22 July 2008

Nobody Calls Me Mezzo

Apologies to those of you who share a mailing list with me and saw this yesterday. I'm widening out the consultation.

For the past few years, every time I'd started worrying that I was coming to an end of the list of post-1990 TV which I could persuade B. to watch episode-by-episode and which we'd both be interested in, I'd been comforting myself with the fact that neither of us had ever seen an episode of The Sopranos, the groundbreaking series (and studio stablemate of the damn near perfect Six Feet Under) widely acclaimed as the best TV show of the past 10 years.

We've now watched a season and a half of it, and can't honestly see what I'm supposed to like.

For a start, I don't care about any of the characters -- except, rarely, a couple of the women. When watching drama I'm able sympathise with well-characterised villains, and with complex morally ambivalent characters, and with heroes who are forced to do terrible things in the name of a greater good -- but the characters in The Sopranos perform atrocities routinely, banally, as part of their daily grind. That's just... repellent. It's like watching a soap opera about concentration camp guards.

The macho face-saving culture to which the men all subscribe (where it's apparently shameful to admit to -- among other things -- receiving counselling, having a relative with a learning disability, performing cunnilingus, forgiving anyone for anything ever) is one with which I simply can't have the slightest sympathy. If this was a drama set in, say, imperial China then I'd be able to accept it as a given of the characters' subjective world, but this is, for God's sake, about 21st-century Americans. I keep wanting to slap them in the face repeatedly until they grow up.

I honestly can't imagine why I'm meant to care whether a single one of them lives or dies, but the fact that all the non-gangster characters -- and even the news programmes we see -- find these people endlessly fascinating strongly suggests that the writers are assuming the opposite is true.

The psychiatry aspect of the show is occasionally borderline-interesting (and Dr Melfi is one of the few characters for whom I occasionally feel a twinge of sympathy, when she's not too obviously hero-worshipping Tony), but it's so bound up in the aforementioned idiotic social assumptions, plus obscure U.S. pop-culture references, that half the itme I have no idea what it's getting at.

In the last episode I saw, Tony's therapy sessions kept referring to some ancient pop-folk song I'd never heard of, as some kind of keystone against which Tony judged himself and other people. It was never made clear what the significance of this, for him or for anyone else, might be. At the end of the episode something mildly unexpected happened, and the song played portentously over the end credits. It was like trying to decode a transmission from Tau Ceti.

As a piece of anthropological observation, the show may well have something to be said for it, although I wouldn't want to watch two episodes of it, let along 86. As it is, I'm too busy trying to get a handle on the anthropology to penetrate to the actual drama.

My imminent brother-in-law (according to definition 2b in Merriam-Webster, anyway), who works in TV and knows about this kind of thing, tells us that we need to watch the first three seasons before we give up on it. Honestly, though, I'm not sure I can summon up the stamina.

What am I missing? Does it get better, or will I never like it if I haven't yet?

Am I being racist (for U.S. definitions of "race", since as far as I'm concerned Italians are the same ethnicity I am) in assuming that Italian-American men should be capable of the same degree of moral, emotional and intellectual development as everyone else?

Am I broken inside, or is this the most appallingly overrated television series since the invention of the medium?

I'd welcome your thoughts...

Planet Carefully

My latest column, about solar and planetary religion, is now up at Surefish.

Reading it back, I'm startled by how incoherent it is. At the time I could have sworn I was more or less making sense. Sorry about that...

19 July 2008

Dr Acula, Ph.D.

The reason it's been three weeks since I last updated this blog thing is that I've been up to my throat in writing this vampire novella, the day job's been really busy and B. and I have been away every weekend and faffing about with stuff most evenings. Some of these are perfectly pleasant things in themselves, but taken together they've tended to engender a large amount of stress and busytude.

Life's been so hectic recently I've barely had time to update my Facebook status, let alone write a blog post. Sadly, B. and I have had to turn down a party in London tonight as being just that one thing too many for the maintenance of sanity.

The novella's coming along nicely, though, you'll be pleased to hear -- I now have around two-thirds of it written, at a little over 20,000 words.

I realise that I've not said much about Professor Bernice Summerfield and the Vampire's Curse here, except to praise my co-authors and to drone on about writing the thing. At this stage I know little of Mags' and Kelly's stories, and they're not mine to talk about anyway. My third of the book (originally entitled The Predator Principle, which proved to be rubbish, and now called, still rather tentatively, Predating the Predators) is about the First Interdisciplinary Conference on Vampirology, which is first infiltrated and then gatecrashed by a coven of vampires.

It's a blending of genres -- as a vampire novella, it's obviously a horror story, and as the umbrella title suggests it has a certain schlocky Hammer vibe. I also decided to go for the authentic Gothic flavour of Dracula and its ilk, by building the narrative out of letters, journal entries and excerpts from secondary documents. It's also inevitably a campus novel[la], and equally inevitably (given that it's part of the Bernice Summerfield range) it's S.F., taking place in Benny's space-operatic galactic milieu.

Being me, I felt that those weren't really enough genre referents, so I've also introduced a Jesuit priest wrestling with an apparently intractable theological problem on a remote planet, thus tying nicely in with the rarefied but venerable S.F. subgenre of "Jesuit priest wrestling with an apparently intractable theological problem on a remote planet" stories[1]. In a revolutionary twist, mine's called Imogen.

In short, it's an allegorical-epistolary-gothic-horror-pastiche-campus-space-opera -- not quite on the scale of a a detective-ghost-horror-whodunnit-time-travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic, but not bad at only a little over 30,000 words.

I've also written my monthly column for Surefish, gone on a training course which may entitle me to do some Thought for the Day slots on BBC Radio Bristol, and am now working on a short piece for a kind of collaboration which is altogether new for me, though sadly neither earth-shakingly high-profile or notably paid (come back in late August for more on this).

Coincidentally, it's about something vampires are afraid of, although admittedly there seem to be quite a lot of objects that applies to.

[1] S.F. novices who feel disinclined to believe in this as a bona fide subgenre may wish to investigate Anthony Boucher's "Balaam", Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star", James Blish's A Case of Conscience, Philip José Farmer's Father John Carmody stories, the 80-page segment "The Priest's Tale" in Dan Simmons' Hyperion and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God. S.F. initiates who can spot any I've missed should feel free to chip in.