Reviews

Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television

screen-shot-2016-11-08-at-8-53-21-amIn Gender and the Quest in British Science Fiction Television, Tom Powers examines Doctor Who, Torchwood, Red Dwarf, and Blakes 7. As the book’s title suggests, in addition to genre, one thing Powers sees as the common thread shared by the programs in question is that their heroes’ various journeys of self-discovery have as much to do with their sense of gender identity as they do with defeating threats from the near and far reaches of the universe. What’s more, Powers also argues that each show’s fan base has, over the years and to one extent or another, encouraged BBC production teams  to explore sexuality in ways that are both subtle and overt.

Specifically, Powers coins the term Continuum of Nostalgic Continuity to describe the complex relationships among television programs, their producers, and their viewers. Within this continuum, some fans demand that their favorite characters adhere to norms and mythologies established by early or classic iterations of the shows in which they appear, while more progressive fans imagine alternate realities for their heroes via various forms of fan fiction, cosplay, and speculative quasi-academic criticism of the shows they love. Caught in the middle are the shows’ producers who, in Powers’ estimation, walk a fine line between envisioning brave new futures for their respective shows and keeping the old guard happy. Or, in Powers’ words, the book explores the ways in which producers and fans are “continually engaged in an ongoing act of media synergy and conflict that distinctively shapes and stalls their gendered heroic SF mythologies.”

While a working knowledge of social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau will certainly help readers make their way through Gender and the Quest, Powers is at pains to explain key concepts clearly and succinctly throughout his analysis. Additionally, his own apparent love for the programs in questions (early on he describes himself as an “aca-fan,” i.e., an academic who is also a fan, and therefore not entirely objective about his chosen object of study) does not blind Powers to the fact that many of his readers may not be overly familiar with the more obscure elements of the programs in question, particularly with respect to Blake’s 7 and Red Dwarf.  Indeed, Powers comes off as most engaged with his material when he’s guiding readers through key moments of each show’s history, both onscreen and behind the scenes.

All told, Gender and the Quest is a thoughtful examination of the ways in which individuals and systems interact with each other to bring about change that applies not only to television but to society writ large. Ultimately, we are all simultaneously producers and consumers of culture in one way or another, Powers suggests, and in our roles as both, we shape the world we live in — even if we do so at a glacial pace.

And Party Every Day

300Anyone familiar with the KISS anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” will immediately guess how Larry Harris came up with the title for And Party Every Day, a memoir that focuses on his the years he spent working for his cousin Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records in the 1970s. What they may not realize, however, is that KISS was only one act in the veritable circus of stars that called Casablanca home during the entertainment company’s golden age — Donna Summer, the Village People, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic chief among them. Throughout the book, Harris details the wild risks that Bogart took in order to put his company on the map, and though his high esteem of the record exec’s business acumen in the early days of the company is clear, the author also offers a realistic critique of the choices that eventually led to Casablanca’s downfall. Taking a chance on KISS, for example, showed great foresight, as did signing a wide range of disco acts before the genre really took off. By way of contrast, putting out four simultaneous solo albums by the members of KISS and continuing to sign disco acts after the genre had peeked were a sign that things were starting to go south for the company.

Anyone with an interest in the music and culture of the 1970s will find something to enjoy in this memoir — so much so that if the creators of the recent HBO series Vinyl had based the show more concretely on Harris’s book, it might have been a hit. Indeed the yawning chasm between that series and And Party Every Day suggests that when it comes to the record industry, truth will always be stranger, not to mention more entertaining, than fiction.

 

One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Bookmarked: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Screen Shot 2016-05-17 at 4.13.14 PMThe Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.

What a Time to Be Alive

MattShonkwiler-WhataTimetoBeAliveMy discovery of Matt Shonkwiler’s What a Time to Be Alive was entirely serendipitous. I’d posted some music on another blog of mine, he liked it enough to follow the blog, I appreciated the gesture enough to check out his website, I listened to his music, saw that it was free, and downloaded it. Now I’m following the guy on Twitter, and he’s following me. We’ll never meet, never talk, never do more than maybe click on links that we post on Twitter. At best, one of us will re-tweet a link the other has posted. If so moved, one of us might might “heart”something pithy the other has said. Thus are alliances forged in the age of social networking. Thus is the nature of the new friendship.

I mention all of this not because it’s the first time I’ve discovered an artist in this fashion, but because it’s also more or less the subject of Shonkwiler’s EP. As he explains in his liner notes, “What a Time to Be Alive covers the struggles of being a 20-something in the middle of growing up and failing relationships, all while navigating a sea of misinformation in the digital age.” These struggles are captured eloquently in the opening lines of the EP’s opening track: “I don’t want to go back again/Rating every girl I see on a one-to-ten./Like a lab rat, I hit the pleasure button ’til I blacked out.”  Other songs build on this theme. “Lie, Lie, Lie,” for example, begins with a musical phrase reminiscent of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and goes on to observe that much of our postmodern guilt over our shortcomings as humans has little to do with real life and everything to do with television. Yet as oppressive as the mediated world may be, Shonkwiler also finds hope in “real life” friendships, as in “Grow Up or Throw Up” in which friends old and new serve as a grounding force in a world where we’re all forced to wear masks of one kind or another. Of course, donning such masks is inevitable — just as it’s inevitable that the friends of our youth must all eventually move onward and upward and out of our lives.

Musically, What a Time to Be Alive mixes light electronica with acoustic guitars, and Shonkwiler stacks his vocals to produce pleasant harmonies with a relaxed, indie DIY vibe. The longest song on the EP runs just over three minutes, and most of them barely break the two-and-a-half minute mark. In other words, no ostentation here. Just simple, heartfelt songs for the generations struggling to make sense of our brave, new mediated world.

What a time to be alive, indeed.

Single Stroke Seven

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 11.31.21 AMIf gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.

Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.

At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.

Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.

As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.

Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”

Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.