Monday, January 31, 2011
Sunday, January 30, 2011
Boy, Medieval England sure sounds fun!
Here (following her previous Hugo-winning novella, Fire Watch), Willis portrays a history department at Oxford in the later 21st century in which historians can work “in the field” with the help of a time machine. As I’ve mentioned before, I am a practicing academic historian, and this was one of the Hugo-winning novels that got me really excited and prompted me to start this project. I love the idea. I didn’t love the execution quite as much.
There are really two parallel stories going on here. The central plot involves an undergraduate girl named Kirvin and her “fieldwork” in a 14th century English town. The other remains in the 21st century and follows her mentor, Professor Dunworthy, who worried that 14th century England was far too dangerous a place for Kirvin to work in. After Kirvin departs, both have to deal with serious outbreaks of disease (through a bit of a contrivance…) Dunworthy tries to monitor and protect the lifeline to Kirvin in the past, despite the pressures of an epidemic and quarantine. Kirvin tries to blend in and forges some connections with an aristocratic family and a town priest, but she soon faces her own germ-spawned disaster.
These are interesting storylines, but I wasn’t always happy with Willis’s presentation. She’s a fantastic writer, but, the future portions especially, are written as a comedy of manners. In other words, lots of obnoxious and ridiculously stuffy people wander around and obsess about keeping up appearances and maintaining social status in the face of horrible events. It starts out as droll satire, but soon turns incredibly dark. And by dark, I mean dark. Maybe this is a bit spoliery, but I feel I should say in the way of warning: this novel has a very high body count, and no one is really safe. So, lots of people die in horribly disgusting ways, and the darker it gets, the more frustrating and annoying the “comedy of manners” gets…which very well may be Willis’s point. Nonetheless, while it’s good for characters to have obstacles to overcome, I don’t think those obstacles should be too petty or obnoxious. “Annoyed” is just not an emotion that I look for in novels.
Her presentation of the past was pretty strong. Again, you have some rather annoying people obsessed with social minutae, but, to be fair, social minutae meant a great deal more in a society with severe class distinctions. When travelling to the past, I think authors should always be aware of two conflicting historical realities that I think are summed up nicely by clichés: “the past is a foreign country” and “people are people.” The past (especially a fairly decent past) should be alien at the same time that we see universal themes. Willis does a pretty good job (better than most) of that here. On the other hand, Kirvin does not have much to do for most of the novel (and spends scores of pages in a delirium). By the two-thirds point, I shared Dunworthy’s indignation that they would send an undergraduate so far back.
The novel did a great job of annoying me, and an even better job of making me feel depressed. And that does take a good deal of skill. Willis's talent as a writer was always apparent, even as the book frustrated me. There’s also an ending here that I wouldn’t exactly call redemptive, but it was satisfying, and beautifully written. I liked a lot of this book quite a bit, even if it didn’t entirely live up to some high expectations.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
The second (and FINAL!) Terminator film is another one of those sequels that’s better than it has any right to be. The scenario of the first film is pretty self-contained: woman runs from killer robot and survives. Sending another killer robot risks repeating the whole thing. Doing it with a huge budget and new special effects techniques threatens to bog the film down in mindless spectacle. Part of the charm of the first Terminator is that it’s a small budget, extended chase. It’s taut and intimate like a good horror flick. T2 threatens to be bloated and unnecessary, but, instead, Cameron manages to build on the mythology he created in the first movie.
John Connor is now a young, troubled teenager. In the future, Skynet decides to make a second attempt at destroying him with a more advanced Terminator – the liquid metal T1000 (Robert Patrick). This time, future Connor sends back a reprogrammed Terminator to protect him (Schwarzenegger). You could cynically see this as future politician Schwarzenegger redeeming his most villainous role, but the character’s conversion does make for some fun moments, especially in his interactions with Connor. The T1000 exists mainly to provide cgi shots; at the time they were so revolutionary, and thus so expensive, that this film infamously destroyed Orion Studios financially. In less than a decade, people could do the same thing on home pcs.
However, the film’s real genius comes through the journey that it takes Sarah Connor on (Linda Hamilton reprises her role). The directionless waitress of the first film has become dedicated to training her son for the apocalypse. She’s tough, well-trained, and ruthless, but she also spends most of her time contemplating fate. She knows that the world will explode in a few years, and she’ll do anything to prepare for it…or maybe stop it. I think Connor might be Cameron’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker. Sure, he’s made a few billion dollar films and revolutionized special effects filmmaking two or three times, but Connor is the kind of vivid and complicated, tough female character that I’d really like to see a lot more of.
If I had a complaint, it might be about the film’s casual violence. There are actually jokes made about assaulting and shooting innocent people (e.g., “He’ll live.”) It actually doesn’t bother me all that much, though I do have the nagging feeling that it should.
So, the effects were great, and they still look good, even if they should not have cost quite so much. There are several fantastic action set-pieces, interesting characters, and a further exploration of time travel/destiny. I’m solidly in the camp that this is a far better film than its predecessor, although I know a lot of people who are in the other camp.
And they never made anything else in the Terminator franchise….