Sunday, January 29, 2012

Writers Write About Writerly Advice

Aspiring writers face many hardships as they learn their craft and try to break into the business. One of them is the bad advice inflicted on them by all and sundry, from casual acquaintances to authors of "how-to" books and articles swathed in the mantle of Authority. Perhaps worst of all are the lists of meaningless "do"s and "don't"s that inhibit and confuse instead of help.

On his blog Earth and Other Unlikely Worlds Paul McAuley (a real writer, unlike most of those so free with their advice) points to two pieces in which writers respond to some of those classic commandments.

Charlie Jane Anders - whom you might remember as not only a contributor to the ever-useful web site io9, but the author of the short story "The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model" (collected last year in Rich Horton's The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2011, a review of which you can find here, and available at - presents "10 Writing 'Rules' We Wish More Science Fiction Writers Would Break." (I particularly like her answers to numbers one and three – "No third-person omniscient," and "Avoid infodumps" – as I've long felt that infodumps get a bad rap, and that the preference for narrower viewpoints is often a matter of sheer snobbery.)

Meanwhile, at Nihilistic Kid's Journal, Nick Mamatas offers "Ten Bits of Advice Writers Should Stop Giving Aspiring Writers." (I especially like his succinct two-word response to the old truism, "Show Don't Tell.")

In the end, it all boils down to the fact that there's usually more than one way to succeed – just as there's always more than one way to fail.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

"Chuck Versus The Goodbye"

I first started watching Chuck mainly because it was on before Heroes, and wasn't sure what to make of it at first. For one thing, the blend of atompunk spy games with post-cyberpunk technology didn't quite gel for me. (The Intersect seemed an especially hokey gimmick.) For another, the villains were bland and derivative. (Fulcrum is no S.P.E.C.T.R.E.)

But the Buymore was great, an interesting contrast with the secret agent doings in which Chuck got caught up – and Morgan and Lester and Jeff and Big Mike and the rest were the source of much of the fun from the first. There was also the writers' handling of Chuck's geekiness, and geek culture more generally, which unusually for American TV did not come off as a caricature in the mind of a schoolyard bully (unlike one Chuck Lorre sitcom I can think of), and which they also managed to cleverly work into many a plot. These two elements turned out to be just the things to breathe new life into the half-century old game of parodying James Bondian espionage, helping to produce some memorable gags and set pieces – and at the show's best, episodes like "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer."

Alas, Chuck peaked early. As the show's main character became more self-assured, more at home in this element – as he went from Nerd Herder-in-over-his-head to genuine superspy - we lost the fish-out-of-water aspect of the story that was initially a source of much of the comedy. Bringing the other characters in on the craziness didn't compensate for it, the repetition producing diminishing returns, while also dispensing with much of the comic tension created by Chuck's keeping so much of his life secret from friends and family. And as the story of Chuck and Sara shifted from "angsty tale of a guy hopelessly in love with unattainable fantasy girl" to mundane boyfriend-girlfriend stuff one might see discussed with a therapist on a daytime talk show, this too lost interest. (To paraphrase George Costanza, "Relationship Chuck" was less entertaining than "Independent Chuck.")

Of course, such changes were inevitable (it's inconceivable that Chuck could have gone on reacting to things in exactly the same way, and TV show romances which just spin their wheels get tiresome fast), but along with them went much of what made the show distinctive and appealing. Meanwhile, really clever mixes of its diverse elements became rarer – the espionage and the BuyMore comedy and the geekiness happening alongside one another rather than coming together in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Still, the show managed to be entertaining enough to keep me coming back, all the way through its five season run, which ends with the pair of episodes airing tonight.

Let's hope they make for a fitting finale.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Thoughts on "Brigadoom"

Watching the fourth season Sanctuary episode "Fugue," I was again struck by the tradition of "musical episodes" in recent television series, especially those in the science fiction and fantasy genres.

This is usually discussed as having begun with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Once More, With Feeling" – but as has been the case with many a genre trope, Lexx did it first, with "Brigadoom." And pulled off a very tough act.

It is worth mentioning here that when the show started airing on the Sci-Fi Channel back in 2000 (with a handful of episodes plucked out of the second series, without regard to the show's development, or the season's story arc), I wasn't impressed with what I saw. Lexx was certainly . . . different. I was intrigued by some of the characters and concepts, but the episodes themselves didn't amount to much. When I saw the commercial for a musical episode, I was skeptical.

But that didn't last, and neither did my earlier skepticism about the show. "Brigadoom" (cowritten by show creator Paul Donovan, and the late Lex Gigeroff) didn't simply have a few of the lines sung instead of spoken (the way Fringe's "Brown Betty" did, for instance), but instead offered a full-blown musical which dramatized the back story of a central character, and presented a turning point in the season's story arc (which was itself a whopper, the title of its final episode, "End of the Universe," not being overstatement).1 It helped, too, that the songs were memorable.

As the show's own writers have said in various interviews (mine included), the quality of the show varied wildly from one episode to another. "Brigadoom" was the show at its very best, which was great, and it has since been a fan favorite.

Alas, the achievement of cast and crew here has been overlooked in the general tendency to ignore or put down the show, which has been extreme, even compared with other TV space operas, toward which critics and audiences (hardcore fans aside) are famously ungenerous. Still, those writing about such episodes should remember that early moment in the history of television science fiction characters suddenly breaking out into song.

1. It is worth noting that this wasn't Lexx's first musical moment. The second part of the four-part miniseries that comprises series one, "Supernova" (which aired two years before "Brigadoom") also contains a brief but striking musical interlude.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On the Eureka Paradigm

Popular expectations regarding technological progress in areas from artificial intelligence to fusion, from cloning to space, have commonly been overblown. The response on the part of many is simply to regard futurists' predictions with irony, but this has never seemed a useful position to me. The reality is that we can hardly avoid making guesses about what's to come, given that we are so often obliged to think in the long-term, and to plan, especially where science and technology are concerned. Guessing poorly can have serious implications for public policy (some of which I recently touched on in my Space Review article, "Space War and Futurehype Revisited"). Consequently, instead of irresponsible dismissal of the whole enterprise of prediction, the appropriate response is to try and get better at making predictions, and at responding to predictions appropriately. (Even if the best we can hope for is to get things somewhat closer to right somewhat more often, or simply better-position ourselves to cope with the inevitable surprises, this seems to me well worth our while.)

That said, the number of pitfalls in the way of those studying such issues is staggering. Today it is almost impossible to point to any discussion of public issues which is not carried on in a fog of misinformation, and disinformation spread by vested interests and ideologues. The situation is even worse when expert knowledge is crucial (as in virtually any discussion into which science enters), and the uncertainties are large (as when one makes guesses about things that haven't happened yet, exactly the issue here), because of how much more difficult it becomes for even informed observers to make their own judgments. (Think, for instance, of how Creationists succeeded in manufacturing a "debate" over "intelligent design.")

However, this falls far short of exhausting the list, and I would argue that one big stumbling block has been a deeply flawed "folk perception" of science and technology shaped, in large part, by media produced for (and often by) people without expertise in this area. Consider, for instance, what we get in so much pop science journalism. News items about developments in science and technology, just like news items about anything else, are typically intended to be brief and punchy and accessible (read: attention-grabbing and entertaining). Breathless stories about exciting new possibilities fit these criteria far better than critical, nuanced pieces attentive to the obstacles in the way of realizing those possibilities. (Indeed, many of them make it sound as if the possibility is already a reality, as does the questionable title of this otherwise useful piece: "Quantum Keys Let Submarines Talk Securely.")

Such stories skew perceptions, making it seem as if a great many ideas are much more developed than they really are, and the press's lack of a memory worsens matters. After telling readers and viewers about the thrilling innovation that just might change all our lives (with the "might" sometimes in the small print), there is generally no proper follow-up; the story just fades away even as the impression it created remains. The failures lapse into obscurity, while successes are likely to get so loudly trumpeted that it can seem as if the latter are all that exist.

These attitudes may be reinforced by the endless repetition of the claim that we live in an era of unprecedentedly rapid technological progress, making historical precedents irrelevant, and implying the imminent bursting of all the old boundaries. They are reinforced, too, by a tendency to identify "technology" with "information technology" (which goes as far as Google's news aggregator compiling, under the heading of technology, numerous items that are not about technology as such, but rather the financial fortunes of IT firms), which has the effect of making the state-of-the-art in consumer electronics the yardstick of technological progress, a perception which can be very misleading given that other areas (like food and energy production, medicine and transport) have seen much slower change. Raymond Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating Returns," which and the technological Singularity with which it is associated, are a particularly extreme version of this kind of thinking, but this futurehyped, IT-centric outlook is indisputably mainstream, so much so that the correctives offered by observers like Robert J. Gordon, Jonathan Huebner, Bob Seidensticker and Michael Lind have had little traction with Apple brand-worshipping consumers who believe that their new cell phone is the telos of human history.

Still, for all its flaws, it has to be admitted that pop science journalism is far less influential than fiction, and especially television and movies, which appear to play far and away the biggest role in shaping the popular image of science. Last year a poll taken in Australia found that TV and movies were the primary source of information about science for three-quarters of those surveyed, a pattern likely typical for other developed countries. One likely consequence of this is our habituation to the thought of technologies that are only imaginary, with "hard," technologically-oriented, extrapolative science fiction set in the near future likely having the strongest impact on our thought as "rumors of the future" (as suggested by scholar Charles E. Gannon's study Rumors of War and Infernal Machines).

Additionally, science fiction routinely dramatizes the processes of science and engineering, and in the process propagates a particular view of them. The realities of science and engineering as specialized, collaborative, often slow-moving activities, participants in which often cope with multiple, knotty problems at once, some of which may be theoretical in nature; as dependent on massive amounts of organization, equipment and money controlled by people who are not scientists (indeed, often are scientific illiterates), and so susceptible to the vagaries of economics, business, politics and even personal whim; as under even the best circumstances subject to fits and starts, to dead ends and flashes-in-the-pan, with projects to develop new technologies often concluding in nearly useless prototypes, on the drawing board, or even at the concept stage; are given short shrift.

As an example of what we are much more likely to see, consider the Syfy Channel show Eureka, which centers on an imaginary town in the Pacific Northwest inhabited by a large portion of the United States' scientific elite. Eureka makes some concessions to reality in its depiction of the Global Dynamics corporation running the town, and the involvement of Pentagon functionaries in the affairs of its researchers. However, this is superficial stuff, the episodes mostly playing like twenty-first century "Edisonades," with geniuses equally adept at fields as diverse as astrophysics and molecular biology flitting from one project to the next, many of them undertaken singlehandedly in their garages; casually tinkering with toys as exotic as androids and faster-than-light drives; and during the inevitable crisis, inventing on-the-spot solutions to staggeringly complex problems that somehow always work.

Taken together, all this leaves most people imagining science as nerd-magic, and picturing R & D as a matter of omnicompetent nerd-magicians pulling solutions out of thin air – so that if a problem does need solving all we have to do is get the nerds on it and, voila, it's solved. (And if the nerd-magicians don't work quickly enough, we just have to hector them until they do, the way Sheriff Jack Carter, like many another rugged sci-fi hero, hectors the science types for a fix when there's trouble.) It also leaves audiences thinking that, to use William Gibson's phrasing, "The future is already here – it's just not very evenly distributed" in the literal sense of thinking that every gadget one has ever heard of must be out there, somewhere.

In short, it has them believing in the "Eureka Paradigm" of scientific and technological R& D.

Of course, there are lots of reasons why fiction still depicts science and technology in this way, long after such depictions have lost any credibility they may once have had. A fairly good one is that this simplistic approach is a better fit with dramatic requirements, easier to turn into a compact, intelligible, accessible story in which we get to focus on a few characters as interesting things happen – and to be fair, the point is to entertain, not inform. Yet, it is an appalling basis for actual consideration of how research actually proceeds, and we take such images seriously at our cost.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Review: Deep Six, by Clive Cussler

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984, pp. 432.

Clive Cussler's Deep Six (1984) can be thought of as something of a transitional work for the author, occupying a space in between his early, tightly focused, short novels like Raise the Titanic (1976), Vixen 03 (1978) and Night Probe (1981), and the later, sprawling, epic action-adventures which began with Cyclops (1986).

Even though I usually read right through Cussler's books after picking them up (back when I did read them), I started this one a few times before making much headway in it. This had much to do with Cussler's handling of the book's two main plot threads--the first, an investigation of a marine disaster in the northern Pacific, and the second, the mystery following the disappearance of the presidential yacht (with the President, Vice-President, Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate all aboard). The first mystery engages Pitt and his friends from NUMA exclusively for the first third of the book or so. They only become involved with the second mystery in the book's middle, and play only a minor role in that investigation until the last third of the story, when the connection between the two series' of events finally becomes clear.

Filling the gap in between is a great deal of inside-the-Beltway intriguing among officials of the National Security Council and the Secret Service--which at times left me with the impression that I'd put down Cussler's book and picked up one by Tom Clancy instead. As is usually the case with these novels, Cussler's included, the portrait of D.C. struck me as simplistic and inauthentic, devoid as it is of the sausage factory-like quality of real-life politics. This is a Washington without lobbyists and political action-committees and revolving doors between industry and government, where politicians who take campaign contributions from shady special interests are "bad apples" and the "power elite" is described as "elected"--in short, a sanitized civics class textbook's version of governance (much as seen in other Cussler novels, admittedly, but more problematic here because of the foregrounding of this part of the story). The foreign politics are equally lacking in nuance, down to the foreign villains, who are, not unexpectedly, one-dimensional clichés that occasionally cross the line into racism, with the unsurprising result that the Soviet strategy comes off as astonishingly clumsy in stark counterpoint to the tactical and technological genius the KGB and its partners display in executing the scheme.

In short, others have done this stuff before and after and in many cases better, and it is poor compensation for what is missing in the earlier parts of the story, where in their limited appearances Pitt and company merely contribute to a couple of underwater searches (the second of them treated rather briefly), and engage in some mostly stationary detective work. We are more than halfway through the book before Pitt has his first brushes with the bad guys, and it is some time after that before he gets up to his usual antics. The result is a story that gets better as it goes along, with the last third providing exactly the kind of thing for which Cussler's readers come to his books, especially in the action-packed finale full of over-the-top heroics, flashy military hardware and creative anachronism as the clock ticks down to disaster. But getting to that point is occasionally a slog.

Mad Men: A Second Look

I recently finished watching the first three seasons of Mad Men.

The second viewing confirmed many of my first impressions, but I have come away with some new thoughts as well.

Where the acclaim is concerned (the show won its fourth Emmy for Best Drama in a row last year), it would seem critics are responding not only to the aesthetic-nostalgic appeal of the show's recreation of a more glamorous-seeming era; or its iconoclastic portrayal of the early 1960s, (the echoes of Thomas Frank's The Conquest of Cool and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road not groundless, but greatly exaggerated); or even its giving the audience the guilty pleasure of vicarious indulgence in un-p.c. behavior while still feeling superior to it.

The truth is that almost everything about the show is a perfect fit with highbrow critics' views on what constitutes Good Drama – the slow pace and the heavy use of indirectness and implication (e.g. subtext) to drop a massive freight of irony on the heads of its mostly unlikeable characters that might seem like liabilities to many a viewer a big plus in their book. The upper-middle class social setting, and the premise's allowing for a great deal of writing about writing, media about media, the positioning of identity, domestic life and suburban dissatisfaction as central themes, are likewise much in line with their tastes. And the association of show creator Matthew Weiner with the last cable drama to win such heaping (over)praise, The Sopranos (which worked in a not dissimilar manner), only helps.

All this makes the show not just a triumph of style over substance, but a reminder that pandering to the snobbery of the upmarket review pages (and the viewers who mindlessly follow their lead) can pay real dividends.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA Blackout Protest

I found out about the protest against SOPA (H.R. Bill 3261, innocuously named the "Stop Online Piracy Act") too late to participate properly. So I'm posting this message to indicate my solidarity with the protestors - and offering this link to blackout participant Wikipedia's FAQ on the subject.

Until tomorrow, please regard this site as also blacked out.

This blog will resume its normal operations then.

Friday, January 13, 2012

New Review: Scarecrow Returns, by Matthew Reilly

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012, pp. 368.

Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow Returns (published last year in his native Australia as Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves) opens with a burst of action as a mysterious "Army of Thieves" captures a Russian island in the Arctic Sea – one which happens to be home to a secret Cold War-era research installation, and the site of a Soviet superweapon now in play. This event marks the beginning of a global crisis as seen by the American and Russian crisis response teams. As luck would have it, Marine Recon Captain Shane Scofield, and his longtime friend and comrade-in-arms "Mother," are with an equipment-testing team nearby – and virtually all that the American government can call on to save the day.

This book is Reilly's first Shane Scofield novel since Scarecrow (2003), almost eight years earlier, and naturally I was looking forward to it. Nonetheless, some aspects of the premise initially worried me.1 For one thing, it suggested that the globe-trotting and mystery-solving I had enjoyed in Scarecrow and the Jack West trilogy had been abandoned in a return to the more static adventures with which Reilly began his career, like Ice Station (1998) and Area 7 (2001). I'd enjoyed those books, but felt he'd since superseded them (Reilly himself has referred to them as the work of Reilly 1.0), and wasn't sure how much more juice he could extract from the older concept he'd already executed several times. Additionally, two decades after the Cold War's end the idea of a Soviet superweapon would seem to have passed its "sell-by" date – much as has long become the case with villains left over from the Third Reich. I also wasn't sure what to make of the "Army of Thieves" who comprised the villains, these seeming to be an especially senseless bunch in comparison with Reilly's previous bad guys, whose agendas, however horrific, at least had a recognizable rationale.

Fortunately, the book exceeded my expectations in all these areas. Like the books of "Reilly 1.0," Scarecrow Returns is a three-way collision between teams of special-forces soldiers at a high-tech facility in a remote, hostile landscape, but Reilly manages to keep the material fresh, and the plot and action unfold with a smoothness that reflects his now lengthy experience in telling this kind of tale. The battles are as readable as any Reilly has written (at least, when read with the aid of the numerous illustrations), while being as grand in scale and over-the-top as readers have come to expect – which is to say, unequaled by any writer working similar territory today. Reilly's particular variant on the trope of the "left-over Soviet superweapon now on the loose" is a good one, and his villain is in line with his predecessors, at least, when we get behind the mask. The novel also benefits from a number of new touches, ranging from a scene-stealing combat robot named Bertie, to a French vendetta against our hero – and a few memorable plot twists (which I won't spoil here). Additionally, cartoonish as Reilly's characters are, they are nonetheless a bit fuller and more nuanced here, and their personalities do have a bearing on the tale.

That is not to say that everything is perfect. Readers demanding meticulous treatment of the technical detail will be irritated by such things as Reilly's depiction of a KH-12 satellite as a signals intelligence platform (its function is in fact optical imaging), and his repeated reference to an SS-23 as an intermediate range ballistic missile (when its 500 kilometer range actually makes it a short-range ballistic missile) – details that could have easily been corrected without requiring the slightest changes to the story. There is an incident in one of the battles (in the "Stadium") where the editing appeared to falter. (It seemed to me that Reilly wrote "trench" when he should have written "walkway" – though I'm less than a hundred percent certain of this, as those of you familiar with his action sequences can understand.) Such nit-picks aside, Reilly's use of his over-the-top plot to explore very real geopolitical issues struck me as less clever this time around, the rationale behind the action comparatively muddled, especially when compared with the almost psychic perceptiveness of the villain. (The fact that the weapon's activation frankly seems unlikely to leave any "winners" on the planet is only one of the reasons for this.)

Still, on the whole it's a satisfying read if you're up for this kind of adventure, and fans of previous books are likely to find it well worth their time. However, given the extent to which events in the previous novels bear on the story in Scarecrow Returns, readers new to the series might want to check out the previous installments (Ice Station, Area 7, and Scarecrow) first.

1. I use the original publication dates here, rather than the dates of their release in North America, my edition excepted.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lex Gigeroff, 1962-2011

As many of you already know, Lex Gigeroff, best known as one of the three principal writers on Lexx (as well as a sometime actor on that show, in such memorable roles as Barnabas K. Huffington), died last month, on December 24, at the age of forty-nine.

I had only one exchange with Mr. Gigeroff, when I interviewed him for my retrospective on that series back in 2007, but I found him friendly, witty and helpful, as he has generally been to those who knew him, and there is no question that he will be missed.

As might be expected, social media is one avenue through which these sentiments are being expressed: there is now a Lex Gigeroff Memorial page on Facebook (the page, and the memorial event it mentions, came to my attention only after they passed), as well as a tribute video on YouTube, which fans and well-wishers can check out.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thoughts on W. Somerset Maugham's Ashenden

W. Somerset Maugham is perhaps best known for his books Of Human Bondage (1915) and The Razor's Edge (1944), but students of the spy novel know him by another book, Ashenden: Or The British Agent (1928), a collection of loosely connected stories about the adventures of the titular figure in the service of British intelligence during World War I.

In the course of the narration Maugham touched on many of the difficulties of turning the spy story into entertainment with surprising frankness, as when he observed that
Being no more than a tiny rivet in a vast and complicated machine, [Ashenden] never had the advantage of seeing a completed action. He was concerned with the beginning or the end of it, perhaps, or with some incident in the middle, but what his own doings led to he had seldom a chance of discovering. It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative (Maugham, 7).1
Rather making "a picture out of the various pieces of the jigsaw puzzle" was the prerogative of "the great chiefs of the secret service in their London offices" (Maugham, 101).

Maugham offered another thought of the kind in regard to Ashenden's routine as a case officer when he observed that:
Ashenden's official existence was as orderly and monotonous as a City clerk's. He saw his spies at stated intervals and paid them their wages; when he could get hold of a new one he engaged him, gave him his instructions . . . he waited for the information that came through and dispatched it; he kept his eyes and ears open; and he wrote long reports which he was convinced no one read till having inadvertently slipped a jest into one of them he received a sharp reproof for his levity. The work he was doing . . . could not be called anything but monotonous (Maugham, 101).
As Maugham's remark demonstrates, the "tiny rivet" problem has been a big one for writers across the whole history of the spy genre (though it has loomed increasingly large as time has gone on).

Some authors have responded to this reality by contriving ways to put their protagonists at the center of events, so that not only do they get to see a "completed action," but that the action can be thought of as in large part their own, as writers as diverse as John Buchan and John le Carré, Eric Ambler and Ian Fleming, are known to do. (The approach tends to have the author writing in unlikely coincidences or exceptional organizational circumstances; forcing their heroes to become independent operators, whether as hapless outsiders or insiders forced to go rogue; or simply ignoring bureaucratic realities.) More recently they have deemphasized the rivets and instead concentrated on offering a broad picture of that "vast and complicated machine" – as Frederick Forsyth and Tom Clancy have done. (These describe the machine's operations at length, and rather than focusing their narrative on one character, or a few characters, use a large number of viewpoint characters to show a great many aspects of the machine's functioning, so that the vast plot is really the heart of the story, and the national security state the real protagonist.) And on the whole, writers of spy fiction have been far more prone to present their spies acting like detectives investigating a crime or carrying on a manhunt, heist men planning a black bag job, special operations soldiers, or fugitives on the run, than actual case officers in the business of handling agents.

Maugham, however, works within exactly the framework he describes. Unsurprisingly, he eschews the thriller conventions writers like E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan and H.C. "Sapper" McNeile had already popularized. Instead, the intelligence work tends to be a backdrop to other dramas, as with his adventure in pre-Revolutionary Russia (in which we see almost nothing of what he is actually doing as a British agent). Reading these I was often reminded of Maugham's irony and humor (at its best in the episodes involving the "Hairless Mexican," and Russia, "Love and Russian Literature" being especially funny if you have enough familiarity with the context to get the joke). The result is, unsurprisingly, a book that holds up rather better than many contemporaneous classics of the spy genre.

1. The edition I have cited is the following: Maugham, W. Somerset, Ashenden: Or, The British Agent (Mattiuck, NY: The American Reprint Company, 199?), pp. 304.

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