Firefly pilot reaction

In which the author grumps at some length about a show he’s not overly impressed with.(Word count: ±1650)

OK, so I know up front that some of these comments may seem unfairly nit-picky. Especially since I also know that the show is well-regarded, was cancelled after 14 episodes, not all of which were aired, and that the story was intended to run for seven years. Which is to say it should just be ending its run, or could have just recently ended and we might now be thinking about if there might be a big-screen release rather than knowing about the movie which came out a few years ago already. Some of these nit-picky concerns may have been addressed during the intended run of the show, and there just wasn’t time. But I doubt it.

So let me start with the things I like. Firefly is a good looking show. The sets, the costumes, the make up, the landscapes, the special effects, the lighting, the shot composition (generally). I like the look of the show. And the acting in the pilot was solid. Grading on a curve, solid acting in a pilot is high praise.

And here are the nit-picky complaints, followed by some post-hoc justifications for why they’re not merely nit-picky. According to my (admittedly skimpy) research, the dominant government in the Firefly universe is some sort of multiple-star-system-wide imperial-type structure rising from an amalgamation of the United States and China but without faster-than-light travel probably. OK, but I didn’t notice any particular Chinese influence in either the culture or the language. By which I mean, specifically, where were the Asian people, why did the scenes of government look like Imperial flunkies from Star Wars, and why was the only use of Chinese when people needed to say off-color things? Chopsticks in the mess hall aren’t enough. (I know that it’s a TV show, you cast the best actors for the roles from the available pool of actors without worrying too much about ancestry, and that if you had to translate the entire script in to a speculative version of future languages only to subtitle it back into English for–predominantly–a US audience on FOX it would be a production pain-in-the-neck.)

I like the idea of a wild-west feel to the world we’re in. It’s a single planetary system with lots of terraformed planets and moons, and the unfinished feel is pretty neat. Or maybe it’s several pretty close-by star-systems with plenty of planets and moons suitable for terraforming, whatever. By why are there horses? (I know that the reason there are horses because there have to be horses in a western.)

Seriously. For a show set 500 years or so in the future, in a multi-star system section of space, which does not include Earth, which was colonized and then terraformed by people who took generation ships in order to escape overpopulation on Earth… why isn’t the dominant culture better amalgamated, and the language more different? (Didn’t someone in the pilot say generations ships left Earth-that-was?) It’s less nit-picky to ask this since it was a choice Joss Whedon made to explain the universe of his characters in this way. It’s a nit-picky thing, and didn’t distract from the story of the pilot, but after seeing only the pilot, and thinking about things, these questions came up and now these questions are never going to be far from my mind, and may detract from my future enjoyment.

And about the horses. This is actually a special case question about the general set-up. Generation ships out to who-knows-where in order to combat population pressures on Earth just isn’t plausible to me. First, if not everyone leaves Earth, then who gets to (or has to) stay? How many? 50% of the then-current population? 15%? Where did all the resources that went into creating generation ships come from? And maybe they aren’t generation ships anyway. Maybe they’re just regular old huge honking ships to evacuate the entire human race from Earth (or maybe only some fraction of it). In order to effectively relieve population pressures, it seems that billions of people have to be evacuated on ships that can both sustain life for those billions of people and then sustain the lives of the generations who will be born on the ships. After all, if there was an effective way to limit population growth on the ships, it seems it could more simply have been implemented back on Earth. So, given that the generation ships were a response to population pressures (and, presumably limited resources), then (at least during the trip from Earth to the destination star system(s)) these pressures could be expected to increase.

Or maybe the pressures on Earth are already so great that the population is declining, and there aren’t billions of people to evacuate. Maybe it’s only several hundred thousand or several hundred million. Still. I’m unconvinced that dedicating resources to constructing an evacuation fleet is the answer humanity would really come up with. Especially if, once you get to the destination, you still have to terraform the place to make it habitable. Why not terraform Earth?

Then, on arrival, there was an extended campaign of terraforming. Let’s assume that the Earthlings knew, beyond doubt, that there was at least one planet in the destination system capable of supporting Earthling life, and was able to do it better than Earth. (Maybe it’s both somehow larger so there’s plenty of room and natural resources to be a suitable base, and not so much bigger that the additional gravity is still tolerable.) And that there are plenty of planets and moons suitable for terraforming so the underlying problem of population pressures can be coped with in reasonable ways.

Still, suppose all of this is on the up and up. (After all, all I’m going on here is one line that’s little more than a throw-away. Earth could be just fine back there where they left it, and all these people have maybe been living out there among the stars for 150 years or so, after say 150 years of tranport, and a couple hundred years of terraforming. And what the characters say about Earth is just made-up hooey because nobody’s gonna make the trip back to find out anyway.) Why do you dedicate any resources to getting horses from Earth to the destination? Why don’t your rely on mechanical horse replacements once you get there? And if Earth is all that messed up in the first place, why are there still horses to be brought?

Enough of the nit-picky background stuff. Now for the stuff that bugged me while I was actually watching the show. And bugging me while I’m actually watching the show is, in some ways, worse than bugging me afterward. After all, if it bugs me during the show, obviously it’s getting in the way of my enjoyment of the show. Those other questions up there I can probably put aside while watching. So here we go.

The actual words coming out of the mouths of the characters bugged me. Particularly, and it pains me to say it, Shepherd. I love Ron Glass. I like religious characters. Shepherd strikes me as particularly cardboard. Which is at least different from most of the other characters’ dialogue which struck me as show-offy. Not the characters themselves, mind you. On the whole I found them interesting–perspective, skills, characteristics, interests and motivations. I’m fine with all of that. But how they actually express themselves seems unfortunately full of the author.

The intermittent idiomatic use of Chinese bugged me. Not because I didn’t understand it, or because it wasn’t subtitled. But because it seemed arbitrarily limited. I mentioned this previously as a production nit-pick. But as a viewer, to have another language tossed in a few times over the course of a two-hour pilot was jarring enough to pull me out of the moment. This is particularly unfortunate because when Chinese is used, it is precisely in moments when, if I’m pulled out, I miss the moment. The exciting or nerve-wracking parts, when the characters are stressed, and need to swear. Rather than using some ordinary cuss word (or make one up which sounds like an ordinary cuss word), they slip into Chinese, and I think, “Oh, Chinese, I think, or did she mumble?” And by the time I’m back experiencing the show, the tension has been resolved, and I missed it because I was thinking about a production choice rather then flowing with the narrative.

There was a scene between the Companion and Shepherd which bugged me. “I’ve been out of the abbey for 30 seconds, and now I don’t even know if it’s OK to kill in defence of the ship’s passengers…” and so on and so forth. And then a two-shot of Shepherd kneeling in front of the Companion, with them in silhouette against an orangy candle-lighty set with her placing her hand on his head as if in benediction. It all felt forced.

And forced is the general narrative complaint I have. Leaving aside the production and background choices. The show I actually saw and heard on the screen and coming out the speakers just felt forced. Not the plot, which I pretty well liked. And, given that there are horses, I liked that there are horses. (I just don’t understand why there are horses, given what we’ve been told about why there are people.) But back to the forced problem. The dialogue felt like the author was forcing words into the mouths of the characters. And a lot of those words felt like they were there merely because the author liked them, not because the author though they were the best words available. Like ‘shiny’ as a general term to replace ‘cool’ or ‘elegant’ or any number of synonyms for ‘desirable.’ It felt very much like how highly verbal undergrads wish they could speak during some relationship crisis or conflict between student organizations.

But it’s cool that space is silent.

Babylon 5: season one

It might seem unfair to compress an entire season’s worth of a TV show into one post, when I gave The Prisoner 5 posts for 22 or 23 episodes, and gave a single non-Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s book several posts. But Geek Night is already half way through season 2, so I don’t want to put a lot of effort into a highly detailed review.

Season 1, which in my mind includes the pilot, but which in the minds of the marketers doesn’t, since I bought it on a separate disk, is a strange beast. It sets up the story, and moves us into it nicely, but much of the season is about exploring the world of the show rather than moving any of the major plots forward in a way that couldn’t have been done within season 2.

Jeffery Sinclair’s delivery throughout the season was marred, or at least hammed up, by an amused tone of voice. He almost always sounded like he was telling a joke, and knew he was telling a joke, and wanted you to know it was funny. And as the season progressed his eyebrows became increasingly animated until Geek Night wasn’t Geek Night until someone in attendance made some MST3K riff on them, usually in the form of talking in a squeeky voice as if the eyebrows were themselves characters.

All that said, I’m surprised at how quickly Babylon 5 actually moves. I remember this being the case, that things which we didn’t really need to see were often not shown: something would be set up, and then would happen while other things where going on, and we’d hear a passing reference to them as the story kept going. This is great. And even in the first season major changes take place. Looking at it like a ratio, by the time the first season is over, 20% of the entire pre-plotted show is done. So the fact that things move quickly makes some sense.

The dialog in season one is spotty, though it tends to be best in the episodes written by Straczynski. But even so, there’s a JMS-iness which comes through kind of a lot. I like my dialog best when I can’t hear the writer in the background giggling over his typewriter (like this sentence does, for an example of what I don’t like too much of). That said, the dialog mainly shows characters reacting to plot developments in ways which both illuminate the character speaking, and in ways that affect the way the plot developments continue to play out. There’s a good balance between “social history” and “great man” views of the way history operates.

There’s a steady core of Geek Night attendees, two other couples and my wife and I (also our five-year-old who likes the show and is always ticked off that he has to go to bed after the first episode). There’s been a rotating cast of other attendees in the weeks since we started in March, too. We have a pot luck dinner, and set the theme for the next week’s menu at the end of the evening. Pizza, grilling, and tropical have been among the themes so far. Next week is “food inspired by Babylon 5.” We’ll see how that goes. We’ve got Swedish Meatballs, since, as G’Kar observes, every race in the galaxy has Swedish Meatballs though with different names. (This is, of course, a riff reversing Douglas Adams’s notion in the Hitchhiker’s books about gin and tonics.) I wonder if anyone will bring spoo.

Geek Night

Recently, my wife and I have been hosting Geek Night.

Geek Night reaches back to the mid- to late-1990s, not all that long ago, really. In those days we worked in a book store with other bookish people, many of whom had a well-nurtured love of the sci-and-the-fi.

Each week, when it was being broadcast, something which was never assured from week to week, really, a bunch of us would get together with bottles of wine, boxes of crackers, and pints of spinach dip to watch Babylon 5.

Now, in 2010, my wife works in a sign shop with people who are now the age we were then. They have a dim awareness of Babylon 5, and we have a full run of the show and its first-degree spin-offs. No Legends of the Rangers or Crusade in our house.

We’re working our way through the show two episodes at a time. That’s the plan, anyway. Two couples (and a solo) come over for a pot luck dinner. There’s some eating, and after the first episode, while the 5-year-old gets ready for bed, there’s some more eating.

I’ll have more to say about the show itself in coming weeks, no doubt. But for now it’s nice simply to to note that we have people come over for a good time around a bit of TV.

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt 5)

Kim,

Well. I’ve made it to the end of AMC’s The Prisoner. It took me three months to do what you managed in a week. Please forgive me, as this post is about 3,500 words. As a miniseries, six episodes and out is a good way to go, but I’m less than satisfied with the conclusion of the story, and with the episode which contains it. “Checkmate” sees Our Hero, Six (now firmly identified as Michael, a spy of some type–seemingly an employee in a private sector corporation, but possibly under contract to a government), suffering through Two’s machinations and winding up in an unexpected stance at the end.

I’m no longer convinced that comparisons between this series and McGoohan’s are generally unfair and unreasonable–there are too many echoes of the old throughout the new. In particular, I think it’s fair to respond to the new show by contrasting with the old the resolutions to its central conflicts offered by its final episodes. To begin, I want to note that one of the aspects of McGoohan’s show that gave it the legs to remain a viable property for revisiting 40 years later is the fact that McGoohan’s Number 6 really is Our Hero, and not just a lens though which to view a narrative. He is a staunch individualist with somewhat libertarian leanings; these leaning were heightened by the stifling nature of The Village’s society. McGoohan’s Number 6 was not, however, motivated purely by his own personal outrage at being confined and constrained by The Village. We saw in his actions throughout the series indications that other people were important because they were people and not as tools in his conflict with Two, and that had he become aware of The Village in a less visceral way, he would still have bent his considerable powers on its destruction. This perspective views The Village of the original series as a literal (though fictional) place where characters interact.

There is also a metaphorical conception of The Village of the original series which runs through McGoohan’s version. This metaphor is along the lines that The Village is society, our society (or any society, really), and that the conflict depicted in the show is an allegory for the constant negotiation we as autonomous actors make in our role as members of society. McGoohan’s Number 6 isn’t really interested in destroying society, though he does destroy The Village. Rather, he is interested in making sure, to the uttermost, that the individual is not subsumed by societal duty except by uncoerced choice. I think Number 6 believes altruism and self-sacrifice are good, honest, and legitimate, but that society has no right to demand these things at any time, nor even to expect them in every instance.

At the end of the original series, Number 6 becomes identified with Number 1 (who is presented as a raving lunatic), has destroyed The Village, and has escaped the ruins with other survivors. Then he makes his way to London; he returns to his flat with the ubiquitous servant who has been seen shadowing each Number 2, but now shadows McGoohan’s character. And how to refer to this character? He is out of The Village now, so calling him Number 6 seems inappropriate. Despite the servant now serving him, Number 2 is wrong both for the fact that The Village is gone, and that Number 6 has never accepted the legitimacy of the role of Number 2 no matter who fills it. It seems clear to me that calling him Number 1 is wrong for these reasons as well, and for the reason that within the context of the symbolism of the show, being Number 1 is shown as undesirable (look out for Number 1, indeed). The final shot of the series is Number 6 entering his flat through the front door, which opens and closes automatically in the way the front door of his residence in The Village did. He is a man reentering society, certain of his own identity, but his name should be of no importance to us. Has he escaped The Village? And what does it mean to escape The Village? These are the questions the series leaves us to wrestle with.

The final two-part episode of McGoohan’s series is a pretty convoluted work of television, with jarring imagery and sound design, a lot of activity that’s difficult to keep track of, and a very heavy dose of symbolism. However, through it all, and all the way to the end, a legitimate interpretation of the show and the characters is that Number 6 is, sincerely, but in a way difficult to pin down, on the viewer’s side, and that even if he is defeated in the end that we did well in trusting this character and his point-of-view. And have no doubt that the possibility of his defeat and the nature of such a possible defeat are unresolved questions at the end of the final episode of the original series.

I feel like the AMC version does not do well with the notion I would put at the heart of The Prisoner, that in the negotiation between the individual and society, society is the junior partner–that the duties of society to the individual outweigh the duties of the individual to society. In the ultimate analysis, the scale may rock back and forth forever, and the weight may be nearly immeasurably on the side of the individual, but that’s where it is. It may be telling of the differences between the two shows that I call the first McGoohan’s and the second AMC’s, thereby pointing up the difference between the individual and the corporate.

The final episode of the new show is, in its own way, as jarring a work of television as is the final episode of the original. However, the jarring nature of the new episode doesn’t leave the viewer wondering, “what happened, and what does it mean,” so much as leaving the viewer wondering, “what happened, and how is what seemed to happen even possible?” At the end of the series, rather than breaking Two, destroying The Village, and returning to the larger world with an expanded view of things–resolving in both a material and metaphorical sense the conflict at the heart of the show–Six is shown to be utterly bifurcated. Michael assumes a position of apparently additional power in the corporate world from which he flamboyantly resigned early in the series. Six, in a remarkable departure from the original series, assumes control of The Village after Two stage-manages a scene of nearly incredible self-pity culminating in suicide.

These are two separate conclusions to the intertwined stories of our point of view character’s lives in The Village and the outer world. It appears they are mutually exclusive, yet both true. Throughout the series, we have been led to understand that Michael and Six are the same person. The powerful implication has been that Six is in The Village as a prisoner because of something he did in his life as Michael. We see what appear to be flashbacks to Six’s life as Michael, and (conditioned by a lifetime of watching television) we expect that we will see some event that caused his resignation and exile.

However, along the way we have been given hints that Six may not be sane. For this leave aside the constant effort by residents of The Village–especially and most aggressively Two’s efforts–to convince Six that there is no other place, and that he belongs in The Village. No, for this I’m talking about the flashbacks themselves, Six’s vision of the gleaming towers in the dessert, and some of the actual edits in the episodes. Most notable in this final category is the end of the episode where he is strapped to a gurney and being wheeled into a hospital ward, raving at Two. The next episode begins with Six out and about, with no mention of the medical intervention; none at all.

Because Six appears to remember Michael, and for most of the series Michael seems to have no real knowledge of Six, an easy assumption for viewers is that Six’s life takes place after what we see of Michael’s life. Six has dreams of Michael’s life, and in only a handful of instances–even in the final episode–does Michael get even a glimpse of Six’s, though the edits do sometimes have Michael waking from what may be a dream of Six’s live in The Village. However, contrary to convention, until the finale, the series carefully allowed for the possibility that Six’s life actually pre-dates Michael’s. There were also the possibilites that Six’s memories of Michael were delusions, or (more generously) dreams, or the other way around. As unlikely as it seems, there was always the possibility that, in fact, The Village really is the only place–despite the appearance of new residents in The Village, despite the impossibility of The Village developing the necessary technology and infrastructure to exist as we see it (where does the food come from? how about Two’s hand grenades?). But, The Prisoner is a science-fiction show, and always has been, so the possibility of a Dark City style reveal couldn’t be ruled out.

But that’s not what we got (whew, that would have been profoundly unsatisfactory, I think). What we did get, something altogether strange in my experience, is the fact that both versions of the character are contemporaneous, that they are, somehow, both real, and are the same person, and that they both survive and appear to accept where they are and the role they’ve been assigned to play in each place. I want to note another possibility, consistent with what we are shown, but with zero internal support from the show. It is possible that both Michael and Six are delusions of some never-seen third party. I don’t like it as a possibility, there’s no reason within the show to argue it, and there’s no reason to think that this is what the show’s creators had in mind. However, since the ultimate secret of the show relies on deeply subjective perceptions of reality, the possibility of such an interpretation of the show cannot be totally discounted–but nearly totally, so I won’t mention it again.

Anyway. It turns out that The Village is a state of mind. Unlike in the original series when this was true in a metaphorical way pointing to the relationship between the individual and society, in this show it is literally true. Six encountered a number of people in The Village with doppelgangers in Micheal’s life. The taxi driver in The Village is shown to have a counterpart who is the personal driver to a mystery man. The mystery man is a doppelganger for Two, and is revealed to be a high-level Executive in the corporation from which Micheal resigned. He introduces his wife, a doppelganger for Two’s wife, a doppelganger even down to the sleeping woman motif. Significantly, there is no doppelganger for Two’s son (who also commits suicide in The Village’s bar after murdering–mercy killing?–his mother).

The driver takes Michael to the Executive’s apartment for an important interview, and Michael’s story exhibits disjointedness similar to Six’s, though not for the first time. Michael’s story, through the first four episodes, had seemed pretty straight forward. He worked at a place where he monitored and reported on people, decided he didn’t like it, and resigned in a pretty splashy way–he painted his resignation on the glass wall overlooking one of the decorative stair cases in his office building. He met a girl, and she turned out to be some sort of plant to lure him back into the company; she seemed to have a change of heart about her job, stayed the night, and the next morning when Micheal was out getting fruit he saw his apartment explode, apparently killing her (echoing a scene in the Village from the first episode). In the fifth episode, the disjointedness in Michael’s story becomes obvious. He sneaks back into the company offices, during off-hours (somehow off-hours for a company charged with spying on people all the time), in a way which seems implausibly easy, and encounters his first doppelganger–the shopkeeper in The Village appears to be the same guy as the security access management guy at the company. Michael uses a quote from Six’s life in The Village to overcome the security guy’s objection to letting Michael back into the building. Michael has a disorienting experience in the office, and then looks out the window and sees Six in The Village. There’s a cut to Six in The Village, who sees the ghostly towers, and we realize that the glinting spot we have long seen on one of the towers is the office where Michael is standing, trying, and failing, to get Six’s attention.

In the final episode, during the important interview with the Executive, Micheal appears to experience dissociations. These are intercut with the storyline unfolding in The Village. What is going on in the important interview and what is going on in The Village are also doppelgangers. The Executive is attempting to convince Michael to stay with/return to the company by explaining to him what The Village is. Meanwhile, Two is setting the pieces in place to trap Six into accepting his role in The Village. The Village, says the Executive, is another layer of the mind–there’s the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and, as discovered by his wife, other layers of mind, of which The Village is one, and it is a layer where people can be repaired of their flaws. Assume for the moment that the Executive is reliable. This is a remarkable layer of mind, since it appears to be literally a shared space. In this way, The Village is kind of like World of Warcraft–out there, somewhere in objective reality, is a real place everyone can literally get to but only through the power of their minds. Pretty heady stuff. This should not be confused with the idea of a collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is collective in the sense that everyone shares unconscious architecture and archetypes because all humans are human–it’s kind of like saying there’s a collective circulatory system. We all have a circulatory system that’s pretty much the same for everyone, and that has similar predictable effects on everyone, but we don’t literally share the same set of arteries and veins. Similarly, we don’t all share the same unconscious, like some sort of mental waterworks where we can go into, move around and then literally pop up in someone else’s mind.

Anyway, it seems that the broken parts of people’s minds can be brought into the layer of mind called The Village. And the job of the corporation is to monitor people for signs of brokenness and intervene, making sure these parts get to, and stay within, The Village. The Executive’s doppelganger, Two, appears to be ruthless in fulfilling his role in this scheme. However, being in The Village doesn’t seem to have done the Executive’s doppelganger any good; he remains fragile in his role in The Village–though ruthless with the other residents, Two has his wife and a child in The Village. But when Two loses these people, his obsession with obtaining Six’s acceptance of a role in The Village becomes self-destructive.

And The Village appears to be unstable, always a worrisome prospect, but especially so for a realm which is a layer of mind. Throughout the series we have seen sinkholes forming in various places in The Village. People fall into these holes and they don’t come back. The holes open up with greater frequency as the series progresses, and their existence appears to be tied to the state (and fate) of the sleeping woman. Two’s wife in The Village, it seems, must sleep to maintain The Village, though this is a great burden on Two and their child. The child takes the amazing step of killing the sleeping woman, though this does not kill the Executive’s wife. The Executive’s wife, however, apparently cannot remain the sleeping woman if her doppelganger in The Village is dead. It seems there must be a conduit between The Village and the outer world, and, it seems, this conduit must be a sleeping person in both places.

Two, with the heightened drama of dreams, has set his trap well. He has lined the scene with baits, and has stage managed the baits’ locations and entrances so they believe not only that they aren’t bait, but that they are freely doing what is best. So the driver begins a chant linking Six with One, and the doctor–suffering from dreams of a terrible alternate life–takes a way out of her trauma which allows her to survive as the dreamer for The Village (where dreams are illegal) and frees her love, Six, to… to do, what, exactly? And Two eats a grenade.

In the outer world, the Executive leads Michael to the doctor’s doppelganger, a woman whose life experiences have traumatized her beyond the help of this world. But, you see, she has a place where she can have her brokenness repaired. The Village. All Michael has to do is… I don’t know, hold her hand or something. Additionally, for some reason, Michael has to return to the fold, and take the center seat in the monitoring pod in the office building, or it all won’t work out OK. But everything does work out OK; Michael takes the center seat, looking dour; the traumatized woman gets soothed by the doctor being permanently sedated in The Village; and Six, sitting in the dessert, mutters to himself and the sedated dreaming doctor in an effort to convince himself that he can make a better place of The Village.

But is the Executive reliable? Probably, since the story he tells makes sense, at least some sense, of all we have seen, and presume Michael has experienced. But how can what he says really make any sense? A portion of someone’s mind can be excised and sent, like a pizza, to a place where other minds are embodied to either heal flaws in the original person or isolate the flaws from the person. The story makes this a fact–this is how the world of this show is, it’s not a metaphor or an allegory.

And that’s fine; it’s crazy, but it’s consistent, and so it’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I expect there are some who will find the crazy story unacceptably crazy. That’s fine, too. It’s a TV show, and nobody is obliged to like or dislike it based on someone else’s say-so. But what I find unsatisfactory about the episode is that it was full of telling–there was a lot of expository dialog. There was no ambiguity, just confusion. It’s weaker television than it could have been. What I really found unsatisfactory, though, is the way the ethic of The Prisoner has been abandoned.

Six, unlike Number 6, is always motivated by his personal plight. His threats to Two that he will destroy Two and The Village arise from his personal grievance. His resignation from his corporate job appears to be purely a personal distaste with what the company was doing. Two is insistent on the goal of subsuming Six to The Village. For some reason, Six is special, though there is nothing in either Six’s life as Michael nor in his character or characteristics in The Village, to indicate that his specialness to Two arises from anything special about Six or Michael. (Of course, we find out that Michael works for the Executive, who wants Michael to return to and rise within the ranks of the company, and this apparently translates into Two’s need to firmly embed Six in The Village hierarchy.) Why Michael is specially singled out for promotion is unclear–he doesn’t seem special–though we can speculate that it might be related to his decision to resign.

Michael is just a corporate flunky, and Six is only on his own side in his conflict with Two and The Village. Neither of them is a hero deserving our trust or loyalty, and when they fail it is an unambiguous failure. Contrast this with Number 6’s ambiguous success. Both Michael and Six end up exactly where they don’t want to be, and they end up there because they’ve been out-maneuvered by those with the real power in the power structures they want to leave. But we don’t care. At then end of the day, the failures of this pair don’t elicit any sympathy, because nothing they did gave us any faith that we could rely on them–not that they were reliable narrators, or had to be reliable narrators to gain our trust. What we needed was a sense that they were on our side, that they were motivated by concern for other people, and though, at the end, they got backed into a corner where they had to choose to fail in their efforts to get what they wanted, we still don’t feel like they were motivated in their choices by a deep abiding concern about other people. We feel like they resigned themselves to the role they’d been pushed toward from the beginning. The individual was always subjected to the roles of society, and they didn’t have the self-understanding they needed to make the self-sacrifice. There wasn’t really a self there to be sacrificed. They were just trapped. Not Prisoners, just prey.

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.)

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