Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This novel is Scott Lynch’s second, the follow-up to the popular and celebrated The Lies of Locke Lamora. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lies_of_Locke_Lamora) Red Seas Under Red Skies takes the Gentleman Bastards and shows them moving on to another city, where they are in the midst of a long con trying to steal from the Sinspire, a tower of gambling in all its odd implementations, including a card game where the loser of each hand spins a wheel and is forced to drink a shot of liqour — the game is played until one of the players cannot functionally play the game anymore.  Our leads are expert confidence artists and thieves of the first order, who would be at home running scams with the crew of Oceans’ Eleven or Robin Hood’s band of merry men.

The leads are first-class thieves, but the drama of the story comes from the fact that the universe has it in for them.  For all their plans, bad things keep happening, one on top of another.  This helps push the novel forward, which is good, because otherwise it would have been a sturctural mess.

It already has a problem — it’s basically one novel inside of another novel.   The title and cover suggest Pirates!, understandable considering The Pirates of the Carribean series and its re-popularization of the figure of the pirate.  And once the novel gets our heroes onto a ship and sends them off for nautical adventures, the book takes on a certain tone and we are introduced to a rich cast that strikes this reader as being designed in response to criticisms of Lynch’s first book — namely that there were hardly any women in the novel.  In Red Seas Under Red Skies, the famous pirate captain is a woman, as is her tiny-but-badass Leiutenant.  These two along with other characters balance out the gender disparity that Lynch suffered from in Lies, but it doesn’t account for the fact that the early part of the novel in the Sinspire and dealing with The Archon (think a shogun) don’t really have enough to do with the pirate bits and the fun thematics in putting Locke, a priest of the god of thieves, in with a society of pirates.

Lynch would probably have been better served in writing two novels, one about the Sinspire and the Archon, and then saving the next one for the pirates, or jumping straight to the pirates and filling in the Sinspire game.  As is, the novel is uneven, though enjoyable throughout.  The best characters aren’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel, and the dramatic climax of the novel is derived mostly from the pirate story, such that the Sinspire/Archon resolution is almost an afterthought, though it does lead to a strong cliffhanger/hook ending.

It’s a fun ride, and if you enjoyed The Lies of Locke Lamora, go ahead and pick up Red Seas Under Red Skies.  There are to be a total of seven books in the series (forget trilogies — septologies are the new hotness)  It’s a little less focused and polished than Lynch’s first, but that’s inevitable considering that Lynch spent the better part of a decade working on his first novel, and then had a breakout success demanding sequels as soon as possible.  The conclusion of Red Seas.. has me excited for the next novel, and I hope that it takes the initial hook and then attaches it to the rest of the novel’s plot in a way that is substantive and consistent.

Review — Portal

The Cake is a Lie.

Underneath a clever physics game is gleeful homicidal glee with a cute voice.  Valve’s Portal, originally packaged in with Half-Life: The Orange Box, is a gem of a game that earned countless accolades last year.

Portal takes the simple idea of a two-way portal gun and makes a whole (if short) game around it, showing off their physics engine and their dark sense of humor.

In Portal, the closest thing you get to a weapon is the portal gun, which can shoot at a plane and create a portal on that plane, which connects to the other end of the portal, which you also deploy.  This lets you get up high to push buttons, or to send plasma balls around corners to activate switches, or to jump through the portal so you can jump through the portal again and use the accumulated velocity to jump up to new platforms.  The game is a clear test of the user’s physics knowledge and critical/spatial problem solving skills.

I also think it should be used in Physics classes world-wide, as possible.  The idea of vectors, conservation of momentum, and many other principles of physics are at work in Portal.

But if Portal were just a physics tutorial in game form, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun.  Along the way, your guide/host/jailkeeper is GlaDOS, an erratic computer that talks you through the early puzzles, unraveling to reveal its sadistic streak and its nature as the architect of countless attempts on your character’s life.  Physics experiments to test the portal gun and human ingenuity give way to the increasingly dangerous tests, where the player is prompted to design complex plans of layered portal use, planning several steps ahead.

Portal is the exact kind of video game that Steven Johnson (of Everything Bad is Good For You) declares as laudable — not only does the player have to explore and probe the world of the game, they are forced to think critically, implement their spatial awareness/intelligence, and are rewarded for their cleverness but also their curiosity, as occasional glimpses behind the curtains reveal previous test-subjects desperate scrawlings on the walls between the test areas, writings that indicate GlaDOS’s hidden agenda, the virtues of the companion cube (a weighted cube that is used as the only other tool at the character’s disposal), and most of all, that

The Cake is a Lie.

“Still Alive,” the game’s theme song, has become a geek music classic, makings its way through the livejournal/blogosphere shortly after the game’s release, and helping to catapult Geek Rocker Jonathan Coulton (who wrote the song) into the limelight within the subculture.  Another indicator of “Still Alive”‘s fan appeal can be seen in the fact that it was released as a free downloadable track for the game Rock Band.

The game is now available for download on XBox Live arcade, which is how I played it.  It is more than a mere tech demo wrapped in a thin game shell, and that elevation is thanks to tone and style– if GlaDOS had been unironic and uninflected, she/it would have been just another stereotypical computer-gone-evil.  Instead, she has earned a place as an iconic computer-gone-evil, appearing beside favorites such as HAL9000

Everything interesting about Portal adds up to a charmingly demented game that will make you laugh while you’re running around trying not to get blown up and figuring out how to arrange portals so you can get to the next room.

The Baxter and Romantic Comedies

Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”

Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy.  The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”

Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.

Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary.  Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.

The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre.  The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.

The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.

The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture.  not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.

But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely.  Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.

For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation.  They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair.  The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”

Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send?  Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.

We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want.  Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions.  Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’  But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’

It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them.  Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.

This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life.  What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection?  All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating.  This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies.  Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.

Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life.  The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done.  It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.

Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.

Supernatural 4×05 “Monster Movie”

This week’s Supernatural was a loving homage to the classic Universal Studios monster movies, complete with a bombastic soundtrack in the place of Supernatural’s classic rock and a full black-and-white episode.

A full unpacking of the expert genre and medium emulation on the part of the episode “Monster Movie” would fill an entire journal-length essay, which I intend to write, but not here.

The episode “Monster Movie” was written by Ben The Tick and Angel‘s “Smile Time” Edlund, a devotee of classic horror and expert in loving parody. The entire episode had its medium and genre conventions filtered through the Universal Studios Monster Movie paradigm.

But the genre elements were explicitly diegetic (internal) as well as influencing the credits, the color (as in none), and even including an intermission card in the middle of the episode before a commerical break. Sam and Dead listen to and comment on the horror-movie ‘radio’ which gives the soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, Sam and Dean are confused, then bemused by the fact that the popular, media versions of classic monsters such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy pop up to commit murders across a Pennsylvania town during Oktoberfest (having the whole town dressed up Oktoberfest-style means that various locals can all be dressed up in a way that invokes the original Dracula, including Dean’s romantic interest of the week, a bartender aka “bar wench” named Jaime.

The reason for this genre emulation goes into the plot of the episode itself, rather than being just mapped on to an otherwise ‘normal’ Supernatural case. In a move consistent with Universal monster movies, the villain is made sympathetic in its monologue about being feared and reviled, then finding solace in the noble solitude of the “classic monsters” of film.

The shapeshifter villain is trapped in the genre conventions of the monsters he emulates, down to oh-so-slowly reaching for the switch that would electrocute Dean, explicitly casting our heroes and others into the Dracula story (Dean as Jonathan Harker, Sam as Abraham Van Helsing, with Dean’s romantic interest Jaime as Mina Murray).

In a genre-inverting turn, it is our damsel in distress who vanquishes the monster (with silver, which does not normally kill vampires in Supernatural‘s mythology) working both as an inversion of genre expectations as well as the expectation for Supernatural itself, which has been criticized for its treatment of women.

This level of genre emulation and careful parody happens from time to time in television and film, and “Monster Movie” provides more evidence that the best parodies come from a deep understanding and appreciation for the genre being parodied. One of the best examples of this mode of parody can be seen in the ABC Family show The Middleman, adapted from a graphic novel series into a tv superhero parody tour-de-force of Generation X/Y (mostly geek) cultural references.

Review: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is the premiere Neo-Goth Noir Fantasy writer, or at least, he is according to one of the questions asked of him at a reading of his new novel, The Graveyard Book at the Tivoli theatre in Downer’s Grove last Thursday.  I went up to Chicago to visit with friends and attend the reading.

Gaiman is a Storyteller in the old sense, a person who lives their life by sharing stories with others, whatever medium is needed or appropriate.  Gaiman has written poems, novels, short stories, films, comics, radio dramas, etc, and is one of the most beloved storytellers in the speculative fiction field.

The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s latest story for young readers, though it is delightful enough for this 25-year old reader.  A riff on Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Gaiman says the inspiration for The Graveyard Book came from the sight of his son Michael at the age of two, riding his tricycle through the headstones of a graveyard.  Now, over twenty years later, we have the novel.

Gaiman’s narrative voice is effortless and breezy, moving confidently through the story and taking the time to develop memorably particular characters like Ms. Lupescu, Liza Hempstock, and of course, the hero of the tale, young Nobody Owens, called Bod.  There’s elements of Lovecraft in the tale along with the influence of Kipling, fused in with Gaiman’s lifelong affinity for myth and other elements of folklore.  Illustrations from Dave McKean bring moments to life, starting with the blood-stained knife on the first page of the novel, the point ending just below the words “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

The sole survior of his family of four, the infant is taken in by the ghosts of a graveyard, and the mysterious man Silas appoints himself as the child’s guardian.  He is called Nobody in a move that invokes Homer, and grows up as ghostly as a living boy can, ultimately facing challenges that test his character, his knowledge, and his loyalties.

The Graveyard book is not a grand, sprawling epic like American Gods, nor a whirlwind tour of weird like Mirrormask.  But it is a strong YA story which appeals to adults, and would be a worthy addition to a family’s bookshelf.  Pick it up, read and then pass along to your child, your niece or nephew, or just a friend who would appreciate an afternoon’s diversion, a short but fine journey led by an expert storyteller.

Review: Valentine

Valentine is a new romantic comedy/drama brought to us by Kevin Murphy, co-executive producer on Desperate Housewives, and the writer of the musical version of Reefer Madness (he then produced a film version of same).

The premise is this:  (Some of) the Greek gods are alive and living in LA, trying to eek out their divine existence by acting as agents of the Fates by bringing together soulmates who would otherwise miss their chance at True Love.  Jaime Murray plays Grace Valentine (aka Aphrodite), who runs the ‘family business’.  Kristoffer Polaha plays Danny “Eros” Valentine, as womanizing and playful as you’d expect a 20-something Cupid to be.  Autumn Reeser is Phoebe Valentine, aka the Oracle of Delphi, though I wonder why she strikes me as being fairly Persephone-esque.  Why they went with a deified Oracle is an interesting question.  Robert Baker plays Leo Francisi, aka Hercules.  In an amusing turn, Grace is currently married to Ari Valentine (aka Ares), but cheating on him with her original husband, Ray “Hephaestus” Howard, who is far more hunky in this version than classical depictions.

The Valentines help the fated lovers when the Fates send out a card to one of the Valentine’s many cover businesses (e.g. Valentine plumbing).

The formula suggested by the pilot leads me to think that the show will try to balance the romantic comedy and drama genre categories as such:  the romantic comedy element will come from the Couple of the Week, the Valentine’s ‘clients’ — this gives a procedural element to provide guest stars and extra plot to goad the Valentines into character development; the drama will come from the Valentine’s interpersonal squabbles, their struggle to remain relevant (and therefore divine).

All of this might be enough to try to make a show happen on its own, but the Valentines, realizing that their understanding of how mortals think of love is outdated, recruit a genuine romantic in Kate Prudence, a romance writer (who strikes me as being an ‘unlucky in love’ sort, meaning that we’ll also follow her personal efforts in love).  An amusing note from the introduction of Kate — she’s doing a reading from a novel to a room full of women of all adult ages — and then a middle-aged bespectacled man walks in, gets embarassed, and then says he’ll just order the book on amazon — then leaves.  This could be read as a reminder that men are embarassed about liking romance novels if they do, or that men aren’t the audience for them — which also suggests men aren’t the audience for the show.  Further episodes may clarify this message.

Initial figures on ratings are not promising: TV by the Numbers shows a 0.3 figure for the pilot, or just over 1 million viewers.  The show is not likely to survive with ratings like that, even if it manages to cohere and improve from the solid but somewhat unremarkable beginning.

Review: Pretty/Handsome

There are a lot of things that media can do.  It can inform, entertain, challenge, distract, instruct, condemn, rally, terrify, delight.

And of course, there are people in control of media distribution, company programming execs, network censors, etc.

Which means that sometimes, a show will come along to challenge our pre-conceptions and investigate difference, a show with the potential to display and normalize a valid but-often-misunderstood way of living and instead, it will get left out in the cold.

I can’t know for certain why Pretty/Handsome wasn’t picked up from its pilot (barring interviewing those who made the decision), but I can guess, and I can talk about what we could have had.  Because even if the show doesn’t run, we have the pilot, and it’s enough for a good bit of discussion.

Pretty/Handsome is a pilot created by Nip/Tuck director and writer Ryan Murphy for FX.  Hollywood pitch would be “American Beauty meets Transamerica.”  It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob Fitzpayne, a gynecologist with an affluent family, a beautiful dedicated wife (played by Carrie Anne-Moss), and two sons–a child genius and a nearly-college-aged lacrosse star.

Bob is also a transsexual, and his family doesn’t know.  The main action of the show hinges on the growing tension of keeping this aspect of his life and personality secret from his family as he is faced with a challenge at work that brings issues of gender/sexual identity, community status and bigotry into the fore.  Bob is presented with a FTM transsexual who needs a gynocologist to treat him for an unknown issue.  The stir that having a male transsexual patient in a gynocology clinic in Small Town New England stands as the example of the social pressures and bigotry faced by trans people everyday.  Bob’s wife Elizabeth is un-satisfied with her marital sex life, but is too committed to Bob and her family to leave.  As she says in the pilot — “You can leave and be alone, or stay and be lonely” — she’s chosen the latter.  Genius son Oliver is too precocious for his own good, combining hyper-intelligence with youthful curiosity and libido to get himself into trouble, while older brother Patrick’s future is threatened by a teen pregnancy and being ‘dragged down’ by a dead-end girlfriend (dead-end according to everyone but Patrick, of course).

In just a pilot episode, the show clearly sets the stakes of the interpersonal and sociological drama, and they are high.  It’s intense the whole way through, jumping from dynamic to dynamic, but the leads are all compelling in their flaws, and in no place is Bob reduced to the stereotype of a transsexual.  Bob gets a taste of what it would be like to live and be seen as a woman, even for just little snippets of time, and it helps him re-connect with his wife (which of course makes for a larger turn as he reveals the fact that he would rather be a woman all the time) Bob is a person with a secret and enormous pressures to keep that secret, bound up with gender expectations, societal expectations, familial expectations, and more.  Given chance to unfold the story, we could have seen a maturely depicted narrative of a transsexual taking the steps towards unifying the person they see themselves as and the body they have/the way they are seen.

Instead, we got a pilot, and won’t get any more (unless the show gets picked up elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem likely as is).

I strongly believe we need shows like Pretty/Handsome.  Television as a delivery mechanism has a lot of space for genre and content, and I would hope that in-between Survivor and Hardball and Chuck and Monday Night Football, we’d have room in our televisual field for shows that tackle important social issues through the lens of fiction.  One of the important things media exposure does is normalize things.  It also provides validation through representation.  I don’t have much trouble feeling like a valid social being, because straight white males in their mid-twenties are frequently depicted on television and in film, especially in the West/1st world/Global North.  But you don’t have to go too far back to see an American TV/film world where white people were the only ones depicted with any kind of real range and breadth.  Even still, we have certain stereotypes that practically everyone are forced into.

Having a(nother) show (done well) that depicted a rounded individual who happened to be transsexual, working through the issues involved with being in that fringe group and dealing with very real social pressures could go quite a ways towards helping show transsexuals as people.  Just people, like you or me, with a particular set of challenges in life that they have to deal with.

But luckily, in the current age, pilots like this get leaked and scholars like me can talk about what could have been, and use opportunities to bring up the issues when they might not otherwise occur (in the field of American TV/film/new media).  Watching TV shows isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it can sometimes open a door for someone to re-examine their pre-concieved notions and provide room for further consideration and dialogue.