Sometimes I get the impression the universe is messing with me. A couple months ago, I was invited to a group which has as its mandate reading serialized novels – like Dickens or wait, holy cats, Madame Bovary was serialized? (so sayeth wiki) – in the manner they were originally published and consumed. I did my thing where I joined, lurked a bit, thought about serial fiction for a while, and then decided the whole thing was too much like work for me. Now, I’m not calling you weird, Serial Reading Cats, I just lack the patience to read a million page Dickens novel, let alone to take 4987 weeks to get through one. (I know. I am a total philistine when it comes to Dickens, and I’m very sorry for it.) (And I know you’re reading other stuff too.)
But I think the exercise of trying to experience a completed work of art as originally experienced is worthy, if maybe a little doomed. My main experience with serial fiction is television, of course. (Comics are another heavily serialized contemporary form, but I almost always come at them well after the serial arc has been completed.) Though this is changing as the Internets and on-demand media fracture viewerships and toss a barrage of media at us so we’re always bound to miss a continuing series as it unfolds, some of my funnest watching experiences have happened in ongoing serial television. The X-Files was a Friday night destination for me, as was Star Trek, Buffy, BSG, and a bunch of other stuff that will only make me look even more nerdy than I have already freely admitted to. Half of the joy was the addictive buzz of turning down the lights, watching like a maniac, and then squealing like an idiot when the drama was enacted and then set up for the next week. There’s no cheating there. I’ve certainly gulped down series after the fact – Deadwood, Carnivale, even re-watches of Buffy or Firefly (whose on-air experience was seriously screwed in the first place, airing out of order) – but there’s something very different about consuming something that is understood to be finished (if not completed) as it happens versus after the fact. That the wait isn’t really enforced, that the conversation doesn’t have the same unknowing…
Dangit, it sounds like I’m totally bagging this group, and I’m not – I’m just bloviating out loud. The joys of consuming serial art while it’s being produced are social, on another level – these were fictions being consumed by other people too, and the week before the next fix would be punctuated by conversations with other viewers, chopping it up, predicting, nerding out, complaining. That group could function that way for those involved, and that is the beauty of the Internet. (The AVClub’s TV Club does some interesting articles as its critics re-watch series television.) My main serial television right now is Walking Dead, and it’s almost a sport for me to bitch about everyone and everything on that show – good lawd, the dialogue! the “characters”! – only to tune in the next week to see if Walking Dead can pull off another sublime action sequence in among all the godamn stupid whining. And then they do! And then I bitch and praise to everyone who will listen. I didn’t even watch much Sopranos, but I’ve gone to the homes of the HBO’d to eat junk food and watch along with the screaming fans, because it was totally fun.
So, anyway, how the world is messing with me: Scott S. Phillips – who is a friend, in interests of full disclosure – sent me this opening bit of a serial novel he’s just put out. I spent some time checking for cameras, because, seriously, that’s creepy that I’d been thinking about the serial format in contemporary media, and then bang! Here it is. And, based on somewhat limited research by moi, it seems like the serial novel is having a comeback in teh age of teh Internet. It makes sense: bit-sized bits that are easily and cheaply downloadable, which can function as their own advertisement, or let you know without a full commitment that you don’t want any more of that. Instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, and then watching that basket, the writer can sell some eggs and keep laying. And then you can scramble them and…forget it, this metaphor officially does not work. You dig what I’m saying though, right?
Pete, Drinker of Blood begins the story of the titular Pete, a sad-sack vampire who is schlubbing his way through a less than glamorous LA. The principles are established: Pete, the bartender he’s smitten with, and the badass vamp who is likely the antagonist of this story. The pace is good: bang! slowly revealing character and world-building, then bang! I’m admittedly biased, but I love the way Phillips tells stories, the way he turns idiom halfway so it’s surprising, the tragicomic defeatism of his main character. Pete’s obviously not in with the cool crowd, the Anne Riceian dudes in leather pants, who frequent a bar call the Emoglobin (hee!). He’s like a rat-eating Angel, before he got cool again and found Buffy, only he’s never ever been cool in the first place. There’s uneaten hamburgers and classic rock, and an interlude with a tiny model windshield. I guess I don’t want to say more for fear of spoilers, which is a little silly because it’s not like I can spoil something that isn’t even completed. But, you know.
And now the long wait until next month…
I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something.
Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?
But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work.
Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy.
And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker!
Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner.
Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.)
So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this.
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.