Watching Now . . .

by wjw on April 18, 2015

Someone— Connie Willis, I think— was saying just the other day that when writers want to talk about writing, they rely on movies or TV, because people have these in common much more than books.

I think I’m about to prove her right.

TV series are treading water right now, because they’re saving all their energy for the Massive Season Finale which will come in May and which will be totally unlike any Massive Season Finale ever seen ever in the history of the medium.  Because a protagonist has never been kidnaped at the end of the season, or shot by an unknown hand, or compelled by the rush of events to confess love for the person who’s been his or her co-star for the last four or five years.

But none of that’s happening right now, so it’s kind of dull, and we’re seeing some pretty weak episodic stuff out there. And I’m talking to youAgents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Otherwise I’ve been watching Quality TV, which has been pretty spotty as well.  The big disappointment is Season Two of Broadchurch.  Season One was a massively intricate whodunit with a cast of, well, many.  But Season Two can’t break away from the intricate coils of the first season, and as a result it’s a TV series with a bad hangover.

It’s like Season Two of Damages or Veronica Mars, both of which had brilliant opening seasons but then couldn’t quite break free of their debut stories to develop equally satisfying new plot lines.

Season Two of Broadchurch features the trial of the suspect from Season One, which just keeps dragging on, and also re-opens an investigation from deep in the past of the David Tennant character.  Which violates one of the critical rules of television: Never Tell the Backstory.  (Do you really want to know what happened to JJ Gittes in Chinatown?  No, you don’t . . . because it won’t be nearly as interesting as what you’ve already imagined.)

In addition, the series keeps giving us soap opera interludes, I suspect to fill up the episodes.  (What— we’re ten minutes short?  Quick, let’s generate a completely unnecessary romance between the prosecuting barrister and her old friend.)

Less disappointing is Wolf Hall, which would be a lot more fun if it weren’t so freaking glacial.  It’s like a visit from the Ghost of BBC Past, where the serials just dragged on forever, with static camera setups and cheesy sets.  (Except the sets here aren’t cheesy, but are gorgeous and perfectly genuine palaces and gardens from the Tudor period.)

I’ve enjoyed the Hillary Mantel novels on which the series is based, but even the books move faster than the TV series, and are funnier.  The series features endless shots of protagonist Cromwell walking over the landscape— I’m guessing the director wanted to make the most of all those gorgeous palaces and gardens— but that slows things down to a walk, and I wish they’d pick up the pace at least to a jog.  It’s not as if we don’t know how the story of Anne Boleyn turns out.

The story also moves about in time, and there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it.  It slows things down as we work out where in the timeline we are in this particular scene.

Thomas Cromwell is played by Mark Rylance, who is currently England’s Most Distinguished Stage Actor, and he rather underplays the role.  I think it’s absolutely correct to play Cromwell as someone who sees everything, misses nothing, and thinks carefully before he speaks, but again it slows things down.  He’s so measured that when he says something cheeky, as he does now and again, it comes as a surprise.

Thomas_Cromwell,_portrait_miniature_wearing_garter_collar,_after_Hans_Holbein_the_YoungerJust look at Cromwell’s portrait.  This is not the picture of someone who wants to sit down to a portrait— he clearly wants to be off and doing something else: making money, stage-managing the king, bringing about the English Reformation, plotting to behead his enemies.  While it’s right to play Cromwell as thoughtful, it’s also correct to play him as someone hustling from one scheme to the next.  He was a restless man, so let us be restless when he’s on camera.

In the novels, Mantel keeps us entertained with Cromwell’s interior monologues.  On television, that can’t happen.

Fortunately there’s Damian Lewis as Henry VIII.  The whole series jerks into life whenever he’s on camera, and he can’t be onstage enough for me.

So, after all these complaints, what am I actually enjoying?  Surprisingly, Battle Creek, a cop show from Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) and David Shore (House M.D.).  Those two shows had a propensity for black humor and a bleak view of human nature, and that’s exactly the mental space in which Detective Russ Agnew (Dean Winters) finds himself.  Cynical, angry, distrustful, and stuck policing a post-industrial Midwestern town that can’t afford to charge the batteries in his taser, Agnew is the sort of person who not only looks a gift horse in the mouth, but drags the horse downtown for a lineup with all the other gift horses in his life.

Which is why he’s exactly the wrong person to partner with Agent Milt Chamberlain of the FBI (Josh Duhamel), who is, well, Perfect.  He’s perfectly handsome, perfectly groomed, perfectly well-spoken, and perfectly equipped with the massive technical resources of the federal government, all of which is enough to drive Agnew completely crazy.  If this gift horse is so perfect, what’s it doing exiled to a one-man office in a small Michigan town?

The most recent episode featured a guest appearance by Candice Bergen as Agnew’s mother Constance, serving time for conning some douche out of a million bucks, and who pretty much lit up the screen whenever she appeared.  (Another outstanding recent guest was Patton Oswalt, as the hard-partying Mayor ‘Scooter’ Hardy.)

It’s an episodic cop show, okay, and maybe my standards are low in this genre, but I think I’m going to keep watching.


The Froomistat Conundrum

by wjw on April 16, 2015

Uh-oh.  Our hero is in trouble.

“Captain!  The enemy’s Vetch Cannon are proving more than a match for the shields generated by our Krump Vanes!”

“Blast it!  I warned the Admiralty that this would happen!”

“We’re really getting a pounding, sir!”

“Mr. Blazey— do we still have those froomistats in the hold?”

“Yes, sir, but what . . . ?”

“Those froomistats are composed primarily of omniblendium, which when hooked into our power system can be used to provide a temporary reversal of the Vetch Field.”

“Why— why that’s brilliant, sir!”

“Get busy hooking up those froomistats, mister— and then anyone firing a Vetch Cannon at us is going to get a very unpleasant surprise.”

“Yes— and we’ll have won yet another astounding victory against overwhelming odds!”

I assume you’ve all read something like this, or seen it on television— Next Generation Trek was infamous for this sort of scene, and when this brand of drama was called for the screenwriter was told to simply write [tech], and the writers who specialized in that sort of dialogue were called in.  (I always wondered why screenwriters pressed for time simply didn’t write whole pages consisting of nothing but [tech] [tech] [tech] [tech].  Had I been there, I’m sure I would have had [tech] on a macro.)

Here I’ve written a particularly egregious example, but I’m actually trying to make a serious point, which is that I am not moved by a scene in which an imaginary whatsit is afflicted by another imaginary whatsit, only to be rescued by a third imaginary whatsit.

When this sort of thing happens, I as a reader remain unmoved.

Which may sound odd, seeing as I’ve devoted most of my career to imaginative literature, and therefore might be expected to devise imaginary whatsits on a regular basis.  But I’d like to think my whatsits are a superior sort, because they have some connection, however tenuous, to reality.

I mean, when I decided to write a space opera, I used real physics!  (Well . . .  realish)

I’ve always felt that an imaginary dilemma solved by an imaginary solution— and by an imaginary person, to boot— lacks dramatic savor.  What is at stake, exactly?  And how brilliant does your protagonist have to be to deploy the froomistats the author has carefully stowed within reach?

And besides, it’s too damn easy.  How stirring is your hero’s victory when you invent the situation, invent the technology, invent the problem, and invent the solution?  It’s like playing with loaded dice.

This is why science fiction is loaded with fictional geniuses who excel at solving fictional problems.  And also why I don’t care about any of them, particularly.

Now it is possible to anchor imaginary tech in another sort of reality.  Human reality.  If your character is interesting enough, and has enough human problems to go along with her imaginary ones, the reader will follow along.  I don’t give much credence to the technology in the Verkosigan stories, but Miles Verkosigan is a wonderful character, and I’ll cheerfully follow him from one adventure to the next.

The more removed from reality your scenario, the more human connections the reader will need in order to care about the action.

My problem with froomistats and Vetch Cannon is equalled by my problem with virtual characters having virtual problems in a computerized virtual environment.  I just don’t care.  I want to shout at them, “You’re electrons— get over yourselves!”

But this may just be a personal kink.  But I’ve been encountering the Froomistat Conundrum as lot lately, and it’s high time I lodged a protest.


Holograms for Human Rights

by wjw on April 12, 2015

The right-wing People’s Party in Spain has passed a series of draconian security laws that criminalize the following:

  • Protesting the government without the government’s permission.

  • Carrying out meetings

  • Taking photographs or videos of police without the permission of the police.

  • For “being present at an occupied space” (like a social center or an apartment, apparently)

  • Meeting or gathering in front of Congress

  • Appealing fines for any of the above.

The laws also make it legal for police to stop and search without reason, perform random identity checks, prohibit any protest without reason, perform body searches without reason, and create blacklists of people for any reason whatever.

So how do you protest a law that prohibits protest?

You protest holographically.

The protestors are not physically present at the protest.  They can’t be stopped, arrested, searched, or beaten.  Yet they’re still visible, and they’re protesting.

I have a feeling that holography won’t be legal for long . . .


I Seem To Be An Album

by wjw on April 12, 2015

ata-ecrasez-linfameAlert reader Andrew Coyne informs me that my novel Voice of the Whirlwind seems to have inspired an album by rising electronic music star Access to Arasaka (whose name is itself a reference to the Cyberpunk 2020 card game Netrunner).

The album is écrasez l’infâme, the defiant battle cry of  Voltaire quoted by Steward in the novel, and the album’s web page quotes me directly.

If electronic music is your thing, by all means check this out.


On the Road Again

by wjw on April 9, 2015

SeaLife DC1400Spot the fish in this picture.

I’m not sure I can do it myself.  I know there’s a frogfish in the frame somewhere, but I’m not sure which of the lumps is fish and which is coral.

The guide said, “If you see a piece of coral with a frown on it, that’s a frogfish.”  It all looks pretty frowny to me.

I’m going to leave you to chew on this for a few days, while I go to the Jack Williamson Lectureship, where I’ll be hanging with Connie Willis, Paolo Bacigalupi, Steve Gould, and I presume others.  So if you’re in Portales, NM, or Clovis, or even as far away as Pep, I urge you to stop by and say howdy.


Revisiting the Classics

April 8, 2015

As part of my program to revisit books that I liked when I was younger, I recently re-read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land for the first time since I was in college. Oh, my. I should point out that as a young person I read all the Heinlein I could find.  (Have Space Suit, Will […]

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Crisis Mode

April 1, 2015

I’ve been in Crisis Mode since I returned to the mainland last week, and so I haven’t been posting much. The term is misleading, however, because there’s no actual crisis.  There’s just a bunch of annoying tasks with deadlines, one after the other, so that I barely have a chance to catch my breath. None […]

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March 29, 2015

We have here three versions of the “Amen Break,” as originally recorded back in 1969, on a song called “Amen Brother,” by a group called the Winstons.  (There was a time, as George Clinton of Parliament recalls, groups were either named after cigarettes, cars, or birds.)  ”Amen Brother” was the B side of the Winstons’ hit […]

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Tenth Anniversary

March 25, 2015

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day I drove myself to the hospital with a ruptured appendix. Every day since then, no matter how lousy, has been pretty darn good.

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Brides on the Beach

March 22, 2015

Kathy’s workshop is over, and we’re now spending a couple nights in Waikiki before heading home. Today (Saturday) the town was full of Japanese brides being photographed in front of iconic local sites.  When we ate at Orchids, we shared the restaurant with several large bridal parties.  I took any number of photos of cute Japanes couples. […]

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