Here’s the terrible secret about this blog: the posts don’t just happen. They are planned. I don’t usually read a story, or a book, or watch a film or a tv show, and think, “hey, I want to write about this”. Sometimes that happens — it did with Children of Men, for instance — but those are the exceptions. More often, I’m on the lookout for things I want to write about. Recently, though, my plans have all come to nothing, or at least not very much. What follows are some fragments of aborted posts on some not-as-interesting-as-I’d-hoped failures: some stories, a film, and a tv show. (I’m really selling this, aren’t I?)
“Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” by Rudy Rucker
Inspiration is a tricky thing, especially when publicly acknowledged. When, a few years ago, Paul di Filippo wrote Fuzzy Dice, a novel inspired by and intended as a tribute to Rudy Rucker’s tremdous, barmy, transreal exploration of transfinite mathematics, White Light, it seemed somewhat miraculous that he pulled it off: his novel was just as tremendous as, and arguably even barmier than, Rucker’s. More recently, Rucker has in turn been inspired, as he acknowledges in the headnotes to the Asimov’s appearances of these two stories, and in a more-or-less loveletter to the book in question published in the November 2005 NYRSF. But while you can see how di Filippo got from White Light to Fuzzy Dice, if I didn’t know Rucker’s inspiration was Charles Stross’s Accelerando, I don’t think I’d have guessed the lineage. The two writers tell their stories in very different ways.
So far, whatever it is that Rucker’s up to is not very exciting. “Chu and the Nants” and “Postsingular” (note that both links are to excerpts, not complete stories) are set in the same future history. The former is backstory to a forthcoming novel, Postsingular, and explains how a nanotech singularity gets reversed by a clumsy plot gimmmick; the latter is part of the novel, and dramatises a rather more novel singularity, involving the overlay of a digital realm onto the physical, thanks to what amount to smart nanotech tags, which are the sort of thing I’m sure I’ve read Bruce Sterling enthusing about at some time or other.
Rucker’s plainspoken, laid-back style is almost the polar opposite of Stross’s data-dense lingo; if anything, these stories feel more like the work of Cory Doctorow, or like descendants of Vinge’s “True Names”. Which is fine, except when plainspoken becomes simply flat, and it too often does: the explanatory digressions are thinly veiled, and most of the characters are just thin. Ond, the (anti)-hero engineer at the centre of both stories, has motivations that are simplistic at best, and simply embarrassing at worst (his big realisation that bringing on the singularity might not have been a great idea comes when his wife starts electronically cheating on him); and most of the female characters are shrill, except when they’re being stupid. Neither story has the energy or the charm of White Light, and the ideas in them feel tame and familiar, even when they’re not. Probably the most interesting thing about the stories (aside from the use, or possibly invention of, increasingly improbable SI prefixes) is their embrace of the “postsingularity = magic” idea: in “Chu” a computer program is described, with very little irony, as a magic spell, while “Postsingular” features more spells, heaven, and some angels. But the whole enterprise has the sort of curiously weightless feeling that Accelerando was (mostly) notable for avoiding, and doesn’t inspire great confidence in the novel.
Death of a President
Death of a President is the second speculative docudrama about the US that I’ve seen this year, the first being the lower-budget, but more ambitious and more successful, C.S.A.. Writer-director Gabriel Range spins a tale that does exactly what it says on the tin: relates the circumstances surrounding, and the fallout from, the assassination of President George W. Bush in Chicago (which city is lovingly captured in a series of sweeping establishing shots) on October 19, 2007.
The first part of the film, which portrays a Presidential visit that meets with widespread protest, is good. It perhaps tends somewhat towards the hysterical, but arguably that’s necessary to set up a situation in which it’s plausible that the secret service would lose control. The second part of the film, which focuses on the fallout, is much less good, because the only part of the fallout it focuses on is the investigation into whodunit, and because that investigation is about the most predictable and politically heavy-handed you can imagine. A series of archetypal suspects — in particular, the shifty, pasty white man; the black man who may or may not have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time; and, of course, the Syrian — are wheeled out in turn, and I suspect it’s not spoiling anything if I tell you that the last of those three is subjected to a hasty, shoddy trial and a conviction that subsequently turns out to be a mistake. (The identity of the actual assassin is about as big a cop-out as I can imagine.) In the background, Cheney ascends to the Presidency, rattles some sabres, and gets PATRIOT 3 passed, but otherwise seems to do remarkably little. Range is entitled to tell the story he wants to tell, of course, but I can’t help thinking that a slightly broader perspective would have made for a much more interesting film.
What struck me most about Torchwood was how normal the normal bits are. For all the fuss made about the incorporation of Rose’s family into the Russell T. Davies incarnation of Doctor Who, the Tylers and their friends always felt to me like a tv family. By contrast, Gwen, her colleagues and her boyfriend seemed a bit more grounded. Admittedly, part of this perception is probably due to the fact that some of Gwen’s mannerisms and dialogue reminded me alarmingly of someone I knew at university; but even allowing for that, the scene (for example) where Captain Jack takes Gwen for a drink had a sort of incongruous meeting-of-worlds feel to it that recent Who only managed once or twice in two seasons.
As I’m sure most people reading this are more than well aware by now, I haven’t been overly impressed by new Who. It’s had its moments — mostly involving scripts by Steven Moffatt — but not many of them, and they’ve been almost lost in the general mediocrity and occasional outright amateurishness. But I’ve liked much of RTD’s other work (particularly The Second Coming), and wondered whether he might do better starting a show off from scratch. The other notable thing about Torchwood, though, is how much it doesn’t start from scratch. Its genetic makeup seems to be (even leaving aside the elements taken from a certain well-known show) about 10% Doctor Who, 5% Spooks (mostly the soundtrack), 30% Men in Black, 10% Generic British Drama, 5% Buffy, and 40% Angel.
The second episode (the Chris Chibnall-scripted “Day One”), in particular, had an Angel vibe about it — not, as some have said, for the loose similarities the plot bore to “Lonely Hearts” (the similarities were there, but they were very loose), and not particularly in the tone, but rather in the general structure of the show, and the sense of what it was trying to do. Captain Jack has been reinvented, consciously or not, as a more Angel-esque figure: invulnerable, somewhat more brooding, prone to standing on high buildings staring out over “his” city, and power-walking through the opening credits in a long flowing coat. The story took a fantastic element and used it as a metaphor for an aspect of human experience (Modern Life Is Sex); and Jack’s sidekick Gwen, while more of a viewpoint character than Cordelia ever was, offers the same sort of connection-with-common-humanity that the Queen of Sunnydale High provided for Angel. At one point in “Day One”, Jack asks Gwen to tell him “what it means to be human in the 21st century”, which as mission statements for tv shows go is surely ambitious enough for anyone.
The problem for me is not so much that Torchwood‘s influences are so obvious, but that they have been followed in their flaws as well as their virtues, without any real thinking-through. For one thing, the writers seem to be of the “sf doesn’t need consistent plotting” school; and to continue with the theme, Joss Whedon isn’t the strongest plotter in the world, either, but he tends to be much, much better at papering over his holes than RTD or most of his team. Nor do these writers have Whedon’s skill at fleshing out secondary characters: Toshiko and Owen remain cutouts. And the whole of the UK seems to indulge in the sort of mass-denial of alien existence that would put Sunnydale to shame — and as Martin Wisse notes, that kind of denial doesn’t really play in a science-fiction world, particularly on the sort of scale it’s used here. Torchwood may yet develop its own identity — it took Angel almost a season, after all — but at the moment it’s not even close to being a must-watch.
EDIT: Discussion of this post seems to be happening on the lj feed. Which, of course, means it’ll vanish into the ether in about three weeks. Sigh.