Novel: Clipjoint by Wilhelmina Baird

Wilhelmina Baird’s Clipjoint (1994) is an enjoyable if somewhat confusing return to the stomping grounds of her debut novel Crashcourse. After the precarious events of that adventure, Cass (the thief) and Moke (the artist) have checked out to another planet, more or less retired from their previous ugly reality. But when a video clip surfaces suggesting that a friend, thought deceased, may in fact be alive – and under the thumb of their nemeses at the film studio, Coelecanth – Cass and Moke head back to Ashton to investigate, resurrecting connections in the criminal underworld and putting themselves back in harm’s way.

Baird writes from the gut; there’s an edgy attitude to the prose I find both compelling and perverse. And the gritty, urban post-cyberpunk future on display here still feels ahead of its time. Unfortunately, this time I had a harder time discerning the plot from the eyeball kicks and cybernoir lingo. The dizzying pace of events tends to sweep the heroes from one intense setpiece to the next, side characters spinning into and out of their orbit chaotically. It’s all quite difficult to track, and I wish the narrative had poked its head out a little more often to keep me anchored. Even so it’s a swift, vibrant, and inventive read that holds up pretty solidly for twenty-year-old science fiction.

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TV: The Newsroom (Season 3)

Newsroom3

Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom has been a fascinating mess of a show. And when I say that, I mean that the mess has been fascinating, not necessarily the show. Its first two seasons are characterized by polish, wit, and ambition, but also hindsight sanctimony, contrived plotting, maddening gender politics, and more than its share of irritating missteps. The show never really found its voice or its audience, which on some channels means cancellation. But HBO gave it a six-episode “kiss-off” renewal to tie off the threads. It might have been better off cutting its losses.

The first few episodes of season three had me half-convinced that Sorkin had finally figured the show out. It certainly had some high stakes, well executed hooks: a major plot involving a government whistleblower, and another involving a hostile takeover of the network. It’s big, compelling Story, and when Sorkin’s sharp dialogue is firing on all cylinders, The Newsroom is bracing stuff.

The show even seemed to have listened to some of the widespread criticism of its handling of female characters. Sorkin’s irritating malecentric viewpoint never goes away, alas, but at least he gives Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer), Maggie (Alison Pill), and Sloane (Olivia Munn) more and better voices in the argument. His male characters are still dicks, and “heroic” in their dickishness, but at least they get called on their shit more often.

Alas, it’s only the illusion of progress. The final two episodes of the series bring the whole shebang to a clumsy, unfortunate halt. Sorkin’s true colors come out in the penultimate hour – primarily in a controversial campus rape storyline, which is undisguised Sorkin malecentrism writ large, but also in his future-phobic disdain for the new media landscape. The finale, meanwhile, is a massive misfire: a flashback-heavy episode that rewinds to The Newsroom’s early days. It’s a peculiar “pre-pilot” that succeeds primarily in reminding us that this crack team of reporters never really lived up to their aggressive mission statement. Which is perhaps appropriate, because neither did The Newsroom – a show that never realized its promise, and which closes with an air of insincere apology and ultimate defeat.

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TV: Black Mirror (Seasons 1 & 2)

Black Mirror

There are shows that justify the buzz they’ve generated, and Black Mirror is one of them. This very polished, very bleak British series resurrects that extinct beast, the anthology show, fusing near-future speculation, Twilight Zone twists, and scathing social commentary into something that edges on brilliance. It’s both beautifully rendered and difficult to watch, and there’s no other show like it.

The show’s mission, outside of pure eye-widening entertainment, is both cautionary and critical: a combination of “if-this-goes-on” warning and scathing reflection on modern civilization’s undeniable ugliness, as it pertains to our wired, technology-warped world. Unfortunately that mission gives the series an undercurrent of technophobia, but it’s an understandable one given the material, which is unquestionably relevant and highly thought-provoking.

Nowhere is this mission more evident than in the jaw-dropping blacker-than-black comedy of the season one opener, “The National Anthem,” a dazzling and discomfiting tale of social media wielded as a terrorist weapon against the British government. When a royal princess is kidnapped, the British Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear) receives an outlandish and horrifying ransom demand: in order to free the princess, the P.M. must…well, let’s not ruin the disgusting surprise. Ricocheting wildly through viewpoints, this one leverages its outrageous premise to darkly humorous effect before pulling the rug out to ram its brutal point home. It’s followed up by “15 Million Merits,” a brilliant display of visual story-telling with a subtly building, what-the-hell-is-happening opening. This one was well on its way to being one of my favorite episodes of TV ever made before it stepped on its own magic, but as an allegory for the gamification of modern life, it’s still moving and powerful, anchored by winning performances from its star-crossed lovers (David Kaluuya and Jessica Brown Findlay). Season one ends with the outstandingly executed “The Entire History of You,” which posits a future in which everyone is implanted with recording devices that enable them to record and rewatch every moment of their lives – and how this technology shatters a relationship, powerfully performed by Toby Kebbell and Jodie Whittaker. It’s a brilliantly executed cautionary examination of its sfnal premise.

Season two opens with the series’ most emotionally satisfying episode to date, “Be Right Back,” which stars Hayley Atwell as Martha, a woman who loses her husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson) to a tragic accident – then reluctantly uses technology to bring him back to life. Heartfelt, chilling, and beautifully done, “Be Right Back” doesn’t quite stick its landing, but the build-up is wonderfully done and the story still resonates. From there it’s a left-turn into brutal science fiction horror in “White Bear.” A woman named Victoria (Lenora Crichlow) awakens with no memory and stumbles out into a mysterious world where creepy, indifferent citizens watch – smartphones recording – as she’s pursued by masked, violent killers. Soon she hooks up with a young woman named Jem (Tuppence Middleton), who explicates her predicament…but that’s just the first of many levels to this batshit crazy scenario. It’s a terrifying episode that adds layer after layer, and while its infodumpy explanations almost lost me, the credit sequence outro pulled me right back and left just the right, twisted taste behind. Season two wraps with “The Waldo Moment,” about a frustrated comedian (Daniel Rigby) whose gig improvising the actions of an animated blue dog named Waldo take an unexpected turn into politics. While this one struck me as inelegant compared to other episodes, it’s still a wholly engaging hour full of angry insight into the posturing theatrics of the political process.

Black Mirror may be too relentlessly grim for some viewers. The episodes don’t always realize their early potential. But it’s still a marvelous series of science fiction tinged by contemporary horror: powerfully produced, full of great performances, that examines its robust science fictional premises with uncommon ambition and verve. All six episodes are streaming on Netflix, so block out a weekend for them; highly, highly recommended, and I can’t wait for the next season.

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Novel: The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

In many ways, Alex Berenson’s The Faithful Spy (2006) may be the quintessential post-9/11 American spy thriller, a gripping distillation of contemporary genre tropes. The surfaces are familiar, but fortunately it also digs deeper, getting into the psychology of its characters and the complicated infrastructure of the intelligence world.

John Wells is the deepest of deep-cover agents, a soldier who – motivated by the tragedy of September 11th – undertakes to become a CIA mole inside al Qaeda. But after six years building a cover, in the wilds of Afghanistan and elsewhere, Wells may have been under too long. His long, silent disappearance certainly has the CIA, including his handler Jennifer Exley, concerned. But Wells is about to resurface. His patience has paid off: the jihadis, finally, believe he’s one of them, and send him back to the United States to participate in a major attack. But he’s been gone so long, and comes back so changed, that the CIA isn’t sure whether to trust him – and, considering his own conflicted feelings and changed perspective, neither is Wells.

Ricocheting around the world through multiple viewpoints, The Faithful Spy is exceptional spy fare, diminished perhaps only by its conventionality. On the plot level, its well deployed elements play out like a season of 24 or Homeland, and will surely resonate with fans of that type of show. But I found it much more thoughtful, and less sensationalistic, than those pop culture landmarks. Berenson really gets into the heads of his characters, especially Wells, who identifies so strongly with both his American roots and his new Muslim beliefs that he often finds himself confusing his allegiances, sometimes even within the same sentence. His long immersion in another culture lends his viewpoint a fascinating, culture-shocky edge as he returns to the States.

This one’s got all the bells and whistles of entertaining spy fiction – deceptions, thrills, twists, politics, even a romance-under-fire subplot – but also delivers interesting psychological insights, both into its characters and into the 21st century American zeitgeist. I’ll definitely be reading more in this series.

 

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Collection: Sergeant Chip and Other Novellas by Bradley Denton

It had been far too long since I’d read some Bradley Denton, so it made sense to scoop up his collection Sergeant Chip and Other Novellas (2014) – after all, I’d read the title story twice before and it’s an all-time favorite. This beautiful book from Subterranean Press is full of smoothly written and engrossing speculative fiction.

The collection opens with “Sergeant Chip” (2004), a gripping futuristic war story with a most memorable protagonist: Chip, a dog, who serves faithfully by the side of his master, Captain Dial. Chip’s experiences, recounted in a clipped, distinct voice, tell a tragic tale of battlefield chaos and military corruption – all from the point-of-view of the most loyal, admirable soldier ever imagined. Once again, reading Chip’s story both won my heart and broke it. A wonderful novella.

Long before Dexter there was Denton’s notorious serial killer, Jimmy Blackburn, whose creepy lore grows in the supernatural horror of “Blackburn and the Blade” (2006). The protagonist’s life is detailed fully in the 1993 novel Blackburn, but this novella fills in the blanks on one of his unreported victims. Blackburn’s transient existence lands him in the Quad Cities in the mid-eighties, where his simple desires – to buy a Ford Thunderbird, protect his dog, and make his way to Chicago – become entangled with the locals, ultimately delivering him another worthy target of his murderous impulses. Full of dark shadows, explosive violence, midwestern ambience and black humor, “Blackburn and the Blade” is an entertaining ride for fans of this character and his, uh, peculiar worldview.

Finally there’s “The Adakian Eagle” (2011), a terrific blend of detective fiction, history, and paranormal fantasy. Set amidst the U.S. military presence on the Aleutian Islands in 1944, it features a fifty-year-old Dashiell Hammett – at that time, a corporal in the army with his writing days behind him. Thanks to a colonel with a chip on his shoulder, Hammett gets mixed up with the protagonist, a young private with a dark secret. Together they’re sent to investigate what appears to be a weird, ritualistic murder of an eagle, only to find themselves embroiled in a web of supernatural intrigue on the remote island. It’s a structurally satisfying love letter to Hammett and his work, flavored with Denton’s deft handling of genre tropes, all set against a unique backdrop both geographically and historically memorable. It caps off a very satisfying collection of short novels from an underappreciated voice in speculative fiction.

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Spy 100, #8: Pickup on South Street

Much as I enjoyed Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), I think it’s rated too highly on the list. The distinct visual style and rhythmic crime lingo of noir characterizes this cleverly plotted yarn, which is really only a spy film on its edges. It has the feel of classic cinema, but also a host of problematic, era-specific issues.

When a pickpocket named Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) lifts the wallet of an attractive woman named Candy (Jean Peters) on a New York City subway, it’s a simple crime that turns out to have wickedly complicated consequences. Why? Because Candy is a courier, who was delivering a top secret package for her shady boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley). On top of that, she was also under surveillance by federal agents, who were following her to determine the package’s recipient. A chain of events ensues, entangling several conflicting motives. The feds recruit a notorious local stool pigeon, Moe (Thelma Ritter), to try to identify the pickpocket. Joey strong-arms Candy into retrieving what she lost. And the cavalier Skip ultimately learns the unexpected value of his asset, and works to leverage it to the fullest advantage.

It’s a wonderfully complex skein of shady criminal behavior, and I watched the first half-hour or so with pure delight. Peters makes for an interesting, fast-talking femme fatale, and Ritter is both a hoot and a heartbreaker as the ever-angling stoolie. And from a subtle, quiet start full of terrific visual story-telling, a beautifully shifty plot emerges, full of switchbacks and double-crosses and hidden agendas.

Alas, the nihilistic noir trappings and gross gender politics of the era do eventually assert themselves, ultimately spoiling the soup. Evidently Widmark’s arrogant bad boy snarl is supposed to be charming, but it doesn’t play – in fact, he’s almost entirely irredeemable, which renders a crucial flash-romance between Skip and Candy decidedly unconvincing. Too much of the relationship relies on Candy’s poor judgment, and it’s undercut even further by the casual, explosive physical abuse she receives from Skip – and later, more seriously, from Joey. This is standard noir misogyny at work, I suspect, cavalierly handled in a manner that leaves a bad taste in the mouth. And for all the clever build-up of its nifty plot, it resolves awkwardly: the climactic fight scene fades out oddly, followed by a weirdly Hollywood ending that Skip certainly doesn’t deserve, and that I wish Candy hadn’t wanted.

It’s a shame, because there is so much to like here. Fuller’s directorial eye is in fine form, the scenario is full of intrigue and suspense, and oh, the glorious patter of slick dialogue. It’s even, amazingly, a Bechdel pass, with female leads who totally outshine their male counterparts. But in the end it’s a number of awkward missteps short of brilliant.

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Film: Pleasantville

When Pleasantville (1998) turned up on TV over the holiday weekend, I realized I’d never seen it. It’s a well put together, if problematic, high-concept Hollywood portal fantasy. It’s about a sulky teenager named David (Tobey Maguire) who, in order to escape the imperfections of real life, regularly loses himself in the white, suburban fantasy of an old TV sitcom called Pleasantville. When David’s television breaks, a peculiar TV repairman (Don Knotts) shows up to fix it – and magically propels David into the show. The catch? His sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) ends up coming along for the ride, bringing her sexually experienced, non-goody-two-shoes attitude along with her. Jennifer doesn’t know the protocols of Pleasantville’s unchanging, surfacey 1950s landscape – nor does she care. It doesn’t take long before they both becomes flys in the ointment, upsetting the town’s comfortable stasis to show its citizens – and, of course, themselves – a new way to live.

Pleasantville is a nicely assembled film, with some funny early moments as it explores its premise. It also has a striking look, with a clever visual conceit: the bland, black-and-white fifties backdrop gradually falls away as David and Jennifer’s contemporary influence gets the citizens of Pleasantville thinking outside the idiot box for once, a process that magically injects color into the world. It’s a well rendered “enlightenment” metaphor, especially early. There’s also effective casting: Maguire and Witherspoon are perfect for their parts, as are Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, and William H. Macy as cardboard sitcom characters forced to see beyond the confines of their traditional roles.

Alas, something doesn’t sit right with me about this film. The structure’s too formulaic, the thematic destination too predictable. While it’s clever, it also manages to be obvious and simplistic. Most troubling, there’s something tone deaf about the way it leverages discrimination language as the black-and-white citizens become “colored.” This may be the whitest film ever made, and obviously it’s deliberate, practically built into the premise…but, yeah, it probably shouldn’t have gone there. There’s also premise fatigue late in the film, particularly in the climactic courtroom scene near the end.

A mixed reaction, then: I can understand how it did well, and there are aspects of its craft worth appreciating, but it also left a weird taste in my mouth. An interesting watch.

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Spy 100, #9: The Lives of Others

In my view, the quietly devastating The Lives of Others (2006) is right up there with other classic films investigating the emotional perils of surveillance and voyeurism: The Conversation and Rear Window come immediately to mind. Indeed this may be one of the Spy 100 list’s most powerful entries, underrated even at #9.

In early eighties East Germany, secret policeman Captain Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is given a simple assignment: investigate squeaky clean, party-approved writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). A party idealist to the core, Wiesler dutifully sets about his task, establishing a listening post in the attic of Dreyman’s building. But his job, rather straightforward on the surface, turns out to be a more complicated tangle: a personal vendetta involving a politically powerful rival for the affections of Dreyman’s girlfriend, actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). This kind of abuse of power isn’t part of Wiesler’s job description, but then neither is his slowly mounting empathy for the artists he’s been tasked with destroying – an unexpected development that leads him to subtly start pulling strings to manipulate their fate.

Impeccably produced, The Lives of Others is a moving, intense examination of life in a corrupt, communist surveillance state. Its bleak depiction of the stultifying day-to-day conditions of life during that time is truly eye-opening. But it’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful film, full of emotional power, thanks to outstanding performances in the key roles. Koch and Gedeck are superb, selling the troubled central relationship convincingly, but it’s Mühe who breaks my heart in this one. His subtle, gradual transformation – from stern, unquestioning agent of the state, to a quietly empathetic guardian angel for the artists whose love he vicariously lives through – is the core of a perfectly structured story. It all culminates in a wrenchingly beautiful final moment. A sad, quiet, slow-building masterpiece.

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Collection: Emerald City and Other Stories by Jennifer Egan

With three books under my belt now, I can say with authority that I’m a Jennifer Egan fanboy. Her collection Emerald City and Other Stories (1993) isn’t quite the dazzling tour de force that both Look at Me and A Visit from the Goon Squad are, but as a sampling of her effortlessly read prose and subtle insight, it’s another impressive read.

There are eleven short stories on offer, and each one is short, succinct, and finely crafted. Egan’s prose style is deceptive: outwardly simple, and yet loaded, as if its surface has been intricately encoded with hidden meaning. A couple of the stories reminded me of Look at Me: the title tale, “Emerald City,” about a photographer’s assistant and his aspiring model girlfriend in New York, seeking acceptance and prestige in the harsh fashion business, and “The Stylist,” which ventures to an exotic photo shoot in Africa. Both stories conjure Look at Me’s thoughtful insight into image-obsession and the almost destructive longing for fame and acceptance American society tends to breed. Egan also seems quite interested in characters quietly, subconsciously striving to recapture past glory, as in “The Watch Trick,” a perfectly clocked bottle show about personalities in subtle conflict during an ill-fated boat trip , or “Letters to Josephine,” wherein a woman who has married into money tries to reconcile the circumstances of her opulent lifestyle with memories of earlier struggles. Another highlight is “Spanish Winter,” wherein a woman, whose homelife has disastrously crumbled, aimlessly roams abroad, searching for a reason to give up, but finding something unexpected.

It’s kind of a spellbinding collection, really, full of small, quietly illuminating stories about ordinary people. They work on an emotional level, but also speak to broader societal issues in a manner that’s almost science fictional. Egan’s sensibility really speaks to me, and I’m finding her work quite addictive and essential.

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Novella: Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is a consistent source of satisfying core science fiction, and her recent novella Yesterday’s Kin (2014) is another success. Its sfnal furniture is familiar, but as usual Kress leverages it skillfully into something both entertaining and relevant.

Marianne Jenner is a scientist whose discovery of a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA propels her unexpectedly onto the world stage. It turns out that aliens from another system, who arrived months ago and have lingered mysteriously on their ship in New York’s harbor ever since, want her to join a scientific team that’s working to avert imminent global catastrophe. Even as she throws herself into the job, she can’t help questioning their motives – which also happen to entangle her ne’er-do-well son, Noah.

It’s a story laced with recognizable SF trappings: alien first contact, scientists under pressure, a ticking clock counting down worldwide apocalypse. As usual Kress grounds the narrative in the details of the science, but doesn’t lose sight of the people embroiled in its skiffy disaster scenario. Marianne and Noah, whose addiction to an identity-warping drug is a story in itself, make for accessible alternating viewpoints on the story’s escalating crisis. Kress keeps the reader guessing right up until the end, all the while delivering compelling prose and thought-provoking commentary. Great stuff.

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