The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Two. Best of the Year.

Thanks everyone for the many kind words about 'The Last Doctor'. Much appreciated. Now, the first thing I should do today is note that my proposed 'answer every Tweet' day has moved back from tomorrow to Wednesday the 16th. This is because I realised, in my foolishness, that tapping way continually at my IPhone might not be the most sociable thing to do at Kim Newman and Paul McAuley's Christmas lunch. (Hmm, Io9 is telling people it's tomorrow. This is going to get complicated... EDIT: bless them, they saw this and changed it!)

Next up, those lovely chaps at Geek Syndicate are auctioning various items in order to help out the nearest and dearest of fellow podcaster Eric Martin, who died at an early age. I've donated one of the initial pitch documents for Captain Britain and MI-13, which shows how much that series changed between then and the first issue. It can be yours (but you can't publish it or put it online, and copyright remains mine and Marvel's, including on the stuff we didn't end up using) via the ebay link from the Geek Syndicate page here. And check out their other auctions too, with many unique items. I'll let you know how it works out.

And, as is traditional at this time of year, I'd just like to mention my favourite porn title: Rude Lesbian Nurses. I like it because I don't think the title exactly conveys the erotic delights its makers intended. And I mention it because it makes our hit rate soar.

Now, I'll let Laurie Pink introduce today's topic...

This is my yearly summing up of what I've liked in the previous year. I mean in the media, really. I like a covered market and the sort of pies made by small companies that you find in out of the way petrol stations, and my greatest moment of relaxation was just after start of play at the opening match of the Twenty20 Cricket World Cup. I like falling asleep during a Test Match, and theme tune to The Sky at Night. But I see no reason to trouble you with such trifles.

I think my three favourite novels of the year were probably Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts and Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi (going by UK publication dates, that is). I've been reading a lot of older fiction this year, including my progress through all of Christopher Priest (The Space Machine having had all its ideas plundered since publication being now rather unsatisfyingly predictable) and now I'm catching up with Greg Egan, so my commitment to new fiction (other than reading all of the Hugo nominated work in every category except novel) this year has not been what it should be.

Moxyland is a ressurection of that most dead genre, cyberpunk, in a near future South African everyday dystopia. The setting implicitly says that ending apartheid didn't make everything bright and shiny, and that grand old SFnal feeling of 'if this goes on' is to the fore, with lashings of atmosphere, character and humour. But it definitely opts for SF exploration rather than satire, which might have been too easy. We cut between four characters from different social strata, all of whom are playing the game, and here comes the great unremembered point of cyberpunk, they're all rather enjoying the dystopia, the Funky Catastrophe, until very bad things happen. I'm a bit too gnarled and ancient for the politics, but it's really got a kick to it, and I recommend it highly.

Yellow Blue Tibia is from that interesting place where a new inflationary universe of SF has sprung up, amongst literary fiction. Some of that universe is formed by literary authors who look down on our ghetto and despise it, and some is formed by literary authors who simply don't see why they should enter a ghetto and prostrate themselves just to write about what they like. Adam Roberts, aside from both groups, is an SF writer who can decide, like Aldiss, Ballard, Priest and most of the others from the New Wave, to use the tropes of a literary novel, ambiguity most of all, to enter that universe himself. He's been, frankly, arrogant in the way he told this year's Hugo nominated authors (and artists, even!) that their work wasn't cutting edge enough. But that doesn't change the fact that he deserves more recognition, and that perhaps the SF ghetto should reach out more to embrace that new universe, and redefine, a little, its terms of engagement with literary quality. Yellow Blue Tibia is a wonderful collision between the Soviet way of seeing the world, the SF way of doing that, and the universe of flying saucers. It keeps its foot in the SF genre, right at the end, by offering not a dreamlike wandering off from its road trip through the Russian consciousness, but a nuts and bolts explanation, which might come as a bit of a shock to a literary audience expecting something more like The Magus or Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow. But who knows, they might have liked that shock, they might want more, and we should welcome them with more, and more like this from Adam Roberts.

Everyone knows John Scalzi, our current Heinlein as much as Stephen Baxter is our modern Clarke. I've now read all his novels, and have decided he's the 'airport bestseller SF writer' I was waiting for a few years back. The only trouble is, he's not yet a bestseller on a Stephen King level, which suggests that, now somebody's had a real go at it, the public appetite for SF may be genuinely waning. Was SF really just the literature of Project Apollo, and a long time in dying? We shall see. In the meantime, Scalzi writes hard SF for everyone: nom nom nom.

I should also mention Rob Shearman's Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical collection. Of all the journeys those involved in Doctor Who have been on, Rob's, to World Fantasy Award winning short story writer, has been one of the most heartening, and with this book he takes Big Finish Productions into new worlds too.

Let's get past movies, because I'm sure I feel the same way you do: I worship the perfect narrative shape and boldness of the new Star Trek; Moon; District 9; awaiting Avatar, etc. For some reason I'm never as excited by a movie as I am by a great TV show. I think it's just about how I interact with narrative, and that a lot of other people provide all the commentary one needs about movies, so let's get to this year's TV, eh?

Torchwood: Children of Earth reinvented post-watershed telefantasy exactly like Russell Davies reinvented family telefantasy. Initial BBC nerves, scheduling worries, and then bam, it wins its slot every night and everyone's talking about it and execs all want some more of that, please, and didn't they say it was going to be a hit all along? It's incredible that this hard beast grew out of the corpse of dear old campy slash fiction Torchwood, a show for our enjoyment, not for our experience of drama. It's like The Monkees suddenly did an episode set in Vietnam. The outcry amongst fans was a shock to me, and hardened me in all sorts of ways (yeah, right, Russell T. Davies is 'a homophobe' because he killed your favourite character, I hope he kills your next three favourite characters too, and that you thus realise that accusations of sexism and homophobia aren't yours to throw around when all that's happened to you is that you've been asked to feel something). The hardcore of the political response to the alien threat produced a genuine chill, that SFnal feel of alienation largely conveyed through expression and tone. I was a little disappointed by the ending: surely that government would be wondering if they'd be hanging from lamp posts soon, not about a snap election? But a shared experience of adult SF for millions of people: invaluable.

I have three particular favourite telefantasy shows at the moment (I always say Doctor Who isn't a show, but a lifestyle choice): Flash Forward; Dollhouse and Stargate Universe. Warehouse 13 is well made and great fun in a way nothing else quite is, but needs maybe one more season to be completely sure of its tone and produce some masterpieces. Fringe has been showing signs of tottering on its tightrope over those sharks, looking like it realised that it doesn't have a format and panicked, until suddenly last week, with the parasitic worm episode, it righted itself, shrugged its shoulders, and decided it was a show where a family work the X-Files. That's the format. Phew. If shouty black boss Broyles (we've established there are three roles for African-American men in telefantasy: shouty boss; really nice friend and alien warrior) can be fully included in that family, as Astrid suddenly was, then it might be full speed ahead from here, and maybe even some cool tricks along that tightrope into the second half of the season. But we shall see. Lost has been brilliant, particularly my favourite episode 'The Variable', an actual new time paradox story that deserves Hugo attention, but this coming season will make or break a genuine American classic that'll be remembered for years to come as being that show where loads of the audience left after season two, and then spent the rest of their lives hearing how great it got after that.

Stargate Universe is the most solid of my favourite three, with barely a mis-step along the way. It's shown, like Torchwood, a desire to make actual drama, with feelings of anger, despair and frustration summoned up and exorcised in the audience. We're asked to find things we love and loathe in virtually every character, and the show's central plan is character conflict against a background kept very very simple. The episode 'Time' was bold enough to ask us to realise that the seemingly loose thread ending actually tied up the time paradox neatly, and couldn't be referred to next episode... and then the show didn't refer to it next episode! Another Hugo pick for me, there. I'm just continually pleased by this show, much much better than it should be. Less is more.

That competence is also displayed in Flash Forward, the sort of show that answers the audience's questions at the moment they think them, following the line of logic in a very SFnal way. In many ways, this is the purest SF show out there, in that it posits one change and then watches how that makes the world. I like the reversals, the surprises, the sheer business of television it makes use of. Only once did I feel a wobble: where two scientists play poker for stakes which we can't fully understand and that don't seem to matter that much. Unfortunately, what I at the time saw as another breathtakingly bold move, the (no spoilers) action which revealed the future could be changed, may have been the undoing of the show in the public imagination. Guys: they were waiting to see how you made every flash forward work out. You shouldn't have told them they might not. I didn't see it until after the fact either, but I think you might have run over something back there. I think it might have been a shark. But if the quality keeps up, and with the flash forwards excitingly promised at the end of season one, I think even that shark may turn out to have been just a bump in the road.

Dollhouse is anything but straightforward. It's a show which shows us sexism, prostitution, rape and war crimes, and makes us complicit in being close enough to the people who do those things to sympathise with them. I've seen people online saying that to like this show is to be a bad person. It's like Michael Powell and Peeping Tom all over again. I think perhaps if those commentators made Dollhouse it would start with a caption saying sexism is bad, to educate all the people who didn't realise that, and then have some scenes of people telling each other that sexism is bad, and then introduce us to some villains who aren't nice people like us, who aren't people at all, really, who deserve to be blown up by the end of the episode, doing bad sexist things. You see, this is why Joss Whedon is a genius, because, like Russell Davies, he sees that he's got a parade following him, and instead of doing tricks for them and getting applause, leads them into a dark forest where things may hurt them.

I should take a moment to say how much I enjoyed 'The Waters of Mars'. That Dalek in the skylight: the deep time and resonance of The New Adventures novels. I'm going to blog a lot about the regeneration coming up. It's always a big moment in the lives of any of us emotionally involved with the mythology of that show. I always get the feeling that the next Doctor will be 'my' Doctor, and you know, they always are. But there are loads of people who instinctively feel the opposite, and this time there are Tom Baker sized shoes to fill. Lucky there's a Peter Davison on the way.

A quite brief trot through comics now, because later in the 12 Blogs I'll be doing Five More Comics For Hugo Voters, and will mention a load of my favourites. But this year I've loved Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe (especially the fight with the small robot who entered the party); Secret Six (a heart-tearing story about slavery that looked further into the darkness than any comic I've read, in an adult rather than adolescent way); Fables (still the world's best comic); Fantastic Four (cosmic and personal at once); Phonogram and SWORD; The Unwritten; Detective Comics; Batgirl (the neglected fun new bat book); Captain America; Matt Fraction's catwalk X-Men and The Marvels Project.

Music: Ladyhawke; Little Boots; The Flaming Lips; Empire of the Sun; White Lies; The Duckworth Lewis Method; Calvin Harris. And how sweet it was to fall asleep under a big hat at the Wychwood Festival.

I'll talk about the end of the decade at the end of the 12 Blogs. Tomorrow, some Dark X-Men exclusives! Cheerio.

20 Response to "The 12 Blogs of Christmas: Two. Best of the Year."

  • T Says:

    Batgirl FTW :) I really HATED Stephanie brown back in her Spoiler days. But I can't help loving new "reinvented" stephanie and her partnership with Barbara. The girl has a long way to go, but she finally has someone to help her who will give her the time she needs (when she was Robin, she felt like an afterthought in a too-huge storyline), and the Stephanie/Damien meeting?? That was sheer love. Barbara finally has someone to mentor and care for, which is really nice too. The Barbara/Dick will they/won't they schtick gets old after a while. Nice to see her doing some good with someone away from Birds and away from being one half of Babs 'n Dick. Oh yeah, and nice to see Stephanie extricated from the Stephanie/Tim relationship. SO many things to love about the shakeup in the Bat universe, which I thought for sure I'd hate with all of my Batman-lovin' little heart. hehe ok. i'll shut up now.

  • Teresa Says:

    It's so strange - I LOVE sci-fi television and films, and when asked, I'm more sci-fi than fantasy, more spaceships and aliens than elves and broadswords - but I haven't really READ sci-fi in a long time. I grew up reading Asimov and Bradbury. But I haven't picked up a sci-fi book in a long time. It hasn't been a conscious choice, it's just that they haven't stood out to me the way they used to. But I'm glad for your recommendations, as I'm grateful for concrete examples of good sci-fi now. And I've been meaning to read John Scalzi forever. Now might be the time.

  • Mefinx Says:

    I hope he kills your next three favourite characters too, and that you thus realise that accusations of sexism and homophobia aren't yours to throw around when all that's happened to you is that you've been asked to feel something

    Ditto racism after S3 DW. I'm sure this is exactly the kind of response that makes TV execs reluctant to feature minorities of any sort. Great pity.

    I had all sorts of issues with CoE, mainly that the amount of agony Jack got put through seemed dramatically excessive to me, but in some ways giving an actor that stuff to play is the best present you can offer him.

    Also, Peter Capaldi...that scene with the shots behind the bedroom door...unforgettable.

  • Niall Says:

    Paul, I'm confused. Are you saying that the SGU episode Time isn't going to be followed up on later in the series? I seem to have missed something.

  • Mark Waid Says:

    "I hope he kills your next three favourite characters too, and that you thus realise that accusations of sexism and homophobia aren't yours to throw around when all that's happened to you is that you've been asked to feel something."

    That is, I think, my new favorite quote.

  • ani murr Says:

    "I hope he kills your next three favourite characters too, and that you thus realise that accusations of sexism and homophobia aren't yours to throw around when all that's happened to you is that you've been asked to feel something."

    My favourite quote too. Radio Skaro organised a great three way debate about homosexuality and COE.
    I too am eagerly anticipating and somewhat anxious about the Dr's regeneration.

    (Today's text is perfectly well behaved)

  • Bill Willingham Says:

    Ditto what Mr. Waid said. Well done.

  • lawsontl Says:

    Paul, your opinion is valid even though I utterly disagree with you re: TW CoE. That being said, you nailed my complaint about it perfectly despite our disagreement! I tuned in to see my beloved, campy, slash fiction sci-fi show. If I'd wanted hardcore politics, I'd have watched The West Wing or (insert UK equivalent here).

    I'm a middle-aged fan in the US. Torchwood was always my breath of fresh air after a hard week. Was CoE a good show? Sure. Was it Torchwood? No.

    When I watch drama, I expect a quality and accuracy that CoE lacked. Camp can get away with weak science, ignoring basic security protocol, and blatant deus ex machina. Drama cannot.

    Did I feel? Certainly: angry, cheated, bereft of hope for the show as well as its surviving characters. That's not what I tuned in expecting, and I won't be tuning in to series four. I'm positive they will continue killing off Torchwood team members, and that's fine if they do. It's their show! But, you know, in sci fi, the 'redshirts' aren't usually characters you're asked to invest in before they get killed.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Thanks all! T: that's how I feel about it, too. So much joy in that book, and loads of threads from books I enjoyed. Batgirl needs more critical attention! Teresa: I think you'd like Scalzi. He's very inclusive. Let me know what you think. Mef: I don't think TV execs are put off as you describe, but you're right that actors love a bit of agony and tragedy. Also, making them villainous, which fans seem to think is a punishment, but for an actor is a treat. Niall: I mean that 'Time' doesn't seem to end conclusively, until you think about it, and that for the next episode simply not to mention it is entirely apt. Does that clear up what I meant? Thanks, Bill, Mark and Ani (and James Moran, a victim of this stuff, who got in touch). Law: and that's all your right, obviously, but I think your last line is telling. I prefer shows with no redshirts, when the deaths hurt.

  • Ian Cullen Says:

    Loved Torchwood Children Of Earth. And I felt Ianto dying was actually a good thing. He and Jack were getting a little to cozy in terms of the fact that it seemed to take away something from the hardened lonely Captain Jack character. And I'd feel exactly the same way if it were a heterosexual relationship that gets blown apart by one of the two dying.

    I think it also served to make the experience of Jack having to murder his own son to save the planet that much more dramatic. You have to ask yourself if he'd have kill Ianto if the Alien race concerned were after people with similar DNA than him.

    The question has always been how far will Jack go. Is the choice he is making the morally right one. And to me Children Of Earth hit all those themes.

    I also kind of felt sorry for the low level politician by the end. I mean he'd done everything that was asked of him regardless of his own moral compass and still has to hand over his kids.

    SGU am having a few niggles with. Sure we have the human drama and the conflict and we even have an element of humour there as well, which right away makes it a little more bearable to watch than Battlestar Galactica. But whats dogging me is the fact that the ship or some mysterious alien race they cannot properly see or identify with tends to save them. Also the episode where they were collecting ice was bothersome to me. I mean bad command decision from the commander there staying with the guy who is trapped as apposed to getting more ice. Needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. The correct choice would have been to leave him to die. Harsh I know, and not necessarily the morally correct choice. But in a survival fight or flight situation like that. You have to think of the bigger picture. And the commander for me in that episode came off as very weak. I suppose I could be reading to much into it all. And perhaps should sit and enjoy the thing without question.

    Dollhouse have been enjoying and it saddens me that Fox nominated to kill the show in the Friday death slot.

    The whole prostitution angle to the show sort of gives in a unique microscope under which to truly examine the human condition. I was never a fan of Buffy or Angel. But loved Firefly, felt Dr Horrible was a lot of fun. And have been fairly invested in Dollhouse since the start. So its disappointing to know that the show is essentially over after this season.

    A show you didn't mention was Sanctuary. But I suspect that maybe because its more of a steampunk fantasy. That said. The show has improved greatly this year. Anyway I'm enjoying it. And good news is both Sanctuary and SGU have been given a green light for another season.

    In terms of reading. Am more fantasy than scifi. I like the Harry Dresden books which are sort of urban fantasy about a gumshoe detective/wizard who deals in the supernatural and gets him butt handed to him in every book. There up to 11.

    I tend to hop between genres with my reading. I like to try and read a classic a year.

  • Matt Says:

    ".. and then the show didn't refer to it next episode"!

    Although they haven't refer to the events of "Time" on the show yet they did refer to them in one of the Kino webisodes.

  • Garpu Says:

    I really liked District 9. Then again it's always nice to have humans in morally ambiguous or repugnant roles for once. Parts of it felt rushed, though, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of director's cut is released.

    It'll be interesting--this is the first regeneration I've experienced in real time. Growing up, we'd get episodes on PBS several years after they first aired, so you knew what was going to happen. I hadn't seen New Who until a year after that big regeneration, so it wasn't a surprise, either.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Ian: lots of stuff there. Matt: oh, that's a pity really. Garpu: yes, it's always a nervous and magical time.

  • Kimberly Unger Says:

    Hi Paul!
    Here's the thing... I have long held the opinion that *great* sci-fi, the sci fi that transcends the genre and draws in viewers and readers that might not look at it otherwise, is essentially drama in a sci-fi setting. And it's true, in the US, the networks are taking chances on shows like Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fringe, shows that, ten years ago would have been oddities with airtimes of 1pm on a Saturday (a-la Beastmaster).

    The problem I find, is that it's being pushed *too far* in many cases. By the end of BSG I was simply battered. I was tired of every freaking episode being bleak. There was never a moment of hope, never a smile cracked after a while. By the close of the show I was genuinely hoping the whole da** fleet would blow itself up in a bitter post-apocolyptic five-fingered-salute to the universe at large.

    SGU is dancing on the edge of this, but it hasn't gone over. Yet. When it does I will probably stop watching it, because while I appreciate the drama, the hard decisions, the brutal survival choices, the grittiness of the new show, without a bright spot here and there, without some brief glimmer of hope that things *might* get better for these characters, what's the point?

    Torchwood: COE managed to pull that off. Even while we are seeing Capn. Jack get brutalized, even when he has lost simply everything, we are still left with the potential of Gwen. They leave us with the one good, stable, grounded character out of the whole lot, the one character that has the potential to build a new Torchwood and to build it right this time.

  • Ian Cullen Says:

    Sorry about long post. Didn't realise it was that long. And man those typos really make me look bad lol.

    Guess I had a lot of stuff in the attic. I agree with much of what Kimberlee says though. I personally like the sci-fi and fantasy genre on television as a means to escape from this world.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Kim: I think too far is possible, but judging by the standards of the rest of TV drama, I think telefantasy still has loads of catching up to do. I like rooting for the good stuff in a complex character, rather than one character amongst a cast. And the bad stuff is interesting too. Ian: no, it was fine, I'm just on a clock here! The more telefantasy crit we get here the better!

  • littlemissattitude Says:

    "It's like The Monkees suddenly did an episode set in Vietnam."

    Hammer, meet nail.

    Being a huge Torchwood fan, and having been a Monkees fan at a young age, when it was first broadcast, I think this encapsulates the reaction to Children of Earth exactly.

    Additionally, I think the "but it wasn't Torchwood" comments seem to me to completely miss the point that was being clearly made all through Series 1 and Series 2: Torchwood Cardiff was dealing with deadly threats on a daily basis, and Torchwood agents have to make hard decisions sometimes and don't tend to have long lives. What went on in Children of Earth followed quite logically from that perspective, I think.

    Sorry, by the way, that I came to this so late.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Indeed, Little Miss, and thanks. And no problem, I'm still answering blog posts from three years ago, chiefly about the BBC Space Themes LP, for some reason!

  • Jon Blum Says:

    Hey Paul -- Jon here; Kate and I have only just discovered Stargate: Universe on a whim, and by the end of the first season we're deeply smitten. It really is the first time I've felt like someone's actually doing an old-school Rama-style SF novel for the screen... and every time we hit a bit of correct astronomy Kate just squees and giggles. Is there any chance you could point us to where we could get in touch with John Scalzi and/or the writers, just so we can enthuse a bit at them? (And if you want to recommend a particular one of Scalzi's books to us, we'd love to give his work a try!)

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Scalzi's blog, The Whatever, and Joseph Mallozzi's blog are the places to go for that, I think.