in need of some editing. This flashback explains the motives of Von Ray and his nemesis, by going back to particular events in their childhood and teens. I feel that the removal of most of this wouldn't detract from the overall feel of the novel. Logically, if this is an archetypal adversarial relationship, I shouldn't need too much backstory.

The edition I read does not have the added portions, which, I'm told, changes the characterization of a certain person considerably. I would like to get my hands on a new edition (like the ones put out by Vintage with a common visual style).

I really liked Nova, and other than a little bit of a slow movement at the beginning of the novel concerning a flashback, I thought this was as close to a masterpiece as Delany could do before setting out to write Dhalgren. I can't wait to read my next Delany novel - I know I won't be disappointed.

Before starting the next one, I'm going to read some J. G. Ballard, whom I've never read! I've always been suggested Ballard, as my love of Bret Easton Ellis and Delany point me in that direction, but nothing has ever jumped up and made me give it a go. I'm going to give High Rise a try. It's short. It won't kill me.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Batman: City of Crime

I've never read any David Lapham before, but I'd heard good things. I picked this trade up for super cheap, this being the first comic book item I've purchased in probably six months. It seemed really big and self-contained, which are the two things I'm looking for in a trade. Let's take a look.

Bruce Wayne doesn't notice when a teenaged socialite is in trouble, which starts a chain reaction, involving the rich, their dirty investments into a new property being built, six pregnant girls murdered in an apartment fire, a missing pregnant girl, the Penguin, Mr Freeze, the Ventriloquist, a mysterious enemy who has spread his or her influence from the top to the bottom.

This is an extremely complicated and well written story. Each issue of the story builds upon the larger plot. Definitely this is something you must read from the beginning, as picking up any individual issue would leave the reader unsatisfied and very confused.

I absolutely loved this series. Not only was it starkly narrated, definitely immersed in the emotions of the character, but it's also tremendously well drawn. Each character stands out and are consistent. The mood and atmosphere of the story is reflected in the well designed cityscapes and neighbourhoods.

An element of this Batman story, and others of a similar style is that they use the city and its millions of inhabitants. It seems that in most comic book stories, there's only the heroes and the villains, and their henchmen. This ignores the actual citizens, the people affected by the poverty, the crime, the drugs, the various social problems destroying a city of this size. Gotham City becomes a character in this comic.

City of Crime might be one of the best Batman stories I've ever read. It's complex, clever, adds something new to the mythos while still employing classic elements of it, which is something all comic books based on legends should do. Even the concept of The Batman is examined, in particular what drives a man to put on a rubber suit and fight crime. Batman isn't a superhero, invulnerable to the horror and the decay - this is an emotionally scarred man, and the story reflects this. I liked City of Crime better than any of the Grant Morrison Batman stories, which is saying a ton considering my adoration of the Bald One.

I strongly urge any comic book fan to give this a try!

The worst pop song/music video of the decade

This is Gabriella Cilmi's "On a Mission", and it is truly a terrible terrible terrible song. If you can make it to the rapping section of the song, you're an amazing person. It's supposed to be a Barbarella homage, I think. The singer, Gabriella, stands with her hands on her hips and jerks around while her lame backup dancer gesticulate wildly with their arms.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Einstein Intersection

Oh boy. This is exactly why I fall away from reading Delany. After reading the fairly accessible Jewels of Aptor, I decided to try my luck with his Hugo Award-winning novel The Einstein Intersection. I'm going to quote another reviewer here, because he perfectly explains why readers have such trouble with him.
I always get nervous right before I start to read something by Delany. Not that I'm afraid that it will be drek, but rather, I know almost with an unfailing certainty I will feel pretty stupid when I finish it. Stupid, as in "Damn, that Delany's operating on a plane so far above me I can feel my IQ points dribbling out my ears with each page I turn."
This is from RevolutionSF, written by Jayme Lynn Blaschke in 2002. Bearing this in mind, let's take a look at this novel.

Lo Lobey is a talented musician in his small village, who is in love with Friza. She dies under mysterious circumstances and Lobey takes his sword-flute and journals through the wild while being tormented by Billy The Kid, who is also Death. He joins a group of dragon-herders, and they eventually come to a city filled with millions of people, and he meets The Dove, a beautiful woman who reveals to him some information.

On the top level of this novel is a post-apocalyptic story of an important young man on a quest to find his love. On the next level is the archetypal Orpheus story. On the next level is a postmodern novel about archetypes. On the next level is a metafiction about the irresistible permanency of myths. This is not an easy novel. Or is it?

Spoilers begin.

Certainly The Einstein Intersection can be read fairly straightforward: humanity has been wiped out by nuclear war - aliens or something higher have come to Earth, picked up the human form, and can't help themselves from unconsciously acting out our greatest stories, no matter the consequences. Lobey, the protagonist, goes on an archetypal Hero's Journey, meets some strnage creatures, learn a meaningful secret about the nature of his reality, and then has a showdown.

What complicates things are the journal entries from the author himself, commenting on how he is actively writing the story. I'm willing to bet that the journal is as fabricated as the rest of the novel is. However, the author seems to be drawn into the story (emotionally, rather than as a character, like in typical metafiction), to the point where it feels like the story has achieved parthenogenesis.

And the point of all this post-modern claptrap? The primeval power of myths and symbols, and how we can never escape them. Not even aliens visiting our planet could ever hope to escape them. If this isn't a love letter to Carl Jung's theories, I don't know what is.

Luckily, Delany's absolutely astonishing power of prose makes this a wonderful, albeit confusing, ride.

Something I find fascinating about all this is how each novel Delany writes seems to build up to the next one. He wrote this one in 1967, and later in 1975, wrote Dhalgren (a novel of his I keep referring to for good reason). In Dhalgren, my theory is that the story they live in has been divorced from meaning, ie the symbols and mythology have been separated from the human collective memory. This is in opposed theme to The Einstein Intersection. Or is it? Perhaps, Dhalgren is the warning that this is what happens when you lose your rich history of story?

I haven't really even discussed the plot, or the characters or what have you of The Einstein Intersection. I'm more interested in this novel as a book of ideas, instead of a rip roaring adventure tale set in the far future. But, believe me when I say that it truly works as both.

The Einstein Intersection is a tremendously fascinating novel filled with complex ideas and is drawn from the deep well of our common stories. It's also a great time capsule of what the New Age of science fiction was in the Sixties. It's also a really fun story told by an absolute master of the English language. I strongly urge any fan of sci-fi to pick it up and give it a try.

Books read in 2010 (so far)

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Last Orders by Graham Swift
In A Free State by V. S. Naipaul
The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
Holiday by Stanley Middleton
Possession by A. S. Byatt
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Saville by David Storey
The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt
Still Life by A. S. Byatt
The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
Daniel Martin by John Fowles
Babel Tower by A. S. Byatt
The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever
Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara
White Noise by Don Delillo
V by Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Vineland by Thomas Pynchon
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
Last Orders by Graham Swift
Staying On by Paul Scott
The Siege of Krishnapur by J. G. Farrell
Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala'
Rites of Passage by William Golding
Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
Troubles by J. G. Farrell
The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers
Blind Lake by Robert Charles Wilson
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke
Darwinia by Robert Charles Wilson
The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R Delany
The Wanderers by Richard Price

45 novels in 2010 so far.... That's not bad at all. 

The Wanderers

As readers of this blog have noticed, Richard Price is one of my favourite authors. Certainly one of the greatest writers of dialogue in the history of American literature, half of his works are out of print. I hate that John Grisham and Dan Brown and Tom Clancy and a million other authors are in print, and terrible, and yet I can't find a Richard Price novel. Except, I found this one, The Wanderers, his first novel published.

The Wanderers are a gang of kids in New York around the sixties, and this novel is about the rival gangs, the apathetic teachers, the violent parents, the girlfriends they're always trying to sleep with, and how the gang deals with them. We follow a handful of the gangmembers as they go to school, get into fights, have sex, get into more fights, go to parties and everything in between.

This is really a collection of connected short stories rather than a unified novel, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't think any of the characters are interesting enough to sustain an entire novel, so the episodic format works to the novel's benefit.

What doesn't work is the aforementioned character problems. Most of the gang member cast tend to get a little same-y by the halfway point. They all talk the same, swear the same, and have the same motive: sex.

Price's books tend to be classified as social novels, as they're about the problems facing a particular group of people in a particular time. Sort of like The Wire, but on a smaller level (which Price would eventually become a staff writer on). The Wanderers, however, doesn't quite gel when it comes to Price's thesis. Certainly these kids face problems, but they appear systemic (much like the thesis of The Wire), but the problems aren't quite articulated well enough to sustain the themes of a social novel. This is a prototype for the masterpieces that Price would go on to write.

The Wanderers shows the potential that Price had, but also shows his seemingly innate knowledge of story. While it is a collection of short stories, each one stands on its own, while still pushing the overall plot forward. The cooperation of micro and macro is an extremely difficult thing to pull off, which Price pulls off quite well. These stories are one that you could sit back and listen to, if Price was in the room telling them. Story, with its myriad of intricacies and tricks, is something Price does well.

Other than some beginner's flaws, this is still an entertaining novel overall. It's very funny, emotional at the end, and left me wanting more. The Wanderers isn't a perfect novel, but still very good. It demonstrates an author in the development stage, one who would go on to bigger and better things.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Jewels of Aptor

As aforementioned in the last post, I picked up another Samuel R Delany novel, specifically The Jewels of Aptor. I absolutely love Delany, but he can be difficult, and difficult to find. However, each time I finish a Delany novel, I'm exhilarated and desperate to start the next one, only to be thwarted by his far too alien worlds. The Jewels of Aptor is his first published novel, which I didn't know until I was looking for a picture of the cover (of my edition)

A strange representative of an ancient Goddess sends two sailors, one a poet, one a giant, and a very young four-armed thief on a mission to an island where the final third jewel of Aptor is being held, along with the woman's daughter. On the boat ride out, they are accosted by the first mate who accuses the thief of being a spy, but is he? Or is the first mate a spy? When they reached the monster-filled island, things are definitely not what they seem.

This novel, or novella depending on your definition, is only 160 odd pages, and every single one of them is chock full of the most complex and beautiful prose. Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes like Samuel R Delany. The closest I've ever read to Delany is D. H. Lawrence, except in subject matter and theme. Delany's voice is so absolutely strong and confident, and this is his first novel, published in his early twenties.

The plot is fairly complicated considered the novel's length. The concept of trinities is explored in depth, along with the nature of free will, the collective unconscious, humanity's inhumanity, and the consequences of an atomic age. Not only are all these weighty themes looked at, but there's also a giant blob monster that forms human shapes as soldiers and a nest of nun-vampires with wings. Tell me that doesn't sound awesome.

This isn't a novel without flaws, though. Most of the plot is expounded in exposition-heavy scenes. We're constantly having discussions on the thrust of the plot, and the motives of everybody else. Delany also has his not-quite crystallized theme concerning the power of storytelling, which develops quite fully in Dhalgren, among other novels. The fetal nature in which he handles this is quite clumsy considering his masterpieces published later, but you can't fault a writer for that.

The Jewels of Aptor is a crazy bizarre science fiction novel that seems to break as many rules as it follows. Readers of science fiction could hardly go wrong with Delany, with his amazing lyrical style, very strong dialogue, and the sheer complexity that comes with everything he writes, even this novel. I really enjoyed this, and I'm excited to read more Delany.

I picked up Larry Niven's Ringworld from the library and read about 30 pages so far. Certainly a drop in prose quality in comparison with Delany, but I really like the hard science subgenre. I gave up on Downbelow Station, Manifold: Time, and Lord of Light, all for the same reason - it just didn't grab me. Keep checking back for more inane prattle about books.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


Reader of this blog will be familiar with my adoration of Robert Charles Wilson. I've read two of his novels, and fell in love with them. I decided to keep reading what is available to me, hoping that the streak would continue, and I read Darwinia, winner of the Philip K Dick award,

One day, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the continent of Europe disappears, leaving behind a land mass with the same geography, but whose evolution changed thousands of years previous, creating flora and fauna never seen on Earth. The whole world is changed completely, irrevocably. The novel follows Guildford Law, a young photographer who travels with an expedition into the mysterious wilderness.

Just like the other two books I read by Wilson, the novel starts out one way and ends in a completely different way. That synopsis really only covers half of the novel, which changes gears drastically at about the midway point. Certainly the novel is an alternate history one, interested in exploring the sociological and historical elements of changing history, but this is also a bizarre science fiction novel with a central premise predicated on misdirection.

Spoilers for the novel start.

It seems that this alternate Earth is merely an illusion. At the end of the universe is an immense sentient machine which has all of history within itself. Not a recording of history - literally everything that existed. But this Sentience is being attacked by something that I'm not sure I fully understand. This enemy tries to fight with this history by changing something fundamental. But the real history, the real people, all exist as "ghosts" or packets of algorithms on a noosphere. People who died in the Great War, such a traumatic and strong part of time, have the ability to speak to their doubles, who never had a Great War. Guildford, our protagonist is then conscripted by himself into fighting a literal war with the doubles of those who are subjugated by the mysterious Enemy.

This doesn't really do the last third of the novel justice. Wilson is dealing with large scientific concepts but they are related by a regular person, creating a layer of misunderstanding between the author, the character and the reader.

However, one can plainly see that the novel is predicated entirely on misdirection. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The same can be said of Blind Lake, but that was held together by an engaging mystery and a handful of interesting and rounded characters.

Darwinia suffers from its misdirection by jumping forwards in time every 20 to 30 years, checking back in with its bizarrely immortal protagonist Guildford. Every time we meet a supporting cast member, Wilson has them killed off by enemies or old age. This wouldn't be a problem if Guildford wasn't so blank. He has no real personality.

The parts of the novel dealing the expedition are easily the strongest. Full of mystery, and some clever foreshadowing, the expedition keeps the reader hooked. When Guildford returns, almost all of the supporting cast is taken off the board, leaving him to deal with nothing. There's no emotional resolution, and there really never is overall at the end of the novel.

While I may have been annoyed by the misdirection, the concept is clever, but it's not enough. A whole reality manipulated by an immense, wholly alien idea is interesting. However the execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. I enjoyed Darwinia in spite of its many weaknesses. Surely my high expectations helped fuel the disappointment. The novel's lack of well-drawn characters and lack of emotional impact are almost fatal flaws, but only the central concept keeps the novel from being a disaster. Thus, the streak ends for Wilson and I. However, this does not deter me from continuing, as I got his out of print time travel novel Bridge of Years from eBay.

Speaking of out of print, I found one of Richard Price's early novels in a used bookstore the other day, as well as a Samuel R. Delany novel (also out of print), both of which I think I'm going to read next. Even though I have a bunch of Atwood to read still, and the aforementioned Wilson novel. As always, keep checking back for updates!

Childhood's End

Rendezvous with Rama was the only Arthur C. Clarke novel I had ever read, until I decided to continue with whom some people call one of the science fiction authors ever. So I grabbed Childhood's End from the library, which is supposedly one his best works.

What I really enjoyed about Rama was repeated with Childhood's End, specifically Clarke's cold dispassionate prose style. Every character speaks with the same educated and scientifically inclined voice. The science is complicated, but Clarke's description never leaves the reader behind. As well, aliens are treated as being so wholly alien as to be on a different plane of existence - scientifically speaking more likely than little green men.

Childhood's End is about a race of aliens calling themselves The Overlords who have taken over Earth completely but who offer only peace for the planet. Concepts of countries, borders, war, disease, etc all are annihilated in the wake of a peaceful conquer. But the loss of ambition for the stars and for creativity are also extinguished with nothing to strive for. The novel follows a couple characters over 50 years as humanity learns slowly about the mysterious aliens and eventually struggles against Earth's eventual destiny.

This is intellectual science fiction, rather than an action-packed space opera. Clarke is dealing with philosophical concepts, such as destiny, free will, and subjugation. Luckily, Clarke's masterful pace of revealing things keeps the reader wanting more. Each revelation is shocking, or at least unexpected, and he paces them out in a clever way.

Clarke, like many of his contemporaries, was an expert short story writer, and often the long form of the novel suffered from being composed of short stories, creating a disjointed and episodic feel overall. Childhood's End doesn't really have this problem. While it does seem to be formed of shorter sections, they work hand in hand. The whole of the novel succeeds because of the cooperation of the sections.

What doesn't work at all is the prologue. I'm glad I worked my way through the prologue because I enjoyed the novel, but rarely have I read a novel that opens so weakly. Taking the point of view of two astronauts competing for space supremacy, Clarke is trying to show the human race's constant ambition for the stars. This is snuffed out by dominance of a superior race who have absolute control of space. However the little plot threads that are started are never picked up on, making the prologue almost entirely superfluous. It's also just plain boring.

(The updated and anachronistic prologue, attached to the end as an appendix, is also horribly tedious)

While the prologue might be boring, the rest of Childhood's End never is. Clarke keeps things moving briskly and his treatment of science and the philosophical consequences of the premise are handled expertly. I really enjoyed this novel, almost more than Rendezvous with Rama, which never gives any explanation for itself. Childhood's End is a fantastic science fiction novel, and I would certainly keep reading more Clarke.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wallander - "One Step Behind"

Let's not even mention how long it's been since I've watched an episode of Wallander....

"One Step Behind" is the third and last episode of the first series. I didn't even know there was a second series until about a week ago, which made me want to finish this. In this episode, two women and a man, inexplicably wearing 18th century garb, are found murdered. Somehow this is connected to Wallander's co-worker and friend Svedburg. When Svedburg is murdered, Wallander realizes that he is consistently one step behind both Svedburg's investigation of the triple-homicide and one step behind a ruthless killer.

Just like the first two episodes, this is a bleak and depressing mystery. It's also not nearly as sensationalist as the above synopsis would have you believe. Meditative and contemplative are better terms to use than action-packed.

This episode is interested in secrecy and social outcasts, what makes them outcasts and the secrets they keep. Svedburg, murdered in seemingly cold blood, kept secrets even from the man he considered his best friend, Wallander.

But Wallander isn't really up for investigation. He's diagnosed with type two diabetes from poor diet and no exercise. In his investigation, he comes across a young girl who attempts suicide by the same method as Wallander's very own daughter attempted years ago.

What makes Wallander so interesting as a character is his tendency to take on the crimes as personal affronts. He becomes so emotionally invested in the witnesses and victims that it is wasting him away, sucking his life away. He questions life itself and wonders about the morality of humanity.

It's all very big questions and Kenneth Branagh definitely has the acting chops to pull it off. There's a scene in which a girl accuses Wallander of being a "crap dad", and for a moment, Wallander contemplates it, and it's some of the most engaging acting I've ever seen. It's an absolutely brilliant scene.

However, this isn't a perfect film. Certainly the pace could have been improved. Once Svedburg is found murdered, the movie slows down considerably, examining Wallander's relationship to the girl who attempted suicide. It's in service of the story, but frankly, I found it boring.

Other than the pace, "One Step Behind" is a brilliant episode of Wallander, showcasing the incredible cinematography, scenery and acting skills of all involved. This is excellent television, and I look forward to watching the next episode.

Monday, August 9, 2010


Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss writing a Sherlock Holmes series? Steven Moffat? My favourite Doctor Who writer? And it's going to co-star Martin Freeman, AKA Arthur Dent? Plus, it's set in the modern era and includes texting and blogging? I think you're just pulling my leg. Wait! What? It actually happened? And it aired? Oh... well... Here we go. I'm going to keep these mini-reviews somewhat spoiler free, which means I'm not really going to dive into the plots too much.

"A Study in Pink" by Steven Moffat
In the first episode, Moffat sets the scene with a ton of exposition and introduction, and a killer cab driver to boot. The first half of the episode, in which we meet Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson, is exhilarating. Moffat uses his trademark complicated sequences, where all things lead into the next thing properly, to a perfect degree. When the identity of the killer is revealed, it's not terribly surprising, but the secret of the killer's game is absolutely shocking and riveting. While the main story is unfolding, Moffat also sets up the long con of who Sherlock's enemy is, and it's not who you think (well sort of). Fantastic opening episode all over.

"The Blind Banker" by Stephen Thompson
Of course the second episode is a bit of a stumble. Strange symbols painted everywhere are seemingly responsible for the deaths of some unrelated individuals. It all leads to a... traveling Chinese circus troupe. Groan. Even though the main mystery is dreary, the smaller details make the episode shine, such as the development of both the main characters: Watson meets a lady, and Sherlock begins to understand the concept of friendship. There's also a case of mistaken identity that is so well set-up that straight up blew me away, even though it's a merely minor plot detail.

"The Great Game" by Mark Gatiss
And we recover for an episode almost as good as the first. Someone is playing a murderous game with Sherlock, forcing him to solve 5 puzzles where lives hang in the balance. Of course, this relates to the long con that Moffat and Gatiss have set up, and it delivers. Sort of. This episode ends in an extremely unexpected way, but wholly in the spirit of the original stories. As Sherlock tries to solve each puzzle, the stakes get higher, while Watson tries to solve a relatively minor mystery that seems unconnected to this great game. Or is it? Overall, an excellent episode.

So, in general, the series was gripping, entertaining, full of action, intelligent, and both lead actors bring their A-game. Some overall points to make about the series, though.

Firstly, the delight in mysteries is the mystery itself, not the solution. Each episode deflates slightly once all the answers have been given. Moffat, out of all the writers, wisely decides to keep some elements of his solution ambiguous, frustrating to Sherlock, but clever for the audience. It's the middle episode that chooses to solve everything, and it's a boring ending, even the connection to the long con of the series.

Secondly, Cumberbatch's performance as Sherlock is fantastic. He plays the famous detective almost like an Asperger's Syndrome. He only cares about the science of deduction, and he will do anything to do it, including alienating people, hurting them emotionally, etc. There's an enjoyable running gag throughout all three episodes about the young female medical examiner who has a crush on Sherlock and is rebuked hilariously each time. Sherlock is oblivious to it all.

I thoroughly enjoyed Sherlock and I look forward to a second series, considering the ending of the third episode. I just hope that it happens, and isn't left on that particular note. For solid Sherlock Holmes fun, look no further. Certainly don't watch the terrible Guy Ritchie version, overly long, inherently stupid, plainly uninteresting.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Even though I said I was reading something, I ended up finishing something different altogether. I've never read anything by Philip Jose Farmer, but his reputation is one of critical appreciated.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go has a unique setup. Every person who has ever lived and died on Earth, wakes up one day onthe banks of a great River, one that stretches the whole of the planet they are on. Each person has a bizarre canister that fills with food when placed on bizarre stones along the bank of the River. The first novel in the series follows famed explorer Richard Burton and his nemesis Hermann Goering. As everybody adjusts to the strangeness of the world, questions arise and some people don't seem to be who they appear to be.

This is one of the most high concept premises I've ever encountered. It's interesting, and grabs you from the opening moment of the novel. The question is, then, of whether or not the actual execution of the premise is as interesting or well done as the setup.

Unfortunately, not really. Farmer's prose is weak and limps across the page, sort of like older Philip K. Dick's prose. It's so workmanlike and the narrator is far too intrusive. Nothing subtle is left to the reader's imagination - everything is laid out and explained in detail.

While most of the prose is clear, To Your Scattered Bodies Go suffers from one familiar problem with modern fiction. During the action sequences, when there's physical violence, the narrator tends to blur things, like the character's perspective would do. So, everything is not coherent, as it would be in reality. Too bad that this is distracting and annoying. I would rather the generally intrusive narrator to stay omniscient, rather than get inside the head of someone being knocked around.

Like a lot of high concept science fiction, there's more effort put into setup and world-building than there is in usable characters. Burton is a fascinating person all by himself, without a sci-fi world to work in, so when then does Farmer fumble so badly in making him authentic to the reader?

There are aspects of the novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, however. The central mystery is interesting and I always wanted to get to the end of the novel. As well, Farmer takes the idea of constant resurrection to its logical point. This novel is clearly well-planned, and sets up expertly the next novel in the series, while still providing a satisfying conclusion.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go is a great concept wrapped around a mediocre novel. If characters, prose and dialogue had been given more attention, I would have been more impressed. Because of the novel's deep flaws, I have no desire to read the next novel in the series. There is far too much better science fiction out there for me to hope the next novel fixes these mistakes.

I still have a couple Robert Charles Wilson novels to get through. I heard from a friend that Margaret Atwood's science fiction duology was worth reading so I might go on with that. Right now I'm 20 pages into William Gibson's Neuromancer, which I tried reading years ago and failed. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Lady Oracle

We continue with our look at Canadian author Margaret Atwood, with her 1976 novel Lady Oracle.

Joan Foster is a former fat girl, writer of Gothic romances under a pseudonym, wife to a political radical, mistress of a Polish Count, lover of an avantgarde artist. She has faked her own death and has whisked off to Italy, just like in her romance novels. Joan isn't everything she seems, of course - she is also a poet, but the secret to her poetry is unsettling.

Every review I've read for this book, including the blurbs on the back of the paperback I picked up secondhand, say that Lady Oracle is a comedy. I laughed a couple times, but I would not consider this a comedy. Just like in the two other novels I've read by Atwood, comedy is a byproduct of the tragedy we unleash upon ourselves through the lies we never stop telling.

Lady Oracle lacks the narrative complexity and cleverness of her later novels it seems. However, this novel is still concerned with themes previously seen in Atwood novels: rewriting and recreating of history, femininity, gender roles, and the "war of the sexes". Above all of that is the nature of fiction, of course. An Atwood novel doesn't seem complete with some pontification on storytelling.

Storytelling is a primary plot device and theme in Lady Oracle. Joan Foster is a compulsive liar, but not in a moral sense. She writes novels, she engages in the dubious act of Auto-Writing, and she is constantly revising her autobiography when meeting men. She tells herself stories to escape a childhood of an unloving mother, obesity, and cruelty at the hands of other girls. She tells her lovers more stories to cover up the past, consistently rewriting her history. She even fakes her own death in an attempt to recreate the past.

Joan's story, as she tells it, is filled with duplicity, and the slippery nature of identity. She uses a pseudonym to write her trashy romance novels, but she uses those novels, the act of writing, and therefore the identity itself to escape her own reality. Every time she tells a new lover a revised version of her history, she has assumed a new identity.

Unfortunately, as Joan writes her latest novel, her own story leaks into the fictional novel's narrative. It seems she has trouble keeping her selves separate. Unlike all the other duplicitous characters in her own life, and her fiction, who live a constant series of self-identities.

One can see that Atwood has created something complex and interesting. Her ability to convey sophisticated concepts while at the same time keeping the narrative accessible and entertaining is absolutely genius. Very few novelists that I have read have this amazing skill.

What separates Lady Oracle from the other two novels, as aforementioned, is the relative linearity of the plot. The protagonist's life history is revealed piece by piece, like a line, with the twinning of her lives coming like the vanishing point of a painting. This is a very slight criticism. One can derail a novel simply because it isn't as clever as the author's next novel. That's not fair.

Regardless, Lady Oracle is a fine novel, one worthy of teaching in school. It's an excellent textbook example of the sophisticated power of theme and symbol in the novel. Atwood's remarkable skill at creating engaging and enthralling stories while managing to deal with multifaceted themes is mostly unmatched. While not as fun as the other two novels I've read by her, I still greatly enjoyed Lady Oracle.

Next, I'm not 100% sure what I'm going to read. I have Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog from the library, as well I've purchased secondhand Robert Charles Wilson's Spin. Who knows? Keep reading to find out!