February 24, 2010

Book 10: Rock Bottom

Rock Bottom
Michael Shilling

Blurbs are usually somewhat uninformative, simply self-serving little sentences praising a work. The information available on the cover of Michael Shilling's Rock Bottom, however, is quite revealing, including blurbs from colleagues at Michigan and proclamations that, due to the fact that he was once in a Rawk Band, Shilling Totally Gets It, Dude. While there is certainly a can-do spirit about the novel, which chronicles the awesome rise and demise of a four-piece joke outfit, the over-eagerness and author's desperate search for credibility are its most striking aspects. Yes, more striking than the constant over-the-top attempts to gross-out the audience (really, the bass player's eczema is overplayed) and his brave (and annoying) attempt to use the word "fuck" in every single sentence of his book. It's very easy to see what Shilling gets wrong, from hopelessly stereotypical characters to the clear fact that the book is obviously a Mary Sue-type experience for its author, but there is some talent throughout. Shilling takes five characters who loathe each other and alternates the narrative's perspective to make each of them, except for the bass player, Bobby, more or less sympathetic in a matter of minutes. This ambiguity is the truest chord struck by the novel, which shows many sides of a situation without calling undue attention to the fact that it's doing it.

Overall, however, it's hard to really appreciate this novel. Interesting enough and with its moments of wit (and occasional good digs at showbiz), Shilling's authorial flaws simply draw too much attention to themselves. Constantly referring to his characters as "the singer" or "the guitar player" in places where names or pronouns would be more than sufficient, Shilling comes off as pretentious, an air echoed when he mangles the renegade sex-maniac drummer's Coming of Age experience. The author's desperate desires to be at once Very Cool and Hip and a Good Writer collide often in this novel, with hilariously wrong depictions of the world of rock and roll, particularly a party scene so disjointed that it seems nearly impossible Shilling has ever been to a party in his life. Strangely, however, despite its structural flaws and obvious wannabe attitude, Rock Bottom is oddly compelling. Shilling does bring to life a cast of characters who are, despite their typecasting, interesting enough to follow around Amsterdam for a day. Rock Bottom has its moments of great humor and insight, and deftly handles its multiple perspectives. This book may be laughably far away from the real thing, but there are glimpses of wit and talent and, overall, the ride isn't so bad...until the hangover.

Grade: B-

February 15, 2010

Book 9: Seven Seasons of Buffy

Seven Seasons of Buffy: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Discuss Their Favorite Television Show
Edited by Glenn Yeffeth

I return to my favorite alternate reality with Seven Seasons of Buffy, which came on my radar because a number of prominent genre writers I enjoy contribute essays to the collection, which is a fan-based, casual examination of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from a number of different and interesting viewpoints. Though the anthology's essays vary considerably in quality, style, and viewpoint, each has a significant and heartfelt contribution to make to readers' understanding of the extraordinary show. Essay topics run the gamut, from Jacqueline Lichtenberg's wonderful and academic "Power of Becoming" to a defense of Xander disguised as a demon pupil's final essay ("Is That Your Final Answer...?" by Roxanne Longstreet Conrad). In the case of the latter, and of many of the weaker essays, the author tries just a bit too hard to be on point or tries a bit too hard to strain towards a casual or academic tone. The best essays, by contrast, are neither ashamed of the author's unabashed love of this quirky little show nor overly concerned with how they sound; it is obvious that many of the essayists in Seven Seasons of Buffy want to use their allotted pages to share something they love, or find troubling, about the show, and the essays that flow naturally are, naturally, the strongest of the collection.

Among these excellent tributes to an excellent show, two in particular stand out: Scott Westerfeld's "A Slayer Comes to Town" and Justine Larbalestier's "A Buffy Confession." Though Margaret L. Carter does a good job sorting out the uses of alternate realities and parallel timelines in her essay "A World Without Shrimp," her examples become repetitive and, unfortunately, the subject has been treated more effectively by Westerfeld. His examination of the general tropes at play in these kinds of narratives, and how they relate to the Buffyverse, is brilliant, placing Buffy in the context of science fiction and other genres while exploring a facet of the show that makes it uniquely brilliant. This is the best example of the more academically-minded essays in the group, but Larbalestier best exemplifies the overly devoted, fanboy/fangirl-type essays. Her Buffy confessions are heartfelt without becoming overwrought, with the possible exception of her evisceration of season 7 (which may not, in truth, be entirely unwarranted), and her examples of Buffy festivals, tracing the thematic threads of the series through episodes and seasons, will soon be replicated in my own apartment. Her love of shines through every word and this essay, half of which is constructed as a defense of the show and of purely sitting back and enjoying it (heaven forbid!), should surely set in motion Anya's-Afraid-of-Bunny-Rabbits festivals throughout Buffy fandom.

Seven Seasons of Buffy gets off to a slow start and is somewhat uneven, but each author has clearly put consideration and care into their writing about the show. Tackling different aspects of the show from a considerably casual viewpoint allows the book to maintain an air of conversation between the authors and their readers, linking fans together and giving Buffy devotees a fair share of intellectual fodder for consideration and debate. The collection would benefit from a better introduction (Drew Goddard's page and a half is very nearly unreadable) and by putting its essays in order; its current grouping swings from subject to subject and would benefit from some considered thought. Glenn Yeffeth has, however, succeeded in bringing together a number of talented and entertaining writers to discuss many of the different aspects of what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer great television, great art, and, most importantly, a lot of fun. Buffy fans should embrace this opportunity to dive back into Sunnydale and get to the heart of the issues explored by Joss Whedon and company during the show's seven year run of brilliance.

Grade: A-

February 13, 2010

Book 8: The Surrogates

The Surrogates
Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele

When Second Life first became a large presence, there was a lot of discussion about online avatars and the perils of living your life through, well, a surrogate self. This idea is brought to the world of the real in The Surrogates, a quick sci-fi/mystery hybrid that takes place in a world where the real has been mostly exchanged for a life lived by surrogates, virtually controlled bodies that have radically altered human interaction in the mid 2000s. Venditti successfully intersperses the plot of The Surrogates with subplots and additions that examine some effects the widespread use of surrogates has had on the population of Central Georgia Metropolis, and it is no coincidence that a renegade group of religiously-fueled anti-surrogate humans plays a central role in the development of the graphic novel. The plot can wear a bit thin at times, with its big reveal not-too surprising and its conclusion full of expected thematic ambiguity, but The Surrogates is nonetheless compelling throughout. The story itself and the science that drives it are a compelling and well-thought-out extrapolation of the central premise of surrogacy. Accompanying the story is the artwork of Brett Weldele, extremely compelling in its harried, unfinished pencil-based lines and uneven coloring. Weldele has a particular visual style that relies on monochromatic scenes, themes, and spreads that help tie the novel together thematically and enhance the reading experience. The Surrogates creates a relevant and realistic future world as its artwork embellishes its noir-ish feel and is, all told, a satisfying graphic novel.

Grade: A

February 8, 2010

Book 7: Flashforward

Robert J. Sawyer

I never watched the eponymous ABC series, but I was from the start intrigued by the central premise of Flashforward: that, for two minutes or so, humanity suffers a mass blackout and a vision of the future. With such an interesting premise, and especially with a pair of well-esteemed CERN physicists as the story's central characters, there are many interesting problems to explore about the Meaning of It All. Robert J. Sawyer, however, misses most of these opportunities despite admirable attempts at channeling metaphysical problems through the lens of, well, physics. Using scientists as protagonists allows Sawyer to place the bulk of the story around the scientific core of the events of the novel, but it results in some stilted prose and unrealistic dialog. Coupled with some overdone scientific explanation in the novel's second act, the primacy of science hampers the novel and prevents it from addressing the great philosophical concerns that should be its driving force. Instead, the roles of fate and choice in human life are relegated to condescension and unrealistic scientific debate by people who would be significantly more aware of the debates they are engaging in than their over-justified prose shows.

Strangely, though, for its stilted cardboard characters and its over-reliance on science in a particularly human drama, Flashforward is continually compelling. Neither Theo nor Lloyd, the book's leading players, may be especially unique or even compelling, but the murder-mystery aspect fits in well with the book's central premise and successfully drives the plot until Sawyer begins grasping for straws in the third act, where the book loses almost all of its momentum. This is almost criminal given that the final act explores the future seen at book's beginning and should resolve most of the plot; unfortunately, however, the flow of time in Flashforward is as stilted as some of its prose and much of its interpersonal reactions and any impact Sawyer's take on fate and choice may have had is dulled by excessive explanations, rendering the book's resolution moot by the time it arrives. Added to Sawyer's occasionally hilarious missteps in reading 2009 (surely it is reasonable to expect that futurists of 1999 would foresee DVDs supplanting VHS tapes?), the floundering plot makes Flashforward an initially intriguing foray into the nature vs. nurture that turns stale because the author just doesn't have the writing chops to carry his ideas to enjoyable fruition. Flashforward is, despite its flaws, oddly compelling, but ultimately fails to deliver on its excellent ideas.

Grade: C

February 2, 2010

Book 6: Overclocked

Overclocked: Stories of the Future Present
Cory Doctorow

If there is one thing to be said about Cory Doctorow's fiction, let it be said that the reader is never unsure where he stands on the ethical issues he presents in his stories. From Little Brother to "Anda's Game," Doctorow draws a clear line in the sand regarding technology and digital rights. This convinction is usually admirable, but Doctorow's relentless optimism also makes his stories a bit less powerful and prevent them from packing an adequate punch, invariably becoming an unbelievable, deus-ex-machina with sunshine and a smile. This is not to say, for example, that system administrators could not rebuild a world riddled with a cacophony of simultaneous terror attacks (as in "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth"), but that a story with some wonderfully dark moments does not automatically require a happy, pleasant ending. Doctorow's stories are compelling and feature intriguing plotlines involved the increased ability of nations and corporations to wage "infowar," but occasionally he allows his personal convictions to overwhelm the story, much to its detriment. This effect is most pronounced in "After the Seige," an otherwise moving picture of slightly futuristic lopsided warfare; though his introduction makes his allegorical ambitions clear, the reasons for the seige are presented in a fashiion reminiscient of name-dropping. Doctorow wants Overclocked and "After the Seige" to reflect something, dammit, even if he has to awkwardly cram it in.

This tendency toward the Obvious Hammer is unfortunate, because there are many interesting ideas explored and alluded to throughout the book. "Printcrime," for example, is a well-executed and brief allegory for digital content copying that actually works; instead of torturing a tangentially related plotline, Doctorow allows the technological exploration to drive the plot and, together, they create an excellent little story. "Anda's Game," likewise, manages to avoid the overly-saccharine for the bulk of its story, setting up such an interesting and obvoiusly allegorical situation that the more subjective insertions actually take away from the strength of the plot, which in this case can be trusted to stand on its own (though perhaps with some more believable dialogue). "I, Row-Boat," however, lacks some of this drive and doesn't quite accomplish the depth of meaning it aspires to, due likely to under-explained mental developments that hamper understanding. The centerpiece of Overclocked, "I, Robot," provides an excellent representation of the collection as a whole. Riffing successfully on Asimov and a bit too dramatically on Orwell, the story argues for the freedom of all information to the detriment of both the plot and the argument: it's just too sickly sweet, too perfect, to be believable. This, then, is the fundamental world of Overclocked. Cory Doctorow has many brilliant ideas and fiery opinions, but is unable to successfully utilize short fiction as a platform on which to advocate for them.

Grade: B-