Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has distinguished himself in the past with outstanding speculative fiction anthologies, from Wastelands to The Living Dead and others. His latest volume, Brave New Worlds, is perhaps one of the finest sets of short fiction that I've ever read, with a stunning table of contents and authors to tell their stories of oppression.

Brave New Worlds is a complete turnaround from Wastelands, an anthology that looks at humanity after the demise of civilization. Here, the focus is on societies where government has not only remained, but strengthened to the point where the people themselves become the enemies of the state. It's an incredibly frightening future, and one that feels far more relevant to today's world than most works. The argument between Republicanism and Federalism is a familiar one to anybody who has tuned into the news over the past couple of years.

Indeed, this anthology came to me at a time of personal political crisis. The past couple of years have been ones of discussion, learning and thinking about the differences in political parties, and what these sorts of things mean at the end of day and down the road. The idea of an overly strong state that impinges upon the rights of its citizens is something that is undesirable to me, and what our country represents. Numerous actions taken by the government have had a speculative-fiction feel to it, such as the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the kill order against a radical cleric overseas, to the authority of the Transportation Security Administration following some terrorist attacks. It is a frightening future, but one that also needs to be balanced against the idea of a libertarian world where little order or government control exists to keep people from killing or harming one another. As such, Brave New Worlds is scary much in the same way that Wastelands (of what I've read and heard of it) was scary: it exists at the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

There are a good number of fantastic stories here. The anthology starts off with Shirley Jackson's classic story The Lottery and continues to tell a great number of tales such as S.K. Gilbow's Red Card, where people are assigned by their state randomly to kill lawbreakers, Ten With A Flag by Joseph Paul Haines that sees citizens given rankings based on their potential and Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card, which sees people who have vastly accelerated life spans. One of my absolute favorites is Jordan's Waterhammer by Joe Mastroianni, a tale of miners valued only as tools. Many of the stories here were fairly new to me: I'd either heard of them by reputation or read them once long ago, while there were also a fair number of stories that I have read before, such as Carrie Vaughn's Amaryllis (published on Adam's online science fiction magazine Lightspeed), Philip K. Dick's Minority Report and Paolo Bacigalupi's disturbing Pop Squad. There are few of the stories that I didn't get into, such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin and O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman, simply not suiting my own tastes for any number of reasons, but these were few and far between.

What impressed me even more than the excellent lineup of stories and authors was that the anthology didn't feel repetitive. There are plenty of short stories and novellas that fall into the dystopian category, but one could have easily told story after story of an intrepid citizen standing up and fighting the power, so to speak. That certainly happens, in their own ways, but there's a broad spectrum of stories to be told. Jordan's Waterhammer is a story that I expected to see more often in the anthology, but stories such as Amaryllis, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away (Cory Doctorow) and the funny Civilization by Vylar Kaftan (a choose your own adventure style story) shows a diversity in the story types, but also the morals and themes behind the stories. While Brave New Worlds is scary, it goes out of its way to demonstrate the numerous ways in which fascism can manifest itself in society, in any location.

One of my favorite stories here was Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which I first read in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. Of all the dystopian stories that I can think of, the story and the film both demonstrate the core themes for any type of dystopian story: which is the greater evil, protecting the people from themselves, or allowing them to come to greater harm?

One particularly striking story that helped define the anthology was Tobias Buckell's story, Resistance, on an asteroid colony that adopted techno-democracy, where everybody can vote on every decision. When the time required to vote becomes to much, their voting habits are taken over by a computer, which in turn creates a leader for them, based on their desires. The story demonstrated to me that in all cases, governance is the product of we the people. Society can certainly back the wrong people, as history has seen from time to time, with figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but rather than a universal evil, supporters remain, for whatever reason: fear, threads, naïveté or blind obedience. Despite the uproar online over the TSA screening procedures enacted around the holiday period, a majority of Americans supported them.

Brave New Worlds isn't a book that's appealing because I see some imminent threat of a governmental implosion or change (although some might view it that way), it is appealing because it recognizes and points out that fascism is a continual threat to society from a particular political philosophy of a strong state, while the opposite philosophy spells danger in much the same way - presumably what Wastelands will tell a reader. The threat is present within us all, through our overreactions and our indifference to the world around us, and for that, I think Brave New Worlds presents us with a stunning cautionary group of stories that shows the limits of what people will tolerate. As it stands, it remains an exceedingly relevant and poignant book that should be an essential addition to any speculative fiction fan's personal library.

The Walking Dead

The striking thing that I noticed about The Walking Dead's first episode, 'Days Gone By' is the stark, minimal feel to a post-Zombie world. There's no music, just the footsteps, birdcalls and buzzing of flies that hang in the air as the action moves forward. The TV show, which has thus far broken all viewer records for the host channel AMC, seemed like an almost guaranteed hit for the channel. The reasons for the success extend beyond the inclusion of zombies, but because the show is something that resonates with a modern audience.

Zombies have been on the rise in recent years: major film productions have been popular, such as 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, (And of course, the George Romero films that have come out) in addition to books such as Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, World War Z (And The Zombie Survival Guide, both by Max Brooks) John Joseph Adam's Zombie anthologies, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austin), with The Walking Dead remaining popular in print form, and now jumping mediums to the small screen, where it seems like it’s well suited for television.

As an adaptation goes, The Walking Dead is off to a decent start. Rather than giving into the impulse to make a show that was high on action and rapid pacing, the show’s creators have gone in the opposite direction: Days Gone By, much like the comic, is paced slowly, and the end result is a fairly slow episode: in any other context, I would have found the show fairly boring – there’s plenty of suspense, but one major element (the whereabouts and wellbeing of Grime’s family) is revealed fairly early on. The first major encounter with a mass of the undead doesn’t happen until the end of the episode, in a particularly frightening scene as Grimes and his horse are surrounded.

As it stands, The Walking Dead is possibly one of the better takes on the zombie genre thus far: the message and point of the show isn’t about the undead themselves, but the world around the survivors. Zombies stories have been rife with allegory, and both print and motion picture versions do exactly that.

A standout moment in Sunday’s episode saw some discussion as to how people hadn’t prepared for the events that transpired. Given the political climate present in the country at the moment, it’s not a hard leap to imagine. Zombie fiction tends to lend itself well to a libertarian dream of a more down to earth rule of law, without the worries of infrastructure and government, living on one’s own wits and instructs. Then there’s the guns.

The decline of the U.S. economy is something that has been at the forefront of political and economic news for almost two years, and I can’t help but wonder if shows such as Jericho (cancelled after a season and revived, only to be cancelled again) would have better succeeded if it had aired just a couple of years later. Other shows that have reflected the political feelings of the day have done well critically, such as SyFy’s Battlestar Galactica, HBO’s True Blood or Fox’s 24. While this isn’t a singular contributing factor, relevancy is something that a public audience will relate and respond to.

Here, amongst the shambling zombies, there’s a good set of themes that the series seems to have picked up on and incorporated into its storylines. In addition to the rise in popularity of the zombies themselves, The Walking Dead has an exceptionally bright future. Indeed, it’s already been renewed for a second season to follow up the first six episodes that compose the first season.

While the zombie bandwagon has been an easy thing to jump on - the popularity is only going to peak from this point on - The Walking Dead is a good example of both an adaptation and of the use of zombies. The original comic book seems to have translated very well, with creators understanding the overall picture and changes needed for the small screen. Like any bandwagon, there have been a number of stories, films and comics that have included zombies to some extent, with widely varying levels of quality. The focus, for some of the best stories, it seems, should be not on the zombies themselves, but on the people that they effect. While I've tried to avoid fanboying the craze, the show offers a quality story, rather than gimmicks to help it succeed.

Beyond the successes of a zombie show (the first that I’m aware of), the introduction of a well executed and received genre show is a very good thing, especially in the middle of a television season that has been lacking. The Walking Dead is looking to be a compelling and interesting drama. Thus far, it looks like it’s lining up to do just that.

Ray LaMontagne and the Pariah Dogs: God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise

Ray LaMontagne is one of the exemplary singer-songwriters of the last decade, with albums such as Trouble, 'Till the Sun Turns Black and Gossip in the Grain, where he's continually stunned me with a number of songs, ones that have shook me to the core, while massive changes between albums has kept the music fresh, interesting and invigorating throughout. Throughout the albums, however, LaMontagne has kept steady feel and with his works, especially when it comes to the lyrics themselves.

God Willin' & The Creek Don't Rise retains a lot of the best sounds of LaMontagne, but he once again stretches into very new territory. Opening with Repo Man, there's a harsh, accusatory sound to this, and it sets off a series of songs that are fairly dark, compared to some of the other songs in their repertoire. There's a real shift, which gives an entirely new dynamic to the sound and feel to LaMontagne. There are some standout songs, such as Beg, Steal and Borrow, which ranks amongst the best songs that the singer has put out with a steady country beat driving the song forward. This Love Is Over is another song that feels different: less moody, but more thoughtful as LaMontagne, accompanied by guitar, sails over the lyrics.

Old Before Your Time is possibly one of the songs that really helps to define this album as a whole. Fused with LaMontagne's great sound, there is a subtle country punk to the entire album, one that feels far more at home in rural country than in the urbanized ones (this image might help, as there's a song title New York City's Killing Me, which talks about the depressing and impersonal nature of the city: I just got to get me somewhere, / Somewhere that I can feel free, /Get me out of New York City, son, / New York City's killin' me.)

Indeed, a lot of the feel of this album seems split between where someone is and where they want to be in life, which is a fairly constant idea throughout life, with people separated from everything. Armed with the Pariah Dogs, LaMontagne sets up with a country and indie-rock feel that at points feels juxtaposed between styles. The result is a fantastic mix-up of sound and style that represents some of LaMontagne's best work to date.

Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson

After reading Ian McDonald's River of Gods recently, I was compelled to read another science fiction novel that took place around the planet, interacting with a number of other cultures. As William Gibson's latest novel, and the last of his 'Bigend' trilogy, Zero History was recently released, I picked up the first of the series, Pattern Recognition, published in 2003. I've had the book for a number of years, but had never picked it up, or even cracked it open. My first surprise, upon doing so, was to discover that the book had been signed by Mr. Gibson.

Pattern Recognition, from an author that helped define the notion (and term) cyberspace, as well as much of the cyberpunk genre, might seem as a sort of step back. The book takes place in contemporary times, in a post-9/11 setting, in England, Japan and Russia. Media consultant Cayce Pollard is hired by a company, Blue Ant, who is redesigning a logo for a Tokyo firm. Pollard, who has an adverse reaction to logos and marketing, and a curiosity with a series of videos that have surfaced on the internet, is hired by Blue Ant founder Hubertus Bigend, who wants her to find the maker of the clips, because of the potential gain that can be achieved by learning everything about them, and why they attract so much attention. This job is one that takes her across the world, from London to Tokyo to uncover a code that would help connect the videos to a firm in the United States, and to Russia as more leads come about. Her trip around the planet is one of discovery, as she moves from world to world following information.

While the book is set in contemporary times, it fits well with Gibson's notion that science fiction doesn't have to be part of the future. Instead, this book does what the best science fiction stories do: amidst the science fictional elements that surround the story, there is a central element that defines the book. In this case, this book is about networking, and the ability of technology to bring a diverse set of people together. In 2003, this stage of the internet hadn't quite happened yet: blogging was the big thing, and Facebook was still a year away, twitter three. Pollard's quest? To find what's arguably a viral video. In a large way, Gibson has recognized the rise of social media before it happened.

While the predictions of Pattern Recognition aren't quite as revolutionary as Gibson's were with Neuromancer, this book is far more relatable, relevant, and understands the heart of the internet. The story contains very few speculative elements: Pollard's allergy to advertising (in some cases) and some of the technological elements that are at this point outdated. Author Dennis Danvers noted it best in his review:

Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work.

In a large way, Gibson has demonstrated that he's very good at figuring out how people will use various technologies, and in a way, the gap between Neuromancer and Pattern Recognition (and presumably, its sequels, Spook Country and Zero History.) isn't as far apart as when it first meets the eye. Pattern Recognition illustrates a reality that is cold, separated from humanity while being connected at almost all times through the internet. Gibson makes the point that the future isn't far away, it's right now, this very moment.

Indeed, Gibson is probably one of the few science fiction authors to see his works come to life - not only in the details as to what he's written, but in how the future has been realized. It's a bit of a given point, seeing how the book has been set, but between 2003 (when I entered college) and the present day (out of school and working for several years) the world has changed immensely, not just in the speeds and the availability of communications, but in how people understand and utilize the internet. This seems to have been anticipated, and while the real world is already leaving this story behind, it's clear that there are some lessons here that can be learned: we're all connected.

As a story, the execution leaves a book that makes me feel much like Chris Kelvin from Solaris: isolated, cold, somewhat depressed, and Gibson writes Pollard’s character as a fairly empty person, someone who is socially isolated, but at the same time connected to those people whom she shares mutual interests with. Pollard’s journey across the planet in search of a revolutionary form of marketing is an interesting one across a number of countries and subcultures that could only exist in the internet age. At journey’s end in Moscow, Pollard comes to meet the maker of the clips, and an interesting story of commercial viability vs. artistic creativity is brought full circle.

While it’s not as groundbreaking, Pattern Recognition succeeds by using science fiction as a mirror, demonstrating not only that we live in a futuristic world, it’s one that we’re only now fully realizing as we live it.

Strung Out on Heaven’s High: Ashes to Ashes Finale

Ashes to Ashes, the follow up show to 2006’s Life On Mars, ended on a high note, finishing out the series and presumably the entire franchise, answering some questions lingering from Sam Tyler’s experiences in 1973. At the same time, Ashes to Ashes has continued an interesting story, pushing the stories to the extremes of the medium, and providing a genuinely surreal experience for the viewer.

In 2006, Sam Tyler, a Manchester DCI, was hit by a car and awoke in 1973. Discovering the reasons for his abrupt time travel, he returned to the present, only to commit suicide and return to the land of Gene Hunt and his band of lawmen. Ashes to Ashes picked up the pieces shortly after Tyler’s death, with police officer Alex Drake receiving a bullet in the head, propelling her back to 1981, where she navigates the past once again to try and figure out just what is going on.

The show had a lot to live up to: Life on Mars, likewise named for a David Bowie song, provided one of the more interesting, exciting and thought-provoking show to hit the airwaves. A gripping look at changing values in a country that has changed dramatically, the show did exactly what good science fiction should do: present a story in different contexts. In this instance, it does it quite literally, but the original show introduced an element of surrealism to the storyline, something that Ashes to Ashes has continued.

A sense of the surreal has been a larger part of Alex Drake’s storyline. A police psychologist, she was an investigating officer when it came to Sam Tyler’s case, and throughout the show, recognizes that her surroundings aren’t real, whereas in the prior show, there was an element of uncertainty to Sam’s predicament, right to the very end. Life On Mar’s finale revealed that Sam had been killed, and Ashes to Ashes does a fantastic job carrying the momentum forward, delving further into the franchise’s mythology, characters and story.

One of the best points about the show was the return of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), and newcomers Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) and Shaz Granger (Montserrat Lombard) who brought back a fantastic performance and new direction for the storyline. Rather than repeating the successes of its predecessor, which mainly focused on procedural elements (as well as Sam trying to return home), much more of the back story to the cast is brought in, and it’s clear that Gene Hunt has remained at the forefront of the action, metaphorically and literally.

While I’m not convinced that Ashes to Ashes had a better ending than Life on Mars, it was a good one, wrapping up where Life On Mars left off, and making it clear that Life On Mars was just one story in a much larger one. Gene is revealed to be something of a main figure in a purgatory for deceased police officers, helping them settles the major problems that they all faced before releasing them from that existence. The world of Gene Hunt is one of the restless dead, and he is their shepherd, acting out all of his own flaws and insecurities in the meantime.

In the run up to the finale, the surrealistic elements really come to their proper form, as Chris, Ray and Shaz begin to realize that their lives aren’t what they seem, and the points where they watch their own deaths is an interesting one, revealing much that’s been build up around the characters over the past three seasons.

I’m rather sad to see the show go away, and with the reveal at the end, it’s pretty clear that this franchise is largely at an end, something that I both applaud and lament. On one hand, it feels as though this sort of storyline really could have used a third series to better build up the suspense and tell some interesting stories. I would have loved to have seen a series set in the 1990s (which is coming up on the 20 year mark soonish), but at the same point, the BBC has had the foresight to really end the show before running it into the ground, something that American channels do only inadvertently when they can’t figure out how to market a television show to an audience. Life On Mars is a particularly hard one to sell, and here in the U.S., it failed to garner a second season, although they did do a decent job adapting the story – until the end.

The main problem with the Ashes to Ashes ending was that we already really knew what had happened to Sam: he’d died, and returned to the sort of dream world, and the revelation that Gene Hunt was a specter of coppers deceased really isn’t the surprise that it should have been, all things considered.

With that in mind, the final episode was far more intriguing than anything that I’ve really come across in U.S. mass media, and very rarely can something as interesting and surreal (Twin Peaks, Pushing Daisies, and LOST) as Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes come onto our television screens. It’s a real shame, but at the same time, it’s good to treasure those shows as they do come across.



While last week's start to Caprica, SyFy has launched its second show in its Battlestar Galactica franchise, looking to the roots of the conflict that forced out the Galactica and a small group of refugees across the stars. For me, Battlestar Galactica was an incredible effort, a show that helped redefine science fiction storytelling for the television, and did so in grand style. Following it up would be an incredibly difficult task for the show runners, given the complexity of Battlestar's stories, but also in the fact that the audience would be entering a show in which they knew the ending, and would undoubtedly disappoint some viewers with unveiling some of the more shrouded elements of the show's past. I think Caprica will be a good success for the SyFy channel, and with the pilot, they have demonstrated what is most likely the most important thing with a sequel: creating a new story and mythology, rather than trying to recreate the prior show's success by running it through a photocopier. Caprica shares some vital links to it's predecessor show, through some of the vocabulary, locations, characters (The Adams or Adama family in particular) and through one of the main elements of Battlestar Galactica, the Cylons. What impressed me the most was not so much the continuity of the two shows, but the continuity of storytelling. In the early seasons of Battlestar, critics praised the show for its examination of real life issues in a science fiction background, such as the use of torture in the midst of wartime, military and civilian relations, and the use of terrorist bombings against two sides of any issue. This was a strong element, coupled with other, loftier issues, such as gender identity in science fiction (and in television in general), religion and the responsibilities of leaders. Caprica seems poised to take the helm with this style of storytelling, and where Battlestar was a product of current events out of 2001 through 2003, SyFy's new show is the product of the past decade. Where Battlestar Galactica was primarily focused on the survivors of the colonial holocaust and their search for a new home, Caprica is not necessarily limited by those same constraints, instead able to focus on an entirely different set of issues, all the while putting forth a story that will help examine the underlying society and events that preceded the human/cylon war. From the pilot alone, it looks like there will be an entirely new set of stories to tell, themes that Battlestar never touched on, which gives Caprica (thus far) an entirely different tone and feel; themes such as religion and society, immigration and racism and the conflict between a learned, modern society and the tug of older, established belief system. All of these are stories that are highly relevant in today's society, given the hostility of extremist jihadist movements in the Middle East towards the West, but also our own societal growth spurt with the digital revolution. One scene that stuck out for me took place shortly after a train bombing killed a number of people, and brought together two families, the Adams and the Greystones, both of whom lost family members in the blast. The bomb was triggered by one of Zoe Greystone's friends, who shouts out: "The one true God shall drive out the many!". Extremism has always existed within organized religion, and it is a particularly notable topic considering the age that we live in today. This particular storyline, expanded upon in the pilot, is one that I hope will remain in the show, as the creators work more towards unveiling the vast differences in the different planets of the colonies. Already, viewers can see that there are many sides to the issue, from the legal standpoint to the cultural impact that such violence brings to the table. At some point on the franchise's canon, the colonies will be united under one government, and at this stage, there's clearly quite a bit more in the way of problems between the planets - this was an issue that was only touched on for a couple episodes in Galactica, but it seems to be brought up to the forefront, not only with the religion aspect of the show, but also with the perceptions of others in the form of racism. In this set of worlds, we see a society that is not too dissimilar from our own. While we're on only one planet, issues with race and religion are prevalent within the United States, as well as across the world, and Caprica shows us that even in space, we will be just as dysfunctional as we are on the ground. This is the primary strength of science fiction: to examine the world that we live in by taking our everyday problems and taking them out of context, putting them into new stories so that people will read or watch and think about problems in new ways. This has been a trait in the genre for a long time, and Caprica is a shining example of a continuing example of this, much as Battlestar Galactica was when it was first launched. While I still have some doubts that the show will live up to Battlestar, it's clear that it's already well on its way towards doing so, because of the changes that the show's production team have made. Where Battlestar Galactica showed us what would happen to humanity in its darkest hours; Caprica will show us what happens when we are at our best, and between the two shows, it will show us the distance that we can fall, and just how much we can lose.

The Book Of Lost Things

I love stories. From a young age, I've loved listening and reading them, as a child who was never terribly inclined towards sports or other activities. From a very young age, I have been fairly shy around other people, instead usually to turn to books for company - this is not to say that I've been antisocial all my life - as people often let me down or disappoint far more than books do. It's with this basis that I love our ability to imagine.

While stopping by the bookstore recently, I came across an intriguing book - The Book of Lost Things, by John Connelly - and armed with a coupon e-mailed to me that day, I bought it, and found that it was one of the better fantasy books that I've read recently, and has reminded me of my simple love for stories, which this book is largely based around - a love for stories and the limits of imagination.

The book's premise is fairly similar to one of my favorite films, Pan's Labyrinth, which came out in 2007. David, a young English boy in 1939, has had a troubled life - his mother passed away from a wasting illness, and his father shortly fell for another woman, Rose, who bore him a son. David is resentful of this new family, and grows angry at the divided attention and the supposed replacement of his mother. He soon experiences a sort of episode - a blackout - and when he recovers, he begins to hear books whispering to one another. At this point, the London Blitz is well underway, and when trying to run away, a German bomber crashes near his house, and David is thrust into a fantasy world.

This is the interesting part of the book, and where there are a lot of parallels to Pan's Labyrinth, but also to other well known stories, such as C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, as well as Grimm's Fairy Tales and even Life on Mars. Throughout the book, the reader is never entirely sure as to whether David has really been thrust into an alternate world, populated by fantastic creations, or whether he is lying injured, much as Sam Tyler is in the TV show, or even it the entire experience is a sort of psychotic break, a device that David utilizes to escape from a world that he hates so much.

The ability to hear books whisper to one another is a fun concept, and is helps to reinforce what happens to David goes through. In this world, we come across a number of fairly familiar stories or concepts as David journeys onwards in an attempt to find his lost mother, but later, to return home. Various incarnations of the tales, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, the heroic knight, werewolves and vampires make their appearances, often with far more brutal and violent twists that are more reminiscent of the Grimm's Fairy Tales than their sanitized Disney versions. (However, the Seven Dwarves as a sort of communistical band who felt that they were repressed by the Capitalistic classes is downright hilarious) Essentially, this world of David's has been created from within his own knowledge of stories, a creation of his own imagination, one that is borne out of a sort of self-realization and psychology that helps mend his own hurt nature.

The story elements, upon looking back, are really quite simple, and throughout, I found myself catching what would happen next and realizing where the plot was going next, which gives the book an air of predictability to anyone who's listened to enough bedtime stories. But where that might have annoyed me in most books, it really didn't here - this was a story with a good character arc, one that is reminiscent of the classic stories of the growth of a hero - a brash, angry young man who sets off to prove himself to the world, only to discover his own nature, and thus the character growth beings until you reach the happily ever after at the end. However, while there are many elements to this story that are much like the fairy tales that we are all familiar with, it feels far more realistic. The epilogue, of sorts, recounts the remainder of David's days, in a way that really doesn't fit with the rest of the tales that I've come across, giving the antagonist - the Crooked Man - a grain of truth to his predictions and proclamations.

While the book is fairly clear about what the entire experience was, it can easily fit into any of the three descriptions - David fell into a coma, he created the world because of trauma or he really was catapulted into this other world. The ambiguity of this is a very nice element, while one is clearly correct, they all are essentially part of what happened. Looking back at this, it really doesn't matter to the overall part of the story - this story is more about the arc of the hero, self-realization and growth to beyond his angry and frustrated youth.

What the book really feels like, now that I've finished (and my copy was deceptively long, with a sort of notes and interview that takes up the last hundred or so pages of the novel) is an homage to the classic stories. There's a grain of humor and twisting of some of the classics that only a modern author could get away with, but what it shows, most of all, that these stories and one's imagination are still relevant and important. There are values to these stories that still permeate to the beginnings of the Second World War, and indeed, to the present moment, where some of the basic elements of good and evil are laid out. This book is about stories, and like David finds, how they can talk to you.

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Joss Whedon's latest television venture, Dollhouse, just completed its short first season on FOX, after much drama, production problems and attempts to wade into a rapidly changing television market. While it did so, it showed that Whedon can still produce some of the most compelling television stories out there, an entire level above almost everything else that's been screened for audiences.

Dollhouse was a tough sell. I first came across Joss Whedon's work with the movie Titan AE (for which he had a writing credit) but it wasn't until I watched his fantastic show Firefly that I realized just how the television can be used to tell a story. Firefly was fantastic, and like many, I lamented its cancellation, although its short, bright run has made it a classic amongst fans, and is almost universally loved by geeks. So, it was puzzling to many people when it was announced that Whedon would be returning to television with a new show to FOX, even though it was largely perceived that FOX sabotaged Firefly. And that's before we even get to the story of Dollhouse.

Firefly was an easy sell. When asked, I'll tell someone it's a Western in space, a character-driven science fiction story that is full of humor, darker characters and some fun story lines. Dollhouse, when asked, takes a little more consideration and thought. The story revolves around an active, Echo, who is part of the Dollhouse. The Dollhouse is part of a network of facilities where a person can be made to order. Whatever you need, they can provide, whether it be sex, a specialist or a friend, all thanks to some sort of technology that allows for a human to be wiped clean and reprogrammed from a number of personalities or composite personalities. The actives are ostensibly volunteers, who signed up for a couple of years for whatever reason, and live a life of luxury in between times of being someone else. When this story picks up, there is a rogue active named Alpha who's recently escaped after killing several people, an FBI agent, Paul Ballard, who is trying to find out what the Dollhouse is and to take it down for its ethically dark activities, and Echo, who is special, somehow.

It's a very dark story, but it is the most important one being told on television right now. As to be expected from Joss Whedon, the show is extremely well written, with layers of meaning between the actions and dialogue of the characters in the show, revolving primarily around ones identify, humanity and soul. Frequently, a character will state that they know exactly who they are, only that they have been programmed ahead of time. The result is similar to watching the film The Matrix for the first time, and wondering, in the back of your mind, just what is reality? This show does much the same for me, and certainly presents the certainty of ones own identity and personal history in a new light.

Furthermore, the show is a classic example of the boundaries that Science Fiction often explores, the delicate relationship of scientific knowledge and religious faith, of knowing versus believing, of technology versus organic life. Just what is a person? is a question that seems to come forward a lot. Are they something that can be programmed at will, if one believes that a person is merely a series of electrical impulses? Or is there something more to that? It's a question that this show will never satisfactorily answer, but the fact that it even approaches the level of storytelling that can approach such an issue is remarkable.

The show is not without its problems. The first half of the season started off slowly, due to network insistence's and the need to tell the story while trying to attract an audience to an otherwise difficult story in the first place. The story of Dollhouse is a complicated one, probably more suited towards a science fiction novel, rather than a television series, because of the complexity and difficult nature of the show and the intelligence of an average television viewer. (Pretty low, if the extraordinary success of American Idol is anything to go by). Thus, while the momentum has taken a little while, so has the patience of the audience, who dropped out after a couple episodes, and leaves the show's future hanging in the balance. Fanboys will likely point to FOX straight off and place the blame firmly at their doorstep for dumbing down the show to being with, but I'm going to point at Joss Whedon for blame here - he's created an extremely complicated, interesting and extraordinary show that is above and beyond intelligent and fascinating, which is sure to drive away an audience. (LOST seems to be the anomaly in this instance.) But the show is also at times too ladened down with a message, it's too self-important and too self conscious of what it is trying to do.

Now that the show is over, the waiting game is about to begin as to whether there will be a second season, and I honestly hope that there will be, because Dollhouse is the sort of intellectual wake up that the television market needs, and while there is a certain pretentious nature to the show, it's just the thing that shows that there is still a heart and soul to the television industry.

Ground Control to Major Tom

The US version of Life On Mars aired last night, and for once in the show, I'm incredibly disappointed with how they decided to end the show, especially after how this version was generally quite good. While much of the episode was quite solid and helped to wrap up much of the story, the last couple of minutes almost completely ruin the rest of the series.

Overall, the US version of Life on Mars was fairly well done. There was a bit more in the way of a coherent storyline throughout, and it had me guessing as to what was really going on with Sam Tyler throughout - it was somewhat clear that unlike in the original show, where John Simm's Sam Tyler was in a coma from pretty early on, that wasn't necessarily the case here, and there were a number of theories that Sam himself came up with shortly after the pilot, as well as a number of things along the way (usually explained away by the end of the episode, such as drugs, helicopters and other plausible explanations).

What is most memorable about the original ending of the show was the sheer conflict that Sam's character had to go through - this was a significant leap in characterization, one that really would have been incredibly hard to imagine being in his position. In the original, Sam is forced to choose between 1973 and 2004, finding escape during a robbery, where he can return home at the expense of his friends. As it turns out, he returns home to the present, but disillusioned with how everything is done (and this is a brilliant commentary on modern policing), he jumps off of a building and returns to the 1970s.

In this modern version of the show, Sam has come across his father after his younger self is kidnapped, and everything winds up in Hyde, where his father is shot trying to kill him, and Sam finally is comfortable in the 1970s, when he wakes up. Not in 2008, where the show started, but in 2035, where he's on a space ship, about to land on Mars. The entire show was essentially a trippy dream on the part of the character, in a very odd sort of Wizard of Oz type of dream. The members of the 1-2-5 are his fellow crew members, and because they were cryogenically frozen for the trip, his mind went elsewhere.

This ending really bothers me, probably more than it should. It's an incredible letdown. I don't know whether this is because the show was ended early, or what, but there are three specific things that just didn't work.

Once Sam wakes up, we learn that he is really going to Mars. Like the original, the past and future have been blended - Sam was in a coma, and picked up things, such as Hyde, the doctors, and some other things and incorporated them into his fantasy while in a coma. US Sam did the same thing this time around, but went further - he picked up his fellow crew members and supplanted them and their personalities as his fellow police officers. While this is similar to the UK version, it falls far short - essentially, it was all a dream - every element of it, from car crash to his experiences in 1973. The original found Sam recovered and returning to work, where the viewers were faced with a stark difference between the way that police work was conducted, and even society, between 2004 and 1973. Sam found that modern times were far too sterile, grey and emotionless, whereas the 1970s were vibrant, colorful and overemotional, and that there were some important aspects to life during that time. This was something that was completely lacking in the modern version, throughout the show. Another, minor couple of points was that Gene was now 'Major Tom', and the entire space scene just seemed really, really fake.

Once the 1-2-5 wakes up, we learn that Gene is really Sam's father (which is really just too cute to be taken seriously) and that their relationship in real life was probably similar to what we saw in the show. Gene's advice to Sam, which seems to have been the entire underlying theme of this is to "Make your home where ever you are." This to me seemed to also be a major cop-out after all the experiences that he's undergone. The entire show should be building to the finale, and help support the final conclusions - this really didn't happen. From early on, US Sam has always seemed to fit right in to the 1970s, whereas UK Sam was constantly trying to find a way back home, because he was constantly running into problems with how he felt that police-work and society should work, and this was a constant issue throughout the show, which made Sam's return to the 1970s all the more meaningful. Here, this was a simple realization that Sam came up with after a trippy dream.

Essentially, The Wizard of Oz has already done this sort of storyline, and has done it better. While this in and of itself isn't a problem, it needs to be recognized within the show a bit. The UK version had some interesting references, but this show falls far more towards Oz than the original, and I don't remember coming across any references within the show. The UK version did a fantastic set of scenes with Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's wonderful version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end, which added a bit of weight and meaning to the finale of that show, where as this one had nothing that really added to the show at all.

There are some redeeming factors for this finale, which actually worked really well up until the Mars ending. Annie Norton was finally made into a full detective, but even then, this seemed like it was an afterthought. (In the UK version, Annie was made a DI in the second series.) There was ample resolution with Sam's trip to the 1970s, but it was largely cheapened by the fact that he never really went there, even in his dreams.

Everything that made the UK show such a good one was noticeably absent in this version. This didn't necessarily ruin the US version for me, but they are impossible to really compare. Taken in and of itself, the US show worked quite well, and I was happy to see that it was as good as it was - the characters were decently done, the stories were interesting, and it was interesting. But, I'll always return to the original UK version.

Mysterious Ways

Earlier this week, ABC premiered a new television procedural that mixes a couple traditional elements of the mystery genre - television and literature. The show is Castle, and begins with a series of murders that are modeled after several in the novels of Rick Castle, a famous novelist who has recently killed off his main character of a popular series, and is working on another series. He partners with Kate Becket, a detective in the NYPD to help solve the case, and stays on after the end to 'research' his new main character, a female cop.

I love mysteries, almost as much as I love science fiction. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching the pieces of a puzzle come together over the course of a novel, from the initial crime to the discovery of evidence to the inevitable final chase that either brings the criminal to justice or death, depending on the author.

I started reading late, but when I did, I began with Encyclopedia Brown, trying to discover the answer to the puzzle before Leroy did, and shortly thereafter, I moved onto The Hardy Boys, where I consumed the books at a voracious rate, often hiding under the covers with a flashlight or reading by a crack of light at the door, to get to the end.

For me, Mysteries have always been better as books. There are very few good crime movies, although the trend falls towards television nicely, and weekly procedurals, such as Law & Order and CSI (although I despise that show and its sequels) are very popular. While in college and afterward, I could always count on the endless re-runs of L&O on USA, and picked up several other shows, such as Veronica Mars and Life on Mars, with relish, to see new stories.

My one big series that I absolutely love, however, is Vermont author Archer Mayor's Joe Gunther novels, now numbering in the twenties. I discovered Mayor with the book The Ragman's Memory, and like other series, I tracked down as many as I could get my hands on, and devoured the plots.

Archer Mayor's stories in particular are absolutely fantastic. Set in Vermont, they follow Brattleboro detective and his team through a number of Vermont-centric mysteries, covering a number of topics that Mayor researches for over a year. They are well plotted, with a number of twists, turns and cynical details about this place. They are constantly fulfilling, and I try to pick them up as soon as they come out (although I never got around to last year's, something that is soon to be corrected). Mayor remains one of the tragically unknown authors, and his stories are easily some of the best out there.

The all time leader of the mystery genre, however, remains Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for his creation of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective of all time. I first picked up on Holmes while in London while looking for a good book to read on the train, and he quickly became a favorite of mine.

Inherently, novels are the best place to unspool a story. While television is fine, a book allows for far more time and space to build upon the details, and to provide a story that is far more complicated than can be easily put together in an hour. Law & Order has a harder time, as they only have half the time to find the criminal - the other half is spent on the legal side, which is similarly interesting, but not as fulfilling.

I think this is why Castle proved to be a good hour of entertainment - it combines parts of both worlds, at least superficially. In the pilot for the show, Castle is driven by the idea that there is a story behind the crime, that there are reasons for motivations, and that pushes him to further question the evidence and motives behind everyone involved. Doubtlessly, this will continue as the show progresses, with each episode being a fairly self-contained mystery like any television show. To further make things interesting, a couple of notable authors, James Patterson and Stephen Cannell, make an appearance, which shows that the writers at least recognize the literary element of the genre, if only by scanning the best sellers.

The show is further aided by Nathan Fillion's character, Rick Castle, who is both witty and intelligent, but very arrogant and self-centered. As Becket described him, he is a nine year old on a sugar rush, totally incapable of taking anything seriously. Fillion brings an enormous amount of wit and charm to his character, and I was laughing through the entire episode, something that I haven't done in a while, as the drama department of television has been largely filled with cynics and far more serious and depressing characters. Castle is a fun hour long ride, and while it's certainly nothing groundbreaking, it is a breath of fresh air. In any case, I don't know that I've seen a procedural/mystery show that has really acknowledged the literary component of the genre, and it makes for a fun mix.

I hope that there will be more references to the literary world, here, because the genre does deserve that. The inclusion of Patterson and Cannell make me wonder if this will be a regular feature - maybe they will include Archer Mayor in at some point. How cool would that be?

But This Life's Work And Choice Took Far Too Long

Fanboys ends with two of the main characters, Linus and Eric, sit and talk looking on their friends as they finally make up, with the song Fair by Remy Zero playing. It's a touching end to the film, one that has seen considerable drama over the past two or so years since principle filming ended. Studio intrusions, fan boycotts, lack of advertising and other problems, and it is a relief to finally see it on the big screen.

Fanboys is the story of four Star Wars fans from high school, who, several years after they drifted apart, got back together to do a road trip cross country to Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace. Why not just wait? Because one of the four, Linus, is suffering from cancer, and won't live to see the premiere of the film. Linus and Eric also haven't been speaking for years because they had drifted apart, and the film serves as a story of friendship and a mutual love for Star Wars. The film for most people would probably be middle of the pack - above the Adventure Movie! or whatever crap is being released by those writers, but below some of the more pinnacle comedies of similar genre, such as Superbad or something along those lines.

However, to anyone who has ever been a fan of the Star Wars movies, this will be one to see. Actually, really anyone who is a geek, nerd, dork or other so-called social outcast should find this amusing, provided you have a good sense of humor and self-deprecating attitude. Geek references are everywhere, ranging from Star Wars (duh) to things like Thunder Cats, X-Men, Star Trek, GI-Joe, Wonder Twins, any number of things that a geek in the late 90s would get. The movie is essentially a tribute to the genre and its fans, and doesn't shy away from that in the slightest. Sharp-eyed fans will have a fun time picking out a number of the cameos of celebrities (especially from the SW movies) who range from Carrie Fisher to Billy Dee Williams to Kevin Smith and William Shatner.

But this film is more than just a series of throwaway laughs as the group travels across country to get beaten up by Harry Knowles (of Ain't It Cool News - who should have been in a wheel chair), to wandering into a gay bar, smashing a statue of James Kirk (and ironically, there was a Star Trek trailer before this. Huh?) to wandering into a Star Trek convention to have William Shatner give them the plans for Skywalker Ranch. The story, once you look beyond the gags, is one that has some good themes to it - the bonds of friendship, a shared love for the Star Wars movies, but also about identity, which is something that I haven't seen a whole lot of when it comes to films like this, and it really does bring the film up a bit.

There is a perception of the geeks/nerds/fanboys out there that this film plays into, and we see them represented amongst the main characters - you have the overweight guy in need of a shower, the tall, spindly one who has trouble interacting with people, especially the opposite sex and the undersized guy who knows everything about it. To boot, you have the geek-girl who is feisty and geeky, and the geeky guy who's made efforts to distance himself from the perceptions, and is somewhat normal. The identity crisis really comes with Eric, who had gone to get a real job, and left his friends behind at their comic book store, and is blamed by Linus for this abandonment. I found this to be the most interesting part of the film in a way, because it felt the most honest. Eric has a dream where he sees his father as an Imperial, and essentially realizes that he really can't turn his back on who he really is, as he sketches comics after hours in his dad's car dealership, and while still being able to passionately argue about Luke and Leia's complicated relationship. I particularly identify with elements of all the characters, and together, they show that they are a team, a group of friends who depend upon each other, and fully embrace who they are - fanboys.

At points, I'm a little bothered by the general perception of geeks/nerds/fanboys et al, because it's an inherently unfair one, perpetrated by people who really don't understand the passion that we feel towards the genre and the specific works within it. This film, while it reinforces some of these views, goes beyond that, and tells a good story about it, one that made me laugh almost from the beginning to the end, but also brought about a number of sobering moments, such as at the end with Remy Zero's song, when the film closes without Linus. It is a bittersweet ending, and I can understand why the Weinstein company wanted to alter the cancer storyline to have something upbeat, but by keeping that aspect of the film intact, it made the film memorable, something beyond the gag film. Plus, it has Kristin Bell in a Slave Leia costume.And, the 501st Legion got a mention.

Take a Look at the Lawman: The New Life On Mars

Last night, ABC debuted their new version of the UK show Life On Mars. After a couple years of news, casting rumors, promo pictures and a lot of bad publicity when the first pilot was released, I'm very, very happy to say that I was impressed with the new version. While I don't think that it will ever surpass the original, I'm okay with that.

The original pilot was a far more superficial version of the original UK series, with a number of changes that distracted from the characters. The new version, while taking some liberties, helps by a far better cast and with an overall look and feel that both better matches the original show, and starts the US version off with its own character, one that seems very dark indeed.

Life On Mars has a much different feel from that of other shows that I've seen that take place in New York City - its faster paced and far more gritty than Law & Order, and opens with a chase scene that benefits from a great amount of editing and good camera work - something that the original pilot didn't have.

There's enough differences here to make this start to stand apart from the UK version. Sam's mentor, Carl Bellows, makes an appearance in the pilot (Glen Fletcher in the UK Version), which should prove to be a nice way to tie episodes together, Maya and Sam's problems are given a little more background in the opening scenes in a pretty good way, and the big point - Sam's contemplation of killing the boy who would become Colin Raimes in the closing scenes of the episode. That was the biggest shift in tone that I could find, and it makes me very interested in seeing what else they will try as the series goes on.

Jason O'Mara has really stepped up to the plate here, and did a good job portraying Sam Tyler. While nobody can ever surpass John Simm, O'Mara is doing a pretty good job blazing his own path and creating his own character. There's more work to be done, but it's a good start.

Translating the show to the US seems like it would be a very tough job. Aside from geographical things, some of the stories in the original show have a much different historical background than they would in the US, and the entire method of policing in the UK is very different from the US. One of the more interesting scenes was when Sam first finds himself back in time, staying up a the newly-built World Trade Center building dominating the skyline, and his reaction was extremely well done, granting a level of subtlety that the original pilot was lacking, and pulling this more in line with the UK version. While it is more in line, the US version has succeeded, initially, at really giving the show its own US feel.

There are some minor problems here and there. Gretchen Mol doesn't nearly have the charisma of Liz White when it comes to Annie Norris (Annie Cartwright in the UK), and some of the background characters fall a little flat, such as Ray and Chris, although there is still plenty of time for them to be fully fleshed out later on. The biggest gap in the show thus far is Gene Hunt, now portrayed by Harvey Keitel. Whereas Gene Hunt had a pretty dominating presence in the pilot, Keitel's Hunt is much more in the background. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing here, I'm wondering if he is someone who will be ramped up, or just be one of the background characters on a similar level of the other detectives.

Its nearly impossible to not compare this show to the original, in my opinion. The UK version set, in my mind, such a high bar, with such a unique feel and storytelling that set it apart. The fact that this show has managed to capture some of that feel is a good thing, but I do hope that as the season goes on, they will work on deviating from the original a bit - and from all accounts, that will happen. Given that the original was only 16 episodes, and that if this is picked up for a full season that will be surpassed in the first year, I will be interested to see what directions this show will be taken.

Review: Gossip in the Grain

Ever since I've started up my music blog, I've come across hundreds of new artists and found a lot that I've liked, and a lot that I haven't liked. But, there are only a handful of artists whom I literally count down the days until I can pick up their new album. This is the case with Ray LaMontagne, whom I've been a fan of since his first release, Trouble.

Gossip in the Grain is his most personal, emotional and well crafted album, and is easily one of the best albums of the year. It comes as an extremely bittersweet release for me, because a number of the songs hit so close to home for me that it literally knocked the breathe out of me during a couple of songs.

Gossip expands the sound of Trouble and Till the Sun Turns Black, building on the sound and feel of both extremely well, while not being boxed into any particular mode - this album represents an evolution in his sound - very similar to what Amos Lee did with his own third album earlier this summer, Last Days at the Lodge. The album opens with horns in the opening track, You Are The Best Thing. The playlist reads like a story - a love story, with all the hurt, joy and love with You Are the Best Thing, Let It Be Me, Sarah, I Still Care For You, and later, with Falling Through. This is the section that is absolutely brilliant, but at times, far too relatable, at least for me.

There are tracks that are easily some of the best that LaMontagne has done thus far. In addition to the aforementioned tracks, Meg White proves to be a fun listen to singer Meg White, of the White Stripes, Henry Nearly Killed Me (It's a Shame), and the title track, Gossip in the Grain. There's a wide variety of emotion and sound, and we see LaMontagne at vulnerable times, and when the cuffs come off and the sound takes right off. With this, there's a wide blend of rock, acoustic, bluegrass and country brought in here to build a fantastic sound.

This album is easily one of the best of the year, and its sure to make a high point on my end of the year lists. Its emotion, energy and spirit sets this far above most of the albums that I've listened to, and proves that LaMontagne is still capable to release better material as his music career ages, and that he is one of the best, and defining musicians of the decade.

I'm particularly excited to see LaMontagne live tomorrow night - he is one of the artists on my priority to see list, and it'll be nice to see his performance live. Gossip in the Grain is due out next Tuesday, October 14th.