Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Danger in Words

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." -- Sir Arthur Eddington

During one of those surreal moments that make my days worth living, a friend of mine pointed out that, when making tea, we "plug the kettle in." However, when the water's boiling, we "unplug the kettle." We don't "plug the kettle out." Conversely, before we "unplug" the kettle, we don't "plug" it.

This is why I love English. It makes no sense. In what other language would "flammable" and "inflammable" mean the same thing, but "continent" and "incontinent" not?

All of which (because my head is an unusual place) leads me to wonder about the "For Dummies" and "Complete Idiot's Guide" books. Why is there no "Dummies Books for Dummies" guide for those who don't understand the rudiments of the collection? Or how about "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Complete Idiots" for those who fail to recognize the unintelligent before suffering the unpleasant consequences of encountering them?

There are no Field Guides to North American Birdwatchers, either.

And I've always laughed at those instruction manuals which open with a section entitled, "How to use this book," as though the instruction manual were in need of an instruction manual.

Mostly True Story:

A number of years ago when I lived in Toronto, I worked for a man who developed an unusual problem. During a windstorm, an old, cracked plastic garbage can had blown into his yard. He set it out by the corner, hoping someone would recognize and claim it. When no one did, he decided to throw it out. He left it out on the curb on garbage day, but the sanitation engineers didn't recognize it as trash and left it there. He tried putting it in his own garbage can with other stuff and leaving it again. They emptied both cans and left the broken one behind. Finally he wrote a "Take me" sign and taped it to the broken can.

They took the sign.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Losing Heroes

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries." -- Frank Capra
"What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out" -- Alfred Hitchcock

Today's quotes, which I chose solely because they relate to the content below, coincidentally come from two great American directors of drama. How convenient.

I don't watch much television. Sure sometimes I'll zone out in front of the tube and accidentally catch one episode of something or other, but I don't watch regularly. I haven't found anything that rewards any commitment to regular viewing. I thought that had changed a few years ago.

In 2006, NBC tried to climb out of the ratings basement by creating a nifty little show called "Heroes." The pitch was simple: what if ordinary people developed superpowers? The market research had already been done by blockbuster films like Batman Begins, X-Men and Spider-Man. The audience was there. On television, "Lost" was already proving that serial storytelling could work. That a serial story about superheroes would succeed seemed inevitable.

And it did succeed. Heroes was the only hit to break out of the crop of new series that made the airwaves in September 2006. It had flaws, of course, characters tended to suffer from "plot induced stupidity," and occasionally the budget just wasn't up to the effects demanded by the story (season one's final confrontation between two super-powered characters devolved into a disappointingly mundane fistfight). However, it also had its moments of brilliance ("Company Man").

Then season two hit the airwaves and everything fell apart. Old characters fell victim to wildly improbable plots (Peter gets amnesia and gets shipped to Ireland?) while new characters suffered from stories so melodramatic that they bordered on farce (Maya and Alejandro's storyline provoked ridicule from just about every critic). Many changes between the seasons went unexplained (why did Matt abandon his wife and child, move in with Mohinder and adopt Molly? What happened to Nathan's family?). And the similarities between season one and two seemed to be in all the wrong places. Once again, the story put the world in danger and it was up to the main characters to save it. The viewers had seen this before, though, and changed the channel in search of something new.

The season came to an abrupt end with the Hollywood writer's strike, leaving some plots unresolved and scores of questions unanswered. The strike was both a curse, for those of us who wanted those answers, and a blessing for those of us who suspected those answers wouldn't make sense. Season two was criticized for moving too slow, for resolving things too fast, for introducing too many new characters and crowding out old ones, and for giving us nothing new.

When the strike ended, the creators came back to Heroes "re-energized." They were ready to take the series in a new direction, to get back to the things that made the first season so great. Season three began with high hopes. The fans were psyched, ready to make Heroes a hit again. Then they saw the premiere. Again, the world was placed in danger. Again, characters took actions that left viewers scratching their heads. Again, viewers were left to wonder how characters got from where they were at the end of two to where they were at the beginning of season three. Some characters were abandoned (Caitlin, lost in a future, and Monica and Micah left staring at Niki's pyre), their stories left untold, and others were introduced. At least one was killed off during his first appearance, even though his story was more interesting than the larger stories going on around him. Wildly improbable plot twists (there's another Company! Mr. Petrelli Sr. isn't dead!) tried to up the dramatic tension but only succeeded in destroying the show's dramatic credibility.

Heroes has no qualms about rewriting, or at least reinterpreting, its past to serve the needs of the present episodes (Nathan's father arranged the attempt on Nathan's life, not Linderman as we had been led to believe). The only vision for its future seems to be rehashing the world-in-jeopardy trope season after season. Its present is consumed with shadowy organizations, super-serums, mad scientists and power-hungry villains. In these respects, it truly does emulate its comic-book roots. There, every new writer has the opportunity rewrite history ("Retroactive continuity," is the term used to explain away story contradictions), and the world is constantly threatened. Unfortunately, what a comic book audience accepts without question is something a television viewer looking for good drama is unable to tolerate.

The heroes of season one faced challenges that meant something personally, that affected them where they were vulnerable and forced them to make hard choices, to learn how to be strong. That's the kind of story that hooks audiences. Sure there can be shadowy organizations and super-serums, but I don't want to see stories about them. I want to see stories about the people they affect. If there's a mad scientist, I want him to know he's going mad and to see him fight it with all his resources. If there's a power-hungry villain, then I want him to have some believable reason for wanting power, a sensible goal that forces him to be a villain. I want to see him struggle with his choices. Put the world in jeopardy sometimes, sure, but remember that little dramas that will also hook the audience. A hero with the power to rip the door off a bank vault becomes much more interesting when she realizes she doesn't have enough money for the rent and has to choose between the right thing and the easy thing.

Heroes, a show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers, seems to have forgotten the "ordinary" part of the equation.

A show about ordinary people with extraordinary powers. I'd love to watch a show like that.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be one on the air right now.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In Memoriam (Comics Edition)

Current Reading: The Digging Leviathan, by James P. Blaylock

Inspirational Quote: "You can lead a yak to water, but you can't teach an old dog how to make a silk purse out of a pig in a poke." -- Opus (Berkeley Breathed)

Obviously a lot of things have been happening in the world, and equally obviously, a lot of things have been on my mind. Some of them universal (Obama), some of them personal (my son punched another kid in class yesterday). Strangely enough, though, the thing most on my mind at this moment is a penguin.

Goodbye, Opus. You made me laugh at intelligent stuff, and made me wish I knew people like this penguin who looked more like a puffin.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Book Report: The Write Track: How to Succeed as a Freelance Writer in Canada, by Betty Jane Wylie

Obviously, this one's a non-fiction entry. It's an interesting handbook on what it takes, or at least took ten years ago, to build a freelance career in the Great White North. In it, Wylie tells the story of her own rise from widowed single mom to working writer. I found this part, which is only touched on (although repeatedly), to be the most interesting bit. I find myself contemplating the freelance path as somewhat more than an academic exercise. My "day job" has been shaky since the bursting of the tech bubble in 2000 and the recent economic difficulties have made it seem likely that I'll soon be asked to "seek opportunities elsewhere." Still, I'm not quite in Wylie's straits: forced to do something to support her family, and having little to offer the world but a skill with words.

Most of the book consists of practical advice, backed up by anecdotes, on what is required to be a successful freelancer. I found the dry, technical bits regurgitated much of what I've discovered on my own through talking with freelancers and reading publishing blogs. These things, I skimmed through. I hate doing that, and feel guilty. After all the effort people go through to choose and transcribe the right word, it seems insulting not to read them all, but I could take sufficient interest in them to muster up the concentration.

Should the worst come to pass (again), and I be forced to make a living by the written word, this book will be useful to have on hand.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Change Has Come to America

Current Reading: The Write Track, by Betty Jane Wylie

Inspirational Quote: "Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber." -- Plato

Unless you live at the bottom of the Marianas Trench (under a rock and almost 7 miles of ocean), then you know how the U.S. election went. Now begin the interesting times, when Obama must deliver more than just optimism. He must deliver on the promise of hope. He is a great orator, and a man who clearly has a vision. We now have the opportunity to discover if those things, and whatever other talents he brings to the office, are sufficient to face and overcome the tremendous difficulties plaguing his country.

Greater enterprises have had less auspicious beginnings, and Canadian though I am, I have my fingers crossed for him and for every one of his constituents. Good luck.

In other news: author Michael Crichton succumbed to cancer today, dying at the age of 66.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Haiku in Lieu.

I can't think of anything worth putting down today. However, Moonrat requested some Haiku as a present on her 2nd blogging anniversary.

I'm not a poet, but I tried to accommodate anyway.

A star in the night,
All alone, silent, distant.
Enough light for dreams.

An infestation
Of one. Famously unknown.
A rat of the moon.

Can't reach newspaper.
Door shuts, locks. I'm outside now.
In my underwear.

Ah, Michael Chabon,
Whose name uses too many
Of my syllables.

Haiku, a strict form.
Beauty lies in precision.
So don't blow it on the last line.

Chocolate. Dark. Sweet.
Belgian Kryptonite to
A Greek Warrior.