28 July 2012

Books: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams (1987)

I had been reading Shada, the Doctor Who story from 1979 that got canceled due to a production stoppage at the BBC. Douglas Adams, who wrote Shada, never wanted that story novelized –mostly because he felt the serial was week (see this posting). However, in 1987 he released Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. That novel recycled bits from Shada and another Doctor Who story he wrote, City of Death. So, after reading Gareth Roberts version of Shada, I pulled out my old copy of Dirk Gently, and for the first time since it was released 25 years ago, I re-read it. 

While the novel is nonlinear, it basically starts four billion years in Earth's past, when a group of alien Salaxalans attempt to populate the earth. But a mistake caused by their engineer – who used an Electric Monk to irrationally believe the proposed fix would work – causes their landing craft to explode, killing the Salaxalans and generating the spark of energy needed to start the process of life on Earth. The ghost of the Salaxalan engineer roams the earth waiting to undo his mistake, watching human life develop and waiting to find a soul that it can possess. 

The above plot element was part of Adam’s City of Death serial of Doctor Who.

To help accelerate things, the Salaxalan ghost encounters  Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th Century  and tries to influence the writer to add a second section to "Kubla Khan" and alter parts of "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to describe how to correct the problem that destroyed the landing craft in the distant past. The ghost later discovers that Professor Urban "Reg" Chronotis (the same, yet different one featured in Shada) at St Cedd's possesses a time machine disguised as his quarters and in the late 20th Century, during the annual St Cedd's dinner reading of "Kubla Khan", the ghost influences Reg to use the time machine to perform a bit of trickery for a young child at the dinner, while the ghost lures another Electric Monk into Reg's quarters. Upon return to the present, the ghost finds the Monk unusable for its purposes. The Monk then goes off to kill Wayforward Technologies II's CEO, Gordon Way, due to a misunderstanding.

What amazes me about this book, and about Douglas Adams, was while the plot is complicated and at times very confusing, it is also a clever science fiction novel that tries –as Dirk believes in, the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things", where many details that may appear to be superfluous, turn out to be integral to the plot. It is also, in many ways, a smart novel – the characters talk on the concept of Schrödinger's Cat, which Dirk uses to determine Richard MacDuff’s mental state, with Richard producing clear and rational arguments for why the experiment proposed in the theory cannot be carried out in reality.

It makes little sense to me. But that’s why I think Adams was way ahead of his times, and why his death in 2001 at the age of 49 (same as I am now) was such a huge loss. Otherwise, the novel is whimsical and written in typical Adams style for silly humor and thought provoking ideas. 

I should re-read this book more often.

21 July 2012

Books: Doctor Who: Shada by Gareth Roberts (2012)

Shada was an untransmitted tale of the original Doctor Who series. It was a six-part serial scheduled to be the final story of season seventeen. But with all location footage finished and one block of three studio sessions done, there was a strike at the BBC. After it was settled, and the scheduling was done to get series back into production, a decision was made to scrap Shada, mostly because the effects for the story could not be finished on time, along with various other reasons.

Over the last 30 years, the legend of this story grew, mostly because it was written by Douglas Adams, of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame.  He had scripted a season sixteen serial, Pirate Planet (part of the Key of Time arc) which then earned him script editor duties for season seventeen. That year opened with one of the most highly acclaimed serials, City of Death (with producer Graham Williams, from an original storyline by writer David Fisher. It was transmitted under the pseudonym "David Agnew"). 

As most contracts with Doctor Who writers went, they were given the option to novelize their stories or have someone else do them.  Adams, however, would not allow anyone else to write them, plus he asked for a higher price than the publishers were willing to pay. So his three stories, and two that where aired during the fifth Doctor era (Resurrection of the Daleks and Revelation of the Daleks written by Eric Saward) remained unwritten as novels.

And when Douglas Adams died in May of 2001, not only did we lose one of most creative, most genius authors, many fans mourned the fact that his three Doctor Who stories would never be seen in print –though elements of Shada and City of Death were reused in Adams's later novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Now 11 years after his death, Gareth Roberts was authorized by the Adams estate to novelize Shada. Roberts began his association with Doctor Who in the 1990’s, writing original novels that were part of the New Adventures and Missing Adventures, The Highest Science,Tragedy Day, Zamper, The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, The Plotters and The Well-Mannered War. He also wrote two original novels for the New Series, Only Human and I am a Dalek.

He’s also written 4 episodes of the new series, The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp, The Lodger and Closing Time, as well as episodes for The Sarah Jane Adventures, Revenge of the Slitheen, Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane?, Secret of the Stars, The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith, The Wedding of Sarah Jane Smith, The Empty Planet and co-wrote Goodbye, Sarah Jane Smith. He also wrote what would be the series ender, The Man Who Never Was.

Shada revolves around the lost planet Shada, on which the Time Lords built a prison for defeated would-be conquerors of the universe. Skagra, an up-and-coming would-be conqueror of the universe, needs the assistance of one of the prison's inmates, but finds that nobody knows where Shada is anymore except one aged Time Lord who has retired to Earth, where he is masquerading as a professor at St. Cedd's College, Cambridge. Luckily for the fate of the universe, Skagra's attempt to force the information out of Professor Chronotis coincides with a visit by the professor's old friend, the Doctor.

It’s clear that Roberts tried to emulate Adams as much as possible, though no one can be Douglas Adams.

The story pretty much makes sense, and the plot is interesting, almost justifying what would have been a 6 episode serial (which seemed a rarity back then).  Twenty years ago, the BBC released this story on video with linking elements narrated by Tom Baker and you can clearly see the plot holes this story had.  Adams often said that the story was not very good, that he plate was full with him be the series story editor all while writing scripts for the Hitchhiker radio play and TV series and novel (which was why he recycled them for Dirk Gently). And you can tell because it has some silly humor, bad puns and looks cheap. 

And in 2004, the About Time (the definitive [albeit unofficial] guide books to Doctor Who) boys Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood took a critical look at Shada and pointed out its problems. It seems Roberts took those criticisms to heart and dealt with them in the novel. And Roberts himself is an extremely witty writer, which helps, and it’s sometimes hard to know what Adams wrote and what Roberts added, beyond the more modern references, like “fixed points in time” and Neil Gaiman’s unseen Time Lord the Corsair. He also fixes one of the plot holes by quoting from The Impossible Astronaut.

In the end, Shada is a good novelization, but because Douglas Adams is not around, it’s not the best it could have been had he decided in the 22 years between its making and his death to write his own version of it.

19 July 2012

'American Horror Story' scores 17 Emmy nods, but can it win?

Last year, everyone’s favorite British drama, Downton Abbey was submitted in the miniseries category for the 2011 Emmy’s. It was a shrewd move, and the show scored 4 wins out of five nominations. This year, the show must compete in the Drama category, but still racked up an impressive 16 nominations.

This year, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falcuk will try the same strategy with their FX show American Horror Story. The creator’s cited that since the show is basically an anthology series versus a standard drama, it could fall under Best Miniseries category instead of Best Drama.

That thought process paid off, as the show tied with AMC’s Mad Men as the most nominated show for the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards at 17. The interesting fact is that horror is an overlooked genre when it comes to the Emmy’s, but it’s huge haul is interesting, if only because AMC equally praised horror entry The Walking Dead was shut out.

Still, does the show have any real chance? I don’t think so.

I predict that while impressive, and a nice footnote in Emmy lore for an overlooked genre, American Horror Story faces stiff competition from the History Channel’s huge juggernaut, The Hatfields and The Mccoys. Part one of that three part miniseries drew the largest-ever ratings for a History Channel program and one of the biggest in cable TV history. 13.9 million viewers tuned into the first of three parts, making it the most-watched single broadcast on cable ever, excluding sports. That alone, however, does not guarantee a win, but the Emmy’s (like the Oscars) tend to skew older and more predicable winners. The one thing the Emmy’s do have over the Golden Globes and the Oscars (even though they just do movies), is while the do have a tendency to choose the same people again and again, they’re more open to first timers and newer shows.

So that may play against AHS in the end. The Hatfields and The Mccoys has a few things going for it: First, it had the appeal of older viewers. Secondly,  it resembled the old broadcast networks “event” style miniseries that were huge in 1970s and 80s. Nostalgia sometimes wins over the new and the shiny, especially if the cast of your miniseries is populated with the likes of Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton and Tom Berenger -80′s stars that viewers feel more comfortable with. Thirdly, the cable broadcasters have the advantage of building visibility on only a handful of original shows. Broadcast networks have a huge issues when they have to focus their marketing strategy on all their shows.

Still, Connie Britton got a nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries, while Frances Conroy, Denis O’Hare and Jessica Lange all scored in supporting roles.But I predict that Hatfields and the Mccoys will score the wins.

So like many other shows and actors in genre of science fiction, fantasy and horror, these nominations from a mainstream award show is just, in the end, all for show. 

Books: The Way of Kings: Book One of The Stormlight Archieve by Brandon Sanderson (2010)

Massive electrical highstorms repeatedly scour the world. Kingdoms battle on the Shattered Plains for glory, power, and the heart gems of the massive, chitinous creatures that spawn there. Unbeatable Brightlords wear magical armor and wield rock shearing Shardblades. They politic and fight amongst one another even as their war against the bestial Parshendi continues. Brightlord Kholinar reads The Way of Kings, an ancient text about honor. His visions push him to try to change society, but his ideas are shouted down and insulted. On the plains, Kaladin, a soldier and healer, tries to improve the system of portable bridges used to span canyons in an attempt to save lives. A would-be scholar, Shallan, must deceive her mentor to steal a necklace and save her bankrupt family. An assassin uses his lashing skills to alter gravity and take out a panoply of rulers, sowing chaos.

Since the early to mid-1990 on, both Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin held the pre-eminent title of epic fantasy authors. When Jordan died in 2007, it left Martin as the sole king, even though he was a slow writer –as was Jordan in his later years. After Brandon Sanderson was hired to finish Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, his earlier work –which already had a small fan base- expanded. Sanderson’s stock grew as fanboys and girls embraced his earlier work, because Sanderson was prolific, had a great buzz, and content was easy to read.

While I abandoned the Jordan series long before he died, and have held any the epic fantasy series with some regard since, I still am fascinated with them. As always, one of my reservations about them is lengths of the series. Trilogies remain the best way to keep people coming back. Once they start expanding into five, six, seven or more, you risk losing older readers who have moved on to other stuff. I’m sure there are a few people who’ve read all of Jordan’s Wheel series since it began in 1992, but I’m also guessing many have just threw up their arms in despair at sheer length of each novel –some closing on a 1,000 pages, and the years between volumes. 

When Sanderson’s Way of Kings was released in August of 2010, I looked at with even more reservations. It was huge, 1008 pages and –apparently- book one of 10!! But, I reasoned, he was known to be prolific, which meant he wrote fast. So maybe we would see a book once a year. But since he decided to expand the supposedly last book of the Wheel of Time into three books, I began to suspect he was going to follow in Jordan’s footsteps of waiting years between books. 

Sanderson has created a fully realized world and it thought out at every level. That is why, in some sense, Jordan and Martin deserves the praise they get for the worlds they created. It is only in this degree in World Building can you fully understand who the strongest fantasy writers are. 

And yet, I have huge problems with it. Perhaps I just don’t have the time to devote to these books any more, or it’s so beyond me now, I use that as an excuse to bash them. I believe there is a good story here, and Sanderson is a fine writer, yet does it need to be this long (I read the paperback, which is 1,250 pages)? Is it long because you think things can’t be edited out? Who are you trying to impress? While the characters are impressive, fully realized and interesting, the story wanders and seems to have little point. We spend endless pages with these characters and their arcs move at a snail’s pace for reasons that baffle me. 

I’ve read many great reviews, comparing him to Jordan, Martin, Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Raymond Feist and even J.R.R Tolkien. And while I’ve read all those authors, I’ve also given up on them, bored I guess with their continued dipping into the same universe again and again. 

I just think, at this point in my life, I can no longer devote decades to one series. Whatever happened to the idea of three volumes in a series? I can even understand six –unless there are years between volumes- but 10 seems pretentious (and when Sanderson finishes The Wheel of Time early next year, it will total 12 books).

17 July 2012

Future's End

Two months from today, I turn 50.

I have mixed feelings about this. Since Borders folded 10 months ago, I've felt rather stupid, small and depressed about the possibility of starting from the bottom when I do get a job. Then I think back to the years I pissed away not going to college and even getting a stupid 2 year associates business degree. That would have given me a better chance at getting something. Anything. 

Now, as I struggle day-in-and-day-out posting my resume to 47 different jobsites and getting no hits back from the place I'm sending it to, I resent my younger self for being so cavalier to think that I would be the lucky one; that I would have a steady job until I retire.

I admit that I never fully wanted to be the Captain, so to speak, of any job. I'm a worker bee, able to take orders, but fully capable of doing things on my own. I worked hard, played fairly, praised people when they needed it and made profit for a company, that as a whole, did not want to do.

But I also pointed out the flaws, the problems that my company faced. I offered advice on how to solve them -I do have ideas- but because I was clearly not a YES man, a 100% behind the boss no matter how hot the job got, I was considered a disruptive employee. I worked for a company that basically said, yes that wall is on fire, but don't be concerned with that. It'll take care of itself.

Well it didn't and here we are ten months later. I've not been on a interview since early June, I've had no calls about my resume, I've gotten threats from EDD about how incorrect I've been filling out my forms and paying bills and watching my savings (never had a lot to begin with) dwindle down. I have an IRA that I'll probably have to cash in before the end of the year if I don't start making money.

I've tried, I've tried. Everyday, looking on the internet, sending my resume out. Nothing. During the day, I don't even watch TV, just to make sure I keep focused on the job hunting. But nothing. 

So here I sit, two months shy of the big five zero. Sure, as my sister says, its just a number. And maybe if I was working, turning into my fifth decade may have been easier. But now, now it feels I've lost the game, outlived my usefulness. But this new number scares me. It haunts and teases me. And I fear, oh I fear, I've lost some game that had odds stacked against me to begin with.

And the fact that it seems I'm more afraid of success than failure explains why I'm out of a job, why I cannot get a job, and why I'll always be single. I'm my own worst enemy and I destroy everything that could make my life bigger, grander. 

I need help, but I'm unsure who wants to do it for free. I have no money to pay someone to help me, but I need someone to push, shove and pull me towards a better future. Because this wallowing in self-pity is fucking annoying.

Just like turning 50 and having no job is right now!