I’ve just finished watching the first season of E4’s Misfits, which I sought out following Richard Morgan’s recommendation a few months ago. It had, I confess, flown entirely beneath my radar, but it’s also a show whose pitch doesn’t sound terribly promising: a bunch of ASBO kids on their first day of community service get caught in a mysterious storm that gives them all superpowers. Wackiness ensues.

An obvious reference point, you might think, is Heroes, and to start with Misfits does seem a bit like a version of that show self-consciously revised to be “young”, “edgy”, “urban”; or, less kindly, crude and juvenile. Each character’s power turns out to be related to its owner’s desires: Kelly (“the chavvy one”, as the Guardian puts it) can hear other people’s thoughts, Simon (“the weird one”) can become invisible, Curtis (“the angry one”, although I’d have gone for “the guilt-stricken one”) can turn back time, and Alisha (“the slutty one”) drives people into a sexual frenzy when she touches them (or, if you prefer, Wikipedia’s chaste description: “sex pheremone manipulation”). That leaves Nathan, “the Irish one who talks too much”, whose only powers seem to be creative obscenity and an inability to ever take anything seriously. Each gets a turn in the spotlight, over the course of the season’s six episodes, during which they start to come to terms with their changed circumstances; in each episode, too, the gang have to deal with someone else who’s been affected by the storm. But there’s no deliberate heroism involved, no forming a super-team: the five of them are pretty much just trying to get by, hanging around the community centre, partly because they don’t want to attract attention, having been forced to kill their original probation worker when he went into a murderous rage after the storm, but mostly because they’re not heroic types. There is, of course, more to them than their initial cliched flaws, but with the arguable exception of Curtis they discover no great reserves of inner virtue — admirable behaviour comes in brief flashes, if at all — and those flaws remain a part of who they are in ways that suggest we’re meant to understand, but not forgive. Socially inept, lonely, bullied Simon, for instance, attracts a certain amount of sympathy, but when a woman shows some interest, it doesn’t occur to him that he shouldn’t sneak into her house at night and, in a thoroughly creepy scene, film her sleeping. All of them demonstrate a basic lack of empathy when assigned to help out at a pensioners’ social. And so on.

It’s quite refreshing, actually. The whole thing also has a low-key aesthetic that seems clearly driven, at least in part, by a lack of budget, but the casual, character-led style works for the show. (And arguably the least successful episode is the finale, which attempts to stage a more traditionally large-scale confrontation.) It helps a great deal that the writing is both reasonably clever — Curtis’ time-travel-centric episode is a lot of fun — often very funny, mature when it needs to be and all in all not nearly as Torchwood as the premise suggests. In fact, as the season wore on, much more than Heroes I was put in mind of Buffy — high praise indeed, but it becomes clear the show’s fantastical engine is the sort of metaphor-driven coming-of-age exploration that Buffy made its own, and there are moments, particularly in the Nathan-centric second episode and the Simon-centric fifth, when Misfits shifts from drama to comedy to horror and back again with a familiar agility. It’s such moments that make it less of a surprise that Misfits beat out Being Human, The Street and Spooks to win a BAFTA for Best Drama earlier this year; and it’s such moments that’ll have me tuning in for the second season later this year.


Because what the internet needs, clearly, is another post about this film. At least it should be relatively short, since at this point all I really need to do is stake out my position relative to those of other people. Matt Cheney links to a post arguing that Inception is “not a dreamer’s movie, it’s a clockmaker’s movie” which seems fair enough, allowing for two quibbles: (1) it assumes the conventional fictional representation of dreams as incessantly surreal is the representation of dreams to which all such work should aspire, and I at least found the fragile normality of Nolan’s dreamscapes quite familiar, and refreshing (though I should say I’m not a great one for remembering dreams); and (2) these are entirely neutral descriptions, and we all accept that a “dreamer’s movie” is no more, but no less, valid a choice than a “clockmaker’s movie”. I dislike, for instance, Annalee Newitz’ contention that Inception offers an “intellectual high” but is “emotionally cold”; that intellectual buzz is itself an emotional reaction, and for me Inception is a powerful film.

That said, these are only quibbles, because I would have no trouble substituting “idea-centred” and “character-centred” into Newitz’ piece, and because I don’t really think Christopher Nolan is particularly interested in dreams as dreams. One thing that doesn’t particularly interest me, then, is whether Cobb ends the film in “reality”, because in a trivial sense he doesn’t – he’s still a character in a film – and if the clever tricks with the music mean anything, I think that’s what they’re intended to signal: that Inception is ultimately the dream we are sharing with Nolan. No, where I think Nolan’s interest lies – as in Memento, as in The Prestige — is in the mechanisms of narrative, and in constructing models through which to explore the workings of those mechanisms, which is why the ending, although delicately handled, is never less than expected. The excitement of the film for me, from about half-way through, was simply watching Nolan keep his various plates spinning, and tension came not from whether the characters would achieve their goals, but from whether Nolan would allow the characters to achieve their goals. Another way of putting this is that I think Inception is essentially Nolan showing off.

This, I think, puts me largely in agreement with Brian Francis Slattery, over in the comments of Abigail Nussbaum’s review, and I do take Nolan’s purpose to be the same as that of his characters, to place the seed of an idea within viewers’ minds. As in the film’s plot itself, I think this is done obliquely, not explicitly; so the answer I’d suggest to Abigail’s question, “what is Nolan saying about storytelling?”, is: don’t trust stories. Remember that stories have a storyteller. Realise that our responses to the stories we’re told shape the stories we tell. The ambiguity of the ending, in this view, is necessary not to set up a simple question about whether or not what we’re seeing is “real”, but as an expression of scepticism: we shouldn’t take the catharsis we’re apparently being offered without thinking about it first. For this to work, you do have to find the film well-paced — have to be convinced by the stories being told all the way through — which I know is the stumbling block for many; fortunately, it was all balanced just about right for me, and I enjoyed watching the tumblers of the various dreams click into alignment. Like Martin Lewis, I’d say Inception is lesser Nolan, if only because it doesn’t push as far as it could, but I’d say it’s still very much worth seeing.

EDIT: And now I’m mulling over Adam Roberts’ take.

EDIT 2: And Abigail has some further thoughts here, including discussion of inception as a model for storytelling.

London Meeting: Lauren Beukes

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and the forthcoming Zoo City. She will be interviewed by Jonathan McCalmont.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Also as usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Beukes is also doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, London on Thursday 29th July between 6 pm and 7 pm, and is the guest at a British Fantasy Society Open Meeting, in the George, The Strand, London, on Saturday 31st July, from 1 pm to 5 pm.

I Assume This Will Be In The Next Ansible

The Booker longlist has been announced:

There are no first novels – which have become a feature at longlist stage in the last few years, and there is no genre fiction. Motion said they had not consciously set out to exclude genre but stressed that the Man Booker prize was an award for literary fiction and there were plenty of prizes for crime and sci-fi.

You know, I mostly agree with Martin these days that it’s largely unnecessary, and looks petty, to complain too strongly about this sort of thing; but every so often an example comes along whose stupidity is so beautiful, so elegant, that I can’t help myself. Even leaving aside the “crime and sci-fi are not literary” implication: you didn’t consciously set out to exclude books of type x, it’s just that you decided the Booker isn’t a prize for books of type x? Impressive!

2009 Shirley Jackson Award Winners

The winners of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards were announced at Readercon last weekend:

Best Novel: Big Machine by Victor LaValle (Speigel & Grau)
Best Novella: Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press)
Best Novelette: “Morality” by Stephen King (in Esquire)
Best Short Story: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler (in Eclipse 3)
Best Single-Author Collection: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson (Harper Perennial), and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman (Big Finish)
Best Edited Anthology: Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow (Solaris)

I’m cautiously optimistic about the SJAs, which are awarded “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” This is their third year, and as for 2007 and 2008, the 2009 winners — and even more so the shortlists — strike me as interesting and inclusive. Partly this just means they’re playing to my taste. I’d had my eye on Big Machine, for instance, since Elizabeth Hand’s glowing review; I was half-hoping for a UK edition, but the award has given me the necessary nudge to order a US copy. Several other nominees and winners are also on the “actually, yes, I’d like to read that” list, which gives me a certain amount of confidence that the ones I haven’t encountered before will also be worth looking at. And Richard Larson’s shortlist review, the first part of which is up at Strange Horizons today (second part on Friday) makes all six of the Best Novel nominees sound worthwhile.

I have a couple of reservations. It’s a juried award, which is good, but I believe that two of the judges for this year’s awards also served for the previous two years. I prefer to see a bit more turnover among the judges — a World Fantasy Award or Clarke Award replacement rate rather than a Campbell Award replacement rate, if you like. I wouldn’t want to see too many ties like this year’s for Best Collection, either. And part of me wishes there were fewer categories, if only to increase my confidence that the jurors are making a thorough survey of the eligible work in each category; but this is a genre award, so everyone must get their spotlight. Still, they’ve had a good track record so far, and I look forward to next year’s shortlists.

In a related confession, I’ve barely read any Shirley Jackson. The recent Library of America volume seems like a good place to start; there’s a review of that at SH this week, too, by L. Timmel Duchamp:

Two themes run through most of the fiction in the volume: the volatility of group dynamics and the collusion of social silence with psychological and even physical violence against individuals who are outsiders or have been excluded from the in-group. Jackson’s fiction is for the most part not actually fantastic, but she frequently depicts behavior and psychological violence that is not acknowledged as such at the conscious level of the narrative, and in doing so presents mundane reality as troubled with sinister currents that can lead, unpredictably, to bizarre and even dangerous situations beyond the individual’s control. Jackson’s treatment of mundane reality, that is to say, casts into sharp relief the artificiality of the style known as “realism.”

(I hadn’t realised LoA use such thin paper, though! I’m afraid to start reading my copy for fear I’ll tear the pages.)

EDIT: See also Laura Miller on is Shirley Jackson a great American writer?

No Present Like Links

Expectation Management

What Lightspeed Magazine’s guidelines say:

we encourage writers to take chances with their fiction and push the envelope.

What Lightspeed Magazine publishes:

Lynx awoke before dawn. He got out of bed, brushed his whiskers, and licked his fur clean. He dressed in boots and a tunic, then donned his rucksack and set out into the dusty streets. The sun was just beginning to peek up over the thatched rooftops. Most of the other catmen of the village were still asleep.

I suppose there is a sense in which publishing this story in the first month of a new magazine constitutes taking a chance, but it’s not the sort of chance-taking I was hoping for, I must admit.

Reading it Right

An interesting post by Gord Sellar, about reading Adam Roberts’ On:

I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.
On reading Puchalsky’s review [of Splinter], I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

This is, of course, easier said than done, possibly for Adam Roberts more than many writers; I’m reminded of Farah Mendlesohn’s comments in her book about Diana Wynne Jones to the effect that the first generation of Jones-readers had to learn how to read those books, how to get the most out of them, because they weren’t quite like other books that were being published. Sellar’s post makes me want to revisit On, which I didn’t much like at the time, to see whether my perception that Roberts has improved over the past decade is accurate, or whether I’ve just got better at approaching his work in a useful way. More generally, the ability to approach a text openly (or, as Alvaro mentioned the other day, recognising when you’re not) is such a desireable skill, I think, both in terms of critical technique and simply in terms of reading pleasure. This is not to suggest that all books are good if you approach them from the right perspective; what I mean is, there’s pleasure in recognising and appreciating how many different ways there are to do fiction.