Monday, March 28, 2016


Despite having seen the first two Alien movies probably twenty or thirty times, I've only seen Alien³ twice, maybe. I remember finding it a bit of a bore except for the final sequence, which I've always found to be quite heartbreaking. I was certainly the right age for the film—I can remember anticipating the release, but I wasn't old enough to see the film theatrically. I eventually saw the film on VHS probably in the mid 90s, and then again, when the terribly named "Quadrilogy" boxset was released on DVD. Up until this year, I had only ever seen the theatrical cut.

The 2003 Assembly Cut, as it were, is presented without any input from director David Fincher, but the cut does seem to be closer to his initial vision, according the comprehensive and wonderfully entertaining documentary that accompanies the film, called Wreckage and Rage. The clash of Fox and Fincher is well documented: an immovable object against an unstoppable force, and even in the Assembly Cut, one sees the interference of the studio. The problem, if it can be summarized, is the classic "too many cooks" situation; one talking head in the documentary (the matte painter, I believe) informs us that during the editing process, Fincher would watch the dailies and give instructions. Once he left the room, the studio toady that followed him everywhere would undermine the fixes based on the available budget. Wreckage and Rage features interviews with perhaps everybody but Fincher himself, though a very clear picture of his feelings towards the film emerges, thus his lack of participation in the making of documentary and the creation of the Assembly Cut.

Despite all the problems, the long road towards its commercial release, the Assembly Cut is a vast improvement (thought not without flaws) over the theatrical cut, and this can mostly be summed up in one particular sequence that can kind of act as synecdoche for the rest of the improvements.

Consider the scene (cut from the theatrical version) in which the two prisoners bring the dead ox into the abattoir. They haul in the ox, attach it to hooks, and have a small conversation about what they would do if faced directly with Ripley. They both boast and make some gross comments about women, all the while, the conversation is interspersed with talk of the ox: how they'll butcher it, how old she was, where her body was found, etc. This scene speaks to Fincher's power in storytelling. Like all good scenes, this bit has multiple functions. Firstly, the audience is given some important exposition delivered through elision. As veterans of the xenomorph's life cycle, viewers will immediately suspect that the ox contains the embryo, the chestburster. We had already seen the acid on the cryotubes in the EEV and the ox's death is evidence enough to conclude an alien has followed Ripley. (Not to mention, the very existence of Alien³ implies an alien, otherwise why would we watch this film?)

Secondly, the scene delivers important worldbuilding, exposition. The audience has already learned that the convict planet is men only. We know that Charles S. Dutton's character, a religious leader of sorts, fears that a woman's presence will upset the careful balance; her femininity will cause reversals and setbacks in the men's careful road towards religious salvation. The small conversation between the two convicts in the abattoir, then, hints at two things: the men are dangerous for women, and more importantly, are somewhat cowardly, but not entirely. These two convicts demonstrate the braggadocio that will be challenged when faced with a real threat, the xenomorph. This character work is reprised during the two major setpieces as the convicts as a group, work toward redemption and courage in facing the Beast.

It's a shame, therefore, that the scene was replaced with the alien bursting forth from a dog, rather than an ox. The juxtaposition between the ox, as work animal and the alien as predator has multivalent symbolism, as the convicts themselves are work animals, prisoners of both the penitentiary planet, a work prison, and of the rapacious logic of late capitalism as symbolized by Weyland-Yutani the company.

Wreckage and Rage doesn't quite clarify why the ox was switched out with the dog; one can conclude it's not because of reluctance to gore; the dog's death revels in the blood and sounds of death.

And while the film does not shy away from violence or gore, Alien³ also has some of the most ambitious thematics of any of the previous films. While Aliens dabbled in themes of motherhood and duty, Alien³ examines redemption and faith in a hard world, a cruel world.

Fincher, despite being only 28 years old, had approvingly lofty ambitions for the film. Wreckage and Rage details the efforts and labours of the prop department to construct a cross made of found objects that would sit askew in the foreground for a shot that lasts only a few seconds. The image is quite striking, iconic in a way that presages Fincher's more indelible moments in films to come. The shot is also meaningful, the way that good cinema is meant to be. Instead of "cool" window dressing, the cross relates to the viewer the religiosity of the convicts, their resilience (erecting the cross in less than ideal weather conditions), and their resourcefulness. The found objects that comprise the cross are the convicts themselves, gathered together by their crime (for some, like the found objects, the detritus, the crime of existence itself is sin enough).

The film demonstrates its depth during the funeral scene that punctuates the first act. The bodies of Hicks and Newt are delivered into the foundry while Charles S. Dutton's Dillon provides a stirring eulogy. It's worth quoting in full, I think:
Why. Why are the innocent punished? Why the sacrifice? Why the pain? There aren't any promises. Nothing's certain. Only that some get called. Some get saved. She won't ever know the hardship and grief for those of us left behind. We commit these bodies to the void with a glad heart. For within each seed, there is a promise of a flower. And within each death, no matter how small, there's always a new life. A new beginning.
This speech is cross cut with the birth of the titular alien, creating both important irony (and dramatic irony, as none of the characters know about the alien's existence) in Dillon is actually referring to new life as one beyond the pain of existence, a life of peace and freedom. This "new life" is finds its ironic opposite in a malevolent birth, a cruel birth: the ox's death (or dog's death in the theatrical cut) is the ground from which the evil flower grows.

Alien³ suggests that Ripley herself has no freedom. She is a prisoner of the Company, of the malignant life that grows within her. She is a prisoner just like the convicts, but their faith allows them a small measure of freedom, even if it's only in their minds. Their faith makes their sacrifice meaningful. They trust in something greater than themselves, greater than the baleful life cycle of the predators. Ripley sees this in the end. She kills herself to provide freedom to the world, freedom to herself.

Yet, the audience will also learn later that within Ripley, there grows a malignant seed, a young queen. The new life inside her is hostile and dangerous, so she seeks peace and freedom by following the bodies of Newt and Hicks. The punctuation of her companions' funeral is perfectly harmonized with her own sacrifice and bid for freedom, unshackled from the long chains that bind her to the Company.

These thematics are not subtle; Alien³ presses heavily on these things. Subtlety has never been a part of the franchise. Yet, I can't help but look at this third film in a stronger light. Older and perhaps wiser, my desire for the blood and guts of the second film is tempered by the mournful and melancholy tone of Alien³. It's a funeral dirge from the beginning. This film has the best score out of the bunch, provided by Elliot Goldenthal, one of sorrow and catharsis.

Fincher complements this soundscape with evocative camera angles. The first half of the film, the convicts are shot from below, the camera placed near the ground, looking up. The audience is asked not to look down on these fallen men, but consider their possible redemption through heroism. Looking up to them, exalting them, is tempered by their gruff accents, cruel speech, and shabby exteriors. The film asks the audience to remember that these are not saints, but that within each of us, there exists the seed, the potential for heroism, for the ambition to grasp freedom.

A final note. The theatrical cut has Ripley's sacrifice muted by the alien actually bursting from her chest. The Assembly Cut does away with this unnecessary note and has Ripley fall in the Christ pose, suggesting her sacrifice is greater than simply the end of a character's story. The garishness of the alien's eruption is particularly indicative of the misguided tone of the theatrical cut. It's extraneous. We already know it's there; why show it in such detail?

If you haven't seen the Assembly Cut, I recommend it. A huge improvement.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

While I loved The Dark Knight Rises back in 2012, I've soured a bit on it. I still quite like it, I think, despite its massive flaws (both structural and narrative). TDKR is 165 minutes long and contains little real emotion. Instead, it's a film of spectacle and heavy handed political incoherence. Yet, in its 165 minutes, there is a moment of pure pathos that a) is narratively important, b) thematically important, and c) completes the circle started in Batman Begins. When climbing into the cockpit of the Batplane or whatever, Batman says to Jim Gordon, "A hero can be anyone. Even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a young boy's shoulders to let him know that the world hadn't ended."

Gordon looks at Batman and says, "Bruce?" The moment works because, firstly, Gary Oldman is a terrific actor. It also works because of the previous 150 minutes, taking Batman from his lowest point to finally realizing the meaning of heroism.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereafter, BvS, without italics because I'm lazy) is 151 minutes long and there is no moment that even approaches the pathos of this aforementioned sequence. Not for lack of trying, of course, as BvS presses heavily on emotion, but with all the nuance and complexity of a cat stepping on your testicles. With the plodding step of a cave troll, BvS constantly asks you to remember that this is heavy shit, man, but it's heaviness for the sake of it, a gargantuan effort to mine the heaviest possible element without considering whether its heaviness means anything.

The film opens with yet another depiction of Bruce's parents' death while crosscutting to young Bruce, fleeing his parents' funeral and falling down a well. It is here in this very first scene that we learn director Zack Snyder does not understand superheroes at all and that Watchmen was an accident. Usually, in depicting the Waynes' murder, Thomas dies trying to shield his son. In BvS, he dies because he tries to punch the mugger. Even though he's a physician and philanthropist, a wealthy man, laden with expensive schooling, he escalates a fairly mundane Gotham situation into death. I'm trying not to blame the victim here, but I thought it common knowledge to simply provide one's wallet; the inconvenience of replacing your ID and credit card isn't worth your life. Snyder shoots this death with all the operatic slow motion he's known for, typically fetishizing the violence. Yet, he's not done. He escalates the paean to senseless tragedy by having Martha shot right in the fucking face. No wonder this version of Bruce Wayne is a fucking psychopath.

Switching temporal gears, the film takes us to the climax of Man of Steel but from adult Bruce Wayne, driving through a 9/11 analogue to save his employees that he doesn't even know. This might be the most effective and successful moment in the entire film. While I find 9/11 references to be tedious now, this sequence works because it provides Bruce with clear and apprehendable motivation. The audience completely understands why Bruce begins his war against Superman: Bruce himself is witness to the manic and excessive mayhem possible when gods do battle. The 9/11 bit works better to explain why Bruce would don a suit to fight a superhuman than the death of his parents could explain. If an audience member was 100% unfamiliar with Batman's mythos, surely an impossibility but bear with me, the opening ballet of overblown murder would tell this hypothetical audience nothing of Bruce's motivations. What is the tissue that connects his parents' murder and his vigilante war on crime? Instead, the Battle of Metropolis provides absolutely crystal clear reason for the "v" of the title.

This should, then, have been a 90 minute film in which the two superheroes come to blows at the end of the second act, realize their different tactics achieve the same results, and then a team-up to defeat Lex Luthor. That's it.

Instead, we have an extraordinarily long first hour that sets up a gaggle of plot points that have little causality, not to mention the dream sequences, of which there are too many (there are always too many dream sequences, really). I won't go through the motions of demonstrating the lack of connective tissue in the first three quarters, suffice it to say, the screenplay squanders the lucid motivation of Bruce Wayne by complicating the plot with a miasma of convoluted schemes.

Rather than recapitulate the plot, I'd rather discuss a thread woven into the structure. Firstly, we must send our condolences to Holly Hunter, Academy Award winning actor, who is forced to say lines involving the words "jar of piss." Burdened by a terrible wig, Hunter has the unenviable position of criticizing Superman and getting blown up for it. Hunter plays a Senator on a committee that oversees, I guess, superhuman political problems. During a very confusing and unclear attack in Africa, a bunch of people are shot and the American government suspects Superman of killing these innocent Africans? I guess? The Senator convenes a hearing and asks, via the media, for Superman to attend.

He does attend, but it's all a ploy by Lex. He explodes a bomb, killing everybody but Superman. It doesn't take long for the authorities to figure that it was not Superman (as he does not explode), which truly begs the question of why Lex would go to this trouble. What benefit is there to destroying the Capitol Building? Strangely, the public, despite the overwhelming evidence that Superman is innocent, begins to hate Superman, the same man they fawned over religiously in previous scenes.

Regardless of the logical incoherency here, what remains important to observe is that following this tragedy, Superman has himself a temper tantrum and goes into exile.

Instead of investigating the crime as an investigative journalist would do, instead of connecting the dots between Lex and the bomb, instead of addressing the public, this Superman flees civilization, for introspection, I suppose. The film never shows why Superman exiles himself or what motivates him to do so in the first place. This Superman, already aloof and distant, proves himself unable to confront his accusers. He moodily pingpongs from one plot point to the next.

His moody funk appears, by the logic of the film, to be born from a Senator asking for the barest minimum of accountability. Holly Hunter's character appeals to democracy as basically discourse in order to convince Superman to avail himself of some oversight. Just this little criticism is enough for Superman to act like a big baby in the film.

This is a common and disturbing thread in BvS: a powerful man sees his power being slightly sapped and he overreacts, perhaps violently. Batman sees Superman with too much power, so he must be destroyed. Superman sees Batman operating outside traditional paradigms of law and order, so he must be stopped. Lex sees two gods and wants to bring them down to his level, so they must be destroyed. BvS, in this way, frightens me. I worry that this film is be the new Fight Club for a generation of young disaffected white dudes, who already have power, but perceive their position as changing for the worse.

Much of the disturbing content of BvS comes not from its grotesque and grim violence, but from its treatment of women. In this film, women are simply pawns in a game between men. Lois Lane finds herself in need of rescuing three times in this movie. Martha Kent needs to be rescued from vaguely Eastern European thugs. Holly Hunter needs to be rescued from a jar of piss (I'm not joking). Only Wonder Woman seems to stand on her own feet (often to the tune of a wailing electric guitar, much to my amusement).

Perhaps the most illustrative moment in the film comes from the single scene that Henry Cavill and Diane Lane share. After Holly Hunter politely requests Superman's presence at the US Capitol, Clark visits his mother, who, shockingly, informs him that Clark doesn't owe the world a damn thing. He can be a hero if he wants or if he doesn't want. He's free of earthly concerns in his status as god. Certainly a far cry from the "with great power..." mantra of Spider-Man. We could possibly conclude that Superman pays for this hubris with his death, but the twin logic of escalating blockbusters and comic books compels us to deduce his death is only temporary.

The film wrestles with godly thematics, but stumbles and collapses under the pretension. Most of Jesse Eisenberg's scenes consist of his squawking about gods and men, that power must be taken, etc. BvS wants to flirt with deconstructing deities, but this deconstruction can only occur after something has previously been constructed.

Again, taking my hypothetical viewer, unfamiliar with Batman or Superman, this person could only conclude that Superman needs to be stopped based on the destruction and chaos of the 9/11 analogue. This god must be held in check for the good of the many. What other possible conclusion could there be? In what universe is this particular depiction of Superman anything but scary and threatening? This god is guilty, even by Batman's astonishingly loose standards of morality.

BvS looks to be the first film featuring the psychopath who dressed as a bat that openly acknowledges that the more militarized a Batman, the more ridiculous the hand waving must be to dismiss claims he kills. BvS just fucking revels in Batman killing people with machine guns, bombs, and other "deterring" weapons. Around the halfway point of the film, Batman engages in a lengthy car chase with a semi (that he's tracking, so really the urgency of the situation is a bit overblown). He blows up a car, with people inside, then attaches a cable to it, driving along, using this destroyed car as a wrecking ball to destroy another car with people inside it. This is also a Batman that brands criminals, even though, in the film's world, the brand is the same as a death sentence in prison (we're told this, helpfully, by a talking head on a television, always a terrible venue for exposition). Batman no longer adheres to a code. He's a stonecold murderer.

Frustratingly, BvS wants to kill its cake and save it too. The film goes out of its way to inform the audience that the buildings destroyed during the climactic battle with the cave troll from Lord of the Rings are empty, devoid of civilians because—I shit you not—it's after 5 o'clock. Despite somehow possibly internalizing the criticism of Man of Steel (Metropolis would have had thousands of casualties) and integrating this into the plot, BvS turns around and destroys a good chunk of Gotham (which, by the way, is quaintly across the bay from Metropolis—you can see the Bat Signal from Metropolis!). Once Doomsday dusts himself off from the nuclear device detonated on him and Superman, Batman growls to Alfred that he must lead Doomsday back to the city! This is just galling and awkward justification for Snyder to indulge in the same demolition that plagued the climax of the previous film. 

I've always maintained that Snyder would have been a terrific cinematographer rather than the horrendous director he's become. He has, as always, a fantastic eye for iconic imagery. On an image-by-image basis, BvS is gorgeous, filled with totemic painterly moments. Yet, he is stymied when forced to string them together coherently. He imbues BvS with portentous and hefty pictures but struggles with concatenated them into a meaningful narrative. Here, in BvS, he demonstrates all of his greatest weaknesses as a storyteller: he has no skill with character and he misunderstands that which attracts people to mythology like Batman and Superman. 

BvS is practically a crime against cinema. Mistaking meaning with loaded buzzwords and gestures towards paintings, BvS stumbles around, never locating comprehensibility. It has confused itself with a film that actually means something. This was one of the most aggressively unpleasant films I've ever sat through. In a particularly revealing feat, my partner managed to sleep through half of the film. When I asked them how they accomplished such a task during a film of enormously punishing volume, my partner replied that it was all simply noise, not sound, not anything, just noise.

Friday, March 11, 2016

March Reads Part One

Iron Council by China Miéville
The Knight of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea by Adam Roberts
The Queen of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod
Writing about Literature: an Introductory Guide by Peter Melville

Full disclosure: Professor Melville is an acquaintance and was my instructor for one of my graduate classes. I read this because my partner uses the textbook in their high school English and Film courses. I also read this because I am an unabashed fan of Melville's writing.

Melville has a seemingly innate ability to convey complex concepts through clear concise sentences—an ability practically unmatched during my studies. He pares down such complicated theories such as structuralism and poststructuralism into digestible and apprehendable paragraphs.

For example, here is Melville writing on Stanley Fish and Reader-Response Criticism:
Reader-response critic Stanley Fish goes even further than Iser in his validation of the reading practices of actual readers and is therefore at the other end of the spectrum from Booth. He does not dispense with the idea of an implied reader so much as he dislodges it, almost entirely, from its position of privilege. For Fish, the implied reader, as a composite of the text's desired responses, is not intrinsic to the text itself but is projected onto the text by the interpretive community to which the reader belongs, whether it is a group of friends in a book club, students in a classroom, or members of a specific school of literary criticism. (43)
While, yes, a long extract, we can see that Melville carefully concatenates the "bits" of facts into a string of meaningful phrase of information, culminating in a sentence that is not only beautiful and accessible, but also respectful of his "implied reader's" intelligence.

We can also see that Melville's prose is gorgeous. Here is Melville writing about the poem "Leaving the Motel" by W.D. Snodgrass: "Like the checklist, the vase of lilacs can be read literally insofar as it is an object into which the speaker intends to place some aspirin for the purpose of prolonging the life of the flowers inside" (15). This lovely specimen is a perfect example of his clear crisp style. With that sentence, one could arrange it like a poem, using line breaks to denote the rhythm with which he has structured the series of phrases.

I read sections of the book that don't interest me terribly (eg. the differences between thesis statements) if only to enjoy the prose! However, his final section on how to write, edit, revise, and think about literature is indispensable for the undergraduate student and possibly even for the graduate student. Melville, in his advice on how to close read, explicitly advises the student to read "slowly," ideally with pen in hand. I submit that some writers and thinkers would do well to do the same to Melville's own textbook, to understand how and why his prose works so well and how his ideas are conveyed so clearly.

Earlier this year, I read Linda Nagata's The Bohr Maker, and I was left with the desire to know more, to read the critics' thoughts and arguments on this singular novel. All I could find were two papers, one an article in a peer-reviewed journal, the other a chapter in an anthology on science fiction. Both were, to put it harshly, boring—both in terms of prose and in methodology. Both writers, who are gainfully employed by a university no doubt, could have benefited from Prof. Melville's excellent introduction to writing about literature.

The Knight of Swords and The Queen of Swords are the first two books of Moorcock's Corum series. My friend Andy, a huge Moorcock fan, swears by Corum over Elric and I can definitely see why. While I've really enjoyed the two Elric books I've read, these two Corum books were astonishing: fun, complex, gripping, and exceedingly clever. Even when the structure of the narrative mirrors epic heroic fantasy, Moorcock's prose and worldbuilding elevate the material. I've not much more to say about them, especially as I still have a final book to read that finishes the story. 

Cosmonaut Keep

Cosmonaut Keep was an interesting read. I have a lot invested in MacLeod, as I've already purchased: the entire trilogy of which this is the first part; a stand-alone novel; and the first half of his four volume series that began his career. On the cover of the Orbit paperback I own, MacLeod is the recipient of praise from Iain M. Banks (yay) and Peter F. Hamilton (umm) among others. MacLeod's presence in the "New Space Opera" movement is assured and he is well known for his left leaning politics infused into his future imaginings. The first book of the trilogy Engines of Light was, to put it mildly, a difficult read. I'm very happy to report that the worldbuilding in this first novel is excellent and compelling, but what makes it more than just another space opera is MacLeod's approach to exposition. As in, there is little at all. Here then, we have a rare space opera that withholds more than it provides, which begs many ontological questions about the world he's built.

The novel is composed of two seemingly discrete narratives that by the laws of literature must converge at some point, probably in the third act. The first narrative introduced is in a far-future quasi-medieval world filled with futuristic technology. The humans on this planet have little to no tech, but are aware of the technological possibilities afforded by their deep ancestors. The humans, comprised of three species (two of which we never meet), live beside "saurs," the evolutionary development of Earth's dinosaurs. These saurs are technologically advanced, but not nearly as advanced as the spaceships that loom over the world, piloted by hyperintelligent squids dubbed krakens. There are also, and I'm unclear on this detail, giant humanoid "Gods" that literally stand on the planet and just watch. The humans have descended from the crew of an ark from Earth's (current) future (2047, I believe); however, despite the thousands of years that straddle the crew's arrival and the narrative's present, the crew lives still.

The second narrative details an alternative history slash alternative future in which the Soviet Union conquered Europe and has made it not quite a utopia, but somewhat close. MacLeod is no fool and doesn't paint the repressive regime of the Soviet Union as completely benign. In this future of 2047 (I think), Communist Europe uses biodegradable technology, presumably made of organic material, whereas the US still deploys completely inorganic tech. Their Cold War continues, symbolized by the two diverging strands of tech. Matt Cairns, the protagonist of this second narrative, is thrust into a confusing conspiracy involving the plans for an alien spacecraft that looks frightfully similar to the classic UFOs of American imagination. He travels to a space station in the midst of a revolution and helps build this faster-than-light ship, with the help of an alien species composed of quintillions of hyperintelligent bacteria with mysterious motives.

I'm still not even sure I've understood what happens in this novel as MacLeod explains only in drips and drabs, until you are dying of thirst for more information. This approach, as I mentioned, has interesting consequences for how I considered details of the world. This considered meting out of info calls into question seemingly prima facie details, such as the biodegradable technology of the Soviet Union. In the narrative, this aspect of the world is explained without much fanfare, simply another difference between our real present and this fictional futurity. Yet, MacLeod's casual exposition uses the same disaffected, almost uninterested tone, in detailing important shit like the aliens as it does with Soviet tech. This very subtly and cleverly calls attention to itself by virtue of not calling attention to itself, to the point where I began to question the very authenticity of the world that MacLeod has constructed. Is the biodegradable tech just another element of worldbuilding or does its existence in the fictional world have its origin in the aliens, or another party we haven't been introduced to yet? MacLeod is clever enough to understand the very constructed-feeling nature of a future world, as the narrative very carefully and quietly insists on the construction.

While I love the unreal concepts that MacLeod strings along in Cosmonaut Keep, his approach to exposition has a dual effect: I admire his reticence and therefore his respect for the audience to do much of the work; while simultaneously, very little is impactful as the nature of this world is cloaked in authorial shadows, impenetrable no matter how close the reading.

Additionally, MacLeod leans on classic space opera generic elements such as intense affect, especially in romantic terms. A major subplot of the novel is a love triangle. On the face of it, a love triangle is not inherently negative. However, MacLeod's characterization isn't his strongest suit, giving his attention to romance a bit of silliness. It's difficult to take the romantic entanglements of the novel seriously because I suspect MacLeod himself doesn't really take the topic seriously. The book feels embarrassed to have this included while paradoxically leaning on this aspect heavily, at the expense of exposition, even if this exposition does productive labour vis-a-vis the genre of the space opera.

Over at his blog, Charles Stross assembles a not-totally exhaustive list of tropes found in space opera. He lists then thematically, all the clichéd ways in which science fiction writers imagine their future societies. Some of the clichés that Stross identifies are particularly groan worthy (eg. the tendency for far off planets to have multiple Moons and multiple Suns) whereas the rest of the list reads like a TVTropes article that mechanically lists all possible ways of conveying a story to an audience. It's the opposite of semiotic projects like Umberto Eco's cataloguing of ugliness in that Stross's snarky list doesn't provide any novel insight into why these tropes are so popular. Stross, a writer I'm sure is a nice person, comes off as a total asshole, an arrogant snot who, with a wide brush, dismisses other writers by dint of deploying tropes. As if he doesn't deploy tropes himself. He refers to them as "generic cliché mistakes," making the egregious error in assuming the deployment of tropes is ipso facto a mistake. This is, of course, categorically untrue.

This discursive avenue is irritating, especially as it slots into a larger cultural shift in how the Internet talks about narrative and storytelling. Consider the popularity of garbage channels like Screen Rant or Cinema Sins, which perform the same shallow series of observations about plot, but without ever saying anything particularly astute or informative. Rather, it's the smug recapitulation of the viewer's own intellectual superiority: "I can identify these tropes in the object and therefore I'm above the object." It's the same cultural logic that stymies any affective labour performed by films directed by Christopher Nolan; in the hyperactive obsession to outsmart the audience, characterization and thematic depth are discarded.

Here, one could easily object: Stross's blog post isn't a robust, scholarly project on the use of clichés in space opera but rather an informal and ad hoc "taxonomy" as he dubs it. Yet, my observations on his tone ("mistakes") and the comparison to TVTropes is still apt, regardless of publication context. Likewise, a lesson I learned swiftly in my grad studies: a taxonomy is useful in many situations but a thesis it most definitely is not. I was asked to hold my papers to the highest possible standard called the "so what?" test. My thesis statement, the argument of my paper, must be able to answer the question "so what?". Whether the answer come in the form of larger aesthetic or political thought or a wider contextualization of the paper's arguments, the thesis only has meaning if it matters. Here, we have a taxonomy that does nothing but show off a writer's own cleverness. Simply listing the tropes does nothing, really.

The mobilization of tropes with Cosmonaut Keep is not always some perfect ironic, postmodern deconstruction of the genre nor is it the mindless repetition of what has come before. Frankly, as I've mentioned, I'm not sure MacLeod is terribly interested in the rigorous replication of the genre. Moreover, it is in the deliberate use of tropes that gains a text its productive discourse, not simply the tropes themselves. Cosmonaut Keep doesn't necessarily do anything novel with its tropes (eg. the biodegradable tech comes from postcyberpunk anyway) but in when and why the mobilizes them. The text only fitfully dispenses information, leaving the reader floundering in a sea of almost recognizable tropes (eg. hyperintelligent colonies of bacteria). Each time new details emerge (the first page features a god that is never explained), the reader is left unmoored, and is forced to work, forced to think about the text. In this way, Cosmonaut Keep is subverting the traditional epistemological formation of space opera not with space opera tropes but with its very construction.

In other words, Stross may write a space opera that avoids all clichés of worldbuilding, but this doesn't prevent his space opera from being as rote in its execution as the books he sneeringly disdains.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Iron Council

I don't like fantasy very much, as a rule. Lord of the Rings bores me. Anything that includes elves, orcs, or dragons repels me. Fantasy, at the least paradigmatic mode, the one derived from Old English and faerie tales, moulded and shaped into unintentional conservative allegory by Tolkien, is politically suspect, myopically focusing on the lineage of kings and other anointed ones, leaving the serfs and soldiers to act out their agency only in service of the throne. The genre reveals its obsession with the pastoral, a constant return to the polite, safe, small realm of the English countryside, the English cottage, while industry and urbanity, through tortured metaphor, come to mean incivility and barbarism. Fantasy could be construed as a consolatory technology, a nursery rhyme to lull the reader into sleep, either literally or figuratively. But perhaps I'm being too harsh. Perhaps I'm painting fantasy with too wide of a caustic brush. After all, fantasy, like any genre, exists only as the lines of its borders move back and forth.

Authors such as China Miéville seem like exceptions, oddly shaped octopi in a vast school of minnows. Even when the specific novel isn't quite as strong as one hopes, Miéville's strength of imagination and refusal to stay in fantasy's well-worn lane all manage to overcome any hesitations I have with praising him. Iron Council, the third and lesser of his Bas-Lag novels, positively vibrates with ideas and ambition. There's an eagerness to impress, a hunger normally absent from third or fourth novels. Miéville's aims extend beyond the quotidian paradigmatic compulsion to replace one king with another; instead, he seeks to depict an entire city and surrounding land in the throes of political and social upheaval. He re-imagines the central motif from The Scar, the floating mobile city, as a train violently appropriated from the city's government and turned into a mobile city, laying tracks and picking them up as the Council sees fit.

The bravura middle section of Iron Council details the building of the rail, extending the power and possibility of the city, and its workers, downtrodden and exploited. Miéville imagines a migratory microcosm economy that builds alongside the rail's construction: prostitutes, selling sex on credit as the city has "trouble" paying the workers on time. Eventually, the prostitutes enact another Lysistrata, refusing the workers sex unless it's paid up front. Their violent sexual revolution is followed by another larger violent revolution as the Remade (the indentured workers magically remade into half-machine, half-workers) and the human labourers unite. This middle section, structured as a flashback, is the strongest part of the novel. The beginning, possibly the worst, with the final third being not much better.

Iron Council's problem is a lack of focus; there's the suspicious sensation that this is three novellas crammed together and woven together unevenly. While they do eventually tie together, as disparate narratives often do, the two present threads feel insubstantial and meandering. There's too much focus on violent skirmishes between groups, with nameless individuals dying in impressively imaginative and varied ways. Certainly, Iron Council is not without an embarrassment of rich ideas; there's a golem made entirely out of gunpowder that hugs the enemies, exploding in spectacular fashion; there's a giant inter-dimensional spider that infects a labourer, turning him into a mad prophet, proselyting for the return of the spider. A lot of these ideas show up only once, quickly introduced and quickly abandoned, as if we're reading Miéville's copious notes for crazy ideas, which is not the same as a fully formed novel.

Perdido Street Station was a masterclass in plotting: the first hundred or so pages set up all the different plot threads, while the remaining six hundred or so are tightly aimed and fired, like a well-oiled gun. The Scar wasn't as impeccably paced or focused, as the novel's ambitions were a bit greater, but still the novel moved at a great clip. Iron Council is scattered and not terribly engaging, despite my partiality towards the ideology and thesis of the novel. For example, with Perdido Street Station, the government feel like a looming presence, the Mayor in Iron Council, an incredibly important character for the city and for the narrative, feels like a cameo; she's not even named until she appears on the scene. While this might have a rhetorical purpose (the assassination of the Mayor is meaningless as she's infinitely replaceable), it loses narrative force.

While Perdido and The Scar have their Marxism as subtext, Iron Council pushes this as hard as possible. One of the narrative threads detail a young revolutionary's slow disillusionment with the current forces as they're not ambitious enough. He falls in with a crowd of "true" revolutionaries, ones more concentrated on the violent overthrowing of the government. He gains their loyalty and finds personal meaning in their revolution. A concurrent narrative strand has a young revolutionary seeking the aid of the fabled Iron Council, to convince them to return to New Crobuzon with the aim of galvanizing the disparate and discrete revolutionary forces into a mighty and righteous hand of rebellion. The two strands converge, with the novel ending in hundreds of pages of bloody battles, bizarre instruments of death, and sacrifices from characters named and unnamed.

The Marxist critical lens asks simply that we understand, as Terry Eagleton puts it in Marxism and Literary Criticism, "literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it" (v). Understanding the material conditions of production allow us to apprehend, possibly, the ideologies that helped produced those conditions. Eagleton writes that, "to understand ideologies is to understand both the past and the present more deeply; and such understanding contributes to our liberation" (vi). In other words, a Marxist reading of a text can help free the reader from the invisible shackles of ideology that prevent self-actualization. The aim of a critical analysis, I would violently simplify, is to help the reader understand a particular interpretation or perhaps the singular interpretation of a text. This understanding is liberatory: "to understand literature, then, means understanding the total social process of which it is part" (3). The ability to hold the totality in one's head is tantamount to complete freedom, as the tendrils of ideology can be seen and thus averted.

The project in Miéville's Bas-Lag triumvirate is liberatory as well. Instead of hiding a possible Marxist reading in subtext, Miéville buoys the reading right to the surface. Eschewing the conservative escapism and consolatory technology of paradigmatic fantasy is not simply an aesthetic or generic choice. Rather, Miéville seeks to provide the reader with the tools for reclaiming an intellectual and subsequent political freedom from oppression through the trappings of the fantasy novel. The lineage of kings, the most common trope in fantasy fiction, is unimportant, Iron Council shouts, as a progression of kings still shuts out the populace from grasping at prosperity and comfort. Royalty and bourgeoisie are just a self-enclosed ladder, protected from the grasp of the grubby and calloused hands of the poor and downtrodden. Magic and sorcery are not fantasies of power but tools for forcibly reclaiming political power.

J. G. Keely, a critic that mostly operates on Goodreads (but should really be writing for a professional venue; his criticism is a gem in a dismal cave of mediocrity on Goodreads), writes on Moorcock that few authors understand magic. He perceptively observes that:
Magic is a conceptual space. It was created, inadvertently, as a representation of the inner reality of human thought, as opposed to the external reality of the physical world. Human beings saw the physical world around them and, in attempting to understand it, created a matching symbolic world in their heads.
In other words, magic is the physical manifestation of will, literalized as functioning without physical human intervention. Keely praises Moorcock's depiction of magic, writing:
Moorcock draws on many unusual concepts in crafting his world, so that his magic is equal parts quantum mechanics and myth. The result is something wholly unique: a mythology of modern scientific concepts which are just as strange, unpredictable, and awe-inspiring as any ancient god.
Keely is writing on Sailor on the Seas of Fate but this can be extended to a good chunk of Moorcock's conceptualization of magic in his oeuvre: a magic system that stands for both the will and the possibility of humanity without devolving into cheap hero-fantasy. Likewise, the magic in Iron Council and the other Bas-Lag novels is not entirely wish-fulfilment (though, as I will observe later, it is in many ways). Magic is the tool of the struggle. It is a sign and the sign is the arena of class struggle. In this case, Miéville uses magic literally as a sign, as even as a concept, magic comes to represent something other than what it is.

Magic, then, is the tool of the Iron Council, the workers trying for freedom from oppression. However, a detail that complicates this reductive Marxist reading of the novel, is that the State deploys magic to violently repress the rebels. Magic, the literalization of the workers' will to revolt, also exists as the very tools that oppress and restrict their freedom. The New Crobuzon militia employs "thaumaturges" or magicians/sorcerers as an extension of the repressive state apparatus. These magicians the narrator never bothers to name are also labourers in a sense; they're employed by the government to help quash the very people that would liberate the magicians. Here, Miéville is undermining the "magician as sage" trope that permeate paradigmatic fantasy fiction as well as literature of the fantastic in general. In his essay, "Epic Pooh," Moorcock alleges that C.S. Lewis and Tolkien were writing explicitly conservative fantasies:
I don't think these books are 'fascist', but they certainly don't exactly argue with the 18th century enlightened Toryism with which the English comfort themselves so frequently in these upsetting times. They don't ask any questions of white men in grey clothing who somehow have a handle on what's best for us.
Gandalf the Grey (or White, or whatever) works in mysterious ways, with little explanation. His motives are altruistic, or as altruistic as powerful men can be. The same can be said of numerous wizards, such as Dumbledore, old white men who know better. This is one reason why I tend to reject fantasy as a genre: the use of magic becomes hand-waving dismissal of grounded reality for mindless escapism, a tool used by paternalistic representations of the status quo.

However, I'm not 100% convinced of Miéville's position as a (or the) "Marxist fantasy writer." Coincidentally, as I finished the novel and wrote this piece, Mark Soderstrom published a piece on left wing politics in speculative fiction called, "Speculating a Better Future" (over at Jacobin Magazine here). He begins his article with a historical overview of right wing politics that creep through science fiction which he refers to as "speculative fiction" which seems an umbrella term, sheltering fantasy and science fiction. Soderstrom keeps his focus to how sci fi ignores the plight of workers in favour of those who benefit from the exploitation of the worker. Most representatively, he writes that, "In the neoliberal age, even leftish texts find it easier and more compelling to attack the state instead of capital." He then catalogues some instances of texts in which the workers first suffer and then revolt, usually with the revolution coming at the end of the narrative's structure. He finishes the article by providing two relevant and illustrative examples. Firstly, in Sarah Prineas’s Ash and Bramble which argues:
that individual escape from an oppressive system is illusory — that the only genuine way to escape is to change the underlying system through collective action and mutual empowerment.
This feels like a deep truth (and it is) but it is presented with the depth of a platitude, along the lines of empty slogans chanted by the "radical" college-age scions of rich industrialists.

Finally, Soderstrom discusses Iron Council, arguing similarly that the train "literalizes a Marcixt metaphor." However, where he loses me is in his uncritical paean to the novel. He writes that fantastic literature
can furnish us with novel ways to think about those ideas. As Miéville suggests, fantasy provides both a guide to clear political action and a medium for thinking through the challenges we face, considering the fantastic and grotesque nature of reality itself.
If fantasy in this way is meant to be instructive for young burgeoning rebels, then reading Iron Council is the wrong way to go about it. Soderstrom's argumentative mistake is to position the literature of the fantastic as instructive in meaningful ways, when fantasy is not necessarily meant to be taken literally or as metaphorical. There is a danger in imagining that the fantastic has a one to one ratio of signification.

Todorov classified the various forms of the fantastic, observing that the fantastic functions like an uncanny moment, a break in reality that must be sutured with either explanations (rationalization) or rewritten laws of reality. One could argue that drafting new laws of reality could indeed include new arrangements of production and labour, but that elides the mundaneness of the structures of production and capital. As a movement, the Left already has trouble articulating any productive overhaul of the present system, let alone confusing the tools of revolution with actual fucking magic. The Left can barely organize themselves in any meaningful way to confront the vast inequality at the heart of late capitalism. Would Miéville suggest that if the Occupy Movement would simply arm themselves with thaumaturgy and a magical train, the system would be overthrown?

I worry that readings of Miéville's texts as Marxist end up being uncritical odes to his position in difference within the genre. By dint of a lack of left wing radicalism in fantasy, Miéville is possibly overpraised as a Marxist reprieve from the staid Toryism of paradigmatic fantasy. Additionally, Miéville's Marxism might be supra-text rather than found organically within the text. If the Marxist critical lens looks at "literature in terms of the historical conditions which produce it" (as per Eagleton) then we would have to consider Miéville's actual political career. However, if we, like good academics, consider Iron Council without the authorial intentions fallacy, we have a novel that has labourers completely bungle their own revolution and a train indefinitely frozen in time, simply a monument to a failed movement.

I also worry, from a methodological angle, that "smash Semantic Field X with Text Y" style readings overshadow alternative critical analyses of Iron Council and the rest of Miéville's oeuvre. If we can only conceptualize Miéville as a Marxist writer, we risk reducing the political nuance of Marxism to wish-fulfilment fantasies of wielding magic. Magic, in Iron Council, seems to be constructed to avoid the pitfalls of mere wish-fulfilment, but it can't avoid becoming this "cool" thing that animates gun powder into hulking automata (which, if we want to be strict Marxist readers, is problematic as all hell, considering the slipperiness of sentience in Miéville's Bas-Lag universe). By pushing the Marxism from subtext to text, Iron Council loses the very force of possible revolution by literalizing it with magic. Through the reduction of complex politics into cool magic shit, Miéville possibly falls into the same lulling nursery rhyme trap that plagues the rest of paradigmatic fantasy. Reading Iron Council becomes a comforting lullabye, letting Miéville perform the labour of imagining a worker's revolution and absolving the reader of the difficult task of planning the rebellion. After all, if the workers in New Crobuzon couldn't do it with magic, then should we Muggles even bother?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea

It seems to me that the reception to Adam Roberts as a writer of fiction is binary: adulation of his immaculate craft or dismissal on the grounds his work is impenetrable or narratively unsatisfying. I've read more of his nonfiction than I have of his science fiction, which I need to remedy immediately as I thought Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea was just fantastic, albeit imperfect.

Roberts' reputation on Goodreads is dismal; his books have low scores and many people consider the executions of his clever concepts to be lacking. A characteristically anti-Roberts review can be found here, which I will, in at tedious and pedantic length, reply point by point.

The review's main bone of contention seems to be that the novel is presented as an "homage" to Verne (the reviewer's word) but Verne's concepts and even overall feeling tones have been disregarded for a more Lovecraftian exploration of madness. They write:
the 'homage' here is more about making fun of Verne than in taking the spirit of the Tweenty [sic] Thousand Leagues Under The Sea story and creating a new interpretation.
The problem here, seen immediately, is that the reviewer is critiquing a book for not being something it never claimed to be in the first place. The title of Roberts' novel signals the initial concept, but the setting and execution deviate almost immediately from any Verne pastiche. Perhaps this reviewer was expecting a pastiche or some modern revision of Verne's classic tale. Alas, this is clearly not Roberts' aim, especially in his explicit mobilization of political differences, ideological and historical, between the men in the submarine. Roberts' themes excavate ideological differences in forms of science fiction, from individualist to collectivist notions. The reviewer dismisses the eventual product, writing:
it felt like the author was trying too hard to create a classic 1950s horror sci fi with big Ideas (with a capitol "I"). I guess, in a word, it felt pretentious.
I can't really respond logically or definitively to the allegation of "pretentious." It's a dog whistle for "this is art I don't like." But we can see that the reviewer does not accept the mobilization of Verne in service of generic exploration (literalized as oceanic exploration).
Most especially, is why Verne was used when there is no Verne in here other than using a submarine (would you label Das Boot as a Verne homage because it is in a Uboat?).
I'm not sure who "labelled" this as an homage to Verne. The official synopsis of the novel does not explicitly claim an "homage to Verne." But more relevant than marketing (not in Roberts' control, unfortunately), Verne's name is used to conjure Golden Age science fiction and its technological idealism and weight this against the Atomic Age's cynicism and existential crises.
The lack of understanding of Verne is most evident in the title: leagues are a *distance* not a depth and this story is about falling/sinking. Verne recounted a voyage across the ocean, not how far the Nautilus went down under the ocean.
The title is meant to evoke Verne. It's not supposed to be taken literally. Especially since one of the final chapter titles explicitly refers to this disjunction between leagues and distance. This is a really unconvincing form of critique. It's pedantry for the point of it. One of the most annoying trends in science fiction criticism used to be attacking the plausibility of the science and holding the rest of the novel to this failure on the part of the author.
But that should also give you an idea of what this book isn't: it's not an exploration story with fantastical settings as with Verne. It doesn't even use Verne's tale as a base.
Well, it is an exploration story with fantastical settings. I'm not sure why it needed to use Verne's tale as a base for the novel to succeed as an exploration story with fantastical settingswhich it definitely does do. Again, the evocation of Verne is meant connote ideological differences that Roberts then compares and contrasts (romanticism against pragmaticism, Marxism against capitalism, imperialism against isolationism, etc).
It's just a story of a long boring drop that drives the crew insane and completely misses the Victorian adventure point of Verne's story.
Considering the novel is set in 1958, the lack of "Victorian adventure" is purposeful. Boring, of course, is an aesthetic judgement and thus, subjective. I found the novel to be endlessly fascinating and completely compelling.
But then there is the writing - it was enough to make my eyes bleed. Take this painful sentence from the book as an example:
The reviewer takes the final page of the novel as indicative of the overall prose. Perhaps this is a valid rhetorical move... maybe? The quote he chooses, though, is very not representative of the overall prose style of the rest of the novel, something he inadvertently implies later in the review, thus undermining his point. He also doesn't mention the stylistic change from narrative to final page. However, most egregiously, the reviewer does not contextualize his choice of quotation. Rather, he drops it and claims it's bad because it uses a metaphor he doesn't agree with. He then complains that the next paragraph uses religious symbolism, in contrast with the metaphysical tone of the preceding paragraph. Even though one of the central conflicts of the novel, which is explicitly stated, is the tension between materialism and spiritualism. The two final paragraphs of the novel flow to punctuate the sheer impossibility of knowing the world in totality.
the 'steampunk' joie de vivre of Verne's Victorian world is summarily jettisoned for late 1950s post war racim [sic] and stiffness.
Again, this is purposeful. The juxtaposition of the two is completely the point of the novel.
I am at a loss to see why we need a hybrid of At the Mountains of Madness with Jules Verne's Nautilus.
Completely disagree. This is exactly what I wanted from the novel and it delivered. This sentence is very demonstrative of the review itself. While earlier, the reviewer chided Roberts for not delivering a straight homage, here he acknowledges that the Verne influence is mixed with Lovecraft (I fundamentally disagree that Roberts' chief analogue here is Lovecraft, anyway), thus changing his criticism from "this isn't an homage enough" to "I didn't need a pastiche of Lovecraft and Verne"; it's a classic example of moving the goalposts.
Even in the first few pages, the characters are commenting on the stupidity of having a large viewing window in a submarine and how it would make the vessel susceptible to implosion.
They make one reference to the structural instability of a submarine. The reviewer does not mention that most of the cast speak lovingly of Verne and almost all of them have read the seminal texts by him.
There are illustrations of a 'wood block cutting' type of nature. Black and white and both sparse yet detailed. They were as cold and stiff as the story, further ruthlessly removing all romance and fantastical and again steering more toward the horror/thriller aspects. I didn't feel they added anything to the story at all.
Here's an instance where I might actually agree with the reviewer. The illustrations did nothing for me. Unlike the reviewer, I apparently understood the point of them (to alienate the romanticism of Verne).

Am I being too picky with a reviewer who publishes on Goodreads? he says with a sneer. Maybe. As much as I enjoyed Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, I can't claim I hold the novel or even Roberts to this impossible standard. I'm not picking at this reviewer because I love Roberts so much I can't conceive of any critique of his work. Rather, I'm irritated that this is the most popular review on this book's page when it's a poor review, full of strawmen and misdirection.

A better review than that (or even mine) can be found on Jonathan McCalmont's blog. There, McCalmont praises the novel, but recognizes its flaws (the illustrations, the structure, the pacing, etc). McCalmont finds textual links beyond the obvious (eg. Lovecraft) and draws thematic connections and makes some critical evaluations of the relative success or failure of Roberts' endeavour. It's an essay of better-than-average criticism. To be fair, it's not McCalmont's best work on Roberts; his essay on Jack Glass is far superior. In that essay, McCalmont lays the groundwork for understanding Roberts and genre, the tension between them. His review of Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea is structured well enough that not having read the previous essay won't be a hindrance, but having read the Jack Glass piece certainly helps contextualize the author's greater relationship with genre.

My review has not been critically perceptive or evocative. Rather, I've been more evaluative of criticism surrounding the novel. I hope, though, that my overall opinion can be gleaned from the preceding pedantry: I thought the novel quite good, but imperfect. I really need to read more Adam Roberts. He's doing extremely fascinating work.