Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 2

Well now. I’m into the book now, maybe 20%. The main character, Case, has just completed his first job. My first thoughts on reading this book hang on the idea that it’s a noir book. Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in this world.

Not that Marlowe would particularly like this world, but he doesn’t much like the one he lives in either. If you don’t get too caught up in the futuristic words, about which a little bit in a moment, you can see the story in terms of what’s going on and the tone of the descriptions. Case is our point of view character: he knows how the world works, but is caught up in a plot he doesn’t fully comprehend. He’s riding the parts he can’t control, and looking for ways to control what he can. Or, if not control, then influence with hopes of keeping himself around until things play out and he can walk away.

Which isn’t to say Case is an update on the Marlowe character. Case is the type of person who gets things done, working small jobs, and unhappy about it. But his code is narrower than Marlowe’s; Marlowe will do what he can to help out someone who accidentally got in over his or her head. Case is still out almost completely for #1. He used to be very good at navigating and manipulating computer networks and security systems. He did this for crooks, lifted a bit for himself, and as a result, the crooks messed him up bad. Marlowe would never lift a bit for himself. How, exactly, this worked gets to the core of the futuristic words I’m not ready to address just yet. Case gets brought into a team by a mysterious former Special Forces officer just before Case falls over the edge of oblivion because he’s sad and messed up in the head because he can no longer do what he’s good at doing. It’s not yet clear what the job really is, but the first phase has just ended, and we’ve met a few members of the team. Including Molly, some sort of ass-kicking body guard for Case. Part of the payment for working on the team is fixing what the crooks broke in Case, and the additional organ damage Case did to himself on his way to the edge, the better to speed his falling over.

So anyway. Case has a problem, someone nasty has offered to help out—FOR A PRICE—and the world he operates in is one where you can only trust the people in front of you for as long as they’re in front of you. It’s dark, gritty (literally, there’s grit, grime, used technology ready to topple over in just about every scene–and when there’s not it’s noticed), and death comes at unpredictable intervals and by incomprehensible methods. And that’s the plot and the tone.

Now for the words. Gibson’s language, and vision of a high-tech interconnected future, is rightly seen as spookily prescient. I read somewhere that William Gibson just made up stuff that sounded cool to him, that he didn’t have a real clear idea what he meant by that technobabble, and that he doesn’t really understand the things in the real world everyone says are just like what he described! Or maybe I didn’t read it because I made it up. But that stuff has been in my head for years now.

So anyway. I’m not going to belabor this point. If you look closely at Neuromancer, what you see is a bunch of high technology that probably wouldn’t work. I mean, seriously, sticking wires and other sorts of software chips into holes in your head to navigate computer networks through the power of your mind? He calls it cyberspace, and the matrix, and other things. It’s been nearly 30 years now since he wrote this stuff, so you’ve seen it in all sorts of movies (including Tron, which came out a couple of years earlier). The way the crooks messed up Case was to damage his nervous system so he couldn’t navigate cyberspace with his mind by sticking wires into his head.

On the other hand, if you squint a little, you see something a lot like what we have now. Gibson set the story at some indeterminate point in the future, possibly only somewhat more than one hundred years in the future, maybe as much as three hundred years. But it’s clearly a dystopian view of a massively urbanized culture with globalized components. The capitalism of the US, the cultural notions of Japan, the cheek-by-jowl of the Near East all sort of mushed together like the various colors of Pla-Doh into a big ball of humanity, but with enough geopolitical tension for wars and a military still powerful enough to mess people up. And above it all, humanity has launched cities in space. It’s where the elites live, and the high-end military, and people who find the near-lawlessness of life on the ground too constricting.

One more thought for now. At one point, Molly is talking with Case about some of the more outlandish capabilities of the technology of the world Gibson has created. Case, who works with this stuff all the time, isn’t too interested since he can’t actually use the stuff, and it’s not safe for him to even poke around the edges because the powers that control it would squash him dead before he even got near something interesting. Nevertheless, Molly’s amazed he’s not interested. I felt, and not in a bad way, that Gibson was talking there. I think he had a better idea, as he was writing, about the social implications of his ideas than he was letting on. And I think he let on a lot in the book. But I think that short exchange might have been his way of letting certain readers know that he couldn’t get into it without bogging down the story. And I think the way Gibson is thinking these things through, but not really explicating them, that elevates this book to the place it occupies in science-fiction and literary circles.

Neuromancer: Reader’s Response pt. 1

As a favor to a Geek Night friend, I moved Neuromancer from my “will probably get to it” list to my “reading now” list. I picked up the library copy today. I don’t know if I’ve read any William Gibson in the past. This may seem strange. I’ve apparently read kind of a lot (not just Gibson, who I actually think I haven’t read hardly any of), and probably forgotten much of what I’ve read. I worked in a bookstore for about ten years along the way, and that explains a lot of that.

Didn’t William Gibson write something that was adapted into the Keanu Reeves movie Johnny Mnemonic? I think so, clearly I can’t be bothered too much with this sort of question, since I’m on the internet, and have a web browser open. It would take less time to find out than to finish this thought about why I’m not going to. Essentially, I don’t want to sully my experience with the memory of that poor movie. I didn’t want to go, but someone insisted it would be a good time. Another friend as enthusiastic as I was joined me in the back seat for the ride to the theatre on opening night. We lit a fire in the ash tray between us. Afterword I told the driver that I didn’t blame him for the fact that it was a bad movie, but only for the fact that I had seen it.

Anyway. I’m trying to go into this with an open mind. There’s a book I know I read once which may have been a Gibson title. No, now that I’m thinking on it, I think it was a Philip K. Dick novel. A late one in his bibliography, I think. Something religious… Something Something Happens to Someone Someone, I think. At least that’s the form of the title. Again, I don’t want to muddy my mind. And, of course there’s Canticle for Leibowitz, also by someone not Gibson, and also not the Dick novel. I’ll look these things up and use them as I post more while I work my way through the novel.

These other two books were titles I read while working at the bookstore. There was a staff book club. Every couple of months a staff person would choose a title, and any staff person who wanted to read it could request a copy. The store bought them, and we all took a couple of weeks to read the title. A very nice perk, and it expanded everyone’s “knowledge of of the product line” since the person doing the selection was striving to select something both really good and somewhat obscure. Something the rest of us probably hadn’t read.

Then, after everyone had a chance to read it, we’d get together somewhere to discuss it. Usually at a dive bar in a moderately seedy neighborhood with excellent spiced carrots and prairie fires. The discussion of the evening usually went like this:

“I picked this book because I really like it.”

“I really liked it, too!”

“Yes! It was really good. Thanks! Good job picking that book!”

“Hey! They’ve got Oberon here! Who wants an Oberon!?”

However, there had been a lot of discussion of the book in the days during the reading. People would talk on the sales floor, in the break room, out in the parking lot standing around smoking too close to the loading dock and all that paper, and on the in-store e-mail.

So I’ll keep you posted about Neuromanceras I make my way through it. You’re on your own for the Oberon, though.

Babylon 5 partway though Season Two

Geek Night continues on Wednesday evenings at our house. Sometimes we have as many as 3 other couples, plus our 5-year-old who watches the first of typically 2 episodes each week. He doesn’t eat the food that’s part of the deal. Each week we select a theme for the next week’s pot luck. In recent weeks it’s been I’ll grill what you bring, or tropical, or a taco bar; this week it was food you make with booze. Next week it’s use 1 ingredient: pork. This shouldn’t be a great challenge, and I might end up grilling.

Season 2 of Babylon 5 is progressing about as you’d expect. That’s not really a fair comment, of course, since we’re watching it on DVD. But most of the attendees at Geek Night didn’t watch it in any of its broadcast runs, so it’s new to them. Last night we watched “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” and “Knives” which are episodes 17 and 18 (as originally broadcast). It turns out that they should have been broadcast in reverse order, which is how they were produced, or something. There’s a detail in “Knives” that plays out in “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum.” It doesn’t much matter, though. “In the Shadow of Z’ha’dum” would over shadow anything in “Knives,” I think.

What’s interesting to me about how this season is playing out is both how fast it’s moving through the story (I mentioned this in previous posts), and how slowly it’s building. It’s year two of a five year TV show, and the opening credits say it’s “the year the Great War came on us all.” It’s not giving too much away to say that season five is largely (though not completely, or even mostly) about the aftermath of the first four seasons. I know better, but cannot recall exactly how this happens, but at the current pace, it seems like the entire story might be wrapped up by the end of Season 3. So then what’s Season 4?

Yet, an episode like “Knives” comes along. It felt a little slow watching it. Of course I was full of food made with booze from the pot luck portion of Geek Night, so this is not a criticism since I was getting sleepy. Each season of Babylon 5 is structured so it takes place over the course of a calendar year in-universe. The first episode is right around New Year’s Day, and the final episode is right around New Year’s Eve. “Knives” looks like it takes place in the course of about (or even possibly fewer than) 36 to (at the outside) about 48 hours. A lot happens in those few hours. Sheridan is possessed by an energy being (a fairly Star Trek–TOS–plot, with an X-Files set-up), but it touches on the larger story. This might be the B-story, but it gets about equal time as the A-story, involving Mollari, an old friend of his from an allied house, and Centauri imperial court machinations. And this touches on the larger story.

But neither story in this episode really advances the larger story. It’s not really a place holder, or at least doesn’t feel like one. Mollari’s story is more interesting, because Londo is such an out-sized character. Anything he does is more interesting in the moment than just about anything any other character does, with the exception of G’Kar. Sheridan’s just not all that interesting. We feel for his problems, because he’s a good guy (different from Good-Guy). Sheridan is under the tutelage of Kosh, so we know he’s going to be really interesting, because the Vorlons seem so mysterious there must be some pay-off. And in “In the Shadow of Z’Ha’Dum” we are told how powerful and important the Vorlons are. But Londo is still more interesting to watch. (Peter Jurasik does a great job with the character, from the very first time we see–hear, really–him in the pilot, when he is established as one of our primary Point of View characters.)

A Great War is coming, Babylon 5 will be a major location in the war, and it’s out in neutral territory. Which means out of the way of anything anybody wants, but not so far out of the way that nobody is willing to go there. Which means, logistically, it might take another two-and-a-bit years to wrap up the war, just given the distances involved. Even with jump gates.

So that’s how you get from half-way though Season Two to the end of Season Four. You get reminded that the Great War isn’t all that’s going on, and that the great events are driven by the characters you’re seeing drawn carefully and as rounded-out people.

Christopher Cokinos in Orion about Science Fiction

Over at Orion Magazine, Christopher Cokinos talks about the Mundane Manifesto. That’s a wikipedia link, since, alas the 2004 document itself seems to be unavailable on-line.

In any case, this manifesto is one of those periodic spasms in the arts, trying to encourage practitioners to focus their efforts on improving the quality of the field. In this case, the creation of Earth-based science fiction. Asimov had a collection at one time called Earth is Room Enough, so it’s not a new idea, exactly. But a good one. Artists can really muscle up, if you will, by focusing on constraints. Especially writers, who are limited only by words and ideas.

Cokinos likes the idea, generally, and it meshes pretty well with Orion‘s view that, in fact, Earth is room enough, and we’d better take care if it since we don’t really have any alternatives.

Booga booga and now you’ll have bad dreams

Well. Maybe you won’t have bad dreams, but I did. I think I did. I was reading The King in Yellow a couple of weeks ago, and holy snot. For several days while I was working though this book, I woke up from dreams which, if not nightmares, and if not bad dreams exactly, were certainly unnerving enough to wake me up and make me glad I wasn’t asleep any more. Not that I remember them, anyway.

So what, I hear you asking, you imaginary reader, is The King in Yellow? It’s a few things all wrapped up like an onion. The outer layer, and the only real one, is the book itself. It’s the name of a collection of short stories by Robert Chambers from 1895. Four of these stories include an element called The King in Yellow, which is a play that DRIVES PEOPLE MAD!!!! Of course, the play is made-up by Robert Chambers, just like he made up the characters and the things that happen.

Finally, the main character of the play these short story characters read is a made-up dude called The King in Yellow whose kingdom is a realm of insanity so powerful that people (in short stories) who read a play about it GO MAD!!!!! So the dude is fictional for the characters in the short stories… except MAYBE NOT!!! And people who are real people (like I am, and no fooling), who read the short stories have bad dreams after reading about the people in the short stories even 115 years after the book comes out. So maybe IT’S ALL ACTUALLY REAL!!! There was an edition which came out in the 1920’s with an introduction by H.P. Lovecraft, which is how I stumbled across it. (This is the only book with a Lovecraft connection in my local public library’s regional interlibrary loan area.)

It’s a pretty good book. However, it increasingly slacks off the horror after the first four tales. These are the only ones in the collection directly related to the play. There are a couple of stories where elements hinted at in the previous stories come into play, but they aren’t directly concerned with The King in Yellow. And then, finally, are a few stories where characters with similar lives to the characters of the earlier stories and in similar locations have perfectly ordinary short stories happen to them and the only connection to The King in Yellow are some names and general descriptions. These last stories are only unsettling due to their proximity to the others in the collection. I kept waiting for something creepy to happen, but it never really did in these later stories.

The first story in the collection takes place in the 1920’s, so, having been written in the 1880’s, it has to count as speculative fiction*. And the main character GOES MAD!!!!! But it’s unclear when, exactly, this happens. Which is unsettling in its own right. Did it happen during the story? Did the story chronicle the descent? Was he mad before the story began? Ohhhh…… booga booga! Most of the other stories in the book are more firmly grounded, which is to say they are more or less contemporary with when they were written. The major characters are artsy types, and in their own 20’s, so they are young and full of passions and maybe not a lot of good sense. And then they GO MAD!!!!! Or maybe just go hungry. Or maybe get caught up in the Austrian siege of Paris and aren’t sure what to do about possible spies in their midst.

And there’s one good straight-ahead ghost story, too.

*Edit: I suppose, given everything I’ve observed about this book so far, there’s no doubt it qualifies as speculative fiction. I probably should have said something else. Science fiction might not be it, though. (SM, Jan. 3, 2019.)

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.

To give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity. –Douglas Adams