Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science fiction. Show all posts

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caprica City looks suspicuously like Vancouver on a bad hair day,
right down to the mountains in the background

While half of our household has been watching the new series of Caprica – which completed its first half-season last Friday – the other half, having abstained from six years of Battlestar Galactica, is finally starting to catch up, watching the first season of that series. So in the week since Caprica wound up, I had a chance to watch a couple of episodes of the earlier series at roughly the same point of development as the new prequel. The comparison convinced me that my son Jesse is basically right – thus far BSG is much better, even if it is being written by the same people. Over & over again throughout the first eight episodes, we are spoonfed voiceovers to remind us of where we are in an increasingly bewildering multilayer narrative. If you go back to BSG, there is almost none of that, even when certain characters are multiple instances of the same cylon template. The voiceovers for the most part are dramatic monologs & are quite different from the miniature flashbacks Amanda Graystone has of her long-dead brother who appears to have wandered in from The Sixth Sense to haunt her.

From a television producers perspective, the problem with BSG was that its story was so complex that if you missed an episode, you were pretty much never able to get back in synch with what was happening. That meant that the audience could really only dwindle over time. Now, normally, the knee-jerk response of the network suits is to demand stories that are episodic & contained with in a single hour, so you join in anywhere, viz. CSI, NCIS or countless other TV dramas. And when a show violates that code of modularity & gets yanked back into the fold (viz., West Wing or even the second season of Twin Peaks), it’s almost invariably a disaster. But the folks at SyFy (then Sci-Fi) did something different in letting it play out, seeing the show as having a natural arc & a termination point set more by narrative than ratings. The result was the best narrative TV I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even on HBO.

So what isn’t working & why with Caprica? It’s not a sudden loss of ambition. If anything, executive producer Ronald Moore has upped the wager markedly. The problem is that he & his writers have more story arcs going than Twin Peaks ever had, just eight weeks into the first season, and it’s obviously more than they know how to keep in the air at once. That old saying about Never catch a falling knife goes for master jugglers as well, and I fear that what might get cut ultimately is this ambitious, ambiguous experiment.

Consider, by way of contrast, BSG. Midway through their first season, the 50,000 survivors of the 12 nuked colonies had figured out that cylons had evolved, had made it for the most part off of Caprica & were even being prepared by the reconstituted government to start on a quest for the mythic planet Earth. The problem of identifying cylons that no longer looked like “toasters” was a serious issue & while we sense some divisions between certain cylons, we don’t spend a lot of time with them, nor on the other ships in the hastely thrown together fleet that has gathered around the museum-grade battlestar for safety. A show might focus on Admiral Adama, on viper pilot Starbuck & on Gaius Baltar’s relationship with the hallucinatory cylon Six, plus on Boomer’s relationship with the Chief (and a second Boomer’s relationship with another Galactica officer on Caprica). Plenty for a 42-minute episode.

That is about one quarter of what one gets into a comparable episode of Caprica. William Graystone, Faust by way of Bill Gates, is struggling to keep his corporation alive and deliver the military robot – he has coined the term cylon for cybernetic life form node – while dealing with the fact that his operating system was stolen from a Tauron corporation whose head is playing hardball to expose Graystone as ultimately responsible for two scientists slain in the theft. When she’s not seeing images of her dead brother, his psychiatrically fragile wife Amanda is in a deep depression triggered by the death of their daughter Zoe by a terrorist bombing (initiated, in fact, by Zoe’s boyfriend), while being courted by Clarice, the headmistress of Zoe’s school, who just happens to be the head of a cell of Soldiers of the One (STO), an off-world gang of monotheists, your basic Christian militia, out to carry out God’s Will. Meanwhile Zoe may be dead, but it hasn’t slowed her down all that much. Her avatar or apotheosis – the show has used both terms – was downloaded from a hacked version of something akin to SecondLife that was the source of Graystone’s fortune (he invented the holodeck band, basically virtual-reality glasses that every teenager on Caprica has to have) & by accident Zoe has gotten stuck, as it were, inside the prototype cylon robot, her life dependent on its hard drive. The only creatures that know this seem to be her dog (it barks at the cylon & wants to play fetch) and her best friend Lacey. (Her father suspects she's in there, but between a child and a profit, well, he knows where his loyalty lies.) She has convinced Lacey to help her complete the mission that she, Zoe & the train bomber Ben originally had set out on, to meet up with the STO on the planet Gemenon. Since stealing a one ton, eight-foot robot & getting it to another planet is not something your average high school girl is going to be able to do inconspicuously, she has had join a separate, rogue STO cell, run by Barnabus (think Dickens’ Fagin mixed with Charlie Manson, or perhaps Cinque of the Symbionese Liberation Army). Now I have not even mentioned Joseph Adams / Yusef Adama’s quest to find the avatar of his daughter, a teen likewise killed in the train explosion, [his surviving son (who will grow up to be the Edward James Olmos character in BSG, the only link thus far to the characters of the other series),] who has likewise been set loose in the hacked-realm of the V-world, where she has become the most dangerous lady in New Cap City, a game in which getting “killed” means your character cannot come back, but which doesn’t work on her since there is no original player with a holodeck sourcing her role. She is, in her words, a "ghost." Nor have I mentioned the ongoing thread of the FBI investigation into the bombing, the attempt by the Tauron corporation to make Graystone sell his Pyramid team, Adama’s brother Sam, a hit man in the Tauron variation of the mafia, but happily married to a guy named Larry.

That is all a bit much to fit into that same 42-minute time slot, but they’re trying, while also trying to keep folks oriented as best they can with all these cringy voiceovers. There are some unexplained details – such as how did Adama’s legal secretary know how to reach the dead daughter Tara in New Cap City – and potentially important figures who have already been killed off. In the last seconds of the eighth episode, one character is being driven in a limo that has been sabotaged with a large bomb, sees another character about to jump off a bridge & steps out of the car just in time to be away from it when it explodes while the escaping robot – it has fled to avoid hard drive wiped & reinstalled sans Zoe – crashes through a military barricade while one high school girl decides to save her self & her boyfriend by willingly killing her teacher. All of this happens in less than one minute. Just as the first foot of the jumper leaves the bridge we see the bomb go off. What happens next, Buck Rodgers?

The confluence of fortunate (or un-) coincidences at the end of the eighth episode were so overdone that Jesse & I were laughing our heads off as cars crashed & bombs exploded – not, I suspect, the intended effect. And not one that BSG gave rise to, even as some of its episodes are jaw dropping in their levels of allusion – there is an ongoing underlayer of topicality to BSG that Caprica thus far has only skimmed. Mostly, I think the creators of the new series, emboldened no doubt by reconceiving & rewriting the entire end of the series during the writers strike midway through the final season(Wasn’t that verboten?) are daring themselves to see just how much narrative trouble they can get themselves into in hopes that they can get it all to fit rubik-cubelike together later on. I did note two references in one of the early BSG episodes to elements of life on Caprica (“a pickup game of pyramid,” Adama describes his father as a “civil liberties lawyer”) which are spot on to the prequel seven years later. Maybe they can pull this off when the show returns in the fall. But for now, to deliberately mash up a metaphor, their narrative chutzpah is eating them alive.

You can watch all eight episodes of Caprica on Syfy Rewind.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Written between 1919 & 1921, & published in 1927 in a Russian émigré journal, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short novel We insured that he would never again be permitted to publish inside of Joe Stalin’s Soviet state. The one-time naval engineer, who at one point had supervised the construction of Soviet icebreakers in British shipyards, and who may have chosen the names of his characters – D-503, I-330, S-4711 – from the specifications for the ship Saint Alexander Nevsky, creates a simple-enough fable of a dystopian future that would serve as a model for both Brave New World and 1984. Persuaded by the presence of a Bruce Sterling introduction, I picked up the Natasha Randall translation because I was looking for something short to read during a month when I had two long business trips before starting what I expect will be the novel that will take up my fiction reading for the rest of this year, Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. Even though We has a significant pedigree – “the best single work of science fiction yet written” says Ursula K. Le Guin on the book’s front cover – I was surprised by just how much I liked this book.

Partly this is because of the ways in which Zamyatin, born the same year as H.D. & just a year younger than Pound, foretells elements of the future, such as the creation of the Berlin Wall, decades in advance. Partly it’s because this is a passionate tale that falls outside of genre boundaries, even tho it is now routinely treated – viz. Le Guin – as part of the history of sci-fi. The story line really is the Garden of Eden inverted. After centuries of war, the civilization known here as The One State is, in fact, a city walled off from the external world, run by a dictatorial Benefactor as a technocratic and rationalist utopia. Families & religion are abolished, people literally live in glass apartment buildings and must request permission to lower their blinds for pre-assigned sexual liaisons, which are scheduled in advance by ticket (one senses that nobody would ever think to say No). D-503 is the master builder of the Integral, the city state’s projected entry into space travel and as committed a bureaucrat as you could imagine. All of this goes to hell (more or less literally) when D-503 finds himself falling in love with one of his sexual partners, I-330, who is something of a terrorist, determined to Tear Down This Wall.

The sexual frankness & sometimes daft combinations of retro-industrialism & futurama reads like a scramble of genres and some of the details – such as indicating just how far into the future this is by periodically noting the presence of gills on all the main characters even if the most advanced communications technology appears to be radio or the vague descriptions of “aeros,” the individual flying systems some (tho not all) of the characters appear to have access to – actually gives the book some of the rough feel one gets, say, from a Philip K. Dick book, where the futuristic elaboration of detail (think Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke) just isn’t a value.

It’s worth noting the degree, tho, to which, even as early as 1921 – when Lenin is still alive & nine years before Mayakovsky will commit suicide – Zamyatin grasps the problems of the totalitarian state. Inhabitants of the One State are not called citizens but ciphers and when I-330’s rebellion shows initial signs of success, the Benefactor orders everyone to come in for surgery to remove the one human feature that is the source of all unhappiness, the imagination. D-503’s alienation grows even more profound when he finds himself one of the few remaining people yet to have a lobotomy.

Zamyatin didn’t fare a whole lot better than his character. Perpetually in trouble with the authorities (both before & after the Bolsheviks took control), he finally emigrated to France where he co-wrote the screenplay for Jean Renoir’s version of The Lower Depths, but mostly scraped by in poverty before dying of a heart attack at the age of 53. Wikipedia notes that he’s buried on Rue du Stalingrad in Thiais, south of Paris.

Randall’s translation is quite good, tho occasionally she picks a contemporary idiom that sounds out of place for a book written in 1921, albeit set centuries, if not millennia, in the future. Part of what makes this works, I think, is Randall’s own training not as a poet but as a physicist, not that removed from the concerns either of the engineer Zamyatin or those of his protagonist, the rocket scientist. This is, in its own way, a very left-brain cry for the joys of the irrational, the spontaneous, the truly committed. If you have any interest in the history of science fiction, this is a precursor you are certain one day to read & Randall’s edition is well suited to its task.

Saturday, September 28, 2002

I posted something nice about Anselm Hollo to the Poetics List and two things immediately happened. A friend wrote to let me know that warm positive regard for Anselm and his poetry was not, in fact, universal. And a copy of so the ants made it to the cat food: 20 sonnets (Samizdat, 2001) showed up in my mailbox. I figure that one out of two is better than Barry Bonds is hitting this year, so I won’t complain.

The title poem of Hollo’s new book gives me goose bumps:

so the ants made it to the cat food
but then you scrape them into the compost

one day we’ll set out under solar sail
to the systems of fifty new planets
discovered this year

who knows if we’ll do any better
than these ants you think
then contemplate vast grids upon grids
shifting and twisting
clashing and jelling flowing apart exploding

shrinking    to this little blob of cat food
in the kitchen sink

oh it gives one the flesh of the hen
comme on dit en français.    cat disappears into bush

This is a typical Hollo poem, so relaxed and straightforward that one can easily enough miss all that’s going on. It’s a domestic poem that includes both a sort of science fiction and a dose of street philosophy. But most of all, it’s composed out of the organized distribution of opposites, which might be best viewed if we followed Levi-Straus a little and itemize the imagery into categories I’ll label raw (i.e. natural &/or primitive) and cooked (i.e. cultural &/or processed):

Look at that first couplet:

so the ants  [RAW] made it to the cat food [COOKED]
but then you scrape them [COOKED]  into the compost [COOKED

There is a leap in scale between the first and second stanzas that at first seems dizzying & possibly even arbitrary, as we shift from the cat food to space exploration, most definitely cooked, but notice that Anselm has chosen not one but two exceptionally raw terms, “solar sail,” to describe this process. This duality continues through the end of the stanza as he describes other worlds – a form of the raw – that can only be reached by the highest order of technology.

The third stanza returns the reader’s attention to “we” [COOKED], then back to the ants [RAW] in the second. It then proceeds through a series that begins modestly returning to “you think” – the very process by which the cooked got cooked in the first place – & then in the next line suggests that we turn our attention to “grids upon grids,” as abstract & cooked a vision as one might imagine. But line four, “shifting and twisting,” is completely ambiguous on this cooking scale. Hollo decides to “bam it up a notch,” as Emeril would say, in the stanza’s last line, a description of cosmic writhing that both harsh cultural terms (“clashing” & “exploding”) to bracket decidedly organic ones (“jelling flowing”)

The fourth stanza brings us harshly back to the cooked, literally, in the form of “this little blob of cat food / in the kitchen sink.” This last gesture literally lets us know that Hollo has given us everything in his cosmic vision, even including that. So it is right after that last “nk” sound, which a linguist would note signals closure, triply so coming at the end of the line & stanza, that Hollow appears suddenly to veer in a completely different direction. The first line may well be a literal translation of how one describes goose bumps in French – the awkwardness of it all is profoundly cooked, as (even more so) is the phrase en français that starts the last line.

The final phrase, “cat disappears into bush,” starts with an image that appears to be raw, an animal, but is by virtue of domestication, really cooked. By disappearing not into, say, the garden, however, it vanishes instead into the raw (rendered even more raw by absence of article*), completing the poem as neatly as if Hollo had put a large red ribbon atop it. It’s a masterful tour de force.

Only those little hints of polylinguality & erudition** keep Hollo’s texts from sounding like the most purebred Yankee voice since Ted Berrigan & Allen Ginsberg & Phil Whalen left the room. And I think that it’s part of the sheer pleasure of reading Hollo’s work that his ear so acutely captures an idiom that, after all, he came to only as an adult.+

Appropriately enough, Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat Editions published so the ants as its “anti-laureate chapbook, 2001,” following a spirited Poetics List discussion about the diabolically reactionary selection the Bush administration had made.*** We should all thank the gods of fortune, & especially John Lennon’s lawyers, for ensuring that this alien who was once picked up for possessing a doobie wasn’t pitched out of the country during the days of the Nixon Gang. Otherwise Anselm Hollo might now be one of the great poets of, say, France.

* Hank Lazer has criticized the American poetic habit of dropping articles, which everyone traces back to Ginsberg although Allen probably got it from Pound, as a form of “Tonto speech.” Even as I excise articles in my own work, I consider its implications.

** The very first reference in the chapbook is to Eugene Jolas and Elsa von Freytag. Just under half of the poems have notes attached – the one quoted here translates its French.

*** I used to compare Billy Collins with Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash, but fans of the latter two have accused me of slandering those writers.
+ Anselm appends: “One little correction: I didn't really come to the idiom "only  as an adult" -- I read Moby Dick at age 14 (though didn't, then, find it  quite as zingy as Treasure Island had been a year or so before) -- my  "English" got started around age 10, after German Swedish Finnish (in that  order).  And I strongly doubt that I could have become a French poet --  French came to me too late for that.”