T:SCC Samson and Delilah — A Vid By Any Other Name

The opening sequence of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘ season 2 premiere “Samson and Delilah” is tightly-edited, and seems like it was structured beat-by-beat off of the soundtrack used for the scene, “Samson and Delilah,” as sung by Shirley Manson, former lead singer of the rock group “Garbage” who also happens to be playing a new recurring character in the series.

Watch here:

As I watched the opening, I couldn’t help but read the sequence as if it were a fan-vid, as in ‘vidding.’  My friend/colleague Alexis Lothian, author and maintainer of Queer Geek Theory (http://queergeektheory.wordpress.com/) has been working on/with vidding of late, which almost certainly helped inform my viewing.  Vidding has a great deal of transformative potential, in that juxtaposing specifically-edited scenes from one or more show/film to a soundtrack can easily and affectively change the original scenes and create/unlock new or underprivilidged readings.  Vidding is an argument, constructed and polished as any other, an argument using audio-visual elemets edited together in the proud tradition of a Henry Jenkins-style Textual Poaching.

More than just in that opening sequence, the whole episode seems to be a riff on the title/content of the song, casting John Connor as Samson and Cameron as Delilah.  It’s not terribly surprising to have this tightly-coded opening, considering the potent use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” at the end of last season to support the inexorable menace of the Terminators.

Most of the time, a TV/film score is a supplement, a way of re-inforcing or undercutting the tone of a scene.  It’s more rare to have a scene where the music takes the foreground, and it seems as if the visual and diegetic-audio component is supplemental to the score.  But sometimes the music tells the story, sets the tone.  It remins me of the sequential art form, where the narrative relies at different times more on the text or more on the art.  Using the song “Samson and Delilah” allowed for the show to immediately set the stakes for the second season and ride the driving emotion of the song to open the episode and the season with a great deal of momentum, which then is carried forward by the relentless pace of the chase-and-hide-and-chase episode.  “Samson and Delilah” felt more like a Terminator film than most any of the other episodes thusfar, emphasizing the lack of fatigue or remorse on the part of the Terminators.

The Samson/Delilah dynamic is the latest layer of what is a growing theme in the show, a meditation on faith and the role of a messiah.  John Connor is the Promised Hero who is destined to save humanity, with his own personal angel he himself sent back to ensure that he could fulfil his destiny.  Agent Ellison (named for Harlan Ellison, whose story “Demon With a Glass Hand” was an inspiration for the original Terminator) is a man of faith, who comes to view the Terminators as agents of the Adversary, falling into Dr. Silberman’s paradigm, viewing the coming Judgement Day as being that of Revelation (the title of that episode “The Demon Hand” was another nod to the Ellison story.  The Terminator series has always had those strands running through it, but the series has the advantage of being able to develop these themes over time, subtly and incrementally.  In addition, with Cameron inquiring about the ressurection, we see another thread in the tapestry of that theme, as her character develops both along the Delilah angle, a continuing possible threat, but since she was just ressurected, her sins washed away, she is re-christened as a savior figure herself as John’s guardian angel.

The show has clearly found its stride, and if the rest of the season to follow the cues of the premiere, I think we’ll be in for a good year for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

2008-2009 TV (P)Reviews

Autumn is here, which means many things.  One of those things is New TV.  Using my sources, I’ve found and viewed a few advance versions of TV pilots for this coming season.

Fringe (Fox — Premire: Tues Sep. 9)  Heralded by some as “X-Files for the New Generation,” J. J. Abrams’ new show posits a world where a society of “Fringe” scientists decide to use the world as their laboratory, putting into action technologies/concepts like teleportation, cellular disintegration, telepathy, and others.  The bad guys are the ones who are working to take the ‘pseudo’ out of pseudo-science, no matter what it takes.  The shows’ lead is Anna Torv, playing Olivia Dunham, an FBI agent who gets dropped into a ‘special’ case and turns to Peter Bishop (Joshua “Pacey” Jackson), the son of brilliant-but-crazy scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) to solve the case.

Torv helps the show give us an honest-to-goodness strong female character in a tv show.  And what I mean by this is a strong, cometant, believable character who happens to be female.  Her strength isn’t about being an honorary male or a heavyhanded political gesture, just a solid character.

Jackson provides a nuanced view of a troubled genius too smart to fit in, who has massive daddy issues with regards to his Einstein-meets-Frankenstein father.  The Bishop father-and-son dynamic is solid from the beginning, and will be one of the things to watch as the show develops.  The doctors Bishop match the bad guys whacky science for whacky science, and another awesomeness of the show comes from the fact that we it seems likely to have a cow as an ongoing character — because of the need for a test-subject on hand.

We’ll undoubtedly have a metaplot to track behind the week-to-week weird situations with weirder science. Dunham gives us the layman’s POV to ground the doctors Bishop’s incomprehensively-brilliant technobabble.  Certainly worth tuning in for–give it a shot.  Let’s hope that Abrams has left enough structure and enough attention left to keep things going on LOST while he gets Fringe off the ground.

Leverage (TNT — December 2008)  Hollywood-style pitch: Ocean’s Eleven meets Burn Notice.  Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), a former Insurance Fraud  investigator assembles a team of a computer fraud expert (Aldis Hodge), a thug (Christopher Kane), a crazy thief (Beth Riesgraf), and a con-woman (Gina Bellman).  After their first heist stealing back secrets an avionics company on behalf of the company they actually belong to, Ford and the team decide to take up tough-luck cases and set themselves up as do-gooder con-people for hire, using “alternative revenue streams”

Here’s a quote from Ford that encapuslates the team’s mission statement:  “People like that, corporations like that — they have all the money, they have all the power, and they use it to make people like you go away.  Right now, you’re suffering under an enormous weight.  We provide…leverage

The show is witty, sharp, has great twists and turns and double-crosses, with a cast of complicated untrustworthy compelling people.  Undoubtedly we’ll learn about these people’s pasts, see them confronted with great ethical/moral choices, and get snarky smart geeky heist/capers along the way.  Set your Tivo now, even though it doesn’t debut until December.

True Blood (HBO — September 7)

Brought to HBO by Alan “Six Feet Under” Ball, this show is an adaptation of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris.

Imporant note:  This is not just Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight for the 20-something set.  The series gives a fresh, or at least less-coffin-stale version of vampires, with the bloodsuckers having recently “Come out of the coffin” and joined mainstream society (or at least are trying).  The vampire community has the advantage to do so as a result of the wide release of a Japanese cocktail called “Tru Blood” which provides for all of a vampire’s nutritional needs — the ultimate protein shake, so to speak.

The sociological laboratory for the effects of this attempted integration works at marrying two still-relevant civil rights issues by setting the show in small-town Louisiana.  The Vampire-as-Other metaphor sometimes leans towards Vampire as GLBT, sometimes towards Vampire as black.  Our POV into this world is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress (smart money says the telepathy is some kind of connection to the vampire world, which means she’s already a liminal figure, between humanity and the vampires.  Folklorically speaking, it makes her a perfect mediator).  Her Beauty-and-the-Beast counterpart is Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a loner-type vampire with dark soulful eyes that will doubtless send as many/more fangirls into a heart-flutter as Paquin will do for geekboys (each of course will also woo fans of any gender identity and biological configuration that makes them attracted to either gender/sex, obviously).

Sookie and Bill’s romance will serve as our case-study for Vampire-Human relations, with the supporting characters filling out various stereotypes about dating across lines of cultural difference while playing out their own interpesonal dramas.  Such dramas include Sookie’s best friend, a mouthy african-american woman who can’t keep a job becaus she’s just too uppity (Huh?), Jason Stackhouse, Sookie’s womanizing trouble-magnet brother, and more.  The Telepathy effect is interesting, but can sometimes make it as hard to sort out the important information as it must be for Sookie.  I had to go back a couple of times to get the most important lines.

The preair I watched was missing a few bits, so I’ll have to re-watch now that it’s legitimately been shown.

All three of these shows get the 21st Century Geeks stamp of approval, ranging in enthusiasm from ‘check it out’ to ‘Made of Awesome.’

Hancock and the Moore Continuum

The reviews for Hancock were far from kind, and yet, the film made $78 million in the USA and Canada in the first weekend.  The 3:40 showing I went to yesterday was completely packed.  A full Sunday afternoon matinee means one thing — beaucoup bucks.

In a summer when Iron Man’s success annihilated even the most ambitious projections, with The Incredible Hulk quickly following (to somewhat lesser financial and critical success), it seems only natural to put Hancock up as Yet Another Superhero Blockbuster (though the likely #1 Superhero Blockbuster of the summer is still to come, i.e. The Dark Knight)

Here’s where we move into specifics — so beware if you haven’t seen the film.

Except that Hancock is more like The Eternals meets Powers.  It comes across with a much more post-modern approach to the supers genre, with Act I as a superhero deconstruction, Act II the subsequent reconstruction, and Act III escalating the crazy.  Sadly, Act III needed a thorough re-write — or it had that re-write, and some level of producer/studio/whatever influence trimmed all the exposition that was needed to make the end of the film structurally sound.

The connection between Hancock and Mary is clearly (almost too clearly) established in the first part of the film, and I certainly enjoyed the super-powered throwdowns of Act III.  Turns out that the concept for Hancock is far cooler than originally suspected, with beings of incredible power made in pairs fated to be drawn to one another, then become mortal and grow old together.  Mary and Hancock are the only pair left (to Mary’s knowledge).

It’s an interesting approach to supers, and puts the comparison between gods and superheroes an explicit part of the film.  I read Hancock as being Thunderbird (due to the Tornado and his general destructiveness), or possibly Horus.  Mary would be a fire deity of some sort.

When you look at the film from the meta-level of casting and the market, it was pretty obvious that Charlize Theron wasn’t just going to be the dutiful and suspicious wife of Jason Bateman.  And I’d heard a spoiler a month or two back that gave away the Act III reveal.  Despite all of this, I enjoyed the film, even though Act III makes for a less-than-satisfactory conclusion.  The Psychology-professor turned criminal mastermind could have been a decent villain, but he was barely small potatoes compared to the stakes of Mary and Hancock’s 3000-year long on-again-off-again divinely mandated pairing.

Hancock brings up my theory that according to Alan Moore, all superheroes and their stories ultimately slide to one of two extremes.  On the one hand, we have the Superhero as Fascist — exemplified by Marvelman/Miracleman.  Power and altruism eventually leads to those with power taking control for everyone else’s good.  On the other hand, we have the Superhero as Pervert/Psycho — exemplified by Watchmen.  Superheroes get off on fighting crime, being above the law, and the mental instability that drives them to heroism will inevitably consume them.  Let’s call this the Moore Continuum.

Now of course, often times Fascists are psychotic, so it’s not a cut-and-dry setup.  Hancock trends towards the superhero as Pervert/Psycho (or asshole, really), with our hero starting out as an anti-social drunk with anger management issues and a desperate need for human connection and appreciation.  It does re-construct Hancock as hero in Act II (whichs is more than a lot of late 80s/early 90s superhero narratives would do), but it doesn’t surprise me to learn that this script began its search for representation and funding about 10 years ago (very late Iron Age/early Platinum Age in supers history).

The explanation for Hancock’s heroism is (according to Mary) in-born, as if Hancock was made by Them (the Demi-Urge(s), the Titans, etc.) to be a contingency plan to protect humanity — which is at least an interesting move in terms of the supers genre.

Which I think is why the film is ultimately a positive experience for me.  It’s much more a Supers story than many comic book movies, as it isn’t drawing on already-established cultural knowledge of a character like Spider-Man or The Hulk.  Sure, Hancock is the Drunk Superman Movie, but it’s also an examination of loneliness, validation, the relationship between a hero and the populace they protect, the perception and contextualization of heroism.  Saying that Hancock has an inborn, by-design imperative to protect sets up Supers (as exemplified by Hancock himself) as humanity’s guardians, their security subroutine.  This trends towards the Superhero as Fascist end of the Moore Continuum, and brings up the following question:

How far can we and should we go with our personal/collective power to bring change for the better when we know that other people dissagree, sometimes violently, about what that better means?  Can we act on our personal morality/ethics to make radical changes to how society works and not become the Fascists preaching Heteropraxy and Dogma?  Where’s the balance?  It’s one that the supers genre is particularly good for examining, though I’d say that said potential isn’t always being used very well.  Most narratives that examine that question tend to go waaaay too far to one side or the other and criticizing the results without bothering to try to find the middle.  The original Squadron Supreme deals with the middle but then quickly goes off the Fascist end.

All of this from a film with a 36% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.  Today’s lesson — don’t necessarily trust mainstream critics when they talk about a genre you’ve spent your whole life invested in and investigating.  Films can be many things to many people.

I’d still like to see if there’s a director’s cut in store that includes some of the needed exposition that I can only imagine ended up on the cutting room floor to make the film more Summer Blockbuster-y (since the film’s primary genre was actually Summer Blockbuster instead of Superhero Deconstruction/Reconstruction).  But that’s another post on genre theory.

Mediating the 21st Century Geek

In case you haven’t noticed, geeks are big.  Geek culture is big, geek subculture is ascendant, being mainstreamed and both ideologically and commercially incorporated by said mainstream. This trend is not entirely positive or negative, but is complicated, like most things.

For this post, I’m going to be looking at two new TV shows that debuted during the WGA-strike-shortened 2007-2008 broadcast year.  Those shows are NBC’s Chuck and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory.  Both of these shows star characters who I call geeks, though in the shows, they are often known as nerds rather than/in addition to geeks.

First, let’s talk about geeks vs. nerds.  I’ve been reading Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People, which is a cultural studies history of the nerd.  For me, Geek and Nerd are sometimes synonymous terms which refer to substantially overlapping subculture groups.

Here’s the important overlap — Geeks and nerds are conceived of as intellectually inclined, socially mal-adjusted individuals with intense commitment to non-majoritarian hobbies.  Geeks are more associated with fandoms, computers, and media, wheras nerds are more associated with academia and scholarship.

Geeks were the kids who played Magic: the Gathering during lunch.  Nerds were the ones with their noses who spent afternoons at Science Olympiad/Academic Decathalon.  In high school, I was both a geek and a nerd, since I did all of the above.  Geek has become the more dominant term, and is also the one with the greater cultural cache at the moment, given things like Best Buy’s Geek Squad, The CW’s Beauty and the Geek, and the like.

We’ll be bouncing back and forth between nerdiness and geekiness pretty quick here, which is why I wanted to define terms before diving in.

Chuck — Meet the Lovable Geek

In Chuck, the titular character is Charles Bartowski, the head nerd of the ‘Nerd Herd’ at a ‘Buy More’ — TV-world versions of the Geek Squad from Best Buy.  Chuck was an engineering major at Stanford, but was expelled from the school due to the machinations of his former best-friend, Bryce Larkin (who also stole Chuck’s girlfriend away from him).  Five years after his expulsion, we meet Chuck in his aimless path working in the Nerd Herd and hanging out with his even-geekier friend Morgan Grimes.

Chuck is depicted in an archetypal role I’ll call the Lovable Geek.  Chuck is handsome in a goofy way (because everyone important on TV is pretty), kind and intelligent, but awkward around women who aren’t either related or under-age.  For Chuck, being a geek is about being smart and technically adept and interested in things like Batman and Dune and Call of Duty 4.  Morgan serves as a counter-point to Chuck, the Uber-Geek to Chuck’s Lovable Geek.  In Morgan, we see what Chuck could/would be if he had less social acumen.  Chuck is our protagonist geek because he is more accessible, less esoteric in his personality and interests.

The Big Bang Theory — Four Flavors of Geek

In The Big Bang Theory (shortened as TBBT) we find a similar configuration, but with more variants of the geek archetype.  The characters in TBBT are more firmly nerds than Chuck and Morgan in Chuck, but they are also most certainly geeks (they all dress up as the Flash for a halloween party, they play Talisman and Halo, they geek out about acquiring the original time machine prop from the 1960 film The Time Machine.  The four geek/nerds in TBBT are all faculty at and/or employed by Caltech.

The Lovable Geek lead in TBBT is physicist Leonard Hofstadder, PhD.  Leonard is the most socially adept of the four, and frequently acts as the group’s interpreter to the rest of the world (most frequently the neighbor Penny, who Leonard has a crush on).  Leonard and his roommate/friend Sheldon Cooper, PhD are the host for the geeky/nerdy antics of their circle of friends, including Howard Walowitz, an engineer and Rajesh Koothrappali, an astrophysicist.

Leonard’s romantic interest is Penny, a classically pretty bleach-blonde from the midwest who moves in next door to the geek/nerds.  Penny works as a waitress while trying to break in to show business, and is completely ‘Normal.’  She’s Everywoman, frequently the straight woman to the geek’s jokes.

Sheldon Cooper is the Uber-Geek for the show, manifested more properly perhas as the Uber-Nerd.  Sheldon has the highest IQ of the quartet of geniuses, and the complete social incompetance to go with it.  Sheldon is an instance of the double-edge of genius that makes it harder to communicate effectively with the rest of the world.  Sheldon was a child genius, and looks down his nose at those less intellectually capable than he.  Sheldon is the standoffish insular and hermitish geek/nerd, who pulls Leonard away from the rest of the world and more into the realm of calculations and formula and speculation.

Howard Walowitz, the engineer, is the Annoyingly Extraverted Geek.  Howard has no problem speaking to women, in fact he does so all the time, and thinks he’s awesome at it.  However, his confidence comes off as arrogance and the obvious attempts lack any natural charm.  Howard knows about charm and how it’s supposed to work, but is incapable of implementing the techniques he sees from others.

Rajesh Koothrappali is an Indian astrophysicist and the show’s Painfully Introverted Geek.  Rajesh is incapable of speaking to women without either alcohol or experimental drugs.  He represents the ethnic geek, those geeks from recently-developing countries like India, China, South Korea, etc. who are lumped in with the geek world.

Nerds and Race

At this point, I’ll interject with some of Nugent’s theory.  Nugent constructs a continum of racism with regards to nerds/jocks and ethnic stereotypes.  Nugent identifies a Animal<->Machine spectrum, where peoples of different types are conceived as being more animal-like or more machine-like.  Caucasians get to be the ‘norm’ in the middle (yay racism!) with Jocks on the animal side of average and nerds on the machine side.  Africans go further towards the ‘animal’ side due to racist conceptions of Africans and African-Americans as being more animalistic, associated with physical endeavors, etc.  Asians are opposite Africans, placed on the scale towards the Machine side, due to racist conceptions of Asians as being less feeling, more mechanistic and associated with the technical.

Looking at the Flavors

In TBBT, Leonard and Sheldon are conceived as one pair of geek types: Leonard is capable of walking in the ‘average’ world, though his intelligence and geekiness sets him apart.  Sheldon is mostly incapable of walking in the ‘average’ world, cleaving to the world of his hobbies and profession.  Howard tries to court women but is unsuccessful because his confidence is untempered by empathic understanding/skill, while Raj is a ‘great listener’ (he once gets picked up by a girl at a party without ever talking — in bed, she praises his skills as a listener.) who has a mental/emotional block to actually conversing with women.

TBBT portrays four flavors of geek, and it’s no surprise who our romantic male lead is:  Leonard makes efforts to reach out beyond the geek community in initially attempting to pursue Penny romantically, then inviting her into their social group when his initial efforts fail (and by fail, I mean fail to happen at all).  Leonard is the geek interpreter, the middle ground between Penny’s Everywoman and Sheldon’s Uber-Geek.  Normality and Geekdom seem to be portrayed as a continuum like Nugent’s Animal<->Machine spectrum.  As Leonard reaches out towards Penny, his fellow geeks see him moving away from his geek roots.  The show seems to be trying to work out the possibility of a geek dating a non-geek, reaching across the subcultural divide without losing your identity.

On the other hand, Chuck’s interest in Sarah Walker, the CIA agent assigned to protect him, is also a question of identity, but one determined by the Spy Show genre association of Chuck.  Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, complicated by the fact that Chuck is interested in Sarah and suffers through the fake relationship that he wishes was real.  This shows an uncomfortableness with the world of fantasy and make-believe–of course, for Chuck’s life, the make-pretend life is the boring cover and the real life is the dangerous adventure of a James Bond film directed by Judd Apatow.  Chuck has to keep his spy identity secret from those he cares most about, his sister and his best friend.  The secret makes him closer to Sarah, and if he were to leave the spy business, it’d mean leaving her as well.

Chuck, like TBBT tells a story of a geek coming out of his shell and becoming more confident.  His sister hopes that Sarah will help Chuck regain his confidence and gain some momentum in life.  The spy experience moves Chuck from the role of geek slacker and moving towards the geek-chic Analyst/Field Agent.  It’s a kind of geek fantasy — we have to pretend we’re slackers to protect those we love because we’re actually so cool that it’s dangerous, our technical/cultural knowledge is actually highly important to the world.

California — The Land of Geeks

Another notable similarity between Chuck and The Big Bang Theory is that both shows take place in Southern California.  This makes sense, as California hosts many of the centers of geekdom — San Diego ComicCon, Silicon Valley, Hollywood.  Geeks are a predominatly urban and suburban subculture, thriving in places with a preponderance of hobby stores, technological infrastructure, and media entertainment.  A number of other big cities are also geek-tacular, like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Austin, etc.

Geeks and Cybercultural Technophobia

Why are more geeks being depicted in leading roles in mainstream TV/film?  Here’s a possible reason that you might not have thought of.  Geeks are the stand-in for the technocratic citizen of the possible future, a future where everyone is plugged-in, technically adept without trying, communicates predominantly through non-embodied media.   Ambivalence about geeks is ambivalence about technology.  Returning to Nugent’s Animal<->Machine continuum, geeks are cyborgs–with Bluetooth phones and PDA exo-cortexes, we’re becoming increasingly disentanglable from our technology, and not everyone is happy about this.  Sometimes you want to turn off your phone, put up an away message on G-mail and just go run around in the park.

Leonard is negotiating between the romantic subsection of socialization, the scary embodied world of emotions aka ‘real life’ and the insular world of technology, science, and the mind.  It’s a false Cartesian dualism, but it’s one that continues to be propagated and used as argument against cyberculture.  There’s the fear that if we rely too much on machines, become too technically adept and cybercultural that we’ll lose our humanity, and so we use geeks as the testing grounds for those possible futures, trying to see how we can use the power of technology while remaining human.  It’s cyborg identity theory with geeks as the metaphorical (and sometimes literal–I mean, Chuck has a super-computer in his brain — even though it’s all still a flesh-and-blood brain) cyborgs for society to work out its issues.  And Leonard/Sheldon/Howard/Rajesh are test cases for the different ways that becoming technocrats/scientifically adept might affect our social/emotional capabilities.

Of course, I fall on the pro-geek side, but it’s interesting to see Geekdom not only being commoditized, but also used as a testing ground for us to try to resolve our ambivalent relationship with technological development and the growing role of mediated cyberculture.

Review: Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come

I don’t reach much historical fantasy.  I like history and all, but I tend to like my fantasy in created worlds, and there are sadly big chunks of history that my education has not left me as confident with as I’d like.  I can ramble all night about samurai-era Japan or early China, but I’ve never been that great on European history.

Luckily, this doesn’t matter for Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come. which occurs during the reign of Elizabeth the 1st, putting up a faerie queen called Invidiana as Elizabeth’s shadowy counterpart, ruler of the Onyx Court of fae under London.  Brennan finds that lovely balance between using history as a Hollywood backdrop and burying the plot in historical detail.  Instead, she doles out information here and there in neat packages, so that a reader such as myself with only a cursory knowledge of Elizabethan history can follow along quite confidently.

The novel follows two courtiers, one mortal and one fae.  Michael Deven is a mortal man seeking to make a name for himself and serve his queen and country.  Lady Lune is a disgraced faerie courtier trying to reclaim her former status.  The intricate overlapping stories contained in Midnight Never Come bring these two characters together in a fashion that delivers in several genre modes: romance, intrigue and mystery.

Something especially notable for this blog is that Midnight Never Come was inspired by a tabletop RPG campaign, most specifically a flashback segment of an ongoing game of Changeling: The Dreaming that Brennan ran several years ago. The Changeling-specific bits have been ironed off and the player-characters replaced by Brennan’s original creations, but it’s interesting to see honest-to-goodness RPG-generated fiction that’s, well, good.  I haven’t done extensive research into which of the many fantasy novels that seem like they’re cribbed from someone’s D&D game actually are, but I do know one very successful RPG->novel adaptation, and that’s the Wild Cards series.

Here’s the geek subcultural complex in action.  Writers like Brennan who are gamer geeks (I know this because I know Brennan–she’s currently in a Scion game that I’m running) in addition to being speculative fiction creators take inspiration from a different aspect of the overal geek subculture, creating a novel that appeals to fans of Elizabethan history as well as those who enjoy reading narratives about the fae.  Writers get inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, of course, but when that inspiration comes specifically from another not-as-often-used (well) aspect of geek culture, it’s notable.

But back to the novel itself. Brennan’s prose is lush and polished, her pacing is muscular, and the emotional lives of the characters reaches out from the page to the reader, so you can feel the struggles of the characters as they try to serve their kingdoms, their people, and themselves while trying to figure out how to deal with someone who has come into their life and stolen their heart at a time when quite frankly, it’s highly inconvenient to be distracted.

Midnight Never Come is a solid departure from Brennan’s first two novels, the action-adventure rides of Doppelganger and Warrior & Witch (being re-published as Warrior and Witch, respectively), but the change is one that Brennan seems very comfortable with.  More novels in the Onyx Court are expected in the future, interconnected but stand-alone novels set at various points in London’s history.  Give it a read, especially if you are a fan of Changeling, historical fantasy and/or Elizabethan England.

2007-2008 TV season post-mortem

Here’s a mostly comprehensive of the scripted shows I watched this last year and my commentary.  More in-depth hashing out of individual shows will likely follow soon.

Pushing Daisies

I watched the pilot to this early, sometime last summer, and expected to cherish the four or so episodes I’d get of it before it got canceled for being quirky, brilliant, and completely unappealing to the majority of TV audiences. Instead, it received rave reviews and had sufficient ratings to earn a full season order early on and then a second season order by the time the short season was done. It would have only been more miraculous if it had been on FOX (for that miracle, see the Terminator comments).

Pushing Daisies takes Bryan Fuller (of Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls)’s quirky morbidity and brings to life the most believable and charming contemporary faerie-tale/folk tale aesthetic that I’ve seen on TV. The omniscient VO narrator should be annoying, trite. But luckily narrator Jim Dale could read the phone book and make it charming. The writing is smart and distinctive, with turns of phrase and repetitions and other elements of a consistent voice that lends to the show’s appeal. The romantic dynamic between leads Lee Pace and Anna Friel provide the ongoing subplot for the series while the duo plus unabashedly profit-centric detective Chi McBride solve murder mysteries in order to collect the rewards, using Lee Pace’s gift for re-animating the dead.

If you are a fan of Fuller’s other work, like faerie tales, appreciate quirky murder mysteries, or have a soul whatsoever, give this one a try.


It’s getting crowded in the police procedural world, what with your CSIs and your NCISes and such. Life sets itself apart from the pack by using an ongoing mystery (Who framed the lead character, and why?) to provide a backdrop for the weekly mysteries solved by leads Charlie Crews (Damian Lewis) and Dani Reese (Sarah Shahi). Crews is a police officer who was falsely imprisoned for 12 years, then released with a huge-and-undisclosed cash settlement and a job as a detective. His partner Reese is a disgraced former undercover agent trying to get back in the driver’s seat of her own life.

But really, the best part of Life is that Crews was saved from going mad/evil in solitary confinement by turning to Zen Buddhism, thanks to his lawyer, played by Brooke Langton. He approaches his investigations with an uncommon and charming perspective, focusing on intuition, reading people, and questioning common convention. All of this goes on while he struggles to keep his cool while investigating the conspiracy that put him in jail. Damian Lewis puts in marvelous performances, and the ongoing arc shows the ways in which shows are learning to balance a LOST-inspired long-term mystery while maintaining tension episode-by-episode so that casual viewers can hop in and enjoy.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

This show was supposed to suck. Easy money said that it’d be a trite, second-rate attempt to cash in on a once-successful franchise. Terminator’s technophobia is soo late 20th century, I mean, seriously! Fans were lining up to get their hate on.

Too bad for them that the show is awesome. Lena Headey is a powerful and compelling Sarah Connor, a rival to Linda Hamilton’s portrayal according to some. Thomas Dekker, beloved as almost-certainly-gay sidekick Zach to cheerleader Claire in Heroes turns in a strong performance as the young John Connor, coming into his own as a warrior and a leader. And Summer Glau, while in danger of being typecast, is a fine counter-point to Arnold’s oversized overbearing menace as Cameron, an advanced terminator sent back from the future to protect John Connor. The show is true to the tone and material of the first two Terminator films, and completely ignores the plot of the third while stealing some of the more useful material. Brian Allen Greene shows up later on, and surprises those who knew only his 90210 teen-heartthrob-y-ness by being solid-to-good.

In addition to the fact that this show was supposed to suck, it was also supposed to get canceled right away once people discovered it was awesome. SF/F fans mumbling something about a space western are prickly around FOX and genre shows, but this time around the people calling the shots had their brains on straight and were paying attention to the opportunity they had in bringing the show in during the no-new-scripted-shows drought of the WGA strike, and pushed the HELL out of the show as it was starting up, to great success. The first season only got 9 episodes, but in that time they established a good serial rhythm with building plots, continuous tension and interesting character development, especially with regards to Cameron’s emotional development/learning and the 4th dimensional war being fought between future John Connor and Skynet.

Also, it had the 2nd best use ever of a Johnny Cash song in the film/tv medium, implementing “The Man Comes Around” in the season finale to remind us all how much of inexorable juggernauts Terminators really are.

The Big Bang Theory

The first time around, I didn’t like this show. I watched the pilot and took it as comedy making fun of geeks/nerds without the core of compassion for the subculture(s) that is necessary to not offend me. I allowed myself to be convinced to give the show another try, and found that over time, the show finds the right balance between laughing at nerds for being different and laughing about nerdy things because they’re funny.

This show, with a catchy theme song from the Barenaked Ladies (major geek cred, there), stars four nerdy geeks who work as faculty at USC—in physics, engineering, and whatever Raj actually does. Johnny Galecki is the romantic lead male as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter, who is the most socially capable of the gang, alongside neurotic super-genius Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and their buddies, would-be-ladies’ man engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg) and Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), who can’t speak around women without alcohol or experimental drugs.

Their nerdy equilibrium is shattered when blonde beauty Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in next door. Penny is an average gorgeous woman who moved out from the Midwest to start an acting career and ended up moving in next to Leonard and Sheldon. Leonard is instantly enamored, and the season unfolds as Leonard negotiates between his crush and his friendship with Penny while she acclimates to the area while learning how to understand and befriend the clatch of socially-awkward geniuses.

The show’s stance on the maturity/lack therof regarding geekdom/nerdiness isn’t exactly revolutionary, it refuses to outright condemn the nerds/geeks, and over the season builds towards a bridging of the cultural gap between everywoman Penny (TV everywoman, that is, ie super-hot) and the nerdy quartet.


Oh, LOST. You lost your way in season three, then found it once more thanks to Desmond “Ulysses” Hume and a realization that while the slashers and shippers love the Jack/Sawyer/Kate triangle, the rest of the audience wants to know what the frack is up with the island.

Season four brings us to a crossroads, with flash-forwards to some of the survivors off the island juxtaposed with the arrival of a mysterious freighter of would-be rescuers who of course turn out to have their own agenda with the island.

LOST season four continues to develop Benjamin Linus as one of the best TV villains of the era, and does a much better job of moving forward the plot and explaining things about the island even as the questions continue to pile up.

How I Met Your Mother

I was actually expecting this to be the last season of the show. A lot of the momentum of the third season seemed to be of the ‘lets get things settled so we can wrap up’ variety, but there’s at least one more season to go, wherin I imagine we’ll see the dynamic of the five friends change around once again as they move from being the people of first season towards the versions Older Ted speaks of them speaking to his children. Barney really gets to shine in this season, and we see Lilly and Marshall dealing with the conflicts of being young married adults trying to make it on their own, while Ted flails about trying to find The One.


A lot of shows have a moment that serves as the hook, the moment where you turn to your friend and realize that ‘Holy crap, this is going to be good.’

Chuck’s moment comes before the end of the teaser of the pilot episode when Chuck’s former roommate drops to the floor to the caption of ‘Bryce Larkin – Not an accountant’

Chuck (Zachary Levi) is a mid-twenty-something slacker geek who works at the BuyMore (Best Buy)’s Nerd Herd (Geek Squad) with his best friend, the even-geekier Morgan (Joshua Gomez). He has a loving and supportive sister Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), who is dating fellow doctor Captain Awesome (Ryan McPartlin). Chuck opens an e-mail from former roommate Larkin and inadvertently downloads the entire coded contents of the NSA/CIA data intersect. This makes Chuck a human computer in possession of national security secrets. CIA agent hottie Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and stone-cold badass NSA killer John Casey (Adam Baldwin) are assigned as his handlers, and the show follows Chuck trying to keep his life together while acting as an unlikely secret agent when he gets flashes of the intersect’s information.

The show’s appeal is in its charming humane depiction of the characters, who all grow and react in a way that transcends the easy formula (even when the plot actually follows formula). Sarah’s cover is as Chuck’s girlfriend, which is complicated by the fact that Chuck is actually falling for Sarah and Sarah has commitment/job issues regarding former partners. The supporting cast of Morgan, Ellie, Captain Awesome and the other characters of the Buy More lift the show above where it might otherwise settle, and the show is at its strongest when both the Spy and Buy More elements of the story are running on all cylinders.

The show probably has a built-in expiration date, as eventually Chuck will learn how to be a competent agent and be no longer the fish-out-of-water slacker geek. But as long as they keep the balance right and stay true to the characters, it’ll be a great ride.

Bionic Woman

The remake of Bionic Woman was supposed to be this big thing from BSG co-executive producer David Eick. Take the popular 70s girl-cyborg-power show and re-do it in a contemporary setting with a new gloss and the Battlestar treatment.

It flopped. Michelle Ryan was uninspired and bland as Jaime Sommers, the writing never really clicked, and the hidden darkness paramilitary world-saving group angle just didn’t work for me. Katee Sackhoff of Battlestar fame provided some edgy menace as cracked first bionic woman, but the show just never really came together. Think of this as the failed counterpoint to Terminator, showing how you do and don’t make a super-enhanced ass-kicking female character work in a TV show.


CW favorite Supernatural continued to deliver solid road-trip action-horror goodness, but also faltered some due to the fact that the network noticed the show’s popularity and did you guess what — Pandered.

PANDERING IS BAD! Write for your audience, sure, but there’s a clear distinction in most cases between knowing your audience so you can write for them and trying to cash in on demographic desires. The introduction of Bella and Ruby was an attempt to put more of a female presence into the show, but neither of the characters registered with (many) fans the way I imagine CW brass intended them to. Each added to the dynamic of the season, and ended up as not quite the characters you imagined them to be, but their addition felt blatant, sometimes forced, when really all you need to make the show great is putting Sam and Dean in a room together and have them be brothers while kicking ass.

The metaplot kicks into high gear in season three, evolving the mythology in cool ways that make the moral landscape of the show even more gray. The ending of the season was the right kind of infuriating cliffhanger, the one that makes you demand the following season immediately.


Heroes was last season’s ‘OMG this show is actually good, and popular too?’ genre hit, and it had a not-insignificant sophomore slump, exacerbated by the writer’s strike. Instead of keeping the Heroes together as a nascent super-team, they split up again and return to a status-quo while secrets about the previous generation of supers emerges, Hiro galavants around in feudal Japan and Peter Petrelli gets a much-needed haircut and a much-less-needed Irish damsel in distress girlfriend.

Adam Monroe makes a great character, and the Hiro in Japan stuff was wonderful, but there was the stench of pandering on some of the plotlines, as well as some serious duds in others – the Wonder Twins plotline turned out to be little more than a vehicle for another character’s arc, and not really in a good way.

The show also continued to slip into objectionable ideology regarding people of color, though it also snuck in some encouraging queerness with the Mohinder/Matt Parkman/Molly family unit.

Heroes has lost some of its luster, but it gave us some very strong episodes and I’m hoping Kring trusts his own voice (and that of Loeb and his other staff) more than thinking he needs to pander to the loudest fans’ voices. I’m all for interplay between creator and fans, but, y’know, done well.

Though, really, just keep putting Masi Oka into dangerous and funny situations so he can say things like ‘Gureto Sukotto!’ and I’ll be there until the show gets canned.


I imagine that in the future of media studies, we’ll look back at the 2007-2008 season and talk about the effect of the WGA strike on shows, which ones survived because of or despite of the strike, which shows were killed by it. Despite the drama on the production side, several gems managed to emerge from the mass, and get enough notice to earn themselves a second-season chance. And that at least is encouraging, especially considering the continuing success of some Spec Fic shows, even as the networks try to re-hash every tired trope they can get their hands on trying to replicate Battlestar Galactica and/or LOST.

Re-Post — Review: David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens

Re-post review #3:

David J. Williams’ The Mirrored Heavens is 21st century, next-gen cyberpunk, a grim imagining of a possible future our current international climate could easily produce. Four separate but inter-reliant plotlines fire like lasers, closing and eventually colliding in a breathtaking finale. Twists and turns are matched with breakneck pacing as Williams catapults the reader ever forward, ever onward with the tale of US counter-intelligence agents Jason Marlowe and Claire Haskell, who are stuck in the middle of the most monumental events since the end of the second Cold War. The Phoenix Space Elevator is humanity’s greatest technological achievement, a display of unified American and Eurasian power. It also goes down in flames before the end of Act One, setting the whole novel (and the series) into motion as various special forces try to hunt down Autumn Rain, the mysterious terrorist cell which executed the seemingly impossible strike.

Williams’ Razors are the 22nd century descendants of the original cyberpunk hackers and netrunners, who operate in a completely realized second world, the Zone. Their counterparts and teammates are Mechs, cyberware-enhanced soldiers who use awesome battlesuits to play out explosive choreagraphies that would have Michael Bay and John Woo exchanging high-fives.

The first novel ends at a turning point that positions the reader ready to plummet headlong into the next chapter of the story, satisfied but yearning for more.

The Mirrored Heavens shows how the cyberpunk genre is a still-valid mode of speculation about our future, a potent warning against global proliferation of arms and consolidation of control. Most of all, it shows the disastrous possibilities which could spin out of a 21st-century Cold War, with the US set against superpowers in both Europe and Asia.

Disclaimer: David J. Williams was a classmate of mine at the 2007 Clarion West Writers Workshop. I consider him a good friend, which of course colors my opinion, though the book’s merits stand on their own.

Re-Post — Review: Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn

Re-post review #2 with more commentary at the end.


Misborn is Campbell-nominee Sanderson’s second novel, and the first in an unknown-length series in the Final Empire. Basic premise: A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero emerged to save the world from ‘The Deepness’ — he did so, then proceeded to take over the world and be a jerk to everyone. The ‘skaa’ peoples were enslaved (note the extra vowel. According to EU Star Wars Corrolary #1, it means they’re all clones. It also means they are not in fact a whole race delineated by their taste in music.) and the Epic Hero turned Lord Ruler sets up shop as absolute dictator with rival noble families serving as his aristocracy.

Mistborn follows street-urchin turned Magic Wuxia asskicker Vin and Charming Rogue Revolutionary Kelsier as they fight against the Lord Ruler and his creepy-as-hell Steel Inquisitors, Terminator-like folks with steel spikes through their eyes.

The magic system of Allomancy is one of Mistborn‘s strengths. Allomancers come in two types — Mistings and Mistborn. Allomancers can burn metals in their system to invoke several different abilities. One enhances physical abilities, one enhances senses, others let Allomancers push and pull on metals (to achieve wuxia-esque jumpy mobility), and so on. Mistings can only burn one metal, while Allomancers can burn all 10. Guess which type our heroes are? The multi-metal-burning, wuxia-style jumping around no-metal-blade using types, of course!

It’s a solid ride, with well-realized characters and one of the more believable romances that still uses standby tale types. I got all the way to the end before realizing that there are only a handful of female characters in the novel with speaking parts.

Please pardon this digression while I rant:

ATTENTION, AUTHORS! — Just because (one of) your lead character(s) is male/female, doesn’t mean you can then get away with having (almost) no other relevant/prevalent male/female characters in the novel! Aside from Vin, there are about 4 important female characters in the novel, 2 of which are already dead, and one of whom serves no more purpose than to be a gossip.

This example brings up a piece of folk wisdom regarding gender representation. There’s a saying which holds that a small proportion of women in a mixed gender group will seem only slightly imbalanced, and a group with 40% of women will seem women-heavy to many. This brings us back to the default-ness of the male gender in many/most societies, and our lingering biases in how people react to women taking action, taking charge, or taking center stage. Many/most geek cultures have been traditionally male-dominated, while some geek cultures have traditionally been female-dominated (fan fiction writers, especially slash fan-fiction communities).

As the demographics change, with a larger number and larger proportion of women in many geek cultures, geek culture must deal with this unconscious bias, as well as the fallacies of tokenism and the valorization/objectification of the beloved minority. Companies/cultural producers take advantage of the demographic, putting attractive geeky women in positions as hosts/objects of fandom, e.g. Blair Butler in G4TV’s Fresh Ink series about comic books. On one hand, it’s good to see women as well as men in positions of note within geek communities, as cultural producers, consumers, or critics. On the other hand, it’s important to look behind the surface and ask questions about intent, motivation, bias and market forces. A female possible host may be just as knowledgeable about the subject as a male possible host, but by selecting the female host, the producers/network/etc. is both giving a woman the chance to exert agency/power in the culture, to give a different perspective, but they are also likely making that decision to further their own profit agendas by playing to demographics. None of these decisions are simple or without nuance.

In closing, I’m glad that Sanderson chose to portray a complex, fleshed-out female lead, but I’m unhappy that in exchange for that one well-developed character, he seems to have neglected to populate his story with more than a tiny handful of other female characters of note.

Re-Post — Review: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother

This is one of several reviews essays that I’m re-posting from my personal blog, since they are directly of interest to the mission of 21st Century Geeks.

Internet-ly famous blogger/writer/digital culture activist Cory Doctorow’s first YA novel Little Brother posits a near future San Francisco that suffers a terrorist attack, leading to a mega DHS crackdown. Our protagonist is Marcus aka W1n5t0n, who is an ex-LARPer turned computer geek and Alternate Reality Gamer. Marcus is detained by the DHS and treated as an enemy combatant, and then declares war on the DHS after being released. In interviews and podcasts, Doctorow has explicitly stated that the book is intended to be pedagogical, with anti-surveilance/DHS techniques, technologies, and ideas spread liberally throughout the book, as well as general techie life-hacks. These educational asides are both a strength and a weakness. Marcus’ voice blends with Doctorow’s own in those explanatory passages, but they usually fall on the near side of being trying. The geeky romance subplot is solid, and fairly adorable.

The world of Little Brother is a few years ahead of our own, but it’s easy to imagine every single thing in the novel coming to pass, right down to the DHS turning a post-terrorist-attack city into a police state, surveilance and profiling gone mad to the point where our own government causes us more terror than faceless nameless terrorists from Otherplacia. I think some people already live in Doctorow’s future, and more are going all the time. There’s a cultural current in the USA (and to a lesser extent in some other Western/Northern developed coutnries) which Doctorow is pointing out. It’s part warning and part polemic rallying cry. Freedom of information as well as of speech.

One of the taglines of the novel is ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 25’ — a modification of the older ‘Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30’ from the Vietnam era. Well, I’m 25. The novel is in some ways a rallying cry to Generation Y/the Millenials, a group which most generation dileniations would count me as a part. I grew up with computers in the house, and I can simultaneously remember getting a computer and not really remember not having one. Generation Y is also sometimes called the 9/11 generation — I was a freshman in college when the towers went down, and all of the years of my legal adulthood thusfar have been in W’s America. Little Brother is about being young enough to still have fire under your ass, about being idealistic enough to stick it to a corrupt system and arrogant enough to think that you can personally do something about it.

I loved it, but I don’t think the book was really written for me. There’s a lot of stuff about personal rights and privacy that I already knew, but a fifteen year old nascent geek might not. I think that Little Brother will be the kind of novel that will be the right story at the right time for a great many young people, the exact thing that’s needed to cast back the curtains, to shine a light on the ugly truth behind the USA’s desire to ‘protect’ us.

Balancing our needs for Individual Rights (Privacy, etc.) vs. Security is a question we’re going to have to keep asking ourselves this century, as technology develops at a breakneck pace and international stresses make the rapidly-shrinking and vanishing resource world seem like tight quarters. I won’t be surprised if it gets banned in a number of districts, if it’s the kind of book that teachers risk their jobs by trying to get it onto the curriculum. I intend to teach it when I can, as long as it stays relevant. Maybe if we’re lucky, by the time I could teach it, I won’t need to. Sadly I don’t think that’s likely.

So go read it. Learn how to hack your computer and your life. Then pass the book on to a young person and see what happens.