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.

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 ( 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.’

Preliminary Notes on the Aesthetic of Awesomeness

Ever since my seminar on aesthetics, I’ve been thinking about awesomeness.  Awesomeness as its own aesthetic, a distinct artistic urge/dao that is often slavishly followed, draws huge attention, and yet hasn’t really been examined in a way that makes me happy — or if it has, I haven’t seen it.

I’ve been talking about how I’m going to write an article called “On the Aesthetic of Awesomeness” — so here are some notes for me to start with, as building blocks.  This is intended to be a work in progress, a making public of my academic process for the purposes of discussion and self-reflection.  I’m aware in this discussion of the inherent silliness of talking seriously about awesomeness, but I think there are important points not being explored here.

What do I mean by Awesomeness?

Awesomeness is an aesthetic agenda associated what we call in the speculative fiction field the ‘Sense of Wonder’ — The sense of wonder is revelatory, the amazement that comes from being confronted with something new and striking.  I’d say that the Sense of Wonder is one of the modes of the aesthetic of awesomeness.

Other notable moves/moments that would count as Awesome:

  • The lobby scene in The Matrix
  • Your first glimpse of Iron Man in the 2008 Iron Man.
  • Watching Optimus Prime transform in Transformers.

And more generally:

  • Stuff Blowing Up Real Good (TM).
  • Breathtaking visuals (esp. special effects — practical or digital).  The Pod race in Star Wars Episode I, the battle of Pelennor Fields in the film ofThe Return of the King — this is where the Sense of Wonder comes up.

Awesomeness is about potency, strength, competence in action, it’s the stuff that makes you go ‘whoah’ in varying degrees of Keanu Reeves-itude.

Awesomeness vs. ‘literary merit’

Just because something has what people argue over as literary/artistic merit doesn’t mean it’s awesome.  Awesomeness has been ignored in aesthetic considerations (and no, it’s not the sublime, though the original meaning of the word awesome would suggest as much.)

‘Awesome’ has experienced a cultural linguistic renaissance in the last few years, with notable champions in popular culture such as How I Met Your Mother, “Captain Awesome” in Chuck, and others.

Often times, films will get horrible reviews in terms of their narrative, thematic, dramatic chops, but are still well-received/popular.  Why does this happen?  There are a number of explanations, and Awesomeness is one of them.

Artistic paragons of awesomeness who have been critiqued for their lack of artistic merit could include but not be limited to Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, The Rock), Jerry Bruckheimer (Pirates of the Carribean, Top Gun, Black Hawk Down), The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix trilogy, the new Speed Racer), and George Lucas (Star Wars, et al.)  These creators make immensely commercially successful works that are often panned by cultural critics/gatekeepers such as reviewers, literary critics, etc.  Such films are called ‘childish/immature’ — as their primary aesthetic (awesomeness) doesn’t fit into established and accepted artistic parameters.

Here’s another thing — for most summer blockbusters, the primary intent of the film is to impress the audience, to take their breath away, make them clap and shout.  Summer Blockbusters play a simple but potent game of pulling on heartstrings and pushing buttons.  Really, the primary aesthetic agenda of the Summer Blockbuster genre is Awesomeness.

This is not to say that a narrative cannot be both awesome and dramatically compelling, beautiful, grotesque, or any other aesthetic.  Mostly I just want to identify a chunk of the aesthetic field we’ve been ignoring/spurning.

Thoughts for further investigation

  • A more specific articulation of the sense of experiencing awesomeness
  • The overlap between awesomeness and other aesthetics
  • The negotiation and appreciation of awesomeness in fan communities.

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.