Heroes

Debbi and I have been watching Heroes since its debut, and haven’t missed an episode. We’ve watched it faithfully for one fundamental reason: It airs on Monday, and Monday is the one night of the week when we typically have nothing else planned. By contrast, it didn’t take long to bail on Jericho, since that airs on Wednesdays, which is both comic book night and gaming night.

Heroes features a world in which some humans have developed super powers, and so far it mainly involves the characters finding how in what ways their life has changed as a result. Two characters have learned that in a month New York City will be destroyed in what seems to be a nuclear blast, and the key to preventing this is to save a cheerleader from Texas. (The series’ tag line is “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”) There are several forces working at cross purposes to this, or so it seems, and the main characters themselves are often of mixed or dubious moral character.

The pacing of Heroes is extremely slow, with a great deal of time spent on the characters’ personal problems and foibles rather than moving the overall story along, and since several of the characters are either dull or not very likeable, this means that the feel of the show is one of “Something interesting happens!” followed by 20 minutes of “I wonder if they’re showing poker on ESPN2?”

The individual characters have their own story arcs which cross but rarely directly relate. Here’s how I feel about each of them:

  • Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere) is the cheerleader, who heals from almost any wound. She spent the first episode documenting on videotape her attempts to kill herself, and then changed her mind – a change in motivation which made no sense at all. Her stepfather is the man in horn-rimmed glasses (Jack Coleman) who is investigating powered individuals, and who was described in one episode’s promo as “the face of evil”, but this week’s promo suggests he’s a more ambiguous figure. Claire’s arc is deadly dull, being mainly a boring little soap opera.
  • Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) is a Japanese businessman who can teleport and freeze time. He jumped to New York in the future just before the bomb blast, then returned to the present and flew to America with his friend Ando (James Kyson Lee) to try to stop it. Since then they’ve gotten delayed in Las Vegas encountering several other characters. Oka is hands-down the actor who comes out the best in this series, and his character is the most likeable, which does a lot to keep his arc interesting even though it’s been stalled out for several weeks.
  • Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) is a telepathic policeman who’s having trouble with his marriage. He’s also working with the FBI to investigate a serial killer who seems to have powers (apparently telekinesis). His professional life is interesting, his personal life varies between boring and painful, so his arc is a Jeckyll-and-Hyde one to watch.
  • Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is the son of a man who was trying to learn about the powered individuals springing up around the globe. He travels to America from India after his father’s death to find out what he knew. Unlike the others, he has no powers that we know of. Although he’s gotten involved with a woman (Nora Zehetner) working for the horn-rimmed glasses man. When Mohinder is around, the story tends to move forward a little, and he seems like a good guy, and Ramamurthy is an engaging actor, so I am encouraged when he’s on screen.
  • Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) is a prospective New York Senator who can fly, but who is not interested in using his powers. His wife is paraplegic, and Petrelli is kind of a slimeball, involved with a mobster and cheating on his wife on a trip to Las Vegas. He also treats his brother like crap. I hate him as a person, so when he’s on screen I mostly hope he’ll get his comeuppance.
  • Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is Nathan’s brother. Peter thinks he can fly, too, but his actual abilities are somewhat different (I won’t spoil them here). He’s a good guy who is getting involved with the destruction-of-New-York element, but other than a subway encounter with one of the other characters, he hasn’t had a lot to do yet. I’m hopeful, though.
  • Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) is a single mother to Micah (Noah Grey-Cabey) whose reflection in the mirror has a mind – and powers – of her own. She lives in Las Vegas and was an Internet stripper before her debt to the mob sent her on the run. Most recently, her husband D.L. (Leonard Roberts) has shown up and taken Micah away. The story around Niki’s powers is interesting, but her personal problems got old really quickly, around the second episode. Overall a net minus.
  • Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) is a painter and drug user who paints pictures of the future, including the destruction of New York. Other than meeting Peter, his story has gone nowhere at all.

You can see the common thread here, right? There’s a lot of soap opera plotting going on and it’s just plain boring. The series feels like it’s stuck in its prologue and can’t manage to get the main plot moving. In retrospect, the first episode seems almost entirely redundant. When I think back over the episodes to date, it seems like there’s a lot more motion than progress, and it feels like a series badly in need of editing down to fewer episodes.

The series bend over backward to portray the characters as flawed but not evil, but the writing doesn’t feel consistent. It feels like the writers want us to be able to root for any of the characters, but also not to be able to see what’s coming. Consequently, several characters feel like they’re being pulled in different directions for no good reason; the characterization often feels made-to-order rather than natural.

To me, what drives the interesting bits of Heroes is a set of questions: Who is Claire’s father, and what’s he doing? Who is the killer the cop is tracking? Who’s going to blow up New York, and why? And, of course, why are people developing super powers?

So my fear for this show is that it’s going to fall into the trap of The X-Files and Smallville and (I hear) Lost of not really resolving things. If most of the questions in the preceding paragraph aren’t satisfactorily resolved this season, then I’ll know that the show isn’t serious about telling a story, but just wants to string us along. I bailed on The X-Files in its third season when I realized it wasn’t serious about going anywhere. A series with ongoing storylines needs to deliver a payoff in a timely manner or else it just feels like a cynical effort on the part of the producers and writers: “Keep watching, because something might happen at any minute!”

Overall, I feel that the series isn’t very original from a comic book superhero standpoint, and not very lively from a character drama standpoint. It has the potential to be a good series, but it needs to live up to that potential sometime soon, or I’m going to lose interest, even if it does air on Mondays.

Another view: Scott Marshall

Doctor Who: One Versus Two

I’ve seen the first four episodes of the second season of Doctor Who, and I’ve noticed that they each resemble an early episode from the first season:

  1. The first episode of each season involves an invasion of Earth by some improbable aliens (“Rose” vs. “The Christmas Invasion”).
  2. The second episode of each season takes place in humanity’s far future and features a number of unusual aliens (“The End of the World” vs. “New Earth”).
  3. The third episode of each season takes place in the 19th century and involves a classic horror element (“The Unquiet Dead” vs. “Tooth and Claw”).
  4. The sixth episode of the first season and the fourth episode of the second season features the return of well-known figures from the original Doctor Who series (“Dalek” vs. “School Reunion”).

On top of this, both series feature a recurring background element (“Bad Wolf” vs. Torchwood, the latter I guess laying the groundwork for the spin-off series). Hopefully Torchwood will have a more rewarding climax than Bad Wolf did.

Is this correlation just coincidence, I wonder?

Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (2)

Review of the second five-volume Amber series, by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The Second Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

I remember reading Trumps of Doom around when it came out, having just blasted my way through the first Amber series. And then a few years later reading the series again through Sign of Chaos when it was the latest book. And now, almost 20 years later, I’ve finally read the whole Amber series (modulo a few short stories).

The second series features Merlin, the son of Corwin, who was the hero in the first series. Like the first series, this one is narrated by its hero. Merlin is just as calculating as Corwin was, which probably suggests that the overly-analytical feel of the narrative is just Zelazny’s writing style. Merlin was conceived through deception, and was raised in the Courts of Chaos by his mother. Consequently he possesses the powers of chaos magic, but being of Amberite blood he’s also walked the Pattern and so has the skills of Amber as well. Though he feels more at home in the Courts, he’s recognized and welcomed in Amber, especially by Random, his uncle who is the new king.

What makes this series fun – for me – is how much of it occurs on our Earth, where Merlin has been living for seven years while he becomes a software engineer. He falls in love with a woman named Julia, and becomes good friends with a man named Luke. However, he reveals some of his nature to Julia, scaring her off, and finds that Luke is actually a not-too-friendly fellow with some surprising powers of his own. Also, someone has tried to kill him on April 30 for each of the last 7 years, and the day the book begins launches him on a considerably larger adventure than foiling a murder attempt.

The first two volumes are a lot of fun in unravelling Merlin’s life from several different directions, and making you wonder how it’s all going to come together. Unfortunately I felt Zelazny didn’t maintain the illusion of a tight plot the way he did in the first series. In the ninth book the whole thing falls apart and just feels blatantly improvised. Luke – originally one of the heavies – I suspect was so interesting a character to the author that he ends up patching up his friendship with Merlin, and not very convincingly. And the strands of Merlin’s troubles in Trumps resolves itself into a very different story by the time Knight rolls around. Knight centers around a metaphysical confrontation that Merlin has in a strange Shadow world, while Prince focuses on the central tension between Chaos and Order and Merlin’s role in the realm of Chaos. All the while the shadow of Merlin’s father – who has been missing since the end of the first series – hangs over the story, but the ultimate resolution to this was just not satisfying. The story goes considerably far afield from where it starts; when it was about Merlin’s private little war potentially spiralling out of control, it was fun, but when it resolves into a long-running conflict between two powerful entities, it feels trite.

How did this happen? Well, my understanding is that Merlin’s story was originally going to be a 3-book series, and it expanded to 5 books. I think it would have been better served had Zelazny limited it to 3 books and forced the plot into a less grandiose resolution. Instead we’re presented with an extensive look at the structure of the universe of Amber and I just didn’t find it all that interesting. I think the story got caught up in trying to seem cool (or maybe profound) rather than be good.

The second series is an interesting counterpoint to the first in a couple of ways, though: First, while Corwin was the ultimate insider in Amber – being the preferred choice of some for the throne, and right in the thick of all events – Merlin is really an outsider, allowed in the clan due to blood, but with divided loyalties and not having grown up around his Amberite relatives. So Merlin’s story doesn’t feel like “an Amber series”, but rather the story of someone who visits Amber from time to time but mostly spends his time elsewhere.

Second, if Corwin’s story was about a man who starts out sure of what he is finding out that in fact that’s not who he is at all, then Merlin’s is about a man who’s not at all sure what he is and finding out that he’s actually well-suited for something he never expected nor was interested in. Father and son travel opposite paths.

Merlin’s story ends with a number of dangling threads (as opposed to Corwin’s, whose story felt complete in its five volumes), and I’ve heard that Zelazny planned to write a third series, which never materialized due to his unfortunate death in 1995. So the gestalt of Amber feels unfinished (and I’m not really interested in reading an Amber series by some other author, though one exists).

In summary, the complete Amber series is at its best inventive and fun, but suffers from haphazard plotting and a too-analytical narrative style. It’s entertaining, but feels a little too improvised at times. The first series is well worth reading, but the second isn’t essential.

Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (1)

Review of the first 5-book story of the Amber series by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The First Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels have become classics of the fantasy genre. The series consists of two cycles of five novels each, plus some short stories. I first read the series back in the 80s, and last read them before the second cycle was complete. Recently I decided I was really in the mood to read them again, not only to complete the series for the first time, but to see how well they held up after all this time.

The answer is, “pretty well”. I was pleased to find that they’re a quick read, a fun read, and still contain some surprises of the “I should have seen that coming” variety.

It’s impossible to even begin to describe the series without giving away some of the first book: Our hero, Corwin, is a Prince of Amber. Amber is the first among all alternate realities, the other all being shadows cast off from the prime world. Amber has been ruled from time immemorial by Oberon. Oberon had over a dozen offspring, who have engaged in internecine competition for thousands of years, and Corwin is one of these. Amber is embodied by the Pattern, a magical design which can be walked and if one is a true child of Amber will confer on that person the ability to shift through all the various Shadows simply by travelling and willing it so. Such children also are immortal and immensely strong, with superhuman constitutions.

Corwin has been out of the game for many centuries, living on our own world as an amnesiac. Nine Princes in Amber opens with Corwin’s memory being jogged, and him going on a quest to recover it. Along the way he meets several of his relatives, some he likes and some he doesn’t. He finds that his father has gone missing, and his brother Eric – whom he likes least of all – plans to crown himself King of Amber, an ambition Corwin holds for himself.

Narrated by Corwin himself, the series features our hero confronting his past and his present, making mistakes and suffering the consequences thereof. Ultimately it’s about this extraordinary man evolving from a man of ambition and vengeance to one of duty and compassion. In this it resembles any number of “prince earning his throne” parables, but Zelazny never loses sight that it’s not really about the throne: It’s about Corwin and his relationship with his family. Corwin learns what he’s not, rather than what he is and by discharging his responsibilities to Amber he frees himself to live his own life.

The royal family of Amber are a capricious lot, often acting like little gods who use the mortals of shadow purely for their own ends. Backstabbing and calculating, their paranoia fuels the story’s writing style, in which Corwin is deeply analytical and even his emotions are carefully scrutinized by himself in the narrative. He regrets and loves and yearns, but his words are typically clinical and rarely heartfelt. In this regard Zelazny’s prose feels artificial. Corwin’s hatred of Eric and his mixed feelings about his father feel the most genuine.

Despite that, Corwin is a likeable protagonist and that makes the story, because you root for him. Though a flawed figure, you can see him growing as a person and coming around to where he’s trying to do the right thing when circumstances allow.

I’ve heard that Nine Princes was originally written as a standalone book, so it’s not too surprising that the story expands considerably as it goes on.

I think The Guns of Avalon is my favorite book in the series. In it, Corwin surveys the results of one of his acts in the first book, meets up with an old ally, Ganelon, with whom he has a checkered history, and meets another brother, who’s had an unfortunate encounter with some adversaries. It feels almost as fully-textured as Nine Princes, and is full of portentiousness. Corwin’s relationship with Ganelon is one of the best elements of the series, and is crucial – in more ways than one – to Corwin’s story arc. The book even ends on a dramatic note (although later books drop the ball when it comes to following through on it).

Unicorn and Oberon unravel the plot by the villains, and along the way reveal some more surprising characteristics of Amber and its universe. The most compelling thing is the depth of the machinations of the characters, which is especially impressive since I’m pretty sure Zelazny was making it up as he went along, so he had to retrofit events into what he’d already written in the first volume. Not everything works – one revelation about the Pattern seems rather superfluous, for instance – but it never detracts from it being a fun ride. Oberon finishes with a terrific and clever confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, and ends with a surprising revelation (well, it surprised me, anyway).

The epic’s biggest drawback is that Courts is a slim volume in both page count and content. It’s really a denouement to the end of Oberon – which is the emotional climax of the whole series – and it includes a lengthy trip by Corwin, a lengthy war between two armies (one of whom we barely know), and a couple more revelations that feel like too much too late. There’s some decent material in the final volume, but unfortunately it means the story ends with less than a bang.

I feel I should make some observation about the influence of Amber on the fantasy genre, but in fact I know little about it. Some say that Charles Stross’ series starting with The Family Trade is influenced by Amber, but other than featuring parallel worlds I think it bears no resemblance at all. It’s really more akin to “modern person thrown into a medieval society” stories such as H. Beam Piper’s Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer, and – of course – Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. I’ve also heard Zelazny’s writing was a significant influence on Stephen Brust. But the Amber series doesn’t otherwise significantly resemble any other fantasy of the modern era that I’m familiar with.

The first Amber series is a big box ‘o fun, fast-moving and inventive. It’s not very deep, but it’s more than mere fluff. As escapist fantasy goes, it doesn’t get a lot better than this.

Tim Powers: On Stranger Tides

Review of the novel On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers.

I’m a big fan of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. On Stranger Tides is the book he wrote immediately following that one, and it has all the classic hallmarks of a Powers book: A protagonist who walks through hell to emerge a changed man on the other side; a fantastic setting made real through a depth and breadth of research; a tightly-constructed plot; deftly-handled magical elements; and the degree of brutality one expects when fairly normal people are thrown into such nasty life-and-death situations. For all that, it’s not a great book, but it is solidly entertaining.

The operative theme here is “pirates”, as our hero – John Chandagnac – is on a ship in the Caribbean that’s captured by pirates. These being the early days of the 18th century (that’s three hundred years ago, for those keeping score at home), he’s pressed into their service, “service” in this case being to help the famous pirate Blackbeard assist a mad professor, Benjamin Hurwood, and his even madder doctor, Leo Friend, travel to Florida in search of a focus of magic energy. Chandagnac is rechristened Jack Shandy by the pirates, and he learns about sea travel and survival among this clutch of fairly amoral men.

Powers’ characters always have unique backgrounds, but that doesn’t always make them fully-realized characters. Shandy was a puppeteer, and is travelling to Jamaica to try to wrest his father’s inheritance from his uncle, but he’s really a pretty flat character. Okay, he does have a certain sense of nobility and honor which is both sorely tested and which gets him into profound trouble, but isn’t that true for many heroes? He falls in love with Hurwood’s daughter, Beth, but Beth is almost a nonentity as a character. Their attraction to each other never feels very plausible, either, as they don’t really know each other, and it feels like just a too-blatant instance of love at first sight. So it’s hard to take too seriously Shandy’s ongoing quest to save Beth.

It’s the villains who really make the story: Hurwood is obsessed with trying to bring his wife back from the dead, and has a gruesome plan to accomplish this. Friend is a despicable figure who’s just looking to gain personal power. And Blackbeard, well, is a notorious pirate with a clever plan for effecting his retirement as the age of pirates is driving to a close. Blackbeard is the most fun of these, as he’s more self-confident and even humorous at times. All three are deeply threatening, though, and Beth is caught in the middle of all of their designs, so, by extension, Shandy is too.

Powers’ drawing of pirate culture is arresting, and it seems he did plenty of research on pirates of the age and of Blackbeard’s exploits (confirmed and rumored) in particular, although I imagine that aspect of the book would be more rewarding to someone who’s also a pirate aficionado (unlike myself). There are some cool references to better-known people and places, too.

The story’s biggest weaknesses are the bits that aren’t fully explained, or that don’t seem truly plausible. Aside from the what I’ve already mentioned: Hurwood suffers flashbacks to his youth, for no apparent reason. Magic is thrown around a little too lightly, with even some of the also-ran pirates being proficient in it for some reason. Sometimes Powers substitutes his characters being unable to fully control their magic in place of a proper framework within which the magic seems believable.

But there’s plenty of action and adventure, and that’s what carries the book. Despite it’s flaws, it’s better than a “nice try”, and is a solidly entertaining read.

Scalzi: Star Wars Not Entertainment

Not that he needs any referrals from me, but John Scalzi’s post “The Lie of Star Wars as Entertainment” is both funny and insightful.

(Scalzi, for the both of my readers who don’t know, is a prince of a man and also one of the world’s elite kitten-jugglers, er, I mean, one of the most popular bloggers on the Web.)

I think he goes a little over the top in criticizing the original trilogy (Star Wars, Empire and Jedi), though he does allow that people other than George Lucas worked to make it entertaining. But my understanding is that Lucas didn’t get on his myth-making kick until after the original Star Wars came out. (I thought the original trilogy was solidly entertaining until they rescued Han Solo in Jedi, at which point it took a bizarre left turn into la-la land.)

Another point to spin out of Scalzi’s post is…

…those of you who know me can see this coming, right?…

…you can level almost identical charges against Star Trek: The Next Generation, which was primarily concerned with stroking the asinine Trek mythology about a bright, shiny, happy future for humanity, and which shoved aside (with great force) all of the conflict and character drama which made the original Star Trek good entertainment. Like Star Wars Eps 1-3, NextGen is largely bland and tedious, because it’s fundamentally unconcerned with entertaining the viewer.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

Bad Company

A rant:

Some years ago I read the first three books in Kage Baker‘s “Company” series. I enjoyed them well enough, and was interested in continuing. But after the fourth book, The Graveyard Game had been published in hardcover, the publisher, Avon, stopped publishing the series.

Eventually the series was picked up by Tor Books, which published new novels in the series, and brought out the first four novels in trade paperback.

Only one problem: I had been reading the series in mass market (or “pocket”) paperback, and The Graveyard Game is the only volume in the series that neither publisher has brought out in mass market. So, I’m stalled on the series until Tor publishes it in mass market, because, y’see, I already own the first three volumes in mass market, and I just basically dislike the trade paperback format, which are take more space on my shelves than pocket books (and more expensive, of course), but are far less durable than hardcovers. Once upon a time I felt differently, but now I see that trades are the worst of both worlds.

I like Tor Books overall, but it frustrates me that they do many of their reissues in trade rather than mass market. I would probably buy a spiffy new copy of Vernor Vinge‘s Tatja Grimm’s World in mass market, but since the reissue is only in trade I’ll just keep hunting around until I find a nice-condition used copy of the old pocket edition.

I realize I’m just being a crusty old collector, but being a collector I’m picky about the versions I buy. So I wait. Eventually I figure someone will publish the edition I want, and then I’ll keep reading the Company series. No rush. I figure I’ll be around for another 50 years or so. In the meantime, I have plenty to read. Like those six months of SF magazines piled up under the end table…

Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s

Tonight Neil Gaiman came to Kepler’s. The moderator emeritus of our speculative fiction book group was able to score members of the group some great seats at the front of the room – a really nice gesture, as Gaiman is one of the bigger draws among touring authors, I think.

I’ve seen Gaiman twice before, once in 1998 at a small convention in Madison, and once in 2004 at Worldcon in Boston. He’s a terrific speaker, intelligent, funny and charming, and I certainly urge you to go see him if you have a chance.

Gaiman was up late last night at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, and he said tonight it’s because he read an astoundingly long story, and consequently he was apparently pretty worn down. He’s certainly a gamer, though, as you could hardly tell. He read a short story and a poem from his new collection, Fragile Things, took questions, and then (as he accidentally said) “hand[ed] until his sign [fell] off”.

I got him to sign my new copy of Fragile Things and my hardcover copy of the Sandman volume Dream Country. I now have four volumes of the series signed, so at this rate I should be done by about 2020!

A good time was had by all, including the various friends I saw there, not all of them from the book discussion group. I told you Gaiman was a big draw…