Sunday, November 29, 2015

Tipping the Velvet

I'm not sure why I haven't yet read every single word Sarah Waters has ever written. Every time I pick up one of her novels, I'm utterly entranced, captivated, and blown away by her deft hand with plotting, characterization, and historical detail. She's truly one of the most gifted writers working nowadays. Previously, I've ripped through Fingersmith (loved it!) and The Paying Guests (loved it!). Both books were meticulous in their construction and unfolding; both are showcases of Waters' flair for plotting. I knew, going into Tipping the Velvet, that I wouldn't be disappointed.

What I was not expecting, however, was the sheer volume of emotion this book wrenched from me. I am not one to shirk or avoid demonstrations of emotion; I feel how I feel and I do not hide it. This means that I'm quick to weep in films, quick to laugh, and quick to righteous anger in favour of the protagonist. I've written before about emotion and how important I regard it in relation to cultural objects. What is art, after all, but a transformative experience, either in state of mind or being? Waters' previous novels did not affect me to the same degree; Fingersmith was more compelling as an intricate rendering than as a journey in which I was emotionally invested. The Paying Guests was heartbreaking in a distant kind of way.

Tipping the Velvet is markedly different than either of those novels. Rather than a cleverly forged plot, this novel focuses on the emotional development of its narrator, Nan. This is a Bildungsroman while simultaneously a tour through the queer subcultures—and counterpublics of Victorian London. The back of my particular copy includes a blurb that characterizes this tour as a look into the "demi-mondes" of London; I'm not sure if demi-monde is the current appellation. While the novel does depict hedonistic women, it does not depict them as "starving artists" or socially mobile women. They are lesbians—ça, c'est tout, but also not entirely. However, this is minor quibbling; regardless of the definitions, Waters' painstakingly and impressively researched début is concerned with depicting a world hitherto under-represented in culture. She uses Nan as her focal character, but wisely imbues her with a complex narrative arc that propels the tour and maintains the reader's interest.

Shockingly (at least for Victorians), Tipping the Velvet reproduces lesbian romantic entanglements, in all their messy and glorious reality—just like hetero relationships. At a theatre outing, Nan witnesses Kitty, a vaudeville performer who performs in the guise of a man (hold: vaudeville refers to a distinctly North American genre but in this case, it's the same format). Nan has a complicated reaction to Kitty's performance and beauty; she falls in love. She ingratiates herself with Kitty and in due course becomes her dresser (to help her change costumes quickly between songs, etc). They leave the small town, the town most memorable for its oysters (Waters is rarely subtle in her choice of imagery), and head to London. There, after some period of seemingly non-reciprocated love and anguish, Nan and Kitty become lovers. Kitty is quite anxious to maintain the relationship hush-hush, as "toms" (lesbians) are social pariahs. Meanwhile, Kitty's audience numbers are dwindling. Their manager has an idea: put Nan in drag and make it a double act! It seems that Nan is quite convincing as a boy, almost too convincing. The scene in which Nan dresses as a man for the first time features the cast repulsed; she is too much like a boy, so much so that it produces a feeling of the uncanny.

Fast forward a bit and Nan discovers Kitty in bed with the manager (man-ager). Heartbroken, Nan flees with no money, no clothes save her men's clothes, and no home. She wanders the streets until at one point, a man catches her eye. He requests that she service him for payment. She gives him a handjob and realizes that she has stumbled into another unknown subculture: rent boys. She does this for awhile, then stumbles across a rich lesbian who hires Nan to be a kept woman. The rich woman buys her men's clothes and fancy things and all Nan has to do is fuck when she's told. She's trotted out, like a horse in a show, to the woman's lesbian friends. This is the part that some might call the demi-monde. Of course, it ends with Nan again without clothes, without money, and she ends up staying with a social activist and her brother. Nan becomes their maid and then eventually, the activist's lover. The novel culminates in a protest and Nan gives a stirring speech to the hundreds gathered. She sees Kitty; they have a brief conversation; Nan feels nothing for her now; she is totally in love with Florence, the activist.

When she and the activist declare their love for each other, I wept. Nan has finally found her equal in love, her partner, her complement, after all this heartbreak and tragedy. It's also a political ending: Kitty was ashamed of their intimacy; Florence is not. Nan can be herself, whether dressed as a man or a woman, when she is with Florence. Her happiness is no longer contingent on society's expectations.

I thought a detailed summary of the novel to be helpful in understanding why the emotional and political catharsis at the end is so satisfying. We become invested in Nan's journey through this careful accumulation of details. Without this long stretch of highs and lows, we would not—could not care about their declaration of love. Regardless if you agree with me or otherwise, my experience with Tipping the Velvet was transcendent, partly due to my emotional investment and partly due to Waters' powers as a writer.

Waters has an immense gift for description and immersion. My old nemesis rears its head again: realism. Waters is distinctly and definitely working within the realm of realism: her writing vivifies a lost period in as accurate detail as she can possibly manage. Of course, this puts me in the position of contradicting myself. While yes, I often find realism to be tiring and exhausted as a form, I can't help but have been swept up in Waters' descriptive powers. The strength of the prose is found in the sensual details, such as the smell of Nan's hands, or the vivid blue of her navy uniform. My stance on realism must be modulated. The problem with absolutist positions is that it makes hypocrites of us all. Thus, I must confess that Tipping the Velvet has relaxed my strident rigidity on the topic.

All is not perfect, alas. I can't say that I found Kitty to be compelling in any way. We are constantly being told that Kitty is vivacious, wondrous, electrifying, but the only Kitty we are shown (a discrete concept) is a mewling, timid creature that jumps at shadows and wallows in shame. While some might argue that a major theme of the novel is of acting and theatricality, I cannot believe that Kitty could command any attention off the stage. Her characterization is thin.

Additionally, and this is personal preference, but others might baulk at the painful obviousness of Waters' choice of symbols. The oysters and Nan's well known ability with cracking them open could strike readers as conspicuous and annoying, asking for too much attention. I did not mind it at all. In fact, I find Waters' evident symbolism to be endearing. I found myself chuckling when I considered that fingersmith has a multiplicity of meanings: fingersmith is a pickpocket, the person that reaches her fingers into the purse of another lady. Lol. But I understand that others could conceivably be thrown off from this.

On the whole, Tipping the Velvet is another of Waters' masterpieces. Her steady and methodical accretion of emotion and historical detail is exquisite and her character work is mostly first-rate. Again, I'm so pleased to write a third positive review in a row; it's such a change from my seemingly unending parade of negativity from earlier this year.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Woman in White

This is not the edition I read, but it's very lovely

 Let me start simply: The Woman in White is one of the best books I've read all year and possibly of all time. I cannot believe I went this long in my life without reading this masterpiece of plotting. My Oxford World Classics of the book, which I bought a few years ago and finally finished, clocks in at about 650 pages; I read that shit in about four days it was so compulsive. A typical instance of reading involved me completely immersed in the plot so much so that when I looked up, I had demolished 60 or so pages without a sweat. Victorian novels don't normally read this fast. Even Lady Audley's Secret wasn't as compulsive as this (though I loved that novel, too).

There are some similarities between the novels, I should think, and even some generalities about Victorian literature/society that can be expressed in the microcosm with The Woman in White. Firstly, the anxiety. It's no stretch to claim that Victorians were very anxious—about a lot of things: class, race, Empire, women, labour, children, and motion. The Victorian era can probably be summed up fairly neatly as a society that moved very quickly—both figuratively and literally. The advent of the rail introduced or at least exacerbated pre-existing fears about the speed of motion. Earlier, geographic motion was slow, methodical, and precarious. One would need to plan weeks in advance. I'm reminded of sequences in Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte trilogy when even travelling by carriage can make one ill. Or consider the famous carriage bit in Madame Bovary. However, the Industrial Revolution provided the world with the train and incredibly rapid transit (comparatively). The Woman in White depicts and literalizes a bunch of these aforementioned anxieties, including an intersection of vectoring fears: women and the rail. The central moment that the entire conspiracy hinges upon is the determination of the day the heiress travels from the country estate to London—by train. The final third of the novel has the protagonist, everyman Walter, travelling to and from London by train to investigate and detect. 

Consider that in the scholarship of detective fiction, a central conceit is paramount: the detective is the only character who moves geographically and through different classes. The detective is the outsider: the one not in place with any class or any space, thus imbued with the ability to move through them all. A detective story is almost always characterized by the detective's movement, either through the country estate (Poirot) or through the entire city (Holmes, Marlowe, etc). The Woman in White is often considered a proto-detective story in that the protagonist spends a good portion of the novel attempting to detect clues, to find the weak point in the ironclad conspiracy as to bring justice and balance back to the status quo. Movement is both what clinches the conspiracy (the switching of women would not have happened without carriages and trains) and what breaks the conspiracy (Walter's travels back and forth from London). 

There's also some anxiety and pleasure to be had in the female protagonist's movement. Marian, the mannish, not beautiful, but incredibly intelligent and independent secondary protagonist, has a couple scenes in which her mobility is what enables the plot to move forward as well as for the protagonists to ascertain clues in the conspiracy. There's a tremendously indicative scene in which Marian sneaks to her bedroom, removes her traditional Victorian bulky garb that restricts motion, and then sneaks back out to listen to the villains conspire. Consider the sensation this would cause among contemporary readers: women! moving about! eavesdropping! 

The Woman in White is quintessential Victorian scandal-making: there's lower class people fabricating their noble roots; adultery; unmarried sexual relations; asylums; people escaping from those asylums; contracts being broken; midnight meetings in cemeteries; and much more! The novel also features one of my most beloved and equally annoying tropes: the doctor and his primitive knowledge of medicine. For some reason, I find it almost intolerable to read about early medicine and the application of remedies, especially in the context of Victorians. But, like a witness to a car crash, I cannot bear to look away; I consume it greedily while grimacing and wincing. Victorians loved their medical discourse as it was a very popular topic of discussion. They adored speaking of their "complaints," the "bad air," the humours, etc. 

Another popular topic was the Law and its application. The Victorians loved crime and justice. Newspapers were full of salacious murders and thefts. Judith Flanders, a popular historian of Victorian society, wrote about the culture's morbid and almost depraved obsession with crime in a book called The Invention of Murder. I won't bother quoting at length from it; I mention simply for interest's sake. The Law and its byzantine complications were of endless fascination and horror for the Victorians. Countless words were written and exchanged in the composition of contracts and laws. The Woman in White does not shy away from this aspect. In fact, Collins himself was quite interested in the law's unequal implementation when it came to women. These women, already marginalized by discourses of medicine and science (women were the lesser sex, "proven" by doctors), were further marginalized and deprived of basic rights by the Law. They could not vote. They could not be members of Parliament. The Law regarded women as objects, valuable only in their exchange. The Woman in White dramatizes this what with the titular woman being a pawn in a legal game as well as the heiress losing her money thanks to complicated contracts.

A woman in Victorian society had less agency than men, but not altogether no agency. It's a common misconception that Victorians were complete prudes or unable to engage in discourse around sex. But it was the Victorians that produced a tonne of pornography. It was the Victorians who invented a mechanical dildo. It was the Victorians who wrote countless guides to love and marriage, how to flirt (eg. wink the right eye), how to choose a partner (choose a woman with a Roman nose), and mentioned the importance of the female orgasm! Author Fern Riddell aggregated a wealth of material on the Victorians and sex in her book The Victorian Guide to Sex: Desire and deviance in the 19th century, which I mention again for interest's sake. Women could do things but there was always the inevitable Victorian hand-wringing. Remember that the bicycle is often credited as being crucial to the modern feminism movement, as women were finally able to move freely without the companionship of men. Their locomotion was independent and self-produced, both figuratively and literally.

The Woman in White alludes to all of this. Despite featuring a male protagonist, Collins' allegiance and sympathies seem to lie with the women, the victims of this conspiracy. Laura Glyde, the heiress switched with Anne Catherick, the woman in white, is a victim, a pawn in a game. 

It's unfortunate, though, that Laura's characterization is so weak compared to the rest of the cast. Marian, Walter, Count Fosco, and Sir Percival seem to leap off the pages. They breathe, hope, dream, wish, desire, and anger. Laura seems to be even less of a real person than the woman in white herself, who only appears in three or four scenes. This sketchiness could be construed as purposeful—her pliability and her lack of character might be conducive to the conspiracy's success. Even if this might be true, her characterization pales in comparison with the main cast and especially Count Fosco and Marian, both of whom are incredibly vivid inventions. 

Modern writers could learn a lot about the construction of villains from Collins; his Count Fosco is one of the most complex villains probably ever, I might suggest. Fosco is both horrendously villainous in that he's willing to murder to get his money (a paltry amount, really) but he's cognizant of his own villainy. He knows the morality of his situation and yet he continues. He's also fascinated and enthralled by Marian, so much so that he weakens his own plan just for her. Imagine that he's like Tom Hardy's Bane in The Dark Knight Rises: he's utterly hypnotizing any time he's "on screen" if you will (the essential difference of course is that the story surrounding Fosco isn't wet garbage).

I'm so pleased to write a positive review of something. I loved quite a bit about this novel: from the runaway train plotting to the clever use of false documents that comprise the narrative. The characters were mostly excellent, the conspiracy itself enjoyably intricate, so much so that I had trouble keeping the timeline straight in my head. Thank heavens the Oxford edition includes a timeline at the end of the book to help confused readers along. This was so good that I'm going to leap on other Collins novels and maybe even dip into his friend's work, Chuck Dickens himself—I've always meant to read Bleak House. Hopefully my revived energy with reading carries on.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Blood Harvest

In some point in August of 2013, I read the previous Virgin New Adventures novel, All-Consuming Fire. I believe I concluded that I thought the book was enjoyable, but forgettable. Now, over two years later, I return to the New Adventures line with the 28th novel in the series (I hardly believe I've read 28 of these). I've returned, older and maybe wiser, because I found myself energized by the current series of Doctor Who—featuring the Twelfth Doctor. This run has had its downs (the Maisie Williams stuff I've found positively intolerable) but it has also featured some highs (the two parter about the lake and the two parter about Zygons). I was also energized by this video somebody posted:

Amazing. Completely sums up why I love both Seven and Doctor Who in general (if, at some point, this video no longer exists, it is a short scene from The Happiness Patrol in which The Doctor talks a henchman out of shooting him). I decided to return to the New Adventures because, on the whole, I've enjoyed them quite a bit—enough to read 28 of them!

Blood Harvest, published in July of 1994 (when I was 9 years old), presents two narrative strands that will obviously intersect by the end of the second act. In Prohibition era Chicago, the Doctor and Ace have opened and are operating a speakeasy with the nebulously defined intent of minimizing bloodshed during this period. Meanwhile, Bernice has been deposited on a planet the Doctor had previously visited (the Fourth Doctor to be specific) with the instructions to "investigate" and she eventually meets Romana II. Both strands in due course converge on a complicated plot by some Timelords to resurrect some elemental being of pure malevolence that manifests in the form of a vampire in order to win Rassilon's game in the Dark Tower. This is truly one of the nerdiest things I've ever typed out on this website.

Terrance Dicks, the author of this adventure, was the script editor on the show for years and also one of the most prolific writers for Target novelizations. He also wrote the second book in the New Adventures line. From what I can gather, Dicks's skill lies with plotting rather than prose, dialogue, or even characterization. Re-reading my review for Timewyrm: Exodus, I notice that I expressed fondness for the plotting, but not much else. (I wrote that shit in 2011! How time flies!)

Blood Harvest doesn't really stray from my thoughts wrought from my first experience with Dicks; the novel is competent and readable; I was able to complete the reading in two sittings. The careful and paradoxically haphazard deployment of previous lore from the show worked its magic on me: I felt like I was on the receiving end of an inside joke, one only intelligible to the initiated. I was energized by the reading of Blood Harvest, not surprisingly. It was just what the Doctor ordered, if you'll excuse the painful witticism.

As per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed Bernice Summerfield. She is neither hyper-competent and hyper-violent like the 90's version of Ace, but nor is she entirely helpless. Her expressions of agency and intelligence in the novel were surely the superior element of the experience. Normally, I find pseudo-medieval fantasy to be utterly unbearable and yet I found myself hoping the Chicago stuff would quickly end so I could get back to the "good parts."

Dicks decides to use a Raymond Chandler pastiche to narrate the Chicago parts of the novel, which sometimes work and more so do not work. Chandler had an impeccable ear for clever turns of phrases, and Dicks is, unfortunately, not on the same level. However, I didn't find any of the Chicago/Al Capone material to be insufferable; rather, I moderately liked my time in that setting. It helps that Dicks drops gratuitous historical and architectural references to display his weighty amount of research. While this might have been insufferable, it succeeds slightly if only because of my fondness for Chicago (which I visited in 2014ish).

As already repeated, I did enjoy my time with Blood Harvest. It's been too long that I was excited about Doctor Who. It is, after all, one of my favourite things in the universe. I should like to get through the New Adventures (all 61 of them!). Here's to the Doctor and may our time together always been at least convivial and entertaining.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

September-October Reads

Patternmaster by Octavia Butler
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I missed posting this in September, so I just waited until the end of October the middle of November to post them all.

I finally finished Butler's Patternist series, ending with the book published first. Reading them in internal chronological order as opposed to publication date was an interesting project. Butler is, of course, an absolute master of science fiction, from what I've read. This last book wasn't the best out of the series (the second book, Mind of my Mind was the best one, I believe) but it certainly wasn't a bad experience. Rather, Patternmaster was just a bit awkward, both in execution and ideas. Her prose and dialogue (never her strongest suit, let's face it) are stilted and stumbling while her ideas lack the similar depth and care that she bestows on other ideas in other novels. That being said, I still enjoyed my time with Butler's world, enough that I'll keep reading her stuff. I still haven't encountered anything by her that was better than Kindred.

I've been meaning to read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun since I was in high school. The first time I tried, I think I made it three pages before giving up. But I kept hearing about its ingenious metafiction construction and I want to try more fantasy (I generally loathe fantasy in the Tolkien mould (mold? I can never remember)). I read the first two books back-to-back—something I almost never do—because I like it well enough. I'm not sure if it's as brilliant as everybody says. The whole unreliable narrator only really has meaning if there's a metanarrative counter to the narrator's account, and I'm not really sensing one here, other than perhaps, these people, on a societal level, have deluded themselves into forgetting the past. There's one bit, I can't remember which book, in which the narrator gets a glimpse of the past/future (doesn't matter which really) when humans boarded a spaceship, an ark, to leave Urth when it was called Earth. This is a cool moment, but it's just kind of empty worldbuilding, I should think, as the idea doesn't really add much to the narrator's emotional or narrative journey. I would like to finish the series; I think I shall.

Friends With Boys was okay. I didn't really need the ghost aspect of the plot as I felt the protagonist's relation with her family, her new school, her new friends, was good enough to support my interest and the narrative. There's not much else to say about this.

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was pure literary trash, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures if I had derived any pleasure from the experience. It's a quinessentially 21st century science fiction in that it's post-postmodern, an empty hall of mirrors in the form of references. It's not a good book, but there are some good elements to the novel. I like that the book considers the presence of women on the Internet and how precarious things are for them (in the form of sexism, misogyny, and even violence) and I like that the book considers the intersection of race and gender. However, the aggressive nostalgia for the 80s is oppressive and off-putting. Similarly, the climax, with its giant mech battles, is ludicrous and tedious. This is, on the whole, the book version of a Buzzfeed article. 

Both Sword and Mercy were terrific—when you consider the two of them halves of one long novel. Separately, they're not up to the same level as Justice (but what is really?); put together, the two novels make a stupendous finish to the trilogy. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is the best space opera of the past twenty years and perhaps some of the best science fiction ever. The treatment of politics, technology, gender, nationalism, religion is always mature and nuanced. The future civilization at the heart of the novel is always depicted ambiguously, with positives and negatives alike. Even the protagonist, a masterful composition indeed, has shades to her. Breq's portrayal is asymptomatic of contemporary culture's infantilizing obsession with antiheroes; Breq isn't a white hat, a black hat, nor even a grey hat; she simply is and that's fucking terrific. 

Though, I must be honest with myself. Ancillary... isn't innovative or cutting edge; the major selling points of the trilogy (the gender neutral language, the ancillary bodies, the complicated quasi-Roman society) all come from New Wave science fictionsuch as my beloved Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Joanne Russ, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Again, I must stress that originality does not intrinsically equate to better quality; Western civilization has prostrated itself at the altar of originality for the longest time. Execution is far more important, I believe, something I've gone on record saying before. I just mention Leckie's antecedents as acknowledge rather than criticism.

My distinct lack of reading this year has depressed me in many ways. I own a lot of books that I haven't got around to, books that have been on my shelves for years without being touched. Yet, I use up my time with mindless Internet browsing and watching movies. In my defence, I've watched more films this year than in any other year of my life (as of November 15: 224) and not all of them trash cinema (a good chunk has been High Art cinema).

I find myself somewhat distant from reading for reasons I do not understand. Introspection and reflection is required; praxis is required.

In other news, I've written two long essays on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (films I and II) and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You can find the former here and the latter here. I've used the platform of because I love the layout and design and UI (however I don't like that it doesn't read like a blog, but more like an online magazine). I don't really love Blogger anymore but I've had my writing here for so long I'm not sure what I would do without it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

August Reads

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Ubik by Philip K Dick

I also read a bunch of graphic novels for teens:
Tomboy by Liz Prince
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

and finally, I read a graphic novel for adults:
The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis by Darryl Cunningham

Even in terms of reading prose and not comics, I read more than usual. So yay for me. Let's talk about the graphic novels first, shall we?

Telgemeier's Smile I thought was quite good: the cartoony style, the emotions, the scope of it. I enjoyed it well enough. Ostensibly about her younger self getting braces, the comic tracks her social development through junior high and a bit of high school -- classic Bildungsroman. But then I read the "companion" book Sisters and was blown away. Instead of a wide lens look at her life, Telgemeier narrows the focus to a three week long road trip with her mother, her quite young brother, and her close in age but younger sister. She skilfully deploys flashbacks to fill in some character development, and masterfully uses the road trip to explore the bond between the sisters. The tighter focus really helps the narrative, along with her obviously improved cartooning skills. I thought this one of the best comics I've read in a long time. It's too bad that it's "for girls" or some shit like that. Comics for boys aren't labelled as such; instead they're labelled simply as "comics," because boys are the "default." Very frustrating.

My partner picked up Tomboy at a comic book store on our recent vacation and I read it before they did. It was lovely. Rarely do I laugh out loud while I'm reading something, and this comic made me laugh consistently. The nostalgia for the 90s, an important element of the comic's time period, is not saccharine or annoying. My partner grabbed this because they recognized themselves somewhat in the author's story. Being somebody who doesn't align with the traditional gender binary is tough. A comic like this helps those that never have to think about their gender empathize with the author's struggles in life. Having it be funny, entertaining, poignant, and well made helps its work be successful.

This One Summer was beautifully illustrated but melodramatic as fuck. The problem is this wide canvas (a whole summer) and the creators' compulsion to fill that canvas with everything under the sun. There are great moments, though, moments of quiet, such as as two panel sequence when a street light turns on. Otherwise, this is a cluttered story, trying to juggle too many balls and dropping most of them. I'm glad I read it (it's gorgeous) but it wasn't great.

In Real Life was a massive disappointment. The introduction had me all primed to really enjoy a story about MMORPGs and economics (a topic I'm fascinated by) but the execution fell flat. This is pretty much a story about a young Western girl's social development through teaching dumb Chinese labourers about the Great American Union Practices of the 20th Century. The idea that these Chinese workers, eternally connected to the Internet, wouldn't know what a strike is is fucking preposterous and offensive. Add into the mix that the relationship between the girl and the Chinese worker she teaches is platonic until he dons a Westernized avatar and then it's romance city. Fuck this book.

If you ever wanted the graphic novel version of a Decemberists song, here's Emily Carroll's Through The Woods. It's another gorgeously illustrated comic, but boy is it twee. It's painfully twee and precious. Too precious for my taste.

With The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis, it's one of those things where I'm totally in agreement with the author, but I didn't care for the execution. Not the political stuff, but the aesthetics themselves. The author doesn't often use the form of the comic book beyond illustrations for his points. Even on a panel by panel basic, compositions are flat or completely lacking in depth. Nothing about the comic book form of this book is compelling. The only reason why this exists as a comic book is because thick tomes of financial irregularities are complex, daunting, and difficult. A ruthless reductionism is required for the form of the comic book, increasing its accessibility at the cost of decreasing its fidelity to necessary complexity. Still, I found the reasonable approach to this to be quite convincing. Liberalism certainly isn't perfect but it's a fucking utopia compared to the bullshit rapaciousness of the right.

Onto the novels, then.

Leviathan Wakes I've already written on.

Absolution Gap was a terrific conclusion to the main storyline of Reynolds's Revelation Space world. I found myself liking this one even better than the other two. Part of the charm, I think, was being able to watch an author progress, improve, refine. This novel (his fourth published, I believe?) was much more confidant and competent. I also thoroughly enjoyed how slow the plotting is. Reynolds always takes his time to move the pieces across the board, and while this hindered him in the previous novel, it worked to his advantage here, specifically in the way that he used different time periods. A lot of reviewers on Goodreads (lol) were disappointed by what they perceived to be a "deus ex machina" at the end, that the resolution to the Inhibitors was rushed or even handled off stage by an entity not previously introduced. I'm not entirely convinced by this criticism as I no longer believe that a "deus ex machina" is intrinsically a bad thing, nor do I believe that the resolution to the Inhibitors was the primary focus of the trilogy. It seems to me painfully obvious that Reynolds was interested more in thematics than whiz bang pew pew space battles. The trilogy appeared to be about a cast of characters who had made bad decisions in the past and were now trying to cope, either by finding forgiveness or redemption. The clues are in the titles. Near the end of the novel, I found myself almost sad that I would never spend more time with these indelible characters and their journey. While the Inhibitor plotline was intriguing, the true success of the novel was convincing me to care about their emotional and spiritual development. This is why I wasn't disappointed by the ending. The characters' emotional journey had come to an end, so why did I need another book detailing what comes after?

I did not love The Forever War. I didn't hate it either. I'd always meant to read it Hugo and Nebula award winning novel due to its thematic concerns and political nature. The novel was written in response to the Vietnam War, a topic that I find endlessly fascinating and I wasn't disappointed by that aspect of this. The clever conceit in Haldeman's novel is one of time dilation; the protagonist goes off to fight a war in the distant part of the galaxy, and by the time he comes home, over 100 years or so has passed on Earth. The idea I liked the most was the allegory that Vietnam vets returned to a hostile USA, one frighteningly dissimilar to the one they left. However, the execution in this novel left a sour taste in my mouth. In Haldeman's future, governments have collapsed, currency has collapsed, and the food industry has collapsed, leaving a one world government that uses calories as the only currency. The sheer unpleasantness of this culture is enough to convince the protagonist to re-enlist, thus completing the analogy's arc; this is clever, but not everything else is.

This dystopic world also features the head-scratching scheme that due to overpopulation, recommended homosexuality becomes the norm. Of course, this idea is presented to the audience and the protagonist through a flamboyant man wearing makeup (we're told his sexuality and his performance aren't related, but we're left to conclude that a world of homos means the feminizing of masculinity). In other boneheaded decisions, the protagonist lets the audience know that he's okay with women being gay, but not men. On top of this crypto-homophobia, the parlance of this lifestyle (for fuck's sake) refers to gay sex as "homosex" or "homolife." Haldeman's novel then reaffirms the fallacious idea that queerness is chosen, is a lifestyle, is something to be picked up or discarded based on convenience. In Haldeman's analogy (the future world : US after the Vietnam War), this homolife is a direct response to the rise of marginalized peoples and subsequent ideologies such as feminism or Black Power. Haldeman imagines a terrible unattractive future war to be result of minoritarian movements. It's gross and makes the novel pretty unlikeable. This puts the reader in the tough position of trying to read the novel as if it came out recently, not 40 years ago. Obviously, since the novel's release, culture and society in the West has drastically changed. What struck readers as liberal in the 70s becomes gross and retrograde in 2015.

However, like I said, I didn't hate the novel. The time dilation stuff was well done and gave the novel an emotional core, something often missing from clever "hard" science fiction like it. The Forever War still has astute things to say about the military's increased role in society, how war propels and structures a society and economy. Some of the gender politics of Haldeman's novel didn't even strike me as gross; he has men and women fighting together, sleeping together, bathing together. It's all very blasé, which is nice. It makes a striking change from other older science fiction. I'm glad I read it, but I don't think I'd read it again. I managed to finally read this because on my vacation, I picked up a super garish edition with a super 70's cover I couldn't resist:

Ubik was a great read, as Philip K Dick always is. I haven't read too many of his (copious amounts of) novels (I read VALIS a long time ago and A Scanner Darkly at some point, among a couple others) but I have read a bunch of his short stories ("Second Variety" represents, to me, a masterclass in short fiction; it's pure perfection). I picked up Ubik for no specific reason other than I wanted to read a Dick novel and I wasn't disappointed. Like most Dick stories, it's weird, it's crazy, and it's off kilter, both in subject and in execution. I'm always worried that Dick isn't able to sustain a novel's length, but this one contravened my expectations. Not only does Dick introduce plot elements near the beginning that pay off later, but he introduces thematic elements too. It's all very efficient and well done. The major flaw in this novel is a long sequence (about 30 pages) in which the protagonist feels the decay of accelerated time while he crawls to a room. It's way too long and way too abstract. Perhaps this is more my taste, but those dream sequences or sequences with little concrete meaning always annoy me. Still, I quite liked Ubik. Nothing is as it seems in his novels, but part of the charm is that his characters are often rather mild about realizing it. Very quickly, the protagonist realizes that his world isn't real and that he's the dead one and he's pretty calm about it. There's something very charming about that placidity while still retaining agency. Dick's stories, whether novel or short, are always a fun time.

I borrowed The Martian from work and read it over the course of a Friday afternoon. That I was able to read the entire thing in one sitting is in of itself a compliment. It's certainly readable and Weir's command of pace is masterful. However, as I suspected when I began reading it, the protagonist's voice annoyed the fuck out of me. It's all the same "sarcastic smartass" shit that pervades genre fiction, as if we can't have a protagonist without snark. I find it all very bland and very homogeneous. Luckily, as the novel progresses, Weir introduces more characters. The cast in NASA, working to get the protagonist home, also have similar voices (of course they do) but at least their interactions liven things up. When the protagonist communicates with NASA, it's livened up as well. Throughout the novel, I kept having to reread bits to properly imagine where things were and what they looked like. While Weir might be good with pace, his descriptive skills are severely lacking. The oxygenator's size is never detailed, leaving me without anything to imagine. When Watney flips the capsized rover and its trailer using ropes, I never understood how because Weir is unable to describe it in sufficient detail. This just makes me eager to see the film, as I think The Martian will be better as a visual story, rather than a novel. It does not surprise me in the slightest that mainstream genre fans have fully embraced this. Why not? It's as juvenile as genre fans tend to be. I'll go see the movie of this (hopefully a return to goodness for Ridley Scott) but I won't expect much!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Leviathan Wakes

I was on vacation recently and managed to finish novels I couldn't help but compare: Leviathan Wakes by (pseudonymous) James S. A. Corey and Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds. I have been reading less and less recently as the medium of film commands more of my attention and critical resources, so reading something like Leviathan Wakes felt like a betrayal of my time; I could have been reading something better, something more rewarding, more challenging. Not that Absolution Gap was a quantum leap in quality, but at least I didn't hate myself by the time I finished it.

Leviathan Wakes (hereafter LW) is the first book in the Expanse Series. Originally designed as a trilogy, the series was expanded to encompass, at the time of this writing, five novels with a six in the chamber ready to be fired at the masses. Let me assure you, from the beginning of this review, that LW is aggressively middlebrow (something I concluded earlier this month) and has the stink of creation-by-committee. This is not a novel, but a pitch for a television series or anything else that will make money. As the Expanse series appears to be the only blockbuster selling science fiction novel, it behooves me to consider the state of science fiction of a genre using LW as the focal point.

LW imagines a universe in which humanity has colonized most of the solar system but nothing outside that territory. The colonies all rely on Earth to produce the raw materials that sustain life (food, water, air, etc) while the colonies in return produce the raw materials that sustain industry and capitalism. This differential of power and capital causes strain and political strife. Imagine the mini-drama of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, with its quite prescient points concerning the intersection between workers' rights and quality of life, but magnified to the scale of the solar system. While Total Recall has intriguing things to say about the rapacious corrupting nature of capitalism (ie Benny and his "five kids to feed"), LW is focused on ploddingly basic statements about how corporations are bad, man. The government of Earth and the Moon (the United Nations) are in conflict with the quasi-terrorist group, the Outer Planets Alliance. What exactly they are in conflict over is vague and meant more as setdressing than as any thematic interest. The major tension in the setting of the series is the pseudo-racial divide between Earth-born humans and "Belters," those raised in a different gravity and different social structure. Their bodies, shaped by the pull of a differing gravity, marks them as "Other" while their language, a creole of many languages and -- most importantly -- gestures (they work in spacesuits so gestures make the most amount of sense) further this divide.

There. I just told you about the most interesting thing in this novel. There is literally nothing else in this novel that could be conceivably called "intriguing" or "compelling." What makes this all the more galling is that this idea is exceedingly old hat if you read any New Wave sci-fi from the 60s or 70s. Ursula LeGuin carved a whole career out of this type of worldbuilding.

But this sort of echo represents the failure of LW quite well. LW is not a novel of ideas but a house of mirrors, all reflecting a facet of marketable science fiction, coagulated into a package easy for mass digesting. The plot follows two strands: Holden and his tiny crew of irascible witty ne'er-do-wells as they are bumped from one explosive setpiece to another, with little forward momentum in terms of narrative; and the hard-drinking detective Miller (divorced of course), who is tasked with finding a rich girl who abandoned her lifestyle to fight alongside the OPA. Both plots are old hat science fiction tropes as old as literature. This does not mean automatically artistic failure. If the authors can pull off the execution, any deficiencies in originality can be forgiven. Alas, the execution might be worse than the unimaginative concepts.

There is a tendency among "geek" culture, I've found, to try for witty dialogue. Witty repartee seems to be a very hot and trending element of geek culture. As somebody who adores dialogue, I believe that aspirations to wittiness are commendable. That being said, not every writer can be as witty as, say, Joss Whedon. Nor is every writer adept at varying how they use witty dialogue. Imagine then, a novel in which every line uttered by every character is a painful attempt at wittiness but without any wit. There, you've imagined LW and its fucking awful banter. It's like reading a Family Guy script. For some bizarre reason, the novel thinks anuses are funny and makes reference to them quite a bit. Here's an example:
“Something out there has a comm array that’ll put a dot the size of your anus on us from over three AU away,” Alex said.

“Okay, wow, that’s impressive. What is our anus-sized dot saying?” Holden asked. (95)
This isn't funny. Anuses are not inherently funny. You have to do something with the idea of an anus to make it funny. You can't just dump the word "anus" in a sentence and think it magically turns funny.

The whole novel is filled with clunking plodding attempts at wit and it's interminable. LW is already overlong, but this awful dialogue just slows everything even further.

While the dialogue is atrocious, the narration isn't much better. There are all sorts of phrases and bits that stumble at the gate. Redundancy in prose always signals to itself, calling attention to the inattention of the author. It's also moderately insulting; I loathe when my hand is being held by the author as I prefer to think for myself. LW is full of these redundancies:

"Turn on the lights," Naomi said from behind them. Miller heard Holden patting the wall panel, but no light came up.

"They're not working," Holden said. (244)
Here is the information that we glean from the first two sentences: the lights are off, Holden attempts to turn them on, and this is a failure. Why then do we need Holden telling us that the lights are not working and why does the narration need to tell us that Holden said this? None of the information contained in the third sentence is new nor is any of it necessary. It's lazy and it's redundant.

Maybe the authors are at least adept at the art of metaphor, symbolism, or any of the other tricks in the literary toolset? Not surprising: they are not. Here is a simile that I thought was a joke:
The moon itself -- Phoebe -- filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. (250-something?)
Yuck. Perhaps this simile has meaning, though. Let's look at the constituent elements and see if I'm being too harsh. We have a moon turning in the sky and we have a prostitute turning around to display itself to would be customers. Thus, the comparison is implying that the moon is offering itself to exploitation. Perhaps, let's put the quote in context and see if it gives anything else up. Here is the relevant information:
"A small ice moon, the assumption was that Phoebe would eventually be mined for water, much like the rings themselves. The Martian government commissioned a scientific survey more out of a sense of bureaucratic completeness than from expectation of economic gain. Core samples were taken, and when silicate anomalies raised flags, Protogen was approached as cosponsor of a long-term research facility."

The moon itself - Phoebe - filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. It was a crater-marked lump, indistinguishable from a thousand other asteroids and planetesimals Miller had seen.
A bit more context: the corporate stooge is providing exposition about the "protomolecule" that an alien civilization fired at the Earth to remake it in whatever shape they decided. The corporation discovered the existence of the protomolecule on Phoebe, which had been marked for mining and scientific study. The other bit of relevant information is that this comparison is being provided by Miller's perspective. Which is odd because he has shown himself to be diametrically opposed to the ruthless capitalist ideology expressed by the stooge. Why then would he imagine a simile that aligns with the idea that Phoebe is ready for exploitation?

This is just one example of the lazy prose contained herein. There are countless more. This is a lazy book, produced for the widest possible audience. It should be no surprise that the books have been turned into a TV series. I believe this is a strong choice, actually. LW is an overlong colossal failure as an aesthetic object or a "novel" (remember that the word "novel" means new) but its pleasingly accessible realism should translate well onto the screen.

Without getting too far into the critical theory, let's all remember that "science fiction" as a set of generic signifiers and "realism" as a set of generic signifiers overlaps. Science fiction trades the present day for another setting, often the future, and looks to extrapolate social, political, or technological possibilities from the present. Science fiction is more often about the current conditions of production (the present) than it is about the setting (the future). This is something it shares with realism as a genre. Realism is less about an objective reality and more about the novel's contemporary conditions of production. Realism doesn't tell us about the author's objective reality but about the author's perception of reality. And not just the author either. Good critics worth their salt use novels in the realism mode to discuss the values, dreams, hopes, wishes, etc of the society that it purports to depict. Again, the same is true of science fiction. Despite its far flung setting, science fiction tells us more about what the authors and their contemporary society believed than it does about the future. Realism is an important element of science fiction.

Some of the best science fiction uses the most basic tool of defamiliarization to express ideas; Darko Suvin refers to this as "cognitive estrangement". The alien species is the basic metaphor to discuss contemporary issues. The alien is the defamiliarized version of the Other, whether that be a marginalized people or a different tribe or group. An example of this process: the film District 9, displaced black peoples are imagined as Prawns, aliens that look like the aforementioned sea animal. How the fictionalized society treats the Prawns is a (super thinly veiled) metaphor for how (and this is the important part) Blomkamp the director imagines actual society treats black people in South Africa. That's an example of terrible science fiction. An example of excellent science fiction could be, say, Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia or even better his Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. In both cases, Delany uses the tool of defamiliarization to increasingly alienate the reader from contemporary society, or better yet, Delany's conceptualization of contemporary society. As a queer dyslexic black man from poverty during Jim Crow, Delany's perspective and background did not align with the traditionally straight white male of middle class background that dominated the field of science fiction. Instead of thinly veiling his metaphor, Delany chose to increasingly distance the reader from the contemporary. This increases static in the reception of the message (message meaning themes, ideas, concepts, characters, not necessarily a didactic message) and increases ambiguity. Delany's concepts and prose are dense and alien; all the better to use the tool of defamiliarization. He uses invented language, invented gender, invented worlds and unmoors them from realism.

Realism is a blight on contemporary fiction right now. It's the reason for the market's saturation of "relatable" characters and "realistic" scenarios. It's the reason why movies "based on true stories" win more acclaim than genre fiction does. [An aside: the term "genre fiction" drives me nuts. The term refers to the idea that it's not realism, not contemporary literary fiction, which is ludicrous, as both those things have generic signifiers unto themselves. "Genre fiction" encompasses science fiction, fantasy, Weird fiction, any thing that is supposedly not based in realism. The idea that there's a distinction is purely marketing, not aesthetic. Hence, my objection.] Realism's dominance in the market dictates sales and prestige, it seems. This is why we have shit like The Theory of Everything making oodles of money while films like It Follows makes barely enough to cover its microscopic budget. Allow me to quote the philosopher Michael Hofmann (again):
It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.
LW has the same problem that other contemporary literary fiction has: it's falling over itself to provide the audience with relatable characters, relatable situations, and relatable concepts that narcissistically congratulate the audience for their existence rather than challenging their most deeply held beliefs. Mass produced fiction is a warm blanket that comforts you with familiarity and whispers in your ear that you're so clever for understanding the plot. This sad state of affairs exists in "genre fiction" too. That's why we can ascribe success to terrible unimaginative shit like LW. Both lead characters are boring archetypes lifted from countless other examples of genre fiction (idealistic space captain, or even just idealistic sea captain, and fatalist world-weary noir detective with superfluous wisdom to share and nobody listening). It's fucking boring.

I am reading Peter F Hamilton's Judas Unchained right now and while it's only a slight step up from LW, at least there's a sense of wonder to everything. There's this weird interlude at the beginning of the novel (the second of two) in which the journey from one planet to another by two characters is provided in more detail than previous journeys. I found myself hugely entertained and awed when a character walked through a portal from one gravity to another and stumbled; the character looked up at the red sun sitting in the sky and realized how different everything was. This gave me a sense of wonder. The concept of wonder is integral to theories of the Fantastic, as formulated by the great Tzvetan Todorov. He writes about the interaction with the supernatural. If the encounter can be determined with rational thought, then this is the subcategory of the fantastic uncanny. If the encounter can not be rationalized, then it is the subcategory of the fantastic marvelous, and our law of reality must be re-written to accommodate this new information. It's the encounter with the new that reshapes how we perceive the world.

Darko Suvin talks about how science fiction has the "necessary and sufficient kernel" of "[c]ognitive novelty" or "conceptual promise" as Stanislaw Lem calls it. Suvin continues to explain:
the novelty has to be cognitively explained in each tale or group of tales in concrete (even if imaginary) terms, i.e. in terms of the specific time, place, cosmic and social totality within which it is acting, and especially in terms of its effects on the (overtly or covertly) human relationships upon which it impinges.
Notice the emphasis on "novelty." Obviously, not all science fiction stories can be wholly original. And, as an additional caveat, some of the best science fiction is wholly derivative which Suvin hilariously refers to this as "old meat rehashed with a new sauce." Though, this "new sauce" is what I mean by execution, as aforementioned. The very boring stale nature of LW meant that I was denied any conceptual promise or cognitive novelty, either in ideas or in execution. I was denied my sense of wonder throughout. A ten page interlude in a 1,000 page novel provided more entertainment and more wonder than 600 pages of this overlong mess.

Let's continue with the fun Darko Suvin, though. He speaks of science fiction as the genre of "cognitive estrangement." There exists a spectrum, with "reality" on one end and the "novum" (a "strange newness") on the other end. In early science fiction (Verne, Wells, etc), the novum often manifested itself as an "over there;" characters would journey past an obstacle or over vast distance and witness an "over there" or an "over the range." Suvin says that which we meet "over there" represents a transformed version of ourselves:
The aliens—utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers—are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.
Here's where it gets tricky though. Since "realism" is an essential part of science fiction, Suvin refers to the genre as the "factual reportage of fictions." The narrators and characters of science fiction encounter the novum and reorient themselves to it. They take it as a given, as part of reality. Here's Todorov's fantastic marvelous again. This factual reportage of fictions takes two different sets of assumptions (the characters' original set of assumptions) against a new set of assumptions (the novum). These sets of assumptions (also known as ideologies) constitute their constructed reality. We know that the new set of assumptions is a "transforming" mirror of the original set of assumptions. This epistemological move is called estrangement and it comes from Brecht. He says that, "[a] representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar." Suvin argues that this form of estrangement is at the heart of science fiction. In fact, he gives us a definition (in italics as an added bonus):
SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment.
Leviathan Wakes then is a formal failure in addition to an aesthetic failure. Its rapacious replication of science fictional tropes is more market-driven than artistically driven. We remember that Jameson's diagnosis of the postmodern involves obsolescence:
the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation
The replication of the tropes, without any possibility of the novum finds itself positioned against aesthetic innovation or experimentation. Obviously, as stated before, the presence of originality is not an automatic guarantee of aesthetic success, but it certainly fucking helps. Nothing in LW utilizes the novum in order to elicit a sense of wonder and/or estrangement. Rather, LW's reliance on realism and generic tropes functions in the opposite of estrangement. It's instead a comfort food.

I've banged on and on about demanding better of our entertainment. I want better for the world. I want better than this infantile pablum that confuses "complexity" with murder and terrorism, that believes "maturity" is synonymous with moral judgements a child could make, that utilizes women as objects for quests, that exoticizes and fetishizes racial differences. I want better than this.

I've barely talked about the plot of this novel because it's not really worth it. A woman is dead (because women are better plot devices than people, according to vast swathes of fiction) and it's related to an EVIL CORPORATION that wants to perform tests on humans that turn them into (massive fucking sigh) zombies or some bullshit. The plot takes 400 pages to get going and when it does, it's not complicated enough to sustain the remaining 200 pages. This was a short story blown up to 600 pages and I fucking hated it.

As a conclusion, let me say that I also read Andy Weir's The Martian yesterday (easy enough to read in one day) and thought it was okay. Aesthetically, I quite disliked the book, but Weir's command of pace and plot was enough to get me through it. Weir's novel is one of extreme estrangement. In taking his astronaut character and ripping all modern conveniences and privileges from him, he exposes how utterly safe and childlike his audience is. That's good estrangement.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut

My partner and I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past in the theatre when it was released and we enjoyed it enough. The film was certainly not the world's greatest movie but neither was it the nadir of superheroics like Age of Ultron or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Part of what made X-Men: Days of Future Past (hereafter DOFP) so enjoyable was that the film did not have ridiculous ambitions of being part of a "cinematic universe." The film, in fact, reaches a complete and satisfying conclusion, rather than operates as a 140 minute trailer for another film -- or more accurately, a series of films. I wouldn't go so far as to say that DOFP was a standalone entry; the film relies too much on the viewers having seen the First Class entry from 2011. However, the main difference between the Marvel movies' reliance on returning viewers and DOFP's is that the X-Men film needs the audience to be familiar with thematic points rather than specific plot points. While this seems an unspectacular detail, this difference is huge in terms of my personal enjoyment of the film.

Historically, the X-Men comics have mired themselves in multiple bogs of sticky plot complexities, from alternate universes to time travel to mysterious backgrounds slowly teased out and then retroactively overwritten. Try following the comics' history of the Summers brothers or Jean Grey and Scott's child (who is possibly Cable or Nate Grey? I have no fucking clue). The X-Men films, by dint of being a different medium with different conditions of production and market necessities, streamline the jagged edges of 60 years' worth of history. The films are more a distillation of X-Men mythos than a series of films; they're a greatest hits package. The Marvel movies have tried, artistically unsuccessfully, to provide the complicated backstory and have tried to replicate the stickiness of comic book history (think of Hayley Atwell's 10 second cameo in Ant-Man). The X-Men film series is less interested in plot continuity and more interested in thematic continuity. The zenith of the film series, X2: X-Men United, pushes the central metaphor that mutants are marginalized populations -- such as queer folks; this is not the world's most complicated metaphor, but Bryan Singer's deft hand and queer subject position provide a more stable position for the metaphor.

I rarely read the X-Men family of comics. They felt like a rabbit hole of plot knots, forever being tied and rarely being loosed. I did read Grant Morrison's run, if only because I love the writer enough to follow him wherever. Additionally, I was always a casual fan of the films. I saw X2 and X-Men 3: Last Stand (which is as atrocious as you have no doubt heard) in the theatre, but I skipped First Class until home video release. Singer's return to the film series with DOFP brought back my excitement. While the original comic book is pretty cool, it's certainly not a story I ever feel the urge to read a second time. The allure of the film adaptation is in the return of the original cast and the new cast, an ambitious bridging of the two continuities, but without getting bogged down in specific timelines. The trailers for the film pushed the time travel hook and offered the idea that the film would explore the complicated ethics of the situation. In fact, it felt like an organic continuation of the thematic concerns of First Class. The previous film ended on an ambiguous note, leaving Magneto as the anti-hero, and Raven torn between Xavier's idealism and Erik's pessimism. DOFP looked to extend this conflict by forcing Erik and Xavier to reteam to stop Raven's attempted assassination and remind her of her essential humanity. So not only was the film advertised as having a complex plot, but also having complex thematic concerns. I was sold.

Luckily, the film mostly delivered on these promises. So rare is the superhero film that uses the climax for concluding a thematic arc, yet this movie tried valiantly to continue exploring the meaning of humanity in a post-human world. However, the central metaphor of Singer's previous series was discarded in favour of continuing Raven's arc from First Class. This was no tragedy; I have trouble imagining how Singer could have kept running with it. His exploration of Raven's humanity or lack thereof was quite compelling, especially when fleshed out a smidge more in the Rogue Cut.

Released a year after the theatrical cut, the Rogue Cut, as it's been known, adds around 20 minutes of footage to the film, specifically the addition of Rogue's subplot into the future timeline. Rogue's character in the original trilogy operated as the audience surrogate (a new pupil to the school) and as the central hinge upon which the metaphor of marginalization worked. Her power did not manifest in cool acrobatics or teleportation but rather left her adrift among humans and mutants alike; she could not have her skin touch other skin for fear of accidentally killing them. Her character allowed for the films to explore the idea that sometimes people don't want to be different, they want to be normal, but self-acceptance is healthy.

In the Rogue Cut, her subplot is essentially about match cuts. Previously, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her power to psychically send Wolverine back into his past body. However, when Wolverine sees a young Stryker in the past, he gets upset and his body in the future flails around. His claws extend; they cut Kitty; she is wounded and losing blood. The solution? Free the imprisoned Rogue from the X-Mansion and have her use Kitty's power so Kitty can heal. Not the world's most clever use of Rogue or Anna Paquin but it does allow for this pretty nifty sequence that I have lovingly screenshot.

We open in the past, with a shot of the X-Mansion in its prime.

A neat dissolve to the dystopic future with the scary ships hovering in the background.

A cut to inside a tunnel. We hear Xavier give telepathic directions to Magneto and Iceman.

Cut to Past Magneto entering a hallway.

Reverse shot, showing the obstacle that prevents Future Magneto's forward progress, specifically a large metal wall. Since he is the Master of Magnetism, this is not much of a problem.

A thematic match cut as the metal bar represents the same obstacle for Past Magneto. Here, though, we get a shot of him exercising his powers.

This is matched with Future Magneto pulling the metal wall out.

They walk down a hall. This shot shows all the pipes and whatnot, a set up for a payoff that comes at the end of the sequence. Here, the audience is primed to see these pipes.

This establishing shot is mirrored in a past establishing shot. The camera begins shooting 90 degrees down to the ground and...

...slowly pans up to show that Past Magneto is infiltrating the prison he just escaped.

Here we get a couple shot, reverse shots that's temporally distant. Future Magneto walks towards the camera....

...and in the past, Past Magneto walking away from the camera.

Another obstacle, this time guards. The previous shot (above) shows the audience two metal balls spinning above Magneto's hand.

Here we see that they are weapons in the hands of the Master of Magnetism.

He reaches out towards the wall.

And the wall opens for him.

This was tough to get a screenshot of, but there's a cut a reverse shot of Future Magneto opening a door using his powers.

Reverse shot to over their shoulders. Two unfortunate scientists are working on experiments with Rogue's body. Here, we have another delightful thematic match cut.

A clear shot of poor Rogue, the subject of invasive experiments.

Back in the past, Magneto approaches a glass display case.

We have Havok's chest thingamajigger and one of Angel's wings.

A close-up of Magneto looking at something specific.

We get a slow push-in of the coin that he used to kill Kevin Bacon in the previous film. A coin that symbolizes invasive surgery, oppression, fascism, hatred, racism.

A cut to Future Magneto looking at Rogue's strapped body, reminding him of the horrors he's seen in the camps and throughout his life.

The helmet, the symbol of both his imprisonment (Kevin Bacon originally wore it) and his freedom (from telepathic interference).

Rogue sees Magneto and is frightened because as long as Rogue has known the X-Men, Erik has been the villain.

Past Magneto uses his powers:

Cut to the straps coming off Future Rogue.

The helmet comes out of the glass display...

... into Magneto's waiting hand. He is ready to turn things around.

Magneto, Iceman, and Rogue prepare to leave.

The music and Xavier opening his eyes signals to the audience that something is wrong:

Sentinels are awakening.

Iceman tries to hold them back but...

...he dies. His sacrifice is not in vain though... the pipes we saw earlier light on fire.

The X-Mansion is destroyed. Xavier's legacy is blown away.

This, to me, is one of the better scenes of the film, along with the bravura opening fifteen minutes. It kind of captures a lot of what makes both Bryan Singer and the X-Men so alluring: a combination of neat action and moments of introspection, deftly juggled. The match cuts here are quite excellent (my partner is a huge fan of match cuts. I should convince them to make a film essay cataloguing their favourites).

This also sums up another reason why I enjoyed DOFP more than other superhero films: the stakes are high and maintained throughout the film.

Consider the second sequence from the film (I won't screenshot it): Warpath, Bishop, Iceman, Firedude (I don't know his name), Blink, Colossus, and Kitty infiltrate this place to do something or whatever (supplies I think?). They are intercepted by Sentinels. In a series of action beats, Singer both establishes that this second or third generation X-Men team have fantastic powers that are used quite cleverly (eg Blink uses complicated portals to increase Colossus's inertia, increasing his hitting power) and establishes that the Sentinels are unbeatable through normal means of force. The Sentinels kill each and every one of the X-Men and absorb their powers. The main threat is well established: traditional strategies will not save the heroes of the film and thus an alternative stratagem must be executed.

The "classic" X-Men arrive, along with Magneto (always ambiguously a member of the X-Men, which is what makes him so fucking compelling) and the plot of the film is sketched out. With some clunky exposition, Kitty explains her power for the audience and then Xavier explains his plan of action: send somebody to the past to alter the future. The film cleverly steps aside objections that Erik and Xavier would have previous memories of this by having Kitty state that the timeline is affected the moment the traveller wakes up, which creates a single but changed timeline. Now we have a time travel plot that's simple enough to be explained in a couple minutes but thematically complicated enough to sustain and even extend the themes of the previous film.

The true cleverness of the whole thing is that Wolverine has already been established to not age so it makes sense to send him back as he'll look the same in the past. I mean, let's not pretend that Hugh Jackman is ageless but he looks pretty close to his initial portrayal in 2000's X-Men (good god has it been 16 years?).

The rest of the film fulfils the classical Hollywood storytelling techniques perfectly. A main characteristic of this paradigm is the dual narratives, running parallel. Normally, this would involve an A-plot and a B-plot (sometimes a C-plot). In action films, the A-plot is the threat that the hero must stop and the B-plot is the romantic or interpersonal relationship problem to be solved. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Indy must stop the Nazis from finding the Holy Grail and he has to mend fences with his estranged father. With DOFP, the B-plot is depicted concurrently, but not temporally as it occurs in the future. Cutting between the two allows for clever cross-time match cuts though perhaps not quite as cleverly as the climax to Inception (with its nested cascading movements), but it works.

Not perfectly, obviously. The problem with a film this size is that certain cast members will be cast aside. The same problem occurs with Age of Ultron: what character development does Thor have? Answer: none. Unfortunately, the same is true here; Wolverine undergoes little change, just as an example, though I could list the other dozen cast members where this is true.

Mostly, this is a film about the intersecting desires and motivations of Raven, Erik, and Charles Xavier. Though, even Magneto is barely changed by the end of the film. He begins angry and misanthropic and end feeling roughly the same about the human race. Of course, since this is a prequel, we already know that Magneto won't see the error of his ways until he is much older. But then, the same holds true for Raven, doesn't it? We know that the Mystique of the 2000's trilogy is mean, lean, and ruthless. How do we reconcile the Mystique of the 2000's with the Raven of the First Class trilogy? Unfortunately, this will have be reckoned with in the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s, also directed by Singer.

A few final thoughts: the digital cinematography of DOFP looks awful, really awful. As an avowed fan of Michael Mann and other digital film adopters, even I found myself turned off by the ugliness of the film. The camera cannot keep up with any change of light in a single shot, which creates a subtle strobing effect whenever the angle of light changes. The actors all look sallow or conversely caked in makeup. And the disparity between CGI and real life is increased. It doesn't help that the CGI in DOFP looks cheap as well. Though these superficial elements annoyed me, I was still entertained by the film.

I was especially impressed with some of Singer's more subtle stylistic tics. I noticed that Singer likes to use multiple planes of movement within a shot, one that gives his shots a dynamism (definitely something lacking from Age of Ultron and other Marvel movies -- which look like they were shot for television). He juxtaposes motion in the foreground with motion in the background, which increases visual interest for any given shot. Here's an example. 

This is the shot before the shot I want to talk about. Here we have "amateur" Super8 (or something like it) footage of the Past Sentinels starting their flight. Notice that they move from left to right.

Here, we cut to the future; Bishop and Storm notice the coming of the Sentinels.

We cut to what they are looking at.

Back to the X-Men. The following 6 stills are an unbroken shot that lasts about 3 to 4 seconds. Bishop says that they cannot stop them.

Storm says that they can slow them down.

She begins to levitate as the camera begins to move.

The camera moves to their left. Notice now that they are turned to face the same direction that the Past Sentinels were moving towards. In other words, Singer follows the 180 degree rule across time.

Storm levitates out of the frame while Bishop moves forward, to the left of the frame.

This opens space, compositionally speaking, in which Blink teleports in, filling that very same space.

This "call to action" shot is typical of Singer's work with the X-Men film series. In his other two previous films, the frame is usually quite busy with different X-Men moving in different ways. I'm somewhat reminded of Tony Zhou's observation of Kurosawa's planes of motion. In this case, it's a type of parallax motion. It works not only to increase visual interest but it also works thematically, as the different powers of the various X-Men manifest in different ways. Their combined difference is what gives them their edge in conflicts.

Finally, I did enjoy that the end of DOFP is not overly concerned with setup for the next film. There is not a moment where Xavier says to the audience, "there looms a larger threat than this" because that's a stupid thing to do in a story. Doing so undercuts the threat of the current antagonist, diminishing their effectiveness as villains. The Sentinels, in DOFP, share with Ultron only the fact that they are all robots. The differences are huge: Utron never stops talking (it is a Joss Whedon movie after all) and is presented as barely a threat (his drones are easily killed, even by Hawkeye, a dude with no powers whatsoever), and whatever threat he poses is immediately undercut by everybody going on and on about Thanos. Not only that, but DOFP doesn't take 40 minutes to establish the Sentinels as a substantial problem; in 15 minutes, not only are the Sentinels shown to be the primary antagonist but also shown to be pretty much unbeatable. The stakes feel real as opposed to AoU's placeholding status ("guys, just wait until the next movie; it's going to blow your mind").

The Rogue Cut is no substantial improvement over the first version, which I still quite enjoyed. However, it's nice to have if only for that complicated match cutting sequence that I detailed above. Overall, it's a better movie than I think people give it credit for, just because it's so efficiently executed. Also, it's not Age of Ultron; fuck that movie.