Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Bryan Curtis on Michael Crichton (Commonplace Book)

A bit of an odd one today, a quote from a Slate article about Michael Crichton. The sentence that begins "The joy of reading..." says with me as a fan of weirdly inventive genre fiction, and the stuff about seeing into the future applies to Morrison. This quote, I think, adds to our dicussion of what goes right and wrong in Morrison's New X-Men. I have quoted more than is necessary, but the context it strong and I thought you should have it.

To understand how Crichton stumbled, it's instructive to compare him to two
past masters of suspense fiction: Arthur Conan Doyle (whom Crichton celebrates
in Rising Sun) and H. Rider Haggard (whose King Solomon's Mines is a
model for Crichton's safari book Congo). Doyle and Haggard opened their
most famous novels by setting loose a familiar hero (Sherlock Holmes and Allan
Quatermain) on a mystery or quest, complete with new enemies and a cast of
supporting players. The joy of reading Doyle and Haggard is to enjoy the
conventions and watch the authors sweat to provide inventive variations on a
theme. Which clue will Holmes seize upon to crack the case? Upon which corner of
Africa will Quatermain inflict his colonialist brio?

Crichton, on the other hand, eschews flesh-and-blood heroes; the star
of his book is usually a high-concept premise—dinosaurs! killer viruses! Without
a returning hero to lure readers (à la Tom Clancy), Crichton's concepts
themselves must be nerdy and sufficiently topical. Crichton has an unparalleled
genius for this—a gift for seeing years into the future. ... Jurassic Park
arrived just as Steven Spielberg's imagineers figured out how to bring dinosaurs
to the big screen, making it an iconic film of the age of computer-generated
special effects.


Jason Powell said...

Geoff, were you at all a fan of "Alias"? I ask because, first of all, it's the show that JJ Abrams did before working on "Lost," which I know you like.

But also, this quote is interesting to me as I just this morning (for some reason) was thinking about how skillfully Abrams would often mess with convention and expectation in "Alias," even as he lovingly embraced convention. Every season actually followed a similar pattern, in which Abrams would establish a structural formula in the opening episode, and then rigorously (almost comfortingly) stick to that formula in each episode afterward -- and then right midway through the season, around episode 11 or 12, he would do an episode structured entirely differently, and blow everything on its side, so that the remainder of the season had a sense of "anything can happen."

Granted, the strains of constantly upending these characters' collective world showed more and more with each season (it's fortunate that they ended after only five), but still, more often than not, the series was really brilliant at "inventing variations on a theme," and "setting loose a familiar hero on a new quest with new enemies and a cast of supporting players." It'll always stand as one of my very favorite genre shows.

Geoff Klock said...

I loved the first two seasons of Alias, watched all of the third and didn't like it, watched a chunk of the fourth, and never went on. You are right that it has a lot going for it, and I love Jennifer Garner, but Lena Olin and Ron Rivkin owned it -- after season two ended Rivkin went too soft and Olin left all together, and the show did not find a good bad guy. Abrams wanted to play with the family dynamic so much he rehabilitated all his bad guys and never found a replacement. Even when it is part of an evil plan the bad guys spend so much time being good I got bored. But yeah, it it a great show on many levels. Lost is much much better.

scott s said...

That's an interesting article on michael crichton, but i think it applies less to morrison than a lot of other science fiction and comic book writers. morrison seems more interested in genre and form than futurism or social commentary, and i think the writers who start with a concept (warren ellis) usually fail for the reasons that the slate guy criticized "state of fear." On the other hand I think neal stephenson and richard powers do it better than Crichton, and I wish they had more comic book equivalents

Superhero comics are the ultimate experiment in the limits and possibilities of genre recycling, and this can only happen because we, as reader/consumers, sustain them (right???). I listened to your rant on the publishing macro-events, this terrible perpetual state of structurally identical emergencies, and I think they’re not only crappy but really dangerous. The whole thing’s putting too much strain on the genre (in addition to making me want to punch myself in the face). I’m at a point where aesthetically beautiful genre variation/re-invention doesn’t do it for me anymore. With the ultra-tight constraints of mainstream superhero comics, can the anxiety of influence chain terminate? For the first time in my life, superhero comics are becoming less interesting. I want a new narrative. Any suggestions? Maybe I should give up and read those boring artsy comics

I thought about this a lot the other day after reading the following in a Zizek essay titled "the violence of fantasy.” He’s talking about the first Shrek movie:

"The standard fairytale narrative line (the hero and his endearingly confused comic helper go to defeat the dragon and save the princess from its clutches) is coated in jokingly Brechtian “extraneations” (when the large crowd observes the wedding in the church, it is given instructions how to react, as in the faked spontaneity of a TV show—“Laugh!”, “Respectful silence!”)….. Instead of praising all too fast these displacements and reinscriptions as potentially “subversive” and elevating Shrek into yet another “site of resistance,” one should focus on the obvious fact that, through all these displacements, the same old narrative is being told. In short, the true function of these displacement and subversions is precisely to render the traditional narrative palpable for our “postmodern” time—and thus to prevent us from replacing it with a new narrative. No wonder the finale of the film consists of the ironic version of “I’m a Believer,” the old Monkee’s hit from the 1960s. This is how we are today believers—we make fun of our belief, while continuing to practice them, that is, to rely on them as the underlying structure of our daily practices.”

Jason Powell said...

"I loved the first two seasons of Alias, watched all of the third and didn't like it, watched a chunk of the fourth, and never went on. You are right that it has a lot going for it, and I love Jennifer Garner, but Lena Olin and Ron Rivkin owned it"

You'll think I'm just being a jerk now, but ... it's Rifkin, not Rivkin. :)

Most discriminating fans seem to agree that the first two seasons of Alias are really where it's at. I don't disagree. And you're right, Olin and Rifkin were just f*cking phenomenal.

They eventually brought Olin back, but -- like what you noticed about Rifkin -- she was decidedly de-fanged in her latter appearances. In the final episode of the series, the creators were smart enough to make Rifkin and Olin the two Big Bads once again, with the rest of the characters fighting to stop their big and final endgame ... but it didn't work anywhere near as well as it did during the show's peak points in Season 2. (I actually blogged about the series ender a few months ago.)

For my part, those first two amazing seasons just generated such good will in me as a viewer that I was happy to ride out the the rough patches in the later years (I watched it all on DVD) and enjoy those times when the show found a level of greatness again. (Probably a bit like how I was so blown away by the first half of "Cerebus" that I was happy to keep on going with it all the way to 300, even when it got a tad impenetrable.)

In any case, thanks for answering. It's great to read your thoughts on the show.

Geoff Klock said...

Scott: that is a GREAT Zizek quote -- I remember how much I loved it when I came across it (he makes a similar point about Hawkeye on MASH). I like watching superhero comics buckle under their own rules because there are always a handful of guys who make it work -- this week Morrison's Authority and Meltzer's JLA made me happy. I can understand why you feel that way though. My advice is to take a break.

Jason: thanks. Rifkin. Got it. :)

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