Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sandy Mitchell - Ciaphas Cain: Hero of the Imperium

Ciaphas Cain is a hero of the Imperium. He is a commissar that knows and inspires his men, that leads from the front, and that has saved his soldiers, his sector, and his hide more times than can be counted. More than any of that, Ciaphas Cain is secretly a coward. Or, at least, so he believes himself to be. Hero of the Imperium collects the first three of Sandy Mitchell's Ciaphas Cain novels along with three short pieces. These are the story of the man behind the legend, the exploits of the unbelievably incredible commissar in his own self effacing words, the three books excerpts culled from his sprawling unpublished memoir that have been compiled and annotated by the Inquisitor Vail of the Ordos Xenos. 

Mitchell is a fantastically clever writer. By balancing Cain's narrative with added fictional histories (each of which, of course, is crippled by its invented author's obsessions) and copious footnotes courtesy of our inquisitorial editor, Mitchell manages to combine a deeply in character, and deeply self-centered, narrative with a grasp of the wider picture. The footnotes, in particular, are enjoyable. Mitchell generally refrains from using them as a formatting excuse for endless info dumps and, as the reader continues through the books, the relationship between Inquisitor Vail, who Cain comes to know as Amberly, and the commissar grows increasingly amusing and even warming.

The real joy, however, comes from Cain's narration. The famed commissar, you see, is boundlessly and delightfully sarcastic. Many of the best lines come in descriptions of Cain's malodorous aide, Jurgen, such as when Jurgen manages to look as though his uniform never quite touched his body, which given his casual attitude to personal hygiene and perpetual eruptions of psoriasis, you could hardly blame it for (p. 516). Furthermore, Mitchell has a great deal of fun with some of the sillier or less consistent aspects of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, such as when Amberly adds in a footnote that: Sometimes [the necrons] seem almost preternaturally able to detect an enemy, while at others, as in this instance, they overlook targets almost literally under their noses (p. 413). Finally, the familiar Chaos battle cry (Blood for the Blood God!) is here met with "Fine, he can have yours." (p. 684) But despite how funny the books can be, Mitchell knows restraint well and never allows himself to descend into simple parody. For all the crackling humor on display within them, Cain's adventures manage to keep the reader's invested in the characters and their struggles.

Needless to say, Ciaphas Cain is the chief character of his series, and his purported heroism and omnipresent terror might well be the series' calling card. Nonetheless, Cain is never really cowardly in the way of characters like Flashman, whom he is often compared to (in the book's introduction, as well as elsewhere). Cain does, of course, do his best to escape danger, and the author/Emperor/demands of plot always smack him in the thick of it as his reward. But there are just as many times when, for all his frightened mental monologuing, he willingly charges into the depths of hell. In an attempt to rationalize his actions, he writes: It all came down to picking the course of action that offered the greatest chance of getting out with my hide intact, however great the immediate risk might be (p. 705). But while that might rule out selflessness, it certainly does not rule out bravery.

Other quotations occasionally slip out that do even more to damage the idea of craven Cain. Once, certain he was staring death in the face, he reveals that he was determined to defy it for as long as possible (p. 289) – hardly the thought process of a fainthearted man. Despite Cain's constant attempts to establish and maintain his supposedly fraudulent reputation for heroism through elaborate speeches, it seems, by the volume's end, that it's actually his cowardice that needs justification. Judged solely by his deeds, Cain is every bit the hero he is proclaimed to be, and his favorite rhetorical trick – feigning modesty to increase his reputation – works just as well on the reader as on the soldiers.

No matter what their setting and broad plot outlines might make you think, the Ciaphas Cain novels are only tangentially Military Science Fiction. True, each of them does take place in a warzone. But the war is never Cain's primary focus. Instead, he is always off to the sidelines, hunting down some (in the first two novels, literally) underground piece of intrigue and averting a disaster far greater than the one everyone else is focused on.

Cain's fantastically titled debut, For the Emperor!, establishes the formula to come with style. Cain and the Valhallan regiment that he serves with find themselves in a tense standoff with the Tau. Neither side wants to fight, but they are being pushed towards armed conflict by a shadowy conspiracy that neither can quite spot. The book introduces Cain, begins his relationship with Amberly, gives him a large cast of supporting characters to play off and look at suspiciously, and manages a nice contrast between the powerful and alien, but communicative and reasonably sane, Tau and the mindlessly brutal Tyrannid threat they find below.

The follow up, Caves of Ice, is not as successful, in large part because it's a smaller and less interesting retread of its predecessor. Like inFor the Emperor!, the Guard is here stationed on a world to oppose one foe (this time the Orks), while Cain begins to see a far greater threat lurking underground (this time, the Necrons), which he then goes into the tunnels to pursue, until he eventually comes into horrific contact with it, and loses everyone he had with him. The key problem is not even that the two books are so similar; Mitchell's writing is amusing enough for me to (somewhat) forgive him that. But Caves of Ice's cast is miniature compared to For the Emperor!'s, and what few characters there are spend the vast majority of it off screen. Amberly doesn't enter until the end, and, here, both alien threats are of the mindless slaughter variety. All of this means that Cain has no one to really interact with, and he spends his time laboriously entering and exiting the same set of tunnels and going about his mission.

Thankfully, the last novel, The Traitor's Hand, is a great deal more fun and plays with the formula just enough to keep things fresh. Cain and the Guard are deployed to stop a ravaging Chaos fleet, but, before it can arrive, they find themselves embroiled in a guerilla war against a local Chaos cult, which is hell-bent on summoning a rather nasty demon. Though both serving the Ruinous Powers, the two Chaos factions despise each other even more than they hate the Imperium. The interplay between the two, and the way that the great secret danger part of the plot here comes out to interact with the rest before the big finish, serve to keep everything more nimble and exciting, even if each of the mystery's pieces are gift wrapped and delivered in the most convenient way possible and at the perfect (read: last) moment. Unlike For the Emperor!, which stayed relatively still geographically, and Caves of Ice, which moved about but had a whole planet painted with the same brush, The Traitor's Hand ferries Cain between all sorts of different settings and situations. Best of all, it gives him a myriad of secondary characters to mess with, including a rival in the Commissariat for him to humiliate and then pay the costs for doing so. I must say, though, that the ending confrontation between Cain and the "preternaturally seductive" (p. 749) and brutally destructive demon Emili was somewhat odd to read about right before I went to go speak to my not particularly destructive girlfriend, Emily.

The three short stories included successfully add to Cain's story and experiences, albeit in different ways and with differing levels of success. "Fight or Flight," which opens the volume, gives us a good first glimpse of Cain and some of the most convincing cowardice-cum-accidental-heroics we get through the whole thing. "Echoes of the Tomb" serves mostly to fill us in on Cain's glimpse of the necrons before he has to fight them full-time in Caves of Ice. The majority of it is the slow decision to head towards, and then journey to, the site where he's to meet them, and the payoff, when it comes, mostly consists of Cain running about frantically for a moment or two before the tale abruptly cuts off with his rescue. It's not bad, but it's not much of anything good either, and it suffers more than the other two by the narrow focus forced upon it by the lack of other perspectives and footnotes. Finally, "The Beguiling" shows Cain's encounter with Chaos (and the demon Emili) before The Traitor's Hand. In addition to providing welcome backstory and emotional depth to the events of the novel, it's an enjoyable short story in its own right, which makes good use of Cain's wit, some of genre fiction's more questionable tropes, and dramatic irony.

Though somewhat formulaic and predictable, Sandy Mitchell's first three Ciaphas Cain novels are simply an incredible amount of fun. Dive in if you are looking for some light, pulpy, and thoroughly amusing Science Fiction, and remember: Regrets are a waste of good drinking time. (p. 331)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

K.J. Parker - Sharps

My review of K.J. Parker's newest novel, Sharps, is now up on Strange Horizons. For anyone just getting here from over there, you may be interested in my other Parker reviews:

The Folding Knife
The Hammer

[A scheduling/administrative note to regular readers: the review of Sandy Mitchell's Hero of the Imperium that, to be honest, may or may not have ever made it through the motel I was at's awful internet and onto the blog, will be back (and properly posted!) next week.]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

K.J. Parker - The Scavenger Trilogy

There has to be a moment between peace and violence, between one version of history and another, a piece of time in which the thing could go either way. (p. 83, Shadow)

Whoever is behind K.J. Parker's seemingly impenetrable pseudonym is responsible for some of Fantasy's strongest and most intriguing books. Works like The Folding Knife and The Engineer Trilogy are some of the cleverest, most compelling, and most insightful Fantasy around. That being said, Parker's later novels, while all brilliant, seem to be brilliant in the same veins. Those similarities, leading to a feeling that I'd seen this before with the pieces in a different order, ended with me finding The Hammer more than a little disappointing. Hoping to discern whether I'd already read all that Parker really had to say, and hoping very much for a negative answer to that question, I turned to the second of the three trilogies that she wrote before turning to standalones. Thankfully, though the Scavenger trilogy shares a fair few traits with the rest of the author's catalog, it's still very much its own work and is concerned with its own themes and questions. It's also rather excellent.

Poldarn wakes by a river and among the heaped dead of a battle's end. He has no idea who he is, no recollection of his past. Before long, he realizes he's being hunted by more than a few interested parties. They may have a good reason for this. After all, his primary talents seem to be the slaughtering of all his path with his blade and his talent at languages. The trilogy follows Poldarn's attempts to find out who he is and stay alive in the brutal and war torn world he finds himself in.

Oddly enough, the trilogy is at its most chaotic by far when answering our questions; the book's most plot heavy sections can almost come to feel paradoxically like they're aimless by virtue of having far too much meaning crammed in. The mystery at the heart of Scavenger is not difficult to grasp because it is particularly clever but because it is impossible to grasp. Figuring out Poldarn's identity is not a matter of properly arranging the pieces; not only is the reader missing just about all the pieces, they're not even given the board. Revelations come hammering down without foundation.

I don't necessarily mean all that as a slight. Scavenger isn't a Mystery. It's not about clever deductions. Poldarn knows nothing, and it makes sense to throw the reader into the same boat. When a new nugget of information shatters everything we thought we know about the world, we're feeling that along with the character. This is good. But such successive revelations, each one hitting home in an almost utterly unpredictable fashion and tearing what we know to bits and pieces, can leave the reader feeling adrift and seasick, unwilling to put their weight or emotions down on any one part of the story lest it be swept away a few pages down the line.

Luckily, therefore, the novels are not just a relentless hounding of that tumultuous truth. In fact, Poldarn's not all that sure he wants to find it. There is, after all, reason to think his past self was rather a bastard, maybe even a downright evil man. As a result, Poldarn spends much of the trilogy simply doing his best to stay alive and working whatever jobs he needs to. Both the first and third books have him taking various jobs at various points, but it's the second in particular that excels here.

The vast majority of Pattern is spent isolated from the juggernaut questions of the main narrative. That's not to say that it's unrelated, of course. It's tying up a massive angle of the plot and it all leaps back into focus at the novel's end. But, besides allowing Parker to avoid every pitfall commonly associated with middle books, the novel's structure allows for sheer unbridled awesomeness. "There's a whole lot of things to be afraid of in this life," our protagonist is told towards the novel's beginning, "but an exploding mountain isn't one of them" (p. 13, Pattern). But that exploding mountain most certainly is one. In one of the most interesting and innovative plotlines I've seen in Epic Fantasy, Parker pits her main character against a volcano. Brute force is, obviously, not an option. No amount of swordplay will stop the lava before the farm. And so Poldarn is forced to rely on his intelligence and work for a solution with the material at hand. The section works. Brilliantly.

Just because her protagonist has lost his memory doesn't mean that Parker is no longer writing a fiercely intelligent book. By that, however, I should clarify that I don't mean it's a smart book, although it is. I mean that it's a rational one, in which precise and logical reasoning accounts for everything and in which surprises result from a lack of facts, not from an ounce of randomness in the outcome. On the macro level, this means that, like Engineer, this is a story of grand plans. Unlike the excessively narratively engineered Engineer, however, Scavenger is not a story of a single grand plan. No, it often seems like everyone and their dog has a grand plan in these novels, and the interplay between them creates for the kind of manufactured chaos that can only come about when every participant has an itemized list of would-be occurrences that stretches down to the millisecond. As a result of that interplay, and the consequences of the games' others players, we wind up with the interesting result that every plotter is utterly lost in their own plot, stuck midway across the river, with the current dragging us away, and we don't know what the fuck's going on or what we're supposed to do (p. 198, Memory).

On the micro level, the novel's intelligence mostly comes down in the form of combat, which here seems wholly a result of skill, technique, and tactics. These things are absolutes; when man meets man, luck seems to factor not at all. As a result, violence between the characters (of which there is a great deal) can come to feel less like the meeting of men than of machines, predetermined and with an obvious victor if only you'd been allowed to see the whole stats list.

At times, this can be downright terrifying, with human reactions honed to the point that life and death become nothing more than a formula. Sword monks are taught until they are perfect; anything that steps into the circle about them will be sword-struck as soon as it does so. A brother of the order who’s been trained in the draw, we are told, need fear nothing on earth, there's nothing, not even a god, he can't kill (p. 185, Shadow). Badass and frightening. This is good.

But sword monks aren't the only ones with such inhuman powers, and other match ups don't seem to make any sense at all. Combat can be distilled down to sword monks kill almost everyone, but raiders kill sword monks. But why are raiders so good? The reason that we get – their ability to run past and through their enemies as if they weren't really there (p. 485, Shadow) – seems to make no sense at all. And the way that the rankings are flawless, without a single deviation, without a single casualty against a lower tier, can begin to feel artificial.

Concerned as it is with the discovery of the protagonist's identity, Scavenger is a series focused on questions of self and responsibility. Is Poldarn the same man as he was when he knew his name? If that man was evil, is he doomed to repeat his crimes? Is evil a product of the man or of the society? The start to all of these comes from the knowledge that: This is an imperfect world, and most people are partly bad (p. 491, Shadow). That, however, is obviously not enough. We cannot simply conclude with the existence of circumstances where the bad part of them comes to the top (ibid), for, were evil purely circumstantial, Poldarn would not continually find his hands so stained.

Destruction breeds demise in Poldarn's wake, but it doesn't do so because of his desires. As he says after one exceptionally awful tragedy, At every turn, all I wanted was to be a good man, honourable, putting others ahead of myself. And this is where I've brought you all to, by doing the right thing. (p. 539 Pattern) A desire to do good is not enough to prevent evil, but that's not to say that the desire to do good is wholly immaterial to evil's occurring. In fact, the two might lead into one another.

In a passage rather foreshadowing of the entirety of The Folding Knife, a villain towards the trilogy's end ascribes the worst atrocities to nothing other than guilt. It's not a flaw suffered by evil men. After all, evil  men are immune to it [guilt] (p. 561, Memory). But Poldarn is not. He is part evil and part good (p. 562), and, as a result, was driven by guilt: Guilt made you abandon your people, your followers, your wife, me, without a moment's hesitation. […] If you'd been an evil man like me, Ciartan, thousands of people who died in pain and fear would still be alive. (p. 561, Memory)

It is, in Parker's world (or at least in the final speaker's estimation) worse (ibid) to feel and care rather than to simply calculate. Of course, most people, as I've previously said (and as this speaker allows) are the same way. But it's the combination of temperament and circumstance that led to the true horrors of the novel. In the cases of the emotional majority, it doesn't matter (p. 562, Memory), for they wholly lack power. But Poldarn, not only powerful but the only one of the mighty who might be said to care for those around him, has the ability to wreak true hell on his fellow man.

To be fair, Poldarn's not your normal chap. When I say that, I'm not just talking about his morality, his sword fighting skills, or his lucky possession of main character status. There is, you see, a certain virulent theory among the faithful of Parker's world. They think that Poldarn might be a god. That he is not just a Poldarn but the Poldarn, the divine Poldarn, the god in the cart, the god that does not know that he is a god, the god that ends the world, and the god that is melting down the old world to make a new one, turning waste and scrap into useful material, loosening it from the bonds of memory, restoring it to its true and original nature by means of the intercession of fire, which forgives and redeems all past sins. (p. 314, Pattern)

Unlike in the majority of her novels that I've read, here Parker doesn't simply ignore the question of religion. No, it is front and center here, and Parker handles it expertly. The Order that the sword monks hail from is strange and foreign to us, not simply Christianity or Greek polytheism masquerading in strange robes. The monks worship perfection, the kind of perfection that is so perfect it is over as it is begun, the kind that takes no time, the kind that effectively does not exist.

In religion,  we are told, the perfect draw doesn't even happen. (p. 83, Shadow) For them, perfection can be sought in what they call applied religion (p. 420, Shadow) and in what we call sword fighting. It is, of course, that quest for perfection, of a variety that just happens to border on the martial, that renders the monks so deadly. All of this – perfection through the drawing of the blade, the god in the cart that ends the world and does not know that he is a god, and all sorts of other juicy ideas I don’t have the space to even begin to dive into – could easily come across as either silly or hopelessly and impenetrably pretentious. Parker manages to miss both pitfalls and manages to achieve a fantasy religion that, at its best moments, bears the gravitas of the divine.

All of the weighty and complexly themes that she covers do nothing at all to smother Parker's incomparable wit. Fantasy-dwelling humorists like Terry Pratchett may be able to compete with her in a numerical count of laughs, but Parker is the greatest Fantasy author I've read at combining wry humor and plot, cutting observations and character. Parker is funny. Often hilariously so. But she doesn't sacrifice her stories for brief chuckles, and her forays into the most acerbic sarcasm bolster rather than dampen the novels' mood.

Those forays are often laugh out loud funny (In cases where the terrain doesn't agree with the map, standing orders state that the terrain must be in error. (p. 223, Shadow)), but the best of them go farther still, taking on such an air of mocking profundity as to almost seem like philosophical aphorisms surfacing in the narrative's midst, such as Poldarn's near death observation that: Death and haircuts should both be free of idle and distracting chatter. (p. 172, Pattern) Besides all of that, a great deal of credit simply must be given to any author ballsy and quick-thinking enough to use my god! as a pun and cheeky enough to compliment their own imagery within the narrative.

The Scavenger trilogy is a dense, occasionally aimless, unremittingly cynical, and totally brilliant work of Epic Fantasy. Parker is a very clever writer, and an endlessly quotable one, but she's also a writer that ropes you into the tragedy of the tales she tells. I don't think Scavenger is the best entry point into her work, but it further confirms my growing suspicion that Parker may be second only to George R.R. Martin in the ranks of today's Epic Fantasists.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Scott Smith - The Ruins

Like, I suspect, many a reader, my interest in The Ruins was first sparked by the Stephen King quote on the cover. The best horror novel of the new century, King says. High praise indeed. Smith does, in fact, lay a superb foundation for an excellent horror novel. Unfortunately, he never gets past the foundations.

Enjoying a vacation in the Mexican sun, two American couples lounge on the beach and party with their fellow tourists. Though none of them speak Greek, they befriend three Greeks. And they befriend a German man named Mathias. Mathias says he has a brother, but they haven't seen him. When they grow to know Mathias better, he tells them that that brother went to an archaeological dig and hasn't been back since. The group, looking to help and looking for a great day amidst the ruins, agree to head out to the site to see what happened. The journey's ominous. Eleven miles down a jungle road, and the driver warns them off the whole time. When they reach the hill the dig's atop, they find the armed denizens of the nearby Mayan village at its base. When they dare to put a foot on the vine covered hill, the Mayans refuse to let them down. Before long, they find the decomposed corpses along the hill's bottom, shot through with arrows as they tried to flee. The tourists are trapped, and, needless to say, things only get worse from there.

The vine, they come to realize, is at the center of it all. It's not just omnipresent, not just absurdly fast growing. It doesn't only feast on dead flesh. The vine is malevolent. Worse, it moves. It thinks. The vine is trying to destroy them. It lays traps. It stretches out to devour any blood they spill. It crawls into their wounds. It makes the sound of laughter. It begins to speak, imitating their voices to drive them apart. One of the tourists, Eric, is even sure that it's inside him, growing in the cavity in his chest, shoving his organs aside as it strengthens.

Quarantined by jailors they can't hope to plead with, trapped with an impossible menace that seeks their death, the characters and the reader discover that the hot Yucatan sun is no barrier to claustrophobia.  Early on, Eric begins to ask: Who are they? (p. 28) He doesn't just mean the Mayans outside. He doesn't just mean the Greek and the German that they're with. He doesn't even just mean his friends. No, even Eric himself is now a mystery to the question's asker. Here, pushed to and past the brink of sanity, the characters discover things about themselves and each other that they wouldn't have thought possible. Quickly, they diverge into two groups. One, led by and sometimes only consisting of Jeff, is always planning, always ready to take any measures aimed at survival, no matter how grotesque or futile. The rest don't have his nerve. Or, alternatively, don't have his inhumanity.

Agency seems the chief question. Early on, before the troubles reach their peak, one character thinks back to how a relative of theirs cautioned them against simply reacting until, one day, they realized they had let life pass them by. It's necessary to plan, that relative cautions them. Planning, always planning – because that was what it meant to be alive (p. 422), one character eventually concludes. But such planning is rendered impotent by the constricting vines. Destiny is not in the characters' hands. At best, Jeff can struggle to stay alive for just a few days longer. Escape, the ultimate questions of life and death, are not in their hands.

Amidst all this, Smith's prose is not flashy but is often quite good, especially when it comes to the creation of specific and horrific images, the best of which is, I believe, the following: He believed that if he were to cut himself at this spot, just the smallest of incisions, the plant would tumble outward into the light, smeared with his blood, like some horrific newborn, writhing and twisting its flowers opening and closing, a dozen tiny mouths begging to be fed. (p. 300) The characters begin hard to tell apart, and the women could have used more differentiation, but Jeff and Eric both come off extremely well, the former characterized by his utter determination and the latter by his perpetual and ultimately mad wordgames, making increasingly frightened word chains that begin with a certain letter, such as: Dreaming, delirium, dying… (p. 300) Mathias, too, has a quiet strength about him, one that promises powerful things to come.

All of this potential – the set up, the claustrophobia, the questions of planning and identity, the characters – isn't so much squandered as let sit. Having laid the groundwork, Smith proceeds to capitalize on none of it, and it was in the last few pages of the novel that I realized my worst fears were going to come true – none of it was going anywhere. The Ruins is at once far too long and far too short. At 500 pages, it is a fair bit longer than the average horror novel. By switching among perspectives, Smith is able to keep the tension up for most of that length, but, at some point, the reader stops and wonders what's happened and where it's all going. And while The Ruins had five hundred pages worth of buildup, it has none at all of answers, climax, or development.

The chief problem with it all is the abrupt ending, coming from nowhere to slay the whole cast without any dignity or, save in one fantastic case, any climax. The buildup of interpersonal tension, of questions of what survival is worth morally, of different plans – all of that goes nowhere. After the fairly early revelation that it is not only malevolent but sentient, the vine goes nowhere. Its origins remain an utter mystery. It has some grand evil plan for the characters' demise, we are told, but things never come to that point, and it comes to nothing. All of the rising tension and promises Smith makes add up to nothing. The climax could have been slotted in at page two hundred without significant alteration.

Perhaps because of his quote on the cover, The Ruins invites comparisons to Stephen King. Specifically, in my mind, to some of the stories in Skeleton Crew. One gets the sense that Smith is attempting to be the collection's highpoint, "The Mist": an epic in terms of impact and emotion, even if confined to a single area, a statement about man's purpose and abilities in the face of inevitability and the world beyond him. He doesn't quite make it. In addition, The Ruins seems to be striving to be "Survivor Type," the horrific tale of a man who will do absolutely anything to survive. But the characters in The Ruins are never pushed to that point; though disaster is perpetually looming, and though Jeff makes grim statements, they are never actually made to face the consequences of their hard decisions.

Ultimately, the King story that most resembles The  Ruins is "The Raft". In both, young Americans (joined in the novel by nicely exotic foreigners) enter a seemingly innocuous area for relaxation and are relentlessly pursued, hemmed in, and then slaughtered by an utterly inexplicable force. In my review of Skeleton Crew, I said that The Raft was "extremely enjoyable," and it was. It was darkly claustrophobic, filled with inevitability and doom, and it didn't overstay its welcome. The first two certainly apply to The Ruins. The last one, not so much. It's not that the formula doesn't work for Smith. It does. Most of The Ruins is suspenseful and well done. It's just that he doesn't hit a single note that King doesn't, and he takes more than ten times as long to hit those notes. Without anything (anything at all) else thrown in, the story can't sustain itself over that kind of expansion. It's not so much weak as it is empty, desperately needing either an additional hundred pages to fulfill every promise and leave the reader stunned by its power or a pruning of two or three hundred pages to function as a lean and mean blow to the gut.

As is, The Ruins isn't bad at all, and you'll certainly be entertained while reading it. But it doesn't break any new ground, and, no matter how important an ancient mine shaft may be to the story, it doesn't go deeply enough at all into its own well trodden soil to justify itself.  An acceptable horror novel? Sure, I'll give it that. Best of the new century? Not even close.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Doctor Who: Series Five

So... all of time and space, everything that ever happened or ever will - where do you want to start? 

To say that I've been remiss in my Science Fiction viewing after so many years of not watching Doctor Who would be fair enough. It is, after all, the longest running Science Fiction show in the world and one that's supposed to be damn good as well as rather lengthy. Of course, jumping in at the fifth season of a reboot is rarely my style. Faced with the immensity of existing Who material, however, I asked a close friend and fan of the show, and they pointed to here as the beginning of the period with the most awesome. As a fan of awesome, I followed their advice. What I found in this fifth series, means I'll certainly be back for more.

Showrunner Steven Moffat said he aimed at a "fairy tale" feel for the show and that he wanted it to be more "fantastical" and "bonkers" than anything else on TV. He rather succeeds at all three of those descriptors, leading to a program characterized less by any one setting or feel than it is by fast-marching exuberance, lendless possibility, and a beautifully excessive number of ideas. There is an overall plot to the season, but it doesn't become dominant until the last two episodes. Until then, the writers generate entirely new plots, characters, and settings episode after episode. Keep in mind, this is Science Fiction of the most –as Moffat would attest – bonkers variety. We're not simply slotting in a new villain. No, when moving from week to week, we're dealing with entirely new vistas and rules of reality.

This season of Who (and, for all I know, all others) is packed to the bursting and beyond with Science Fiction ideas. Lone episodes often hold enough for an entire series to thrive. The sheer number of rules and bends of reality does occasionally mean that the show ends up contradicting itself, such as when the Doctor sets up a meeting between the subterranean Silurians and humanity in one thousand years' time… long after, we viewers and the Doctor might have noticed, the earth is said to end in The Beast Below. Such slip ups, though, are impressively uncommon, and the writers do manage to just as often rope together odds and ends into satisfying and timely knots.

In order to get across and get through so many plots and worlds, the show needs to employ pacing as quick as lightening. The writers need to get across great swathes of info on their settings without dwelling on any one aspect of it, and they do this through a shorthanded method of worldbuilding and through implication. First, Doctor Who is not above establishing clumps of backstory or whatever else with clichés. In episodes dominated by a few strong personalities, the background is often sketched in by stock characters that are mostly there to show us what we need to know and to give the real movers something to play off of and work with. The Silurian warrior Restac, for instance, is a decently used foe that doesn't burden the pacing. These clichés are sometimes mishandled, however. In the same two parter that we meet Restac in, we meet the regrettable character of Malokeh, who, a byproduct of scripting efficiency gone mad, goes from one extreme cliché to another without a thought between them, from Mengele to the benevolent scientist.

But Who's writers thankfully have more in their quiver than clichés. In order to make their creations fascinating and atmospheric as well as easily graspable, the writers and creators of Who have packed their episodes with striking and intriguing details, hints, and images, characterizing their settings with iconic and intriguing setpieces. Wisely, the writers do not set out to explain away every cool glimmer and mystery they strew about, leaving such things as the carnivalesque aspects of Starship UK in The Beast Below primarily up to the viewer's imagination.

Driving all this weirdness and all these plots forward is, of course, the Doctor, the center of it all. Matt Smith is the eleventh actor to hold the role, and, though I can't yet compare him to any of his predecessors, he is simply brilliant to watch. Like the times and worlds he traverses, the Doctor can't be so much pinned down to a single quality as he can to an endless ability to flit between them. At all times he is convincingly off from humanity and in some ways more than it. Often, he speaks and thinks in thick and flowing streams of free-association deduction, spouting wisdom and nonsense and endlessly quotable lines in the same verbal onslaught. He is, at once, involved with those around them and trying to do his best by them and also hopelessly distant from them, connecting to them on a few levels and utterly unrelated to them on every other. Above all, at least in his own words, he is a madman with a box. Uniting the manifold oddities of the character into a coherent whole should have been a near impossible task, but Smith manages to pull it off and look like he's having the time of his life while doing it.

Still, the avalanche of personality that is the Doctor can grow overwhelming, and that may be why some of the series' strongest episodes have him interacting with, or butting heads against, an equally forceful character. The Eleventh Hour, Vincent and the Doctor, and the Lodger all have this in spades. Perhaps because of their focus on character, they all also have rather weak villains and Science Fiction elements. Still, the relationships are enough to carry the show. The Lodger seems wholly inspired by a single gag – the Doctor forced to live as an ordinary bloke for a time – but his interactions with James Corden's Craig and the charm of every actor involved serve to bring the whole thing off.

Vincent and the Doctor. meanwhile, is daring enough to focus on Van Gogh and his internal (and external) demons. The episode's end – in which, for all his skill, the Doctor could not save Van Gogh from himself – is a strange cross of sentimental ( The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant. And we definitely added to his pile of good things) and futile. No matter its conclusions and other elements, the whole thing would be worth if it its only moment of grace was how beautifully overwhelmed Tony Curran's Van Gogh becomes when brought to the modern day Louvre to see his own exhibit.

The Eleventh Hour is the season opener, was my first introduction to Who, and shows the first interactions between the Doctor and his main companion for the season, Karen Gillian's Amy Pond. When we begin, however, the Doctor doesn't meet the fully grown Amy but the child she once was, Caitlin Blackwood's Amelia. Having just been  regenerated, and after a hilarious scene coming to terms with his new taste buds, the Doctor tells her that he'll be back in five minutes and doesn't return for years, not until she's grown and Amy. That abandonment and other abandonments forge her character, and her life is shaped by her longing for the return of this one-time visitor from her childhood that no one believes in. The episode's overall plot is rather weak, but the Doctor's relationship with both actresses, and the way that the two work together to form a complete and powerful character, all works quite well.

In future episodes, such as the Beast Below, where Amy travels with the Doctor and in which her relationship with him develops, all is more than well – but the crux of her character is her relationship not with the Doctor but with her fiancé, Arthur Darvill's Rory, and things don't go nearly so well there. Rory isn't unlikable, but her interactions with him have none of the chemistry that her interactions with the doctor do, and her time with him feels like dull restraint just waiting to burst forth into another adventure. At the end of Flesh and Stone, she tries to seduce the Doctor, and, though he rebuffs her, it doesn't seem that her feelings for him and the endless adventure he provides end there. The episode Amy's Choice seems supposed to settle her conflict and ends up leaving the opposite feeling in the viewer. Contrasting an adventure with the Doctor and comfortable boredom with her fiancé, Amy seems all set to pick the former until the thought of losing the latter makes her supposedly realize how she feels. Yet, besides how much it might hurt to lose him, there's not much of a sign of he and her having much there to lose in the first place.

But enough of those around the star; it's time to turn back to the Doctor himself. Unlike so many TV heroes, he is a pacifist who eschews the use of weapons and violence both, relying instead on his quick wit and interpersonal skills. This leads to many of the season's strongest parts, where the Doctor establishes his true superiority over his foes not by his bigger gun or their laughable accuracy but by his intelligence. In the two part The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone, he's a wrathful trickster against impossible odds but brimming with incredible schemes. When he gives his defiant speech at the first episode's end (Didn't anyone ever tell you? There's one thing you never put in a trap. If you're smart, if you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there is one thing you never, ever put in a trap. […] Me!), it's a moment hard to describe as anything but awesome.

Alas, the writers are not quite as brilliant as their preternaturally brilliant hero, and so an uncomfortable number of the season's climaxes are not so much composed of trickery as they are of the silliest pseudo-logic that falls apart at the most cursory of examinations. In the finale, the Doctor brings himself back from being erased from all existence by having Amy remember him. But, had he been erased from all existence, she wouldn't have been able to remember him. Nobody else did, after all. Other plot arcs and twists aren't quite as out and out nonsensical but are still nonetheless silly. The Victory of the Daleks in particular doesn't so much have a plot as a series of faux-logical leaps that are a mixture of unsurprising and cloyingly unsatisfying, the pinnacle of which is when the Doctor defeats the Daleks' plan by convincing an android that he is more man than machine by reminiscing about love.

Furthermore, since the Doctor does not fight, and since his enemies are often so threatening because they do nothing but, we are left with honestly rather awkward set ups in which the fearsome villain is reduced to nothing more than growling impotently as the Doctor runs away time and time again. When the Doctor holds the Daleks back by swearing a Jammie Dodger is a self destruct device, one has to admire his daring, if not his prudence. But when he escapes Prisoner Zero, Saturnyne, Eknodine, and innumerable others in episode after episode by simply legging it, some of the show's fiercest villains start to look like they have rather more bark than bite.

A crack in the universe...
The series' main plot comes to the fore in the final two episodes, The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. The snappiest description I can give of the climax therein is that it is a glorious mess. The Pandorica Opens functions much like the latter episode's namesake, a perpetually expanding and almost impossible to keep up with storm of information and events that twists and turns in innumerable ways. The Big Bang functions in a similar fashion but almost in reverse, covering little territory overall but looping back madly in upon itself to see it from every angle and try to save all of everything. Most of the twists and turns throughout this whole thing are totally brilliant. The rest are utterly nonsensical and hopelessly silly. The emotional burdens range from powerfully hard hitting to just odd. And, of course, the silliness is still delightfully everywhere (fezzes are cool!). Ultimately, the climax is littered with holes, but it's shooting out at you so fast and with so much force that you don't notice them all until well, well after you've been struck and swept along with your jaw on the floor of some other time and some other space.

Really, the entire series functions much like the climax in that regard. Looking back, I can think of only one or two episodes that didn't strike me as flawed in some way or other, whether that flaw was a gap in logic or a failing in some element of the plot or character. Despite that, almost none of those flaws bothered me at the time of viewing. I see the issues that critics like Abigail Nussbaum have raised, but the show proceeds with too much sheer force be derailed. Or, more accurately, it's shot off the rails long ago and is just going along with far too much style for anyone to notice or care. The experience of watching Doctor Who can perhaps be best summed up as a befuddled ecstasy, and I'll be coming back to view the series I missed and find out what happens next.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Warhammer 40,000

Some of you may have noticed the coming storm, its vanguard having reached the Hat Rack just last Tuesday. In addition to the Dan Abnett omnibus I reviewed then (Ravenor), a review of his first Gaunt's Ghost omnibus is not far behind. That's not the end of it for Warhammer 40,000 on this blog, either. I should be conquering the final novel in Sandy Mitchell's first Ciaphas Cain omnibus later tonight, and I have only one book left in Graham McNeil's Ultramarines omnibus.

So, why all this Warhammer? It is, admittedly, not a setting I've read much of before, though I enjoyed a few of the books years ago and still occasionally play the Dawn of War computer game. A few weeks ago, I read Horus Rising, the first of the Warhammer 40,000 series the Horus Heresy. The book failed to impress me, and, for a few days, I figured I'd stay away from the setting after that. Then, without much having changed, I had the exact opposite impulse: I decided that I wanted to write a short story in the setting.

Black Library, the publisher behind all the bolded Warhammer 40,000 series titles that are making this post an endless mess of emphasis, accepts prose samples cut out of short stories for only a few months of the year. The last of those months was June, which, I probably don't need to tell you, ended yesterday.  But fear not, my prose sample (an eight hundred word chunk of my newest short story "Within and Beneath its Walls") winged its way in just before the window slammed shut. Odds are, this is the last you'll hear of that tale. While I have gotten a fair few stories published by now, only two sold to the first publisher I sent them. This story, for obvious reasons (read: massive lawsuit), will not have a second shot.

That's not, though, to say that I regret writing it. It was fun to do and let me get out of a bit of the Military SF itch I've been having. Besides, the research for it led to the aforementioned Warhammer 40,000 novels, most of which were quite enjoyable. Reviews of them will be coming along, though, fear not, I'll spread them out with other content to prevent this becoming a Black Library fanblog.