Sunday, August 30, 2009

If SG1 Were As Good As DS9?

For one thing, we would have found out that the ascended Daniel Jackson had gone back in time and caused the whole sequence of events. He would have arranged the gate addresses so that the SG1 team was guaranteed to make the right discoveries in the right order, for one thing. He would have angsted terribly over killing Sha're. He would have deliberately tipped off the Ori to the existence of humanity in the Milky Way so that a war to annihilate them would begin. He, not Merlin, would have created the genocide device. We would have had a lot fewer scenes with Daniel Jackson because that goody two shoes shit makes grown ups puke. He'd basically just be seen in the beginning and the ends of lots of episodes.

Jolinar wouldn't have been killed, but Sam/Jolinar would have been kept for the rest of the series. Sam's hand to hand combat skills would have been awesome. Jacob would have been possessed by Apophis so that she would be the step-daughter of the series' first Big Bad. She would have had a love life, that included, progressively, the greatest Tokra covert ops agent evah!, the President and a mutual affair with Orlin that was led to the defeat of the Ori. And Replicator Sam would have been a lesbian that we saw in at least six episodes. She would have been the greatest female character ever written. And not just in scifi, either.

We would have seen Jack living Joe the Barber's life, and vice versa, from the time the communicating stones were found. Jack would have personally killed the reporter who found out about the stargate way back when. Jack would have always known about NID but refused to take action. Jack would have ordered the use of the symbiote poison to annihilate whole planets of go'a'uld and Jaffa. Jack would have used alien technology to topple the Russian government. Jack would never be the butt of a joke.

T'ealc would have killed every competitor for leader of the Jaffa with his bare hands because they were insufficiently pro-human, not just Raknor and Garak, but Bra'tac too. But he would have angsted about killing Bra'tac for at least ten episodes. Ry'ac would never have reconciled and T'ealc would have killed him too. But he would angst about it in every intimate scene for the rest of the series. T'ealc's only dealings with other Jaffa would be to replace the leadership with aforementioned hand to hand combat.

Hammond would have been unhappily married and his problems with his wife would have taken up at least four episodes. And he would have been captured and tortured, or subverted, then tortured, or accidentally locked in a closet and tortured by his claustrophobia, in at least six episodes.

Dr. Fraiser would have been sexually active with all the male characters plus Lesbian Replicator Sam. Cassandra would have become a drug addict because of her sluttiness. Then Cassandra would have run amok with her superpowers and Fraiser would have had to put her down. Then, Fraiser would have starred in the greatest SG1 episode ever as she desperately plunges through time in an effort to undo Cassandra's death.

Major Davis would have been an agent of the NID the whole time. All the characters would love having an NID agent around because he had the best one liners in the show. He would have been the hero of at least one episode a year. He would have been the bastard son of President Harold Hayes.

Bill Lee would have been driven mad by his jealousy of Sam's genius. He would have attacked the SGC to take over command of the war against the go'a'uld, believing he was destined to lead humanity to victory. He would be defeated, but never imprisoned, much less killedm although he would keep coming back to the SGC. One or two episodes a year, SG1 would have to cooperate with him in a mission. He would have had a great episode where he hallucinates at random moments that Jack is a go'a'uld.

Siler would have been an alcoholic spy for Bill Lee, until Lee stopped hallucinating but started worshipping the go'a'uld.

Kinsey would have tried to take over the US government but was caught by SG1 and never seen again. Everybody knows that right wing plots against democracy are just schemes by lone nuts.

Jonas Quinn would have kept his superpower of prophecy, and his position on the team. Although his power of prophecy would never be helpful, at least when he was on mission Jackson wouldn't come along and no one would have to listen to that Pollyanna shit.

Get the drift, people.


Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ian Banks

The thing about Ian Banks is that his left politics are nowhere near as extreme as fancied.
The big thing, is that sensationalism for its own sake is, remarkably, not forbidden by his political views. The Wasp Factory is not devoid of humanity but it's very like the bait on a hook: We feel something for the characters so that their dire fates are more frightening, more horrifying. When the protagonist of Complicity confesses, then finds he has cancer, he is being condemned for his complicity as thoroughly as any National Review subscriber could wish, while the killer is deprived of the love that was his driving motive. The protagonist of The Bridge even approves the Falklands war, as I recall.

So the notion that the Culture, as a true communist utopia, is the subject of Banks' work strikes me as a fundamental miscalculation in reading his novels. That's why the Culture is almost always off stage, with the bulk of the action taking place in lesser societies. Banks' tendency to sell shock and sensation is the driving force in most of his fiction. He does it with more wit, imagination, style, even depth of feeling than the vast majority of sensation mongers. But that is still his primary stock in trade.

That is why most of his work is essentially set in Ruritania, an imaginary land inhabited by people from other novels. Banks is as good a reader as he is a writer, so this is apparently not so obvious. The proof is that, in fictive universe terms, the inhabitants of the Culture, are not human beings. (Does State of the Art show some connection? Haven't found it yet.) Yet the Culture novels are written as though the characters, by and large, were human. The aliens and the Minds and knife-missiles and drones are rarely main players but wise commentators and plot henchmen instead.

The Algebraist and Matter are showing some signs of growth. In the US, his mainstream novels are even harder to find, though, so it's harder to be sure. As it is, The Bridge is probably his finest novel to date, with very little new thematic material found anywhere else, nor any handled better. The Wasp Factory and Walking on Glass have a lean, tight, pointed impact; Complicity has a topicality forthright politics; The Crow Road has a familial feeling and Scottish background. These seem to stand out more but it's pretty much a matter of taste. If you have read The Bridge, you've gotten, so far, at any rate, the essence of everything Banks has to offer.

When Banks has nerve enough to write science fiction set on Earth, the clash between his formal leftism and the rest of his ideology will force him to find a new voice.

Who Am I? YA SF

The predominant surviving forms of new SF are tv/movie tieins, and military SF. Of the remainder of new SF books an increasing proportion are YA. Now, YA is not a well defined genre, but the expectation that there is a young lead character for younger readers to identify with in their quest to find their place in the adult world. This has always been a major element of science fiction, from Andre Norton and Robert Heinelin down to the lowly superhero comic.

A reasonably success entry in the YA SF genre is Paul Melko's The Walls of the Universe. The book is a fixup of a successful novella. It is still left incomplete in one sense. What will ultimately happen and why the hero is chose for his bizarre fate is left for a book series. Serialization will probably decompensate what good has been done, but the demands of commerce must still be met. That good done is an interesting exercise in adolescent roleplaying, literalized as the same person from different parallel universes.

One is a typical good guy, of geekish persuasion, but notably successful in attracting not one but two women to love him, which takes the curse off being smart. Plus he seriously humiliates the real physics geek. And he rises to the occasion when battle is forced upon him, and kills the enemy.

The other is a modern day Magnificent Bastard, who is a murderer, in self defense of course so he's not really a true murderer. And the victim is a psycho who torturers animals for fun. And although he screws lots of his predestined girl friends in parallel world after parallel world, so that he's callous horny dog, he is a remarkably successful horny dog, which really soothes the sting, don't you know?

Both become tycoons at an early age by use of their knowledge of parallel worlds. The gadget making all this possible wrinkles the plot by only working one way. Geek version reverse engineers the gadget so that the plot is successfully resolved by returning to previous universes. Together, they kill numerous bad guys, get rich, get the predestined girl, as well as the adoration of assorted parents, even the parallel world version who didn't give birth to the protagonist! There's nothing quite so predetermined as the other characters' love for the hero, no matter what world they come from.

Putting aside all the plot huggermugger, the basic story is this: An adolescent, choosing what kind of man he will be chooses to be a badass, but eventually realizes that he needs love and reestablishes family relationships and a nonexploitative relationship. The adolescent also get to be the goody two shoes, who must leave home to grow up, never coming back, and finally becoming a man by killing. This is all literalized by the bad ass conniving to send the nice guy on a one way trip with the sabotaged transport device, which he himself received from another parallel world version of himself. (Presumably infinite regress means Melko can milk this till he dies.) So the adolescent reader can be both.

But, in the end, the very best conventions of the CW triumph, with twenty somethings Lords of the Manor, worldweary and beset with cares but still smoking hot. Bad ass literally gets away with "murder," by replacing the victim with a parallel world copy. Forging a corpus non delecti is a novel twist. There is a general flabbiness due to the wish fulfillment, and a bitter undertaste due the underdeveloped moral world created. The contrast between the modern notion of a hero and the older notion of a hero however is much more honest than the ruck of YA stories I've seen of late. Recommended, but approach with modest expectations.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Five Fingers

This thriller opens with Dutch tourist Ryan Phillippe meeting guide Colm Meaney at a Moroccan airport for a trip into the Rif mountains. The Dutchman is starting a food program, using money donated. There are periodic flashbacks to idyllic scenes on a Dutch dyke with his Moroccan girl friend. (That doesn't read quite right?) On the late night bus ride, two men grab Philippe and Colm.

The men awaken blindfolded and bound to chairs. Colm Meaney blusters about terrorists being animals while Phillippe protests that they aren't. The men hope that they were mistaken for Americans and it will all end well. But as Meaney rants, Lawrence Fishburne in typical Muslim clothing, including cap, takes off Phillippe's blindfold and shoots Colm dead. Then, he begins to question Phillippe. It turns out that they know about the money (a million dollars.) Fishburne repeatedly accuses Phillippe of being well trained by the CIA. Phillippe was a banker, until fired for taking part in protests against neoliberalism. The questioning turns into torture. Fishburne cuts of a finger. Gina Torres in a veil treats the wound, changes Phillippe's clothing, bathes him since his pants were soiled (a touch of realism usually avoided as most people don't get an erotic charge from the smell of piss and shit.)

Phillippe tells Gina he is a sympathizer, and convinces her, although it takes more fingers. Fishburne, now convinced that there is at least a possibility that Phillippe is a sympathizer. Phillippe protests that he truly is a sympathizer. His food program is a terrorist plot to poison food, McDonald's especially it seems. Fishburne declares he is indeed a Nigerian Islamist leader but that they didn't get Phillippe's name as a cell member. If Phillippe tells them some names of the Dutch cell, it will constitute his bona fides. Phillippe jibes a little, but says both of them should write names down simultaneously. They write. Fishburne merely writes "Thank you, thank you, thank you." With the names, Fishburne murders Phillippe. He, Gina and Colm, back from the dead, shuck their Muslim attire and go outside where they have a view of the statue of Liberty.

You have to wonder what to make of actors and writers and producers who do stuff like this. The plot hinges on Colm being someone who Phillippe trusts enough to guide him into the Rif, but thinks might genuinely be some antimuslim bigot, or a CIA plant. (A line of dialogue suggests that Colm acted as a provocateur.) It's rather like those Mission: Impossible episodes where so much information was given to the team at the beginning of the episode that the villains really had no chance. The plot also relies on Phillippe not being swift enough to suggest that both men write the names with first and last names mismatched and with false names included. Then the other could rewrite the list given to him to the real versions. If both lists matched, both were what they said they were. Most of all, there is no reason given for not just holding Phillippe prisoner until more information comes throught the regular communication lines. So the plotting is pretty loose.

So, what's the point? That idealists will murder people by the thousands? That torturing and murdering people will save humanity from the idealists? These are rotten old ideas that should embarrass everyone concerned. Or is it merely the pragmatic lesson that torture alone doesn't work, but deception does? (Except why then the torture? Fishburne tacitly acknowledges that taking all five fingers on the hand won't get any more information.) Or was it just a sensationalistic reversal, where the pretty white guy is the villain and the dark-skinned guys are not? That our expectation that Islamists are torturers is right, and that to pass as Islamists they have to act as torturers? That even their sympathizers know that Islamists are torturers?

Overall, very nasty stuff.

More Madness from John C. Wright

An extraordinary "Apologia pro opere sua," with no apologies to Cardinal Newman or whoever, was posted over a series of days. This is the philosophical rationalization for Wright's deranged homophobic rant over Scifi's positive response to GLAAD. Hal Duncan is continuing his logorrhetic annihilation.

For my part, there is very little of note. Wright affirms that his antigay position is in fact part of his anitleftist position, and preceded his conversion to Christianity, or specific adherence to Roman Catholicism. There's no particular reason to doubt his word but it is hardly relevant in the sense that he thinks. Religion is the rationalization and organization of superstition and bigotry in the service of social order. That usually is straightforward subservience to the ruling class. A bigot will always find a happy home in a church.

Wright also affirms that his homophobia is a political consequence of his defense of marriage, which as noted preceded his religion. This too is likely true. Marriage as an institution exists for the control of property, which in this society consists even for the poorest of the wife and children. That is why marriage is not just a contract, a point he childishly belabors. Wright foolishly imagines that Christian marriage is somehow in opposition to the bourgeois conception of marriage as a contract. He therefore takes the extraordinary position that the oppression of polygamy (which he is so confused he dare not categorically call oppression!) is justified by the contract approach. In truth, polygamy, as an inherently unequal contract for sexual services (amongst other things,) cannot be consistently enforced by a consistently democratic government. It violates the principle of equality that democracy is founded upon. It is the view of marriage as "the cornerstone of civilization" that turns the state into the Scourge of God that enforces the divine sexual order. He apparently didn't realize that cities are the cornerstone of civilization, although the etymology of the word might have given him a clue.

Wright also seems to think that marriage itself is founded upon copulation. Somehow this doesn't include anal copulation. Given such vacuous notions, the possibility of superior marriage law than bourgois contract doesn't even come onto the radar screen. One of the simplest possible reforms, permission to children to leave the home at adolescence for a job, instead of staying under the parental thumb, doesn't even occur to him. No wonder this guy wrote that end of time crap, where Clarke's Law is invoked to cover nonsense.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In Defense of John C. Wright!

Point One: Every writer worthy of the name wants to go to Hollywood.With no exceptions. Writing on spec for the Colbert Report is laudable ambition. Laud Mr. Wright, and emulate! Point Two: The Golden Age was dull as dirt and I couldn't read more than fifty, a hundred pages through. I was laughing hysterically when I read his rough draft for a comedy sketch. The brilliant switch from end of time SF (aka advanced science=magic,)enabled his talent to flower.Point Three: When so many people are so concerned the US is engaged in multiple wars while the government funnels dollars by the trillion into certain banks and Wall Street firms, the importance of being both pure for God and respectable for society can easily be overlooked. Mr. Wright has an astounding ability to see the genuinely important issues of the day.

^^^Can't help it, I like my own jokes, even if I'm the only one laughing.

There's not much argument to take seriously. (Hal Duncan does some amusing overkill trying to do so on The notion that homosexuality is wrong derives from religion, which means it should automatically be questioned as superstition. There is no rational argument against homosexuality anywhere, least of all here. Ethically speaking, sexual mores should address taking care of the children and STDs. That leaves a pretty wide latitude.

Equally, the notion that the networks are agents in promoting or retarding social mores on sexuality has two problem. First, the networks follow public mores timorously. Homosexuality is becoming more acceptable because society is changing. Fewer and fewer people are middle class by the old meaning of the term (mom doesn't have to work, own business, actually own home as opposed to struggling with mortgage and so on.) The lower classes we are all coming have always had less to lose by engaging in cheap indoor sports. Scientific progress in birth control has changed sexuality too. Plus who knows what else. There is little reason to think that television has or could played a major role in spreading new ideas.

Which brings us to the second problem with Mr. Wright's concerns. Namely, television relelentlessly advocates heterosexuality, constantly associating it with commercial products. Its relentless search for sex appeal likely does have a total cumulative effect. But in the opposite direction to what he fears!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Defying Gravity

Coed locker rooms. The hero is a grown man but punches out two different men in the first episode. Even if it was two hours long, that just tells you something. Said hero goes into women's room to flirt with his True Love. Said hero and True Love have sparks flying but have to fight, like some tired rom-com. Said hero's vasectomy fails and True Love apparently has abortion and is tormented by hallucinations of crying child. Other people don't notice she's hallucinating. Now, as it happens, I've dealt with someone who was hallucinating. Even if you don't realize they're having a psychotic break, you know there's something terribly wrong. The Hindu guy goes completely bonkers and goes out into space so there's a personal rescue by the supersensitive Hero.

Oh, my.

There's some sort of sf plot in there too. But this show has plainly gotten way too much influence from the BattleStar Galactica school of bullshit characterization in pursuit of trite sensationalism.

Pass. Or should I say, Fail?

The New Improved Old Testament

Kings is finished. People avoided the show in droves. The ratings didn't drop precipitously, they were bad from the first episode. The same was true for The Book of Daniel. Although there wasn't an organized campaign against Kings as for Book of Daniel, I'm pretty sure that religous suspicions were a major cause of the widespread disinterest. People just didn't think a reboot of the Bible was needed. Perhaps the nature of the show was not as well understood as I believe, though.

The strong implication that God wants land for peace, although soundly based in the best official traditions of Christian ethics, has an impertinent relevance to contemporary politics. When Kings explicitly shows soldiers rousting citizens (settlers in the real world,) it has an uncomfortable sharpness. The thing is, that land for peace, is very much a Christian improvement on the real OT. On the other hand, the insistence for peace just might be why God has turned against Silas (the series name for Saul.) Having it both ways is typical for would be edgy television, which usually has it the accepted way. Genuinely bold TV by my lights takes a dissident position. Asking hard questions is easy, contrary to the idiots who liked BattleStar Galactica: It's answering the hard questions that's difficult.

Another improvement on the OT is the treatment of David and Jonathan. Now, the love passing the love of women simply cannot be ascribed to the glorious Son of God (a title for a King, after all,) so Jonathan, who is dubbed Jack in the series, is an enemy of David. This is because he sees David as a rival, just as does Saul. This turns Jack into another EVIL HOMO. By dramatic jujitsu, his evilness is rooted in his sacrificing his gayness for power. His true love, definitely not David in the corrected version offered here, even commits suicide as he outs Jack, in order to liberate his true self from the sacrifices required for power. And Silas' fury and contempt at Jack's gayness is just another aspect of Silas' evil. The role of religion in justifying homophobia pretty much disappears. Actor Sebastian Stan, whose career has probably peaked, should get a supporting actor Emmy for selling this stuff. (Ian McShane naturally should get the best actor and Susanna Thompson, a Book of Daniel alumna, should get best supporting actress, too.) Naturally, David's true love is Michelle, Michal in the OT. The Bible's loud proclamation that David wouldn't even fuck her is tactfully unforeshadowed.

Wes Studi did a one note performance as Abner, who is killed off here, unlike the OT. He adequately captures the murderous nature of the Biblical Abner, but it is necessarily one note. Abner being a henchman for David as well as Silas would give away too much, so this is another of the improvements. Dylan Baker plays brother in law William Cross, a tycoon responsible for much plotting for war and palace revolution. He is a totally fictional character. Adding a fictional villain allows uncomfortable questions about how a villainous Silas could once have God's approval as king.

The land for peace position on Palestine is merely officially US policy. The real policy is total US support for Israel in its conquest of the Promised Land. It appears that the show knows this, hence the careful ambiguity about Silas' peace program. Or was it David's? Would David's progressive disillusion with Silas come to include the cession of Port Prosperity? The name intensifies the issue, and is not an OT name adapted for the series. Shiloh, Silas' new built capital, may stand in for Jerusalem, or it may not. Is it really part of God's plan, or not? As I say, implications about the real "Promised Land" are carefully confused.

Not ambiguous, and therefore distinguishing Kings from religion respecting trash like Deep Space Nine and BSG, much less fantasies like Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven, is the show's frank acknowledgement that God's ways are so damn mysterious that observant humans can naturally be peeved at the way He does business. Indeed, possibly even outraged.
In one sense, it is tempting to forgive Kings its temporizing on Zionism and homosexuality on the grounds that it was picking its battles.

It is also tempting to forgive Kings because it is so well written. It's forthright setting in a fantasy world of the nations of Gath and Gilboa may lead sf fans to think it is alternate history. It is not: There is no branch point where the imagined history touches our real history. God has no dialogue, however, nor are there angels. One visitation to David takes the form of a dream of his own father, not his Father. The main actions shown by God are a plume of smoke defying the wind and a glass falling off a table unnoticed by the protagonists. The hokey Witch of Endor disappears, but the ghost of Samuel is seen mainly by people who don't know he is dead. The exception is Silas. In the series, Silas orders the execution of Rev. Samuels, the Samuel character. This is a rather neat resolution of the power conflict between the Judge Samuel and the King Saul.

Such improvements in the plotting are a notable excellence of the series. Quite aside from such necessary clevernesses as David not being a shepherd, but a Sheppard, and Goliath being a giant tank, there is an abundant invention in cleaning up peculiarities in the OT. For example, Rev. Samuels' secret annointment of David the boy, prior to his coming to Saul's attention, is done as an accident, when Samuels inadvertently smears motor oil on the young man. David in the series is a pianist, and he is first noticed playing by Silas . But it is in passing, and Silas does not learn his name, so when David destroys the Goliath he can be formally introduced. The OT tells us that Elhanan slew Goliath, so when the series David is framed for treason, prosecutor Jack says that a Lawrence Hannon took out the tank with a remote.

Silas flawed nature is flambuoyantly portrayed by writers and actor. The minor characters, including even two simple security guards, are depicted with a specificity and reality unusual for main characters in other series. The dialogue includes a highly formal version used on state occasions by the upperclass characters, or by minor characters aspiring to formality. The awareness of class differences of this sort is surprising for US television, which generally knows only the dregs of the lumpenproletariat and the vast "middle class." And usually dare not notice an upper class at all. In an extraordinarily amusing scene, the evil brother-in-law starts to make a formal announcement, then exasperatedly cries "Now you've got me doing it!"

All these virtues elevate Kings above its competition. If it doesn't win the Emmy for best drama, it will be because the implicit politics and the mere permission for characters to question God make it too risky for approval. Like all fantasies, though, in the end it does imagine the fantastic as real, and you have to wonder, what is the point? But it's so well written! But it's got another Evil Homo, even if said evil homo is still written like a real human being might be in such a bizarre situation.

I suppose it's like The Wire. Perhaps it is just absurd to be so perfectionist about something that has so much goodness in it.