Thursday, December 16, 2010

Review: Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart

New York: Random House, 2010, pp. 334.

The protagonist of Gary Shteyngart's bestselling novel Super Sad True Love Story is Leonard Abramov, the Queens-born son of Jewish Russian immigrants from what was then Leningrad. At this point in his life, Lenny is middle-aged, unhandsome, awkward, neurotic and hopelessly out of tune with the times. Only his possession of a relatively good job (he's a Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator for the Post-Human Services division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation, essentially a salesman hawking life extension to rich customers), and his friendships with a few somewhat more favored people, save him from being written off as a total loser.

At the start of the novel Lenny is winding up an unprofitable year in Europe and beginning a romance with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman he meets in Rome, a recent college graduate being prodded toward law school by her immigrant parents. Eunice is confused and at times floundering, and her sense of their relationship is irreconcilable with that of an older lover desperately trying to retain a tenuous hold on her affections.

And making their relationship more tenuous still, external obstacles to their being happy together, going far beyond the usual, very quickly start to loom large: their relationship unfolds in a near-future United States which, under the leadership of the Bipartisan Party (and the de facto dictatorship of neoconservative Defense Secretary Rubinstein), is fighting a war in Venezuela and on the verge of economic collapse. Indeed, the situation is already so severe that even the near-annihilation of civil liberties fails to stop a mounting tide of internal disorder.

These are not the most original of characters, and their relationship may not be the most original of situations. There is much about them that will annoy a good many readers by the end of the story (especially if the reader has ever had to deal with people like them). Yet, they both rang true for me, and held my interest throughout.

Additionally, and more surprisingly, I was genuinely impressed with the world-building, which was extensive, innovative, often zany and smoothly integrated into the narrative. As might be expected from the premise it contained much satirical caricature, but at the same time seemed eerily, depressingly plausible in its essentials. At its best it reads like Bruce Sterling's writing about the near future, but with his Davos Man libertarian-conservatism replaced by a critical take from the left.

Moreover, Shteyngart successfully interweaves the big picture with the personal tale of Lenny and Eunice, Big Events impinging on their all-too-familiar Little Story in ways large and small, at many points making what could easily have been cliché (not least, the treatment of the immigrant experience) something worthwhile. Especially significant, the book uncannily captures the voice of the consumerist, texting-addicted young adult who can't get through a conversation without repeatedly saying "Whatever" (and can't get through a book, period) in Eunice. The generation gap between her cohort and their elders (sometimes, their elders by only a slender margin) is a difference of epochs, the dividing line between the eras of Johannes Guttenberg and Steve Jobs.

Shteyngart shows as well as tells this in his switches back and forth between Abramov's viewpoint, related in entries in an old-fashioned diary, and Eunice's exchanges of text messages with her family and friends, as well as in their exchanges with each other. Lenny's old-fashioned bookishness is constantly a source of embarrassment and anxiety between the two, and at times, even a wall. In one of the book's more memorable scenes, Lenny tries to read to her out of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, to share a book that meant a great deal to him with her, and the experience turns out to be, well, unbearable.

Fortunately, Shteyngart's novel never is. Despite its switches of viewpoint, its stylistic experimentation, its density with concept and allusion, it is hugely readable, and a quick read as well as a satisfying one. In fact, while I've often felt that the genre's opinion leaders are too quick to embrace well-established "mainstream" authors who try their hand at science fiction, I would be disappointed to not see Super Sad True Love Story get some recognition at awards time next year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy is exactly the kind of hit that makes me suspicious - a book showered with acclaim by critics who are none too clear about the reasons for that acclaim, an apparent pop cultural phenomenon which does not fit the accustomed pattern, nor appear to have broken that pattern by fulfilling some undiscovered niche.1 The success of Larsson's books seemed all the more remarkable given that the U.S. is such a weak market for translations (or even for stories about other lands), and there has certainly been nothing to indicate a special openness to Swedish imports in particular - neither an upsurge of interest in Swedish culture as such, nor a sudden preoccupation with Sweden in foreign affairs.

Naturally, I looked into the issue, reading a few reviews. Every so often someone mentions the interest of Lisbeth Salander-Watson to protagonist Mikael Blomkvist's Holmes, as many a critic has put it (though frankly I think it's the other way around). However, she she struck me as a bag of clichés-the pierced, tattooed rebel-punk hacker (which decade is this?), the brilliant detective whose symptoms of autism are the basis of their talent as well as their weakness (meet Gil Grissom, Temperance Brennan, Adrian Monk, and that's just on television), the Bohemian freelance investigator (I did say she was Holmes to Blomkvist's Watson, didn't I?).

Eventually, I gave in and read the first book (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) for myself in the hopes of answering that question.

The book certainly had its limits, from a commercial perspective. The book's marketed as a thriller, but while there's certainly a "story of detection," involving dark deeds and an element of danger, the Millennium Trilogy's first installment is no adrenaline novel. The investigation's very slow to get going, the very skeptical hero expecting to find nothing for over a hundred pages after taking the job, and sure enough, not getting a handle on even the first clue until the mid-point of the 465 page narrative. The story's short on action, too. (Blomkvist doesn't even get shot at until after page three hundred.) When he's unmasked, the killer is no Hannibal Lecter, rather a stock figure as banal as his crimes are hideous, his personal share of the family's very heavy baggage as ugly and awful as one might expect given the circumstances, but hardly anything readers of the genre would not have seen before - something that can be said of just about anything else in the story.

Admittedly Larsson shows some innovation, and reasonable skill, in tying the pursuit of the serial killer with a sweeping family history and a financial crime story, one developed with a fair bit of sophistication (though I felt there was an element of wish-fulfillment in the conclusion). In a few instances, there seemed to be touches many a reader likely finds compelling in a retro way. The element of dynastic epic we get here, the protagonist who bed-hops adroitly and guiltlessly - this is stuff we got a lot more of in the '70s. (Indeed, Daniel Craig will probably bed more women in this film franchise than he did as 007.) Perhaps reflecting Larsson's own experiences, there is an edge to the predicaments and compromises Blomkvist faces as a journalist. Salander also turned out to be a more engaging creation than I expected. Many authors can't resist the temptation to turn a character like this one into a Mary Sue (as with the aforementioned, extremely tiresome Temperance Brennan), but Salander's combination of strengths and vulnerabilities, the marks left by her condition and society's incomprehension of it, make her more complex and interesting than that, the novel's characterization of her both sharp and sensitive. (Most of the time, anyway. There is a point late in the book when Salander's bag of tricks suddenly seems implausibly large.) The treatment of Salander's hacking is also a cut above the commonplace depictions of the activity as a black nerd-magic useful for moving the plot over and around any obstacle. Finally, while Larsson's is not the most visceral or swiftly paced writing, the narrative flows smoothly enough. Put another way, he knows how to keep readers turning the pages.

Where marketing the book in the U.S. is concerned, the element of financial crime may be a bit more intriguing to the general readership amid an economic crisis which has seen plenty of it, and as Charles McGrath noted in a lengthy article in the New York Times, that the books introduce American readers to
a Sweden that is vastly different from the bleak, repressed, guilt-ridden images we see in Ingmar Bergman movies and from the design-loving Socialist paradise we imagine whenever we visit Ikea . . . [which is instead] a country that turns out to be a lot like our own.
The fact that so much of the story seems familiar, particularly what is unpleasant in the story, may be exactly the point. There's probably no small amount of Schadenfreude in that, given the way attitudes toward Europe echo the country's own culture wars (awfully ironic given Larsson's own politics), but this moves product all the same.

Still, the book's strengths, exoticisms and timing notwithstanding, I can't help but feel that the heights the book has attained in the United States (and worldwide) represent a triumph of marketing more than anything else. Ultimately, the book is a bestseller because it is a bestseller (as it was in Europe before reaching the U.S.). In any event, the situation reverts to normal when one considers that Hollywood is going for a remake rather than a theatrical release of the Swedish films already made out of the books, despite this rather low-key material's questionable appropriateness to a high-concept production. Indeed, the questionable stylistic fit of the flashy David Fincher to Larsson's writing (so that I actually wonder if he hasn't been brought in specifically to add an element of flash); Daniel Craig's uncertain record in selling major releases outside the Bond franchise; Hollywood's well-known profligacy with budgets and the grosses studios are forced to expect to justify that profligacy (which make even a $400 million take a potentially franchise-ending disappointment in many cases); and the tendency toward diminishing returns on sequels and remakes (keep in mind that much of the intended audience will have seen the Swedish film versions first); make this an unlikely franchise.

1. Patrick Anderson of the Washington Post does better than most, but likewise fell short of answering my questions.

Friday, October 8, 2010

On the New York Times Bestseller List . . .

On last Sunday's New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list, Jonathan Franzen, Nicholas Sparks and Stieg Larsson are all on top, but mystery writer Janet Evanovich's urban fantasy Wicked Appetite is at #6, while Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Fall (book two of their Strain cycle) is at #8. There are, however, quite a few other authors using milder speculative elements in their fiction, Ted Bell's Warlord and Clive Cussler and Grant Blackwood's Lost Empire being at #13 and #14 respectively. If one stretches the definition of speculative fiction that much more, there's also Sara Gruen's story of missing bonobos who turn up on a reality show, Ape House, currently at #15.

The list of speculative-themed works lengthens considerably when one looks at the extended NYT list, where paranormal romance is evident, with Sherilyn Kenyon's No Mercy at #16 and Christine Feehan's Dark Peril at #32; still more urban fantasy from mystery writers who started out as "mundanes," with Charlaine Harris's Dead in the Family at #23; epic fantasy in Terry Brooks's Bearer of the Black Staff and Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings, at #25 and #29; more idiosyncratic, slipstream-ish work like William Gibson's "post-science fiction" novel Zero History at #17 and W. Bruce Cameron's story told from a dog's point of view, A Dog's Purpose, at #28; and finally, S.M. Stirling's latest entry in his "Emberverse" post-apocalyptic military adventure series, The High King of Montival at #31.

Once again, it's validation for the arguments that fantasy, the paranormal and what might be termed "slipstream" are more popular than science fiction more narrowly defined; that books and authors incorporating just a little of the stuff into their stories (e.g., contemporary urban fantasy) have an easier time reaching big audiences than work which uses more fully speculative contexts (like epic fantasy or space opera); and that the big names, by and large, remain old names (including quite a few 1970s-vintage names), both those which are more (Brooks, Gibson, Stirling) or less (Cussler, Evanovich) closely associated with science fiction and fantasy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Give the Superheroes a Rest?

Alan Stanley Blair recently penned a piece at Airlock Alpha on the boom in movies (and television) based on superhero comics titled "Enough With The Comic Books Already!: Comic Book Adaptations are Ruining Movie Theaters and Network Lineups"--which pretty much says it all about his position on the phenomenon.1

That boom, generally regarded as having begun in 2000, has already been more sustained, prolific, robust and qualitatively impressive than just about any other (like cyber-themed movies, or space-themed movies, or historical epics, or film versions of fantasy novels) I can think of in recent decades, with Bryan Singer's X-Men movies (2000, 2003), Sam Raimi's first two Spiderman movies (2002 and 2004) and Christopher Nolan's Batman movies (2005 and 2008) generally seen as leading the way.2 Even the movies regarded as comparative disappointments, like Mark Steven Johnson's Daredevil (2003) or Ang Lee's Hulk (2003), still frequently did big business (each breaking the $100 million mark at the North American box office), and reflected the newly sophisticated approach to the material. In their eagerness to capitalize on the trend the studios have gone far beyond the list of D.C. and Marvel's most venerable characters, and even newer classics like Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (2006) and Watchmen (2009), to pursue projects based on "B-grade" superheroes like Marvel's The Punisher (2004) and Ghost Rider (2006). And of course, there are original movies using similar elements, mostly parodies like The Incredibles (2004), Sky High (2005), My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), Zoom (2006), Super Capers (2009), Kick-Ass (2010), and the new Super (2010), though the blockbuster Hancock (2008) played its material fairly straight.3

After a decade the films are still attracting audiences and making money. The more profitable franchises are still chugging along with new movies in the pipeline, and the franchises that have disappointed are frequently continuing in their own way too, the studios apparently reluctant to give up on any such property. While there was little potential for a Daredevil sequel, Warner Brothers nonetheless produced a more modestly budgeted spin-off, Elektra (2005). In other cases they quickly proceeded to reboots of their misfires, like the 2003 Hulk and 2004 Punisher films-brand new, unconnected Hulk and Punisher films promptly appearing in 2008. The Incredible Hulk was a comparative success, but Punisher: War Zone flopped even worse than the first film, and may get rebooted a second time. Even more surprising, given that Spiderman 3 (2007) was still a huge commercial success, that franchise too is going back to the drawing board--as is the case with the next Superman film after the ambivalent reception of 2006's Superman Returns. Meanwhile, whole new series are being prepped for launch.

As things stand, Captain America and Green Lantern and Thor are already well on their way to the big screen. Other movies, like the long-delayed Wonder Woman film, are being developed. Some of these may never get out of "development hell," but others will no doubt make it to the screen. In all likelihood some of them will make big money, some will at least be fun, and a few may even offer more substantial entertainment than that. However, it seems unlikely they can revolutionize the genre at this point, and I suppose that freshness and thrill have both faded. I've certainly enjoyed the boom--but like Mr. Blair I think the time has come to back off and give the superheroes a rest for a while.

1. There has been far less effort to bring superheroes to the small screen, and much less success in the attempts (no doubt because the spectacle that is a large part of the appeal of the movies cannot be replicated within television's constraints, especially as the vileness that is reality TV threatens to swallow up everything else). Still, there are some noteworthy efforts, in particular Heroes (2006-2010), especially during its highly praised and widely watched first season (since which time interest withered until the show was canceled without a fuss earlier this year), and Smallville (2001-), which never commanded the kind of audience Heroes had or approached the pop cultural impact that show enjoyed at its height, but which is now entering into its tenth season. Still, some interest continues with the series' The Cape and No Ordinary Family premiering this year.
2. It should be remembered that the films of the 2000s could also be seen as a continuation of the wave that Tim Burton's Batman got started, which included such successes as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990), Dick Tracy (1990), The Crow (1992), Men in Black (1997) and Blade (1998), and all their associated sequels--one which never stopped, even if it was on the whole less productive or successful than the rush of the 2000s.
3. Movies based on comics and graphic novels not featuring superheroes have been rather rarer, though a couple of notable commercial successes came out of Frank Miller's work, namely Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007). There was also Alan Moore's From Hell (2001), the Alien vs. Predator franchise (2004 and 2007), and even some more "highbrow" fare like Road to Perdition (2002), American Splendor (2003) and A History of Violence (2005).

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The End of James Bond?

Collected in The Forgotten James Bond.

Back in April the producers of the James Bond film series announced that the next film is on indefinite hold due to the studio's financial troubles.

At the very least, this means a much longer wait before the next film in the series. Where "Bond 23" would have come out this year if the series continued with its accustomed regularity, it now seems the earliest possible release date is 2012, four years after Quantum of Solace.

Of course, the series has survived longer pauses than that. It's worth remembering, too, that Quantum was a success (unlike the comparative flops from which the series successfully bounced back in the late '70s and mid-'90s). And Daniel Craig is at an early enough point in his tenure in the role that additional films would remain a possibility even if the movie was launched years after that date. Besides, it sometimes seems as if the series is unstoppable, as if it has been around for far too many years through too much change for its end to actually be conceivable.

Still, it wouldn't be the first time that a profitable film series wound up in development hell, and it's anything but certain MGM will get its house in order soon. A much longer delay would complicate matters considerably. Particular cast and staff might no longer be available, and much has already been made of Craig's signing on with another projected series, the planned Hollywood film version of Stieg Larsson's trilogy of Millennium novels (the first film in which seems likely to hit screens before Bond 23). With the passing of time the pressure to shake things up again would mount, and even if the series has pulled it off successfully a number of times in the past, it's by no means certain that the series' producers would manage it again, while the cost of a misstep, like a poorly timed theatrical release, or a poorly thought-out publicity campaign (both of which have happened before in series history) could mean another longer-than-usual pause after that film. Reflecting what has been on many minds, the cover story of the August 6 issue of Entertainment Weekly asked nothing less than "Is James Bond dead?"

Perhaps the venerable series has indeed come to an end.

To be honest, I don't know how to feel about that.

The Long Decline
The criticism has commonly gone that the James Bond film series's true glory days were in the '60s (four decades ago now), and that since then the films have been carried by new actors, new gadgets, new settings, new gimmicks, new songs from trendy new recording artists, and of course, bigger and better action sequences and special effects in ever-slicker productions, all as the core story elements--and indeed, a few particularly successful variants on the well-known formula (expositions of which you can find here and here)--are endlessly recycled. Consider, for instance, how much of Lewis Gilbert's You Only Live Twice (1967) returned in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me (another story in which the bad guys planned to bait and bleed the superpowers into a nuclear war to pave the way for a new order on Earth). In 1979's Moonraker, the alliance between Bond and a female secret agent from the Soviet Union (Anya Amasova) in the 1977 film was redone with American agent Holly Goodhead, while the madman, his fortress, his ambitions and even the theft from the British government that got Bond on his case in the first place, were reoriented or relocated from the sea to space. The same concept would return in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, with Bond teamed up with Chinese operative Wai Lin to thwart an attempt to start a war between the UK and the People's Republic. And so on and so forth. (Even particular novelties were being recycled, like the gadget-filled cars, yesteryear's Aston Martin giving way to a Lotus, then a new Aston Martin, and after that a BMW roadster . . .)1

Unsurprisingly, where the series once set the pace for much of pop culture, so that old franchises like Tarzan and Bulldog Drummond were redefined in its image during the late '60s, the Bond films were increasingly the imitators, going to unprecedented lengths to follow the trends set by others.2 Live and Let Die (1973) seized on blaxploitation, The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) on the international success of the martial arts movie, The Spy Who Loved Me on the splash made by Jaws, Moonraker on the post-Star Wars wave of space-themed movies.

There was, too, a pursuit of topicality in ways the series had once eschewed. The controversy over the use of tactical nuclear weapons to offset a perceived Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe found its way into the plot of 1983's Octopussy, the war in Afghanistan into 1987's The Living Daylights, while the "war on drugs" was the basis for 1989's Licence to Kill, and the Internet and post-Soviet Russia were at the core of the story in 1995's Goldeneye. (By contrast, the story goes that an early script for The Spy Who Loved Me had an alliance of real-world terrorists storming S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s headquarters and liquidating its leaders was rejected as too political.3)

Of course, the pursuit of trendiness and topicality has its limits within such a well-defined framework as the Bond films, and there's little arguing that the spy game lost much of its "mojo" with the end of the Cold War, that true "golden age of spying."4 By that point Britain's place in world affairs was far more ambiguous than it had been in the late '40s when it was being eclipsed by the U.S. and Soviet Union. After all, despite its decline from its earlier imperial-hegemonic status, Britain had still weighed more heavily in the scales as an independent actor at the time when Bond first arrived on the pop cultural scene.5 Even after Britain became a "normal country," the Cold War conflict and NATO gave British policy a clear global thrust. Such convenient delineations have since vanished.

Things have changed in other ways as well. In the early Cold War intelligence was already an affair of large organizations and high technology--signals intercepts, reconnaissance aircraft carrying sophisticated cameras, code-breaking computers. The fact hadn't yet eaten very far into the lone spy's romantic aura, but half a century on the reality has moved much further in this direction, and popular perception has caught up with it. The trend has made it that much harder to gloss over the fact that the British government couldn't then, and can even less so now, afford the very biggest and best in this area, the way Fleming did in From Russia With Love (1957), where the excellence of British spies, in spite of the meagerness of their resources, was all by itself enough to win a grudging respect from the chiefs of SMERSH, who speculated that "the Public School and University tradition. The love of adventure . . . the myth of Scotland Yard, of Sherlock Holmes, of the Secret Service" made up for SIS's material shortcomings.6

The cachet of being a British secret agent is not immune to such developments, and the villains with their schemes for "taking over the world" have likewise come to seem like yesterday's men. I often find myself thinking of how Number Two berated Dr. Evil at the end of the first Austin Powers film (1997), uttering a line that transcended lightweight parody to become meaningful commentary on where we've been going these last many decades: "[Y]ou, like an idiot, want to take over the world. And you don't even realize that there is no world anymore! There's just corporations!"

Charles Stross also put it quite nicely in the afterword to his "Laundry Files" novel The Jennifer Morgue, observing that if there is such a thing as a "perfect criminal," it is the kind of criminal whose crimes are "so huge they go unnoticed, or indeed miscategorized not as crimes at all" because they have been a step ahead of the law, or powerful enough to get away with what they do--and in the process, "perceptions of real-world heroism and villainy have fundamentally changed in ways that . . . affect the cachet of being a British secret agent."

At the same time, there's hardly any point to denying that the iconic status of the Bond films is strongly connected with their representing "the ultimate male fantasy" of prowess, sophistication and independence inside a world of luxury and pleasure (culinary, alcoholic, sexual, etc.), mobility, cool toys and decisive, triumphant action. There may have been a dark side to it all, which the series acknowledged every now and then, but neither flinched from nor wallowed in, something that has been changing for a very long time now. The makers of the films seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Bond's lifestyle--the smoking, the drinking, and even more so, the bed-hopping and interactions with women more generally. The producers in fact made an increasing effort to present the newer Bond girls as a match for Bond, or even more than a match, one-upping him or bailing him out with increasing frequency, or otherwise taking him down a peg. (Just compare the relationship between Bond and Anya, or Bond and Holly, back in the '70s, and the interaction between Bond and Pam Bouvier or Wai Lin, for instance--or May Day for that matter.) When Brosnan became James Bond, he got for his new boss a woman who constantly upbraided him for being an un-p.c. anachronism. (This was quite a different thing from watching Sean Connery or Robert Moore get a rise out of uptight old Bernard Lee with his antics, and one I found much less entertaining.) The dry martinis were non-negotiable for the time being, but Brosnan's Bond finally put away the cigarettes.

If the films were still presenting "the ultimate male fantasy," then they were doing it with a heavier and heavier freight of irony, and maybe even guilt too. Meanwhile the version of hedonism Bond represented--black tie in the Old World casino, Savile Row-tailored suits and all the rest--came to seem old-fashioned. That Bond became increasingly identified with older actors--a fifty-three year old Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again (1983), a fifty-eight year old Roger Moore in A View to a Kill (1985)--didn't help, and neither did the accumulation of so many moments when he seemed out of touch with the young. Think of Bond making a crack in Goldfinger about listening to the Beatles with earmuffs (ironically, Paul McCartney delivered one of the series' more memorable songs with Live and Let Die nine years later) or his awkwardness with young Bibi Dahl in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, bits played for laughs, but there they were nonetheless.8 On top of everything else the glamour of the jet age is dead, the excitement with which airline travel was once imbued now associated with mundane errands, hassle and even personal indignity rather than novelty and glamour as flying not only became more familiar, but as the service becomes lousier (and in the last decade, security much more intrusive), and the romance of faraway places has diminished considerably.9

As a result the things that made the character and the films engaging, appealing and even distinctive (a few trademark trappings, like the gun-barrel opening sequence or the catchy theme music aside) were fading away, even as the whole was becoming less fresh over time--the franchise now only one series of action movies among many, and not the one pushing the genre's envelope either. Even before the end of the 1960s Sergio Leone and Peter Yates and Sam Peckinpah left their own deep footprints in the action genre, and since then it has been other filmmakers, other writers, producers and directors--Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer, Luc Besson and John Woo, Richard Donner and John McTiernan, James Cameron and the Wachowski brothers, among others--who have redefined the action movie and the cinematic blockbuster.10 Actors in other roles, too, have redefined the big-screen action hero, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee and Bruce Willis, Michelle Yeoh and Angelina Jolie--to name just a few.11

Consequently, while the Bond films continued to deliver a good many memorable bits, nothing in the later movies ever became as iconic as the extras on that first Aston Martin (the ejection seat, the Ben-Hur blades), Odd Job's hat, the scene in which Goldfinger almost cut Bond in half with a laser, Ernst Stavro Blofeld's bald head and white Persian cat, or S.P.E.C.T.R.E.'s base inside a volcano. Certainly no action sequence out of the later Bond films was nearly so likely to be referenced, imitated or parodied as Indiana Jones' run through the South American temple at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), or the balletic violence of Neo and Trinity in The Matrix (1999). (Equally, while there was continual improvement in the special effects, Thunderball received the series's first and last Academy Award in that category.)

Unsurprisingly, the box office receipts tell the story. While Die Another Day was hailed as the series' biggest grosser to date, the adjustment of the films' earnings for inflation left it a distant fifth behind Thunderball (the $63 million earnings of which translate to $437 million in today's terms), Goldfinger ($387 million), You Only Live Twice ($211 million) and From Russia With Love ($190 million), respectively, back at the peak of the franchise's prominence.12 Certainly by the 1980s the slippage was apparent when the grosses are compared with those of other, contemporaneous hits. Yes, 1981's For Your Eyes Only and 1983's Octopussy were unambiguous successes that ended up safely among the top ten earners at the American box office in their years, #8 and #6 respectively (while Never Say Never Again made the #14 position for 1983). However, 1985's A View to A Kill only made the #13 slot (well behind Rambo II and Jewel of the Nile), The Living Daylights #19 (after Beverly Hills Cop II, The Untouchables, Lethal Weapon, Predator and Robocop), and Licence to Kill ended up all the way down at #36 (after Tim Burton's Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2, and even Tango & Cash and Black Rain).13 It took six years before the next film revived the series' fortunes (and finally scored its first $100 million hit, long after such grosses had become routine--and even requisite--for major action movies).

Still, for quite a long time I didn't give this line of argument much thought. I understood it intellectually, but as a fan I was pretty uncritical, even though I was nearly alone among my friends and acquaintances in my enthusiasm. The average adolescent's cinematic memory doesn't seem to go back more than a few months, which at the time put the Bond movies, especially the ones that made the series a household name, way, way out of the pop cultural frame of reference of most of them. It was Schwarzenegger, and Steven Seagal, and Jean-Claude Van Damme that they were more likely to talk about. All the same, the release date of Goldeneye might as well have been a national holiday for me, and I similarly looked forward to the next two films, even though neither was nearly as much of an event, or quite as satisfying an experience.

It was when I saw Die Another Day (2002) that this started to change. Despite the longer than usual three year wait after the previous film, it seemed to me that the plot was, more blatantly than in just about any of the previous movies, a sharply scaled-down version of an earlier entry, specifically Diamonds Are Forever. The stakes for which the game was being played was nothing so grand as Cold War nuclear supremacy, but the military balance on the Korean peninsula (the film's treatment of which made far too much of the strategic value of the minefields on the south side of the DMZ, as if it were propaganda on behalf of the policy). Halle Berry's emergence from the sea in Cuba was not just presented but heavily publicized as an homage to Ursula Andress's first appearance in Dr. No (1962). (But you just can't go home again.) And Bond was going rogue--yet another time. (He'd already done it a number of times, most notably when he went off to avenge Felix Leiter in License to Kill.)

It was all quite backward-looking, as if the new films were nostalgic for the old ones, even as some of the last links with the series' earlier days were being broken. (The late Desmond Llewelyn, Q for nearly forty years, had passed on, replaced by John Cleese, whose work I've always enjoyed, but still . . .) I found the attempt to write in the War on Terror (of which the North Korean stuff was a part) clumsy. I didn't like that Madonna was brought in to do the theme song (just as I hadn't cared much for any of the new songs since Goldeneye), and given a cameo to boot. And at times the film felt less like a Bond movie than a Bond-and-Jinx movie. This was, apparently, no coincidence, the producers apparently having been thinking about creating a new franchise centered on her character. (The plans never came to anything, studio enthusiasm for female-driven action movies slackening a bit after the sequels to 2000's Charlie's Angels and 2001's Lara Croft both underperformed the following summer.)

Some of the action was also marred by disappointingly poor CGI.

Despite all its flaws I found the film quite watchable--but to say it felt inessential was to put it mildly. To be fair, I don't think it was just the film. Part of it may have been my own changing tastes; my getting older, and feeling more distant from the fantasy, I suppose, a process Richard Rayner described in an article he penned for Esquire about the release of Goldeneye fifteen years ago. I read Rayner's article at the time never believing I'd end up looking at the series with anything like such detachment, but that's where I was by the time Die Another Day came along.

What was more, I found myself increasingly agreeing with those who thought the franchise had been just going through the motions, plugging new factors into an old formula for a very long time, with more or less cleverness and skill, but little innovation. In fact, I was not particularly disappointed to hear the film series wouldn't continue in the same vein.


The End of James Bond? (Continued)

Still, I wasn't terribly intrigued by the idea of the "reboot" that was discussed some time afterward. I'm not big on remakes in general. Additionally, the truth is that the Bond series had already been overhauled any number of times, with the departure and arrival of new stars; with the need to recover from periodic commercial disappointments like The Man With The Golden Gun and Licence to Kill; and sometimes, simply in response to a drift too far in a given direction, even when the film had been commercially successful (as with Moonraker, a big money-maker that some felt was just too bloated and silly--much like Die Another Day).

That feeling didn't change as I found out more about the project, starting with its use of Fleming's Casino Royale. I was familiar with the novel, which I knew would not be easily fleshed out into a satisfying full-length action movie. I should also admit to having a bit of loyalty to the 1967 comedic version of the book produced by Charles K. Feldman. (It doesn't have a particularly good reputation, and I didn't think it was particularly good the first time I saw it for myself, but it grew on me during repeat viewings. By the fourth time I saw it, I thought it was a work of staggering genius.14)

The efforts of the publicists didn't help. They said there would be a return to the original concept, to a more realistic, darker story--but such statements are so routine in the promotion of remakes, reboots and the like as to be nearly meaningless. Besides, while I've enjoyed grounded efforts like 1963's From Russia With Love and For Your Eyes Only, a big part of what appealed to me about the Bond movies was the extravagant, over-the-top villains, plots, sets and action sequences that were more a part of the movies than the novels that inspired them (though Fleming certainly provided a good deal of the inspiration for it), and the distance of the whole from grim political reality, retro as all this may be.

I was--and still am--irritated that terms like "dark" and "gritty" are so often taken to be terms of praise, rather than descriptors, as if no other tone is even worth attempting. (I wonder at times if we as a culture haven't become so intellectually stunted and emotionally impoverished that things actually seem that way.)

And anyway, wasn't the darker, grittier approach a big part of what turned people off the series during Timothy Dalton's tenure in its lead role?

I also had my reservations about the casting of Daniel Craig as 007. I hadn't even heard of him at the time of the announcement. After I had (and realized that I'd seen him before in movies, like the 2001 Lara Croft, during which he'd barely registered, let alone seemed Bond-like) I wondered if, far from a return to roots, the idea wasn't to go as far away from the previous image as possible, simply for the sake of being different.

Still, I think I was fair-minded as I approached the 2006 film, and it's probably best to distinguish between my take on Casino as a Bond movie, and as a movie pure and simple.

To be honest, I didn't like the idea of an origin story for 007. Part of Bond's appeal is his appearance of being a superman living in a perpetual now, while still possessing a certain amount of mystery. To see him unpolished, rough around the edges, figuring things out, even hapless and hopeless (as he was at the end of his duel of wits with Le Chiffre), is not conducive to that. (Indeed, Ian Fleming himself didn't think much about Bond's past. He only invented one to round out the obituary in You Only Live Twice (1964).)

The update of the rather thin original novel didn't impress me on the level of plot either, even given the intrinsic difficulties of the source material. The stuff about terrorism was not just muddled, but a very poor contextual substitute for the Cold War game of this particular novel, and the Bond series in general. The blandness of the villain, whose characterization consisted mainly of a bleeding eye and an inhaler, didn't help. Additionally, while the film supposedly downplayed the gadgets (Q makes no appearance), the defibrillator in the car seemed awfully convenient to me.

More importantly, not only did the series seem increasingly ironic in the presentation of Bond's adventures; it was looking apologetic and even repentant, the discomfort with Bond's self-indulgences hitting a new peak. Not only was it the case that the traditional silhouetted women were left out of the opening credits, but the casual dalliances that were a routine feature of the old films were left out too, as were the bevies of beauties that had still less of a role in the story, but certainly contributed to the atmosphere. The Bond franchise actually seems to have become prudish about such things compared even with a TV show like Burn Notice (2006-) or Chuck, while film critic Vicky Allan found plenty of reason to write of Bond's own objectification as the culmination of the lengthy "feminization" of the films. (So much for the ultimate male fantasy!)

It seemed all too telling that every woman Bond actually got involved with died--first Solange Dimitrios (after only a very brief appearance), and then Vesper Lynd, this despite the significant alterations to the source material to make Lynd's actions appear more sympathetic (since, for all the talk of returning to the original, her original conceptualization wouldn't do). Before it was the case that Bond was playing a dangerous game in which people near to him--men and women--were at risk and often died (once in a film, and to his regret). Now Bond comes out of the situation looking like either a heartless cad, an outmaneuvered half-wit, or both, as M (who comes off as the most awful nag) shakes her head over yet another addition to the pile of corpses he is quickly accumulating. (Again, so much for male fantasy.)

At this point it hardly seemed worthwhile to wonder over whether Daniel Craig was a satisfactory Bond; I wasn't sure there was much of Bond left for him to portray.

As a plain old action film, I found Casino overlong and unevenly paced. I liked the early chase sequence at the construction site in Madagascar, but didn't think that any of the set pieces that followed it were as engaging (impressive as some of them were, like the chase at Miami airport, and the finale in Venice). I didn't like that Bond spent so much time looking at cell phone displays and computer screens; I suppose the mismatch between his analog heroics and the digital age jarred for me. (I have this problem with the Silicon Valley-soaked adventures of Chuck Bartowski as well.) And what time he didn't spend in an overlengthy IT product placement, he spent at the card table in a cinematic equivalent of a Celebrity Poker tournament.

A quick check of the comments on the Internet Movie Database showed that I was hardly alone in my response; this one was pretty polarizing, some loving it, some hating it, with the latter typically loyal to the older films. (Indeed, checking out the reaction I went through page after page of comments where ratings between one star and eight--out of a possible ten--were few and far between.)

All the same, the film was a big hit (not Thunderball-big, but certainly big enough to satisfy any reasonable commercial expectation), and two years later came Quantum of Solace, which was also a big hit, even if the critics were a bit less enamored of it.15 The new movie picked up right where Casino left off, but it had a good deal more zip than Casino, and an interesting bit of action here and there. It was also surprisingly loyal to the source material on a broad thematic level--one of the themes of Fleming's "Quantum of Solace" having been the corruption of foreign policy by economic interests, and the interference of major powers in the political life of Third World countries out of such motives.16

Still, while I was initially impressed by the film's political consciousness (Dominic Greene, far and away the series's most realistic villain to date, isn't the first to try to seize Bolivia's water supply), and the appearance that the series really was trying to do something different instead of just saying it was, I didn't think it would be reconcilable with the series' dynamics. Though the writing-directing team of Paul Haggis and Marc Forster was more successful in its attempt than I would have guessed (some parts of the script were perfectly on target), the need for a (relatively) happy ending that doesn't change things too much damages the effort's credibility and offers a reminder of at least one reason why it was best not to make the Bond films too relevant--the world's real problems are just not that simple, a point Fleming's original story more faithfully reflects. Simply put, you can have 007, and you can have Syriana, but you can't have the two in a single coherent package.17

It's notable, too, that the movie echoes the Dalton era at its most humorless, and that Bond and Camille Montes never even end up in bed together, an all too-telling first in series history. (Indeed, Olga Kurylenko's turn as Nika Boronina in Hitman the year before seemed more conventionally Bond girl-like.) Meanwhile Strawberry Fields fares no better than Solange Dimitrios in the last film. (This pattern, frankly, strikes me as more misogynistic than anything in the older films, and misandrous and generally misanthropic to boot. Is this a nod to theater of the absurd? Or are they taking a cue from those bad horror movies where an amorous moment is invariably followed by the monster or the killer striking again?)

A Real "Return to Roots?"
As of the end of 2008, the series was a strong financial performer, and seemed to please enough of the audience to promise to go on being that. Still, it hasn't quite found its footing creatively speaking, and the recent delays only increase the doubts about this, I suppose, because the thinking is going in the wrong direction--forward. Instead of continuing to update James Bond, maybe the thing to do is to leave him in the era from which he came; to go retro, as Mike Myers did with his parody of fiction's most famous international man of mystery in Austin Powers. Present 007 as a '60s-era agent in an era when the Cold War wasn't so cold, London was swinging, the romance of the secret agent man was a bit more vibrant, gadgets were pre-digital, and concessions to twenty-first century mores can be sidestepped in the name of "historical realism." (Mad Men did it, after all, and the show seems to be even more closely identified with the glamour of James Bond's original era than Bond himself is now. If the sitcom Community is anything to go by, it even seems Don Draper is being referenced in the way 007 used to be.)

In short, the new movie could be a lot more like the Connery-era Bonds, but with much more up-to-date FX. Call it "atompunk" or "jetpunk."18 Of course, I'm not sure how practical such a direction would actually be for a movie with a nine-figure production budget. Retro science fiction is very popular among genre fans, but really massive mainstream success has proven elusive. (As I have noted time and again, there have been plenty of steampunk-themed movies and television shows--but how many of those have been unqualified successes?19) And at last report, even the plans for a revival of the Matt Helm franchise have it going in the more serious direction of the new Bonds, and the Jason Bourne films which exploded at the box office during the last decade.

I'm not particularly enthusiastic about this idea either, but that's a whole other posting.

1. There was even an outright remake with Never Say Never Again, an update of Thunderball for the 1980s.
2. The Bond films have continued to be imitated, referenced, and parodied well after the '60s course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas identifying Bond as an inspiration behind Indiana Jones, with the tendency continued all the way down through 1994's True Lies, the Austin Powers (1997, 1999, 2002), Spy Kids (2001, 2002, 2003) and Cody Banks (2003, 2004) series, 2002's xXx, 2003's Johnny English, and the ongoing television series Chuck (2007-). However, it's the original '60s-era conception that those involved respond to, rather than any significant innovations since then.
3. The non-EON Bond film Never Say Never Again also followed this trend toward trendiness and topicality, adding a paramilitary touch in the opening sequence with Bond looking like an SAS commando as he participates in the rescue of an ambassador's daughter from a rebel hideout in a jungle; the playing up of the novel's early health spa sequence, more prominent here than in the 1965 film; and the involvement of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in contemporary Cold War and oil politics.
4. While the Bond films rarely featured the Soviets as Bond's primary antagonist (more often he was up against parties attempting to exploit the Cold War situation, like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in From Russia With Live and You Only Live Twice, or Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me), and even a Russian adversary was likely to be a rogue (like General Orlov in Octopussy or Georgi Koslov in The Living Daylights), the Cold War provided a complex, rich context for espionage fiction, for which the last two decades have offered no equivalent.
5. Through the 1950s and 1960s the country retained a good many more bits and pieces of its old empire. For all of the messiness and ugliness of the decolonization process (including the debacle of Suez, and the counterinsurgency campaigns in Kenya and Malaya), Britain was never involved in anything that produced the same sense of crisis as France's experience in Algeria during these years--while Germany was divided, and the European Union was still nascent. (In the earlier part of that period, the European Coal and Steel Community had barely been founded.) There had also been the prospect of the Commonwealth being an independent force in world affairs, and Britain continued to be a global military player of some significance. (It was, after all, just the third country to test a nuclear bomb, and in the 1960s still possessed both an air force with hundreds of strategic bombers, and a blue-water navy complete with full-deck fleet carriers that was regarded as second only to the U.S. in its capacity for "power projection." It also remained active in "keeping the peace east of Suez," demonstrating its capacities for long-range intervention in affairs like the 1963-1966 Konfrontasi with Indonesia.)
By the 1970s this had by and large passed, and since then the tendency has increasingly been to see Britain caught between its "special relationship" with a United States commonly seen as in decline, and its half-hearted participation in an ambiguous, ambivalent European Union dominated by France and an industrially and financially predominant united Germany.
6. Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 42-43. Indeed, in Goldeneye the response was to grossly exaggerate British technical capabilities, conferring on it a network of British spy satellites advanced enough and extensive enough to provide continuous, high-res, real-time coverage of a site in northern Russia, even after one of the craft got fried by an electromagnetic pulse. In reality, Britain had no satellites of the kind.
7. Charles Stross, "Afterword: The Golden Age of Spying." In The Jennifer Morgue (New York: Ace, 2009), pp. 388-389.
8. Perhaps the most striking commentary on that generation gap was the opening scene of 2002's xXx, in which a tuxedo-wearing secret agent is killed outside a metal concert in Prague where he was all too conspicuous.
9. Part of this is the world becoming a smaller place due to changes in transport and media, and the homogenizing effects of modernization. However, there is also the discomfort with how the West has long depicted the Other and the taints of racism and imperialism in old ideas of the exotic. Paradoxically there have also been the backlashes attending wider, larger-scale immigration flows; intensified economic interaction across national boundaries, which has also meant intensified competition and friction; and the increasingly transnational character of problems like organized crime and terrorism. (In a particularly telling example, Aladdin's Baghdad became Agrabah in the Disney movie.)
10. James Cameron recently did it again with the release of his blockbuster Avatar (2009) in 3-D, which compelled
the decision to also release the next Bond film in this format
11. Generally the redefinition went in an antithetical direction, the sophistication and the sexuality comparatively muted. This was especially the case with the blue-collar types of the '80s, brawny, smart enough to do the job but not too polished, and generally one-woman or even no-woman men--like John Rambo (actually seen in a Buddhist monastery at the start of 1988's Rambo III) and John Matrix, and Chuck Norris's James Braddock. Even in True Lies, Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker was a family man who never did more than flirt with Tia Carrere's Juno Skinner, and that only in the line of duty.
Of course, their era has since passed in its turn, Stallone's revival of the Rambo series (2008), and his newer film The Expendables (2010), are exercises in nostalgia, but the broader shift remains, quite evident in the Jason Bourne films (2002, 2004, 2007). As originally written by Robert Ludlum in the 1980 novel and its sequels (1985, 1990), Jason Bourne and Marie St. Jacques were grown-up, worldly, thirtysomething jetsetters, and they were played that way by Richard Chamberlain and Jacqueline Smith in the 1988 miniseries. Matt Damon and Franka Potente, however, come off like a couple of college kids backpacking around Europe.
12. It should be noted that these grosses were earned with much lower budgets than those invested in today's blockbusters. The first Bond film, Dr. No cost $1 million ($7 million after adjustment for inflation). Thunderall cost $5.5 million ($37 million), and You Only Live Twice--the biggest production until the late 1970s--$9.5 million ($60 million). Even Moonraker seems like a bargain today, its $30 million budget coming to about $87 million in today's dollars.
13. Admittedly, the weak performance of Licence to Kill in the American market was the exception, not the rule, the film's earnings in line with the preceding Bond films elsewhere. Additionally, defenders of the film attributed the poor U.S. gross to factors that had nothing to do with the movie's actual quality--such as a choice of title American viewers identified with standing in line at the DMV, a lackluster promotional campaign, and the exceptionally competitive summer season. However, the perception of failure was powerful enough to contribute to the long delay prior to the release of the next, quite different Bond film in 1995, and its scheduling not in the thrill ride-packed summer season, but the more open late fall period, still prestigious, but not so crowded with action movies.
14. Still, I was relieved that Quentin Tarantino would not be involved after all (and was somewhat encouraged by the selection of Martin Campbell, who'd done a good job with Goldeneye, as director, but only somewhat).
Tarantino actually owned the rights at one point, and frankly I've always regarded him as hugely overrated. A favorite line of mine in the film version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People was Sidney Young's put-down of "talentless, pretentious" director Vincent Lepak as thinking that cinema began with Quentin Tarantino. To put it mildly, I'd met many of the type.
15. Casino took in $167 million at the North American box office, a little more than the last Brosnan film in dollar figures, a little less when adjusted for inflation, which got it the #9 spot that year, after Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, X-Men 3: The Last Stand and Superman Returns (though it did somewhat better internationally, besting the two comic book-based movies to be the second-biggest action hit of the year globally).
16. The original short story mostly consists of Bond listening to a tale of marital woe, but the background to it has Bond in the Caribbean again, where he dropped thermite bombs through the ports of two cabin cruisers carrying weapons to Castro (at this point, still a rebel). Bond "hadn't wanted to do the job. If anything, his sympathies were with the rebels, but the Government had a big export program with Cuba" and the deal required the action. Fleming, "Quantum of Solace." In Quantum of Solace: The Complete James Bond Short Stories (New York: Penguin, 2008), p. 80.
17. The limits of the film as a political critique are encapsulated in Hiram Lee's review for the World Socialist Web Site.
18. There have already been some noteworthy examples of such fiction, like Charles Stross's "Missile Gap," and Edward Morris's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." The aesthetic of The Incredibles (2004) reflected such an influence.
19. Sherlock Holmes was a confirmed hit last year, but my guess is that it won't produce a broad enthusiasm for the genre to compare with earlier waves, like the rush of disaster movies seen in the '90s, or the sprawling historical or fantasy epics seen in the past decade.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Review: Matthew Reilly's Jack West Trilogy: Seven Deadly Wonders, The Six Sacred Stones, The Five Greatest Warriors

Seven Deadly Wonders. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 401.

The Six Sacred Stones. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008, pp. 447.

The Five Greatest Warriors. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010, pp. 381.

While this review focuses on Matthew Reilly's last three books, given its focus it seems only fair to start off with a bit of context, taking a look at his earlier work, and what Reilly has said about what he's trying to do in it. In a note at the beginning of the North American edition of Reilly's first novel Contest (1996)1, Reilly notes that it was "a prototype for a different style of book--a superfast-paced, absolutely nonstop thriller . . . It is like a sports car stripped down to its raw components--wheels, frame, engine. No fancy paintwork. No fancy upholstery. Just raw nonstop energy" (ix-x). The results read more like a summer blockbuster, or even a video game, than a conventional novel, and he has since then continued writing in the same spirit, establishing in his next book (and first properly published book) Ice Station (1998) the pattern he would follow through Temple (1999) and Area 7 (2001).

Their basic structure was a secret three-way duel between special-operations forces teams at the remote, exotic, dangerous site named in the title over a mysterious and spectacular "MacGuffin" that plays out in something like near real-time, with a hint of grand conspiracy and paranormal/science fiction plot elements, typically involving historical mysteries and speculative technology. (In Ice Station, the scene was an Antarctic outpost where what may be an alien spacecraft has been discovered under the ice; in Temple, Amazonian ruins containing a rare extraterrestrial metal; in Area 7, a secret base in the American desert southwest.) In particular, those set-ups tend to involve normally friendly actors driven to rivalry by an extreme development. (In Ice Station the American heroes are up against the British and the French in the fight over the spacecraft in a lesson on old-fashioned international relations realism; in Temple, various branches of the American armed forces fight one another in a particularly extreme form of interservice rivalry; while in Area 7, the roster of enemies includes a traitorous American Air Force General taking the rift between "Red" and "Blue" states to its outermost limit.)

And of course, the story is dominated by heavily detailed, spectacular action sequences in which Reilly takes enormous liberties with everything from the performance of weapons systems, to the laws of physics--and of course, with simple logic. In line with action thriller convention, his set pieces presume

* Heroes with the bad luck to keep getting into awful, bloody messes, and the good luck to generally extricate themselves from them in one piece.
* Bad guys who can on demand raise legions of willing cannon fodder utterly unable to shoot straight.
* An indifference to logistics, one expression of which is the tendency of everyone to bring too much firepower along for any job. ("Bring along a rocket launcher to a drive-by shooting? Sure, why not?")
* The propensity of everything to explode in a giant fireball when attacked.
* An affinity for theatricality at the expense of practicality on the part of the principals--as with the villains who insist on explaining themselves before sticking the heroes in overly complicated death traps and stalking off; the propensity of the antagonist to force the protagonist into playing intricate games (if only as cover for some other, more practical objective); and the readiness of so many good guys and bad guys to cast aside the guns and resort to fisticuffs instead.

Many of these scenes take place in hyper-elaborate settings (like the underground base in Area 7) that add greatly to their complexity. The result is that they often run for fifty pages and come with accompanying diagrams, because words alone are not always enough to paint a clear picture of what's happening. In describing them his prose reads in places like a film script, complete with descriptions of screenshots, and in others like a fanboy who has just walked out of such a movie really excited and is breathlessly telling his friend all about what he saw (as is usually the case in the passages ending with exclamation points, of which there are many).

While often straining credulity to and past the breaking point with his plots, Reilly gets credit for not subjecting the reader to rehashes of tired scenarios, and while his development of them is often extravagantly over the top, many of them actually contain the germ of an intriguing idea or two. Reilly also tends to steer clear of the nationalistic chest-thumping, xenophobic appeals and political propagandizing that unfortunately characterize so much action-thriller writing (which would, perhaps, be a liability in a writer from such a small home market as Australia, and so more dependent on appealing to an international readership).

Additionally, while one may well take Reilly to task for the roughness of his prose, the slighting of character development, and the preposterousness of much of the action, it is still striking that he can come so close to bringing the feel of a summer blockbuster to a work of print fiction, which he does most of the time.

Reilly refers to these early novels as "Matthew Reilly 1.0," in contrast with "Matthew Reilly 2.0," which began with his novel Scarecrow, featuring the star of Ice Station and Area 7, Marine Recon Captain Matthew Schofield. While retaining the pacing, action sequences and essential plot elements of the previous books (conspiracies, science fiction-al touches), they offer more intricate plots, globe-trotting sequences of events that take his heroes from one exotic place to another, and (somewhat) more developed characterization.

Reilly's Jack West, Jr. trilogy--Seven Deadly Wonders (originally, Seven Ancient Wonders), The Six Sacred Stones and The Five Greatest Warriors--continues in this "2.0" framework, featuring the new, titular character. Like Shane Schofield, West is a long-serving special operations forces officer (Australian Special Air Service) with striking, visible battle scars (he has a titanium arm), and abilities bordering on the superhuman. As in the "Scarecrow" novel Area 7, a special child is central to the plotline.

Additionally, as in Temple, archaeological adventure is blended with international intrigue, but in his new globe-trotting style. His approach to this is much more Clive Cussler than Dan Brown (to whom he tips his hat more than once, not least in his protagonists' own visit to the Louvre in Six Sacred Stones), though he outdoes even Cussler in his conceptual audacity (and especially unlike Brown, it helps that he never means for us to take him seriously), cobbling a full-blown mythology centered on the famed seven wonders of the ancient world (the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria) out of Masonic and other occult conspiracy theories, and packing each of these books with enough archaeological surprises for a half dozen Dirk Pitt novels.

Specifically it turns out that those archaeological wonders include key pieces of a mysterious mechanism which offers the only way of averting an imminent, astronomical, extinction-level catastrophe--which will also confer enormous power on the party that completes the procedure. The United States and the European Union became rivals in resolving the mystery, and acquiring and using the lost treasures, while a club of small countries gets together to enter the fray as a third force. (Accordingly West leads not an Australian team, but a multinational one. Consisting mostly of operatives from English-speaking ex-British colonies-besides Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and Jamaica are represented-it also counts in its membership a Spaniard and a special forces soldier from the United Arab Emirates, with an Israeli operative joining in soon after.) As the narrative proceeds, still other actors enter the fray, on the side of one of the three initial competitors, or striking out for themselves.

Together the three books make up far and away the largest and most complex of Reilly's adventures. Additionally, the characterization is somewhat more developed than in any of Reilly's previous books, aspects of West's past figuring into the plot, from the origin of his handy bionic arm, to his long-running struggle with a father and brother on the opposite side of the conflict, and his own fatherly relationship toward young Lily, developed in surprising depth and even having its tender moments.

Nonetheless, despite the more personal bits, and many long stretches of dialogue in which the protagonists attempt to unravel the central mystery, the novels retain the impressive pace of the earlier books, and may even be considered Reilly's most video game-like to date. Much of the narrative has his heroes moving from one booby-trapped maze to another, getting there just in time to get into a firefight with a competitor already there, or arriving just after they did. Still, Reilly offers enough variety in the settings and the action sequences to keep the pattern from feeling tiresomely repetitive in the way it easily could have been. (Journeying far beyond the list of seven sites, the incidents range from museum capers to rescues of captured comrades held in secret prisons on top of the tomb-raiding.)

However, even as Reilly manages to periodically top himself in the grandeur and audacity of the action sequences, he does still overreach from time to time, most problematically at the start of Seven Deadly Wonders. Even by Reilly's standards it's a tough read, and I almost didn't get past it. Despite the improved characterizations, the romance between West and his teammate Zoe Kissane is more thinly than subtly developed, and it may have been inevitable that such a large and diverse cast of (mostly) one-dimensional characters caught up in wildly over-the-top situations will contain much that is ridiculous, and even offensive. (While it was far from the only instance where this happened, I wondered what to make of the preposterous subplot in which the "Blood Brotherhood" attempted to insure that the catastrophe would in fact take place and destroy the world.)

The transitions from one book to the next are also problematic. Seven Deadly Wonders seems to conclude satisfactorily in itself, and the ritual reversing West's accomplishment that marks the start of Six Sacred Stones felt like an excuse to serve up more of this brand adventure rather than a natural continuation of it. Additionally, the resolution of the cliffhanger with which Six Sacred Stones ends (in the opening of Five Greatest Warriors) seems rather pedestrian. Readers hoping to get at the bigger mystery--who created this puzzle in the first place?--will be disappointed by the conclusion at the end of that last book.

Reflecting on these works it is easy for me to understand how many readers can be put off by them, but I found much to enjoy in them all the same. And for all their compromises and flaws I would go so far as to say that Reilly's novels have not only been a breath of fresh air for the action-adventure/international thriller genre, but are well worth examination by students of prose style who would ordinarily turn their noses up at popular fiction precisely because of the lengths to which Reilly goes in fitting the form to the content.

1. The bibliographic data preceding the body of the article apart, I'm using the original dates of publication, which tend to be a year earlier than the date of North American publication.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Culture, by Patrick Anderson

New York: Random House, 2007, pp. 288.

As Washington Post book reviewer Patrick Anderson notes at the start of his book, the bestseller lists of the '50s and '60s were dominated by historical epics, family sagas and the lifestyles of the rich and famous--the exotic, the sweeping, the glamorous. Books like James Michener and Harold Robbins and James Clavell used to write, for instance. Thrillers were certainly present, of course, but are comparatively much more prominent now, gone from being a category to arguably defining the mainstream (along with romances, one ought to note, given that these seem to be an even bigger business).

When I first started going through it I found the book a disappointment, for two principal reasons. The first is that the title implied a portrait of the transformation of American culture (or at least of publishing) during the past half-century. The broad cultural history, the sociology--they just aren't there.

The second is that Anderson's discussion of the thriller struck me as overly narrow. While the title is something of a misnomer, the book lives up only too fully to the implication in the subtitle, specifically in its focus on crime fiction, the only branch of the thriller that gets anything like comprehensive treatment. By contrast, spy novels, legal thrillers and military "techno-thrillers" (a term Anderson himself coined in a 1988 New York Times Magazine article on Tom Clancy) each get a bit of patchy attention, and many other subgenres--such as the Michael Crichton-style scientific thriller, the Robin Cook-style medical thriller, and with few exceptions, the action-adventure thriller (let alone anything more likely to be labeled speculative fiction, though it very regularly operates in the thriller mode)--are all but ignored.

Additionally, particularly after the introductory discussion of the genre's history from Poe to noir (the first four chapters or so), Anderson's personal likes and dislikes increasingly dominate the bulk of the narrative. (Anderson, quite up-front about this, identifies his tastes as middlebrow, though it should be noted that his preference--to go by what he praises--is specifically for stylishly written, character-oriented fiction, with a tone of either gritty realism or dark zaniness. By highbrow what he is referring to is Pynchonian lit crit-theory sorts of stuff.)

The letdown was, admittedly, a bit personal. Back when I read many more thrillers than I do now (and certainly more thrillers not readily categorized as science fiction), I never took much interest in crime fiction. I was much more attracted to action thrillers, and stories of international intrigue, and particularly to authors who combined the two--like Clive Cussler, for instance, or the techno-thriller writers I discussed in my article in The Internet Review of Science Fiction last year. Portraits of mean streets, neo-noir, the latest iteration of Jack the Ripper, cops in police stations and pathologists in morgues--these things had little fascination for me, certainly next to the spectacular action, exotic settings, cool toys, and giant plots of the Cusslers and Clancys and the rest. A bit later, I found myself drawn to the international thrillers of the '70s, less heavy on action and high-tech, but which I enjoyed for their political savvy and jet set flair (and in my favorite of these authors, Trevanian, his hugely underappreciated penchant for satire).

Nonetheless, Triumph did give me an introduction to a fair bit of pop culture history I knew only dimly, and a good many authors I knew nothing about. (And admittedly, the truth is that Anderson's tastes are far more in line with the thriller market than mine, his distaste for James Patterson, Patricia Cornwell and a few other Big Names aside, so that his history of the field is more representative than one reflecting my own preferences would be.) There is a lot of summary of key works here, but Anderson's writing is always lucid, brisk and highly readable.

Additionally, when doing more than retelling stories, Anderson is an astute critic, quite conscious of the silliness of so much thriller convention (the detectives whose brilliant deductions are just a combination of the obvious with wild guess disguised as intuitive leaps; the routine involvement of P.I.s in murder investigations), and also of genre politics (Anderson commenting on the challenges confronting a would-be liberal thriller writer). By and large, his criticism is also persuasive, at least where I've been in a position to judge the works in question for myself. Clancy, while recognized by Anderson for his research, large-scale plots and over time, somewhat improved prose, is taken to task for beating his readers over the head with his politics in books that were increasingly "too long, too preachy, too jingoistic, and sometimes just too silly," as well as too repetitive in its observations and expressions ("not since Chandler has [a major American writer] . . . been in such urgent need of an editor"); his tendency to present foreigners and villains as crude, propagandistic--even racist--caricatures, a point highlighted by the epithets his heroes casually toss off (which shameless pandering to prejudice drew yet another comparison to Chandler); and his "efforts to be hip," which "are a wonder" (as he says in a rather funny response to a rather anachronistic exchange in 2003's Teeth of the Tiger). Anderson also has a good eye for interesting, relevant trivia (seeing in the success of Patterson, a highly successful adman, the embodiment of "the belief that you can sell books the way you sell dog food").

The result is that rather than the epic history promised, the reader gets a number of sketches of major authors out of thriller history inside a hodgepodge of observations and comments, which offered just enough of interest to have been worth my while in the end.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Mad Men: My Two Cents

Earlier, while taking a look at SyFy Channel's first year in my July 20 posting on that matter, I said I'd get in my two cents on the admittedly off-topic subject of Mad Men.

I haven't actually seen all that much of the show (which at the time of this writing is settling into its fourth reason). In fact I made a point of ignoring it for quite a while.

I had my reasons.

Frankly, I was annoyed that AMC was adding yet another original program to its line-up. (What ever happened to the Classic Movies that were supposed to be running on American Classic Movies?)

I was annoyed by the idea of yet another TV show about an ad agency. Simply put, it seemed to me like just more of the media's solipsistic obsession with (or perhaps, utter ignorance of anything outside of) itself--most conspicuous in the abundance of TV shows and movies about people making TV shows and movies, for instance, but also extending to the abundance of TV shows and movies about people in the ad business. While I do not suggest that such works are inherently uninteresting, very few say anything worthwhile about a subject which is, if anything, overexposed, or use their premise as a starting point for an investigation of something more compelling.

I was annoyed by the near-unanimous critical praise, which always makes me skeptical, especially when it's being lavished on an original cable drama--as this has come to seem to me a good sign the thing being praised is wildly overrated. (That's certainly how I felt about The Sopranos, which the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, just happened to have worked on. The Saturday Night Live sketch which presented a commercial parodying the critics' breathless anticipation of the show's season two premiere was only too accurate in its take on the hype.)

I was especially annoyed that even as I kept hearing about it, it was hard to tell from the praise just what made it "the best show on television," or even just good watching (which is exactly the kind of thing that reinforces my skepticism). As far as I could tell, the characters smoked and drank in it. They engaged in sexual banter. They wore stylish retro clothes and sat in stylishly retro rooms, evocative of a time when hotel stays and airline flights seemed more glamorous.

Was that all, though? It didn't seem like much--and certainly, nothing we couldn't have got out of the old movies the channel was supposed to be running in the first place.

The pop cultural attention seemed all the more disproportionate given that not very many people were actually watching the show, so that any "impact" it had, regardless of quality, was presumably among the actual residents of TV land (other Hollywood people, critics and the like), rather than the broader viewing audience. Personally I've never regarded popularity as proof of quality, but that a show is actually seen seems a prerequisite to, for instance, declaring its protagonist (Don Draper) the most influential man in the world in 2009 (a declaration that instantly got a 700 comment-long thread going, one riddled with the words of the ridiculous, the disgusting, the just plain stupid and even the legally actionable).

Nonetheless, I eventually gave in and watched some of it. Most of the episodes I saw were from season two.

I saw that the show does indeed do a lot of the superficial stuff well. It is interesting to look at the period sans Technicolor and the old Production Code. But as for story, the show's focus in those season two episodes seemed to be on Don Draper's wife acting out in reaction to his philandering.

What's new here? I wondered. What's special? What merits all the gushing praise?

It all seemed familiar, run-of-the-mill stuff, and rather slow too. Not dull exactly--just slow. Contrary to what all the celebrants said, it didn't seem to be the "good" slow that sometimes (though not always) marks substantive storytelling--just the bad slow where everything's drawn out because NOTHING'S HAPPENING.

Yes, Draper's mysterious past means a bit of extra complexity. Of course, that could be the point--the dark things hidden under the glossy surface, the packaging of ourselves the way we package products to make ourselves acceptable to the world. (How many times an hour do career counselors tell those they advise to "sell themselves," apparently oblivious to the undertone of these words?) Still, I'm not sure the show geled for me as a treatment of this theme. At least where Draper's not actually being Draper is concerned, the story seems more like soap opera-style outlandishness than anything else, at odds with just about everything else in the drama--as if the writers themselves find their premise so limited that they have to go to extremes to find a compelling twist.

I caught some of season three as well, which seemed like more of the same. The episodes had a bit more zip, but they weren't much more substantial. The storyline about a British takeover of the firm in particular annoyed me with its anachronism (especially given the endless praise for the show's meticulous recreation of the past). The show is set in 1963 after all, and foreign direct investment in the U.S. was comparatively infinitesimal, that sort of multinational corporate activity virtually an American monopoly at the time. Additionally, FDI in the tertiary, service sector was a much smaller share of the whole back then than it is today. Indeed, assuming the Leo Burnett agency really is one of the show's inspirations, it's worth noting that the company didn't become a foreign property until the turn of the twenty-first century. So it really seems like a matter of reading today into the past, and no, I don't buy the New Historicist line that that's the only thing we ever do.

Again, it occurred to me that the writers were having trouble coming up with ideas.

Still, Mark Greif's take on the show in the London Review of Books has since struck me as more compelling, and certainly more substantive, than any of the others I've come across (though admittedly Amanda Marcotte's more favorable piece for The American Prospect contained some interesting ideas).

As Greif puts it, the show's all about "Now We Know Better," with a veneer of "Doesn’t That Look Good"--which is to say less-than-perfectly-honest self-congratulation about how much more enlightened, how much healthier and less bigoted we are now than fifty years ago, combined with a guilty pleasure in how much fun that yesteryear was for members of the more privileged groups. ("The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children!" as Greif put it. Admittedly, they're good for a laugh every once in a while, like the roomful of smoking, coughing tobacco executives in the series premiere.)

Of course, this too is common enough stuff. Most history's self-congratulatory, after all; it's the more evenhanded stuff, the more critical stuff that's the exception. And this certainly carries over to historical fiction, which tends to rely on a touch of "Doesn't That Look Good" anyway, especially when examining past eras easily deplored for their mores--which I suppose is just about all of them. The particular appeal of Mad Men may be the degree to which it plays up that combo, and its setting them in a time and place much nearer to our own, much more familiar, and more directly relevant (it's the 1960s rather than the Regency era or ancient Rome, for instance, that living people still remember and which remain meaning-laden reference points in our culture wars) in a sleek package. This was then parlayed, through outstanding publicity, into a bandwagon feedback loop which has people saying this is the best show on TV because people are saying it's the best show on TV.

That sounds to me like exactly the kind of thing this advertising-themed show could explore, but like a good many other things, probably won't.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling

New York: Del Rey Books, 2009, pp. 304.

"Caryatid" is a term from Greek architecture referring to supporting columns sculpted in the shape of women. Like those stone women, the principal characters of Sterling's novel are expected by Balkan war criminal and "mad scientist" Yelisaveta Mihajlovic--who has closed them from himself and raised them in a bunker on the Adriatic isle of Mljet--to bear up the weight of a world ridden with ecological crisis. There were seven sisters originally; four of these remain, namely Vera, Radmila, Sonja and Biserka.

The novel is structured around three roughly contemporaneous stories involving them, capped off by an epilogue, AND an afterword giving us still other views of them, all structured to give us strategic glimpses of key forces around the world in the 2060s. There is Vera among the Aquis, a sort of supersized, ultra-high tech ecological NGO (worldwide, but with its base in Europe), Radmila among the media-capitalists of the Dispensation (headquartered in Los Angeles), and Sonja on the fringes of the enduring nation-state of China, the last on Earth to really count for anything (and which has gone beyond totalitarian to "ubiquitous" in reasserting its power), while Biserka, a nihilistic terrorist, crops up here and there.

There isn't much in the way of plot. Of course, Sterling generally doesn't offer tightly plotted stories traveling along clear arcs. However, this time around the rather scattered storytelling results in a particular disjointedness that one of Sterling's characters actually comments on herself in the afterword. And at the end of it all, none of it seems to have mattered very much--less in the sense of the project that created the sisters being a failure (as it could only have been; how could the Caryatids have possibly done the job asked of them?) than in its becoming irrelevant as the world moves on. So there we are on page two hundred and ninety-five with a piece of future-oriented science fiction dismissing future-oriented science fiction except as a matter of "telling stories," in what can easily be taken for a cop-out at the end of the long, meandering journey--as well as a dismissal of the catastrophe he spent so much time describing since we just somehow got out of it.

Not that we haven't seen this before in Sterling's work. Like his short story "The Sword of Damocles" (perhaps the one I enjoyed least) The Caryatids plays the familiar po-mo game of telling a story by finding ever-more elaborate ways of telling us that it can't tell the story, not really. Admittedly this approach has its merits where the apocalyptic is concerned (as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated in Slaughterhouse-Five over four decades ago). Nonetheless, po-mo is all too often a rationalization of evasion, and even an excuse for sloppiness, which we do see a surprising bit of here at the sentence-level. The stylistic excesses common to '80s cyberpunk--the sentences heavily freighted with flashy sciency-techie jargon and neologisms, the emphasis on description that is at once image-dense and oblique (which irritated me to no end when I first started reading it; early on I mentally compared it to reading Ezra Pound in neon lights)--can be exhilarating when done well. There are times when it works here, but the necessary editing has fallen short, a point particularly evident in the tendency to repeat a key detail within the space of a few pages.

As much of an issue as the manner of the telling are the intellectual tools that po-mo offers. Sterling has long drawn on a blend of two particular strains of postmodern thought--the corporate-globalizing, libertarian, "New Economy" outlook of Wired magazine and the Davos World Economic Forum, and the "linguistic turn"-shaped approach to cultural studies fashionable on university campuses in recent decades. It's a rare combination, but a natural one, given the underappreciated commonalities between them. Alas, neither has much to offer that's of real use in dealing with the book's central problem, with the result that there is more dancing around and dismissal of the problem of climate change than genuine grappling with it. Some interesting ideas do crop up here and there along the way, and the book is never dull, but as a statement "of faith in the power of human intellect, creativity and spirit to overcome any obstacle" promised in the blurb on the jacket, let alone a treatment of this particular subject, The Caryatids is underwhelming.

The SyFy Channel: Year One

It has been over a year since the Sci-Fi Channel rebranded itself The Syfy Channel. (The changeover, about which I had plenty to say last year, happened on Tuesday July 7, 2009.) The new direction appears to be simply more of the same-which is to say, more of the channel giving science fiction fans the finger.

Of course, fans had cause for complaint a long time before that, particularly regarding the original programming. Entertainment Weekly in fact carried an open letter back in January 2008 lamenting the lack of quality content.

The letter's author, Marc Bernardin, asked simply why in this "Age of the Geek, where pop culture has finally come around to our way of thinking," when the audience could not be more primed for material like television adaptations of "the Foundation saga, or Ender’s Game, or Footfall, or The Man in the High Castle, or The Forever War" the channel is not so awesome, instead "offering them Ghost Hunters International and crappy 'original movies' like Mansquito?"

Bernardin's complaints in the letter are a milder version of sentiments that seem unanimous among those who haunt the channel's comments pages, not that the network pays them any heed--perhaps even taking the disapproval as a sign that it's on the right track and should stay the course.

After all, I've long been giving two answers to questions like Bernardin asked. The first is that it is easy to make too much of the "Age of the Geek," the hardcore audience for quality speculative material remaining comparatively limited—so much so that the life of science fiction shows on network television is almost always short and tenuous.

In short, geeks are still not regarded as an attractive market by broadcasters.

The second reason is that just about every other cable channel has long since abandoned the occupation of a niche to pursue a bigger audience--generally by straying wildly from its ostensible specialty, and typically through the cheapest (and most synergistic) programming possible. The History Channel, for instance, is now largely devoted to pop science shows that may "pass" as natural history but would really be more at home on the Discovery Channel, disaster porn, documentaries about the paranormal (e.g. UFOs, cryptozoology and apocalyptic prophecies), Masonic conspiracies, and reality television about pawn brokers and the like (the slogan being "History Made Everyday"). American Movie Classics (or AMC) no longer runs old movies, just the same stuff you might catch on FX, USA, TNT and the rest of the basic cable line-up, while prominently featuring an original TV show that looks like the movies it used to run-the costume drama Mad Men (the big draw of which seems to be the chance to laugh at how crassly bigoted and unhealthily self-indulgent people used to be, while envying them for it--more on which in a future posting).

Since-again-geeks are not a highly sought after market (perhaps because of their intelligence as well as their small numbers), SyFy was particularly quick to do this. The most obvious sign of the shift was a turn to reality programming such as Bernardin mentioned--by definition, something the channel should have had nothing to do with. It's been over a decade since the channel brought on Crossing Over With John Edwards (yes, it actually premiered way back in 1999) and the hidden camera show Scare Tactics (2003-). Unfortunately, the trend only accelerated, so that the channel gave over many of its Tuesdays to such programming (as well as wrestling, which in its current incarnation at ten P.M. enjoys by far the most stable slot in the whole line-up), while fully devoting its Wednesdays to Ghost Hunters and spin-offs and variations thereof.

Additionally, while there has long been a tilt toward the formulaic in the channel's movies-of-the-week, the variety on offer has shrunk, and low-grade horror (e.g. Mansquito) has been grossly overrepresented in the resulting mix. (I thought at first that my not being a horror fan made the genre seem irritatingly ubiquitous. The enormous number of hours devoted to frequent reruns of lengthy miniseries based on Stephen King properties--like The Stand, or The Langoliers--for instance, are a particular pet peeve of mine (as are the numerous hours also devoted to movies about serial killers, psycho killers and the like, their thematic appropriateness shaky given that they contain no actual speculative element at all). However, clearly it has occurred to others because the question "Why so much horror on SyFy?" actually appears as number five on the channel's FAQ. The not-terribly-informative answer is an acknowledgement that "there is a lot of horror programming on Syfy," though they also "try to maintain a balance between sci-fi, fantasy and horror in order to present a wide variety of programs in these related genres.")

The monster movie, particularly the kind where something in the woods or the water menaces a small town, the kind where mad and bad scientists get killed by creatures they have created or unleashed or pursued and couples are attacked during intimate moments, is the principal staple--and of these it suffices to say that the sequels to Anaconda aired here (parts three and four in 2008 and 2009) actually make the 1997 original look like a masterpiece by comparison. Occasionally there's a spin on the material, the writers bumping the monster to a more exotic setting--perhaps a historical one, as with 2008's Warbirds--or combining it with a different plot--for instance, an archaeological mystery, as in 2007's Sands of Oblivion, or 2008's Monster Ark. Nonetheless, it comes to the same thing in the end, most of the time.

Less common, but certainly conspicuous among the offerings are disaster films where earnest scientists are earnestly trying to persuade earnest government and military officials to earnestly DO SOMETHING, and/or disparate strangers suddenly come together to confront a common danger and all end up being better people for it--like 2006's Earthstorm, or oft-rerun miniseries like 10.5: Apocalypse (alas, a far cry from the real-life responses we've seen to events like Katrina).

Every once in a while we get an effort to do something more (Rafael Jordan penning a fair number of these, like 2009's The Immortal Voyage of Captain Drake). Nonetheless, such exceptions are just that, exceptions, and even the big "event" miniseries reflected the same tilt toward simpler material these past several years--5ive Days to Midnight (2004), The Triangle (2005) and The Lost Room (2006) rather than the two miniseries based on Frank Herbert's Dune novels (2000's Dune and 2003's Children of Dune), which seem to have represented the channel's high-water mark.

Now? The ubiquitous Ghost Hunters are moving from dominating Wednesday nights to a good many daytime line-ups as well, with the channel's marathons of reruns during weekdays, and even holidays (like the Halloween marathon last year)--some channel executive obviously thinking that every day should be Ghost Hunter's day (as opposed to absolutely no days, as many viewers would prefer). Thursday too is being given over to reality television as well with Mary Knows Best, and Fact or Faked--still more airtime given over to the daily life of a family of shameless nit-wits, and to people talking about videos they found on the Internet, respectively.

Meanwhile, the channel increasingly revels in with self-consciously bad offerings like MegaPiranha (2010) (apparently intended to top last year's MegaShark vs. Giant Octopus), and the channel's more recent "Become a B-Movie Mogul" gimmick. There is, too, the heavy reliance on the output of Asylum Films--the primary audience for which seems to be, apart from those who seek out Kickpuncher-style risibility, video buyers and renters who confuse their titles with those of the better films they're ripping off. ("Was it Transformers, or Transmorphers? I always get those two confused!")

The latest miniseries have not fared much better. The recent takes on Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld (which struck me as less intriguing and epic than the two-hour pilot the channel presented but never followed up seven years ago, despite a couple of interesting twists) and classic comic strip hero The Phantom (disappointingly flat) seem to represent the current standard.

There has been a similar (if subtler) reorientation in the dwindling number of dramatic series on offer, away from the risky choices occasionally seen in past years (a show like Lexx or perhaps even Farscape would today be unthinkable) toward safer bets; from exotic (e.g. futuristic or otherworldly) settings, mind-bending concepts and large-scale, epic storytelling to "everyday," contemporary milieus, and conceptually lighter fare intended not to win deep loyalty from sophisticated SFTV viewers, but to attract as much of a more general audience as it possibly can. (In short, Syfy seems to make its choices more like the major networks do.)

For the time being let's set aside the British imports on which the channel has increasingly relied like Dr. Who and Primeval (as the channel really doesn't have much to do with them, and often isn't even the first to air them in the U.S. market), and the deservedly short-lived Outer Space Astronauts (every bit as cheap as it looks). The two most conventionally "science fiction-al" series are of course Stargate: Universe, and Caprica, but both reflect the pattern. Each is a spin-off of well-established franchises Sci-Fi/Syfy has run successfully in the recent past, and go on treading a well-beaten path (even when it's a different well-beaten path).

When I first heard about SGU my first thought was of Star Trek: Voyager. When I first saw the promotions, I changed my mind--in contrast with the two earlier series, which hewed as closely to Star Trek-style conventions as any television space opera I can remember--likely the reason why the Stargate franchise came closest to Star Trek in terms of durability and popularity--the Stargate concept was being redone as "Galactica Lite."

I don't think I was far off the mark there. The basic similarity in the setup aside, the episodes focus on the protagonists' grim struggle to survive, the tensions among the ship's dominant factions and personalities, and the baggage of the central characters, which is so heavy that it often feels like the writers are just piling it on in the name of Drama. This is all the more problematic as few of the characters are really compelling, which was also a frequent problem with BSG (where the writers often seemed to confuse simply unlikable with complex).

Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) never becomes more than a raving, bullying egomaniac, the attempts to show "another side" to him never quite geling while at the same time the attempts to draw the viewer into his obsession--arguably key to making the character really work--fall flat. (And frankly, isn't it sad that the anti-intellectual xenophobia implicit in making the "mad" scientist a foreigner remains so strong? Then again, I suppose a working-class Scot is less of a cliché than a contender for the "Upper Class Twit of the Year" Award, or worse still, a Central European with a thick accent.) The stereotyped geekiness of Eli Wallace (David Blue) comes across as a patronizing attempt to pander to what SyFy chiefs visualize as their justifiably disgruntled "traditional" audience. Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith) is a wimp and a nut and a jerk. His hold on the affections of not one but two women who appear as stable as anyone else in this interstellar mental hospital--Elyse Levesque's Chloe Armstrong and Julia Benson's underutilized Vanessa James (recently recognized by a Leo Award and one of the few genuinely sympathetic characters in the group)--seems utterly incomprehensible.

Ming-Na said in early interviews that her character Camille Wray might well prove to be the bane of the series for many a viewer. In this company Camille would have to try a lot harder to accomplish that.

Additionally, there can be only so many episodes about someone trying to take over the ship, a trope that was wearing thin by the end of Galactica, and has already been heavily used here. (I'd hate to think the show will go in the same direction as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, in which just about every possible spin on this was tried, including leprechauns and giant alien brains. But I can't rule it out at this time.)

Still, the writers get more out of their premise than might be expected, supplying a number of entertaining (if not always plausible) plot twists, starting with the way they got Wallace on the ship in the first place. Dr. Rush's games with the rest of the crew proved cleverer and more engaging than I'd expected. While I'm still waiting for the show which will handle the body-switch trope with the wit the great Robert Sheckley managed a full half-century ago in classics like Mindswap, SGU handles this part of its situation with comparative intelligence, getting more than the usual cheap laughs out of it. And while I admit to missing the Golden Age galactic empire fun of English-speaking aliens played by actors in rubber masks and giant space battles (after the pilot episode, we never see one until the second half of season 1), the show takes a more nuanced approach to its alien encounters, with fair results (legacies from the two previous Stargate shows, like the Lucian Alliance, apart).

It helps too that SGU abandons (or at least downplays) much of what I disliked most about Galactica--its one-dimensional hewing to Frankenstein complex clichés, its mashing of political buttons (especially its clumsy, sensationalist attempts to exploit the "War on Terror" in its storylines), and (with a few exceptions) its nonsensical religious elements. Instead the channel saved those things for the Galactica prequel, Caprica, which is founded completely on those things--starting with a scene of private school uniform-clad teenagers engaged in rather dark play in a virtual-cyberspace setting, right after which we get a religiously-inspired suicide bombing, events that dominate everything which follows. On top of this, it totally chucks the space battles (the thing the show actually did well, even if it only means so much when nothing else is working), going for television's first "science fiction dynastic drama"--a nighttime soap opera where the characters simply happen to call their alcoholic beverages "ambrosia." To its producers' credit the production is slick and stylish, and full of able actors, but I found "Crapica" an irritating waste of time.

Something of that spin-off quality is also part of Sanctuary as well. Not only did it originally air as a web-based series, but it also happens to be largely the work of the same team which made Stargate, most visibly a now dark-haired Amanda Tapping as Dr. Helen Magnus, head of an international organization working to protect (and in cases, contain) mutant Abnormals out of fortress-like "Sanctuary" compounds around the world.

I enjoyed Sanctuary's touch of steampunk, and increasingly, the flexibility with action and setting afforded by the computer-generated imagery, but found it hampered by many a bad script. While sometimes coming up with interesting bits, the writers don't seem to have ever met a cliché they didn't find irresistible, resorting to many particularly overdone ideas very early on--a "we're stranded in a desolate place and one of us is a killer" episode ("The Kush"), the inevitable "underground mutant fight club" episode ("Warriors"), and in season two, a "we meet hardened post-apocalyptic versions of ourselves" episode ("Pavor Nocturnus"). I'm also staggered by how bad some of the acting is. (Robin Dunne is often embarrassingly awful as Dr. Will Zimmermann, and I really don't care for Jonathan Young's Nikola Tesla.)

Still, as stated above, SGU and Caprica (and even Sanctuary) can best be taken as representative of the channel's earlier direction. Sci-Fi, after all, picked up the Stargate franchise back in 2002, the remake of BSG in 2003. By contrast Eureka and Warehouse 13—currently the flagship, launched on the day of the channel's name change—are more strongly reflective of the new thrust.

Echoing parent channel USA's fondness for crime shows, the format common to Eureka and Warehouse 13--and also the new Haven--is as follows: a law enforcement officer stumbles into an out-of-the-way place full of eccentric characters and little mysteries which supply the plots of the episodes. In Eureka, it's Federal Marshall Jack Carter (whose name I suspected was a lazy combination of the names of the leads in Stargate: SG-1) stumbling into the job of sheriff of the Global Dynamics corporation's company town/research center in the Pacific Northwest. In Warehouse 13, it's Secret Service agents Peter Lattimer (Eddie McClintock) and Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly) who stumble into jobs at a secret government archive storing historical artifacts of magical significance (this show's fantasy apparently a foil to Eureka's "hard" science). In Haven it's FBI agent Audrey Parker (Emily Rose) winding up in the town of Haven, Maine, where just about all the locals seem to be touched by the supernatural in one way or another. (Even Sanctuary, with its stronger action-adventure and science fiction elements, follows the pattern, its story starting with forensic psychiatrist Dr. Zimmerman being recruited to the team of the titular base.)

Eureka was the first of the bunch of course. To paraphrase William Gibson, the future has already arrived in the titular town, but just not been distributed beyond its limits, and just about every resident is the would-be hero of their own quirky Edisonade. Given the show's reliance on a notion of technological R & D which was already looking outdated as the Victorian era drew to a close, Eureka is mostly a pile of nonsense. And predictably many of the residents of this "smartest little town" are irritiating--the insufferable Nathan Stark (Ed Quinn), the smug Tess Fontana (Jaime Ray Newman) and Zane Donovan (Niall Matter), the nebbish Douglas Fargo (Neil Grayston). Still, the show does manage the occasional entertaining gimmick, and not all the characters fare so badly. Joe Morton, by this point an old hand at playing science guys, pulls off the friendly mechanic/all-around scientific genius act with aplomb, and Salli-Richardson-Whitfield fares well in her role as Allison Blake. Colin Ferguson is appropriately clueless as Jack Carter, and Jordan Hinson as his daughter Zoe manages to be difficult without being wearying.

The promos for season four hint that the protagonists they've gone back to the '40s for a bit of dieselpunk/atompunk and the stylish noir-swing look and feel that still has a powerful hold on pop culture, which may yet extend such interest as it has (though frankly the show has already done the tweaked timeline thing before).

In Warehouse 13 the principals don't have a town full of characters to play off of, but the artifacts gathered in the titular building instead. Unfortunately the literary and historical allusions are as shallow as they are abundant. The show has been criticized by many as highly derivative of Friday the 13th: The Series, and while I can't comment on that, not having seen a single episode of that '80s-era show, Warehouse certainly does reuse some well-worn plots, some of them recently used by other SyFy Channel originals--as in the recent "Mild Mannered," in which the duo go after a geek whose playing superhero has become a danger to the public (a story Eureka told not long before in "Phased and Confused"). Where the execution is concerned, the goofy sloppiness of episodes like "Magnetism" is rather more common than the inventiveness and depth of "Resonance," and the results are rather forgettable on the whole.

Where the main characters are concerned, what we've got is the same odd couple cop set-up we've all seen a billion times before, complete with a counterstereotype that is by this point just another stereotype (namely the well-worn "twist" that it's the man who's intuitive and the woman who's logical, a combo pulled off more sharply by Mulder and Scully way back when). It doesn't help that Lattimer so often seems oafish--and even just plain dumb--rather than "intuitive." Still, in their favor it can be said that Joanne Kelly displays genuine charm as Myka, the two don't spend their whole time irritating the hell out of each other, and the writing and acting rise to the occasion during the odd couple's periodic moments of human connection, in which there's an actual chemistry and warmth. (Most of the other core cast and characters are all right too, excepting Allison Scagliotti's snarky Claudia Donovan, whose every zinger is a clinker. Personally, I blame the writers.)

The result has so far been watchable in a "turn-your-brain-off" kind of way, but the second season premiere makes me wonder if things will get worse rather than better. While the characters and their relationships acquired a bit more nuance as the series proceeded, little else has, and the Big Surprise--that "H.G. Wells is a woman--and a villain!"--struck me as particularly stupid. (Admittedly I've never been able to work up much interest over "Did Shakespeare really write his plays?"-style authorship games, and my familiarity with Wells' work--I actually devoted a fair chunk of my dissertation to it--may make me overcritical of the lobotomized, just-making-stuff-up way this was all handled. But I can't be the only one who felt this was especially witless.) That the writers seem to be setting Ms. Wells (Jaime Murray) up as not just a recurring character, but a nemesis for the protagonists, strikes me as unpromising indeed.

I have less to say about the newest entry into the line-up, Haven. I'm not familiar with the source material, Steven King's The Colorado Kid (though I'll admit to having been less than thrilled when I first heard that King will get still more air time here). Additionally just two episodes have aired to date, apparently out of order. (The second, "Butterfly," is listed on the Internet Movie Database as the season's third.) However, it appears to be more grounded and less flashy than Eureka or Warehouse 13 (the titular town--yes, I'm using "titular" a lot here, but that does seem to be the pattern--puts me more in mind of Northern Exposure or Picket Fences than Eureka), while also having crisper writing and some darker touches. It also appears to be working its way toward an arc.

In sum, at the end of Year One there is still some entertainment for genre fans, but it's buried in an increasing amount of dross, while the range of product has continued to narrow in favor of more "mainstream" fare (as the course taken from Eureka to Haven demonstrates) at the expense of the sorts of stuff hardcore fans want and reasonably expect from a channel ostensibly devoted to the genre. Airlock Alpha writer Dennis Rayburn recently commented (in response to the decision to bump the original dramas from their longtime Friday night slot in October to make room for channel's real pride and joy, wrestling, when the WWE's Smackdown arrives there),
when SciFi Channel made its famous, (or infamous depending on how you look at it and study it), name change to Syfy, many writers on the Internet predicted that this was the first step toward turning the channel into another USA network and away from the vision that created it. I fear we are seeing it happen, one hour at a time.
Can anyone really dispute that now?

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