Some thoughts on Stanislaw Lem

Somewhere along the way, I read something to the effect that Polish science fiction author Stanislaw Lem’s books are all highly original, or that each one is so different from the others, or that the worlds he creates are so unique that there’s nothing like them under the sun. I really enjoy Lem, and have read a chunk of his work. Though, to be honest, I haven’t read what are possibly his most popular works—the Prix the Pilot materials and the Cyberiad—since I first read him more than 20 years ago, nor have I read his most notable—Solaris—which has been made into not one not two but three (three!) movies. In recent years I’ve read his mystery novels, and Return from the Stars, and His Master’s Voice. And I return to Memoirs Found in a Bathtub fairly often.

Now, it is true that Lem’s writing ranges from contemporary settings and forms out to the near and distant future, and he plays with form (he has a book of introductions to imaginary books, a book of book reviews of a whole different set of imaginary books, and in Memoirs, there is an introductory section of the same length as an introductory section of the text considered “by some to be apocryphal”). I think there can be no question that Lem’s work is unusual, yet I think it is so without being unusual-for-its-own-sake. I also think it seems less unusual now in a world where Dave Eggers publishes than it must have in the 1950’s to late 1970’s when he was most prolific and first being translated into English. His work is also less unusual, once one has read a few books, for it is in a house style, in much the same way as Anne Rice or Michael Crichton has a house style. Or, possibly, more like Vonnegut. Lem’s style is like a citrusy dessert in a world of double chocolate fudge chunk lava cakes, sharp and acidic you see. Nevertheless, it is a style, and though his settings vary, his voice and—in the narratives, anyway—point of view is generally stable. There is usually a first person narrator, and the real topic of the story is usually humankind’s inability to full grasp the enormity of the world as refracted though some rather mundane problem.

Even in His Master’s Voice, where the plot problem is the deciphering of a ‘first contact message from the stars,’ which would seem to be of great and unique importance, the problem of the story isn’t the problem of the novel; though for both of these, the problem is figuring out what the problem is, or if there is actually a problem to solve, and behind that lurks the real problem of getting past the preconceptions and habits of mind we humans carry around with us, and which individuals carry around with them.

Bear with me on that one. The problem of the story is translating a message from the stars. What is the key to the code? However, the existence of the message adds a layer to the problem: who sent it? Merely the fact of the message indicates a sending civilization with, at a minimum, greater technological sophistication than we posses. Who, then, is the intended recipient? Is it a two-way stream? If so, what meaningful communication could take place across the centuries, millennia, or billions of years it must take the message to travel just one way?

And that’s just the mere existence of the message, what of its content? Wait, there’s more! A portion of the information is decoded, and the scientists manage to create a sort of goo with properties analogous to metabolization of nuclear reactions—it can create and, apparently, teleport teeny nuclear explosions. Is this the gist of the message, or a side effect of it? Or something else?

Imagine, as one of the analogies in the novel has it, that you run some computer punch cards though a player piano. You might get music, but you won’t be getting out of the cards what the programmer put into them. You simply don’t have the right tool, and if you get something that makes sense to you, you might spend the rest of eternity trying different ways of running the cards through the piano, never even suspecting that you’re on the wrong track. And that assumes there’s a sender, and that the information in the signal is a communication of some sort… and… and… and…

You see, in His Master’s Voice there is a lot going on. There is a good plot, a compelling narrative, interesting characters, and a real problem for them to work on. But the author never gives them the real solution. And that is the problem of the novel—we readers never get the real solution, either. Note, please, that this is the problem of the novel, as opposed to a problem with the novel. . We don’t even get the consolation of the author telling us there is no ‘real solution’ for us to argue against. We are left only with the fact that the characters have struggled with a nut from which they have managed to extract just enough meat to convince themselves that it is really information, and not just noise. I don’t think that the author’s refusal to give us a solid place to stand and regard the work as a whole is a failing.

We see similar things at work in his two mystery novels Chain of Chance and The Investigation. Something has happened, someone is charged with figuring out what, and his boss knows more than he’s telling (it’s always a him in Lem, sometimes there’s a woman in the book, but the plot always happens to a him or, sometimes, a team of hims). By the end of the book everything the characters think they have discovered is shown to be, in some way, insufficient to solve the mystery. Yet the mystery gets solved, somehow—satisfactorily? There remain gaps. Like the gaps in a tumbler full of ball bearings of a certain size, you can pour in smaller balls, or even liquid to fill in the gaps, but if you look ever closer there are quantum gaps where relevant uncertainty can be found. So says Lem, or at least some of his proxies, the ones whose arguments he seems to favor, anyway.

Something related, though less directly similar, is going on in his fish-out-of-water books Return from the Stars and Memoirs Found in a Bathtub. In Return, our hero is a space explorer who’s been away for 150 years or so, and has to get with the flow of a new world on his return to earth. The only person he knows from his previous life is a nearly unbelievably old man who was a child when he left for his mission. (Due to relativistic effects, he has aged about 10 years in the time he was away.) The only people truly in his cohort are the few men (always men) who went on the mission with him and survived. In the time he was gone a biomechanical process has become essentially mandatory. This process short circuits the aggression and risk-taking center of the brain. It is applied to people, animals, you name it.

Certain science fiction elements of the book are pulled from the hopper of futurism. For instance, books are distributed on memory crystals and read on a screen. Anything the least bit necessary is supplied at no cost, and even luxuries appear available at extremely low cost (a week’s vacation at a high-end retreat house for what may be understood to be a few dollars). Among other things, we also find: trial marriages by contract, vaguely anthropomorphic robots with an all-but-independent robot economy and society still subordinate to the human one. But these are mere trappings of a strange world designed to keep our hero off balance while Lem does what he’s interested in doing. Lem is interested, as science fiction writers often are, in what it means if aggression and risk-taking are removed from the human equation. Nothing good, or almost nothing good, from our hero’s point of view.

Strangely, I found the book suffered as the main character developed into a more fully-rounded person. It isn’t that the one- and two-dimensionality of Lem’s typical characters is anything to really enjoy. But, typically, the characters don’t get in the way of Lem’s other business of picking apart the conventions and assumptions that underlie contemporary society, including society’s attitudes toward science and technology. If the character’s inner life and regrets had been the main plot from the get-go, I might feel differently, but by the time it arrived, I just didn’t care about this particular character’s particular problem when it finally surfaced from his subconscious. Of course, this seemingly contradicts a previous post about And Another Thing… where I crabbed about thinkiness getting in the way of the story in a novel, and Ayn Rand and so on and so forth. Maybe the difference is that in Rand the thinkiness is polemical—an edifice to be appreciated, accepted, and adopted, but not challenged—and in Lem the thinkiness is an invitation to figure things out—a box of humility Legos. Or who knows. I’m not building a School of Thought here.

In Memoirs, the unnamed character finds himself in a hermetically sealed society in the apparently (but how?) hermetically sealed Building. This is a satirical take on the typical thinking of Cold War power in specific, and paranoid power in general. It cannot be understood as a serious possibility (unlike Return, which could be seen as both a meditation on the uses of risk-taking and a sincere warning about the possible actual outcomes of an effort to suppress it). If the Building were even a possibly real place it would collapse from a lack or air, food, and water far before any of the more outrageous elements that make it up, and that figure so prominently in the narrative could become a factor. (This is leaving aside the purely technological challenges of recycling and logistics.) The society is so paranoid that anyone competent enough to develop, operate, or maintain the necessary equipment would be rounded up and shot in short order to ‘eliminate the possibility of sabotage.’

There’s not much of a plot in Memoirs, though truthfully, there isn’t much of a plot in any of the Lem novels I’ve mentioned in this post. There is, however, always at least some narrative. Things happen, and they happen to characters who react, and who cause other things to happen. But mostly the plot is skeletal to allow for extended meditation on various aspects of whatever is preoccupying Lem’s mind. In Memoirs, Lem indulges in a great deal of wordplay, and list making. The set pieces where the narrator encounters functionaries of the Building could, for the most part, happen in just about any order. The philosophical musings don’t overwhelm the narrative portions, and the underlying darkness of the situation rarely obscures the humor of the scenes. Memoirs is a funny book, but the humor is absurdist, so it’s probably not to everyone’s taste. As with His Master’s Voice, there is no final answer to the questions. Not, at least, the sort of answer we as readers can take and say, “Lem has given us through our proxies (the characters) a question, and by the end of the novel we know what Lem’s answer is, and everything that happened before makes sense now.” No. There is no easy comfort in Lem. There is only the experience that any answer is incomplete, and the growing feeling that—even when taken all together—every answer is incomplete.

The Prisoner, an appreciation (pt. 4)

Kim,

I’ve just watched “Schizoid.” I didn’t give up on AMC’s The Prisoner. There’s one episode left, and I want to think a bit about where things seem to be going before we get there. I want to make my wrong guesses honestly, I think.

So… The Prisoner seems to have turned pretty firmly in the direction of Mystery Show—the sort of show with a Central Mystery, the sort of show which doesn’t typically survive the Big Reveal. Of course, we went into this show knowing that it’s a six-part miniseries, so it doesn’t have to survive. But it would be nice if the show, after it’s over, sustains further consideration. I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

Anyway. In “Schizoid” we see two people who look like Six running around the Village. Is this a double? Is this an illusion in Six’s mind? If so, which Six is the real one? One cuts the other in a fist fight, and the implication in that scene is that the one with the cut is the real one, and the cut was caused by the figment who I’ll call Cold Six. Cold Six is on a mission to kill Two (in cold blood), because he’s fed up with Six making threats which are essentially impotent.

Is Cold Six really a figment? Other people seem to see both Sixes in too rapid succession for them to be anything other than both real. But these sightings are only through glass—though windows or in reflections. But in the climax of the kill Two plot, Cold Six appears to vanish rather than merely leave the scene. The kill Two plot is intimately tied to a significant subplot about Two taking a day off. As the UnTwo, he’s jovial, friendly, yet still irritatingly cryptic.

Two has an extended scene with the shop proprietor. They smoke cigarettes, and they talk. In Six’s other life, the one where he wanders around New York and suffers the indignities of corporate America’s national security state, he has an extended scene with an “access guy” played by the same actor as the shop proprietor. There are echoes in the scene with the access guy of an earlier scene with the proprietor, leading us to wonder if these two characters are the same person, and that the access guy has been sent to the Village. In any event, things don’t go so well for the proprietor—it’s never a good idea to interact with Two.

Because of their extended interaction with UnTwo, I’m worried about the cab driver and his wife. I don’t trust them, of course. As viewers we make a serious mistake when we trust anyone in this show. Even Six isn’t trustworthy—at the least, as our point-of-view character, he’s an unreliable narrator. But, in fact, Six is special within the context of the Village. This means we cannot discount the possibility that he’s One of Them, even if he doesn’t currently know it.

And speaking of family, there was another subplot in this episode. While Two is out and about, his son (11-12) wakens the sleeping woman—Two’s wife, 11-12’s mother. They have a day together, she assures him there is someplace else, that it’s not a place for people born in the Village, and 11-12 gets pissed off. She goes back to sleep. So far, I’m not very interested in the sleeping woman subplot. On the one hand it seems like an unnecessary addition to the central story. On the other hand, it seems like it’s possibly an interesting counterpoint—if there’s something in this show that will sustain further contemplation, it may actually be the sleeping woman subplot.

One of the mysteries of the show seems to have been addressed, if not definitively resolved. The gleaming towers Six chases like ghosts in the desert appear to be where he works in New York. At the very end, well after the conclusion of the kill Two plot, Six appears to see the Village from an unlikely vantage, and in the Village he sees an unlikely character.

Ahhhhnnnd…. Speaking of unlikely characters, there’s one more subplot—the question of what’s up with the doctor. She has a brief scene with the UnTwo. She’s been having dreams over the last few episodes, and these are dreams of Someplace Else. UnTwo assures her that there actually is someplace else, and she makes an abortive attempt to go there, or, at least, someplace that’s not the Village. If there is any trustworthy character in the Village at all, I think the doctor is probably that person. She really does seem to have her own problems driving her own agenda. She’s been messed with by Six (apparently mainly inadvertently), and she’s been messed with in a pretty rough way by Two.

There are a lot questions. Will Six escape? Will Two’s son? Will the doctor discover whatever truth she’s suffering for? What is the Village? Where is it? What is its relationship with Six’s other life? Is Six’s ‘real name’ really Michael? Who will survive? Will the Village survive?

This last question is inspired in part by the finale of the McGoohan series and in part by the fact that in this show, the Village seems literally to be falling apart. The ground is falling away from beneath the Village—is this ‘merely’ an engineering problem, or is this something of a psychological problem with the underpinnings of the Village? UnTwo makes the point in his various conversations that the real struggle in the Village is one of the mind—and that it largely takes place in the minds of the individuals within the Village. While true, in its own way, from the perspective of Two, this is only a distraction from the fact that people aren’t allowed to leave the Village, and that they only have individual liberty to the extent that what they want doesn’t conflict with what Two asserts is good for the Village. Can the Village survive if Two doesn’t?

That’s a lot of questions for one episode to resolve. I don’t expect that they all will be. And, in fact, I expect that mainly very little will be definitively answered, and much of what is answered will probably be questions I didn’t even know I had.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note February 5, 2010)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 3)

Kim,

I’ve watched half of AMC’s The Prisoner now. Among my thoughts remain this idea that the narrative itself is playing games. I mean, obviously Two is playing games, though they seem to be primarily games of power, with no as yet clearly articulated outcome; Two seems merely interested in maintaining power over the rest of the people in The Village, and in asserting this power over Six. He does, however, seem to need Six to remain alive and vital—he instructs Six’s spy-partner that Six is to remain alive—indicating that the power games are aimed at beating Six in order to get something.

However, Six’s perspective—and ours to the degree we identify Six’s point of view as our own—remains unreliable to me. The end of episode two has Six strapped to a gurney, being wheeled off who knows where, yelling at Two. At the beginning of episode three, this all seems more or less forgotten. How does Six make these jumps from one set of events to another? It’s dream like. Is his experience in The Village a dream? Are his dreams of his conversation with the girl about Summakor memories? Dreams within a dream? Events that take place after the events in The Village?

In this episode, Six is tasked by Two with becoming a spy (is he a spy when he’s not driving a bus?) He notes that the cellular structure of the spying network means everyone is a spy, at least potentially. This is presented as if it were news, but we viewers knew this already, and Six should have as well. There are three sets of secrets in play (that Six eventually knows about), plus at least one more which is the most chilling. There’s the principal in the school. He’s sort of a MacGuffin, though. A red herring to move some of the other plot elements forward, and to allow for some exposition. (“There is no Number One.” This may be the only time the word ‘number’ is used before a number; or maybe I’m mis-remembering it.)

Six’s spying on the principal gives Six and us an opportunity to discover that the spy-partner has a secret, that the child of Two has a secret (these are the same secret), that the doctor has a secret. This discovery appears to give Six some leverage, and the opportunity to rescue the doctor. This adventure, however, proves to be possibly illusory. But possibly not.

Six rescues the doctor and a little girl, but it appears he was set up to succeed. In retrospect, the place from where they were rescued appears to have been an artificial detention area. But if Six hadn’t chosen to attempt a recue, it seems The Village (and Two in particular) would have kept them. The doctor and little girl, for different reasons (legitimate reasons from The Village’s standpoint), were actually taken away. Six was allowed to rescue them—in a dream-like sequence where the time line is compressed and the likelihood of capture is leap-frogged—possibly because the game Two plays with Six is more important than the transgressions of the doctor and the little girl. After all, they can always be sent away again. Six has to be kept off-balance, with his power ebbing and flowing at the call of Two.

But, by the end, we find that Two knows his son’s secret, the secret of the spy-partner, that he uses children possibly as young as eight as pawns and as bait (the final secret, of which Six is unaware, and for which Six bears some responsibility—I wonder if this will be a factor in the way the series winds up). We also find that Two doesn’t even let people eat their ice cream.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note December 8, 2009.)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 2)

Kim,

I’ve watched the first two episodes of AMC’s The Prisoner and have some thoughts. Rover is a lot more intimidating in this series than in the original. I was hoping to avoid very many comparisons with the original, and I’ll still try. But the first episode was rife with references, and the spine of the plot for this episode invites such comparisons.

Six wakes up in a desert, a craggy waste. Dusty sand falls off his clothes when he stands. I mention this only because it appears to be a motif, appearing in the second episode as well. Just about the first thing that happens to him is he encounters someone we come to know as 93, an old man dressed in black blazer with white piping, chinos, and white sneakers. Viewers of the original series will instantly identify him as Number Six, though the actor is not Patrick McGoohan. He’s being chased by armed men with dogs who Six, carrying 93 to a conveniently located cave, manages to elude. Is this merely the plot convenience typical of the fortunate hero, or does it indicate the unreliability of the hero’s point of view? Once in the cave, Six and 93 have a conversation. I found it difficult to hear what they were saying, but I don’t get the impression that the actual words people say are terribly important in this show. In any case, 93 dies, and Six buries him in the desert. Six makes his way to The Village, and what appears to be the main plot of the series begins.

The plot of the episode is Two’s efforts to find 93. Six appears to stymie these efforts, though at the end of the episode Two is attending a public funeral for 93 in The Village’s cemetery. Again, did Two find 93, does he only have an empty coffin and is merely pretending to have found 93, or was the whole 93 story an effort to entangle Six in something Six would otherwise have fought against? As Two remarks in another context, “It doesn’t matter if I believe it, it matters that Six believes it.”

Along the way Six becomes acclimated to The Village functioning. There’s a bit of fun surrounding wraps as the food of choice in The Village, though in this episode and the next we see Two eating much more elaborate fare. There a scene where Six buys a map of The Village which includes a nice sight gag as he unfolds the map to seemingly impossible size. This scene echoes a similar scene in the first episode of the original series. The original series’s opening sequence is referenced in a scene where Two interviews Six, and Six slams is fist on the desk upsetting a cup of tea.

As the episode progresses we see scenes of Six’s life before The Village, and that Six is apparently amnesiac. Within The Village, there is an effort to get him to understand that there is no other place than The Village. Six’s efforts at escape are grounded in both his desire to not be kept against his will (to escape simply because he’s there), and to get back to where he comes from (and this is in part to prove there is someplace else). Residents of The Village appear to accept the idea that there is no other place. In a major departure from the original series, Two keeps a family in The Village: an apparently catatonic bed-ridden wife and a teen-aged son who asks about Six’s assertion that there is another place, wondering if it could possibly be true. There are some in The Village who seem to support 93’s assertion and efforts to escape, and Six befriends one of them in the first episode. She dies in an explosion at the cafe where she works.

But what do we have? Six has vague memories of another life, dreams, and visions of two towers in the desert (always just over the next dune or the one after that). Within The Village, Six appears to reject simple human kindnesses, and harbors positive animosity toward Two and anyone who he thinks works for Two. However, as viewers we know the cab driver Six might trust a bit is an agent of Two, and we should expect the doctor Six spends a lot of non-theraputic time with is an agent of Two–she’s a figure of authority, after all. In the second episode, almost at the end, the man presented as Six’s brother is revealed to not be–right after Six accepts him (at least tentatively). Although Six always insists he is not a number, he never insists on being called by his name.

Six’s memories of his earlier life are vague, and the most detailed ones come in dreams. Dreams are notoriously slippery things, and the content of them–even of recurring dreams–can be affected by the concerns of the day. So the fact that the woman in his dreams is clumsily asking why he resigned doesn’t mean I think that’s what actually happened before Six woke up in the desert–it might not even have happened until after the events in The Village, since Six’s memories seem so slippery. As viewers we have an unreliable narrator operating within a situation designed to induce paranoia. We are privy to information Six is not, but we don’t know what it means–on the one hand it is patently absurd that The Village is the only place (where are the steel mills for making Two’s hand grenades, they’re in a desert so where does the food for all those wraps come from, and on and on?). On the other hand, children appear ignorant of the larger world which must sustain The Village. Six found the ocean, and then lost it again. It’s as if the landmarks (including an enormous ship’s anchor) moved when he blinked.

The world of The Prisoner is different from how it appears after the first two episodes. This much I feel confident to say. I sympathize with Six, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept his view of things. I don’t accept that The Village is the only place, and I don’t accept that The Village is a good place, and I consider all the residents of The Village to be as untrustworthy as Two. This is despite the fact that both 93 and the cafe waitress die, and we viewers see them dead–93 is buried, and the waitress is last seen in a body bag. If they do represent a real resistance, I think it is a resistance built into the design of The Village, and they’re still playing a role–willingly but at the same time unwittingly. I consider Six to be unreliable, which I never considered McGoohan’s Number Six to be–even at the very end when everything fell apart. I always trusted Number Six to be, essentially, on my side.

I’m looking forward to the next four hours of this show.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note December 3, 2009)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 1)

Kim,

I’m running late. The holiday weekend was busier and more eventful than I expected, and I didn’t have time to sit down and watch any of the episodes of The Prisoner. But, I promised you a review, and you’ll get it. In a few parts. Maybe 7. This first one will be some reminiscences of the original series. I’m not going to do any research, so this will be a fairly impressionistic review, since I’ve only seen a couple of episodes since… maybe 15 years ago or so. I’ll make these comments before I watch any of the new show.

The prisoner, the character played by Patrick McGoohan in the 1960’s series, was a recently retired spy, widely assumed by the viewing audience to be John Drake, the title character from McGoohan’s earlier TV show, Danger Man (titled Secret Agent in the US broadcasts). Retired is the wrong word, he was in fact resigned. The opening credits, a brilliant all but silent short (though with a very telling clip of dialog), firmly establish this fact with a shot of his ID card being dropped into a file drawer labeled “Resigned.”

There were 16 episodes of this show, and they were, on the whole, somewhat odd. As a viewer now it is difficult to imagine what the US audience in 1968 might have made of this summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show, which was a comedy/variety hour. It was odd, but nevertheless, most of the episodes followed a fairly straightforward formula. McGoohan’s character, held against his will in a place called The Village, is called Number Six. All residents of The Village, save a few with nicknames like The General, are called by numbers. Each week Number Two tries to get Number Six to explain why he resigned. Each week Number Two fails and gets canned, and the next week a new Number Two tries again. The rules of Number Six’s captivity, coming presumably from Number One, though certainly from Number Two’s superiors in the organization running The Village, prevent Number Two from doing any lasting harm to Number Six, and certainly from killing him. There were a couple of instances where Number Six was allowed to escape from The Village, to teach the lesson that there is no escape from The Village. These main-run episodes were mildly allegorical and layed out the essential theme of the conflict between the privileges of conscience for the individual versus the trend of society to insist, sometimes violently, on conformity and participation on society’s terms.

As the series progressed, the allegory got heavier, and the plots and scripts got, to be frank, strange. And to say “strange” is saying something, since the context within which they got strange was pretty strange to begin with. The Village set is a real place called Port Marion, a resort in Wales. It’s a fanciful place with cottages reminiscent of Hobbitton, if Le Corbusier had been a Hobbit. The streets have a way of curving back on themselves, the architectural material of choice appears to be stucco-coated concrete, and there’s a stone boat beached above the high tide line. The residents of The Village, save Number Six and the administrative and medical staffs, tended to dress in brightly colored striped outfits with capes, floppy tam o’shanters, and parasols (even the hired muscle). Anyway, toward the end, things got weird. And by the end, you had to turn around, look through a spyglass, and squint to see weird, since by then things had gone so far past weird, it would be nice if there was a different word for it.

In the final episode, really a two-parter, Number Six, in his trademark black sport coat, chinos, and white sneakers, faced Number Two, but not a new Number Two. This was a Number Two we’d seen before. He’s come up with a clever new way to break Number Six and been brought back. And that’s really what The Village wants—to break Number Six. The reason why he resigned is a side light. In fact, it seems likely to me that they accept the reason he gave for resigning in the first place–in the resignation letter we saw in the opening credits of each episode. We don’t know what the reason was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he did resign, unexpectedly, and, if you will, out of order. He left the system, you see, and The Village is a way of breaking him. Breaking in the sense of breaking a horse. Bring him back into the fold. They don’t want him to be a spy again, but they want him to be a team player. Comparisons with O’Brien’s conversations with Winston Smith would be valid, though I don’t think The Village is a totalitarian endeavor in the Orwellian way of Stalinism or Fascism. More in the Huxley way, I think.

Anyway. In this final episode everything breaks, in the way we usually mean break–to fall apart, or fall out as the title of the final episode indicates. Number Two breaks; other characters previously assumed dead return and they break. Number Six breaks, though not in any way you can anticipate, so my telling you this fact is hardly a spoiler. The Village breaks, or gets broken, or maybe not. Number One is revealed, or shows up, or maybe not. Number Six finally escapes, or takes over, or maybe not. You see, when I say everything breaks, I really mean it. In the final segment of the final part of the final episode, narrative itself breaks down. You see it all, and you see it all pretty clearly, and yet you really don’t know what you’ve seen. And then, in the final scene, as Number Six heads confidently into his future, he turns back, looks right at you, waves the standard-issue Village wave, and something so strange happens that you might not even notice it which breaks everything you think you’ve been through for the previous sixteen hours.

So that’s The Prisoner I remember. This new Prisoner is, as I’ve gathered from a few reviews, different in significant ways. In my remarks on the new one, which I’ll try to post one episode at a time, I’ll try not to let my fondness for the original color my assessment. I’ll probably not succeed, but I’ll try. Be seeing you.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response… finale)

Well, I managed to get to the end, the end of a middle, anyway.

At the end I found the most unsatisfactory the parts which were most Douglas Adams-y. The things I found least satisfactory were the things which were least Hitchhiker’s-y. Like the plot.

The plot, you see. There was one. The weakest Hitchhiker’s books, as I recall them unread this long past decade, were the ones with the strongest plots.

Anyway, it ended about as well as anyone could reasonably expect. Everyone was separated, doing their thing. Or having their thing done unto them, depending. Fortunately, nobody… ha! I’m not spilling the beans.

So. Was it worth it? Is it worth while? (These two are not exactly the same thing, of course.) Remember when Jamie Delano stopped writing Hellblazer? Same sort of thing.

And Another Thing… (Reader Response… a little bit more…)

A little bit more before the end, actually. I’m at chapter 11, just ended chapter 10 to be more accurate. Thought I’d take a pause here and mention some further thoughts on the whole thing. Before I finish, that is, and have to have a more supportable position as it were.

Not that I’ll bother supporting any position I take at the end with much more than I’m bothering with here.

Firstly, I’ve just about given up all hope that the guy I was excited to see at the beginning will turn out to be the guy I hoped he would be. (Edit: I do not know who I hoped this would be, I might have to re-read this book. Jan. 3, 2019.) Which is pretty much too bad, since I’ve missed that guy and didn’t know it until I thought he showed up again. Also, the possibility that he might be that other guy was a pretty nifty one, I thought, and as things have progressed, I’ve found myself thinking I would rather have read the book telling the story of how they could be the same guy. Or at least a story where they were the same guy. But, given where that guy actually was, the odds of them being the same guy in this story are vanishingly small. But if there are other numbers in this three-part series, maybe…

Secondly, the author does a fine job writing Hitchhiker’s-y stuff. But just about anyone of a certain age who decided to be a writer, or to play around with the idea of being a writer, went through a phase when that sort of writing seemed like a good way to go. It’s a great phase. So doing a fine job of it in an actual Hitchhiker’s book is more “Satisfactory” than “Excellent.”

However, he does a very good job writing a Hitchhiker’s book under certain circumstances. There are four major characters from the previous books who have shown up in this one. (One of them is arguably a minor character who’s been promoted, though this more accurately applies to a fifth character. There’s a sixth character who’s a middlingly important character who’s been called back into middlingly important service.) What the author does well is let these four characters have a story. Other circumstances in this book result in something weaker.

For instance, a couple of subplots took over for a while there in the middle of this book. One, a subplot involving a major character, is the latest in a now-seemingly mandatory set of setpieces, rather like Bond’s visit with Q in those movies. This subplot was pretty well done, but there are kind of a lot of scenes to it, and more than a few of them felt to run a little long. The other subplot involved a whole new set of minor characters doing their own things which bear (to this point, at least) only a tangental relationship to the plot. It’s an interesting subplot on its own, fits well into the Hitchhiker’s mileu, and the fact that it’s tangental should not be seen as a flaw. But, again, there are maybe too many scenes, and more than a few run a bit on the long side.

Which brings me to a structural criticism. I’m nearly done with the book, but I’m only through chapter 10. As I recall, the earlier books would be to about chapter 37 or 53 or so by now. The author uses breaks in the flow of the narrative–litterally breaking into the middle of a scene or dialoge exchange to insert a bit of information (or much more than a bit) from the Guide. In previous books this happened sometimes. Other times there’d be a footnote. Other times there’d be a whole chapter devoted to something like this. The shorter chapters structure added an energy to the story and to the text of previous titles which I feel is missing from this book.

There are two major characters from the previous book who we haven’t seen yet in this one. It isn’t necessary to see them in this book, so, again, their absence isn’t a flaw. The plot doesn’t seem to need them, you see, so I hope they don’t get dropped in late in the game just to be there. Of course, if they show up on the last page to help set-up another volume, that would probably be OK with me. There has been a development of surprisingly sunny proportions, and there is still a planet-shatteringly important plot element to be resolved. There is one other major character who hangs over the story. This is possibly the best part of the book–it’s not particularly funny, but it does give one of our heroes a new depth of character the author is doing a very good job with. I’m looking forward to seeing how this develops.

SM

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