(On DVD, December 2010) Few contemporary writers elicit a variety of reactions like Harlan Ellison. With his substantial body of work, long personal history and contentious personality, Ellison can be admired and reviled, often by the same people at various times. Famously cranky, extremely intelligent, extraordinarily outspoken and connected to a variety of subcultures from Science Fiction fandom to Hollywood professionals, Ellison is an ideal subject for a documentary and Dreams with Sharp Teeth, twenty-five years in the making, is meant to offer an overview of the man and his career. A compilation of archival footage, interviews with Ellison, readings, testimonies from friends such as Josh Olson and Robin Williams and a minimal amount of on-screen captions for context, Dream With Sharp Teeth is not an objective view of its subject: director Erik Nelson is too much of a fan to seriously question the Ellison mythos (although he lets Neil Gaiman come closest to an objective assessment by leaving a reference to Ellison’s career as performance art) and the film is substantially stacked in Ellison’s favour. People familiar with the Science-Fiction field will delight in spotting appearances by Dan Simmons, Connie Willis (!), Michael Cassutt and Ronald D. Moore. (Those same SF fans may quibble with how Ellison’s troubled relation with fandom is illustrated by his presence at the 2006 Nebula weekend: The Nebulas are a professionals’ event; couldn’t Nelson go to the fannish 2006 L.A. Worldcon instead?) But the star remains Ellison… in all of his overblown personality, important friends, nice house and tortured history with Hollywood and the SF&F field. Is it an interesting documentary? Sure. Is it the best possible documentary about Ellison? Heck no –but documentaries being works of passion, it would be unlikely to see one made by someone who wouldn’t already be a fan of Ellison. There are so many fascinating things that could be discussed about Ellison dispassionately, but for that, we will probably have to wait for an unauthorized biography. In the meantime, Ellison fans and SF readers will be happy with the film as-is. The DVD comes with a set of generally superfluous readings, but also an overview of the film’s premiere (with unlikely guests such as Werner Herzog and Drew McWeeny) and a curiously interesting pizza chat between Ellison and Gaiman, in which Ellison isn’t being Ellison (much) and in which, if you know what to listen for, you can even hear a reaction to Ellison’s 2006 L.A. Con IV fiasco. As SF fans with poisonously long memories (or even a look at Ellison’s Wikipedia page) will tell you, Dreams with Sharp Teeth only tells a chunk of the full Ellison story –which can’t be solely told by his friends.
Morrow, 2005, 336 pages, C$36.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-051518-8
In fantasy circles, saying that one doesn’t care all that much for Neil Gaiman’s fiction is tantamount to an invitation to be lapidated. The outrage is immediate: Neil is so nice! Neil is such a great writer! Neil has won so many awards! Well, yes, but no amount of heartfelt, diagrammed, possibly notarized disclaimers (Neil is nice! Neil is a great writer! Neil has won so many awards!) is enough to satisfy his many, many fans and make the point that some readers may not be receptive to Gaiman’s fiction, no matter how accomplished it is.
So it is that I’m always a bit surprised when I do get to enjoy one of Gaiman’s books after all. I’m not an enthusiastic fantasy reader, and even less of a mythology-oriented reader. But that’s exactly what Gaiman is writing. In Anansi Boys, for instance, he goes digging into trickster mythologies to inform a light-hearted novel of contemporary fantasy. Against all odds, it worked for me.
Part of my affection for Anansi Boys comes from how much it can be enjoyed on the slightest of fantasy levels. When mild-mannered protagonist Fat Charlie discovers that his (Trickster God) father is dead, he has no clue as to how complicated his life is about to become. On top of his grief, Charlie soon discovers that he has a vastly more extrovert brother named Spider. Before long, Spider has taken Charlie’s girlfriend, caused him to be framed by a dishonest boss and upset a venerable peace between various supernatural entities. Who has to fix everything? Charlie, of course… and he may get to be less of a nerd once he’s done.
So it is that the biggest strength of Anansi Boys is that you can, if you so choose, skip over the more overly fantastical elements and passages of the book in order to focus on Charlie’s adventures. This isn’t, strictly speaking, a really good way to read the novel: you’ll end up missing out on half the story and nine-tenth of its depths. But if you’re in a hurry, and already halfway convinced that the novel will be dull no matter how much attention you can pay, it’s not a bad way to read it diagonally. (It does mean not caring at all about the links between Anansi Boys and the Hugo Award-winning American Gods, though.)
But there is still a lot of fun in Anansi Boys even if you limit yourself to the more grounded elements of its story. Fat Charlie (who’s not fat; it’s just a nickname that stuck) is an appealingly nebbish character, and his explanation of what it was to be the son of a Trickster God has a few hilarious moments, one of them involving dressing up for President’s Day. His dramatic arc is well-accomplished, as he finds true love, discovers hidden reserves of strengths and even manages to bring back a bit of order and justice in the world and underworld. The characters surrounding him are also interesting in their own ways, although it’s his outgoing brother who gets the share of the glory by being such an inveterate attention-hog.
As usual, Gaiman’s prose effortlessly moves in-between high comedy, meaty mythology and sensitive drama. It’s astonishing how precisely he is able to reach his goals, even in changing modes throughout the novel: The funny stuff is funny, the sensitive passages are sensitive, and the mythological underpinning of the story does give it quite a bit of depth that a lesser writer wouldn’t necessarily have bothered with.
Not even a largely diagonal and inattentive reading can gloss over Gaiman’s gifts. And that, ultimately, may be a telling test of any writer’s skills: being able to charm readers fundamentally unsuited to their brand of fiction, and allowing them to read the story at the level they choose. Quite an achievement, that.
(In theaters, February 2009) There are two big reasons why this film is worth seeing, but the most obvious one is the visual polish of the piece, which blends flawless stop-motion animation with computer-generated enhancements and, if you’re lucky or rich, can even be experienced in showy 3D. Yes, the 3D thing is a gimmick: There are a number of shots in the film that make little sense in 2D, although director Henry Selick is smart enough to avoid the old unsubtle poke-the-audience-in-the-eye shtick. 3D aside, though, Coraline is a gorgeous piece of visual imagination, with enough spectacular design to keep you coming back to the film even on a 2D screen. That, in large part, is due to the second big reason why you should see Coraline: The quality of Neil Gaiman’s oddball imagination, which (despite a few changes from the original novella) powers the unusual fantastic elements of the story. It’s familiar without quite being like anything else seen before, and this originality is what separates it from so many run-of-the-mill juvenile fantasies. It’s not an unimpeachable film (dig a bit, and plenty of vexing thematic problems arise), but it’s different, confident and competent. Too bad that the technology won’t allow 3D projection on small screen for a few years: Unlike many other examples of the genre so far, Coraline earns some extra credits with another dimension, even while it’s perfectly good in 2D. But don’t wait or fret: just see it.
(In theaters, November 2007) Hollywood can make dumb mincemeat out of everything, and classical English literature is no exception. High School teachers everywhere will be devastated to see one of their favourite form of Olde Englishe torture defanged forever by an adaptation that reaches for low comedy, high action and cheap 3D effects. That last item, incidentally, is why the movie is best seen on an IMAX 3D screen: Director Robert Zemeckis is so naively obsessed by the technology that he crammed his film with arrowheads, spires and people being flung at the (virtual) camera, all of which look silly on a regular 2D screen. But they’re far from being the silliest element of a film that borrows from Austin Powers in order to present a naked hero fighting a monster. Yet little of this is as annoying as the not-quite-there quality of the CGI actors, which suffers from the Uncanny Valley cliché as they stutter without grace from one mo-capped pose to another. Pieces of the second Grendel battle are so jerky that they look like a deliberate homage to Harryhausen stop-motion claymation. But if we’re going to list all of the bone-headed ideas of this film, we’re going to be here a while: What about Angelina Jolie’s kinda-naked scene, complete with high-heeled feet and Transylvanian accent? Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the film is the way John August and Neil Gaiman’s script ends up feeling silly, clumsy and forced: Their intended mythical gravitas ends up swept under the carpet of a generic fantasy film with 3D effects. The only enjoyable part of the film comes late, as the elderly Beowulf fights off one of the finest dragons yet seen on-screen: the action beats are numerous, well-designed and completely thrilling. But then the 3D effects kick in again, and the film flops on a series of meaningful glares that leave us uncertain as to whether the film was supposed to be a comedy or not. In any case, it’s miscalculations upon miscalculations for a film that has more value as a technical showpiece than an actual plotted story.
Harper Torch, 2001, 592 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-78903-5
This is a protest review.
My formative years in reading Science-Fiction were shaped by a checklist of Hugo-winning novels. Whatever won, I read and in doing so, gained an appreciation for most of SF’s greatest works. Hence my somewhat sentimental belief that Hugos should be given to… wait for it… the best science-fiction novel of the year. Not horror. Not fantasy. Not pseudo-literary pretentious crap. True, honest, unabashed science-fiction.
In the past few years, I have often been disappointed in the collective judgement of Hugo voters. (Forever Peace? What the hell were they thinking?) It got worse in the past two years: Harry Potter? Why? Aren’t there World Fantasy Awards for this kind of stuff? I love the little wizard, but he’s clearly not starring in SF novels.
Then came American Gods. Folks, Neil Gaiman may be a god amongst writers, but this stuff isn’t SF. And yet, grudgingly, I came to accept (after a lengthy period of denial, anger, depression and bargaining) that sooner or later I’d have to read the novel for completion’s sake. So I held my nose, bought the paperback (I may be a spiteful purist, but I’m not a cheap spiteful purist) and read the darn thing.
It’s not a bad book at all.
But it’s not Science Fiction.
Oh, one almost hesitate at times. The story involves a gigantic battle between the gods (who are, incidentally, living among us under various disguises), pitting old deities against newer ones. Upon his release from prison, protagonist “Shadow” is hired as an assistant by one of the most influential gods and gets to see most of the struggle. Where American Gods is meaningful to the Hugos is in its all-too-brief depiction of the modern gods. We get a fleeting glimpse of technology replacing mysticism, but also of belief carrying over. When people stop praying, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less superstitious; who hasn’t felt a little frisson of simple belief when confronted to the incomprehensibility of modern technology? Don’t we worship what we don’t understand? For that matter, what is Science Fiction’s responsibility in creating those new gods/archetypes (aliens, AIs, cyberpunks or time-travellers) taking over the older ones?
Alas, that particular SF novel remains to be written, for Gaiman seems far more interested in dealing with the old gods in all of their bloodthirsty furor. The “opposing side” of technoweenies and Men in Black is teasingly mentioned when strictly necessary, creating unfulfilled expectations. While strictly speaking an urban contemporary fantasy novel, American Gods is too enamoured with old folklore to let go. This causes unnecessary lengths (the various passages describing the arrival of gods in America struck me as being particularly dull) and also locks the novel in an old-fashioned fantastic mentality. A science-fiction novel might have explored the relative merits of those newer gods and conveyed a more contemporary feel. (along with a lesson in memetic evolution, I bet)
We can only assume that this wasn’t Gaiman’s intention. But whenever I could let go of those assumptions and enjoy the story for what it was, American Gods proved to be enjoyable on its own terms. The protagonist is enough of a blank slate to be interesting (curiously enough) and Gaiman is adept at extracting some wonder out of today’s world. The writing is usually crisp and clear —with some intentional exceptions. At times scary and hilarious, profound without being inaccessible, this is an epic novel with a off-beat tone and a lot of affection for modern-day ordinary America.
In short, American Gods is a perfectly respectable piece of contemporary fantasy. I certainly don’t regret reading it and you can now even consider me as being mildly interested in Gaiman’s work. But—and you can certainly see this coming—it’s not science-fiction and I certainly regret its selection as the winner of the 2002 Best Novel Hugo Award. Science Fiction, dammit! I protest!