A Poor Review

Trying to become a better reviewer is hard, and I certainly didn’t expect it to happen in just a few months, even with paying some attention to it. As a critic (even an amateur one), it’s useful to look at other peoples’ reviews, as reviews are as worthy of criticism as other products.

So here’s a startlingly poorly-written review of the film Pan’s Labyrinth by film critic Kenneth Turan on NPR’s Morning Edition. A say it’s “startling” because I usually find that Turan is a pretty solid reviewer.

What I don’t like about this review is that it’s all pretty writing (Turan is quite a good writer) and applase for director Guillermo del Toro’s ability to make his fantasy setting seem realistic, even when juxtaposed against the (presumably) uncompromising view of life in 1944 Spain. But it doesn’t really tell us anything about the film’s story, which for a film of any depth really ought to be the first (or at least the second) thing a review addresses. Who is the girl who’s the presumed protagonist? What’s he background? What challenges does she have in her life and what does she encounter in the fantasy world, and how does the movie handle her story? From Turan’s review, I really have no idea.

(In the interest of full disclosure – and to pad this entry with a few more links – Tim Lynch – my old sparring partner from my days on the rec.arts.startrek USENET newsgroup – and I had a brief go-round about film reviews on Peter David’s blog a year and a half ago. He invoked Kenneth Turan’s name there in response to my general satisfaction with reviews in the San Jose Mercury News. I like Turan’s reviews well enough, but I don’t find them markedly better than the Merc’s.)

This won’t dissuade me from going to see Pan’s Labyrinth (I’ve been rather intrigued by it, actually), but if I was on the fence about it, I don’t think Turan’s review would have pushed me over the edge. I actually might have ended up thinking, “Well gee, it sounds like a rather depressing special effects extravaganda.”

Turan’s review in the LA Times (registration required) fills in some of the gaps, but I think he excised the wrong content when he condensed it for his NPR review. (To be fair, I don’t know how the NPR reviews are produced; maybe he reads his whole print review and then someone else edits it for time. But the end result is the same either way.)

Charles Stross: Glasshouse

Review of Charles Stross’ novel Glasshouse.

Glasshouse is a nifty little book about memory and identity. Although it could arguably take place in the same future as Accelerando, there’s no clear link between the two other than references to the “acceleration”.

Our hero, Robin, wakes up after having some of his memory removed, apparently at his own wish. In the recovery environment, he hooks up with a woman named Kay, but soon finds out that someone seems to be out to kill him. So he opts to sign up to live in an experimental environment designed to simulate the society of the “dark ages” (i.e., the late 20th/early 21st century). Once there, he finds that it’s maybe a little true-to-life for his tastes: There are no wormhole gates (T-gates) between habitats, and there are no nanotech assemblers (A-gates) to recycle and create objects, or to back up your memories. Everything must be done through manual labor, and aside from a hundred or so other volunteers for the experiment, the habitats are all occupied by zombie humans.

All this would be an inconvenience if Robin didn’t quickly become convinced that the overseers of the experiment were running some sort of scam: They set themselves up as religious leaders, and enforce desired behavior by means of a point system, which is supposed to result in more money earned once the experiment is over. But there are some oddities in the experiment, and loopholes in its rule system, which convinces Robin that something is very rotten indeed, and he’s still not sure why he had his memory edited, quite who he was before then, or who was out to kill him.

As Paul Di Filippo observed in his review, Glasshouse consciously absorbs and reconfigures many elements from earlier books by other authors. I’m not very familiar wih most of the references, although I have read a little Cordwainer Smith and John Varley, but Stross puts his own stamp firmly on the story, with a sardonic wit and lively narrative that makes this a much livelier and more engaging story than Accelerando, even if it’s not the nonstop parade of fantastic ideas that the previous book was.

Perhaps the best thing in the whole novel is the backstory: Glasshouse takes place after the “Censorship Wars”, where A-gates were infected with a software virus which fractured humanspace by editing peoples’ memories when they went into an A-gate. Although it’s largely part of the backstory, the sort of fragmentations that occurred and the extremes to which people were driven still haunts several of our characters. No wonder some of them want to forget certain things!

Stross asks many good questions which only become possible when memory editing is possible, and this leads into the main theme of the novel: What is identity? Not so much who we are (although that’s an important question), but who we think we are. Is continuity of memory necessary? Are skills necessary? Relationships to specific people? Gender? Attitude? And does it really matter? If you’ve lost some set of those elements, but retain others, is it important that you remember who you used to be?

Glasshouse also studies how Robin adjusts to the artifical culture in the experiment, especially since he doesn’t know anything about his fellow citizens, or whom to trust, or how extensively he’s being monitored. His sharp-tongued descriptions of life in the dark ages are hilarious, even in the rather grim context. But it’s also an interesting cauldron which brings out the worst in some characters, and the best in others.

Overall, the novel is thought-provoking, tense, and a lot of fun, with a fully rewarding climax and resolution. Stross is able to manage some concepts which might otherwise run away with the story and makes it all believable as well as exciting. It might not be as ambitious a novel as Accelerando, but I found it more enjoyable.

Tim Powers: Three Days to Never

Review of the novel Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.

Tim Powers’ works can be a little hit-or-miss, and I found his previous novel, Declare, to be rather slow going. Happily, Three Days to Never is a shorter, more fast-paced book for which it seems like Powers has more fully mastered some of the tools he was working with in Declare, such as the spy jargon.

The book takes place in 1987, and revolves around English professor Frank Marrity and his 12-year-old daughter Daphne. Peripherally it also involves his sister Moira, his mysterious father Derek, his grandmother Lisa, and his even more mysterious great-grandfather. Frank receives a message from Lisa that she’s destroying the shed in the back of her house, but when he and Daphne arrive the shed is intact, albeit filled with gas fumes. Daphne purloins a videotape from the shed and watches it later in the day, where it throws her into a trance, and causes the VCR to burn up with the tape in it.

The tape, it turns out, is special, as was Lisa, who turns up dead hundreds of miles away. Two different groups are hunting a secret which Lisa has kept hidden since before World War II: A deep cover cell of Israeli Mossad agents, led by a man named Lepidopt, who has premonitions that he’ll never experience certain things again. And also a cell of Vespers, a supernatural cult which includes a blind woman named Charlotte who can see through other peoples’ eyes. The secret everyone is hunting is a device which involved both Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin. The device is not strictly a MacGuffin, because it has a special power which is very much relevant to the story’s plot.

Much of the book revolves around the love that Frank and Daphne have for each other; it’s unusual to see a strong familial father-daughter bond in fiction, it seems to me. Now, they do have a rather unusual – nay, supernatural – link, which plays into the story, but it’s still touching to see. A lot of Three Days is wrapped up in family: Frank’s relationship to his family, Lepidopt’s feelings for his wife and son and how his sense of duty keeps him in America, Charlotte being a woman without a family, who hates herself for her blindness and desperately wants to find a way to change who she is, but who’s stuck in her depressing little cult cell because she has nowhere else to turn. The book’s climax hinges on characters making decisions because they figure out how to do the right thing for themselves and those they care about, or they wilfully continue to do the wrong thing because they don’t care about anyone else.

And on top of all of this, Frank gets some disturbing information about his life which forces him to set his priorities in order.

As usual, Powers put his characters through all kinds of hell: Blindness, a maimed hand, emergency throat surgery, and all that sort of fun stuff. Sometimes his penchant for physical brutality seems eiither comical or disgusting, but it doesn’t go to either extreme here, because the stakes are high enough and the events seem to flow naturally from the plot’s situations.

And it’s chock-full of the neat ideas which often seemed to be absent in Declare: Frank and Daphne’s special connection, the strange videotape, the secret Lisa was hiding, another secret which can erase people from history, and a variety of lesser magics as well as the spy stuff that the Mossad agents and Vesper members practice reflexively. Lepidopt’s premonitions that he’ll never do certain things again after he does them is quite creepy, and Charlotte’s depression and he use of her remote sight are both starkly portrayed. Although none of the characterizations are particularly deep, they’re varied and vivid and help keep the book engaging.

The book’s climax is satisfying enough, although having spent most of the book expecting one of the characters to employ the secret Lisa was keeping, the way it’s used is unexpected and a little disappointing; the history of the secret was in some ways more satisfying. And the story could perhaps have used slightly more denouement.

Still, it’s a good return-to-form for Powers. Not quite as good as Last Call, but one of his better books.

Jack McDevitt: Seeker

Review of the novel Seeker by Jack McDevitt.

I’m a big fan of McDevitt’s second novel, A Talent For War (which was recently reissued), but I was disappointed in its first sequel, Polaris, and I’m equally disappointed in Seeker.

I think the fundamental problem is that the adventures of antiquarian Alex Benedict and his aide Chase Kolpath have quickly become fomulaic: Discover that at some point in the past something went mysteriously missing, slowly draw back the slender thread of evidence which has survived the years (or millennia) to the present day, and then unravel the mystery, usually with some present-day danger thrown in. In Seeker, the quarry is the nine-thousand-year-old colony ship Seeker, which was apparently stumbled on by some government surveyors, who died before they told anyone their secret. The Seeker was one of the first big colony ships from Earth, which left in the 27th century, and its value could be incalculable. Meanwhile, Alex and Chase have to contend with the surly owner of the relic which put them on the trail, as well as a secret foe who seems to want to kill them for mysterious reasons.

All three Benedict books have basically the same formula, so why does Talent work so well for me when the other two don’t? First of all, it’s narrated by Alex, who is a much more engaging character than Chase, who narrates the other two. Indeed, Alex seems like something of a heel when Chase talks about him, while he’s more sympathetic – and fallable for more likeable reasons – in his own voice. Second, the moral ambiguities that Alex uncovers in Talent‘s historical figure are more powerful and better drawn than we see in the later books. Lastly, Talent is a novel which changes the status quo of its hero and his world – a tough trick to plausibly pull off in three consecutive novels.

McDevitt’s strength is to present his settings with the proper sense of scale, the vast timeframes, the stature of the historic figures, the loneliness of abandoned or lost ships, stations and planets, the feeling of opportunities passed. He doesn’t get it all perfect (human civilization feels too contemporary to feel like it’s nine thousand years in the future, for instance), but it works well enough. He’s also good at writing a page-turner, with enough suspense and anticipation to make Seeker enjoyable.

But it feels like something’s missing, an essential weight to the story, or depth to the characterization. So, like Polaris, Seeker is merely light reading. A good change of pace from some of the heavy stuff I tend to read, but whether I’ll continue following Alex and Chase in the future, I don’t know.

Alastair Reynolds: Galactic North

Review of the short story collection Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds’ other collection published this fall, Zima Blue and Other Stories, is a good collection, but Galactic North is the shit, man!

It collects Reynolds’ short stories set in the universe of his cycle of novels starting with Revelation Space. It’s almost a primer of how his future history developed, featuring several pivotal events mentioned in the novels, as well as a few characters who either appear or are alluded to there. The collection actually almost works as its own standalone story cycle, which is pretty neat since it wasn’t written that way.

Reynolds’ basic strengths are his ability to create and describe places that feel truly alien, or at least deeply disturbing, and his flair for suspense and horror. For instance, “Nightingale” features the hunt for a war criminal onto a dormant automated hospital ship, which is about as frightening an environment as one can imagine: What exactly do you think a hospital ship needs to be like in order to care for the injured during a war? And on top of that it’s dark and potentially airless, and was run by an artificial intelligence whose mental state is anyone’s guess. You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, knowing that eventually it will. And then when it does, Reynolds twists the knife in an unexpected and hideous way. While essentially a haunted house story, it’s gripping stuff.

Reynolds also explores the nature of humans who have been modified into something unusual. The first story in the sequence, “The Great Wall of Mars”, concerns the Conjoiners – humans who have formed a technological group mind – and the opposition they face from the rest of humanity, who are afraid the Conjoiners will absorb everyone else into their fold. In contrast to the common thinking about posthuman experience – which is often portrayed as unknowable or at least weirdly alien and antithetical to the human experience – Reynolds explores the thoughts and motivations of these nascent posthumans, drawing them as all-too-human, a sort of enlightened cult. The story’s protagonist, Nevil Clavain, arrives among the Conjoiners as a negotiator and learns that they are playing a deeper game than anyone had suspected.

Similarly, “Weather” takes place in a damaged lighthugging starship, and provides some insight into the mysterious Conjoiner Engines of the novels, and another oblique glimpse into the lives of the Conjoiners themselves. It’s basically a short character drama, but it illuminates the backdrop considerably.

There are two other stories which provide a glimpse of the early days of Reynolds’ future history: “Glacial” is a mystery about a dead – and unexpected – human colony, and lets us visit with some friends from “Great Wall” again. “A Spy in Europa” is a rather brutal spoy story which descends into horror. It’s not as polished as “Nightingale”, but it sheds some light on another faction in the setting, the Demarchists, who walk a fine line between heaven and hell, but of course are as fallible as all the rest of us.

“Grafenwalder’s Bestiary” concerns the legacy of those early Demarchist days, and the dangers of obsession, as its titular figure is obsessed with collecting creatures from around the galaxy and showing them off to his peers, and is interested in acquiring one special creature in particular. It contains echoes of Reynolds’ novel Chasm City (my favorite of his novels), but has its own unique sense of foreboding and terror. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” sort of story.

The volume wraps up with the title story, which follows its characters on a chase far into the future, while humanity is otherwise threatened by an implacable foe. I can see what Reynolds was aiming for here, with characters living for millennia through time dilation, focused (more or less) on their specific goals, but I had trouble connecting with the characters or believing in their motivations over such a long time frame. I found the nature of the foe to be a little hard to swallow, too. The story is okay, its grand scope making it an interesting curiosity, but it feels more like a writing exercise for dealing with lengthy timeframes, which comes into play in the novels. Still, I liked it more than the other story in the collection, “Dilation Sleep”, which is a pretty straightforward “things are not what they seem” yarn. To be fair, Reynolds’ afterward suggests that it was written earlier than the other stories in the book.

But very few short story collections hit home runs every time, and Galactic North does much better than most in that regard. There are stories here to delight, provoke, horrify, and wonder at. It’s outstanding, and it reminds me (once again) that Reynolds really is one of the very best writers of science fiction working today.

Elizabeth Moon: The Speed of Dark

Review of the novel The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon.

  • The Speed of Dark

    • by Elizabeth Moon
    • PB, © 2002, 369 pp, Del Rey Books, ISBN 0-345-48139-9

There’s probably a great science fiction novel out there about people with autism, but I don’t think this is it. The Speed of Dark takes place in the near future, where autistic people received treatment to help them to function better in society, and eventually autism can be fully treated in infants. The book’s protagonist is Lou Arrendale, a middle-aged autistic man who received the former treatment. He is part of a group of autistics who work at a large company, and he has non-autistic friends, especially the people in the fencing group he’s part of.

The novel is very low on what I call “ideas content”, meaning there’s little that’s different in the book’s world from the real world, and thus it seems barely to qualify as science fiction (or even fantasy). The treatment that Lou received is really only a plot device to make him functional enough to relate his story, but then, there are high-functioning autistics in the real world, so it’s not much of a leap.

The book spends most of the first half portraying the basic nature of Lou’s life, which gets repetitive rather quickly. It’s revealed that there is an experimental treatment for adult autistics that could make them normal, and the book walks a balancing act regarding whether Lou will be forced to have the treatment, and whether he would even wish to do so. (The book plays the usual semantic games with whether or not autistics are “normal”; I use the term “normal” here simply as a shorthand for “not autistic”.)

Moon is a very good writer in her smithing of words and her ability to evoke emotions, and Lou is a likeable character. But ultimately I just wasn’t interested in the portrayal of the life of an autistic man in-and-of-itself (it wasn’t nearly as interesting as, say, reading Al Schroeder’s journal – now defunct – and his accounts of his two autistic sons, for instance), and beyond that there wasn’t much to the story. I think it would have been a much better novel had the treatment itself been the central element of the story, and focused exploring that transition in greater depth, but it barely merits an afterthought. The Speed of Dark could have been a much more expansive and challenging piece of work, but I thought it ended up being a fairly mundane novel with an unusual protagonist.

(The Speed of Dark was the November 2006 selection for Kepler’s Books’ speculative fiction book club.)

Marillion: This Strange Engine

Review of the album This Strange Engine by Marillion.

This is the album that set me on my current vector of progressive rock fandom.

I’d been a fan of Marillion in the 80s, having enjoyed the albums with Fish as the vocalist, but I felt they’d kind of lost their way with Brave. Meanwhile, I’d become less interested in popular music during the 1990s, and by the late 90s most of my music purchases were jazz. But all that changed when I found This Strange Engine in the used bin.

This album is widely disliked by Marillion fans, which I don’t understand at all since it seems more like the much-revered Fish-era albums than any other album produced during Steve Hogarth’s tenure as vocalist. Its arrangements and performances are tight and strong, with clear melodies and a great sound texture. The main complaint I hear is that it’s somehow more pop and less prog than earlier albums, yet it certainly seems no more pop to me than Misplaced Childhood or Clutching at Straws (both great albums). Neo-progressive groups like Marillion are all about fusing pop and prog anyway, and This Strange Engine is neo-prog at its best.

The album is bookended by two longer songs, which are also the standout tracks of the album: “Man of the Thousand Faces” is a really cool song whose first half is primarily acoustic – driven by guitar, piano and Hogarth’s vocals – and then segues into a loud, electric section, which chugs along to the sound of Pete Trewevas’ bass guitar. I’m not the biggest fan of Hogarth’s vocal style, but he has a strength and clarity on this track that really carries the song.

The title track closes the album. It’s reminiscent of Marillion’s earliest albums when keyboardist Mark Kelly would from time to time just be turned loose on his synthesizer, and he has a great solo here, as well as some of his more distinctive work mixed into the arrangement. I don’t think he’s ever sounded as good on the albums after this one. It opens with Hogarth speaking quietly over the opening notes before opening up into the initial melody, but it’s one of those prog tracks which cascades from one movement to the next across brief transitional moments, a common structure for a prog track but one which I know many people used to standard pop music structures find jarring or even pointless. Me, I love it, as it gives the band space for more ideas and more freedom to express those ideas. It ends with a repetitive melody which starts quietly and builds to the song’s climax, in much the same manner as the first track.

If “This Strange Engine” – the track – has a flaw, it’s that the last 15 minutes is dead air followed by a brief, pointless bit of laughter. I edited that part out when I loaded it into my MP3 library.

(I am, in general, not very attentive to lyrics when I listen to music. To me, the vocals are simply another instrument, and a lyric needs to have some je-ne-sais-quoi to grab my attention. Although the lyrics – generally by Hogarth or by lyricist John Helmer – are interesting at times, usually I just register that they seem evocative, which underscores the imaginative and often epic quality which I appreciate in progressive rock. So don’t look for insightful comments on the lyrics here – it’s the music that I enjoy.)

I tend to think of the other tracks as being shorter pieces sandwiched between these two monsters, but some of them are nearly as long as the 7-1/2 minute running time of “Man of a Thousand Faces”.

The up-tempo songs are a lot of fun: “80 Days” is a pretty straightforward song which maybe explains the pop leanings that some fans don’t like about this album. On the other hand, “An Accidental Man” is a nifty, up-tempo track with droning vocals over a neat guitar riff. The lyrics have a sharp feel which give the track an additional edge. “Hope For the Future” has a vaguely caribbean sound and some punchy horn backing, and is just fun to hear.

“One Fine Day” is a slower, melancholy track with some nice melodies – including a solid guitar solo – which I enjoy when the mood strikes me. “Memory of Water” is the other slow track, almost a cappella, which doesn’t have much in the way of melody and isn’t really my cup of tea. “Estonia” seems to be the best-loved track on the album by many other fans. I think it’s pretty good, very atmospheric, with moody synth work by Kelly and some nifty (what sounds like) Mandolin backing as well.

I never get tired of listening to this album. It may not be perfect, but its high are very high, and most of it is quite strong. If you know me and ever wonder what I enjoy about progressive rock, a lot of it is right here: Long tracks that develop one or more musical ideas at length and in depth, and complex, engaging arrangements.

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Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and Other Stories

Review of Alastair Reynolds’ short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Reviewing short story collections is hard, even when it’s a collection by one of my favorite SF authors. Reynolds in fact has two collections out this fall, of which this is the first.

Reynolds’ forte is telling atmospheric stories – often with strong philosophical underpinnings – which nonetheless qualify as hard science fiction. His stories therefore are usually pretty heavy stuff, but no less enjoyable for that. He works the edge of the “posthuman” milieu which has become popular these days, although he often write straight-up space opera.

My favorite story? Maybe “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, which takes place in a universe with wormhole travel among stars which humanity has taken advantage of. The wormholes seem to end at the edge of the Aquila Rift, but of course the universe doesn’t end there, so eventually someone ends up going beyond it, by accident. This story I think perfectly encapsulates the sense of otherness which is often present in Reynolds’ stories, and the sense of loss that seems to come with being immersed in the other.

Reynolds tends to write a lot of far-future space opera, and two stories in here occur in the same such universe: In “Hideaway”, a small remnant of humanity is on the run from the cyborg creatures which have taken over the species. Their backs to the wall, they end up in an unusual star system which tantalizingly contains the seeds of escape. It’s followed up with “Merlin’s Gun”, concerning the hunt for a weapon which might be used to defeat the enemy. Both tales leave some story elements hanging – deliberately – but it’s the setting and characters and their approach to their dilemmas which is what drives the stories: How far will you go in the pursuit of your goals, and what are you willing to pay to achieve them?

Reynolds provides illuminating afterwords to each story, and he observes that the future of reporter Carrie Clay is perhaps a rather nice one to live in. In “The Real Story”, she interviews the men (?) who first stepped on Mars, decades after they accomplished the feat. It’s a neat little tale of ambiguity and – again – sacrifice and loss. In “Zima Blue” she interviews the foremost artist of her age, and learns something about art, humanity and memory. Reynolds turns the neat trick of taking what seems (to me) like a trite central idea and dressing it up into a rather elegant story.

The story that perhaps best shows Reynolds’ penchant for grandiloquent explorations of the nature of the universe is – naturally enough – “Understanding Space and Time”. It begins as a “last man standing” tale of loneliness verging on madness, and ends on a too-large-for-mere-words scale of understanding reality. Both parts of the story are interesting, although not fully successful, to my mind. It’s quite a page-turner, however.

Of course, not all the stories grabbed me – not unusual for a science fiction collection. I think sometimes the atmosphere overwhelms the story, or maybe is the whole point of the story, and the piece doesn’t come together for me. I think this was the case in both “Enola” and “Angels of Ashes”, for instance. On the other hand, “Signal to Noise” is a straightforward character yarn about (just barely) parallel worlds, but I found it rather routine. None of these were bad, but they were a few notches below the stories above.

The limited edition contains one more story written specially for this collection, which is pretty annoying since I don’t have the limited edition. Hopefully “Digital to Analogue” will be collected in another volume sometime.

Zima Blue is a better-than-average short story collection, and if you enjoy Reynolds or like dark space opera, then it should be right up your alley.

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

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.