Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Review: The Centauri Device, by M. John Harrison

New York: Doubleday Press, 1974, pp. 185.

In M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device, a chaotic twenty-first century saw the Arab-Israeli conflict draw in virtually the whole planet, with an "United Arab Socialist Republic" (UASR) absorbing the Soviet and Chinese blocs, and virtually all of Africa and Asia with them, while an "Israeli World Government" (IWG) assumed control of the Western hemisphere, Western Europe and the Mediterranean littoral, each of these complete with its associated Cold War ideology. These blocs (which by this point are so cosmopolitan that they have ceased to be meaningfully "Arab" or "Israeli" in any sense) promptly extend their conflict into space, all but dividing the galaxy between them.

During that expansion, humanity exterminated the inhabitants of the planet Centauri VII. Following this event a human archaeologist came upon a device the Centauris had been developing before they were wiped out. Its essential function is unknown – some are convinced it is a weapon, others the voice of God, still others a machine capable of forcing people to see reality as it is – but no one doubts its power and significance, which makes it an object of struggle between several parties, including Earth's two governments.

However, it is not enough for them to possess the device itself, as the one thing that is really known about it is that it can only be operated by an actual Centauri. As it happens, space captain John Truck may be that last Centauri (his mother, unbeknownst to him, having been a Centauri survivor of the genocide). This makes Truck also an object of pursuit for all the interested parties, setting the central chase in motion.

As might be expected from this description, Device packs all the essential tropes of the conventional space opera – a planet-hopping journey, starship battles, humanoid alien races, mysterious extraterrestrial artifacts, and galaxy-in-the balance struggles – in what is quite a fast-paced, action-packed story. (Indeed, reading Device I was reminded just how much zip novels often had back when it was possible to publish a "mere" two hundred pager.)

Yet, the book is also remembered as having "ended" the space opera, upsetting all traditional expectations in its use of just about all the genre's conventions. Here humanity is not united inside a scientific world-state, venturing out to the stars in a grand enterprise of exploration (or for that matter, the pageantry of a far-future galactic feudalism). Rather, it is divided against itself in armed-to-the-teeth political factions devoted to ethnic labels and political ideologies that have long since lost all meaning, and far from transcending them in the flight out to space, drags the rest of the galaxy into that stupid, pointless conflict. After all, the species is not the hero, or the victim, in its encounter with extraterrestrials, but the aggressor, the alien invader preying on the rest of the galaxy; far from being the solution to humanity's problems, ideology, cold war and space colonization have done nothing to improve the lot of ordinary people; instead of a shiny, high-tech future, a sense of decrepitude, gritty in the best sense of that horribly overused and abused term, is prevalent throughout the novel; and our cast consists not of scientific geniuses and brave explorers and soldiers, but scheming functionaries and hapless losers knocked around by life. (Indeed, the word "spacer" is virtually a synonym for "loser" in this book.)

John Truck is no exception, neither a square-jawed hero, nor a colorful rogue who can play the hero in a pinch, but just another lowlife who implausibly came into possession of a starship. In the course of the novel he does little more than run away from people he dislikes, "his morals those of a cretin or a small animal" and such courage as he displays "only the courage of desperation" (184), all the way down to the ambiguous, but calamitous finale. Indeed, by the end Truck emerges as an Everyman, the face of a degraded, apathetic, inarticulate, suffering – yet still, very human – humanity.

The Legion of Space, this definitely isn't.

Of course, this cannot appear as radical now as it did at the time of its first publication over thirty-five years ago, and there are all sorts of ways large and small in which the book shows its age as a nearly four decade old New Wave work (its rootedness in the politics of the time, its embrace of the ridiculous in making its not-at-all-ridiculous point, its touches of '70s decadence). Still, Harrison's zany conception of twenty-fourth century Earth and its domain, in its repleteness with memorable touches like starship-flying Pre-Raphaelite anarchists; its searingly bleak landscapes; its vivid sense of what the galaxy (and indeed, history) feels like from the bottom up, which I can compare only with Howard Fast's portrayal of the Roman Empire in his classic Spartacus; its achievement in the creation of the anti-heroic Truck; is not just a major Moment in science fiction history, but a memorable read in itself, fully deserving of its status as a genre classic.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On the Word "Lifestyle"

The great George Carlin, following his troubles with the Federal Communications Commission, offered his own official policy on inappropriate language, in which he satirized many contemporary usages (a bit which can be found in his Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics comedy album).

One of those which stand out in my mind is the word "lifestyle," about which he remarked
you will not hear me refer to anyone's lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word lifestyle is all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense, Attila the Hun had an active, outdoor lifestyle.
Would that we had been more attentive. Far from being put in its place, the word has spread like the fungus it most assuredly is, becoming a meaningless catch-all for any characterization of how anyone--or even any thing--lives. Watching Nature on PBS, for instance, I have seen scientists--apparently intelligent, well-educated individuals, whose first language seemed to be English--refer to birds as having a "lifestyle."

Unsurprisingly, "lifestyle" has made a list of "Words Faculty Say They Don't Want to Read Again, Ever" at the web site of Amherst College's Writing Center, with the qualification "unless you're talking about somebody from Hollywood." (By contrast, the writers of the page continue, it "won't do at all to talk about Plato's exciting lifestyle.")

To the end of clarifying what "lifestyle" is, let us be clear that I am not speaking of the term in the sense in which Adlerian psychology uses it, which is almost never referenced, but the "marketing" sense (also listed in the OED), which has not only become synonymous with the term (as Carlin's example demonstrates), but apparently reshaped our understanding of that broader question of how people live.

That understanding would seem in deep need of correction, given that this usage is not to be regarded as identical with "way of life," which is the characteristic manner of living of a whole culture, something with which this term is often confused. Nor is it the same thing as a "standard of living," or a "quality of life," which are measures of how well or poorly people--groups or individuals--live, with the former a materialistic measure, the latter a more holistic one.

Unlike all these other descriptors, lifestyle can only be a matter of personal, individual choice--something not really operative when one unthinkingly abides by the way of life in which they have been brought up, in a context where other options generally do not exist. Even where such options do exist one must have a certain minimum standard of living and quality of life before they can even begin to have a lifestyle--a certain minimum of affluence, leisure and personal freedom. How much? Enough, at least, to permit their accumulated choices to constitute a "style," and implicitly, to allow them to live "in style," should they so choose. Enough to permit self-examination, self-discovery, self-expression and self-realization to rank high on their lists of concerns (rather than getting their next meal, for instance).

Consequently, animals do not have lifestyles. Nor do members of traditional cultures--Medieval peasants, for instance. (Instead these may be said to have a "way of life.") Children do not have lifestyles. (If any individual's making decisions about how they live, it's their parents.) Nor do the poor. (When one does not even have sufficient food or adequate shelter, "style" of life or anything else is not high on their list of concerns.)

I could go on (think of the above list of people who do not have lifestyles as a minimal guideline), but the thing to remember is that the idea of lifestyle belongs to the modern world, and moreover, is a relevant descriptor only for a comparatively privileged minority on the planet today (such as a "somebody from Hollywood" for whom the Amherst Writing Center's list allows an exception). Our thinking otherwise is a matter of glossing over unpleasant facts about inequality and the shallowness of consumer culture and the treatment of mindless "optimism" as a default intellectual setting; a matter of our readiness to look at the homeless and see Jacobim Mugatu's Derelicte fashion line.

An illustration might help at this point. Consider the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Prior to the current season, the show's protagonist was Charlie Harper, a songwriter and musician who punches no clocks, lives in a Malibu beach house, drives upmarket foreign cars (a Mercedes at one point, a Jaguar at another), and conducts himself in the manner of a "swinging bachelor."

Charlie may be said to have a lifestyle.

His brother Alan, however, is an unsuccessful chiropractor who was ruined financially in first one divorce, and then another. He lives with Charlie because he cannot afford a place of his own, and is single not because he chooses to be, but because women find him unappealing.

Consequently, Alan cannot be said to have a lifestyle. The joke, in fact, is that he doesn't have much of a life.

I do not think the point can be made any clearer than this, and so while I would prefer never to hear the word used ever again, I'd settle for simply seeing and hearing it used with some discretion.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Watching Jeremiah

J. Michael Straczynski's series Jeremiah (2002-2004) is set fifteen years after a plague wiped out virtually all the adults on the planet--in which time the surviving children have since grown up. One of these is the titular character, who originally wandered the United States looking for "Valhalla Sector," the place where his father may have found a refuge. Along with a recent acquaintance named Kurdy, he finds his way to Markus Alexander, another young man, now residing in the remains of the Air Force's Cheyenne Mountain headquarters, who is working toward the rebuilding of the old world.

The show is comparatively obscure now, its profile on the Internet low (as the brevity of the Wikipedia article discussing the series demonstrates). Loosely based on a Belgian comic book of the same name, it is a spin-off from a property all but unknown in the American market, and ran for just two seasons and thirty-five episodes on the cable channel Showtime before its cancellation. It has not been rerun much (the only instance I can think of is the Sci-Fi Channel's airing the series in a four-hour Thursday night block in 2008, after which it broadcast a few daytime marathons), and all these years on Season Two has yet to have a proper release on DVD (though since 2010, Amazon has been manufacturing discs "on demand using DVD-R recordable media"). As a creation of J. Michael Straczynski, it has also been overshadowed by the huge success of Babylon 5, and perhaps, also received less attention than it otherwise might have had due to his departure from TV land for comic books and writing for the big screen (which has recently included work on the past summer's hit Thor, and the upcoming World War Z).

Still, underwhelming as the commercial response has been, I still found it a worthwhile show, enjoying it rather more, in fact, than the other postapocalyptic drama on television in recent years (CBS' Jericho). Granted, there were ways in which it felt like a repetition of Straczynski's earlier work. The show's first season might be unkindly described as a scaled-down (and given its starker setting, stripped-down) Babylon 5, especially in its first season, with Thunder Mountain analogous to the titular space station, and the heroes' conflict with Valhalla Sector to the Shadow War. There were strong echoes of particular episodes, too, Jeremiah's "Man of Iron, Woman Under Glass" reminding me of B 5's "A Late Delivery From Avalon."

Still, the essential material's solid stuff, and on the whole well-executed. Unlike J.J. Abrams' Lost, Jeremiah (like Babylon 5) did not simply string the viewer along, testing their patience past the breaking point, but rather told a story. Additionally, the series did boast a genuinely different cast of characters, and make use of its setting as more than an alternative dressing for the same concept. The show also moved into fresher territory in the second season, which tied up several of its plot threads while leaving enough possibilities for a third, which I for one would have welcomed. However, Straczynski's well-known difficulties with MGM over the show's creative direction, and the turn away from the genre on television (Showtime abandoning its previously heavy investment in science fiction programming at about that time), resulted in the show's ending when it did--a casualty of the end of the "Golden Age of Science Fiction Television."

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trillion Year Spree, Twenty-Five Years Later

Twenty-five years ago this month Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove published a massive update of Aldiss' Billion Year Spree (1973), appropriately named Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986). On first seeing this book a decade ago I was struck with admiration for its scope and comprehensiveness in covering the history of science fiction - unmatched by any other study of the genre I was able to find. That remains the case today, so that I have probably turned to it more frequently than to any other single critical volume.

I was less impressed with some of the book's rather iconoclastic judgments. In fact, on the first reading it seemed to me that they gave the Golden Age authors less than their due (the chapter labeling several giants of the Golden Age "dinosaurs" seemed to me rather snide), while praising the New Wave authors excessively. (At the time, my limited and haphazard reading had left me knowing little of print science fiction's history but the Golden Age writers, while my experience of the New Wave was limited to a couple of Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius stories, a bit of J.G. Ballard and Ursula Le Guin, and some Harlan Ellison, and out of that I'd only liked the Ellison.)

However, as I read more deeply and widely in the genre I also became more appreciative of their appraisals, both of the broad evolution of the genre, and of the achievements, failings and significance of particular editors and writers. Reading Asimov's The Robots of Dawn (1983), a work he published in the same years that Rudy Rucker riffed entertainingly on his Three Laws of Robotics in novels like Software (1982), it was hard for me to not feel that Asimov had become a dinosaur by the '80s. Meanwhile, reading much more Moorcock (especially the Pyat quartet, and the Oswald Bastable novels, and the John Daker and Elric of Melnibone sword and sorcery series'), and the works of Norman Spinrad, and Aldiss' own books, like the brilliant Non-Stop (1958) and Greybeard (1964), made me feel that, if anything, it is the New Wave authors who are underappreciated.

Still, while the book remains essential reading for anyone taking a serious interest in the genre's history, it has one significant limitation: its dating after twenty-five years, almost twice the length of time that lapsed between Aldiss' original publication of his study, and his massive update of it in 1986. Certainly much of what it had to say about the state of science fiction in the 1980s holds true for it today. Yet, these years have not been uneventful as particular works Aldiss and Wingrove cover in their book reshaped it. We have seen the booming of alternate history, steampunk and its cousins; the flourishing of cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk and the new space opera; an explosion of "science fiction about science fiction" and the evolution of the genre in film and television.

Then again, there has been little effort to deal with science fiction's last three decades in a comprehensive way, one reason why I have made the attempt in After the New Wave: Science Fiction Since 1980 – what I hope will not be the last attempt to fill in this gap in the critical literature.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Carte Blanche: The New James Bond Novel, by Jeffrey Deaver

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011, pp. 414.

Jeffrey Deaver's new James Bond novel Carte Blanche makes an interesting contrast with the last Bond novel, Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008). Where Faulks wrote his book "as Ian Fleming," picking up the series right where Fleming left off in The Man With the Golden Gun, Deaver offers a complete reboot.

Deaver's James Bond is not a veteran of World War II fighting the Cold War, but a veteran of Afghanistan, who saw combat with front-line ground units despite his rank in the Naval Reserve. (How exactly this happened is not actually explained.) He is recruited by the Overseas Development Group, which we are given to understand is a revival of the World War-II era Special Operations Executive (though the ODG's missions in no way parallel those of the older organization), and we meet him early in that career. Where Faulks attempted to write in Fleming's mode, Deaver does not try, his generally clear, competent prose all his own.

Additionally, where Faulks kept his book relatively slender (in line with Fleming's books), Carte Blanche runs to four hundred rather packed pages. Its complicated structure also reflects the demands of such a length, the story involving not one, but two, separate (if intersecting) villainous plots, as well as a third storyline revolving around a related vendetta, and a mystery regarding the death of Bond's parents.

The story is also heavy on the kind of bureaucratic game play that comprises an increasing share of the spy thriller's content these days, even when the villains are the old-fashioned external ones. Bond was always clearly part of an organization, but the sense of this is rather more prominent now, not least because he spends much of the first third of this book in and around headquarters. The analytical side of intelligence work is also far more prominent than before. (Indeed, we learn that Bond has himself been an analyst, before recruitment into the ODG.) And it might be added that MI 5 has never before given Bond such grief, or for such poor reasons.

To his credit, Deaver does as good a job of juggling all these storylines as one might hope, but I felt that the book suffered from a slow start, for the aforementioned reasons. Fortunately, the pace picks up when Bond finally arrives on foreign soil, pursuing his investigation in Dubai and South Africa.

The resulting adventure is packed with action and skullduggery. However, these are rather grounded in comparison not just with the films, but with the Fleming novels themselves, which had their share of over-the-top bits of action and plot: Bond's final confrontation with Mr. Big in Live and Let Die, or his racing against the clock to stop the Moonraker missile's launch, for instance. And when the intrigue gets cleared up, the villains, well-drawn and innovative as they may be, not only seem rather small-time compared with their earlier counterparts, but almost a parody of them – a demented garbage man in love with refuse the way Goldfinger loved gold (picture Shirley Bassey singing that theme song: "He loves only garbage/Only garbage"), a scheming NGO functionary, a lovelorn engineer insecure about his feet (yes, you read that correctly).

I suppose this reflects Deaver's earlier writing about serial killer-types in novels like The Bone Collector, rather than the extravagant madness of Fleming's villains. It also reflects the scaling-down of the military-spy game since World War II and the Cold War (as villains go, terrorists are no match for Large Peer Competitors, especially LPCs with a competitive ideology to sell), and of Britain's role in world affairs (2011 a long way away from the pretensions current circa 1953).

It reflects, too, the tilt away from escapist fantasy and toward "gritty realism" going even beyond what we have seen in the most recent Bond films. This time around we see Bond operating as part of a world of extraordinary renditions and state-sanctioned torture, of government plants of misinformation in the media and open, even gloating disdain for civil liberties, and I have to admit that I didn't care for it. Of course, I sometimes found Fleming's politics jarring too, preferring the films' tendency to play down the Cold War, but I also don't remember Fleming touching such hot-button issues in his books, or Fleming's Bond being so uncritical of the uglier parts of his business - his misgivings about his assignment in the short story "Quantum of Solace" a particularly striking example of this aspect of the character. (Frankly, where Bond's attitude toward his work is concerned, Deaver's version of the character appears underdeveloped and shallow next to the original.)

We also see this tendency in the predictable concessions to the New Puritanism regarding smoking, drinking and sex, and to feminism as well. Of course, this did not begin with Deaver by any means. In John Gardner's first effort with the series, License Renewed (1982), we learn that Bond has cut back on his alcohol intake, and switched to low-tar cigarettes. Apparently he is no longer carrying on liaisons with three married women at once, instead pursuing more socially acceptable (monogamous, long-term, conventionally romantic, etc.) relationships, and his early scene with Q section engineer Ann Reilly reads like a taunt of those holding traditional expectations about where such bits go.

Nonetheless, the concessions are rather larger now. Deaver's Bond still enjoys good food, and good drink, but is an ex-smoker now, who actually admonishes colleagues for their smoking and drinking while on the job. Back at headquarters Moneypenny (now identified to us as a Royal Navy lieutenant) "keeps [Bond] in his place," their relationship friendly rather than flirtatious, and the same might be said too of Mary Goodnight (not his secretary, but his personal assistant now, with much made of her competence). Bond does not act on his attraction to his engaged colleague Ophelia Maidenstone, even as he pines for her so much that he is actually thinking of her when he is with the only character who reads like a classic Bond girl (suggestive name and all), though even she turns out to be something quite different from what fans of the classics might imagine. Bheka Jordaan represents a new mark in the ever-increasing prickliness level of Bond heroines. And then, when the story comes to a close, Bond's association with the woman with whom he is dining is strictly Platonic. Bond even goes out on lousy dates, at the start of the book feeling some relief at being given an out from listening to a beautiful artist go on about how underappreciated she is when the office calls, a bit which struck me as more appropriate to an independent film about (much) lesser mortals.

The term "postmodern conservatism" nicely sums up this blend of right-wing thinking with political correctness, but that is not the entirety of the change. While Deaver handles the travelogue and the luxury well, he simply can't bring back the old romance of travel. This 007, flying aboard Air Emirates, guesses that he is enjoying the "quality service that typified the golden age of air travel fifty or sixty years ago" (164). The old Bond wouldn't have had to guess, because we watched him actually living it, and that's part of what's lost in making Bond a child of Generation Y: he can no longer be romanticized as a representative of an earlier, more sophisticated generation which truly understood "lifestyle," a thing now attributed to monkeys, birds and dinosaurs, apparently. (And speaking of misused terms and expressions, I was dismayed to see Deaver employ the phrase "Back in the day" in the course of the narrative. Run into the ground by adolescents with limited vocabularies and absolutely no sense of the past, it has no place even in the thoughts of this book's hero.)

The result is that while Carte Blanche is in many respects a competent espionage thriller, it left me unsatisfied as a Bond novel. Indeed, Carte Blanche might be said to have done for the novels what Casino Royale did for the films – reimagined Bond for today's market while eliminating much of his personality in the process.

An updated James Bond, it seems to me, is not really James Bond at all.

Review: Devil May Care, by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming

New York: Doubleday, 2008, pp. 278.

In 2008 Sebastian Faulks, "writing as Ian Fleming," published Devil May Care, a James Bond novel which is novel in its picking up exactly where Ian Fleming left off. Taking place a year and a half after the events of The Man With the Golden Gun (1965), the book informs us that since his battle with Francisco Scaramanga, Bond has been manning a desk at "Universal Exports," part of a "phased return" to the service. Naturally, M judges him ready to go back to his old assignments early in the novel, charging him with investigating a Dr. Julius Gorner, a villainous industrialist who is believed to be involved in a Soviet scheme to flood Britain with drugs – and perhaps, something more than that.

The results of Faulks' effort are mixed. To his credit, Faulks' gets the tone and "feel" of Fleming's writing right for the most part. He also derives a good deal of interest out of the retro context. There is some amusement in seeing the Bond of the novels plunged into Swinging London, which is making itself felt in the unlikeliest of places – a conversation with his housekeeper May in which she tells him about the drug charges against the Rolling Stones, the news from Moneypenny that M has taken up yoga. (Remember, Fleming's Bond was a creation of the '50s, not the '60s.)

Faulks' choice of contemporaneous Iran for the principal scene of the action added to its interest. Not only does it take Bond to a part of the world we haven't seen him in before (with few exceptions, Fleming stuck with the United States, the Caribbean and West European countries as his settings), but it helps reinforce the feel of another era, given how much the depiction of the country differs from what is routine in today's thrillers. It is hardly nuanced or deep, and true to the book's "retro" approach more than a few of the remarks the characters make will strike attentive readers as ignorant and bigoted – but the prejudices are different, and the whole may come as something of a shock to those who imagine Iranian history to have begun in 1979, and the Middle East to have never been anything but a cauldron of fundamentalist insanity and homicidal prudery. Call it the more complex "Orientalism" of an earlier period, when these parts of the world were imagined as colorful, extravagant and sensual, as well as decadent and backward – an object of fantasy as well as nightmare, and a much more suitable scene for James Bondian adventure than it might seem today (the episode in the Paradise Club striking in this respect).

The selection of this setting has yet another advantage, namely the Persian Gulf's having been one of the last scenes where Britain played an independent military role (these were the last years before the end of Britain's commitments "east of Suez"), enabling Faulks to center the story on British action without stretching plausibility too far. To his credit, he proves reasonably adroit in developing his plot to this end.

Still, the weaknesses are not minor ones. While Faulks captures the feel of Fleming's writing, he does not capture the spark it had at its best, and as a thriller the book is a letdown. The inclusion of an assassination attempt on Bond before he even leaves London struck me as a clumsy attempt to correct for the slow start typical of Fleming's novels. Faulks also fails to get full use out of the promising bits of atompunk he introduces, which include an ekranoplan. (Indeed, his prose tends to falter when dealing with the action and techno-thriller bits, a telling instance his description of a Soviet Mi-8 helicopter as "classic." That helicopter can be regarded as classic now, but no one would have described it as that in the 1960s, when it was new gear.) The same goes for his dispatch of Bond behind the Iron Curtain for the first time in the history of the series (the unseen events between You Only Live Twice and The Man with the Golden Gun apart), which should have been a highlight, but ends up feeling perfunctory, merely something to get Bond from point A to point B.

At the same time, if the idea of sending Bond back to the 1960s was to free him from the constraints of political correctness in the manner of Mad Men, then the novel doesn't quite work on that score, Bond's hedonistic flair clearly lacking. (Early in the tale, Bond actually turns down an attractive woman's offer to go up to her room.) The appearance of a female double-o in the story, something I have a hard time picturing Fleming's M (or Bond for that matter) accepting, looks like a concession to twenty-first century attitudes, much more in line with the later screen Bond girls than anything Fleming wrote.

Where Faulks hews closer to Fleming's precedent, he tends to seem plainly derivative, certainly in his creation of Gorner. He clearly owes much – too much – to Moonraker's Hugo Drax, another physically deformed continental who came away from his schooling in England feeling humiliated and hateful, who in World War II fought for the Nazis and after becoming a self-made tycoon, now works with the Soviets to pursue a personal vendetta against Britain, to culminate in a high-tech blow against the country, using means we have certainly seen before in Fleming's books. The repetition is to diminishing returns, and it does not help that this villain's particular scheme is overly complex, diffusing the action and tension, which makes for a poor contrast with the admirable compactness of the Fleming novels.

The result is a book I found consistently readable, with quite a few bits that were better than that, but in the end left a lot to be desired as a continuation of Fleming's series.

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