Monday, June 22, 2009

More Rabb, Parker, Grippando

Jonathan Rabb: The Hard Boiled Henry James!
"Martha had used silences like this. It was uncanny that a boy of sixteen-who had lost her at half that age-could so readily conjure them. It made Hoffner need to understand all the more. He said,"There has to be room for hope, doesn't there?" He bit at the words; absurd to hear them coming from his mouth when they had no business being his." This was chosen pretty much at random. It was really interesting in the first novel of this trilogy, Rosa. It's getting a little stale, because with repetition it's becoming horribly obvious that a lot of this is nonsense.

For no obvious reason, one phrase, "as subtle as oil," sticks in my mind. I suppose extravirgin olive oil has to be the most subtle, with Valvoline the least. But I'm at a loss to compare the subtlety of oil to the subtlety of even vinegar, much less ethylene glycol or the multitude of alcohols. If we allow solids into the comparison, I'm overwhelmed.

In addition to the prose's novelty value disappearing, there is a tiresome repeat of the bedmate getting killed because of Hoffner's slowness/indifference/existential depravity motif. It was far fetcthed but affecting in Rosa. Now it just seems like carelessness by the hero.

All God's Children today love Zionism, so Rabb has to malign Communism in his trilogy. In Rosa, it took the rather peculiar form of contrasting the human love life of Rosa Luxemburg with the emptiness of her public life. Oddly, Rabb couldn't quite succeed in giving her romances any content. Not so oddly, he avoided the content of her public life. Given the priority to Commie bashing, he has to tag the Nazis as evil by queerbaiting them. Mystery writers are so prone to the most idiotically reactionary judgments!

Incidentally, Rabb seems to think the German Communist Party peaked with the death of Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919. Since the party had been founded in December 1918, that was a political mayfly's biography. In fact, the party gained a mass membership with the split of the Independent Socialists in 1921. In the Ruhr crisis of 1923, there was a serious possibility of revolutionary action, and the lapse in taking action was a main issue in Trotsky's critique of Stalin. But of course, if the Communists were dead, then Rabb's detective can attribute Hitler's rise to human wickedness instead of support for the the Hero (Hitler, natuerlich,) who could save Germany from the dastardly Reds. And get a lot of foreign love as a fighter against Bolshevism.

It does make you wonder what's up when these allegedly dead issues are so touchy that a mere thriller writer, even one who would be a hetero James with a six pack, cannot honestly face the historical facts. It is a shame when a commendably ambitious writers goes wrong.

Robert B. Parker's latest Jesse Stone, Night and Day, has Stone dropping his attachment for his ex-wife Jenn, for Spenser's other sleuth, Sunny Randall. It appears that Stone, another millionaire moving further and further right, has come to believe that Stone's continued relations with his promiscuous ex is altogether too much like swinging. I didn't get that out of my hat: The villainy of swinging is a major part of the plot, and Stone's therapist Dix points out the parallels in different words! One of the swingers has taken up voyeurism, then home invasions to photograph naked women. Naturally, he pays the appropriate price, death, with everyone who shoots him down, grimly satisfied that it had to be done. There is a subplot where Stone has the brutal faggot Spike threaten the evil swinger who beats his wife into swinging (and emotionally damages his children by swinging.) This of course is expected to work.

Parker has always had an easy style, with wide margins and large print as prized virtues. But egregiougly bad characterization is starting to crop up. Suburban swingers would surely note the victimized wife's lack of enthusiasm. Real people would be fearful of her alleging rape. The whole subplot is drivel aimed at "justifying" threatening nasty sexual deviants. Along the way, Parker also managed to characterize police as "working men." That view has to be seen somewhere along the descending colon!

James Grippando, in Intent to Kill, got away from his dreadful Jack Swyteck hero. This book is at least readable. It hasn't got the clever premises of Found Money or the exotic background of A King's Ransom. Its emphasis on family relations puts it closer to Lying with Strangers. All three are better, more original. This one borrows a lot from The Curious Incident in the Night Time. There is an Asperger's Syndrome patient. The portrait of mental illnes is not grossly offensive like some many in crime novels. But it doesn't quite bear conviction either. Most of the time this character is treated more like a cliche autistic child than Asperger's. The thing about Asperger's is that the people are supposed to be functional. I wouldn't recommend this one.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Val McDermid, Jonathan Rabb, The Closer and The Prefect

Val McDermid
Val McDermid's latest, A Darker Domain, suffers by comparison with her superb A Place of Execution, or even by its predecessor A Distant Echo. Like most singletons, Place had a completeness that made it better than almost all series novels. A Distant Echo introduced the heroine of Domain. The references to the previous novel fail so miserably, except, unhappily, to diminish the memory of Echo. In Domain, the villain of Echo receives a visit from Karen Pirie, the heroine DI. This is so awkward that the characters have to deny comparisons to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling. Bursting the fourth wall, so to speak, is a bad thing when the flying bricks hit you in the face.

Domain also suffers from McDermid's infatuation with her detective, a disease endemic in series novels. The novel is written with numerous flashbacks, suggesting a hope for another TV series past Wire in the Blood. The real difficulty with this novel is not that it's fairly easy to guess the solution. But the real climax of the novel is the dauntless Pirie successfully taking down a zillionaire Scots tycoon. Since there is never any question that Pirie would even hesitate to do this, nor is there any question that the invincible Pirie could fail, the climax is way too anticlimactic. The neat dovetailing of two seemingly unrelated cases, both decades old (and one tackled without permission to boot!) is also way too neat.

There is personal jeopardy hook, having to do with finding a suitable bone marrow donor for a dying toddler. Since Pirie's case(s) hinges on paternity, the sudden resolution to this outside the main plot is rather pointless, save as a ironic commentary on Pirie's "success." Except that it's the last paragraph of the book, and comes across merely as a PS to let the reader know what happened. Pirie gets laid in this one, and it is of course True Love, even though she's zaftig and he's H-O-T! Stephanie Plum getting courted by both Morelli and Ranger beats this for daydreaming in print, except this we're supposed to take seriously. Ouch!

Jonathan Rabb
Ouch, too, but in a different way for Jonathan Rabb's Rosa. (It and Shadows and Light are the first two volumes of a projected trilogy about a Kripo detective in Berlin. I've just started Shadows and Light.) Rosa was a wild conglomeration of serial killer and political intrigue over the sudden appearance of Rosa Luxemburg's body, with the distinctive cuts from a homicidal maniac imported from Belgium by some nefarious military/political operatives. Although I read the novel within the last six months the details of the labyrinthine plot have already escaped me. This doesn't matter, because Rabb's hero, Nikolai Hoffner, is much more about seeing into the souls of the people he questions, and pondering, depressively, about the emptiness of his own. There is a certain extent to which we can already see that the Reader's Digest version of the whole thing is "Humanity is shit, and the heroes are shit too."

Rabb does actually write more of a novel than a series of cues for the director. Settings are actually described! Hoffner's insights to people do actually work for the most part. And since the rather peculiar plot of Rosa got his wife killed, his depressive demeanor works in the opening of Shadows and Light. But what precisely is the point of picking Rosa Luxemburg, the eponymous victim of Rosa, and Fritz Lang in Shadows and Light, if not to address something more than the vagaries of a made up character? Rabb resolutely eschews politics, except in a politics is shit, politicians are shit and political police are especially shitty way. This quietism is like soldiers grumbling: It makes them feel all manly but doesn't mean a damn thing. Rabb may have had some foolish notions about not projecting our views backwards, except that everyone who cared to see knew exactly what kind of people murdered Luxemburg, and what kind of forces were unleashed to crush socialism. Ralph Lutz, first head of the Hoover Institute (therefore a card carrying conservative) ended his 1920 work on the Spartacist revolt specifically foreboding about the consequences. Instead, much of Rosa is about Hoffner's insight into Rosa's soul. It seems that Rabb felt a great need to find the human being, believing politics not worthy of human thought, I suppose. I would have that that all mammals have sex but only people have politics, which would make it more interesting. But there you are.

Rabb was the perpetrator of The Overseer, which positied a philosopher superior to Machiavelli who wrote centuries ago a handbook for ultimate power. The handbook was cunningly based on conservative philosophy. The gimmick was for a sexy scholar in such arcana to chase around finding the handbook, before the villainous cabal executed its instructions. Much hugger mugger, with somehow a sexy, kickass female spy handholding the sexy scholar's hand. In memory it seems very much like Da Vinci Code, except the theology in Code was intrinsically interesting. It was all very sensational and long like a blockbuster thriller should be. There is a curious contrast between The Overseer and Bruce Levine's Something to Hide. In the Levine, a not so sexy grad student has sexy, but not so kickass female holds his hand, while said grad student chases down the secret cabal operating on the philosophy of Joseph de Maistre. The plotting is much simply, the wish fulfillment characters much less grandiose and the de Maistre deadly accurate on conservative philosophy. Indeed the Levine sounds now like a Roman a clef about Leo Strauss. And yes, Skull & Bones makes an appearance in Something to Hide. That was an overlooked gem, while The Overseer's ponderous bulk confuses poor Mr. Rabb into overkill on plots and sensationalism. I'm hoping that Shadow and Light, if Rabb thinks he can start writing about the politics will be better. The opening, where someone fakes the murder of an UFA director to resemble the suicide of Fritz Lang's first wife as a way of pointing the Kripo's attention at Lang...well, maybe it won't be overplotted and underthemed. Hoffner's soulfulness may be beloved of the author, but Rabb's taste for vicarious martyrdom gives hope for some truth breaking in.

The Closer
Another detective who has been known to fail is Brenda Johnson. Kyra Sedgwick will probably never win an Emmy for her performance because Emmys are just not going to go to basic cable. Nonetheless, it is the key to the success of this show. Johnson is superior to the usual ruck of TV detectives, not just because she can fail, as in last Monday's episode, where she finds the kidnap victim dead, instead of saving him. And not just because she is a flawed human being.

She has the humorous little flaws like compulsively sneaking candy, but the big ones, like lying to her loved ones, even her parents, not just suspects. She also uses people ruthlessly, especially her new husband FBI agent Fritz. She even has had a sexual history, still a rough sell for women characters on TV. The other characters have taken note of her flaws, unusually, and they haven't always compensated with simpering at how cute her dedication is, either. The episode where Fritz told her to pick a wedding date or else, admitting that was the only way to deal with a bully was an example. Even more pointed was the Christmas episode where she lied to her parents about her visit (which was actually to search for a fugitive.) In the upshot, her lies led the fugitive to get himself killed seeking revenge for his younger brother. (Yes, there was some drivel about how the guy actually knew she was lying. It wasn't convincing.) The parents end up adopting the younger brother as a sort of compensation for her meanness. Naturally, in a later episode this is forgotten, but that's the nature of series TV.

The thing about this judgmental bitch, with her reactionary attitudes, and unthinking authoritarianism, aside from carrying conviction as the real thing, is that she is consistent. Murder's murder. Her black-and-white view leads to pursuit of lawbreakers. She almost never lets disdain for the victim or the status of suspects deter her. She never uses her manipulation to get confessions from innocent people. Is this realistic? Hell, no. It's about as fantastic as being able to twitch your nose and do magic. But it does make the series much more tasteful than something like NYPD Blue. The plots are usually decent. There has been gratifyingly little personal jeopardy. There has been a tendency for Brenda's personal life to provide the last clue to a mystery. Example: The bathroom mirror fogging up shows her how a guy in jail give his girl friend the address for a hit on a witness, despite being recorded and filmed. He fogged the mirror just off camera and wrote in it.

There has also been an extraordinary run of good luck in office politics, so that she expends huge amounts of money, time and authority on pursuing justice, instead of framing people for the clearance rate, letting cases fall between the cracks and such things we find in the real criminal investigation system. Johnson not only gets away with it, but is coming out on top! Her original nemesis, Daniels of Robbery/Homicide, now works under her in the expanded Major Crimes Unit!

The Prefect
Alastair Reynolds' latest is set in the same universe as Chasm City, before the Melding Plague that made it so delightfully Gothic, which I guess makes this book a prequel. The autonomous habitats in the Glitter Band orbiting Yellowstone must have all citizens vote in ad hoc referenda on issues of concern to all the space habitats. The Panoply operates the polling apparatus as well as traffic control. As such, it is what passes for the central government. The prefect is an agent of the Panoply. The plot is about the effort of an alpha intelligence, a survivor of the Eighty mentioned as background in Revelation Space, to seize control of the Glitter Band, having foreknowledge though the Exordium (mentioned in Redemption Ark if I recall correctly,) of the Melding Plague to come. There's still plenty of the Grand Guignol we've come to expect from Mr. Reynolds, such as the Panoply head having a booby trap in her neck that has kept her from sleeping for years. But he seems to be developing an interest in something beyond sensationalism. The variety of space habitat societies combined with political issues of polling (for instance, whether to call a referendum for authority for the Panoply to use nuclear weapons,) show an interest in people, not just angst puppets.

Also, the novel doesn't quite have the logorrhea of Mr. Reynolds' previous work, spacious as it is. Even better, the hero is a more rounded person, not quite so infatuated with himself or delighting in his ruthlessness as too many of Reynolds' other characters in the past. The novel would have been stronger as a stand alone. I imagine the impending advent of the Melding Plague is supposed to put the heroes' success into properly diminished perspective.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Definition of Science Fiction

It seems to me one difficulty is caused by trying to describe the genre of science fiction. It's about as useful as labeling nonfiction as a genre, then trying to describe it's unique characteristics.

Science fiction isn't a genre in the way that a Western or a mystery or a romance is a genre. The reader picks up those kinds of stories or novels expecting certain themes and tropes, a certain kind of emotional payoff.If you pick up a science fiction novel, you don't know what to expect. That was true when Wells and Verne were writing and it hasn't changed since.

Science fiction is infamous for bleeding into other genres. For example, thrillers can be set in the near future, with plots that hinge on extrapolated technology. There's no reasonable way these can't be called SF, yet such a thriller still belongs in the thriller genre. If you try to label a blend, you soon discover that most science fiction is a blend. That leaves the unanswerable question of why you'd bother to talk about science fiction as a separate genre in the first place.

For example, Kage Baker might write about time travel, a fantastic element that is tradionally part of science fiction, and therefore doesn't even need to be explained in detail. But the genre she is writing is romance (at least, the Kage Baker novels I've read are romances albeit in a science fictional mode.) A fan of space opera, which is a genre, will not generally like a romance, which is a different genre. I mention Ms Baker as a counterexample to the thesis that science fiction is a subgenre of boys' adventure stories.

A novel like Allegra Goodman's Intuition is much more scientifically based than any space opera, even Alastair Reynold's. Yet fans of the space opera, which really is a genre, might be actively repelled by her novel. Again, there no reasonable way that a novel about the scientific process can't be regarded as in some sense science fiction. Yet it is so little removed from reality that the publisher never dreamed of marketing it as science fiction. Nonetheless, it's science is still fiction. It also is in no sense an identifiable genre novel. Well, unless you somehow call serious or art novels a genre. But using any words with such elasticity doesn't seem kosher.

In another example, the TV series Jericho was set in an imaginary future after a limited nuclear assault of some sort on the US. This is obviously fantastic, in the indisputable sense that it is a product of the imagination, not description. It would be deranged to call it realistic. The post-holocaust story has been common enough to be tagged as a subgenre of science fiction. Yet people have still argued that Jericho was not science fiction!

Science fiction and fantasy are marketed separately for the good reason that not everyone likes the fantastic in fiction. Indeed, not everyone likes fiction of any sort. The importance of the fantastic element in the science fiction mode is revealed in the difficulty some people had accepting Jericho as science fiction.

The notion that science fiction is therefore a branch of fantasy does suffer from stylistic insensitivity. In discussion literature, even popular literature, this is an insuperable difficulty. A fantastic element that is explained as somehow natural (especially if the explanation really is a plausible speculation!) just doesn't have the same style as a fantastic element that is frankly supernatural. Kage Baker and Sherrilyn Kenyon may both be writing romances but one has an entirely different flavor than the other. If the store's big enough, they will not be on the same shelf. But they will not be in the same place of realistic (superficially, anyhow) romances, either.

Many people live daily lives in a materialistic universe of natural causes and effects. At the end, they hope God or the afterlife will suddenly appear. There are similarly inconsistent science fiction stories where God or the afterlife suddenly appear. They don't tend to be very good, but they are not fantasies in the same way as when angels are part of the plot from the beginning. If supernatural ideas are dressed up in natural form, as in nineteenth century spiritualism, with its ether and protoplasm and vibrations, or as twentieth century crank psychotherapy, as in Scientology, well, that's an old tradition. The point is,in literature, style is essential, not an irrelevancy. Thinking so is philistine. Mixing science fiction and fantasy doesn't work well generally, as witness C.S. Lewis Space Trilogy.

Another difficulty in defining science fiction is trying to encapsulate its unique artistic contribution. Most literature is popular literature and has no great artistic contribution to make. As a science fiction fan, I too have been tempted to find a definition of science fictions that rules out everything but the good stuff. Doesn't work, I think.

I would like to think that science fiction, as fiction informed by a scientific worldview or fiction concerned about the future, has some intrinsic merit. But upon reflection, how could such noble things be excluded from ordinary serious, artistically ambitious literature? In practice, it is obvious it is. But I don't think that means science fiction is really different, or even really separate. It means there's something narrowminded about current elite definitions of literature.
Living memory shows that the world has changed. Thinking it won't change more is mad. Writing as if it won't is bad.

But failures of the would be great novelists and short story writers are not our successes. Looking at bookstore shelves, it is plain that being a science fiction fan just means you have a taste for fantastic stories that still have some illusion of grounding in reality. And being a fantasy fan means you like the fantastic freed from the surly bonds of earth. If you want to claim science fiction that describes parts of the human condition regular literature averts its gaze from, you should probably start naming names.

Friday, June 5, 2009


There is little to say about a work in progress. Wake is first of a trilogy, to be followed by Watch, then Wonder. It is the story of an artificial intelligence evolving, naturally, on the worldwide web.
The parts of the books in the first person of the emerging Webmind (as it finally names itself) had a certain frantic but solemn effort to communicate a fragmentary consciousness slowly emerging. I must confess that I skipped practically all of those sections. I didn't miss anything but a slower pace I think.

There is actually a main plot about the interactions of the emerging mind with a teenage math prodigy, daughter of an autistic physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Canada. She was born blind, but an experimental procedure to encode visual stimuli and input it into her visual cortex fails initially because her own visual cortex is adapted to navigating the web. Instead of seeing the physical world, she sees the web, where she finds the emerging consciousness, which she calls the Phantom, after a theme borrowed from Helen Keller's autobiography. Caitlin is like no sixteen year old girl I've ever dealt with, but then, I've never dealt with the blind, and most especially never with a prodigy. This is conspicuosly unbelievable in regards to the girl's sexuality. There are many fifteen year old virgins, but the only ones who are as naive as this character are withdrawn. Yet thematically it is necessary that this girl not be withdrawn, as opposed to her father, who is. The effort to embody themes of isolation and consciousness with Caitlin's personal story and the science fictional story is pursued systematically. But it falls a little flat on the believability of the girl.

There is a subplot about a hacker in China. An epidemic of bird flu is contained by gassing the sick and well alike in a rural county. All China's internet contacts are firewalled during this exercise. This subplot is left hanging when the hacker breaks a leg fleeing the police, about to be arrested because he Knows Too Much. Actually, the character exists almost exclusively for editorializing about Tian An Men. Sawyer's political views are standard liberal imperialist thuggery. This is to be expected but failing to write a real character is just plain bad writing.

Sawyer posits that Webmind, by absorbing massive data bases, such as all of Project Gutenberg, can achieve a more or less human consciousness, albeit of superhuman intelligence. He is somewhat inconsistent, giving Webmind a comprehension of vision but not sound. Overall, I'm inclined to believe that in practice the only alien intelligence humanity will ever meet will be artificial intelligence. If it were somehow possible to program a human intelligence, that would be equivalent to deliberately creating a deaf, blind, mute quadriplegic. A human personality in the computer would shut down from trauma, I think. Functional AI wouldn't be human.

The really freakish thing is that Sawyer has his heroine into Julian Jaynes Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It appears that Mr. Sawyer thinks it is really plausible that humanity only developed consciousness in the last few thousand years. The characters of the Iliad, for instance, are not truly conscious. They are automatons answering the divine voices in their head. I'm pretty sure that is crazy. Human consciousness developed from animal consciousness. There is no reason to posit a weird form of schizophrenia as a transitional form in my opinion.

Oh, dear.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Ugly Letters

There are those who love to read and write beautifully.

But this is my blog.