Monday, May 24, 2010


Just finished watching the "Lost" series finale.  It was going to take way too long past my bedtime, so instead I got set up to get a copy of it, went to bed, and then woke up an hour earlier this morning so I could see it before coming in to work.  Ordinarily I wouldn't have bothered, but with a series event like this, the risk was just too great that I would get spoilered in the 24 hours between original airtime and when I would have seen it.

I've been a pretty faithful fan of "Lost" throughout most of its run.  I started watching it partway through the first season.  I was initially attracted to it in the ads on ABC, or, more specifically, by Dominic Monaghan's infamous line reading: "Where are we?"  "That's Merry!" I thought.  "Gee, I miss those hobbits.  That show could be good!"  After I missed the first few episodes, I figured I'd take a flyer, but I kept on hearing about how good it was, so, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I got caught up.  Back then, getting caught up meant a weekend, not months of nightly viewing.

At the time, I thought that those first few episodes of "Lost" were some of the most compelling television I'd ever seen.  The overarching sense of mystery, the incredible tension that filled the episodes, the fact that nobody was safe and anybody could be killed at any time - those things all made Lost more than any other drama I'd seen before, elevating it to a level of quality that I tend to associate with movies. 

Of course, it turned out to not be such an outlier.  I firmly believe that the past decade has produced some amazing television, and that TV can now actually make an argument for being a legitimate art form.  There's a lot to be said for why this is so, but I think a big part of the reason comes down to technology.  Shows like "Lost" and "The Wire" and "Battlestar Galactica" are so complex, so deep, so interwoven, that even if you watch every episode it can be hard to keep up with the plot.  If you miss an episode, you're, well, lost.  In the old days that would be it; now, thanks to the Internet, and Hulu, and Netflix, it's possible to get into a show after a few seasons, or to get caught up after missing a night.  That gives writers the courage to demand more of their viewers, trusting them to keep pace, instead of needing to spoon-feed them pablum.

"Lost" started in mystery.  It moved into reversal.  From about midway through the first season through the end of the second season, pretty much everything about the show was devoted to revealing that everything was the opposite of what it had initially seemed.


Sawyer seems like a hardened criminal.  Guess what?  He's really a sweet and loyal guy.  Kate sure seems nice.  Guess what?  She's a murderer!  Wait, hold on, double-reversal: the victim deserved it!  Boy, I can't believe that the sweet Sun is stuck with that awful husband Jin!  Uh-oh... turns out that Jin is an amazing guy who sacrificed everything for Sun, and she's an unfaithful betrayer!

In case you can't tell, it was around this time that I started to lose a little faith in the series.  This was largely due to the practical reason that they were taking everything I liked about particular characters and destroying it.  Hurley was no longer a fun-loving, good-natured dude; Locke was no longer the serenely confident prophet of the island.  And, biggest of all, the series was turning from its early mysterious, frankly occult sensibility, into a boring fourth-grade science class.  "Oh, supernatural forces had nothing to do with us getting here - it's because of these gol-darn magnets!"

Fortunately, they turned it around, and how!  After the mystery phase and the reversal phase, the series eventually settled into what I like to think of as the complexity phase.  The writers embraced the mythology that they were creating, and just ran with it.  Instead of getting stuck with the choice between explaining mysteries or not explaining mysteries, they dug deeper, actually telling a story instead of stalling, but at the same time expanding their horizons and pulling more threads into the weave.  One of the most amazing things about "Lost" is how fluid its cast has been.  Early on I was impressed by how many major characters died; later, I was impressed by how many major characters were added in late acts.  Some of these, especially Desmond and Ben but also Miles, Daniel, Jacob, and Whitmore, became incredibly important.


I keep on remarking to people about how impressed I was at the show's final turn.  For a long time the distinctive narrative trick of the show was the flash-back; each episode continued the story on the island, but also included a wrapped story about a castaway's prior life.  There was an amazing shift when the show started presenting flash-forwards, presenting what happened to characters after they left the island.  After you've gone back and you've gone forward, well, you've done everything, right?

Nope!  Only if you're thinking of time as a one-dimensional axis.  The final season started to flash SIDEWAYS, into a parallel existence.

Early on, I (and probably most other people) assumed that we were seeing a parallel timeline.  The previous season's finale ended with the detonation of an atomic bomb in the 1970's, which was supposed to have undone the chain of events that led to the plane crash.  The characters remained on the island, so it seemed to have failed; but, they were also safely on the ground in the flash-sideways, so it seemed to have worked.  It seemed reasonable to think that we were seeing two diverging views of reality, depending on whether or not the bomb had worked. 

As the season progressed, though, that view became less and less clear.  We gradually learned that there were deeper changes in the characters beyond the plane crash.  Sawyer was no longer a con man; he was now a cop.  Locke was still in a wheelchair, but instead of his injury being the result of a confrontation with his awful father, it was from a plane crash with his wonderful father.  I began so suspect that something else was going on.


In the end, it turned out that we weren't seeing a parallel timeline, but a parallel existence.  In the tension between science (quantum theory) and mysticism (afterlife), I think mysticism finally won out, but there ended up being a great unity between them.  As best as I can make it, we were seeing an afterlife, a sort of purgatory after characters had died and before they moved on.  Hurley, who has become the guardian of the Island, uses his powers (which, as we know from watching Jacob, expand past the island's borders) to comfort them, reunite them, and bring them forward.

This is all delicious, because, of course, people have been speculating from the very first season that the island is a purgatory; I don't think people were expecting it to be the prelude to purgatory (at least, I wasn't).  The last episode was filled with several of these great, semi-winking references for fans.  One of my favorites was when Sawyer says to Jack, "So, you're the new Jacob?  Don't you think that's kind of the obvious choice?"  Of course, that's what people have been saying all over the Internet for the last five days; and, of course, all the writers knew that that's how people would react.

On the whole, I'm deeply satisfied with the final episode.  It was emotionally satisfying, ended on my favored mystical note, resolved a lot, and left a few things open.  Some of these we can puzzle out ourselves, others may continue to be mysteries.

The show wasn't too explicit about exactly what happened with Black Smoke, for example, but I think it's relatively straightforward to figure out.  When Desmond pulled out the stone, the Island lost its special powers.  Hence the earthquakes and storms and such.  However, Smokey got his powers from the island, and so Desmond's action also made him mortal.  It turns out that both Smokey and Jack were right: Desmond can destroy the island, and Desmond can destroy Smokey.  I love it when two seemingly contradictory positions both end up being true.  And that's really the major theme of this show, isn't it?  Both science and magic are real; they're just different perceptions of actual events.  The same act can both betray and save.  You can deny someone and love them at the same time.

My biggest bummer from the finale was not seeing Walt or Michael.  I'm especially puzzled by why Michael wasn't there, since the actor was obviously available for an earlier undead appearance on the island.  As for Walt, I'm guessing that his absence was a production decision; maybe he was unavailable or asking for too much money.  On the other hand, I have a secret thought that they may be saving him for a movie or a spin-off.  Walt was the only member of the original castaways who actually did have special powers, some sort of latent ability prior to landing on the island.  It's possible that his story might be even bigger than the island's; the island couldn't hold him, he's going to have adventures of his own.  At least, that's what I like to think.

I loved, loved, loved the final scene of the show.  I'm a big fan of unexpected symmetry.  Ending it with the same shot as where the series opened was a great grace note.  There's something vaguely Finnegan's Wake-ish about it, except that instead of a loop, it's a return; a reset to the original state.  I like that.

Random thought: boy, that sure is an interfaith church, huh? 

Favorite character:
At their most awesome moments, still Locke.  Averaged over the whole series, Ben.

Least favorite character:
Still Shannon.  So glad they killed her off early on.

Favorite season:
Tough call... probably this last one, although the third was also really good.

Best villain:

Favorite location:
Man, there sure are a lot.  I like the idea of the Temple a lot.  In practice, the Dharma stations are the coolest-looking.  Probably The Orchid station.

Favorite time:
The 70's, dude!

Favorite number:

Favorite canned Dharma food:
A1 Steak Sauce

Favorite tailie:
Mr. Eko

Favorite mainlander:
Um... I forget if we ever learn his name, but the guy who played the Lieutenant on The Wire.  Penny's also sweet.

Favorite Whitemorian:
They were a great bunch, weren't they?  Overall I'd have to say Daniel, but Miles made a really strong showing in the last season.

Favorite Other:
If I can't count Ben again, then Richard.

Favorite song:
"Catch a falling star" grew on me.  Particularly the sinister, minor-key variation that we hear during Claire's insanity.

Favorite weapon:
The atomic bomb.

Favorite vehicle:
Dharma van.

Favorite flash-back:
Locke's outback adventure.

Favorite flash-forward:
The first one was awesome for the shock value.  Otherwise, probably Sayeed's bloody quest.

Favorite flash-sideways:
Hurley the chicken king.

Favorite line:
I'm not sure, but it's gotta be one of Sawyer's.  That man has the best collection of one-liners in the history of the universe.  My favorite from the last episode was from Miles, though: "I don't believe in a lot, but I do believe in duct tape."


Good bye, Lost!  Thanks for all the great television!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Down for the Count

I really dig Orwell.  Typically, when I dig an author, that's shorthand for saying that I enjoy their books.  When it comes to George Orwell (nee Eric Blair), I like his writing, but also am impressed by his life journey.  In high school I went so far as to dress up as him as part of a convoluted English project, and enjoyed getting people to guess who I was.  (Why, yes, I AM a literature nerd, thanks for asking!)

During the Cold War, many people pointed at 1984 as a warning against the absolutist communist state being erected by the Soviet Union.  In modern times, people decry Big Brother in the form of the "nanny state" enacted by Tony Blair in Britain, or the hyperpowered FBI supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations.  These accusations become all the more interesting when you reflect on the fact that Orwell was a devout socialist, and had a lifetime history of actively participating in leftist causes, including fighting alongside the Anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.

His best-known books, 1984 and Animal Farm, come from late in his life, when he felt the need to warn against the authoritarianism of Stalin's regime.  These warnings, though, came from "the inside," from someone who genuinely wanted the socialist project to succeed, and so felt especially devastated at its betrayal.  I think that, as a result, these works are more powerful than they would be if written by someone on the right, who despised the very idea of collectivism.

Still, it's hard to find Orwell's leftist leanings in his masterpieces if you don't already know that they're there.  In contrast, it's much easier to find them in his earlier works.  "Homage to Catalonia" is one of my favorite works of his, showing a warm, human voice that rationally but effectively conveys the horror and madness of civil war.  I've just finished reading another similar bit of non-fiction first-person reportage, "Down and Out in Paris and London."

In some ways, this book seems like it could have been written today; it's perfectly in keeping with the recent fad for books about "X days of Y-ing" or "One year without B".  In these books, an "ordinary" person chooses to change their circumstances for a set amount of time, and then documents the results.  In Orwell's case, the change was from a respectable (if not wealthy) man to poverty; however, he didn't deliberately choose this course.  The problems start in Paris, where he has a certain amount of money to live on; after a large portion is stolen from his room, he goes about finding work, and then leads a hand-to-mouth existence working a minimum-wage, go-nowhere job that keeps him occupied 18 hours a day, 6 days a week.  He has an absolutely amazing eye for detail, and a great way of recreating characters on the page.  I'd never read this book before, but I recognized certain characters who had been described in other commentary, such as the out-of-work waiter who painted his ankles black with shoe-polish so that others couldn't see the holes in his socks.  Details like this are kind of funny, touching, and ultimately sad.  In this way, Orwell manages the herculean task of humanizing a class of people that many of us (myself included) have trained ourselves to ignore.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is its specificity.  He pays as much attention to money as Thoreau does in On Walden Pond, carefully documenting how much money a "screever" (pavement artist) can earn in a day, how much two slices of toast spread with margarine costs in a coffee-shop, the price of tobacco, and so on.  I was pretty baffled by much of it - I'm still unclear on how many shillings are in a pound, how many pence in a crown, and so on - but the mere fact that they pay so much attention to this stuff conveys a lot.  Similarly, I would be tempted to describe some of these experiences by saying, "It was really boring," but Orwell describes in detail just why and how they were so boring.  He describes the work of a plongeur (basically a dishwasher-cum-slave in a French restaurant) with preciseness, documenting how long it takes to scrub a copper pot, why they don't have time to empty the waste basket, the incentives to just brush off a piece of meat that has fallen to the floor, etc.

The book is divided into many chapters, and as a whole could be sensibly divided into two sections, one in Paris and one on London.  The Paris section is mainly about the working poor, while the London section is mainly about indigent tramps.  Each section is primarily narrative, but also concludes with some direct talk from Orwell about his overall impressions and, most interestingly, conclusions for how specific social programs could benefit the underclass.  There's a lot to be said for these sections, as they combine Orwell's intelligent mind with the authority one gains from direct experience.  Which makes one think - just how many people today who are in a position to make decisions affecting the poor have actually experienced what it's like to spend months in poverty?

In all, this is a great book.  It's surprisingly funny, considering the subject matter.  It's touching and effective, and manages to promote some social ideas while never seeming to be preachy.  Despite the changes in economy and society since the 1930's, this book continues to feel timeless, just as important in its own way as 1984 and Animal Farm are in theirs.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Place That's the Best

Man... early Robert Heinlein really is different from middle or late Heinlein.

"Tunnel in the Sky" isn't a repeat of "The Door into Summer," but there's an unmistakable link between the two.  Most fundamentally, they share a deep optimism about mankind, technology, and the future.  Individuals in the book may struggle against obstacles, but in the big view, humanity is on a continuing upward trajectory.

The writing in TitS... er, let's make that "Tunnel"... is good, but perhaps just a notch worse than in TDiS.  Scene-for-scene I thought it was well done, but the overall arc of the novel feels a bit off, particularly in the end... just as the book is heading for a satisfying resolution, some new plot threads are raised up in the final pages, and lets in a place where they can't get tied up.  I suppose you could say that this is deliberate - showing the messiness of real life and whatnot - but after the rest of the book I don't really buy it.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the book is the language of the characters.  This may be the best example I've read of the "Golly, gee-whiz, this is swell!" enthusiasm that we often associate with 1950's Americanism.  Everyone talks like this, in a bright, friendly, confident yet inclusive patter.  It's weird and amusing and kind of touching; again, it seems like a glimpse into an attitude that our country lost somewhere around the time of Vietnam.


So, what's this book about?  Basically, it's a more cheerful and science-fiction-y version of "Lord of the Flies."  It isn't all cheer; we do encounter some of the viciousness and immaturity that marred Goldman's society.  Overall, though, it's a very progressive experience.

The youngsters are a bit older here, spanning late high school and early college rather than the younger crew in LotF.  Interestingly, it's the oldest kids who are the most antisocial.  At a couple of points during the book I felt a little like Heinlein was pandering.  He may have decided that his target audience was schoolchildren, and has more than a few cases of pointing out how bright and mature they are and how adults don't appreciate them.  Anyways, the students are taking place in a field survival test, and initially follow the rules of competing only individually or in two-person teams.  When something goes wrong and the test fails to end, though, they must adapt to ensure long-term survival in a hostile environment.  Rod, the main character, partners, then takes in a third member, then gradually grows the group to dozens of survivors.

Along the way, he experiences a series of civics lessons.  With a larger group comes politics.  Factions spring up, there's jockeying for power, and arguments arise over the direction of their colony/town.  There are a few very subtle touches that slightly disturb the hooray-for-America tone that overlies much of the book.  We see the failure of democracy, for one; a smooth-talking individual wins power in a peaceful and fair democratic election, but is a much worse leader than the competent-but-less-articulate Rod.  Still, by watching how Rod responds to setbacks and continues to work for the good of the colony, our faith in the system is restored.

The underlying science of this sci-fi book is fairly interesting.  It's more hand-wavy than the well-thought-out system of TDiS, but Heinlein still makes an effort to make it plausible.  Portals allow mankind to instantly travel to almost any point in the galaxy; however, the portals are very expensive to operate, and end-points can only be set up after people have traveled there the old-fashioned way.  (Yes, this is a system identical to the one described by Vinge.  With good reason; it makes a lot of dramatic sense.)  This leads to a system like that of the colony planets in Firefly, and for the same reasons.  If a group of humans will need to travel for decades in space, and spend decades more establishing their settlement and building a portal, they don't want to bring along energy guns, vehicles, and other high-technology artifacts that will run out of power, break down, and be impossible to repair.  Instead, people bring horses, and knives, and rope; simple equipment that allow them to scrape out an existence and, more importantly, can be repaired by unskilled people with the supplies they have on hand.

With that science as the background, Heinlein touches on several interesting social aspects, albeit without thoroughly plumbing them.  First is Earth itself.  There's a kind of Malthusian dynamic at work here; Earth's population has continued to grow beyond its capacity to feed itself.  This is what drives much of the colonial expansion; colonies are valuable for minerals and fuel, but even more than that, they are essential to feed people back home.  We see this in a few meal scenes where otherwise wealthy and privileged people must make do with a paucity of nourishment. 

A second social aspect is the colonists themselves.  Western society has evolved up to the point where it is highly refined and intellectual; now, it needs to sort of de-volve into a hunter-gatherer society capable of surviving in a hostile environment.  Not the whole society, of course, but the most exciting opportunities in this world are those setting up new colonies, and the kind of training this requires is wholly different from the requirements of previous generations.  That shift is interesting in itself, and it's also interesting to see the tensions that it creates between generations.  I'm reminded of the stereotype of a father railing against his son for pursuing book-learning instead of working the land; here, the father regrets the son's attempt to return to working the land.


"Tunnel" is a rough work, but a good one.  It's fun to see a master at the beginning of his career, practicing within a genre that he will later upend.  It's also yet another neat bit of anthropology, catching a glimpse of a more upbeat time in American attitudes where anything seemed possible, even changing ourselves to scratch out a new existence among faraway stars.

Monday, May 10, 2010


Many years ago, my grandmother was talking with my mom about a book she had brought with her on a visit. She said that she had been careful to not leave it out where we kids could read it, warning, "The language was so bad, I could hardly stand to finish it!"

This has become a favorite saying of my family since then. While it's amusing, I have to admit that I can sympathize with her feeling. Certain books can feel painful to get through, but once you reach a certain point, your desire to finish outweighs your discomfort of reading additional pages.

"Blood Meridian" is definitely the best example yet of a book that I could hardly stand to finish. It is a pretty extraordinary book, with a very raw, compelling language, a pulsing plot, and amazing, surreal characters. It is also the most graphic, disturbing, disgusting thing I have read in ages. I felt physically ill while reading the book - not in one or two scenes, but every couple of pages.

If nothing else, "Blood Meridian" has shown me that I'm not nearly as desensitized as I thought I was. I thought I'd gotten past the point where violence in fiction can bother me. I play GTA, I watch Dexter, and while there's a certain automatic reaction to violent images, it no longer really sticks with me. Not so much with this book, and isn't that interesting? It has no pictures, no audio, no immersion, and yet it haunts my thoughts in a way that other art cannot.

I think part of this is the overall art of the book. It takes a while to get used to the language; it's one of those things that breaks almost every rule that you learn about writing, and yet becomes much stronger for it. The language is raw, minimalist, wind-stripped... it perfectly matches the desolate and desperate Western desert where the book takes place. It feels like you're inside someone's head, hearing their jumbled, mumbled, half-panicked thoughts at the horror they see around them. There's a strong immediacy in the writing that brings you right up close to and in contact with the action, not viewing it distilled through a traditional detached narrator.


As I try to analyze why the book disturbed me so much, I think that only part of it was the actual gore, which admittedly is quite shocking. We're treated to elaborate and detailed descriptions of scalpings, how body parts were peeled away from one another, what fluids went where, and so on. But what makes this truly disturbing is the sense of evil malice that lies behind it. I usually hesitate to use the word "evil," but it's hard to think of any other term to describe the men in this book. Some of them seem to have abandoned morality, caring nothing for human life. One seems to have moved beyond that, actively delighting in the infliction of suffering.

I refer, of course, to the Judge, one of the most mesmerizing characters I've come across. In his very first appearance someone identifies him as the Devil, and the evidence in the rest of the book continues to support that assertion. I'm not sure if he actually is the Devil, but he bears the hallmarks. He's kind of a blend of Milton's Satan and Dante's Satan, if that makes sense - like the former, he loves independence, and seeks to create a world without God; like the latter, he's filled with lies, responsible for the bad things in the world, and is stuck in Hell.

Anyways, it's interesting that the Judge is practically the only well-spoken individual in the whole book. Listening to him is like listening to the Serpent. Everyone else is quiet, cussing, highly casual in their speech, while the Judge declaims, cajoles, and exposits.

All the characters were well-written, though. The Kid is an enigma who we slowly get to know through his actions, even though we never get inside his head. Tobin the expriest is great, although I was never sure exactly what we were supposed to make of him. Glanton is nearly the Judge's match, but very immediate; his actions are just as awful, but only focused on what's directly in front of him, without the Judge's wider-ranging cruelty. All the desperate men in the gang of vigilantes are also compelling, and surprisingly well differentiated given how little time is devoted to each.

The first part of the book was especially devastating. McCarthy casts the Kid in the deep end, unloading trial after trial on him, much (keeping the Biblical theme here) like Job. Every time that I thought the Kid had escaped from misery and the story might become more enjoyable, he was plunged back into violence, even worse than before and worse than I could imagine. This pattern is finally broken after the massacre of a rogue invasion force from the U S Army, but what replaces it is even worse. The Kid becomes part of the devastation, an agent of the kind of chaos that previously oppressed him.


This book kind of messed me up. I suppose it's nominally a Western, but it reads and feels like a horror book to me. I can't say that I'm glad I read it, but it is an amazing book, and I'm glad that it's over now.