Wednesday, 27 May 2009

China Miéville, The City and the City (2009)

I read this novel.

It’s worth reiterating what a superb writer CM is. I wonder if there’s a danger, when any creative artist reaches a certain threshold of celebrity, that commentators no longer feel obliged to note how great they are. It’s assumed, unspokenly, but in a passive-aggressive let-me-list-only-the-faults-in-the-new-Bob-Dylan-album sort of way that overlooks why the new Dylan is required listening in the first place. Miéville may be entering the stage in his career where a tendency to niggle blots out the core fact that he is, and remains, a major contemporary novelist.

More, The City and the City is, I would say, the best written of all Miéville’s novels: his prose has never been so deftly, evocatively or expertly handled. His dialogue—within the parameters of the crime idiom in which he is working—is better than it’s ever been. It is all powerfully atmospheric; tightly constructed; very readable.

The novel’s central conceit (apologies for the spoiler: although it’s something made apparent in the book from very early on) is the superposition of two cities in the same location; run-down Besźel and on-the-up Ul Qoma, both occupying the same bay in an vaguely Eastern Mediterranean location. There are places, ‘crosshatchings’ where it is possible to pass from one city to the other; but the only legal access is through ‘copula hall’ and the suitably Byzantine bureaucracy that governs it. To pass at any other place—or even, technically, to notice the other city—is to perpetrate a terribly serious infraction, punishable by a shadowy group of secret enforcers known as ‘Breach’. There’s also a tertium quid in the topographic mix: a third interurb known as ‘Orciny’, in which some people believe and some do not, and which may or may not actually exist (there’s never any doubt that Besźel and Ul Qoma exist). Orciny. The ‘or’ in that name gets to the heart of it; the novel’s studied imaginative elaboration of the excluded middle, its fucking around with the either/or logic of Western thought—or as one character puts it, ‘the pissing little neither/nor’ [284]— (hence the book’s edging-out-of-the-West, borderline-near-eastern setting: it wouldn’t work if set in Bristol/Weston Super Mare). ‘We’re all philosophers here,’ Tyador Borlú, the policeman-protagonist, claims at the end.

Borlú also carries that ‘or’ in his name. But if his first syllable suggests he’s tied (his base, and ours, is Besźel) his second and third syllables hint at the possibility of a portal for him. There’s a wealth of punning in the book, much of it ingenious. But it’s not mere garnish: Miéville layers his core conceit all the way through. He dwells on liminal states, grey areas, halfway houses (the Besźel police can put someone under ‘half arrest’ for instance), and overlapping categories—academia is a rich seam for this: ‘archaeology … folklore, anthropology, Comp Lit’ [87] are all zealously guarded distinct entities, despite clearly all being pretty much the same thing. Archaeology, indeed, is an important part of the whole (‘digs are constant in Ul Qoma’, 61), presumably because archaeology is all about the simultaneous topographic existence of cities ... of—as it might be—Constantinople and Istanbul. Because, you see, if you’ve a date in Constantinople she’ll be waiting in Istanbul.

The novel is a Fantasy, and a compellingly realized piece of worldbuilding. A core trope which could in less skilled hands have been fey or risible is rendered concrete and compelling. Sights, smells, sounds.

It works brilliantly.

It doesn’t really work.

The novel is a crime story, and the lineaments of murder, clues, suspects, chases, gunfights and revelation are all dutifully copied across from other sources; but it reads flatly, overly-familiar, especially compared with the ormolu precision and evocativeness of the fantasy. A young woman is found murdered, and the novel-as-narrative is the story of Borlú’s investigation into this crime. But it's not this investigation that propels us through the book. It is not that the crime story is poorly handled per se; but rather that it sets up an interference pattern with the fantasy that defuses the effectiveness of either. I argued this in another place and want neither to repeat myself nor not to repeat myself; but I finished the book thinking that the epistemology of Miéville’s crime narrative doesn’t parse the ontology of his worldbuilding in other than superficial ways.

Superposition threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Miéville is no stranger to neologism, of course; and some of it works here. But some of it is pretty strained (khat is called ‘feld’ in Besźel because feld is the Besź word for the English cat. Um…) and some of it flat awkward. To describe buildings that exist in both cities, ‘topographic’ and ‘doppelganger’ get portmanteaued into ‘topolganger’: a word I couldn’t read without thinking of a large group of people simultaneously having sex with the celebrated Israeli star of Fiddler on the Roof.

More jarringly, structurally speaking, this self-conscious fiction is artfully draped in real-world reference (Pahlaniuk’s written a novel about Besźel; Van Morrison’s toured there) as if to intimate that fiction and real life coexist in the same way that Besźel and Ul Qoma do. But this isn’t right: in the case of Besźel and Ul Qoma one doesn’t have precedence over the other. Life, however, trumps fiction; only delusionals and schizophrenics think otherwise. The danger the trope of superposition continually risks is of falling between the two worlds, in to the nullity of Orciny, rather than of properly representing the proper both-wave-and-particle thang. And in the final analysis (sorry: more spoilers) Borlú’s cannot rest in either Besźel or Ul Qoma, but must vanish into the nebulous and ultimately not-as-believably-rendered realm of the organization known as Breach. Which has seemingly magical powers of surveillance, apprehension and punishment. Although these are revealed as being actually just exactly the same powers that the other police have.

That The City and the City is the best written of all Miéville’s novels becomes, almost, a problem, although it sounds like an odd thing to assert. But Miéville’s reputation is based upon books that achieved their greatness not despite but because of a gnarliness of articulation, a sculpted rawness that did sometimes veer into the purple, or clumsy, or clotted writing, but not in a bad way. Here things are a little too clipped, too polished, to achieve the imaginative overhang—the gorgeous, ungainly excess—that is the glory of Miéville’s earlier major achievements. More, Miéville's Chandleresque tone can't manage the leavening wit that makes the best noir more than just a pose in black-and-white and fedoras. There are moments of attempted humour here--or there are lines that have the form but not the content of wit: a woman has 'skunk-stripe hair like a film-studies academic' [58] and a security guard 'a mid-period David Beckham mohican' [154]. But their effect is to pinpoint a kind of hollowness at the heart of the rendering.

I don’t need to tell you how good a writer CM is.

I didn’t read this novel.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

True Blood (2008)

My review of the first series of HBO's True Blood is up now, over on Strange Horizons. I throw the vamps on the pyre. I sock it to Sookie. Stack is inda house.

Even I'm not sure what I mean by that last one. Hmm, hoom, hoooom.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Star Trek (2009)

I come to this a little belatedly, I know; and what I have to say riffs in part off reviews I’ve read (the estimable Abigail Nussbaum has a selection of interesting links). And—OK, the film is kind-of fun. The time passed. It's kinetic, apparently fashioned according to the current blockbuster logic: 'imagine a 13 year old boy at your shoulder at all times; if, for any reason, that boy goes "boooring" at any character, sequence or shot--cut it out!' Certainly the special effects are visually very nice. It is full of lovely little details. But actually, it’s more than full of details: it is nothing but details. Its contempt for the larger architectonic requirements of filmmaking and storytelling amounts to a slap in the fangirl/fanboy face.

There are two parts to my dislike of this movie, and I'll start at the level of most obvious: [item] that the plot holes are more than holes. Red matter has been injected into the script, leaving vast distorting black holes of unlogic, anticontinuity, nonsense and bollocks everywhere.

Here's the plot: the Romulan villain, Nero, in charge of a vast spaceship shaped like Don King’s hair, is dragged through a black hole back in time. (Elderly Spock is also dragged through, although, for reasons unexplained, he arrives back in time 25 years later). Nero pops out and chances upon a fully armed Federation battleship. Now: the Romulan craft is a commercial ship, for the extraction and portage of raw materials -- hence its enormous size. This is as if to say the Exxon Valdez slipped back in time and chanced upon the HMS Ark Royal. Who do you think might win if two such vessels fell to fighting?

Anyway Nero blames Spock for the destruction of his whole world, and has his mind set on vengeance (which is to say: on ‘VENgeance!’), so he immediately wastes the Federation ship, and Kirk’s father, and then completely vanishes for 25 years. Whither goeth he? Not to pursue his VENgeance!, certainly, or we’d hear about it. Somehow he manages to hide a vast, futuristic Edward Scissorhands Hairstyle In Space from all comers. Then he returns 25 years later because he knows (how?) that the spacetime anomaly is about to open again. (Presumably it hasn’t been open the whole time, like a barn door, or surely somebody would have gotten around to investigating it) Through pops Spock with the Red Goo that destroys worlds. Good! Now Nero can destroy Spock's world, and make him watch as he does so, just to learn him. Does Nero make Spock watch from the bridge of the Romulan spacecraft? No: he deposits him, unguarded, on a planet adjacent to Vulcan.* Judging by how big Vulcan is in the sky of this ice world it must be about as far away as Earth is from our own moon—although it is entirely uninhabited by Vulcans, and is regarded as a fantastically remote and faraway place on which to dump unwanted Star Fleet officers by the Federation.
*[I like to imagine the following exchange, after the event -- NERO: how did you feel as you watched your world being destroyed? buahaha! ELDER SPOCK: the who did the what now? NERO: wait ... didn't you see the destruction? E.S.: I've been inside my cave. All I've seen is the, eh, inside of my cave. To be honest, this isn't a place where you want to be wandering around outside too much, especially not with your attention fixed upwards --there's enormous ravening red beasts under the snow, you know, will eat you quick as mustard. NERO: You were supposed to be watching! My revenge depends upon you actually watching! E.S: Well excu-use me. Would it have killed you to say something beforehand?]

The next stage in Nero’s plan is to dangle a big laser-platform at the end of a very long chain into the atmosphere of Vulcan, in order to dig a hole right down to the core and deposit therein a small phial of the Magic Red Goo. Stop for a moment: it’s worth dwelling on this, because this Terror Weapon, Shatterer of Worlds is the main menace around which the plot of the film orients itself. It's dangled on a long chain. Why? Well, in order to provide the filmmaker with a Very High-up Platform on which to stage swordfights and fistfights, adding the spice that our hero might fall off the edge to his certain death to the conventional thrills of punching and slicing. Similarly, Nero vanishes mysteriously for twenty-five years only to allow Kirk enough time to grow up. No other reason. Nice of him, really.

But wait: let's think about this chain, from which the laser platform depends. Is it superstrong? By no means: at the end of the movie Spock, flying a spaceship no bigger than a shuttle, cuts it neatly with a quick phaser blast. Now: Captain Pike, in charge of Starfleet’s hideously beweaponed flagship, comes upon this Weapon of Terror in mid-blast. What does he do? (Never mind that the Vulcans haven’t destroyed it with their own planetary defences. The Vulcan science council can manufacture Planet Blasting Red Goo, but have nothing in their cupboard that could chop through an anchor chain).

Now admittedly, Pike stumbles into the middle of a battle, because Star Fleet doesn’t have long range sensors; and their ability to broadcast communications breaks down entirely if somebody fires a Big Laser; and their ships lack the sorts of warning systems that would prevent them from coming out of warp into the middle of a debris field (something that must result in a lot of collateral damage to the fleet, you'd think). So Pike’s caught on the hop. But nevertheless—could he not direct one single phaser blast to cut that cable? One photon torpedo? Could he not send out a shuttle to shoot it? Could he not—if these other options were denied him—direct a shuttle on autopilot to fly into and smash into the cable? No, his plan is better: send three members of his crew skydiving down on the platform to wrestle mano-a-mano with the Romulans guarding it.

Fuck. Off.

There’s a much bigger, much more damaging problem here, though. Plot holes are one thing; but this is something far more serious. It is that this movie cannot, no matter how much it strains and heaves, think systematically. The individual is the entire horizon of its universe. Now, when you’re 15 (say), and particularly when you’re 15 and male, your own hormone-saturated individuality—its ego, its randiness, its stroppiness—can look like a whole universe unto itself. But it's not. Society (community) is the necessary context of individuality.

What was so great about Trek—and particularly TNG and DS9 (less so Voyager and Enterprise)—is that it got this. What’s cool about TNG is not Picard, or Riker, or Worf: it’s the representation, on primetime TV, of a whole and properly functioning organization. Properly functioning in the sense that: it works, it is efficient and adaptive and coherent without being too rigidly heirarchical or oppressive. It wasn’t just a number of individuals going through the motions of relating to one another, but a network in which individuals had their place. It’s a model rather than an actual society (of course it is: the representational logics of the medium dictate that). But it is a model with surprising quantities of nuance and believability.

This is why Deadwood (which is more than just swearin' Al Swearengen: it’s the representation of a whole believably interconnected and functioning town) and The Wire (a whole, and rather larger, town) are so sublime, and why those two titles are better than the third member of the Holy Trinity of Great Contemporary Telly, The Sopranos: which did become, increasingly, too much 'Tony Soprano (plus support)', especially in its later series.

Now, the representation of TNG’s Enterprise was coloured Utopian, of course: and of course it can’t duck the accusation of nerdiness (as Nick Mamatas wittily if lunkishly points out in his review). Nerdiness, clearly, is The Worst Thing In The World. If there's one thing we learned from George W. Bush's presidency, it's that it's much better to have the allegedly reformed, onetime drunk hellrake with no knowledge of the details but a strong gut-sense that he can make the right decision in charge, than the policy-wonk guy with the high IQ and the good grasp of the inherent complexity of national and international relations. Jesus. Imagine if we had one of those in the White House.

Nevertheless, the representation of TNG’s Enterprise was a believable and rounded piece of collective realization. The latest Trek? Not so much. Not, indeed, at all.

Trek09 is a text so absolutely incapable of representing a collective—a functioning group, a society—that it strays into rank idiocy. It is teenage wish-fulfilment bang-zap-frot fantasy all the way through. But (and this, I’d say, is what people celebrating the Star Warsification of the Trek franchise in this film, are missing) precisely what made Trek so notable in the first place was its creation a communitarian world. Not an ensemble cast all vying for screen time; a knit-together group of people. The Star Wars universe is an open-ended, malleable space for individual adventure. The Trek universe is about having a place. It is, really, about belonging.

So Trek09 grandly misses the point. My problem was not that Kirk, in this film, is a tool at the start and a tool at the end. He is, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that Star Fleet is so toolish: so completely, dysfunctionally unbelievable as an organisation. Kirk is a cadet and an arsehole, who is under suspension. Nevertheless, Pike promotes him to First Officer on the strength of (a) I admired your father and (b) I liked the way you burst into the bridge and yelled at me that we needed to raise shields and ready phasers. When Spock takes charge and Kirk argues with him Spock ejects him from the ship (because the Enterprise lacks a brig? Because the brig isn't fitted out with a huge scarlet hairless icebeast? Who knows). When Kirk gets back on board, he goads Spock into attacking him and then seizes the captain’s chair. This is presented as a necessary and saving action, but it all speaks to an organization in its death throes. Hiring Some Guy You Met Along the Way as chief engineer (in effect: ‘you’re real smart about engines and shit … you do the job’) is part and parcel of this dysfunction. The Enterprise, as a group of individuals functioning together to crew a space ship, is—in this film, and for the first time in the Trek franchise—Not Fit For Purpose. It's a wholly unprofessional bunch of people squabbling and vying. It's dysfunctional. And I've now used 'dysfunctional' three times in this one paragraph. Which is stylistically clumsy, but at least stresses the main feature of Star Fleet, as an organisation, as presented in this film. Dysfunctional.

The opening sequence—the best portion—doesn’t suffer from this. The evacuation of the USS Kelvin looks like a coordinated, effective group performing a difficult task. People follow orders even though they’re not happy about it, because the orders are in the best interests of everybody. This isn’t the world of Star Fleet 25 years later, which is all contempt and testosterone, staff yelling and throwing punches at one another; senior officers have sex with their subordinates; those in charge making random seat-of-pant decisions about staffing, strategy and everything else, or else abandoning their posts to rush off and rescue their mum and dad. Rather than, you know, doing their duty. All very much unGood.

The larger function of this myopia is a complete inability to even begin to deal defensibly with the representation of genocide. The mass-murder of all the universe’s Romulans and almost all the cosmos’s Vulcans is not just here offensively stupid plot-pointing. Although it is that. It is something that the film cannot comprehend on any level except the personal. What is the murder of an entire people? What it really boils down to is, like, Spock losing his mother. It is really, the film is saying, just an individual tragedy. That’s so enormously and profoundly mendacious it’s breathtaking. It is summed up, for me, in Old Spock’s volte face about meeting Young Spock. First of all he refuses to do so, even though it would be a very useful and helpful thing to do, and even though the fate of entire planets hang in the balance, for reasons to do with the sanctity of the time lines, and the potential for disaster. Later he happily chats with his younger self, and reveals that the actual reason he didn’t pop up earlier is that he didn’t want to get in the way of Young Spock’s bonding with Kirk. Vital that their friendship be cemented, you see.

Imagine a cosmos in which genocide really mattered less than whether you and your best friend were getting on swell. That’s the cosmos of Trek09.