Thursday 27 June 2019

Make Time For Years And Years

Russel T. Davies has usually been the wet firecracker of television writers. Despite this, he has given
Emma Thompson headlines a superb cast
in the BBC/HBO series Years and Years.
(image via iNews
viewers possibly the best science fiction on television in 2019 with his six-part miniseries Years And Years.

Over the course of more than 20 years writing for television, Davies has built a reputation as a capable writer who crafts diverse and emotionally compelling characters, builds suspense and tension effectively, and then pulls the rug out from under viewers through trite and banal endings.

This tendency was the signature aspect of his work on Doctor Who. As we have noted before, deus ex machina is his stock in trade. In the penultimate episode of DW’s Season 2 (The Sound of Drums), The Master is built up into an imposing and compelling adversary, but in the finale he’s defeated by people thinking happy thoughts. In Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution Of The Daleks, the entirety of the plot of the two-part episode is undone in seconds through largely incomprehensible means.

His new six-episode series premiered on HBO on Monday night, shortly after completing its initial run on the BBC. True to his oeuvre, Davies’ sixth and final hour-long episode of Years And Years might not stick the landing, but the previous five episodes are compelling enough to make up for that.

The series chronicles the intertwined stories of a multi-generational family living in and near Manchester over the course of 15 years starting in 2019.

The four middle-aged siblings; Stephen, Daniel, Rosie and Edith Lyons, their grandmother, their spouses and their children provide viewers with different vantage points of a rapidly changing future that is marked with chaos and uncertainty. Woven throughout the series are the rise and ramifications of a far-right political figure Vivienne Rook, which give viewers cause for reflection on current populist political movements.

There’s a soap-opera nature to the series that occasionally feels improbable, but that same aspect
Russel T. Davies can't deliver a good
ending, but for once that doesn't
spoil the overall greatness of a show.
(image via BBC)
makes it easy to suspend disbelief about technological speculation while being pulled into the emotional lives of compellingly flawed characters. When banks fail and brownouts become the norm, you both see and feel the impact on consumers and homeowners. When medical technology advances and health care is privatized, you see and feel what it means for both the person affected and those close to them.

Some of the brilliance of the series is not even what it shows explicitly, but in what is implied in throw-away lines. Bananas are extinct? It’s not safe for U.K. citizens to visit the U.S. anymore? The Tower of Pisa is no longer leaning? There are so many details to appreciate.

The final episode is a disappointment in exceptionally predictable ways. Bad guys are defeated in a particularly trite (and improbable) ending that undermines some of the emotional weight of the series, though at least Davies has the courage to imply that the systemic issues that led to fascism have not been overcome completely.

Years And Years is a series that is more than the sum of its parts. No single episode deserves a Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form Hugo, but the whole should be seriously considered in the Long Form category. The continuous march of technology (and those who control it) – and the creeping rise of fascism – are examined in an engaging way by the birdseye view of years and years of development over the course of all the episodes.

Does Years And Years bear all the hallmarks of Russell T. Davies’ writing? In both the best and worst ways, it does. It may also be his masterwork. Years And Years deserves very serious consideration for a Hugo.

Sunday 9 June 2019

Space Opera — Review

At our book club discussion of the Hugo-shortlisted novel Space Opera, there was a consensus that
Derivative and listless,
Space Opera failed to
meet expectations.
(Image via
Catherine Valente is an author worthy of a best novel rocket ship on her mantle. We also agreed that Space Opera is not the work that should earn it for her.

Valente’s 2015 novel Radiance is criminally underrated. Thoughtfully tackling issues of patent hoarding and the resulting stifling of innovation, Radiance makes the case for the continued relevance of steampunk as a genre. The structural story-within-a-story techniques shows what Valente is capable of as an artist – this is a non-linear tale that could only really work as a prose novel.

Her 2011 novel Deathless is an engaging – and approachable – historical fantasy that weaves together fairy tales with the Russian revolution. It could be compared to something between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.

And by contrast, Valente’s previous Hugo-shortlisted novel Palimpsest is an emotional tour-de-force about desire and possibilities. Deftly imagined – and artfully lyrical – Palimpsest is both a dreamlike and challenging book that readers will continue to get something out of on repeat readings.

Clearly, Valente writes first-rate books, in a wide range of styles and voices. There had not been a single one of her books that anyone in our book club had read and failed to enjoy… until Space Opera.
Catherine Valente is
capable of first-rate
novels, such as the
underrated gem
(Image via Amazon)

There are moments of entertainment in Space Opera’s numerous asides to metagalactic history, but the book is hampered by a surprisingly slow pace, thinly drawn characters, and a weak plot. Most troublesome for fans who wanted to love it, Space Opera is occasionally fun, but rarely funny.

While it’s obvious that not all comedy will appeal to all readers, those who study comedy contend that most successful jokes depend on a subversion of expectations. This is difficult to accomplish in science fiction in part because an author’s imagined strange new worlds are at their core an alienating experience for the reader; thus readers often have fewer expectations that can be successfully subverted.

Throughout Space Opera, every expectation is fulfilled, whether it’s the concluding clause of a sentence that reinforces the overarching point rather than subverting it, or the narrative arc of a character following a predictable cliched path.

In his classic work Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams managed a subversion of expectations repeatedly – often through deft linguistic legerdemain in which an end clause subverts the beginning of a sentence (I.E. “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”), or by taking science fiction tropes to their logical but absurd extremes.

It is difficult not to compare Space Opera to Hitchhiker’s Guide. The latter work is not only the most famous science fiction comedy of all time, it’s set in a chaotic and diverse universe that is a clear antecedent to Valente’s book. This leads to similar joke setups, and similar punchlines.

And this becomes one of the major problems with the comedy in Space Opera; all sentences and actions live up exactly to expectations, especially if you’ve read any Douglas Adams.

As example, when Valente describes various animals that produce economically viable goods (such
If there's ever a movie adaptation
of Space Opera, we hope that the
role of Decibel Jones is played
by comedian Carlos Mencia.
(Image via
as a goat that “dispenses ice cream, brie, and buttercream frosting”) due to the random vagaries of evolution, it bears remarkable similarity to Adams’ section of the third Hitchhiker's book Life, The Universe And Everything in which we are introduced to the wild mattress creatures of Sqornshellous Zeta. When Valente treads the same territory as her predecessor, the comedic twist is lost, because you know where the joke is going.

In addition, Valente seems to use polysyndeton as a replacement for wit; “the glitter and the shine and the synth and the knowing”; “You are bizarre and disgusting and interesting and fixated on fetishes”; “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself…” Sadly, this excessive use of the word ‘and’ just becomes tiresome.

It is uncomfortable for us to describe any book on the ballot as undeserving of the rocket, especially a book from an author for whom we have so much affection and respect. Unfortunately, none of the book club’s members plan to vote for Space Opera, and some couldn’t see placing this book above No Award.

Wednesday 5 June 2019

Spinning Silver — Review

There is much to admire in Spinning Silver, and we can understand the evident passion that many
Image via
readers have for Naomi Novik’s latest novel.

For one, Novik’s deconstruction, reimagining, and reconstruction of Rumpelstiltskin is both insightful and inventive. The systemic misrepresentation of non-majoritarian religious groups in folk tales – and the antisemitism of Rumpelstiltskin in particular – needs to be challenged. Novik provides an interesting approach, reframing these folk narratives with point-of-view characters who belong to marginalized groups.

Additionally, the animistic universe depicted in Spinning Silver provides an opportunity for an environmental metaphor that Novik weaves into the narrative carefully and subtly. Environmental issues (destruction of habitat) drive one of the major sources of conflict in the novel, and provide motivation for the primary antagonists.

Issues of race, gender, and environmental degradation are weighty subjects for a fairy tale, and could have made the book feel didactic. But Novik creates a narrative that feels natural and timely.

However, the book is not always fun to read. There is a ponderous, at times leaden, nature to the prose, which is often weighed down by excessive dependent clauses.

It will seem overwritten to some readers, like the author was less focused on readability than on crafting rococo sentences.

On the other hand, this excessive (posed) artfulness does have an upside. In some moments Novik hits the nail on the head with sublimely quotable sentence, like “Anger was a fire in a grate, and I'd never had any wood to burn. Until now, it seemed.” Some readers will find these gems worth the slog, while others are likely to grind their teeth at the paragraphs-upon-paragraphs of self indulgence.

Some of us felt that the three main narrators – Miryem, Wanda and Irina – all speak with a very similar, and at times condescending, voice. For example, the reader is often told how to feel, which can prevent the emotional engagement that comes from actually feeling emotional attachment to the characters.
Many of the assumptions in classic
fairy tales need to be challenged,
and there are few who do so as
thoughtfully as Naomi Novik.
(Image via 

The argument could be made that Miryem, the moneylender’s daughter who is involved with the supernatural Staryk, needs to drive a condescending narrative, given her haughty character and the well-earned distrust of her peers. However, when Wanda is narrating, this level of condescension feels weirdly out-of-place.

Other readers feel the three main narrators are distinct and engaging enough, but still agree that some of the tertiary narrators stand out as particularly unnecessary. Chapters told from the point of view of the vain and shallow lord are largely irrelevant and grating.

It should be noted that having a complex and not-always-likable protagonist in Miryem is something we appreciated. Compared with certain other slightly-twee female protagonists in other Hugo-finalist novels this year, Miryem stands out as a compelling and interesting character.

Overall, Novik has done so much so well in Spinning Silver that it will likely be close to the top of many of our Hugo ballots. Despite its flaws, we would not be disappointed to see it win the award, given the thoughtfulness and insight Novik displays in the narrative construction.