“The Woman”: Gender and Inheritance in “Sherlock”

Again, a hearty hmm.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes may not be the best place in all of literature to search for vital, powerful female characters. Mrs Hudson is a classic nurturer, Mary Morstan shows not a care in the world that her husband is constantly on lad’s breaks with his dangerous old smoking buddy, and if Irene Adler is a curious and confused splicing of the Madonna and the Whore, she is also a woman led entirely by her age’s expectations of marriage. I’ve always been fond of Violet Smith from ‘The Solitary Cyclist‘, and Miss Hunter of ‘The Copper Beeches‘ seems similarly capable; but more typical are the women of ‘Thor Bridge‘ and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax‘.

All of which means that perhaps it is no surprise when, as I noted in my last post, a modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes attracts criticism for its depiction of gender. It’s not even as if this problem is new to Sherlock: I noted in my review of the last episode of its first series that all its women can be categorised either as “bitter, soppy or useless”. Nevertheless, in its depiction of Irene Adler, it seems to me, the show was attempting something rather more complex than it was given credit for; it may have failed in achieving its goal, but that’s not the same as failing to set out to try at all. The writers of Sherlock are working from a source text in which almost every character of any agency at all is male. Gary Reed and Guy Davis did a rather brilliant thing in the 1980s with the comic book series Baker Street, but Sherlock it was not.

The difficulty with this reasoning, however, is that Sherlock is not a faithful adaptation. After reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, I noted why Sherlock Holmes could never become so compromised as that novel’s principle investigator, Escherich:

Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.

Sherlock, on the other hand, is far from “separate but connected”. Abigail Nussbaum, in her post about Sherlock, has some intelligent things to say about the ways in which the show has recast, at times accidentally, its hero as a sociopath: its “emphasis on Sherlock’s need to be the smartest guy in the room–in the pursuit of which, not justice or the greater good, he humiliates Irene and leaves her to a gruesome fate–makes him seem a great deal crueler and less heroic” than even Steven Moffat might have intended, much less Arthur Conan Doyle himself. I write as someone who rather enjoys Robert Downey Jr’s turn as the great detective, and therefore not one who necessarily believes in the purity of adaptation – Sherlock Holmes can and should be refigured. The question must be, however, with what depth and consistency that is done.

In the very first episode of Sherlock, Rupert Graves’s likeable Inspector Lestrade intones that Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a great man, but not yet a good one. Vinette Robinson’s Detective Sergeant Sally Robinson (one of the show’s ‘bitter’ women) goes further, telling John that it will only take so long for Sherlock to start committing crimes of his own; in the final episode of the most recent run, she becomes convinced that he has begun to do so. This Sherlock is not our original Holmes, but nor is his sociopathy – or autism, as it is occassionally and rather randomly implied to be – particularly consistent. Much has been made of the toe-curling humiliation meted out to Molly (one of the show’s ‘soppy’ women) in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, and Sherlock’s subsequent climb-down, ending with his asking for her help in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’; but between these two presumed ‘arc’ points, Sherlock’s interactions with her resemble those from the first season. Likewise, John’s subtle little “ready?” as the two prepare to brave the photographers waiting outside 221B in that final episode also suggests something averse to strangers and crowds in his friend – the most we ever get from him, however, is an uncomfortable smile and a silly hat.

Admittedly, the deerstalker riffs are lovely – it was, of course, not Holmes’s hat, either, but likewise an imposition by an over-eager illustrator. But this sort of clever-clever reference comes to dominate Sherlock‘s style in the second season, with fear gases being transposed from one story to another, coming to stand for the inherited and inchoate fear of the Baskervilles from the original Hound, and curling back towards Sherlock’s own knowingness when he dangles the possibility of – gasp! – sending John to Dartmoor alone. There is something about the intensity of this reference – all the Rathbone stuff in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, for instance – which is a little over-arch, a little (dare I say it – for Maureen Kincaid Speller certainly has) boyish.

Of course, it is also and primarily self-aware – that is, deliberately altering the source material when convenient for the writers. There, indeed, is the rub: after forty-five minutes of boldly updating ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and doing so with flair and not a little exciting aplomb, Moffat and company tack on a further forty-five minutes of structurally weaker material which serves to deconstruct, or from one perspective undermine, what has gone before: Lara Pulver’s Adler veers from victorious dominatrix to grateful damsel, undone by the first of the series’ two over-simplistic passwords (which may or may not provide, in their absurd unsoundness, an excuse for Sherlock’s IT illiteracy in the face of Moriarty’s ‘key code’). This is new material quite beyond anything in the source texts – it is a choice on the part of the writers, and they have shown elsewhere how consciously they write. I remain in large part in agreement with Jon Blum that Moffat’s Adler does not represent the deconstruction of female power her critics argue her to be; rather, she is part of a deconstruction of how Sherlock imagines relationships. That she is put to the service of Sherlock’s story has nothing to do with gender – so even is the show’s greatest asset, Freeman’s John. But the fact remains that the choice the writers made was insufficiently developed, or inexpertly executed. Moffat shouldn’t need to explain his writing.

Abigail discusses Sherlock‘s crush on Sherlock, and it is this which is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.”


Politics and Personality in “Game of Thrones”

There’s a curious discussion going on over at Strange Horizons, in the comments section of a two-headed review of HBO’s Game of Thrones. In his half of an assessment of the show’s first season, m’learned friend Niall Harrison opines that “Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do”, as a result of its quite brutal and breath-takingly ossified feudal political system. I had some responses to that, but regular enfant terrible S.M. Stirling got there first with not quite the words I might have used: “21st-century political sensibilities are just -utterly meaningless- in a feudal culture like this. The questions are not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be ‘good lordship’ (a technical term in that context) or bad.” Abigail Nussbaum, the organ’s reviews editor, is spot on when she responds that this is absolutely not what is implied by the season’s depiction of persecution, prejudice and primogeniture.

Stirling’s soft-headed comment reveals more about how many in the modern day imagine ‘merrie olde England’ than it does the ways in which Game of Thrones defends itself against Niall’s entirely admirable knee-jerk reactions. I’ve just finished watching the first season – aided by a bout of manflu in the last few days – and it seems to me that the show’s whole trajectory is determined by the gravity of its leads’ charisma. As Eddard Stark, Sean Bean plays Sean Bean – a bluff, down-to-earth northerner who has sympathy with the lower orders and an innate nobility that manifests itself as a refusal to kow-tow to the smug consensus of the chattering class. He is the moral centre of the piece – even his Thomas More-style refusal to give up honour in favour of his life is cast aside for a more contemporary commitment to his nearest and dearest. (Not for the first time whilst watching this season, I was reminded of The Tudors, which had one of its very few successes in Jeremy Northam’s dignified portrayal of a More who stuck to the morality of his own time.)

In this way, Game of Thrones isn’t at all sited, as Stirling seems to argue, in the (and here you’ll excuse the pun) mores of its own invented period: in the at times overly precocious Arya Stark, we are presented with the sort of independent-minded young woman we’ve come to expect in modern period pieces (I entirely agree with Abigail’s negative assessment of Arya’s portrayal); in the storyline of Jon Snow, we have entitlement deconstructed by proximity to poverty; in one of the best scenes in the series, the ‘wildling’ woman Osha gets to skewer the oddness of Westeros’s political system, cannily utilising her supposed ignorance to cast its hypocrisies in high relief. In this, I’m closer to Nic than Niall, and in particular her analysis of the gender politics of the season is well worth a read: Game of Thrones attempts to make a virtue of the degragations many of its women go through in the course of its ten episodes, using them with variable effect to question and undermine the dominant mode.

Eddard Stark’s wife Catelyn, for instance, is played both fiercely and humanely by Michelle Fairley, in another of the show’s defining turns. Catelyn is not questioner of the Westeros system – indeed, she is deeply embedded within it and all too often wont to make overbearing use of it – but, at the same time, she exhibits love and mercy, characteristics very often in short supply in what is a violent, relentless world. Catelyn – ruddy, subdued, dark – is placed in stark contrast to Cersei Lannister, the Queen of Westeros and one of its vilest schemers. As Cersei, Lena Headey routinely receives direction which asks her to hide the character’s thoughts and feelings behind an inscrutable half-smile, and it is hard not therefore to assume theside the show might take in a contest between Ladies Lannister and Stark. (Though here I again defer to Abigail, who unlike me has read Martin’s novel and perceives some significant attempts on the part of the series to soften and justify Cersei’s Macchiavellian behaviour.)

There are other key turns which don’t fit so easily into a theory of the show’s moral centre, however. The always reliable Aiden Gillen offers real value as the amoral Master of Coin, Petyr Baelish, and of course Peter Dinklage’s Emmy-winning scene-chewing as the ambiguous Tyrion Lannister is a centrepiece of the season. This suggests a less than Manichean world-view on the part of the show’s writers, in which they neither wish us to accept Westeros as we find it, nor really to presume there is any quick fix or measure of objective good: one might remember King Robert’s complaint that he cannot rule as he wishes since he owes half his kingdom’s worth to the Lannister family’s coffers, and wonder how far removed from this our own system, warped and pervaded by big finance, might really said to be. Furthermore, the show is guilty itself of some unforgiveable slips – its presentation of the Dothraki as uncivilised savages, for instance, or its wasting of Esme Bianco’s steely Ros in scene of sexposition after scene of sexposition.

Which leads us back to Niall: “Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it’s deeply unfortunate.”  Ultimately, Game of Thrones is in this incarnation a souped-up I, Claudius: an at times stilted and “unfortunate” TV family saga set in a degraded world populated by repellent people, which gains its momentum from its cast. It is at times ponderous, and at others thoughtless. It works to cultivate a moral ambiguity, even relavitism, which might free its viewers from Niall’s political objections (though at times the viewer still cannot work up enthusiasm for any of these squabbling, selfish families). At the same time, it is far easier to gulp down than a lot of HBO fare because, despite its lovingly crafted fantasy worlds, it is somehow less dense, the dialogue always explaining, the action always reiterated. What keeps this lumpy, unwieldy thing rumbling on is that gravity of charisma . The show has visual flair, a sense of humour and a fine cast, and if fairly obviously the first season’s purpose was to spend the show’s initial moral compass spinning, that other centredness will be what keeps the show on course: it eases a forgiveness of all those sins.

“Keep Sewing”: Treme’s First Season

It would be a bold viewer who too closely related Treme, the television show about New Orleans after the levees broke, with Wynton Marsalis, the stubbornly conservative musician and historian of jazz. Certainly David Simon, who with Eric Overmeyer is creator and executive producer of Treme, is no reactionary traditionalist: on The Wire and Generation Kill alike, he laid into the destructive shibboleths of contemporary American discourse. But in Ken Burns’s 2001 documentary Jazz, itself criticised for its prescriptive, classicist approach to the music, Marsalis said: “Jazz music objectifies America. It’s an art form that can give us a painless way of understanding ourselves. The real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz, is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other. And that negotiation is the art.” If Treme had a voice, this is what it would say.

The first season begins just five months after Hurricane Katrina leapt with disarming ease over the insufficient defences provided to New Orleans. One of the show’s first scenes features the Tulane English lecturer, Creighton Bernette, labelling the flooding “a man-made catastrophe, a federal fuck-up of epic proportions and decades in the making.” Treme doesn’t really interrogate Creighton’s assumptions – it takes as fact (as indeed it is) that New Orleans is suffering as a result of long-term federal neglect and local corruption, and if it doesn’t (yet) delve deep into the politics of all this as The Wire might have done, this is only because, having decided where to place it, the show is uninterested in blame. It is focused on what comes next – if anything can. Ultimately, Creighton comes to fear that the old New Orleans is lost for good – that it cannot rebuild itself except as facsimile. Other characters are less fatalistic.

Take Wendell Pierce’s affable degenerate, Antoine Batiste. A trombonist once considered the next big thing, and now routinely short-changing taxi drivers as he shuttles from venue to venue in an attempt to make ends meet, Antoine is too focused on the next paycheck to think conceptually. We first meet him at a funeral parade, where he exhorts his fellow musicians to “play for the fucking money”; there is a cool pragmatism to his work which is allied with a very deep and heartfelt love for and commitment to New Orleans and its music. Indeed, when an old friend of his dies, Batiste passes down a trombone to the man’s grandson – it’s what the people of New Orleans do, he explains to the wealthy Japanese jazz enthusiast who has funded Batiste’s largesse. This isn’t just a moribund tradition, a museum piece kept in place for the benefit of afficionados and tourists; it is certainly that, but it is also the beating heart and the central nervous system of a city on life support.

This makes the band, the collective, the raggle-taggle coming-together of musicians too stupid or stubborn to leave for Austin, into the show’s governing metaphor. In their work, in the negotiations and accomodations of Marsalis’s characterisation of jazz, we see a sort of parallel rebuilding. As the first season progresses, stores reopen and streets are cleaned; but this work takes place in the background, and foregrounded always is the formation, the management, the performances of bands. In writing about Treme, Jonathan McCalmont has wondered if the show’s approach to the world of New Orleans isn’t a little shallow. He cites, for instance, the moment when the out-of-work DJ and middle class slacker, David McAlary, runs into a pothole and is shook down first for a lift and then by the man he’d paid to look after his vehicle; the only consequence of this absence both of the state and a sense of community responsibility, he opines, is that Davis writes a song. A song! That’s it! But Treme is about how we might create cultural product from suffering; thus is the New Orleans tradition – and thus must it be rebuilt.

Jonathan reads Davis unkindly. On many levels, this is fair – he can only afford to live a creative life, unlike for instance his sometime girlfriend, and struggling chef, Janette Desautel, because he hails from a rich family, whilst his constant quest for stimulation, and his habitual emphasis on the purity of New Orleans culture, can appear self-defeating and sterile in equal measure. But as much as he is a curator, the sort of passionate enthusiast who can risk ossifying a tradition in an image of what it should be rather than what it is, he is also one of the city’s greatest advocates, its most eloquent evangelist. New Orleans needs Davis as it needs a show like Treme, and it is a sign of the openness of the culture he exhorts that it accepts a man like him, rather than a token of its closed qualities that he spouts so much false rule-making and elitist pride.

So, in her own post about the season, Abigail is on stronger ground when she argues that Treme risks looking most of all like a product of the New Orleans Tourist Board. Certainly the show is premised on the idea that New Orleans represents something unique and priceless in American culture, and it therefore goes out of its way to prove this to us. But given that the city does indeed possess precisely those qualities, it seems unfair to attack the show for foregrounding, for example, the nobility of Albert Lambreaux’s Mardi Gras Indians, or the joyous excellence of the music of Kermit Ruffin: after all, the writers also emphasise the return of the city’s corrosive drug culture through the story of the only averagely talented street singer, Sonny (the break-down of his musical and romantic relationship with the fiddle player Annie is an instance in which the band acts as a metaphor for destruction rather than construction); furthermore, the quality of New Orleans housing is throughout the show on shame-faced display. The show doesn’t pretend that New Orleans is perfect (though when students in search of the ‘real’ New Orleans are sent by Davis to the scuzziest jazz dive in the city the scene is admittedly played for laughs). Rather, Treme is posited as an argument against the notion that New Orleans is rotten to the core.

There is more to write about this show – I haven’t addressed, for instance, Khandi Alexander’s breath-taking fierceness in the role of LaDonna Batiste-Williams, Antoine’s ex-wife, whose brother was lost in the storm (the whole season is worth the sight in its final episode of LaDonna dancing the second line); nor have I looked at its odd storytelling structure, in which there is barely any plot to speak of and many characters never even meet (which many cannot abide). But at the show’s core is this question of culture, of heritage and creation. When his daughter professes enthusiasm for the Endymion Mardi Gras parade, Creighton huffs that it is, “Like everything else in America – cheap, mass-produced and made in China.” Despite this, his wife scolds him for “waxing nostalgic for the knights of Momus”. This enthusiasm exists “because you’re not from here,” she says. “When you grow up with it, it has a whole other meaning.” The meaning, the relevance, and the continued existence of cultural product are Treme‘s key considerations – and in New Orleans, Simon has one of the last non-homogenised localised American traditions with which to negotiate his agendas. Here’s to season two.

Ursula Le Guin’s “Lavinia”


When you come to a widely-praised novel a year late, your expectations risk being unmatchable. The most exciting thing about Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, which I finished this week, is therefore that it not only met mine, but confounded them. I hadn’t read about the novel in detail, which perhaps helped; but largely Lavinia is simply a very special book. Until you have read it, I’m not sure your expectations could be quite right.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood helped inaugurate the Canongate Myths series with The Penelopiad. A retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Odysseus’s wife, left behind on Ithaca during his years of siege and sea-voyage. It was a bold if intermittently brittle feminist reclamation of its subject. “If you see someone you’d rather not speak to,” Penelope observes early in the book, “you can always pretend you haven’t recognised them.” [pg. 15] The implication is clear: this is what Homer did, and his readers, in following him, have also done. Penelope is merely in the way of the greater story of her fabulous husband. So we affect not to see her.

This is what you might expect from Le Guin, too: Lavinia, if anything, is even more elaborately over-looked by Virgil than Penelope by Homer. At least Odysseus’s missus (say it twelve-times fast) shows agency, putting off remarriage, and exhibiting much of her husband’s guile in setting a high bar for any suitor who wishes to win her. Lavinia, on the other hand, is practically a marginal note in Virgil, existing largely to provoke the Latin war between Aeneas and Turnus. One of the joys of Lavinia, though, is that Le Guin resists the obvious way to rectify this under-writing. “I am not the feminine voice you may have expected,” Lavinia warns us. “Resentment is not what drives me to write my story.” [pg. 65]

Le Guin’s Lavinia wants to do all she is expected to do – she wants to marry Aeneas, and wants to fulfil the role alotted to her by society and by fate. But none of this, crucially, is due to a lack of thought: Lavinia is an intensely reflective narrator, who considers and analyses all around her. Her voice is calm and even cool, flowing through the story serenely and confidently; it is the voice of a woman at home with herself, and committed to the benefit of those around her. This isn’t the feminine voice we may have expected, but it is gorgeously done – and thoroughly proper. Atwood’s Penelopiad, with its forced modernity and precocious narrator, felt at times like a game; Lavinia is never confected, and never rings false. It is, like Lavinia, fully itself, and fully realised.

In the first part of a discussion about the book, Nic Clarke, Jo Coleman, Niall Harrison, Abigail Nussbaum, and Adam Roberts spent some time going over what a familiarity with the Aeneid adds to a reading of Lavinia. In part, I’d argue, nothing: the novel is its own story, delivered with an immediacy of narrative which Virgil lacks (on which more shortly). On the other hand, knowledge of the world of the Aeneid might underline more than anything the extent to which Lavinia is part of it. A familiarity with this world, in which feminism as we understand is impossible, can help the reader become more alive to the book’s central project. The danger of the Atwoodian approach is to suppose that, if Penelope did not think and behave like Germaine Greer, then womanhood in distant periods of history was somehow incomplete. Le Guin does not accept this.

What Lavinia is, then, is a novel of co-existence. In the second part of that noble quintet’s colloquy, Adam Roberts memorably and perceptively separates Le Guin’s chosen mode, the narrative, from Virgil’s, the lyric. This distinction is a key to the novel, but I think it should not be taken too far – there are in Lavinia moments of intense lyricism, and passages deeply Virgilian in style. Lavinia is, as noted, reflective, constantly settling in the moment and finding in it a modest epiphany. Her exhortation to “go, go on” is certainly a statement of her storytelling style; but it is not, as it were, the full story. Lyric and narrative cohabit in Lavinia as womanhood and patriarchy do.

(Incidentally, there is, as Cheryl Morgan has noted, a vague discomfort in the novel with homosexuality, or perhaps more properly homoeroticism; but this, I think, as well as emphasising Lavinia’s deeply pre-modern conceptions of the world, is a condemnation not of Ascanius’s sexual preferences but his pursuit of the masculine to the exclusion of the feminine. Problems with this treatment remain, but it is in this sense thematically justified.)

The one choice of Le Guin’s I might properly dispute – and here I side with Nic Clarke in the, yes, third installment of that discussion – is her exclusion of the gods. In Lavinia, the gods are constantly evoked, indeed are a part of the fabric of the day-to-day, but do not appear as active participants as they do in the Aeneid. I find this curious – particularly as Le Guin inserts the time-travelling spirit of a dying Virgil into the narrative, and gives him the god-like abilities of foresight and the control of fate – and yet, if we accept co-existence as the novel’s key theme, then had Le Guin included the personified, active, fixed gods of Troy and Greece, she would necessarily have rejected the dispersed, passive, unlocated gods of the Latin peoples. Her novel takes place when one polytheistic tradition meets another, and holds the two in beautiful tension throughout. Had she followed Virgil this would have been impossible.

The Penelopiad begins by emphasising Penelope’s fictionality: “they [are] turning me into a story, or into several stories.” [pg. 3] Lavinia ends with Aeneas’s wife accepting her own immortality: “he [Virgil, of course] did not sing me enough life to die.” [pg. 249] The similarities between the two novels, and their awareness of the power of story, are clear, but Le Guin’s approach is immeasurably more sophisticated. Some have felt the final third of the novel sags, limping on as it does past the bounds of its great canonical forebear; I found it in its own way more compelling than the middle section, which owes most to Virgil. The poet’s story is greater than itself; once set in motion, it continues – though never ends – without him. As he recognises when perceiving Lavinia as a greater woman than the one he wrote, the poem has a life, a reality, beyond itself. Virgil is a god who cannot fully control the human drama laid before him. In other words, fate and agency possess a simultaneity with each other. The tripartite structure of the book – pre-poem, poem, post-poem – is in itself in a sort of balance.

Lavinia is a pastoral with the nostalgic, elegiac tone that term implies. Its nostalgia, however, is not for a rural, close-to-nature never never land, or even for a world in which empires and male power have flown out of control. It is nostalgic for the balance which inhabits its very structure. Aeneas’s heroism in Lavinia is in his even-handedness: his willigness to act, but his openness to reflection; his respect for women, but his necessary masculinity; his generosity to the Latins, but his championing of the Trojans. The novel’s is a nostalgia for that wisdom – for co-existence and co-habitation, for a world in which women and men are different but not opposed, in which religious differences are tolerated, and we each fulfil the duties we have to each other. That, too, may be a never never land, like all nostalgia a yearning more than a memory; but the Aeneid has only ever been a story.

Balancing It Out: ‘Caprica’

'Dynasty' with cybernetics

I’m a loyal viewer of television. If I start a series and like it, I’ll usually carry on – in most cases, if I start late I’ll go backwards, too. I watched season seven of The West Wing; I bought the fifth season of Babylon 5 on DVD; I went back to catch up on the first and second season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m a completist by instinct.

So the fact that I gave up on Ronald D Moore’s reimagining of Battlestar Galactica – that at the end of its third season, as ‘All Along The Watchtower’ swaggered portentously on its closing moments, I decided I’d had enough of what had become a bloated, confused and wrong-headed series – and stuck to that fit of pique – says a lot. I don’t recall ever having given up on a show in which I’d invested so much – I gave up on Lost, for example, but way before the first season had even finished. Such had been the force with which BSG had careered into irrelevance, however, that I never looked back. I wasn’t even tempted to watch its very last episode. (Which, in case you were wondering, is billed by the people I listen to as a total cop-out. I was flabbergasted.)

So when I was asked, “Hey, do you want to watch some episodes of Caprica?” it might be fair to say my answer was equivocal. Caprica has been mooted since BSG’S second season, was put into development hell from 2006 thanks to wrangles between almost everyone involved, and seems to continue to have teething troubles behind the scenes – it has been through three showrunners, for a start. None of which necessarily means it will be bad; what made it sound bad was its premise – set 50 or 60 years before the fall of the Twelve Colonies depicted in BSG’s opening miniseries, Caprica was to focus on the events surrounding the conception and construction of the first Cylons. The Cylons – their exact nature, their essential purpose, their absurd simultaneous depiction as both omnipotent and incompetent – became one of the weakest elements of the parent series. A prequel focusing so fully on a subject the writers had already made such a hash of didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

But ultimately I have a lot of sympathy with this post at Cultural Learnings: any show, Caprica included, deserves to be judged on its own merits. In the last week, then, I’ve watched the series pilot, and two of the subsequent regular episodes. And the good news is that Caprica isn’t bad. The bad news is that nor is it actually good. It has potential, but it hasn’t yet made the sale.

As Abigail has pointed out over at Asking The Wrong Questions, it’s satisfying that Caprica posits that the Cylons find their origin in a self-absorbed teenage girl. This makes more sense of BSG than BSG made of BSG. I disagree, though, that the show’s core fault is its disconnect from its parent show – this is actually its only hope. Abigail was offended by BSG as much as I was in the end, so I’m surprised she feels this way; but Caprica must stand alone and apart from the earlier series, even as it feeds into it. It must try its best to ignore the controversies of the old series, and find a way of its own. True, it must also make sense of the wider story – but this is not something it’s having trouble, even as it becomes itself. It seems to me, for instance, that its high-tech future can conceivably give way to the more basic one of BSG rather easily – the highest technology in the series is froth on the top of a fiftiesish wider culture in which police detectives use old style phones, answering machines have switches, and men lower down the food chain than the proprieter of a major technologies company have never even touched that company’s most popular product. A sort of Butlerian Jihad Lite makes a lot of sense in this mashed-up world.

On which note, Abigail’s thoughts on the show’s admittedly poorly executed opening credits also seem to me to miss Caprica‘s vision of itself: its vision of an advanced society is precisely pulpy – all uncomfortable juxtaposition of 40s cars with cell phones that look like Kirk’s communicator, or fedora hats resting next to a comedy robot butler. Caprica seeks to be more accessible than BSG, softer, and its science fictional vision is consequently a grab-bag of everything from Philip K Dick to The Jetsons. Indeed, it is this which may be its flaw – I don’t disagree with the commenter at Enik Rising that this tension is deliberate on one level (although Seth’s on difficult ground with his point on decadence and the show’s marriages); but, at times, its Cylon, a military robot programmed with the personality of the aforementioned brat, can look comical rather than ominous, lost in the kitschy little retrofuture it stumbles through. Perhaps this element of physical humour is part of Caprica‘s softening; perhaps it’s a sign that the show is as confused as its forebear. (How much humour can be drawn out of a show taking place mere decades prior to the practical extinction of humanity?).

In the show’s defense, some of its central performances are very good: Eric Stoltz and Paula Malcomson as the Greystones are particularly fine. The couple’s daughter, Zoe (played not always engagingly by Alessandra Torresani), is the personality installed in that first Cylon, in the wake of her death in a suicide bombing performed by her boyfriend and fellow transgressive monotheist, Ben Stark. Zoe’s father, Daniel (Stoltz), is the show’s central figure, and it is his drive to reclaim his daughter which powers the creation of that ‘Cybernetic Life-form Node’; his wife, Amanda, is profoundly shocked by the extent of her daughter’s secret life, and Malcomson’s portrayal of a woman deeply conflicted is a highlight of the series (though, confusingly, she is not Trixie).

Less convincing is Esai Morales as Joseph Adama. This is a shame, given his character’s importance to the BSG mythos – Adama is the father of the boy who will become the Admiral of the Colonial Fleet, after all – but a combination of slow writing and forced stoicism gives his portrayal too little fizz. A lawyer who bribes judges and asks his gangster brother to settle personal scores, it’s pleasing to see in him something of the moral dubiousness he will pass on to his son, but given how badly Bill Adama’s misplaced righteousness came to unbalance BSG, it may again portend badly for the future of the show. (If, indeed, it has one.)

Despite these concerns, the show still feels like it’s limbering up, setting things in their proper places. Its pilot episode packs a lot into its 92 minutes, and yet much of it is merely getting the show to where it needs to start – grieving parents, creepy robot, febrile society. And if its confounding opening 15 minutes, set inside a virtual reality designed to symbolise, but not be in the way viewers may first suspect, a civilization collapsing into self-indulgence, also feels a little teen-angsty, this merely throws into greater relief the adult angst which comes later. If Adama feels at times so repressed as to be unknowable, this makes in the second regular episode for some effective moments of surprise which serve to add some much-needed grit. And if it seems that the whole thing is moving too slowly, it is also true that rather a lot has already happened – if it is uncomfortable to realise that a main character (Sister Clarice, a teacher at Zoe’s school) has, yes, a shadowy Plan, then it is also true that the Cylon stuff happens surprisingly quickly. All of which careful placement suggests a show with a sense of balance and proportion. But there are, alas, sins other than those of the father.

Paul McAuley’s “The Quiet War” [2008]

There’s a scene towards the end of Paul McAuley’s Clarke Awardnominated novel, The Quiet War, in which two ‘gene wizards’ – scientists who manipulate the genome to adapt life to unusual or artificial environments – discuss the source of their inspiration. “We carry a standard of beauty from Earth,” explains Arvenus, the ‘Outer’ who led her people away from the influence of Earth following the period of climate change catastrophe known as the Overturn. Sri Hong-Owen, the Earth loyalist who has for much of the novel chased Arvenus across the solar system, is unconvinced: “People like us need no common standard,” she insists. “And, anyway, it’s purely random. We should be free to create anything we want.”

“I freely chose to create this,” Arvenus replies [pp. 422-423], and the question of freedom of choice is the novel’s centre of gravity (does Arvenus choose to replicate beautiful forms, or is her very concept of beauty inherited by cultural diktat?). The Quiet War, as its title may imply, is therefore far from the usual military sf space opera with a complex plot of double-dealing and conflicting agendas. That’s not of course to say that its influences don’t show, sometimes heavily – everything from The Forever War to the Hyperion duology is brought to mind – and in this sense McAuley has written quite a conservative slab of trad sf. There are, after all, the usual tranches of text devoted to exposition and extrapolation; nothing about the novel screams revolution. But then, it is a quiet war which McAuley wages.

In her review at Strange Horizons, Abigail Nussbaum said some good things about the novel but ultimately couldn’t care for it: “between the flatness of its narrative and the predictability of its characters, there’s not much to feel passionate about in The Quiet War.” At Torque Control, Niall’s conclusion might as well have quoted her verbatim: “too much of the quietness of The Quiet War is a lifeless quiet, which could have done with a bit more human noise.” In one sense, you can’t fault their logic – McAuley’s novel is indeed a cool read, almost studiedly distanced. I’m not sure, though, that I exprienced this as bloodless. Rather, I agree with Edward James’s more positive Strange Horizons review of the book. Simply, “McAuley’s book is quiet in all kinds of ways.” And this is not a bad thing.

Take the below. Cash Baker is a pilot engineered by Hong-Owen’s methods to be, in the way of the wet dreams of military sf, the best of the best. He has represented one of the novel’s five key voices, all gung-ho spirit and derring-do. His craft has been crippled in action:

The Glory of Gaia was too far away, but maybe he could raise Luiz and Vera, appraise them of his situation. The proxy was equipped with more than a dozen analysis packages, including a laser spectrograph. He aimed it past Phoebe and started blinking it on and off, three long flashes, three short flashes, three long. The pilots had been taught Morse code for situations like this, and he was grateful for the foresight of the training team. Three long, three short, three long. SOS. Save Our Souls.

Cash kept sending for a long time.

No one responded. [pp. 349-350]

There’s surely more going on here than a simple lack of punch. Baker was head-hunted for the gruelling and transforming pilot programme which replaced his teeth with plastic ridges and drilled into his skull, and he is now trapped within it. Sri Hong-Owen, for her part, designed the process but did so at the behest of a member of the Peixoto family, all-powerful in the post-Overturn power bloc of Greater Brazil. The members of that family, in turn, are beset by their conflicting goals and the pressures of expectation and inheritance. The book returns again and again to these concentric circles of agency, which come to resemble a mobius strip. Ultimately, contra Arvenus, no one has freely chosen anything.

Much is made of the environmental crimes of our own generation – everyone in the novel has inherited their broken worlds from selfish environmental criminals, and all that is left to them is the coping mechanism. “We are engaged with a great work of penance,” one character suggests, framing his own life and that of his contemporaries by reference to the past and to received circumstance. [pg. 136] What Niall and Abigail see as a lack of passion seems to me, then, key to the book’s broader project. When Sri Hong-Owen confesses a moment’s self-doubt to her son, Alder, he shrugs. “You did the right thing. […] The only thing you could do, in the circumstances.” [pg. 243] This formulation recurs frequently. The clone soldier Dave #8, for instance, is told of his compelled murder of a teacher, “orders were orders, he’d done what he had to do.” [pg. 206] As Dave #8, so Sri Hong-Owen – every character in The Quiet War is functionally a clone, wound up by a system and set to go. Even the Outers, amongst whom are factions passionately of the belief that humanity must be allowed rapidly to evolve into a panoply of new species, and whom practice a sort of reality TV version of open democracy, cannot quite get past their conceptions of the Proper Ways of Doing Things. (“We’re a democracy,” one protests. “We shouldn’t arrest someone because we disagree with them.” [pg. 324] Ah, the idealism.)

It is this very human inability to encompass the other that robs each character both of their ideals and their agency. The Quiet War breaks out not because it is inevitable, just or even necessary, but because enough people on both sides think it is acceptable. It happens by default, as a result of momentum and inertia – it happens, Arvenus suggests, “because we cannot help being other than what we are, because the behaviour of the mob is closer to our true nature than the aspirations of the individual.” [pg. 433] Arvenus has the habit of coming across as priggish, but her pessimistic view of the human ability to fashion their own societies, rather than submitting to the opposite, is a stripe of the same cynicism which informs the whole novel.

All of which puts me closer to Adam Roberts’s view of the novel as a calculatedly modest statement: “It is, for all the sense of wonder the book cultivates, an example of literary understatement.” Many reviewers (for one, Niall in the comments to Roberts’s review) have referred to the vacuum in which the war takes place as its source of quietness. Certainly the physics of McAuley’s worlds are scrupulous and minutely drawn. But the real quietness of the war and of the novel is in its very de facto nature, its bald emergence.

The last line of the book is, “Nothing would ever be the same again.” McAuley does not, as Roberts goes too far in arguing, deny war’s impact. Instead, he simply holds the continuity of conflict in equal weight to its change. The book is in this way at every point measured, scientifically but also morally. Both sides in the war are allowed room to win our sympathies; each of the characters is given as valid a voice as any of the others; and war itself is seen as both loud and quiet, typified not by shields at maximum and laser guns blazing, but by a lonely pilot sending an SOS, or a clone soldier undertaking espionage work, all conveyed in hypeless and carefully de-glorifying prose. This isn’t lack of passion; it is simply the equal presence of moderation.

The Quiet War represents with considerable poise a world betrayed by individualism, where the emphasis has shifted entirely from the individual to the presiding corporate polity. It is a mistake to look for individual heroes in such a world – had McAuley included them, he would have lost his balance.

Spilled Thrills: Richard Morgan’s ‘Black Man’

Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Black Man, by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan’s Black Man won the 2008 Arthur C Clarke Award, beating out amongst others Stephen Baxter’s YA effort The H-Bomb Girl and Sarah Hall’s literary confection The Carhullan Army. I’d repeatedly been told that Black Man did things more cleverly than you’d hope to expect from Morgan’s brand of mil-sf-noir-thriller – Abigail Nussbaum, for instance, sounded faintly surprised that the novel had “something of substance to say”; Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria says plainly that, “Morgan is far from a one-note writer.”  This not, I was told, your standard thriller.

So it proved, but only so much. In her follow-up blog post on the novel, Abigail focused on gender, and undoubtedly this Morgan’s neatest trick is to take the thriller’s staple protagonist – the powerful, sociopathic male loner – and make an interrogation of him. Carl Marsalis, the black man of the title, is a thirteen, a genetically engineered throw-back to the violent proto-humans who were weeded out of the genepool when society first went agrarian. Brought back into the world by the superpowers’ need for super-soldiers, they are now bound in red tape, unable to procreate and limited to either serving their masters (something they are not genetically disposed to doing) or living in either terran or Martian deserts.

This makes for some wordy conversations about biological imperatives, identity and the difference between masculinity and femininity. But as Abigail points out in her blog piece, the book’s major female character, after 100 pages of characterisation prior to her first meeting with Marsalis, rapidly becomes a cypher once she shares the page with a thirteen. Nic argues that Sevgi “humanises Carl, both in the traditional narrative sense of being the reader’s window on his unusual world and mind, and because she anchors him to human society”, but it’s hard to buy this line entirely when later in the novel another female character comes along and slots right in to serve a similar purpose. (In Nic’s defense, she recognises that women are treated problematically throughout the text.) Sevgi’s page count plummets either way – her principle role is to provide counterpoint to Marsalis. Once they become a duo, she ceases to have much in the way of her own agency, following Marsalis around when she can and disappearing when she doesn’t. Where she does have her own story, for instance in her fraught relationship with her father, ultimately that too becomes about Carl: we are treated to scenes of Carl and Ertekin Senior discussing the woman in taciturn, masculine ways.

Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan
Also Black Man, by Richard Morgan

Is this the point? Perhaps: Black Man makes great play of the idea that we are trapped by our biology; Marsalis and Ertekin may sideline the “feminine” (defined in Black Man, at risk of appearing flippant, as anything which does not make things explode) just because that’s how they’re wired, and where Sevgni becomes Carl’s sidekick likewise. But if this is true of the book’s characters (and what a useful handwave for the author), it is doubly true of the book itself. I think Martin hit the right note when he wrote that “Black Man is clearly still a case of the author having his cake and eating it.” That is, Black Man is locked into the tropes, structure and outlook of the average thriller, but has stirred into the mix some opportunities for the characters to sit down and talk about things which appeal to critics. The follow-through, however, is more war-war than jaw-jaw: though undoubtedly its investigation of identities biological and cultural is at times challenging and thoughtful, when it comes time for action and plot, Morgan knows on which side his bread is buttered.

I was also struck by Morgan’s constructed future: both Nic and Abigail rightly point out that the world-building in Black Man is sinuous stuff, managing both to inhabit its own milieu whilst reflecting ours. Superpower struggles, religious tensions, and racism shape a time which is no dystopia but whichs seems regardless less comfortable than our own. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Morgan’s literalising of the Jesusland meme – it made for a good joke, but a less compelling political reality. Its execution was not helped, alas, by a cast of characters pouring disparagement of cartoon proportions upon ‘Jesusland’, with only one poor dupe to defend it. It’s not just that the explanations given for secession are inadequate; it is also that we are asked to accept prima faciethe worst prejudices of Guardianistas, and this alone – aligned a less than rigorous engagement with ideas of economic collapse, climate change and nationalism – undermines our conception of the practical political basis by which Morgan’s states might operate. Again, perhaps these questions are not ones the thriller is best placed to answer – but the reader in that case wonders why they were posed in the first place.

Black Man is superb at action set pieces, competent with its dialogue and characterisation, and possesses a welcome intellectual curiosity. Once the reader becomes used to being impressed that Morgan even tried to put all these elements together, however, it is possible to begin to wonder to what end they are ultimately used. (Nic says some very wise things about how the book’s nobler ideas are twisted by its baser instincts.) It isn’t that Black Man is a cynical book – merely that Morgan enjoys writing the sort of novel which cannot ultimately support the thematic weight he tries to graft onto it. This creates a book very much with two sides, one of which always holds the trump card (which is naturally the one marked ‘explosions’). The question to be asked of Black Man, a novel which manages to be an exciting but ultimately a curious read, must inevitably be, “if you’re so self-aware, why don’t you change?” The Jessica Rabbit response – I’m just drawn that way – proves less satisfying than it read when coming from the mouth of Carl Marsalis.

EDIT: For some reason, I’d been sure I’d linked to the reviews mentioned in the opening paragraph; it was brought to my attention I’d forgotten to, for which apologies to the reviewers. Curse my puny human memory etc. Links now (albeit belatedly) in place!

“Rorschach’s Journal, Act I Scene iv”

What Do You See?
Everyone Sees It Different.

I hate to write this regularly about science fiction, but people keep writing things I have to respond to. Graham Sleight (or Nick Lowe) does the usual special pleading over at the Locus blog. Here the villains are film adaptations which naturally dumb science fiction down: of course, this is because SF is particularly different and Quite Special, thus setting itself in opposition to the simple narrative forms developed by daft old Hollywood. Graham makes the good point that SF should maybe get itself some better characters, but alas I have to take him to task on the perennial assumption that SF has a richer armoury of narrative forms than other modes of literature.

As a spin on this tired old debate, it may even be unfair to accuse film of ‘dumbing down’ rather than playing to its particular strengths. Jonathan McCalmont argues over on Ruthless Culture that the recent film of Jose Saramago’s complex novel, Blindness (I have read the book, but not seen the film) fails because “film is not a medium that deals terribly well with these types of abstract theoretical ideas.” By trying to do so in a way similar to the novel, the film hobbles itself. To paraphrase the film theorist André Bazin, swapping a story from one medium to another will necessarily involving changing its form – or else there seems little point.

To whit, the adaptation du jour, Watchmen. With a source considered (of course by fans) unfilmable, the director Zack Snyder has in fact done a creditable job of taking what Graham might call an SFnal narrative form – the ideas-led non-linear narrative with no standard moral growth for any of its panoply of ‘protagonists’ – and rendering it into a film. Ultimately, though, I agree with Abigail that such slavish devotion to the source makes the adaptation a hollow exercise: at times, what is on screen is precisely, boringly, what was in the panel, and its faithful and graphic reconstruction of comic book violence can only result in the film’s culminating massacre seeming somehow less horrible than it did on the page.

All of which is not to say that Hollywood (as presented by Lowe and Graham or otherwise) is an inspiring repository of revolutionary narrative. But I’m not sure it’s the case that literature adapted is hard done by when film imposes its own conventions – in fact, films are often hard done by when they genuflect at the altar of their source. It’s hard to argue for fidelity to SF’s specialness (or that of any other branch of literature) and simultaneously ignore (or disparage) cinema’s own prerogatives.