Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hyperink Cinema: An Investigation

As N. Katherine Hayles has cautions critics to avoid ‘applying critical models designed for print’ to works of electronic literature in fear that ‘the new possibilities opened for literary creation and interpretation will simply not be seen, she neglects to consider whether the models conceived for electronic literature might be used on works of print, and whether this might cause the scholarly community to reevaluate works using this new critical framework. This idea forms one of the central ideas in my thesis, that the recent proliferation of images and other visual media into print fiction demonstrates that the digital is being ‘remediated’ into print, to use Jay David Bolter’s term, and thus it seems prudent to apply the critical apparatuses developed for hypertext to these works in order that one doesn’t miss the ‘new possibilities’ brought about by this shift.

Therefore, a similar approach seems appropriate when examining the films that fall under the new category called ‘hyperlink cinema,’ a term coined by Alissa Quart that acknowledges the influence of the internet and multitasking on the narrative structure of said films. As with the rem
ediation of the digital into print, examples can be found that predate our modern conceptions of when such a shift would likely have begun, sometime in the late 1980s perhaps, but the majority of the films accepted as falling under this umbrella were produced in the past fifteen years.

While Quart and Roger Ebert seem to mostly define the hypertext film as one in which the characters inhabit separate stories, where we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another, an explanation that is adequate for the audience of their reviews if not the scholarly community, a more specific analysis of how such films achieve these narratives is warranted. Therefore over the next few weeks, I will be exploring different films in an attempt to provide an adequate description of the genre, a beginning from which scholars can investigate the digital influence on the narrative of film. These investigations will also serve me as I prepare to present a paper on this topic at the PCA/ACA National Conference in St. Louis this March.

Grounding this inquiry will be the work of George P. Landow, who has developed four axes by which one can analyze a text to determine of it meets the criteria of hypertext: reader choice, intervention, and empowerment; inclusion of extralinguistic texts; complexity of network structure; and degrees of multiplicity in and variation in literary elements. I may modify these definitions a bit, such as suggesting that ‘extralinguistic texts’ be interpreted as devices which are non-native to the genre of film, and to focus heavily on the complexity of the network structure, analyzing how different facets of a film are ‘linked’ to others, and how that is akin to the links contained in a hypertext.

And while this exercise will allow me to simultaneously research a paper and provide content for this space, I also hope that you find it enjoyable. While the majority of the content will be of this nature, and hopefully will exceed the current pace of three posts a month, there will likely be thoughts on other things too, such as a link between comics and film that I need to read up on and perhaps some insights into the economic costs of airport screenings. Feel encouraged to add your voice to the mix, but more than that, I hope you find what you red here interesting.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Baseball & Breast Cancer

A certain confluence of reading came across my desk over the past two days, leading me to make a connection that I otherwise likely would have never considered. For some reason, I got very interested in looking up a book that Buzz Bissinger wrote about Tony LaRussa and the St. Louis Cardinals a few years ago, Three Nights in August, and while it contained some incomprehensible analogies, it was a decent enough book, which I finished yesterday evening. Written a few years after Michael Lewis’s seminal Moneyball, much of the editorializing Bissinger indulges himself in is refuting the ‘bunk’ that sabermetricians like Bill James have more or less proven statistically, a position that websites like the recently retired Fire Joe Morgan have ridiculed for its ignorance.

In this morning’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, mathematician John Allen Paulos illustrates why the government’s task force on breast cancer screening’s recommendation that asymptomatic women under the age of fifty need not undergo mammograms is mathematically a sound one. As anyone who even marginally keeps up with the news already knows, this caused a furor and was quickly sucked into the ever declining discourse on national healthcare. Despite what seems counterintuitive, tests for a relatively rare condition can have a false positive rate of about 1%, which can be quite misleading when the rate of an occurrence is less than 1%. I won’t go into his math, but it’s a short article and easy to understand.

And Paulos is right to remind us that most people don’t think probabilistically, nor do they respond correctly to very large or very small numbers. Think of the uproar ten years ago when mice being force fed aspartame in relatively gargantuan amounts got cancer. It doesn’t mean that other people might not come up with different conclusions using similar data, but to argue against the recommendations from the government panel, one must present facts in his or her argument, not merely use invective.

And this brings me back to Bissinger and statistics. I understand that many things the so-called Moneyball people say seems counterintuitive, and so the average person might be quick to reject them because they just don’t seem to be possible. Take for instance the argument that the player with the best on base percentage on a team be
batted in the leadoff position because over the course of the game, that player will have the most at bats. The rest of the lineup would be structured accordingly, the player with the second highest on base percentage being batted next, etc. This makes sense on the surface because it is impossible to score runs without getting people on base, and it is impossible to win games without scoring at least one run. Having the most people on over the course of night should lead you to have the greatest ability to score runs and give you the greatest chance to win the game.

So why doesn’t anybody do this? Well, baseball managers and GMs don’t think probabilistically much more than the typical person. But let’s say they did. For as long as anyone can pretty much remember, the idea has been for a team to try and get a couple of quick men on base before the third-fourth-fifth part of the lineup, the three players with the most power, come up to try and knock them in. It doesn’t seem to matter that over the three games covered in Bissinger’s book, Kerry Robinson (OBP .281 in 2003) led off all three games while Albert Pujols (.439), one of the greatest players to ever put on a uniform, hit third, and thus got fewer chances at making an impact with his bat.

Let me run with this for a minute. Let’s say that LaRussa decided to buy into this strategy and placed Pujols as the leadoff hitter. Fans and the media, again like most of us not used to thinking probabilistically, would ridicule the move because even though it makes a certain amount of sense when you actually do the math, most people who listen to or broadcast on sportstalk radio aren’t doing the math. So unless it works, and works quickly, LaRussa (and the GM who let him do it) may be ordered to switch back or risk losing their jobs. But what would that result be based u
pon? Invective, and nothing more than the argument that ‘it’s never been this way before, so if this new plan was going to work someone smarter than LaRussa would have figured it out already.’

What is so frustrating to people like me, people who don’t think probabilistically but still understand that statistics are a science, is that the opposing argument not only adds nothing to the discussion, it is dismissive. Just as popular opinion has been against the recommendations of the breast cancer panel, it is against the sabermetricians who are looking at baseball in new ways. And while it may make a certain amount of populist sense to side with popular opinion, siding against science is always going to leave one standing in opposition to facts, a position from which it is very hard to win an argument.

Unless, of course, you can yell very, very loudly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Star Trek's Hypocritical Federation

Can there be any doubt that Quark is the most moral character on Star Trek Deep Space Nine? While his bible, the Rules of Acquisition, may not be something that I agree with, he places it as the centerpiece of his life, citing it frequently, and using it as a guide to pursue his endeavors. Whether we think that family should be exploited for opportunity or women should be treated as subservient is beside the point: Quark has a code of ethics that he sticks to in virtually every situation.

Contrast this with Captain Sisko, a man who allows men to be killed and bribes another in order to perpetrate a lie to the Romulan people and ensure that they entered the Dominion War on the side of the Federation. Much has been made of this episode, yet the judgments usually come down on the side of Sisko, whose temporary abandonment of a moral compass perhaps leads to the greater good, at least from the perspective of the Federa
tion and its allies.

Also consider the outright hostility and contempt that Sisko and other Federation and Bajoran characters feel towards Quark. That he remains steadfast in his unpopular beliefs even in an atmosphere where his very personhood is looked down upon, is something that would be lauded if we just stripped away some of the descriptors.

For a society that claims to respect other culture’s beliefs, the members of the Federation that we see on television seem to sit in judgment quite often, and not just in the case of the Ferengi. When Worf seeks to end his brother’s life at the latter’s request, he is threatened with prison and questioned severely for attempting to perform a legal and customary ritual between consenting people in his culture. In the episode ‘Waltz,’ in which the Defiant is looking for a marooned Captain Sisko in the brief window before they must return to protect a convoy, Doctor Bashir sneers at Worf when the latter says that it would be dishonorable to fail to return to the convoy, claiming that he doesn’t care much for Worf’s honor.

Is it possible to reconcile the lofty ideals of Federation society with the way we see such behavior portrayed on screen, behavior for which I have only provided the briefest of examples? In many ways, the Federation is merely a stand-in for the modern day United States, a superpower who uses its military and economic strength in order to force other countries to behave in a way the United States thinks is correct. The Federation does pretty much the exact same thing, forcing new members to meet certain criteria in order for acceptance. We also rarely see any dissention by members of the Federation against the central government, creating the impression that societies cede their individuality to some degree in order to gain the military and economic strengths the Federation wields. The respect for these alien societies seems to be an abstract notion, which to be fair is often reflected in American society regarding cultures in other countries.

I am sure there are all sorts of colonialist and imperialist critical frameworks that could be applied to this issue in order to better understand the gap between what the Federation is said to be and what evidence shows it is. Obviously, this is a rough outline of these ideas, or what might actually be two separate ideas, but with the new direction I am hoping to take here, I hope the following conversation will help clarify some points and hopefully muddy the waters a bit as well. Please, weigh in.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Reading List: November 2009

Despite a decision over two weeks ago to shift the focus of this space, noting has yet happened because (1)I have been busy and stressed, and because (2)I just haven't felt as though I have had anything worth saying. Yet my commitment to the change remains theoretically strong, so hopefully I will spend some time this month writing about interests of mine.

There are several films that fall into the hyperlink cinema genre that I have yet to watch though they sit in my living room, and I have also been pondering the seeming cultural superiority that Star Trek's Federation inhabits yet simultaneously denies, especially as this pertains to the Ferengi and Deep Space Nine. Thoughts on such topics shall, hopefully, be forthcoming.

In November, I completed 5 books and 5 graphic novels:
  • The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack
  • Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
  • Are the Humanities Inconsequent? by Jerome McGann
  • The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite by Gerard Way & Gabriel Ba
  • Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
  • Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America by Jeph Loeb, et al.
  • Green Lantern: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns & Ivan Reis
  • Invisible by Paul Auster
  • Assignment: Earth by John Byrne
  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas by Way & Ba
Unreserved recommendations for The Umbrella Academy, which is a cross between a typical superhero family and a Wes Anderson movie. Auster's new novel was also decent and a departure from his last few works. However, I was quite disappointed in Chronic City, not because it was bad but because it was just mediocre and I expect better from Lethem. And while Loeb's Captain America story wasn't very good, he did do some interesting things with the layout and using 70s era artwork, with the reduced color scheme, to contrast modern sensibilities in flashback portions of the narrative.

Questions, comments, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A New Direction (Hopefully)

Over the past few months, I have pondered whether or not to cede this forum to wherever it is all the abandoned internet observations go to die. However, I still have a readership of a few dedicated friends and colleagues and I do not want this forum, and the specific connections it engenders, to go away and therefore be of no use to me or anyone else. At the same time, a resounding emptiness has settled over the intellectual part of my brain as I have finished my thesis and all that remain are the formatting changes the graduate college will invariably cast upon me whether I followed their style guide to the letter or not. However, such a project leaves many future avenues for investigation, hopefully by me as I further my academic career, so I have decided to use this space to write, in short pieces, about the questions I hope to answer.

My thesis dealt with the influence of the digital on print, specifically how such
influence affects composition and narrative in contemporary novels like House of Leaves and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that contain a variety of visual media. Meanwhile, I have become a fan of the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, in which narratives are related in a nonsequential and often disjointed manner, especially in 21 Grams. Rudimentary research revealed to me the existence of a genre of film called hyperlink cinema, of which Inarritu's films are primary examples. As I already am interested in what Jay David Bolter has called the 'remediation' of the digital into other media, such a term suggests that hyperlinks, which are a component of hypertexts, are being remediated into film and influencing their narratives. I am skeptical of a straightforward interpretation such as this, but it bears investigation, and I will hopefully be conducting it here with the intention of presenting a paper at the 2010 PCA/ACA Conference in St. Louis this March.

With my primary research interests centering around the graphic construction of narrative, it should surprise no one that I have a scholarly interest in comic books. In yet another attempt to develop a conference paper for the University of Florida's ImageNext (which I hope to attend assuming I can get a travel grant), I want to investigate the use of the nine-panel (or even six-panel) page in contemporary comics, especially as it is used to as individual panels and a larger cohesive picture at the same time. This is much less grounded in theory at this stage, and much more supported by my singular amazement at one particular page in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. But as proposals are due at the end of the year, I should hopefully stumble upon something before too long.

Several colleagues have expressed surprise at my willingness to put all my scholarly ideas in a public forum before I take steps to insure they are published (thereby giving me all the credit). I find that a bit of an antiquated view, and think the benefits of outside discussion greatly outweighs the slim chance that my work will be hijacked or plagiarized. In addition, writing is a lonely business, and working out ideas here will allow me to keep plodding towards my ultimate goal of working full time as an academic, hopefully helping me deal with the fact that I have to work more and more in my service industry job just to make ends meet. Help keep the eyes on the prize, so to speak.

Please, let me know what you think about this decision, and more than that, feedback will do nothing but help me as I implement these plans. Many of you are academics, or at least academically inclined, and I suspect that you have an idea or two about such topics already. In fact, I would be open to using this space with other authors who are attempting to jumpstart their own research in a similar fashion, assuming of course that the content was relatively the same.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reading List: October 2009

Almost no new content here over the past month, though there are two ways to look at that. The first is that no content means no readers, which does not bode well for a blog that I am struggling to figure out what to do with anyway. However, I did write about 20,000 words this month as I finished my Master's thesis and successfully defended it, so it is not as if I did nothing.

Yet the former is what I have been mulling the past few days. A big problem I have with this space is that I don't really know what it is here for. I occasionally post reviews of books I read or films I see, but those reviews vary not only in quality but in substance as well. There seems to be no unifying theme, save me, and while the readers here are all people I know from elsewhere so no problem is immediately apparent, no one drops in here via Google and sticks around because they have no relationship with me and no attachment therefore to the content.

So my goal in the next month is twofold: one, revise and submit my thesis to the graduate college; and two, decide what, if anything, I want to continue to do with this space. It needs to be about something, or what's the point?

Last month I finished only 12 books/graphic novels/plays:
  • Swamp Thing: Reunion by Alan Moore, et al.
  • The Walking Dead: Safety Behind Bars by Robert Kirkland & Charlie Adlard
  • The Great Movies by Roger Ebert
  • The Last Generation by Andrew Steven Harris & Gordon Purcell
  • Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Troublesome Minds by Dave Galanter
  • Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple
  • Final Crisis by Grant Morrison & J.G. Jones
  • Fables: The Dark Ages by Bill Willingham, et al.
  • God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza
  • Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? by Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert
  • Reasons to be Pretty by Neil LaBute
Further updates as events warrant.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Troublesome Minds by Dave Galanter

Though it may not seem to be the case upon a cursory glance, the academic writing I have been practicing as a graduate student has influenced the content here quite a bit. The obvious would be the attention given to topics such as the distribution of comics on the iPhone or reviews of works like Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture. But the less obvious is in the way I approach pieces that I review, for an effective way to generate content is to disagree with a portion of a work and then present the reasoning behind it.

I have been highly critical of the Star Trek line Pocket Books has been producing recently, which has drawn the ire of some. While I stand by everything I have written, it
gets old to be constantly criticizing, so where I didn’t feel I had a lot to say about Dave Galanter’s Troublesome Minds, I wanted to write about it to maybe help a copy find its way into a reader’s hands as well as to demonstrate that I have no axe to grind.

With a line seemingly consumed with continuity and having every book tie into three others in direct a
nd indirect ways, Troublesome Minds is a refreshing change. Set within the original five-year mission, the Enterprise attempts to make first contact with Isitri only to wind up responding to a distress call and preventing the death of one Isitri by an assemblage of others. This man, Berlis, claims not to know why those from his homeworld wish him dead, and by intervening Kirk is placed into a bad position: return him to his colony and protect him, or turn him over to be killed.

However, Berlis is what is known as a troublesome mind in his telepathic community. The Isitri do not have vocal cords and virtually all are deaf; they communicate through their thoughts. People like Berlis arise from time to time and subject the world to inadvertent slavery for their minds are so strong that all other Isitri bend to their will and they become despotic. As Berlis makes his way back to his homeworld, Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise must try and prevent him from taking over the world and thus plunging them into war with a rival power who fears the innovations possible when a troublesome mind takes over.

While the novel has been praised in the deaf community due to its use of hand signals to communicate between the non-telepathic humans and the Isitri, I found the ethical quandaries our heroes were faced with to be the driving force of this book. Before he has a chance to think twice, Kirk violates the Prime Directive and intervenes, but rather than becoming focused on a rule that loses all sense when examined, Galanter proceeds by exploring how Kirk and Spock will face the tough decisions that their intervention has brought about. Obviously mind control is bad, but to what extent will they go to prevent it? By intervening against Berlis as he controls a planet, does Kirk side with a rival alien power bent on his extermination?

Where I thought Galanter could have improved was the consideration of what was to be done with Berlis assuming he could be captured and prevented from influencing his people. The idea of banishment was addressed, but in such a scenario I found it a little difficult to believe that no one would recommend the obvious, no matter how distasteful: maybe killing him is the only answer. Yet as the novel played out, Galanter placed characters in even more morally ambiguous situations and kept any resolution from being a pat one.

With such a simple story, it was also interesting to see how Galanter went about assembling a story in which so many obvious solutions weren’t possible. For example, as soon as I thought about just beaming up Berlis and warping away, and explanation was given for why that wasn’t possible. Galanter also problematized the idea of an assassination, demonstrating that Berlis’s hold over his people would not dissipate immediately following his death but diminish over time. None of this is a criticism; instead, by being able to tease out the seams in his narrative, it was possible to see and appreciate how Galanter went about assembling it. The dialogue literally sounded like it was straight out of an episode from the 1960s, something that I think few authors are able to replicate.

Troublesome Minds isn’t a great novel, but it is a solid one. And it also feels like an important story, where problems aren’t black and white and solutions leave the reader pondering rather than having everything go back to normal at the end.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Limey

Though one may first think of Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey as a typical revenge film, a close viewing reveals that so much more is going on, both with regards to the directing and the character work. Played by Terence Stamp, Wilson is a British ex-con who flies out to Los Angeles after his daughter dies in a car crash in order to find out what happened and settle the score with those that have wronged her. Though the daughter's death was apparently an accident, Wilson suspects more was going on and looks into her relationship with Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a music producer.

Both Stamp and Fonda carry with them the roles they played in movies in the 60s, and that helps inform the audience of their motivations here. The personal relationships are stripped to a minimum, and thus the audience is largely in the dark on any backstory, causing a sort of subconscious reliance on what we know of the types of characters Stamp and Fonda usually play.

The film frequently features dialogue and background sound from previous or future scenes juxtaposed with a current scene. Dialogue from one conversation, for instance, may find itself dispersed throughout the film, a
rticulated for the first time long after its chronological moment has passed, as a sort of narrative flashback superimposed over later conversation, to complete a character's thought or punctuate a character's emphasis. Certain touchstones include Wilson sitting on the airplane thinking of his daughter and Wilson’s conversation with Eduardo (Luis Guzman) after arriving in LA. This causes certain shots to have different meanings depending upon where one sees them in the film. Soderbergh plays with the editing not to just be unorthodox, but to use the grammar available in film to its full effect though it is in ways that conventional filmmakers have eschewed.

A similar technique is also used when introducing the character of Valentine, where Soderbergh uses fu
ture scenes from the movie to establish a trailer of sorts to introduce the character. At that time, the audience doesn’t know that it is seeing into the future of the narrative, though it starts to become more clear on a second viewing that the editing is playing with the concept of memory.

For example, when Wilson first meets Elaine (Leslie Ann Warren), a single conversation is depicted as taking place in three different locations simultaneously, with cuts back and forth as the conversation progresses. Though this makes absolutely no chronological sense, it works because the entire movie acts as a sort of memory play, and if one has a conversation over several hours with another person, they may not recall exactly what was said where but will remember the salient details of the conversation. Yet the memory analogy breaks down a bit for we see no through the eyes of one person, but rather (or at least) two: Wilson and Valentine.

Though a violent film, most of the violence is kept at a distance. In a well-praised shot, the camera stays back on the street as Wilson walks into a warehouse and kills several men inside. As the lone survivor runs
away, Wilson walks out with blood splattered on his face, causing one to imagine what happened and have more impact because of that. Later at a party Valentine is throwing in his house, Wilson head butts a bodyguard and throws him over the side of a balcony to his death (shown here). But this is shot from inside the house and the action takes place over the shoulder of Fonda, keeping it again at a distance, and honestly making it funnier.

Not to be overlooked is the insertion of clips from a 1967 film called Poor Cow in which Terence
Stamp played a petty thief. Wilson's daughter died as an adult, but each time he thinks of her he sees her as she was when she was still a little girl. Those scenes of her childhood, and of Stamp as a younger man, come out of Poor Cow, which was shot by Ken Loach in a sort of grainy documentary-esque style that really makes it seem that they are memories rather than just clips from another movie.

I saw this movie back when it was originally released, but I was young and didn’t know much about film then. Today I still don’t know much about film, but I know a lot more than I did, and this honestly is one of the most creative movies I have watched in a long time. Soderbergh is a great director, one of the best today, and this is as good a film as any to see that. Watch The Limey, if not for the editing and directing, then for Stamp, who has one of my favorite monologues in a scene with veteran character actor Bill Duke.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Myriad Universes: The Last Generation

With alternate versions of our heroes being popular in just about every television show ever broadcasted, it’s no surprise that the same would hold true for a franchise like Star Trek, who has gone to that well many a time. Last year, Pocket Books published six short novels set entirely within universes that had been irrevocably altered due to some major event with which readers are familiar having a different outcome. Overall, I enjoyed the two collections (which I reviewed here and here), and look forward to a third that hopefully will be produced next year.

So I guess it is no surprise that IDW would choose the Myriad Universe format for its first ‘crossover’
with Pocket Books. Entitled The Last Generation, the five issue collection tells the story of what Jean-Luc Picard’s universe would be like had Captain Kirk not stopped the planned Klingon assassination of the Federation president in Star Trek VI. As you might imagine, it doesn’t turn out so well.

Klingons conquered Earth in the interim, and Will Riker and Geordi LaForge have somehow come acros
s an android named Data and are trying to get him into Resistance hands while keeping him away from Klingon ones. Their cell is none other than that run by Jean-Luc Picard, a single ‘father’ for his nephew, Rene, after his brother was killed by Klingons. Everyone else is pretty much in the resistance cell too: Beverly Crusher, a battle hardened Wesley, Yar, O’Brien, etc. Even Ro Laren, though how a Bajoran made it into an Earth resistance cell against Klingon imperialism is never addressed. Though not necessarily a bad start, it seems like only a slight deviation from Yesterday’s Enterprise, where the Federation was about to fall to the Klingons rather than it already being the case.

Just before Riker and LaForge lose Data to the Klingons, Captain Sulu of Excelsior shows up to save him. Apparently he has a cloaking device and has been fighting the Klingons for seven decades even though his ship looks like it is in perfect condition. Data was apparently created to be able to detect errors in the timestream, and he has pinpointed the death that Kirk failed to prevent as the deciding factor that hey must risk everything to go back and fix. Thus the crux of the series relies on a plot device that has been well used before now, and the obligatory twist at the end makes little sense. (
I know that character is insane, but he doesn’t seem to ever work in the stories in which he is used.)

There’s a lot not to like about the execution, especially the way Wesley is treated. He is just a teenager but a good fighter who looks up to Picard as a father except when he doesn’t. After his girlfriend is killed, we are treated to a completely unbelievable scene in which he blames Picard. Later he shaves his hair into a Mohawk and puts on warrior paint, convinces O’Brien and others that Picard is crazy and they should subvert his plan to go back in time and change history, and then screws everything up before being taught a lesson at the end.

While I can handle a slight derivation of an old plot, writer Andrew Steven Harris seems to have missed the whole point of Pocket’s series. Rather than taking characters we know from an alternate universe and have the
m attempt to put right what once went wrong, the idea was to see how characters we know would have been different if history had gone a different direction. The six novels did this in different ways, but were about characters in their own universe, not in a changed one. By turning his whole story on trying to change what happened differently, Harris loses what made the whole concept so interesting and dooms his project to be written off as a rehash of a plot we’ve seen ten too many times. It reduces the emotion we might have for these characters because their entire history is treated as imaginary and derivative. And if Harris just had to go this way, why not complicate the issue a bit: sure Picard could change the past, but that would mean a universe where his nephew is dead because of a fire. Sure the life Rene has now isn’t ideal, but at least it’s a life.

Old DC Star Trek artist Gordon Purcell pencils the series, and he is as good as he was back in the old days. The characters look remarkably like their actual counterparts, with the exception of Wesley who just didn’t really work for me. That said, the layouts are occasionally confusing, with important panel divisions being lost in the gutter. The series also had some creative cover designs, like a refashioning of the sixth movie poster as well as the reimagining of the X-Men ‘Days of Future Past’ cover that is shown here.

All in all, a disappointing execution of a story that seems to have been misconceived in the first place.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Reading List: September 2009

Severe lack of updates this past month for a lot of reasons, but for the most part due to a focus elsewhere. My thesis shall be finished on time, though I foresee a frantic weekend of rewriting after I get notes from my advisor and before I submit it to my committee. All said, it is actually going pretty well and I just might be able to massage the content into a journal submission or two.

I have no idea how much content I will have time or desire to post this month, but I am sure I will think of something. I may even take bits of my thesis and alter them into blog posts. Anything to procrastinate. Anyway, in the month of September I read 9 books and 8 graphic novels, and this is what they were:
  • Open Secrets by Dayton Ward
  • Rose by Jeff Smith & Charles Vess
  • Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails by Smith, et al.
  • Enough About Me by David Shields
  • Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
  • Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar, et al.
  • Nobility of Spirit by Rob Riemen
  • Half in Love by Maile Meloy
  • The Soul Key by Olivia Woods
  • Powers: The 25 Coolest Dead Superheroes of All Time by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
  • Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth by Alan Moore, et al.
  • The Nobody by Jeff Lemire
  • The Walking Dead: Miles Behind Us by Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard
  • The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
  • Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson
  • The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio
  • The Impostor's Daughter by Laurie Sandell
Dan Chaon is the best writer that nobody reads, and Await Your Reply was a damn good book. The short story collection by D'Ambrosio is also worth your time, but you should avoid Lemire's The Nobody and Temple's boring mystery novel.

Please ask questions and/or offer opinions about anything here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Soul Key by Olivia Woods

No one hesitates to tell me that I am in the minority when I state my preference for Bajoran religious and political stories above all others in Deep Space Nine. And perhaps I am one of the few who has lamented the absence of further stories involving the Ea’voq, Bajor’s sister planet in the Gamma Quadrant, since Rising Son. But I think that Olivia Woods’s new novel The Soul Key surprisingly blends the recent mirror universe emphasis with the Prophets and their many followers in an effective way.

The novel finally fills in the backstory from the point Iliana Ghemor escapes her Cardassian prison up until the present storyline, including how she came to wield power over Taran’atar. As some reviewers have noted, there is a greater focus on her than on any of the regular characters, but this in fact is due to necessity of allowing the readers to experience her story in order for the overall story to advance. Ghemor’s motivations and actions not only help one understand her better, but also are used in order to contrats her with Kira Nerys and the Ghemor from the mirror universe, all of whom play critical roles in this story and the saga to come.

After returning from the Prophets, Benjamin Sisko called Kira his ‘Right Hand,’ and we see the weight of that pronouncement in the conclusion of this tale. While the Ea’voq are only mentioned, I got the feeling that they would be seen again in the near future. And finally the Ascendants were shown preparing for their apocalypse, only to be surprised by what happens. I don’t want to give anything away, but The Soul Key wraps up the mirror universe arc and moves back towards the religious angle that has been neglected for the last few stories.

Speaking of the mirror universe, after reading so much about that reality’s Miles O’Brien, not to mention seeing him in numerous television episodes, I was surprised and disappointed at the way he was portrayed here. Though scenes from his perspective are often written to show his sense of doubt over his ability to lead the rebellion, nothing made me think that he would suffer the sort of emotional breakdown described in these pages. The other mirror universe characters, from Eddington to Keiko, are static here. But what is so enjoyable is that fleshing them out isn’t necessary; one need only read other entries set in the mirror universe to get ales focusing on them, to one degree or another. That it all holds together so well yet so loosely shows editorial oversight clicking on all cylinders.

Unfortunately, with the termination of Marco Palmieri, editor and creative force behind the post-television Deep Space Nine fiction, we may never see the story that this novel sets up all the pieces for. With the next novel being announced as taking place three or so years in the future, it seems likely that the readers will receive a certain amount of filler that could very well gloss over events occurring in the interim. That’s not to say that I do not have faith in David R. George, only that a work so conceived likely won’t address the parts of the relaunch I am most interested with to the degree I would like. So it is with a certain bittersweet feeling that I review The Soul Key, a good novel that could unfortunately represent the interruption point of a very good series.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Jeff Smith's Bone-Related Material

Jeff Smith’s comic saga Bone is one of the best fantasy stories I have ever read; sort of Lord of the Rings meets The Smurfs. After wanting to pick up the ancillary volumes for some time, I finally did this week. It’s a mixed bag, with neither coming close to the magic of the core titles.

Jeff Smith penned Rose and brought in Charles Vess to do the artwork in a prequel starring t
he title character, who readers will know better as Grandma Ben. Basically, this story fills us in on exactly how Rose’s sister Briar becomes the embodiment of the Lord of the Locusts as depicted in the main comic. Unfortunately, nothing much is added to what we already knew, and as such the story is a bit disappointing. In fact, the only major characters not to be shown in the main comic are two dogs that Rose can speak with telepathically.

Vess’s artwork is different stylistically from Smith’s, and it is a better match since the story lacks the humor prevalent in Bone. But it caused this reader to feel like he was reading something that didn’t mesh well with the original saga, something that took characters he knew and interpreted them differently. The magic of Smith's series is in the blend of the cartoonish with the Bone cousins and the rat creatures paired with the fantasy element of just about everything else. That blend isn’t here, Vess’s artwork is anything but cartoonish, and certain events were surprisingly graphic and violent for what is aimed at a younger audience.

If Rose is missing humor, Stupid, Stupid Rat-Tails has it in abundance. Written by Tom Sniegoski and drawn by Smith, this comic manages to seem familiar and yet new, with the founder of Boneville, Big Johnson Bone, as the lead character. As he explores with a newly won monkey, Big Johnson must help a collection of baby animals find their parents who have been taken by the rat creatures. And unlike Rose, we learn things here, like why the rat creatures are depicted as having no tails.

Obviously intended for a younger audience than the main series, this volume can make one a bit weary at times. Big Johnson is the stereotypical exaggerator, and while Sniegoski manages to make this work in action scenes, it doesn’t so much work in the relative peace at the start of the comic. That said, this would make a nice volume for a younger reader, especially as it includes another story called 'Riblet,' about a young boar who bullies the other baby animals until he turns his antics on the rat creatures.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there is any more Bone-related material out there for me to look into, which is sad because I enjoyed the original collection so much. I’ll be glad when Jeff Smith puts out some new material, hopefully before too much longer.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dayton Ward's Open Secrets

Dayton Ward ties up the loose ends left over from Reap the Whirlwind in the latest novel in the Vanguard series, Open Secrets. Commodore Reyes was arrested at the end of the previous book for allowing classified information to be disseminated by a reporter, and we get the fallout from that decision here. T’Prynn, intelligence officer who had a mental breakdown, suffers her malady and, of course, eventually recovers. The saga of the Shedai artifacts and the search for information continues as well. But unfortunately, this is about all Ward does.

Rather than recap all the action, I’ll just say that if you are interested in
Vanguard then this is something you should read. It’s not a bad novel; it just doesn’t stand on its own at all. What new material there is seems only prelude for David Mack’s Precipice, which will continue the series later this year.

One of the interesting aspects of the series is the way that Shedai technology and the meta-genome are precursors to later events with which readers are already familiar. For example, a man is completely healed much like would happen with a dermal regenerator in TNG. Carol Marcus’s very appearance lets us know that this will be an avenue to Genesis, at least to some extent. And Ward helps set the stage for not only the Organian intervention into a Federation/Klingon war shown in the episode ‘Errand of Mercy,’ but also the colony of Nimbus III shown in one of the movies,
Final Frontier I believe. Yet rather than this sort of thing being secondary to the story, it seems that Open Secrets is an exercise in reconciliation as story.

The novel also suffers from time lapse between its publication and its predecessor’s. Frankly, I had a hard time remembering what happened, even with a short primer at the novel’s beginning. It is always a delicate balance between killing a previous reader with unnecessary exposition and helping an unfamiliar or forgetful reader gain some sort of orientation, but I felt Ward erred on the side of too little here. While I have seen his prose style being ripped in reviews, I found it adequate if uninspired. The author likely would be served well by spending a little more time on style, but it was hardly sub-average for contemporary Star Trek fiction.

And with the title of the novel being
Open Secrets, one would expect that some secrets would be revealed. Unfortunately, what is revealed leaves the reader with more questions than answers. A novel that seems to just be dealing with the fallout of the previous entry while moving characters around to set them in place for the next, Ward’s book is adequate though unsatisfying.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Reading List: August 2009

Rather than use this monthly post as a place to worry in writing about the lack of progress I am having with my thesis, I'll just say that things are getting written and even if I end up writing 20,000 words over a long weekend I will have this finished and defended by Thanksgiving so I can apply to PhD programs and do this all over again in a few years. My motto: Live and Don't Learn.

Not much content this month, especially with at least three reviews being scrapped when I found they had nothing original or (potentially) enlightening to say. I worked for a while on something about Disney's acquisition of Marvel this afternoon, so maybe that will see the light of day before long. Jenny Davidson did an interesting meme tonight, so maybe I will break a self-imposed rule and do it here tomorrow.

Last month I finished 9 books and 9 graphic novels. Here is what they are:
  • Bob Schieffer's America by Bob Schieffer
  • Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi'ar Empire by Ed Brubaker, et al.
  • Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll
  • Star Trek: Countdown by Mike Johnson, et al.
  • Cooperstown Confidential by Zev Chafets
  • Swamp Thing: A Murder of Crows by Alan Moore, et al.
  • X-Men: Emperor Vulcan by Christopher Yost & Paco Diaz Luque
  • Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
  • The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell
  • 100 Bullets: Wilt by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso
  • Uncanny X-Men: Divided We Stand by Brubaker & Michael Choi
  • Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
  • The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson
  • The Walking Dead: Days Gone Bye by Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore
  • Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
  • Castle by J. Robert Lennon
  • Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter by Darwyn Cooke
  • Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
Read Lennon, Meloy, and Hemon, a favorite of mine. And don't read any more X-Men comics; I'm done with them after these pitiful volumes. Comments, questions, some small sign that people actually read this?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The State of Star Trek Literature

It was announced today that Star Trek books editor Margaret Clark was laid off in another round of cutbacks from Simon & Schuster. Though I have been highly critical of her work, I have mixed feelings about the move. But while fanboys on the interwebs are justifying the move as being solely based on overall market conditions and not on her performance or the sales of her books, something that has been bothering me for a while about the Star Trek line has crystallized.

In 2001, Pocket released Avatar, a two-book story set after the events of Deep Space Nine that continues the story of those left on the station. Well planned and
written, it became a favorite and a bestseller, leading to likely the most acclaimed run of books in the history of Star Trek literature. Tight, cohesive, and innovative storytelling made the series a success, at least for the first ten or so books.

Of course, other such series have been planned and executed to varying levels of success. After Nemesis, a new series following Captain Riker on Titan has been pretty good, as has the TOS-era Vanguard, which takes place on a space station near Tholian space. But there have been misfires as well. The follow-up to Enterprise has been mixed, and the first four books following Voyager were abysmal. However, they sold well, or at least well enough to continue, and as the overall universe became more and more complex, the references between various novels began to increase as well.

But as can quickly happen, these references at times became cumbersome, especially for those uninitiated to the larger mythos. This leads me to my point, which unfortunately I can’t back up with sales numbers as they aren’t available: the audience for Star Trek books isn’t growing. Rather than making the novels accessible to a wider audience, the stories got tighter and more interrelated. This is great an appreciated if you are like me, a person who reads nearly everything, but for a casual reader this can be infuriating. Riker and Troi have a kid now? Tucker is alive and a Romulan spy? Didn’t he die in the show? The same paradox happens all the time in the comic industry; reward the dedicated readers even though doing so is alienating the casual and/or potential fans.

Then there comes the recent Star Trek movie, which has currently grossed over $256 million
domestically. Other than the novelization, the first book to exploit such a hot property won’t be released until next June, a full year after the movie debuted. By then the film will be out of the public’s mind, whereas a book released in the next couple of months could really capitalize on its popularity. Such decisions by the editorial staff aren’t helping bring new readers into the fold, and IDW has proven that tying into the film makes a lot of economic sense.

Editorial decisions like this make me wonder if Clark really had a long future as an editor on the line. She didn’t seem to work well with some of the better authors, and her books couldn’t stay consistent with each other. Not situating her company to take advantage of the wild success of the film in a timely manner is yet another strike.

I’m not saying Clark should have lost her job, but even though I don’t have a business degree I understand that companies are out to make money. Structuring a line so that is hard for new readers to gain access doesn’t help sales increase; in fact, it insures sales will decrease because you are going to lose some people to attrition anyway. So while I am not happy Clark is gone because I now must worry about the future of the stories with which I have become engaged, to some extent at least, I’m not sure that this wasn’t something that any of us could have seen coming eventually.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell

What promises to be a memoir of a father, his son, and the legacy of the Vietnam War falls short on all counts in Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things. Bissell’s father was a Marine officer in Vietnam and together the two travel back to the country where they travel the countryside, talk to other veterans, and relive the war. Yet the book failed to resonate in an emotional way, something surprising since Bissell did such a good job making his travels in Uzbekistan meaningful in Chasing the Sea.

The first section of the book intersperses a second-person narrative of what Bissell’s father was going through around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1974 along with a blow-by-blow account of the evacuation of the embassy. The pacing of the mass exodus from Vietnam is rendered in a way to make a real impact; such a complex and detailed historical narrative seems a bit out of place within a so-called memoir about the effects of Vietnam on a father and son. The imbalance is likely what makes this so hard to reconcile: the evacuation of the embassy outweighs the narrative on Bissell’s father by a factor of at least three to one.

The second and most substantial portion of Bissell’s book takes a broader view of history, though it too is interspersed with the travels of the author and his father in the country. The historical accounts are done within the context of the travel narrative, for example the section dealing with My Lai is placed as the father and son visit the area, yet again the history seems to overshadow the relationship between the two travelers. Bissell seems to be more interested in providing history than in actually describing the effects of the journey on his father or demonstrating how his father’s experiences in Vietnam affected the way he was raised. It’s not that these issues aren’t addressed, just that they aren’t given enough depth to prove truly interesting or make one feel as though he/she is not just reading an actual history book.

The brief third section provides an account of over a dozen grown children whose fathers were in the war, fighting for the NLA (North), AVRN (South) or the US. In these twenty or so pages, more emotion is rendered than in the previous 350. Though not quite long enough to provide true richness, these snapshots of the children’s views of their fathers was stirring, perhaps more so to me for my father also served in Vietnam.

I suppose that the true problem with this book is that it reads like a bloated magazine piece, which is what it started out to be. I am a big fan of Bissell’s work, but what seemed an ideal read for someone in my position (roughly the same age as Bissell with a veteran father), ultimately was disappointing and failed to provide any illumination on what effect Vietnam had on not just the relationship between the author and his father, but between a larger population of veteran fathers and their sons.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cooperstown Confidential by Zev Chafets

Zev Chafets thankfully spends little time describing the physical Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, focusing his book Cooperstown Confidential instead on the intangibles that make up the glorified institution: the collection of mortals who make up the rules, the writers who vote on the players, and those in charge who make and remake the rules every couple of years

Of course statistics count more than anything in baseball, yet a lot more goes into getting into the Hall that that: cronyism, prejudice, and financial self-interest play a large part as well. Chafets addresses a variety of factors that have influenced those who make the rules (a committee of f
ormer baseball executives and other such types) and those who vote on the players (the Baseball Writers Association of America, for which one must regularly write about baseball for a major newspaper to be a part). The current big issue surrounds players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens who have been accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs, which theoretically has given them an advantage over the competition.

Rule 5 of the Hall of Fame’s Rules for Election states that a player will be voted on based upon their ‘record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.’ Baseball writers have been keeping Mark McGwire out of the Hall by using such a clause and many are on record as saying they shall do the same for Bonds and Clemens. Yet Chafets duly notes that the Hall presently contains cheaters (spitballer Gaylord Perry), members of the Ku Klux Klan (Rogers Hornsby, Cap Anson), severe alcoholics (Three Finger Brown), and all around sociopaths (Ty Cobb, who legendarily beat up a man with no arms for heckling him). Why are these guys in and people like Bonds and McGwire likely to never make it?

In one of the best chapters in his book, Chafets uses Bonds to launch into a chapter detailing racism in the game and the evolution of blacks in the sport. There are now far fewer blacks playing in the majors than there were as recently as a decade ago while the proportion of Latinos has risen dramatically. Gary Sheffield made headlines a few years ago by claiming that baseball teams preferred signing Latino players over blacks because Latinos were less outspoken. Sheffield's controversial comments reverberated throughout the game, though his opinion has been seconded by Latino players like Neifi Perez. Then Chafets further delves into prejudice in the game going back to the Negro Leagues and the age of Jackie Robinson. Robinson lobbied for black managers in his lifetime but did not live to see his dream come to fruition.

But the piece of this book that makes it worth reading is the chapter on the Mitchell Report, the study of steroids in baseball compiled by former US Senator George Mitchell that named Clemens as a steroid user, among many others. Chafets argues convincingly for something I personally have felt all along: greatness can only be judged by evaluating one against their peers in the same time period, and as the estimates of players using PEDs often being as high as 50-75%, one can’t separate known users from unknown ones and vote accordingly. That steroids might make a great player slightly better, but definitely won't make an average player into a Hal of Famer is also emphasized.

Baseball players are just like the rest of the population, full of faults, some being worse than others. But getting into the Baseball Hall of Fame should have less to do with how nice you are or how many charities you were involved with than with what happened on the field. Chafets even goes so far as to argue that steroids could be legalized and prescribed by doctors to be taken appropriately. Seemingly, this full disclosure would remove a lot of the integrity issues that PEDs have caused. This makes a bit of sense logically, yet I doubt that this idea has any practical application.

While not the best book on the Hall of Fame, which would be Bill James’s Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, Cooperstown Confidential is engaging and addresses important and diverse issues. While the depth isn’t always what a reader might hope, one still feels a greater sense of understanding about the politics behind the institution.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Reading List: July 2009

I've spent this month doing only two things: worrying about finances and hating myself for being so unproductive. In this time of economic strife at home and abroad, the former seems justified, yet since I can do little to change my situation at the moment, I should probably just let it go. Yet the latter is so awful, so eroding of the edifice of my soul, that I have no (good) excuse for not making a major change.

Despite the fact that another month has passed, I still have accomplished very little on my thesis. Now I have a delineated outline and a scope of what exactly I am hoping to accomplish, most of that was done over three weeks ago with the help of my adviser. Words are on the page, but I cant seem to get any real work done in one session, and my sessions tend to occur a week or so apart. This month necessitates a reversal, so I am going to try and hit 1000 words five times a week. This seems reasonable.

Dedicated readers will have noticed that I only posted three times of any consequence in the past month, the l
owest total since I started to actually maintain a blog last winter. Again, I hope to change this, but I must say that finishing my degree (for which I have spent enough to buy a decent luxury sedan) must take precedence over a format in which I have yet to earn a dime.

Rather than just making a list this month, I am going to return to an old tradition that I stole from Steve Mollmann. In the month of July, I read 18 books and/or graphic novels:

1. Ultimate Spiderman: Hollywood
by Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley
: The webslinger gets all meta when Sam Raimi begins to film a movie based on news reports of Spiderman's exploits. Sort of fun, but without anything really meaningful to say.

2. Foreskin's Lament by Shalom Auslander: The title made me pick up this book. That said, this memoir is about so much more than growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish Orthodox family; the idea that God is all knowing and all powerful, if used to scare children, can ravage their lives as adults. For example, saying that if you masturbate you will forever burn in hell, submerged in a vat of all the semen you ever ejaculated manually. So it's funny, but there is something not at all humorous about the way such teachings, which one believes as gospel when there is no other influence, can cause so much angst and literal trauma. I really wish I would have written more extensively about this book.

3. Ultimate X-Men: The Most Dangerous Game by Brian K. Vaughan & Stuart Immomen: Mutants accused of capital crimes are sent to an island where they are hunted as a form of execution. But the twist? It's all filmed for the worst reality television ever. Craptacular.

4. Ultimate X-Men: Hard Lessons by Vaughan, et al.: All over the place and not too interesting to boot, this collection suffers from being comprised of storylines that have virtually nothing to do with one another. Also, they kill Gambit and give his powers to Rogue, who now can touch people. She's the most interesting one solely b/c she can never touch anyone! Yawn.

5. Ultimate X-Men: Magnetic North by Vaghan & Immomen: Better, but only relatively. Lorna Dane accidentally commits a terrible crime and the mutants under Emma Frost team up with the X-Men in order to protect her from being sent to superhero-Guantanamo.

6. Losing the Peace by William Leisner: Overall, a book I thought was okay. Read my thoughts here.

7. Ultimate X-Men: Phoenix? by Robert Kirkman, et al.: To be honest, I don't remember much from this, aside from a 'date night gone awry' story.

8. Better by Atul Gawande: Read about my thoughts on this collection of essays by the New Yorker writer here.

9. 52, Volume 2
10. 52, Volume 3

11. 52, Volume 4 by Geoff Johns, et al.
: Probably better as a
n exercise than it was w/r/t story points, I still enjoyed this collection. However, it reminded me how far out of the loop I am in the DC Universe (Barry Allen is alive?!?!?), so I may have to pick up a bunch of collections in the near future.

12. Ultimate Spiderman: Carnage by Bendis & Bagley: One of the most iconic deaths in comics h
istory is interpreted here as a random killing by a bad guy. Bendis should be fucking ashamed of himself. Maybe I'll write more about this, but it's probably already been done.

13. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers: One of the best books I have read this year. I wanted to write about it, but I just couldn't find the words to do it justice. I'm looking forward to making it through the rest of Powers's work in the coming year.

14. Treason by Peter David: Why did I read this book? For what one should expect from a recent New Frontier book, this is as good as any. But it just didn't work for me.

15. Beware of God by Auslander: This collection of short stories is thematically quite similar to the memoir (written afterwards). While the stories were pretty good, I felt I had already read the 'real' account and t
heir effect was subdued.

16. Ultimate Spiderman: Superstars by Bendis & Bagley: Wolverine and Spiderman switch bodies i
n one of the stupidest stories ever told.

17. IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas by Chuck Klosterman: Entertaining collection of Klosterman's journalism over the past decade. He's funny and occasionally says something insightful. I wish I could write like this.

18. Full Circle by Kirsten Beyer: For what this set out to do, tie up Christie Golden's story threads and get Voyager back to the Delta Quadrant, it did well enough I suppose, though the prose is uninspired. And I'm not sure where Chakotay was in this book. Sure, there was a guy named Chakotay, but he was a whiny douchebag who isn't even presented consistently. From now on, Brendan Moody will be responsible for keeping me up to date with Beyer's work so I don't have to read it; he likely will be unable to resist her next novel this fall.

That's it. Perhaps all the time I spend reading might be better served writing. Actually, I'm pretty sure that 'perhaps' should read 'certainly.' Questions, comments, et cetera, ad nauseum.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Trimming the Canon

A group of contributors at The Second Pass have compiled a list of ten books that should be stricken from the canon. As it says in the introduction, this ‘is a list of ten books that will be pressed into your hands by ardent fans. Resist these people. Life may not be too short (I’m only in my mid-30s, and already pretty bored), but it’s not endless.’

Among the list are several books I have read, and I have to agree that some of these choices seem justifiable to me. For example, I really did enjoy Don DeLillo’s White Noise when I read it about ten years ago, but it read as
dated even then. Sure it’s prescient, but when what it was prescient about is itself old news, perhaps it isn’t a crime to skip this.

Also must concur with the elimination of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I only read this novel because a friend of mine told me it was the best novel he had read that year (2006, I bel
ieve). As The Second Pass notes, the plot is secondary and the characters so vague that they can be nothing but archetypes. The prose can be commended separately I suppose, but when putting it in service to such a mediocre tale, it makes a person wonder what the point is.

Perhaps a bit more surprising is the inclusion of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I read in high school and thought was for the same sorts of people who thought ‘enlightenment ala Robert Pirsig’ was cool. Maybe I just don’t get the Beat writers. But the exclusion of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was quite shocking. Not so much because of the call for decanonization, but instead that it is part of the canon in the first place. I really liked the book when I read it last month, but would I have classified it as a must-read? Of course not.

I’ve begun to wonder what other books might be excised from the foreboding list of all literature that you must read. The Merry Wives of Windsor for sure, as well as Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a novel I found so incredibly overrated that it put me off of later-Roth for the better part of a year. The poetry of Sir Philip Sidney. But with the loose definition of canon used by The Second Pass, perhaps it wouldn’t actually be that hard to get rid of things, even books I loved. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was fantastic, but no one is going to read that in fifty years.

I suppose lists of ‘canonical’ books are interesting because they give a reader a place to start, but as the piece points out, the lists are so long that one has nowhere near the amount of time to actually make it through everything (even leaving out the great books that would be written between now and the end of that reader’s life). So the impulse to throw out some of the ‘canon’ to make it more manageable makes sense, but somehow I doubt throwing out ten books really makes all that much of a difference.

A question: which books have you read that you would consider recommending against and adding to the list?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Better by Atul Gawande

If we wanted to save more patients’ lives in the medical system, is it more important to fund research that could perhaps find cures, or would it be more appropriate to invest time and money in improving the standards already in place? The tendency for us to say ‘more research’ is almost a given, but Atul Gawande, surgeon and staff writer for The New Yorker, argues that the later can have far more drastic effects.

In Better, Gawande explains that in medicine, as in nearly all human endeavors, variations in performance create a bell curve where most participants are merely at or below average. In this collection of essays, he studies this idea in the medical community and looks to find what separates the positive deviants from the rest.

Gawande writes about such the importance of hand washing, something one would think is a given in hospitals and doctor’s offices, yet shockingly staph infections in hospitals are transmitted to 30% of patients, a number that could be reduced dramatically using tools already in place. T
he doctor also covers ethics in medicine, from the use of chaperones when examining patients of the opposite gender and the role of doctors in capital punishment.

In covering medical interventions in slightly abnormal pregnancies, he makes a strong case that many caesarian sections are given when the old method of using the clamps on an infant would work just as well with an equal or better chance of complications. When studying the differences between a first class treatment center for cystic fibrosis and an average one, Gawande argues that the main difference is the ability of the medical staff to treat the person more than the disease and to be willing to think outside the box when it comes to diseases with which we have made relatively little progress on a cure.

In a stirring conclusion in which he offers five pieces of advice to medical students on making a difference in patients’ lives, Gawande says that it ‘often seems safest to do whatever everyone else is doing, but a doctor must not let that happen—nor should anyone who takes on risks and responsibilities in society.’ Technology provides many solutions and enables advances in areas previously thought impossible. But it is human ingenuity that underpins technological advance, and sometimes it is simple human practices that have the biggest impact.

Better is an entertaining and informative collection of essays with lessons that go beyond the specifics of practicing medicine. I look forward to reading more from Dr. Gawande in the future.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Losing the Peace by William Leisner

As has been noted numerous times in this space, I was not a fan of the universe-changing Destiny trilogy. However, I have found the follow-ups to put an interesting spin on said events, so I was looking forward to reading the first full story centering on the Enterprise after the devastating Borg attacks, Losing the Peace by William Leisner. Full disclosure necessitates that I note that while Leisner and I have never met, we do have a friendly relationship on several Trek discussion boards and are mutual friends on LiveJournal.

Being refitted at McKinley Station, the crew of the Enterprise awaits their orders while taking leave. Un
surprising to anyone, the fact that the Federation is not in a position to send the fleet into unknown space becomes clear when President Bacco informs Picard that his ship will be needed close to home.

The refugee crisis is impacting several planets, especially the ocean planet of Pacifica, which
you will of course remember is home of the Selkies, the race of Aili Lavena of the Titan. Beverly Crusher and Commander Kadohata lead a team to assess the refugee situation and provide what assistance they can. Leisner’s depictions of the refugee camp don’t really evoke the sort of crisis he trying to convey, but later in the novel, the reactions of outsiders to the 70,000 people stranded and living in tents does a lot to drive this home. But this situation overall serves not only a critique of the limitations of bureaucracies, but also of the very people those bureaucracies serve. Too often we think of government as the solution to our problems, as if there is a button on their desks they need merely press to provide assistance. The tension between the refugees and residents of Pacifica make this point without overstatement, and Leisner should be lauded for pulling this off.

However, the personal fallout from the crisis fails to be effective, but honestly this isn’t really the fault of Leisner. Instead, it is a result of the overall planning of Destiny and its aftermath; rather than seeing Earth or Betazed destroyed, we get Deneva. So the brunt of the crisis falls to seconday characters and cameos rather than squarely on the shoulders of the characters we have spent over twenty years investing emotion in. We first see this in the novel through the eyes of Arandis, the Risian played by Vanessa Williams in the worst episode of Deep Space Nine ever conceived. Risa was destroyed in the invasion, so it works pretty well to use her as a perspective to the crisis, but again it is hard to really feel the impact when the character is merely a guest star.

The invasion of the Borg wiped out the family of security chief Jasminder Choudhury, but she is such an undeveloped character that it is hard to empathize. In addition, the slimmest chance that her family is still alive is unrealistic to her for her family was apparently so good that they would never take a seat on an evacuation if it meant someone else would be unable to go as well. In fact, we later find out that her whole region was apparently saintly, for they left dozens of seats open rather than evacuate. I think that Choudhury’s struggle to deal with the deaths of her family might have been more compelling if she wasn’t all that close to them in the first place. Is she hadn’t spoken to her parents in years and wasn’t really upset about that situation, then the regret of never being able to make amends if she wanted to one day would be nonexistent.

Geordi deals with survivor’s guilt towards the beginning of the novel, but in unrealistic fashion apparently confronts these problems and heals himself in about fourteen seconds. The scenes as written work pretty well, but I kept feeling that these issues could have been drawn out over the whole novel, not only adding another subplot, but making the reader really see how characters they have invested in are suffering.

As the novel progresses, Picard disobeys orders only to have the clichéd result of that disobedience being the solution to greater problems. Admiral Akaar makes the brief but compelling case that the chain of command exists so that the wisest and most intuitive are at the top issuing orders, but that Picard obviously knew better in this and other situations so he is going to be promoted. His new position: director of relief efforts concerning the Borg invasion. But as must happen in order for the stories to continue, he turns down the promotion.

I’ve been all over this type scenario for years, but when the Federation is in a time of dire crisis and the powers that be have selected Picard as the man to lead the efforts in rebuilding, he feels no impetus to do so, no patriotic obligation to serve where he might most be needed. It’s not that I want Picard to no longer be in command of the Enterprise, rather I am tired of him being offered promotions that require the lack of verisimilitude when he turns them down. The impetus is to present Picard as a true explorer, but to me that doesn’t ring true with the character as presented. If he played his cards right, Picard could be the next president of the Federation; am I supposed to believe that someone isn’t whispering that into his ear?

Despite the main crux of this review, I think Leisner did a pretty good job with showing the fallout of the war. Without the overarching and strict plot structure, he is able to provide what amounts to a character piece. As the immediate aftermath of Destiny passes and the Federation gets ready to deal with the new threat of the Typhon Pact, it is nice to get such an intimate look at these characters and the aftermath of the Borg invasion.