Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Warehouse 13: A Reaction

I've seen SyFy's Warehouse 13, and had some time to think about it.

At first I was hesitant, all the more so because of the initial description of the concept: Indiana Jones meets Moonlighting.

I was fine with the first half of that in theory, skeptical about the realization-but distinctly discouraged by the second, since while I remember that something called Moonlighting existed, I have only very fuzzy memories of it, and the distinct impression that it is a show in which the writing essentially consists of two idiots annoying each other.

Usually, I'm the one who ends up getting annoyed by character dynamics of that sort.

Fortunately, the core characters showed some signs that they won't be nearly so annoying as that, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it included Joanne Kelly, who I remembered from Jeremiah (2002-2004), back when Showtime was into this sort of thing (an underappreciated show, season 2 of which is not even available on DVD). Parts of the pilot were frankly better-written than I expected. And at this point, anything that isn't a reality show (such as those which have been cluttering up the channel's prime time schedule as of late) is something of a relief. However, as many a hardcore fan of science fiction television suspected, it is very far from being the sort of show that breaks new ground. Instead think of it as a twist on Eureka, a very lightweight cop/investigative show with one big gimmick (tending toward the generic) as the central plot point in each episode. It's the kind of SFTV that people who don't much care for SFTV can enjoy, and for those who are more deeply into this stuff, and frankly more demanding, it is still watchable, though far from being a must-see.

Personally, I don't have a problem with SyFy airing "grounded" series as such, something it has long been doing, as with The Invisible Man (2000-2002) or The Chronicle (2001-2002). The difference is that back then such shows were clearly part of a richer variety of programming, existing alongside material for a more hardcore audience, like Farscape or Lexx. Of course, there will still be Stargate: Universe, and Caprica, and Sanctuary (which showed some promise by the end of season 1), but there is no denying that the prospect of pleasant surprises is weaker than it once was in a line-up clattered with the cheap, annoying reality TV (Scare Tactics, Ghost Hunters, etc.) that the channel's marketing people push shamelessly and relentlessly. They've gone so far as to include a "complimentary" episode of Ghost Hunters on the Caprica DVD, which strikes me as only too indicative of things to come.

New in Strange Horizons (Statistical Study of the Book Market, Dinocivilization)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: A Memoir, by Toby Young

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003, pp. 368.

As those of you who know anything about me might guess, I am an unlikely reader of this sort of book, which I guess is why I had never heard of the book until after seeing the movie.

I don't remember ever picking up an issue of Vanity Fair, even while sitting in a doctor's office, even in that period when I read Variety religiously (thinking I would find some key to the film business in its pages, as of course I didn't); was in fact somewhat confused by Christopher Hitchens' association with the magazine given that he mostly seemed to write about political stuff (if you don't know him, you could do worse than read Alexander Cockburn's take on the man, as well as Hitchens' comeback if you'd like to see his defense, here); and had never even heard of Graydon Carter until after I found out that the movie was based on a true story.*

Indeed, I've never been much for celebrity gossip of this sort. When I saw O.J. Simpson's white Bronco on TV, the first thing that occurred to me, even at that comparatively tender age, was that we would never hear the end of it, and how sick I already was of hearing about it.

Yet, I enjoyed the book.

Granted, apart from being surprised that a few of the incidents from the film were based on things real people were alleged to have said and done (the "seven rooms" speech about which I wrote before included, this apparently having been put into the film almost word for word), the gossip that was probably the book's main selling point business-wise (and likely, for many another reader too) was ho-hum for me.

But Young makes an engaging (and highly quotable) narrator, and his relation of his adventures is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. This is, in part, because he captures quite well a certain position that I think a great many of us not nearly so famous can identify with: of having a bit (or more than a bit) of education and culture and intellectual substance but being drawn to some (or more than some) lowbrow things; of being intensely attracted to that world of fame and riches and status and privilege and celebrity and all the things that go with it when you know very well that you are "supposed" to regard it sardonically as something trivial and beneath you; of feeling like you have your nose pressed up to the glass, especially in a moment of youthful frustration, and thinking that maybe, just maybe you will be able to join the party, but never getting in.

There is a great deal more of interest, not least of it the sociology, specifically the Briton-in-America stuff (and how Britain looks from over here; we too rarely get this sort of thing right in America, as I was reminded while watching my first and last episode of Bones, the execrably written "Yanks in the U.K."); his observations about the sycophantic timidity and outright cowardice of so much American journalism; and especially his thoughts on social class and wealth in these respective countries. He is not often original, but sharp nonetheless.

The distance between Toby and parents who were not merely respected intellectuals but a father whose work in the Labor Party qualifies him to be called "one of the architects of Britain's post-war consensus," also founded "dozens of organizations enriching the lives of tens of millions of people, from the East End of London to the Horn of Africa," and as if all that was not enough, happens to be a "minor immortal" in the world of sociology for his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy; and a like-minded mother prominent in her own right as editor, television producer, novelist, educator and activist; is also of interest - especially because his feelings about it are so contrary to the zeitgeist of these times, as seen from where I'm sitting now, this one a
generation of cyberpunk anti-heroes, alienated and alone for all the promised connectiveness of their technology, abiding by no rules in its scramble to survive and succeed, and incapable of even imagining a different sort of world.
There is also an element of interest in this book's being a study of failure (not total, not irredeemable, of course, indeed partially redeemed before the last page, but failure all the same). We all too often underestimate failure's interest, which when presented honestly is really greater than the interest of your average account of success. Winners, after all, are not pressed to take a hard look at themselves, or think much about the reality of the world around them. (The worst of them wallow in their exaggerated idea of their own worth - as indeed, many of the insufferable figures in Young's story do - a luxury failures don't have.)

Besides, failures have the virtue of not being invested in the system they're talking about, or grateful to it, and free to burn the bridges they were unable to successfully cross in giving the facts and telling the truth, especially when the truths are of the sort the relevant Establishment would prefer went unspoken (as quite a few of the truths in this book are). This is a story of a man for whom America was not the land of opportunity, but the "land of the unreturned phone call," a reality not just for the newcomer, but many an American as well; of the man who failed to take Manhattan, who tried to make it in that place where if you could make it there you could presumably make it anywhere, and didn't make it.

Of course, this is probably starting to sound unfamiliar to those of you who saw the film but never read the book (there may not be many of you, to judge by the box office receipts - the global gross being $17 million, and the movie's North American take actually less than that of Uwe Boll's Bloodrayne when inflation is factored in - but then I was one until this week), and there's a reason for that: most of the best stuff is left out of the movie.

This was all too predictable, of course, given the changes one should have seen coming from a long way off, like the filmmakers' changing many of the characters' names to protect the not-so-innocent; downplaying the essential crassness of the hero's motivation by adding a touch of tragedy to his childhood (as well as sanitizing the character with regard to his alcoholism, drug use and womanizing, the last more often attempted than successful); turning his romance with Caroline Bondy into a clichéd tale of giving up on the glamorous but manipulative, self-centered starlet who captured his fantasies, in favor of the smarter, nicer office girl who for much of the film is the only one willing even to talk to him (and true to romantic comedy convention, spends much of the film giving our hero grief for simply having a male id); marginalizing the themes of politics and class, not least through the change of his parents' occupations and accomplishments (dad's "a philosopher," mom's an actress); and last but not least, having the younger Young learn What Really Matters in Life when he is in room seven, instead of after he's been kicked back out into the street from room one. The film was advertised as a "testosterone-laced The Devil Wears Prada," and while I have only seen bits of the latter film while flipping channels (so that I am in no position to make a proper comparison), it strikes me that turning Young's memoir into that entails not merely the usual compression, combination, exaggeration and sanitization, but an outright reimagining.

* Incidentally, a remark by Christopher Hitchens (in a review of Zachary Leader's bio of Kingsley Amis for The Atlantic, brought to my attention by David Langford's Ansible via the pages of Interzone) inspired this little piece of mine a couple of years ago in Tangent Online.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (A Meditation)

While not as funny as other Simon Pegg comedies like Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz, and certainly no stand-out for originality of concept, surprising plot twists or satirical teeth (everyone who's ever come into contact with this kind of material can probably tell from early on how it's going to end up, the targets are easy, and I imagine I'm not the only one who thinks we've got too much media about media as it is), How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was more enjoyable than I expected, and actually contained some surprisingly good bits.

One of these is the scene in which Jeff Bridges' character, magazine editor and "linchpin of the media-industrial complex" Clayton Harding, launches into an extended metaphor about "seven rooms," explaining to our protagonist Sidney Young (Pegg) that while he thinks he may have arrived, he's "only in the first room." Now,
"in about a year, maybe longer, you will discover a secret doorway in the back of the first room that leads to the second, and in time if you're lucky you'll discover another doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms altogether."
It is, of course, part of a rather unsubtle dominance display in which Harding reminds Young of their respective places in this particular hierarchy ("You're in the first [room]. I'm in the seventh. Don't you forget it."), but it's also much more than that, a truth that we're generally inclined to avoid: that instead of a straightforward meritocracy, and ladders ascended with talent and the "hard work" that is the subject of many a sanctimonious lecture, making one's way through the world means navigating the uncharted and unchartable paths to which those hidden doors open. (That's what all the talk about "networking" comes to, for instance, upping the odds that you'll find your way to one of those doors.) The truth is that even when you are doing everything right, there's no guarantee that you'll find the door-or even that there is one of those secret doors in the particular room you've found your way into. Far from it, you can get old without getting out.

This necessarily means a much more worried life for anyone pursuing any particular ambition, and while this goes for people in any and every career path (especially in an age of economic strain, especially when one doesn't have someone already inside positioned to open some of those doors for them), it seems to me an especially troubling point for those who want to be writers in the "author of fiction" sense of the word: because there are so many jockeying for a very few slots (book deals that will let them live from their writing); because the career track is necessarily so ambiguous (it's not like becoming a lawyer or doctor, for instance); because it is so damnably difficult to correlate performance with success (there always being plenty of atrocious books on the bestseller lists, plenty of careers dragging long past their productive periods, and hype muddling everything); because every conversation writers enter into that gets beyond the face of sunny optimism complacent insiders present to anxious outsiders betrays just how much those who are not in the "seventh room" or close to it are stuck going by rumor and speculation. The how-to industry sells the idea that you just write the book (or maybe just the proposal), send out the query letter and . . . well, they don't usually say much about what happens between then and the deal (and what makes the difference between the rejection letter and the acceptance), which for most of us is probably not just a gap, but the gap.

It all comes down to those doorways, doorways you might not always be cognizant of facing or going through given how much of the decisionmaking happens out of the writer's sight and mind (and maddeningly, outside their control), and while the people in room seven can afford to be easygoing about it, those desperate to even get into room one can only worry that they never will.

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