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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 18, 2007

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


Book of Fate, Starfish and Spider, Done the Impossible

My wife was coming up to join me at Southern Virginia University for the opening night of my production of Taming of the Shrew. It's about a three-hour drive each way, and because we wanted to drive home together, she was going to get her brother to drive her up partway, and I'd come down partway, and we'd meet in the middle.

The "middle" turned out to be the Barnes & Noble at the south end of Roanoke. Her brother got home in time to take part in the pinewood derby with his eight-year-old, and my wife got to sit in the café at B&N, sipping hot chocolate, eating a grilled-cheese sandwich, and reading The Thirteenth Tale till I got there.

Since the audiobook I had been listening to in the car turned out to be repulsive junk (see this week's World Watch column), I was also desperate to get to a bookstore, so after I arrived I spent a few minutes picking up a few new titles to listen to.

Then I got my own hot chocolate and one of the new quiche-like quick-lunch items on the menu there. They call them stratta (the plural would actually be "stratte," but who would know what I was talking about?) I had them heat it up for me. Unfortunately, 30 seconds in the microwave wasn't long enough to get it hot at the edges; fortunately, it's also very good cold.

The stratte come in two flavors: Italian bruschetta and spinach/artichoke. I had the bruschetta and recommend it.

I have as many complaints as anyone else about the dismalness of big box stores, but I must make an exception for stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. They are the best places in the world to meet people. Add in the fact that in most places, they stay open quite late, and we now live in a version of America in which the best rendezvous spots are, incredibly enough, bookstores!

There are plenty of things wrong with American culture right now, but the prevalence of big full-service bookstore-cafes is not one of them.

*

I picked up the audiobook of Brad Meltzer's The Book of Fate only because Scott Brick was the reader. Brick's performances on audiobooks are so good that they cover a multitude of sins; besides, he's so vibrant and natural a reader that when I'm driving long distances, it's like having a friend sitting in the seat next to me, telling me a story to keep me awake.

The fact that I'm not dead yet from falling asleep on the road suggests that this works, though Scott Brick doesn't believe me when I tell him that he has often saved my life.

Meltzer's story is every bit as far-fetched as most thrillers -- indeed, I think that stories of elaborate conspiracies by people who kill whoever they want are vaguely reassuring, to sane people at least, precisely because we know perfectly well that in the real world such conspiracies would almost always collapse under their own weight.

But since this is a flaw of the genre as a whole, it's hardly right to hold it against any one thriller. Instead, you look at what the writer does with the surrounding material. In this case, Meltzer has chosen a fascinating cast of characters, centered around Wes Holloway, who in his early twenties was chosen to be an aide to President Manning -- the aide, in fact, who stands at his side and makes sure his life runs smoothly.

All of it fell apart on one awful day when President Manning, visiting a NASCAR event, was the target of an assassination attempt. Not only was another key aide, Ron Boyle, killed in the affray, but also a ricocheting bullet caught Wes in the cheek, severing nerves so that he was scarred and facially paralyzed, making him the target of horrified stares or pitying glances ever since.

A picture taken during the tumult surrounding the assassination attempt caught President Manning seeming to hide behind a woman, and even though the woman backed Manning's story that he was trying to keep her from getting crushed by the mob falling on the President to protect him, the "Cowardly Lion" picture ended Manning's reelection chances. He became a one-termer.

The bulk of the story takes place eight years later. Wes is still an aide for the former president -- who else would hire him? -- and continues to feel guilty for having put Ron Boyle into the president's limo at the last minute, which led to his death. But at a speech in Malaysia, Wes runs into someone who looks way too much like the supposedly dead Boyle.

Meanwhile, the shooter who killed Boyle escapes from prison, convinced that he is the servant of God in killing members of a deep conspiracy of the Masons.

At first I worried that this book would actually take anti-Masonic conspiracy theories seriously. (Anti-Masonic feeling ran so high for a time in the 1800s that there was even an Anti-Masonic Party that fielded candidates in American elections.) Fortunately, Meltzer is not an irresponsible twit -- it is very clear in this book that only an insane man believes such things, with his madness fueled by cynical, profiteering traitors who manipulate him with conspiracy theories into being a murderer.

The book ends up being quite exciting, with interesting characters and a conspiracy that turns out to be among the more plausible ones I've read in thrillers. Meltzer takes into account the fact that most conspiracies break down for precisely the reasons they are formed -- they consist of selfish, ambitious persons who cannot be trusted by their co-conspirators any more than they could be trusted by the people the conspiracy is designed to betray.

It's like the old story of the woman who goes after a married man: If the object of her desire has an affair with her, why would she think he won't have an affair with someone else later? Once unfaithful ...

What I admired most about this book is that after hundreds of pages of intimate detail about the lives of the Presidential family and staff, we still have no idea of -- and don't care about -- the political views of the President. This is an author who doesn't want to write a book designed to alienate anyone who doesn't agree with his own politics. Instead, he gives us a semi-plausible account of the inner workings of a White House staff based on relationships and personalities -- including the inherent falseness of political life.

If Meltzer has a habit of being a bit overemotional in his writing, that is a common and oft-forgiven fault. Also, the sections from the point of view of Wes Holloway are in first person present tense, which I find extremely false and annoying, as if he were talking continuously into a tape recorder; writers often do this in order to make the experience more "immediate," but the real effect is the opposite -- it reminds us that the story is artificial. Third person past tense is the most immediate storytelling mode -- it is the voice we use in English whenever we wish to be believed.

But these flaws are, in the long run, easy to overlook. Meltzer is a writer to be watched. He plays fair with the reader. He has no apparent axe to grind. He does not attack any group in the real world. And the book is exciting from start to finish. If you expect more than that from a thriller, you're only setting yourself up for disappointment.

*

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, makes fascinating reading. Their premise is that organizations follow one of two models: either they are hierarchical, with authority flowing from the top down, or they are grass-roots, with committed individuals relentlessly pursuing the goals of the organization without necessarily being obedient to or reliant on any central authority.

In other words, they can be like a spider, able to function without a leg or two, but dead if you destroy the head, or like some starfish, able to get along just fine if the center is killed, and in some cases able to regenerate completely from any leg.

The authors don't stress the fact that starfish are pretty stupid, and spiders are pretty talented -- but they recognize the brute-force nature of leaderless organizations.

Their examples of starfish organizations? The legions of .mp3 copiers, Wikipedia -- and Al Qaeda. In such cases, say the authors, killing off the center does not stop the organization -- indeed, the recruits continue with even greater determination when the leader is killed.

I suspect that where the book breaks down is that there is no such thing as a completely spider-like or a completely starfish-like organization, not if it's going to survive long. A completely hierarchical organization ossifies so quickly that it soon becomes powerless or irrelevant, and only survives because of covert starfish-like behavior in the shadows. Likewise, a completely distributed system of leadership makes the organization effective only in destructive or parasitic behavior: Real and lasting creation require authority.

I know, there are anarchists and libertarians who are already reaching for their quill pens or crayons to write letters to me about how wrong I am. I ask them only to pause and think for a moment about how effective their letter to me would be if it did not have a single author, who was able to determine, without anybody else interfering with it, what its contents would be.

Any action that requires the cooperative behavior of multiple individuals needs rules. The .mp3 music revolution would not have been possible without the existence of the .mp3 standard or of easily-copied file-sharing software or of people obeying the rules of the ad hoc community.

Al Qaeda may seem effective through their distributed leadership, but their truly spectacular successes have all been highly planned and centrally controlled, with a rigid hierarchy that strictly separates those expected to die for their faith from those expected to live to fight another day.

And Wikipedia, an open encyclopedia that can be altered -- and re-altered -- by almost anyone, is easily hijacked by people with an axe to grind. For instance, my own entry in Wikipedia was riddled with errors of fact. I attempted to correct the factual errors (where I lived and went to school, etc.) without touching the sometimes boneheaded and occasionally vicious opinions expressed about my work and my political and religious views -- but any intervention by me was rejected by those who have conceived of me as their enemy, thus preserving their errors and eliminating the possibility of accuracy.

The result is that students who write papers about me and my work, relying on Wikipedia, will be wrong -- but what can you expect of a starfish?

In the real world, all organizations slide back and forth along a continuum between hierarchical and distributed leadership. No hierarchy works if people far down the hierarchy don't take the initiative to innovate and adapt, even when it's contrary to instructions from the top -- how do you think the Soviet Union lasted as long as it did with a seemingly complete hierarchical system?

Still, the book is worth reading, if only to waken people who head businesses, governmental bodies, and even families, to the fact that both too much and too little authority can lead to fatal flaws.

Take, for example, what a soldier recently told me about the Afghanistan campaign. What worked, in the initial campaign, was Special Forces soldiers who shed their uniforms, grew out beards, and lived among the people, earning their trust. Al Qaeda had almost no place to hide, when American soldiers were communicating that effectively with local communities inside Afghanistan.

You'd think that the effectiveness of this technique would have led to an enthusiastic adoption of distributed leadership as at least an option throughout the Army. Instead, a new commander was rotated in, who was a true believer in hierarchical principles. Soldiers out of uniform? Bearded? Unthinkable. Forbidden!

The result? Things aren't going so well in Afghanistan these days. American soldiers, instead of being trusted friends, are now easily identifiable strangers and, ultimately, targets. It was an unbelievably stupid change -- it is precisely the reason why, in wartime, effective commanders at low ranks need to be advanced rapidly above the peacetime-bureaucracy-born senior officers and given authority to fire all the idiots. Nations that don't do this, don't win their wars.

Yet imagine how ineffective an army would be if it had no central authority, able to get large numbers of people to act together effectively against a powerful enemy. It would be like a web built by a committee of different spiders, each following its own pattern.

*

When I first became a science fiction writer, I was vaguely aware that there was such a thing as a World Science Fiction Convention that presented the annual Hugo Awards. But it was only after I was published and started getting invited to the conventions that I learned what they were: An extraordinarily tolerant society very smart but sometimes socially ill-adapted people who at one time or another were devoted to one or another work of science fiction.

Whenever a convention is held in a particular locality, the TV cameras love them, because they can find people who seem to be getting ready to perform the funny auditions for American Idol. There are the people in Star Trek or Star Wars or StarGate or Dr. Who costumes. There are the pontificating people who look like Napoleon Dynamite and seem unable to grasp the idea that warp drives and "the Force" are fictional.

What the camera turns away from, because it doesn't make for a funny spot on the evening news, are the earnest discussions among highly intelligent people. For it is within science fiction fandom that an entirely new system of critical thought emerged, and even though nowadays the ludicrously inappropriate university-born critical theories are being force-fit onto science fiction, the fact remains that science fiction grew up as a genre in a vibrant critical community consisting of the convention-going, fanzine-publishing readers who shaped the many views of what made this story good and that one bad.

Largely ignored by nonparticipants, science fiction fandom became a self-aware literary community that was far more adaptive, effective, and creative than the one that ossified in the universities during the same period.

Unfortunately, science fiction's own success has broken the community apart. It was the films that did it. Throwbacks to the old forms of sci-fi, contemptuous of anything that had been learned or achieved in the field since, say, 1937, Star Trek and Star Wars stole away the fan base. The book-based conventions limp along, but they are aging, while the awards are being taken over by the people who want to promote only the books that will be respected by university professors -- in other words, the books least like science fiction.

The result is predictable -- science fiction shows many signs of withering as a productive, innovative literary genre. Which is both inevitable and perfectly acceptable -- it is dying in part because it won. Any writer can now use most of the tropes and techniques of science fiction without readers batting an eye. The boundaries are gone along with the serious critical community, and most of the writers seem to be imitative ... or they're writing fantasy, instead.

Into this situation there dropped the television series Firefly. It only lasted a few episodes, mostly because it couldn't compete with the cheesy reality shows that were taking over Fox -- why put money into a fairly expensive sci-fi show when you can put some morons on the camera with a minimal script and a tasteless premise, and get bigger numbers for a far lower investment?

The fans of Firefly, however, were outraged. Here was television sci-fi that was smart, funny, heroic, realistic, moving, innovative, yet keenly aware of the whole tradition of science fiction and of television? It was the smartest thing on tv, period. And it was gone before most people had a chance to know it was even on the air.

At least the original Star Trek ran for three seasons -- enough for it to be stripped into syndication. You can't do that with a dozen episodes -- local stations would blow through them in less than three weeks of weekday showings, and then what do they put on?

Fortunately, we are now in the age of the DVD, and Firefly went to direct sales, where it found more and more fans after it was canceled than it ever had when it was on the air.

And those fans, who began to organize on the traditional sci-fi-fandom model, calling themselves "Browncoats," set to work to promote the return of Firefly to the airwaves -- or its development as a feature film.

It helped that Joss Whedon, other producers and creative people, and the actors themselves all believed in this show, knowing they had been part of something rare and wonderful. So they met with the fans, encouraging them to believe they were all working together. And when Whedon got funding to shoot the feature film, he rewarded those fans by giving showings of the finished film for months before the theatrical release, helping promote Serenity.

I've already written that I thought Serenity was the best movie of the year it came out, and in my opinion the best sci-fi film ever.

But what I want to tell you about now is a fascinating documentary on DVD called Done the Impossible: The Fans' Tale of Firefly and Serenity. I know about it in part because I'm one of the people they interviewed in the making of the film. But I loved watching the whole thing.

This well-edited film tells the whole story that I've scantily described above, bringing together the voices (and faces) of the stars of the TV show, including Joss Whedon; the sharply intelligent critics; and the geekiest of the fans. The surprising thing is the almost complete overlap between the last two groups. At first it's easy to look at these often-socially-inappropriate people and mock them.

Until you realize that they're not just passionate, they're usually also very smart. They're the kind of people who decide something should happen and then take action to make it so -- the kind of people you wish were more prevalent in businesses and government agencies when you want them to accomplish something important to you.

You don't have to be a fan of Firefly and Serenity to enjoy this DVD (though of course if you are, you probably will). You can view this documentary as an anthropological adventure, moving you into a culture that is more influential in American life than you think, yet which remains largely invisible -- and is ridiculed whenever it surfaces in the local news.

Think of it as a freelance "special features" DVD and you'll recognize it as one of the best every created. Think of it as National Geographic doing a special on one of America's most fascinating tribes, and it'll be even better.

The DVD and CD soundtrack are available at DoneTheImpossible.com and at Amazon.com.

Meanwhile, though, if you haven't seen Firefly and Serenity because they're "sci-fi," you're functioning at about the level of those who haven't seen the Emma Thompson Sense & Sensibility because it's a "chick flick" or who won't see the latest two Harry Potter films because they "promote Satanism." Get over your biases, open your minds, and inject yourself with some of the best, most intelligent, and most emotionally compelling storytelling there is.

*

For those wondering why I didn't mention the Oscars in the week before the Academy Awards, it's because I cannot remember a year in my life when I was less impressed with the films that are regarded as "in contention" for awards. We will still be having our annual Oscar Party, but for me, it will be for the entertainment value of Ellen DeGeneres as host and the sport of mocking the speeches and laughing at the costumes.

*

Meanwhile, my production of The Taming of the Shrew continues this week at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista. Starting at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (22, 23, and 24 February), with an admission charge of $5.00 per person (family rates available), this is my adaptation of the Shakespearean script. We keep the Shakespearean language, but translate the jokes and the views on marriage into terms more accessible to the modern audience.

The result is a show that is fast and funny and truthful and ironic and irreverent all at once. It runs 2 hours and twenty minutes, with the entire Christopher Sly section not only uncut but added to. I can promise that you've never seen The Taming of the Shrew like this -- and I believe it's closer to what Shakespeare's audiences experienced than any production in the last couple of centuries.

For those who can't make the three-hour trip from Greensboro (up I-81 from Roanoke), you can at least check out the script online at www.hatrack.com to see what I changed. What you'll miss, though, are some extraordinarily talented actors giving an unforgettable performance.


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