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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 2, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Velocity, Shaman's Crossing, baskets, Serenity, Junior's Giants

If all the serial-killer novels published each year were true, there'd be so many victims that we'd all know at least one of them personally. It's an overdone genre, especially because they all seem to be about the kind of killer who taunts the people trying to track him down -- the "evil genius" who comes up with really clever, gruesome ways to kill people.

Many of them descend into a kind of pornography of cruelty, and frankly, I see no reason to acquire such memories (especially since, at my age, any new memory I admit to my brain apparently means erasing something else to make room).

So I don't buy or read books whose jacket blurbs tell me I'm about to read about a clever, creative serial killer.

I'd rather read Von Balthasar's multivolume treatist on theological aesthetics. (Which, by the way, I'm well into, and it's fascinating, even if he does seem to reach for a Miltonesque density of sentence structure.)

I make exceptions only for writers who have proven to me that they are not out to provide some perverse thrill, but have something serious to say.

Dean Koontz has long since earned that kind of trust. He's not a perfect writer (who is?), but I know that his stories are designed to deal with wrenching but important moral choices, and that his characters have honest spiritual lives.

His novel Velocity is no exception. The hero, Billy Wiles, is a bartender whose wife has been in a coma for a long time. His life is centered around her. But he also has a dark shadow in his past -- a crime from his childhood that makes him vulnerable to accusations and suspicion.

Then one night he finds a note under his windshield: "If you don't take this note to the police and get them involved, I will kill a lovely blond schoolteacher. If you do take this note to the police, I will instead kill an elderly woman active in charity work. You have six hours to decide. The choice is yours."

He refuses to choose -- but of course that is a choice, and the schoolteacher dies.

Someone has hijacked his life, and every effort he makes to take control of it turns him into a conspirator and finally a practitioner of violence and cruelty.

Of course, because this is fiction, the killer has an almost supernatural ability to accomplish weird and impossible-seeming feats of manipulation, and sometimes I found myself thinking, "Oh, come on, Koontz!" But in the end, when we know who the killer is, we realize that Koontz was not cheating.

I listened to the book on tape (it helped keep me awake on my three-hour-each-way commute to Southern Virginia University), and Michael Hayden's reading is excellent.

This is one bestseller that is about more than the thrill of the puzzle or the chase. It's a novel about helplessness, about taking control, about making brutal choices and then living with the consequences, about becoming whoever you need to be in order to protect those you love.

*

When people ask me to recommend the authors I like best, Robin Hobb is always high on the list. Heck, she was on my list back when she wrote contemporary fantasy novels under the name "Megan Lindholm." ("Hobb" is a pseudonym, too.)

The three trilogies she has completed under the name "Hobb" all interweave into a single, vast story, and I would have been content to keep reading novels in that world as long as she wanted to write them.

But with Shaman's Crossing, she has begun a new trilogy in a wonderful new magical world. Nevare Burwell is a young man coming of age in a nation at the steam-and-gunpowder stage of technology.

Their Holy Write prescribes that in noble families, the first son is the heir, the second is the soldiers son, the third will be a priest, and any later sons will be artists or teachers according to the prescribed order.

Nevare is the soldier son of a "new noble" -- his father had been a soldier son, but because of his heroic exploits in battle, the king promoted him to the nobility, starting a new noble house.

The result is that Nevare is that rare thing -- a soldier son whose father was also a soldier and is able to train him in the ways of war. The most powerful experience of his childhood is the period he spent under the tutelage of his father's enemy, a nomadic warrior from the plains who, for a fee, harshly prepares Nevare to be a resourceful, dangerous soldier.

In the process, though, Nevare starts to go native, thinking of himself as a potential member of his teacher/enemy's tribe. And when his teacher takes him on a spirit walk, intending him to perform an assassination on behalf of the whole tribe, Nevare gets roped into a dangerous relationship with a strange tribal god.

In the process he nearly dies, but when he comes back to health, he dismisses it as a dream. He goes on to the military academy, and for the bulk of the novel we see him and his friends dealing with a corrupted system of training that makes Hogwarts looking like Sunday school.

Only at the climax does he come to realize just what was done to him all those years ago on that spirit walk, and what he has to do to save his friends, his family, and himself from a deadly enemy -- which is, in a perverse way, himself.

This complicated, utterly realistic, and marvelously inventive novel is predictable only in the sense that anybody who has read Hobb should expect her to be brilliantly surprising all the time.

There are an awful lot of cooky-cutter fantasy novels out there -- the Tolkien imitators, the Dungeons&Dragons ripoffs, the costume romances with silly magical spells.

But there are a few writers using this genre to create truly magnificent work that is among the best fiction of our time. Robin Hobb is, in my opinion, the best of them.

Let me point out a promising newcomer, though. I already reviewed Brandon Sanderson's novel Elantris months ago, when I read an advance copy. Now the book is on the shelves.

Sanderson is one of the new generation of fantasy novelists who may have read Tolkien, but feels no obligation to duplicate his work. Elantris, therefore, like Shaman's Crossing, creates a truly new world, with powerful magics that give him the tools to explore the human condition at a mythic level. It's a marvelous entertainment, and it also enriches the reader's mind and imprints itself boldly in memory.

There's a quote from my earlier review on the cover: "The finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years." I stand by that claim. I hope you'll give it a try.

*

Why would somebody pay $170 for a single basket -- and not a big one, either?

It's worth it, if you're getting a sweetgrass basket from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.

The craft of binding these supple, sweetsmelling, graceful baskets was brought from Africa by slaves who might have lost everything else, but they still had the skills they carried in their minds and their hands.

The result today is exquisite basketry -- flowing lines, subtle variations as pine needles are woven into some of the strands. The baskets are soft, comfortable to hold and work with, yet amazingly strong. They're even washable.

They're also seriously expensive -- thirty or forty bucks even for the tiny ones. So for me, they can't just be decorative. The two baskets I bought are going to be used. The nice thing is, they're sturdy enough to be usable.

Where do you get them? Well, I got mine from a table at the North Carolina English Teachers Association convention last week. But the brochure I got lists several places -- Old Charleston Market in downtown Charleston SC, at roadside stands on Highway 17 north of Mount Pleasant -- or you can contact Maebell F. Coakley, the artisan who made my baskets, at her telephone number, 843-884-2158; she takes special orders.

*

For some of you, 30 September 2005 has been circled on your calendars ever since the release date of Serenity was announced. That's because you have seen the TV series Firefly and you love these characters and can't wait to see them again.

Some of you have no idea what all the hooplah is about.

Some of you didn't even know there was any hooplah.

And it's true that there hasn't been some massive hype campaign. Instead, the producers and the studio did something different.

They held special screenings of Serenity starting much earlier in the year, letting diehard fans of Firefly see the feature film and then talk about it.

And talk they have. I've been hearing buzz about how great the movie is for months.

But here's how much the fans love this movie and want it to succeed. Some massively important things happen in this movie, things that are emotionally devastating, things that it would be almost unbearable to know about without telling.

Yet as far as I know, nobody has told. I walked into this movie reasonably aware of the advance word-of-mouth (though not obsessively so) and only as the film actually began this afternoon, the day of its premier, did it occur to me that I had not heard a whisper of a breath of the actual plot of the movie. All I heard was, "It's great, you'll love it."

Well, guess what.

It's great.

I'm not going to say it's the best science fiction movie, ever.

Oh, wait. Yes I am.

Let me put this another way. Those of you who know my work at all know about Ender's Game. I jealously protected the movie rights to Ender's Game so that it would not be filmed until it could be done right. I knew what kind of movie it had to be, and I tried to keep it away from directors, writers, and studios who would try to turn it into the kind of movie they think of as "sci-fi."

Because I know that science fiction doesn't have to be all mindless action. Or even mindful action. I can praise a movie like I, Robot and mean it, without for a second thinking that what I'm seeing is great sci-fi.

I can enjoy the first Matrix and see it as a kind of magic sci-fi, but recognize that in the end, it's all about the mystical quasi-religious ideas and the special effects, and not about human beings at all.

Because for me, a great film -- sci-fi or otherwise -- comes down to relationships and moral decisions. How people are with each other, how they build communities, what they sacrifice for the sake of others, what they mean when they think of a decision as right vs. wrong.

Yeah, even comedies. Even romantic comedies -- it's those moral decisions.

Wow, that sounds so heavy. But great film is heavy -- out of sight, underneath everything, where you don't have to be slapped in the face by it. On the surface, it can be exciting, funny, cool, scary, horrifying -- all those things that mean "entertainment" to us.

Underneath it all, though, it has to mean something. And the meaning that matters is invariably about moral decisions people make. Motives. Relationships. Community. If those don't work, then you can gloss up the surface all you want, we'll know we've just been fed smoke. Might smell great but we're still hungry.

So here's what I have to say about Serenity:

This is the kind of movie that I have always intended Ender's Game to be (though the plots are not at all similar).

And this is as good a movie as I always hoped Ender's Game would be.

And I'll tell you this right now: If Ender's Game can't be this kind of movie, and this good a movie, then I want it never to be made.

I'd rather just watch Serenity again.

Now, I'm fussy about my science fiction movies. For the past few years I've been telling people that there are only a handful of truly brilliant sci-fi movies, and most of them are by Charlie Kaufman. (I almost don't care who the director is -- Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are absolutely by the writer, Charlie Kaufman.)

Before Kaufman, I'd simply tell people that I don't much care for sci-fi films. Mostly because nobody actually made any sci-fi films. They made horror films or mysteries or westerns in spacesuits, but sci-fi? Uh-uh. Nothing that reached into the heart of the genre and breathed life into it.

You can move models around on the screen all you like. Just because you whoosh up your spaceships doesn't make it science fiction as it's supposed to be.

Now, a lot of people called Firefly a western masquerading as science fiction, and I can see why -- they rode horses sometimes, and they rode into town, shot things up, and then rode back out of town, and the only difference between them and the Lone Ranger was that the "horse" was a clunky old spaceship named Serenity.

But that's not really all that was ever going on. There was nothing "lone" about these rangers. On that ship we had an interlocking community with a history, rather like what has been a-building with Lost and what was developed over the years with Friends (but what never existed in Seinfeld because the main writer, Larry David, doesn't seem to believe in anything, and you can't build a powerful community on a sneer).

The key to this kind of movie is that you create a community that the audience wishes they belonged to, with a leader that even audience members who don't follow anybody would willingly follow. That will be the key to Ender's Game if the movie is ever successfully made; and it is the key to Serenity.

If you've seen Firefly then you don't need me to tell you a thing -- you're probably already in the theater.

This movie might be too strong for you. Or, just maybe, it's the movie that is finally strong enough that you feel like there's something there.

It won't be obvious in a literary-novel kind of way, where the writer is sure to point out his trivial little "central metaphor" and all his "deep" characters who are for some reason still mad at the writer's Mommy and Daddy.

It will feel like adventure, like a bunch of macho strutting, like a lot of whizbang and dead bodies and violence and vaguely weird language until all of a sudden you realize: I care about these people. I like these people. Even the unlikeable ones, I care about. Even the villain really is somebody.

Think about this: Hamlet has a lot of violence and death, intrigue and betrayal; it's downright gothic. In fact, if you hadn't already been told it was a "great work" and somebody told you the plot, you'd think, what a bunch of junk.

Only it isn't, is it? And why? Because, of course, it's very well written -- but more than that, it's about something. Relationships and moral dilemmas and -- oh, wait, I've already given you that list.

Lots of sense-of-wonder (oooooh, a ghost!) and sudden shocks (don't kill the man behind the curtain!) and grim deaths (Ophelia did what?) and the gratuitously macabre (oh, look, let's play with a dead friend's skull) -- but it holds together because it's about something.

Well, not only is Serenity about something, it's also extremely well written. Joss Whedon has invented a kind of weird future slang that is still perfectly intelligible but is different, with snatches of foreign languages and obsolete English words that make it clear that it's not ordinary English they're speaking.

The effect of this -- at least in Whedon's deft hands -- is to allow himself something of the kind of heroic language that was possible for Shakespeare -- and for Tolkien. It allows him to be eloquent.

And then he turns around and deliberately clanks with some humorously abrupt language that makes us laugh for the sheer startlement of it. Just as Shakespeare did, when he'd drop from blank verse to the funny coarseness of comic prose.

Will everyone like it? Not a chance. It really is too strong for some people -- there are indeed dead bodies and cruelty and unspeakable violence, and you don't want to deal with the nightmares that young children will have. Plus the storyline is smart enough and mature enough that some people simply won't get it. Can't be helped -- it's all there on the screen, though.

For those of you who love the TV series, keep this in mind: They can't give equal time and importance to all the characters you know and love. They're all there, but the story centers around -- and resolves -- the mystery of River. In fact, it's fair to say that the two central characters in this movie are River (played by Summer Glau) and Mal, the captain and owner of the ship (Nathan Fillion). But everyone else is there and everyone gets some great moments and every single actor does a splendid job.

Heck, they even have Tamara Taylor, the actress who plays Walt's mother on Lost -- you know, she of the lovely face who tears her son's father apart while always looking so kind. A bit part in this movie -- but one that is brilliantly done.

In fact, there are no stars in this movie, which is part of why the opening weekend was "only" ten million dollars. It was a brave choice on Whedon's part -- put a star into the mix, and there would have been a far bigger financial splash.

Instead, Whedon and the studio are counting on word of mouth to bring more and more people into the theaters. So that instead of steeply dropping off after the opening weekend, the box office might actually increase. I hope you'll be part of that process, so we can have more films like this -- character-centered adventure stories.

Charlie Kaufman's movies have been great science fiction, but without being completely open and accessible to the mainstream audience.

Joss Whedon is not as artistically edgy, but is every bit as inventive within the adventure-story tradition. He has the common touch. Like Shakespeare, he doesn't have to show off to prove himself an artist, he only has to tell the story his way, and the art takes care of itself.

So stop reading this. Go get your tickets. See this movie.

Then bring friends and go back to see it again.

Or don't. Play it safe. Stay home. Watch reruns of Full House. That was a really funny, heartwarming TV series and it's just a shame the kids have all grown up and now we can never have a feature film with the original cast.


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