Two Reviews Elsewhere

I’m having the good fortune to be going through a period of reading good books, reviews of two of which have recently gone up elsewhere. First: Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell, at Strange Horizons:
Dreamers of the Day cover

And then every so often comes a reminder that Agnes is dead. The effect of this, which I take to be deliberate, is to break the immersion associated with historical fiction. Agnes’s times are not for us to live in—they are for us to watch (as, later, our times are for her), and to read Dreamers of the Day is to take part in a game of knowingness with Agnes and her author: they know we know they know we know, and so on. So we see Agnes in conversation with Lawrence, and we interpret what is said according to our knowledge; later, Agnes discusses the events with Karl Weilbacher—a German with whom she has struck up a friendship—and he provides his own interpretation, which is then on the table for us to interpret once more. As a formal device for relating the politics of 1921 to those of our times this is elegant and often extraordinarily effective, the more so because the tale is of sufficient complexity—and aware enough of the limits of the possible—that it cannot be summarized as a lesson. (Agnes herself tries and fails at the end of the novel.)

On the basis of this review, yesterday I got involved in an email debate about whether or not a novel with a dead narrator should count as fantasy, which involved mutual incomprehension on both sides. (Although I have the satisfaction of having the author on my side.) For me it’s as simple as saying the narrator’s position is impossible, and that it implies the existence of a secondary (fantastic) world, whether or not the author chooses to explore it. If the author doesn’t choose to explore it, it may not be very satisfying to consider the work in question as fantasy — there may be other, better ways to approach the book — but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy. In fact, in Dreamers of the Day Russell does spend some time in the afterlife world, although it’s towards the end of the book, so I didn’t want to talk about it in the review; but even if she hadn’t, my knowledge that the narrator was dead would have made the book a fantasy for me. And that had an effect on my reading experience: for example, it made the moments where Agnes (the narrator) remembers hearing the voice of her dead mother more ambiguous since, after all, Agnes herself proves that communication from beyond the grave is possible.

The second review is of Stephen Baxter’s latest novel, Flood, in the Internet Review of SF; as I understand their subscription options you should be able to access the review for free even if you’re not a subscriber, unless you’ve already looked at an article from the current issue this week. A quote:
Flood cover

In order to make something as slow-moving as climate change storyable, you either need to make your characters live longer, as, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson does in Blue Mars, or you need to make the change shorter and sharper, which is the route Robinson takes in Science in the Capital and the route Baxter takes, to a much greater degree, here. (Of course you can set stories within an ecologically devastated future without deploying either of these strategies, and many writers have; but they then stop being stories about the process of climate change, and become stories about living with it.) The big advantage to Baxter’s strategy is that it tremendously intensifies the problem, particularly in the early stages, creating a crucible within which the dramas caused by a changing environment—mass migration, for one—can play out on a human timescale. Stern currents of class, race, gender, religion and evolutionary biology all swirl through Flood, driving and shaping the drama. (The religious echoes, in particular, are well handled.) But once you’ve introduced that sort of acceleration, if you’re a writer like Baxter you have to follow it through to its conclusion; and in this case that means shifting modes. So Flood skyhooks us into a story that—while still predominantly literal—is stranger and more emblematic than it at first appears.

As this indicates, one of the things that really interests me about the book is how it negotiates between two forms of writing about its subject: the opening is very literal, realistic, climate-change-ish stuff, whereas the later parts of the novel are more extreme and strange. But that’s only the most impressive aspect, for me, of what is quite possibly Baxter’s best novel this decade (Evolution runs it close), and certainly the best new science fiction novel I’ve read so far this year. I’m hoping to organize a Swiftly-style discussion of this book, to look at it in more detail.

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.

Superpowers

Superpowers UK coverIt’s all about what you know, and what you don’t. For instance, I don’t know how much David J Schwartz’ first novel has in common with the rest of the recent mini-glut of prose superhero stories; I haven’t read Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, or Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, or Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, or any others. But I have read a fair bit of Schwartz’ short fiction, so I know that Superpowers displays most of the virtues of stories like “The Water-Poet and the Four Seasons” or “Five Hundred and Forty Doors”, including an admirable sure-footedness when it comes to handling the fantastic, a gift for efficiently capturing the essentials of a situation or character, and an emotional directness that, if it catches you unawares, can knock you down. (I should also say that I know Schwartz himself a little — enough to ask him to write reviews for Strange Horizons, and to play the occasional game of Scrabulous with, at least.) And I know that, while not everything in Superpowers works, enough of it does to indicate that David J Schwartz is a name worth knowing.

If you read the first couple of pages of his novel, what you’ll know is this:

Fact #1: The party took place on Saturday, May 19, 2001, at 523 West Mifflin Street, Apt. 2, Madison, Wisconsin, 53703.

Fact #2: Five people attended the party, all of them inhabitants of 523. Charles Frost, age twenty, and Jack Robinson, age nineteen, hosted their downstairs neighbors Caroline Bloom, twenty, Harriet Bishop, twenty, and Mary Beth Layton, twenty.

Fact #3: Of the five, only Charles Frost was available to be interviewed in the aftermath of these events, and except for the events witnessed by your intrepid reporter, the following is based on his account alone.

The guy telling you this is Marcus Hatch, conspiracy nut and self-styled “editor” of Superpowers, though there’s every indication he wrote the whole thing. This is not a book that wastes time getting going, so before long, you know what happened after the party — c’mon, deep down you knew it already — which is that everyone woke up with a superpower. Mary Beth got super-strength, Harriet got invisibility, Caroline got flight, Jack got super-speed, and Charlie Frost got telepathy. We get to know the characters as they explore and/or come to terms with their new abilities.

Schwarz’ style is extremely approachable, and emphasizes character through action or reaction far more often than it does through introspection. This means that Superpowers stands or falls with its character dynamics; and in the manner of its standing, I’d say that Joss Whedon’s influence is evident, for Whedon’s strategy is also to present us with types who are later complicated by the things that happen to them. Moreover, though Schwartz’ dialogue doesn’t recall Whedon’s stylistically, the way that characters display their emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), and the way a ready vein of character-based humour is mixed with moments of sudden, sharp pathos, is a familiar tactic. The scene in which our five nascent heroes get together for the first time to discuss what they’re going to do is a case in point; the serious personal and moral questions that get raised are counterpointed by the fact that Mary Beth has gone to the trouble to put together a handout titled “Options for Superpowered Individuals”, and punctuates the conversation by writing down what people say on a flip-chart. Some members of the group aren’t initially interested in crime-fighting (notably Caroline: “My first thought upon finding out you all had developed strange abilities was not, ‘Oh goody, now we can all fight crime together,'” she says, with just a little echo of Cordelia Chase). But it’s Charlie who gets down to brass tacks, with an argument we’ve heard before:

“I think we should help any way we can,” Charlie said. “I know I wish I had.”

“What do you mean?” Mary Beth asked.

“I mean Marsha Tanner,” Charlie said. “The guy who killed her — the first day I went outside, I got inside his head. He was thinking about killing her then, and I didn’t do anything about it. He looked normal, you know? Sometimes when I’m angry, I might think about hurting someone. But he meant it.”

“You didn’t know,” Harriet said.

“I was the only one who did know,” Charlie said. “That’s my point. We can do this, and to me that’s reason enough that we should. It’s not about whether there’s enough demand. It’s about what’s right.” (76-9)

Charlie’s determination and sincerity are all the more affecting for the fact that his Peter Parker moment has been going on largely in the margins of other people’s scenes, and it’s only here that (for me at least) the parallel clicks into place. A lot of Superpowers is similarly referential; above and beyond the journalistic frame, it’s a very knowing book, a book that’s eager for you to play along. Some of the references grate a little — such as when Caroline refers to the Madison All-Stars as “your friendly neighborhood superheroes”, because the contrast between the place these heroes look after, which really does feel like a smallish community, and the franchise-emptiness that goes with Spider-Man saying it in a big city was already implicit — but a lot of them are nicely underplayed, because Schwartz knows that any modern superhero story is going to be expected to jump through certain hoops. The question of costumes, for instance, or — more important to the novel — the question of how normal people cope with superpowers.

But Schwartz brings a number of things to the table that stop his book being too second-hand. First and foremost is an apparent determination that his normal people will in fact be normal, and will live in the world we know. His superheroes joke and bitch and celebrate and recriminate and get horny just like normal college students. They are not captured or experimented on by the government, nor do they really live in fear of their true identities being discovered. (That kind of knowledge turns out to be a power that doesn’t matter as much as you think.) They focus, as I’ve already mentioned, on local, day-to-day crimes such as convenience store hold-ups. Which is the second and more important thing: there’s no supervillain. This sounds trivial, but in fact isn’t; it highlights just how much most super-teams are defined by who they strive against, and the uncertainty this absence creates is underlined in a couple of ways. The more conventional one is that the All-Stars uncover evidence of a World War II superteam, and feel perhaps slightly jealous that their predecessors had such a clear enemy to fight; the less conventional one is the looming presence of September 11th over the story.

What we know — and what none of the characters know, although one of Marcus’ early editorial notes confirms that it’ll be an issue — is that for a novel set between May and October 2001, the spectre of 9/11 is inescapable. The impersonal undertow of geopolitics is the only supervillain Superpowers will give us, and though it may not be a surprise, it’s still a little terrifying how quickly the event is seized on by various parties as a way to give their narratives sense and coherence. This is of course exactly what, on a larger scale, Schwartz is doing with his novel, but he’s doing it, I think, to point out how dangerous it is; “This was the worst of the American character,” someone thinks to themselves towards the end of the book, as anti-Muslim violence comes to Madison, “People nestled so deeply in their own comfort zone that they could not even distinguish between unknowns” (343). Indeed, in the last hundred pages the light-heartedness of the early chapters vanishes almost entirely, and serious costs start to be asked of all the characters.

It’s a choice that makes Superpowers the only story I’ve come across that extends in quite this way the familiar superhero narrative of powers not being enough to deal with personal crises, such that the novel ultimately becomes a story about powers not being enough to deal with the impersonal forces that shape the world we live in today. (There’s J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #36, I suppose, but I think most people would agree that’s best forgotten.) It’s a little miraculous that Schwartz manages to pull this off as well as he does; the end of Superpowers is by no means perfect, but it successfully writes about 9/11 without asking for too big a loan from the reserve of shared sentiment the mention of that day still carries. We’re left to recognize most of the ways in which the event refracts the first part of the novel for ourselves, such as the parallel between the description of the TV coverage as “crayon-bold” and the primary-colour exuberance of the All-Stars’ costumes. And there are a handful of serious emotional wallops in the last 50 pages, stuff that grows organically out of the All-Stars’ characters and the changing situation they find themselves in – when they know as little as anyone else, they’re as powerless as anyone else – that make you realise exactly how precisely controlled the tone is throughout. Similarly, the novel repeatedly overcame one of my big reservations about prose superhero stories – the feeling that superpowers are so much better suited to a visual medium – by emphasizing the subjective experience of his heroes. This is particularly affecting in the case of Jack, who may be able to stretch his subjective time further and further, but can’t turn back the progression of his father’s chronic illness, and in the case of Charlie, whose power escalates such that he becomes not unlike a human Cerebro, able to surf the mindstream of the world (which explains how Hatch is able to present most of his manuscript as a third-person narrative based only on Charlie’s testimony) when he’s not being overwhelmed by it.

Marcus warns us early on that a lot of questions — how the All Stars got their powers, for instance — don’t get answered and, in the end, despite Charlie’s near-omniscience, Superpowers is all about what the All Stars don’t know and can’t do, as much as it is what they do and can. Which means that when the answers the All Stars think they’ve found about themselves are overturned by events, it hurts; and means that what Superpowers says to its readers is, playing along should never be mistaken for the real world. You know?