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.