books February 2, 2015 Jack No comments

On “Use of Weapons”

I have been positively binging on Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. I actually wrote about Consider Phlebas, the first book in the series, a few months ago. Since then, I read The Player of Games and now I just completed Use of Weapons.

Spoilers ahead, of course.

First, let me give Banks a posthumous “I see what you did there.” The novel makes a point. The title is apt. Zakalwe (which I’ll use by convention to refer to the main character) is a great commander and master manipulator, perhaps the ultimate weapon himself. The book did a good job of conveying how he became so tortured, mercenary and ambivalent even while maintaining his drive for redemption.

I also appreciate that the book was very ambitious in its structure, with the reverse chronology of the historical storyline. I found this to be initially extremely confusing, but only because I think confusion is inherent in the execution of such a structure, rather than Banks’ execution being flawed. That said, I don’t think the unconventional structure helped tell the story effectively. Chapters of the book were sort of shoehorned so that the “twist” could occur on the final page of the work proper, but it left a lot of the flashback chapters deliberately vague, and – on first reading – utterly boring or nonsensical. I understand now, in retrospect, how these chapters related to the theme but as I was reading, and under the impression that Zakalwe was Cheradenine and not Elethiomel, they seemed to drag on and hang there, disconnected from the overall narrative.

For example, let’s dissect Zakalwe’s chair-phobia. There are three distinct interpretations of it, that develop as you read.

The first reasoning you find is that Zakalwe discovered Elethiomel having sex with Darckense in a chair in the summer house. This barely makes sense with the amount of fear of chairs Zakalwe shows, especially since it’s consensual sex and Zakalwe did nothing to stop them. It makes Zakalwe destroying the summer house seem like some gross over-reaction. This interpretation also makes the Chairmaker Darckense, which makes Zakalwe’s obsession with the Chairmaker seem a bit half-baked.

The second reasoning, that emerges in the last few chapters, is that Elethiomel made a chair out of Darckense’s bones. That definitely backs up the averse reaction to chairs. It also changes the motive for the summer house destruction to being reminded of the incident, a personal betrayal, as Major Zakalwe (Cheradenine pre-bone-chair) fights a war against Elethiomel, the Chairmaker, who we now know explicitly is the enemy they’re fighting.

The final reasoning, that drops with the last page of the book proper, is the Zakalwe is Elethiomel and not Cheradenine, Major Zakalwe’s (Cheradenine’s) actions are not those of the main character, and Zakalwe fears chairs because it’s a reminder of what he did to Darckense. Zakalwe is the Chairmaker.

Now, giving credit where credit is due, it’s a feat that the novel has three retroactive explanations of a single trait. However, the first explanation, that stood for 75% of the book, was poor – mostly because it’s really hard to justify an otherwise normal person having a terrible fear of chairs, and an obsession with his sister, the supposed Chairmaker. It seems clear that Banks designed the scene around the chair to put this interpretation forth (chair sex, plus filling us in on who made the chair which was irrelevant to the other two interpretations), so it’s just a kind of lame placeholder for the real reason that comes later.

Banks relates sex and war (a common theme in literature and music) so you could also view the summer house scene as a foreshadowing of Elethiomel’s violence against Darckense and the presence of chairs, but in the same chapter in which sex and war are related, nothing bad happens to Shias Engin (the woman that Zakalwe nee Elethiomel has sex with), so you could be forgiven for not jumping to conclusions when trying to determine whether that’s just a fanciful metaphor or a hint 100 pages later.

Another side-effect of this story-telling mechanism that I thoroughly disliked is just how many characters are introduced only to be forgotten. When you’re warping around time and space, it’s hard to give any characters a solid conclusion, much less minor ones added for exposition’s sake. The focus is clearly on Zakalwe and his humanity, his inhumanity, his struggle and how that relates to the Culture’s use of Zakalwe (war) to achieve its goals. Unfortunately, that focus is all consuming and the other plotlines are discarded entirely. Compared to the previous two Culture novels, in which the geo-political situation was clarified and almost every named character has an end, this was a disappointing departure. We never know the outcome of any number of Zakalwe’s exploits, even the one that was an integral part in his present-day storyline. I would have enjoyed more of Zakalwe’s back story if the vignettes had been more than just ways to advance information about how they had fucked with his mindset – even if having other meaningful outcomes is contrary to the overall message of bleak moral quandary.

Intellectually, I think I grasp the novel and why he made these choices I disagree with… and yet, as someone that reads for entertainment I have to ask “At what cost?” The narrative was tortured by the structure, and I believe that a better work could have been formulated from the bones of this story and a more conventional approach. Use of Weapons is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad book. Ambitious, yes. Flawed, maybe, but not bad. It’s hard to call it one-dimensional, but the description feels right. If not one-dimensional then perhaps fatally focused on getting across its heavy message.

television December 10, 2014 Jack No comments

On Sons of Anarchy

I’m not a huge fan of Sons of Anarchy. I got pulled into it with the young gangster conflicted about the violent life he was born into, trying to move on and make an exit, go legit. While the series was focused around that, it was good. Plenty of crime, violence, drama and internal conflict to spend 45 minutes watching it and be entertained. It effectively jumped the shark when Jax took over the club, and his plans to leave the life of crime ended (which was around the end of season 4).

From there, it’s decline wasn’t precipitous, but it was steady. Harold Perrineau was interesting and turned in a great performance as Damon Pope, the Lawful Evil businessman and it was great to watch Jax frame Clay for Damon’s murder, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Yet the die had been cast, and President Jax was never as strong a character as VP Jax under Clay. Jax failed to extricate the club from crime. Tara began to accept her criminal life, went to jail and became a copy of Gemma who by season 5 was intolerable to watch. Even in a crazy season 6, the lure of getting the kids out of Charming is enough to drive the plot and convince Tara and Jax to betray the club and serve a jail sentence just to break the cycle.

But this season… this season was terrible.

The first problem is that a lot of characters we were invested in are dead before the season even starts. The Jax – Tara dynamic is gone (she’s dead). The Jax – Clay dynamic is gone (he’s dead). Opie is dead. Juice is discredited. Eli, who was an excellent foil for Jax, is dead. Gemma has already long since become evil. The rest of SAMCRO have become paper cutouts.

The second problem is that Jax apparently has no brain. He burns everyone around him without any proof. He burns Lin, which burns Marks, and burns the Indian Hills charter with nothing but a whisper from Gemma. His mother, yes, but also someone that he knows isn’t trustworthy from the get go (anyone else remember Jax convincing Gemma to backstab Clay after she got high and nearly killed the boys in a car crash?).

And honestly, trustworthiness aside, how could you not suspect Gemma being the murderer? She was there and saw “an asian guy” escape. Jax is aware of Tara’s plans at the time of her death and knew that Gemma would have a problem with Tara leaving with the kids. Gemma actively encouraged Jax to kill Clay (and is in general a bad bitch), so it’s not like murder is somehow out of bounds for her. How does this not instantly cause suspicion in Jax? Well, he’s lost quite a few brain cells this season, apparently.

Even if you choose to believe that Jax’s loyalty would prevent him from suspecting his own mother killed his wife, why then blow up your whole world to exact vengeance on an a random asian guy without a shred of proof? Sure, Jax can’t go to Lin and ask politely if he had Tara killed, but he could definitely tap his police contacts (Unser, Patterson, Jarry – and speaking of tapping, Chibbs’ relationship with Jarry is unbelievably dumb) and find out, surprise, that guy was in a Vegas drunk tank, off the official record. He probably could have found this out if he’d taken the time to listen to the asian guy before brutally murdering him too, but I can understand why you wouldn’t want the distraction of talking in the middle of your ritual killing (I read that in an etiquette book once). The point is, this information isn’t exactly top secret and there are probably a lot of other ways you could debunk Gemma’s assertion without going to the Chinese, at which point it either becomes obvious that Gemma is the murderer, or that you at least need to spend more time to find out who is.

I want to make one more thing clear, as a lot of internet comments seem to be under the impression that all of this poor reasoning is due to Jax being destroyed by Tara’s death and that vengeance doesn’t have to be rational. I’d buy that, if it weren’t for the fact that Jax’s revenge takes the form of a plot to destroy Lin in retaliation. Plans that are laid out and executed over weeks and months, it’s not like Jax rolled out with a shotgun bent on revenge the night he found out Tara was dead. You can’t excuse shitty writing with blind vengeance. As it stands, Jax could apparently spend a huge amount of time and effort planning his revenge, put his life and the lives of his crew on the line, but not spend a 20 minute phone call to his police contacts, or some discreet inquiries on the street about whether his revenge made sense. Where is the cunning gangster that required proof of Clay’s misdeeds and then so perfectly orchestrated his downfall?

Beginning season 7, everyone knew that the season would hinge on how Jax dealt with the situation and he did poorly. It took more than half the season before Jax even questioned whether Gemma was full of shit. It took Abel overhearing Gemma saying something really dumb to Thomas for Jax to get it right. Seriously, who confesses a murder aloud, in a house full of people, to a toddler? It could’ve been anyone at that door. Wendy, Jax, a club member. At least Gemma started the show as a dumb spiteful bitch so she didn’t have to fall very far for her part in this season.

Which brings me to the finale itself. On the heels of Jax killing Gemma, Unser and indirectly Juice in what probably should have been the first 45 minutes of the finale instead of an independent episode, Jax basically spends all episode abandoning his club, abandoning his children to an ex-gangster and his ex-junkie ex-wife, and throwing his life away for no good reason. The writers desperately tried to shoehorn in some Christ imagery and Shakespeare to fool you into thinking the story has depth, but SOA’s finale was DOA.

Okay, okay, so maybe in the process of realizing that he’s gotten a lot of people killed and imprisoned pursuing vengeance on the wrong people he’s decided that he can’t be allowed to live. Somehow, he believes emulating his father’s murder makes some sort of point (what point? I have no idea). Yet, how would Jax’s life be different if he’d actually been raised by a father? How would the MC be different if JT was still in charge? When Jax destroys his own notes and his father’s notes, it’s because he doesn’t want his children to follow in his footsteps, but he fails to realize that children need good parents more than they need to be insulated from the evils of the past. Jax could be so much more effective if he actually manned up and raised those kids as a loving father. Everyone knew that Jax was going to die in the finale. It’s a cliche at this point. A trope. I just find it hard to believe that this hardcore gangster did it to himself. Then again, if I lost 50 points of IQ over the course of an off-season I might off myself too.

The only redeeming feature of Jax in this episode is his murdering Barosky and Marks and killing some of the Irish to set things right. But these are almost entirely independent to the rest of the plot. He walks away from both murders. At this point, a highly connected top level gangster like Jax could just make a bid to disappear. He could go to Nero’s farm with his kids. He could do anything yet he’s only apprehended when he, like a moron, decides to talk to his dead dad’s marker on the side of the road. That’s right, a suicidal gangster talks regrettingly to his murdered gangster dad and yet fails to realize that maybe he should allow Abel and Thomas to avoid the same situation by being there instead of being another stop on the Teller Highway Death Tour. I was disappointed with this bridge from Jax’s vigilante justice. If it was more intense, in perilous flight from the police, trying to reach a safehouse and eventually the boys I would have felt for him and felt that he was still attempting to honor that initial impulse from way back in season 1. Instead, it’s a flaccid and utterly baffling mirror of his dad’s accident, starting from it’s endpoint (oooh, symbolism).

The final scene is a weak “car chase” that’s really just a 30 mile an hour police funeral procession, some really terrible CG crows, and Jax decides to give the grill of an oncoming semi an up close inspection. What. The. Fuck.

To summarize, Jax finally puts someone else in charge of the MC, escapes club justice, tidies up the loose criminal ends, escapes real justice only to allow himself to be caught so… he can have witnesses to his suicide? If he didn’t decide to kill himself in the most terrifying painful way possible he could’ve gotten away with it and moved on with his life. No such luck.

I hated this season and this episode was garbage.

My only consolation is that SOA won’t be back and I don’t have to hear one more fucking awful Katey Sagal cover, or another butchering of Queen or Nirvana set to slo-mo shots of random gangster shit.

books, scifi October 1, 2014 Jack One comment

On ‘Consider Phlebas’

I’ve read my fair share of science fiction. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but when it comes to sci-fi (and most fiction for that matter) I’ve realized there are two major components. There are the ideas and the execution of them.

For example, Asimov was prolific and his stories were very good, but Asimov was an ideas kind of guy. His plots in The Foundation series, and the Lije Bailey stories in the Robot series were interesting because he envisioned a world that was quite different than ours and intricate enough to hang a good plot on, but when it comes down to it, the man wrote functionally. He conveyed his meaning, and you are interested in that meaning, but in the end I would characterize his style as austere. Very imaginative, but very plainly executed. Dry, even.

There are many titans of science fiction that are similar. In fact, I’d say that if you have great ideas and write sci-fi, it’s really not a burden to be lacking in prose. Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s not that they’re poorly written, it’s that they’re classics because of their ideas, or their satire rather than their language.

And of course that’s not to mention the raft of… lesser works out there. The works of Crichton, for example. Jurassic Park is a classic, but I’d put that more on Spielberg than Crichton. Crichton’s work in Congo and Sphere are fun reads, but nothing to write a thesis on. Timeline read like it was a screenplay-in-waiting. Fantasy, which is so often lumped in with sci-fi (and there is a blurry line in between) is rife with successful authors trading on ideas rather than execution. George R. R. Martin’s books are well conceived, but you read them to find out what happens next and not for the pleasure of reading them. Tolkien, who is the grandfather of all modern High Fantasy, is one of the worst offenders in this regard but he was a master of epic mythology and linguistics more than an author.

I bring these instances up not to shame these authors, in fact I’m a fan of all of them, but to note just how rare it is to find a really great author outside of “literary fiction” that trades in not just ideas, but also in writing that packs a punch and doesn’t shy away from being stylistic.

When I cracked Consider Phlebas, first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, I admit it was with trepidation. The term “space opera” gets thrown around a lot in a pejorative light and, quite frankly, I’m not really one to dig novels that are basically episodes of Star Trek or rehashes of Star Wars. I imagined that it would be yet another band of heroes fighting against an evil galactic empire, or some opposing alien (*yawn*) force. In the first chapter, trying to absorb the names alone made me fear that I’d started reading The Lord of the Rings in Space.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Consider Phlebas has everything. A compelling plot, believable relationships, well thought out action, clever (but not trite) dialogue, fantastic locations, realistic tech, vast scale, suspense, surprise, philosophy. I could go on. The best part of it is that Banks’ style rings clear and true from the first page to the last.

It’s been a long time since a novel has been able to really get me to picture each scene like Consider Phlebas did. The writing was never awkward, never confusing and yet extremely evocative. Amazingly, this includes feats like describing life on a massive Orbital that’s inherently beyond the sort of day-to-day experience we have in the 21st century. And it’s not just describing its shape or dimension or the people on it well, it’s making you feel like it’s a real place. That the people that live there are three dimensional and not just background noise of some boring plot point.

It’s similar with the technology, where Banks really went above and beyond. A lot of really great work (like Gibson’s Neuromancer, another of my stylistic favorites) benefits from the fact that it takes place in the near future. Things are different, but also the same. Banks had no such help, and yet even when detailing things that are literally only in the realm of sci-fi it has that tinge of truth behind it that lets your brain accept that such a thing is not only possible, but even likely. At one stage, he spent a few paragraphs describing just what it would look like looking out of the window of a spacecraft in hyperspace. It’s well trod ground between Star Wars’ hyperspace (all the stars turn into lines!) and Star Trek’s warp speed (the ship disappears into a point!) and likely touched on every single “space opera” between here and Jules Verne. And yet, Banks didn’t just cop out with a single sentence (“They went to hyperspace and all the stars turned into lines!”), he crafted a beautiful scene and included details of what would be seen, and how it relates to real space and celestial landmarks.

The final point I’ll mention in what should hopefully read as a ringing endorsement of Consider Phlebas is that between all of the wonderful metaphors and descriptive language, there is a lot of action and it is all well written. So often in text the excitement is dulled by awkward phrasing or poorly paced or ordered action sequences so I was pleased to find that even in the midst of battle I was able to easily follow what was going on without getting confused and having to re-read or getting bored with minutiae. The whole book flowed from static scene to dynamic battle and back again without skipping a beat.

If I had to register one complaint about the book it would be that it was too short, but even that criticism would only be a joke to underscore how much I enjoyed it.

If you’re a sci-fi reader, like me, that appreciates a little more weight in your worlds then you owe it to yourself to give Consider Phlebas a read. It is a masterpiece.