Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2010, pt. 24: Cynthia Ward

2010: Another Year in Review
by Cynthia Ward

I suppose my life changed a great deal this year. After all, I admitted a television into my house, thus joining the American race. Or maybe I didn't, since I used the TV as a monitor for the DVD player. Which, of course, died soon after. Oh, well. I can still discuss some TV shows for the first time.

Here's what I saw and read this year:

Exquisite Gibberish (Television and Film):

Years ago, my extremely patient best friend loaned me the DVD set of Dexter Season One. Watching it this fall, I discovered the show answers the high-concept question: "What if Batman Were Hannibal Lecter?" Dexter is a serial killer who only kills other serial killers. Talk about an unclean concept. I've seen several descriptions of the title character as "likeable," but actually he's a loathsome antihero, portrayed wonderfully by Michael C. Hall. Along with the uniformly strong acting, this season has the strongest character development arc I've ever seen in a TV show (so now I'm curious about the novel it's based on, Darkly Dreaming Dexter). Another plus is the series's diversity; its Miami police department actually looks like Miami. The show's strengths did not, however, stop me from wishing for a Dexter/Criminal Minds crossover episode.

Which brings us to Criminal Minds: The First Season, in which a team of FBI behavioral profilers catch a serial killer every week. The episodes generally range from very good to brilliant, though the ep on the Apache reservation is doubly the season's nadir, with its stock "angry Indian" sheriff and its clueless pronouncements on "cults." The best part of the series is the way its scenes are consistently stolen by three actors clearly intended to play secondary characters. Kirsten Vangsness (who plays Penelope Garcia) has more energy, personality, and appeal than ten standard-issue tall, thin, conventionally pretty actresses. Matthew Gray Gubler (who plays Dr. Spencer Reid) makes a cluelessly sexy young geek-genius. Shemar Moore (who plays Derek Morgan) is a talented actor with one hell of a body, so I'm not surprised to hear that women flock wherever he goes; but I don't think it's the body, or not only the body. He has the most beautiful eyes, the kind you really feel you can gaze into all day.

An old friend showed me recent eps of a series I'd never heard of, The Big Bang Theory. The concept sounds like a nasty outsiders' parody: science geeks rule the lab, but can't function in the everyday world. However, the eps I saw seemed the work of affectionate insiders. Also, they were funny. The last time a TV show made me laugh that hard ('til the tears flowed down my face) was in 1976 (Carole Burnett's Went With the Wind, if you must know).

I'd just started watching the first season of Glee when the DVD player went south. The first half-dozen episodes are promising, since they're breaking out of the high-school stereotypes of mean cheerleaders and bullying football players. There's also the amusement factor of a small-town high school with more talent and skills than a major Broadway production, and nobody seems to find this remarkable. The character I'd thought a mentally ill airhead, Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), the guidance counselor with the enormous anime eyes, turns out to be the archetypal wise fool. The linchpin villain, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, last seen playing Dr. Reid's mom on Criminal Minds), is a delightfully psychopathic cheerleading coach who never has a moment's doubt. Throw in the equally doubt-free young diva, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), and the show ends up with a number of genuinely strong female characters...while the males are mostly rather weak sisters. Hmm. I'll be watching again when the DVD player gets a replacement.

I saw a few good movies this year. Up would be perfect, if it weren't marred by the standard Pixar view of females (namely, movies should never have many of those). Very good is Up in the Air, starring George Clooney as the commitment-phobic frequent flyer. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a rare example of a movie which improves on the novel it's adapted from; and Noomi Rapace's terrific interpretation of the titular character is utterly feral and genuinely scary.

Red is another film adaptation that improves on its source material (which it had to open out considerably, as it's drawn from a quite short [and quite good] graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner). The movie's add-on love interest demonstrates how a woman can believably fall for a romance-novel "bad boy" type: she's barking insane. Plus, you just cannot beat Helen Mirren as an assassin. Awesome! Too bad the screenwriters had to add one of those irritating Hollywood scenes in which the black guy dies so the white folks can live. They couldn't think of anything better to do with Morgan Freeman? Really?

Too often, the movies I saw were disappointing. New Moon: The Twilight Saga 2 was a dull follow-up to a successful adaptation. Eclipse: The Twilight Saga 3 improved matters, though not enough. Iron Man 2 threw out the sly intelligence of its predecessor, in favor of beating its audience with an idiot stick for a couple of hours. Meanwhile, the star of the Iron Man movies, Robert Downey, Jr., apparently decided to play Sherlock Holmes as a Victorian Tony Stark, in the gorgeous, steampunky, but woefully padded new movie about the iconic British detective.

And then there's this year's big buzz movie, Inception. Barring the marvelous scene where a dream-architect folds a city around herself, Inception hardly has a clue of what dreams might be like. The concept of hacking dreams is great; too bad the movie is otherwise devoid of ideas. Or maybe the problem is me, and everyone else's dreams routinely feature unimaginative shootouts and car chases.

But I don't think so, because the earlier dream-hacking science fiction movie, Paprika (2006), captures all the beautiful dream logic missing from Inception in its opening credits ...and goes uphill from there. When a character began spouting exquisite gibberish, I began to laugh; not because a psychotic break is funny, of course, but because I had no idea where the movie was going next. A vivid imagination, a piercing insight, an enormous heart -what a tragedy it is that forty-six year old Satoshi Kon (Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent), the most brilliant anime director since Hayao Miyazaki, is gone.

Get Up for the Down Stroke (Books):

I read enough good books this year that I'll stick to discussing a few recent titles. One of these is Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. All the descriptions of "interstitial" I'd heard had led me to expect (as I put it for Fantasy Magazine) "a historical mystery set in Celtic Britain...a lesbian romantic suspense story...a Southern gothic fantasy/mystery like HBO’s True Blood...experimental/avant-garde fiction," and so forth, and so on. What the anthology actually offers is literary fantasy/science fiction, some of it mildly or moderately experimental, none of it drawn from the interstitial hybrids that have achieved popularity (techno-thriller, urban fantasy, steampunk, paranormal romance). I hope that doesn't make me sound like I didn't like Interfictions 2. I did. It's a superior literary fantasy/science fiction anthology. I just went into it with the wrong expectations.

Also very good is Wilde Stories 2010: The Year's Best Gay Speculative Fiction, edited by Steve Berman; not everything works, but there's some great literary speculative fiction here, most notably Richard Bowes's is-it-fantasy-or-is-it-mainstream novelette, "I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said," and Elizabeth Hand's revisionist fairy tale, "The Far Shore." An interesting if slightly uneven short-SF/fantasy collection is A Cup of Normal by rising urban-fantasy star Devon Monk (look for my review in The Cascadia Subduction Zone, which will be out soon). More uneven is Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers; despite the subtitle, it lacks many essential steampunk authors. It also has rather few women authors (three out of twelve), though they, notably, contribute the strongest stories.

For graphic novels I re-read the Storm Watch/Authority graphic novels by Warren Ellis, Mark Miller, et alia. Not politically correct (why do international superhero teams so frequently end up so white?), but I do love the way the writers grapple with issues of power. I also love Apollo and the Midnighter, their Superman and Batman analogues, who form a gay couple far more believable and interesting than the series's het pair.

After these GNs, I sampled a few recent Jack Kirby collections, reprinting some of his SF/superhero comics work from the 1970s. This work isn't likely to pass many politically correct litmus tests, and it's not the stuff for which he is best known, but it still has its fun aspects. One of those aspects: The women characters not only have some variation to their shapes, but the superheroines look genuinely heroic. Instead of presenting anorectics with improbably enormous frontage, or tragic steroid and plastic-surgery victims, Kirby created women who looked like they could kick your ass even if they didn't have a trace of superpower, and gave them suitably big personalities.

Of the DC reprints, the Fourth World omnibus shows Kirby struggling to fit numerous big ideas into the tight shoe of the DC Universe; OMAC: One Man Army Corps presents a future Captain America type who works for Big Brother; and Kamandi revamps Planet of the Apes as a young-adult Planet of the Animals. The post-von Daniken Marvel reprint, The Eternals: Volume One, shows why Jack "King" Kirby might as accurately have been labeled Jack "Cosmic" Kirby. It also makes you wonder why Marvel didn't hire the current cosmic-scale SF/superhero writer-god, Warren Ellis, to do the recent Eternals reboot with artist John Romita, Jr. Instead, the job went to Neil Gaiman, who, while the most brilliant writer in comics short of Alan Moore, does not really have the cosmic touch.

The best graphic novel I read was The Essential Killraven, which, written and drawn by divers hands, reprints every story in Marvel's 1970s high-concept (Conan vs. The War of the Worlds) comic book series. The contributions are all over the map (the story of the black village in the cave is an embarrassment, and the "angry Indian" character, Hawk, is not exactly a convincing Navajo/Dineh). However, the concluding stories by writer Don MacGregor and artist P. Craig Russell are great science fiction. The collaborators rely on superior characterization as they convert the series from an average, unsurprising leading-man title, to a strong, sometimes-unpredictable ensemble piece (for example, the black initial-sidekick-turned-genuine-friend gets the girl, while the white title character can't even get laid. I suspect it's true that this series had the first interracial kissin comics.

I read several fine novels. Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, draws inspiration from Austen, the Brontes, and Heyer to concoct a smooth and enjoyable fantasy of manners, though, ultimately, there's a rather jarring tonal shift; unlike, say, Heyer's The Masqueraders, this novel gives almost no indication that weapons will be drawn and blood spilled at the climax. Also Austen-influenced are Gail Carriger's delightful steampunk urban fantasies of manners, Soulless and Changeless, which are set in an alternate Victorian history.

Set in Roaring 'Twenties Manhattan, Alaya Johnson's fun urban fantasy, Moonshine, centers on a charming guilty-liberal suffragette/vampire-slayer. In the modern world, Seanan McGuire's entertaining A Local Habitation, the second October Daye novel, shifts its urban fantasy setting to Silicon Valley, challenging its damaged fae/human protagonist with a demanding magical/high-tech mystery. And, looking to the future, Seanan McGuire assumes the byline Mira Grant and imagines a scary biotech-spawned zombie outbreak in Feed: Book One of the Newsflesh Trilogy; any resemblance to current terrorist paranoia and curtailed civil liberties is probably not accidental.

The Bell at Sealey Head is, as you might expect of a literary fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip, numinous and lovely; it's also a particular delight for book-lovers. An excellent pair of young-adult literary fantasy novels, Janni Lee Simner's Bones of Faerie and Thief Eyes, will please teen and adult readers both. Ian McDonald's Ares Express gets cutesy enough to set your teeth on edge, but ultimately it's a great science fiction novel, or a great magical realism novel, or a great metafictional novel, depending on which way you swing.

Dreadnought returns Cherie Priest to the zombie steampunk alternate America of Boneshaker for a new, more Weird-Westernish setting and a new set of characters. Katie MacAlister's somewhat uneven Steamed: A Steampunk Romance successfully interjects alt.Victoriana into paranormal romance. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack has a rough opening, but Mark Hodder's re-visioning of steampunk as wild pulp adventure fiction (starring renaissance man Sir Richard Francis Burton and decadent poet Algernon Charles Swinburne as crime-fighters!) is great fun, though it's hindered by its women-are-victims tendencies.

The best high fantasy I read this year, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, does not much resemble others of its kind, unless you count its inversion of several high-fantasy expectations. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms ought to be on all the relevant award and year's-best lists. I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, The Broken Kingdoms.

The best collection I read this year is the Tiptree Award winner and World Fantasy Award finalist, Filter House. Since it's written by Nisi Shawl, my friend and Writing the Other collaborator, you're probably suspicious of my judgement. That's okay. You can consult the reviews around the net; or contemplate the blurbs by writers like Tobias Buckell, Karen Joy Fowler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Matt Ruff; or consider that the acquiring editor is L. Timmel Duchamp. Or you can just cut to the chase and read Filter House.

Cynthia Ward lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction publication is in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XXIV (Norilana Books), edited by Elisabeth Waters. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press).


Josh said...

Wonderful essay, CW: those are some awesomely-written appreciations.

The Authority is indeed rather Not politically correct indeed. I love Warren Ellis, but whoa. And Don McGregor is a great unsung, or insufficiently sung, hero of comics.

AS for The King, I commend to you the collected Demon if you ain't read it already. And I'd have to argue, on the strength of his JLA and especially Seven Soldiers, that the closest we have to a Kirby avatar is Morrison rather than Ellis.

Cynthia Ward said...

Josh, thank you for your very kind words! I'm glad you enjoyed my post.

The politically incorrect sins of Storm Watch/The Authority are too numerous to list here, Lord knows. Yet I still find myself re-reading the GNs every couple of years. The stuff that works is really compelling.

I haven't read much of King Kirby's Demon work, but will look for the collection.

And I clearly haven't read enough Morrison (mostly just his Authority work, in fact). Thanks for the recs, I will definitely look for these Morrison GNs.