31 August 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Prose Fiction #11: Project Crisis!, Part LIII: Final Crisis [novelization]

Trade paperback, 305 pages
Published 2010

Borrowed from the library
Read February 2016
Final Crisis by Greg Cox

I think I'm going to have to give up on these novelizations of comic stories, because for the most part, they're too limited by their medium. Marv Wolfman's Crisis on Infinite Earths novelization was great because he played to the strengths of his medium by transforming the multiverse-shattering epic into a personal story. But Cox's novelizations of Infinite Crisis, 52, Countdown, and now Final Crisis have not really done this; instead they mostly transcribe the dialogue and the action. But Cox captures none of the feeling of the stories he's novelizing: I may not have known what to make of Final Crisis, but there's not denying that it's epic and overwhelming and in turns despairing and triumphant. In Cox's telling, all of this is flat, just events without emotional resonance. There's no added depth here; his insights into the characters tend to repeat what they already communicate in dialogue. While Wolfman communicated something new with his novelization of his own story in the original Crisis, and Denny O'Neil's novelization of Knightfall was an adequate substitute for a set of comics I'll probably never get to, reading an outside author's take on comics I've already read hasn't really done much for me thus far.

Next Week: Time to start playing catch-up, first with Gotham cops in Gordon of Gotham!

30 August 2016

Review: Bernice Summerfield: Genius Loci by Ben Aaronovitch

Last year I wrapped up reading The New Adventures, the Doctor Who spin-off novels starring the Doctor's companion Bernice Summerfield after she left the TARDIS. Now I'm looping back around to read all of The New Doctor Who Adventures, the ongoing range of seventh Doctor novels published by Virgin Publishing. Before I get to the actual NAs, though, I'm reading a couple lead-in books, starting with some of the Bernice Summerfield prequel novels:

Hardcover, 208 pages
Published 2006
Acquired and read August 2015
Bernice Summerfield #8: Genius Loci
by Ben Aaronovitch

I read a lot of tie-in fiction. And most of it is decent. Not great, but it scratches an itch to have more adventures of characters I like and love. But by and large it doesn't hold a candle to the majority of the original fiction I read. But it is possible to do so, and every now and again I read a work of tie-in fiction that's so good it I would recommend it without hesitation to people who don't normally read such things.

Genius Loci is such a novel. As a Bernice Summerfield novel, it's completely standalone, covering her first archaeological expedition as an eager postgrad with forged credentials. As a science fiction novel, it's completely excellent. I haven't read much of Ben Aaronovitch's prose fiction, but his work here is excellent: young Bernice is a real person trying to figure out how to grow up, while uncovering an ancient mystery on an alien planet. Aaronovitch handles character well: Benny and all her friends come to life here. It feels painful in the moments where they turn on each other because we've really gotten to know them prior to that. He handles worldbuilding well: there are some great ideas here, like the two sentient city-building robots who fall in love with each other, and the ecology and history of Jaiwan. He handles plot well: there are some tough surprises in this book that I didn't see coming, but made whole sense once revealed. He handles prose well: like, most tie-in writers are perfunctory at best. Some stuff here is lovely, like the tale of the two robots in love.

He even does archaeology well. Most Bernice novels have a pretty superficial grasp of archaeology, which I guess makes sense for the books' Indiana Jones-derived action-adventure roots. Benny needs to be in a new location with something exciting; that's all you need archaeology for. But here-- I don't know if archaeology field work is really like this, but based on my experience with ecology field work, it feels right. Archaeology is slow and painstaking and halting; you don't just zip in for a week, do a little digging, and zip back out. More than any other Bernice Summerfield book-- and probably more than any other science fiction book I've read-- this book captures the joys and frustrations of being a space archaeologist.

Seriously, this book is great. I read it in like two days at most, and when I finished it, I handed it to my wife, who couldn't care less about Bernice Summerfield, and she enjoyed it too. It's a complete shame that a story this good only exists as #8 in an out-of-print series of expensive tie-in hardbacks. It should be reprinted as a paperback standalone for all those folks who like Aaronovitch's Rivers of London books. Highly recommended.

Next Week: More of the early days of Bernice Summerfield, as we experience her Missing Adventures!

29 August 2016

Review: Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

Hardcover, 260 pages
Published 2014

Acquired June 2014
Read August 2016
Kidding Ourselves: The Hidden Power of Self-Deception
by Joseph T. Hallinan

This book is 260 pages long, but cut out the notes and index and you've got 210 pages of actual content. It's a light, breezy read: Hallinan writes in that style of modern nonfiction where he's essentially taken what would be a really good long-form essay and stretched it out a bit to make it into a book, putting together lots of examples in an accessible style. Which isn't a bad thing; I'm just saying this isn't a very deep or complicated book. I read it on the bus in one round trip, which means it took me something like 90-105 minutes to read the whole thing at most.

Hallinan covers a number of facets of self-deception: our belief in placebos in medicine, outbreaks of mass hysteria not based in facts, prejudice in observations of sports events, Stephen Jay Gould's refutation of nineteenth-century physiognomy (and contemporary refutation of Gould), people who think Romney deserved credit for the death of bin Laden, superstitions of baseball players, people who have unprotected sex because they think it can't happen to them. The best parts of the book are when Hallinan shows the positive effects of self-deception, how it confers advantages. Which isn't always the case (mass hysteria probably has few benefits, right?), but those forms of self-deception that convince us we have control over our own lives do some good for our emotional health and for our prospects of future success.

Some good anecdotes, not that hard of a read. I wouldn't rush out to buy this book, but if you have two hours, it's probably worth your time.

26 August 2016

Teaching Notes: The Apocalypse and After

This summer, after years of trying, I landed myself a literature course: "Popular Literature." This course title is as broad as all get out, and I struggled for a bit to narrow it down. I wanted to do science fiction, of course, but another instructor was doing science fiction that summer (under a different course number), and his course was on-line, and I was worried that no one would take my in-person sci-fi course if they could just take an on-line one. I think I was listening to a Survivors audio drama around the time the course description was due, so I quickly whipped up a course description called "Apocalyptic Literature and Cultural Transformation."

The only winning move is not to play.

When push came to shove and I had to place my book order (my course now titled "The Apocalypse and After"), I ended up assigning the following six books, plus two short stories and one excerpt in order to put a little more meat on the weeks were we did comic books:
  • Mary Shelley, excerpts from The Last Man (1826)
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
  • Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957)
  • Manjula Padmanabhan, "Sharing Air" (1980s) and "2099" (1999)
  • Octavia Butler, Xenogenesis: Dawn (1987)
  • Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, et al., Y: The Last Man: One Small Step (2002-03)
  • Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (2008)
  • Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, The Walking Dead: Too Far Gone (2010)
Now, six books and three shorts is way less reading than I would usually assign in a course (when I taught The Modern Novel, for example, I did nine novels), but the pace of a summer course is such that it seemed impossible to squeeze more reading in than that. They were already doing a novel a week! So I supplemented by also requiring them to watch a film or an episode of a television show each week for homework:
  • When Worlds Collide (1951)
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959)
  • The Twilight Zone: "The Old Man in the Cave" (1963)
  • Survivors: "Law and Order" (1975)
  • Survivors reboot: Series 2, Episode 3 (2010)
  • True Detective: "The Long Bright Dark" (2014)
It made for an interesting assortment. They are a diverse set of apocalyptic and postapocalyptic narratives: you have ones that focus on the actual event, like When Worlds Collide, and ones for whom the actual event is in the long distant past, like Hunger Games. You have ones about rebuilding, like Survivors and Dawn, and ones about humanity sort of sputtering to the end, like On the Beach and "The Old Man."

In the Dust of This Art Print

I'm sure I could write you a whole essay about while I picked each particular text, but I'll just highlight my approach to the course as a whole, which was to frame at as an investigation into genre: What does this genre do? What's its appeal? Both historically (it's been going in a recognizable form since the early 1800s) and contemporarily (obviously the apocalypse is super-popular right now). I kicked the whole thing off by playing my students a pair of segments from the 13 Mar. 2015 episode of On the Media, "In the Dust of This Planet" and "Staring into the Abyss," where Jad Abumbrad and Brooke Gladstone explore the contemporary and historical appeal of nihilism by tracing a book by philosophy professor Eugene Thacker about the "horror of philosophy" that suddenly became a fashion statement and inspired True Detective. We then kept coming back to that idea of nihlism throughout the course, discussing the ways in which the texts we were looking at were or were not nihilistic. Each week I would lecture on one "theory of apocalyptic literature" to my class, and I tied it all together by doing Thacker on the last week, tying him into Hunger Games and True Detective.

In the Dust of This Fashion Shoot

(True Detective I forced my students to make an argument about how it could be considered apocalyptic. I was inspired to teach it in this context by its appearance on On the Media and by this really interesting article on it from The Atlantic, which one of my friends shared on facebook. I think it's valuable to look at fringe cases when discussing genre: though True Detective isn't conventionally an apocalyptic text, it has some of the same interests: what happens at those moments where human understanding of the world ceases?*)

In the Dust of This Jay-Z Video

I was a bit worried going into the class because I only had eleven students and it met for three hours and fifteen minutes at a time. That is a long time if you have reticent or uninterested students! Thankfully, none of my students could be described as such. I only had three English majors, but hey were all interested and invested, and if they weren't doing the reading, they were doing it well enough to fool me. I think it's always a sign of a good course when my class plans became four bullet points long because I can trust the students to go somewhere interesting, and that happened here pretty quickly. They responded both to me and to each other (I make them take turn posing discussion questions) very well, and I think it ended up one of the best courses I've ever taught. Hopefully they agree when I gain access to their evals!

Actually, it turned out I liked Woody Harrelson's character best, mostly for the way he cussed Matthew McConaughey out whenever he got too philosophical. I should finish the show.
* I almost always end up assigning something in a lit course I haven't actually read before assigning it. This semester it was True Detective, The Twilight Zone, and When Worlds Collide. It's a bit of a risky gamble, though it hasn't actually gone against me yet. Thankfully I was able to make something interesting of all three texts, though I wouldn't teach When Worlds Collide again-- I'd probably sub in Planet of the Apes (1968), which I think is a lot more interesting, but didn't occur to me when I first planned out the course.

25 August 2016

Review: The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel

Trade paperback, 295 pages
Published 2012 (originally 1901)
Previously read March 2011 
Acquired June 2014
Reread September 2014
The Purple Cloud by M. P. Shiel

I read this book and loved it, so I was a little disappointed when I taught it in the context of a seminar on British literature from 1890 to 1950, and my students pretty much bounced off it, finding it all a bit weird. I'll be honest, I was a little disappointed, too, as I remembered it being weirder. The notes to the Penguin Classics edition I assigned to my students indicate its copy text is the novel's original 1901 serialization, whereas the 2001 Bison Frontiers of the Imagination edition I'd read a few years prior was drawn from a 1929 revision, so maybe that accounts for the difference. (Editor John Sutherland's claim that Shiel was fortunate to not live long enough to see the 1959 film adaptation The World, the Flesh and the Devil is, however, total pish. The film is excellent.)

24 August 2016

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part XXXVI: Batman: Year 100 and Other Tales: Deluxe Edition

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2015 (contents: 1998-2006)

Borrowed from the library
Read February 2016
Batman: Year 100 and Other Tales: Deluxe Edition
by Paul Pope

Colorists: José Villarrubia, Ted McKeever, James Jean
Letterers: Jared K. Fletcher, John Workman, Ken Lopez

Year One Hundred
It's been fourteen months since I kicked this whole Batman project off by reading Batman: Year One, but for Batman it's been 99 years, as I'm wrapping up with Batman: Year 100. In the future, America seems to be a wasteland ruled over by tyrants, but the Bat-Man of Gotham, the last of the superheroes, still stands for justice, along with the few who aid him, including a new Robin. The story is ostensibly about an overcomplicated murder mystery, but it's really about what Batman stands for: standing up and saying "no" to unjust systems.

Not a guy you want to meet in a dark alley. Or anywhere, really.
from Batman: Year 100 #2

Paul Pope both writes and draws the whole book, and I found myself engaged more by his unique visual style than by his writing. His Batman is a terrifying enigma, seemingly over a century old but as full of energy as ever, and his Gotham is a bleak dystopia where the Gotham City Police Department seems to operate out of a pile of trash, and the rest of America doesn't seem much better off. He establishes the grotesque nature of this world perfectly, from its attack dogs to the tragic ways that even criminals are treated in the future. But the story itself felt somewhat rote to me, and what the ending conflict turns out to be doesn't really resonate thematically with what Pope is trying to say about Batman.

How can you even have a base in a pile of trash?
from Batman: Year 100 #2

One thing that I did, of course, really like: Jim Gordon. This Gordon is the grandson of the original Commissioner Gordon (by Barbara? James Junior? it's not really clear), but when the story begins, he doesn't even know that the Bat-Man of Gotham isn't a myth. A big part of the story is his growing realizing of who Batman is and his growing disaffection with the unjust circumstances within which he is expected to impart justice. One ordinary man with nothing but his own courage to support himself: of course I liked it.

The constant of the multiverse is that Jim Gordon will always be awesome.
from Batman: Year 100 #4

There are a couple other "Bat tales" by Paul Pope tucked into the back of this deluxe edition: "Berlin Batman," "Teenage Sidekick," and "Broken Nose." "Teenage Sidekick" is pretty disposable (Batman both likes and needs Robin, did you know?), and "Broken Nose" isn't deep, but it is amusing (it's about the first time Batman ever got a broken nose).

Isn't that kind of a facist impulse itself, though? Whoops.
from The Batman Chronicles #11

"Berlin Batman" is the real triumph here, revisting Batman's actual year one of 1939 and imagining what he would have been like if he had been from Germany. Pope revisions Bruce Wayne as Baruch Wane, a wealthy Jewish socialite who takes to the streets as Batman to stand against the injustices of the Nazi Party. This was published a few years before Batman: Year 100, and I wish it had come first in the book, too, because what Batman means to Pope is clearer here: Batman is a symbol of resistance, because he stands for the right to privacy. Pope says in his introduction to the tale: "Does a superhero have a right to a secret identity? In a police state, the answer would have to be NO." But it's just not about superheroes; Batman rescues an economist (a real man, named Ludwig von Mises), whose arguments disagree with Nazi doctrine, and helps him get to America. Mises has the same right to privacy as Batman, the same right to be left alone. There's a great scene where Baruch's father tells him about the eternal struggle between government and governed:
Swell guy, Baruch Wane's dad. Not quite the inspiration Earth-Zero's Thomas Wayne was.
from The Batman Chronicles #11

But the Berlin Batman finds that third way, and the hope that there might be something other than oppression, that individuality can be the triumph of the day. "Berlin Batman" draws out more directly some of the themes that were implicit in Year 100, but got lost in its apocalypse-virus climax.

Next Week: Soon I'll be starting a new project (or rather, picking up some old ones). But first it's time to transition by picking up another piece of superhero prose fiction, with a return to the Final Crisis!

23 August 2016

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Seven: Prophecy and Change edited by Marco Palmieri

When I left off writing Deep Space Nine books last December, we were watching Season Seven still, so I hadn't got to its book yet, which I finally did in February. At long last, here it is!

Acquired 2003
Previously read October 2003
Reread February 2016
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Prophecy and Change
edited by Marco Palmieri

This seemed like a good book to read when the television program was fresh in my memory, since it weaves between its episodes. There are ten stories, plus a frame, though not every season gets a story, as we shall see, as the book is weighted toward the later parts of the series run. Not every character does, either; though the book does a decent job of giving each a tale of their own, poor Worf doesn't receive a tale of his own.

"Ha'mara" by Kevin G. Summers (Sisko and Kira, Season One)
Like a lot of stories in this book, "Ha'mara" slots pretty clearly between episodes, in this case coming shortly after "Emissary." Something my wife and I noticed when (re)watching the series was that Sisko's status as the Emissary goes weirdly unmentioned between "Emissary" and "In the Hands of the Prophets." This is especially a weird omission because the only person Kai Opaka tells about Sisko being the Emissary in "Emissary" is Sisko himself, yet by the time of "In the Hands," it's public knowledge. So when did this revelation happen and what effect did it have? That's the ground covered by "Ha'mara," where a group of Bajoran terrorists attack Sisko, Kira, and company on a visit to Bajor. Kira and Sisko have to work together to stay alive and save a group of Bajoran children; Kira's personal journey to accepting Sisko as the Emissary (I don't think the show deals with this until Season Three, bizarrely enough, though "Destiny" does try to explain why it's never been mentioned before) is the focus here, presumably a stand-in for the journey the whole planet will undergo. It's kind of an awkward story when it comes to the interpersonal interactions, but I think that's largely because Summers does a good job of capturing the awkwardness of the crew dynamics in Season One. (Bashir is a doofus.)

It was disappointing to me that there was no Season Two story, as I feel like early Season Two is one of the show's best periods.

"The Orb of Opportunity" by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels (Nog and Kai Winn, Season Three)
The team-up you never knew you wanted! When the Maquis steal an Orb that's being returned to the Bajorans, Nog proves to be Kai Winn's best hope of recovering it. It's a cute little tale, especially when Nog receives an Orb vision that opens him up to possibilities he'd never seen before. Martin and Mangels handle this well; the story could easily have drifted into "explaining" where Nog's desire to join Starfleet came from, but instead the Orb unlocks something within Nog that he didn't know was there before. The focus on Winn is a little less successful; she's a difficult character to get right, and Martin and Mangels are better than some, but not as good as others, and she doesn't have a very clearly delineated character arc.

"Broken Oaths" by Keith R.A. DeCandido (O'Brien and Bashir, Season Four)
Definitely another gap-filling tale, in this case: how did O'Brien and Bashir overcome the rift in their friendship that was caused by "Hippocratic Oath"? Keith, as always, captures the character voices well, but I'm not convinced that this is a story that needed to be told. Or rather, that telling it in the tie-in fiction does much good. The show could have done something with this, but didn't; writing a short story about it eight years later doesn't really solve the problem that it seems to have no ramifications for their friendship.

"...Loved I Not Honor More" by Christopher L. Bennett (Quark, Season Five)
It's a bit disappointing that the show never brought Grilka back (or even mentioned her) after her two appearances on the show; Bennett, of course, explains that for us. It's true to the characters, and I like how it points out that Quark was willing to compromise with Grilka, but Grilka was never willing to compromise with Quark, and that proves the divisive point that means they can't have an ongoing relationship. But like "Broken Oaths," I think it feels largely like gap-plugging.

"Three Sides to Every Story" by Terri Osborne (Jake Sisko and Tora Ziyal, Season Six)
Something my wife and I noted is that there's a period on the show where there are tons of kids running around: Jake, Nog, Ziyal, and Alexander are all there in late Season Five / early Season Six. Yet the show never does anything with this: I feel like there ought to have been one episode that brought these characters together. "Three Sides to Every Story" weaves through the Season Six Occupation arc (one of my favorite periods of the show) to invent a relationship between Jake and Ziyal. And it's brilliant. Suddenly these two characters we never saw interact on screen have a deep and meaningful relationship that makes perfect sense. Ziyal's death hits even harder in this context, and both characters get to show their stuff. Jake really falls by the wayside on the show after this arc on the show, which was a real shame, but "Three Sides" is Jake at his best.

"The Devil You Know" by Heather Jarman (Jadzia Dax, Season Six)
Jadzia is another character who fell by the wayside on the television series sometimes. The stories that deal with her as a Trill in the first couple seasons ("Dax," "Invasive Procedures," "Equilibrium") always make her a bystander in her own tale, subject to the minutiae of space biology. Later in the show, episodes that are ostensibly about her really become about her and Worf; her best moments really come as a side character in other stories. Like, she's great as a member of the ensemble, but the writers struggle to give her her own episodes. "The Devil You Know" falls into none of these traps, however, giving us a story that is very Jadzia and very Trill in a way that's revelatory: Jadzia Dax is tired of death. The war hits her even harder than it hits everyone else because she has already seen centuries of death by this point, and she is fed up with it. What she will do to stop this from happening gives us a side of Jadzia we never saw on screen, but one entirely consistent with it, and I appreciated this plumbing the depths of Jadzia's soul. Plus this story contains a surprisingly sexy Jadzia/Worf scene. Like, whoa. Way to go, Heather Jarman, and too bad the show never ever pulled that off.

"Foundlings" by Jeffrey Lang (Odo, between Seasons Six and Seven)
Lang's story reunited Odo with his predecessor as chief of security on Terok Nor, Thrax, a man we never actually met because in "Things Past," Odo substituted Thrax for himself in his memories. I like their interactions, and I'm a sucker for any DS9 story with an "Odo investigates" plot; like all of the writers in this book, Lang has a good command of his chosen characters. But the ending of the story reveals a plot too convoluted to believe; I don't buy why all the subterfuge was necessary.

"Chiaroscuro" by Geoffrey Thorne (Ezri Dax, Season Seven)
Geoffrey Thorne is a very distinctive writer of Star Trek fiction, with out-there, cosmic plots that function more on an allegorical level than a literal one. Sometimes it works for me (Sword of Damocles is the best Titan novel, and if you disagree with me, I will fight you over it) and sometimes it does not ("Chiaroscuro"). This is a weird story, where Ezri discovers that on a pre-DS9 mission Jadzia found a key to resetting the universe, set up a maze to access based on Dante's Inferno and knowledge of her past hosts, and then wiped the whole incident from her own memory. There's a lot of great imagery here, but it's used in service of a series of weird and arbitrary puzzles. Plus for some reason everyone in this story gives mission briefings that omit essential information, which may build suspense, but is hard to believe.

"Face Value" by Una McCormack (Kira and Garak and Damar, Season Seven)
Una McCormack can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned, and this story confirms it. Set during the Season Seven Kira-on-Cardassia arc, this story expands on its events, and lets us see more of how Kira and Garak were able to work with the man who killed Tora Ziyal. McCormack is famous for her capturing of the voice of Garak, but here she shows that she also gets Kira and Damar perfectly as well. A great story about how three people from very different walks of life can come together under a common cause they never even thought they'd have in common. (Also it has a shifty fellow in it named "Vilar," who is so totally Blake's 7's Vila, played by the excellent Michael Keating.)

"The Calling" by Andrew J. Robinson (Garak, long after Season Seven)
This is a weird story, and I'm not convinced it makes sense. I like a lot of the individual components (the deterioration of Cardassia, Garak visiting Paris), but the story doesn't always successfully integrate them: if Garak is going to Paris to get help for Cardassia, why does he assume a cover identity and need to get a job while he's there? Robinson is, of course, the only person better at capturing Garak's voice than McCormack, so the story is worth it for that if nothing else, and it's filled with lovely Garakian insights into the human (and Cardassian) condition. I haven't yet read any Star Trek novels that take place after The Next Generation: Losing the Peace; do they deal with any of what's going on in here? I know Bashir becomes a Section 31 agent, which I guess could explain why Garak can't make contact with him.

"Revisited" by Anonymous (Jake Sisko, even longer after Season Seven)
The whole book has a nice little frame sequence that shows how "The Visitor" played out in the Prime timeline, where Jake wasn't warped by losing his father at a young age. (I shall remain convinced it was written by Marco Palmieri until someone comes forth to prove otherwise.) It's pretty nice, except that the whole thing is premised on a statement Melanie makes to Jake: "In all your writings, you never talk about the station where you grew up. About Deep Space 9." But Jake's first book is, according to "You Are Cordially Invited," a set of stories about the Dominion Occupation of the station!

During Marco Palmieri's time at Simon & Schuster, he edited four anniversary anthologies: Prophecy and Change for Deep Space Nine's tenth anniversary in 2003, Distant Shores for Voyager's tenth in 2005, Constellations for the original's 40th in 2006, and The Sky's the Limit for The Next Generation's twentieth in 2007. Together, they constitute one of my favorite parts of Star Trek fiction, and though Constellations is probably my favorite, Prophecy and Change is next. The richness of the Deep Space Nine tapestry means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; it's great to see the characters grow and change all over again.

Next Week: I return to another reading project, my journey through the adventures of Professor Bernice Summerfield!

22 August 2016

Review: Reading for Our Time by J. Hillis Miller

In a move that's probably about as far from George Eliot as you could get (though it does feature a Judoon reading Victorian literature), I've reviewed Doctor Who: Classic Doctors New Monsters, Volume One over at Unreality SF this week.

Hardcover, 191 pages
Published 2012
Borrowed from the library
Read June 2016
Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede and Middlemarch Revisited
by J. Hillis Miller

Let's start with what this book is. I was inspired to pick this monograph up after my examination of the metaphor of "animated tax-pennies" in Middlemarch, as J. Hillis Miller had one of the only sustained discussions I could find of it. Miller's book is a detailed close reading of George Eliot's Adam Bede and Middlemarch, specifically those parts of those novels about reading itself. Miller argues that both books are about the reading of signs and signs to be read. The discussion of Adam Bede is mostly there to buttress that of Middlemarch, which takes up half of the chapters, but about 70% of the text.

Miller argues that Middlemarch is about our tendency to want totalizing systems that let us understand the world, and about the fact that those totalizing systems tend to break down and not encompass as much as we would like. Miller finds a pattern in Middlemarch of those who are “mystified by a belief that all the details she or he confronts make a whole governed by a single center, origin, and end”-- and this pattern is lethal, causing problems for Casaubon, Lydgate, Bulstrode, Fred Vincy, Rosamond, and Dorothea (49). But that failure is okay, Miller goes on to argue, so long as we are aware of the limitations of the system. Dorothea seeks a totalizing system when she marries Casaubon (of course I like this guy, he's got my argument basically), but does not find one. She doesn't find one when she marries Ladislaw later, but his incomplete system yields useful action at least, unlike Casaubon's, plus Ladislaw doesn't care about origins (50). He's willing to accept the shortfall in the system if it lets him accomplish something.

Miller also argues that the novel (both as a general concept and Middlemarch in particular) is an incomplete but useful system as well, a series of signs that allows us to learn something about the interpretation of signs from the way that its characters and narrator interpret series of signs. Metaphors are slippery and don't have a real base; the torturous tax-penny metaphor, Miller argues, is designed to reveal that. Its complexity is a feature, not a bug: “The meaning of Middlemarch is indeterminate not in the sense that useful commentary may not be written on it, or that one can say anything about it one likes, but in the sense that no commentary can be exhaustive or wholly coherent. It will be the less coherent insofar as it yields to the richness of the text” (137).

As a guide to the complexity of Middlemarch (and Adam Bede), Reading for Our Time would be difficult to surpass. His own totalizing system of how to understand the novel is compelling and comprehensive, taking in numerous aspects, and not being beguiled. For any reading of Middlemarch to be compelling, it must reconcile the epilogue where Dorothea gives up on reform and sticks to being Ladislaw's wife-- probably the most disconcerting part of the novel, especially to a contemporary reader. But I reckon he just about manages it, arguing that it's a true decision, as it derives from Dorothea's emotions, not her feeling compelled to live up to totalizing system of society/morality that probably doesn't exist.

Where the book falls short is in its stated mission, in arguing that Adam Bede and Middlemarch are relevant to our time and our lives. While I agree with the premise, his examples are facile, complaining about American partisan politics of 2012 in a seemingly un-self-critical way, with jabs at the Republican party for its stance on Obamacare and tax cuts. Miller seems unable to step outside the totalizing system of contemporary American liberal discourse; as a result, his book provides only the most banal of insights. But despite its prominence in the title, it's actually a very minor part of the book, so it doesn't drag the book down. It just caused me to make the occasional eye-roll.

19 August 2016

Recasting across David Lynch's Wild at Heart and Álex de la Iglesia's Dance with the Devil

There's a story about when two different films were being made of two different Elmore Leonard novels by two different directors for two different production companies at the same time: Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown (1997) and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998). Both novels and thus both films featured appearances by the character Ray Nicolette. (I haven't see either film, but I believe he's a central character in Jackie Brown and a cameo in Out of Sight.) Tarantino cast Michael Keaton as Nicolette, and Steven Soderbergh asked if he could do the same for Out of Sight, to maintain continuity. Thus followed a lot of legal wrangling between the two production companies over the ownership of the character and Keaton's performance of the character, until Tarantino stepped in to say that his production company needed to just give the character to Soderbergh's, and that was that, and Michael Keaton appeared as the same character in two otherwise completely unrelated films.

This doesn't always happen, of course. Probably it almost never happens. The Marvel character of Quicksilver, a mutant whose real name is Pietro Maximoff, appeared in both 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past and 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron played by completely different actors in completely different circumstances. (I liked the X-Men version better.)

Earlier this year I read the first seven Sailor & Lula novels by Barry Gifford, and I grew curious about the film adaptations, because the first two books, Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula and Perdita Durango, have both been adapted into films, but by completely different directors with completely different casts: David Lynch's Wild at Heart (1990) and Álex de la Iglesia's Dance with the Devil (1997). Though recently I've been watching most any film adaptations of books I read, my motivation for watching these films back to back was mostly to see to what extent they could be perceived to go together.

The books aren't exactly sequels per se; Perdita Durango is a side character in Wild at Heart, who gets her own adventure in the second book. Sailor and Lula, the stars of every other novel in the series, do not actually appear in Perdita Durango. So the main character who carries over between Wild at Heart and Dance with the Devil is Perdita herself:
Isabella Rossellini as Perdita in Wild at Heart
Rosie Perez as Perdita Durango in Dance with the Devil

I'm not sure if it's possible to rationalize these two characters as the same person. Isabella Rossellini's version in Wild at Heart is apathetic and sardonic, unreacting and uncaring. She's the girlfriend of a hitman, and seems to have something of a history in the business herself-- Sailor comes to her to find out if a hit has been placed on him. Rosie Perez's version in Dance with the Devil, on the other hand, is wild and impulsive and giggly. We don't have a clear vision of what she did prior to the film's events, but she quickly hooks up with a drug smuggler/bank robber/witch doctor/kidnapper seemingly mostly for the thrill of it, which it's hard for me to picture the Rossellini version doing.

Rossellini is Italian (though not playing Italian), whereas Perez is Puerto Rican (though again, I don't think playing as such; the character seems to cross the Mexican-American border a lot, but I'm not sure it's ever said which side is her home). I'm not sure how much that difference matters. They are both equally unperturbed by violence, however; when Rossellini's hitman boyfriend is blown apart (literally), she just legs it without a second thought, while Perez's version sees some pretty terrible things and does some pretty terrible things in the course of her adventures.

Perdita actually isn't the only character who appears in both films. There's also Marcelles Santos, a gangster chief: (In Wild at Heart he's based in North Carolina, in Dance with the Devil, Texas.)
J. E. Freeman as Santos in Wild at Heart
Don Stroud as Santos in Dance with the Devil

I liked both performances, but they're not really the same. Freeman is very intense, very focused, whereas Stroud plays it comic but then says completely something completely awful in a totally genial way.

Most difficult to reconcile is Reggie, a small-time gangster hired to do a hit by Santos, because he changes race between the two films:
Calvin Lockhart as Reggie in Wild at Heart
Carlos Bardem as Reggie in Dance with the Devil

In Wild at Heart, he's hired by Santos to kill Harry Dean Stanton's Johnnie Farragut (my favorite character in either film; a nice private detective to whom Lynch does terrible things that he does not deserve). In Dance with the Devil, he's made into the cousin of Romeo, Perdita's partner in crime. Reggie is hired by Santos to eliminate Romeo after Romeo botches a smuggling operation he's doing for Santos. Beyond the race transformation, it would sort of stretch coincidence that Santos would hire Perdita's boyfriend to kill Sailor and Romeo's cousin to kill Johnnie Farragut, and then later hire Romeo's cousin to kill Perdita's partner! (At the time of Wild at Heart, Perdita and Romeo have not met, and they don't meet through Reggie or Santos; they just bump into each other on the U.S.-Mexican border.) Though Barry Gifford loved coincidence, so maybe it's totally in-keeping with the style of the novels.

There's also Juana, Perdita's sister. The two versions can't have anything to do with each other, I think:
Grace Zabriskie as Juana in Wild at Heart
Andaluz Russel as Juana in Dance with the Devil

In Wild at Heart, she's another contract killer (working with Reggie, actually). Lynch builds this out of one(!) mention in the whole novel-- Perdita tells her boyfriend that her sister Jauana called, and that's all Juana has to do with anything. I don't think the film ever specifies that Perdita and Juana are sisters, though I guess they do have the same hairdo. In Dance with the Devil, she only appears in occasional flashbacks of Perdita's: she was murdered by her husband years ago when he snapped one day.

I'm sure there are other examples I can't think of of two books in the same series that get adapted into films relatively independently. You could probably make Wild at Heart and Dance with the Devil line up if you really squinted and contorted and ignored the race change-- surely Reggie could be Romeo's cousin, and maybe Juana got killed by her husband between the two films, and maybe Santos moved his whole operation to Texas. And we're just seeing different facets of Perdita's personality on different days-- the differences between Rossellini's and Perez's Perditas probably aren't any bigger than, say, Ed Norton and Mark Ruffalo's Bruce Banner, who are definitely meant to be the same guy. (And don't forget that Billy Dee Williams and Tommy Lee Jones both played the same Harvey Dent!)

What's interesting is what does line up: tone and technique. Gifford's original novels discuss some very brutal events, but always in a very matter-of-fact fashion. The books tell about terrible things, which usually don't feel terrible thanks to the detachment of his speakers. Both Lynch and de la Iglesia use the same technique of cross-cutting this detached narration with flashbacks to the actual brutality of the events. And in Lynch's case, he sometime heaps on extra violence not implied by the accounts given in dialogue. I found this removed a lot of what made the books charming and interesting to me; the films are less depictions of eccentric characters and more unfoldings of grotesque spectacles. There's a cynicism to it all-- Gifford loved Sailor and Lula, whereas Lynch is mocking them. (I haven't cared much for Perdita Durango in any incarnation, to be honest.) They have their moments, but on the whole, both films left me cold.

18 August 2016

Review: Victorian Science Fiction in the UK by Darko Suvin

Hardcover, 461 pages
Published 1983
Borrowed from the library
Read January 2013
Victorian Science Fiction in the UK: the Discourses of Knowledge and of Power
by Darko Suvin with John Sutherland

The heart of Suvin's book is a 110-page bibliography of science fiction published in Britain between 1848 and 1900, which is definitely its most useful feature; I have consulted his descriptions many times now, skimming for topics of interest (for example, violent uprisings) in order to direct my current research toward books of use.

The rest of the book is sort of a hodgepodge of essays on various topics, like "Nineteenth-Century SF and the Book Trade" (this one by John Sutherland), "Biographical Sketches of S-F Writers, 1848-1900," "The Social Addressees of Victorian Fiction," and "Narrative Logic, Ideological Domination, and the Range of SF." Some of them are better than others; Suvin is at his best when discussing transformations and influences of genres (I liked his categories of the different subgenres of science fiction pre- and post-1871, for example), and at his weakest when he gets too theoretical, or goes off on historical flights of fancy, or starts delivering value judgments based on his personal definition of science fiction, not one rooted in the period under discussion. So for some essays, I took lots of notes because there was lots worth nothing, whereas in other, I found nothing worth noting at all.